So you call yourself a Christian? Intro (Part of the WPF series)

For someone like me who’s grown up in church culture, it’s easy to get caught up in the myriad causes, interests, and issues that Christians often get caught up in. “Seeker-friendly”, “worship wars”, and “the prayer of Jabez” may sound like nothing familiar to the average person, but anyone who grew up long enough in the typical conservative evangelical church probably knows these catchphrases well. They were/are descriptions of side-issues Christians have rallied to or against over the years. “Seeker-friendly” for example is a description we use for churches that have basically geared their services to look less like a traditional service and maybe more like an evening in a café or something more accessible so as to draw people in. “Worship wars” is a description of the tug of war that happens in churches where the older generation wants good old hymns sung by a choir with an organ vs. the younger generation that prefers a band and more modern music. I won’t even go into the “prayer of Jabez.” Feel free to google it….. no, on second thought, don’t.

But my point is that these issues, however interesting or important they may be, are not really at the core of what makes a Christian a Christian. And sometimes a person can get so lost in them that the foundation starts to erode underneath him. It’s like a married couple who have spent so much of their time and effort raising their children that, when the children leave the nest, they can’t remember why they got married in the first place. Christians forget what the core, the fundamental meaning of “Christian”, is. And what’s worse, when Christians forget, the world forgets. And before we know it, “Christian” becomes nothing more than a synonym for “anti-gay”, “anti-science”, or “pro-life.”

What Pope Francis seems to do, not just in his words, but in his actions, is bring back to the forefront the simple Gospel message: Christ died for me, now I live for Him. And it doesn’t mean he keeps from going into detail. That simple truth has vast implications. But it grounds our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Instead of hot-button issues becoming the sun around which everything else in our lives swirls, Jesus becomes the center around which all these issues can be put into perspective.
As I read Pope Francis’ writings, what I gather is that a Christian is someone who essentially has these three characteristics in his or her life: a relationship with Jesus, a missionary heart, and service for the poor.

WPF Part 1 – Judging without Judging

It’s difficult to know how to have conviction about life. We live in an American culture where we walk on egg shells trying to make sure we don’t hurt anybody’s feelings. There are certain words we can’t say, certain views we need to express with a multitude of caveats, as well as certain opinions we are encouraged to essentially keep to ourselves – or maybe only speak in a hushed voice, in a corner somewhere, with another person who believes exactly as we do.
On the other extreme, though, it’s not hard to find people like our dear Westborough Baptist pastor (may he rest in peace) who seem to have no filter for anything they say and go out of their way to press their opinions about life in the most crass, showy, and infuriating way.
But it’s between these two extremes that Catholics often try to find their way. And honestly, I’ve had a hard time trying to figure out how to believe with great passion and conviction the teachings of the Catholic Church while at the same time being gentle and reverent with those who disagree. After my last post on schooling, for example, I kept wondering, “Did I say something wrong? Will people think I think I’m better than everyone else because I believe this? Will others think I look down on them, which I don’t?”
Looking to Jesus on this issue can be helpful, but still confusing. Have you ever wondered at how Jesus, in some parts of the Gospels seems to thunder like a Hell-fire and brimstone preacher at a big-tent revival and then, in other parts, shows incredible compassion to sinners and even says, “Do not judge, lest you be judged”? Is He schizophrenic?
Pope Francis tries to unknot the conundrum this way:

“…each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).” ~from Evangelii Gaudium, Article 172

In other words, if someone commits a sin that is objectively wrong, say the act is wrong, but don’t assume that because that person did something wrong, he is a horrible person – as though that act somehow defines him. If a woman commits an abortion, for example, the church rightly says, “That’s wrong.” We can judge the act, but we can’t judge the person. Was the abortion done because the woman was pressured by her boyfriend? Did she feel she literally had no other option? Did she have all the information at hand to make a good decision? Did she grow up in a home where abortion was about as significant as a hysterectomy or getting your appendix removed? The guilt and culpability of the person really isn’t for us to decide. The church has never had and probably will never have a list of people they know are in Hell. That’s for God, before whom all hearts are completely open, to decide. As Pope Francis said, each person’s life is a mystery “which no one can fully know from without.”
It may seem like a small distinction, but it changes everything. In comment boxes all over the internet, I see people attacking the character of other people and not their arguments all the time. They throw them out like grenades into enemy camp. How soon after 9/11 were we looking askance at middle-eastern men and hijab-wearing women? It’s so easy to make prejudicial, hurtful, and just downright mean assumptions about individuals or groups that ignore the fact that people are complex – that these people have families, have friends, probably have really wonderful qualities about them that speak to how redeemable and beautiful they are.
Even more so, as a Catholic, I know how sinful I am. I see my sin all the time. I know myself and the depth of my depravity like no one outside of me save God. But I don’t know how much of a sinner you are. I can’t peer into the depths of your heart. So for all I know (quite literally), I am the most horrible sinner in the world (1 Tim. 1:15).
All to say, in a world that seems to be getting more and more polarized with every passing day, I’m glad Pope Francis is reminding us that we would do well to separate in our minds the sinners from their sins.

