Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A History and The Nature of Choice

Growing up, my parents had one car for most of my life. My Dad rode the bus to work or walked if my mother needed the car. She was homebound on days he took the car. This was at the same time most high school students had their own cars. My father was a lawyer. He taught law school for a few years, worked for the State and then went into private practice. He and my mom were married with three children before they purchased their first house at nearly forty years of age.

We took three family vacations my whole life. Two of them were to Chicago. For the third, my dad left the choice up to us kids. He gave us a certain mile range to choose from. Needless to say, Hawaii, the Bahamas and Washington, DC did not fit the criteria. He ended up choosing, since we couldn’t make a decision based on his parameters. We went to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I remember having a good time.

In high school, we all had summer or after school jobs. We were given lunch money and our school clothes and a few extra items were bought for us each year. Everything else we paid for. I remember being in awe of a friend who was handed money to take us both to the movies. It was tough to decide between entertainment and wardrobe. I have to admit, I loved sitting home in my cool clothes and going out in old ones.

Dad encouraged me to study harder. I didn’t really care about academics at the time, but he said, “You want to have options. If when you graduate from high school you only get into one school, you have no choice. You always want to have has many options as possible to choose from.”

When I finally did graduate, I got into more than one school. I got to make a choice. Dad helped: If I wished to go to a non-Catholic school, I paid for it myself. If I chose a Catholic School that fell into a certain range of tuition, he would pay for it. While I had been creating options for myself, he had been creating options for both of us. He put himself in a position to affect my decision and also to increase my educational opportunities. I learned later this was his plan all along. His main priority was to send us all to Catholic College. Any extra money we had, he chose to put away for this purpose. Having the finances allowed him to set parameters again. I chose the Catholic route. I have never regretted that decision.

Needless to say, we were not given a car in high school or college. I was not even allowed to buy my first car until I could afford both the payment and the insurance. I was finally in a financial position to make this choice after college graduation. Again, I took my dad’s advice: “A new car always becomes an old car. Eventually it is just a payment; get the cheapest one you can find.” I did: A green Toyota Tercel. I have to admit I loved everything about that car, even the fake leather seats that cracked in the Texas sun.

After less than a year at my first job out of college, I made another choice. I wanted to be a teacher. I moved home and enrolled in a local land grant college to get certified. I worked part time jobs until my semester of student teaching when I was forced to live off of my student loans. My parents offered me their home, but no financial help. My car payment and insurance and all other expenses were left to me. I even paid my own phone bills.

After certification, I had another choice. I was offered a job at the public middle school where I had done my student teaching. I was also offered a job at the local Catholic high school, my alma mater. The public school job paid more. I loved the junior high and my co-workers. But I had gone to Catholic schools my whole life. I felt the need to give back. I took the lower paying job.

I was married at age twenty-five the summer after my first year of teaching. (You can read about that choice in another post.) My husband had made some choices of his own. He had studied the Classics in undergraduate and went on to study Literature at the graduate level. A year into his studies, he decided teaching literature was probably not the best means to support the large family he hoped to have some day. He took the LSAT and was accepted into Vanderbilt Law School two weeks before I met him.

My husband had two years of law school left after we were married. I found a job at another Catholic High School in Nashville, and we lived on my very meager salary. We chose an apartment away from campus because it was cheaper. We only had the Tercel, so I drove him to school early and he stayed there until I was finished working.

When he graduated, we had another choice to make. The salary for lawyers on the coasts was much higher than in the mid-west. He went to undergraduate at Colgate in New York and had the potential for a much greater client base in New York, Boston or DC. I wanted to be close to my mother who had become a widow three months before my wedding. We chose the mid-west. We would make the same decision again if given the chance.

We moved into a wonderful apartment not too far from the Plaza. It was one of those old brick buildings with large white columns and balconies. It was charming and in a not so safe part of town, but we loved it. I continued to drive him to and from work daily.

We put off home ownership until two months before the birth of our first child. We had paid off my post-graduate school loans and saved much of my salary after we were both working. It was not the home of many of the lawyers with whom he worked. It was not even the house the banks said we could afford. It was the payment we decided we could afford. We still had his law school loans and were a one income family. I loved that house. I loved the neighbors and the neighborhood. I loved that it was in Missouri. So, we only had one bathroom and two and half closets. It was worth it.

We finally bought a second car when our second child turned one. Prior to that, I drove Chris to work or stayed at home on days I did not wish to get out with a baby on cold mornings. It was the first and last used car I bought. It was much cheaper than a new car, but I still find the security of a five year one hundred thousand mile warranty worth the extra monthly expense. It blew up on me one hot summer day on a trip to my grandparent’s house. We traded it in before it was even paid off.

We got the dreaded mini van just as number three arrived. I need to say at this point in our lives, we did not have cable, internet or even a TV made in the current decade. When number three was just one, we decided to adopt a child. All extra income went to this endeavor. It took a lot longer than we expected, almost two years from beginning to end. But it was worth it. I love that little girl, even when she cuts her own hair and says, “NO!”

I said I loved our first house, and I did. But with six people and one bathroom it got a bit complicated. When I found the boys going behind the girl, it was time to make another choice. We had hoped to wait until all the law school loans were paid off, but we reviewed finances to decide if it was possible to do it a year early. We decided to put the house on the market and see what happened.

The goal was to move into a bigger nicer house in our current area. Like the parameters my dad had set for the family vacation, we were shooting for Hawaii. We could find the same size house in perfect condition OR a bit bigger dump for a mere two hundred thousand more than our current house. To get bigger AND nicer put us at about two hundred over our budget. We had to adjust. We decided to go more urban. We found a beautiful house near the art museum and decided we would buy it if ours sold. For once in my life, I decided to do a little research. I found on a national registry that a vile child predator would be living three doors away. That obviously ruined it for that house and actually did it for more urban life in general. Then our own house sold.

