Living in your hometown is like listening to a cassette tape that has been rerecorded. Memories blend with reality as 1988's Ton Lōc seeped into 1989's Aerosmith.
A few weeks ago, I went back to my old high school with my friend Ryan Ranalli. An English teacher was looking for a writer of combat stories to speak to her class, but was willing to settle for a combat vet (Ryan) and a writer (me). Ryan and I walked through the packed halls unable to decide whether it felt like we'd only been there last week or a hundred years ago.
The high school students' styles had shifted back and the kids looked almost the same as we did in the 1990s. The world had moved forward, but it was impossible not to see the almost eerie similarities between these students and the people that we'd graduated with almost twenty years ago. Like when they replace actors for a character in a movie.
Their dreams were a little different, but not that much. Their talents were a little different, but again not by much. The world had turned, but not truly changed. I remembered the character Tyler Durden's words in Fight Club, "You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake."
It's humbling to look back on the assembly line you came off of, but it's also freeing. The world has so many problems, more than our generation or any of the ones before us could solve. The closer that we are to those problems, the more daunting they seem. The pace of progress being that of a glacier instead of a hawk.
In the face of a sea of tasks, it's nice to see the hands that will pick up the burdens that we are unable to move. Coming up with different and better solutions to the challenge that we all face.
It's easier to keep up the fight knowing that replacements are not far behind.
I've read a lot of theological and spiritual works over the years and especially since I started writing this blog. I've tried to share some of their insights through my own writing, but wanted to try a little bit different medium.
The result is the experiment that I'm calling "Running with the Current." In a nutshell, I'll read a short excerpt from a spiritual writing accompanied by videos of some of my favorite rivers, creeks, or other bodies of water. It's a chance to blend some of my favorite things.
The first shot is of Hans Küng's insights on creation from Küng's book "Why I am Still a Christian." Printed in 1986 by Abingdon Press. The video is of Prickly Pear Creek outside of Helena, Montana.
I hope you like it.
p.s. Please share your own favorite reading and waters on youtube. Make sure to add "Running with the Current" to the title so they're easy to find.
I walked the hallway between the Montana Governor's Office and the Capitol Rotunda with the slow steps of someone who had been successful, but not successful enough. We'd just completed a bill signing for legislation that would help Montana's criminal justice system more effectively care and adjudicate offenders who live with serious mental illness.
It was a good win with results will help a lot of people; but I'd just spent the last hour with Michael Hendrix, one of the people whose story helped inspire the bill, and was reminded of how much more work there is to do. During the past few months, I'd attempted and failed at convincing the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole to grant him a pardon for the felony arson conviction he'd received after lighting himself on fire while under the grips of bipolar-induced hallucinations. While we'd been able to help others have a shot at achieving justice, I'd been unable to get Michael the justice he deserved.
I bumped into John Bohlinger, Montana's last Lieutenant Governor, in the hallway. We were catching up when another man came up to tell him hello.The guy looked familiar and he told me the same thing.
We searched through our collective memory banks and then hit me.
"You're Father Gregory. The priest who flunked me in Confirmation class back in high school."
I smiled and said, "It wasn't your fault. I missed a couple of mandatory classes for court and community services. The second year was more than deserved, but I think I may be the only parishioner in the history of the Cathedral to fail Confirmation."
Gregory had left the priesthood and was now working as a mental health counselor with an AIDS Outreach program in Bozeman. We talked for a while and I promised to stop and see him the next time I was in Bozeman.
That night my wife and I took a class at the St. Helena Cathedral's education center to prepare for our son's baptism. I hadn't been in the education center more than a handful of times since taking Confirmation Class back in high school. The memories were still crisp as they played through my mind.
The second year of Confirmation Class, jokingly my red shirt year, was where my faith began to make the transition from the faith of a child to that of an adult. That spiritual development depended upon Father Greg's intelligent lectures that were never short on wit and sarcasm. He engaged everyone who listened and didn't hesitate from answering the hardest questions.
The following year, I would be halfway across the country at West Point - relying on that faith like never before. It's been almost two decades and, more often than I'd like to admit, I still feel like that teenage kid trying to grasp the basics of what this life is all about and what we are supposed to do in it.
Neither Greg or I ended up being quite the people we'd envisioned. The act of living, loving, and following our individual spiritual paths led to a reality both more complex and simple than what we could have imagined in the early 1990's. The winding path continues to wind. As the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton said, "Any vocation is a mystery, and juggling with words does not make it clearer. It is a contradiction and must remain a contradiction."