The Wisdom of Pope Francis (WPF) – Intro

One of the more delightful surprises I’ve had becoming Catholic is the fruit of the office of the Pope. I don’t know if that sounds weird or not. For me, a couple years ago it would have. When I studied the Catholic faith, what I cared about were the arguments for and against, or maybe my own swirling thoughts in the middle, which led me to a lot of apologetics websites. But now that I’m “in” and the dust has settled on all my questions and answers, it’s been a joy to read the thoughts of Pope Emeritus Benedict, Pope Francis, and other popes of the past just for the sake of spiritual growth. For the most part, they don’t tower from on high like one might think, seeing as how they were/are leaders of the biggest religious organization in the world. They speak with passion, with depth, with humility – more than anything like simply fellow pilgrims on the Way. They stand as both safe-guarders of the Catholic tradition and also the captains at the head of the church, pointing the way forward – connecting the often complicated treasury of godly wisdom with the equally complicated world we live in.
I’ve been trying to take in and process the nuggets of wisdom coming from these men who, before they became popes, were simply people who had spent they’re years in ministry, living out their callings trying to follow Jesus like the rest of us. Reading them is like sitting down with a mentor who gently, sincerely, and humbly tries to share the bit of wisdom he’s gained in the ups and downs of the Christian life. And, as my brother once said of an older pastor friend, watching them elaborate on theology is like watching an old man leaf through a family photo album, describing what makes each picture so meaningful. You begin to realize that these men don’t know Christ as some kind of academic subject they happen to have Ph.D. in. They know Christ.
The one I’ve been following most closely lately has been Pope Francis for obvious reason: he’s my pope. He’s trying to speak, quite literally today what he feels God wants us to know today. In the following posts, I hope to share some of his wisdom and what it’s like trying to live it.

The Dream that was Catholic Schooling

When you have kids, opinions that you maybe mildly held in the past either get vigorously overturned or become something you would practically die for. Case in point: schooling. How can a parent not be passionate about the environment they are going to send their little, tender lambs to for 6 to 8 hours a day for 13 years? I actually, quite literally, had no opinion about where a child should be sent to school until I started realizing that my oldest, Jack, would be crossing this milestone in just a couple of years. Suddenly I became very opinionated. I had an upbringing wherein my schooling made me a little Pharisee. I don’t want that for my kids. But I know it’s my responsibility to raise them to be dedicated Catholics. So that has to play into this, too. I was actually leaning toward public school.
But as a good convert, I realize that I’m not the only person who has ever thought about how schooling relates to raising a child. I started reading papal encyclicals, trying to get the “mind of the church” as they say. And what I found surprised me (even though it really shouldn’t have): Catholics of past generations apparently really dig Catholic Schools.
The Catholic School has this very tender, warm place in Catholic culture and history. Popes and bishops wrote eloquently of the forming of not just the intellect of the child, but also the character – of bringing children closer to Jesus because no education would be complete without that overarching goal. The problem, for at least one pope I read, was not even just that public schools might disparage belief, but that they were neutral on the topic. Jesus becomes just another subject on a syllabus of multiple and equally important topics and ideas and not the driving force and final end of all education.*
Then I began noticing how even people who aren’t Catholic respect the academics of Catholic Schools – and will pay through the nose to get their children in there. How ironic! Pastors have to walk around with begging bowls to parishioners to keep churches going. All the while, down the street, people who aren’t even a part of the church are paying exorbitant amounts of money to send their children to an institution where they will be taught to follow Jesus and be indoctrinated with counter-cultural morals.
Indoctrinated with Christianity….. at least that’s the idea. That was the idea. There was a dream that was Roman Catholic Schooling, but with many Catholic schools losing their identity and turning out to be just as good as public schools at churning out fallen-away Catholics, the dream looks more like a nightmare.**
But even so, the tender, warm place in Rome’s heart is becoming that place in my own. While I know that tuition is high, and while I know that Catholic Schools may not be what they used to be when it comes to faith-formation, I want to send my children there. And it’s somewhat similar to the same reason I became Catholic. I want to keep the dream alive. I want there to be an institution where my children will learn about their faith but still rub shoulders with all sorts of people who don’t believe. I want them to experience the Catholic Church in all her beauty and warts – full of people who are fully committed, and others who know so little they are only Catholic in name. Why? Because that’s the church Jesus founded and died for. Also, I can’t bear to see something with such a rich history and such wonderful potential get shoved to the side. The nations are streaming to Mt. Zion in the form of little children in uniforms. How sad it would be if we turned them away because of low enrollment.
I have hope that the dream will stay alive. But it won’t stay alive if I keep my children out of it. It can’t survive if enrollment is low or if it’s ripped from the hands of Catholics who actually believe what Catholicism teaches, only to be handed over to those who believe little or nothing about it (and care little or nothing for it). I can’t stand and watch as such a rich heritage, such a rich gift from God, wastes away like that. It may not be an essential institution to the worldwide Catholic family in the centuries to come. Homeschooling or independent Catholic schools, or some public/Catholic hybrid may take it’s place. I don’t know. But it’s part of the family jewels so to speak. Like Michelangelo’s art on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, the church would still be a church without it, but what a loss if it were gone.
Our Catholic Schools already surpass their counterparts academically. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that our Catholic Schools need to be renewed by the Holy Spirit. Catholic schools need to be Catholic. And that means Catholics, lay and clergy alike, need to take ownership of them. We need to fight for them.

