Saturday, March 5, 2011

Something to Believe In

Ahh, the wonders of blogging. Blogging lets you set down your thoughts and communicate in sometimes meaningful ways with a wide host of other would be philosophers until you begin to realize that the art of thoughtful composition is often time consuming and generally inconvenient. I wonder how many blogs lay orphaned in cyber-space that need your very love and attention...blogs that could be maintained for free even...much, much, less than that late night charity's suggestion of just pennies a day and the use of decidedly sorrrowful pictures of caged animals or the haunting sounds of Sarah McLachlan.

As usual, I've tried to start this entry with the title of a contemporary song relevant in some way to the general theme of the post and the title of this one refers to the good 'ol Brett Michaels Poison tune and not the new fangled song by Parachute that dominates a current google search. The rest of this post is, in actuality, a reflection paper written for one of my Graduate courses in which we were required to visit a religious service of a faith "as far away from yours" as convenient. I elected for some local Buddhist action, as I am not willing to go somewhere that I know would REALLY scare me and have always been curious about Buddhism in general. So a thank you goes out to Sean for reminding me I even have this wonderful blog and here is something for you all to meditate on. HA! Get it! See what I did there?

There is an old joke that goes something like this: “If you ever want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” I do not know who to credit with the insight that went into that piece of humor, but it sums up my semester pretty well. Nothing has gone just like I planned it, especially when it came to this project. Another of my classes had planned a field trip to the Hindu Temple of Helotes and I thought it would provide a wonderful opportunity for me to double dip scholastically, fulfilling both the requirement for that class and giving me the opportunity to get this assignment done in one tidy little trip. Additionally, the trip would be filled with “safety”…a comfortable group of fellow students and a tour guide knowledgeable in both the religious tenants we would be observing and of our total ignorance thereof. As it turned out, however, the trip was postponed at the last minute and I had to scramble to find another opportunity to grow that would require me to step out of my comfort zone. I hopped on-line and was able to find a local Buddhist meditation center that was holding an open house, The Shambhala Meditation Center. I embarked on the trip not knowing what to expect and without the safety net of my classmates and tour-guide. Equipped only with the sense of disequilibrium and curiosity I was probably supposed to go with as envisioned as part of the assignment, I set forth for a night of adventure. I am glad I did.

I was one of the first people to arrive at the modest building on S. St. Mary’s and remember thinking as I approached it didn’t look like much. It could easily have been the office of a local dentist or real estate agent, but it certainly was not what I envisioned as a shrine, temple, or church. There was no grandiosity I have come to normally come to associate with a spiritual place. As I entered, I was surprised that the people that welcomed me were all female and all white. As a Catholic, I’m used to a male priest being the one to normally give me any kind of religious instruction, at least on any given Sunday. The situation did not quite fit my unfair presumption of an overly Asian experience either, as I had come to associate my understanding of Buddhism primarily with Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese cultures. I was certainly greeted warmly, and I wasn’t there more than a few minutes when another classmate from this class arrived, and then another. In fact, it was a night of college students as the number soon grew to thirty –five or so people with as many as twenty-eight from various colleges and universities in the area. We briefly introduced ourselves and described what brought us together that night, whether it was individual curiosity or an assignment for class, etc., and then we were all gathered for an introductory lesson on meditation.

As we were about to begin, our leader gave us a brief history of the center and its basic tenants. We discussed the value of meditation and that this particular center was dedicated to “help people of all traditions discover their inherent sanity, gentleness and humor” and a “warriorship” path about being fully present in the moment. The lesson began and we focused on posture and breathing, being aware of our own body, and the thoughts and distractions that came to mind as we did. We were instructed to try and focus on our breathing and when random thoughts or distractions came into our minds not dismiss them outright or try not to think, but rather focus more intently on the task of breathing. At first I found it physically uncomfortable, but over the time I was there that discomfort changed into a greater sense of relaxation as I felt my mind and body settle. We engaged in both sitting and walking meditation and I was shocked to find that we had been at it for almost an hour. My mind had been so focused on the meditation that I could not say I noticed the passage of time at all. When meditation was over, we all returned to the reception area and were offered tea and cookies with our hosts who welcomed any and all questions.

