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Revolutionaries of Agape

            Today, the word "love" has become synonymous with "like." For example, we say we love pizza, or we loved the last episode of Stranger Things. Yet, we also say that we love our family, or our significant other. But, surely, we do not feel the same way toward food or images on a TV as we do toward a living human being who we care about and who cares about us.

“Like” comes from the Old English word for “to please, be pleasing, be sufficient.” The meaning of “love” is a bit more ambiguous because its origins are varied. The word itself comes from Old English, meaning, “to feel love for, cherish, show love to; delight in, approve.” The complex part comes when you trace the word “love” back to the Latin “caritatem” and the Greek “agape,” meaning “brotherly love, charity,” or “the love of God for man and man for God.” When the Gospels were translated from Greek to Latin, “caritatem” became the replacement for “agape.” Then, when the Bible was translated into English, “caritatem” was translated to either “charity” or “love.” For the most part, we now limit the definition of “love” to the self-pleasing emotion, and disregard the connotation of charitable affection because the emotional type is more instantly gratifying to us. And, if you know a little psychology, you may understand how when something is pleasing, we tend to form a habit of it. Unfortunately, this limited understanding of love has permeated throughout society.

            The linguistic ambiguity of "love" does not only affect how we speak; it also influences how we understand what love really is. St. Thomas Aquinas described love as, “to will the good of the other." You can also see the true definition of love when Christ says, "no one has greater love [agape] than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (John 15:13). It is in giving that we truly love. Ironically, by emptying ourselves, we become devoid of our selfish, mundane desires, and are able to be filled with others, their thoughts, desires, and feelings. We were made for this union with others, not for isolated self-seeking.

            However, our society and our language tell us that love is all about me. Love has been reduced to self-pleasure, instead of an encounter with another. Since the sexual revolution in the 50s and 60s, we have seen a regression from chaste, wholesome relationships to a hurting culture that settles for short, improperly-ordered hook ups. We take the pleasures and emotions of a relationship to be the meaning of love. We try to hold on to the euphoric feelings that come with companionship and romance. But, when times are tough in a relationship, we often want to give up and move on. However, St. Paul clearly lays out that,

“love [agape] is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love [agape] never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

His words reveal that love is totally other-centered. He does not define love as being pleasurable. He does not say that love becomes easily-irritated or that it quits. Rather, he characterizes this greatest of all virtues as not seeking its own interests, not being quick-tempered, and never failing. Of course, we are human and struggle with living out this noble ideal. But, it should be our aim; we should not settle for a lesser love. For, Christ tells us, “be [perfected], just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Also, Pope Francis beckons us “to be revolutionaries, . . . to swim against the tide; . . . to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love.” We must be revolutionaries of this true love - revolutionaries of agape.

            A harsh example of how much our society has tainted our perception of love is the anti-life culture. Society has gone so far as to warp our perception of what constitutes an “other,” so that we cannot even identify who we should love. We have turned so much inward toward ourselves, that we have taken defining personhood into our own hands. A person is only valuable as long as they suit our desires, or as long as they do not make us feel uncomfortable. When a new life us “unintentionally” formed, it is acceptable to kill it because otherwise it will mess up the plans we have for our life, or we assume that the baby will not live a valuable life under non-ideal circumstances. If a person on life-support is costing a hospital too much money, it is okay to let them prematurely die, under the euphemistic guise of organ donation, so that the hospital can have an empty bed and so that they can receive compensation for the organs. If someone is struggling with a terminal illness, doctors are encouraged to assist their patient in suicide, instead of entering into their patient’s hurt, and helping them find palliative care and support to deal with their illness. These horrific cultural norms are canaries in a coal mine, revealing the destructive path down which we have moved, straying from true meaning and fulfillment. We have given so much power to our passions that our will and intellect have atrophied. Our desire for pleasure drowns out our ability to stop and ponder the consequences and alternatives of our narcissistic actions.

            Now, I don't mean to be all gloom and doom. Rather, I belabored this topic because it can be so easy to become blinded by the many deceitful societal lies that vie for our attention and distract us from who we were really made to be. But, St. Paul tells us, “do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Thankfully, Christ offers another alternative to our misguided path. He tells us, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). We love ourselves so much that this great commandment highlights how much Christ wants us to love others. He says, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Christ exemplified his own words throughout the Gospels. In his meetings with the sick, the shunned, and the sinful, he entered into their life, their pain; he encountered them where they were, no matter how unpleasant it was, or how much it injured his reputation. He lived this way so fiercely that he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

