Thursday, December 27, 2007

Saying good-bye to an old friend....

At 3:30 December 26th, Will took our dear old golden retriever, Beau, to the vet to be put down. Beau had suffered a grand mal seizure Christmas evening and didn't seem to fully recover. After a long consultation with out dear, sweet vet, we made the tough decision. I've always been the one to take our animals to the vet since Will works, but I had already made plans with a friend and her children to go see the movie, Enchanted, and take Lydia. Since Lydia was very upset about Beau, it seemed wisest to keep our plans and for her and me to be out of the house when Beau left. Because of that Will had to be the one to take Beau and stay with him. It was very difficult. (Enchanted was a wonderful diversion, btw.)

Beau was over 12.5 years old. We picked him up when he was 12 weeks old in Asheville, NC, where my mom had picked him out of a litter of 8 squirming, roly-poly puppies. She picked him, in part, because he had a tiny black spot on his head, and it was the only way to tell him from the other 7 yellow fur balls. I've said many times since then that God put that black spot there so Mom would choose him. He was the perfect pet for us.

Beau was humble and gentle without being scared or shy. He was exuberant, happy, and loving. He was the quintessential golden. He also "yodeled." That always surprised people! From the earliest age, Beau understood children and that he needed to be gentle with them. Even as a puppy he never nipped or jumped up on our then 18 month old daughter. He obeyed her when she would order him in her best toddler-talk to go into his kennel. He'd patiently go inside, sit down and wait for her to let him out again; although usually she went in with him!

Several times when our youngest child was just a toddler we found Beau sit patiently in front of an open container of dog food waiting for her to feed him one piece at a time. He never tried to go through her to get to the food. About that time we also took a sweet picture of 2 year old Lydia sitting on top of Beau brushing his head with a doll brush.

Beau was never territorial, and willingly put up with a long line of dogs invading his space. A friend of mine used to drop her dog off daily while she was at work. We inherited another golden for several years, and finally we were given a terrier-mix puppy. Beau put up with being a life-sized chew toy for the puppy (named Cookie). Cookie literally used his ears for tug-of-war. From the very beginning he would lay down so she could "wrestle" with him, something that continued for the rest of his life. (Beau was about 64 lbs and Cookie is 14 lbs.)

Beau also loved people. Everybody. He was one of the few dogs I've known who seemed to think going to the groomer's or the vet's was a treat. He seemed to think any kind of attention, even shots and ear cleanings, were a form of love and affection. And no matter how painful the procedure, he never had to be restrained beyond someone holding his head. He was always full of trust and obedience.

The last thing I said to Beau was this: "You got it right, buddy. Thank you."

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Flannery O'Conner- It's long, but worth it.

From America- the National Catholic Weekly Dec 24, 2007

Flannery O'Connor's Religious Vision

Flannery O’Connor died during the Second Vatican Council, while the bishops were writing anew what she had always known: that the church is the body of Christ, the people of God; that laypeople are its flesh and blood; and that the clergy and religious orders are its servant-leaders. While O’Connor was a supreme artist in fiction, she was also a particularly valuable witness to the Catholic Church and its leaders in this country, especially as she appears in her collected letters, The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (1979). Hers is the testimony of a watchful, honest, faith-filled and eloquent layperson; and she had much to say about the experience of living the faith within the Catholic Church, especially in a society and a culture that had marginalized genuine Christian faith and practice.

Our present age has been described as one in which people place a high value on spirituality and a low value on religion, especially organized religion. Of particular interest, then, is O’Connor’s thinking about the experience of church, of the assembly of believers. She valued the church highly and observed it acutely, warts and all. If the church made life endurable, it also provided much that had to be endured. “You have to suffer as much from the church as for it,” she once wrote. “The only thing that makes the church endurable is that somehow it is the body of Christ, and on this we are fed.” She went on to explain why we suffer from the church: “The operation of the church is entirely set up for the sake of the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.” God is as patient with the entire church as he is with each lost sheep, and many of us Catholics have very little patience with either.

