Author: Deacon Mark Shiner

Living Under Threat of Disaster

HOMILY: THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, Year C

Luke 21:5-19

I don’t care how young you were when you first read Harry Potter: You quickly figured out two things:  (1) Harry would ultimately survive and be OK and (2) He would eventually kill Voldemort.  Right?  But even though you knew both those things, you didn’t just say, “OK, Harry equals good guy.  Voldemort equals bad guy.  Harry will win.  Next!”  You made a decision to put your trust in the author that this was a story worth savoring and throwing yourself into even though you knew where it was going.  

And then, one day, Dobby died.  How many of you cried?  It was awful.  And at that point, you could have just slammed down the book and said, “I give up.  This is terrible.”  But somehow you decided to trust the author.  You didn’t know how bad it would get, how many more precious characters and places would be lost, but you were pulled forward because you knew that, however bad it got, Harry would win.  

Now, of course, the Harry Potter universe also opens kids to the reality that life isn’t always just good vs. evil, and that people who appear evil might in fact be good deep down, and people who seem good and wise may harbor secrets or conflicting motives.  But Rowling ultimately sorts these things out, and we see the reality behind our guesses, behind our initial prejudices.  

The attraction of the whole universe Rowling created, of course, is that it conforms to what we see, and it conforms to our hopes.  

So, what about our story– the actual story we’re living in and which we see through the lens of our faith?  When we turn to the Gospel, of course, we have Jesus in full-blown apocalyptic mode.  They’re walking through the temple– which is huge and, we should note, at that time pretty much brand new– and Jesus says to the folks who are admiring the beauty of the place, “Yeah, this building that seems so stable and so permanent?  So much a symbol of national and religious pride?  So much a sign of how we have made our peace with Rome?  The days are coming when this whole thing will be torn down utterly.”  

That got their attention.  

And then he cautions them, saying, essentially, “Look:  You are going to experience some really bad times.  Wars.  Insurrections.  Persecutions.  It will feel like the end of the world.  It won’t be.  Nations come and go.  Buildings come and go.  Evil may reign for a season, but love has the last word.”

Whatever your politics, and however you’re feeling about the election, it’s worth noting that Jesus realizes the temple isn’t forever.  Nor is Trump.  Neither, for that matter, is the United States.  Only his Church and his kingdom is forever.  People put their faith in the temple, which was destroyed.  People put their faith in Rome, which fell.  People put their hopes in an endless string of nations, political movements, and charismatic leaders over these last two thousand years.  All once seemed more powerful, and now all are gone, but Christ’s church remains.  

If you are letting Jesus shape your understanding of your political obligations, that’s called discipleship.  If you are letting your politics shape your understanding of Jesus, that’s called idolatry.  Be a disciple, not an idolater.  

I have heard repeatedly from Christians this week that we must not worry because “God is in control.”  At one level, of course, they are correct.  At another, I find myself wondering why they jump to this so quickly.  History is littered with examples of things going very, very badly.  History is littered with times when good people stuck their heads in the sand and let horrible things happen.  History is littered with times when seemingly good people– including religious leaders!– sold out to evil, justified evil, even collaborated with evil because of a misguided desire for power and safety.  God is indeed in control in the sense that he will ultimately work his purposes out.  But God has given you a conscience.  God has commanded you to be kind.  God has commanded you to love the immigrant, the widow, the orphan.  God has commanded you to love justice.  God has commanded you to protect the vulnerable.  God has commanded you to side with the poor.  If we know these things and know that we fail, how can we assume that somehow everything’s going to work out splendidly in the near term?  We can’t.  

Now, that said, we have to be humble enough to know that our assessment of any situation– even when things appear to be going our way– always bears within it the potential for being wrong.  This is why Jesus warns us that many will be deceived– human fear can distort us and our perceptions.  This is where prayer comes in– it is a long, loving look into reality as it is, not either as we are afraid it might be or as we unrealistically think it is.  The world is a stubborn thing that will not wrap itself around your human hopes.  

So it is for us to long for holiness, to strive for justice, to love the truth more than we love being right, to love the poor, the disabled, the orphan.  In a world where bad things happen, we need to stay close to Jesus, stay courageous, recommit ourselves to justice and to each other, be sober and vigilant.  But above all, people, be charitable.  Be kind.  Be respectful of difference.  Do the difficult work of reconciliation when reconciliation is possible.

A few things:

  1. Don’t let either your activism or your happiness get ahead of the facts.  The world needs sobriety and vigilance, not hysteria and gamesmanship.  If you engage in politics, let truth and love guide your steps.
  2. If you find yourself speaking with hatred or condescension, check yourself.  Whatever Jesus wants of you, he does not want this.
  3. Don’t attribute to God’s will what can be better accounted for by human sin, selfishness, stupidity, or lack of wisdom.  
  4. If you find yourself giving in to despair, know that this is not of God.  The authentically Christian life is both aware and light.  As Wendell Berry would say, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”  
  5. Be, above all, a person of prayer.  When we admit our need for God and we begin to trust in his lovingkindness, the inevitable setbacks and tragedies of life can start being framed against the grand narrative of his story.   

Being a Christian does not mean that things can’t get abysmally bad; things do, in fact, fall apart. Being a Christian is knowing that the story’s ending is in the author’s hands, and that by staying close to Jesus we can share in that ultimate victory.  And I can’t emphasize this enough:  This altar, right here, is where heaven meets earth in the Eucharist, where all the saints and martyrs gather around the throne of the lamb in the new Jerusalem, in a living temple of which we are all building blocks. Remain in him, let him be your strength and your joy until we come at last to the fullness of his kingdom where he lives and reigns forever and ever.  

The Church is a Dying? Uh huh.

People talk today as if the present state of the Catholic Church is a disaster– some like to claim that this time the wheels really are coming off and that the Church can’t possibly survive the scandals, the onslaught of secularism, the Obama administration, the transition into the information age.

If you think those things, you probably need to familiarize yourself with the actual history of the Church and with the current phenomenal growth and flowering of the Church in many places throughout the world.  Persecution, confusion, debate, corruption, and martyrdom are, historically speaking, the normal conditions under which the Church has grown.

Some things to consider:

1. Read the Gospels, especially the Passion narratives. The Church was born in the bosom of failure and has alternated between near-defeat and utter defeat throughout its history.  The founder was killed.  Almost all his closest followers met violent ends.  And yet, it grows.
2. Read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Or Acts. Or James. The Church was a disaster in the New Testament- morally, structurally, socio-economically.  And yet, it grows.

3. Read some early Church history. There were fist fights at Nicea. It took them 350 years to really nail down the definition of the Trinity. It wasn’t pretty. It has never, ever been pretty.  And yet, it grows.

4. There is no era where the members of the Church weren’t arguing about stuff– important stuff. Argument, dissent, and error are all present at every single stage of the Church’s life. So is persecution in one form or another. You’d do well to get used to it. Arguing is how we figure stuff out, guided by the Holy Spirit.  Whatever else it is– and I believe, of course, that it is very much more– the history of the Church is a 2000-year-old argument about what is true.

