19th day of Lent. The Most Extraordinary Statement About Being Human.

After soccer practice today Sweet’s called me. She said, “Dad, guess what?” “What?” I said, expecting the latest update on the recent drama she’s been experiencing with her friends. She said it again, “Guess what?” She really wanted a guess. “Your mom picked you up from practice.” “Yes. But that’s not it. It’s so cool.” That wasn’t what I was expecting her to say. I punted. “You’re going to have to tell me. I’m stumped!” She paused. “I scored a goal!” “A goal? Fantastic. Wow!” It was practice, yes. It’s also her first time playing soccer. She’s having fun. For that I’m grateful.

Later I ask about the day at school, and its related drama. “I learned that Mary thinks this, and Rose (not their real names) thinks that. It doesn’t make sense.” As she relays the stories it’s clear that they’re hard to experience again and again. At the same time, she’s beginning to learn that what’s going on isn’t about her. There may have been tears in school when she heard the latest gossip. By the time she returned home and said the words “it doesn’t make sense” she spoke them plainly, with a hint of disbelief. This isn’t over for her, not by any means. Still, if she can find this place enough times, she’ll be ok.

I listened to a rich talk today about family life, and what it teaches us about love. Michael Himes is a professor at Boston College, and gave the talk as part of BC’s student speaker series called Agape Latte. The talk is 25 minutes long and is worth watching. I played his closing comments several times over. They became a personal gif, and in that a mantra for prayer. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful, too:

“[W]hat family gives us an intimate chance to do, in circumstances that may be very supportive or very painful…[is] the opportunity to give ourselves, to learn how to give ourselves to one another wisely and courageously and with tremendous forgiveness and deep acceptance.

If you learn that, you’ve learned everything that you need to know. If you learn everything else and you never find that out, you’ve missed what it is to be a human being, because human beings are called to be the people who do what God is. God is agape, and we get to enact it. That is the most extraordinary statement about being a human being that I know.”


18th day of Lent. Resting in the Words That Give You Ease.

This morning a friend–referring to yesterday’s post–wondered how I managed to overhear the conversation she had at her kitchen table with her daughter who is also experiencing drama with not so friendly friends. After Sweets returned from school I shared the details of what’d been happening to that girl, with her. As she listened, her jaw dropped. She said, “Dad that’s me!”

In that small moment I sensed her relief. Knowing you’re not alone is a powerful experience. I didn’t want to spoil it. She didn’t need any more words, good or bad. I gave her a hug, and let her rest in the ones giving her ease.


17th day of Lent.

Sometimes I think Middle School has more drama in a day than Broadway stages in a year. Sweets has been struggling of late. A boy she thought was a friend has taken to texting her and telling her that everyone hates her. Today a different friend told her that she didn’t want to be friends with her anymore. She didn’t tell her directly. She had a third party share the news. It’s an awful parade of moments that includes eye-rolling, mock laughter, and a lot of tears.

In thinking about my experience of Middle School, I remembered that the cover of the notebooks we used in school included a sketch of our school itself. My notebook added a barbed-wire fence around the school, and gun turrets to many of the windows. I’ve otherwise blocked out much of that time. Strangely I can read about it, just the same. Perhaps you have too. Augie’s story in the book Wonder, is in many ways my own.

What’s happening with my daughter is an experience of what René Girard calls Mimetic Rivalry. Simply, a couple of kids are trying to maintain what they see as order in their social circle, by expressing dominance their dominance. Andrew Marr describes Mimetic Rivalry like this:

“At a children’s party, the house was filled with balloons and the children were all happily playing with them until one child suddenly grabbed one balloon and yelled: “This balloon is mine!” Suddenly, all the children forsook the other balloons and fought over the one balloon. This story, told me by an eye witness, is a classic example of what René Girard calls “mimetic desire.” Just as we imitate each other in actions, dress, etc., at a deeper level, we imitate each other’s desires. That is, once one child voiced a desire for one particular balloon, all the other children instantly desired that one balloon and none other.  Later in life, one youth’s desire for a certain girl triggers a desire for the same girl in another youth who had ignored her up to that point. So deep is mimetic desire that we often do not realize it is there and we claim our desires for ourselves alone.”

For Sweets it’s a hellish experience.

