Does God Use Sketch Writers?

A scene from "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"
On TV's wildly funny and often naughty Whose Line Is It Anyway?," one of the popular improvisational skits is "people props," whereby two cast members become props in the skit and two audience members have to move them appropriately. And I'm using "appropriately" very advisedly. Very.

(I'm sure when all the folks standing in line for the audience are chatting pre-show, they assure each other that they're not only up for being chosen, they're gonna be hilARious. Neither of those things is true.)

The audience members are briefly given their instructions: the "props" can only more their arms and legs one at a time and only when the audience member taps them on the limb they want move. As you might imagine, this ends up with some very interesting walks. For the purpose of the skit, it's a humorous method of movement.

Yesterday, I mentioned that I'd stumbled off into the spiritual weeds as I said my morning prayers. I wasn't too worried about getting lost. After all, A) I've been lost before and survived B) God is with me and He is never lost. I am, however, curious.

What's next?

I haven't worked in two years, and I'm not sure I'll ever have a paying job again. My chronic pain makes my life, my availability pretty unpredictable at times. It makes planning hard. So, what is next? How will God use me?

Then I remember the guys on Whose Line, getting slapped on the legs, haltingly walking in circles. I'm expecting God to slap me on the leg, moving me in a certain direction, while making me abundantly clear what direction I'm moving in.

What's that you say? God doesn't use that same techniques as Hollywood sketch writers and performers? Frankly, it might explain a lot.

Actually, He just might.

God doesn't usually hand out a well-plotted map, highlighting great features along the way but with a destiny marked out in red-pen circles. God seems to be more subtle (if you can call 40 years in the desert subtle.) 

Here's the thing: I think He's just not ready to slap me in the leg yet to have me move in a certain direction. I think that when God believes me to be ready (and not a moment before, because that would cause me harm, and God could not - it goes against His very nature - cause me harm), he will tap my leg. He will make it abundantly clear what direction I should go in, because He knows I often don't get a clear signal, and off we'll go.

The Bewildered Drummer Boy

[Before we get started today, I am fully aware that I have been away for months. I'll address that in the days to come. But not today.]

My prayer life over the past months has been spotty. Okay, it's been non-existent, unless you count desperate "Oh, Gods" muttered in pain in the emergency department. Which I don't. 

I have been trying to pray more. Thankfully, Mother Church, in her wisdom, gives us formal prayers throughout the day so that we are not left to our own devices.  Today, I began my day with morning prayer, but I quickly derailed, which is a common problem when you're trying to make prayer a habit. This morning, the very first thing I prayed was: To Christ our newborn King let us sing a song of rejoicing, alleluia!

And that did it. I was off in the weeds.

Rejoicing? I thought. Were all the visitors to the manger rejoicing? I bet they weren't. It's not like they all knew exactly what was happening and could see with perfectly clarity how Christ's birth would not only affect current events but historical and future events as well.

I'm betting the shepherds did not whip out a flute made expressly for this purpose, start playing "The Sound Of Music" and join up with the Little Drummer Boy for a perfectly played piece. Nope, I'm betting that, even with the angel's explanations, they were all a bit overwhelmed. Bewildered, even.

The Wise Men weren't even Jewish. They left everything they knew to FOLLOW A STAR. That's a little nutty. And they finished their trip under what was tantamount to a death threat. Rejoicing? Maybe they were rejoicing, but they were doing it very, very quietly. 

And then there is me. It's been a tough year to rejoice. I haven't been able to go to Mass for a few weeks due to health reasons. Trust me, it is tough to rejoice at home, in your living room when you really, really want to be at Mass. And those health reasons keep getting more and more severe, making rejoicing more and more difficult. 

This year, I'm gonna hang out in the corner of the manger, next to the sheep who seem a bit out of sorts having so many people in their barn. I'll talk to the Drummer Boy, who is happy to be here, even if he isn't exactly sure why - he knows that Baby isn't an ordinary Baby. And the Shepherds - all they can talk about is the Messiah. Could it be possible that the Promised One could be an infant? 