We needed to move. Not to the suburbs, please not to the suburbs. “Find us a house!” My husband commanded. “There is nothing we can afford.” “Then change your criteria.” “I don’t want to.” “The market is dropping; we will never get this price for our house again. If you want to move anytime soon, it needs to be now. Find a house.”

So, I changed my criteria. I looked across the State Line. I looked in the suburbs. I found a house. We bought it. It was a wonderful house with plenty of bathrooms, but I had wanted to live in the City. I didn’t want to be in the suburbs. But you adjust. I was able to move, I actually had several options in the suburbs. It just was not exactly what I had hoped.

I have come to love our new location. My kids are happy and my life is much easier. It was a trade off. Suburban life has its perks as does urban life. You can’t have the best of both worlds unless you are a millionaire. And I am not. Even being a millionaire requires choices. Not every decision is based on finances, though many are.

As I read through this post, it seems to be the history of choices made by a pretty fortunate gal. And, in fact, it is. I think of the choice made by my fourth child’s biological parents. They chose to abandon her near a military facility in China where she would be found. What criteria did they have to change? What were their options? What were the consequences of not abandoning her? What were the consequences of leaving her near that gate? And what of our newest child who we have yet to meet? He will be from Ethiopia where many children are given up because family members can not provide for them. Will his parents have chosen to part with their child in order to insure he does not die of starvation? What kind of choice is that?

The nature of choice is that we have to work within the parameters. We would all choose the mansion in the perfect location, the Mercedes, the Harvard education were it not for parameters. Would anyone choose to abandon or give up a child without parameters? Would one know it all girl make the best choice for her college education?

Sometimes we set the parameters, sometimes others set them for us. Sometimes they are set by the forces of nature or a communist government. As my dad told me, the goal is always to have as many options as possible from which to choose. Whenever we can, we create our own options. When we can’t, we make the best choice we can.

And what exactly does this mean about the nature of choice? Somewhere across the ocean in Ethiopia and China, the parameters were set. Someone was forced to choose between two terrible options. And those choices are my children. What in the world can that possibly mean?

Pink Ribbons and The Comprehensive Health Care Bill

The Comprehensive Health Care Bill is scary for a number of reasons. Currently, I am most afraid of the end of life issues it contains. Those of us who are young and in the midst of raising our own children spend little time thinking about end of life issues. The current bill contains language that will set up a system that requires the elderly to receive counseling every five years about end of life care. The hope is to expand the Hospice Care which provides care for those who are dying. The government hopes to save on costs of people nearing the end of life. Government is always a bureaucracy and will define end of life simply by a random age based on statistical information. If you are above this age, you will not be given treatment as an option; only hospice.

When I was a freshman in high school, a fellow student did a speech on Breast Cancer. Her mother had breast cancer, and she was resigned to the fact that she would have it as well. Her speech talked about preventative treatment and being aware of your risks. I thought this was at best, odd. What fourteen year old thinks about breast cancer at some far off point in the future? Since then, I have found that Breast Cancer Survivors are a unique club. I have seen pink ribbon tattoos on the ankles of fifty year olds, pink ribbons on bumper stickers, pink ribbons the size of a house hanging from office buildings. I have read stories of these survivors and have seen how they continue to support awareness and treatment funding long after they have been cured. Once in the club, you are always a member. If your mother joins, you join in spirit.

My mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. We believe we have gotten all the cancer, but she will begin preventative chemo-therapy tomorrow. She is seventy-four years old and in better shape than I am. It is unclear if she would be allowed treatment under the rules of the new bill. Her treatment will continue into her seventy-fifth year of life.

As my fourteen year old friend knew, breast cancer is nearly always hereditary. If your mother or grandmother had it, your chances are greatly increased. Will you get it at thirty, or forty, or seventy-four? If you do get it, do you want the government to determine whether or not you receive treatment? It is one of those diseases, that if a loved one has suffered from it, we are forced to think about our own future. There are other diseases of this nature as well.

I am all for dialogue about end of life care. I do think we need to look at pain management and creating an atmosphere of love and attention over the option of Euthanasia. I hope the elderly and sick will have many options for care rather than thinking they have a responsibility to kill themselves when they are no longer considered productive. I do not think rejecting treatment for yourself is wrong. I think all treatment should be a risk/benefit analysis. But it is one of the most personal decisions a person can make. Quality of life is one of the most subjective things in existence. Some of us are wired to want to live at any cost under any circumstances. Others see death as a welcomed friend. I have seen rewiring based on circumstance and pain but never on a magic birthday.

So, if you are in the Breast Cancer Club or your mother was or your daughter may be, think twice. If you are a survivor of any age, do you want other women to be denied whatever treatment they wish to undergo? What age guarantees a woman should surrender the battle and let the cancer win? For every woman who loses the battle, those in the club mourn. For every success story, the club celebrates the victory. We respect personal choice with regard to treatment, but for the government to deny treatment to one of us should enrage all of us.

If the Comprehensive Health Care Bill should become law, be prepared to mourn more of our fallen sisters and to be enraged.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When in Rome

I save too much stuff. I feel very sorry for my children and grandchildren who have to clean up this mess when I die. I found in one of my boxes, a speech I had co-written and given in the last days of my semester abroud. It is published here for the benefit of those who were there with me.

Fall 1989 Romers Farewell Speech:

As we begin to think back on our semester and see it coming to an end, many events come to mind as humorous and nostalgic reminders of our Rome experience.

It began with the realization that we were in for a semester with only half a bath tub, or as it is now called, a cro-mag. Yet, even with the constant shortage of hot water, things got increasingly better.

Our trip to Florence brought a once in a life time chance to dance on John Travolta's dance floor, and in Assisi, we rallied with the Facist in Rocca Maggori. We were becoming increasingly accustomed to Italian things like Perroni, Cappuchini, and dodging Komakasi Pigeons.

