Trump and the Lukewarm

Despite the pleas of conservative Christian leaders, large numbers of self-identified evangelicals continue to vote for Trump. This is baffling for any number of reasons, the most damning of which is Trump’s admission that he never seeks God’s forgiveness. Recent data from the Wall Street Journal provides a helpful clue to this mystery: only 38 percent of Trump supporters attend church or another place of worship weekly or more, compared to 56 percent of social conservative voters (supporters of Ted Cruz or, formerly, of Ben Carson) and 43 percent of Republican establishment voters (supporters of Marco Rubio or, formerly, of Jeb Bush). Trump’s evangelicals self-identify as such, but their faith doesn’t necessarily run deep.

The mainstream press has long used the term “evangelical” as a synonym for “deeply, even freakishly religious,” but not all of those who identify as evangelicals are in fact committed Christians. According to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of self-identified evangelicals attend church occasionally, seldom, or never. More evangelicals than Catholics or mainline Protestants attend church regularly, but 42 percent is considerable. Of course, no one but God can judge souls, but the evidence suggest that many of Trump’s evangelical supporters are of the lukewarm variety, the kind referred to in Revelation 3:16: “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” What Christ spits out, Trump savors…..

Read more here.

Share Button

I Love You Because You Are Mine

Lately my two-year-old’s favorite book is I Love You Because You’re You. It’s about a mother’s unconditional love for her son. (As usual the characters are drawn as animals in clothes, because as all authors of children’s books know, drawings of people, unlike drawings of animals, are always drawings of particular individuals, and individuals run the risk of irritating us.) The point of the book is that the mother loves the son no matter his mood: “I love you when you’re angry and cross your arms and pout. I love you when you’re wild and yell and scream and shout.” It ends, of course, with “I love you because you’re you.” Maybe he just likes pictures of foxes in clothes, but I suspect he actually likes this book because of the message, which is almost the best and most important message there is, the one God spoke to my heart when He finally got my attention.

Almost. “I love you because you’re you” isn’t quite it. There are days, after all, when I’m just not myself, and it also begs the navel-gazing question “Who am I? What’s essential to being me as opposed to being someone else?” Here’s the real message: “I love you because you are mine. You are made to live in my love. It isn’t that I love you for what I made you to do, think, feel, or say. My love isn’t something you’ve earned or could earn. I love you before you do a thing. I don’t love a possible, future version of you who is more successful, generous, healthy, organized, or thoughtful. I don’t love you because you are the one I made to do this particular thing and you’re working hard at it. My love isn’t a stamp of approval or a pat on the head. It’s something you can rest in. You can let go and let it hold you and bear you along. The good that I have called you to do doesn’t earn this love—it comes from this love. It starts with surrendering to being loved.”

One reason it’s so hard to keep living in Christ, every day, is that it starts with relaxing into God’s embrace, not with action. Action is so much easier than surrender. I love checking things off my to-do list. Doesn’t everyone? We love lists. To-do lists, bucket lists, wish lists. We feel worthy, and therefore calmer and more at ease when we get stuff done. We live in this meritocracy, where we value other people and ourselves according to what we accomplish. Even children are valued this way. Even mothers. I’ve been praised for having three kids, as if my children are my accomplishments. Would I be more worthy if I had four or five?

God must wonder at us, trying to prove ourselves victorious when Christ has already won the victory for us. But I imagine He’s not just shaking His head knowingly at us—oh, those kids of mine!—I imagine He wants us to knock it off. Because as hard as this way of thinking is on the wealthy and the middle class, it is hell for the poor. The idea that worthiness is something to be earned is literally the gospel of hell.

I was just reading an article in The Atlantic by Victor Tan Chen about the loneliness and despair of white poverty. A recent study found that in the last fifteen years, poor white Americans have experienced huge increases in suicide and drug and alcohol-related deaths. Poverty seems to be particularly psychologically distressing for the white poor in America. They have lost enormous ground economically. They are worse off than their parents were at their age. The good union factory jobs are gone, divorce and cohabitation rates are up, and religious practice is down. They are losing jobs, marriages, and faith. Chen quotes a woman whose husband left her when she lost her factory job. She is living with a man who isn’t her husband and is constantly depressed and anxious. She tells Chen, “I’m a loser.”

