Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

It's the most wonderful time of the year! Except that the local Christmas music station stopped playing Christmas music at noon today... today still being Christmas. Of course, it must be that once all the gifts have been unwrapped and the veritable orgy of consumeristic delight and gift-giving and feigned thanks for yet another tchotchke has ended that Christmas is truly over.

At this time of year, every year, we have two main currents set in opposition to each other. One current is the consumerist strain that traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving, although that is changing. The other current is the counter-current of "Christmas is about family / caring for others / hope and love." These currents oppose one another even though one always wins.

If everyone seems to agree that family /caring for others is the most worthwhile part of Christmas, its true spirit, then why does consumerism always seem to win? I think, at its heart, it's about the struggle of Christianity in a different light. Christianity was a religion that was oppressed by the political and religious authorities of its day and saw itself as a 'counter-cultural' movement. Early Christians were to be the leaven of the world. When Christianity was tolerated and then made the state religion in Rome, however, that changed. How can you be a counter-cultural movement when you are de facto the culture? It's about like when a 28 year old in the business world finally realizes that he is no longer fighting 'The Man' but is, in fact, 'The Man' as he covets that promotion and that corner office. He has become something he often derided and swore he never would be.

Being the 'counter-culture', the leaven, the oppressed minority has a purifying effect. Because you can change little, you cannot be blamed for failure, and your oppression shows the rightness of the cause. When you are no longer the minority, however, you have power. You can be blamed for failure, and the rightness of the cause can be corrupted by political necessities and being "practical."

In America, consumerism is our culture. The news has covered sales reports as a gauge of the true health of our nation; we are only as strong as our impulse to buy everything that we are told that we need. The counter-current of "Christmas is not about the gifts, it's about family / joy / caring for others" provides a nice feeling that we are truly righteous and it gives us a battle to wage. It is a unifying effect. People can nod to each other in the store, fellow comrades in the battle against the degradation of Christmas by consumeristic forces while at the same time getting that 'must have' gift item. We get to play both sides of the fence, enjoying the comforts of consumerism while feeling vindicated by the rightness of the cause.

But oh well! Christ has been born, and our Savior reigns!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Less than Saint Augustine (Retreat 2011 reflections pt 3)

St Augustine of Hippo was smarter than you and me.

Well, most likely he was. He was a gifted theologian with a very deep spirituality in the early ages of the Church. His writings were strongly influenced by the work of the Greek philosopher Plato. His theology has influenced the Western church to the present. He is titled a "Doctor of the Church" for his wisdom and his influence on the Church.

Back to my first sentence, then. He was probably a lot smarter than both you and me combined.

That's not an insult at all, though. Why should it be? That's like saying that Einstein was smarter than the both of us combined. Or that Gerard Butler is more handsome than I. Or that Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints is a better quarterback than I am (and he is, by far). It's a simple statement of fact.

In our world, we are pressured to be the best. "If you ain't first, you're last," as Ricky Bobby, the Nascar driver character from the movie Talladega Nights would say. If someone says to me that I'm not athletic (which is true), then I jump to telling myself that I'm at least smarter or kinder or less judgmental than them. If I can't beat 'em in one category, then I will in another!

Why do we do that? Because humility is not fun. Humility is to admit the truth, to concede that I'm not close to being a Super Bowl-winning quarterback or that I'm not writing an essay in theology so original that it causes a whole religious movement. Ain't gonna happen. Someone can do what I can only dream of doing, and they might be capable of more than I could do even if I had years of training or education. There's not automatically a category in which I beat them by default.

That's not going to make me sad, though. I'm not sad that I won't be cast in a remake of the movie 300.  I'm not beating myself up over it. Why? How can humility, how can admitting your shortcomings, not make me sad?

Humility means stepping back from the judgment game. There's a subtle jump from admitting that Drew Brees is a far better quarterback than I would be (true) to admitting that he's a better human being than me because of it (not necessarily true). The first statement is just a fact. He has had years of training and plenty of passion to become a great quarterback. I have not, and being a quarterback isn't really high on my list of personal priorities. We are different people, and yet he is not more of a person for being a great quarterback nor am I less of a person for not being one.

On my retreat I read Dom Cuthbert Butler's Western Mysticism: Augustine, Gregory and bernard on Contemplation and the Contemplative Life. Quite an interesting read, and it addresses the different approaches to the contemplative life as it explains what the contemplative life is. In it, Butler explains how relatively unoriginal Gregory's thought is compared to Augustine. Gregory wasn't as eloquent as Augustine (especially since Augustine was a teacher of public speaking in his younger days), his theology wasn't as piercing or creative. He was smart, of course, just not Augustine-level smart.