A majority of us will not have to suffer the unfathomable amount of pain that Christ suffered on the cross. But, we can participate in his suffering, uniting our daily mortifications to his cross. We can seek out others, those nearby us, in our families, at work, at school, and in our community. Those Christ has placed in our lives are images of Him whom we should serve and love charitably. “These least brothers” can be a friend who lost a family member, a coworker dealing with depression, or a sibling who has a debilitating disease. Walking beside them in their time of struggle is being Christ to them. Also, strangers are others who we can serve; think if the parable of the Good Samaritan. Smiling at the people you pass by, thanking the service men and women that you meet, and encountering and talking with the homeless, instead of just passing them by or throwing them some change, are all ways to serve the least among us. If we see the other as they truly are, and not as the stereotype with which society has labeled them, we can move closer to encountering people as Christ does. By focusing our relationships less on our selfish desires and expectations, and more on knowing and experiencing the other, the more we are drawn out of ourselves to live the revolution of agape. When we make our relationships, and our lives, centered more on the other, we become more Christlike; and, we can repeat with John the Baptist, “he must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Encounter

While in graduate school, I worked as a doula for teenage girls at a local pregnancy center. Most, but not all, of these women were first time moms, without a supportive father in the picture—and very often without a supportive family member of any kind. They could come to the agency for parenting classes, health info as well as baby clothes, car seats, etc. My role was to accompany them at the hospital during delivery, to encourage them, and to make sure that they had a voice in their delivery and their stay at the hospital as they welcomed their babies.

This role is by far among the most influential experiences of my adult life, as I was invited into the most intimate and vulnerable moments of a family’s’ early beginning. Culturally-speaking, unless a woman has a sister, there is seldom an opportunity to be invited into this place of welcoming a new child with an expectant mother, as is custom in so much of the world. Comparatively, birth in the U.S. has become an isolated experience—especially for single mothers who are choosing to give life.

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I remember the first day I showed up for a meeting with the other doulas at the local pregnancy center. I was excited, nervous and proud to be there after all of my training. The woman at the front desk handed me a clipboard for check in. I grabbed it and began reading through the paperwork.

[Based on the nature of the questions, it was obvious that she thought I was a teen mom.]

Self-conscious about looking young for my role, combined with the indignation of being assumed a pregnant(!), teen, I quickly corrected her and took my “rightful” seat at the table for my meeting.

I have re-visited this encounter often, and with regret.

Of course I could have been mistaken for a teen mom—after all, they were the clients served by this agency. The fact that the receptionist didn’t know me from any other woman at the clinic meant that I was new, not judged. And yet, that was my unfortunate takeaway at the time.

Given a healthy amount of hindsight, I have realized a few things. More than welcoming sweet babies into the world and having a small role in the vulnerable, lonely work of these brave women who choose to deliver their babies in difficult circumstances, I owe these women a debt of gratitude for their genuine (and perhaps even, unintended) education.  Allowing themselves to be accompanied by a stranger as they crossed the threshold of familiarity and childhood into and unknown and frightening world of young adulthood as a single mom showed me just how much I had to learn about radical self-sacrifice, love and trust. Sure I was the birth coach they’d been assigned, but these women were without question, my teachers.

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Doesn’t this exchange get to the heart of today’s Gospel reading from Luke? Jesus is instructing the Pharisees to get mixed up in a diverse crowd—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—‘those who can never repay you.’ This is the exact message Pope Francis has been echoing since 2014 when he first spoke of a Culture of Encounter.

We must strive and ask for the grace to create a culture of encounter,

of a fruitful encounter,

of an encounter that restores to each person his or her own dignity as a child of God,

 the dignity of the living person.

— Pope Francis

I am slowly learning.

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How often do these scenarios Jesus is describing come up for us? You know the ones where we are hosting a dinner party and inviting all kinds of folks we don’t know and might never see again. They’re infrequent. It does remind me of those magnanimous folks who start planning at this time of year, to host the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal for out-of-towners, for college students, foreign exchange students, etc. These are the people with the uncanny knack for gathering folks because it is simply time to gather and we are made for communion with one another.

The daily readings are hinting at the waning of ordinary time, the season of anticipation and preparing to welcome those we might not be expecting. How are you hearing the invitation to see stranger as guest?

Am I seeking a place to gather and be known?

Am I being invited to consider a role as such a host?

What might I be surprised to learn I have in common with those I have separated myself from?

With whom am I already in relationship that is bearing fruits of unexpected grace?

Fostering Good Growth

Meals at Andy’s are not meant to be relaxing in the sense that guests sit and wait for their food to be ready. Instead, they are assigned portions of the meal that they will contribute upon arrival: appetizers, salad, drinks, main course or dessert. This is not asking too much when there are eggs, herbs, vegetables, fruits and honey readily available. Before long, the back yard is buzzing with activity.

Eating dinner at Andy’s is a treat that I rate higher than getting invited out for supper anywhere else (which I love).  I have had this privilege exactly two times and I will tell you why you want to be on this invite list. You see, rather than landscaping with shrubs and bushes, Andy’s is landscaped with vegetables and herbs. Instead of entering through the front door, guests head directly into the backyard garden where the table and outdoor kitchen is located. The table is large and surrounded with a brick oven, a grill, climbing vines and twinkle lights.

It’s helpful to know a good ‘vine grower’ for a lot of reasons.