According to the pagan standards of our meritocracy, she’s right. She is a loser. She should have stayed in school, gone to community college at least, gotten a job in a growth industry, found a good marriage counselor, stopped smoking, eaten her veggies, lost the weight, and learned to love herself. She is a white woman born in America, the land of opportunity—what excuse does she have? What does our culture have to say to her other than, “Well yeah, you might be a loser now, but it’s not over. Hang in there! Things will get better!” That sounds kind of hopeful, I guess, but it’s not good news. The good news is that no amount of failure could make her life meaningless, because her life is intrinsically meaningful. She could never be a loser, because she is beloved of God. She’s his beautiful creature. He longs to love her, to forgive her every sin and to tell her that right now, without the job or the marriage or whatever else marks success, she is enough. She is adored.

Poverty is hard enough, but poverty combined with the assumption that it’s success that gives our lives meaning is cause for suicidal despair. A low-paid, hard or boring job is bad enough, but a low-paid, hard or boring job combined with the assumption that this kind of work belittles you is cause for total misery.

It makes me wonder what I might be doing to contribute to this sad devaluation of human beings. For instance, do I give my own children the impression that they will be more valuable or more beloved if they succeed, or that a meaningful life is a successful life? Like any mom, I want my kids to grow up to have meaningful work that they love. I know I’ve told my daughter, in moments when she seemed lazy beyond belief, that she needs to learn to work hard so that she can do the work she is made to do, and I think once I might even have tried to frighten her with the prospect of a boring, dead-end job. That phrase, “dead-end job!” That one little phrase dismisses the worth and dignity of millions of people who perform the work we look down on but that has to get done. From a biblical perspective, the dead-end job isn’t the one you have to take to support your family; it’s the one you take to win riches and power for their own sake.

My heart goes out to this woman who thinks she is a loser, and everyone else profiled in this article. I don’t have a solution to income inequality. I don’t know what policies might help or hurt, but I know what words would help, provided that we could really believe them and pass them on: I love you because you are mine.

Share Button

Why I Lose It

shutterstock_239381113

My two year old son is really cute, but sometimes he’s not so likeable. Lately he’s been engaging in the most nerve-trampling of childhood behaviors, the demand-and-reject. It goes like this: he yells for help, “Mom-EE! I need help!!” I go to him and find him, for instance, trying to open a full gallon of milk to pour into a small glass. I pick up the milk to open it. He then screams, “NOOO! Do it MYSELF!” and grabs the milk, the top of which is now slightly unscrewed, so that milk splashes all over the table. He glares at me while he unscrews the milk and pours it, perfectly, into his glass. He’ll show me.

The same sequence happens again and again throughout the day, more begging for help with various tasks followed by resentful rejection. What help does he need exactly? I don’t know, but I need help, big help. I am dangerously annoyed. Unlike this little tyrant (I am tempted to say this little S-O-B, but that makes me the B in question), I cannot do it myself.

In my efforts to keep from losing it, I’ve been paying attention to my thoughts. I’ve noticed something interesting. When I’m about to lose it, my thoughts are basically a big “no,” a rejection of the whole situation. I stop seeing his behavior as something to understand and either tolerate or work to correct. Instead, in that exact moment, I just want to push that behavior, and him, away. Inside, much like a toddler, I’m screaming “NOOO! You will NOT make my life this hard. OUT!” I have the same thoughts before losing it with my tween.

Elizabeth Duffy, blogging for Aleteia, recently described a situation that caused her to lose it. She came home from a party with other Catholic families irritated that her husband hadn’t joined her, as had all the other husbands, and she lost her temper. She ponders why: “What is it that instigates violence in my heart? What is it that causes me to lash out at the people I love? It is when I take issue with the reality God has designed for me, when I imagine that somehow the family in which he placed me, and the particular salvific pathway each of us currently walk, is a big, raging mistake.”

Yes, exactly. In some moments it does feel like a big, raging mistake. How could it be this difficult? Why isn’t my home neat and pretty like I imagine other people’s homes are, especially this time of year? Why is it always such a mess, and why is someone always whining? Can we not even clean up the freaking socks? This can’t be right! Something is wrong with these people! NOOO!

I’ve been thinking often of Mary lately, and particularly today, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the past, I’ve been a little skeptical of pious talk about how everything depended on Mary’s saying “yes.” An angel appeared to her, told her she was especially favored by God, and asked her do something that would change everything, forever. That’s a big, exciting question, full of promise and possibility. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of thing I love to say yes to. It’s not the big yes that bothers me so much as the thousands of little ones, the yes to cleaning yet more stickiness off of the floor, the yes to endless bedtime routines, the yes to messy art projects, the yes to wrangling a toddler through Mass.