The mystery of our vocations may be unavoidable, but the clear burden remains to use that vocation and all of our time on earth to fulfill the test of righteousness that Jesus said must be fulfilled to enter Heaven in Matthew 25: 34-40.
"'Come you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you at the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me'
Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'"
Jesus will respond. "'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'"
NOTE: Please take a moment and send a message to Governor Steve Bullock asking him to pardon Michael Hendrix. Michael was convicted of felony arson for lighting himself on fire while he was in the grip of mental illness-induced hallucinations of worms coming out of his skin. He's since recovered from his mental illness and is working as a peer specialist helping other. Unfortunately, he still bears the burden of the felony on his record.
I don't know anything more powerful than seeing your image reflected in your newborn child's eyes. It's terrifying and wonderful to think how much of an impact you will have on that little being and a reminder of how much of an impact you are having on other beings all the time. There is no stronger call to be a better father, mother, husband, wife, friend, co-worker, etc.
Moments of insight can be far too fleeting. They are here and gone. Like dew dried up by the rising sun. A meteor blazing through the heavens before winking out forever.
We rightfully cherish and value these moments. Crafting our life around their insights, but we do not value the moments of obscurity when our true purpose and mission seem lost. They are two sides of the same coin, yet we pray for one side and curse the other.
The words of Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, reveal the critical nature of the lost times. "If there were no obscurity, man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light[,] man could not hope for a cure."
We should all look for higher truth, the footprints of the Creator upon the Universe, both in sacred texts, prayer, charity, love and through science. However, it is critical to remember that the lack of certainty is essential for faith. Hebrews 11:1 ("Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.").
Without faith, is is impossible to please God, "for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." Hebrews 11:6.
Dr. Eben Alexander highlights the importance of the obscurity of the divine mission in his book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the Afterlife.
Dr. Alexander uses his training as a neurosurgeon and a near death
experience to argue that one function of the brain may be to act as a
cloak for a broader spiritual reality - allowing us to demonstrate our
faith in this realm without concrete proof.
There would be no glory in serving God if the evidence of his grandeur was so clear that it was impossible not to. Just as there is little glory in swearing one's loyalty to math or science when it easy to prove that one and one always makes two or that the Earth circles around the Sun.
Jesus's statement to the Apostle Thomas illuminates the core value of obscurity in demonstrating faith. "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed." John: 20:29.
While we cannot wait to live completely in the light. The importance of the occasionally overwhelming darkness can't be understated while we remain as John Steinbeck wrote - "East of Eden." (Referencing Genesis 4:16).
NOTE: I couldn't resist adding a full passage from Blaise Pascal's Pensees.
“Let them at least learn the nature of the religion they are attacking,
before they attack it. If this religion boasted of having a clear vision
of God, and of possessing Him plain and unveiled, then to say that
nothing we see in the world reveals Him with this degree of clarity
would indeed be to attack it. But it says, on the contrary, that man is
in darkness and far from God, that He has hidden Himself from man’s
knowledge, and that the name He has given Himself in the Scriptures is
in fact The Hidden God (Is 45:15). Therefore if it seeks to establish
these two facts: that God has in the church erected visible signs by
which those who sincerely seek Him may recognize Him, and that he has
nevertheless so concealed them that He will only be perceived by those
who seek Him with all their hearts, what advantage can the attackers
gain when, while admitting that they neglect to seek for the truth, they
yet cry that nothing reveals it? For the very darkness in which they
lie, and for which they blame the Church, establishes one of her two
claims, without invalidating the other, and also, far from destroying
her doctrine, confirms it” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 194).
My five year old daughter, Fiona, recently decided that she was going to have to send me to hair-braiding school. This decision didn't come from out of the blue. Fiona and her sister have bore the brunt of all my struggles with tending little girls' hair. During my time as a single dad, they were regularly dropped off at preschool with huge knots on the top of their head. When I did manage to get the tangles straightened out, their pony tails usually pointed in the wrong direction and barely had the staying power to make it through the beginning of the morning.
Thankfully, my wife handles the majority of the hair issues in our house now. That is almost entirely a good thing, except for the fact that Fiona's hair expectations have increased dramatically. Where my little princess used to be happy with half-cocked pony tail, now she expect full braids. Unfortunately, my hair tying skills remain bleak, similar to my knot-tying skills in the military and tie-tying skills in the corporate world. I'm lucking to keep one out of two of my own shoes tied.
Despite my inadequacies, I do appreciate the physics of hair braiding. The over-and-through of a braid combines force against force. Using the power of one series of strands to secure and bind another series. The binders, become the bound, and then bind again. Each comes from a different direction, a different position, yet is essential to the creation of the whole. The combination of the series of strands working together to create something more strong and beautiful than they could be alone.
