A Two Bird Day

We were up before the dawn and on the road long before the sun would rise. We awoke to snow on the cars, snow on the roads and snow in the fields.

It was pheasant opener and we wanted the first crack at the fields- my brother, some good friends, my dog and me. We arrived at the spot early to watch daylight creep over the prairie. The desolate blackness of a crisp autumn morning slipped away with each minute.

We walked and walked all morning long and never saw a pheasant. We got into a covey of sharptail grouse that we chased around a square mile of ground. I was the lucky guy of the group and dropped two of them. Late in the day, we finally saw a couple pheasants – roosters nonetheless! But they were on posted land and they just watched us and laughed as we begged them to fly to our side of the road.

The snow had long since melted and as the sun climbed high into the clear blue sky, the clouds too faded away. A light breeze kept us cool under the sun and the layers of clothes.

Along the way we shared jokes and stories. We debated the market share possibility for an outdoor television show which merges hunting with reenactments of musicals (i.e. from Les Miserables: “When the beating of your heart matches the beating of your – ROOSTER! ROOSTER!!”; or from The Sound of Music: “Doe, a deer. A female- no, that’s a buck, a niiice buck…”) We talked about work, politics, family and faith. We marveled at the irony of wildflowers still in bloom, vibrantly colored in contrast to their blanket of snow; we pondered the routes of geese on their migration high above us, and the domestication of wild ducks that were far too tame for their own well-being; we choked on our hearts when we flushed a sleeping deer from some thick prairie grass and laughed at our reactions when we flushed songbirds and butterflies from thin cover. We left tired, stiff and sore.

At the end of the day, we had done a lot of walking and only had two birds to show for it. But we were all richer for the time we spent covering a small part of creation and the fellowship shared along the way.

As I hunt each passing year, I realize that sometimes what we hunt isn’t what we bring home. And what we bring home isn’t really what we treasure the most about the hunt.

Thoughtful Interviews on the Spiritual Life from the Art of Manliness Podcast

Okay, I will admit it: I’m a total Art of Manliness fanboy. I mean…fanman. Right? Right.

Lately their podcast has been amazing. Check out the titles of these two episodes. Then listen to them. You won’t be sorry!

Episode 238: Life in a Secular Age

Episode 242: The Forgotten Virtue of Reverence

“With whom I am well pleased”

Today is Thursday.

No, this isn’t a Rebecca Black parody.

Its the day of the week we pray the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary.

The first Luminous Mystery is the Baptism of the Lord. All four gospels recount Christ going to John the Baptist to be baptized. Christ comes out of the quiet years of his youth and the first thing he does to kick off his ministry is get baptized.

When Christ emerges from the water, John the Evangelist says the Baptist “saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him.” (John 1:32). Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that the spirit came down, but also that a voice from the heavens said, ““You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22; Matt. 3:17).

Think about that for a minute.

The first thing Jesus does in each of the Gospel accounts of his life is get baptized.

And immediately after that God the Father says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. He hasn’t preached the beatitudes, proclaimed the Kingdom, cured anyone of any malady yet. He didn’t earn the pleasure of the Father. He followed the will of the Father in becoming the Word Made Flesh, in being the Son and for that, the Father is “well pleased.”

All the works of his ministry commence from that moment of being the “beloved Son.” That’s where everything starts and yet before everything else, “I am well pleased.”

In my own life at times, I put it backwards. I try and go out of my way to do and serve and act; and none of this is bad. But I’m hoping that the Father will be pleased with what I do and so I run myself ragged trying to make sure I can earn that pleasure.

At times when I feel like I’m being run down, I think back to this mystery of the Rosary and I remember I just need to rest in fact that I am a beloved son of God the Father.

By just being his child, not doing anything else, know that the Father is “well pleased.”

Not getting too far ahead

Reflecting on runs has become an at-least semi-annual tradition here for me. For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to run two half-marathons a year and the effort has been fruitful for me physically, mentally and spiritually – even as challenging as the races may be.