In what seemed like days since we had arrived, we were off to Greece. If you weren't in a state of awe from the sunset seen from the deck of the ship, you surely would be at the fact that we survived the Greek bus rides.

Our ten days were decorated with unforgettable memories. Our secret fire under the Olympian stars, that certain closeness we all felt as we huddled around to hear the "top 10" from our favorite quotable professor. We were lucky enough to witness Professor Novinski's excellent lectures and blessed enough to witness the stigmata acquired from Aigina mopeds. And no one will forget that illusive student who disappeared and reappeared in the most unseemly places. Not to mention the poor Aigian who is still looking for his dog.

We were dad to say good-bey to Gyros, Baklava, and Amstel, but glad to return to Home Sweet Rome and Vitinia. For here held some of our greatest memories: lounging in the lounge, listening to the stereo that we had worked so hard to purchase; being led in various choruses of Happy Birthday at dinner; keeping each other informed by way of class attendance sheets as well as being careful not to forget fellow student John Hrad on any of them. Together we battled the Italian crowds at the Papal Audience and together sat quietly at our own Private Papal Mass.

Our individual travel could hardly be considered individual. Each Monday brought stories of event filled weekends. We collectively shared the excitement of the historic fall of the Berlin Wall and collectively hoped that those who looted our belongings in the night would enjoy them as much as we had.

As I reflected on our semester one word kept coming to mind: growth. We have all grown: academically, spiritually, practically and most obviously in regard to one another. I've seen the strengthening of many old friendships and the growth of many new ones. We've made it through our Rome Experience without any major tragedies and with a whole lot of fun.

Today, I wanted to say something stimulating to expand on that word growth, since we HAVE grown both individually and collectively. So, I went to Webster's dictionary for some help. The first definition was: an increase in size. I didn't feel like elaborating on that aspect of MY semester, so I looked at the second definition which read: an abnormal mass of tissue. I took that as a sign to leave the reflection to you and end by saying simply, we have all grown an it in not due just to Gelatti.

How I Met Your Father: How it took knowing the Blues to know you

I sat in the college Eucharistic chapel. It was ugly, really. Jesus on the cross that hung on the wall didn’t have a face. The tabernacle looked like the house built for Eeyeore by Pooh and Piglet out of sticks. But I loved it here. It reminded me a lot of the ugly church that had been my home parish growing up. It was quiet and peaceful, and I was usually alone. I found it easier to talk to God here. We were having the same conversation again. I was telling him if He really wanted me to be a nun, I would do it. But I didn’t mean it and He wasn’t answering.

I had a boyfriend at the time. He was charming: a big Louisiana chap from a family of thirteen who liked hunting and fishing. His goal in life was to have a tractor that he probably wouldn’t know how to use with his Political Philosophy Degree. He made me laugh and I loved to argue with him. I could see myself marrying him though I didn’t have that “You Just Know” feeling that everyone always talked about. I tried my half hearted offer again when it came to me. The realization: I knew that I would never be happy if I was not doing what God wanted me to be doing. I did not want to be a nun, but if that is what He had planned for me, it is what would bring happiness and fulfillment. And so I said it again, and I meant it: “If you want me to be a nun, I will do it!” And He answered. Not with lightening or thunder, He spoke to my soul. His wordless answer was: “I do NOT want you to be a nun. I want you to be a wife and mother. I just wanted you to give it up to Me.” We never had to have the conversation again. I was at peace. I knew my vocation and that was enough. In time, I would know to whom I would be married.

A few years later I was living at home. I met an acquaintance from High School and we became friends. Being friends was enough for me, but not for him. He wanted to go out with me. I had nothing better to do, so I agreed. Then he wanted to date seriously. I didn’t really have any other prospects, so I agreed. Before I knew it, we were engaged to be married. I had grown very fond of him but there was always a feeling that something was not right. I call it the claw on my heart: a gripping feeling at the center of my chest. If my heart were my head, the claw covered my ears. It would not allow me to hear.

I was teaching Theology at the time, and in many ways my relationship with God was at its height. I spent many hours in Eucharistic adoration. The chapel was right across the hall from my classroom. I also had to pass the cathedral on my way home. I often stopped and popped in to see Jesus. But our relationship was suffering. He was trying to talk to me, but the claw blocked Him out. I was telling Him who I would marry and that was that.

My sister was engaged too. Her wedding was planned for July, mine for December. I decided I really wouldn’t put much thought into my own wedding until after hers. Then the summer came and her wedding was only a few weeks away. The realization put a chink in my armor and God’s will, that old Realization seeped through. I went to Mary. I begged her for help. He was a wonderful man. I could not tell you one thing that was wrong with him. I just knew he was not the one God had planned for me. I did not want to hurt him, I really didn’t. I made a deal with Mary. I told her that I would wait until I was eighty years old for her to show me the man I was going to marry if she would help me out of this spot

While he was driving over to my house, I think I must have said a million Hail Mary’s. Though I sat on the porch in a folding chair, in my heart I was clinging to the hem of my Mother’s skirt. I was holding it so tightly my knuckles hurt. “I will wait, I will wait, If you help me do this, I will wait forever.”

She gave me the courage to break it off. I had boyfriends who had broken up with me. It was a terrible feeling to be rejected. But rejecting someone else was far worse to me. It would have been easier if there was a reason I could give, but I had no reason, no rational one any way. His reaction was the worst thing I could have asked for. If he had gotten angry, that would have been better. He was so kind. “Let’s just wait awhile. You keep the ring for now. There is no rush. You take some time.” “Please, Mother, tell me what to say. Please, Mother, Please if I don’t go through with this now, I may never have the courage again.” And then the words came:

“Do you know how you think I hung the moon?” I asked. He nodded. “Well, you deserve someone who thinks you did too. I don’t. I really wish I did and there is no reason I should not. But I don’t. In the end, we would not be happy. You deserve to be happy and I would make you miserable.”

