Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Holy Spirit: Leading Us to Fulfillment

Come, Holy Spirit!

Today our fifty days of Easter celebration come to fulfillment in the great feast of Pentecost. Our Father in heaven has poured out His Spirit upon us through the death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus His Son, who was born of the Virgin Mary and has become our brother. In Jesus, God embraces every dimension of our lives, and we are drawn into this embrace by grace, by His continual superabundant gift, by the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

I know I need above all to pray for the grace to let God have His way in my life. So I pray for an increase in the Gifts of the Holy Spirit: for wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and the fear of the Lord. The Holy Spirit gives His gifts to every Christian, and through them we grow in the likeness to God, which is our vocation.
Each one of us is called to become “godlike”—that is our destiny, to “participate” in the life of God. We know that it is here that our ultimate happiness lies, but God alone knows what our true destiny really “looks” like (“eye hath not seen…”). So we must let Him lead the way....
I only see the surface of my life. Deep down, God is working a wonder, and the means He is using penetrate my whole life with its joys and sorrows, and all that is yet unknown.
What God wants for me is so much more, so much greater, so much more glorious and joyful, than what I think I want for myself. In eternity, we shall see all and rejoice in all. Here, we see through that dark glass called faith. Sometimes it is very dark, but we must trust God to give us what we need to sustain hope, and to grow in the capacity to respond to His mysterious Love with our own self-abandoning love.
~From my book Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy (see HERE for more details)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Blessed Romero of the Americas

The image above depicts in iconic form the martyrdom of Blessed Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, shot and killed while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. Here I have placed this Salvadorian artwork in a setting with a red background and an olive cross.

Today, May 23, 2015, Archbishop Romero was raised to the honors of the altar. It has been a day of great joy for the people of El Salvador and countless others all over the world.

It has fulfilled a longstanding hope of my own, and I hope it will lead to a greater appreciation and a deeper study of this exemplary and heroic Catholic bishop.

Blessed Oscar Romero's legacy is only beginning to be understood. The image that expresses the culmination of that legacy, of course, is the devastating, bloody photograph taken moments after Romero fell at the altar during the offertory, pierced by an assassin's bullet. It is raw and inescapably jarring:

Martyrdom is a great grace in the mystery of God's plan, but attempts to comprehend it in the categories of this present age inevitably break down. It is not surprising that Romero is held in great esteem by the world in general. He is regarded as a heroic defender of human rights, and this is certainly true. But in order to really understand the significance of his witness, it is necessary to appreciate the profound grace that shaped his way of looking at human persons and the world.

Blessed Romero died for his faith. It was his conviction that in Jesus Christ eternity intersects with the present moment. The glory of Christ transfigures all of the labor of daily life in this world. Christ "raises up" in eternity all the efforts for God's goodness, justice, truth, mercy, and wisdom that we make each day, in union with Christ's offering of Himself.

It was the glory of Christ the Redeemer that motivated all of Archbishop Romero's courage and love, and that convinced him that he needed to risk everything on behalf of the people entrusted to his care. Blessed Romero didn't die for some abstract ideal of justice, nor to advance any political ideology. He died because he allowed his faith to shed light on the circumstances he faced, moving him to recognize and to insist that his people deserved real, concrete justice and that the Gospel required their cries to be heard.

Romero judged that it was his duty as bishop to denounce the oppression of the poor. He understood himself as a shepherd who was responsible before God for all his people, especially those who had no voice of their own. And he insisted that it was his duty, and therefore his right, as a bishop to denounce in the name of Christ the evil perpetrated by those who held worldly power.

He was always ready to promote peaceful and constructive protest, dialogue and reconciliation, and to mediate for solutions in his troubled country that were both realistic and uncompromising on human dignity.

The world has changed in many ways since 1980. The Americas have changed in many particular circumstances and in the challenges they face (though the poor still cry out to heaven for the bread that is theirs by right).

