Tag Archives: Hope

Wheat, Weeds, and Cancel Culture

On Holy Thursday, I brought Nikolai Ge’s haunting “The Conscience of Judas” to prayer, along with the various Gospel accounts of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. I soon found myself pleading with God to be merciful with this broken man whose very name is synonymous with “traitor.”

—–

When I was seventeen, I betrayed a friend. I will not disclose specific details because the story is not mine alone. I simply offer that my (sadly, former) friend and a certain young woman, who had been his girlfriend, were involved.

If this were a matter for a court of law, I may be able to argue successfully for a reduced sentence. Indeed, I believe there were some mitigating circumstances. Still, the cold fact is that someone I cared about, and still care about, was deeply wounded by my selfish, deceitful actions; and, I have carried that grief, that frightening yet enlightening awareness of what I am capable of doing, with me ever since.

—–

One of the features I enjoy most about Facebook is the “Memories” function, which reminds users of their post(s) on the same date in prior years. Recently, I was reminded of an inspiring quote I originally posted back in 2017. The quote spoke about virtues invariably found in healthy Christian communities, and its relevance for the present-day Church, so rife with division, was blatantly obvious to me. I was about to repost the memory until I saw the name of the person I had quoted – Jean Vanier.

—–

In 1987, two of my dearest friends, Nina Pension and Janie Korins, joined me in offering a Lenten mission in several local Catholic parishes. The mission, titled “I Believe; Help My Unbelief,” was based upon the pericope found in Mark 9:14-29, in which a father seeks help from Jesus in healing his apparently demon-possessed son. In pleading his case, the tormented man says to Jesus “… if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds with a challenging statement that all things are possible for one who believes. At that point, the father confronts and confesses his own weakness by uttering the words comprising our mission’s title.

My co-presenters and I could sense the power of that theme even as we met to discuss the mission’s content and our respective assignments. We knew that the words of that desperate father could aptly be placed on our own lips, as well as on those of all who would attend the mission, at various times in our respective lives.

I must have drawn the short straw because one of my assignments was a presentation titled “Forgiving the Church.” I based the talk on Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the weeds among the wheat.

The story is a familiar one. A man sows good seeds in his field, but an enemy comes at night and sows weeds among the sprouting wheat. The owner must then decide whether to root out the weeds during the growing season or to wait until the crop has matured and then separate wheat from weeds at harvest. He wisely chooses the latter approach so as not to risk rooting up the growing wheat along with the weeds.

At the mission, one of my living examples of a weed among the wheat of the Church was a bishop (from the Midwest, if I’m recalling correctly), who had been credibly accused of abusing children. Little did I know then of the startling revelations that would dominate the headlines fifteen years later and well beyond – headlines that would strike painfully close to home.

—–

The late Jean Vanier was a personal hero to countless people, Christians and non-Christians alike. His founding of L’Arche, his voluntary life of sacrifice and (apparent) chastity, and his close fellowship with people with mental health disabilities made him a model of agape love at work.

To call him an inspiration would be an understatement. Like many, I drank in his writings because he seemingly lived a life that mirrored the virtues he extolled. In other words, he “walked the walk” and thus, credibly, “talked the talk.”

I had always struggled to appreciate the Gospel of John, until I read Vanier’s book Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John. I subscribed to an email service that provided a daily reflection drawn from Vanier’s writings. In that way, he was with me every morning to strengthen and encourage.

I described one instance of Vanier’s influence in my essay “Bridging the Chasm.” In that case, his challenging words, working in tandem with God’s grace, gave me the courage to move beyond my comfort zone when I really needed the push.

Vanier’s fall and the exposure of rank weeds growing in his life was, for me, the most disillusioning of all the Church-related sexual abuse revelations. I do not want to let his case harden my heart; yet, thinking about this man, whom I once considered a living saint, now yields profound sadness.

But there was also wheat, amazing wheat!

—–

The lyrics are simple but sublime.

I will come to you in the silence

I will lift you from all your fear

You will hear My voice

I claim you as My choice

Be still, and know I am near…

They give voice to the longing in the heart that draws one to prayer. No doubt, many have used a recording of that contemporary hymn specifically to lead them into prayer. The songwriter is the accused serial sexual abuser David Haas.

—–

At a crucial time in my life, when much was going right, but I nonetheless felt a deep sense of emptiness, a (then) young priest helped me to rediscover God and was thus instrumental in changing the course of my life. I wrote briefly about this pivotal encounter in my essay titled The Red Sweater.

This priest became a trusted friend and even officiated at my wife’s and my wedding. But, in 2005, he was finally laicized after multiple instances of molesting children.

