In Search of the “Real America”

There’s a meme going around right now about what “real Americans” are like.  We see pictures of heroic rescues in the Texas floods contrasted with recent racist or fascist violence.  The “real America” is the good one.  The real America is where people pull together, act bravely, and give everything to help their neighbor, no matter who that neighbor might be.

I don’t disagree.  America really is that, and we have the pictures to prove it.

The difficult bit is that we aren’t only that.

***

I have some assorted friends whom I profoundly love and respect, and to whom I owe a perpetual debt of gratitude for the goodness they have brought into my life.

These friends are like me, though, in that they are noticeably flawed.   (Like me in kind, not degree – evidence is I’m more flawed than they are.)

I don’t want to hear about that.  Even if I do sometimes notice their weaknesses, I want everyone else to shut their mouths.  What I see in them, what I want everyone to notice, is the beauty and goodness and truth they bring to this world.   I want to shout: Do you not understand what they did for me? For you?!

***

This instinct to see the good in our friends is how we get to an All Dogs Go To Heaven theology.  It’s a good instinct.  We can see that our friends are made in the image and likeness of God, inherently lovable and worth loving.  That’s an accurate view of who they are.  The thought of such a person going to Hell is unthinkable.  We’re not alone there.  God Himself has been quite explicit about His desire to save the world rather than condemn it.

***
Mercy is the thing that makes us see the part of our friends that must at all costs be saved.

Yes, yes, we know about the immense weaknesses and deplorable lapses and insufferable habits — but we know the other side!  We have seen selflessness to make your mouth gape, and virtues so indelibly marked on our friends’ souls that they track in purity and joy on their shoes even when they try their hardest to wipe their goodness off at the door.

***

Some people get so despicable that it’s hard to see the parts worth saving.   God can see those parts though.  The question of salvation isn’t how much nastiness needs to be removed to get down to the person you were created to be.  The question of salvation is: Are you willing to be saved?

***

We aren’t supposed to like nastiness.  It isn’t supposed to be easy and comfortable to live with horrid people.  We should want to be surrounded by peaceful, loving, generous folk who fully live out the commandments.  (Never ever forgetting Proverbs 27:14, but of course there are others as well).

So it’s understandable that we have low patience for certain sins.

***

What is lost in our national discourse is the appreciation of the complexity of other humans.  Someone can be terribly wrong in some ways and entirely right in others.  Someone can both commit serious sins and carry out marvelous good works.  (I’ve got the first part down, thanks.)

You can be a racist nationalist who risks your own life rescuing total strangers.

You can give away your fortune aiding the poor, and also devote yourself to killing the unborn.

You can be a notorious philanderer and also an unshakable civil rights martyr.

The combinations are unlimited, and Americans seem, collectively, to be trying out all of them.

***

Where our national discourse goes wrong is in trying to mount the opposite of the ad hominen attack — call it the ad hominen defense.  If my side is right, my men must be perfect.  An attack on my ideas is an attack on me and mine.

We are unable to admit the possibility of human weakness and complexity, nor to properly rank the seriousness of our failures.  Thus we end up in bizarre situations both divisive and falsely “unifying.”

Sometimes, out of fear of hurting somebody’s feelings or overlooking their virtues, we’re afraid to condemn their serious sins.  Better to get along and smooth things over for a day that never comes when somehow we’ll dialog our way past the impasse without ever opening our mouths.

Other times, out of fear of seeming to approve a vice or a poorly-formed conscience, we feel compelled to commit a course of Total Condemnation — economic, political, and personal.

***

Let me show you a video of the way of peace.  This is South Carolina removing the Confederate flag from the state house grounds.

It came down because of decades and decades of peaceful protest. Did it take too long? Yes.  The remedy for sin always takes too long.  Do people suffer injustice in the course of the long, slow path of peaceful protest? Yes.  But people suffer injustice from violent protest, calumny, and vicious personal attacks.  There’s not an option for waving the Fix Everything Wand and presto-change-o the world is magically better.

Peacefully refusing to accept injustice works.  It has worked marvels of healing and change in a place where you would never have said fifty years ago that all this would come to pass.  It worked in a place where people are still fallen.  Sinful people who do wretched things made that flag come down.  Gracious people doing their best to make the image of God shine in the darkness made that flag come down.  They were the same people.

File:Texas National Guard (36916700965).jpg

U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Martha Nigrelle: “Soldiers, fire fighters, paramedics and neighbors ensured more than 1,000 people and hundreds of dogs and cats were safe, evacuating them to dry ground and local shelters.”  Courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

Back-to-School Means Back-to-Apologetics

Last night’s report from the corner public high school: “My history teacher explained to the class that the difference between Catholics and Protestants was that Catholics idolize Mary.”

Ah.  Well, there’s academic precision for you.