What remains is the need for Catholic bishops with evangelical courage and love, who cannot be bought for money or prestige, who care not whether they are applauded or condemned or ignored by the image makers of society, but only that the mercy of Jesus might be communicated to the poor and suffering, to human hearts made for God.

The world needs Catholic bishops who will speak Gospel truth to worldly power, in season and out of season, ready to witness with their blood. Blessed Oscar Romero has shown them the way. He has shown all of us that the hope of Christ is the enduring and fruitful way to perceive and engage the needs of our society.

Blessed Romero of the Americas, Pray for us!

"As a Pastor, I am concerned about being present with those who suffer."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Please Don't Enter the "Fear Zone"!

It's easy to fall into the tendency to think of "Christianity" as merely a worldview, or a collection of ideas that explain the universe and direct us regarding what we should do. It's easy to act as if Christianity is primarily an intellectual system that has to be expounded and defended in competition with other intellectual systems. In fact, it's easy to go through the day reading about Christianity and writing about Christianity and talking about Christianity--all the while seeming to forget the reality that makes it worthwhile:

Jesus Christ.

How do I live so much of my life without an awareness of Him? Why does my heart not converse more with Him? O sure, I "pray"--but it's like I'm an official making a report to my boss from time to time. Or even if I speak with Him in sugary, "personal" terms, so much of it is still a game of dodge and duck, an effort to "love" Him but still keep Him at arms length. Which, of course, is the way I interact with the human persons who are important in my life. Please don't enter the fear zone.

But He said, "Do not be afraid."

How seldom do I just enjoy being with Him. Of course I have to attend to the many tasks of life. But He is with me, and He is inside of those little things. I feel as though I say morning prayer and then leave Him there on the wall. Why do I try to leave Him behind?

Sometimes I will turn to Him during the day, even with great intensity...when I need something! "Jesus, give me...." Why are there not more simple, joyful expressions of adoration and love.

What's the problem? I love Him. Of course I do. But I take Him for granted. And I am a little...afraid.

"Fear is useless. What is needed is trust."

I know. But I am still afraid. Why? I'm afraid that I can't measure up to Him. Of course I can't. I'm also afraid to let Him do what He wills with me. Lord let me see that what You want for me is for my happiness. It's the only thing that can make me happy.

I want to love You more, Jesus. I want to trust in You more. I want to live my life as a relationship with You.

"Lord, you know that I love you." Under all the junk and the forgetfulness and the fear,
I love you. Jesus I love you. Jesus I trust in You. Have mercy on me. Deepen my trust.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Pentecost is Coming

We are in the week between the Ascension and Pentecost, the "Great Novena" of expectation. The Easter Celebration is approaching its fulfillment.

The light of the Easter Candle which began on the night of Holy Saturday has accompanied us through these days, and the true fire which is that new life in the Spirit is -- we hope -- burning more brightly within us, burning with the intensity of a greater love.

Let us deepen our hope in these days as we approach with real expectation the feast of Pentecost, and let us all cry out together:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jesus Says, "I am Leaving the World and Going to the Father"

Entrance to Abbey Church, Holy Cross Monastery, Berryville, VA
In recent weeks, the Gospel reading for the day has been taken from what is sometimes called the "farewell discourse" of Jesus in the Gospel of John, chapters 14, 15, and 16.

Many classic verses are found here. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (14:6). "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9). "I am the vine; you are the branches... apart from me you can do nothing" (15:5). Then there are those words about His gift of His peace, and bearing abundant fruit, and exhortations to "abide in Him" and "keep His commands," and especially "this is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you" (5:12).

This part of the Gospel is so rich; indeed it is quite overwhelming. It takes about twenty minutes at the very least to read the three chapters continuously with attention. I should know. For almost a decade my spiritual father was an old Cistercian monk at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia. Fr. Edward died in 2012, and at some point I will have to devote a post to him and the very great blessing he was for me and my family in times past. Right now, I mention him because he always gave the same penance for confession: the prayerful reading of John 14-16.

