Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bartimaeus and Me

Reading the story of Bartimaeus is, for me at least, an occasion for introspection. I am Bartimaeus, but without his depth of faith. Bartimaeus is the blind man that Jesus encounters outside of Jericho. The story is related in the 10th chapter of the gospel of Mark, and was read this past Thursday.

Bartimaeus was sitting and begging when he heard that Jesus was passing by. I might be sitting in my cubicle at work or, worse, sitting at home idling time away in front of the television or playing games on the computer.

Bartimaeus recognized who Jesus was and called out to him. I like to think that I know who Jesus is, ut am I willing to call out to him, or is there an element of the Pelagian heresy in my personality. There is a part of me that thinks I should be able to overcome my faults on my own, as if the grace of God is wasted upon me because I don’t exercise the self-discipline, discernment, and docility to take advantage of it. What keeps one from calling out as Bartimaeus did? Is it some vague desire to appear respectable and self-sufficient? That’s not working out so well for me.

Those accompanying Jesus tried to quite Bartimaeus, but he only called out louder. Bartimaeus did not fear becoming a spectacle, and he persisted in the face of discouragement. Too often, I am turned away by the slightest resistance.

Jesus hears Bartimaeus and has his followers call him. The same people who were telling him to be quiet now tell him to cheer up because he is being called. It’s true, sadly, that members of the Church can be obstacles to reaching Christ, and yet He still chooses to act through them. Jesus could have called to Bartimaeus himself. He did not. As frustrating as our interaction with the Church might sometimes be, it is through His Church that He desires that we be saved.

Bartimaeus is already way ahead of where I would be. Now he jumps up and rushes to Jesus. There is no hesitation and no caution. I, on the other hand, am overly cautious, always wanting to preserve the option to go back, to minimize the risk. Were I in the place of Bartimaeus, I would be debating with myself about whether to call out in the first place, and would only reach a decision after the opportunity had passed and Jesus was out of earshot.

When Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants, Bartimaeus asks simply for sight – the healing of his infirmity. If only we all might know what it is that keeps us from the Kingdom, the rush unhesitatingly to Jesus to seek the cure. I think that I have some idea of where my greatest failures of virtue lie, and I think that I’ve asked in prayer to be relieved of these defects. That they remain whispers into my Pelagian heart that the fault lies with me, and therefore it’s up to me to bring about the change. I’m left precariously balanced between despairing of my own weakness and trusting that God’s mercy and grace can overcome it.

“Your faith has healed you,” Jesus tells him. I do believe Lord, increase my faith! I ask not for my own sake, but that your name might be glorified. I ask for the sake of my wife, my children, and all to whom I might be a source of scandal and an obstacle to closer communion with you. Fill me with a healthy hatred for the things that keep me from rushing to you and, like Bartimaeus, following you along the road.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Random Observations

A few random observations:

1. The older I get, the more my knees hurt after I run. At this rate, I'll be crippled by the time I'm 60.

2. Why is it that I'm always at least a day behind in any novena that I attempt?

3. Yahoo recently featured photos of 51 Miss America hopefuls (sorry, can't find a link). All of the pictures were "safe", yet not one gave any hint of clothing. In other words, every one looked like a head shot of a naked woman. Why?

4. There's a lot of Obama fear out there. Otherwise sensible people think that President Obama is going to destroy the United States. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, I take comfort in the man's executive incompetence. Even though his goal might be a post-American world without a super-power, he just doesn't have the organizational skill to make it happen. He will (and is!) certainly make a mess of things, and the clean-up will be long and painful, but it's not the end of the world.

5. The questions that need to be answered regarding the oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: What caused the explosion? Was it the same failure that caused the malfunction of the cutoff device, or was it a separate, coincident failure? Was the failure (failures?) a design flaw or operator error? Are other rigs at risk? What could have been done to prevent this, and how do we ensure that it won't happen again? Did anybody act in a criminally negligent manner? And, of course, how do we recover and contain the leak?

6. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty is broken. As the club of nuclear-capable countries grows, where, when, and by whom will the first use be seen?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Woman In Labor

My seventh child was born on Thursday. I now have two sons, sixteen years apart, with five girls in between. Michael and his mother came home yesterday

As sometimes happens when I try to follow along with what the Church is reading in the Lectionary, I read the wrong gospel. I didn't realize that it was the Feast day of St. Matthias, and so I read the gospel for Friday of the Sixth Week of Easter (John 16:20-23). It turned out to be rather appropriate.

When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. (John 16:21)
I asked my recently delivered wife if she could elaborate upon the verse for me. She just smiled and said, "Yeah, that's the way it is."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Attack of the Speculators

Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the $962 billion bailout (er, “loan package”) approved by the 16 nations that use the euro in an attempt to restore confidence in the common currency. Most of us ordinary people think that the euro is in trouble because of the incredible amounts of debt taken on by certain countries, especially Greece. Fortunately, we have reporters at Businessweek to set us straight:

Jolted into action by last week’s slide in the currency and soaring bond yields in Portugal and Spain, the 16 euro nations agreed to offer financial assistance worth as much as 750 billion euros ($962 billion) to countries under attack from speculators. The European Central Bank will counter “severe tensions” in “certain” markets by purchasing government and private debt.

Silly us. It’s not the debt that’s the problem, it’s the “speculators” who are “attacking” the currency. It seems entirely more reasonable to me to conclude that investors are making rational decisions to hedge against a looming catastrophe.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Bullets and Grenades

The Knights of Columbus Veritas series includes a booklet entitled “Becoming a Real Man of God,” written by Fr. Roger Landry. Fr. Landry also has a book which covers the same ground. [UPDATE 5/12: The book that I was thinking of was written by Fr. Larry Richards, not Fr. Roger Landry.] I don’t know which came first, that is, whether the book is an expanded form of the booklet or the booklet is a condensed form of the book. The booklet is available as a convenient podcast that can be listened to on any mp3 player.

At one point, Fr. Landry offers a very brief reflection on 1 John 3:16,18:

In marriage preparation, I often ask would-be grooms whether they love their fiancé enough to take a bullet for her. Never has one said no. Then I ask whether his answer would be the same if the bullet took one of the following forms: being abstinent before marriage; giving up smoking if she asks; being on time if his is habitually late; cleaning up after himself better; patiently telling her what happened that day at work if she requests it; learning the faith better to help pass it on to her more completely; or making the time and the priority to pray with her. These are the types of grenades on which many men refuse to dive. But these gifts of oneself are so much more valuable than almost any material gift one could give, and they are a far greater sign of real love than any ring could symbolize.

Yes, we men are called to a heroic level of virtue to which few of us rise. It is not so much that we refuse to throw ourselves on that particular grenade. It is more that the threat is cumulative and chronic rather than acute. The damage is done gradually rather than all at once. Further, the grenade is always there – it never goes off, and it never goes away. That, and not necessarily a selfish disregard for his beloved, is why many men do not react to the threats that Fr. Landry presents.

Exciting Times

I don’t usually offer my opinions on the secular news stories, but these are exciting times, and I mean that entirely euphemistically.

I am astonished by the public reaction to the law in Arizona that empowers state and local law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration law. It’s not fascist to tell cops that if they think someone is here illegally, then can check their status and actually enforce the law. The issue for most of us who support the measure is not hostility to aliens (not ET – Stephen Hawking says we should be afraid of ET). Rather, the issue is national security and control of the borders. I don’t mind letting them in, as long as they use the gate and tell us who they are. I borders and citizenship don’t mean anything, the I guess I can go ahead and jump the fence to swim in my neighbor’s pool. I would like to see the criminal violence being executed by the Mexican drug cartels stay on their side of the border. Ideally, of course, the federal government would be securing the border, but they don’t seem to be too interested in performing that function. Lest anyone argue that I’m being partisan, I thought that the Bush administration did an equally lousy job of securing our borders and ports in the long aftermath of 9/11/01.

