Freelance Repost: Black Panther and Unity

This lil piece of mine appeared on Popcultureandtheology.com

Black Panther and Theology: Unity and Our Call to Face the World

Stevens, nicknamed Killmonger, takes to neither unity nor isolationism, but righteous fury at the injustice in the treatment of black people, particularly in the death of his father.  Stevens’ backstory includes the former King, T’Chaka, killing Stevens’s father over the latter’s role in the theft of vibranium from Wakanda. Stevens’s father, like Stevens, was a proponent of the view that Wakandan vibranium ought to be distributed to people of color to assist them overthrowing their oppressors. Stevens tells T’Challa, “There are about two billion people in the world who look like us, but their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.” Having lost his own father for the protection of vibranium and having grown-up alone and facing racial injustice in America, Killmonger presents a compellingly sympathizable anti-hero.

….

Killmonger’s dedication to his cause moves even T’Challa himself. When his throne is restored, Black Panther branches out from his father’s policy of isolation and sides with Nakia, who he then asks to be his queen, agreeing that the injustices faced by black folks are formidable and venturing to put the full heft of Wakanda’s resources towards helping them. He founds a center in America to start the work of aiding others, and finally, he proclaims the necessity of seeing others as “one, single tribe.”

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More at the link. Movies are our mythological stories–and I think it makes sense that our most compelling values as a society play out in them.

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The Transformative Purpose of Pain

Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cropncleaned_edit.jpgI wanted to re-post an email devotional that I get from Fr. Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. In just a few paragraphs, it sheds light on and explains something that resonates with my experience over the past few years, the transformative power and purpose of pain.

I’ve highlighted the one paragraph that stood out the most to me:

Transforming Pain
Wednesday, October 17, 2018

All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. If only we could see these “wounds” as the way through, as Jesus did, then they would become sacred wounds rather than scars to deny, disguise, or project onto others. I am sorry to admit that I first see my wounds as an obstacle more than a gift. Healing is a long journey.

If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative, or bitter. This is the storyline of many of the greatest novels, myths, and stories of every culture. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children.

Scapegoating, exporting our unresolved hurt, is the most common storyline of human history. The Jesus Story is about radically transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing on the pain to the next generation. Unless we can find a meaning for human suffering, that God is somehow in it and can also use it for good, humanity is in major trouble. Because we will suffer. Even the Buddha said that suffering is part of the deal!

We shouldn’t try to get rid of our own pain until we’ve learned what it has to teach. When we can hold our pain consciously and trustfully (and not project it elsewhere), we find ourselves in a very special liminal space. Here we are open to learning and breaking through to a much deeper level of faith and consciousness. Please trust me on this. We must all carry the cross of our own reality until God transforms us through it. These are the wounded healers of the world, and healers who have fully faced their wounds are the only ones who heal anyone else.

As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross or, as in Michelangelo’s Pietà cradling Jesus’ body. One would expect her to take her role wailing or protesting, but she doesn’t! We must reflect on this deeply. Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. It’s as if she is saying, “There’s something deeper happening here. How can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?” Consider the analogy of energy circuits: Most of us are relay stations; only a minority are transformers—people who actually change the electrical charge that passes through us.

Jesus on the cross and Mary standing beneath the cross are classic images of transformative spirituality. They do not return the hostility, hatred, accusations, or malice directed at them. They hold the suffering until it becomes resurrection! That’s the core mystery of Christianity. It takes our whole life to begin to comprehend this. It tends to be the wisdom of elders, not youngers.

Unfortunately, our natural instinct is to try to fix pain, to control it, or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love, and he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand in liminal space, to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until we are moved by grace to a much deeper level and a much larger frame, where our private pain is not center stage but a mystery shared with every act of bloodshed and every tear wept since the beginning of time. Our pain is not just our own.

Church puts light on Opioid Addiction

Just a quick post here–A few weeks ago, the diocese of Arlington hosted an conference on Opioid addiction, including approaches from doctors and counselors and from a priest in recovery. I watched the talks online, a Dr. Michael Horne speaks about how addiction begins. Fr. Mark Hushen talks about his experience in recovery and the 12 Steps as a cognitive behavioral and spiritual therapy, of returning to God.

