Able-Bodied

good-friday-2264164_1920Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:27

Over the past three years I’ve been blessed to serve as faith formation director for our parish and to write a monthly column in our church bulletin. I’ve tried in that time to urge us all to discipleship: to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus every day, listening and responding to what he asks of us, seeking the lost and leading them to heaven.

It’s a big job, to be sure, but we are not alone. We are one body, with Christ as our head. Through the Apostles, the bishops, our priests, and our baptism, His mission of saving souls has been given to each of us. Individually we are ill-suited to the task of redeeming the world, but together?

Together we are unstoppable.

We are strong. Twenty-two hundred families strong. We have the strength of the first-time mother bearing life big and round as the world beneath her heart and lungs; the bleary-eye father who sleeps little and talks less, but drinks coffee in the predawn darkness and heads to a job he tolerates for the family he loves. We are strong with the prayers of our elders in faith: paper-skinned ladies and shuffling old men, praying through the pain of fallen children and failing health and busted systems and a broken world. We are strong with Mass-going, Jesus-adoring teens and noisy children climbing over pews and running in the aisles and generally treating God’s House as their own—praise Him for that misperception! We are strong with the sacraments: with Sundays made long by baptisms, and solemn Eucharistic liturgies, and too many confessions for our number of priests.

We have the strength of history: a growing Catholic school and three Catholic churches before this one, each bigger than the one before, yielding vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

We are able-bodied, because we are His body: hardened by work and walking together, strengthened by prayer and fasting, fearless and capable, even unto death.

We are that Person. Do you see Him in us? I do.

Too often, however, we fall short. We struggle to find new volunteers and exhaust those we have. We do what’s immediate or comfortable for ourselves, out of guilt or necessity, without asking what God wants of us. We each pull our own direction, and the tension holds our parish suspended, neither falling behind nor surging ahead.

Imagine what we could achieve if each part of the Body—each organ, muscle, bone, and cell—found his or her purpose and did just exactly that one thing, to the best of his or her ability. Imagine that Body, with Christ’s head guiding, Christ’s blood coursing through, Christ’s own flesh sustaining. Imagine that Body, working wonders in the world.

Together we are unstoppable. What’s stopping us?

A New Mission

By now it’s pretty well gotten around that I’ll be leaving the role of faith formation director at the end of June. A number of you have said, “I can’t wait to hear what you’ll be doing next,” to which I reply, “Me, too!”  On the other hand, we have taken great leaps forward in the past three years, and I have never felt unappreciated or under-compensated working for the parish. It’s good work—it’s just not my work.

 I’ve made a discovery this past year: I have an evangelist’s heart.

I am competent at many things, and even skilled at some of them. I can be an administrator, a catechist, a communicator, an administrative assistant, and a laborer. I can do all sorts of things when needed. But I have an evangelist’s heart.

And, thanks be to God, I can write. I’ve known this for some time, and every staff or personal retreat I’ve been on for the past decade or more has resulted in me saying to my bride, “Whatever happens from here forward, I need to write.” I’ve been told the same thing countless times, by family and friends, acquaintances and total strangers. I’ve never made a successful go of writing on my own, however—I think primarily because, until now, I’ve tried to do it on my own. I’ve never really asked what God wanted me to write and waited for an answer.

I have always been the least rational and most emotional of all my male friends. I blunder through the world heart-first, find beauty in strange places, share too much, talk too much, and cry more than my bride. It’s embarrassing. I’m not good at casual friendships: most of the time I either go deep, or I can’t link a name to a face.  Any given week I love humanity and hate it, sometimes at the same time.

But when I share from the heart, when I speak or write about things I care about—faith, marriage, family—it moves people. When I talk about my own journey from part-time Catholic kid to an Ivy-educated agnostic with a porn problem to a faithful husband and father, it touches people. And I want to do that.

What’s more: God wants me to do that. (I finally asked.) No more pretending these gifts are weaknesses or wishing He made me differently. I am what He made me, and I’m only as free as I am obedient to His will.

