Guilty As Charged

Ever been called a heretic? “Them’s fightin’ words” where I come from. Well, something just said wasn’t a direct accusation of me but struck enough of a cord to make me squirm.

Of course, the heresy to which many of us are prone is as old as Christianity. Variations are so endemic to our human psyche they undoubtedly pre-date Christianity and exist in all great world religions.

An especially virulent outbreak is chronicled in the fourth century fights between the monk, Pelagius and St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo. It flared to epidemic proportions again in the “works righteousness” controversy of the Protestant Reformation. We haven’t resolved it and it hasn’t gone away.

Truly, it’s not about ancient history or abstract theology. I recognize the perversion inside me. It resides in each of us and in our faith communities, even if dormant.

“Pelagianism” distorts our sense of right and wrong.  It distracts us from what really matters, leads us to be judgmental of others, and disguises a self-righteous attitude. Yes, indeed, “them’s fightin’ words!”

Today Pope Francis admonished the bishops of Italy against a temptation to Pelagianism. As will any authentic proclamation of the Gospel it applies to all of us, not just to bishops:

Pelagianism brings us to have faith in structures, organisations, and plans that are perfect because [they are] abstract. Sometimes it even leads us to adopt a controlling, tough and prescriptive attitude. The law gives the Pelagian a certain sense of superiority… And it makes its seem as though [the Christian] is doing a good deed.

Francis’ morning admonition, directed to all of us, conveys a sense of urgency in light of the pressing challenges and urgent needs facing our world today:

[I]t is no good seeking solutions in conservative or fundamentalist attitudes, in the revival of types of conduct and forms that are dated and that lack a capacity to be significant even culturally. Christian doctrine is not a closed doctrine that is incapable of generating questions, doubts, queries but it is alive and able to unsettle and enliven people. It has a face that is not rigid, a body that moves and grows and a tender flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.

His is the way of humility, selflessness, the Beatitudes. This makes me squirm. I have to confess that it’s a whole lot easier living within the comfort and certainty of my self-righteous heresy.
My source is the news service, Vatican Voices. The report is available [here].  The bold print in the final quote is mine for emphasis.

Outrage Displaced

A self-righteous moral crusade has pretty well preoccupied my past week. I’ve been outraged by the state of our health care system — its expense, inefficiency, bureaucracy, mediocrity, self-indulgence. All the while, some corporate and elected officials do everything in their power to scuttle needed reforms and deny access and affordable care to the most needy.

Trust me, if you’ve not seen me on my soapbox spouting harsh invectives and blistering assessments you should count your blessings. Obviously, I like words and take pleasure in their use. Rile my sense of moral indignation and I easily let loose with condemnations and anathamas for whatever the situation may be.

Case in point: today I am having laparoscopic surgery to repair a hernia. Really, no big deal. The actual procedure takes about 15 minutes. You’d never guess that by the bureaucratic hoops and all the medical professionals who find a way to get a cut of the action (i.e., the bill). Don’t get me started!

Nevertheless I’ve learned something important during this unplanned engagement with the health care system I still believe is objectively broken. I’ve learned how much I project and how I’d be better off attending to the stuff I can influence and for which I am directly responsible. Case in point: I need the hernia repair. I am not going to reform the health care system in the process.

Maybe there will be more to learn.  But, two realizations occur to me in this process. First, get clean and clear about my emotions. In this case I recognize that my repressed fear and submerged anxiety is spurting out sideways.  Expressing indignation about a bureaucracy I reluctantly must engage is easier than admitting that I’m more scared than I want to admit.

It’s really more about me than I want to acknowledge. I would do better admitting my feelings of vulnerability and loss of control than stoke the moral indignation I might muster on behalf of the faceless “vulnerable” and “powerless” in our midst. Yes, we must address access to good health care for those on the peripheries or those without access. However, I need to come clean about the source of my outrage and soapbox rants.

Second thing that has surfaced is a way to test whether my self-righteous indignation is just that — a slightly veiled case of self-interest and an external projection of my internal anxiety. It seems so simple… It would be more honest to ask, “Will I be as outraged and committed to reforming the health care system and getting access for the poor and vulnerable next week as I’ve spouted from atop my soapbox this week?”

Honestly, will I really care a week from now? I hope I will. Still, I probably will be focused on simple gratitude that my hernia surgery is poast and be off on my next “crusade.” Guaranteeing access to care for the needy or reform a broken health care system will be a cause set aside for whatever captures my immediate interst.

The need I should focus on and something broken I can more immediately change is much more personal. That requires more than a 15 minute procedure.

What Would Mom Say?

When I’d be moping around in my adolescent funk or otherwise being disappointed with what life was — or wasn’t — sending my way Mom would often say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it!” Then she’d keep silent, letting reality sink in. She said a lot of wise stuff about life! This is just one that’s popping up a lot these days.

Earlier this week I was speaking with a dear, dear friend. She, too, is a Mom. In fact, she’s a Grandma seven times over. One of her children is considering a job transfer to a different city. This is really a painful decision for everyone involved. No more having just the grandkids for an overnight. No more spontaneous visits to the Children Museum. No more school productions or soccer games to applaud. Yes, life sends plenty of disappointment our way.

But what really took me off guard was Sarah’s response. Ever the “Mom” with wisdom aplenty she said to her son: “Yes, I would be very sad. I would really miss you. But you need to know this… You are not responsible for my happiness — I am!” Talk about profound, honest, empowering wisdom from a mother!