This seems like a bit more of a time-and-effort investment than most "standard" confessional penances, but I am grateful for the frequent reading of this text, which has taught me a little how to listen to it and dwell with it.

The "discourse" is a profound exchange between Jesus and the disciples. As is so often the case, however, the disciples don't understand. Jesus uses these great images that are familiar to us, but the disciples are confused. Jesus speaks of Himself, His Father, the Spirit, the world, and the disciples themselves, but they are not sure what he means by all of it.

When we read these texts, we are dazzled by their depth and inspired by all the often-heard themes. Still, perhaps we sympathize with the disciples in a certain way.

Maybe we have studied the Bible for years, but do we really "get it"?

"We do not know what he is talking about" (16:18) the disciples are saying near the end of chapter 16. Two thousand years later, we can still appreciate their perplexity. We too may wonder, "What is He talking about?"

We have the benefit of the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ after the resurrection and Pentecost, as well as the development of doctrine, the tradition and the Fathers, the teaching of Christ's Church, many good modern commentaries, and our own prayerful reading in the light of the Holy Spirit. These resources assist us, but the heart of the text remains an awesome and beautiful mystery, and it brings us more and more to a simple gaze full of silence, adoration, and love. We are drawn to "abide" in Him, and allow Him to dwell in us, with the Father and the Spirit.

Here is one of the powerful moments in the New Testament when we encounter the Infinite Mystery made flesh, the One whose presence is decisive for the destiny of every human person.

Within the narrative, however, the disciples remain confused.

But just then comes a moment in the text when the clouds seem to open for them. Jesus says something that strikes the disciples in a different way, that breaks through and appears clearly, even if only for a moment, in their minds and hearts.

Jesus says:
"I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God" (16:25-27).
And then He says a single verse that sounds like something He has already said many times. Yet this time it stands out; it seems to touch the disciples for the first time in all its richness. If we ponder it for awhile, we might be touched by it too. Jesus says:
"I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father" (16:28).
The hitherto bewildered disciples seem suddenly awakened by these words. Perhaps they don't know what they are saying, and yet they are impressed with a luminous certainty, as if they are standing before Jesus transfigured. They are greatly consoled and illuminated. Suddenly they rejoice, and cry out with a newly found joy.
"His disciples said, 'Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God'" (16:29-30).
Perhaps we reach this point and wonder what we've missed. What did Jesus say that suddenly made it all clear?

I wonder if these words might indicate the very heart of the matter. The Eternal Mystery -- source and fulfillment of all things -- is the Holy Trinity, in which the Son is eternally generated by the Father. And the Father and the Son eternally breathe forth the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity is, of course, the transcendent, "super-dynamic" and "always" realization of the exchange and overflow of Love, a mystery that transcends words like "coming" and "going."

Yet this is why the Son of the Father has been made flesh. Jesus has come into the world above all to reveal and glorify the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the mystery of the God who is Eternal Love. "I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father."

Earlier in the discourse, Jesus told them, "If I do not go, the Advocate [the Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you" (16:7). Now He appears to be synthesizing everything in a few words that refer to His "coming-from-the-Father" and His "going-[returning]-to-the-Father."

Perhaps these words open the hearts of the disciples to Jesus's relation to the Father in the Spirit. Perhaps they grasp for a moment His whole mission: He who is forever generated from the Father is sent by the Father into the world to "open up" the life of God so that those who adhere to Him might share that life through Him, so that they might be raised up into the Father's glory in the Holy Spirit.

The Voice and the Dove at Jesus's baptism. The luminous Glory of Tabor and the Voice again. Transfiguration. Infinite Love who is Father, Son, and Spirit, revealing His Trinitarian mystery and freely pouring forth His glory and His love and His mercy upon the world.

Is this what stirred the ardor of the disciples and drew forth for a moment their joyful affirmation of faith?

Still, in the "farewell discourse," Jesus knows that His coming-and-going has not yet reached its definitive moment. The Cross remains before Him:
Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (16:31-33) 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

My College Graduation... Thirty Years Ago!