Girard’s Mimetic Theory says that people imitate each other. The more we do, the more we become alike. Even the desires we have, and think we have, come from each other. Since we all want the same things, we form rivalries. Because we’re becoming more like each other, our sense of ourselves and where we fit in starts to break down. It’s a recipe for things to spills sideways in some form of violence, intimidation, and fear. To keep the peace, you need someone to take the blame, a scapegoat. Once you have excluded/killed the scapegoat–the role my daughter is playing with some of her friends–the tension dissipates and order is restored. It’s the role Islam is playing now in the US and Western Europe, and why it’s challenging to get people to be curious in a positive way about Islam simply because it’s one of the great religions of the world.

For Christians who follow Girard there are two key applications of Mimetic Theory.  First that Jesus frees us from sin, because he is the ultimate scapegoat. Sebastian Moore says

“God, in the person of his Son, lets himself be caught in the trap we’re all in, then he does the most outrageous thing of all. He becomes on the cross, attractive to us, and this breaks the fundamental rule on which the whole system of scapegoating rests: the victim is supposed to stay on the other side, stay excluded — that’s what victimising is for. Perhaps you can remember a moment in a long-standing family row when suddenly you found yourself in sympathy with the person you had all united in disapproving of. Well, Jesus is that person drawing you to himself….This person becomes the person we want to be.” ~ The Contagion of Jesus, p33.

The second application has to do with where desire comes from. One of Sebastian’s favorite sayings was “Desire is love, waiting to happen.” Desire comes from God. Jesus frees us from the fear and anxiety that happens when desire is twisted, and turned in on itself. The people who can love one another, are those who align their desire, with love. With God. And since we live in a world where scapegoating happens

“The new life beyond scapegoating, the new politics of love, is always erupting. It has happened. It is happening. It is still to come. It’s all one coming. Anyone who has tasted Jesus knows this: he or she knows something so new and wonderful that it is always just coming, always at the doors. There is only one coming, that is Jesus becoming himself in you and me in all the world.” ~ The Contagion of Jesus, p33.

What’s happening with Sweets, is hard stuff to hear, and watch as she moves through it. Part of me wants to defend her, or intervene on her behalf, which I know are terrible things. It’s not a time for reaching out to other parents, or to recommend she cut ties with kids she otherwise likes. All of those responses would be ways I would be trying to scapegoat one of her friends, or their families. No. My role remains a chunk of what its always been, to be a guy who stands in a tradition, listens, and tries to be a voice of reason. I want to help her think about how she’s going to work through this. It’s the only way she’s going to learn how to deal with the reality that kids–and people–can be mean. This is also a way to deepen her sense of the spirituality that imbues the tradition that is our faith.

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16th day of Lent.

16th day of Lent. Selling Girl Scout cookies is teaching my Sweets goal-setting, people skills, decision-making, money management, and business ethics. This morning she was crushed because she misplaced a four dollar payment a friend gave her. It took a while to realize that it was only four dollars, and that she’d been doing a great job keeping track of the rest of her sales dollars. Once she remembered that she said, “if I don’t find it, I’ll take it from my allowance.” “Great!” I said.This afternoon, she had a nice lesson in customer service also.

I received a call from a customer she’d delivered to who said that two of the boxes she received were for cookies she didn’t order. “Okay” my daughter said when I handed her the phone. “I don’t have those cookies right now. I’ll come back with them later.” She ended the call and turned to me. “Dad, look at the spreadsheet, the cookies I gave her were the ones she ordered. What are we going to do? She wants Tagalongs. I don’t know if I have any.” “Well, I’m sure we can get them somewhere” I said. “What do you think would make her happy?” “Tagalongs. But what if she made a mistake when she placed her order? She has to take those cookies.” “Well, how would you feel if you had to take cookies you didn’t like just because you made a mistake?” “Okay” she said, not because she would feel ok if that happened but because she understood my point. I asked her to look up the order on the original form. She did. “Dad. This says she ordered Do-Si-Dos.” It’s a data entry error and her second mistake of the day. “What do you think you should do?” I asked. “I have to call her.” She calls and confirms that it’s the Peanut Butter sandwich cookie she wants, and not the Tagalongs. That’s what the customer gets.