He left. I was not sad. I felt such a sense of relief. I had no regrets, the claw was gone. I thanked Mary over and over. When I said I would wait until I was eighty, I meant it. I would never ever again try and tell her who I was going to marry. I would let her tell me.

We all went to Dallas for my sister’s wedding. I assured her that my broken engagement would not be a damper on her celebration in any way. It was her day and I was so excited to be a part of it. I told her I was so happy for her. Those words were truer than she could ever know.

I first saw him at the rehearsal dinner. He was so arrogant. The way he walked, the way he talked, the way he held a cigarette. Who did he think he was anyway? We ended up on the porch of the hotel where everyone was staying. It began as a large group that got smaller and smaller. In the end it was he, his sixteen year old brother, and I. We talked all night. We talked of books and plays. We talked of Latin and Shakespeare. We laughed at his brother. I could tell the younger adored the older. He was trying so hard to please.

“What is your favorite book?” I asked.
“Mr. Blue.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“It is out of print. I actually asked my dad to bring our copy from home to the wedding, so I could reread it. I will lend it to you if you want.”
“I would like that.”

We were both in the wedding party. The reception was a wonderful celebration. My “date”, my college roommate, and I went swimming with him and the other groomsmen in the hotel pool after hours. It was another late night, but I wasn’t the least bit tired.

I wasn’t quite sure what to feel. I did not want to make the same mistake twice. I was pretty sure he was not as wonderful as I believed. I was making him into what I thought was perfection. He would end up proving me wrong, and that would be fine. I expected it. “It is okay Mary, I will not fall into the same trap twice. If this is nothing, I will wait.”

My sister and her new husband had left for their honeymoon. The rest of the family had flown home. Mom and I were staying two more days before making the long drive home; the car now emptied of the mounds of ivy we had driven eight hundred miles to make the center pieces. She was staying at her friends, I at my sister’s apartment.

I tried to think of a reason to call him. I was in charge of returning my dad and brothers’ tuxedoes. That sounded like a legitimate reason. I left a message asking him if he would mind returning them for me along with his own. I wandered around the apartment doing nothing. I saw the light on my sister’s answering machine blinking. They would be gone for a week. No point in leaving the answering machine full before I left. I pushed play and prepared to write down the message for her.

“Hey, Sheila it is Chris. We are watching a movie over here tonight if you would like to join us.” He had called me first. I went over to watch the movie. It was just the two of us. After the movie we went and sat in his apartment’s hot tub and talked until two or three the next morning. My mind kept saying, “He is not really perfect. I am on the rebound. I am making him into what I want him to be.” The next day I spent reading Mr. Blue. The more I read the more excited I became. I called my roommate.
“I think he is real. I think he really is the man for me. If this is his favorite book, then he really is who I think he is.” To which she responded, “I think your hormonal.”

We spent the next evening together. I don’t remember how the conversation went, but on the drive home from Dallas it was clear to me. He believed I was the girl he was going to marry. I had that “You just know” feeling. He was the one.

“Thank you Mother, Thank you Mother…” I was not clinging to her skirt but hugging her in a tight embrace. I had told her I would wait until I was eighty for her to bring him to me. The Good Lady made me wait two weeks. TWO WEEKS! Six months later we were engaged. Eleven months after I had met him, I married my sister’s husband’s brother.

It was in May and my invitation read ‘In the Month of Our Blessed Virgin Mary.’ I was married at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church in Mary’s Home, MO. Every known Marian Hymn was a part of our Sacramental Celebration. The tradition at that time was to have a little bunch of flowers for the bride to give to the Virgin. I did not have a separate little bouquet made to leave at the foot of her statue. I gave her mine with my husband at my side.

That was thirteen years ago. I had put my happiness into the hands of Mary. I had given her complete control to work out God’s plan in my life. She did not fail me. She has never failed me.

I am still as madly in love with her choice as I was the day I finished Mr. Blue for the first time. We often joke that it was Blue that brought us together. And until this very second, as I am writing this account, it never occurred to me that the title of our favorite book is also her color. She continues to amaze me.

So in the end, my children, this is how I met your father. It was all because of a book and the Mother of the Author of Life: Mr. Blue and the Lady in Blue. May your lives forever be filled with such Blues.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Shack: A Book Review from a Catholic Perspective

I heard of The Shack from my mother. All her friends were raving about it and insisted she read it. All she knew was that it was a book about God, and God the Father was portrayed as a woman; that and the fact that many of these same friends had raved about the Divinci Code. She had no desire to read it and asked if I would read it first to tell her if she should waste her time.

Let me begin by saying that reading it is definitely not a waste of time. William Young does an incredible job of explaining some difficult theological points in a brilliant, colorful and poignant way. The gift of the book is the understanding of the Trinity it leaves with the reader.

Three years after an horrible tragedy, the main character, Mack, receives a note from God asking him to come to the Shack. The shack played a part in the tragedy that has given Mack his Greatest Sadness. Not really sure if it is a cruel joke, an insidious plot, or actually God, Mack secretly returns to the Shack to see for himself.

Mack then goes on to spend a weekend at the Shack with the Trinity. Through his interactions with the Three Persons he comes to understand the great mystery of three in one. Like most Christians, Mack finds Jesus much easier to know. Though both the Father and the Spirit have corporeal identities at the Shack, the humanity of Christ shines through in the actions and words of Jesus. Through Mack’s interactions and reflections, we see our own relationship with Christ and become more aware of how His humanity makes Him so much more accessible to us. For myself, and I assume many Christians, the Holy Spirit is the most difficult of the Three Persons to understand. Young helps us to see how the Holy Spirit works in our lives primarily through the image of a garden. It is a beautiful image that allows the author to discuss the Fall and our own souls. God the Father is portrayed as the Papa God, not the God of Justice and Wrath. Young’s explanation for why He is showing Himself to Mack as a large African American woman is brilliant.