After learning that this particular teacher was a Lutheran, I produced my go-to book for children who have to deal with Lutherans who can’t be nice to the BVM:

Beginning Apologetics 6

Begining Apologetics 6: How to Explain and Defend Mary from San Juan Catholic Seminars has a page devoted to key quotes from Martin Luther concerning the Blessed Mother.

If you let your kids out in public, they need to know Catholic apologetics.   Parents, don’t count on your local parish to provide this education to your children.  Maybe your parish offers excellent religious education or maybe they don’t, but it’s your job to oversee your children’s formation.

A good Catholic upbringing doesn’t erase free will.  All the best formation in the world is no guarantee your children will remain Catholic into adulthood.  But if you don’t even give them the tools they need to attempt a defense of their faith, you’re kinda asking for it.

Ushers of Divine Mercy

Saturday afternoon found me in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and in need of a trip to the confessional.  (No, I’m not scrupulous.  Just wretched.)   Holy Cross Catholic Church is about the size of a large convenience store, done in the style of 1970’s Neo-Traditional with a vigorous nod to Appalachian folk art.  Like the town itself, it is everything lovely and nuts and comfortable and joyful about American popular culture, Southern style.

For all that the parish embodies Americana, Holy Cross has something I’ve almost never seen in any of the many parishes I’ve visited: A greeter at the door during the hour for Confessions.

It makes sense of course.  If you know you’re likely to have visitors, it’s logical that you’d want to be ready for them.  I showed up, and the usher, with name tag and friendly welcome suited to his post, pointed out where the confessional was and where the line was forming and generally made sure I was all set.

Pigeon Forge is a small town in a rural county, and on any given Saturday the bulk of the Catholics on the ground are probably not parishioners.  I don’t think people usually come to Pigeon Forge for the purpose of confessing, though if you wanted to make the trip for that purpose, I can vouch for the place in that regard.  I do know that a lot of people come to Pigeon Forge for other reasons, and every single one of those visitors is a dreadful sinner just like the rest of us.  A few of them perhaps want to give the soul a good sprucing up after a visit to the Nike Clearance Store (or whatever else it is people do in town — evidence is I did that).

I suspect the parish has a particular charism for the Sacrament of Penance and for Divine Mercy.  In addition to the artwork in the nave and sanctuary, on the Lighthouse Media display rack in the lobby, there were exactly two talks on CD available for you to take home: Scott Hahn’s “The Healing Power of Confession” and a Spanish-language version of Scott Hahn’s “The Healing Power of Confession.”  Somebody wants you to be good and forgiven.

CD cover art courtesy of Lighthouse Talks / Augustine Institute.

FYI if you dislike face-to-face confession, be assured that as you step into the combination classroom / office / confessional / room-with-a-view, there’s a solid screen with a kneeler so you have the option of confessing anonymously if you so desire.  If you’ve ever sat in line at the parish, you know why I’m making that assurance. Don’t panic when you see people sitting in the window. You have other options.

The Unbearable Sameness of “Cool”

When you study buzzwords or fad words from each generation, very few stand the test of time. “Groovy”? “Hep”? “Tight”? “Gnarly”? (Really?) Nope. All of them – gone from our lexicon. However, one has stood strong for at least 3 generations. That is “cool”.

I don’t know why this specific word has lasted for so long, but I think I understand why what the word represents has endured. The idea is that you not only fit in, but that you fit in very nicely. Cool is comfortable. It fills that 3rd level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It means we are accepted and maybe even respected by the tribe.

Long ago, ‘cool’ meant being different in some sort of interesting way. The ‘differentness’ is what made the person (or the action) ‘cool’. However, ‘cool’ wasn’t usually associated with virtue or engaging in something ‘good’ or particularly healthy or virtuous. And that’s the downside – the dark side – of ‘cool’. It was never about becoming fully alive. It was never about growing as a person or being the best version of oneself. It was typically about wearing masks and aspiring to something that wasn’t worth the effort.

That differentness imbued with a general lack of goodness or virtue has become sameness. When you look around these days, ‘cool’ is about blending and conformity. Challenging traditional values was once considered ‘cool’. Now, if you don’t challenge them and conform to the ‘new normal’, you’re likely to be marginalized with visceral enthusiasm. Wearing underwear on the outside of one’s clothing (or in place of outer garments) used to be reserved for Superman. (Probably not the impression he was trying to give, though.) Now, if you leave anything to others’ imagination, you’re prudish. Getting a tattoo was once a unique thing to do. Now, it’s not a matter of getting a tattoo to express individuality – it’s that you’re kind of strange if you don’t get one. (This is not a judgment on tattoos, by the way – just saying that they hold no inherent ‘goodness’ or value.)