Lately I’ve been reminded, though, that Mary didn’t just say yes once; she kept saying yes, over and over again. She said yes to the very real social and physical dangers of pregnancy before marriage, yes to the possibility of Joseph abandoning her, yes to traveling for days to Bethlehem on a donkey while nine months pregnant, yes to giving birth in a stable, yes to fleeing to Egypt, yes to her son having a mission that took him away from her, and worst of all, yes to witnessing his death on the cross. Even when it must have been hard to see what was happening as part of God’s plan—the son of God, born in poverty and obscurity? The Messiah having to flee like a refugee? The Savior murdered on the cross like the lowest of criminals?—there she is, pondering in her heart, wondering, and saying yes.

I can be grateful that the things I have to say yes to aren’t nearly so hard as what Mary dealt with, but then again, they also feel infinitely less important. Can the mundane irritants of daily life really be part of God’s plan for my salvation? Well, yes, they can. Who am I to think that God must always deal with me in grand gestures and deep epiphanies? God has a destination in mind for me that is beyond my imagining, and if I can’t imagine the destination, surely I can’t map the way there myself. When I say no to the most trying parts of my day, I’m thinking of my own destination, the one at which I’ll arrive via a level, pleasant, and well-ordered road that I travel with polite and clean companions. Wherever that place is, that’s not where He is taking me and He isn’t the way there.

No matter how hard I try or how hard I pray, I am still going to get angry, because children drive you to that, they just do. But, if I can remember that God is present in and loving me through these horrid interactions, they might not seem so chaotic, meaningless, and threatening. They might not feel like something I have to push away to safeguard my orderly, meaningful world. After all, there really is no such thing as my world and my order. The only lasting order is God’s order, and the only way to have that is to love.

Share Button

The Grace of Receiving

I recently gave a talk on this topic to my wonderful mothers’ group, and I thought I’d share an abridged version of it here. The timing seems right. We are headed toward the season of giving, and we cannot give what we have not received, or what we aren’t even willing to admit we need…..

I was the valedictorian of my small high school. In my senior year I won the academic award in every subject I took except for the math award, and the math teacher actually apologized for not giving that award to me. This kind of praise messes with a kid. I felt like I’d won high school, and I loved it. I still tend to want to win things that aren’t actually competitions.

Like yoga class, for example. A while back, I thought yoga would calm me down and make it possible for me to exercise without getting too intense. But I had to quit yoga. It turns out you can make yoga competitive, and when you do, you pull things.

Especially before I became a committed Christian (and soon thereafter a Catholic), I tended not to help people or even spend time with people if it got in the way of excelling at my work. And, because I knew full well I was not capable of giving sacrificially to my friends, I went to great lengths not to need anyone to take care of me.

Then God showed me what an ass I was being. About nine years ago, my husband and I and our eighteen-month-old daughter were getting ready to move across the country to be closer to family. We had a few weeks left to get the house ready to sell and to pack when my husband came down with a serious case of bacterial pneumonia and pleurisy. He lost twenty pounds, was frequently in agony, and basically couldn’t get out of bed. I only had a babysitter two days a week. There was a long list of odd jobs that had to be done, most of which my husband had planned to do, all that packing, no family in town to help, a sick husband to care for, and a little, highly demanding toddler with me nearly all the time.

Eventually my mother-in-law came to the rescue, but before I knew of that plan, I was totally overwhelmed. I wished that my friends were offering more help. They all had little kids too, and although I got a lot of sympathy and many nonspecific offers of help, I was wanting more than that. I was wanting dinners delivered without having to take the time to ask and friends dropping by to pick up my daughter for the day. I wanted these things, but I couldn’t expect them. After all, I had never been available to give sacrificially to my friends like this.

One afternoon I was standing in the parking lot of a UPS store in Oakland when it occurred to me all of a sudden that we are put on this Earth to love and serve one another. Yes, also to love and serve God, but even that we do mostly by loving and serving each other. Before that moment, I had thought of serving others as what you should do with the money and time you had left over after doing your work and tending to your own home, but I’d gotten it all wrong. We aren’t put here to work and succeed, but to serve. Loving and serving each other is the main thing.

Why had I never seen this before? I remembered being in college and wondering at how available other people were to their friends. Didn’t they have papers to write? Why weren’t they more worried about getting their work done? I had thought that my classes were the main thing, and I missed the main thing entirely.

I realized this that day in Oakland only because of my need and vulnerability. When I was finally in a position to accept the help and service of others, I got it. Because, of course, giving and receiving are linked. Before we can give sacrificially, we have to be willing to receive sacrifice.

