Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Presumption, Mercy, and Following

I had an interesting conversation with my brother, his wife, and my niece last night.  In the process, we started to talk about a specific sin, and how I should conceivably and willingly put myself into a near occasion for sin (for those that don't know, a "near occasion for sin" is when you put yourself into a situation where you know you will be tempted to sin or where you know will tempt others to sin by your actions.  For instance, taking a recovering alcoholic bar-hopping would be a near occasion for sin.). When I protested and said that doing so wasn't safe, my brother told me, "Ruth, _______ is not the unpardonable sin."  Then my niece pipes up and says, "You can just go to confession afterwards!"  While we all laughed at the time and the conversation moved on, I found myself thinking about this conversation and some of the assumptions that underlie this attitude as I was falling asleep last night.

First, I have to say that, on its face, both what my brother and my niece said are correct--God is merciful, and He has given us the means to be forgiven.  That is the reason that Jesus died on the cross, as well as why  Jesus instituted Confession/Reconciliation at the end of the Gospel of John.  I am testimony to that fact--He has forgiven me for my suicide attempt 12 years ago, among MANY other things, and for that I will ever be grateful.    So, it wasn't really WHAT was said, so much as HOW it was said.  Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, all of us agree that God is merciful and that He forgives.  This is the greatest reason that I love the Divine Mercy Chaplet--it reminds me of what Christ did for me, as well as the fact that His mercy is fathomless.  This chaplet and image was a revelation to St. Faustina, and her diaries are on my list of books to read....Read the explanation St. Faustina was given about this picture in the caption...

The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls. These two rays issued forth from the depths of My tender mercy when My agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross. Happy is the one who will dwell in their shelter, for the just hand of God shall not lay hold of him 

I want to dwell in the shelter of Christ's love and mercy, but I don't think that putting myself into a near occasion of sin is the way to do so.  When you take this idea, it feels too much like the argument St. Paul is refuting in Romans 6: 1-18 (I'm only going to quote vs. 15-18 here).

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Of course not! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, although you were once slaves of sin, you have become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were entrusted. Freed from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness.
For me, willingly walking into a situation of a near occasion of sin is like willingly presenting myself to become a slave to that sin, and I only want to be a slave of Christ.  The verse that has been on a continuous loop in my brain, though, is something Jesus himself said (John 14:15-21):
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live.On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”
So, the way that I show my love for God is to follow Him and keep His commandments--I can't do that if I'm purposely setting myself up to sin.  Even if I am able to resist the temptation (and that is doubtful--the fact that I'm willing to put myself into the situation in the first place says that I'm already half-way to consenting), I am giving myself permission to disobey because "Jesus will forgive me."   In Catholic-ese, this is probably the graver sin--I'm guilty of presumption.  I am saying that I don't need to repent in order to be forgiven by God, and no matter what faith tradition you come from, repentance means we must accept God's gift of salvation.    When I presume upon Christ's Mercy, I am basically saying that He is going to force His love on me and make me become someone that I clearly do not want to become.  According to CS Lewis,
In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man "wishes" to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. --The Problem of Pain
If I have learned anything from my divorce, I have learned that none of us has the power to change or fix another human being.  I believe my ex married me a little less than a year after my suicide attempt because he  knew that I was vulnerable and it gave him a chance that he wouldn't otherwise have had to date me.  I also believe that he wanted to rescue me, but really, only I could rescue myself by resting in the Mercy of God. As the Lord healed me, I stayed because I felt that I needed to live with the consequences of my mistake.  More than that, I hoped that my ex would grow and change as time went on, but no amount of wishing, hoping, praying, nagging, or ultimatums changed my ex's actions or attitudes--he has to make that decision to change for himself.

And, that is why I won't be following my brother's advice from last night's conversation.  I like the changes that God has wrought in me, and I want Him to continue to make me more like Him--I don't see that happening if I create situations where I am purposely presenting myself to be a slave of sin. Instead, I will present myself to Christ.  When He sets you free, you will be free indeed!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Word-Play, Strategy, Critical Thinking, and Leadership

I LOVE the game Words with Friends (WWF). In fact, I am currently playing 13 games with various people, and I have been known to have as many as 20 games going on at the same time (I will play with anyone that will play with me, although I especially like playing people who are better than me--it helps me get better at the game!).  It all started when I was about 8 years old--a little old lady from our church babysat me one summer.  She took care of another little old lady that lived in her trailer park, and one of the things they did was play scrabble 2-3x per week.  They taught me how to play that summer, and while I never beat either of them, I was hooked for life!  My scrabble board is the first game I ever bought for myself, and I am more than happy to pull it out whenever I have the chance....I don't get to very often, but I still love the game, and that is why WWF is ideal for me--I get to play with friends over the space of days, and it gives me a quick break throughout my day.