It’s exciting: I feel like an apostle being called by Jesus to follow. And it’s terrifying: I don’t like reaching out to new people, because loving those people involves time, effort, and usually pain. Plus I can’t see my way forward. Peter and Andrew, James, and John dropped their nets and left their boats behind. Matthew left his post, his money, his whole former life. I have a primary vocation as husband and father. I can see no way to do what God is asking of me in my free time, and no simple way to make a living. I can’t see a logical next step.

So for the first time in my life, I find no solution other than utter abandon, to give everything to the Lord and let Him sort it out.

Dive in. Heart-first.

Lost Howls of Youth


Now it seems like too much love is never enough 
You better seek out another road, ‘cuz this one has ended abrupt
— Temple of the Dog, “Say Hello 2 Heaven”

I woke this morning to a text from an old friend that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell had died. A short while later I saw another friend had tagged me in a post on Facebook: it occurred after Soundgarden’s apparently triumphant return to Detroit last night, and the early speculation is suicide. He was 52.

I don’t generally go in for the extended mourning of celebrities. They are just folk, like we are: pray for their souls, and for peace and consolation for their families. Then again, sometimes a song, an image, a voice is so tied to a particular period in one’s life that there is no escaping the impact. Chris Cornell’s voice was the howl of my youth — the closest thing to a rebel yell I ever sounded in my relatively serious and square teens and twenties. His bands — especially Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog — were a part of me in my younger days.

I always enjoyed a diversity of music. I heard classic country at home, eighties pop and glam rock on the airwaves, and got an introduction to metal from my sister’s high-school sweetheart. In my own high-school days, a friend introduced me to the band Living Colour, which was my favorite band when I headed to Yale in the early 1990s. Grunge was beginning to emerge in my neck of the rural Michigan woods: the opening riff and drum fill of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could set a room of teens to pogoing in seconds, and Pearl Jam was seeping into the radio playlists. But in Durfee Hall, I heard Soundgarden’s album Badmotorfinger for the first time and was hooked.

Soundgarden’s music was unlike anything I’d heard before: deep, sludgy, and dark; brash and thrashing, like a mastodon in a prehistoric tar pit. Cornell’s voice could be low and soulful, brooding and angry, blue and weary — and man, could he wail. The music wasn’t typical — I didn’t think at all at the time about odd keys, time signatures, and rhythms, or a general lack of conventional guitar solos. I just knew that for me, it was interesting. In a good way.

And since I enjoy word-play, I always enjoyed Cornell’s lyrics, which were witty enough to be taken almost seriously, if they weren’t so abstract:

Every word I said is what I mean
Every word I said is what I mean
Everything I gave is what I need
Virgin eyes and dirty looks
On what I have and why I took
Counting all the hands I shook 
— Soundgarden, “Slaves and Bulldozers

I recall an interview I read in which he admitted to messing with people who looked too deeply for meaning in his songs, giving different and sometimes conflicting interpretations to his odd lyrics. And a video clip in which his sarcastic humor shines through as he explains just what Soundgarden is while his bandmates try not to crack up:

“Soundgarden is a state of mind. Soundgarden is a frame in time. …Soundgarden is a tear from an eye — dreaming.”

Soundgarden (and Badmotorfinger in particular) was the soundtrack to my college years, the go-to late-night rock when assembling the newspaper late at night at the Pioneer (sorry, Suz), the dark cosmic heartbeat that lulled our eldest to sleep when he was a baby, and the music that has tested every stereo system (home or car) that I’ve ever  purchased. It is also, unfortunately, the reason I purchased my first stereo system bigger than a boombox as a college junior, and used a credit card for a non-emergency purpose. Soundgarden shook the dorm-room walls in those days, and I purchased rarities, bootlegs, whatever I could get me hands on. That’s the sort of influence, for better and worse, Cornell and Soundgarden had on my younger self.

They were that band for me.

I don’t listen to that sort of thing as much as I used to, but my sons still do. I never saw Soundgarden live, though I did see Cornell in Detroit when he was touring to support his solo album Euphoria Morning. Bren and I talked about trying to get tickets this time around. I guess we missed the opportunity.

