Saturday, March 25, 2017

Jesus in the shadows

"Is that Jesus?"

She whispered softly. She was pointing up generally in the direction of the crucifix and the altar.

My initial impulse was to just say yes. Yes. The priest represents our Lord and it's ok to see him as Jesus when he's lifting the chalice. Yes. The statue represents Jesus. Yes. The Eucharist is, really and truly, our blessed Lord. Whatever you're pointing at, the answer is almost certainly yes.

But you hear stories about confused kids thinking the priest is Jesus or that Jesus is a statue. I probably worry too much. Three year olds are very literal people. We should probably take the time, even now in the middle of Mass, to understand where she's pointing.

"Do you mean the priest?"
"No, silly. That's Father K."
"Right. Do you mean on the cross?"
"Up there? Mom. That's just a statue."
"Ok. Well. Do you mean the cross?"
"?!" No words. Mom is clearly not very clever.

"Mom. No. Behind the statues. Is Jesus there?"

What on Earth? Is she imagining a man behind the curtains. The great and powerful Oz-christ?

"I don't know what you mean, sweetheart. There is not a person behind the statues."
"Mom. I know. There's shadows. See? Is Jesus there?"
"In the shadows?"
"He's everywhere, right? But I can't see very well in the shadows. I think he's there. I think that's Jesus in the shadows."

I think she might be on to something.

When you are struggling, He's there. When you can't see, him or anything else, He's there.

Faith means believing when it isn't obvious. When good things happen we call them blessings. We see God in the good. Ah-ha! The medication kicked in! Praise God! Oh! We had a snow day when I needed sleep! TBTG! It's easy to see God when things are working out. We don't always thank God for our blessings. We don't even always notice our blessings. But when good things happen, it is easy to see God if you care to look.

But what about when things are not good?

The hardest part for me about having anxiety isn't the fear. The debilitating, painful, unfounded and unfocused fear. That's awful, but worse is that I can't control my mind. It's running off in a million directions.

For me, the hardest part of the anxiety attacks is that I don't know how to pray. I don't know how to attend.

So while my mind is running in a million terrible directions and I can't help but recall every awful thing I know, I don't know how to ask Jesus to calm the storm.

Doubt doubles down. Doubt grabs the swirling fears. What if it is all meaningless. What if I'm wrong. What if God isn't real.

Dear Lord, help. Quiet the storm. "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."

And there, in the terrifying darkness, with my unfocused pleading. In the shadows. God is there.

It isn't a magic trick. I'm still scared. I'm still lost. I'm still confused. I'm still unfocused. But he's there.

"No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to this rock I'm clinging!"

I love the song, but that line in particular. What is calm clinging? It doesn't make sense. Not just holding on. Not just standing firm. Clinging. When the storm is knocking everything about, this rock is firm. Unmoving.

Cold. Scared. Clinging.

Close your eyes and hang on tight.

When you can't see your hand in front of your face, cling. Hang on with everything you've got. He's there. In the darkness. In the shadows. In the fear. When you need Him most. He's there.

The inmost calm is quieter than the noise of the storm. But it doesn't shake.

Becca is probably right. In some ways, Jesus in the shadows is more real than the statues.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

To my Trump supporting friends

This is my hope. 

I hope I am wrong. I hope you get to laugh at me and say I told you so. I'll take it gladly. I'll laugh too. I'd rather be an idiot than right. 

I hope that I'm overreacting and seeing things that just aren't there. 

I hope you're right. That I'm confused by a grand media distortion. 

I hope my family remains protected by the protections in the ACA. 

I hope my Muslim friends aren't more marginalized and endangered. I hope that my friend's mosque burning was an isolated event. 

I hope that the racism I see is getting better, not worse. 

I hope that when you yearn for yesterday, you mean you miss your ignorance of violence against homosexuals, and not that you miss the violence. 

I hope first amendment rights are not sacrificed at the altar of the second amendment. 

I hope first amendment rights aren't quietly crushed under the weight of fear. 