This new definition of ‘cool’ doesn’t just lack virtue, though – it’s not even cool. It’s now about fitting the beautiful diversity of what every single person brings to the table into a very small box – and a boring box of sameness, to boot.

But perhaps herein lies opportunity to rekindle ‘cool’ in a whole new way – a way that makes goodness and virtue desirable as something ‘different’. Recall those words from 1 Corinthians 12 where St. Paul says, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.’”

There is a reason each of us is different. We all have unique talents which aren’t always appreciated by others, but that shouldn’t stop us from fully developing them for the good of mankind and for the glory of God. We’re meant to strive for goodness and virtue. Becoming more virtuous means becoming more like God. Anything else is disordered and a waste of our efforts. It’s just not ‘cool’ (in this new sense, of course).

Dare to be different. Dare to be the best you imaginable. Dare to let others see God through your actions. How cool would that be?

Vincent married up more than a quarter century ago and is a proud father of 5 wonderful daughters. He teaches business classes at a college in Greenville, SC, but thrives on discussing controversial topics, especially as they relate to Church teachings on sexual morality.

Lent Days 24 & 26-29: The Size of Solidarity

The highlight of the week for L. and I was doing laundry.  We visited and helped out at one of those places where homeless people can come and take a shower and get their clothes washed.

“We aren’t the only game in town,” the director told me.  There were charts taped to the wall with a catalog of services offered in the area — other shower places, where to find clothes, meals, shelters, everything.

It was good we were not the only ones at this, because the place was small: Two showers, three washers, three dryers.  One small combination waiting-and-laundry area, then the private bathrooms in the back, a storage closet, and that’s about it.  In the space of a morning, perhaps a dozen people came through.

By the end of the morning I was convinced we were exactly the right size.   There were enough people that if you wanted to mind your own business you could, but few enough people that there was time and closeness for conversation if you wanted that.

A lady told me the story about when she was five years old and she wanted to run away, because she was mad at her father for not letting her join the Brownies.  She asked her mother to come along, since she’d need someone to cook.  Her mother agreed. They slipped off early on a Saturday morning, but then out in the yard her mother remembered she had a phone call to make before they left.

“Don’t go back in there! Daddy will be up!  He’ll see us!”

“No, I’m sorry. This is an important phone call.  I have to go back in.”

“Who do you have to call who’s so important it can’t wait?”

“Santa Claus.”

“What?! Santa Claus?”

“That’s right.  I have to tell him not to stop at our house anymore, since you won’t be there.”

“Oh.”

“And the Easter Bunny.  I need to call the Easter Bunny, too.”

Having considered the repercussions, the little girl decided maybe they should stay for now.

If we had more space and more showers and more rooms, it would turn into an assembly line.  There’d be separated stations for each step of the process.  The waiting area would be larger, and washing and drying would be in another room.  Maybe folding in yet another room.  You’d barely get to know anyone.

It’s easy to be friends with a hundred or even five hundred people, but it’s impossible to make friends except one at a time.  You would miss that story.

File:Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander December 15 1937 (7960424470).jpg

 By State Library of Queensland, Australia [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Lent Day 7: Evangelizing Key Chains

I have a guest membership at the local Baptist mega-church’s gym.  Before you get scandalized, a “guest” membership means you are not a member of the church.  It lets you use the gym, walking track, and exercise classes, and lets your child attend certain activities that require a gym membership.  It costs $10 the first year and $5 thereafter.

The extra $5 the first year is because you receive a bar code membership tag to put on your key chain, which you check in with when you arrive.  The YMCA has a similar system.  So do grocery stories: You use the loyalty-program membership card to earn rewards either for yourself or the school of your choice, depending on the grocery store.

Last week when I handed over my keys to the oil change guys, there flashed Local Mega Baptist Church.

My gym membership card doesn’t specify what kind of member I am — I suppose if I became a proper member of the congregation, I’d keep my card and just upgrade my status.  (I won’t though — not going to forsake my birthright for unlimited access to the weight room.)

Today when I stopped at the downtown specialty grocery store after dropping off the 5th grader at St. Urban’s, I again handed over my keys in order get my store loyalty-points.  Once again: LM Baptist.

I feel a little bad about this, because sometime I am impatient and cranky at the oil change place.  Sometimes I am not the picture of extroverted cheerfulness at the grocery store.   It makes the Baptists look bad.  I’m sorry, Baptists.  Thank you for letting me use your gym anyway.

File:Ehrenstetten - Ölbergkapelle6.jpg  - Small, picturesque chapel among the hills of vinyards in either southwestern Germany or northeastern France, depending on which unreliable image-description you believe.

Photo: By Taxiarchos228 (Own work) [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons.  I don’t know if I belong to this church or not.  I was unable to easily get hold of the particulars.  But I might.  I belong to this giant mega church with all these locations spread around the world, nearly every one of them containing people as cranky as I am.