Saturday, December 29, 2007

It's that time again -- for the 28th time

Tonight is our 28th anniversary, and to celebrate, sort of, here is a post that includes some of my feelings about being married. Consider it a golden oldie.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Christmas Card

When the white stars talk together like sisters
And when the winter hills
Raise their grand semblance in the freezing night,
Somewhere one window
Bleeds like the brown eye of an open force.

Hills, stars,
White stars that stand above the eastern stable.

Look down and offer Him.
The dim adoring light of your belief.
Whose small Heart bleeds with infinite fire.

Shall not this Child
(When we shall hear the bells of His amazing voice)
Conquer the winter of our hateful century?

And when His Lady Mother leans upon the crib,
Lo, with what rapiers
Those two loves fence and flame their brillancy!

Here in this straw lie planned the fires
That will melt all our sufferings:
He is our Lamb, our holocaust!

And one by one the shepherds, with their snowy feet,
Stamp and shake out their hats upon the stable dirt,
And one by one kneel down to look upon their Life.
Thomas Merton, 1947

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Quote: Eugene Peterson

What other church is there besides institutional? There's nobody who doesn't have problems with the church, because there's sin in the church. But there's no other place to be a Christian except the church. There's sin in the local bank. There's sin in the grocery stores. I really don't understand this naïve criticism of the institution. I really don't get it.

Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There's no life in the bark. It's dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it's prone to disease, dehydration, death.

So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn't last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it's prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Be Prepared

The readings for the First Sunday of Advent (starting cycle A):

  • Isaiah 2:1-5
  • Psalm 122:1-2, 3-4a, 4b-5, 6-7, 8-9
  • Romans 13:11-14
  • Matthew 24:37-44
Back when I was both a bit younger and a bit lighter, I backpacked a bit in the Yosemite area. A mandatory stop was the Wilderness Center in Yosemite Village to get a wilderness permit and to check the weather and trail conditions boards. Right at the top of the weather board was this statement (and warning):
There is no such thing as bad weather, just weather you are not prepared for.
The weather has always been changeable in Yosemite. YOSAR (the local search and rescue folks) point out that on one October day they had to rescue climbers from El Capitan due to heat exhaustion. Two years later to the day, people were getting frostbite up on the big walls. It didn't matter how the day started, you had to be prepared for varied weather to keep from being hurt.

This Sunday is the beginning of the great cycle of the Church Year -- once again telling the story of God coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, of his dying and rising to redeem the world, and the spread of the Kingdom of God. This is also the story of God working in our own lives, and in the end, of the entire universe. But right here at the beginning, we need to heed the warning that almost anything can happen, so we need to prepare ourselves.

Most of us like change, as long as it is well behaved. We want things to change for the better, as long as we get to define what better is and the change meets our own expectations. Change is fine, as long as we can stay in firm control. To our dismay, we often find out that God has a different idea what change shoud be, and it does not include preserving our little illusions of control.

God's reign cannot become real in this world, unless we and this world change radically. There is nothing convenient or well behaved about that. In the Gospel lession Jesus reminds us of another story about God establishing control, the story of Noah and the flood:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
The story of Noah is not a tale of random disaster, it is the story of how being unprepared for God's action can become a disaster.

So, what do we need to do? Consider what you would do before backpacking into the Yosemite wilderness. Well before heading out, you would make sure you were in good enough shape to make the trip, from feet to head. Then you would collect maps and guides and study your route, to understand what you might face. Finally, you would pack for the trip, taking everything you need, but leaving behind anything else.

We, as Christians must do the same this Advent:
  • Get your prayer life in shape. If you have a set prayer discipline, keep to it. If you do not, consider the Daily Office, or the Rosary, or some other systematic approach. It does not have to be long or complex, but it does need to be regular. It's a matter of basic spiritual fitness.
  • Study God's Word prayerfully, especially the lectionary selections for this season -- they were chosen for a reason. Consider lectio divina as a habit worth establishing.
  • Examine your life -- take a little quiet time and open up you life like a backpack, and rummage around to see what you are carrying along that you don't really need. This can range from formal spiritual direction, or a retreat, or simply looking at some of the junk accumulating around your house, and finding something you can live without. Simplify a bit.
Preparation is the theme for this season of Advent, and we will continue to see what we must prepare for as we move through these December weeks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

When bad things happen to God's people

Again a brief, and late, reflection on the lessons for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • Malachi 3:19-20a
  • Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12
  • Luke 21:5-19
Next Sunday, the feast of Christ the King, will be the last Sunday of this year in the liturgical calendar. When we note that this passage is part of Jesus' last teachings in the Gospel of Luke before the Passion narrative, we can expect that this selection should be some kind of summation of what we have been hearing for months. It is, but not what we might want to hear.

Jesus warns that we will not think that things are going well at all, including warnings that could come from this, or any other morning's news:
"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end."

Then he said to them,

"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.

"Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name."
The disciples feel just like we do -- they are frightened and uncertain. Just like us, they ask Jesus for some sign as to when this will happen, probably so they can get out of town first. Jesus does not oblige, and specifically warns us against those who will try to answer that question for us. He tells us that if things go right, things will be going very wrong indeed, at least from our point of view.

When things get strange and uncertain, our first impulse is to take control, often taking it back from God. Trying to live according to God's guidance is all well and good when things are all going well and good. We seem to think that storm clouds on the horizon show that God has failed us, and that we have to take charge again. In telling the disciples not to prepare testimony but to trust to God to give them the words, Jesus reminds us that in these times out hope is not in our own ability, or in God somehow magically rescuing us. Our hope is in what God will do through us, if we let Him.