The church is made up of imperfect pilgrims on a long, difficult journey, and O’Connor described them well: “The Catholic Church is composed of those who accept what she teaches, whether they are good or bad, and there is constant struggle through the help of the sacraments to be good.” In “Choruses from the ‘Rock,’” T. S. Eliot says that modern people do not like the church because “she is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.” (Think of issues like abortion, euthanasia, welfare reform, capital punishment and more.) O’Connor might have appreciated Eliot’s remark.
The Human Element

Within the visible church, the Holy Spirit is constantly acting in the lives of its members, individually and collectively. Thus, the church cannot be accurately judged or evaluated by what her critics observe externally. O’Connor pointed this out to one of her friends:

You judge [the church] strictly by its human element, by unimaginative and half-dead Catholics who would be startled to know the nature of what they defend by formula. The miracle is that the Church’s dogma is kept pure both by and from such people. Nature is not prodigal of genius and the church makes do with what nature gives her. At the age of 11, you encounter some old priest who calls you a heretic for inquiring about evolution; at about the same time Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., is in China discovering Peking man.

The “human element” in the church was a frequent target of O’Connor’s wit, as when she proposed this motto for the Catholic press of her day: “We guarantee to corrupt nothing but your taste.” More seriously, she quoted St. Augustine’s advice to the “wheat” in the church not to leave the threshing floor of life before the harvest is complete, just because there is so much of that disgusting chaff around! In this connection, she slyly suggested what the difficulty may be for more sensitive Catholics (referring to one young woman in particular): “She probably sees more stupidity and vulgarity than she does sin and these are harder to put up with than sin, harder on the nerves.”

Meanwhile, the world goes on judging the church in utilitarian fashion, using the same standard it would apply to the Rotary or the Kiwanis. O’Connor challenged this ap-proach, writing that “any Catholic or Protestant is defenseless before those who judge his religion by how well its members live up to it or are able to explain it.” The surface is easy to judge, she was saying, but not the interior operations of the Holy Spirit. She illustrated this principle with a touching reference to the vocation of Catholic priests, whom she often found to be overworked and unimaginative:

It is easy for any child to find out the faults in the sermon on his way home from church every Sunday. It is impossible to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.

While O’Connor defended her church against superficial and unfair judgments, she was neither a whitewasher nor a fatalist, and she was an implacable foe of complacency. She believed that the church must struggle toward greater virtue as surely as each of its members. She wrote quite forcefully in this regard: “It’s our business to change the external faults of the church—the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty—wherever we find them and however we can.”
Flaws in the Church

Here are three examples of faults in the church that O’Connor criticized and wished to see corrected. I think they are in order of increasing severity.

First, she condemned smugness as the great Catholic sin. Now, 45 years later, perhaps something else would head her list; but smugness would probably still be listed. Referring to the German priest and author Romano Guardini, she wrote about smugness: “I find it in myself and I don’t dislike it any less. One reason Guardini is a relief to read is that he has nothing of it. With a few exceptions the American clergy, when it takes to the pen, brings this particular sin with it in full force.” About 20 years ago a bumper sticker appeared that read: “If you feel God is far away, guess who moved?” If O’Connor had lived to see one of those signs on a Georgia road, I like to think that she would have skewered the sentiment as very smug, even as she chuckled at the rampant vulgarity of bumper-sticker theology.

Related to smugness is glibness, which she described as “the great danger in answering people’s questions about religion.” Again, a sense of mystery will give the Christian apologist a sense of humility: if I am convinced that I have the truth about God, I am much more likely to be obnoxious about it than if I am convinced that God’s truth has me.

O’Connor expressed impatience with the kind of Catholicism—and Catholic fiction—that kept everything nice, shallow, cute and safe. She described what she called “A nice vapid-Catholic distrust of finding God in action of any range and depth. This is not the kind of Catholicism that has saved me so many years in learning to write, but then this is not Catholicism at all.” Genuine Catholicism, she felt, must be as radical and demanding as its founder’s teaching.

Still another Catholic fault O’Connor described is, I believe, an evergreen reality in the church: a Jansenistic disdain for human weakness and struggle and distrust of questions, speculations and discussions of any depth. Of the pseudo-faith of such persons she said:

I know what you mean about being repulsed by the church when you have only the Mechanical-Jansenist Catholic to judge it by. I think that the reason such Catholics are so repulsive is that they don’t really have faith but a kind of false certainty. They operate by the slide rule and the Church for them is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system. It’s never hard for them to believe because actually they never think about it. Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can.