Some of the most poignant scenes in the book are the interactions of the Three Persons together in Mack’s presence. Through a shared dinner, we are given insight into the nature of the Trinity as a perfect, complete and wonderful unity. The individuality of the Persons is maintained, but His oneness is undeniable. As three and one God interacts with Mack to show the importance of divine relationship in the lives of His most precious creation. We come to see what I believe is the most important theological fact about the Trinity: God is Love and Love is relationship focused on other.

Young also captures brilliantly the Trinity’s relationship with man as his creator. He explains the nature of divine love for man and the consequences that must come with the gift. Completely omniscient and omnipotent, God chooses to limit Himself with regard to His creation in order to allow man the fullness of the gift of love. Forcing man to act according to his intended purpose is by all means within God’s power, but to do so would not be an act of Love. Young also explains how God uses our mistakes and misuse of the gift to bring about our good. He does not send nor give suffering, that is the consequence of our own desire for independence, but he takes the mess we make and continually uses it for the benefit of the creatures He so dearly loves. Though a beautiful and theologically correct explanation of God’s power and the root of suffering, Young makes a leap that undoubtedly could be the hope of all mankind, but is disputed by the teachings of the church. For Young, there is no hell. God continually takes our mistakes and moves us toward the good. Creation is a mess, but will eventually be made right by God one person, one mistake at a time simultaneously across each of His creatures of whom “He is especially fond of.” While helping in his explanation of God as love, Young denies the possibility of hell. Therefore, we can not find in The Shack, how a God that refuses to force Himself on His creation, leaving us free to choose love, can not allow for at least some of us to Not Choose Him. The nature of Choice must have two options. Young makes a wonderful effort at explaining how that does not have to be, but it falls short of being a philosophically correct conclusion.

The other gem in The Shack is the Trinity’s purpose in creating and redeeming man. Through very human and easily comprehended scenarios, Young shows how man is called to be in relationship with the Trinity. We see how the Commandments, the Cross, suffering itself is used by God to bring us to Him. We are called to give up our Independence and allow God to live in us. Young shows how Independence and freedom are not the same thing, but actually that Independence is the result of a misuse of freedom. We come to see how we can be filled with God, yet not shackled by our choice but allowed to fly because of it. Mack’s own unique struggles and his journey to forgiveness and peace provide us with a beautiful illustration of the need for both forgiveness and the ability to forgive. By using a situation all humans would find incredibly difficult to reconcile, Young helps us to understand the means necessary and the absolute necessity of forgiveness to be truly free. He shows how it is our own shortcomings, not a lack of God’s love, which make us slaves to the sadness and pain of the world. God is neither the author nor perpetrator of evil, but He is the means for us to move beyond suffering to peace.

Where Young is on, he is right on. His imagery and characterizations lead us to a beautiful and mostly theologically correct understanding of the Trinity. He misses the boat on a few points and I think, intentionally takes a swipe at Eucharist. His lack of understanding of Sacrament is disappointing because if he were to make an attempt to explain the beautiful teachings of the Outward Signs of Inward Grace given to us by God because of our human nature and His love for us, it would probably be a joy to read. Young’s understanding of the Incarnation taken to the next step of Transubstantiation is absent and leaves the Catholic reader a little sad at the author’s misfortune at missing this most wonderful gift from God.

The time spent reading The Shack will feel like time spent with The Trinity and has an enormous amount of potential to bring the reader to a closer union with God through a greater understanding of who He is.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Simon Cowell, Prophet?

The word prophet always brings to my mind the image of Moses on the mountain covered by dark clouds, the light from idol fires burning below as he emerges from the mist with his tablets in hand. The scene is dramatic one, no question about it. The biblical prophets always came to show the Israelites God’s will and plan, their messages divinely inspired words to lead the Hebrews back to God and prepare the way for the coming of Christ.

But I have always loved Moses for his question to God before all that drama. Before they even get out of Egypt he asks: “And by the way, Who do I tell them You Are?” God’s answer in so many ways was an essential piece of knowledge that humanity needed before Moses’ big moment on Mt. Sinai. God’s answer tells us not His will or plan for humanity, but something about who He is. “I am Who am.” His answer to Moses is not just a name never heard before, it is the key to the authority for the Law that will follow in the Exodus.

That God is the source of all rights, all being, all every dog gone good thing out there seems to have been all but forgotten. Our Government is the source of Rights, Science the Source of Being, and Individual Pursuit of Happiness the source of every dog gone good thing there is out there. It seems we need a modern prophet, not to show us God’s will, but to remind us Who God is.

Could that modern prophet be Simon Cowell, the angry American Idol Judge? I will not go so far as to say ol’ Simon is divinely inspired, but I do think he has served humanity by helping us to relearn something about God.

The road to Idol has single handedly made an enormous joke out of the relative principal "I think therefore I am." Whether you find the scenes uproariously funny or have a sinking feeling out of pity for the delusional idiot, you do know he is an idiot. We have all learned on Idol that our Kindergarten Teacher was a liar: You can not be anything you want to be. Thinking or hoping you are a good singer does NOT make it so. And Thank God we don’t have to make an ass of ourselves in public to learn this lesson. We can sit back and watch others learn it for us.

And what are we learning:

In a world where there are few standards, American Idol has taught an entire generation of viewers that objective standards still exist. How incredibly ironic it is through music, and pop rock music at that. Simon in his no nonsense, honest criticism helps us to see that there are all sorts out there: The incredibly nice and gracious, but just plain awful singer; the nasty egomaniac, really awful singer who refuses to accept the fact that he stinks gracefully; the hard worker giving it 100% who is better than average but just doesn’t quite have the natural talent needed to compete; and the group that eventually makes it to the finals: Those with natural talent, passion and the desire to work hard.