5. Even the stupid heresies and bad ideas can last a few hundred years. The more robust ones can last 400-500 years, but they all collapse back into Catholicism eventually because Catholicism finds a way to incorporate the real, legitimate, holy insights and truths that the heresies illumine.

6. Before you get worked up about the present corruption of the Catholic Church, go and read about Pope Alexander VI. We’ve had some certifiably evil Popes and some certifiably crazy ones.  We’re here.  We survived them.

7. I think it was Chesterton who said that the demise of the Catholic Church has been predicted regularly for 2000 years. He’s right. The prophets of doom have all been wrong, and most of the organizations they’ve proposed for replacing the Church no longer exist.

The best thing you can do, as far as I can see, is keep your eyes on Jesus and keep looking for the real saints Jesus has planted in the Church as leaven. They are here, in your midst, and they are the signs of God’s continuing presence in the Church. And that is also how it’s always been.

“Ugh,” Said the Rich Young Ruler

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’” He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.– Mark 10:17-27

One of the great joys of hiking the Camino Santiago de Compostela in 2014 was that each of us in our team carried so few possessions.  I could tell you everything I had with me in my pack.  It was easy to run through a mental checklist to make sure I had packed all my things (though that didn’t stop me from leaving all my toiletries behind in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port just before the long hike

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My pack.  Saint-Côme-d’Olt, France.  May, 2014

over the Pyrenees).   There was a mindfulness– an intentionality– about my things, a gratitude for the quality and utility of each thing I owned.  Although I put more care into packing for the Camino than I had for most previous trips, it was to a good end– I could travel lightly and be as unencumbered as possible over the hundreds of kilometers we’d hike.

 

My Camino pack was so different from the life I was living, with closets filled with stuff.  In the years before I did my pilgrimage I was already frustrated by the sheer number of things I owned, and was even more frustrated by the habits I’d acquired for buying things.  Mine were “respectable” habits– always within certain boundaries, never going into debt, selling things to buy other things– but the net result was that we had too many things, and I didn’t have any good strategies for getting rid of the stuff we had or for limiting the flow of new stuff into my house and office.  If a book looked useful or interesting for my work as a chaplain, I’d buy it.  If I kept running out of shirts, I’d buy more shirts (instead of, you know, doing more laundry).  If I couldn’t find the AA batteries because I didn’t know where they had been stored, I’d buy new batteries.

At a certain point, I started deviating from the normal reading of the story of the Rich Young Ruler (above).  What I’d heard countless times was that the young man was “too attached” to his possessions– that his possessions meant more to him than following Jesus.  For the last couple years, I’ve imagined the guy saying to himself, “This is all immensely attractive, but getting rid of my stuff?  That could take years!”   Maybe he hated all his extra stuff as much as I did, but felt too overwhelmed to do anything about it.

I have been surprised by how widespread the problem of possessions is in our culture, even for Christians who follow Jesus who had “nowhere to lay his head.”  The proliferation of storage facilities, the very common use of garages as overflow areas for stuff that doesn’t fit in closets (more than a third of all two-car garages in the US can’t house two cars because one or more bays is being used to store, well, stuff)– these phenomena reveal a culture that is awash in things but lacking a sense of purpose or reflection.

The good news is that it doesn’t actually have to be that way.  Throughout all of Christian history, there have been those who’ve found a way to be free of their stuff and to follow Jesus without the burdens of entanglement with possessions.  And in the contemporary era, there is a growing movement of so-called “minimalists” who can help provide strategies for getting rid of the stuff we don’t need.  One such person is Josh Becker, whose blog Becoming Minimalist provides great strategies for those looking to simplify, disentangle, and clarify.

What if we took Jesus’ words not just as an overwhelming and dispiriting  challenge?  What if he is offering us a grace-filled opportunity to let go of our stuff?  What if, following him more closely,  we decided to travel lightly?  What if we lived our lives like pilgrims, carrying only what we need to get to our destination?  And what if we believed that God was actually ready to help us live this way?

 

 

 

 

A Saint’s Decluttering Method

There have always been rich Christians and poor Christians.  This will most likely always be true, though one may hope and pray that disparities and the real injustices that cause disparities might be healed. But, given that the tradition seems to indicate that a Christian may hypothetically occupy any socioeconomic strata while remaining true to God’s calling, the question becomes clear:  How can a person understand how much stuff– possessions, money, and the like– he or she needs in light of a personal calling to holiness and union with God?  Because ultimately, that is the heart of the matter and not a mere abstraction.  There are expectations placed on every Christian (e.g. love of neighbor), and there are some expectations that pertain specifically to one’s vocation (e.g. the duties unique to a spouse or parent).  How to discern the difference?  How to discern what to keep in my life and what to give away or let go of?  How to discern what things I should do out of the many things that I can do?  How might I become more open to the real will of God in these matters and not rely on my vague desires and longings as a stand-in for God’s will?

How much stuff do you need, and why?  And, well, what?

One way of discerning an answer to the question is to consult a text from near the beginning of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s (1491-1556) Spiritual Exercises, his retreat manual for those seeking to hear God’s call more clearly in their lives.  Early in the retreat, Ignatius asks those on retreat to meditate at length on the “Principle and Foundation,” a brief text which lays the groundwork for everything that is to follow.  But the text stands on its own, in a sense, as a simple manifesto for a Christian seeking to sort between what must be done and what could be done, what is needed and what can be discarded, between the essential and the inessential.  It is, in a sense, a theological yet extremely practical “decluttering method,” grounded in the Christian vision of the human person.

So, what does Ignatius say?  I will let the saint speak for himself and offer commentary.  Ignatius’ words are in bold; my comments interspersed.

The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul.

There is a recognition of a common baptismal and perhaps even fundamentally human vocation.  This is why we’ve been created at all, why we are alive today, and why, God willing, our lives will extend into the future.  We are here to praise, reverence, and serve God.  Built into that fundamental nature of our being is an end, a purpose, and a destiny.  There is no double standard:  All are created, and all are called.  Each of us has been summoned by love and invited to discover a meaningful contribution to the world.

The language at the end of this first phrase, “to save his or her soul,” can be jarring and can be misinterpreted to imply that we are, in some sense, in charge of our salvation or somehow above the gracious work of God.  Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.  We are saved by grace through faith in Christ.  But it is fair to ask what the experience of that dynamic is, what it feels like to unwrap that gift in the day-to-day of Christian discipleship.  This, it seems, is what Ignatius is addressing:  We are here.  We want to be holy.  We want to avail ourselves of God’s grace.  What is the point at which the experience of living meets the experience of God’s grace?  It occurs precisely in this milieu of praise, reverence, and service.

All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created.