Not much comment needed here. I graduated from college 30 years ago. That's thirty years ago. As in 1985.

My parents in this picture are both younger than I am today. Life is mysterious. It's also difficult, but it's beautiful and it's worth it.

Congratulations to all the graduates of the Class of 2015! God willing, the next thirty years of your lives will be as blessed as mine have been.

God bless you all!

Friday, May 15, 2015

No Cheap Grace, No Cheap Answers

Christianity is grace, but as we are often reminded, it is not "cheap grace." It is not an escape from suffering. It does not dispense us from the need to strive to live a genuine human life, to be obedient to the wise and loving plan of God, or to wage relentless war against our own selfishness.

Christianity does not provide "cheap answers" to the painful and mysterious questions of our lives. It is not a refuge from failure or a pretext to compromise with mediocrity. It is not a place to hide from our own weakness.

Critics claim that people embrace faith because they want easy answers. They want a package of solutions to their problems and emotional comfort for their hurts and fears.

But this is not the effect of real Christianity. It is not an anesthetic. On the contrary, it opens new dimensions of the questions of the heart, and sparks a deeper dynamic of intelligence in the search for understanding. It awakens a unique sensibility to our own wounds and a compassion for the wounds of the world. It engenders a love that is the opposite of power and domination, a love that has the courage to be more vulnerable, to be poor and humble, to endure our own sufferings and to be with others in the places where they suffer.

Christianity is not a list of cheap answers that take away the real drama and vulnerability of human life. Christianity is a Person who loves us and endures our vulnerability to the very end, transforming it from within. The "answer" is the way He embraces each of our lives. We are changed by living with Him.

We are not changed by a "satisfying explanation." We are changed by Him.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Rosary and the Heart of Mary

Click HERE to learn more
about Stuflesser statues
"Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:15).

We can join Mary, our merciful mother, in this pondering of love, in the singular gaze of the one who is the Panagia, the "All Holy" and the Immaculata, the pure heart that truly "sees God."

Mary knows Jesus. She sees Jesus. She has belonged fully to Him from the beginning, even before He took flesh in her womb and was embraced by her faith and love.

She sees Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection, in His glory, and in each one of us. We can walk with her and be led by her along her intimate paths of loving wisdom.

The mysteries of the Rosary open up concretely these paths of wisdom, prayer, and silence that bring us to dwell with Jesus within our own lives. The Rosary opens our eyes and our hearts to reality, which may account for both its simplicity and its difficulty.

Pray the Rosary, even when it seems long and dry and dull and entirely unhelpful.

Think about it: the Rosary is so human. It's so much like everything else in daily life. And just as we don't live very well, chances are we don't pray it very well.

But keep praying the Rosary. Don't ever give up on the Rosary. Mary accompanies us in the Rosary. She will lead us to pray it "better," with greater awareness and greater humility.

She will lead us, slowly.

She is patient with us. We must be patient with ourselves. We must take up the Rosary every day and do our best, and with each bead -- each step of the journey -- we can renew that determination and let Mary take our hand.

She will share her heart with us -- her love for Jesus -- through the Rosary and in the ordinary, mundane moments of life.

She dwells upon each one of us in her heart. She treasures us, the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, and keeps us close to Him.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

I Still Journey to the Moon

I hope my friends on the Internet are not bored with "zoom lens pictures of the moon" that I keep posting all the time. I'm always thrilled when I can catch a clear shot. Here's our early morning waning moon:

For people of my generation, a view of the topography of the moon brings back childhood memories. We all had our "moon maps" and we knew where our astronauts were going. (I think the "Sea of Tranquility" is just beyond the shadow of this half moon.)

For me, at least, these are memories of wonder and amazement. I was only six and a half years old in 1969 when Neil Armstrong made his "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" and placed his foot on the rocky lunar ground. I remember it all. We watched on television, of course.

My brother and I used to get up early in the morning to watch the Apollo launches. I had models of the rockets and the lunar module, and -- like so many boys in those days -- I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.

