When You Can’t Shut Up About Evangelization & Discipleship

It turns out I have a lot to say on certain topics.

The start of my index of posts on Evangelization and Discipleship is now up here on this blog. I put it together because I happen to need to be reminded of things I kinda know but always forget.

The index is still in progress. I started by going through my posts at NewEvangelizers.com, then went through everything in the “Evangelization” category at my Patheos blog.  There’ll be more later, but for now we’ve got plenty.  The topmost section contains the basics, and I think I’ve managed to find all the posts I definitely wanted for the 101 pile.

Head’s up for the unaware: I can be a bit pointed.  The especially acerbic bits are down at the bottom of the page in a clearly-marked category of their own.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.  

Samaritan womans meets Jesus at the Well, by Annibate Carracci

Artwork: Annibale Carracci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Blessings of Being Flipped Off

by: Vincent Weaver

Something a lot of people involved in the pro-life movement do is to stand up for the unborn by praying outside of abortion clinics. Happily, this effort has gone in a much more positive, loving direction over the last 15 years. It’s not even accurate, in most cases, to call these “protests” anymore. Make no mistake, this presence is intended to bring attention to the defense of the most vulnerable in our society. To take an innocent human life is objectively wrong. To take the most innocent of all human lives is unacceptable. There should be no minced words about that. To be silent is false compassion – it’s spiritual and emotional euthanasia.

However, it is incredibly important to heed that ancient axiom to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’. We all have an obligation to point out injustice and wrongdoing. However, none of us has any right to condemn the person carrying out that act, as only God knows their heart. So, if you see or hear someone telling a woman considering an abortion that she’s going to Hell, then they clearly don’t understand the point here, nor do they understand Christ-like love.

The much more common scenario these days is people calmly and quietly standing outside abortion clinics praying. Sometimes they hold signs with slogans like, “Pray to End Abortion”, or “Adoption: The Loving Option”. We’re there to provide women in unplanned pregnancies real choices (having literature on alternatives to abortion available) and to let them know how much they (and their babies) are loved.

This reality makes it that much more bewildering when you’re standing there peacefully praying and someone drives by and gives you the finger.  Admittedly, there was a time when such actions irritated me. They fed a desire deep down in my heart to give that person “what for”. While I knew that wasn’t the proper reaction, it seemed instinctive.

Then, I read Abby Johnson’s book, “Unplanned” a few years ago. For those who don’t know Abby, she was a former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic. Then, one day (through some fluky circumstances), she ended up witnessing an actual abortion at her clinic. (This was the first time she saw the product of the business she was running.) She had a visceral reaction and knew she had to quit. And she did. Since then, she’s been an outspoken voice for life, and she wrote this book.

What “Unplanned” showed me (much to my surprise) was the humanity of abortion clinic workers. Honestly, I had never given these people much thought, other than as some kind of faceless monsters. That caused my praying for a culture of life to take on a much broader focus. Only then did a human face start to appear on these folks for me. These are real human beings who deserve our love, who deserve MY love, because to cast them aside would mean I just don’t get what it means to be a Christian.

That realization also helped my attitude towards the bird flippers driving by. (You know who you are!) J All of a sudden, my immediate response when being flipped off was to have compassion. I’d immediately think to myself, “What kind of pain must that person have suffered to feel this way?” “What is the source of that anger?” And by making that pain and anger clear to me, therein lay the ‘blessing’. By having a reaction – of any sort – that person gave my prayer a target. I would launch into a ‘Hail Mary’ or a Divine Mercy chaplet asking God to rain down His love and mercy on that person. I’d pray that they find healing, peace, and the presence of God.

So, if you see me (or any of the 1000s of other regulars) standing outside an abortion clinic praying and encouraging others to choose life, it’s okay if you feel the need to tell us we’re #1 with your middle finger. But know that prayer is powerful, and that I’m calling for all God’s truth, mercy, and love to come showering down on you very soon. And I thank you for giving me that blessing – that reminder of your humanity. Please pray for me, as well. I need all I can get.

And for all you awesome pro-life prayer warriors out there, please consider this unsolicited advice. Arguments don’t help. Love, prayer, and genuine compassion (and the willingness to listen) do.

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.

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 for Slackers

This is a post for people who tend to be too lax with themselves.  We’ll start by kicking out those of you who don’t belong here.

If you are prone to scruples . . . don’t read this post. Go make an appointment with your pastor for a five-minute consultation.  Write down your plans for Lent, get him to sign off on that, tape your list to your fridge, and DON’T ADD A THING.

You may sprinkle on bits of supererogatory penance on your better Lenten days if the opportunity presents itself, but that’s pure bonus and you have to both (A) congratulate yourself for those days and (B) knock it off if your hot Lenten super days are wearing you down and making it too hard on ordinary days to do the thing you and your pastor agreed would be your thing.

That’s it.  Get out of here.

PS: If your pastor is a totally namby-pamby, flakey-wakey, wishy-washy cuddle puddle who wouldn’t know penance if it scourged him with briars . . . that’s God choosing to really lay it on you this Lent.  When Fr. Laxalot looks at your list of planned prayers and fasting and tells you that what he really needs is for you to smile during the sign of peace as your Lenten act of self-denial, honey you just do that. Tape it to your fridge.

If your life is inherently penitential . . . this post isn’t really for you, either.  But you can take a look, as long as you promise not to scruple.  Otherwise, it’s off to meet with Fr. Laxalot.

Slackers Quit Slacking

So there are people you know who glance at Lent and announce that The Really Important Thing conveniently does not include prayer, penance, and almsgiving.

