Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Save Us from Social Embarrassment

I once heard a priest make an ad-lib prayer at the end of Mass, and I just remember the phrase, “Save your people from social embarrassment”. “What the heck is that supposed to mean?” was my immediate holy thought. (I also frequently have other holy and humble thoughts at Mass like ‘I could give a better homily than that’ and ‘Good grief! This is NOT a musical performance, people!’)

But of course I knew. In India, “What will people say?” seems to be the motivation behind every decision from what career our children should pursue, to how much money we spend on a wedding, to whether we decide to leave an abusive marriage.

“I’m so glad you set an example to us in not caring what people think,” I said to my mother one day. My parents had made many counter-cultural choices with their life from choosing to accept five children, to using the majority of their time, talent and skill in Kingdom-building activities instead of the more traditional type of careers.

But when I said those words to my mother, she gave me a funny look. “What makes you think I don’t care what people think?” And then I realized, none of us are immune from the desire to bask in social approval and acceptance. Maybe the people or society we seek it from varies, but there is usually a certain world from which we crave approval. Maybe it’s our family or our church, maybe our group of vegan environmentalist friends, maybe our agnostic humanist co-workers, maybe our rebellious teenage club-hopping friends. Each group has its own set of values, and things that are okay and not okay to do.

We don’t always realize when we care about people’s approval though. It may suddenly hit us. “Why do I care so much about this thing that someone said? Why am I so upset and stressed by that person’s opinion of me? Why am I still thinking about it days later?”

Or it comes up when we’re planning an event or a life decision. Very few people would consider the possibility of not serving a meal at a wedding for example. They’d rather go into crushing debt than risk people’s criticism. Actually most kind of wedding customs usually bring out our attachment to social approval. There must be a gold chain. There must be alcohol. The wedding dress must not be second-hand. There must be certain gifts given to the other family. Why MUST there be? Because…. what will people say?

As a result of this obsession with social approval, there is an unhealthy fear of social embarrassment. The worst thing that could happen to a family is for it to lose the approval and good opinion of its community. What is the practical result of that? Sexual abuse is covered up. Unhealthy practices are never addressed. Couples struggling in marriage won’t consider therapy. Abortion is chosen over the disgrace of unwed pregnancies. Matches are arranged based on external and often shallow qualifications. Intelligent kids are forced into engineering and medicine regardless of their preferences. Mistakes are covered up instead of faced and corrected.

On a less dramatic level, as long as we are afraid of social embarrassment, we are not free to make decisions for the right reasons. What is the right thing to do in this situation? What is the more financially prudent option? What is the choice that will remove someone from harm’s way? What is the more loving choice? What is God calling us to do in this situation? What is a responsibility and what is an unhealthy expectation from our family members?

Sometimes we do the right thing, but we carry around with us an unhealthy burden of anxiety and stress because of what people said. Everyone has an opinion about our lives. But their opinions don’t have to carry any weight unless we really respect their judgment.

We need to be free to examine and challenge the biases and prejudices and unhealthy customs of our own groups and communities. We need to be free to do what is right in our particular family’s situation. And we need to feel free to do it in peace and without guilt. But we can only do that if we reject the power social embarrassment has in our life.

Instead of praying for protection against social embarrassment, I wish that priest had prayed this: “Lord, give us all the courage to stand up for what is right regardless of what people say or think. Let us not be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewal of our minds. Give us the strength to care ONLY for your opinion, and to always remember that we are only what we are in Your eyes. Amen.”

Thursday, 22 February 2018

People Are Disappointing

Have you ever met someone and just from the first moment you think they are SO GREAT? They are exactly your kind of person, they’re funny, and they like to talk about the same things, and they share your opinions about everything from what makes a moment cringe worthy to what makes a great marriage to the best way to spend a vacation. You talk about this person to others, how great they are, how worthy their thoughts, how hilarious their one-liners, until everyone else in your life is rolling their eyes.

And then… the honeymoon ends. You suddenly discover your idol has feet of clay. They speak sharply to you one day. They hold a grudge when you would have thought they would have been magnanimous. They reveal flashes of selfishness or arrogance or vanity. They don’t agree with you on some issue that is hugely important to you, which you were SURE no right-minded person would disagree with. Or they dismiss as unimportant what you consider a core issue.