We know that the winner will be a somewhat relative choice. When it has been narrowed down to the finalist, personal preference becomes the standard. But all the shows from the road teach us there is an objective standard for a “good singer.” Moral relativism has a reputation for being a slippery slope, but be careful. Objectives can be just as slippery. If we can accept that a hope and belief simply can not make something true, what else might we begin to ponder? And where exactly does that natural talent come from. It is clear that it is not a mere result of hard work. It is not a huge leap from Natural Talent to the term God Given.

Moral relativism seeks to destroy standards and God. I am not sure which is the primary goal, but it is the chicken/egg scenario: If God exists, then there must be objective standards AND if there are objective standards, they must come from somewhere, or Someone. In short: Objective Standards will eventually lead us back to God as the source. Relativists know this, but so do I.

So thank you Simon Cowell. Thank you for reminding us that there are objective standards. Thank you for teaching us that our beliefs do not make things true. Thank you for being the voice from the Desert or the Mountain leading us back to God.

And just think, every time we grab our ears and close our eyes at the feeble attempts of the poor idiots trying to achieve that objective standard, we are awfully close to the purpose and posture of prayer.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Beauty of Truth

I am Catholic, with a capital C. I taught Catholic Theology at the high school and middle school levels when I was being paid to work. I remember explaining my job to my first group of students: “Faith consists of two main components: Your personal relationship with God and the truths of the Catholic Church passed down through the ages. I can not teach you the first component, nor will I try. I can not give you a grade on your personal relationship with God. What I will do is allow part of our time together to be dedicated to opportunities for you to build that relationship: confession, prayer, talks on aspects of spirituality especially from those with religious vocations. The second component I can teach. The majority of this class will be spent learning Catholic Doctrine. You are welcome to agree or disagree with the church, but you will learn what she has to teach. It will be your understanding not your opinion of the church’s teaching on matters of faith and morals on which you will be graded. I do not even wish to hear your opinion until the end of this semester when you will know enough to give an opinion.”

It was a good first day. Being not that much older than my students and looking about their age, I knew I was going to have trouble establishing my authority. It was a good start. I spent the first few months of class teaching them basic philosophy: Arguments for the existence of God, arguments for the existence of Objective Truth. I taught them basic doctrine they should have learned years before: The Ten Commandments, The matter, form and institution of the Sacraments, The Theological and Cardinal virtues, the Seven deadly sins.

Then I began the subject matter at the heart of the class, Morality. I started to explain the Church’s teaching on abortion. It was a disaster. I spent the entire period defending the church, they attacking her. Like a mad man who expects different results from doing the same thing over and over, I relived first period for the rest of the day. This was not going to work.

I got a copy of A Man for All Seasons from Blockbuster; while they watched it over the course of the next week, I spent every minute of every day and night coming up with a plan.

At the start of the new week, I handed them all the instructions for a project. Each person in the class had been assigned a moral issue. They were to do a ten part research project around their issue: 1) Find 100 published statements about your issue and write them out on index cards with the source. 2) Divide your cards into fact vs. opinion. 3) Find the Ten Commandment that is at the heart of your issue and explain why. 4) Find the virtue or virtues that pertain to your issue and explain why. 5) Find the Seven Deadly Sin which pertains to this issue and explain why. 6) Create a scenario involving this issue and carry out the consequences to the absolute farthest conclusion. 7) Explain the Church’s teaching on this issue. 8) Write an essay on whether or not you agree with the Church basing your opinion on facts, not opinions. 9) Meet with the other students in the class researching the same issue and design a way to teach the Church Doctrine on this issue. 10) As a group, teach the class Church Doctrine on this issue.

The only advice I gave them was this: If Br. James gave you an algebra test with all the answers and asked you simply to show your work, you would work from the assumption that he had given you the correct answers. I suggest you do the same with this project. After all your research, you may prove that the church is wrong just as you may find that Br. James had given you a wrong answer. But it would be wise to start with the assumption that both Brother and the Church know more than you do and go from there.

And they were off. When the time came for the presentations, I was utterly amazed at what they had come up with: A capital punishment trial based on actual transcripts from a real case, a game set up to prove how racism stacks the deck, lessons on abortion and euthanasia where the class sat listening instead of attacking. I got to play the Devil's advocate: "What if I don't believe it is a baby?" To which they responded: "And I suppose if you didn't think it was raining outside you wouldn't get wet?" Or, "And if you didn't believe in the Law of Gravity? Go ahead and jump out the window, Miss Barvick, and see if those laws are affected by your opinion." I have to admit, it was GLORIOUS to watch.

In the written projects, only one student from all the sections tried to make an argument against the church’s teaching. I couldn't help but laugh at his conclusion which stated that his opinion was utterly baseless, but he still couldn't accept Church teaching. At least he was honest.

The beauty of the Catholic Church is that she defends herself. If we approach her teachings with reason and with an open mind, we will not find her in ere. And so I had lied to my students that first day. I had said that I would teach them doctrine but not relationship. I kept my promise to provide them opportunities to build their individual relationships with God, which is for another story. But I had not taught them the Doctrine of the Church passed down through the ages. The doctrine taught itself. And that is the beauty of Truth. It does not really need defenders, just presenters.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Never Again? A true account of my own journey from ignorance to the New York Times

I cried when someone told a Polish Joke in third grade. It was not because they were making fun of me. Whoever it was wasn’t making fun of anyone in our class, just telling a joke. I cried because my dad loved books and he loved being Polish.

According to my mom, he did not love being Polish until after his grandma died. She had come off the boats and never even spoke English. After she died, my dad became very interested in his heritage. The summer after the Joke, we went to Chicago to the Polish Heritage museum. We also had one bumper sticker on our car EVER. My dad hated bumper stickers because they always started peeling and made the car look trashy. But he broke his own rule, and the cars in line behind him at stop lights could read: Happiness is Having a Polish Pope.