I’m posting two talks because addiction is a tough, multifaceted and pervasive problem that Washington doesn’t talk much about. It’s easier to fight over bathrooms or nominations than face something that isn’t easy to fix or name call about.

After I’ve posted two things struggling with the church, this reflects the Church on the right path–on bringing Christ to people in true need. The Church has two powerful tools: spiritual truth and a community. The Church has people and can bring people together–when she does that with grace and holiness, the transformation could be boundless.

What do you think of this? Are there other issues that the Church could focus on? Have you heard of the 12 steps? Do you agree with Fr. Hushen’s description of them as a true spiritual path?

Reacting to the Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Church

I haven’t said anything yet, but the recent revelations of on-going sexual abuse and its cover up in Pennsylvania since the 1970s in the church has been very troubling to me. The involvement of Cardinal Wuerl, who currently serves as Archbishop of Washington DC, especially bothered me because he is someone who I had admired. Then the even more recent news of the same thing happening Germany came out.

These have disturbed me greatly, and I want to say that I have a “response,” or what a response should be, but I don’t. All I have is a reaction, a recounting of what its been like to watch this unfold.

*First, I was shocked and horrified, heart-broken for the survivors and deeply troubled that the sexual abuses of teens and children could be so systemic among those who are supposed to guide the faithful.

*Embarrassed and ashamed. I was ashamed for the church and embarrassed to be associated with such corruption and hypocrisy.

*Doubt – all sorts of questions arose, questions I thought had been confidently answered:

  1. Could this really be the Church of God, the Church Christ founded?
  2. What if it’s really all a lie?
  3. How could the Holy Spirit really be present here?
  4. How could the Church’s sexual ethics still hold water at all? Haven’t we just discredited ourselves completely?

*Considerations — Sexual abuse may be a bane everywhere, but that doesn’t make it okay. And it’s especially bad in the church; we are called to be an example.

*My Developing thoughts:

  1. Why be Christian anyway? Because I can’t escape the necessity of the idea that there is meaning and a goodness infused into the universe by a Creator. And because the idea of a loving, healing God — the Christian narrative, incarnated in Jesus– changes my life. The historical case and moral philosophy aspects are particularly important to me.
  2. Now what? Well, maybe its time to re-examine certain thoughts, disciplines, unofficial traditions and the way we teach them and live them. For instance, historically, priests have been allowed to marry and Eastern rite Catholics marry today and are still in communion with Rome.
    1. Time to put away inordinate “delicacy” and talk about hard topics–like sex abuse and what sex even is– because they are volcanoes erupting all around us, whether we address them or not.
    2. The role of ritual and the sacraments is pivotal to being Catholic. Let’s keep that and work on making church a truer “hospital for sinners” as Pope Francis has called it. It would benefit the Church, I think, for parishes to welcome people with problems more openly–because we all have them. Too often, the social atmosphere is stiflingly aware of staying within certain boundaries of moral righteousness. (Not that doing bad things, sin, is okay—we just have to be honest and helpful about the fact that everyone needs help and that help is available–rather than always trying to look like we are sinless).
    3. The Church is about Jesus, as Bishop Barron reminded us recently–it’s not about the mistakes of its members. To get through this, we (I) have to keep Jesus in sight.

So what do you think? How has the news affected you?

 

 

 

 

Book Review: “Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator” by Gary Noesner

Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage NegotiatorThere’s a part of me that loves superheroes and detectives–this book was a real life tour of the role negotiators play in saving lives and ending hostage situations from terrorism, kidnappings, prison riots, barricades and threatened suicides.

Gary Noesner tells page-turning story after story of tense, walk-the-line between life and death stand-offs and how he and/or the FBI crews on scene handled the situation. It starts with a domestic dispute that escalated when an aggrieved ex-husband kidnapped and held at gunpoint his ex-wife and son. Noesner then describes his own career path, and details Waco, Ruby Ridge and other notorious government failures while also including tales of successful negotiations that talked the perpetrators down without any bloodshed.

He lauds the successful balance between tactical (armed SWAT) units and the negotiators and also what he thinks went wrong in Waco and other bloody encounters. Noesner’s main focus is importance of negotiators and the centrality of both teams working together instead of an over-reliance on force, which he blames for unfortunate outcomes.