I enjoyed myself and the opportunity to experience a different method of accessing my sense of spirituality. Our hosts were very gracious and were very clear that “meditation belongs to everyone” and that “Buddhists do not own meditation.” It was offered that many local religious leaders of various faiths had visited the center to use meditation to enhance their own spirituality and lives of prayer. Honestly, I thought there would be more I would find “alien” or “strange” but there wasn’t. I understand that the night focused on meditation and said very little about the fullness of Buddhism of this or any particular type, so it was easy for my mind to see it as just another way to pray, and a welcome one at that.

As a Catholic, I have been taught to see life through a Catholic lens. As an adult I have embraced it and have often told friends when we have had conversations about faith that even if some day it were revealed to me that everything I believed had been a lie, I would not regret living my life by its tenants. I have found in them a method of behavior that has brought me peace and happiness with a minimal amount of sacrifice. All I have been called to give up has been a life I have seen destroy others, and I believe that it not for my faith and the grace of God that could easily have been me. I have been told by others my entire life, and possibly the most by those in higher education (in my History classes, not my multicultural ones) that my faith and my tradition has been used to dominate, subjugate, oppress, and restrain individual liberties with very little emphasis on the sociological value of the moral, ethical, and spiritual system of belief and the centuries of charity and social justice the church has tried to provide or incite. I also know that there are plenty of circumstances throughout history in which their claims have been true. I know that there are plenty of Catholics who believe and have been taught that they are to believe that they alone have the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. However, the Church I grew up in said that these are the things we are to try to do, and this is the way we are to try and live. I was told that, as human beings, we will fail, but we must continue to get back up. I was told we were to share our belief with all who would listen, but I was also told that in the final analysis, the judgment of the final repose of anyone’s soul is not for me to make. I think that is the part that most people down here forget. I believe in God, and I believe in the Church, but I also believe that the Church is a human institution, trying it’s best to engage in ministry to, with, for, and by, other human beings. I think all human institutions have the potential to be hegemonic forces if allowed to be, and it is the responsibility of the people involved in those institutions to monitor and correct them whenever and however they can. Perhaps I am not the most orthodox Catholic, but I have yet to be ex-communicated and I have yet to find another faith that seems to resonate so profoundly within me.

This experience gave me a point of reference in which I can now engage in dialogue with my Buddhist brothers and sisters to help foster mutual understanding. I really enjoyed the writing by Nadira K. Charaniya and Jane West Walsh (2000) and their use of the quote by D. Eck that said “We not only need to understand one another, we need one another to understand ourselves.” I have always felt like an understanding of another faith helped me to shape and refine what I believe, and for the most part has always led me back “home” with a new sense of appreciation for both my faith and theirs. I also know that my faith is constantly refreshed by documents like Verbum Domini: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (2010) in which Pope Benedict writes:

“Nowadays the quickened pace of globalization makes it possible for people of different cultures and religions to be in closer contact. This represents a providential opportunity for demonstrating how authentic religiosity can foster relationships of universal fraternity. Today, in our frequently secularized societies, it is very important that the religions be capable of fostering a mentality that sees Almighty God as the foundation of all good, the inexhaustible source of the moral life, and the bulwark of a profound sense of universal brotherhood.”

In this life, I continue to try and make the world a little better than I found it and will continue to do so until I can look God in the face and get the real story on everything I either couldn’t figure out or got entirely wrong down here. I fully expect when I get there to hear him ask, “So…got any more jokes?”

Benedict XVI. Apostolic Exhortations. Verbum Domini: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (September 30, 2010).