This fall I tried something a little different: not a half-marathon (13.1 miles) but a 15k (9.3 miles) trail run around a lake just miles north of my home in Mandan, ND. As has been the case for the last three consecutive runs in a row, my friend (and Taryn’s husband) Paul and his brother Patrick joined me. My wife Maggie also ran the race, feeling more inclined to do only 9.3 miles as opposed to joining me on 13.1 mile run.

Two weeks before the run, Maggie and I went for a 7 mile training run at the lake. As it has done many times before, the trail got the best of me that day. I’m used to training on a bike path or city streets, even ones with hills and valleys (yes, hills do exist in West Dakota). On road races you typically have a wide path, you can see for a while where you’re going, you can lose yourself in conversation, music, the crowds, you can get in your stride, zone out and just keep going.

When you’re on a single-track bike/hiking trail, things change. Up and down multiple hills, hairpin curves, with tree branches to dodge, roots to trip on and rocks to slip on, it becomes a much more demanding run. Your ankles and core need to stabilize your body, you’re constantly adjusting your stride for the down-hills (which are never long enough) and up-hills (which are always too long), your mind needs to continually and quickly process what its seeing ahead of you and translate that into sure footing and one of the worst mistakes you can make is looking too far ahead on the trail. Not only do you lose focus on the next step, which may result in a trip and fall, but you deceive yourself into how far you’ve come and how far you need to go yet. On the training run that day with my wife, I made all those mistakes and made it back to our van aching, pessimistic, and discouraged.

So for last week’s run, I resolved to not get too far ahead of myself, to enter into the moment and take each stride as exactly that: each stride. I had a goal to achieve, but I knew there’d be challenges along the way that needed to be overcome. It was a lot like the spiritual life: sometimes we get focused on some other great goal out there, in the distance, that we lose focus of the present. Sometimes I’ve found myself pondering something or working toward something truly good, but to the neglect of the things I ought to be doing, right now. When I make an idol out of the goal, I lose focus and stand a good chance of tripping or getting discouraged when I’m not getting there quickly enough for my liking. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have goals, but to keep them in perspective.

I focused on the trail for pretty much the whole run. Close to the end, I allowed myself a sneak peek towards the finish line. I saw that Paul (he took first in the men’s 39&under division) had just finished and I put a fist in the air and he acknowledged from across the valley with a wave back. A couple minutes later I rounded another bend and heard him and Patrick (2nd place, men’s 39U) shouting encouragement to me, a minute or two later I was running past them and Paul said, “pick it up, finish hard!” Patrick said, “you got this, its right around the bend.” I thought there was no way, but sure enough rounded the bend and saw the end within sprinting distance. I picked up my pace and finished the hardest I think I’ve finished any of my handful of races, also in what I felt was a great time. My wife finished a few minutes (2nd place, women’s 39U) behind me and Paul and Patrick joined us near the finish.

In some ways, the end came too soon. Engrossed with the next step the whole time I didn’t realize how close I was when I took that peek toward the finish line and perhaps that would have inspired me to push even harder and earlier toward the finish line. In other ways, my ankles and feet were certainly feeling the abuse of the trail and were relieved to be done.

Nonetheless, Paul and I visited about how good the run went and he mentioned, “I feel like I probably could have…” and he trailed off, looking back across the lake where we could see little dots signifying runners competing in the Half and Full marathons on different parts of the trail.

“Done the half?” I asked.

“Yeah, 13 would’ve been good” he replied.

I looked back, and thought of the trail, the hills, the roots, the rocks, and the effort, and I couldn’t help but agree.

Even a good run leaves room for improvement – but especially after finishing a good run, you keep coming back for more.

A Thought-Provoking Question on Community

I heard this the other day from someone in my men’s prayer group:

“Look at the world around you, your town, your country…Is the world the way it is because we are spending too much time with our neighbors and family members? Or because we are not spending enough time with them?”

That was my reality check for the week. Definitely going to take this one to prayer.

An Unexpected Journey

I have tried for two years to schedule a silent retreat, and two weeks ago, I finally completed one at the DeMontreville Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo, MN.