It's been a bewildering year, a bewildering Christmas. I'm still off here in the weeds, trying to find my way back home. The thing to do is to follow the song of rejoicing, even if it seems a bit bewildering. Just follow the sounds of rejoicing.

What To Do When There Is Nothing Left To Do

Being a human is ...  messy. Our relationships with loved ones get strained, we get angry or upset, we say stuff we shouldn't .... We are a sinful bunch, we humans.

I see a lot of strained relationships around me right now. Some of them are mine. It's difficult trying to sort out what my responsibility is in each of these relationships with family. (Another good reason to have a sound spiritual counselor; they will tell you what is yours and what isn't!)

In all these situations, I know there are deep wounds that really don't have much to do - on the surface - with the current issues at hand. However, if I've learned one thing in these past months in counseling it is this: If you don't fix your stuff, it won't get fixed and you'll just have to keep dealing with it. Issues like these do not fix themselves, and no one can fix our stuff for us. We have to do it.

Cold comfort, I know. That means we can't just sit around and whine (or wine, as the case may be.) Whatever is our responsibility in these messy situations, we can work on that AND ONLY THAT. Continually going over other's faults won't get us anywhere (except, perhaps, in a deeper hole.)

Even with the best of intentions, we sometimes hurt others and we get hurt. We try to fix things, and we make it worse. We try to talk to the other person and we get nowhere. We've done everything we can.

The Gospel yesterday had something to say about this. (Really.) Jesus, speaking to his disciples, promised us a Spirit of truth. If we are listening, we will hear the truth, sent to us by God. (Of course, if we are too busy picking someone else apart, we aren't listening and we will likely miss it.) This Spirit of truth, Christ says, will give us everything that is Christ's and give it to us. Wow.

How does that help fix a messy or broken relationship? Here is what to do: Shut up. Listen, prayerfully, to what God is telling you. Work on your stuff. Pray some more. 

That's it. It would be nice if there were a magic formula that instantly heals all wounds and makes us forget why we were ever upset in the first place. But that is not God's design for us. His design is that He sends us the Spirit of truth, and that everything that is Christ's is also ours. That is surely a better plan than anything we could come up with.

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

It is no surprise to anyone that the Catholic Church is still roiling in the clergy sex abuse scandal. And a scandal it is: I do not know one Catholic who is not deeply disgusted by both the abuse by clergy or the way the hierarchy has handled it. We are damn sick of it.

That being said, we really need to understand what is going on here. USA Today has published a piece saying more Catholics than ever are thinking about leaving the Church. What I say to that is: if your faith is in man, you should leave. But if your faith is in Christ (which is where it should be), don't let the sins of man drive you out. The Church has survived scandals before, and it will survive this one. (That part of the Gospel where Jesus tells us that He builds His Church on a rock, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it is relevant here.)

Also (and this is where things get really unpopular), many of the victims are adolescent boys, as opposed to true pedophilia. This has led many to understand that a large portion of the abuse is related to homosexuality. Others say this is not true: it's just that boys are more "readily accessible," if you will, to clergy. Boys, they say, are the ones who are altar servers, for instance, or that a priest showing interest in a boy is welcome to many parents.

That's utterly wrong. Go to any parish in the US and you will see at least as many girls serving Mass as boys. And I don't know a single parent who would allow a priest to take their son out without supervision at this point. We all know that this is a huge red flag. It is prudent, therefore, to examine the role of homosexuality in this area. We must be willing to discuss this issue. By simply saying, "Nope, homosexuality has got nothing to do with it," we may be putting children and adolescents at risk. We cannot trade one sacred cow (the priesthood) for another (homosexuality.)

The other topic that must be open for discussion is that this abuse is not solely a problem for the Catholic Church. It is an issue for our Protestant brothers and sisters as well. In fact, the issue of clergy abuse is even harder for Protestants to deal with: there is no hierarchy in place for many of them, making it easier for abusers to move, hide and continue to offend. All Christians must be willing to frankly and openly address this issue in their own parishes and churches, and not leave it for Church officials and governing bodies to deal with.

We must also be willing to acknowledge that what happens in the Church is a reflection of our society at large. For decades, we've been told that "anything goes" as far as our sexual appetites are concerned. What was unthinkable just a few years ago is now mainstream.