Walsh, J. W., and Charaniya, N. K. “Interpreting the Experiences of Muslims, Christians,and Jews Engaged in Interreligious Dialogue: A Collaborative Research Study.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the Association of Professors and Researchers of Religious Education, Atlanta, Georgia, November 2000.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I'm not alright

In the last six months or so, the internet (in its most unexpected application) has brought so many of my friends, once lost in the winds of change, time, and distance, back into my life. In some cases, there have been an awful lot of years and living that have past between us and this reunion. I have a tendency to love deeply and when I am involved in the life of the people I love, it is usually not just in passing...I am immersed in it, completely, as part of the family...until something happens. There may have been a job transfer, someone went away for school, something or anything happened that physically removed them from my sphere of being. The cycle repeats itself in my life and in theirs, and a new immersion takes place in both our lives that no longer includes us, together. At that point, sometimes all it takes is 1 or 2 unreturned phone calls on either side and the next thing you know, a decade has gone by. That does not mean I no longer loved them or they no longer loved me, but there is an optimism on my part that "I'll call that person when I have the time, or maybe I'll go out and visit next time I have some time off." When it came down to brass tacks, however, those days rarely came. I don't think this syndrome is unique to me, as it "takes two to tango" as it were, and I think it's a natural part of life for varying characters to come onto and depart from, our personal stage. I feel like lately, I have been more fortunate than most to have some incredible characters return for another appearance. We loved each other once, and we love each other still. Naturally, we are both filled with questions.

Inevitably, two questions arise. The first question is the seemingly harmless "How are you??!" and the second is usually "What have you been doing with yourself for the last X amount of years?" and these questions are what bring me back to the title of the post. There are many songs that come to mind that I hear almost daily and are virtually inescapable due to their popularity. There have been days I have been tempted to listen to music in a foreign language, but unfortunately my growing skill in Spanish has begun to rob me of that escape. They are songs I love and have always loved, but only began to truly understand by living the last ten years. These songs are things like Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown", Paul McCartney's "My Brave Face" and most recently "I'm Not Alright" by Sanctus Real which you can listen to for free and with lyrics here: (and please do)

I have had terrible relationships with women. I have been divorced TWICE. I am incredibly broken. I consider myself to be faithful, enthusiastic, and generally a very happy person. Yet, below my seemingly unshakable exterior, I often wonder how long it will be before I do something that makes someone want to leave me behind and how easily I might be forgotten. I find myself constantly at odds with confidence and insecurity. I know I am not a perfect person and I have made mistake after mistake. I am left wondering how it is that I can love someone with my whole heart and still come up short at the end of the day. I obviously have something that encourages someone to love me, or at least think they do, but in my life I have found myself rejected in the most brutal and scarring ways. I believe marriage is a SACRAMENT. I believe you don't just marry a woman, but you marry into a family and I have been completely disowned by TWO. The second time around, there was a child involved as my ex-wife was a single mother when I met her. I knew what it was to be called "Dad" for almost 3 years and now have no relationship with a child I considered mine.

For years, I "fell off the grid"...that is, I distanced myself from the community I was so deeply a part of. I didn't want pity. I didn't want all the well meaning softened voices asking me so earnestly "How I was." Like an injured animal, I wanted to limp off to an unseen corner alone with my pain. Eventually, I would either emerge recovered or die alone. I simply did not have the energy, hope, or optimism that people tend to attribute to me. I did not feel worthy or capable of leading anything let alone be a participant. I still had my faith, intellectually...but I was left with serious questions. Did my second marriage make me an adulterer? I never got the first one annulled through the Church. I didn't get married in the Church the second time...that alone tells many of you how different I was. In honesty, the second marriage was born out of my need to feel loved and "save" this woman and child from their circumstances rather than any real love for her as she was. I loved who she could have been and ultimately who she did not want to be. She chose drugs, alcohol, and to leave. At that point, I didn't even have the softened voices to ask me how I was doing, as I had already disappeared from their radar. I had work, and thankfully, my Mom and Dad and one or two friends that pursued me long after I neglected to call them back. I have always been a private person with my marital issues. If things were bad...very few people, if any, ever knew. My public face was bright and shiny, and entirely plastic. I did not want to burden anyone with my problems or have to worry about I did not give them to anyone, even God. At the core of me, I am not the kind of person that prefers to be alone...yet I had isolated myself away from just about everyone that ever loved me. And day...I had enough. I don't know how else to explain it. Someone somewhere must have been praying for me because I just woke up and and asked myself "Where is everybody?" and the voice in my head asked very plainly "Where are you?"