While hair braiding evades me, I've learned a lot of other lessons through the process of being a father. One of the most interesting lessons is how pre-programmed every human being is straight from the womb. Good parenting, a safe environment and schooling is important; but there's no denying that a certain amount of temperament is just born in. Dr. Jerome Kagan's research team at Harvard University developed some of the strongest research in this field, particularly as it applies to people with highly reactive anxious temperaments. Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts expands on Dr. Kagan's theories to explain how people with inborn introverted characters play essential roles in our society - roles traditionally can't be filled by people with a more outgoing and exuberant nature.
In a similar but different direction, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi's book, A First-Rate Madness, makes a strong argument that leaders who live with depression or bipolar disorder are essential during times of crisis because of the slightly different way that their brains perceive the world. Winston Churchill credited his depression with allowing him to understand the threat that Hitler posed when Neville Chamberlain did not. Dr. Ghaemi points to President Lincoln, Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. as other examples of leaders' with depressive viewpoints that changed the course of the world.
Each individual is born with our own temperament, intellect, strengths, and weaknesses. Like strands in a braid, we interact with each others observations and viewpoint. This mix of religions, cultures and philosophies forms the tapestry of human history. It's a exacerbating and sometimes painful process whether the interactions are occurring in our homes, at work, or half way across the world; but it essential to fulfilling Creation.
While I'm fascinated by the psychological, anthropological, and evolutionary descriptions of this process; my personal favorite overall description of the human condition, our interactions with each other, and the goal of those interactions will always be from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for their is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.
Note: Check out Susan Cain's Ted Talk to learn more about about inborn temperament and the power of introverts.
The glory and grandeur of Christmas has passed us by. The wrapping paper is in garbage bins. The more-boring toys lay almost forgotten. Industrious children are already working out the basics to next year's letters to Santa.
People worry about losing the spirit of Christmas to marketers and politicians. I also fear losing the spirit of Christmas to religious spectacle. The aura and the grandeur of the universal Church celebrating the birth of God' son is overwhelming. It can be hard to remember the concrete reality that this is all the birth of a single man born 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.
Forget the Star. Forget the Choruses of Angels. Forget the Wise Men. Forget the impending wrath of Herod.
The Son of God took on one of the most powerless form's in the Universe- a human baby. His mother pulled him in close to her breast to shelter her baby boy from the challenges of the world.
Most of us have held a newborn baby in our arms. Whether father, mother, family, or friends: we've cradled them in our arms. Felt their breath against our skin. Told them that we loved them and promised them that everything is going to be alright.
That's the concrete reality that I worry about losing. That a baby was born that was unlike any other baby, before or since. But also, completely like every other baby before or since. As Steve Earle sang, "[T]he miracle they prized was nothing but a child."
That birth would be followed by a life, crucifixion, and then a glorious resurrection. A small religion on the outskirts of the Roman Empire would expand across the world. In the grandeur of all that came after, we cannot lose the incredible beauty of that humble beginning.
The Son of God could have came down from Heaven to announce himself in a chariot of fire, but he chose to give up all of his power for the shelter of his mother's arms.
From Father Hans Kung's On Being Christian:
Christian does not mean everything that is true, good beautiful, human. Who could deny that truth, goodness, beauty and humanity exist also outside Christianity? But everything can be called Christian which in theory and practice has an explicit, positive reference to Jesus.
A Christian is not just any human being with genuine conviction, sincere faith and good will. No one can fail to see that genuine conviction, sincere faith and good will also exist outside of Christianity. But all those can be called Christian for whom life and death in Jesus Christ is ultimately decisive.
Christian Church does not mean just any meditation and action group, any any community of committed human beings who try to lead a decent life in order to gain salvation. It could never be disputed that commitment, action meditation, a decent life and salvation can exist also in other groups outside the Church. But any human community, great or small, for whom Jesus Christ is ultimately decisive can be called a Christian Church.
Christianity does not exist wherever inhumanity is opposed and humanity realized. It is a simple truth that inhumanity is opposed and humanity realized also outside of Christianity - among Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, among post-Christian humanists and outspoken atheists. But Christianity exists only where the memory of Jesus Christ is activated in theory and practice.
NOTE: If you can, please take a second and sign this petition to President Obama to make improving the system of diagnosing serious mental illnesses a national priority. We cannot prevent all tragedies, but I believe God wants us to do our best to try. Suffering will always be with us, but we must do our best to relieve it.