Ignatius has been criticized for the anthropocentrism of this aspect of the “Principle and Foundation,” but one must understand the text in existential rather than ontological terms.  God did not create the Gulf of Mexico so that Mark Shiner could get to heaven.  God has created all things with their own inherent goodness and utility quite apart from my individual needs, and God wills them to be free of my efforts to exploit them.  However, to the extent that each of us encounters other things (or even people, to a limited extent) as objects, we may consider how our relationship with those things either furthers God’s purposes or thwarts them.

One of the fundamental challenges we humans face is that there is a certain impulse to  take as much of everything as possible.  Why?  Well, for many of us, there is an idea that we might need something some day.  “You never know when this will come in handy,” we say.  Or maybe, “I’ll save this money for a rainy day.”

Ignatius is here reminding us that God gives us everything, and we are to take what we need to do what we are called to do.  But what are we to do when God seems to have given us too much?  In such moments– which are so plentiful in the lives of affluent Americans– God may be inviting us to share in his own work by being the means through which his gifts arrive at their proper destination.  We achieve our fullest identity when we are able to give and be generous anyway, and the joy that God has built into generosity is far greater than what he has built into possession even of nice things.

It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one’s end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one’s end.

This, in a sense, is where the rubber hits the road.  What do we need in our lives?  We need the things that help us to fulfill God’s specific plan for us.  What do we not need?  Anything that doesn’t help.  What doesn’t help?  You might consider these:

  • Things that prop up out self-esteem.
  • Things that merely impress others.
  • Things that draw us to useless preoccupations.
  • Stories we tell about ourselves about the sign value of our possessions, the ownership of which we perceive to put us into some sort of special club.
  • All the things we do that aren’t a part of God’s plan for us.
  • Attitudes, habits, and other traits that God might wish to transform.

To do this, we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no other prohibition.

This word, “indifference” is a hard word for modern readers, as indifference is often seen as synonymous with “contempt” or “lack of regard.”  Nothing could be further from Ignatius’ mind.  It may very well be that the exact object that pulls you away from God’s purpose for you is meant to pull someone else toward their vocation!

Let’s say that you own a beautiful, expensive tennis racket.  It’s what the professional tennis players all use.  You feel more important when you hold it and play with it.  But, truth be told, you are a terrible tennis player.  You don’t even play much– maybe once or twice a year.  You don’t own the racket for what it does– you own it because it lets you tell a story about yourself as worthy of such a racket, a comforting and self-esteem-building lie.  Ignatius would ask you to interrogate that lie:  What purpose is that lie serving?  Can you let go of both the racket and the lie that binds you to it? What if you really accepted that a loving God had a genuinely great plan for you to bring you to your fullest usefulness to the human family and your greatest beatitude both now and forever?

Now, of course, Roger Federer or Serena Williams may need exactly the racket you own to do their life’s work.  They may even need five of them, or they may need even fancier rackets.  But you don’t.  God has other plans for you, plans grounded in the truth.

The second half of this phrase is significant.  There are certain goods that a person can just say, “no” to.  If I am married, could God be bringing another good and beautiful romantic relationship into my life?  No, Ignatius would say, because a married person has eliminated the possibility of the future choice of a new romantic partner, and his or her state in life would prohibit it.  That person might be a superb romantic partner, but not for me.

Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.

Wait, what?  How can we not desire health more than illness?  Wealth more than poverty?  This seems masochistic.  Does God not want good things for us?  Why would God choose bad things for us?

The key to unlocking the spiritual treasure of the text is actually relatively straightforward. We can begin by asking very straightforwardly:  What is the fundamental commitment of my life?  An illustration may help:

Let’s say that you are a parent to a small child.  The child gets seriously sick.  You had always dreamed and hoped for a healthy child, but the circumstances you now find yourself in are not in keeping with your dreams.  It would obviously be deeply wrong to say, “Sorry, I only accept children who are healthy” and to abandon the child!  Rather, your fundamental commitment is to the child as a human being, not to the child because of his health or sickness.  In much the same way, the “Principle and Foundation” asks us to place our fundamental purpose in life– the thing toward which we are striving, the reason we were put on the earth– ahead of inherently lesser goods.  These lesser goods are almost always desirable, and in a perfect world they would be our lot.  But we can never overestimate God’s ability to use the deprivation of lesser goods to accomplish a greater good.

Ignatius himself sustained a very serious and life-threatening injury, and it was exactly during his time of convalescence that he became open to following God and desirous of discerning God’s will.  What seemed like a huge setback was in fact the occasion for God’s transformative love to begin to work on Ignatius.  Wealth, fame, and long life are goods, but they are lesser goods.  The greatest good in a human life is to grasp the truth of one’s calling and to live it out in simplicity, joy, and purpose.

So, how might one apply the “Principle and Foundation” to the life of faith and to an evaluation of the role of one’s possessions?  It seems there are several takeaways:

  1. You are loved by God and you have a role in God’s great story for the world, and your happiness– both now and forever– is tied up in cooperating with God in your own discovery, creation, and embrace of that role.
  2. God gives you the things you need to fulfill your purpose.
  3. You will probably be given more than you need.  In these circumstances, ask God who to whom you should give the extra.
  4. Hold on to the things you need to fulfill your mission in life, and let go of the things you don’t need by giving them away, selling them, or donating them.
  5. Our material possessions can become a real impediment to our gaining the things that are most important to us.

Choosing to rid yourself of things is never easy.  Certain ideas and dreams need to die.  Ignatius elsewhere advises that, if you find some calling of God repulsive, you should simply ask God to give you the grace to desire his calling.  And if you don’t even want that?  Well, then ask for the grace to desire the grace of his calling.  We are inclined toward selfishness, of course, but God and his grace have both the final word and the cure for what ails us.

 

Eating and Food: Part 3

I hate sunny self-help stuff.  While I understand the need for a positive and hopeful outlook for making personal change, I also know that efforts at weight loss tend to produce a lot of negative feelings.  Managing those feelings by anticipating them and having strategies for dealing with them seem pretty key to me.  So that’s what this post is about.

Among the things I’ve learned so far in this weight loss struggle, I’d say the most important are these:

(1) Take my time. I didn’t get fat in a day and I won’t get skinny in a day.  Make small changes I can live with over the long-term and don’t do what the people on the reality shows do.   Leo Babauta’s stuff over at zen habits has been invaluable to me as I’ve tried to change my habits.  

(2) Assume that it will feel at least somewhat chaotic and difficult most if not all of the time and that most “public” eating at restaurants and catered meals will be challenging or even miserable for me.  Managing this is critical:  I try to eat as well as I can even if I leave the restaurant or meal hungry.  Have some backup foods with me always (nuts, apples, RXBARs, etc.) and eat those afterward.  Over the long months I’ve been doing this, I’ve gotten better at being prepared, but for months it felt like absolute mayhem– like the ship had sunk and I was just swimming from one piece of flotsam to another.  