Even if horticulture isn’t your thing—it’s hard to get around it at this point in the year. Ads blast on the radio, Home Depot is packed and everyone from restaurateurs to brew houses boast their ‘locally grown’ menus. You may even hope to have a green,  patio view of this novelty in the midst of the city scape.

Isn’t it great when those who have a gift for growing step up so that the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of their labor? They can simultaneously make a place more beautiful and feed people. What a gift!

There is a fantastic collection of names for God in our lectionary. Vine Grower is among my favorites. I will admit that when the readings (like today’s reading) turn toward gardening metaphors, I look to the gardening gurus in my life that illustrate some of the finer points of fostering good growth like a good Vine Grower might do. I notice a few things that great gardeners seem to have in common:

1.     Vine Growers tend diligently: whether by weeding, watering or fertilizing--A good gardener is never far from their crop.

2.     Vine Growers prune extensively: As difficult as it can be to see a beautiful rose bush hacked down to nubs, doing so allows for the plant to flourish more abundantly.

3.     Vine Growers apply compost: Nothing is wasted-- no banana peel, watermelon rind or coffee grounds are tossed aside without purpose. Each provides essential nutrients for the benefit of the entire garden.

4.     Vine Growers nourish those around them, particularly by feeding them.

Maybe it’s easier to think about our own experiences of growth from this vantage point.  I need that reminder that the Vine Grower is never far from me. I know how uncomfortable it is to be pruned, yet in so doing, I am encouraged—even expected to grow more vibrantly, and I am nourished by the very things I might have imagined to be trash, used-up or spent.

Because of these things—not in spite of them-- I can hope to bear fruit; perhaps even to feed those around me (green thumb or not).

 

Coming to a City Near You: Not Catholic Beer Club

There has been a quite a stir around the nation with “Catholic Beer Club” taking root in many of America’s major cities. Bloggers for the CBC Times, such as Kyle Sellnow and Jacob Machado, believe that Catholic Beer Club has the potential to bring new people together and create foundations for strong friendships. See 4 Steps to Creating Community That Matters, 7 Ways to Start Having Conversations that Matter, Finding Community, or Building Community, and Love: The True Purpose of Community, amongst others. But many honestly believe that what the world really needs is Not Catholic Beer Club, otherwise known as NCBC. They think NCBC comes with more benefits and will more easily accomplish the goals of CBC.

When asked what sets Not Catholic Beer Club apart from CBC, Austin Martin, founder and president of NCBC, said “We feel like our club provides for a broader range of people, allowing for individuals from differing backgrounds to meet one another and build relationships.” He also expressed his desire to simply have a place where no one will ever ask hard questions or encourage anyone to become a better person.

NCBC’s vice secretary of social affairs, Victor Tracy, said that “setting up events takes almost no work due to the club pretty much having no motivations.” When asked about the club seeming to have negative vibes right in the name, Tracy responded, “Whatever negativity people might perceive in the name, they’re simply wrong. At NCBC, people have freedom to live by their own truths and think whatever they’d like about themselves and the world.” Tracy noted the great courage of one “fallen” brother who deeply believed he had wings and could fly off the rooftop patio bar. Reportedly, before he launched himself, the man proclaimed, “No one can tell me what to do with my own body.” The man is still in the hospital and now self-identifies as having a broken femur.

Shelby Womack and Ty Samson, two regulars at NCBC, both expressed how much fun they had at each of the events they’ve been to. Samson, who was believed to still be recovering from a hangover, said, “From what I can remember, it was a pretty good time.” Womack noted that NCBC is great because it provides opportunities for more than just beer. “President Martin believes that limiting people to only beer is not very inclusive,” she said. Martin confirmed this by telling us that “I believe that CBC is alcoholist. Not only are we not exclusive to only Catholics, we are not exclusive to beer.” Martin was emphatic that being alcoholist, the bigoted discrimination of certain kinds of alcohol, is extremely non-inclusive and prejudiced. “I’m definitely coming to this rather than CBC next month,” added newcomer Ryan O'Leary who hugely prefers whisky to beer. After getting in touch with club representatives, it turns out CBC does in fact welcome non-Catholics to their events. Though, as a beer club, they are still partial to beer.

While CBC has made quite a splash around the nation, President Martin thinks that within the next six months NCBC will be found in every major city in America and will most likely double CBC’s numbers. When asked about NCBC, president of Catholic Beer Club, Derek Roush said, “I don’t like it. It just does not seem like a sustainable model for a club. It is a club founded on absolutely nothing.”

Regardless, many people see Not Catholic Beer Club as a new and exciting way to meet a diverse range of people and to build and deepen friendships. So, if you are looking to make some new friends, look for the next Not Catholic Beer Club near you and check it out for yourself! NCBC will be meeting on exactly the same night as your local Catholic Beer Club events. You can find them at the bar directly across the street.