Now what? The temptation is to withdraw. “You! How could you, of all people, disappoint me in this way? You were supposed to be different, to be perfect, to be admirable in all matters. The betrayal is worse coming from you.” Of course we won’t say that to this person, but our attitude changes. Our trust is withdrawn. We no longer share our thoughts and feelings with as much trust and freedom as before.

Something similar happens when we grow up and discover our parents’ weaknesses, or any childhood role model. Parents are supposed to always have it together! 'If I can’t trust YOU, who can I trust?'

I have lived in a various women’s households over the last seven years, and working closely with different teams of women and men. No matter how great another volunteer is when I first meet him or her, once I start living or working very closely with them, the flaws appear. I'm sure the same thing happens to me in their eyes too. The greater the respect at the beginning, the greater the fall when it comes. “You? How could you be reluctant to help? Aren’t you one of those living saints, font of wisdom and patient love?”

It could be easy to reach a point where the only people left to respect are the ones we DON’T know too well, or have to interact with much. Perhaps a speaker, or a leader, or a writer. Is this our fate? Is no one worthy of respect and trust?

This is the secret I have learned over the years: you CAN respect someone while accepting their flaws. In almost all of my women’s households, we had to learn the same lesson over and over again with each new set of people. This person is so great! But this person is also flawed. I can’t change this person. But I can love them as they are. I HAVE to forgive again and again (as they have to forgive me) for not being the people I often want and expect them to be, and sometimes even need them to be.

The friendships that have lasted beyond the disillusionment phase are some of the strongest and best friendships I have ever had. There is a real trust there, the trust that comes from knowing we are committed even after seeing each others’ worst side, from knowing I am accepted, and not judged harshly.

Married people tell me marriage is exactly the same (hence the term ‘honeymoon phase’). But I think it goes for all human relationships. If we hold people to unrealistically high standards, and then withdraw our love when they disappoint us, we will never be able to have a truly deep, meaningful and satisfying human relationship. Neither will we be able to truly know or accept the love of Christ- because that too is dependent not on worthiness, but on acceptance and unconditional love.

Accepting people’s flaws does not mean ignoring or glossing over hurtful behaviour or refusing to address real problems. It means being willing to let someone know when they have hurt you, but also not withholding your love until they change. “I’ll love you anyway, but it hurts me when you do this.” We have a whole teaching on confronting with love in my organization. We don’t always do it well, but we all know that if we care about the health of a relationship, we must be willing to do it. The best people are the ones who are able to admit their weaknesses and work on them, but usually that only happens in an environment of acceptance and mercy.

How do we deal with people disappointing us?

1. Bring them and the situation to the Lord in prayer.

2. Remind yourself that you too have many flaws and have still been loved unconditionally by others.

3. Remind yourself of all the good you have seen in them. Make a list if you need to.

4. Talk to them if they have hurt or upset you.

5. Give them another chance.

6. Pray for healing of their wounds and insecurities and blind spots.

7. Choose to accept the quirks which are not sins, even if they are not your favourite things.

It's hard to get over being disappointed by someone. But the key may be to realize that your desires for perfection can only be met by a perfect God. He is the only one who will never disappoint you. Once you discover that, you can accept fallible and weak human beings as they are, stop expecting them to be God and form real relationships that are built on more realistic foundations.

Disclaimer: If someone knows how you feel and keeps repeating hurtful or harmful behaviour, you may need to step away from the situation, while continuing to pray for them. Also, if someone has deliberately deceived you, you can choose to forgive them without necessarily choosing to trust them.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Looking for God this Lent? Read a Book