The main things that struck me about this book:

  1. It is tense and thrilling–better than a movie.
  2. The power of words. In so many desperate situations, cool-headed negotiators were indeed able to establish contact and communications with the would-be violent leaders and then get people out safely. A well-placed word can save lives and an ill-placed move can lose them. Guns and tanks seem all powerful sometimes, but often a caring, patient tongue can be more effective.
  3. (less important) Noesner’s career path seemed so straight forward. He wanted to work at the FBI; he applied and he started. Getting jobs today hardly seems so accessible.
  4. Normal people overwhelmed by emotions committed most of the kidnapping and threatening. It goes to show how strong emotions can be and how critical it is to manage them properly. Further, it’s something that none of us is better than.
  5. Calm communication can solve most issues–even in everyday life. Noesner even says towards the end that “all of life is a negotiation.” Relationships, rapport, calm, understanding and seeing the needs of the other person are the tools negotiators work with–and their our tools too with each other. Success is in seeing the humanity of the other person and wanting their good–in short, loving them (as Jesus calls us), rather than over-powering them.

Stalling for Time is a fascinating combination of psychology and true crime and true heroes.

Would you read a book like this? Have you ever seen communication strategies work well/poorly in your own life? 

Are there other books detailing the heroics of law enforcement? What about the darker sides of force and government power?

Retractions: Finding an authentic self-love in Christian language

It’s come time that I would like to discuss Christian language about losing the self and about self-love, and do so by revisiting something I wrote a few years ago called “The Desert Spirituality of Motherhood.” 

In this well-intended piece, I wrote about how motherhood requires giving up of the self in order to be purified. Some of that is accurate, but some of what I wrote is off-the mark, and falls into the category I’ve come to despise in mom-devotionals: rationalizing our legitimate needs away. 

I wrote this: “But the false self who feels buried, who thinks we are above drool and spilled cereal, who wants everything to be easy, without sacrifice, and who wants accomplishments for accomplishments’ sake must die in the desert of motherhood.”

And to this I would now reply: Hold on. It’s true that no one is “above drool” and the mundane pieces of life, but neither should anyone be confined to the mundane aspects of life. Perhaps this “self who feels buried” doesn’t need to “die,” but rather is in a real need of being resurrected, cared for, and set on a path of purpose–in short, loved and healed by Jesus.

Yes, in the Gospels Jesus says that “He who seeks to gain his life shall lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake shall gain it.” And this is very true, but I fear that I’ve misapplied it myself and seen it wrongly applied quite frequently.  God loves us and wants good things for us. He gave us emotions, and when they are severely out of balance, it’s a signal that something needs to be fixed. Following God is meant to be a fulfillment of who we are called to be and of putting our gifts into his service. It is not the squelching of our abilities, moods and value. When we “give up our life,” this is a call to put our gifts at the service of God rather than selfishness.

And we can know that this is accurate because of the greatest commandment. We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves if we have no love of self. Fr. Jacques Philippe, a well-known priest and writer on the spiritual life has written:

Love travels along two paths that are inseparable in the end: love of God and love of neighbor. But as this text suggests, there is another aspect of charity—love of one’s self. (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) This self-love is good and necessary, not egoism that refers everything to “me,” but the grace to live in peace with one’s self, content to be what one is, with one’s talents and limitations.
– Called to Life, p.69

Christian devotionals sometimes wrongly attack self-love and self-care as selfishness or indulgence. But they are not always the same. Being a self, caring for ourselves is actually what allows us to give to others.

In true humility, we recognize our gifts so that we can give them! True humility doesn’t pretend that we are worthless wretches with nothing to offer anyone, cowering in a bedroom feeling low. Yet, it always maintains the other side of the truth, which is that none of us are ever perfect and that it’s good also to recognize our shortcomings and sins and aim to get better.

So I retract my portions of my essay. The intensity of my negative emotions meant that something needed to change. For me, I started working outside the home. Maybe this isn’t the path for everyone, but it has made me feel that I am using my gifts at the service of others and answering a call.

