Rough Edges

I used to be really holy.

I jest, I jest. But back in college, I was pretty sure I had it all figured out. I went to daily Mass as often as I could, I did volunteer work, I chatted about theology and philosophy with my friends and classmates, and I generally believed myself to have few major character flaws. I was patient, empathetic, peaceful, charitable. Sure I had bad days, but those came mostly through no fault of my own.

Fast forward a decade. The virtues that I prized in myself seem to have flown out the window! Patience? Gone. I lose my temper with my children every day. Empathy? It’s difficult to muster that feeling when your child is crying because of a self-inflicted wound after falling off the chair that you told them to sit on instead of stand on at least a hundred times today. Peace? Charity? Why do these virtues seem so hard to practice now? They were once so easy.

But you know what the big difference was back then? I wasn’t really cultivating those virtues as well as I thought. Patience was easy when I could bow out as soon as a situation got too trying. It was easy to be empathetic when I could choose to not answer the phone until I was in the mood to show empathy. Yes I was making progress toward virtue, but at my own pace, not God’s. Then He gave me children.

I imagine myself as a rock with a lot of rough edges. Back before kids, I worked on smoothing those edges whenever I wanted to, and never so much that it became painful. Now my kids are working on my rough edges in ways that I never could have imagined, and it’s HARD. They are not on my schedule. They want everything from me all the time. While I feel like I fail way more often than I succeed, I realize God is working on my heart. Every time I am given the option to choose patience instead of impatience, empathy instead of annoyance, He is giving me the chance to smooth away that roughness.

I see my shortcomings so much more clearly now. This Lent, my eyes have been opened to the jagged edges of my heart, and I am trying to gratefully accept the opportunities God sends my way to make them smooth. It is hard. I fail a lot. I want to give up. But I get up again, and every time I do, my rough edges are worn away just a little bit more.

Fraternity

Last weekend I got the opportunity, thanks largely to 3 wonderful wives and 55 understanding dairy cows, to spend a couple days with three of my closest friends from my seminary days. In what’s become somewhat of an annual tradition, we’ve been meeting in Fargo and road tripping to (of all places) Grand Forks, North Dakota to watch hockey. Probably the last place most people would think of going for a getaway at the end of winter.

“Catching a hockey game with my buddies” is the machismo explanation for the weekend expedition and its something that people “get.” But, for me at least, the hockey game was an afterthought. The Ralph Englestad Arena is a remarkable college hockey venue, the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux won both games and we enjoyed great food at a couple of our favorite local haunts, but we would’ve enjoyed each other’s company anywhere.

A little over a year ago John posted on the lack of Platonic male affection. About the same time I read an Acculturated post on the decline of male friendship.  I realize more and more I’m blessed with a core group of male friends and that male friendship is something that is increasingly hard to find. It says much about our society when people raise an eyebrow when they hear you and your buddies are going away for a weekend of “bonding” (as my wife calls it). Its as if rounds at the bar and a poker night are okay, but this “weekend of hanging out” er… not so much.. or are suspect at best.

As the Acculturated article reflects, “male friendships, we’re taught, are about finding or fleeing women; they are not valuable in themselves.” The problem with the tv-watching, card-playing, bar-hopping, overly-sexualized scene of friendship pictured by many is that it doesn’t open us to being able to “to see people as individual eternal souls when we are face-to-face with them, in close contact” as John wrote in Advent of 2013.  In The Guys, I’m blessed to have found male friends who don’t value my friendship because I or they “get” something of it, or because it “frees” us from our wives and children for a weekend, but because I know they care for me as an individual eternal soul, despite all my shortcomings.

My favorite parts of last weekend are the same as any good weekend – sitting around visiting, catching up, sharing good food and drink, and rekindling the memories and the bonds of brotherhood which first united us many years ago. Since those days we’ve stood by each other at our weddings and welcomed each other’s children into the world; we’ve laughed and cried together; we’ve hugged; we’ve faced highs and lows; cheered each other on and faced uncertainty together – but I know the guys will be there for me; they always have been.