It is when things really go wrong that we have the greatest ability to show just who we can be, and who God is by what he can do through us.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Quote: Alan Knox

There is a misconception that community is built around uniformity: people who believe alike, act alike, respond alike, desire alike, etc. However, uniformity will not create the type of community in which God calls us to live. This is evident in the constant exhortation for believers to bear with one another, forgive one another, have patience with one another, and consider others as more important than themselves. Thus, the authors of Scripture recognize that there would be relational frictions between believers. This relational frictions [USC professor Dallas] Willard describes above by the phrase "raw, skin to skin contact". The way that someone responds to relational frictions demonstrates whether or not they are living in a Spirit-enabled, Spirit-empowered community, or if they desire to live in a uniform community.

People normally and naturally respond to relational friction with anger, impatience, divisiveness, selfishness, defensiveness, pride, etc. These responses are manifestations of sin. This type of response may reduce relational friction, but it will not maintain community.

However, through the indwelling and enabling of the Holy Spirit, it is (super)-naturally possible to respond to relational friction with understanding, acceptance, patience, humility, forbearance, perseverance, and even joy. This type of response will not immediately reduce the relational friction, but it will maintain community. In fact, true community is only possible in the presence of relational friction and a Spirit-controlled response to that relational friction.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Quote: Leonard Sweet

Q: The concept that seems to be gaining traction within North American Christendom is a call for the church to become "missional." What does a missional church look like?

A: I believe the primary mode of the church today is "attractional" rather than "missional." The Bible says Jesus "sent them out" (Mark 6:7). A "missional" church is a GOOD Church, where GOOD means Get Out Of Doors. A GOOD church is not one where people are trying to "live in" the gospel so much as "live out" the gospel.

Just as the early church was shaped by mission, so must we be shaped by mission.
  • An attractional church is focused on the word "come" ; a missional church is focused on the word "go."
  • An attractional church tries to invite people in; a missional church tries to interact with people where they are.
  • An attractional church is fixated on increased market share; a missional church is obsessed with increased world presence.
From Canadian Baptist

Fair warning

This blog is at at College(PostGrad) reading level.

I'm not sure if I am happy about this or not.

Oh, and another warning. If you want to display a rating like this, I suggest you check the HTML code they provide before posting. Here is what I got:

<a href="">
<img style="border: none;"
alt="cash advance" />
Get a <a href="http://www.***************.com">Cash Advance</a>

Which would embed a link to a cash advance site (URL removed). Not nice at all, guys.

Quote: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It is not necessary that we should discover new ideas in our meditation. It is sufficient if the word as we read and understand it penetrates and dwells within us. As Mary pondered in her heart the tidings that were told by the shepherds, as what we have casually heard follows us for a long time, sticks in our mind, occupies, disturbs of delights us, without our ability to do anything about it, so in meditation God's word seeks to enter in and remain with us. It strives to stir us to work and to operate in us so that we shall not get away from it the whole day long. Then it will do its work in us without our being aware of it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

We have no idea

The readings for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • 2nd Maccabees 7:1-2 9-14
  • Psalm 17:1, 5-6, 8+15
  • 2nd Thessalonians 2:16-3:5
  • Luke 20:27-38
At the very end of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a passage that rings true to me. Gandalf and Frodo have left the Grey Havens on an elven ship to the Undying Lands:
And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
I surmise that most of us have some idea of what we think the next world may be like, and this hits the closest for me

A set package of images and ideas has developed pop culture about the next life. They usually involve people in white robes with wings and harps, standing around on clouds. Then, of course, there is St. Peter and the gates. There have been all sorts of variations on this, Defending Your Life being one of my favorites. These often blend into simplistic ideas of judgement and reincarnation.

As a Catholic Christian, the depictions I have found most influential come from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. This was a recurring theme in Lewis' writings, breaking through in Narnia, Perelandra, and most specifically in The Great Divorce. Tolkien's most detailed takes were in the Silmarillion his depiction of the creation of the universe, and the Undying Lands, Aman.

I love these images, but one thing worries me. I do find Lewis' and Tolkien's ideas easier to accept than harps and fluffy clouds. When I think of those I have loved who are now dead, I have no problem believing that my own beloved dead are there. My problem is that I have not been able to see myself there -- it simply has not been real to me. Today's Gospel may explain why, and perhaps why I should not worry.

The Question

The Gospel lesson is sometimes referred to as "the Sadducee question". The Sadducee party were traditionalists often identified with the priestly Temple leadership, and held that only the written law (primarily the Torah) was binding, and rejected the tradition of oral law, precepts and interpretations passed down from one generation of teachers to another. Their interpretations of the law were often quite rigid and harsh, and were resented by many of the people, who generally preferred the teachings of the Pharisees. These two factions often argued, often about whether the dead are resurrected. Traditional Jewish belief only admitted the existence of Sheol, a shadowy place, and many in Israel felt that they would live on more in their children rather than in some next life.

The intent here is to trap or embarass Jesus with a trick question. The Torah requried that if a widow had no children, then the brother of her late husband must marry her (known as levirate marriage from a word for brother), to provide children to carry on the dead man's name and provide for the widow. And while Jewish law at that time could contemplate a man having more than one wife, a wife with more than one husband was impossible. If Jesus taught that the dead rise, his teaching would violate one law, or the other.

Jesus Responds

Now Jesus could simply denounce his questioners as hypocrites, as Sadducees only accepted levirate marriage under very unusual circumstances, and the practice was almost unheard of. But He chooses to first point out that the rules that they want to snare him with are rooted in our earthly experience and needs, and would not apply in a different situation, mooting their example. Then he turns the tables on them by placing them in a dilemma. The Torah itself refers to the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" in present tense, and Israel's God is God of the living and not the dead. If the Sadducees want to reject resurrection, they will have to reject the Torah as well.

This response leads us away from a mistaken view of the resurrection -- that trying to project onto that life our understanding of this life will only lead to absurdity. I should not worry about not being able to visualize a situation that is entirely beyond my understanding. But then, why should I believe in a next life at all, something completely outside my knowledge or experience? Why should I believe in the Gospel at all?