*DIVINI ILLIUS MAGISTRI, ENCYCLICAL OF POPE PIUS XI ON CHRISTIAN EDUCATION, Dec., 31, 1931
**http://www.wnd.com/2011/08/338257/

Dancing in the Presence of God

The Old Testament Scripture passage the other day for mass was about the Ark of the Covenant being brought to Jerusalem. To give some context, the Ark of the Covenant represented in a very close way the presence of God among the Israelites. It was God’s throne on earth, so to speak. And the Israelites had had it through the wanderings in the wilderness, the entering into the Promised Land, and through the years beyond. But, after falling into sinful lifestyles themselves and trying to use it as a kind of good-luck charm to win one of their battles, God got fed up and let the Ark fall into the hands of their enemies. They felt horrible afterward, of course, and in due time the Ark, through a miracle, came back to them. But it remained at one of the Israelite’s homes for awhile – maybe because the people were too scared or too reverent to just bring it back to the Tabernacle, where it had resided before. This was one God they knew they couldn’t mess around with – at least for now.
But eventually, King David, with a heart after God’s own heart, ascended to Israel’s throne. And he felt it was time to bring the Ark back to where it belonged: in the Tabernacle, where God could be properly worshiped by the people. And as it made it’s way through the streets of Jerusalem, the capital city, David couldn’t contain himself. He stripped down to a linen apron and danced for joy like a child before the Ark of the Lord.
You can imagine the different responses. There may have been the Pharisaical types, thinking to themselves, “That is not how God has prescribed worship. This is disorderly, irreverent.” And in some ways, they would have been right. There may have been the hip types who wondered if this was the best PR for God. I mean, most Israelites probably had an idol or two stuffed away in their own homes just to hedge their bets. It was hard enough keeping the Jews faithful without a near-naked king dancing around like a crazy homeless man in this sort of frenzied worship. Maybe there were others who were anesthetized by a ritualistic faith that was comfortable for them, and not nearly as demanding as the Torah really made it out to be. This David rubbed them the wrong way – this whole Jehovah thing being a little too real, a little too dominating in his life. “Let’s hope he doesn’t try to push this fanatical brand of Judaism on us.”
But what did David think? David was lost in the joy of his relationship with God. Daddy had come home, and like a toddler, he couldn’t contain himself. Getting lost in the moment, for him, meant stripping down and dancing, the vulnerability of his childlike faith being made visible for the whole world to see.
And that’s dangerous, isn’t it? To open yourself up like that… to be that honest and passionate about what you believe? We’re afraid of that kind of radical trust and belief. It’s not safe. It’s putting yourself out there for anyone to shoot at you, like a sheep to the slaughter. Maybe we’re not smart enough to hold the high debates. Maybe we’re too human, and everyone will know just how lame a Christian we really are when we let them down. Maybe they’ll think we’re weird – a throwback to a time when tribes fought each other for their own pet gods. Maybe they’ll fear us, finding the only comparison they can make is with a terrorist hijacking a plane.
But joy demands, in the most exhilarating and passionate way, to get out. The Pharisees will look down on you, the hipsters will shuffle their feet in embarrassment, and the half-hearted in the church will feel the prick of their own consciences.
But you…. you will dance – not because you think that your ministry will be fruitful, not because you will feel happy all the time doing what you love, not because you won’t get burnt out and depressed sometimes. But because God has entered the building. God has come home in your heart, where He belongs. And you have come home in His.
At World Youth Day, where Pope Francis spoke to millions of young Catholics, he said this:
“What do I expect as a consequence of the Youth Day? I expect a mess. There will be one. There will be a mess here in Rio? There will be! But I want a mess in the dioceses! I want people to go out! I want the Church to go out to the street! I want us to defend ourselves against everything that is worldliness, that is installation, that is comfortableness, that is clericalism, that is being shut-in on ourselves. The parishes, the schools, the institutions, exist to go out!”
Whatever kind of Christian you are, whatever your stripe, I’ll pray this for you. Pray this for me, too.
Let’s go make a mess.