Now let us agree, the Really Important Thing is you responding to God’s grace and accepting His gift of salvation and all that goes with.  Absolutely.  But you are a timebound meat-creature, so the ethereal glance towards Heaven is not something you are quite ready to sustain.  Your body and soul are inseparably glued together like a PB&J sandwich that’s been sitting on the dash of the car on a summer afternoon; therefore you must do things with your body now if you want to shine up your soul so it can embrace the beatific vision when the time comes.

Let us also acknowledge that if you are bitter, nasty, ungrateful wretch with seven mortal sins you commit before breakfast, you’ve got some rough work to blast through before getting to the fine-tuning.  Do please orient your Lent towards knocking off at least the most egregious outer layer so we can get to the deeper stuff in future years.

Furthermore, let us note that once the big crust of visible nastiness has been mostly brushed away, it’s possible that what we find inside is a festering wound of putrid moral ugliness.  In all likelihood you are so accustomed to the stench you don’t even notice.  Telltale Sign: You create complicated explanations about why your life doesn’t match the things Jesus says to do, but hey that’s okay!  It’s not okay.

Jesus came to save you from your sins, not to explain that drowning in the mire is just fine too.

Prayer, penance, and almsgiving are the physical tools God gives us, by His gift of unfathomable Grace, to help us not want to drown in the mire quite so much.

Prayer

Prayer takes many forms, but Not Praying isn’t one of them.

Please do not tell me that your work is your prayer.  No darling.  Your work is your work.  Your prayer is your prayer.  It may be that your state in life does not allow for the type of prayer you especially prefer or admire, but actual prayer is the thing we’re going for here.  Examples:

  • Prayerfully reading the day’s Mass readings.
  • Attending Mass and praying through it.
  • Adoring the Lord present in the Holy Eucharist.
  • Praying one of the hours of the Divine Office.
  • Prayerfully reading your Bible.
  • Praying the Rosary.  (Tips here.)
  • Praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
  • Praying the Jesus Prayer.
  • Praying some shorter (or longer) prayer that fits the occasion.
  • Setting aside a certain amount of time, alone and unbothered, to become aware of the presence of God and then converse with Him.
  • If you like to write: Prayerfully conversing with God via conversation with Him in a private journal.

There are other ways of course, but you get the idea.

You cannot pray all the prayers.  You must discern and choose.  I am well aware that there are times in life when your work or your vocation or your health does not allow you to pray as fully as you otherwise would.  But if you can read this post, you can definitely pray.

Penance

If you have big sins you’re trying to shed, penance can run two ways.  If your sin is something like using porn or committing slow suicide with your cigarette habit, then this particular Lent you might take on the “penance” of quitting that habit, stat.  It’s actually a gift to yourself, not a punishment, but such gifts can own you for a long while, and one can only do so much at a time.

On the other hand, if your persistent sin is something like wrath, or lust, or gluttony, there’s a point when cold turkey can’t happen.  Once you’ve eliminated the obvious don’t-or-die items, you’re left with a pile of wriggling worms of naughtiness that are constantly evading capture.  Fasting in its various forms, as well as acts of overt self-mortification (cold showers, for example), are the tools that fight sin and save lives.

Conveniently, if you take up such a penance you get a double-bonus: The miracles that are wrought by the combination of prayer and penance will flow both outward towards others and inward towards your soul.

Offering it up.  If your life comes with a significant built-in penance, then a reasonable Lenten resolution is to live out that God-ordained amount of suffering with a prayerful disposition.  This post was not for you, but there you go.

For those of you who are, in contrast, perfectly capable of additional acts of self-denial, don’t delude yourself.  You will not become a nicer person by resolving to be a nicer person.  You will become a more charitable person by training yourself, through self-denial, that it is not necessary to indulge your every whim.

Almsgiving

Sometimes people say, “Rather than giving up something for Lent, you can take up something for Lent.”  Certainly true, but if you are a slacker, you know very well how easily you can turn that observation into a shadow-play of Doing Nothing.

Slacker friends, let’s raise the bar one more: When you take on works of charity, don’t deceive yourself into Not Actually Giving.

If you have money to give, give it.  Give it freely and generously.  If you are the widow in the parable, this post was not for you.  This post is for those of you who so easily persuade yourself you are that widow, when really you’re the guy walking by the money box not even bothering to drop in a few coins.

Almsgiving is the triple whammy:

  • It is an act of self-denial, hence it works like a penance.
  • It teaches you to trust in God, because you are giving up your means of saving yourself.
  • It does some good for the recipient.

Most of us stink at it even more than we stink at fasting, and you know we pretty much stink at fasting, too.  If you are a person with significant wealth, you are far more likely to succeed at prayer and fasting than you are to succeed at almsgiving.

About those Poor People

Let me say a crazy thing, and you stay calm until you’ve read the details: Please don’t take on the works of mercy for Lent.  The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are your duty all year long.

It may well be that since you have no money to give, but you do have physical strength and free time, taking on one of the works of mercy will in fact be your best way of almsgiving.  Furthermore, taking on a work of mercy is often the necessary counterpart to a penance — if you don’t fill the void with something good, you’ll only go and fill it with a fresh vice.  Finally, if you are not currently practicing the works of mercy, or your life has changed so that you are now free to carry out works that were heretofore not open to you, please, take them on!

So it may in fact be best if you take up a work of mercy this Lent.  But slacker friends, do not say to yourself, “Oh yes, I feed the homeless every Lent!” or “Oh yes, I visit the sick every Advent!”  Love of neighbor is not a seasonal activity.  Take note of your spiritual gifts and the opportunities that your state in life allows, and do not shove off your portion of Christian charity on your fellow parishioners.

Chances are you stink at this even worse than you stink at prayer, penance, and almsgiving — and don’t even know it.  Love of neighbor flows from love of God.  Work on the Big Three this Lent, and the works of mercy should be the obvious fruit of your repentance and return to God.