—–

The Catholic Church teaches that only two people have ever walked sinless upon the earth, Jesus and his Blessed Mother. My presentation on “Forgiving the Church” focused on the hard truth that we all can sense in our hearts. Our lives and characters comprise both wheat and weeds.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus sends his twelve apostles out two by two on a mission trip to preach repentance, heal, and cast out demons (Mark 6:6b-13). Judas Iscariot was among those missionaries. His efforts likely touched, healed, and redirected many lives toward God. Wonderful wheat!

Yet, weeds have become his defining legacy – a Biblical example of cancel culture.

I pray for and have compassion for Judas… maybe because I know in my heart that I have been Judas.

—–

Sometimes the wheat and the weeds are so intricately interwoven that only God can do the untangling. The disciples tried to help the father and his tormented son, but Jesus alone could set them free from their bondage.

—–

I understand the motive behind cancel culture. Public figures who are revealed to have engaged in abhorrent behavior are finally and rightfully being held accountable. Vanier is no longer held up as an example to follow. David Hass’s music is no longer played at liturgical celebrations. The priest who touched my life can no longer exercise a priestly ministry. Judas is a pariah.

I get it. But, I’m left with some haunting questions.

What do we do with the good, the wheat in their lives?

Is the L’Arche movement invalidated by Vanier’s sins? Are his inspirational words nullified?

While Hass’s music is rightly no longer played in churches, would a believer who has always been inspired by his songs be wrong to play them privately if they still inspire prayer and faith?

Should my wife and I remove pictures from our wedding album that show the offending priest?

—–

Is there hope for Judas? I pray that there is, because therein lies the hope for me.

Bus Fumes… and Leaven

One bright morning in the fall 1996, a brief verbal exchange happened between my two sons that, when considered in light of something else that would happen a few short weeks later, I’m quite certain I’ll never forget.

I was driving my children – the two boys and their sister, Rachel – to school along a two-lane stretch of highway. We were in the right lane directly behind a large bus. Eventually, I grew impatient with the slow pace and seized an opportunity to pass. This prompted my older boy, Stephen, aged ten at the time, to say: “Nice move, Dad. Those bus fumes were getting to me.”

Matthew, four years his junior, then rather innocently replied: “I like bus fumes.”

To which Stephen, a precocious boy, answered: “Perhaps you’d change your mind if I told you that bus fumes contain deadly carbon monoxide gas.”

Matt paused, no doubt bewildered by both his brother’s words and tone, and simply replied: “Oh.”

I stifled a laugh. The difference in their perspectives was remarkable… and would soon console me during an unexpected hardship.

The next month, I made my first (of four) trips to Cuba. My visit was part of an allowable cultural exchange, and I travelled with an appropriate license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Due to legal restrictions, travel between the U.S. and Cuba must involve an intermediate stop in a neutral country. I booked an itinerary through the Bahamas that necessitated an 8-hour layover in Nassau.

Admittedly, spending eight hours in a tropical paradise doesn’t sound like the worst of fates; however, there were no lockers at the airport in which I could store my luggage, so I spent the entire layover sitting in a nearly empty departure lounge lacking even a television monitor to keep me company. By the time the flight to Cuba boarded, I was exhausted and gnawingly hungry.

Onboard the plane, I immediately experienced disquiet. My fellow passengers were a rowdy group; and, I got the sense that many of them were traveling to Cuba for a “good time.” I wanted to disappear.

When the plane finally landed in Havana, many seemingly inebriated passengers gave a mock cheer, as if surprised by the flight’s successful arrival.

Relieved to be off the plane, I gathered my luggage at baggage claim and stood in the long line at immigration and customs. Just in front of me, I noticed another man traveling alone, who looked a bit haggard. I introduced myself and discovered that he too was from the United States. Further, I learned that he would also be staying at my hotel, the Habana Libre, in the newer section of Havana. I was grateful to have a companion for this last portion of the journey.

When we arrived at the hotel, it was nearly 2:00 a.m. We asked about food options at the front desk and were directed to an all-night cafe across the lobby. My new acquaintance and I agreed to drop our bags in our respective rooms and then meet back in the lobby to get a bite to eat. At this point, I was only moments from one of the darkest experiences of my life.

I turned on the light in my room and, as I dropped my bags on the bed, noticed a cockroach running along the top of the headboard. Things were not going well.

Back in the lobby, I joined up with my companion and headed for the cafe. We were not yet through the door when we were met by a very aggressive young man, who kept asking us in broken English if we wanted to go to the disco? I told him that we weren’t interested and kept walking toward the stools in front of the counter. He walked right along with us and sat on the stool next to mine. Again, he asked about the disco and then motioned to someone with his hand. Suddenly, two young women, dressed quite provocatively, came over to join us.