When I first started playing WWF, I tried to get my ex to play with me.  His response was that "Nerds with Friends" didn't interest him, especially since he felt that he had no chance of beating me. Really, it has always puzzled me why my ex was so bad at the game.  The elements of a good scrabble or WWF player is to have a good vocabulary and a sense of strategy/tactics.  He plays war-games, so the latter he should have in spades.  He also has the former, since he reads at least as much as I do, and I probably read 3-5 books a month (more when I can!).  Maybe it has to do with the fact that I like to play with words all the time.

In high school, I used to work on the crossword puzzle in the newspaper with my dad....well, sort of.  If my dad left it laying around half done, I would add the missing words that I knew.  If I got to it first, and left it laying around, my dad would do the same was always kind of a race to see who could finish the puzzle!  I also used to love writing poetry, mostly because I liked crafting metaphor in order to evoke emotions.  I don't write poetry as much anymore, but I still like using words and phrases that elucidate with the least words--that requires playing around with words.

For me, I'm still working on the strategy part of WWF...a friend of mine is really good at blocking you from double/triple word squares while utilizing the special tile squares himself.  He beats me probably two times out of three, and I will often start muttering at my iPad mini when he plays 40+ point words...which he seems to do at least once a game.  Sometimes, I don't know whether to cry and cuss over the semi-regular 100+ words he plays or just stare in awe and amazement.  I've actually come to the conclusion that, because he is so much better at strategy than I am, if I don't get ahead by a 50+ point margin in the first third of the game, I have very little chance of winning--his end-game is nothing short of wizardry!  It is good for me, though--it keeps me humble, and it has started changing how I think when I'm playing.  I will jump for joy when I can get to the place where I can beat him half the time.  I shudder to think how badly he could trounce me in a game of Chess....

The reason for this is that strategy doesn't really come naturally for me....I can do tactics--those moments when I have to look at a situation and make a decision right then--but strategy means thinking about the pieces and your opponents 3 and 4 and 10 steps out.  This is the real reason why I will never be better than a passing chess player--I can't anticipate my opponents' moves very well.  I'm learning to be better at this, but I'm not where I want to be yet: I'm convinced that the ability to think strategically is one of the key components to being a good leader, a transformative leader.  It is the difference between following the trends and making them!

In higher education, we often talk a lot about Critical Thinking, especially in the wake of the book, Academically Adrift, which was first published in 2011.  While others have discussed the merits (or lack thereof) of the study, and whether it gives an accurate account of the amount of learning that happens in college, it is still something that those of us in academia think about often: How do we engender critical thinking so that our students are informed consumers and informed citizens?  This usually entails teaching analysis, as well as a questioning attitude: where was this information from; what are the goals of the source; is it logical; who benefits; does correlation equal causation; etc.  Most of what we look at when teaching critical thinking is tactics--making decisions about the here and now.  I'm wondering what would happen if we were to start getting our students to look at the implications as well--what might happen 2, 3, 10 years from now if we carry this plan/idea/research/path to its logical conclusion?  I know that there are professors who are already doing this, but I must admit that I'm not very good at this, mostly because I'm not good at strategy.

So, I continue to work on my strategic thinking through things like WWF, and look for ways to think ahead in my daily life.  If I can get in the habit of looking at my WWF games strategically, then it will hopefully spill over into my personal, and then my professional life.  In the meantime, game on!!!

Friday, June 7, 2013


After almost 11 years of a failed marriage, no children, and only one real pregnancy scare in all of that time, it is probable that I will not have biological children, which makes Mother's Day a difficult day for me.  Every other day of the year, I'm at peace with the fact that I will probably never birth a baby of my own, but it is difficult on that one is a day of mourning for me, and the emptiness of my arms take on a weight that I only feel in the celebration of mothers everywhere.  In fact, for the last 3-4 years, I have sought to avoid as much of the hubbub as possible by going to Mass during the Saturday vigil, and before my divorce, skipping my ex's church altogether.  Before I was Catholic, I would feign sickness to keep from the church service that day.