Not entirely unrelated is news that we’ve again gotten very lucky. We’ve been extremely fortunate that the Christmas Day panty-bomb and the Times Square car bomb were both duds that failed to go off. This is going to lull us into a false sense of invulnerability. We know that the enemy knows how to make bombs. We also had both of the bombers on our intelligence radar, and yet both came within a hair’s breadth of wreaking carnage on American soil. They also came here legally, and, in the case of the Times Square bomber, even obtained citizenship. If we have no border enforcement, then we can’t even hope to catch the incompetent terrorists at the gate, let alone those who are clever and shrewd. I was born in 1969, so I have no memory of 1968, when radical groups like the Weather Underground were planting bombs across the country that actually blew up. I don’t want to experience it myself.

Finally, after a year-and-a-half, it feels as though the other shoe is about to drop on the world economy, this time as the result of unsustainable government debt. Europe, specifically Greece, is leading the way. We hear that a bailout of Greece is required because all of the European nations are tied together through a common currency, and if Greece slips over the edge, all of the European nations that use the euro will be pulled down into the yawning chasm of devaluation. The problem is that the Greeks don’t care. They continue to demand that their government keep spending money on them that the government just doesn’t have. A bailout will only allow continued deficit spending, delaying the inevitable. Where Greece is going, Spain, Portugal, and the UK are headed. My sense (God, please let me be wrong!) is that Europe is about to implode, and what will be left when the dust clears is anybody’s guess.

Habitual deficit spending is a problem. Americans recently observed Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates an inconsequential victory of the Mexican army over the French army in 1862 (we Americans were a little busy killing each other at the time). Although the Mexicans won the battle, the French went on to overthrow the Mexican government and install a puppet emperor, who was likewise overthrown a few years later. The French did this because the Mexicans defaulted on their loans. We’ve got rampant deficit spending of our own, much of it financed by foreign powers like China. In our own country, California and New York are blazing a trail toward default, and the federal government appears unable to control spending. Our government will raise taxes before it cuts spending, then will feign confusion when the economy slips back into recession. Their response will be even more spending – ever higher deficits that will accelerate it down the path to collapse.

Exciting times indeed!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Don't Wake Me

My wife and I recently found ourselves out on the town with a half hour to kill before we needed to meet her parents for a dinner date, so we went to a local bookstore to browse for a bit. Having distinctly different tastes in books, she went her way and I went mine. I found myself standing in front of the history titles. I couldn’t put my finger on the reason, but as I stood there, I could feel my mood crashing.

I’ve grown up in an age of exceptional prosperity and security. Even with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, it was always a theoretical possibility that never really touched us. It never happened. Because it’s all I’ve ever known, I tend to assume that such peace is normal. Reviewing history books suggests that the assumption is not a safe one to make. I find it hard these days to maintain a sense of optimism for the future. It feels as though we are waking up from a delightful nap and re-entering history. I’d rather go back to sleep, thank you very much.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Limits of Pacifism

It’s stories like this one that lead me to occasionally question just how much I would be willing to tolerate in the name of peace. God placed limits on the legitimate vengeance of the ancient Jews. “An eye for an eye” meant that the response had to be proportional to the offense. It was an explicit repudiation of the philosophy espoused by Sean Connery’s character in The Untouchables: “If he puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue!”

Jesus came along and seemed to reject even the proportional response, exhorting his followers to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for your enemies.” All well and good, as long as all that your enemy wants to do is give you a wicked cross-face. However, in the face of what happened to this barber in Pakistan (follow the link above for details), I think that I might “aim to misbehave” in the fashion of Captain Malcolm Reynolds.

It’s one thing to let somebody knock your head around a bit. It’s another thing entirely when they intend to break both of your legs and gang-rape you. Now imagine that it’s not you, but someone you love (a parent, a spouse, or a child) that’s on the receiving end. Still feel like pacifism is the answer?

Yes, vengeance belongs to the Lord; but in such a circumstance, I would try awfully hard to be His tool.