I hope that that intended list of criminal immigrants is not, as it seems to me, a tactic to create a scapegoat. Using fear as a tool of hate.

I hope you're right. 

Dear God, I really hope I am wrong. 

I hope that replace is as important to you as repeal. I'm not unsympathetic to the current problems. I hope you don't try to solve them by going back to the old problems. 

I hope that freedom of religion is as important to you as you say it is. 

More than any of that, I dearly hope that if I'm right you're ready to stand with me. 

You will not watch mosques burn. You will not watch bullies and bigots. 

You will not be shaped by fear. 

You will not watch a eugenicist agenda roll back decades of tiny progresses for people with disabilities. You will stand up. 

I hope that since you believed it when you said, "but he'll never," if he does you'll flip on him as fast as he flipped on you. 

I hope you're ready to scream, "Black Lives Matter," because they do. And you know it. And the only reason you're not screaming now is that you don't see what I see. 

I hope you're ready to register Muslim if they want to register Muslims. Allahu Akbar. 

I hope you'll let yourself see, if I'm right. 

I won't say I told you so. If I'm right we're going to need you. We're going to need each other. 

If we have to stand in the way of a steamroller, better to do it locked arms and many. And, I hope I'm wrong, but I see a damn steamroller. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

March for Women

This weekend was a hell of a weekend. Obama is out. Trump is in. Women marched all over the world. Crowd sizes are in dispute, but not really.

And the world suddenly knows that pro-life feminists exist. We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here! YOP! 

I have been sorting through my thoughts and emotions with respect to the march with a tinge of regret. This was a great moment in history unfolding relatively close to me, geographically. I did not go. 

I was considering attendance, but waffling about feasibility when all the sudden this crazy thing happened: an openly pro-life organization was granted partnership. The New Wave Feminists are an adorably quirky bunch. I would feel like the class nerd hanging out with them. And besides, our politics do not match up very well. They are Texas libertarians who are apparently also anti-abortion and feminist. But the fact that they were included officially was exciting! This march was all set to be show real unity across a slew of diverse opinions on diverse issues. Whatever you believe politically, we can agree that women deserve better. 

But the media go wind of this interesting alliance. Then Twitter. A twittering mob decried the inclusion. Pro-lifers do not belong. Pro-lifers are not us. And to my chagrin, the leadership caved to pressure and disinvited the New Wave Feminists. 

To be honest, at that point I still didn't see any good reason not to go. I mean, so what if the leadership is pro-choice? That shocks exactly no one. But it got worse. The leaders of the march pandered to their largest partners. Of course the pro-lifers shouldn't be here. Pro-lifers aren't real feminists. If they decide to march they should march with the knowledge that they are marching for a woman's right to choose. They're so stupid they might just do that. “If you want to come to the march you are coming with the understanding that you respect a woman’s right to choose,” said parade organizer Linda Sarsour.

The media was watching. This was a huge progressive event. It was international. And now the story includes me, explicitly. Pro-life feminists were interviewed by many major media. The New York Times cited a statistic that one in six of the women who voted for Hillary oppose abortion. People were talking about us. The pro-life right was angry. They think they own the issue. They know that without a perception of ownership they will lose elections. The pro-choice left, I think, was mostly confused. Some were angry, to be sure. But most just seemed surprised. 

If I went to the march, I'd feel dishonest. I could go with a sign which made my anti-abortion views clear, but that would feel like a counter-protest. I didn't think I could find the right balance. I do not want to be perceived as protesting a protest which I support. I do not want to be counted as pro-choice America. I was so angry. Pro-life women belong at that rally! But no in opposition. We should stand shoulder to shoulder opposing misogyny and bigotry. We are watching, Mr. President. We will not be quiet. 

In the lead up, a friend asked me if I would let Planned Parenthood march in the March for Life. My initial reaction was of course. Of course they should be allowed to march in opposition to abortion if they want to. They wouldn't want to, but if they did I wouldn't just allow it, I'd cheer! 