I was exasperated. “No!” I said, shaking my head emphatically. The young man looked at me with a truly puzzled expression and walked away with the two young women. A moment later, two young men – undoubtedly sent by the same pimp – came to take the places of the young women. Again, I looked at them and said, “No!” Ever persistent, two other young women then came by, only to receive the same response.

After that final dismissal, the pimp finally yielded. I hurriedly ate my hamburger, bid goodnight to my quasi-friend, and went back to my room and my multi-legged roommates.

When I entered, I did not turn on the light. Instead, I walked to the window and pulled aside the curtains, revealing the downtown area of the city. On the street below, I saw many young people, each of them a child of God, prostituting themselves.

I felt sick!

Describing what happened next is an impossible undertaking since spiritual matters, by their very nature, defy explanation. It must suffice for me to say that an oppressive and “living” sense of darkness overwhelmed me.

I wanted desperately to rescue those beautiful young people… to help them understand their awesome dignity; but, instead, I felt paralyzed and completely impotent. I could not change their world. All I could do – and this with great difficulty – was pray.

In God’s time, the then-recent conversation between my two boys came vividly to mind, and I suddenly had greater clarity about its implications. And, with that clarity, came peace.

Very few are called to change the world in an obvious and heroic way, least of all me. There is nothing I could have done directly to change the circumstances in Havana at (roughly) 2:45 a.m. that day. Still, I firmly believe that we are all genuine agents of change and that there is a portion of the world in which we can make an enormous difference – namely, in what sociologists call our personal “oikos,” i.e., our regular social circle comprised of family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.

The recollection of the conversation between my two sons broke through the darkness to remind me of my “oikos,” my very own sphere of influence.

Stephen had matured to the point where he understood some of the world’s risks, but there was still so very much to learn. Matthew was in an even freer – and, consequently, more vulnerable – place, where bus fumes were still a good thing.

And me?

I was (and still am) privileged to hold an enormously important place in both of their lives. If I could(/can) help them – and other members of my “oikos” – to understand better their remarkable dignity and worth, I will have made an enormous difference.

In Matthew 13:33, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to leaven, which has a transformative effect on an entire loaf of bread.

It can defeat us to imagine trying to help an entire world “rise” to wholeness and holiness. But, if we can leaven just our personal “oikos,” the loaf entrusted to our care, we will have done a great deal, i.e., we will have changed the world.

Love dispels even the deepest darkness.

—–

NOTE: This essay is definitely not intended in any way as an indictment of the Cuban people, who were among the warmest, kindest, and most hospitable people I have ever encountered while traveling internationally.

“All Shall Be Well”

“All shall be well. And, all shall be well. And, all manner of things shall be well.”

These eschatological words were spoken by Jesus to (and through) Julian of Norwich while she was engaged in mystical prayer. I hold them very close to my heart and find in them a definitive statement about God’s goodness and good intentions for the world.

We may quarrel, but all shall be well.

We may struggle, but all shall be well.

We may suffer, but all shall be well.

We may be so wrapped up in our own selfish pursuits that we miss God’s blessings in the moment, but all shall be well.

We may be discouraged and lonely, but all shall be well.

We may doubt, but all shall be well.

Life’s burdens may sometimes seem too heavy to bear, but all shall be well.

We may be divided ideologically, politically, and theologically, but all shall be well.

We may ache to find a deeper purpose in life, but all shall be well.

We may question our own ability to accomplish the tasks before us, but all shall be well.

We may be wilting under the judgment and criticism of others, but all shall be well.

We may be experiencing terrible grief, but all shall be well.

Ultimately, all manner of things shall be well.

Listening

(NOTE: When I started this blog, I uploaded a number of essays all at once so that there would be content there if/when people visited the site. After checking the stats, I now see that those few early postings got quickly buried and, thus, were seen by very few people. I’ll be re-posting four or five of them, beginning with this essay (below) titled “Listening.”)

—–

Like you, I have a lens through which I view and interpret the world. It is a lens forged by the entirety of my life — my religious formation, for sure, but also my upbringing, my relationships, my education, my opportunities, my inclinations, my struggles and losses, and my many mistakes. I make no claim that mine is a perfect lens. In fact, when I go to prayer each morning, I do so with the stark awareness of my need to see more clearly.

My vocation, at least in part, is to consent to the gradual sharpening of my vision by God’s own hand, which will happen as I do a disciple’s work, namely, as I listen with an open heart to the countless words of God spoken – sometimes as a whisper – into my life each day.