I believe because I have learned to trust Jesus in my life. This trust was not a sudden thing, nor is it really complete. But I can try to believe in the big ressurection because I have seen it happen in smaller, more personal ways -- in healing and redemption in this world that transcend my limited understanding and ability. By seeing lives made new again, including my own, I can trust in something I cannot see or understand, because of someone I know. I can hope.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

What ties them together

Some time back, I bookmarked an ariticle on GodSpy, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day - Two Radical Women by Jerry Dauost.

Mother Teresa once invited Dorothy Day to speak to her novices on the occasion of Dorothy's visit to Calcutta in 1970. Eileen Eagan, who was traveling with Dorothy, tells of the novices' reaction to Dorothy:

". . . I saw their eyes widen as she recounted the many times she had chosen to go to jail. They understood going to prison for truth and liberation, as Gandhi had done; now they were hearing it in a specifically Christian context, that of the Works of Mercy, of visiting the prisoner by entering prison. When Dorothy had finished, Mother Teresa took the black cross with the Corpus of Christ, as worn by the Missionaries of Charity on their saris, and pinned it on Dorothy's left shoulder. I know of no other case in which Mother Teresa gave the crucifix of her congregation to a lay person."

Eagan continues: ". . . It was clear to me that a like vision animated the two women. Mother Teresa served the dying of a scourged city, seeing each one 'as Jesus in a distressing disguise.' Dorothy Day stated that Jesus linked salvation to 'how we act toward him in his disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.'"
It's a good article, worth the read. One point made in the article is how for both women the life of radical charity was rooted deeply in prayer. This is something that those of us doing this work have to keep returning to. We spend so much of our time working directly with people in need, or working with others to train and organize. For some of us, this is the first time we have applied our talents to something that matters beyond a paycheck.

We all, of course, know that it is important to feed our own spiritual lives, and may even get around to doing something about it. But we seem to forget in any practical sense that prayer is not just something we do to help us do the important stuff. Our intimate life with Christ has to be the center of what and why we do what we do. We go into places where human pain and need are immediate, and demand an immediate response. But we forget at our peril that our first response, no matter how brief, is prayer. The only way we can be sure we are doing God's work, is to start with God, and do the work with Him.

Long ago, my first spiritual mentor said: "In any situation, no matter how dire, the first and best thing you can do is pray." Doing that, one travels the same path as these two friends of God.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Welcome back

Probably the last significant posts I made before going on hiatus were about Chaplain Teresa Darden Clapp of the Rockland County Jail in New York. She was suspended earlier this year for having distributed Jack Chick tracts that attacked Islam (not surprising if you are familiar with Chick's work). Over the summer arbitator Paul Bailey ruled that she should be suspended for 30 days without pay, which she had already done:

Bailey called for Clapp to be retrained and for the Rockland County jail where she works to set standards for distributing religious material.

Earlier this year, inmates complained Clapp was passing out anti-Islam booklets.

In the cartoon panel stories, a tract titled "Men of Peace?" said Islamic fundamentalists who commit terrorist acts are not "bad Muslims" but "very good Muslims" who act in accordance with their religion. Another tract, titled "Allah Has No Son," said Allah is not God, Muhammad was no prophet, and the Quran is not the word of God. Both stories end with people being convinced Islam is false. In one, a Muslim converts to Christianity.

In recent testimony before Bailey, Clapp said the materials were sometimes too voluminous for her to read before distributing them. She said she apologized and removed the cartoon panel booklets as soon as an inmate complained, and she acknowledged she had erred by bringing them in.
This both a good end to the incident, and a window into one part of detention chaplaincy. First, rarely do chaplains have enough time to get everything done, even all the really necessary stuff. Few facilities ever have the resources to hire and support enough chaplains. Also, in more and more cases you have a small group of (usually Evangelical) chaplains trying to supply pastoral care to prisoners with an ever widening array of beliefs and practices. Most chaplains work hard to be fair to all groups, and to support the religious freedom of all inmates. Sometimes just trying hard is not enough. At some time I will go on with what I think chaplains need in support from the rest of us. Until then, I'm glad that Ms. Clapp is back on the job, and wish her the best.

Up in a tree

Just some brief reflections this time on the readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • Wisdom 11:22-12:2
  • Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13b-14
  • Second Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
  • Luke 19:1-10
There is a lot to think about in this passage -- in particular Zacchaeus himself. This is, among other things, a redemption story. The assumption is generally that Zacchaeus, as a tax collector, must be dishonest and despised. The problem is that some who have researched the period dispute that, for a variety of reasons. Some commentors speculate whether Zacchaeus decision to change occurred during this passage, or some time before. It really can be hard to tell.

There is one thing that is sure -- once Jesus addressed him, he had a critical decision to make. He had to get down out of the tree.

He had climbed up in that tree, as it was the most practical and comfortable spot to look for Jesus. Up out of the crowd, he had a good view. Many of us are like that -- we are involved, somewhat, in the church and have found a comfortable spot to see what is going on.

But the time will come where Jesus calls us to stop being spectators. We have to go from our safe spot up in the tree to back down into the grumbling crowd.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Quote: Albert Nolan, O.P.

If we simply repeat the formulas of the past, our words may have the character of doctrine and dogma but they will not have the character of good news. We may be preaching perfectly orthodox doctrine but it is not the gospel for us today. We must take the idea of good news seriously. If our message does not take the form of good news, it is simply not the Christian gospel.
H/T to Preacher's Exchange

Let's see how this goes

Well, it has been some months, and I will stick my head up here for a while. I'm really not sure if this is a full return to blogging, or just an occasional adventure, but I have been getting the itch to write lately, and tonight I have the time to scratch.