It was the 1960s and America was in tumult. I remember playing in the living room in those days during the evening news and hearing machine guns and words like "Saigon" and "the Viet Cong" and "Cambodia" and "student protests" and "Richard Nixon."

As a child, however, my memory of the time is dominated by the images of the moon, and of the heroic effort of so many people who worked together, made sacrifices, and took incredible risks to make a marvelous journey. I knew nothing of the "space race" or the politics of it all.

It seemed to me that the whole journey to the moon was driven by the desire to see it, to know it better. But it was too enormous to conquer, and so our journey was not about dominating the moon but drawing close to it, so that our astonishment about it could grow.

This is what a little boy remembers, in any case, and what he still feels when he looks up at the sky and sees the moon.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Hope in the Face of Death

Marko Rupnik, mosaic (detail) of crucified Jesus
My hope in the face of death is Jesus.

My hope is that I will recognize Jesus in my own death: He who died for me and who "dies with me" -- really it's more correct to say that I am going to "die His death."

The drama of life and death is to abandon myself totally and completely to Him, or at least to throw my whole self -- however wildly and desperately -- upon His infinite mercy.

For me, hope in the face of death doesn't come from trying to isolate my "I" exclusively in the spiritual aspect of myself, while suppressing and devaluing the whole reality of being a bodily person. Sometimes we imagine that in death we become angels, and the human body is shed like a casing that never really belonged to us.

But that is not who we are.

I am a bodily person. My spiritual, immortal soul is also by nature the form of my body. My body is an aspect of me. That is why death, in itself, is such an impenetrable mystery.

But Jesus transforms death, and my hope is that in dying I will "lose myself" only to discover myself fully in Him. In death I shall "lose" my body of this present age in order to live fully, face to face with Infinite Love, as a member of Christ's mystical body (a member of "the Church Triumphant").

This is my hope.

The ultimate fullness of His victory will therefore include my own resurrection, so that the God who is Love might indeed be all, in all.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Josefina's First Holy Communion

Josefina after the Mass, with her Daddy.

This is 8 years earlier, before she had another setback
in the NICU. She was there the first 7 months of her
life. Many prayers brought her from then to today!
During this past year, Jojo was well prepared by John XXIII Montessori Center's Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. Here is a picture of her working on the Last Supper and using the materials to see its relationship to the Mass of the present time.
Materials used in the Last Supper work.

She's perhaps the smallest in size of today's CGS first communion kids. Afterwards, we celebrated by having a lovely family dinner out.

Speaking of food, mine included this salmon and asparagus salad, and a beer that deserved (and got) a picture all it's own.

UPDATE: from May 10... Josefina wore her First Communion dress again on Sunday, so we were able to take a few more pictures. Let me post a couple of them here also.

Now we got Jojo with Daddy and Mommy both. And below, we have Jojo in the bright sunlight, next to the wall of the old church. She's less than twice as tall as the bushes! :-)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

I'm Still a Teacher, Even Though I Can't "Do the Job"

Over the past four years, this blog has been one way in which my work as a teacher has continued even "after" everything came crashing down in 2008. My task has been reborn and even expanded in ways I never would have imagined before chronic health problems brought about my (very) early retirement from the standard classroom and the dynamic life of a college institution.

I've done an awful lot of "blogging" -- enough to have realized that a blog is its own kind of place for communication.

I was going to commemorate with Internet bells and whistles my one thousandth blog post, but apparently I passed the thousand mark without even noticing. (This is post number 1005.) Although I have been posting more pictures and experimenting with multimedia formats, writing is still the main feature of the Never Give Up blog. I try to use my understanding to see the purpose of things and to express myself with words.

I also have a lot of problems. Nevertheless, even when I feel overwhelmed, I try to articulate what I think is the meaning that I'm seeking, or rather begging to see in all of it.

Sometimes I articulate it pretty well, and it "sounds like" I have acquired a vital understanding of deep things.