On a continuum, be it religious or political, my lens (or worldview) falls somewhere between far left and far right. From my vantage point, when I look in either direction, I see friends whom I love, who are themselves words of God infused with profound meaning and deserving of my utmost consideration.

If I speak from my worldview, my place along the continuum, and express a perspective at odds with yours, I hope you will be patient with me. And, I hope you will recognize that I have arrived at my position after careful soul-searching… and often with an anguish born of love.

Most people, I believe, follow a similarly thoughtful path of discernment. In our politically volatile culture, however, even good, sensitive people seem prone to lose sight of this.

The world may indeed have its share of small-minded people, spouting bigotries and reacting in knee-jerk fashion to the issues of the day. Nonetheless, to presume such a disposition in another, especially on the sole basis of a conflicting worldview, seems a grave offense against that person’s dignity. Further, presuming such a disposition of an entire group or community of people (e.g., “traditionalist” or “progressive” Catholics; or, members of the “Tea Party” or the “Occupy Movement”) represents, in my opinion, a genuine flirtation with evil.

We are quick, these days, to demonize. It is so much easier, after all, to brand and dismiss someone than it is to listen thoughtfully to the circumstances that have shaped that person’s perspective. Such is the carelessness of our age; and, we collectively suffer as a result. The chasms between us are sometimes shockingly wide and deep. But love and respect are a marvelous bridge and a reason for hope.

I am pro-life. I say that with no intent to confront or accuse, though some may hear it as such. I say it though painfully aware of the exploitative, abusive, and terribly irresponsible behavior so often manifest in those of my gender. I say it with shame for the ways in which such behavior has been manifest in me. I am truly sorry! And, I am pro-life!

Perhaps it will help if I explain that I see all life as proceeding from the mind of a loving God. When I see you, regardless of your worldview, I see one who has been intended for all eternity, who has been “spoken” into existence purposefully, and who has a worth well beyond my comprehension. God does not waste words!

For us, however, language is often a big problem. Civil discourse has all but evaporated because of, what I call, a “contraceptive mentality” (i.e., an automatic tendency to close our minds and dig in our heels the moment certain buzz words or phrases are uttered, such as “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “gay marriage,” “traditional marriage,” etc.). Such barriers – or shields, to borrow an image from Star Trek – prevent the life-generating sharing of our human stories and prohibit discovery of what we hold in common, including our shared beliefs and frailties.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20)

Do we believe this in practice? What if, for example, one of two is a strident so-called “American Catholic” and the other an unapologetic “Papist?” Before considering the possible tenor of their conversation, perhaps we should wonder if they ever would “gather” in the first place… in the name of the Lord they both profess.

It seems irresistible to mock the “left-wing loon” or the “right-wing bigot,” as though the entirety of a person’s life, the complex circumstances that have forged her/his worldview, has no validity. How can we miss this injustice in ourselves?

It hurts terribly to be branded! And, make no mistake; we are diminished profoundly by branding others!

So, we remain a polarized people, living in fear and anger, suspicious of each other, and yet craving to be understood and accepted.

There is a creed that I profess. In faith, I embrace the elements of that creed as “objectively true” in the fullest sense of that phrase. My understanding of these truths, however, remains a work-in-progress, especially regarding their practical and pastoral application. I am reminded of the traditional definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” As a person of faith, my life’s work is to strive for a deeper understanding of all of God’s wonderful words – the ones printed on pages in holy books that I treasure… and, the ones who will pass by me, some on my left and some on my right, as I live this day.

The gift that is this day!

“All Shall Be Well”

“All shall be well. And, all shall be well. And, all manner of things shall be well.”

These eschatological words were spoken by Jesus to (and through) Julian of Norwich while she was engaged in mystical prayer. I hold them very close to my heart and find in them a definitive statement about God’s goodness and good intentions for the world.

We may quarrel, but all shall be well.

We may struggle, but all shall be well.

We may suffer, but all shall be well.

We may be so wrapped up in our own selfish pursuits that we miss God’s blessings in the moment, but all shall be well.

We may be discouraged and lonely, but all shall be well.

We may doubt, but all shall be well.

Life’s burdens may sometimes seem too heavy to bear, but all shall be well.

We may be divided ideologically, politically, and theologically, but all shall be well.

We may ache to find a deeper purpose in life, but all shall be well.

We may question our own ability to accomplish the tasks before us, but all shall be well.

We may be wilting under the judgment and criticism of others, but all shall be well.

We may be experiencing terrible grief, but all shall be well.

Ultimately, all manner of things shall be well.