The ground rules for this are simple: nothing direct or explicit about my work. That means nothing about specific facilities, persons, policies or situations -- there are better places for that if necessary, and authorization needed to put things there. But there are other things to think and write about, including some insights gained from detention ministry work in general. I'll stick to that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

On Hiatus

I have not posted here in a while, and it may be a long while before I post here again, if ever. It is not that I somehow have despaired of the blogosphere or something like that. It is simply that my own situation has changed, and there are certain restrictions that I now choose to work under. What it comes down to is that I have a new job -- in fact, a new profession -- and I am making changes as a result.

What happened? As of May 21, I am the new director of detention ministry for the Diocese of Fresno. I've held off discussing it for a while; at first it was because the process of filling that position was still in progress and therefore some confidentiality was involved. Since then, I have been waaaay too busy, and wanted to get a feel for the job. Now that things are public, I have made the decision to back off from blogging, for some specific reasons.

Before I explain further, a few notes on the job itself. The Diocese of Fresno is the community of Roman Catholics in eight California counties (Mariposa, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Kern, and Inyo). We are a large diocese in area with some rapidly growing urban areas in Fresno, Bakersfield, and to my shock, Merced. There are many contrasts -- for example this area is best known as possibly the most productive agricultural area on earth, as well as being the home of the United Farm Workers. This area is generally more conservative politically, with more of an emphasis on church and family than other areas of California -- but that is a relative thing.

This area is also home to more prisons, jail, work or boot camps, and prisoners that any other Catholic diocese in North America, and perhaps the world. Depending on how you count them, there are about 65 different detention facilities in the 8 counties, holding about 80,000 inmates. This ranges from overnight lockups, juvenile boot camps, and privately run minimum security facilities to Corcoran State Prison which holds Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan (among many others) and the condemmned unit at Central California Women's Facility near Chowchilla.

Why here? The southern end of the San Joaquin Valley is one of the "sweet spots" for prison construction (along with the Susanville and "Inland Empire" areas) with the combination of large parcels of available land (a prison takes more than a square mile of land, in one piece) with and local governments eager for economic development. In some parts of California, people fight to keep prisons from being built. Out here, cities fight to get them. This state began a big push for new prisons in the 1980's, and the current situation is the result. There are more facilities on the way.

My job? I support the professional chaplains at the bigger facilities, and the parish teams of volunteers that handle other facilities, and work with the prison chaplains. This is where the real ministry is done -- my work is to make it possible for these servants of God to do what they are called to.

One thing that does not appear on the Office of Ministries web page, but is on my formal job description, is that work to see that detention ministry policy set by the bishop of Fresno is followed. I have had policy jobs before, and one reality is that some people find it hard to make a distinction between your opinions and the policies you support, especially when public statements are involved. And there are few things quite so subversively public as a blog. Also, the amount of confidential information involved is challenging. We need to protect people's privacy, whether in or outside of prison, and there are questions of personal security involved.

Of course, it does not help that I am very busy now. This hiatus is not something that the diocese asked for, I think it is the responsible thing to do, under the circumstances. I do have some thanks to post a bit later, and that will be it for a while.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Quote: Harper's Index

  • Percentage of American adults held in either prisons or mental institutions
    in 1953 and today, respectively: 0.67, 0.68
  • Percentage ofthese adults in 1953 who were in mental institutions: 75
  • Percentage today who are in prisons: 97
H/T to Grits for Breakfast

Friday, April 13, 2007

So it was Jack Chick

I thought I was kidding yesterday when I speculated that the anti-Islamic tracts handed out at the Rockland County Jail might be some of Jack Chick's minor masterpieces. Today it turns out that Teresa Darden Clapp was suspended from her long time job as jail chaplain for handing out Chick tracts. And just to make sure it was clear where they were coming from, they were stamped with the name and address of the church that she pastors.

It makes me want to slam my head into the wall a few times, just to deaden the pain.

Chick tracts have been notorious for decades as some of the most bigoted, extremely fundamentalist, anti-Catholic publications around, and they may well be available in packs of 25 at your local Bible bookshop. Maybe there is out there a competent jail or prison chaplain that would use them, but I don't know of any.

Just to restate the obvious, if you are a paid jail or prison chaplain, you are a government employee, which mandates certain limitations on your activities. The First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits the federal government from establishing one religion over another (and the Fourteenth applies this to the states) which means you if you are taking a government paycheck. Under well established statute and case law free exercise of religion is the inmates right, allowing it the facility's duty, and supporting it your responsibility as a chaplain. You are being paid to protect their rights, not exercise your own.

There is a good example of that in the article cited above. Jail Chief William Clark was asked about Islamic religious activities at the jail:

"I didn't have the funds to hire a Muslim cleric," Clark said, noting that those inmates pray on their own. "It could be possible next year in the budget."

Kidd also said the Muslim inmates were not afforded halal, or religiously permissible, meals. Clark said the jail used to have halal meals, but the company that provided them went out of business. Any Muslim inmate who wants a special meal is given a kosher meal, which is an acceptable substitution according to the state's correctional authorities, Clark said.
If there wasn't a Muslim chaplain, it was Clapp's professional responsibility to help these men find an alternative, and to champion their rights within that facility. Clark seems to be trying to do the right thing, but it was Clapp's responsibility to see that something like this did not happen, not Clark's

I don't want to just beat up on Chaplain Clapp. There may be a misunderstanding here, and her boss says she has done a great job up to this point. She is a former corrections officer, so she knows the environment, and chaplains with that kind of a background often do very well. If this is a mistake, I hope it is cleared up soon.

But, understand that Clark is not acting entirely out of the goodness of his heart. The Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA -- which has been upheld by the Supreme Court) prohibits "unduly burdening" exercise of religion by inmates, subject to reasonable institutional restrictions based on needs such as security. There is a division of the Department of Justice with the responsibility of enforcing RLUIPA, and the act gives third parties the standing to sue.