But please do not mistake this for any kind of wisdom. I am not a wise man. I am a desperate man who speaks and writes because for me the search for understanding has an urgent intensity. For me the need to think (at least while I'm awake) is like the need to breathe. I'm just trying to stay alive here. But I also know that in the end all my words must surrender....

Nevertheless, right now, I still have these words. And I have this desire to share my words with others. Indeed, I am charged with task of sharing these words with the persons who are entrusted to me. I am called to share the search for beauty and truth and goodness that propels my own life, to walk with others on this journey and to help them with whatever understanding I find.

There is a "light" that nearly always "stays on" somewhere in my soul, not to dispel my own darkness so much as to enable me express my experience in words -- my experience of weakness in faith and the obtuseness of bodily and mental affliction, as well as the strange and mysterious presence of Another and the hope He generates and sustains within me, a hope that refuses to go away.

charism is at work here, rooted in the enduring vocation of teaching. I may not have a "teaching job" anymore, but I am still a teacher. I couldn't stop being a teacher even if I tried. When I perceive something -- even if it has only gained a tenuous and embattled foothold on the shores of my heart -- I am moved to communicate it.

I try to cooperate with this grace. It is an impetus that sometimes "overrides" my illness and my physical and mental exhaustion, giving me the energy and capacity to speak and write. (Unfortunately, "overrides" does not mean "takes away" -- rather it stirs around the whole mess and sometimes makes it worse. It helps too, however, in ways I don't understand. But that's another topic.)

This charism also works within a whole complex set of motives, wrestling with pride, self-love, enormous vanity, the desire for appreciation, and all the distortions, hesitations, and fear that come from my damaged mind and stunted emotions.

No doubt there are many wasted words.

Nevertheless, people find something in all my words that helps them. Not many people, perhaps, but a few. The charism shines through, because this grace has been given first of all for you who read or listen to me and are drawn by the Lord to see the mystery and the pain of life in a different way.

A charism is given to build up God's people. In that sense, the fact that I'm a bumbling, incompetent Christian and a hypocrite looking for applause doesn't matter. If you find anything helpful in what I say it's because He loves you and wants to encourage you, strengthen you, and draw you to Himself.

He also wants to shape my life, and I really want to live the truth of this charism!

Well... sometimes I really want to. Often I forget all about it, or I say something like, "Jesus make me holy... but not yet!"

Most of the time, I'm just afraid. I'm afraid of the depths. I'm afraid of suffering.

But something is different. There is this hope. I know He is here, He is with me. I have hope because He has touched my life and awakened hope within me. Hope is the living memory of that encounter and the fruit of His embrace that continues even when I can't "feel it."

It is this hope that fills me with an urgency to express encouragement: "He loves us. He is here with us. He will not abandon us!"

I feel like I'm nearly drowning in the flood of life, but something moves me to tread water and swim as best as I can. I sink under the water a lot, but in my struggle and thrashing I've also seen the land. It's not far away. And here we are -- all of us awful swimmers in these deep and strange waters -- and I can't help crying out, "Look, look, this way. There is the land. We are going to make it! We are going to be okay."

Monday, May 4, 2015

Colors of May

Cheery bold redbud,
shadowy evergreen,
wispy baby birch fingers
   dusted emerald yellow,
distant mountain aquamarine
   dulled in milky haze,
sun shifting open white folds of clouded sky.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Losing a Job is Like Falling Off a Cliff

We so often feel like we have an obligation to be in control of our whole lives, to have power over every circumstance and provision for every possible adversity.

We try to be invulnerable, because we fear that our own sufferings will impoverish and endanger everyone who has been entrusted to us. We think that our failure will make everything around us fall apart.

Having responsibility -- having others depend on us -- is indeed a very serious and a very real thing. It provokes within us the profound energy to keep working even in the face of many obstacles.

And we must do our best, every day, to invest ourselves in the responsibility that has been entrusted to us. Nevertheless, we fail in many ways, and sometimes our failures are dramatic and humbling. Sometimes we need help.