File:Battistero 1.jpg

I searched Wikimedia for “camels” and came up with this.  More Lenten than you might think.  Giusto de’ Menabuoi – Re magi – Battistero del Duomo di Padova, fresco circa 1376 – 1378.

Why Annulments Matter

From this morning’s Gospel:

He [Jesus] said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

One of the reasons I think that people get upset about the question of divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion is that they don’t understand what’s happening.  I’d like to look today at the question of what an annulment is, and I want to do so by way of an analogy.  Like all analogies, it is imperfect.  Still, I think it sheds light on the overall situation.

An Otherwise Decent Guy Gets Into a Mess

Imagine you’re a young man in your twenties.  Like many young people, you were a tad promiscuous during college, something you shouldn’t have done, but, well, you did.  One Saturday morning you answer the door and one of your college girlfriends is standing there, with a darling little boy at her side.  He’s the spitting image of his mother.

Your ex-girlfriend explains that the boy is probably yours. She apologizes for not informing you sooner, and appeals to your better self and asks you to do the right thing.  The boy needs his father to be in his life.

A Decent Guy Becomes a Stand-up Guy

After you recover from the shock if it all, you do exactly what she was hoping: You agree that of course you will do your best to be a good father to any child of yours.

This isn’t going to be easy.  There are good reasons you and the boy’s mother stopped dating each other.  There will be lots of complications to work through.  You are now going to have to devote a massive amount of time and income and emotional reserve to the rearing of this boy.  You’ll have to reorganize your career and personal plans to make sure you can give this boy the attention from you that he deserves. It’s not easy to be a parent, and it’s even harder when you aren’t married to your child’s mother.

But you are a decent human being, and the least you can do in this world is be a good father to your own child.  It’s not something you have to think about.  Of course you’ll do it, you tell her.

Except There’s This Other Guy

There’s one hitch though: Neither of you are 100% sure you’re the father.

The dates all work out, but honestly? She was a tad promiscuous herself.  There’s at least one other college friend who might be the father instead.

Your ex-girlfriend thinks it’s more likely that you are the father, which is why she came to you first.  She asks you to take a paternity test, which will clear up all doubt.  You agree that’s a good idea.

Why Does Paternity Matter?

Let’s review two important facts:

  • It’s quite likely you are the father.
  • You have every intention of being the best father you can to this little boy, if he is in fact your son.

But still, it’s important in this complicated situation to ascertain paternity if possible.  Why?  Two reasons:

  • It’s important because the boy has a right to be reared by his own father, if possible.  There are many situations in which, unfortunately, a child cannot be raised by his own biological parents.  But if it is possible, he and his parents will both rightly want that to happen.
  • Likewise it’s important because the responsibilities of a man towards his own child are significantly different than his responsibilities towards children in general.

You’re a stand-up guy.  If the boy isn’t yours, you’ll still wish him and his mother well, and you’ll do all the things that any decent man does to help the children of his community.  But it would not be fair to you to expect you to rear a child to whom you have no particular connection, and it also would not be fair to the boy and his real father.

The two of them deserve the opportunity to be father and son, if that is possible.  It would be an injustice for you to step in and presume the rights that properly belong to some other man.

What’s a Marriage Tribunal?

A marriage tribunal is something like a paternity test.  A paternity test attempts to answer the question: Am I the father of this child?  A marriage tribunal attempts to answer the question: Am I married to this person we’ve assumed until now was my spouse?

As with paternity tests, we don’t examine the validity of marriages except in difficult circumstances — situations where there is reasonable doubt.  If you are separated or divorced, the question might reasonably come up.  Whatever circumstances led to the separation might hint that no valid marriage was ever contracted in the first place.

Like a paternity test, the purpose of a marriage tribunal isn’t to give you the answer you want, its purpose is to give you the truth: Do I have a solemn and irrevocable bond with this other person, or do I not?

 

File:Biertan house for divorcing people.jpg

Photo: The Beirtan house for divorcing people, via Wikimedia.  The photographer’s description explains: “This small building stands next to the church of Biertan (Birthälm). There was the habit to close there for two weeks the couples that wanted to divorce. Inside there was only a bed and the necessary to eat. It actually worked because in 400 years only one couple eventually decided to break up.”  By Alessio Damato [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0].

 

 

Learning to Appreciate the Big Things in Life

So the reason I vanished from the internet like I’d been kidnapped in broad daylight is that I had to quick plan a massive trip to Europe.  (I know!)  A different day, I will write more about the how-to’s of pulling off that feat; for now just know that yes, it consumed my every free minute from the moment the opportunity opened up until the transport, lodging, and insurance were firmly established.

You understand, because you, too, have something you want to do that, if you were suddenly given the chance, you’d drop everything and make it happen.  I want to talk about what it takes to make that thing happen for you.

The One Big Thing

I think “bucket lists” are nonsense.  Life isn’t like that.  My list of priorities looks like this:

  1. God.
  2. My vocation as a wife and mother.
  3. Everything else.

#1 and #2 are inseparably intertwined — doing one means doing the other, always.  #3 is composed of all the other things that might be important, but that when push comes to shove you can pout all you want, I’m not available to do that thing you think I should be doing, if it interferes with #1 and #2.

Still, there’s a pile of good stuff behind door #3, including a long list of, “It would sure be nice if . . .” items.  It would sure be nice to have a bigger, prettier house.  It would sure be nice to visit New England.  It would sure be nice to take the kids to Mount Vernon (God-willing, that’s next summer).  The One Big Thing also sits behind door #3, but in a different corner of the Everything Else room.

We have a friend whose One Big Thing was to invest in a large, well-appointed home for his eventual wife and children.  It was so important to him that he started saving up for that house while he was still in college.   It’s not that he would have felt like he’d failed in life, or “missed out,” or that his happiness depended on having that house.  It was just important enough to him that he was willing to sacrifice a lot of other good things in order to make it happen if he could.  (And he did.)