(3) The considerable amount of time I spend in prayer (particularly the Jesus Prayer) seems to help in learning to turn away problematic or self-defeating thoughts and in learning compassion for myself.  This is probably a whole series of future blog posts!  

(4) Assume that obesity is a chronic condition that needs to be managed forever.  That’s right:  Chronic.  We are all terminal patients anyway, fella.   Deciding that I am not going to be fat is a decision I am making about how I will live out the rest of my life, and it’s a decision that involves making the uncomfortable claim that matter and that this is a form of suffering that is ultimately– even if at times ambiguously– redemptive.  But this redemption does not resolve itself at my goal weight.  

(5) Accept frequent failure as part of the game and learn from it. I probably do something wrong Every. Single. Day.  That’s less true now, five months in, but the first few months felt like a minefield.  I had to accept that.  You should, too.  

(6) I had to realize that you can be hungry and not die.  You can learn to observe and distract yourself from hunger until you can get to healthy food.  It is not optimal to skip meals, but if I’m at a thing and they’re serving pizza and sodas and that scene is unavoidable, I just don’t eat anything.  I’ve also learned to anticipate such scenarios and to apologize and just tell hosts that I’m on a very restrictive diet by doctor’s orders.  Which is true.  If you need that excuse, call your doctor and ask, “Can you please tell me to eat food that’s good for me?”  I’ll bet you’ll get the answer you seek and then you’ve got doctor’s orders.  

(7) Deal with the fact that “success” won’t happen when I meet my weight loss goal. That is the first battle in a long war.  The victory in that battle is absolutely worth celebrating, as are the small successes along the way.  They all are.  It’s just that I need to string together a lot of victories.  Accept that the success of this endeavor will only become really clear 5-10 years from now.  In fact, I’ll be honest that during the last month I’ve been drifting away from my big “goal” (lose 100 lbs) and toward the idea of continuous improvement and long-term health.  Weight loss would be one of many markers for my well-being.  

(8) If the food that’s presented to me is just really bad for me but it’s unavoidable and I have to eat it, I’ll use portion control as a strategy.  But here’s the key:  I didn’t get to be 100 pounds overweight by having a good eye for portions.  So, I have made it my strategy to take smaller portions than look adequate to me.  I need to walk away from a buffet line a bit disappointed.  I’ll try to see what some skinny person put on her plate before me and try to get about that much or even a bit less.  

(9) I had to realize that in a sense I am choosing my suffering: It’s either the suffering of trying to be healthy despite my desires OR the suffering of obesity and its complications. During weight loss, I get both.

(10)  The way the American food system is set up right now is that it’s expensive to eat well.  But when I’m at restaurants and I want a salad instead of fries and they tell me it’s a five dollar upcharge for the salad, I’ll still get the salad.  Get rid of your cable or sell your Beanie Babies or whatever you need to do, but go all in and realize that this is the cost of being healthy.  

(11) There’s an old saying that I think is true:  We get to heaven together, but we go to hell alone.  I think this is true for a big change like this.  I have benefitted so much from the kindness of others.  But that kindness has often been given in a pretty passive way:  They put up with me eating strange stuff, turning down invitations, etc.  They wish me luck.  They compliment me even when the changes aren’t really noticeable.  And maybe this is why prayer has been so foundational for me:  Everyone else has their own problems, and there are few human “guardian angels” with the time or energy to take you on as a project in an active way.  

But the good thing is that all the tools are already there within, given, I think, by God.  If you are overweight, you are probably already suffering in some sense.  The basic shift that change requires is the willingness to suffer differently.  

Off Duty

Off Duty

Everyone involved would be ashamed to be identified in this story except for me. Most of the people who were present when it happened were already ashamed because they were homeless which, during the Reagan years, was hardly something to be ashamed of. It happened. For some reason as a nation we had decided that it was a great idea to take all the most deeply wounded and hopeless people from every arena of injury and grievance and to house them together in church-run dormitories called homeless shelters. The other people in the story should be ashamed, but God only knows how they handle their memories of the evening. They’d be ashamed if you knew what they did. Maybe they would tell you I’m lying. Maybe their colleagues would rally around them and tell you I’m lying.  I understand that impulse.  But I’m not lying. This is true.

I was 21 years old and working the overnight shift in a shelter for homeless single adults in my hometown. Back then I looked like a dirt bag most of the time, with my long hair, stupid novelty T-shirts, and dirty jeans from my day job with Habitat for Humanity. Even though I have never smoked up in my life, back then people used to always ask me for weed. I looked the part. Anyway, the shelter was usually a pretty quiet place after lights-out. It was unbearably hot and airless that night, and one of the residents had propped a door open to let some cool air in. I was still awake at around midnight, at the far end of the shelter from where the residents slept.

The four men who entered through that open door looking for a guy named Juan were tall and muscular, and they came in banging doors and making angry noises. “Where the f*ck is Juan?” they roared. I could hear them but not see them, so I ran toward the dorms. The residents—some addicts, some abuse victims, some vets– started shrieking in fear, and by the time I got to the dorms the four intruders had split up and had entered the women’s dorm and the men’s dorm, turning the fluorescent overhead lights on and yelling, over and over, into the faces of the residents. I did not know these men, and it took me longer than it should have to realize that they were all in uniform, probably because this sort of thing didn’t happen.  Not in the world as I’d understood it until then.  The residents all already knew how to do something I was being invited to learn right then: How to cower. Rosa was curled into a ball on her bunk, motionless. Seth, a Vietnam vet and the gentlest man I’d ever met, shuffled away from the commotion and pretended, as much as possible, that it wasn’t happening. “Where the f*ck is Juan? I know he’s in here. Don’t f*cking lie to me!”

By some miracle, the practical dimensions of which I forget entirely, I was able to corral these four men into a little common area outside the dorms and to try to talk reasonably with them. They said, “Oh, so you’re the staff person here? Well, where are you hiding him?” I said, “Look, really, what the residents said was true. There’s no one named Juan here.” I experienced all four of them as huge and menacing and angry as hell. They thought maybe he’d changed his name to hide here, so they described him. He wasn’t in the shelter. It dawned on me—they shouldn’t be here, either. I had to get them out of here.

Three of the intruders were from my home town, one from the next town over. Interesting. I knew from the patches on their uniforms. They had removed their badges but they still had their guns. One guy fiddled with his gun nervously. He looked up at me in embarrassment and anger when he realized I was watching him. Maybe I was about to be shot.

“How did you get in here?” I asked.

“We came through the f*cking front door. It was propped open.”

“That’s not OK. You can’t do that,” I said, because for some reason I believed that I had some sort of power that could stop what was happening.

“We are looking for this mother*cker, and we know he’s here.”

“Well, this is a private place. You need a warrant to come in.” How’d I know that?

“WE HAVE A F*CKING ARREST WARRANT!” one of them yelled into my face.