It was probably my third year of marriage when I realized that natural born children probably weren't in my future (we were never checked, so I can't be 100% certain. still...).  I have always felt strongly that, if you are pro-life, you should also be pro-adoption: infertility wasn't ever as big of a deal as it could have been, because I always knew that, if natural born children didn't come, I would eventually adopt.  It was probably about the time that we had to give up fostering children because of financial difficulties that things went from resigned to my fate to really difficult again.  At this point, I realized that I couldn't both be the primary/only bread-winner and a stay-at-home mom, and that I crave traditional gender roles in marriage. I also realized that the odds of my ex and I ever being financially stable enough to afford adoption were nil, and all of a sudden, being infertile became a VERY BIG DEAL. 

Now that I am divorced, I am surprised that physical motherhood is still something that I hope for.  I shouldn't be, since a divorce doesn't change what the desires of my heart are (See Ps. 37--Only God can do that as I delight myself in Him.). It just changes the possible avenues for fulfilling those desires while it closes others completely (maybe talking about that will be another post for another day--some avenues are open but unacceptable as well...Practicing Catholic Christian and all that ;-D ). 

Anyone who has ever lived in an area that is mostly Hispanic has heard adults call their children "Mamasita" or "Papasito"  (Spanish for little mother or little father).  I always found it kind of weird to call a two year old a little mother, but chalked it up to a cultural difference.  One day, when I was really struggling with the lack of pattering feet in my life, a friend of mine explained it to me.  She said that, as a culture, they believe that every girl is "born with the heart of our Blessed Mother." The idea is that, because we love Jesus, we have Mary's heart within us (It can be argued that she loved Him more than anyone else in this world.). That makes sense to me. I think it also might point to the potential for parenthood that is present in calling a little girl a mamasita or a little boy a papasito--it is a very rare little girl indeed that doesn't dream of holding a little baby of her own.   

The reality is that all of us are called to participate in God's creativity in the context of our relationships through "the true gift of self".  We are all called to be mothers and fathers, either physically through birth or adoption, or spiritually.  Blessed John Paul II said as much in his encyclical, Mulieris Dignitatem, as he sits there and talks about the dignity and vocation of women....his argument is that, by the nature of who we are as men and women, we are called to parenthood, and we then live that out through our vocation--if we are single, we become parents spiritually, and if we are married...well, you get the picture.  Here is a quote from the above...

The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way - precisely by reason of their femininity - and this in a particular way determines their vocation.

So, I have been praying a lot about how to nurture the people around me and help them become more like Jesus.  Maybe the avenue for physical motherhood will open for me, or maybe not--it is something that I have to entrust to the infinite wisdom of Jesus.  Even so, I can let God work through me to be a spiritual mother right now.  As I become more available to be a conduit of grace for the people around me, I will be able to discover who God made me to be...Maybe someday a Mama, but always a Mamasita!

This is my favorite picture of Mary and Jesus: the painter is Bougereaux.  Notice that she is focused on Jesus, just as it is in scripture--everything that she is is because of Him (Luke 1:46-50).  Also notice how she is holding Jesus in such a way that his position mimics what it will be on the Cross.  His focus is on us while his hands are stretched out in blessing toward us.  Someday, I want a nice framed print of this.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Music, Musings, and the art of Meandering

Several years ago, my ex started making a series of music compilations for listening to in the car called, "My Sitcom Life."  These were interesting compilations, each revolving around some sort of theme.  One had a bunch of songs about breaking up and/or about the fact that love hurts sometimes--"Love can be bad luck" Another had a bunch of songs about soaring, flying, floating, etc., called, "Flight."  The last iteration that I know of was called, "And now a word from our sponsors," which featured several mock commercials for the Taliban, the US Navy, and others.  I don't have access to these playlists anymore, and I actually don't miss it all that much....I gave my ex the control of what we listened to because he was more into music than I was--it was also easier to concede in order to keep the peace.

Now that I am alone again, it has been fun re-acquainting myself with the kind of music that I like to listen to--contemporary Christian music, recent country, some hip-hop and rap (thanks Sarah--it is your fault that I like this stuff!), Blues, Boy-bands (yes, I like Boyz to Men, and the random New Kids on the Block hit--sue me!), Crooners (Harry Connick, Jr., Josh Groban and Michael Buble!) and the occasional dance/top 40 hit (Gangnam Style, anyone?).  It isn't that I didn't like most of what my ex liked to listen fact, I was introduced to a lot of bands that I probably never would have heard without him, most good, and some totally not my type of music.  No matter why it happened, it means that I'm probably about 10 years behind on country music hits, and 6-7 years behind on Contemporary Christian music, with similar gaps in other genres I like.