You have some things like that.  Things that maybe are achievable or maybe they aren’t, but if you do get the chance, you’d be willing to set aside a lot of other good stuff in order to make your One Big Thing happen.

The Things We Set Aside

So I’ve been thinking about taking my kids on this trip since I was sixteen years old.

(Yes, that’s right: I wasn’t dating anybody, I hadn’t yet met the man I’d eventually marry, it would be another decade before the first child was even born.  I was sixteen years old and walking along a misty tree-lined alley leading up to a historic French chateau, and I knew that one day I wanted to share that moment’s experience with my future children.)

Everybody has a different financial picture, so this isn’t a talk about how if you just do what I do you can have your big thing.  But I want to make it clear that there’s a long list of good, worthwhile things we’re forgoing to make the One Big Thing happen.  On that list:

  • All superfluous purchases.  I was going to bring home flowers for Valentine’s day, but I need that $2.99 to be in the bank this summer.
  • A laptop that works.  My trusty Surface Pro has given it up, and thus one of the reasons I don’t write as much lately is that I don’t have a computer I can take to another room when the family’s all home, and I do have to jockey for time on the shared machines.  So basically I’ve made the decision that something I really love, writing, is just not going to happen as much as I’d like, for a while.
  • A new-used car.  Our minivan has 170,000 miles on it.  The doors either don’t lock or don’t open or sometimes both.  The paint job is Green and Black Cheetah because we’ve filled in with primer where the original finish is rusting out.  There is no interior carpet anymore, just bare metal with strategically-placed rubber mats.  We’d been planning to upgrade to something conceived this millennium, but my mechanical engineer tells me we can get that baby to 200K, no problem.  So that’s what we’ll be doing.
  • Living room furniture.  When we updated the circa-1985 paint in the living room and hallways this Christmas, we donated our couch and recliner, from the same era and in the same general condition, to other worthy recipients.  What’s there instead?  Lawn chairs.  Really nice ones, yes: They’re the ones we got from Lowe’s on clearance and had previously been using to kit the screen porch.  They just got promoted to a full-time, permanent gig as Chief Living Room Furniture.
  • More house space.  Eventually that minivan is going to need to be replaced.  Good thing we just painted, because this family of six is going to be squeezed into the three-bedroom ranch for a long time to come.

I mention that last one not because it’s a big deal (I know larger families living in smaller houses), but because to a lot of people, a spacious home is their One Big Thing.

You just have to know yourself and know what trade-offs fit the kind of person you are.  No matter how rich you are, you can’t have everything you’re able to want.  We all have to prioritize, and give up some good things in order to have other good things that are more important to us.

Seizing the Day

I’m not omnipotent nor omniscient, and neither are you.  There’s no telling what will happen between now and the end of June.  Perhaps our plans all come to naught.  One of the ways you know you’ve hit your One Big Thing is because you can honestly say to yourself: Even if this doesn’t work out, I have to try it, because I will always regret not having taken my chance when it came.

[Tip: If you are making a significant financial investment in anything, get that investment insured.  You can insure a house, a car, a boat, a musical instrument, and yes, even a trip.]

In our case, what happened is that we were thinking about taking a much more reasonable, but still-ambitious, stateside family trip.  That was another thing we’ve always wanted to do and here we were: The kids were at the ideal age, my health was finally decent again, there was a slot when we could take the time off and make it happen.

So we talked about a variety of other, much more sane choices.  Then one day I came to my senses.  I told my husband: I would rather not go anywhere this summer, and save up for as long as it takes to make my One Big Thing happen.

And he briefly set aside all reason and scruples and determined that he really, really loves me, and that maybe we should talk about this.  I pointed out that I’ve been talking about doing this trip since as long as he’s known me, and also there has not been a single time in the past decade when I was physically able to make it happen.  Our son graduates high school next year.  If I wanted to do it, now was literally the only time.

So I did it.  Trip is booked.

File:1138357639 3c5c483074 o Haut Koenigsbourg CC by Fr Antunes.jpg

This is where we’re going.  Photo by Fr_Antunes (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. And no I won’t be live-blogging it, because: I don’t have a working laptop.  That’s fine.  My One Big Thing wasn’t “taking the internet on this trip,” it was, “taking my kids on this trip.”  I don’t recall ever giving birth to a computer, thanks.

The Solution to the Big Parish Problem

Yesterday I wrote about why ever-expanding parishes are a sign of trouble. This does not mean that a big parish is a bad parish; it means that if a diocese is growing in pewsitters but not in religious vocations, it’s growing spiritual fat, not muscle.  The good news is that stored energy, in the form of pewsitters, can be converted into a healthy Body of Christ just as soon as the head makes up its mind to start doing the things it takes to regain spiritual vigor.

A large parish that is pulling this off right now is St. William’s in Round Rock, Texas.  Over at the blog discussion group, Martina Kreitzer writes:

You should come visit St. William in Round Rock, Texas. We are the largest parish in the diocese with no sign of growing slower. Our post confirmation program retention rate is 4x the national average . . . and our parish faith formation programs (pre-k through high school) are thriving in ways that make our “mega church” work. We are also blessed to be a 100 year old parish in which the founding family still attends (and can often be seen in the trenches of service oriented work). We come from humble beginnings, have a multicultural background, and are rich in heritage – Mexican/Anglo/rich/poor, etc.

You should come talk to our priest, Father Dean Wilhelm, our adult faith formation director Noe Rocha and our high school and middle school youth ministers, Chris Bartlett and Gwen Bartlett (they are brother and sister). They are also co-founders of a mentoring ministry called Next Level Ministry, designed to help youth ministers get the most out of their programs.

