We can’t just decide to stop being afraid, but we can manage it

Most of us realise we’re not supposed to live in a state of constant fear. It isn’t any fun, for one thing; and we can see it leads us to make bad decisions. Jesus came right out and told us, “Be not afraid!”

How, though? Much as we’d like to, we can’t just decide to stop being afraid.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Irrational fear doesn’t make our kids safer (even in Ikea)

No, really. You probably don’t have to bring bodyguards, tape your kids to your legs, or spray them with anti-trafficking spray before venturing out of your house.

I feel the need to say this because that “we almost got sex trafficked in Ikea” story is foolish and dangerous — and still making the rounds.

Here’s the backstory, if you missed it:

Diandra Toyos, a mom from Southern CA, was at an Ikea store with her three young kids. She noticed that a couple of guys weren’t shopping and didn’t appear to be with anyone who was shopping, but seemed to be following her family around. She eventually talked to security and then left.

She reports to social media:

Something was off. We knew it in our gut. I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking. This is happening all over. Including the United States. It’s in our backyards. I’m reading more and more about these experiences and it’s terrifying. If not that, something else shady was obviously going on. Either way, as parents, we NEED to be aware.

The story got tens of thousands of shares, and moms across the country trembled with fear.

Let’s start with the good information in her account.

1. It’s a good idea to listen to your gut (unless your gut constantly cries wolf). There is nothing wrong with looking for help if you feel like something is “off,” even if you’re not sure exactly what it is that’s wrong.

2. It’s a good idea to keep track of your young kids. Pay attention, because kids can get into all kinds of trouble in a short time.

Now let’s talk about what’s insane and dangerous in this mom’s message.

First, whatever happened at Ikea, if anything, it almost certainly wasn’t a close call with human trafficking. People who are actual experts in the field say this simply isn’t how human trafficking works.

“There are zero indicators of human trafficking in Toyos’ story. Zero,” says Lara Powers in the L.A. Times. Powers, “a professional in the anti-trafficking field,” insists the same thing as every other expert I’ve encountered:

I have never seen, read or heard about a real sex-trafficking situation in which a child was abducted by traffickers in broad daylight at a busy store under a mother’s watchful eye. It’s just not the way it works.

How does it work, then?

Victims are recruited, manipulated, made dependent. The psychological and emotional ties they establish are highly effective. Trafficked children are unlikely to attempt escape.They often won’t snitch on their traffickers even if law enforcement approaches them.

Among common patterns of sex-trafficking recruitment and control: Parents or foster care parents selling their children. Or runaway, homeless youth, many of whom identify as LGBTQ, picked up at bus stops by traffickers who exploit their hunger and need for shelter. Or a young girl who falls in love with a man who says he loves her too, then pimps her out.

And while child sex trafficking can happen to anyone, children of color, children with a past history of sex abuse, children who come from broken or unstable homes, children who face poverty, and children with disabilities are especially vulnerable.

 

Here is a more typical story of human trafficking: An impoverished teenager named “Blessing” flees Nigeria in hopes of finding work. Once she has been moved across several borders, her handlers try to push her into prostitution. She’s ransomed; she’s shuttled around some more, imprisoned, put out to sea, rescued, and then released in Italy.

This is a horribly typical, very common story of a child caught up in human trafficking. She is alone; she is poor; she is black; she has few connections; her home government is a shambles; her parents don’t know where she is; she has no help. She is very obviously vulnerable in several different ways.

In other words, she is most likely nothing like your child. Your child is almost certainly safe from trafficking. It’s not a matter of holding your child’s hand especially tight when you’re shopping for futons; it’s a matter of having a family, being a member of a community, speaking the native language, having some resources. These are the facts, as described by the latest report on human trafficking from the U.S. government.

 

Worse: Focusing on unlikely dangers can make us careless about actual risk, either to our own kids or to others’. As the op-ed piece in the LA Times says the Ikea story

so misrepresents the dangers, warning signs and risks associated with sex trafficking that its readers and likers may now try to protect kids by watching for the wrong things in the wrong places. They may miss real sex trafficking as it happens; they may miss the opportunity to extend a lifeline to child who needs their help. What people don’t understand about sex trafficking can prove lethal to kids.