Destructo-Dog strikes again....Maybe she is telling me that I'm spending too much time surrounded by noise...Either that, or she just likes the taste of my ear-wax--this is probably the 3rd or 4th pair of earphones that she has destroyed!

I also know that, at some point in our marriage, I began to notice a decided lack of silence in our house....the TV or music was almost always being played at home, so I often opted for silence when I had the choice rather than music or TV.  I began giving up TV and/or radio for Lent.  To this day, my main time of prayer is my morning commute, mostly because I got into the habit of driving in silence.  On the way home, I am often found listening to books on tape--it is my favorite way to read non-fiction.  I think that, in trying to play catch-up, I have lost that silent space in my life....something that all of us need in order to listen to the Lord.

I think that Blessed Mother Teresa says it well:

The fruit of silence is prayer
The fruit of prayer is faith
The fruit of faith is love
The fruit of love is service
The fruit of service is peace.
 This is why I plan to leave my nano and my headphones at home when I walk my Camino this August/September (85 days!!!)...I will have my iPad mini in order to update this blog and keep in contact with family and friends back home via the occasional Skype session, but I don't plan to answer my e-mail while I am gone either.  I actually have quite a bit of music and audio-books on my iPad, but because it isn't as easy to carry as my nano, I will be less likely to whip it out while I am walking.

Besides, while I love to run to the sound of music, I hate hiking to music.  I think it is because music helps me keep my tempo when I am running, but it detracts from the experience when I am hiking.  It detracts from my enjoyment of God's handiwork surrounding me.  Running is about the internal struggle and the way my muscles and sinews move with each other, but hiking is less about me.  Climbing the trail up the mountain takes on spiritual overtones--it is not completely about conquering, but about enjoying the journey.  Running is all about conquering myself, though, and finding my personal limits.  The first step of each successful run seems to start with the question, "Can I?" and end with a resounding "I Can!"  The first step of each hike I take usually starts with, "How far will I get today?"--That question isn't just about the length of the trail, though.  It includes the contemplation, the working through, the random thoughts that scamper around as I walk familiar trails. It is meandering down paths never taken before, both literally and figuratively, which must be explored like a loose tooth must be wiggled by a 6 year old. It is a point of pride to run the mileage that I plan for myself; It is OK if I don't get as far while hiking, because the dig-dog is hot or starting to limp, or I'm starting to get sun-burned.  I finish each run high on endorphins and each hike feeling incredibly blessed....a different kind of high to be sure!

It could very well be that my recent injury was God's way of reminding me that running is a gift from Him, just as much as Hiking is.  I know that, but I'm not sure that I acknowledge it as much about running as I do about hiking.  As much as I love to run, and it is on par with chocolate when I am PMSing or a perfect Creme Brulee, I think that hiking does more for my spirit in the long-run, and if I ever have to choose between the two, hiking will win every time.  The difference could be that I allow myself to be silent when I hike, but don't when I run....I just know that I am less likely to run as far in the quiet than I do while listening to music--maybe because the negative voices in my head are more active while running and the music drowns them out. More than likely, that won't change until I can give myself the permission to ask, "How far will I get today?"  at the beginning of a run.  If I can ever make that transition, I will probably surprise myself by going further than I ever dreamed.  But, like the old adage says,
"the longest distance is from the head to the heart"
So, as I sit out another week to allow my leg to heal,  I will try to meditate on the following verses:

Come, behold the works of the LORD, 
how he has wrought desolations in the earth.  
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; 
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
he burns the chariots with fire! 
"Be still, and know that I am God. 
I am exalted among the nations, 
I am exalted in the earth!" 
The LORD of hosts is with us; 
the God of Jacob is our refuge. [Selah]    
--Psalm 46 : 8-11, RSV

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Time is ticking away..."

It is official!  I will be leaving at 6am on Aug. 29th.  My tickets are bought, and now it is just a matter of saving the money for everything else.  I'm leaving for Madrid in 84 days! 

I also just received my pilgrim's credential in the mail today.  I took a picture of it, and then promptly stashed it into my backpack.  My passport renewal went in the mail yesterday, as well.  I only hope that it gets back in time!!!  It still feels a little unreal to me, but this looks like it is really happening!  Now, if only I could get my legs healthy again so that I could work on my stamina for the Camino!