Martina is behind the Jesus is Lord program, one of the key elements of St. William’s success, and which you can read about in detail:

Jesus is Lord Series Introduction

Week 1: God’s Love

Week 2: Sin and It’s Consequences

Week 3: Salvation – God’s Solution for Sin

Week 4: Repentance – Recognize and Receive

Confession

Week 5: Holy Spirit – Going from the Seat to the Feet

Prayer Session

Week 6: Jesus is Lord of My Talent

Week 7: Jesus is Lord of My Time

Week 8: Jesus is Lord of My Treasure

Week 9: Jesus is Lord of My Sexuality

Week 10: Intentional Discipleship and Commissioning

Is this program suitable for parishes not quite like St. William’s? Definitely.  It’s being used at Texas A&M’s legendary St. Mary’s Catholic Center, where vocations are flourishing.  You can watch the campus video series here.

What is this “Intentional Discipleship” business?

Back up a second though and notice the title for Week 10 of the Jesus is Lord series.  If you are not familiar with the concept of “Intentional Discipleship” you need to read Sherry Weddell’s excellent books on the topic, Forming Intentional Disciples and Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.  The first book explains the problem, and the second tells you step-by-step how to solve it.  Book three, Fruitful Discipleship comes out in April 2017.

FID and BPID are both best suited to intermediate-level lay readers. You don’t have to be a genius or on staff at the parish, and both books are eminently readable, but when my own discipleship group read FID, some of the members found the density of the book a little overwhelming.  After you’ve read the book yourself, if you want to communicate and discuss the ideas in Forming Intentional Disciples with a broader audience of parish lay-leaders and future lay-leaders, the free CatholicMom.com study guide for Forming Intentional Disciples provides a snapshot summary of the key ideas and a few discussion questions for each chapter.

For the whole dang parish, Brandon Vogt’s book Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church is an excellent 101 on evangelization and discipleship for the ordinary Catholic.  He offers a video course as well, which I haven’t reviewed but which you may find helpful.

So there you go.  And if all fails, The Catechism of the Catholic has a few pointers as well.

 

Life and Death Decisions Made Beneath the Pedestal

The other week when I posted my rant-o-rama about the misuse of the label “amazing,” John Hathaway went right to work at the blog discussion group pulling out of me the what’s really going on here??  We managed to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and below I’m going to explain what I think is the biggest, most deadly part of going around thinking other people are “amazing.”

But first, a few side issues that deserve some resolution:

  • We quickly agreed on the usual explanation for surly bloggers: I was being cranky.
  • I do concede that the word “amazing” has shifted to take on a second, diluted meaning of generally “nice” or “good.” I’ll spare you a long talk about how we already had words that meant those things.  (To wit: nice and good are still around.)
  • Furthermore, I generally don’t care if other people have the odd shoddy linguistic habit — don’t we all?  If you’re itching for a fight, you’ll get more fervor out of me if you bring up the Oxford Comma.

(Yes!  Even though I am a convicted comma abuser!  We pundits would have nothing to do all day if we sat around waiting for our holiness to arrive before we opened our mouths.)

Now, on to the Pedestal of Death.

Superman is Amazing

Let’s talk about Superman.  He stops speeding bullets.  He leaps tall buildings in a single bound.  He’s the guy you look for when you need something done that ordinary people just can’t do.  He’s called “amazing” because he does things you and I never could.

Ordinary people of course are “amazing” in the sense that we are each the precious and intricate handiwork of God.  Spend half an hour learning about the things we’ve discovered to date about, say, the way a human nerve cell functions, and you’ll be rightly amazed.  Furthermore, our loved ones bring all kinds of invaluable gifts to the world simply by being themselves.  Despite my cantankerous headline the other day, your children are in fact amazing even when all they’re doing is drooling over their baby food.  There’s that.

But sometimes we call someone “amazing” not out of simple wonder at the marvel of human worth and dignity, but more in the Superman-sense of amazing.  We have gotten to where certain classes of people who happen to be doing hard things are given the Superman label.

Doing this isn’t just over-enthusiasm.  Such labeling actually causes humans to die.

Hard Things Don’t Require Superman

Life is hard.  Humans — all of us — are called to do hard things.

When somebody is dealing with some tremendous difficulty, they aren’t being Superman. They are experiencing human life.

Lately though, our society has gotten that idea that difficulties are only for Very Special People.  We consider suffering to be the sole province of amazing superheros, and do all that we can to excuse everyone else — people who are “like us.”

If you have a baby with an adverse prenatal diagnosis and you don’t choose to abort that baby, people call you “amazing.”  Only special superhero people can do that; ordinary people would have to abort, because they just can’t take it the way Amazing SuperParents can.

Thus it follows that if you happen to be raising a child with a serious illness or disability, or you happen to be such a person yourself, surely you are “amazing” for experiencing such a life.

If you reach a point where your family member’s illness or disability becomes overwhelming, you’re “amazing” if you continue to care for that person rather than opting to go ahead and put the sufferer to death.  If you yourself are the one directly suffering and you choose not to commit suicide, again you are “amazing” for enduring what “ordinary” people just couldn’t do.

No! No! No!

Not Killing Innocent People is an Ordinary Person’s Job

There’s just nothing “amazing” about not committing murder.  Ordinary old you is a person who is called to man-up and do your best to muddle through difficult circumstances.

Some people endure their hardships with admirable fortitude and good grace, while others of us aren’t winning any prizes for Sufferer of the Year.  But all of us, by mere dint of our humanity, should anticipate the time when we, too, will bear our share of hardship.  We don’t have to seek it out; it will find us.

When it comes, we will not be Amazing Supermen.  We’ll feel the sting of the bullet and the penetrating wound and the leaking of life from our bodies in an unstoppable river of blood.  Suffering hurts.  Suffering is difficult.  Suffering eventually robs you of this mortal life.