Sweets loves selling cookies. Tonight I asked her what she likes the most about selling cookies. “People get so happy” she said. “What about delivering cookies. What do you like the best about that?” “It’s the same thing. They’re so happy to see me.” Marshall Rosenberg said “the most joyful and intrinsic motivation human beings have for taking any action is the desire to meet our needs and the needs of others.” She loves selling cookies because she sees them making people happy. To me what she is doing is meeting the needs of others through her service.

This year she beat her goal by a hundred boxes, selling three hundred more boxes in her initial order than she did last year. She did it in less time, and with less effort than she ever has. At the same time, she’s about a week behind in her deliveries. When you sell 1100 boxes of cookies there’s a lot of work that has to happen in between the fun of taking the orders, and the fun of delivering them. That in between part went missing until she came to terms with what had to be done. Now, she’s flowing.

When I think about what it must have been like to be a disciple of Jesus, I think that early on the disciples must have felt, that it was fun. They were spending their days with someone who made them think, who helped others, and who introduced them to living their lives as Jews in a different and compelling way. Like Peter, I wouldn’t have known what to make of the Transfiguration. Mark says, “He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified” (Mk 9:6). Once it’s over, the scriptures say, Jesus told them “not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.” I think they loved being with Jesus, helping people, and listening to him teach. What was next for Jesus was beyond them.

For Jesus, saying that the transfiguration wasn’t to be spoken of? That’s his first real “come to Jesus” moment (it’s late as I write, and bad jokes come out when I’m tired). Or to make more painful and obvious wordplay, it was his “mountaintop experience.” The moment when he realized that being who he was, and living the life he believed he was meant to live, came with a cost. A price greater than any of the work involved in between selling and delivering Girl Scout cookies, yes. But experiences like that for Jesus, for my daughter, and all of us, are crucibles through which we find out who we are. They’re not easy. As a mom who’s given birth to a child might say, “it’s the most pain I’ve ever experienced. It was worth it, too.” Along the way there are moments, and lengths of doubt. Being true to the life you’re called to live, as a scholar, a nurse, a sibling, or spouse isn’t often easy. What parent doesn’t sometimes wish for “a break?” You do the best you can, whether you feel like it or not. Ten times out of ten, it’s enough. When you give what you have, it is enough. That’s you being only the person you can be, “living in time” (Christian Wiman).

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15th day of Lent.

Today I spoke with a friend about what it was like being a dad, and how I had no clue what I was getting into when I started. I had thoughts, of course, but really, I had no idea. I might as well have been on that mountain with Peter, seeing Jesus with Moses, and Elijah, followed by the cloud and a voice. There wasn’t a voice except the one saying, “It’s your turn to get up with the baby.” Followed by my “I was just up with him.” And then in reply, “no, I was just up with him.”

Becoming a parent. It’s transfiguring. The moment of birth is an awakening that brings responsibility. A little while after I married I consented to having a dog, because it’d be a practice of sorts, before having a baby. After my son’s birth I wondered what person thought the two were analagous. It’s there, yes, but palely. Living into the full reality of what being a dad was really like, and understanding what the role requires is something that happened over time. Along the way at various points I was like Peter suggesting to his mom that we build our own shrines. Me seeing being a parent as something I did, and not something I was.

Faith is like that in a way. We can find ourselves longing for an experience we had of church in the past. Or a sense of who God is, which is sure, that we haven’t had since before college, or high school. I’m fond of a phrasing Peter Rollins uses in his book How (Not) to Speak of God saying that “To believe is human, to doubt divine.” It’s so easy to cast things as black and white in our spiritual life, even when we know we’re surrounded with grey in so much of what we do. We forget that Jesus doubted. When we doubt, we’re being like him. For Rollins, “doubt is a purifying fire that helps us find out what we really are.” The things you doubt, those are the questions that are yours to love, so you can live your way into answers (Rilke).

Christian Wiman makes these same points when he says “[T]here is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really….No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life, but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life–which means that even the staunchiest life of faith is a life of great change….God calls to us at every moment, and God is life, this life. Radical change remains a possibility within us right up until our last breath. The greatest tragedy of human existence is not to live in time, in both senses of that phrase.” (My Bright Abyss, pp 7-8). Life changes us all the time. Our sense of who we are as people who have faith, informed by our lives should also change. Let yourself be transfigured.