My name is John Janaro. I am a man, a husband, and a father. I lost my job. In the year 2008 I lost my entire career. Everything I had worked so hard to attain fell through my hands. I lost these resources not only for myself but also for my wife and children.

I have a chronic disability that places frustrating limits on my capacity to do any work. I don't know how to communicate this frustration and the problems it creates for a family. I live with it every day, and it's harder than I can possibly describe. We manage. My wife works, I do what I can, we live a creative frugality, and we have some help. We manage, but it's hard.

I also know well that health is not the only cause of occupational paralysis. Social and economic circumstances can destroy jobs, destroy opportunities, and overwhelm a person's resources. The enormous pressures of this constantly changing society are pushing people off their solid ground, and over the cliff.

Some find their footing again, in a new place that's better than the last. Thank God.

Many just have to grab temporary inadequate solutions. They try to shrink their own humanity as they grapple with the constantly shifting ground under themselves and their families.

Others just keep falling and can't see where it will end.

I want to say something, however inadequate, about people like me who are men, who have been responsible for providing for their families, and who have fallen off the cliff. I want to address the men because I am a man, but I also want to be heard by all those who love and care for such men, and those who depend on them.

I know that there are many men out there, husbands and fathers, my brothers, who tumble through this abyss of anxiety and humiliation. They are hindered by disability or economic changes or other circumstances. So many of my brothers lose their jobs and can't find work.

What a suffering this is! My brothers know they have something to give; they have experienced the hard joy of work and they know the value of its fruits. And one day, this work -- this constructive activity of tenacious self-giving -- is no longer possible for them.

They wake up in the morning, and realize with terrible clarity that there is no work for them that day.

Don't doubt this for a moment: they are ashamed of themselves because of a situation that they cannot change. They feel useless and disconnected from everyone else, even their own family members. But often they are awkward at forming or fostering relationships and are inclined to bury their emotions.

They are trying the best they can, but they are just poor little human beings. This is too much for them.

So they are falling through the gaping hole of loneliness and self-loathing, looking for a lifeline but too often grabbing onto things that let them forget, things that dull the pain.

I wrote a book about my own experience with this kind of stuff, about illness and weakness and suffering and the mysterious mercy of the One who refuses to give up on us. It has been fairly well read by many people in various circumstances.

I often hear from people who suffer from physical and mental illnesses, who are overwhelmed by life's pain, who struggle with their incapacities and incomprehensible losses. Most of the people I hear from are women. Certainly, many women face these same tensions as providers (even primary providers) for families, as well as the many special problems that come with motherhood.

I am always ready to walk with my sisters in solidarity, understanding, and support.

I realize that women often communicate with greater ease about their problems and experiences. Even though there is a vast array of dispositions that shape the human capacity for openness, not the least of which is the unique reality of each person, it often seems that women tend to be more spontaneously inclined to share their difficulties with others.

I wonder, though... where are the men? Where are you, my brothers?

I know that you are suffering, and that you feel helpless and afraid.

Surely we can help one another to bear our burdens. We can walk together, learn new paths, build in new ways, discover a courageous compassion, a virile tenderness.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Work and Gratitude

Work is living in relationship to the world.
I put myself into the ground I till
and the bread I knead and bake.
I build my shelter and my days
with patience and the application of skill.
I shape places for myself
and those entrusted to me.

Work molds the earth into a medium of love,
making stones into bricks,
and bridges,
or visions into pictures
and sounds and marks into words
that reach the heart.

Work is not selling myself,
reducing myself to a product for others to consume.
Work expresses me as a person
and its rightful wage is respect,
stature as a human being,
access to the elements of freedom,
resources to live as a person
and to care for those entrusted to me.

The adequate response to human work
is gratitude.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fists and Flames: Baltimore's Agony is Ours

The fires of Baltimore's street violence (from BBC)
Baltimore, Maryland has flared up in recent days with multiple expressions of conflict, from protests to riots, looting, and physical destruction. The media present the latest American "city in flames" that has caught the camera eyes of the world (who do their best to show as much fire as possible).