I don’t remember half the time
if I’m hiding or I’m lost
but I’m on my way
— Soundgarden, “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” 

I didn’t know him, but I’ll miss him. Prayers up for Chris Cornell, his family and friends — may God grant them all peace and consolation.

God’s Love Is Mercy

“Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God.”
– Jesus to St. Faustina
Devotion to Divine Mercy is not every Catholic’s thing. Some people struggle with the image of Divine Mercy: Jesus, His right hand raised to bless and heal, His left indicating his heart, from which rays of red and white, symbolizing blood and water, pour forth as a fountain of mercy for souls. Every version I’ve seen has been a bit mysterious and unsettling—which seems appropriate, given that it’s a vision of the resurrected Christ.
Some don’t like the chaplet, which is simpler and more repetitious than the rosary. Some consider the visions of a poor Polish nun to be private revelations: fine for her, but not necessary for us (even though she is a saint and was canonized by another saint).
And some struggle with the emphasis on God’s mercy, seemingly at the expense of His justice or even over His love. At first blush, saying that “mercy is God’s greatest attribute” (Diary of St. Faustina, 300) appears to downplay the seriousness of sin and the need for repentance. It suggests—much to the comfort of some sinners—that God will invariably forego His justice. It seems presumptuous.
But let’s think about what love, justice, and mercy actually are. Love, we are told, is willing the good of another regardless of the cost to yourself. Justice is giving another what is due. Mercy is often regarded as a bridge between these two: sparing someone just punishment for his or her benefit.
Because God is infinitely good, justice requires complete goodness from us in return. That is God’s due. But we are all sinners, and even the smallest sin stands in stark contrast to God’s infinite goodness—a grave injustice toward One who loves us perfectly.
What is our due as a result of this? Condemnation. We ought to suffer, not out of retribution, but as the natural consequence of our sins.
So God’s mercy does not deny the reality of sin or the need for repentance. Instead, it depends on these things. Without the grave reality of sin and the suffering that justly results from it, we would have no need of mercy. God’s mercy exists because of sin. There is no other reason.
But how can God be perfectly loving, perfectly just, and perfectly merciful—all at the same time? And how can mercy be God’s greatest attribute, when Scripture tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8)?
Look at it this way:
  • If God is love, then His very nature is to will our good, whatever the cost to Himself.
  • What is our good? Ultimately, it’s the end for which we were made: union with Him.
  • What is the cost to Himself? He sacrifices His claim against us for sinning against Him—He shows us mercy.

By doing this, it appears that God abandons justice in favor of love. But how can He do this, if He is perfectly just? Doesn’t sin demand punishment?

Yes, sin demands punishment. But with so much sin against so perfect a God, who could possibly bear it? Who, except God Himself?

So He becomes flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, living, suffering, and dying for us—willing the good of each of us at whatever cost to Himself. God’s perfect justice demands a perfect price be paid, so He pays it Himself. His love is mercy.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loves us to death. All that remains for us is to return the favor.

Book Break: Small Is Beautiful: Economic As If People Mattered

One of my regrets from my college days is not taking any courses in economics. I received a relatively unstructured liberal arts education: aside from a few specific prerequisite courses for my undergraduate degree, all class were divided into four groups, and we had to take a certain number from each group. Math and physical sciences were grouped together, so the classes and labs I took in chemistry meant I didn’t have to take math. I heard only complaints from my friends in economics classes, and since I had so many other interesting classes in the social sciences to choose from, I skipped it.

This teenage shortsightedness bothers me still today, since our news and politics revolve around the economy. E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered recognized this utter domination of economics over all, warned against it, and proposed specific antidotes. Written in 1973—a year before I was born—and recommended to me by a former boss, it strikes me as a book that was likely read, loved, and then neglected by many in the last 40 years as they were swept along by currents too strong to swim against.

With no economic background of my own with which to offer a proper review or critique, I will instead offer a couple of objections and a few ideas I loved from the book.