Yesterday was a day filled with many frustrations… a home repair project for a friend took twice as long as it should have, the caulk-gun didn’t work when I wanted to seal cracks in the driveway, insulation we had installed the day before wasn’t sticking to the window as it should, battle was waged with a health care system more focused on profits than on people, my 16 y/o car has developed a metallic clatter that I can no longer ignore.

No wonder the wisdom of these wise Moms resurfaced from the recesses of my consciousness. What am I to make of this litany of frustrations? Do I really want to concede my emotional wellbeing to the power of caulk-guns, window insulation, and the clatter of a car engine?  I guess the choice is mine!

We still depend on our mothers’ wisdom to navigate life’s disappointments, salvaging happiness from a litany of frustrations.  We might say of our mothers what I imagine Sarah would say about her grandkids, “They may be gone, but they never leave us.  And that’s a good thing!”

Beyond Our Imagining

“The truly wise understand what they don’t know!” Somewhere along the line someone said that at a time when I was developmentally ready to hear it. Somehow it seems to encapsulate what education is all about. It’s probably a pretty decent summation of what makes for a full and contented life.

It’s when I’ve been pushed outside the comfort of the nest — as an eagle does for her young — that I have learned to fly.  Remember swimming lessons? … how hard it was to just jump in?  My “personal best” encounter with terror was sky-diving from 15,000 feet.

All such experiences shape us to be the people we eventually become.  Surely one of the most profound influences upon my character development and core values was my involvement with an inner-city youth group during my early teens.  Otherwise my youth looked pretty much like episodes from Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver or The Donna Reed Show.

My present life in a “desirable” south Minneapolis neighborhood is still pretty much a promo for white, middle class 1950s values. I need to intentionally shake things up from time to keep a grip on reality.

I’m reminded of this necessity every time we take the bus/light-rail to and from the airport rather than a taxi or the airport shuttle. Such forays outside of our comfort zone repeatedly show us a city, even a neighborhood, significantly different from the one that lives in our imagination.

All this came flashing back while reading David Brooks. Here’s what triggered my curiosity about what really made a difference in my education, what’s truly made a difference in my life:

Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

So how do we get to be wise? By getting outside of our social enclaves of folks just like us. By riding the bus and seeing people who do not aspire to be our clones and whose pursuit of the American Dream is other than our personal narrative. By deliberately entering that “no man’s land” where we feel some cultural turbulence and our preconceived ideas can get shaken-up.  It’s when we have our eyes, ears and hearts wide open that we know we are fully alive.

This is hard, even risky. We don’t want to go anywhere or do anything that will challenge our “security”, threaten our “truth”. But a clutched fist cannot receive what others have to give. We squander life’s invitation to understand what we truly don’t know!

We end up worshipping a God of our own creation rather than a God whose creation is beyond our imagining.


The quote is from The Road to Character by David Brooks.  New York: Random House. 2015. Kindle edition at #295.

A Bizarre Juxtaposition

Strange how our brains work! This morning my nephew’s six kids, ages 4 to 14, came to mind as I was reading about second century Egyptian hermits. Truly, such an improbable connection surprised even me.

Yes, the kids are pretty typical in every way with their child-like antics and periodic meltdowns. Though we love them, the general chaos of the household leads us to stay with their grandparents when we are in Omaha. Add our niece’s three kids who are regularly part of the mix and you have quite a catalytic explosion on your hands.

But as we have visited or hosted the families and viewed photos on Facebook, we’ve noticed something exceptional. They really get along! They are a cohesive unit. Yes, they fight and sometimes throw fits if they don’t get their way. But the care and bond each has for the other is palpable. Every child should be so lucky to grow up in families with siblings and cousins like these children.

So, here’s the piece from the second century desert hermits that worked its strange alchemy on me this morning. The bizarre juxtaposition still brings a quizzical smile to my face:

Abba Pambo, one of the early monks of Nitria, received a visit from four monks of Scetis. As each one talked to Pambo, he spoke of the others’ virtues. One had fasted, another had lived in poverty, the third was known for charity. The fourth monk, who “had lived for twenty-two years in obedience to another man,” was praised as the greatest. Pambo said, “Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.”

What we have noticed about our nephew and niece’s kids goes beyond the fact they get along and like each other. They truly care for each other — they watch out for each other and have each other’s back. They have learned how to share — perhaps the proximity of so many others has something to do with making this a necessity. Yes, each is right on schedule with the normal stages of strong ego development! But they have a quality of self-giving within a web of community that is remarkable in 21st century America.

We can spout all sorts of platitudes about family values and how parents are our first and best teachers. All this is true. Though my nephew, my niece, and their spouses would absolutely deny it and call me deluded and uninformed; they and their kids come about as close to the ideal as is humanly possible.

Yes, their kids are still children! However, from my vantage of 65 years I see them ideally positioned to one day comprehend the fullness of the Christian proclamation…

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself
and became obedient to death–
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

In another place Scripture says, “…and a little child shall guide them.” Today my grandnieces and grandnephews have much to teach this old man.


The story about Abba Pambo is originally from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Rev. ed CS 59. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984. #196 (Pambo 3).  I read the account in Reclaiming Humility: Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition by Jane Foulcher. Cistercian Publications. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2015. pp 75-76.