Good Lord, we have drag queens reading to kindergarten classes and we kill tens of thousands of babies out of "convenience." We've got parents okaying hormone treatment on children under the age of ten because they think their kid was "born in the wrong body." We cannot sexualize our children on one hand, and then be shocked when predators come for them on the other. Our culture is sick, and it's no surprise that our faith communities reflect that. Is it not time to - again, at the VERY LEAST - be willing to discuss how these issues affect us, our kids, our faith?

And to anyone who is thinking of leaving the Church because of these scandals: please stay. Help be part of the solution. Make sure our kids are safe. But most of all: put your faith in Christ, not the priest, not the bishops, not the cardinals. They are sinners all; only Christ will be our salvation.

A Tree is a Tree is a Tree

A few weeks back, we heard Jesus' parable about what makes a good tree. A good tree bears good fruit.

I've heard this before, many times. We lived for years surrounded by orchards. I've pruned apple trees, and picked their fruit. Farmers have to deal with fickle weather, but they also do everything they can to ensure good trees: they care for soil, test different types of trees, prune the trees.

The trees don't actually do much. They just ... are trees.

When I heard this very familiar parable this time, I heard it new. I thought: "I'm a tree. I just have to stand here. God - the farmer - will do the work. I just have to be a tree."

My life has not been easy these past few years. We lost our house, moved into two different apartments. I've lost 5 jobs. I've been so ill and in pain that getting out of bed has been a feat of strength. And I've been plenty mad at God.

What I missed is that God has been asking me to be dormant while He does His work. What I mistook for abandonment has actually been a time of pruning by God. And as painful as it's been, I see now that God has actually been carefully preparing me to bear good fruit.

Now, I don't have a clue what God is preparing me for. And that's ok. For now, I'm resting in God - laying dormant if you will. I'm not dead, although it was a close call not too long ago. No, I'm just being carefully and lovingly prepared by a Farmer who knows what He is about.

A good tree does not bear rotten fruit,
nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.
For every tree is known by its own fruit.
For people do not pick figs from thornbushes,
nor do they gather grapes from brambles.
A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good,
but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil;
for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

10 Lessons From the Psych Hospital

I recently spent a week in the hospital. Two of those days, I was in the regular ol' hospital because my blood pressure was out of whack. Five days were spent in the psych hospital.

I don't know if you have any preconceived notions about a psych hospital, but consider you might be wrong. If you think things are all "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," - not so much. There are (for the most part) no straightjackets, no Nurse Cratchets.

In fact, if you're open to it, the psych hospital might just be a place of growth, learning and yes, grace.

1.  Nurses are the best humans ever. They will hang out with you at 3 a.m. when you're in pain. They'll do everything in their power to  help you get better: an ice pack filled, a drinkable brand of tea found, a laugh over the same crazy stuff that might be happening. Nurses are the best.

2. People will help, if you ask. A lot of times, we sit comfortably miserable in our own...stuff. It can be quite isolating, and a huge burden. But most of the people around us - our friends, families, coworkers - will help us. They just aren't sure what to do. Tell them. Tell them what you need. 99% of the time, they are happy to help.

3.  You're not crazy. When we are feeling so isolated, we think NO ONE IN THE WORLD can understand. But being in a healing space, surrounded by others in the same head space, you are in the midst of people who can honestly say, "I know just what you mean." And that's your lifeline.

4.  God is here.  It seems unlikely, for folks who think the psych hospital is still all screaming inmates and thuggish techs. But it's not. It's a place of grace. Grace when the teen who prepares your plate of food says, "Enjoy your meal." Grace when that one guy who was making you a bit uncomfortable says, "I love reading psalms," and suddenly you have something in common. Grace when the psychiatrist really listens to you.

5.  Even at your lowest point, you can help someone else. You may think you're nothing, but you're not. You may think you have nothing good left, but you do. That one little thing you say, a smile, a conversation, and suddenly, you see that the other person has been boosted just a bit. And that is good.

6.  Music is salve for the soul. I'm pretty sure the balm in Gilead is music. And the nurses remind you that you can have a radio in your room, or an iPod to borrow.  Just ask.