The victorious hockey games were bonuses, but the journey we’ve made together this far and the road ahead of us are the true treasures. As the motto of the seminary that brought us together says, ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum: Behold how good and wonderful it is were brothers dwell as one.

To fratres in unum!

An “Old Fashioned” movie review

The other night my wife asked me to take her out to a movie. This is an incredibly rare occurrence, so within 24 hours of the request  we had a babysitter lined up and within 48 hours of the request we were in the cinema watching Old Fashioned. Billed as the “faith-based alternative” to 50 Shades of Grey and tagged as the story of a modern couple who decides to embark on an old-fashioned courtship, its more that just that.

First off, though there are a couple cheesy and preachy parts – its surprisingly light on these for a “faith-based” movie.  Even the faith-based part is kind of a misnomer, at least compared to your run-of-the-mill Christian film. The (anti) hero doesn’t attend church because “nobody else there was perfect…so he didn’t fit in.” However, he describes a conversion experience that he says its hard to put into words “without sounding crazy” to which the (all-too-familiar nowadays) “spiritual but not religious” heroine responds, “you are crazy.” We’ve all been there though – that awkward moment right after you yourself or someone you know unexpectedly opens up about a religious experience and you’re not sure what to say next…

The description of the romance between the two main characters is also a bit misleading. The leading man, Clay,  is running from a promiscuous past which included notoriety as a producer some videos of college girls at parties, the memories of which haunt him now. He’s had a conversion but hasn’t forgiven himself and, whether out of penance or shame, he tries to lead the “perfect life” full of theories as to how to amend and move on so as to never repeat the mistakes of the past. This includes never being alone with a woman in private and the type of woman he has in mind is nothing like the one he finds in this film.

The leading lady, Amber, is also running from painful relationships in her past. Her answer is to go wherever the wind blows, never settling and moving on when things get too rough. Free spirited and not very grounded, Amber is intrigued by Clay and finds his theories humorous and unrealistic in modern-day society. She doesn’t really want an “old fashioned” relationship but is drawn to Clay.

The plot is somewhat predictable, broken guy meets broken girl, both looking for more. Yet there’s beauty in the way it shows how “messy” the world can be and especially our modern-day hookup culture. There’s no perfect character, though Clay tries hard and realizes that this only makes him boring, and there’s no perfect relationship – much like the real world. Clay’s theories are based on reflections from his past and though some may seem far fetched (“people know more about a person after an interview for a pizza delivery job than they do after a first date”) he plays the holy fool (or cynic) and his thoughts are designed to make us think critically about the dating culture of today (one of Clay’s theories is that “dating is designed to make us good dates…but then what?”).  Clay’s closest friends are a serial playboy who hosts a radio show that seems to focus only on objectifying women and a settled down man who has a daughter with the woman he lives with “but still living in sin.”  This may seem offensive to some, but Clay tries to walk a line between the two and wants something more. That idea, of wanting more, is what really resonated with me – be it singles, engaged, married, or living together I know plenty of people who feel unfulfilled with the lives they’ve chosen to lead based mostly off of sexual relationships, you see that clearly in the movie.

While Clay comes across as too rigidly puritanical (comically taking Amber to a pastor for marriage prep as a first date) and Amber may be too free-spirited, the two form a good contrast between “justice and mercy.” And besides the romance and social commentary, there’s a lot going on in the movie, and ultimately its not about what we’ve done but who we become. We’re called to become saints and “it’s not easy” as Clay says – the movie portrays that truth well. I was slightly disappointed that Clay’s goal in life is simply to be “decent” and Amber says “there’s enough greatness in the world, but not enough goodness.” Okay, but we can do better- we’re called to be great; to be saints!