Blessing #4: Understanding Mental illness

A recent poll was done, asking Christians whether or not they felt that mental illness could be cured just be reading the Bible and praying. Half of those asked said “yes.” Now, to many Christians, I know I may sound like I don’t have as much faith in God as I should, but that really disturbs me. Mental illness is called an “illness” for a reason. And just as we would never “just pray” over a little boy’s broken arm or a woman’s breast cancer, we shouldn’t “just pray” over someone struggling with deep depression or some other mental issue.
But I didn’t always feel this way. My wife was actually taking some medication while we were dating to help her with anxiety. I didn’t tell her to stop outright, but it kind of disturbed me. “We shouldn’t need these things”, I thought. “We shouldn’t be addicted. We shouldn’t just pop a pill to solve our problems.” Ren, I think, recognized my uncomfortable attitude towards medication and, when we got married, feeling that life was looking up, she stopped taking her meds. At that time, to be fair, neither of us knew that Ren’s issues were a lot more serious than just taking meds for anxiety. BPD, her own demon, doesn’t show up till adolescence or early adulthood. And, while single and with not too much responsibility in her life, life was easier to manage, if not perfect.
After her therapist confronted her with how serious her situation really was after the birth of our third child, it was a steep learning curve for me. She entered a program that went for weeks that took up about as much time as a full-time job – except we were the ones paying for it. It was insane trying to sort out child care between family and friends. All the while, going through this “secular” program, half of me wondered whether this was the right decision – spending so much time and money trying to solve her problems outside a Christian environment.
But as I read more material (particularly “A Catholic Guide to Depression”), and as I learned more about what mental illness really is, my mind began to change. Studies have shown that the best way to help someone with mental illness is for them to have a combination of therapy and medication. The therapy helps them explore the way they think about life, the lies they’ve allowed themselves to believe, and the hurts in their past that need healing. The medication helps the biological aspect of the illness. To express how important the medication is and how different my wife’s brain chemistry is, a worker in the program once told her that the meds she was taking that helped her to just get to sleep at night or calm her nerves would put the average person out cold for days. All to say, something else is going on biologically in a person who struggles with mental illness, and that part of it needs to be addressed.
This is not to say that our Christian faith has no place in Ren’s recovery. Far from it! There are so many insights that modern psychology has “discovered” to be effective that essentially mimic Christian truths. And even atheist psychologists will suggest their patients delve into spirituality because the data is there to show that religious people are, on the whole, just happier people. Besides this, our faith is what grounds us. Jesus is a part of our daily lives anyway. Bringing our woes and worries to Him and trying to understand this whole crisis through the lens of faith is just part of who we are – hence this series of posts.
But the fourth blessing of going through all of this is my waking up to the fact that people, every day, struggle with this invisible demon. People who struggle with mental illness try to hide it. They act out or get infuriated at small things – feelings they can’t control. It makes their friends and family shake their heads and turn away, hurt and dismayed. And then, after all this, they are told to just “get over it”, as though a person who has the flu could just decide to stop having the flu, or who’s amputated arm could just stop bleeding if they willed it away.
This is the last post about the blessings God has brought us through all of this. And in closing, I want to say, I debated whether or not to share all these things about our lives. I wondered, “Is this too personal? Am I just sharing this to be a ‘shock jockey’?” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about other friends I may have who deal with this or other people who think they need to pretend they are OK when they are not – who hide each day, putting on a smile while inside they are a hair’s breathe away from suicide. They grit their teeth and bear it. They struggle daily with this. And they are not understood.
They need to be understood. And I hope these posts bless you, whatever your own demons are. Please, be patient with those who struggle with this silent illness. And if you are struggling yourself, please get help. There is a way out of this that takes hard work, but it’s worth it. You are worth it. Find a therapist you feel comfortable talking to who can help you navigate these troubled waters. There is help.
And if you want me and/or others to pray for you, please contact me. You are not alone.

