Celebration or Competition?

Is our life in the church meant to be a celebration or a competition?  

Well, what do the Gospels say?  Fifteen times is the gathering of the Body of Christ described as a feast, banquet, or the like.  Only once (Matthew 25 – “When did I see you hungry, naked, in prison…”) is a scene of judgment described.  (And that one scene is important.  How we treat the poor and marginalized matters.)

I think, too often though, we do not share this vision of celebration given by the Gospels.  There is sense of competition, an unspoken understanding that we can win or be better than another at a life of faith.  The narrative of competition can be implicit and subtle and exists in both progressive and more traditional tribes of the church.  (The irony is, those who are most developed in faith know acutely that they are not better than anyone else.)

Certainly, life is not a celebration all the time, nor is it meant to feel that way.  There is work, sometimes very difficult work, to be done to be ever more hospitable at the celebration.  

But we do not do this work to win.  We do the work because we have been loved first… and then we celebrate.

Leaking

Our son was home sick from school this week, so (over Legos and audiobooks) he got to see me running around, trying to do too many things, and stressed out about work.

At one point in the morning, he asked me, “Papa – are you mad at me?”

Oof.  It hurts to hear this.  And I honestly wasn’t.  He was occupying himself brilliantly.  So what was going on?

I think that my face and my tone were leaking stress and tension.

My eyes can’t see my face (not without a mirror) and so I cannot tell when my face shows strain.  And the part of our brains (the superior temporal sulcus) that reads emotion in tone of voice actually switches off when we ourselves are speaking. (More about this in chapter 4 of this brilliant book.)  So, I leak emotion all the time, and I am blind to the emotion I leak.  Yikes!

For me, the next question is: Will I get curious about what I am leaking?  That is, will I slow down and acknowledge what I am feeling?

And then another: Who can help me see what I am blind to?  For honest answers, perhaps best to start with a child.  

Worst Spiritual Director

Imagine if a spiritual director were to do the following:

-Convince the directee to continually steal time from their contemplative practice, and even subtly doubt the worth of such a practice at all.

-Fan the flames of dead-end, obsessive thought.

-Rationalize habits that are not life-giving.

-Cast doubt on one’s ability to find and follow their vocation.

-Cast doubt on one’s basic goodness or the fact that one is loved.

It is laughable to even imagine, right? We would not put up with such talk even for a short time from a spiritual director.

We do, too often though, put up with such talk from our mind’s inner chatter.  

Put another way: It is possible that, sometimes, we may be our own worst spiritual director.

Of course, it does not have to be that way.  Simply seeing such chatter drains it of its power, and then we can ask for the grace to act like a fine spiritual director… one who can self-empty, see compassionately, and gently welcome the directee into the graced mystery of their life.

Slowly, Slowly

After college, I moved with some other recent graduates to a fairly rural town in Eastern Uganda.

When we would meet local folks for the first time, they would not infrequently toss the word mpolampola, often translated as “slowly, slowly,” into the exchange.

“Wait, what?” I would think. “How did that make sense as part of this conversation?”

But it makes perfect sense. It is a fantastic reminder for a Westerner generally, and especially one encountering a new place and culture.

Moving too quickly, either outwardly or within our own heads, we miss the remarkableness of where and when we are living. 

Moving slowly, though, we can experience the richness of the vulnerability of life, particularly at a transition.

If You Can Spot It

An older priest at our parish growing up used to work the following aphorism into homilies a few times a year.  He would say, “If you can spot it, you got it.”  

That is, if you notice a flaw in another person, chances are, you have the same thing going on.

Not super scientific, but so often true.

This is another way into the reality that advice is autobiographical.

The Keeper of Slack in the Family System

For years, when I was home full-time with our son (and then sons), I would change up how I answered the question: “So, what do you do?” One day, I heard myself answer: “Well, I am the keeper of slack in our family system.”

And, you know, I kind of liked that title! I began to use it more often and so began to take it more seriously.

I tried to be the keeper of slack *outwardly*, leaving time unscheduled so that I could be present and responsive to family.

I also tried to guard against tension *internally*, building prayer and meditation into my days, hoping to be more attentive and loving.

I must say that I do not feel necessarily accomplished at this guardianship, and definitely less so this year than in years past. But I am still trying, and would love for the “keeper of slack in the family system” to be a common term. It would certainly help me follow through more consistently on this sincere aspiration.

The Sacramentality of Our Lives

The other day, I met up with an old friend who I had not seen for some time.  These types of conversations lend themselves to asking big questions.  Lately, I’ve noticed that, as we get older, both the questions and the answers are becoming more simple.

We asked each other: “What is it that we need right now?”  The answer that we came to was: “to slow down enough to attend to the sacramentality of our lives.”  There it was.  Full stop.

Perhaps more than any other habit, the Examen (prayed with as much consistency as I can muster) helps me to do this.  Appreciation for this form of prayer, as well as our belief that young people have a unique and innate capacity to receive the love of God woven into their lives, led Katie Broussard and I to create The Examen Book.

We are delighted to launch the book this week.  We hope that you will check it out and that it becomes a blessing on your journey.

(PS – If you would like to be one of our first reviewers, email me!  We’ll send you access to the reviewer’s digital version of the book.)

I Don’t Like That!

When our sons are playing, they often fall out of sync.  One begins playing in a way that the other does not like.  The dissatisfied one, then, expresses his displeasure to us about what the other is doing.

We then say, “Please tell your brother how you do want to play.”

And almost always, he will turn to his brother and, focusing once more on the perceived offense, say, “I don’t like that!”

As you surely have noticed, “I don’t like that!” is not a satisfactory articulation of how he would like to engage.

But how often do we do this very thing in public life!  We are experts at saying what we do not like or do not want, and too rarely take the time to articulate a different way forward.  It feels more comfortable to comment instead of contribute

So, if we do not like something that is happening, let’s agree to do the most courageous and productive thing: To say what we do want and what we will commit to in order to bring that thing about.  With imagination and commitment, we can play together differently.

Four or More?

I went to the doctor for a routine check up last month.  One of the questions on the intake questionnaire was:

“Have you participated in the gather of a religious or civic organization at least four times in the past year?”

Fascinating.

Fascinating that four per year is the threshold chosen.

Fascinating that the medical community listens to this data.

Rooting in a reality larger than ourselves is good for us, on multiple levels.  How can we create a world where the number on this questionnaire is much higher than four?

The First Task

The first time that I met with a spiritual director, he gave me a simple practice to do every day.

Each morning, I was to go into the chapel for 15 minutes, be quiet, and experience how much I was loved by God.

(And the word might not have been experience… it might have been listen or contemplate or the like… but the point was to know that I am loved.)

Predictably, I immediately fell short on multiple levels.  I did not wake up early enough.  The chatter in my mind never quieted.  I exerted way too much effort.  I became attached to my evaluation of each session. 

Seventeen years later, I see this practice, to know that we are loved just as we are, is the practice of a lifetime.  This experience anchors us, roots us, and enables a bold life lived out of this love.

I still show up to the practice, however imperfectly, knowing that I do not control the experience.  The result is not up to me.  My job is show up consistently… to ready the sails for whenever the wind would blow.