My dad also loved history, especially of WWII. He watched every documentary he could find from our choice of four television stations. I loved Hogan’s Heroes, but the documentaries gave me a sickish feeling in my stomach. The sound of those old planes flying still bothers me. The low continuous drone bothered me more than the explosions that came after bombs dropped out of the bottom of the planes in the black and white clips.

The weekend before the Joke I had been flipping through one of my dad’s many books. I found a picture of something and asked what it was. Turns out I had found a picture of a gas chamber. It wasn’t the graphic picture of skeletal bodies piled high. I think it was a picture of two German children playing on a pipe or something. I don’t remember exactly, I just remember the conversation that followed.

My dad explained what the gas chambers were and what the Nazis had done to the Jews, Gypsies, and Poles. I had heard of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but I had never put much thought into it. I knew of Anne Frank hiding in her basement and of Hitler’s mustache, but I had never wrapped my mind around it.

My dad was more the silent intellectual type, but I don’t remember him ever being too busy to answer a question; he never talked down to you, not even if you were seven. He told me that the first line of attack in the arsenal of evil was manipulation of the language. He said that in the German Children’s fairy tales, where we have a wicked witch, they had a wicked old Jew. He explained that the Germans grew up thinking Jews were not really human. After they accepted the idea that it was okay to get rid of them, it wasn’t a huge effort to accept that the Gypsies and Poles weren’t worthy of protection either. And so when I heard the Joke, I cried.

Hitler and I had a long history starting in third grade. He showed up again when I was a senior in high school. I had read The Stranger by Camus and thought the idea of Existentialism made a lot of sense. I admit, I was incredibly thick, but it was not for lack of effort. My dad had been using the term Objective for as long as I could remember, but I just didn’t get it. In a kitchen table talk about The Stranger, I confessed that I didn’t really see how someone could be wrong if they THOUGHT they were right. I chose Hitler as my example: How could Hitler go to Hell when he thought he was doing something good? My thickness was not for lack of effort by Dad either. “What is right or wrong is not dependent on what you think. Hitler’s feelings on the matter can not change the reality that what he did was evil.” I still didn’t get it. I know now I was struggling with culpability vs. objectively wrong, but then it bothered some bone made up of a warped understanding of justice. I decided I still thought Existentialism was for me.

I worked at a nursing home answering phones on Saturday mornings. The following Saturday, my dad showed up at work with a bag of donuts. This was impressive for two reasons, he showed up and he spent money. Ours was a family who brought our own popcorn to the movies (the three movies we ever went to before we could pay for our own tickets), who never got to pick something out in the grocery line, and who ate non-sugar generic cereal for breakfast.

He gave me the donuts and sat down in a chair facing my desk. He had come to talk about Existentialism. He explained who Sartre was and how his ideas had played out in real life. He talked about the horrible atrocities which flow from philosophical ideas not rooted in objective truth.

I guess I should mention that at this point in my life, my dad and I were not close. If he were not my dad, I am pretty sure he would have hated me. I was horrible most of the time. He had told me once that I sure knew a lot for someone who didn’t know anything. I would say that just about summed it up. But that morning in the nursing home something happened. I still did not understand Objective Truth. I could give you the definition but it hadn’t made it through my thick skull yet. But on that day, for the first time in years, I thought that maybe I was wrong and he was right. Even though I didn’t get it, I didn’t feel it, I had not made the emotional commitment to Objective Truth, I trusted his ability to think it through over my own.

This willingness to search for truth from the starting point that certain authorities knew more than I did followed me through my Catholic Liberal Arts College education. I began with the assumption that the Church was right and it was my job to make my brain get it. I assumed that certain things were objectively true whether I believed them to be or not.

Now, if you think I was being self deprecating when I called myself thick, you will see that is not the case. As a history major and a senior in college, Hitler finally smashed through the defenses of my ignorance. I am not jesting when I say it was just a few months before graduation. It was a class on historical research. As an example of how you move from documents to written history, the professor used the Nazi documentation of the concentration camps.

I had come a long way in my understanding of evil. But I am being completely honest when I tell you, that until I saw those documents, I had really believed that the holocaust was an evil consequence of war. I knew it had happened, I believed it had happened, but I didn’t know, or chose not to see, that it was a planned operation. Hitler didn’t need to get rid of all those Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and Catholics in order to ensure the success of his military operations, as I had always somehow managed to believe. He chose to. It was an operation not of desperation but a systematic, calculated and documented attempt to eliminate sub-humans. I told you I was thick.

And then a whole new can of worms was opened that is still squirming around in my head to this day. How did an entire population of Germans go along with this insanity? I hear the Conservative talk show hosts talk about the threats to liberty in the legislation being rushed through without being read by our enlightened congress. I have seen the manipulation of language in the abortion and euthanasia struggles. And I wonder if we are all being encouraged to be conspiracy theorists. My thick brain refuses to open up to the fact that America could be a place of atrocities. But then today I read a quote from a Justice of our Supreme Court from the New York Times:

I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.

And I see two German Children playing on a pipe. I see the piles of skeletal corpses piled just outside the city limits, I see the Jews marching from their homes with a few possessions in hand to a gated ghetto. And I hope the majority of Americans aren’t as thick headed as I. I hope it doesn’t take years of being faced with the facts to finally get it. I pray we never have to live through the past again, but something, some bone formed by my father’s understanding of justice, tells me I am a fool if I think it isn’t possible.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Reality: You Still Never Know

I had a dream about the movie incident. I woke with my heart pounding and sweaty palms as if I'd actually been in a confrontation.

I keep hoping the theater was dark enough that Marlene didn't see me sink down in my seat with my eyes just peeking out over my popcorn. I keep imaging it was crowded enough that she didn't suspect I was pretending. I hung around looking for something in the seat after the movie, so I wouldn't have to file out next to her. I stayed far enough back to keep a few people between us until the mob from our theater could mix with a few others in the main lobby.