In considering such people’s self-righteous judgments of others, she made an acute observation: “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” By contrast, Christians who have struggled with their demons are better equipped to show compassion toward others.
Religion Into Therapy

O’Connor had a deep distaste and contempt for modern, sanitized, “empty” religion. Because she embraced an imaginative vision of religion as the mystery of God’s saving action intersecting with all that is earthly, O’Connor remarked to one correspondent: “All around you today you will find people accepting ‘religion’ that has been rid of its religious elements.” Elsewhere she described this development in more detail:

One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention.

The issue of religion bled dry of its content is featured in what is probably the most famous story told about O’Connor. As a very young and unknown writer, she was visiting New York and was taken to a party at the home of Mary McCarthy, ex-Catholic and ex-believer, a sophisticated and accomplished novelist, essayist and critic. What follows is O’Connor’s description of the encounter:

We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing in such company for me to say.... Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward the morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most “portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of.

In The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003), Paul Elie writes of this exchange, “The closing remark is the most famous of all O’Connor’s remarks, an economical swipe at the reductive, liberalizing view of religion.”

O’Connor even locates one important moment in the development of this religious trend in this country. With some amusement she recalls a talk she gave at a college: “I told them that when Emerson decided in 1832 that he could no longer celebrate the Lord’s Supper unless the bread and wine were removed, that an important step in the vaporization of religion in America had taken place.”
‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’

For some readers one of the most surprising, even jarring, features of O’Connor’s fiction is its consistently comic character, even as the stories and novels pursue such serious themes of faith and grace. Elie describes an experience the author had when visiting the Cloisters, a museum of medieval art in Fort Tryon Park in New York City: “She was ‘greatly taken’ with a wooden statue on display in one of the chapels. ‘It was the Virgin holding the Christ child and both were laughing; not smiling, laughing.’” He concludes: “It was a piece to emulate as well as admire; like her own work, it was religious and comic at the same time.”

The betrayal of religion is downright diabolical in O’Connor’s view, and so it is portrayed in her fiction. For her, the crucial choice facing each of us is between the “lost” life with Christ and the worldly “saved” life without him. Thus, the most fiendish of temptations is to offer a saved, worldly life, but to offer it under the guise of being generically “Christian,” though with no Christ content whatsoever.

In this connection Elie describes a type of character that appears over and over again in O’Connor’s stories: “the middle-aged busybody who knows exactly what she thinks, who sees all and understands nothing.” One example is the character of Mrs. May in the story “Greenleaf.” At one point Mrs. May comes upon Mrs. Greenleaf in the woods, murmuring over and over again, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” O’Connor wrote: “Mrs. May winced. She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building, like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

O’Connor had much to say about living together as church in the midst of modern culture, but finally we should turn to one simple statement she made about herself: “I write because I write well.” Nearly 45 years after her death, believers and unbelievers alike agree with her more than ever. She wrote well. But there is so much more than that to be said of her. One point will suffice here: How wonderfully different Flannery O’Connor was from Mrs. May. She thought that the name of Jesus, the reality of Jesus, belonged everywhere, indeed was everywhere. Regarding the Christian faith, Flannery O’Connor was the polar opposite of Mrs. May, because she, of course, believed all of it was true.

The betrayal of religion is downright diabolical in O’Connor’s view. The crucial choice is between the ‘lost’ life with Christ and the worldly ‘saved’ life without him.

Most Rev. George H. Niederauer is the archbishop of San Francisco. This article is an adapted excerpt from his Lane Center Lecture, delivered Sept. 28, 2007, at the University of San Francisco.

For more on Flannery O"Conner, read this archived article she wrote for America in 1957. The Church and the Catholic Writer

Monday, December 10, 2007

An Interview with Frank Schaeffer

John Whitehead from The Rutherford Institute interviewed Frank Schaeffer about his book, Crazy for God.

The whole interview is worth reading (in fact the book looks worth reading), but this part caught my attention:

JW: You note in your book that you slowly realized that the Religious Right leaders you were helping to gain power were not necessarily conservatives at all in the old sense of the word. They were anti-American religious revolutionaries.