I still think that. But I would worry. What is their motivation? Is it an alliance or an infiltration? Would they be joining to join or to change the agenda? Liz lead me by the nose to the realization that the exclusion wasn't crazy, even though it stung. Even though by the numbers it is inarguable that democrats would do better if they didn't shut us out. Even though I wanted to be there. The pro-life movement has a nice long history of secret videos, infiltration, spying, and to our great shame even violence. 

Pro-lifers did go. They grouped in several contingents. Life Matters Journal showed up with a few dozen signs which, to my mind, tried to balance support for the march with opposition to abortion. And to the surprise of no one except the pro-life right, they were received kindly. People were glad they came. Building bridges, one incredible feminist to another. 

Students for Life did not aim for balance. They chose to rally in what can only be described as a counter-protest. They positioned themselves at the front of the march for maximum exposure and unfurled a huge sign which read, "Abortion Betrays Women." That is exactly what I did not want. They were absolutely not marching with the rest of the women. They did not join the march; they attempted to hijack it. Which is exactly what the people calling for their exclusion said they would do. Which is why they were excluded. And incredibly, they were not well received. People were angry. People even yelled at them, if you can imagine. Burn them bridges! They took to social media to tell the world how awful the feminists were. Awful. Just hateful. I mean, we picked a fight and they fought back! Jerks. Burn those bridges!

Real talk: I wanted to be there, but I didn't want to go. I hate crowds. I hate the metro. I was afraid I would have a panic attack and no where to go to calm down. Everywhere was going to be packed. I was afraid. Was the hullabaloo it a reason not to go? Was it only an excuse? Excuse or reason, I decided to stay home. And though I am sure I will have pangs of regret for years, I think it was the right choice for me. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Musical preaching

I love music. There are a few genres I do not understand or appreciate and pretty much everything out of the 80's has some negative association and so I cannot judge it fairly. But my music taste are pretty diverse.

I like the greats. Palestrina and Josquin. Mozart. I like folk. I like some pop and some country. I like some metal. I like to unwind with loud music turned up (and the curtains closed,) singing and dancing and cooking alone in my kitchen.

One of my pet peeves is when people tell me they like to listen to classical music because it is relaxing. Some of it is, of course. But some of it is wild and chaotic. Some of it is angry or dark. Some of it is sweetly romantic. Some of it is seductive. If I can listen to it while I am going to sleep, it is not good music. Or anyway, it is not to my taste.

I am very emotional about music. I let it affect me. What I want in music is to be taken in. I want to feel. I want to be engaged. Music reaches emotions which are hard to express. Sicut Cervus was not the first piece of music I loved, but it was the first time I gave thought to why I loved it so much. "As the deer longs for water, so my soul longs for you, my God." You can hear all of it. The deer and the water. And the longing. Such a longing. Especially in those opening tenor notes. It is stunning. Palestrina is a genius.

But all my favorites are affective. Bach can make piety exciting. Some pieces, like The Trout by Schubert, give me the same sense of calm as enjoying alone time in nature. Pete Seeger and his proteges stroke my inner social justice warrior. Irish music is fun; rollicking along, but with glimpses of a painful story and an incredible storyteller.

"When you sing, you pray twice."

When it comes to Church music, I have very strong opinions. Liturgical Music can be risky. If we agree that music inspires and elicits something real but hard to grab, we open it up to criticism. Is it emotional? Is the emotion appropriate? What should we be feeling during Mass? Or is it simply enough that the words be theologically sound?

Mass is a sacrifice, but it is a celebration! You are in the presence of the Lord and King, who taught you to pray by calling him Father. It is sacred, but it is also home. What should you be feeling? Awe? Comfort? Sorrow? Joy? Wonder? Liturgical music has the tall task of inspiring what is appropriate even when what is appropriate is paradoxical.