At first that sounds like a backhanded compliment. But how is it? How is it truly insulting to say that Gregory wasn't as smart or original as Augustine? Gregory didn't need to be as smart as Augustine; Gregory was as smart as Gregory. He put together concrete rules for pastoral care and is responsible for the Church music known as Gregorian chant. He was smart enough to do all that. Comparing him to Augustine would be silly now.

Of course, I might then say, "Still, Gregory accomplished all that! I'm not as smart as Gregory, either..." That also may be true. But what of it?

Each of us has a mission from God. We're sent into the world with a backpack of skills and talents and asked to make the most of them. Some of us will have tons of advantages, skills, talents, resources. Some of us will have less. Some of us will have very little. Having little is not an insult unless we refuse to accept what we have. I am glad that others have talents that I do not, and I am glad that they have them in greater measure than I do.

A few weeks ago the Gospel reading was the parable of the talents where a ruler gives his slaves various sums of money. My co-teacher in Sunday School and I each re-wrote it to explore the meaning behind it. I changed the ending to explore how the slave who just buried his money might have fared had he chosen a different course:

A powerful king was leaving his country for a year, leaving his ministers in charge of the affairs of the nation. But to three of his slaves he personally handed them sums of money; to one slave $500,000; to another he gave $250,000, and to the last he gave $50,000. To them he said, “Take this money, make me wealthier upon my return.”

The first slave rushed to the marketplace and quickly obtained a quantity of cloth, threads and silk, and hired women to make fine garments. The first slave knew that the ministers and their rich friends would be eager to have new clothes to show off their new stature in the nation. From the inferior cloth the first slave had suitable garments made for those of lesser means, and gave the scraps away to those who had nothing. This slave soon had a thriving business in the city and earned his master money.

The second slave took his money and hired himself a teacher so he could learn to write and read. This slave made detailed records of the goings-on in the palace and watched closely the courts of justice. He spent time debating with court scholars and learned the finer points of rhetoric and logic. Upon hearing of his master's imminent return, this slave rushed around, trying to find some profit in what he'd done. His master had demanded to be made wealthier upon his return, had he not? He had not spent all the money but he had earned little back. He soon took to teaching others in the palace for money, but did not recover all the money he had spent nor earn any extra for his master.

The third slave, upon receiving the money, trembled in fear. He was not shrewd like the first nor as wise as the second. He knew no trade well. Why had he been entrusted with anything, let alone such a sum? Looking out the window he saw the streets below. The sick, the hungry, and the poor struggled out there, while he had this princely sum. He knew he would make no money in whatever he did. In one year he could easily spend this money, and then he could face his master's wrath, but in this year he could do good for someone. He took this money, bought food and clothes and paid for the care of the sick. He couldn't keep track of what he'd spent, so the second slave occasionally helped him see what he'd done. The first slave would hand him scraps of cloth and pay for one of his workers to make garments for the poor, and the third slave gladly handed them away. Whenever anyone asked about his work, he would smile and say, “The king asked me to care for you and gave me money before he left. Our king is a good man.” He trembled when he would say that, for he knew the king was a harsh man.

The year concluded, the king returned and called his three slaves in immediately. The first presented the king with the vast amounts of money he had earned, and the king nodded in appreciation. The second handed over what was left and then pointed to the servants in the hall carrying the records he had made. “My king, here are learned servants with the records I kept while you were gone. The ministers spent lavishly, but I kept track of every thing they spent of your treasury.” The king took the tablets, and, reading them, barely covered his rage at their work.

The third slave then started to tear up as the king's fiery eyes landed on him. “My king, I am not a wise man like my brother here, not a shrewd man like my brother there. I was afraid when you gave me that money, so I took it and spent it on the poor in the streets in your name. I knew this day would come when you would find me lacking, but at least the poor for one year would find life better and know it came from your hand.” He stared down at the floor. The king was silent for a moment. To the first he said, “You, slave, you have done well. You shall serve me well in years to come. Enter into the joy of a new future.” To the second he said, “You, slave, have earned me no money, but you kept watch over my household that it may be managed justly and fairly. The wicked ministers shall meet their end, and you shall take their place. Enter into the joy of a new future.” To the third he said, “Slave, you knew your limits. You knew your failures and weaknesses. You were afraid from the moment I placed some of that money in your sweaty palm. You, however, took what little I had given and gave it away in my name. The honor of a man is a good name, and you have ministered in my name to those in the streets. You have many years ahead, my good and faithful servant.”  

So when you're feeling down that you're not as smart/attractive/interesting/clever/athletic/funny as someone else, just remember that you are you. Make the most of yourself for the honor and glory of God. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Co-Creators (2011 Retreat Reflections part 2)


Sarah and Hannah knew that pain. In a culture that valued children for carrying on the husband's lineage and reputation, not being able to have children was an incredible pain and shame. Sarah and Hannah probably both cried themselves to sleep at night, wondering, "What's wrong with me?"