I mumbled something about my keys, but I could tell by her look she didn't believe me. There isn't a place dark enough or crowded enough to hide the fact that I am a coward and we both know it. It was so stupid really, I've known Marlene for years. She wouldn't have expected me to actually DO anything. But how can she forgive me for something as pathetic as pretending not to know her. How can I forgive myself?

I know that big fat slob has no idea what his juvenile outburst cost. But in his defense, how was he to know the girl with the loud laugh was the only friend of a pusillanimous pig. Well, at least she was my friend. Probably not anymore if she is smart anyway.

I think I will try and go back to sleep. I like the other ending better.

Diary entry: July 4, 2 am. Josie Ambrose

Friday, July 3, 2009

You Never Know

I went to the movies with an old friend. We hadn't been out in quite awhile and talked like school girls, eating our popcorn and candy. The lights dimmed and we settled in to enjoy a few hours of willing suspension of disbelief.

The first preview was for an action film I'd probably never see, the second was obviously designed for the tween crowd, and the third promised to be an hilarious chick flick. At one slap stick point in the trailer my friend laughed in her old familiar way.

It is the kind of laugh that rings of pure joy. It is short and full and leaves sparkles in the air. When we were in high school plays, it was the kind of laughter you prayed would fill the theater. Up on stage, lights so bright all beyond the set floor was darkness. But when the audience had a few laughers like her, you knew you were not alone. You knew you were making a connection and that all the work was worth it.

The feature started and though it was not billed as a comedy, some of the scenes were pretty darn funny. My friend's laugh is infectious and made my smile widen. About twenty minutes into the film we saw a commotion in the front. A big man was moving from his center seat to the isle. He headed toward the exit, then stopped and turned his huge frame toward the back of the theater. He pointed toward my friend and literally shouted, "I WANT YOU TO KNOW YOU NOISY *ITCH, YOU ARE THE REASON I AM LEAVING."

Even in the darkness of the theater, I knew her cheeks were burning red, I felt her heart sink. I jumped from my seat sending my popcorn to the floor. She reached for my arm, but I was already gone. I ran down the isle and out the exit. I spotted him ahead and sprinted toward him.

"Sir." I yelled, "Excuse me sir?" He stopped and turned around to glare at me. I walked the last few feet to face him. "Excuse me," I began my heart pounding in my chest, "But I was just wondering how you would feel when I told you that you had just embarrassed and insulted a girl dying of cancer. A girl who has been too weak for months to get dressed, let alone go out to the movies. That you called someone's daughter, sister, wife and friend a *itch for doing exactly what the doctor had ordered."

I was pulsing with adrenaline and tears filled my eyes. I do not enjoy confrontations. His hard angry look had fallen, and he began to twist his hands together. "Tell her...I mean..." he stammered.

I looked him square in the eye and said, "I did not say it was true, I just asked you how you'd feel." And I turned and walked away.

Diary entry: July 3. Josie Ambrose.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Homeschool Why

Contrary to public perceptions, I do not home school my children for lack of another alternative. Within blocks of my house are fine public, private and Catholic schools. I have looked objectively at these schools and can find no fault with their test scores, teachers, safety, structures, curricula or student populations. They have small classroom sizes, a plethora of extracurricular activities, exceptional parental involvement and services for both the gifted and L.D. child. Unlike some areas of our city, state and nation, those in our area are blessed with a large variety of excellent educational choice.

I do not home school my children because I think they are far behind or above their peers. I do not hope to keep my children sheltered from people and ideas different from my own. Nor do I wish to allow them more free time to pursue sports, dance, drama, music or any other dream they may have.

The reason I home school. The first, last and most important reason is because I like being around my kids. They are not perfect and sure, they drive me nuts sometimes. But last time I checked, that could be said about kids in school as well. I do not mean to suggest that people who home school like their kids more than those who choose not to. I actually didn't even say I liked my kids, though I do, what I said is I like being around my kids.

I am a quantity person through and through. Always have been probably always will be. No, I don't collect things. I tried once to collect pigs and ended up with two. That is not what I mean. My appetite is satisfied more by a big dish of mediocre ice-cream than a spoonful of Gelatti. My style is accomplished with six pairs of cheap shoes rather than one expensive pair. I like to spend hours on the phone not say nor hear pithy words of wisdom. I like my drinks in a tall glass.

So, it makes sense that with regard to my children, for me, more is how I like it. Even on those days when the quality suffers, I feel fulfilled.

I also adore childhood. I loved my own and love seeing the world again through the eyes of my children. I have spent most of my life trying to live in the present with little success. When the past and future stretch so much farther, it is hard to keep your eye on the now. I still have a hard time looking at my own present for very long. But with my kids, ah, that is different. I know how quickly childhood passes, how much they change from day to day. Somehow there is still not as much pressure to avoid missing part of my own middle aged life, but I don't want to miss a second of theirs.

Wanting to be around my kids more than being away from them may make me a glutton for punishment to some, selfish, I am sure, to others. What I seem to others is something over which I have no control. What I am... is happy.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Have you ever decided to do something for another, your intention being simply to make them smile? You find such pleasure in the time, treasure or talent you put forth to bring your idea to fruition: plan a party, write a poem, find the perfect gift.

You picture the reaction with giddy anticipation; childlike belief that it will be received with as much joy as it is being given. You horde it for awhile, but eventually it bursts forth, a shaken soda, to be shared with a third party.

And like a bald tire on a rusty old bicycle, you are deflated: your intentions misunderstood, your efforts mocked. Your gift twisted and warped before your very eyes into a self-centered offering of gaudy costume jewelry.

Try as you might to taste the sweetness from whence it was conceived, your mouth is filled with bitter roots instead.