Author: Deacon Mark Shiner

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.

Notes for a Palm Sunday Homily About Right Now.

Text:  Luke 22 and 23

I don’t usually write out my homilies.  Today, I did.  Well, some of it.

We have read these long passages from the Gospel of Luke that seek to give an orderly account of what happened at the arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus.  What becomes clear is that, while the account is orderly, the event itself is a disastrous moral failure.   The Savior is put to death because of the religious and political leaders’ cowardice and distortion of the facts and their incitement of the mob. If you have confidence and a group of uncritical supporters you can say or do just about anything and it’ll seem true and right.

Pilate:  (23:1-25) What an intensely odd story– the capitulation of Pilate to the desires of the mob.  Why?  To prevent further trouble?  To keep the peace?  To throw the mob a bone, hoping they’d quiet down?  Pilate is at the center of this drama.  He is tasked with leadership– maintaining justice, peace, and fairness– so, he is the linchpin.  He is the grownup.  And yet he gives in, abandons his responsibilities and his courage.  He feels the anger of the religious leaders and their backers.  The defenders of Jesus are nowhere to be found– they are Judean, for the most part–, and Pilate’s conscience is solitary and attacked on all sides.  And then there’s Herod– his immature, mocking, bullying approach to Jesus helps to undermine justice as well.  He shows contempt for the truth and contempt for the good and a preference for a good joke over good judgment.  

And through it all, there is Jesus.  The one who is the Way and the Truth and the Life reveals in his presence the brokenness and corruption, the murder and violence in the political and religious system.  But it will not be this way forever.  

The Women of Jerusalem:  (23:26-31)  Later, as he approaches his crucifixion, Jesus finds compassionate faces in the women of Jerusalem.  It is terrifying to imagine the bloodied and humiliated Jesus, his heart still overflowing with compassionate love, saying to the women who wish to comfort him, “What has happened to me looks like the worst thing, but your fate will be worse.  I did not wish for my death, but you will wish for yours.  I came to restore the earth from its brokenness, but you will pray that the earth would devour you.  My mother will be revered for all ages, while you and yours will feel cursed by the burden of your days.”  There is, in other words, absolutely no guarantee– and this is clear to anyone who studies history– that everything will work out just great.  Everything comes to an end, frequently by violence and frequently by rot.  Jerusalem, the very City of God, is in no way immune to to destruction and collapse.   Keep that in mind.  

The Crucifixion:  (23:32-49) And notice, too, the familiar dynamics of power evident in Jesus’ crucifixion.  Those in power lack all awareness of their own culpability and cruelty.  They deflect the blame for Jesus’ suffering by means of mockery– the fact that the Christ is vulnerable to their own evil and violence is twisted to confirm their legitimacy.  How can that be?  The travesty of Jesus’ execution should make us look at ourselves, our own bullying and toleration of bullying, our worship of power even when put to evil ends.  But it will not be this way forever.  

But yet– too late to stop things, but not too late to bear witness– some characters in the story begin to grasp what is going on.  One of the two thieves sees the truth.  The centurion sees that he is party to a crime.  Even the multitudes, at best silent and probably complicit, go away beating their breasts.  Where does this sign of repentance ultimately lead them?  

It seems that, in this moment in our common life, we are called to do several things:

  1. When you see government and religious leaders teaming up to bully and to marginalize and to further hurt the poor, the alien, and disenfranchised, know with confidence that it is not from God.  But take heart– it will not be this way forever.  
  2. When you see the truth despised and hidden under a veneer of power and respectability, know that this also is not from God.  But take heart– it will not be this way forever.  
  3. When you feel your own soul inclined toward hatred because of prejudice– even prejudice toward those in power– know that this is not from God.  But take heart– it will not be this way forever.  

During this Holy Week, we want to position ourselves close to Jesus, close to the truth, close to love.  Keep your eyes clear, attend to the signs around you, and pray for the wisdom to know the truth and the courage and love to follow it for Jesus’ sake.  Soon the glory of the Lord will be revealed, God’s Kingdom will show forth in time, and it will no longer be this way.