Have you ever felt bored with God? Just sort of indifferent, wondering what all the fuss is about? Maybe you once had an experience of God, or even intellectually assented to the Christian faith, but life goes on, and now it’s just a not super-relevant part of your life or thoughts. People keep saying, “Pray! Read the bible!” And you try that too, but it’s all so boring, and you can’t stop your mind from wandering to more attractive avenues.
There may be a lot of reasons why you have reached this place. It could be that you are in a state of sin that has dulled your senses to God, and until you choose to face that sin, you’re stuck in this lifeless zone.
It could be that your life is too full of other stuff, fleeting pleasures, quick fixes, that you don’t know how to receive anything more fulfilling. You’ve been eating so much junk food that your body doesn’t remember how good a real meal can taste. (I was going to say a steak and a salad but not sure how that would be received in India.)
This is my theory: (It’s not exactly original, but anyway.) YOU ARE WHAT YOU CONSUME. Or even, you develop a taste for whatever you consume the most of. If you keep reading nothing but romance novels and Sidney Sheldons, your brain slowly turns to mush and can no longer accept anything more solid. If you spend most of your time watching TV shows, your mind will constantly be engaged by the drama you watch, and not have space for anything else. If your life is football, that is what you talk about, think about, fight about, and picture as you drift off to sleep. If you listen to The Greatest Showman soundtrack multiple times every day, you start picturing yourself as the star of a musical and practise dance steps in your head at every idle moment (this has NOTHING to do with my life). If you spend a lot of time talking to, thinking about and finding out more about a particular person, your relationship will probably go deeper.
Our minds are very connected to our hearts. Greater knowledge often leads to greater love. If you want to fall in love with God, you need to allow Him to capture your imagination again. Like Saint Paul said, be transformed by the renewal of your mind. How does that work? You, friend, are privileged enough to know how to read. The riches of the world are at your disposal! I refer, of course, to books.
Read a book! Read a good book about God! “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot.” I have been reading since I was five. But at the formational years of my life, I read books that captured my imagination, and opened my eyes to how big God is. If all we see of God is the external customs of our family’s religious traditions, no wonder we have grown bored of Him. If we don’t know what treasures are hidden in the Eucharistic God, if we haven’t caught sight of the grandeur and majesty of a Creator God, if we have not yet glimpsed the passionate tenderness of the Lover God, if we have not seen the intricacy and wisdom and faithfulness of the Scriptural God, if we have not seen the transforming power of the Saviour God in broken and wounded human lives, then how can we fall in love with this God?
So, friends, I beg you - read a book this Lent. Read MANY books if you can. Move some stuff out of your life to make room for this book-reading. Make a reading plan, and stick to it. ‘Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything… Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.’ Fr. Pedro Arrupe
Here are some great book suggestions:
Easy Level Reading
1. The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson
2. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom HIGHLY RECOMMEND
3. Something Other Than God by Jennifer Fulwiler* HIGHLY RECOMMEND
4. I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter With God by Bilquis Shaikh*
5. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis*
6. Mother Angelica: The remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles by Raymond Arroyo*
7. Death of a Guru by Dave Hunt and Rabindranath Maharaj*
8. Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption by Katie Davis*
9. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers
10. Daring to Hope: Finding God’s Goodness in the Broken and the Beautiful by Katie Davis Majors
11. The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun
12. Catholicism for Dummies*
Medium Level Reading
1. Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves by Jason Evert* HIGHLY RECOMMEND
2. A Father Who Keeps His Promises by Scott Hahn
3. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis HIGHLY RECOMMEND
4. Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots by Scott Hahn*
5. The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth by Scott Hahn
6. Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn
7. Let Go by Fenelon
8. Time for God by Fr. Jacques Philippe*
9. In the School of the Holy Spirit by Fr. Jacques Philippe*
10. Who Does He Say That You Are? Women Transformed by Christ in the Gospels by Colleen Mitchell
11. The Apostasy That Wasn’t by Rod Bennett
12. You by Fulton Sheen
High Level Reading
1. He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek* HIGHLY RECOMMEND
2. Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux*
3. Sober Intoxication of the Spirit by Fr. Raneiro Cantalamessa*
4. Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade*
5. Catechism of the Catholic Church- Section on Prayer*
6. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (full disclosure, haven't finished this)
Books I’ve heard of and am waiting to read:
1. My Sisters, the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir by Colleen Carroll Campbell
2. These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body by Emily Stimpson
3. Confessions by St. Augustine
4. Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed
5. One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Personal Passions, Family Chaos, and Saying Yes to Them Both by Jennifer Fulwiler
6. Arriving at Amen by Leah Libresco
Of course just reading a book is not enough. Ask God to meet you when you read. Be sensitive to the ways the Spirit is working in you as you read. Dialogue with God as you read. And meet Him in prayer after you read.
Have you read any of these? What are some books that have been transformational in helping you encounter Christ?
*These are books that I own and would be happy to lend you if you live in my city. Most of these books should be available to buy as ebooks. Some are available at local Christian bookshops.