Death by Admiration

The going expression is that if you put someone on a pedestal you’ll see their clay feet, but I don’t think that’s the gravest risk anymore. Anymore, the pedestal is where we put people we want to admire from a safe distance.  If you keep far enough back from someone who’s working through a difficult part of life, and you squint so you don’t see the messy parts, you can convince yourself you’re looking at Superman.

You can say to yourself, “I could never do that.  I’m not Superman like that person is.”

You can say to other people, “I don’t expect you to do that difficult thing, because if you’re not Superman it’ll be just too hard for you.”

You can say, “Well, they are the ones who chose not to abort or euthanize — if they’re having a hard time, it’s not my fault they tried to act like Superman.”

These are lies.  The people you know who are doing hard things right now? They are ordinary people.

If you admire someone’s fortitude or good grace, don’t say, “Wow you are so amazing!” as if your friend were from another planet, possessing super-human attributes.  Rather, say, “Wow. When my time comes to face some similar trial, I hope I’ll have learned enough from your example to be able to do you proud.”

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By Matrakci Nasuh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

50 Shades of Donald Trump

Among conservative Catholic Republicans on Facebook, there’s a meme being passed around that keeps ending up in front of people like myself and Scott Eric Alt, though neither of us can possibly be the intended target.  The argument is that the popularity of novels such as 50 Shades of Grey proves that women don’t, in fact, object to Donald Trump’s lewd behavior; any objections are political calculus.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss responds to another variation — same argument, different famous incident:

“But Bill Clinton…”

Oh yes. And I opposed him, and criticized him, at the time. Anyone else who did so must, in order to be morally consistent, do likewise with Trump. If you don’t, it just sends a message that you never really cared about sexual abuse of women, but were just appropriating morality in order to make your opposing team look bad.

Before my next sentence, let me reiterate: I do not think you should vote for Donald Trump.

Next sentence: There is some validity to the observation that Donald Trump’s lewd behavior is indeed representative of the American public at large.  I said so here.  This is a representative democracy, and our two candidates do in fact represent America.

Dear friends, if Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump represents you?  You can change that.

You can’t change the candidates, but you can change yourself.  You don’t have to be a person who winks at sin.  You don’t have to be a person who creates convoluted defenses of BDSM. You don’t have to be that person who justifies exposing kids to porn.

You can stop that now.  You do not have to be enslaved to the person you were yesterday.

***

Pro-life friends, another minute of politics: When people give sorry mealy-mouthed justifications for voting for a pro-abortion candidate by explaining that solving poverty or immigration or global warming will somehow fix abortion, those people are dangerously deluding themselves.  There exists a hierarchy of priorities, and cold-blooded murder is a far graver and more pressing issue than good roads or good tax policy.  When someone says I don’t like abortion but I’m voting for the person who advocates tirelessly for abortion, what I hear is: Actually, I’m fine with abortion.

I understand, therefore, the Republican Impulse.

I have grave reservations about Donald Trump’s sincerity on pro-life issues, however, because his life is one long series of promotions of the actual, real-live causes of abortion.

Food stamps don’t cause abortion.  Adultery? That causes abortion.

***

Quick aside on modesty.

When people like me talk about “modesty” we tend to hit a few topics related to girls’ clothing.  That matters, of course.  But for those who are trying to get their heads around about what immodesty looks like in someone who is neither female nor scantily-clad, Donald Trump is the poster boy.   He models immodesty not just with regards to sexuality, but also with regards to wealth, power, and personal accomplishments.  

It is easy to excuse his unseemly boastfulness by saying that he needs to prove his leadership potential or share his legitimate accomplishments with voters.  Not so.  It is possible to communicate one’s ability to lead without behaving immodestly.

Below in the links I include some examples of SC’s governor Nikki Haley in action, for other reasons.  But in her hurricane Matthew press conferences, she’s a vivid example of the counterpoint: A leader who is both a strong, decisive, competent leader, but who also conducts herself with modesty.

***

Link Round-up.  Here are all kinds of loosely related links.  At the bottom are a few of mine, but first here’s the pile I extracted from my reading list.

Timothy Scott Reeves, an evangelical Anglican philosopher with strong ortho-catholic leanings writes on our tendency to rely on chariots and horses instead of trusting in the Lord.

Simcha Fisher has an excellent piece on why consent alone is not sufficient.

Nathaniel Peters at Public Discourse writes:

Many young conservatives have been disheartened to see the leaders of their movement endorse Donald Trump. I am one of the disheartened ones. Let me explain what these leaders taught me and why their endorsement of Trump betrays those principles.

Faithfully Catholic, orthodox, conservative Katie O’Keefe catalogs her series of encounters with so called “locker-room talk” sexual abuse, and how she learned from an early age that protesting was futile:

5 years old – In my own backyard. I was stopped by a man in a car in the alley behind my house who showed me “what (he had) in his pants” and then offered me the opportunity to put my mouth on it. I declined but never told anyone because I had no idea that it was anything but just gross. . . .

12 years old – On my paper route, I was collecting for the monthly bill. An old man who had been very kindly toward me and had several grandchildren that he looked after, grabbed my breasts (which were more impressive than they were when I was 8) and humped me. He told me I was a good girl and he’d take good care of me. I quit carrying papers that month. I never told anyone because I figured that no one would believe me. . . .

Father Longenecker has sensible, hard-nosed advice on what to do after the elections, which promise us four years of disaster no matter what.

And here is a short, heartening story on seminarians already following that advice.

Erin Arlinghaus writes about:

Mary Pezzulo writes about the bad news for feminism that will come with the election of our first female president.