FS: I personally came to believe that a lot of the issues that were being latched onto by the Christian Right, whether it was the gay issue or abortion or other things, were actually being used for negative political purposes. They were used to structure a power base for people who then threw their weight around. The other thing I began to understand is that in dismissing the whole culture as decadent, in dismissing the public school movement as godless, in talking about anybody who opposed them as evil, the Religious Right was only a mirror image of the New Left. Thus, the Religious Right and the New Left are really two sides of the same coin. What gets left out is a basic discussion about the United States and the reality of living here, the freedoms we enjoy and the benefits of a pluralistic culture where people are not crushing each other over beliefs. This gets lost. Thus, the kind of harshness you see in left and right-wing blogs today, for instance, such as it’s red state, blue state America, I just got sick of it. In other words, the Religious Right was as negative and anti-American as anybody I ever talked to on the Left. So the people we had coming through L’Abri in the late sixties and early seventies bashing the United States in a knee-jerk way over the Vietnam War was exactly the same kind of thing that you would hear in a different way from Falwell and Dobson and these other people.

I have yet to read the book, but I'm looking forward to reading more about Frank Schaeffer's look at truth, honesty and how the Religious Right has co-opted the public representation of faith in America.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Alternative Christmas Letter

Note: I love my kids and I'm proud of them. This "alternative" Christmas letter is a spoof. Or maybe not. Maybe it's life as we live it instead of just the high points.

Another year has come and almost gone. As I look back over my year, I wanted to share the ups and downs with my family and friends. So fasten your seat belts; it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Hannah will graduate May 10 from North Carolina State University with a bachelor's degree in history. On May 17th she will marry Erik, and spend a week long honeymoon in Charleston, SC. When she returns she will put into practice all the practical knowledge she's gained in school. She only needs to learn, "Do you want fries with that?" in Spanish and she'll be set for life!

The wedding will be a simple affair, not only because the happy couple doesn't want a large to-do, but also because they haven't made any wedding plans yet. All we know for sure is the date and the presider (and the participants). I figure they'll be married when they leave for their honeymoon, and I choose not to worry about the rest.

Luke is now attending the local community college working toward an Associates Degree in computer networking. So far, so good. He's not driving yet, and he still doesn't have a job, but, hey, he's got a nice girlfriend!

Thomas has broken the home school mode and is now enrolled in a public charter school for 11th grade. He's making friends, making good grades, and generally being productive. What a guy!

Both boys are active in Youth Group and volunteering at church. They also spend something like 40 hours a week playing video games. Physical exercise consists of walking up the stairs to get another soda. Along with my future son-in-law, Erik, they are what I affectionately call my cave dwellers. My "family room" consists of 3 desk top computers, a widescreen HD TV, a smaller 27" TV, a PS, a PS2, two xBoxes, and an avalanche of video games. I toss food down there occasionally on weekends.

I still home school the girls, Rebekah 14, and Lydia 10, although I have to admit I outsource a lot. Rebekah takes writing, science, geography, and Spanish with other teachers/classes. Lydia does art, literature, and science in enrichment classes.

The theme of this year with the girls is music. The sing in two groups each, plus take piano lessons. I still have some control over their schedules, so they probably only play video games 20 hours a week. Less for Lydia since she still actually likes to play with friends.

So how do we spend Quality Time??? MMORPGing! (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) Or playing Halo III together! A family that parties together, lives longer... at least in the virtual realm of World of Warcraft! We used to eat dinner together, but that was before two computers showed up on my dining room table and never left. No room for food, only computers and school books. Now if we want to talk to one another we use email, or perhaps voice chat if we're playing the same game. I used to IM, but I couldn't keep up, so I still yell down the steps when I need to talk to someone. They think I'm a dinosaur.

When I do find myself in the same room with one or more of the kids, they are still free with the hugs. Plus, now that they are all virtuoso's on Guitar Hero, they are in-the-know about classic rock music! Any 10 year old that recognizes Heart and knows who Eric Clapton is okay in my book!! ;-)

Oh yeah, and did I mention Will joined the Catholic Church this year??

Merry Christmas to all you "alternative" families out there. Families with real live kids and lots to celebrate even if no one won a Nobel Prize this year. :-)