As the song "Joy" by the Newsboys goes, I went back to the first love I ever knew. I went to Church. I went to Confession and let it all out. I laid it all out at a local parish on some unsuspecting priest who got not only the regular laundry list of sins but a litany of morbid thoughts, grief, and pain that would have cost me thousands of dollars in therapy. I later went to a priest I knew and trusted and asked about the annulment process and began it. I had to submit myself to the idea that the Church might say "no". I had to have faith that God had a plan for me and that I needed to trust that maybe this pain was necessary for a greater good. I went through my phone and called anyone I could still track down. I volunteered to help out with some old friends that were still in Youth Ministry and started to have some fun again. I was still the walking wounded. In many, many, ways I still am. I eventually found love that is real and a woman I could trust with my heart. I still think about past hurts and still feel them acutely. I do not expect them to ever fully go away, but they have...lessened. That is what leads me to the questions for this blog. Aren't we all walking wounded? We all have pain. Life is messy, complicated, and hard to get out of without getting anything on us.

In finding so many of you, I have discovered that I am not alone in my pain. Some of your stories have similar chapters and some have chapters I hope I never face. The world has brought us all tremendous pain in one way or another and if someone tells you it hasn't...they are lying, delusional, or at the very least...should be bracing for impact. I hold tightly to the fact that my personal pain has made me a better person. It is only through faith, time, and the love of my wife and good friends that I can say that to you. But could I minister to someone going through divorce effectively before? How could I understand depression? Suicidal thoughts? Parenting issues? Loss and grief? How could I appreciate spiritual deliverance if I had no understanding of how much I need a Savior? I now have tools in my belt I did not have in my early twenties and a depth of compassion I could not have reached. I can recognize things in myself and others that would have gone unnoticed before. I am better capable to appreciate my wife, the value of laughter, and how much more people need to be loved than judged. It might sound incongruous, but I feel like I can love deeper than I used to. Some people have said I give better hugs and cry more at movies. I don't know about that, but I know I don't intend to lose you a second time, my friend. I feel like my personal crucifixions have made me better able to understand Christ and appreciate the sacrifice he made, the pain God the Father must have felt when he made his choice, and the redemption we have gained from his sacrifice...I do believe that in dying with him, I will rise with him.

I prayerfully ask you to consider the following questions: In your personal circumstance, in what ways are you different now than you were before and are any of them better? It may sound like an odd question, but we tend to focus on the way we are hurting, rather than the changes that hurt causes in us. Not all of them are negative or easy to see. Consider asking someone else who knows you and what you've been through. Do you have people you can talk to about what you are feeling and are you really talking about it or just superficially glossing over? Are you surrounding yourself with people you love or are you hiding yourself away? When was the last time you REALLY laughed and who do you know that helps that happen for you? Surround yourself with them.

I believe the good book when it says in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 – “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

There may be a day, and it may have already come, where what you have been through is the ONLY thing that can reach someone else.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Faith of Our Fathers

This Sunday, our parish priest began his homily with a quote from Pope John the 23rd. To give context to the quote, it was apparently given to a group of American parents who had been given a private audience with the Pope to discuss challenges in regards to parenting in a modern world. In his address to them, he said "It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father [...] The act of having children no more makes someone a mother than the act of owning a piano makes makes someone a musician." Ultimately, there is more to being a parent than mere biology. The purpose for this quote was to encourage parents to invest time in the lives of their children and I was forced to think about my own beginnings, my parents, and the parents I have never known.

Those of you who know me, know that I am the product of adoption. It is not a sensitive topic for me in any way and I believe I am very well adjusted when it comes to my handle on life, the universe, and everything. I have never been racked by feelings of abandonment (at least not due to adoption) nor have I ever questioned whether or not my parents loved me, adoptive or biological. I have never felt a strong desire to seek out my biological parents, nor have I ever, not even in my rebellious adolescent tantrums, suggested that my Mom and Dad "were not my real parents."