Encouraging Scrupulosity – Another problematic theme I see in some devotionals

And now, if I may, I have seen an entire genre of mom-devotionals in which frankly I see scrupulosity encouraged alongside this downplaying of the legitimate needs of parents.

In one recent post, the author found sinfulness in her social media latte post. She declared that she was a hypocrite, posting her shiny, “best life” photos while avoiding the stickier interior issues. Maybe that’s true, but I’d had enough of this style and unsubscribed. The post had also included that this was a break after a long stretch of busyness for her, and I just couldn’t shake the ill-feelings that this was precisely the sort of Christian-mommy post that finds sin where it isn’t and overlooks some other legitimate goods. These things are misleading and frankly unhealthy.

Here’s what bothers me about this genre of devotional:
1. Finding sin in innocent actions encourages scrupulosity. I don’t want to discourage examination of conscience, but neither should we obsess over all the minuscule ways we might be sinning. There are more loving, healthy, helpful, Jesus-centered things to do instead.
-2. A coffee break can be a healthy impulse–as a mother, a little alone time is necessary for sanity. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves–the “ourselves” isn’t optional. As I mentioned earlier, if we aren’t caring for ourselves appropriately, we cannot care for others. In humility, we see our own value interconnected with the value of others. Humility is not acting like we are worthless and don’t need to recharge or manage our own needs.

If some time out with a coffee is self-care, it is pernicious to look for sin in an innocuous action.

3. Where does this self-critical confessional stem from? Honestly, (and I’m speculating here)  I think it stems from a sense of guilt at life going well. Sometimes, we are so accustomed to speaking of the cross, that we forget the joy and the resurrection. I’ve spent time reflecting on this myself–what to do when things are going well. What is there to “offer up” so to speak?

The answer, I believe, comes as forgetfulness of oneself, not as worthless, but in seeing opportunities to love others. Instead of continuing to look inward, we can turn our gaze outward to help others–to give back some of the goodness that we have been so lucky to receive from God.

4. God loves us. He does want us to live good lives–to have “life abundantly”–and while we do need to realize our sin, we need to also see our value, that we have gifts we are called to share. Fussing over lattes isn’t one of them. When life is going well, something isn’t necessarily wrong. It can be a time to share blessings.

Perhaps the author’s quiet cup of coffee strengthened her to jump back into the parenting fray or gave her a chance to write something which would encourage others.

Only the individual and God can say what is indulgence and what is self-care, so I can’t claim to know the state of her soul.

[For the record, I do not intend anything like the “prosperity gospel” here; I do not believe that God heaps material goods on people for being Christians. What I do mean is that when we do have abundance, we should be grateful and share it instead of looking the gift-horse in the mouth, so to speak, and seeking out problems with it.]

There are legitimate goods that are okay to celebrate and enjoy. And I believe that we live the Christian life when we focus on what we can give. In Bishop Barron’s words, “your life is not about you.”

When he speaks of the great values of God and teleology, Bishop Barron says: “None of this is meant to be crushing to the will, but liberating. When these great values present themselves to our freedom, we are drawn out beyond ourselves and integrated into great realities that expand us and make us more alive. “

So–what do you think? Have you had any turn-arounds in thought? Do you buy the distinction I’ve made about self-love and selfishness? 

 

Embracing Differentiation in Education

Differentiation in the classroom – the idea of having choice within assignments and adapted assignments for different student levels — tends to get a hard knock from the older generation. In my first year teaching last year, I was introduced to this concept, and admittedly, I found it new, different and slightly hippie-seeming. After all, I also grew up doing the assignment as it was given and memorizing my butt off for the tests. But I have had the chance to learn more about differentiation and especially about the changing dynamics in the student population over the last half-century, and I can say now that differentiation may seem new agey–but really, it’s very good for students and fits the reality of the set of learners we have in the classroom today.

The group of kids filling desks in 2018 is not the same group that filled Catholic schools in the 1970s. One huge change was legislation mandating that all children receive free, public, appropriate education. In 1975, this came to include children with special needs as well under the IDEA law, which created the modern IEP process for kids in any form of special education.  So, in days past, kids who didn’t sit still and listen well, simply wouldn’t have been in most schools, certainly not in private schools where they could easily be kicked out. Today, all kids are in school, public and private–for different reasons, and that creates a new reality within the classroom.