“But I think you need a search warrant to come in here unless I’ve welcomed you in, and I did not welcome you in, and you are scaring the residents and you need to leave.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Mark. Mark Shiner.”

“OK, Mark Shiner. Well, we will remember your f*cking name. Don’t expect us to come running the next time one of these pieces of sh*t causes you trouble. We’ll take our good f*cking SWEET time getting here. See how you like that, Mark Shiner.”

After a few more door slams, a few more shouts, and a long, sneering look into my eyes from one of them who’d stopped just to look into my eyes and sneer, they were gone. I locked the doors, tried to calm the residents down, talked to them for a while, and then I called the director of the shelter. She came in. The two of us talked for a long time. I didn’t cry. Maybe you don’t cry on this side of that sort of experience.   The shelter had never had a bad experience with the police, she said. They’d always been great. The next morning the chief promised he’d look into it, though he didn’t ask to talk to me and didn’t get any descriptions of the officers and never called back.

I worked in that “bad” neighborhood for an entire summer, and the one time I felt genuinely terrified it was because of four police officers.

When I was a kid, my favorite Sunday school teacher was a police officer and I thought the world of him. I love and admire every single cop and safety officer I’ve actually met—something I definitely can’t say about the clergy I’ve known– and I can’t fathom the underlying terror of being an agent of the state’s violence. But since that night in Pennsylvania in 1989 I also know the other side, what it’s like to be targeted and harassed, what it’s like to be innocent and yet find your self on the wrong side of anonymous men with authority and guns.  Once you’ve been on the “wrong” side, you can never wholly return to the “right” side. Some gnostic substance seeps into you and carries with it tiny cells of solidarity, mistrust and revolt, and they don’t go away no matter how good you’ve been or how established, safe, and non-threatening you eventually become. My life had been easy and I was always warm and well fed, free from abuse and violence, educated and secure. But that night, without knowing I had somehow also become poor, homeless, addicted, and marginalized. Whatever empathy and hunger for justice that I have now began to bloom in the night soil of that encounter.

You need to remember what horror is possible even with the “good guys”, and you can’t be ashamed of what you know.  I remember, and I am not ashamed.

Eating and Food: Part 2

Still with me?  OK, so now I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned so far about losing a lot of weight in as non-technical and simple a way as I can.  This is the game.  I can’t say that it’ll work for you or for anyone else, but this is what has worked for me so far.   I think I’ve distilled everything I’ve learned down to something that seems workable and in line with common sense nutritional advice.  This one is deliberately short and offers no recipes or shopping lists or any of that sort of thing.  And I want to be frank and acknowledge this at the outset:  This is somewhat costly and inconvenient, but it’s focused entirely on “real” food that you can get at most grocery stores.  Eating this way doesn’t eliminate the suffering of weight loss,  but it manages it in some useful ways, I think.

Some of this is adapted from the book Minimalism: Lead a Meaningful Life by Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, but only because of how succinctly they summarize what I had already been doing for months before I read their book:  

THE FOOD I EAT:

(1) I avoid these things:

  • processed and packaged foods and just about anything that can’t spoil
  • sugar and corn syrup.  This is critical.  At the same time, this stuff is ubiquitous. Whole books have been written about the topic.  Some of those books seem absolutely crazy, so be prepared.
  • bread, pasta, and anything made of flour.  Yeah, I know.
  • Dairy.  Really.  All of it.  I’ve even given up on most substitutes except unsweetend almond milk with my cereal.
  • any drinks with calories (including booze except on rare special occasions when one serving is OK)

(2) I eat these things

(3) I drink a ton of water.  I don’t even know how much.  But I aim to go to the bathroom at least once an hour.  I’m guessing I drink somewhere in the neighborhood of 75-100 oz of water on a normal day, more when it’s hot.  

I think that the very simple equation is this:  You have to eat fewer calories than you burn in order to lose weight.  So, at its core, weight loss is about calories.  But although at one level, a calorie is a calorie, the way your body processes certain kinds of foods results in some foods leaving you feeling full sooner and longer.   Most of the successful weight loss programs seem to suggest some variation on what I’ve written above, leaning heavily on lean (even non-animal) protein, mounds of vegetables, healthy fats, a little fruit, and little or no processed foods or things with sugar/corn syrup or refined flour.  As Michael Pollan sums it up:  Eat real food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  

At a practical level, what this means is that you’re always, always shopping from a shopping list.  You avoid almost every damn thing in the aisles of the grocery store.  You check carbs and especially added sugars on everything. If you don’t know what the ingredients are in something, don’t eat it.   

Snacks:  You need some snacks that you can live with but not over-indulge in, and you need to stash them everywhere you are just in case– some at work, one in the car, some at home, maybe even something in your bag.  I prefer roasted, salted cashews and raw almonds.  I like both because I find a handful to be exactly the right portion for me, and I almost never want a second handful.  Carrots are good, too, and so are apples.  

Shopping:  I’ve recently learned that I prefer Trader Joe’s, and it’s for a pretty straightforward reason:  They don’t have many things, but they have all the things I eat.  So, a trip to the grocery store doesn’t feel like a hunting expedition.  It’s all right there, and I can get in and out before temptation gets the best of me.  

Money:  This way of eating is more expensive and less convenient.  I have deliberately reduced expenses in other areas of my life so that I can afford to eat this way.  But, still, my way of eating requires a certain amount of privilege and money on my part, which is disturbing.  I am hoping, over the next few months, to grow in my understanding of how to do this inexpensively.  

Bad Situations in Travel:  We all get into situations where all we have are bad options.  Here’s how I handle those:

  • Eating at gas stations:  This might be the absolute worst.  I almost always just go for nuts with no sugar added.  Some type of jerky with the least amount of sugar is usually my second choice.  I always just try to quiet my hunger for long enough to get to real food.  Strangely, I’ve gotten a couple decent apples at gas stations.  It’s amazing what you find when you’re looking carefully at the things a store has in stock.
  • Subway:  These guys are ubiquitous on the American landscape, so you might as well have a strategy in case you need to eat there.  Chopped salad, double meat (roasted chicken) spinach, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions, and some pickles chopped in for flavor.  If you keep asking for more spinach, most places will keep giving you more until it gets ridiculous.  I have never had anyone refuse me more spinach, though I’ve gotten some real funny looks.  
  • McDonalds:  Salad, no dressing if you can handle it.  Add a grilled chicken sandwich or two, but get them with no sauce or mayo, throw out the buns, and cut the meat onto the salad.  It’s kinda disgusting to do this, but I consider it an emergency situation.  

The truth is that, the longer you eat like this,  the more “natural” it feels, and the more clear you get about what is and isn’t good for you.  And really, what you’re shooting for is not perfection.  It’s getting it right almost all of the time.  You’ll know you’re getting it right most of the time when you cheat with a fast food burger and fries and find that it makes you feel disgusting.  After eating healthy food for a while, your body really does adjust to it and comes to prefer it.  A burger and fries used to be my favorite meal, but I haven’t had one now in months and don’t miss it.  But if you’re sneaking with sugar and Doritos most days, that’ll never happen.  