There’s another risk, too. Irrational fear is bad for us, directly, immediately. I know what irrational fear can do. At the height of the anthrax scare, when my husband travelled a lot and I was alone in our apartment with three very young children, I barely dared to venture into the fenced back yard. Shopping for groceries, going to the library, or stopping at McDonald’s for fries were all perilous nightmares.

I was so caught up in avoiding and outwitting irrational, unlikely dangers that I had no emotional energy left to tend to the actual, present needs of early childhood: the need for calm, the need for peace, the need for a little freedom, and the need to feel safe and secure, rather than embattled and in flight.

Fear distorts our reason. It leads us to make bad decisions, and it leads us to teach poor decision-making to the kids who see us constantly fearful and anxious. The day after the “We almost got sex trafficked in Ikea” story came out, a young mother of one confided to a group that she was rethinking having any more children. The world just seemed so dangerous to her, she couldn’t see how it was possible to keep a second child safe. It seemed that merely leaving the home all but guaranteed that something awful would happen. After all, it happened in Ikea! Or almost happened! Or, well, something almost happened . . .

Bad things do happen. Kids sometimes get kidnapped. Tree limbs fall on people’s heads. Sinkholes open up in the playground. Stray bullets make their way into the skulls of innocent people. Bad things do happen, even to the children of vigilant parents.

But when Jesus said, “Be not afraid,” it wasn’t because He simply wasn’t up to speed on all the dangers that the modern world can possibly present. It was because He knew that fear drives out reason, makes it harder to think, makes it harder to love. Fear makes it harder to live the lives we are given, driving us instead to scurry around in a shadowy world of horrible possibilities. Fear is a thief.

Sometimes, fear makes us cruel, leading us to blame others for their misfortunes because we believe that we, ourselves, are so wise, prudent, responsible (and preemptively fearful) that we are different, we will be safe, we can be in control.

But we are not in control. More fear will not make us more in control.

It is very hard. We are obligated to be careful and prudent with our children, to routinely reassess how we are caring for them, and to take legitimate threats seriously, because we love them and must care for them. And they are, by definition, vulnerable. That is just how it is. The responsibility can be terrifying, overwhelming, if we let fear take over.

But more fear is not the same as more love. Love illuminates; fear butts our reason. Love gives us courage to act when something is wrong; fear tells us that the world is full of nothing but wrongness. It doesn’t make us safer to be more fearful. It’s not harmless to pass along hysterical warnings “just in case.” It’s not harmless to endlessly ruminate over what might possibly happen if we’re not perfectly vigilant at all times. Irrational fear makes us less safe, not more. It makes us live less, not more.

***
Image: By Thomas.ZAPATA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Pro-life” Trump is engineering an American Kristallnacht

Here’s a ridiculous scenario: Imagine you drive a red car. One day, the mayor of your town says that, every week, he’s going to head over to the post office and pin up a list of people who have done bad things with red cars.

The list includes people who have bought red cars, people who have borrowed them, and people who have stolen red cars; and it includes everything from driving with a broken tail light to deliberately plowing through line of kindergarteners. The list doesn’t specify: It just has names of people driving red cars, and it says they’ve all done something bad.

This goes on week after week, and even though you’ve never so much as failed to use a turn signal, you start to notice that you’re getting dirty looks when you step out of your red car. You find yourself parking around the corner, just so no one realizes that you’re one of those “red car people.” Your neighbor sees you washing your car in the driveway and she makes a disgusted sound and loudly tells her kids, “Let’s go find some other friends to play with.” One morning, you wake up and discover that someone has slashed your tires and beat in your windshield, and “NO RED CARS HERE” is spray painted on your driveway.

You haven’t done anything. But you do drive a red car.

Stupid, right? That is a silly story. Let’s talk about something that hits a little closer to home with some of my readers:

At the peak of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, a priest friend — a holy, kind, exemplary man — told me that when he passed a woman and child on the sidewalk, the woman instinctively shoved herself between her child and him. She made a physical barrier to protect her kid, as if, just because he had a Roman collar on, he was going to lunge over and start groping her child.

How unfair! How grievously unfair, to behave as if every priest is probably a sexual predator, when in fact priests are no more likely than any other man to abuse children.

But at the same time, my priest friend couldn’t blame the woman. When it does happen, molestation of children is an unspeakable crime. And every day, week after week after week, the papers and the TV news carried stories of priests who did abuse children, or who were accused of abusing children, or who didn’t do enough to stop the abuse of children.