Monday, 5 February 2018

13 Ways Parents Can Help Their Kids Choose Christ

Most of us who had religious parents have semi-funny and semi-frustrated stories of how our parents made us do religious stuff against our will when we were kids. Remember when we HAD to say the rosary every time we travelled on family holidays, only all the kids had strong motion sickness medicine so everyone would start slurring and fall asleep between the Hail Mary and Holy Mary EVERY TIME? Or five minute family morning prayer before we went to school when everyone would be bad-tempered and half-asleep and mumble through the hymn which we HAD to sing? I still can’t stand some of those hymns.

Some kids have parents who used religion as a punishment- “Kneel down before the altar until you’re willing to get along with your sister!” or as an obligation to be fulfilled, and nothing more. No wonder so many of our contemporaries have less than fond memories of their childhood religion, and either have lost their faith, or do the bare minimum as a way to keep the family satisfied.
But some of us have had childhood experiences that have given us a good reason to be open to this Christian faith, to examine its claims, and to open our hearts and minds to the reality of a personal God who created us, loved us, saved us, and in a mysterious way is able to be found in the midst of our normal lives.

What were some of the things our parents did right? What are some things that YOU can do as a parent to help your child make a free decision to choose Christ in a world that is increasingly hostile to anything except religious syncretism, an impersonal spirituality, agnosticism or atheism?

1. Love God: This sounds dumb and obvious, but I mean something more than ‘do religious things’ and ‘be known as a god-fearing person’. One of the biggest influences of my faith was hearing my mum talk about how God spoke to her in her personal prayer time. She wasn’t preaching at me, but sharing a lived experience, answered prayers, intimate words that Jesus spoke to her through the bible as she read it every day. How can we preach a God of love if we do not know Him? Speak to Him with love, and speak of Him with love. Hearing my mum made me wonder, “Could I know God in that way?”

2. Love people: if we are known for being religious, but not for being loving, kind and helpful, we have a problem. Make place in your life for the poor. My parents used to do ‘slum ministry’ years ago, and I’m sure that planted seeds that led me to become a Catholic volunteer who taught in the same slum 15 years later. Be a good neighbour. Be quick to respond to a need. Try not to speak ill of people. Kids notice everything.

3. Admit your fault and ask forgiveness: No parents are perfect. Most parents have their share of issues inherited from their parents, their blind spots and unhealthy habits. But in our culture, parents will never admit that. The parent is ALWAYS right, no matter what. But the Christian faith demands that we accept that we are all sinners, in need of the mercy of God (and each other). My dad has witnessed this to me in a beautiful way as he has admitted his faults to his own children and asked for their forgiveness with tears in his eyes. How many dads do that? I could see that it was his faith that gave him that humility.

4. Make real changes: ‘Our God is a real God who does real things for real people in the real world’. I have seen over the years my parents not just admit their faults, but also allowing God to bring healing and real change. I can see that this faith is not just a comfortable philosophy, but a relationship with a real God who accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way. I think that is where the core of my faith has come from- seeing my family relationships slowly being healed, seeing myself and my family members change and grow as we have allowed Christ deeper in.
Being willing to change can be painful sometimes. It means sitting through conversations and tears when you would rather walk away. It means being willing to listen to the other person’s perspective. It means going to Confession, or spiritual direction or receiving pastoral care. It means going to therapy, it means giving up old ways of relating, blame, accusation, criticism and anger, and choosing to try the new way of holding your tongue, patience and mercy. It means letting go of resentment, and turning the other cheek. SO HARD! It means allowing yourself to be accountable to one another.

5. Make prayer a joyful part of your family’s life: If God is important, it has to show in your family’s priorities. Daily family prayer is hugely important. My one caveat is that family prayer should be made meaningful for children, and not be a boring or gloomy experience. The rosary without any reflection can become just meaningless repetition. I like what my family did- each family member was responsible for leading family prayer one day of the week (there were seven of us). So on my day I could choose a hymn to sing, which bible passage we would read, whether we were going to do thanksgiving prayers, or repentance, or petition. We would usually end with a decade of the Rosary.