This is the hard reality of working inside, and if you want to do ministry there, get used to it. If you can't work well with members of other faiths, be they Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Evangelical, Wiccan, Latter Day Saints, Catholic, Native American, Buddhist or Frisbeeterian, go minister somewhere else.

Quote: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The line between good and evil is in the center of every human heart.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Don't tell me . . . Jack Chick, right?

This story just went up over on Detention Ministry News and I am still shaking my head over it. It seems that Teresa Darden-Clapp has been the chaplain to the Rockland County Jail in New York since 1994. It also seems like she might not hold that office much longer -- she has been suspended while the jail investigates whether she was distributing tracts offensive to Muslim prisoners. Oh dear, here we go again.

If you want, hit the link and see just what kind of drivel was being handed out -- these sound a bit more moderate than Jack Chick, but they may have left the worst out. (It would not be unusual.) I have basically two reactions to this, one general, and one specific.

In general, this only points out once more the colossal ignorance in America of Islam, and the many cultures that make up the Islamic world. We have had leaders making decisions about war and reconstruction in Iraq that apparently did not know the difference between Sunni and Shia -- and that is the simplest (well simple may not be the best word . . .) and basic distinction one could make. For example, some conflate Shia groups in Iraq with the government or other groups in Iran. The difference between the two is much greater than just a shift in the last letter of the name.

Specifically, it indicates the difficulties some people have in distinguishing the role of chaplain from that of minister or evangelist. In chaplaincy, especially in prisons, you are often a government employee, and if a volunteer, given institutional access, status, and resources. Your primary job is to see to the spiritual care of the members of your faith community in that facility, but you also have a responsiblility to all the inmates, and for that matter, all working in that detention facility. If the members of some other faith come to you for assistance, especially if there is no chaplain from that faith, you are expected to help not only that person, but that faith community to get what they need, within the limitations of that facility and its rules.

In the facility that I visit, I have often met in the Catholic chapel (one of my favorite places on Earth -- heaven with concrete block walls) with a group of Catholic inmates, only to discover that it was time for the Native American, or Latter Day Saints community to use that space for a meeting. We picked ourselves up with a smile, moved our stuff somewhere else, and willingly helped that other group set up. That's part of the deal -- we get to have a space designed and decorated for our needs (which is rather rare in prison) but in turn, we have to be cooperative and hospitable. After all, we don't own the space, the state does.

This kind of cooperation is not some kind of high minded, fluffy, ecumenical idealism. It is a hard ecumenical reality. The only religious groups that can persist inside a secure government owned environment like a prison are groups that can retain their own identity, while supporting the other groups. It's hard enough to be religious inside a prison or jail. You don't need to add sheep-stealing and junior-high school squabbling to the mix. Maybe this chaplain will learn that. I hope so, both for her, and for those inside Rockland County Jail.

(Spelling note: I have added the hyphen to her name, as the only other cite that I could find for her on Google is the agenda for a local government meeting where she supplied the invocation. Apparently either the newspaper or the jail left it off. O maybe the agenda has it wrong. Who knows . . .)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Yeah, I've been busy

You're right, I haven't been around here much lately, but I do have a good excuse. I haven't given up blogging, I'm expanding. A little over a week ago I started to implement an idea that has been batting around inside my head. I work in detention ministry, currently as a volunteer. However, I have not been able to find a lot online, at least in an easy to find place, on this kind of ministry, or what is happening with it. So, as the classic story goes, it did not exist so I am trying to build it myself.

Hence: Detention Ministry News

It is a Blogger 2.0 site, using a standard template that I am steadily making non-standard with various hacks. The basic idea is one site that tracks news about those who minister to everyone in the justice and detention systems, including prisoners, families, victims, corrections officers -- everyone. I am continually working on some queries into Google's News and Blog Search systems. The items that directly pertain to ministry in some way get briefly excerpted, other news of note about the jail and prison systems are posted in daily sets of headlines. I must say, in getting DMN started, I have managed to learn a great deal about what is going on (much of which worries me) but also notice the stuff that I am not finding. Lots of work yet to make this the kind of site that is needed.

One difference between the two sites is that over at DMN, I am "The Editor" -- the whole point is that the stories should speak for themselves. I am attempting to show what is going on across geography and faith community without favor. However, on this blog, I am, in a sense, myself, writing with my own personal, and rather Catholic, point of view. It will be interesting to see how things interact.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

A hero

Some would call Mbaye Diagne a hero. I'm not sure if that is quite strong enough. Go read.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Quote: Walter Bruggeman

We all have a hunger for certitude, and the problem is that the Gospel is not about certitude, it's about fidelity. So what we all want to do if we can is immediately transpose fidelity into certitude, because fidelity is a relational category and certitude is flat, mechanical category. So we have to acknowledge our thirst for certitude and then recognize that if you had all the certitudes in the world it would not make the quality of your life any better because what we must have is fidelity.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Noticing the signs

Continuing with comments and reflections on part of a paper by Vatican Observatory astrophysicist Fr. Bill Stoeger SJ, one gets to the question implied at the end of the previous post: if we have to understand the dynamic nature of creation, including evolution, to better understand ourselves and God, then just what can we learn? Fr. Stoeger points us to our need to learn to look at nature as Christians:

Secondly, evolution forces us, therefore, to take the immanence of God in Nature, in creation, in our lives very seriously. God is present and active – in many different and wonderful ways – in all that is going on. Sometimes we tend to think of God’s creative action only in special events of intervention – miracles. But this is a very distorted and constricted view of God’s action. St. Ignatius Loyola, in his “Contemplation for Obtaining Divine Love,” at the end of his Spiritual Exercises, asks us to consider how all the wonderful things around us – including ourselves – the gifts of creation and the gifts of redemption – are expressions of God’s great love for us. After asking us to express our love for God in return in complete commitment, Ignatius goes on to ask us to consider that God is present in all his gifts – not only does God give us gifts as signs of God’s care and love, but God give us God’s self in the gifts. Next, Ignatius goes even further, asking us to reflect on the fact that God is not only present in all that God has created and bestowed but that God is working and struggling for us out of love in all things. It is clear that the first stage of the “Contemplatio” refers to creation, the second stage reflects the profound impact of the Incarnation on all reality, and the third stage sees the immanence of God in terms of vulnerability, struggle and suffering of Christ – of God – in creation. This is the deeply Christian perspective the natural sciences and all the processes they reveal to us reinforce.
My rather beat up copy of God in the Dock is not handy -- I had it at work and it got packed up with all my professional books -- but I remember one essay by C. S. Lewis from that collection on the nature of miracles. He pointed out that God has a particular style, that most of what we term miracles are God doing quickly and obviously in one place, as a sign, just what he is doing less obviously throughout His creation. When at Cana, Jesus turned water into wine, He was only doing in an instant what grape vines and yeast will do over months if given the chance. It was a sign pointing to just who was behind the natural process of growth and fermentation, and that it was a gift from God to us.

The point is that signs are for following -- what is important is what they lead us to. We cannot remain enamored of the little miracles, because they are flashy and catch our eyes, to the detriment of the greater reality that they point to. Let us use our senses fully in learning from the created world, so that we are better prepared to understand those things beyond our senses, beyond that which is created.

In the next paragraph, Fr. Stoeger moves from immanence in nature to the transcendence of God.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Quote: Eric Hoffer

The Paleolithic hunters who painted the unsurpassed animal murals on the ceiling of the cave at Altamira had only rudimentary tools. Art is older than production for use, and play older than work. Man was shaped less by what he had to do than by what he did in playful moments. It is the child in man that is the source of his uniqueness and creativeness, and the playground is the optimal milieu for the unfolding of his capacities.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Major complaint

I have developed a major dislike of one feature of the new version of Blogger, one that may force me to edit offline, which is simply not all that convenient. This morning was the third time in a week that I got an error message involving a security token issue when trying to save or publish a post, each time losing some hard work. When I tried to return to the previous screen, which before would often take me right back to the work I was editing, it now goes back to an earlier draft, losing any later work. Some people find it easy to write -- I do not. It is often a fight and having to fight the software as well makes it worse.

I'm a software person, and this is a serious usability bitch on my part. Google now owns Blogger, and one part of this change was to move to Google's servers. Google's own AJAX based applications have easier save and autosave features that work much better than this. While they were doing everything else, why not include some of those features. Text editing is text editing -- I have a hard time believing that this is something that Gmail can handle neatly while Blogger cannot.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Details, Details

Well, I managed to set up the format while dropping the Creative Commons license, which has now been fixed. I managed to briefly meet Larry Lessig a couple of years ago at Bloggercon, and think that the CC scheme one of the most useful and innovative efforts in the past decade and a key part of keeping the web open and accessible. It is good stuff indeed.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

God and Nature

I've been reflecting a lot lately on how our understanding of the natural world as Christians affects how we see many things, including issues such as global climate change. I recently ran across the text of a talk given in Australia in 2005, Our Intimate Links with the Universe and Nature: The View from Cosmology and Astrobiology by Fr. Bill Stoeger SJ of the Vatican Observatory. I would like to post some substantial chunks of section 6: "Key Features of the Universe – Connections with Christ and with Us" with some surrounding comments and own reflections on this.

The bulk of Fr. Stoeger's talk reviewed the history of Creation, from the big bang, through the evolution of the physical universe, to chemical and biological evolution on Earth. Starting with a discussion of the close links between science, ethics, faith and praxis, he then tells the long story of creation, pointing out not only the deep interconnectedness of all created things, but also the characteristics of nature and the cosmos that reflect God's own priorities for his creation.

In reflecting on the connections between God, his creation and us, Fr. Stoeger starts off by looking at just how God meant nature to operate:

First, and perhaps foremost, theological reflection on the details and intricacies of cosmic and biological evolution drives us to a much more profound appreciation for what Howard Van Till refers to as the functional and formational integrity of creation, and for God’s reverent, pervasive but subtle relationship with God’s creatures and with the universe itself. God has gifted Nature and the universe with inner dynamisms and capacities which enable it not only to function with relative autonomy but also to develop and give birth to new or more complex entities and organisms as time passes, and as the universe cools and expands. There is evidently no need for God to step in and effect key transitions directly. Nature itself has been given the capabilities of doing that! This, of course, does not mean that God is uninvolved, or distant from what happens. God is present and active through all the regularities, processes and relationships which function. God is their source and origin and holds them in existence, continuing to create through them. God did not create the universe with deficiencies, or with impairments, which would necessitate God’s special direct intervention in the creative process.
This is pretty straightforward theologically -- see paragraphs 299-302 of the Catechism.

Three thoughts:
  • God's creation is good and ordered -- it constantly reflects His purpose and providence.

  • Change and evolution are built into design -- we have to understand evolution to understand the dynamism of that design.

  • Science is not only useful, but knowledge that can be good in itself, helping us better know nature, ourselves, and God.
In the next paragraph, Fr. Stoeger invites us to a deeper examination of evolution as a sign of God's immanence in nature.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Quote: Andy Goodliff

. . . I'm not interested in reading the bible as if it were a text book or an instruction manual. Let's stop pretending we all know how to read the bible. The bible is not a book to be studied. The bible is not a book that can be mastered. The great tragedy of the bible study is it has made the bible dull and boring. The great worry of the bible study is we've turned the bible into a weapon against those who interpret it differently. The bible study has created as many infallible popes as there are Christians, all who believe that they are right because their bible says this or that. The bible is a book to be wrestled with. The bible is a dangerous, world-changing, life-altering text that is out to transform the reader. The bible wants to shape our imagination to the tune of Christ. We might set out to read the bible but it ends up reading us. We need to create regular space for the bible to breathe, for it to live among us, before us, within us. The bible story is not a story to study but to indwell. When reading the bible we need to open ears and close mouths. The bible is always fresh and never stale. The bible does not put God or truth into neat statements. The bible is not God's prison. The bible is God's Word always breaking into our world. The bible is God's gift to the church; not to the individual Christian.

from Baptist youth pastor Andy Goodliff's blog post on bible study and scripture reading

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Work in Progress

Well, as all two of my regular readers may notice, the appearance of the blog here has changed. I just managed to convert this site to the new Blogger version, with a modified template that fully supports all the new features.