I have always known that I was adopted...that is, I cannot remember not knowing or how it was that my parents first told me I was not theirs through biological means...and it has never troubled me. I have always understood that my biological parents could not provide for me the life they wanted me to have. They made their decision based on a love for me more than any other consideration. They made prequalifications as to what kind of family could have me. They used a Catholic adoption agency and it was important to them that I be raised Catholic. They chose an agency that practiced anonymous adoptions, and I have always felt that that choice deserved more respect than any curiosity I might have personally. Above all, I was raised in a loving, forgiving, and supportive family in which I can see (as an adult, if not always so clearly as a child) the patience, self-sacrifice, and enduring (and often quiet) love of my mother and father. I have never for a moment thought the "grass might be greener" on the other side of parenting and these facts play a major role in my personal identity. On both sides of this story of adoption I see two resonating themes...the first being the undeniable transformative power of Love...and the importance and persistence of Faith as a product of understanding what Love is and has the power to do.

My life has given me greater understanding of God the Father and Christ the son. I can feel the story of Christ's being more acutely. I can empathize with Mary and Joseph, and experience my brotherhood with Christ through a spirit of adoption unlike the way others might. I can express, at times when I am forced to stop and think, how much I love my Mom and Dad and the surety I feel that one day I will see the face of my biological parents and be able to express the love and gratitude I feel for and to them...and the choice that they made for me. Their choice, and the way they made it, gave me Faith from the very beginning, a confidence and strength that has been my shield through whatever slings and arrows I have faced. Their choice, solidified by my Mom and Dad and their daily and persistent example of love for me and for each other, has made me who I am, in the version of me that I most like. To my Moms and Dads...I love you, both in California, and in parts unknown.

What impact have your parents had on your life and if it applies, what type of parent are you? When was the last time you told your parents you loved them? If you have kids, have you hugged them recently, played a board game or thrown a ball around anytime lately?

As for me and my house, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and the Happiest of what the New Year has to offer.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Heart of the Matter

This week was full of surprises, most of which were unwelcome. Monday morning, as I was rolling out of my driveway on my way to school, my car died. It was a minor inconvenience, and thankfully, a minor repair. Our family of two has two vehicles and life is not nearly complicated enough for us to be unable to manage under the circumstances. As I was now driving the vehicle usually used by my wife, I was in relatively foreign territory. In marriage, the two became one...but not one set of radio presets. I found myself listening not to my usual station, but rather NPR. Strangely, I did not change the station.

I found myself listening to the following radio interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour:

Christiane had recently finished a CNN documentary entitled "Screaming Bloody Murder" focusing on 6 stories of Genocide in the modern era and the concerned voices that tried to bring them to the world's attention. During her recounting of the situation in Rwanda, she told the story of a dinner she was invited to share with a Rwandan widow and the man of the rival tribe that had killed the woman's husband and children. For those that will listen to the interview above, the story starts at 10:17 on the track as you may not be interested in the life story of Christiane Amanpour. The murderer of the widow's family had been a neighbor. Now, she had found it within herself, and with God's help, to forgive him because, in her words, "Nothing is going to bring the dead back. I am a Christian and I believe in forgiveness." In stunned disbelief, Christiane watched as the woman prepared a meal for them and engaged the man in conversation about their daily lives.