Eating and Food: Part 1

Note to the reader:  Before I start, I should say this:  My effort to take better care of myself is very much a work in progress.  I am not an expert on anything except maybe my own experience.  Some aspects of my experience are really difficult to admit and write about, but my hope is that my honesty will be helpful.  I would welcome conversation, criticism, and comments.  

PART 1:  “You Are Not Fat Because You Are One of Us” and Other Obstacles

Maybe all good stories are redemption stories.  And maybe the narrative arc of every human life, no matter how wrecked, is full of a thousand stories of things turned right:  the lost dog coming home, the reconciling of estranged lovers, the healing of the body or mind after an illness or loss.  But redemption implies an ending, a resolution.  Maybe, more honestly, we can say that circumstances or moments can be resolved, but people, being perpetually “in progress,” can’t. Not in this life, anyway.  

I have been trying to lose weight since January 15, 2016.  I have had some success, losing approximately 55 pounds since then.  I am, at the moment, a hopeful person whose life and body are beginning to show signs of healing, restoration, and progress.  I have no guarantee of long-term success, but I have hope for it and commitment to it, and both become more natural and less effortful the longer I am on this path.  Of course, the human condition itself is decidedly terminal.  As a Christian, I have a firm and joyful hope in the resurrection, a new heaven, and a new earth.  But also as a Christian, I have a firm and joyful hope for possibilities in this life.  But the possibilities for renewal in this life, it seems, are inevitably laced with suffering, struggle, and work.  

Fat and Suffering

To choose to lose weight– to focus one’s attention and energy on changing from being a fat person to being a skinny person, or at least to being a less-fat person– is to choose one particular form of suffering in place of another.  You don’t choose between suffering and not suffering.  Weight loss is a bitch, and all the sunny stories of wholesale conversion to a persistently, utterly happier life just don’t line up with actual experience.  It’s not how people work.   But the suffering involved in weight loss (and, I will assume, maintaining weight loss, though I am not there yet) is suffering that has a potentially redemptive character in its benefits for longevity, health, and psychological well-being.  

The path of suffering with obesity is perhaps obvious, or perhaps not.  There are the familiar comic tropes– the broken chair, the embarrassment at the gym, all that.  But a lot of us experience it as being awful in other ways, too.

It’s often been said that being fat is one of the personal flaws that’s most difficult to hide– assuming, of course, that one sees fatness as a flaw and not as a difference.  One could be an alcoholic, a chronic masturbator, a compulsive liar, a racist piece of crap.  All these things can be hidden.  Fat?  Fat is right out there.  

But the amazing thing is this:  Obesity is impossible to hide, but the overwhelming majority of people pretend that it doesn’t exist in the people they encounter personally.  I have actually had people talking  critically to me, an obviously overweight person, about obesity and other “fat people,” not acknowledging at all that I happened to be fat myself.

Maybe there is some sort of strange parallel here between the claim that one “doesn’t see race” and the way many deal with fat people.  There’s an unwillingness or inability to process otherness in a way that accepts it and the challenges it creates.  So, the way we usually deal with it is to just not speak of it.  Who?  YOU?  Or, let’s say you’ve acquired the courage to call yourself fat.  People will, upon hearing you say the word, immediately deny that it’s true, or will fall all over themselves to adjust to your boundary-violating speech.  

“You’re not fat.”  

“I am 5’9” and weigh 300 pounds.”  

“Well, you don’t look fat.”  

“There are mirrors in my house, bro.  And everyone’s got a camera.”

And so it goes.

The Inner Game

Yogi Berra is reported to have once said, “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.”  I am inclined, at this point, to say something like the same thing about trying to change habits to eat well and to lose weight.  The “inner game” is, I’m learning, immensely significant, and in the end it’s the inner game, the mental game, where the struggle is either won or lost.  But when you turn to the “physical” side of things– what food to eat and when– Yogi’s unorthodox arithmetic makes intuitive sense.  There’s a lot to deal with.  It feels like a 140% effort is required.  

Why is the inner game complicated?  Well, ask any fat person who’s able to verbally acknowledge his or her obesity (and again, the irreality of American social engagement makes this incredibly difficult), and you’ll find a whole bunch of things:

  • Fat people are treated differently than thin people.  This is true for men, but it is especially true for women.   As a person who’s been both fat and of average weight, I can say: You’re treated better when you’re thin.  You get away with eating or drinking stuff and not being scrutinized..  You get away with being “lazy” or even with not exercising at all.  People are nicer when you’re thin.  It’s true.  
  • Ever been in a medieval castle?  People were shorter back when those castles were built, and so now when an average-sized person walks through doorways and tunnels she’s constantly bent over, hoping not to smack her head.  When you are fat, the whole world feels like a medieval castle, and not in a good way– you don’t imagine yourself as a king or lord or whatever.  “Will I fit?” becomes a constant concern.  Maybe a more accessible comparison is this:  Have you, as an adult, ever tried to sit at the kids’ table or do a kids’ activity in an elementary school?  You know that feeling of, “Am I too heavy for this chair?  Will my legs fit under this table?”  To be fat is to have that experience in all situations.  You may avoid certain social places or restaurants because they have small booths.  You may avoid even walking into certain clothing stores because you know that their sizes stop two or three (or eight) sizes below yours.  Will the kneelers in this church accommodate my belly?  How about the bench on that picnic table?  How about the seats at that theater?  
  • Most overweight people have tried a million times, often with grand self-inflicted gestures, to lose weight.  And sometimes it works for a while.  I’ve lost 10 pounds a million times.  Each one of these changes feels a lot like choosing to write with your non-dominant hand.  You can do it for a bit, but very quickly it starts being immensely time-consuming, unnatural-feeling, and thus difficult.  Under stress to get other things done (because hey, life goes on), you revert to your dominant hand– your usual way of doing things.  Some of the people I’ve known who were most successful at losing weight were able to make it more or less a full time job.  Few of us have that luxury.  
  • Being fat just physically feels lousy.  The baseline experience of my body 50 pounds ago was just discomfort.  My skin felt tight even while I was flabby.  My digestive system was a mess.  I experienced weird pains and occasional mental “fog.”  I went to the hospital multiple times over the years because reflux can give the very compelling impression that you’re having a heart attack.  You skip events– or want to skip events– because they’re outdoors in the heat and you know you’ll sweat through your shirt or because the seating is such that it’ll put your fat, sweaty body close to other people.  
  • The “gym rat” persona– which, it seems, a lot of weight loss programs set as the new, alternate persona for the poor, fat SOBs they work with– just seems like such a capitalist, hyper-narcissistic and self-serving goal. It’s also a goal that seems comically remote to my experience.   Is this really the only end game?  Whatever I want to become, it’s not the guy with the lycra pants and the waterproof iPhone arm band.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and plenty of my friends pursue that– I just don’t want it.  To the extent that I want to change in this regard, I want to slowly grow stronger and more capable.  This sort of corporatized, commodified, fetishized human body seems to abnegate everything that is useful about suffering and humbling and ennobling about the awareness of mortality.  The more expensive the yoga pants, the more undesirable it seems.    But OK– maybe that’s just my own issue.  