The movie isn’t the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, but I’m not big on “faith-based” movies or romances and have never finished watching one saying, “wow, that was great.” Though rated PG-13, its not a movie for younger teens and even older teens would have to have a good grounding in the church’s teachings on sex and marriage before I’d recommend them going. For older teens it may serve as a thought-provoking commentary on the dating scene and hookup culture at a time when they may be exposed to them and faced with numerous, potentially life changing, temptations. Its also a good film for married couples to rekindle, or perhaps to discover, what’s truly important in a relationship. And its certainly a worthy alternative to 50 Shades if you really want to see a true romance with your date.

I’d recommend you check it out, and let me know your thoughts.

 

Retreating to the Desert

“When one desert father told another of his plans to ‘shut himself into his cell and refuse the face of men, that he might perfect himself,’ the second monk replied, “’Unless you first amend your life while living amongst men, you will not be able to amend it by dwelling alone.'”

My students are studying the roots of Christian monasticism right now in my Church History class. There are times when I think, “There’s no way for me to be truly holy, since I cannot devote myself to prayer like the desert fathers did.” No, my job, my life are always calling me away from communion with God. Or are they?

Last month Tayrn wrote about her home being her cloister, the enclosed space where she was called to find God. Lent is a reminder that, however busy my life is, I am called to find God. And I am called to perfect myself, through prayer and charity, in the presence of others. Even monks live in community–no one is able to be completely alone, that he “might perfect himself.” And it would be foolish to try, of course.

Instead, if I want a quiet, silent space to seek God, I must make it–not by shutting others out, but by making my heart that quiet place. If I wish a desert, a place swept clean of all distractions, in which to seek God, it has to be the desert of my heart. This Lent I am already realizing that my heart is not a desert, but a crowded, jumbled mess of a place. Jesus speaks to this directly, when he comments that “…it is not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mk 7:15).

But this is why I love Lent–it is a call to go back to confession, the Eucharist, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so that the heart might be made a desert, a place scoured of distractions. Jesus is in the desert of my heart, and always has been, waiting to speak to me, if only I have the courage to journey into the emptiness to find Him.

A hermitage at the monastery of St. George

A hermitage at the monastery of St. George, the West Bank.

Time again for Spring Training

Lent is back.

Gear up and get ready for the Church’s annual Spring Training.

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The discipline, the effort, the sacrifice – all in hope of the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Don’t let it get boring, don’t sink into a routine. Challenge yourself.  Like I wrote in last year’s “Spring Training” post linked above, no baseball team begins Spring Training this week with the goal of doing worse than last year – hope springs eternal at this of the year and every team believes they have a shot to make it to the top. Lent 2015 can be the best Lent yet.

Here are a few suggestions I’d offer if you’re in the “oh no, it’s Lent! now what?” stage:

1. Make the time to read the daily readings for Mass during Lent. They’re linked and easy to access at the Bishops’ website and will help walk you day by day closer to Easter.

2. Fast in solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ in the Middle East. John wrote earlier this week about the 21 Coptic Christian Martyrs. They’re tip of the iceberg; there are more who’ve died for their faith since the rise of ISIS and there will be more to come. Fast for their widows and orphans; fast for the conversion of their killers; give up some of your food for the food the martyrs will never taste again.

3. Make time this Lent to watch the Passion of the Christ … alone. You may scoff at this one. It’s not my recommendation, it’s Dr. Peter Kreeft’s suggestion. I scoffed and then my refusal to do watch it alone, bugged me so much that I gave in and watched it during last Holy Week. Its a great film, one I didn’t fully appreciate until I watched it for the first time in ten years last year. Its good to watch with others and we all may have our reasons for doing so and we tend to finish the movie and say, “man, look at what we did to Christ. We’re scum.” Yes, Jesus died for us, and we are sinners. But Jesus also died for me, and I am a sinner. Watching the film by myself put my own sins and failings in perspective. The “little” sins I commit that “aren’t as bad as other people’s sins” and “don’t really hurt anyone” really did hurt Someone. In fact, He died because of them. Jesus died for you too and, no offense dear reader, you are also a sinner. Yes, the Passion is gory and hard to watch, but why should we think what Christ suffered for you and me in reality was anything less?  The Passion provides an uncomfortable and unsettling 2-hour reflection on what Christ suffered for you and me – as it should considering our sins are the reason he suffered the way he did.