Sarah was old by the time the promise of offspring was given to her. "Too little, too late!" She probably snorted out in a teary huff. "What kind of sick joke is this?"

Hannah was tormented by her husband's other wife. "Look at my children, they shall inherit your husband's name and fortune!" Hannah was deeply loved by Elkanah her husband. He would give her a double serving of the offering because he loved her.

For cultures that placed a high premium on offspring, imagine the tears that would flow for being loved deeply by a husband even if the wife were unable to have children. "What good am I at all? Why would you love me?"

We often put our worth in terms of our usefulness. I'm worthwhile because I am a devoted husband / a caring father / a brilliant writer / a great something. We have to bear some kind of fruit in order to be worth anything, so we think.

While our culture doesn't focus as much on having children, it does see singleness as an incredible problem. Can you be truly happy as a single person? Our culture would assume that you would be having meaningless, random sex or be crying at home, longing for someone to hold you, tubs of Ben and Jerry's ice cream on the coffee table. To be single has become a sign that you are a failure.

For me, it's been tough facing the real possibility of living a life of celibacy, without the intimacy of marriage. Admittedly, I'm not old yet, and, if I am accepted as a postulant for the priesthood, then I am not bound by vows of celibacy (though I must be chaste until marriage), but it's still very possible that I won't find someone 'special' to share my life with. Being gay and finding someone is tough, and now add in the fact that religion is an extraordinarily important part of my life, and the odds seem to get slimmer.

You can be told that you're wonderful, kind, sweet, all those things, but does it mean much if you're still single? As in there is some deep-rooted flaw that keeps me from being loved in that way, something that keeps me from being seen as a friend AND a lover. It takes a lot of trust to even believe that maybe, just maybe, in a different situation maybe you'll find the right person. Maybe.

But that trust can't hinge upon a delayed happiness. I can't just accept that I'll be unhappy until, as in romantic comedies, the right guy just walks in, our eyes lock, and we have a series of comic mishaps until marriage. That leaves me miserable today, and tomorrow, and every day until that magic event happens.

But to be truly happy today as a single human is odd. To be happy as a single person means facing the fact that happiness comes in many forms and that singleness is not necessarily loneliness. Christian saints through the centuries have shown themselves to be single and happy, and no one would call the Dalai Lama a "lonely old man"!

But now it comes to the next problem: what's the meaning of a single life? By having children or at least a partner, there's this sense of fruitfulness. A life has been made or a life has been enriched with love through partnership. But a single person?

That's where I start to feel sad. Will my life be barren if it doesn't have sexual and emotional intimacy as in marriage?

The answer is definitely no.

My life already has been fruitful in some of the relationships and friendships I've had. In some small measure I have made a positive impact in some lives already; that's definitely fruitful! By God's grace some of the things I have done will have continue long after me in some way, much as the works of my ancestors (both my ancestors in the family and my ancestors in the faith) continue to resound today even if the saint responsible is unknown.

The Society of St John the Evangelist uses the language of 'co-creating' with God. From their chapter on Celibate Life:

Each of us will pass through different phases in our lives of celibate chastity. At times we will be glad of our inner solitude, which fosters prayer, and the diversity of relationships we enjoy in community and with friends; at other times we will feel loneliness. While others are enjoying the consolations of community life, some brothers may be missing the solace of partnership, the joys of sex and the satisfaction of having a home of their own. There will be seasons of contentment in our singleness; there may be days of testing and confusion if we fall in love, or become strongly attracted to another.
Struggles will come at different stages as we break through to new levels of integration; the challenges faced by young religious will not be the same as those that come with the onset of middle age. Old age may bring its own trials of doubt. Only if we share these different experiences in candor and trust can we offer one another genuine support.
At times many of us will miss having fathered children. We shall need to open the poignancy of this loss to Christ in prayer. He will show us that in union with him our lives have been far from barren. As we nurture others in Christ, and bring them to maturity, we shall discover that fatherhood has found expression in our lives. In prayer, meditation, our thought, our work and our friendships, we are called to fulfill our deep human urge to be creators with God of new life, and to bear fruit that lasts.
I may not be completely responsible for the work done (God is doing most of the work in helping, guiding, sustaining others), but I have my part. A small part, a big part, whatever part God gives me.

And God is with me every step of the way. He who knows my heart, my every emotion, who loves me more purely and thoroughly than anyone else could ever. He knows my pains and every longing sigh. Nothing is hidden from him.

Though I may be single, God can make wonderful things spring forth from me. How wonderful and amazing! How glorious is our God!