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14th day of Lent.

Love is a choice. It’s an action. Oh pheromones may draw us to each other. Or maybe a certain look, but over time, it’s a choice. By that I don’t mean choosing to stay in a relationship–it’s that of course–but the real choice, the transfiguration that happens in families, in great friendships, and with love is the one where you accept and see the limitations and flaws of the other person and know that even though they’re limited, even though they sometimes frustrate and anger you, they are enough.

The transfiguring doesn’t happen right away. It isn’t easy either. As Rilke says, “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” (Letters to a Young Poet #7). It helps if you’ve done the work and have a working sense of your limits, flaws. Knowing them, you still see yourself as whole.

Anais Nin’s wisdom rings true, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Or as we are not. Today I saw a postcard that said, “Throwback Thursday, that picture you took twenty pounds ago when you wished you’d taken more pictures of yourself before you were fat.” We don’t see people as they are. We see age, disability, orientation, color, creed, weight, and class. As Annie Dillard notes in Pilgim at Tinker Creek, “What you see is what you get.” As with a lot of things, Transfiguring begins with you.

Here’s a neat transfiguration story I first encountered moons ago, in Scott Peck’s book The Different Drum. Who said how long? It is so long ago that if I were to tell you how long, I’d have to cough as I did. You know, so you wouldn’t hear me (and I wouldn’t hear myself).

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13th day of Lent.

What happened to Peter and his companions during Jesus’ transfiguration? They fall asleep and wake up. They see Moses and Elijah with Jesus and don’t seem to know what to do with that experience. As if anyone would! The best that Peter come up with is an idea to put up shrines and consecrate the place as sacred.

People still do that. They have a religious experience in a particular place and suddenly that place is where you go to find God. That place, as opposed another, as if God is more present in one place than another. A church isn’t the house of God because God is more present there. It’s the house of God because people gather there. Churches are for us that way.

Peter didn’t get it. He doesn’t yet get what this experience will require from him. Peter needs to be transfigured, too. As the Scripture says “he did not know what he was saying.” (Lk9:33). Mark says “he was terrified.” Almost to emphasize this while he’s talking a cloud forms around him and he hears a voice say “listen to him.” The him, being Jesus. Once he gets it. Once he understands that he’s not just witnessing something, that instead God is asking something of him, and of Jesus, he’ll have his own epiphany and be transfigured. He’ll see things differently, and he’ll live differently as a result.

Today a video started popping up in my feed that showed the skeletal shapes of people on a black screen, behind which folks of all shapes, creeds, sexes, ages and abilities were kissing, hugging, and dancing. The people behind the screen were couples, spouses, families, and friends. The “Love had no labels” video is lovely, and effectively helps one understand that relationships are about love. In that way, it offers three minutes where you might find yourself transfigured. Take a look.

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12th day of Lent.

What does being fully alive look like? For Christians the answer is easy, and hard: Jesus. That’s easy because what we see in the life of Jesus is a life we’re called to live. We’re to live like him. The bracelets from the 90’s come to mind (WWJD). Hard, because we don’t look at Jesus as a person like ourselves. That’s natural. The closest I get to a miracle is convincing one of my kids that even though they’re not ready for a major test they still have to go to school!

While Christians believe Jesus was fully God and fully human, in practice it’s hard to understand what that means. If he was fully God, he must have known what was going to happen to him every step of the way. If he was fully human, there’s no way he could have. It’s a mystery. In practice it’s easier to think about as closer to what we see in a film when an alien possesses a person, than as a union of two “natures”. Natures? Hunh?

I think it’s helpful to think about the union of Jesus’ humanity and divinity as something like a marriage. In the best marriages two people are completely themselves, and share a life together. I often quote Rilke who said that

“someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.” and so love “consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.” ~ Rainer Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, #7.

Two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other. I love that. It’s not one person completing the other. It’s two people who are complete, sharing a life together. When a couple in a relationship like that are in sync it’s a beautiful thing. When they’re not? Sometimes a person has to get away. Sometimes that looks like a walk around the neighborhood. Sometimes you have a beer with a friend, and sometimes you hike up a mountain. The time away helps you discern the forest from the trees. You get perspective on what’s important, and you return knowing–or with a better sense of–what it is you need to do.