 

Disciples and Emojis

Think of the movie, The Sandlot. It is a classic tale of kid lore and childhood memories—revolving mostly around baseball. When the main character, Scotty, makes neighborhood friends the first summer he moves into a new neighborhood, he runs to the sandlot to play baseball (even though he has no idea what he’s doing). When the motley baseball team finds that the ‘Beast’ has Scotty’s dad’s baseball, autographed by Babe Ruth, Benny takes off running through town as a decoy to allow his friends to capture the all-important ball from the Beast’s backyard. In almost any good kid movie, at some point, the plot will depend on one character taking off running because the message they have to deliver deserves a quick pace.

Adults seem to lose this feeling of urgency with age, don’t you think? There’s a laughable, old Geico commercial that illustrates how this looks. When was the last time an adult ran to tell you anything? More than likely, much of the work of conveying emotion is done by emojis—they are quick, efficient and express most of our commonly-experienced emotions. Best of all, we don’t even have to break a sweat.

This is the antithesis of the story from Matthew’s Gospel today. This Easter Monday, we read:

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went away quickly from the tomb,
fearful yet overjoyed,
and ran to announce the news to his disciples…


Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have just had their worlds rocked at the discovery of the empty tomb and they cannot move fast enough to deliver the message of hope they have received. Who’s to say that in a different time they might have chosen a different means of communication, but some news is best shared, personally—like the fulfillment of our Salvation story in Christ’s rising from the dead.

Certainly we would be quick to find any number of distinguishing characteristics between our own lives and those of the women who find Jesus’ tomb empty. Yet, as an Easter people, the ways in which we re-engage the world after celebrating the Triduum has the capacity to convey the same truth that Mary Magdalene and Mary’s delirious rushing, produced at the time of Christ.

Today might be your first day back at work after the Easter holiday. Perhaps you work in the private sector that gives Easter Monday as a holiday. Either way, the Marys pose an important question to us today:

How am I choosing to share the news of the Resurrection?

Sandlot-style or Geico-style?

 

 

Denver’s Divine Mercy Fitness: A conversation on spiritual and physical fitness with owner, Steve Smith

We all know that physical fitness is important. Staying in shape (or not) can affect everything from the way we feel when we look in the mirror to how well we sleep at night. But how often do we think about the connection between physical fitness and our faith?

We hear often in Christian circles that our bodies are gifts from God, and therefore worth taking care of. But what about the way we take care of them? Do we glorify God in our manner of working out? Does our attitude at the gym honor the dignity of the people around us?

Divine Mercy Fitness in Denver, CO has taken a completely Christ-centered approach to fitness, and the results have been amazing. Not only have gym members found themselves in the best shape of their lives, but they have also grown in strength of heart and soul. I recently got a chance to talk to gym owner, Steve Smith about physical fitness, it’s connection to the spiritual life, and the beauty of working out in a Christ centered atmosphere.

According to Steve, there are lots of elements to general fitness. Many people focus on strength, or cardio, or stamina, but to really be in shape, your body needs some of each. Each area complements the others and helps prevent injury, not to mention helping to prevent boredom. Steve mentioned that since running became a big thing in the 1970s focusing on strength kind of went by the wayside, but people who don’t contribute to their cardio with strength training are prone to osteoporosis and increased pain, especially as they age. “When you are strong you feel more capable of interacting with the world and more confident. Both (strength and cardio) are important, but they need to be balanced out,” said Steve.

General fitness is taking care of our bodies as the wonderful gifts they are. It is enabling ourselves to be the best we can be, and to have the strength and energy to carry out our vocations well. But according to Steve, the connection between physical and spiritual fitness can run even deeper than that. Working out, especially doing something like Crossfit (Divine Mercy’s main type of workout) is tough. Sticking to a fitness routine is tough. Working on our physical fitness requires hard work, perseverance, and commitment through repetition. All of which are virtues necessary in the spiritual life. Even further, a solid fitness program teaches us to self-examine, create goals, and reflect on our successes and failures. “Physical fitness relates to the spiritual life in that we are constantly growing by doing the same thing, persevering, adjusting, changing, having conversations about how we’re doing. It relates to that continued process to be better, or more of what we are capable of being,” Steve said.

That being said, perseverance can be taken too far, self-examination can become destructive, and growth in physical fitness can be sought for the wrong reasons. Even when we are striving to just take care of our bodies, we can easily get caught up in pushing ourselves too hard, measuring our success on the way we look, or forget that we ought to seek fitness for the sake of loving and glorifying God. What can we do to keep ourselves in check?

The biggest thing, according to Steve is to work out in a community. This is one of the most important aspects of Christ-centered fitness, because when Christ is present, and the group acknowledges that “the community that forms around that is more wholesome and more true.” At Divine Mercy Fitness, the language is clean (or at least expletives are used in appropriate context), the communication and challenging of one another is more loving and authentic, and the vanity is much less. In many gym atmospheres, especially Crossfit gyms, vanity is a huge motivator. Many of these gyms are full of immodest clothing and encouragement through crude language or thinking about that bikini body. But in a Christ-centered community like Divine Mercy Fitness, there is a more respectful atmosphere, both towards the self and the people around you. “It creates a very authentic, human community,” said Steve, “It exposes our prideful selves, but doesn’t allow us to sit in our prideful self. It allows us to look at our vanity and realize it’s ridiculous. We can also keep vanity out of our fitness routines with simple things such as not working out in front of a mirror, wearing respectable clothing, and praying before and during out workouts.”