Music shouldn't just carry words, it should inform them. Elevate them. Give them a story or a perspective. Chant, echoing down the halls of history but endlessly present and always appropriate, preaches about inerrant theology. The swinging lilt of a traditional Irish hymn setting is warm and welcoming and very real. An early American march with a rigid building block time signature focuses fellowship and structure; this is who we are and this is what we are doing. The words and the sound echo and reinforce each other.

I am not a snob. I like it all. I like the organ at the shrine and the guitars at the teen mass. So long as the music brings something to the table, I like it. I think that most criticism of contemporary music are strange. What makes a three hundred year old song better than a thirty year old song? In the context of a two thousand year history, the three hundred year old song can't even claim age.

There is a lot of criticism of contemporary Christian music. Critics hear emotionalism or protestantism or happyhappyjoyjoy saccharine. They hear a bounce, empty of theology and covered with syrupy prosperity creed. It is more than an aesthetic preference. It is an aesthetic judgment. Mass is not a pop concert. It is not a sentimental appeal. If you are moved to tap your foot, is the music inappropriate? I hear the frustration, but I don't know where to draw lines.

One of the deepest musical experiences I've had was when an African American choir visited our parish. It was incredible. The layered rhythms and harmonies pushed back against overt and lingering dissonances. It preached pain, but joy too. That music explained joy in sacrificial suffering in a way no words possibly could. I was moved. If you are ever struggling with the concept of celebrating a sacrifice, I cannot recommend this experience highly enough.

Toe tapping is not the problem. Maybe entertainment is. That criticism can apply to any type of music. The job of the cantor is to lead a prayer, not to amuse you during the boring bits, which is good since we cannot all be amused by the same things. Does that mean that if you are entertained the cantor has done something terrible? That seems silly and also makes a hard task impossible.

If sentimental music is not the problem, maybe sentimentality is. The Mass is divine, but it is also human. We are the body. The Church. The people. Through the sacraments, our Lord comes to us, truly, physically and spiritually. We need that. The humanness. He designed us that way. Feelings are part of who we are and not a bad part. We shouldn't shut out out feelings, but we shouldn't let them lead either. They are unreliable and moveable. Appeals to feelings primarily can be misleading. A good artist can make you feel all kinds of emotions. Emotions can wrap untruth in the most delightful packaging.

What we need in liturgical music is pretty straightforward.

Music should be is interesting, but singable. It should be either very old or very new or possibly somewhere in between, but it must not be antiquated or voguish. It should be beautiful, but not entertaining. Well lead, but not performed. Appropriate to the mood of the Mass which is conflicting. It has to be culturally appropriate to a universal church. It should be theologically sound, even the moody bits which can't easily be parsed. We want it to sound good whether or not there is participation from the congregation, but we don't want the congregation drowned out by a blaring sound system. It should elevate, not overshadow. Why can't the music leaders get it right? It seems easy enough.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mary, my mother, pray for me

My youngest daughter is three. She is a clever thing. You know the game that kids play when they don't want to go to bed? "Mommy! I need a drink! Mommy! I forgot to brush my teeth! Mommy, can you tuck me in? Mommy! I am scared! Mommy..."

Of course you do.  Everyone knows that game. My Becca is particularly good at the game. She usually wins. She climbs into my bed and looks into my eyes, with a three year old's piety and barely whispers, "Mommy, can we just say the rosary please?"

What can I say? I have mixed feeling because I do not love that she is clearly just using the rosary as a particularly effective excuse to stay up late. It that prayer? Can it be?

But I think of my heavenly mother. I think she would indulge the request joyfully, even in the knowledge of imperfect motives. Prayer does not have to be perfect. It rarely is. That is one of the things I love about the rosary. It helps my imperfect prayer life.

I didn't think I had any particular devotion to the rosary until about five years ago. Five years ago, my daughter was in the NICU. Because of her genetic condition, her fingers were fused together. The rosary was a detail of a very difficult time. We had an army of people praying for us and we truly felt God's presence. I cannot describe the calmness or the goodness that we knew, but it was nothing short of miraculous. God was with us in a powerful and peaceful way. People sent prayer cards and Mass cards and relics. We pinned the relics to her pillow. She was intubated, so she was sedated and not moving around a lot. We had those CDs you can find in the backs of Churches, theologians teaching on so many subjects. We used the Magnificat for daily meditation and prayer.