Being fully human, Jesus’ life wasn’t black and white, and required that same discernment of what to do and how to be, amid all the grey. That’s why he climbed Mt. Tabor–traditionally accepted as the site of the Transfiguration–“he went up the mountain to pray” (Lk 9:28).

11th day of Lent.

Two quotes and a story on this day after hearing the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration at Mass.

“The glory of God is [a person] fully alive, and the life of [the human person] is the vision of God.” ~ Saint Irenaus, Against Heresies Book IV, 20, 7.

“The only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be what he is himself.” ~ St. Irenaus, Against Heresies, Book V, preface.

“Reb Zusya, a righteous rabbi, lay dying. His disciples surrounded him, and were astounded to see that their teacher and sage, a man whom all regarded as a model of appropriate thought and deed, shook with fear at the prospect of death and judgement.

“Master,” said his disciples, “why do you fear God’s judgement? You have lived life with the faith of Abraham. You have been as nurturing as Rachel. You have feared the Divine as Moses himself. Why do you fear judgement?”

Zusya took a deep, shuddering breath, and replied: “When I come before the throne of judgement, I am not afraid that God will ask, ‘why were you not more like Abraham?’ After all, I can say, ‘O God, you know best of all, that I am Zusya, not Abraham, how then should I have been more like Abraham?’ And if God should ask, ‘Why were you not more caring, like Rachel?’ I can respond, ‘Master of the Universe, you made me to be Zusya, not Rachel. If you wanted me to be more like Rachel, you should have made me more like Rachel.’ And should the True Judge say, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ I can respond, ‘O Mysterious One, who am I, Zusya, that I should be like Moses.’ But, I tremble in terror, because I think the Eternal will ask me another question. I believe I will be asked, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ And when I am asked this, how shall I respond?””

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10th day of Lent.

When I was 19 my roommate and I had an idea that we should start a prayer group on campus. We needed a faculty sponsor and I was tasked with meeting a Benedictine monk to ask him. I ran into him on our campus green. He asked me what I thought the group was for, paused, and waited for my reply. As I spoke I knew intimately that he was really listening. He conveyed to me with his attention that every word I said mattered. The quality of presence he had with people is something I strive for, and am not very good at.

Sebastian would write every day, and turn his notes into handouts which he’d give to anyone who was interested. “I’m not sure what you’ll think of these” he’d say. If you heard him preach on a Sunday, he’d have copies of his homily available for everyone present. Or rather, a copy of what he’d written that morning. He was charming, and brilliant, spoke with stops and starts, and he was rarely straight to the point. You had to listen intently to both follow along, and keep up. I think that was part of the point. After I graduated I’d go back and visit him from time to time. I’d invariably leave with a packet of papers. They were what he’d written since our last conversation. Handouts that turned into galleys, that became two books. Sebastian died a year ago today (2.28.14). He was 97.

Here are a few words of his for anyone going to church in the morning. The words in the brackets are mine.

“Who is the self I bring to the celebration that is speaking of me as a sinner asking for pardon and grace?…I find that…[it is the] self bullied at school, put down and resentful….the resultant of routine life at my job and with people, and is probably not the self awakened by a love-affair or life with a great friend. It is probably not the self that waits on grace, which is the one the liturgy is really talking about….[And so] I…participate routinely, because this is the Mass and Scripture is now ‘important’…. So of course Mass is a bore. I never or seldom come alive at it.

Now I can change this situation by ‘focusing’ it….I attend to myself…[Think of] a problem you’re having with someone, really upset at what he or she said or did and what I didn’t say or do. You poor tired old reactive me! The point of focusing is that this ‘me’ thus attended to, listened to…is where desire resides and wants to grow into loving….Mass is the time when I am to let my real, life-desiring and vulnerable self come into contact with the ultimate expression of our nakedness: my body for you.

Could this address the infinite boredom that the Mass means to young people today, to those who still go, probably with family? Bring to the mass the row you’re having with that asshole of a teacher….and remember Gethsemane and the wonderful party that Jesus got out of it, with the bread and wine.” ~ Sebastian Moore, OSB. From The Contagion of Jesus, p.118.