To which end, here’s a refreshing antidote: Watch a conservative, pro-life female governor in action, successfully managing a natural disaster. I don’t know how long the SCETV archives will be up, so here’s a link to the governor’s YouTube channel where you can find most of the videos.

(Tip: If you skim ahead to the Q&A’s with the whole executive branch team, a few of the press conferences contain striking examples of the linguistic diversity among educated, standard-English speaking southerners.  And that’s just a beginning.  Armchair linguists, this place is a treasure trove.)

Here’s Meg Hunter-Kilmer saying what many of us are saying:

A friend of mine attempted to defend Trump by pointing to his daughter’s respect for him and saying that he must be a good father. I don’t care what she says. I don’t care how marvelous he was every single time he was with her. Owning strip clubs makes you a bad father. Being a serial adulterer makes you a bad father. Treating women like objects for your sexual gratification makes you a bad father. And it will make him a bad president.

To round out the reading, from a man who’s no slouch on Catholic faithfulness, Archbishop Chaput shares his thoughts on faithful citizenship:

But 2016 is a year in which two prominent Catholics – a sitting vice president, and the next vice presidential nominee of his party — both seem to publicly ignore or invent the content of their Catholic faith as they go along.  And meanwhile, both candidates for the nation’s top residence, the White House, have astonishing flaws.

This is depressing and liberating at the same time.  Depressing, because it’s proof of how polarized the nation has become.  Liberating, because for the honest voter, it’s much easier this year to ignore the routine tribal loyalty chants of both the Democratic and Republican camps.  I’ve been a registered independent for a long time and never more happily so than in this election season.  Both major candidates are – what’s the right word? so problematic – that neither is clearly better than the other.

And finally, a few links from my own archives:

Adultery is Not the Only Option: Five Things You Can Do to Keep Your Vows Intact

Here’s a patron saint for those who’ve fallen for the idea that Catholics need to be all sophisticated and cosmopolitan.

And to close, here’s my report from the field on how our Trump-Clinton society plays out among middle schoolers. In Sexual Bravado vs. Sexual Maturity, I share some of the real-world evidence parents like to ignore, then discuss the underlying issue:

In our popular culture, sex-status is the big thing.  The kids have learned from their parents that the purpose of sex is to gratify one’s desires, and that a girl’s worth is measured in sexiness.  The kids have adopted that philosophy wholesale. . . .

. . . Why is there such a market for teenage girls in a sleepy Bible Belt town, to the point that pimps are willing to risk kidnapping charges and worse in order to abduct upper class girls and sell them locally?

You can almost hear the eighth grade boys scoffing at those pathetic men who have to pay for what they can get the girls to give them for free.

There is no magic remedy that will guarantee your teens will live chastely and stay out of harm’s way. But you can be certain that if your understanding of human sexuality is all about the quest for gratification and sexual status, your children are going to learn that from you.

 

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Photo Collage by DonkeyHotey (New York Primary 2016) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Physician Assisted PTSD – When Bad Medicine is Disguised in a Mental Health Diagnosis

Rebecca Frech wrote last year about her doctor-induced case of PTSD:

And in that moment, I can tell by her face that no one has updated the chart. It still says Conversion on the line for diagnosis. Nobody has put in the test results and new diagnosis from last October. I can see it as plainly as I can see that her eyes are brown. We’re still suspect, and this still isn’t over.

This week she updated with the news of the definitive diagnosis for the medical reasons behind her daughter’s paralysis.  It would be easy to think that Ella Frech’s case is an anomaly.  We might think that it’s unusual for a serious medical condition to be dismissed as a pscyhological disorder.

It isn’t.  It is woefully common, and there’s a reason for it.

The Diagnosis that Doesn’t Discriminate

It isn’t only Acute Motor Axonal Neuropathy that gets the nutcase treatment.

Stephen Gaudet writes here about being accused of faking his severe asthma:

Feeling proud about what I had accomplished through daily exercise, I shared my marathon story with one of the intern doctors who was assigned to me. Rather than congratulating me, he basically accused me of faking my asthma. His words were ” There’s no way you could’ve walked a marathon if you have severe asthma.” I found out later that in my chart he actually wrote, “patient presents with factitious asthma, claims he walked a marathon“. That probably explains why some of the nurses were treating me so strange during the hospitalization. A rumor had spread that my asthma was very mild and probably psychosomatic in nature. I remember some of the medical staff trying to convince me that my breathing difficulties were all in my head and that I had some kind of generalized anxiety disorder. Are you freaking kidding me! And even scarier, this happened at a well respected teaching hospital.

That incident caused me a lot of grief and took over 3 years with lots of letter writing by my pulmonologists to have that false information removed from my medical record. The reality is that these are the kinds of screwy preconceived generalizations that people have about the way sick people should look and behave. And if I want to be completely honest here, there have been times when I’ve guilty of the same.

For background: Gaudet is a respiratory therapist who is treated by one of the top pulmonologists in the nation.

Here’s Dr. Michelle Roger, a neuropsychologist, writing about the mental health misdiagnoses of patients with dysautonomia:

Just about every Dysautonomia patient with whom I’ve spoken over the last few years has, at one time or another, been told that the symptoms they were experiencing were all in their head. Diagnoses such as Anxiety disorders, Depression, Conversion or Somatoform disorders, and even Bipolar disorder are haphazardly applied to patients when no clear aetiology can be discovered to explain their symptoms. Normal reactions to abnormal situations, and purely medical/physiological symptoms are over-pathologised or misdiagnosed with alarming regularity, and to the detriment of the patient.

When unfounded these diagnoses leave a mark on the patient, a wound which if left untended will follow and influence all future relationships with the medical professionals. It also leaves a glaring mark on medical records that will be incorporated into future investigations and the overall diagnostic process. Even when unsubstantiated or proven to be untrue following psychological assessment, it can prove extremely difficult to remove such diagnoses from a patient’s medical file.