4. Get to confession. Frequently.

Now, good luck, God bless and go get ‘em!

The 21 Martyrs and Their Killers

(Note: Since the birth of my twin boys in June, I’ve had very little time for writing. I’ll be back on an irregular basis for the time being. But it is good to be back.)

It has been shocking, to say the least, following the recent news out of Libya that 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by an ISIS-affiliated group. There’s a lot of anger out there, including the Reverend Franklin Graham warning his flock on Facebook that “a storm is coming.”

More than ever, we need to pray, and I don’t mean for the 21 men who were martyred. (We should be asking them to pray for us, for they are enjoying the greatest fruits of life in Christ right now.) Instead, we need to follow Christ’s command to pray for our enemies:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

It was this kind of heroic, selfless prayer that changed the heart of Saul, who was “breathing murderous threats” against Christians (Acts 9:1). Perhaps among the killers this week, there was a man whose heart will be softened by our prayer. Let’s offer up the sacrifices of this Lent for whoever he may be, that Christ may enter his heart.

 

 

50 Shades of….

If you’re like millions of Americans this weekend, you might spend your Valentine’s Day weekend at the movie theater watching Fifty Shades of Gray.  I hope you don’t and would encourage you to check out these videos before you do.

If you’re like millions of Americans this weekend, you might not go see Fifty Shades of Gray this weekend, but will probably get to hear all about it from your friends, family and co-workers who do. I hope you can arm yourself with some truth for those conversations, these videos can help.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day

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With Dad

I’ve always liked Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle. When my brother and sister and I were young we’d play the 45 of the song on the turntable built into my grandparents’ bar (complete with flashing lights that were set to the bass…how Seventies, I know). When I got a little bit older, I remember setting the 45 on the turntable and playing it and realizing the song was more than a random 70s folk song and the lyrics were deeper than I remembered as a kid.

The last time I set the needle down on the vinyl to play the song was after the funeral of my grandmother, the last of my paternal grandparents to pass away. By then I was a father myself and the lyrics had a heavy weight to them, giving me pause to think about my relationship with my own father and my own kids.

That was almost 4 years ago and I hadn’t really thought about the song again until the Super Bowl last Sunday, when the song was featured in a Nissan ad. The ad itself has been billed as grim, dark, depressing and awkward (for the fact that Chapin died in a car accident, and the ad depicts an accident). However, I found the ad to be my favorite of the evening. It ends with the proper focus – on the family and it specifically hits home how important it is to have Dad around.

As Dads we get dumped on a lot  – we’re the well-intentioned but bumbling morons who can’t do anything right and are incapable of being trusted to be by ourselves in sitcoms; we’re the ones who are distant, cold, self-absorbed and cause our children irreparable harm in dramas; we’re the hard-charging, reckless adrenaline seekers who haven’t moved beyond our glory days in action movies. Meanwhile scientists and doctors herald a future where fathers aren’t biologically needed to propagate the species, while social scientists and psychologists are “finding” that dads aren’t important to development – just as long a child has two committed adults around in a stable home. Some states are reinforcing this mentality by changing birth certificates to say “Parent 1″ and “Parent 2.”

So, even if the goal is to simply sell more cars, as a father, I want to thank Nissan for a 90-second commercial that cast some truth on the relationships of fathers to their children and for their accompanying slogan, “Life’s better #withDad.” As  both a father, and a son, I couldn’t agree more.