Christ centered fitness goes deeper than taking care of our bodies, and does more for our bodies than keeping them healthy. It instills a deeper sense of respect for our bodies and those of others. It reminds us that our bodies and the way we treat them are intricately connected to our soul and the way we care for it. It reminds us that we are capable of all things through Christ, and helps us to run the race that is set before us.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” Hebrews 12: 1-2

 

Rethinking Fraternal Correction

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another
— Proverbs 27:17

These words have inspired countless groups of friends to band together for the sake of accountability, to help each other grow in virtue, and to root out vice.  Speech has always played a key part in this process.  St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of this type of speech, labeling it fraternal correction.  It is the process of honing a friend through difficult conversations, pointing out their flaws/sins with the purpose of finding a solution to help them build up that weakened area, all through the lens of charity. Fraternal correction also has a reciprocal nature.  When one friends offers a correction, he is opening himself up to correction from his friend in return.  And in part through that exchange, each friend helps the other become more united to the person of Christ.  At least that’s the ideal.

But in the messy world of fallen human relationships, the best things can be twisted into occasions of sin, and our speech is an exceptional example of that.  “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:7-9).

I want to take a more serious tone with this article as I address that and offer some suggestions for how we can improve our approach to fraternal correction.  It’s a fine art.  We’ve all done it well and we’ve all done it poorly.  I’m certain that past experiences of both are running through your head as you read this, bringing a smile to you face or redness to your cheeks.

Let us turn to St. Thomas for some advice in how to offer fraternal correction. You can follow this link to read the text of the Summa on the topic.  This article is just a summary and some practical applications of his writing, given to me by a friend and spiritual director.  

First, here are some general guidelines:

  1. Phariseeism is a dangerous vice.  It comes across as well-intentioned, but deep down there is a temptation for us to look down our noses at others.  To keep this vice at bay in us lay folk St. Thomas distinguishes between two types of correction.  (1) A formal correction comes from the prelates of the Church, the bishops.  They are handed the burden of safeguarding the faith.  Think of the bishops writing letters to politicians, clarifying the faith in councils and addressing heresy.  It is an authoritarian correction from the heart of a shepherd.  (2) An informal correction or a friendly reminder (literally what he calls it, but in Latin) or a horizontal correction.  This is the correction proper to us.  We’re reminding a friend, not handing down some type of punishment.

  2. Prudence needs to dictate our conversations.  They need to be done at the right time and place so that they are well-received and fruitful.  We also need to exercise prudence in our own intentions, making sure that they are holy and worthy.  We’ve all waded into a “correction out of love” with someone that was just a veiled form of verbal abuse.  Prudence and discretion helps us avoid this.

  3. The person has to be wrong, AKA moral matter is involved.  A friend is caught in pattern of sin and we desire to pull that from the darkness out into the light.  Wits this consideration, we have to keep in mind that many people aren’t well-catechized.  Sometimes a good catechesis is needed from someone with the heart of a teacher instead of a correction.  Also, make sure that you are discerning whether someone is headed the wrong way rather than just not doing things your way.  

  4. There needs to be a reasonable chance of success.  You’re not bound to offer a correction that won’t be received well.  But we also have to vigilant that we are bold enough to offer a correction when needed and not use this piece of advice as a way out when it’s warranted.  Remember our prayers go further than our words.  Pray always for your friends and enemies, correct only when it is beneficial to do so.

  5. Don’t be a hypocrite.  If you are going to correct someone for something, it better not be something you are guilty of yourself.  Instead you can bring your own struggle to your friend, or pray that the Lord help heal you from that struggle and applies the grace of that suffering to your friend who struggles too.

  6. Always give correction gently.  It’s a friendly reminder, folks, and oftentimes your friend already knows it’s a struggle.  Verbal lashing will usually cause a recoil, which will add sin to sin and make the situation worse.  A gentle but firm tongue is vital in these crucial conversations.

Now on top of this fraternal correction we have an airing of grievances.  These are things that aren’t serious matter, but for the sake of your friendship, are worth bringing up.  It’s actually healing to tell you messy spouse or roommate that they’re a slob (in a gentle tone of course) and to invite those around you to air their grievances as weLl from time to time.  It’s all part of being in relationship. This type of conversation gets a bad wrap, but when people are elbow to elbow, up in each others’ business, it gets messy sometimes.  Let the mess out a bit.  Not all the time, but when appropriate.

Three more quick notes:

Kill the sarcasm.  Sarcasm means “tearing of flesh”.  It is a weak, hurtful form of verbal abuse when we don’t have enough charity in our hearts to be vulnerable and empathetic.  It exists to wound others when it’s employed in this type of conversation.  