The Baltimore Sun: fists and flames.
I share in the common concern. How can we begin to take the steps needed to make healing possible for these deep wounds in our society? This is an urgent question, even though I fear that the road to healing is a long and difficult one.

This time, these events have also struck me in another way: Baltimore is not so far away from my home.

It's a couple of hours' drive east and arching north. Much of it is a very pretty country drive on old Route 340, passing Berryville and through Harper's Ferry where the Shenandoah River empties into the Potomac.

We are connected, at least remotely, by water to the Chesapeake Bay area with its history and its world of life. Nevertheless the Blue Ridge sets us apart. Even though it poses no physical barrier for travel today (and multitudes make the trip daily), the ridge is still there like a mysterious boundary that carves out this region as a distinctive place from America's East Coast.

The Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah Valley are the beginning of Appalachia. We cannot entirely feel like "the East" in these mountains, because there was a time when we were "the West." Two and a half centuries ago, Appalachia was the English frontier.

Perhaps that is why Baltimore (and even Washington DC and the "Northern Virginia" suburbs) seem remote to our quiet life out here. It is not hard to feel like we are in a kind of shelter. Indeed, this might not be the worst place to be if all heck breaks loose in the sweeping population centers of this country.

Still, I think we are in danger of forgetting that the violence in the news is showing us a picture of our own lives. How often is rural life a realm where poverty remains unnoticed, where indifference pushes aside any effort to understand our neighbors?

This is, indeed, the long and old story of life in Appalachia.

There is no real escape from confronting the cycle of violence. All the burning cars should not obscure that fact that even many peaceful protests in Baltimore's streets are heavy with frustration. And we don't have the luxury of hiding away under the shade of the leafy trees of western Virginia.

Rural life and city life: we are closer than we think.
There is no escape from the cycle of violence or the
search for justice, peace, and healing for all of us.
The streets and dirt roads and backwoods of Appalachia are heavy with frustration.

My life is heavy with frustration. How am I dealing with that?

Does the lack of struggle and turmoil in my own heart indicate the healing presence of grace and virtue, or rather does it signify that I have made a truce with mediocrity, that I have allowed myself to stop wanting the fullness of life?

Open violence and human conflict certainly stem in part from the devolution of our society to the fringes of civility, the opportunistic predation of bandits and demagogues, and even the sensationalist provocation of media attention.

But sometimes thrashing and screaming are expressions of pain and the desperate struggle for a tenuous life that is nearly lost. Sometimes... in Baltimore, in the Shenandoah Valley, in my own heart.

The cries of the wounded are piercing and disturbing, but they are driven by the wild strength of desperate hope. They make us afraid, but we have the responsibility to listen and to try to understand and share in the awful pain.

No one wants riots, or anger, or a troubled soul. But real peace comes from commitment and humility, work and suffering.

The alternative stands before us: we can embrace the hard and messy struggle for a peaceful people who journey together upon the road of life, or we can resign ourselves to the silence of corpses.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Spring Evening in Pictures

Most of these pictures have been posted already on the social media circuit. I have been able to get out a little, do some walking, and try to take pictures around the neighborhood.

I'm not feeling well lately, and the small strength of the day is easily spent. It's frustrating, but I've written enough about this problem-which-isn't-going-away. It is a long road that has to be taken up again and again, trusting in Jesus day after day, hour after hour. Often failing, and beginning again. Praying and begging to keep going all the way to the end.

Meanwhile there are many beautiful things to see in these days and I am grateful for that.

Happy Creek road in the evening, with young green all over the trees.
Maple with "baby" leaves.

Blooming dogwood...

...on this neighborhood tree.
White dogwood too...
...everywhere, it seems.
Cratered, crescent moon.
Gray and yellow, orange and red, blue and green -- all the colors that paint the canvas of the sunset.