The most obvious grounds for dismissal of Schumacher’s book for many will be that the alarms he sounded in 1973 were, in retrospect, too shrill—the gloom and doom he predicted, especially in terms of natural resource shortfalls and environmental crises, have not yet come to pass. For some readers, this alone will “prove” that the author obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. Schumacher himself, a Rhodes Scholar and economic advisor with the British Control Commission and the British National Coal Board, warned against trying to predict the future. Common sense told him that finite resources can’t last forever, and exploratory calculations suggested that, at the rates of consumption and growth he was seeing in the 1970s, we were living on borrowed time. He acknowledged it was possible that we would find new sources of fossil fuels and other rapidly consumed resources—his point was, to what end? Unless we change our habits, eventually we will suffer.

The second objection was, for me, the more difficult: at this point in his career, Schumacher had strong opinions about what was wrong in the world and what needed to be done about it, and his blunt negative assessments of markets, economists, and motivations in his day leave little room for compromise or evangelization. I found myself nodding in agreement with three-quarters of his writing, only to run against passages about which I thought, surely not everyone in capitalist society is solely motivated by relentless profit-taking?

On the other hand, Schumacher does an excellent job of drawing our attention to the underlying problems with an economic approach to everything. Early in the book  he quotes his fellow British economist (and an early benefactor of sorts) John Maynard Keynes from 1930: “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”

Is this not contrary to the Christian ideal and common sense? Can fallen man use sin to achieve virtue? Of course not—but he can use his fellow man to achieve personal prosperity.

Schumacher goes on to write, “This was written forty years ago and since then, of course, things have speeded up considerably. Maybe we do not even have to wait for another sixty years until universal plenty will be attained. In any case, the Keynesian message is clear enough: Beware! Ethical considerations are not merely irrelevant, they are an actual hindrance, ‘for foul is useful and fair is not.’ The time for fairness is not yet. The road to heaven is paved with bad intentions.”

Lest you think of Schumacher as a naïve idealist imagining utopia, consider that two simple, practical ideas he advocated in his writings were the continuation of coal development and reducing energy consumption. He recognized that mankind is notorious for developing new problem-solving technologies that create new problems; that turning one’s back on an entire energy source on the belief that we could replace it entirely with oil or nuclear energy and meet rapidly growing worldwide demand, was foolish, even if it turned out to be true; and that wasting resources we cannot, ourselves, replace never makes sense.

This, to me, is (at least in part) what conservatism ought to be: maintaining the tried and true even as we explore new possibilities and conserving, even when a crisis is not looming, because it’s the sensible and moral thing to do.

Am I good at it? Not very—but getting better.

His biggest idea, however, was the concept of intermediate technologies for developing countries. Schumacher traveled the world and saw that most economic development supported by wealthy nations not only replicated the patterns of economic dysfunction he was in the developed world, but deepened the economic problems in the developing country for all but a fortunate few.

One example he uses (which I will paraphrase and expand on) is that of a large earthwork project that needs to be done in a developing country. You have a range of options you may employ for accomplishing this work, from people using their hands to scrabble and scrape away at the earth to the most modern and powerful earth-moving machinery. The former approach would cost almost nothing and “employ” a lot of people for a long time at menial and nearly impossible work; the latter would employ relatively few people for a relatively short time, unless the expensive equipment broke down and needed repairs—in which case there would be no parts or expertise locally to fix it. In the middle, however, are a range of intermediate technologies, however, that could put people to work, providing income for their families, value for their time, and dignity for themselves. For example, equipping a hundred men with well-built shovels and wheelbarrows would put those men to work—plus many more making and repairing shovels and wheelbarrows using local materials. The money earned by all those people (instead of just a few heavy-equipment operators) could be used to support other local industries—because what good is producing food or consumer goods if no one has any money to buy them?

There is much to love in this book, including Schumacher’s very Catholic views on the dignity of work and the human person. He speaks against an all-pervasive economic approach to efficiency, which quantifies and assigns value to the incalculable and invaluable. When everything is assigned a value, the sacred (such as human life) is diminished and no longer sacred. He speaks against an approach to labor and productivity that reduces work to individually pointless tasks without freedom or creativity and fails to employ large segments of society that, because they see no value in their time and effort, quickly devalue themselves. And he speaks against the underlying assumption that one who works less and consumes more is better off than one who works more and consumes less.
It is a thought-provoking read, and I highly recommend it.