After signing up in July, I alternated between excitement and fear. Would I be able to stay quiet for three and a half days? Would it be a waste of time? These questions increased in frequency until they became a cacophony of self doubt. “I am so stupid for doing this,” I thought as I steered my car around one final bend and spotted the main entrance through a cold September rainstorm. “This was a mistake.”

But the quiet welcoming smiles of the two priests at the retreat center quieted these thoughts. The beauty of the trim, well-kept grounds calmed me, and the cozy simplicity of the guest room they directed me to was reassuring. I unpacked and hung my clothes, gathered up my Bible and journal, and headed to the main lounge for the introductory talk.

fullsizerender_2As it turned out, I was one of six men who were new to the retreat center. The remaining 62 men were returning for a second…third…tenth…twentieth annual retreat. One man was attending his 43rd retreat at DeMontreville. The priest in charge of the weekend schedule was gentle but direct: silence would descend after our first dinner together, and we would not speak, except by absolute necessity, until our final meal. We should choose the same chair in the chapel, and sit in the exact same place for each meal. “We are eliminating decisions you have to make, so you can concentrate on what’s important,” he said. I wouldn’t have to even set an alarm clock; a “house captain” rang a handbell each morning at 7:00 and knocked on my door five minutes later if my bedroom light wasn’t on.

The weekend schedule was not complicated; when I heard a bell ring on the grounds, I either needed to be in the chapel for a reflection led by the retreat master, or in the dining hall for a meal. Beside that, I was on my own to wander the grounds, sit in front of the tabernacle, or pray in my room. We were encouraged to write down our thoughts, but not to journal too much. Cell phones and leisure reading were to be avoided. Listening for God and reflecting on the past year of my life were encouraged. And, surprisingly, I was able to give myself over to it. Loud, proud, swaggering me just gave in. It’s as though upon my arrival I realized how tired I was, body and spirit, and how much I needed a rest. It was a revelation. The Spirit began to move right away. “Don’t beat yourself up. Take it slow.” These thoughts didn’t emanate from my heart, but from somewhere else. So I did my best to simply listen and rest. And the time flew by.

fullsizerender_1Originally, I had intended to go on retreat with a good friend of mine. But in hindsight, I’m glad I went on my own. Not a single person there that weekend knew me, and there was no reason to posture or temptation to strike up a conversation. I want to be clear–no angels descended from the heavens, and no booming voice spoke from the clouds. But through the retreat master’s talks, the quiet periods of prayer, and the beauty of the weekend, God nourished me. I can hardly describe what it felt like except to reach for an admittedly weak analogy: I felt perfectly at rest, like a child might feel upon waking in his bed on a cool spring day, spending the first ten minutes of the morning listening contentedly to the quiet sounds of his family moving around the house. That sort of quiet spiritual and physical comfort pervaded every aspect of the weekend–meals, prayer, liturgy, and reflection.

I’m sure I’ll write more about the retreat, but it will be challenging. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, I wanted to pitch a tent and just stay at the retreat center forever, and now, a mere two weeks later, it seems like an experience that happened to someone else. But I know what happened that weekend altered the trajectory of my life, though I’m not sure exactly how yet. And for that, I will be forever grateful to God.

Pounding the pavement

Last year when I made my job change one of the major benefits was its close location to our house – only 1.5 miles away.

So late this summer I decided to go hippie and start walking to work. Apart from the 15-20 minutes of outdoor activity to clear my mind or pray, its been nice because it allows me to actually get to know my neighborhood by noticing things I was always too busy or distracted to pay attention to.

I see fellow parishioners from church on my route, I know which houses are in-home daycares, which ones have dogs who bark as I pass by and which ones have cats who glare in silence as I walk by.  I’ve read bumper stickers on my neighbor’s  cars that are comical, provocative and embarrassing.

My daily walk has also afforded me a chance to get to see the seasons change. My office sits on a hill and from the walk up I can see miles either direction in the Missouri Valley. Early on, I noticed the green wheat fields up the valley fade to gold, slowly and farther north the green pastures surrounding the Square Buttes turned as well. Then a few of the ornamental fruit trees moved from green to red as did the few sugar maples in the neighborhood; now the ashes are gold and the elms are orange. An amalgam of color paints the valley and the surrounding plains and the air has a rediscovered briskness in it. Its my favorite time of the year.