Back when I was an Episcopalian, I went to a church where everyone participated in a foot-washing liturgy on Holy Thursday. You’d form a line, and when it was your turn, you’d kneel before a fellow parishioner, poor water over their feet into a basin, and then dry their feet with a towel. Then you took a seat, removed your shoes and socks, and someone else did the same for you.

Washing someone else’s feet was easy, but allowing someone else to wash mine felt nearly impossible. Although I don’t like to, I can get a pedicure. Receiving a pedicure I pay for isn’t receiving sacrificial service. But allowing someone to make the sacrifice of washing my feet? Agony.

One year I forgot and wore pantyhose and had to explain in hand gestures to the poor person washing my feet that they should just ignore the pantyhose and wash my feet anyway. Double agony.

Part of the problem with receiving sacrificially care from others is that I don’t want to be in debt, but that’s not it entirely. It’s mostly the idea of someone having to suffer, to be made uncomfortable or inconvenienced by my weaknesses, my dirt, my stinky feet. My mess should be my mess to deal with. No one else should take on that burden.

Except that is exactly what Jesus did, and that’s what Jesus does.

That is how Jesus loves me, with the love of taking on my sin, my weakness, and my burdens.

The discomfort of being served is at the very heart of Christian life. On some level, that discomfort actually is discomfort with the depth, the cost, and the personal nature of Jesus’ love for us.

The disciples felt the same way I do about foot washing. Recall Peter’s response to Jesus telling him he would wash his feet: “Never shall You wash my feet!” And Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”

Notice how strident, how absolute Peter’s response is. It’s “No way, Lord. Never. Not happening.” That’s the same as his response when Jesus tells him He will suffer and be killed. Never, Lord. And Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Apparently, one of the hardest things about being a disciple is submitting to being served by Jesus. It humbles us to be served by God. We don’t feel worthy. Because we aren’t.

Our very life is a gift, and our eternal life is a gift that someone else (a perfect, loving, innocent someone else) suffered horribly to get us. We can’t ever repay that gift. Spiritually speaking, we are all charity cases, every single one of us.

Back when my husband had pneumonia, I actually did receive the help I longed for from a friend. One night at two o’clock my husband had to go to the emergency room. I didn’t want to wake up my little toddler and drag her there, and Daryl needed me to care for him without distraction, so I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and called a friend who had offered to help. I asked her to come over and sleep at my house that night. She came without hesitation. When we returned home four hours later, we found that our friend hadn’t been sleeping. She had been cleaning our house, which in the midst of our crisis had gotten pretty filthy. I had been so tired that night that I had gone to bed without washing the dishes. Coming home to a clean house made me feel tremendously grateful and loved, but also mortified.

Mortified literally means put to death. And that is what scripture tells us has to happen so we can live in Christ. We have to die to self. Mostly we do that through abandoning self-regard and surrendering our lives to Christ, but that night, I died to self by receiving my friend’s sacrificial care. That care was Jesus’ care for me, given to me through my friend. God’s care is like that care. It comes to us only when we are aware we need it, willing to ask for it, and able to receive it with gratitude. And, like my friend’s sacrificial care for me, once we have received that kind of love, we can share it with others.

The humility that comes with needing and gratefully receiving can open our hearts to Jesus. Since we often meet Jesus in the love and care of others, we should not hesitate to gracefully receive that care. When we are tempted to shrug off a compliment, refuse an offer of needed help, or avoid relying on others, we might imagine that it is Jesus offering that compliment or that help. Because it is.

Share Button

My Surprising Secret to a Happy Marriage

I’m writing about something I have never written about before. I’ve barely even spoken about it, even with my closest friends. It’s been my secret, but it’s time to share.

I support and follow the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.

I have shied away from discussing this topic because it forces me to talk about intimate matters in public, and there’s already way too much of that going on these days. It feels unseemly to bring it up. The Southern lady in me is aghast, but it’s not just that. The real problem is that I know how hard this teaching is, and for reasons I will explain, I haven’t had to experience the full brunt of its difficulty. I’m a vastly inadequate poster child for the virtues of chastity and openness to life.

So I’ve been silent. I’ve done nothing to counter the usual narrative, the “Catholic women ignore the Church’s teaching on contraception, which is just an idealistic theological fantasy cooked up by old, celibate males” story.