7.  Being depressed is scary.  One of my fellow patients had recently been in prison. He told us that being depressed and suicidal was scarier than waking up in a cell day after day. If you're a survivor of depression, YOU ARE ONE TOUGH COOKIE! Bravery is necessary for getting out of this darkness.

8. You may not like eating like a grown up, but you should. Yeah, eating fruit for dessert may seem a bit like torture (really, that's how some people react!) but eating well makes you feel better. Drink water, eat salmon and enjoy the apple crisp.

9.  You can't afford to be unhealthy by choice.  Sure, you can skip the gym (again!), drink your body weight in diet cola all day, and feast on potato chips but you'll feel like crap. And those of us who battle depression and anxiety and PTSD cannot afford to slip. It's too important.

10.  Suicide is simply not an option.  Those of us on the other side of a suicide attempt or have fought through a bout of crippling depression know that suicide is no solution to what ails us. And it creates a tidal wave effect in our families. I don't want the young people in my life to ever think that suicide is an option. By being here, by beating back the darkness every day, I take the choice of suicide off the table.

No one wants to be on the psych ward. But it's a good place, a place of lessons (albeit hard ones!), a place of healing, a place of grace. I'm glad to be home, but I'm thankful for my time in the psych hospital.

Wise up!

Today is the feast of Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen - men both known for their wisdom.

"Wisdom" can be a tricky thing to pin down; we know it when we see it, but we don't see it much. So, let's explore a bit.

Merriam-Webster says "wisdom" is the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships or good sense. Um....okay. "Discerning inner qualities" makes me think of those folks who say they speak to the dead or can read your mind. And while I'm all for "good sense," I don't believe that is what "wisdom" is all about.

The Church puts much emphasis on "wisdom." There is an entire book of the Bible about wisdom. And it's not about "good sense;" otherwise, we'd be reading things like "put all your loose change in a jar and save for a rainy day!" or "Before going on a long car trip, make sure your spare tire is inflated." All very helpful, but not the characteristics that made Basil and Gregory saints.

The Church teaches us that wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit (as opposed to knowledge gained from experience.) That also means that if you're baptized, confirmed and in a state of grace, you are walking around engulfed and immersed in wisdom. Of course, it is your choice as to whether you use it or not, but it's right there for you. Further, [t]he theological virtues dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have God for their origin, their motive, and their object - God known by faith, God hoped in and loved for his own sake.

It's tough for us to "get" the role of wisdom in our lives. Watching a bunch of 8th graders getting confirmed and thinking, "Well, now they are all wise!" would likely not be the first thought that pops into one's mind. Wisdom, like all the virtues are indeed gifts for all of us, but we have to cultivate them, grow in them, seek God in each of them.

How do grow in wisdom then? If it's not something "out there," but rather something in me, a something God has placed there, how do I become more and more wise?

Thankfully, God provides pretty detailed instructions. In the Book of Sirach, for instance, wisdom is an oasis in the desert, a place of refreshment so beautiful, we want to stay:

Happy those who meditate on Wisdom, 
and fix their gaze on knowledge; 
Who ponder her ways in their heart, 
 and understand her paths; 
Who pursue her like a scout 
and watch at her entry way; 
Who peep through her windows, 
and listen at her doors; 
Who encamp near her house 
and fasten their tent pegs next to her walls; 
Who pitch their tent beside her, 
and dwell in a good place...

I love that line: "Pursue her like a scout." It makes me think of Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans. He tells the woman he loves, Alice, that despite his having to leave her, he will find her again, in the thick, nearly-impregnable land of the New World: You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you . . . 

Can you imagine what saints we would be if we pursued God and His wisdom with such single-mindedness? What changes would we see in ourselves, our homes, our world, if we pursued wisdom like a scout, dwelt in her, absorbing wisdom into our very being?

Let us begin then: today, pursue wisdom. Look for wisdom and dwell there for a bit. Listen for it. Gaze upon wisdom.

My baby, he wrote me a letter

One of the casualties of our post-modern age is the handwritten letter. Can you remember the last time you received one? We hardly even s...