 

To make it real:  Consider what a complainer you are when you’ve got a cold or when you are hungover or grieving and someone asks you to do something significant.  Now, imagine that, while sick or hungover, someone says to you, “You have to utterly change everything about the way you’re doing things, enduring all sorts of hardships, and you have to take a journey that almost everyone fails and that will be uncomfortable for a long time before it starts getting more comfortable.  And along the way there will be a thousand explanations that well-meaning but often ill-informed people will give for how you achieve the changes you seek, many of them utterly contradicting each other.  Oh, and the hangover won’t go away for at least a month.”  

There you go.  That’s, as far as I can see it, where a lot of fat people start.  That’s where I started.  

Why I Think Catholics Should Tell the LGBTQ Community That We Love and Support Them, Loudly and Often.  

I will admit to being heartbroken to find that some of my Catholic brothers and sisters are unwilling to say, in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, that they extend their condolences specifically toward the LGBTQ community.  Fr. James Martin has been one of the prominent exceptions. I have been blessed to spend a lot of time talking to and working with folks who identify with the LGBTQ community, and my willingness to try to love and extend myself has been a transformative and graced part of my ministry.  I am writing to my fellow Catholics in the hopes that I can encourage them to follow a similar path, especially in this urgent moment.

I’ll start here:  I think every single person in the world has a deep-seated desire to know that they are loved and cherished by human beings, sure, but also, deep down, by God. So, start from that premise– that every person, deep down, wants to know that love, a love that flows from God and draws one back to God. So, before you are anything else, male or female, Gentile or Jew, slave or free, as Paul says, you are a person created by and for love. Now, let’s say that your best understanding of yourself is that you are, for reasons that we will bracket for now, a person whose primary human dimension of that love is experienced in people of the same sex. Before you are in any meaningful sense political– really, before you are any other thing– you experience yourself as desiring this love from others and from God, because you experience yourself as being incomplete, even as being unworthy, in a sense (because you– we– are).

What I want to identify as the basic Catholic theological impulse is the idea that God is saying, “Yes” to each person at this fundamental level of being, OK? Every time– and I mean EVERY time– a gay or lesbian person has come to me to talk, there has been this most fundamental human question: Do you, Mark, cherish me? Are you open to the possibility of genuine, real, human encounter? What are the terms of that encounter? Can I reveal this thing that’s hard and awkward to talk about in the context of the Church? Will you still smile at me and hug me after you know?  If I come to receive communion from you, will i somehow see Jesus in your face?

So, when more conservative Catholics say something like, “I don’t want to reduce a person to a slogan,” guess what? They absolutely, positively do NOT want to be reduced to a slogan, either. This is where I think the conservatives are right. We agree on that. But then this is where I think it goes off the rails: If you love someone, you have to encounter them where they are, love them as they identify themselves, really grind out that sort of love that only the Holy Spirit gives.

Labels and communities are, in a sense, badges we wear. I’m a Yankees fan. I’m Pennsylvanian by birth. I’m Catholic. But under all those labels, the real and fundamental identity that I claim is that I am a child of God and an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. and this is actually what I am, all the way down. However, if (God forbid) a bomb went off in Pennsylvania or in my high school in particular, my Pennsylvanian identity would come right to the fore even though I haven’t lived there for 30 years. When Prince died, the fact that I’ve loved and listened to Prince since I was a kid shaped my whole experience of his death and shaped my grieving for him in a profound way. I don’t consider being a Prince fan some sort of fundamental anthropological characteristic of my being, but in that moment if someone had said,  “You’re a child of God, and the Prince thing is not really important,” I’d have been irritated.

This is why I think that James Martin was right to call Catholics to expressions of sympathy for the LGBTQ community in the wake of the Orlando shootings, and this is the argument I’d make to those to the “right” of me on this issue: The way to get past the labels and on the path of redemptive love is not to reject labels people give themselves, but rather to say, “I love you and acknowledge you as worthy of my love and God’s love exactly where you are.” That is the love that comes from God. That’s the basic Christian theological anthropological assertion, so radical and so overwhelming that most of us can’t deal with it at all, even over a life time: I stand right now, exactly the person I am, a sinner, a broken person, a failure, an outcast, gifted, called, bearing the divine nature– that person stands right now before a God who knows all of that, every last bit of it, more than I could imagine, and nevertheless says, whole-heartedly and from the very heights of heaven: “I love you, Mark.”  That unconditional “yes” is what actually begins to change us!  That’s the glory of grace. To encounter God is, inevitably, to change, in the most fruitful and often unexpected ways!

The complicated thing about using language like, “The XXXXX community” is that, sociologically, most of those “communities” are not tangible, permanent things. It’s not like they’re monasteries or something. The word “community” implies a sort of grounded-ness and unity that doesn’t exist most of the time but that come out in times of crisis or celebration. I am surrounded by Yankees fans a lot of the time, but we only really become the community of Yankees fans at games, online in Yankees forums or Facebook pages, when we see each others’ jerseys at a bar, whatever. And with the LGBTQ community, one of the fundamental things that brings folks together is the experience of being ostracized, disowned, separated, mocked, or whatever. That’s not true of all LGBTQ-identified people, but it’s sure true of a lot. And there’s also this sense, in so many people, of sexual orientation as a given, as a sort of rock-solid fact of their identity, as something that could never be negotiated, but only lived out or hidden, with potentially dire consequences from either decision. And it’s the love of TRUTH that brings them to live it out rather than to hide it. It’s always conscience and a desire to be truthful, in my experience. And you only need to look at a situation like Orlando to see why the sense of one’s orientation would be unifying. The one thing we know that most of the victims had in common was their self-identified sexual orientation. So, seeing that a dude could choose to gun you down for exactly one reason is a pretty harrowing and darkly unifying thing. At that moment, you are a queer person because man, people like us are in trouble and we need to know that not everyone is out to get us and that most decent people think that stuff like this absolutely should not be going down.

So, this is why I think James Martin was right: The basic information that really needed to get out last week as a sort of fundamental expression of solidarity was this: The Catholic Church can look and see that these people with whom you are identified were targeted for this reason, and that is not acceptable. We stand by you and, despite whatever awkwardness this might entail for some of us and whatever disagreements we have, we are not OK with you being treated like this for any reason. Our faith teaches us to love you, and we will do that now and endure the requisite awkwardness of that encounter including your anger and skepticism. We can argue anthropology later if we need to and if we get there, after we are extremely sure that you know you are loved, after we’ve done or attended your funerals and walked with you through your grief.