Blessing #3: Peace Talks

You might have noticed that the title of this blog is “Random Catholic Convert.” I and my family converted this last Easter to what has become a beautiful part of our lives: our Catholic faith. We feel at home in it now, but the decision to convert caused a bit of a storm in my immediate family. I grew up in a very anti-Catholic household that felt the Catholic church distorted the core of the Christian faith into something blasphemous. So you can imagine how our decision went down.
I respect people who have conviction a lot, whatever their conviction. Better to live life with something to live and die for than just live life for nothing – that’s my 2 cents on the matter. Winston Churchill made the famous statement, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Oh boy does my family stand up for something. BIG time.
And to add to that, they love me dearly, so, as you can imagine, the most heated arguments happened with them – specifically my older sister and her husband. I was the crack addict needing intervention. I was the one fleeing to a cult, and I needed to be set straight. We all need people like that in our lives. Thank God I have them.
But after awhile, as I grew in greater conviction that Catholicism was for me, the conversations became more and more difficult to have. It was like I had fallen in love with this charming, beautiful girl and my family was trying to convince me (not meaning to be offensive to me personally of course) that she was a drunken whore. Our spiritual conversations that used to be so mutually encouraging devolved into debates every time. It got to the point where we couldn’t really share anything anymore that had anything remotely to do with God. And this is hard for a guy who has an entire blog on the subject.
I felt bitterness and hurt without wanting to feel them. I felt resentment knowing that I shouldn’t be resentful. I couldn’t shake it. If someone couldn’t accept this gigantic part of my life, we could still be civil and kind.But a huge part of me was now shut off from them. I understood them. I didn’t want them to feel anything different if they didn’t really feel that way. But I was angry about it… and eventually kind of distant.
All of that changed when the fall came. Things had been going well over the summer. We had moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area. Surprisingly, it had worked well. My schedule was lighter because a lot of my students dropped off for the summer, so I could be home more to help out with the kids. Ren was finished with a program she had been in to help her manage her emotions. My mom sold her house in the Bay Area and moved to Sacramento, where she has found a lot of peace and happiness. But when the fall hit, and all my students came back, Ren went downward into depression again. The thoughts of going day in and day out with three needy kids in an apartment and a husband working 10 to 12 hour days started to sink in, and she began going back to where she had been months before when all this broke in the first place.
We realized things weren’t going to get better over night, and that Ren needed space and time to really heal. So the gut-wrenching solution was that we needed to send the kids away to friends or family who could take care of them in a major way – for most of the week, 24 hours a day – until we could sort something else out. And, as it so happened, who were the ones who could pull this off and, even more than that, were willing to?
My sister and her husband.
They took in my three children and, with my mom’s help, fed them, clothed them, woke up with them in the middle of the night, told their own kids to put up with the hassle of having toddlers in the house, and bore all of it with Christian charity and grace. And I saw my children thrive as these people I had distanced myself from began passing on the same virtues to my kids that I want to pass on to them as well.
Conviction cuts both ways. Those with the conviction to heartily disagree with you, to argue with you, to make their point loud and clear no matter how you feel about the subject because it’s “the right thing to do” are also most often those who will go the extra mile, throw themselves in front of a bus for you, and do everything they need to make sure you and your family are doing all right simply because it’s “the right thing to do.” In the best sense of the word, that’s what “family” means.
And that is the third blessing of my wife’s mental illness. It actually brought the individual equivalents of northern Ireland and southern Ireland to the table for peace talks. I know the tension was really mostly my fault, if not all my fault. And while we all still disagree with great conviction, I know now that we love each other with equal zeal.