Here’s a summary of Dr. Alex Flore’s presentation on the problem of mitochondrial disease being misdiagnosed as Munchausen syndrome by proxy:

It is possible that what may be interpreted as “red flags” of Munchausen’s may alternatively  be attributed to the demands and anxiety related to care of a very sick child.  For example, anxious parents may not give a good history, or may “doctor shop” because they are unsatisfied and may be unhappy with the care their child is getting, especially when they feel that no one can actually diagnose, treat or understand the problem.  Certain conditions, especially mitochondrial disease, will present with intermittent symptoms, and it will take a skilled and patient clinician to arrive at the right diagnosis – one that is an illness not Munchausen’s by proxy.

Psychologists have described that the population of patients and parents of children with Mitochondrial Disease are much more vulnerable to a false Munchausen’s by proxy accusation simply due to the nature of the disease.  In fact, a hallmark characteristic of mitochondrial disease is the presentation of several unrelated symptoms that together, “don’t make sense”.  Clinicians who feel that a parent is intentionally making symptoms appear, is behaving to insure that the illness continues, and consults multiple physicians may suspect Munchausen’s – but should still “trust, then verify.” In other words, believe the parents, run appropriate diagnostic tests, seek the input of every part of the child’s team, and take very seriously the responsibility to the child to act as an advocate and do no harm.

Non-psychiatric misdiagnoses happen, too, of course.  It is frustrating when a physician (or team of physcians) flubs a diagnosis through honest error — we humans aren’t ominiscient, so it’s bound to happen.  It’s galling when the misdiagnosis involves dismissing serious serious symptoms as some much more benign illness that doesn’t fit with the case history.  But pushing off a poorly-substantiated mental health label on a patient with an atypical presentation is both physically and emotionally harmful to the patient.

Unfortunately, this dangerous habit is actually enshrined in medical practice.

I Guess You’re Just Nuts, Then?

Many misdiagnoses are just idiocy.  Some popular lazy-diagnoses include fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety disorders.  All of these disorders have specific criteria you can use to evaluate yourself (or your patient) and see if they apply.  It’s almost helpful when a physician throws out with confidence, “I think it’s probably just ________” and inserts some illness utterly outside his or her specialty, and which a quick Google search would immediately rule out. Then you know you have a stupid doctor, done.  It’s wearying, and can put you off the medical profession for a while, but it’s possible to come to a definitive conclusion one way or another.

There’s at least one mental health diagnosis, however, that can’t be ruled out by logic and good medicine.

Conversion Disorder, which is what Ella Frech was persistently misdiagnosed with (despite presenting with symptoms of a known side effect of one of the medications she was taking), is where modern medical practice bares its hubris.

Here’s the Mayo Clinic describing how Conversion Disorder is diagnosed:

There are no standard tests to check for conversion disorder. The tests will depend on what kind of signs and symptoms you have — the main purpose is to rule out any medical or neurological disease.

In other words, and you can read the whole page and see for yourself, if you’re definitely sick but no one can figure out why, then conversion disorder.

That’s it.

Dr. Allen Frances writes at Psychology Today about the failed effort to get the DSM to attempt even a modest stab at valid diagnostic criteria above and beyond heck if we know:

Many of you would argue that I didn’t go nearly far enough- that there should be no ‘Somatic Symptom Disorder’ at all in DSM 5 because there is no substantial body of evidence to support either its reliability or its validity.

. . . I am sympathetic to this view, but realized that it would have no traction with the work group and chose instead to lobby for what seemed to be clearly essential and relatively easy changes that would solve most, if not all, of the problem.

. . . My letter cautioned DSM 5 that it was invading dangerous territory. Here was my warning to the DSM 5 work group:

• ‘Clearly you have paid close attention only to the need to reduce false negatives, but have not protected sufficiently against the serious problem of creating false positives. You are not alone in this blind spot—in my experience, inattention to false positive risk is an endemic problem for all experts in any field. But your prior oversight needs urgent correction before you go to press with a criteria set that is so unbalanced that it will cause grave harms.’

• ‘When psychiatric problems are misdiagnosed in the medically ill, the patients are stigmatized as ‘crocks’ and the possible underlying medical causes of their problems are much more likely to be missed.’

• ‘Continuing with your current loose wording will be bad for the patients who are mislabeled and will also be extremely harmful to DSM 5, to APA, and to your own professional reputations.’

I also raised the point that this could lead to a boycott of DSM 5. Pretty strong stuff, I thought. But totally ineffective.

Somatic Symptom Disorder (which is the umbrella term in the current terminology under which Conversion Disorder falls) is thus a particularly hazardous diagnosis because it has no symptoms of its own.

It is literally a disorder whose defining symptom is, “We the physicians don’t know what you have.  Therefore, it must be psychological.”  This is an awkward assertion for a profession that has evolved more in the past century than any other field of human endeavor.  The developments in medical research just in the past twenty years are astonishing and marvelous.  My children’s high school biology textbooks are utterly different than mine, because the depth and scope of our knowledge about human cells and the chemistry of the human body is orders of magnitude past what we knew a generation ago.

It seems, therefore, ludicrous that any sane person could hold that our knowledge of medicine is now perfectly complete.  But this is the implicit assertion of somatic symptom disorders.

***

I sometimes joke that idiopathic means that you and your doctor both agree the other person is an idiot.  But really it just means we don’t know.  That happens.  Humans aren’t all-knowing.   What is the sane response to ignorance?  It isn’t to fabricate some fanciful explanation to cover over your lapse.  The sane response is to humbly admit, “I’m sorry I don’t know.”  And, where the stakes are high, the sane person adds, “And we should keep investigating until we get a solid answer.”

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Illustration contains a bit of humor in the fine print, [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.