By noticing these little things on my walk, I’ve also become aware of those around me who don’t notice. I’ve had cars honk horns in anger at a vehicle who’s waiting for me to pass through an intersection, drivers too busy to notice a pedestrian in the crosswalk. I’ve noticed how many drivers pay half attention to the road while holding a smart phone in their hand (I assume they’re all getting directions…); cars roll through red lights when making right hand turns not expecting a human being on foot to be in their way and stop quickly before running me over.

But there are equally as many drivers who go out of their way to yield to me, I had a gentleman apologize for stopping in a driveway and forcing me to walk around him, semi-truck drivers slow down far in advance and wave me on ahead of them.

I think it’s helped me become more aware of the place I live, not on the macro level, but rather the micro. The nitty gritty of the cracks in the sidewalks and patches in the bike path, the flashing of the “walk/don’t walk” signs; the seeds of the linden trees, the pear trees you don’t expect to see in a place like this and the branches of the apple trees sagging under the weight of their fruit waiting for that first frost to drop. I’ve become much more aware of the present.

Its got me pondering how often am I just passing through, going from point A to B, without acknowledging not just the wonder, but even what’s common all around me. What do I block out en route to something more important than where I am right now? The tragedy may be that in passing by so quickly, I never discover what’s here.

On not knowing the hour

Our family recently suffered one of the great crises facing practically all 21st Century Americans… yep, our computer crashed.

As the Jesuit political philosopher Fr. James Schall once said to me, “from crashed computers, spare us O Lord!”

We’d known it was coming. The stalling during loading of webpages, timing out of applications…but we kept pushing off what we knew we needed to do. Finally, close to 8 years after we brought the computer home, it crashed for good.

Being too cheap or frugal to just go out and buy a computer while we had one that still worked (for the most part), we had prepared for the moment. Like a wise and prudent contemporary American we backed up photos, files and documents shortly before it crashed. Yet we didn’t know exactly when it would happen, so when it did we still had a minor surprise. “Oh! Finally…”

I had been soliciting thoughts from a few technologically savvy friends over the last few months, so I at least had a place to begin looking for a new computer without too much panic. We probably lost a few minor items in the crash, but nothing majorly important. We had been vigilant, alert.

About the same time the computer crashed, the pregnancy resource clinic where my wife was working underwent a major leadership change that resulted in the entire local clinic’s staff either resigning or being terminated. Here too, however, we’d seen this coming in many ways, so on the day it all came to a head, the staff suffered only a minor surprise, “Ok, well it’s happening now…” The staff had been preparing for this moment, so when the axe fell they all knew their next step and took it.

In the midst of both these events, we had also been working on financial and estate planning for our family and began implementing some changes and taking some actions to protect, better utilize and secure our assets and investments. I had even sent a text message of satisfaction to John once we had things in place – it sure felt good to know I’m helping to take care of my family.

I light of all this I can’t say I was too surprised when, at the same time as everything else I mentioned, we had the reading from Luke’s Gospel during the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time about the vigilant servants and the admonition to “be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” A couple weeks later, in the Gospel for the Thursday of the 21st week in ordinary time, Christ admonished us in the 24th chapter of Matthew to “stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come…you also must be prepared, for at an hour your do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”  The very next day’s Gospel came from the very next chapter in Matthew’s Gospel and read, “stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

It got me thinking, how am I preparing for that hour – an hour I can’t expect. We had prepared for the computer crash, we had prepared for job change, for our family’s financial future. But what had I done to prepare for the hour I know is coming, but will likely have no advance notice of?

When I was younger I used to enjoy speculative theology – adding up the numbers in the names of contemporary political leaders to see if they “add up” to the Antichrist; reading about obscure apparitions and personal revelations issuing dire warnings for the Church and the world; trying to compute certain dates at which times the world would break into the final battle; pondering whether the Third Secret of Fatima had indeed been fulfilled or not… It was fun, made for exciting theo-drama, but it was distracting. I was more into the action and politics of what these events may mean- there was even something a bit fearful in them: an exciting fear of the unknown. Yet I was missing the true message the Gospel, of the apparitions. They are all calls for preparation – not for some immanent Armageddon, but for my Salvation.