As I listened, I began to think about the power of that forgiveness, but more precisely about the power of receiving it. Here was a woman that did not just say she forgave the man who took her life's heart away from her, but who continued a relationship with him even unto the point of gracious service. What could that forgiveness possibly feel like? Can that man conceive of the power of his release? Can we? I have heard the existence of Hell described as the complete and irreversible absence of God's love...that is, a permanent state, with the full knowledge of the wonder and immensity of God's love and the further knowledge that you will forever be apart from it. Take a second to dwell on that statement. What a dark, dark, place that must be. We pray every time we say The Lord's Prayer that God would "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us"...yet how often do we create a Hell on Earth for those with whom we withhold forgiveness? And for what? I would venture to say far lesser things than murder. How many of us have friends or family that we don't speak to anymore because of something that happened in our collective pasts? What caliber of "sin" could they possibly have committed against us to warrant their own "little hell"? What pain and agony have we felt as members of the unforgiven? I have done my best to try not to feel on a daily basis the effects of divorce in my life. I cannot begin to describe how thankful I am to have a wife who has forever given me the triumph of faith, optimism, and love over the tragedy of my personal experience...a woman that has dedicated herself to being a model of God's unchanging love for and boundless forgiveness Are we able to forgive and crucify our pain? Are we able to allow it to die with Jesus so that we may rise with Him? Advent is a reminder that we were in the dark, but were given a great light. Who in your life needs that light? Have you given it freely or withheld it from them? Can you do it, even if it means it might not be returned?

With those questions being asked, we return to Don Henly and The Heart of the Matter:

There are people in your life who've come and gone
They let you down; you know they hurt your pride
You better put it all behind you baby; life goes on
You keep carryin that anger; it'll eat you up inside, baby
I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think its about forgiveness
Even if, even if, you don't love me anymore

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Mother and Child Reunion

I was sitting in the campus quad eating my lunch the other day and couldn't help but notice an interaction between a toddler and his mother. They were sitting on a bench and the young mother was holding her son, a young boy no more than 3 or 4. They looked very peaceful and the boy was snuggled in. Suddenly, he started to squirm to get loose. Class had just let out and the quad was beginning to fill. His mother was obviously reluctant to put him down, and attempted to hold him closer, if only for the moment. It was then that the boy extended his tiny palm squarely in her face and pushed off. It didn't look like he hurt his mother physically, but it definitely took her by surprise and upset her. She let his feet hit the floor and he began to back away. In his hurry to back away and his distraction from all the students rushing to their next class, the boy tripped over his own feet and fell backward landing hard on his side and scraping his elbow. He began to bawl, got back to his feet and ran back to the arms of his mother. Without a word she scooped him up, brushed the dirt off his scrape and kissed his tears away. All the while, she snuggled him close to her chest. The whole play lasted no more than 3-5 minutes.

I began to think about how many times in my life I had been that little boy. How many times had I pushed away from my parents? How many times had I pushed away from my friends? How many times had I pushed away from my wife? How many times had I pushed away from God? And why?

At that moment, all that little boy wanted was to be free and to go it on his own. His mother knew what was best for him, yet he wiggled and protested and forced his way out of her loving arms. His reaction to such freedom was immediately gleeful, but quickly turned into tears when he tripped over his own uncoordinated little feet. In his fright and pain, the first thing he did was run back to his mother.

His mother let him go. She let him do what he wanted. She watched worriedly as he fell and did not mock his choice or laugh at his pain as he hit the floor. When he returned, she pulled him close, kissed away his tears, and welcomed him back with loving arms.

Life has not always been as kind to me and I am sure it has not always been as kind to you. What is it in us that trusts so blindly in our own judgement and fights so hard for our own desires, despite the wisdom and cautions of those who love us? Sometimes, there is even a proportional relationship between love and independence. The more someone loves us, the less we listen to their opinions. The more they love us, the more we wiggle and the harder we push. I can acknowledge there have been times with my parents and my wife, especially, that I have done exactly the opposite of their wishes for me. How many more times have I pushed away from God and his will for me? Like Jonah running from God's call, sometimes I feel like I have lived more of my life inside the belly of the whale than outside of it. Thankfully, I have always been coughed ashore in the same place. When I have fallen, and tripped on my own feet, God has always held me close.

When talking to a friend recently about a tough decision she was about to make, I tried to comfort her with Jeremiah 29:11...

"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

So I guess the questions that arise from this are: will those words really give the comfort I would hope for her and will she act according to her conscience? When I have a decision to make in the future, will I remember them myself? Finally, do they hold any relevance for you and do you see any of this discussion reflected in yourself?