Second, talk to each other rather than about each other.  We’ve all been a part of so many conversations that we have about people who aren’t present “out of love” for that person.  That’s backbiting (check out this convicting little treatise if you want to know more about that), and it is a form of murder- assassination of character and reputation.  Fr. Belet says that “[b]ackbiting is eminently destructive, for it robs a man of what is most precious to him: his reputation.”  “A good name is more desirable than riches” (Prov 22:1).  Never say anything about anyone that you haven’t said or don’t intend to say to their face, but instead do everything you can to hold up others’ reputations without regard for your own.

Lastly there is venting.  Sometimes we need to vent and get some correction ourselves or guidance for how we should say something to someone (I.e “This is driving me nuts and I don’t know what to do about it”).  The subject of our venting should be us:  how we’re feeling, what is bothering me and why I think it’s rubbing me the wrong way, etc.  That can be legitimate, but use it sparingly.  I frequently end up in the confessional when I’m not careful with this one.

In summary:

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29)
Friendship is messy but filled with grace, and our conversations often are the exact same way.  But with hearts intent on imparting grace (and a readiness to apologize when we don’t quite hit that aim) we should feel more emboldened to wade into the messiness of an authentic conversation with a friend and truly let our friendships and speech become like iron honing iron.

How an Infatuation with Evangelism Led Me Away From God.

This past Christmas season at a young adult event, I made the sly move of “stealing” a C.S. Lewis book during the white elephant gift exchange. The rules had been set, after two steals the gift was locked and could no longer be stolen. At first, I found myself with slight guilt for having secured the second steal from the young adult minster, but my conscience quickly moved on. The C.S. Lewis book was The Great Divorce, one of several C.S. Lewis books I had been wanting to read.  

Sometime after the first of the New Year, I found time to sit down with the book. Surprised the book was only slightly over 100 pages, I anticipated a short read. At first, the reading was brisk as a majority of the story seemed anecdotal - void of any “ah ha” moments. In all fairness, there may have been “ah ha” moments but my heart was too guarded to be receptive. However, around page 70 my heart of stone came to life. Unsure if I was encountering a moment of grace or an onset of sheer terror, my reading stopped. I saw myself in the story. I was caught between the touches of grace and the blunders of hell.

Without ruining too much of the book, The Great Divorce is a theological fiction in which C.S. Lewis writes about a bus traveling between heaven and hell. Citizens of hell can choose to travel to the valleys of heaven to “test the waters”. Spirits in heaven try to convince the citizens of hell to stay. While intrigued, most citizens of hell freely choose to return to hell having convinced themselves out of eternal joy.

In one such instance, a famous painter is on the verge of committing to heaven, but quickly turns back upon learning he is no longer famous on earth. He chooses to abandon heaven in order to work towards his own gain. The narrative between the painter and the Spirit of Heaven goes as follows, starting with the Spirit of Heaven.

“’Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.’

‘But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.’

‘No. You’re forgetting’, said the Spirit. ‘That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

‘Oh, that’s ages ago.’ said the Ghost. ‘One grows out of that, of course, you haven’t seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’

‘One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower – become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.’”

A chord in me was struck and I sat reflecting on my own soul. For me to explain further, I need to share some background.

Several years ago, I found myself the sponsor of a close friend who had transitioned, first from an atheist to a Protestant, and eventually a Catholic. In becoming Catholic he secured my own conversion to Catholicism. While raised in the faith, I never took the time to learn what we believed. Once I began learning, my thirst for theology, Catholicism, and Christ became palpable and unrestrained. I started leading prayer groups and speaking on the nature of Christ and Catholicism. This enthusiasm was born of a genuine love for Christ.

Over the course of the next several years I dove deeper into what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Sharing the Good News took root in my heart. I started a faith based blog and erected a routine prayer life. Eventually I was led to entertain the idea of the priesthood and left a good paying job to discern God’s will. As a precursor to seminary, I committed to doing a year of service at the same ministry where I sponsored my friend. The year of service started by attending an incredible retreat immersed in the mission of evangelization. It was life changing and I anticipated the remainder of my year of service to be just as enthralling. Long story short, it wasn’t. It was actually quite the opposite.

Upon returning from the retreat, I expected the idea of evangelism to be widely accepted and understood within my ministry. It wasn’t that the idea of evangelism wasn’t widely accepted, evangelism just looked a lot different in the ministry I was serving than it did on my retreat. I refused to accept that evangelism could look different to others than the way I experienced it. Armed with the right way to evangelize, I began a crusade to ensure hearts changed. A few months in to my year of service I grew tired and overwhelmed. Looking back, there were great people who loved Christ in the ministry and they had given the idea of a new way to evangelize much consideration. My heart was just expecting something different than what I got. I began to grow bitter, bitterness in the form of self-righteousness. “If only x, y and z happened… Catholicism would finally thrive”, became a popular narrative in my mind, heart, and prayer life.