Things that did not make the move included the blockquote formatting and the special print formatting. Both are on my primary list to fix here along with generall formatting changes. Also, look for the blogroll on the right to change a bit -- perhaps even largely disappear. I will also change the widgets for site history and site links a bit.

Just a bit more gardening to do.

Update: Blockquote formatting done.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Quote: Dietrich Bonhoeffer


It is wiser to be pessimistic; it is a way of avoiding dissappointment and ridicule, and so wise people condemn optimism. The essence of optimism is not its view of the present, but the fact that it is the inspiration of life, and hope when others give in; it enables a man to hold his head high when everything seems to be going wrong; it gives him strength to sustain reverses and yet to claim the future for himself instead of abandoning it to his opponent. It is true that there is a silly, cowardly kind of optimism, which we must condemn. But the optimism that is will for the future should never be despised, even if it is proved wrong a hundred times; it is health and vitality, and the sick man has no business to impugn it. There are people who regard it as frivolous, and some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future. they think that the meaning of present events is chaos, disorder, and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations. It may be that the day of judgement will dawn tomorrow; and in that case, though not before, we shall gladly stop working for a better future.

Letters and Papers from Prison

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sacrament of love

Various people are reacting to the release today of Sacramentum Caritatis but I have noted a little love note to those of us who hang out around prisons and jails.

Care for prisoners

59. The Church's spiritual tradition, basing itself on Christ's own words (cf. Mt 25:36), has designated the visiting of prisoners as one of the corporal works of mercy. Prisoners have a particular need to be visited personally by the Lord in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Experiencing the closeness of the ecclesial community, sharing in the Eucharist and receiving holy communion at this difficult and painful time can surely contribute to the quality of a prisoner's faith journey and to full social rehabilitation. Taking up the recommendation of the Synod, I ask Dioceses to do whatever is possible to ensure that sufficient pastoral resources are invested in the spiritual care of prisoners.
There are some basics to detention ministry -- the foundation being simple presence. But once you have managed to establish regular access, the priority is always to insure that prisoners can have as normal a sacramental life as practical under the circumstances. Security concerns can mandate all sorts of limitations and modifications, but just about any Cathlolic prisoner should have access to the Sacrament. You don't have to persuade prisoners of the importance of the Eucharist in their lives, they will tell you how important it is.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Still interpreting after all these years

Well, as promised, I will be posting summaries of some of the sessions I attended at the RE Congress this year, with some reflections of my own. I will be taking them in no particular order, and it may take some days to get through them all.

My Saturday morning session was Reading Them Again for the First Time: The Documents of Vatican II Today with Dr. Edward Hahnenberg from Xavier University in Cincinnati. He got a laugh from the hundred or so people there by pointing out that the title of the session might be more accurate if you left one word out -- again. Our task is to reclaim these documents for ourselves, documents that are largely unread by many Catholics, including people in ministry. We all tend to have read some particular passages, usually because they support some position we already hold. These are the most important texts produced by the Catholic Church in the past four centuries or so, and we need to know them as they really are.

Hahnenberg's basic point is "the spirit is in the letter", meaning that we have to learn how to read and understand the documents fully -- we need what is known as a hermeneutic -- a systematic approach to interpreting and understanding the work of the Council through these texts.

In constructing a hermeneutic of the Vatican II documents, Hahnenberg cited a favorite book of mine, Ormond Rush's Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles, defining three complementary approaches for interpretation:

  • of the readers (or "that was then, this is now"
  • of the writers (or "what were they thinking?")
  • and of the texts (or "how they say what they say").
There is no way in this space to do full justice either to everything either Hahnenberg or Rush is saying on this, but there are a few points I want to touch on.

Concerning readers, an important factor to remember in this is that many people not only have little if any memory of the Church before Vatican II, they have little memory of the Council itself or its immediate aftermath -- the post Vatican II church is the Catholic Church they know. Instead of comparing the Church before and after the Council, a comparison that may not be that relevant to some readers today, we might better compare the changes between the Council and our own time. For example, one important issue to examine is the nature of Catholic identity in a postmodern world, something we seem to have trouble with.

A hermeneutic of the writers involves trying to understand just what the council fathers were intending, based on the text, their own writings about the texts, and the history of the Council. Hahnenberg asserts that, just like any other historical text, these texts have to be examined from historical-critical point of view. He is concerned that specific texts are used ahistorically. (One of the better examples he gave concerned the famous chapter 31 of Lumen Gentium defining the laity, and how it should be interpreted. This post got delayed days as I worked that part up, so I split it off into a separate post which will go up in a couple of days.) Part of that is examining the "theological trajectory" of the Council, how certain topics became more important as the Council progressed, with a development of how the issues were handled from one document to another. (Most of the apparent differences between some of the documents, often referred to as the "tensions" between the documents, can be ascribed to this kind of trajectory.) The role of bishops is a good example of such development over the four years; the relationship with the world set out in the constitution Gaudium et Spes is another.