Before, rote lessons and whole class instruction went over just fine. Today, those methods don’t get much of a foothold. Maybe we can blame it on increased screen time, more distracted kids, spoiled kids. Those probably all do play a factor, but I wonder–were those really better methods? Granted, I believe in memorization–that a solid grounding in math facts or spellings must be the foundation of more advanced skills. But that doesn’t mean lessons and methods can’t also be more interesting and include more choices for the student.

From my point of view as a teacher, creating a solid differentiated lesson is more effort intensive. But when I do it right, it has gone over so much better than me trying to stand in front of the room and talk. Overall, what goes on today looks a good deal different than when I was a student, but I do think it’s mostly good (nothing is perfect), and it is actually desirable to adapt lessons to different student interests and abilities. While there is a time to sit and memorize, Mary Poppins said it best with “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”

Rambling on now to connect to another social issue: the homeless and high rates of incarceration in America. In my special education class, we learned about how in the early 20th century people with intellectual disabilities, what used be called “retarded”, were often cared for in state or privately run institutions or “schools” where they lived and never left, much like those with severe mental illnesses. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, a number of abuses were exposed, notably at Willowbrook School in New York, and these institutions gradually closed, and the family re-emerged as the center of care for those with such disabilities or mental illnesses.

A few things followed: these young people became part of the school-aged population, now part of our student population with needs that must be addressed, creating another change in the dynamics of the student population. Second, as adults, especially if the family couldn’t provide high-cost care, many of these people became the modern homeless and often those who are incarcerated. This isn’t to say that all/most people in jail have disabilities, but that in the cases of people with disabilities, many ended up in jail for petty crimes in such a way that modern prisons almost serve as institutions.

I found this a fascinating revelation; it means that today’s homeless population and high incarceration rates are more complicated than first meets the eye. It means that there is more to it than: “Jim just needs a job” or “Too many people are in prison.” That’s not even to mention the contribution of drug abuse issues to both problems. It means that neither with institutions nor with today’s methods of helping the homeless or imprisoned have we found an adequate way to address the needs of people with intellectual disabilities.

As I turn this over in my mind, the homeless, incarcerated and drug-addicted social ills of our society seem to call out much more strongly than other hot-button issues today–such as those related to sexuality. A compassionate approach from a compassionate population is needed; and this is something it seems easy for all of us to work together on: finding ways to help these people and integrate them better into society.

 

 

The Wise Woman by George MacDonald

George MacDonald, inspiration to the Inklings like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien,

“Suddenly she saw before her, in the dusk of the thick wood, a group of some dozen wolves and hyenas, standing all together right in her way, with their green eyes fixed upon her staring. She faltered one step, then bethought her of what the wise woman had promised, and keeping straight on, dashed right into the middle of them. They fled howling, as if she had struck them with fire.” (81)

In this passage, the confidence of the little girl to run through wolves, inspired by her trust in the wise woman’s words is just inspiring. To us, if we will trust in God’s words, we too can have that confidence. The hard part is the trust.

“A long way from the palace, in a heart of a deep wood of pine-trees, lived a wise woman. In some countries she would have been called a witch; but that would have been a mistake, for she never did anything wicked, and had more power than any witch could have. As her fame spread through all the country, the king heard of her; and thinking she might perhaps be able to suggest something, she for her” (7).

I love this last quote because it is a Christianity unafraid of mythology or unintentional overlap with pagan culture. Sometimes in Christian circles, it seems we run from anything that might remotely hint of other beliefs–which is really too bad, because a lot ideas are compatible with the universal (catholic) if we view it that way. I love that MacDonald’s allegory of the moral life, some have said that focuses on Our Lady, Mary, centers on a “wise woman” figure who some would have called a “witch.” It shows us a faith that focuses on true wisdom, on true faith, that sees good aspects of things instead of everything that could go wrong.

Who are your favorite writers?

Abandoned Places

[A Note to readers: I seem to lack consistent subject matter lately, but oh well. Here are some recent interests of mine.]

Driving around in Delaware and Maryland, I noticed the variety of old, abandoned and falling part structures–it seems to be cheaper to build new than to tear down and/or restore.

And this

And some winter ones