In my organization, we also do what we call ‘family-style prayer’, which follows the same format every time- a hymn (or praise and worship song), each person prays a thanksgiving prayer, we read a bible passage, and each person shares a brief reflection, or something that God has been doing in their life, and we end with praying for our own and others’ needs. It’s so simple, and everyone can easily participate. You could even do praise and worship together, or the Scriptural Rosary, We have so many ways to pray!

6. Live the Catholic way of life: Go for Sunday Mass as a family, celebrate feasts, talk about the saints, use holy water, go together for Confession, do a family fast for Lent. I remember my family giving up sweets one Lent, and each time we knew we were missing out on a sweet or chocolate, we could put a piece of paper money into a box. At the end of Lent, my dad counted it replaced the fake money with real money, and we used it to buy something for a poor family. Making Mass a normal part of life helps form good habits, and makes it a little easier to be disciplined about it when we are older. After Mass, you could talk about the homily or ask questions about the readings.

7. Encourage your kids to have a personal prayer time: From the time I was about 12, my parents encouraged me to have a personal prayer time in the morning. I would mostly read stories from the bible, especially the inappropriate ones from the Old Testament :-D, so maybe it would be good to guide them about what they could do during that prayer time. Give them a prayer journal, and a children’s book of bile reflections, things like that.

8. Listen to your children: Passing on the faith is not about taking every opportunity to lecture, or catechize, or moralize, or pontificate, as tempting as that may be. It is also about listening to your children’s concerns, and interests, and stories, and questions… because it is only when your children feel comfortable sharing with you about the little things that they will come to you about the big things. My poor parents had me sharing everything with them through my childhood and youth, and that helped me process a lot of things about the faith too.

9. Allow them to express doubts: Don’t feel threatened when they have questions. Listen calmly, respect their freedom, say a prayer to the Holy Spirit and give them good answers for their questions. How we talk about these issues is as important as what we say. If you don’t know the answer, suggest looking it up together. There are so many resources available today- books, articles, videos, podcasts. Be empathetic. “I know it’s hard to understand why God would allow bad things to happen. I remember feeling the same way when…” “Yes I know Mass can seem boring sometimes. Why don’t we look up why Jesus wants us to go anyway? I think there was a good Fr. Mike Schmitz video about that.”

10. Respect their freedom: While it is true that you can make certain decisions for your children when they are in your care, like the expectation to go to Mass every Sunday, when your kids grow up and become independent, they need to feel free to make their own decisions. Faith isn’t faith if it is forced. Love and encourage them to seek answers, and make sure the door is open. But don’t force it.

11. Encourage your kids to be a part of Christian fellowship groups: Many Indian parents would like to be the sole influence of their children. But especially as they become teenagers, they can’t be. Teenagers need to explore the world, and check their family’s views against the reality of the world out there. When I was 14, my family joined a Catholic covenant community, and I became part of a small group with six or seven young women. I was able to talk to my pastoral leader, a single woman in her 30s about some of my questions, which helped me make some good decisions as a teenager. I know one friend whose experience with the Jesus Youth tremendously influenced her faith. Help your kids find fellowship, and encourage their participation even if it means they spend less time at home or studying.

12. Help your kids learn how to discern: Rather than banning everything that is not explicitly Catholic or Christian, or sheltering your kids from every other influence, or being fearful of ‘the world’, help them learn how to evaluate what is good and why, and what is harmful and why. Watch movies with them and talk about them. Read the same books as they do, and talk about them. Teach them to be confident, to see the good in people and cultures and even religions different from theirs, and yet to hold fast to the things they know are true when their beliefs are challenged or belittled.

13. Pray for your kids every day: I know some parents who pray over their kids every night as they sleep. Pray for them daily, pray for their present concerns and struggles, pray with them when they share a fear or a need, and pray for them when they aren’t looking. God loves your kids even more than you do. Just cooperate with Him, let go of your fears and anxieties, and let Him do His thing!

P.S. Many of these suggestions could be helpful for Sunday School teachers, youth animators, and anyone who has young people in their care.