It wasn’t long before I began to hurt those I loved and served. And even sooner, I fell into old habits of sin. This spiral continued until the end of my year of service. While a lot of good came out of this year and I saw hearts transformed by Christ, I could have composed myself more gracefully. My year of service ended but the bitter spiral in my heart did not.

No longer considering a vocation to the priesthood I headed to graduate school. Transplanted into a new community, I was no longer “the guy who is probably called to be a priest” or “the guy who knows theology”. I was just another guy in the pews - I preferred it this way. I wanted time to sort through my dissonance. Expecting my faith to heal without the formal responsibility of serving others, I was surprised when my faith actually suffered. It appeared I had fallen from grace and some of my choices were evidence of this. I felt I was hanging by a thread, but on the rare occasion I stopped to pray, I could see God holding me - refusing to let me fall. No matter how unfaithful I was to God, He was always faithful to me. Even knowing this reality, I still felt empty and my faith was dry. I could not figure out why.

Upon reading the quote I shared from C.S Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, I understood the reason my faith was faltering. I had become infatuated with the “paint” instead of the “light I was painting”. I was infatuated with the details of evangelism, rather than the God who was behind it all. So much of my faith depended on “being the guy who is probably called to be a priest” or “the guy with the theological answers”.  In the words of C.S. Lewis, I had become… “drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him”.

While doing all the evangelizing I failed to realize I too need to be evangelized. While evangelization may be the act of sharing the Good News, it is sustained by entering into relationship. Relationship with each other and relationship with God. Without this relationship, the Good News becomes empty air, something to be said rather than lived. Pope Francis recently shared this sentiment saying, “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”

It is cleaner and easier to serve ideas. Ideas are void of the emotions they evoke in people. Though not true, I tend to believe my ideas have never betrayed me, only the people I have shared them with. I may not like it, but those people hold the key to my salvation. For they instructed my heart more about faith, hope and love, than my ideas ever did. For my ideas were just a pallet and some paint, but those people were showered in reality and light. People give me the opportunity to act like a Christian and not just think like one. Lord lead me back to your love. Lord lead me back to you.

 

Helping a Grieving Friend Through the Holidays

The central image of Christmas is the holy family – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – huddled together in the stable at Bethlehem. The first Christmas was a family affair, and the holidays today have the same emphasis.

This emphasis is beautiful, and family is truly a cause for celebration. However, for many people, the holidays are a painful reminder of missing loved ones. The absence of family members who have died can make this time of year especially difficult. Many of our friends have just lost family members or are celebrating the first Christmas after a death. What sort of comfort can we offer? What should we say?

Losing a Loved One

While I can’t give advice that applies to everyone, I do understand what it’s like to feel powerless in the face of a friend’s suffering, and I know the pain of navigating life after loss.

During my senior year of college, one of my closest friends lost his mother. Then, several months later, my own father passed away. In these grueling six months, I experienced both sides of an event for which I was unprepared: the sudden death of a close family member.

How do I Help My Friend?

When my friend’s mother passed away, I felt helpless in the face of a grief I couldn’t understand or remedy. I also felt awkward. Death is an uncomfortable reminder of our frailty, and the emotions it reveals in all their nakedness were overwhelming. Months later when I lost a loved one, I experienced the grief I had only seen before, and I knew too well the confusion my friends felt as they comforted me.

Some Advice

I say that I understood my friend’s pain, but this is not entirely true. Everyone responds to death a little differently. Love your friend’s individuality. Because of the uniqueness of each person, I cannot pretend to provide a fool-proof guide to help you reach your grieving friend. Still, certain things were precious to me. These things may help you and your friend.

1)     Ask questions. For your friend, death is not a “someday.” It is an everyday reality. Death can feel like it occupies the space left by a loved one. After my dad died, I often wanted to speak about my experiences but did not know how to begin the conversation. And remember, questions that elicit more than one word answers are most valuable. “How are you doing?” can be great, but, “What is most difficult about this time of year?” is better. 

2)     But don’t pry. Try to recognize the limits of your intimacy. This depends on the level of your friendship and the openness of your friend. I felt like many kind, sincere acquaintances tried to be my therapists. While their compassion touched me, it often made authenticity difficult. My honest feelings battled with a script I adopted in the face of well-intentioned scrutiny.

3)     Admit your ignorance. “Amelia, I’m sorry to hear about your dad. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but you and your family are in my prayers.” Simplicity, sincerity, forthrightness. This was extremely comforting.

4)     Your presence is your most valuable gift. My dad died midway through my college semester. Following his death, my ability to concentrate and even care about the rest of that semester was scattered. My friends made their presence in my life a priority, not so they could psychoanalyze my mental state, but simply so I didn’t collapse into myself. They reminded me that I was loved for myself independent of my status as grieving or depressed.

 

Many of us picture comforting grief-stricken friends in dramatic moments worthy of Hollywood. But true friendship often looks more like an offer to run errands with them, make lunch, or watch a movie. These moments of everyday love are the true heroism of friendship. Try to keep your response to a grieving friend ordinary and natural. Your compassion will not be lost on them.