Homebody

When my oldest son was a baby (and by definition, I had only one child), a friend with three kids talked to me about viewing her home as a cloister. Being at home with her children was her calling, similar to that of women religious who entered a convent, and she had even posted St. Benedict’s words Ora et Labora (Pray and Work) above her sink. I remember thinking at the time, “Cloister, hmm, sounds nice… now get me outta my house stat, I’m feeling smothered.”

Four kids in, I am now beginning to understand what my friend meant all those years ago. In fact, I’m even a little proud to call myself a homebody. When I made the decision to stay home most of the time (with all of my children… we are crazy homeschoolers and all), it gradually became easier to do. We started to develop a rhythm to our days and we actually enjoy being around each other! Our home is our cloister, our safe place where we attempt to grow in virtue by interacting with each other. We spend our days with the same people who see our faults and our flaws and love us anyways. We challenge each other and lift each other up. We are working toward the same goal, Heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is any problem with feeling the need to get out of the house. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary at times to keep our sanity, especially as young mothers. But I do feel that we tend to put far too much energy into what happens outside the home. Family dinners are skipped for basketball practice, parents put their children into school as early as possible. We’ve been tricked into thinking that our kids can’t get what they need from their families, so they have to be away in order to learn anything. I’m not calling anyone out here, I’m not blaming parents who lead busy lives. I simply feel sad that it is so counter-cultural to believe that kids can, by and large, get what they need from their families.

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, defined the family as “the sanctuary of life.” He said, “The family is indeed sacred: It is the place in which life—the gift of God—can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life.”

I don’t think it’s a problem to say that I want my children to develop my value system. I believe what I believe for a reason, and while I want to give my kids the tools to search and learn on their own, I am going to tell them exactly what I think is true. A mother of several kids once told me, “Eating vegetables is not optional in our home, my kids don’t have the tools necessary to make good nutritional choices yet. In the same way, Mass is not optional. Family prayer is not optional.”  Yes, children need exposure to the wider world, but shouldn’t we allow parents to be their primary role models without using words like “sheltered” and “indoctrinated”?

Pope John Paul II wrote a lot about the “Domestic Church”, the family. I plan to read more of what he wrote to better understand how to stand against the tide that is currently pulling families away from one another. How can my family be a “sanctuary of life” if we don’t stand together and strengthen one another?

Out of Silence

Happy New Year

How have you been?

Busy.  Busy, busy, busy.

Haven’t we all been busy? How did we get halfway through January already? Where does the time go?

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to slow down for the weekend. By choice, not by the flu or some accident. I went on a silent retreat in Fort Ransom, ND. There’s been a lot on these pages about silence, so when I was invited to the retreat, I jumped at the opportunity. Our days consisted of spiritual direction and/or confession, morning prayer and a conference, many hours of silence, followed by Mass and Lunch and many more hours, followed by evening prayer and a conference and supper.

In some ways, as our retreat master said, a silent retreat seems like you’re doing nothing while you’re really doing everything. I was able to go deep into the silence and receive grace where the Lord revealed Himself to me in a way I had never be open to precisely because I’m usually too busy. 

Silence allows you to hear better. Supper back at home on Sunday night was like culture shock to me, and it was LOUD. So while I may have been resensitized to the sounds around me at home, in the silence of the prairie, I was able to hear the Lord louder and clearer than I have in recent memory. But you don’t stop there in passive contemplation or reception. Prayer leads you to action, to go forth, as this week’s Collect at Mass says, “to see what must be done and gain strength to do what we see.”

When I explained to my kids what a silent retreat was, my daughter looked at me and said, “Daddy, are you sure you’re going to be alright with the ‘no talking’ part of it?” When it was done, I was eager to return to my wife and kids, but sad to be leaving the silence. Granted, you can find it in your Church at a Holy Hour, or in the woods or even in the home. But there’s something refreshing about getting away and having no choice but to leave all the distractions (good and bad) of daily life behind.

If you get the opportunity to do so this year, especially during Lent, resolve to seek out a silent retreat and make it. You may hear things in the silence you’ve never heard before.

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