But now I feel compelled to speak up. For one thing, the Synod on the Family is on my mind, and I’m aware of how badly Catholic clerics need to know that there are people in the pews who love the Church’s difficult teachings and whose pastoral need is to hear these teachings praised and defended rather than evaded or ignored. Also, I’ve come to realize that many of my Protestant and Catholic friends think the Church’s teaching is nuts, which means, unless they think I’m nuts too, that they take my silence to mean I don’t follow or defend that teaching. Finally, and more importantly, I’ve come to realize that I can’t answer questions about what makes my marriage such a happy one, how I know what God wants of me, or what it means to surrender to God, without telling this story. It feels awkward to say so, but the truth is that I can’t think of any specific action that has made a more profound difference in my spiritual life than rejecting contraception. (Or in my family life—there’s one of us who would definitely not have existed if we had followed conventional wisdom on these matters.)

When I first stopped using contraception, I was a new convert to the faith. I didn’t fully understand the Church’s teaching, but I had converted because I had decided that the Church possessed the truth and was protected, in its fundamental moral doctrines, from error. If I had thought it was possible for the Church to be wrong about something so important, I would not have become a Catholic to begin with.

And yet, all these years later, I have only three kids. What gives? My small family is probably why people assume I contracept. But you see, I don’t really have only three kids. I have three kids here on Earth, but there are eight more in heaven. I’ve been pregnant eleven times. I have a known problem that leads to frequent miscarriages, usually between five and ten weeks. I haven’t had to contend with the expense and the logistics of a large family, but I’ve had to deal with the difficulty of remaining open to life in a different way. Alongside my husband, I’ve had to accept uncertainty and loss.

But God blesses us through suffering, and indeed all of that uncertainty and loss has been an enormous blessing to me. My miscarriages, as painful as they’ve been, have helped me to understand and appreciate the wisdom, goodness, and beauty of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage. Because of those losses, my husband and I have experienced our children as given rather than chosen. We haven’t planned our parenthood. We did not choose when to have our children or ponder the perfect age separation or birth months. For us, being open to life also means being open to death. The only way to deal with that, to go forward in hope, is to surrender to God, to decide that His plans for our family are good and worthy of trust.

Having surrendered to God’s plans, and having been so grateful for the children He gave us, how could we ever shove God aside and demand total control over our fertility? “Ok, God, that was great of you, but we have two kids now, one boy and one girl, so you can bow out now. It was nice cooperating with your awesome creative power, but we’ll take it from here.”

But, horrifyingly, that’s exactly what we did, at least for a couple of years. I was a professor pursuing tenure, and we were just so darned busy. I wouldn’t get any more maternity leave, and even if I switched jobs and did, all those extra years of child care! So expensive, not to mention exhausting. It is not a coincidence that we also didn’t attend Mass every Sunday during this time. We were moving often and were spiritually afloat. Thankfully, we recovered from our temporary insanity (which, from the perspective of most, looks like temporary sanity, I realize.)

Being open to life when you want more children is one thing, but being open to life when your family feels complete is another. Accepting our fertility again took a deeper level of surrender, but the rewards were huge. For one thing, we have Peter, who is walking, talking, screaming evidence that God’s plans are better than mine. Far more difficult and exasperating than mine, but better.

But there’s another reward, having to do with our marriage. As long as we used contraception, I couldn’t fully grasp what our marriage really was. I was as if we were just two individuals, joined in a partnership to raise children while each pursuing our individual goals, trying to be as close and as happy together as we could. But that’s not what marriage really is. That’s a sad, distorted, dull shadow of what marriage is. When we stopped blocking our fertility and went back to cooperating with God, our marriage began to feel once again like what it truly is, a real one-flesh union, a new creation that transcends both of us, something mystical and joyful that reflects, in a not-yet fully clear way, the way God is united to His people. God is alive in our marriage, not just in each of us separately. It’s as if our marriage was a thing, and now it’s a being. It’s alive and potentially life-giving, and we don’t know exactly how it will grow and develop.

Date nights are great, but if you really want to put excitement in your marriage, give it life. It’s also how you make your marriage last, because to end it would be tantamount to murder.

Like I said, I know it’s a hard teaching. It’s difficult to embrace chastity in marriage, and it’s difficult to welcome more children, especially for women with big careers or with health problems or for poor families. I haven’t shared my experience before because I don’t want to appear to give advice or to shame anyone, and I’m not doing that now. What I want to do is share this piece of the Good News, because that is what the Church’s wisdom in this area has been to me, something beautiful, true, and good that’s hidden in plain sight. It’s a treasure well worth sacrifice and a truth worth defending.

Share Button