 

This article was originally published on the Newman Connection.

CBC Around the World: 5 Great Community Inspired Breweries to Visit in Vancouver, BC

If you plan on travelling to the Pacific Northwest anytime soon, and you should, there’s a city just a little further north that is worth checking out. Perhaps you’ve heard of Vancouver before, but what you may not have heard is all that it offers. Aside from containing hoards of friendly Canadians, Vancouver is a fantastic food and beverage destination much like its American contemporaries, Seattle and Portland. If you’re there for a night or couple days, Vancouver’s burgeoning craft beer scene is worth checking out. I thought that a quick guide to a few of our favourites would be a great way to introduce people to the scene, and send you straight to the local favorites..

Vancouver is home to a booming beer scene. Not only are the people of Vancouver embracing craft beer but the brewers who produce craft beer have been extremely creative, building a community of people inspired by one thing: beer. If you have the opportunity to visit Vancouver, I encourage you to check out these 5 community orientated breweries. You won’t be disappointed in the beer you’ll taste or people you’ll meet.

#1 33 Acres Brewery

Why I Love It: 33 Acres is one of the friendliest breweries in town with an extremely social tasting room. Featuring large communal tables, you’ll be sparking up conversation with a fellow beer lover in no time. Offering 5 or 6 different brews, they have something for everyone and the food truck parked out front changes daily. Join them on the weekend for brunch which is insanely good despite being limited in options.

My favorite beer: If you manage to stop in, give the 33 Acres of Ocean a try. It’s a west-coast pale and a real hit around the city. It’s a little bit hop forward but not overly bitter. It’s session-able enough at around 5-6% and was a real favorite of mine.

#2 Main Street Brewery

Why I love it: Main Street Brewery, much like 33 Acres, is in what is referred to by some locals as ‘beer town’. Main Street Brewery is perhaps on the edge of this ‘beer town’ and features a fairly small but extremely cozy tasting room. With a long bar at the front and communal tables scattered throughout, you’ll be met by a friendly bartender when you’re ready to order. Main Street is also known for its friendliness and is in the heart of the Mt. Pleasant community.

My favorite beer: They have a couple of rotating lines and then about 5 lines that remain fairly permanent. Perhaps most well known for the Westminster Brown Ale, it’s easy to know why as it’s malty and smooth flavor will have you coming back for more. You can also find this beer on tap at a few neighboring breweries including Craft Beer Market which is only a few blocks away, and offers 140 beers on tap.

#3 Four Winds Brewery

Why I love it: Four Winds is one of those breweries who relies on its community for inspiration into its brews. Not that the other breweries on this list don’t use local ingredients, Four Winds goes above and beyond sourcing nearly everything that goes into its beer from the local area. With a great tasting room, it’s no doubt why people go off the standard beer trail to visit Four Winds Brewery.

My favorite beer: For Four Winds, this is almost too difficult a choice. But perhaps my overall favorite was the Nectarous. A slightly sour beer, featuring heavy notes of nectarine, it’s gone from a seasonal to a mainstay throughout the city. Four Winds got so much flack when they announced that is was a seasonal they had to purchase additional kegerators just to keep it online.

#4 Red Truck Brewery

Why I love it: Red Truck is one of those breweries big enough that it doesn’t necessarily need to engage with its local community. But with a giant new brewery in the self-proclaimed ‘beer town,’ Red Truck has instead decided to completely ramp things up by offering all type of different events, including the outdoor concert series which they host in the parking lot of their brewery, with plenty of kegs mind you,  and is often times free! I was lucky enough to attend one of these parties and it felt more like being at a backyard BBQ as everyone had come together to celebrate great beer and great live music

My Favorite beer: I am a bit of a beer snob when it comes to IPA’s but I didn’t need to be snobby at all when I tasted the Red Truck IPA. Extremely well balanced, with a delicious hoppy flavor upfront, it had a smooth finish which allowed me to keep coming back to it throughout the night. A close second was the Red Truck Golden Ale which is a hoppy summer seasonal which is sure to impress as well.

#5 Big Rock Brewery

Why I love it: Another brewery, much like Red Truck, that embraces the surrounding community is Big Rock Brewery. The main brewery for Big Rock is a province over in Alberta but the Vancouver location has done some really cool things offering more of a brewpub setting as opposed to a tasting room. With live music weekly, the vibe on weekends is really fun and will likely have you dancing by the end of the night.

My favorite beer: By far the Big Rock Citradelic IPA. The name says it all as it features a citrus taste that can’t be beat (except by maybe Deschutes’ Fresh Squeezed). Apparently there was a lot of worry that the Alberta based Big Rock Brewery was just going to be a figure piece, but they’ve done a nice job creating some locally inspired brews using local ingredients.

For those looking for a great time tasting new beers and meeting some pretty great people, I definitely recommend Vancouver, British Columbia. Home to a big CAMRA population as well, you’ll see quickly why the beer community of Canada is one of the friendliest in the world.

Cheers.