That’s some top-level brave, going-out-on-a-limb kinda stuff. That’s saying that their lives really, really matter and that you accept that loving them means letting go of your control of the narrative. “Change is not a pre-condition for God to love you, and it’s not a pre-condition for us to love you.” Love, after all, changes both the lover and the beloved. What incredible changes might God have in store for US when we choose to love? That’s the glory, as Pascal says, of the spiritual gifts: Unlike growing in material wealth, growing in spiritual wealth benefits everyone.

It all starts by acting like God and saying “yes” to people.

That Odd Moment of Victorious Joy

We could get ourselves whacked three times with a paddle if we were caught with cassette tapes of secular music.  We could also get paddled if we said mean things about someone or if we sassed a teacher.  Heck, we could get paddled for just about anything. 

Some kids, like my cousin, actually knew all the tricks that made paddling less painful.  He’d sit at the lunch table and hold forth for all the “good” kids like me who were terrified of the paddle.  “Wear about three or four pairs of underpants.  I only need three now because I’m used to it, but you might want like 5.  Just put them on right before you go in to get paddled.  When he hits you the first time, really howl, because then he’ll lighten up.  If you tell him how sorry you are, sometimes he’ll just pray with you,” and on and on.  He acted like an expert, and he was. He got paddled once a week, on average.  I was in seventh grade, and we were attending a  fundamentalist “Christian” private school.  It was the worst.

I had gym class a few times a week, which at least gave me a little social time.  In preparation for gym class we all had to change into matching gym clothes including a red shirt emblazoned with the school’s name and a somewhat indistinct white graphic of a lion with its right front paw raised.  Boys and girls had gym class separately, for reasons that were obvious to the adults at the school.  Something about sinning, no doubt.

We were trying to learn to play basketball, and four of us were taking turns shooting baskets.  We knew each other well and ate lunch together every day.  David, a round-faced kid with brown hair, braces, and bangs, was sort of the ringleader.  He was not much to look at, but he was rich, we thought.  His dad’s ownership of a franchised sub shop impressed the heck out of us.  Then there was Alan, a skinny kid who talked fast and always seemed to be lying even when he was telling God’s honest truth.   And then there was Froggy.  I don’t remember his real name– Glen, maybe?– but he had perpetually tousled black hair and thick glasses and his voice always sounded broken and squeaky (hence the nickname).

We weren’t very good at our free throws.  It was getting frustrating, and we needed to vent our frustration.  But we had to be careful because there was a policy at the school– severely enforced, with paddling– against any sort of swearing.  So, to vent about our lack of basketball skill, we resorted to what we very quickly learned were words that were almost as bad:  shoot, heck, and darn.

The gym teacher was a harried but athletic-looking young woman with a long Bruce Jenner haircut.  Is that still OK to say?  I could imagine her standing next to Bruce Jenner with some gold medals of her own, so imposingly athletic did she seem to me at the time.  Her gym outfit matched ours in every way except that she had a whistle.  She told us that we couldn’t use those words.  We asked why.  She was flustered and couldn’t explain it.  But we were told we had to stop, so we did.

Well, the principal sure could explain it, and explain he did, devoting the whole of the next day’s chapel service to the evils of substitute swear words.  I don’t remember the Bible verse he cited, but I would guess he provided a pretty imaginative exegesis on the text.  We were told that we needed to avoid not only the obvious bad words, but even words that vaguely sounded like bad words or that were based on bad words.  That cut down the functional vocabulary for many of us.  We felt chastised.  Well, hell– we always felt chastised.  We were 7th graders, secretly listening to AC/DC on tiny portable tape recorders on the bus, telling jokes, watching the wrong TV shows.  By the world’s standards, we were really good kids.  But, of course, the world’s standards were MUCH lower than the school’s standards, which were exactly the same as Jesus’ standards or maybe a little higher just in case.

So, David, Alan, Froggy and I now knew the rules.  Swear words were out.  Words that sounded like or were derived from swear words were out.  So, what did that leave us?  Interjections, as we learned on Schoolhouse Rock, showed excitement or emotion.  We needed at least one exciting or emotional word that we could use when we missed our layups.

We talked it over for a long time at lunch.  We tried out words to see if they made us laugh.  Vomit?  Nah, didn’t roll off the tongue right.  Dirt?  Not satisfying at all, and possibly open to scatalogical interpretation.  Rats?  Nope– didn’t get the emotion.  Finally one of us said it, and we all winced and started laughing so loudly that the monitor in the lunch room gave us a stern look and started walking toward us.  But it was too late to stop our plans.  We all knew that we had our word.

The next day after lunch we went to gym class.  More basketball.  More free throws and layups.  More frustration.  And a new way to vent it.

“Aw, pus.” said David quietly, after missing his first shot.  He looked around. We giggled.  The teacher didn’t hear it.

“PUS,” exclaimed Froggy, his wrecked voice squeaking a bit, making us laugh harder.  The teacher looked, then looked away.

“AW, PUS!” I finally cried, even though I hadn’t even taken a shot.  I didn’t know then where my stupid, happy, defiant courage came from, but it became clear later– that day I discovered some deep well of rebellion and glee within me from which I have drawn many times since.  These days, I think it was the Lord giving me bravery and a willingness to stand up to the Pharisees, but I don’t think the folks back then  would’ve accepted my interpretation.   We were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe.  It was the purest joy I had known in that abysmal place.  Shot after shot, deliberately missing now, louder and louder while the other kids–and eventually the teacher–began to come over to learn the source of out delight.

“What are you SAYING?” She asked, unamused.

“We are saying, ‘pus,’ Ma’am, I said, mustering what little dignity I could while completely unable to keep from breaking or from being terrified.  The fear, of course, made it so much funnier.  I was going to die for this.

“YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!  UGH!  THAT IS DISGUSTING!” she said.  Tears flowed down Froggy’s cheeks as he tried to stop laughing.  Alan was the first to compose himself.  David was next.  Froggy and I never got there.

“Didn’t you hear pastor’s message yesterday?” she scolded.

“Well, yeah,” one of the guys said.  “But we didn’t think this broke the rules.  How does it break the rules?

She ran her fingers through her center part, feathering her hair back and giving herself time to think.  The moment of victory came quickly and showed on her face and in her eyes.  We were right, dammit.  Uh, darn it.  Uh, never mind.  It wasn’t against the rules.  Yet.

By the next morning,  of course, it was no longer OK to say “pus” in any non-medical context.  In fact, that three letter word changed the school from a place governed by rules to a place governed by the whims of people.  We were told at chapel that any adult could tell us if our language was appropriate or not and could order up detention or spanking according to their judgment.  And we were told sternly that although it was very likely that Jesus was mad at us, there was nothing they could do to enforce their sense of his sense of decorum.

So, we didn’t get paddled.  Rules, until we ruined them, were rules.  And pus?  Well, at least in my happy memory, pus is still pus.