Christ comes to me daily; how do I respond? Do I open the door and allow him in? Have I made a good confession recently? Am I trying to amend my life? Have I made the little conversions in my heart every day that are necessary to grow closer to Him? Christ calls me closer not out of the excitement of an adrenaline rush or fear of flames bursting from the skies, but out love.

Responding to that Love and making those spiritual preparations are way more important than backing up my computer files, job issues and financial planning, and they need revisiting regularly. Revisit them now, before its too late!

PS – Not a great segue on this post, but please pray for my wife and I as we’ll be travelling to Chicago for work next week. Thanks!


And all the people said “Amen!”

I’m still coming down off of a spiritual high from my silent retreat last weekend, and I’m not really ready to write about it yet. But…I wanted to share a great little tidbit from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, from his 1968 book, Introduction to Christianity. It’s about the word “amen”.

[Amen] embraces a variety of meanings whose interplay and differentiation go to make up the subtle grandeur of [this statement]. It includes the meanings truth, firmness, firm ground, ground, and furthermore the meanings loyalty, to trust, entrust oneself, take one’s stand on something, believe in something; thus faith in God appears as a holding on to God through which man gains a firm foothold for his life. Faith is thereby defined as taking up a position, as taking a stand trustfully on the ground of the word of God.

That is just awesome. Definitely going to remember that the next time I utter the sacred word, “Amen!”

Deplorable? Or Irredeemable?

NOTE: This post is not political. For reals.

In this whirlwind of an election season, it’s challenging to keep on top of each new twist and turn in the U.S. presidential race. Even for someone like me, who is regularly plugged into various political newsfeeds and podcasts, it’s not easy. One item that has staying power for me personally, however, is Secretary Clinton’s remarks at a fundraiser in New York last week, where she uttered the now-famous phrase, “basket of deplorables.”

It’s incorrect to call her remark a gaffe, since she’s been using the phrase at fundraisers since August and used it on Israeli television a little more than a week ago. But it’s not actually the word “deplorable” that has stuck with me. It’s a comment a few beats later. Read it in context, emphasis mine:

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

I’ve tried not to read too deeply into these words of hers, but the use of the word “irredeemable” to describe a group of people struck me as odd. Just a few weeks ago, I listened to a great interview on the New York Times’ Run-Up podcast with Secretary Clinton’s spiritual adviser. Burns Strider speaks with her nearly every day on the campaign trail, and describes Clinton as a deeply committed Christian. I am not one to judge another’s spiritual life or worldview, and in all charity, I hope that Secretary Clinton did not truly mean that the people she was referring to are irredeemable.

I’m not here to question Clinton’s motives, though. I’m here to ask–in the stress of daily life, in the crush of economic competition or the speedy pace of modern society–have I labeled, either implicitly or explicitly, other people as irredeemable? I’m certain that I have. And have I thought or uttered a phrase like, “They are not America”? Again, I’ve certainly done so, though the phrasing might be a little different.

What’s the harm in calling someone else irredeemable? The heart of the matter is this: doing so is an affront to human dignity and calls into question God’s saving power. When I think or say it, I am basically judging that someone else is so far from God that they are not worth saving. I’m denying the divine spark that lives in that person’s heart, “othering”  them to the point where I feel no compassion for them at all.

Again, do I think Secretary Clinton meant this? Not at all–she’s in the election fight of her life, and like it or not, American politics calls for a little bit of “othering” now and then. But I am thankful, in a way, that her poor choice of language made me take a look at myself and helped me to identify some of my more Pharisaical tendencies.

Romans 3:23 reminds us that “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” And all lesser means of redemption have passed away, since “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood…” (Heb 9:12). It’s my duty to spread this news, to remind those that I find easy and difficult to love that we can all be redeemed. Not because we are worthy, but because He loves us.