But the rosary was special. My mom gave me her mother's rosary while we were in the NICU. It had smooth beads and it was light. It felt easy in easy in my hands. The beads were small and oblong. The beads fit in Sarah's tiny rosebud hands.

Rosebud. That is the term the doctors used. If you put the tips of all your fingers together your hand forms the shape which can be imagined as a rosebud. That is how her fingers were fused.

I worried about her hands. Children learn by touch. One of the hardest things (there were many) during that time was well-intentioned people demanding that I think about her hands. I knew it was important. I didn't need extra layers of guilt. It plagued my mind even without their concerned advice. People want to help. I guess they thought that this important thing might fall through the cracks in the face of other major concerns. The doctors were concerned about her heart, her brain, her kidneys, her liver, and her lungs. I was worried about those things too, but I am her mom. I was worried about everything. I did not want her earliest sense memories to be sterile and cold. I played music. I sang. I learned infant massage. Touch matters. I fretted about her hands. Her touch. She needed sensory input which would normally just happen. I had to put things in her hands. Nothing fit. I had to be careful not to poke or pinch. Grandmom's rosary beads fit. It was almost a perfect fit, as though that rosary had been made for just that purpose. The small brown beads tucked easily into her hand and she could squeeze. She could feel.

I imagined that she was holding my grandmother's hand.

That rosary gave me comfort. Maybe I was using it as something of a talisman. I wondered, is that bad? I think my Mother in Heaven wouldn't think so. I think she dotes on us and loves us. I think that she was there loving me as I reached out to her imperfectly. Poorly, even. But she heard.

That experience made me feel a certain way toward the rosary as a devotion which I had not felt before. But it wasn't the first time the rosary affected me in a long acting way. When I was a teenager I wasn't sure what I believed. I challenged God and my parents and my educators to prove or at least carefully defend various truths. Mom handled my pushing with a gentle wisdom which she lived and showed by example. Dad handled my pushing with clear and articulate answers.

Cathy was my youth group leader. She handled my pushing entirely indirectly. Together we went to the abortion clinics every week and we prayed the rosary. I wasn't sure if I was Catholic, but the words weren't empty. They were a unified, meditative plea to God for help. I never questioned that he heard. I never questioned that he acted in ways I couldn't see. It wasn't that she avoided my questions, it was simply that the questions and answers were secondary and we both knew it. What we were doing mattered. I rattled off the words. Rote prayer. What about that? My prayer was a repetition of Catholic belief which I was not sure I held. Was that bad?

I don't think Mary thought so. I think she heard my argumentative teen concerns for what they were and stuck by me. I believe she prayed with us and cried with us. I think God heard my imperfect prayer.

I give Mary a lot of credit, I guess. Mary is a mom. She knows. She is listening. She gets it and she hears our pleas in the best possible way. When she prays with us and for us, part of the grace of the experience is that she closes a gap between our imperfect prayer and the deepest pulls of our heart. She brings us to her son, our Lord who perfects us.

The rosary is her gift. For rosebud fingers and challenging teenagers and impious children, the rosary is a lifeline. It is words, when you don't have words. It is meditative and emotional. Joyful and sorrowful, glorious and luminous. The rosary is a loving gift from a mother to her children who are imperfect people likely to mess up everything. 

Church Militant

Proud she stands with her tearful eye on the battle,
her knee falls on the ground
in humble adoration.

She hears the voice of her beloved
and arms herself.
Girded in Truth!
Clothed with righteousness!
Readiness! Faith! Salvation!

Arm yourselves, but be shattered! Arm yourselves, but be shattered.

Agonized and weary
her soldiers lament and
celebrate martyrs.