Examining the texts means we have to look at how something was said as well as what was said. A common complaint about these documents is that they are long and boring. The style of these documents is different from that of earlier councils -- a briefer and more legalistic style was more common. Hahnenberg said that a better way is to look at the style is to see that it is not so much long as it is invitational (his term) and not so much boring as intended to seek and support consensus. They are invitational in that they are constructed to, in a sense, start from the beginning and lead the reader step by step through the issues, ideas, and conclusions made by the council fathers. This is a style that has been continued in most papal documents since the Council, in particular, those of John Paul II. The Council fathers were also trying to seek consensus in drafting these works, which means that they often try to include some treatment of differing perspectives in some way, adding to the length and complexity. However, this effort succeeded -- most of the documents received nearly unanimous approval from the Council fathers.

Possibly the most notable occurrence at this session occurred after I left. I skipped the audience questions session to cut out for the vendor area. I picked up a copy of Hahneman's new book A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II in time to meet him in the author's signing area. At the line for Hahnenberg, someone was already waiting for him to arrive for book signings; we talked about how much we liked the session, and this other person said that (apparently) right after I left a Canadian bishop came up to the audience mike and praised Hahnenberg's approach. The bishop stated that he had attended the Council, and that Hahnenberg was presenting the Council as he remembered it. (I am not sure who this was, but I suspect it might have been this bishop.) To say the least, Hahnenberg was glowing when he arrived for the signings.

More on this, with some discussion of the book, in a future post.

Pushing tunes

I've fallen into a new habit lately -- searching through YouTube for music. Like everyone else, I've followed links to watch people putting Mentos into Diet Coke. It has just been over the past couple of weeks, though, that I have been creating my own favorites and playlists of music, that is often running in the background as I work online. There are some unique clips of both sacred and secular music out there and I just got the urge to start sharing some. Here's video of the Pat Metheny Group playing Last Train Home:

I may have more profound comments on future posts, besides simply that I like just about everything Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays record.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Last day at Congress

I did get back to my room much earlier last night -- I came back after Mass around 7 and just kicked back with a movie then got to bed relatively early (at least compared to the night before). I'm heading home up I-5 later today, and with any luck across LA I should be able to beat the 7 hours it took to get down here Thursday.

I have lots to post about, but little time at this point. Good sessions on the Vatican II documents and adult faith formation, both of which will get their own posts. One note now on the Mass last night. As has become my custom, I attended the contemplative Mass at the Hilton last night, with Fr. Liam Lawton celebrating and Fr. Cyprian Consiglio leading the music. It was sublime, one of the better worship experiences I have ever had. The best sign of that (that can be posted) is simple: There were easily 2,500 there (maybe more) and not one person left early.

To give you perspective, Congress is so large that it can be difficult to find a place to have dinner after Mass, especially on Saturday night. If you have a reservation, you make sure you get there on time, or go hungry. At that Mass last night, nobody cared about dinner or their schedules. This included the ten minutes of silent meditation after communion -- a room that large with that many people holding complete silence has its own sound.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


Sorry about this brief post, but it was a late night last night, and I need to get to Congress early this morning. Good sessions yesterday, especially from Juan Melendez, who spent 17 years on Florida's death row before being exonerated, and an excellent presentation on the US Catholic Catechism for Adults from Dr. Tom Beaudoin of Santa Clara. I'll be posting some links and a summary of the session on the USCCA later. The African-American Mass last night was excellent, as usual, with Fr. J-Glenn Murray celbrating. The Taize prayer session was OK, but I really could have used the extra sleep. I may skip the night prayer session tonight.

Otherwise, no big happenings or news so far -- the bankruptcy filing for the Diocese of San Diego is still the big story around here. Today the schedule includes a review of the documents of Vatican II, adult spirituality, and praying the hours. More later.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

On the scene

Well, I made it.

It was not the worst drive ever, but it had its moments. The last couple of times I made it to Congress it was via New Camaldoli. This was the first time in years that I drove to Anaheim straight from Merced and making it across LA on I-5 has not improved at all.

After checking in I kicked back for an hour or so to recover from the ride, then went over to the Convention Center to pick up my program book and save time tomorrow morning. I'm going to need that time as most of my sessions this year are all over the place, usually all the way over by the intersection of Harbor and Convention Way. Tomorrow morning may be the best shot I get to check out some of the vendors.

My first session tomorrow is about the National Directory of Catechesis and adult education, followed by sessions on capital punishment and the new Adult Catechism. After that is Mass (I am not sure which one) followed by meeting someone for dinner, then a Taize prayer session late tomorrow evening. Busy day, which is normal at Congress. I'll report back tomorrow evening, unless I get a chance to post tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

So, where are things now?

I will be surfacing over the next few days to do my annual posts from and about the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress (generally known as LA RE Congress, or just Anaheim). I didn't make it last year due to work conflicts, but I'm back this time.

Which brings up an interesting point. The reason for my availablility is that I am between jobs at the moment, to put it simply. Up until last October I was the database administrator for a large food processor -- we decided to part ways amicably by mutual agreement. (They are a good bunch and treated me rather well on the way out.) I have done some limited job hunting since then, and gotten a lot of rest, which I needed. Once again, I burned out. Lots of healing going on around here, which involves sleeping regularly and doing a lot of the cooking.

I have been rather busy though. The moment I realized that my last gig was ending, it was clear that just sitting about would not work. My work with adult education in our parish had already led to my taking a leadership role there, and I had proposed an interesting project at the detention facility that I volunteer at. (Maybe more about that at another time, but maybe not. Security and privacy issues combine in interesting ways.) Also, we have been rather blessed with a good financial situation currently, so panic has not set in yet. There have been nibbles from recruiters but no offers as yet.

Which brings me to the interesting part of heading to RE Congress. I have not been in much doubt for the past year or two that God is pulling me into more and more substantial ministry. Things are now becoming a bit clearer as to what that work might be. It appears that I have completed the diocesan requirements for Master Catechist and am working on the documentation for that. I don't do kids -- I have no talent for working with children. It appears from some recent experience that adult catechesis is part of the picture, as well as detention ministry work. What we are praying about now is whether this is the time to move in that direction full time. It will put a rather different spin on Congress this time.

More later.