Glorious. Victorious. Jubilant.
But they did not understand and they were afraid to ask.

Soldiers serving the King. The servant.
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”

Lord. Your soldiers are ready. Confident. Empowered.
Lead us in battle.
Lead us to battle.
Lead us

She hears the voice of her beloved:
Feed the hungry. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick. Visit the prisoner.

She kneels in dust. She is dust.
But formed. Awakened. Loved.

Proud she stands with her tearful eye on triumph,
her knee falls on the ground
in humble adoration:

Take up your cross.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


The morning after the debate between Hillary and Trump, I needed to remind myself that a wild imagination can be a wonderful thing. With two kids in school, I spent quality one on one time with my three year old. This is how we spent the morning. 


She skipped down the road, impatiently tugging on her mother's hand. "Faster! Faster! We have to get to the park!"
"What are we going to do at the park today?"
"We're going to have a picnic with the dragons. We might go to the stream. And...and...and...and... maybe just let's go!"

They sat together at a picnic table. While mom sat, she jumped up and collected leaves and nuts and started arranging them into a picture on the bench. 

"This is a butterfly. And then, a sun! He is yellow yellow yellow and he is smiling."

"Uh-oh. Mom. There is a bad dragon. We are going to have to run. No I mean it! Run!!"And off they ran. Glancing backwards to be sure they were staying ahead. 

"He's too fast and there is a bad witch, Mom. We are going to have to fight. Use your powers! Wait! I have your sword. Here!!"

Carefully unsheathing the sword, Mom swung at the sky! She yelled, "It is no good! I have an idea! I will use my power to freeze him and then you can get him with your sword! Help me!"

Hands outstretched, magical power streamed out from both of them. It sounded like a gushing river. "SHHHHHHHHH!"

She ran toward him. Their powers were not enough, even combined. The witch was using some kind of a protective spell. But she was worn enough to turn and flee with the dragon. Off they flew, fear roused and compelling. 

"Phew. Now we have to find the good dragons. Maybe the fairies know where they are. I know where the fairies are. They are at home. Over here! This is where they live. Can you see them? It is hard because they are playing hide and seek. They love hide and seek and tag just like I love hide and seek and tag. But they are there. You can't talk to them though. Only me."

Obediently, mom stays a few steps back while she learns where the dragons can be found. Momentarily, she returns confident in her informants. 

"They say we can find them by the water."

The pair approach the creek, alert to signs of danger. Seeing none, she throws a few magic balls as calling cards into the water and then waits on the bank. 

"I think we are going to have to go on an adventure."

"Aha! I knew it! Another bad dragon! He is so big! I am going to use my powers to make him smaller and smaller and smaller." 


"I think you need more magic! Hold up your magic!"

The dragon shrank down to the size of a small barn-swallow, which gave her an idea. 

"Let's put him in a nest. Then a mommy can come and teach him so when he gets big again he won't be so bad." 

She gently lifted the tiny foul creature and placed him in a bird's nest.

"They'll come now."

Sure enough, three dragons came flying toward us, just above the creek. One was carrying a baby dragon. She lead them to our picnic area. 

"C'mon! C'mon! Let's go guys! I have a tea party basket!"

We sat on the soft grass and shared pizza and drumsticks and the best cheese you can imagine. She poured tea for everyone except the baby. She fed him a bottle of milk and a cookie. 

A tiny kitten came and tried to drink the baby dragon's milk. The baby dragon got mad and tried to burn up the kitty, but he couldn't. Baby dragons can only do smoke. His mommy had to tell him not to scare kitties. 

She poured a small dish of milk for the kitten and told her mother that the kitten did not have a mommy. Could she please take it home? Seeing as the dragon would not stay a baby forever, and not trusting him to learn to control his temper before he could control his fire, she agreed. 

They said goodbye to their dear friends the dragons, and set off for home carrying a small but well fed baby kitten. 

And they even made it home on time to meet her big sister's bus. 

Sparkles and mud. That's how we roll.