Or, maybe they actually did everything they possibly could to stop the abuse of the children, but still, ugh, they’re one of those priests . . . 

We all know what priests are like. We know, because we read it in the news.

Imagine being a priest in this climate. I heard priests debating with each other whether it was safe to go out wearing clerical garb. Why put a target on your back? Everyone you meet has been trained to look at you and think, “Sex crime! Sex crime!”

This is the power of the selectively chosen printed word. This is what can be achieved when you take a story that is true (some people in red cars do commit crimes; some priests do molest children) and play it over and over and over and over again, chanting in the ear of the reader: DANGER. DANGER. WARNING. WARNING. NO TIME TO THINK. ALERT. ALERT. PROTECT YOURSELF.

Protect yourself against what? Why, against people like that: people who commit crimes, people you can easily pick out on the street, because they’re illegal immigrant criminals. Well, they’re illegal immigrants. Well, they’re immigrants. Well, they have brown skin and an accent, and you know what people like that do.

We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).  The important thing is, we have to have constant reminders that there are people coming into our country and doing bad things! Never forget!  Immigrant and crime! They go together.

Never mind that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the constant reminder of facts without context to create an emotional response. It’s not rational. It doesn’t have to be. In fact it works better when it’s not rational (especially when you’ve been training the populace to believe that there is no such thing as objective truth, just facts and alternative facts).

There are already laws on the books about deporting illegal immigrants. There are already laws on the books about arresting and prosecuting criminals. There are already numerous public records of crimes committed in this country. We don’t have a secret court system. Just about every arrest is public record. There are already numerous aggregators of statistics to tell us who commits what kind of crime. Most Americans already agree that crime is bad, illegal activity is wrong, and criminals should be punished by the law.

These lists do not give us more information. They do not “better inform the public,” despite what Trump’s statement claims. All of the information in them is already public information.

There is only one reason to publish a list like this, and that is to whip up fear, suspicion, and outrage. To make people feel unsafe and angry. To constantly remind them (as Trump did in his inauguration speech) that we are drowning in crime, awash in violence, crumbling into ruin, teetering on the brink, losing ourselves in the darkness.

Things are terrible, terrible, terrible. And whose fault is it? Well, I happen to have a list. And I’ll be updating it every week, so you’ll know who to blame.

Now imagine that you are the one with dark skin and an accent. Imagine your kids have dark skin and accents. Maybe you’re legally here and maybe you’re not, but it’s very clear that you’re some kind of immigrant.

Remember: immigrant crime immigrant crime immigrant crime. That’s the important thing to remember. Your neighbors have been hearing it for months.

Imagine that you live in a country where, every single week, your president has been telling everyone that people with dark skins and accents are criminals. Imagine getting your kids ready to walk to school, and knowing that half their classmates have been reading these lists every week. Imagine leaving work at night and finding that a couple of guys have had a couple of beers and they’ve decided they’ve had enough of these fucking immigrants fucking up their country, and if the police won’t do anything about it, then they will.

Think it won’t happen? Why? Because fearful, angry people never lash out at the innocent?

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Because we’d never let things go that far?

Why not? If we’re not going to say “halt” now, then when?

This is classic scapegoating. It’s what fascists do to gain control. They tell the people, over and over and over again, “You’re not safe. You’re not safe. It’s the fault of THESE PEOPLE. I will protect you from THESE PEOPLE, and then you can be safe.” And then, while you’re thrilled to get his help and protection, you barely notice the other stuff he’s doing, stuff that directly contradicts the things you said you cared about ten minutes ago. Stuff like small government, religious freedom, freedom of the press, respect for the disabled, protection for the innocent and vulnerable.

My friends, I have always thought that Trump would be a bad and dangerous president, a vulgar and ridiculous man, but I thought the accusations of fascism were overblown. I thought it was hyperbole.

I don’t think so anymore. This is textbook behavior. This is how it always starts. This is how totalitarians persuade the population to give him everything he wants: By whipping up fear and anger, by pointing to a scapegoat, and then by offering to take care of that scapegoat for you.

Up until now, I’ve been angry at Trump. Last night, he broke my heart. I wept when I heard of his plans, and I wept harder when I saw some of my friends defending them. Not because I want to protect criminals, but because I want to protect my country. I love my country. This is not what I want for my country.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A good day to remember that everything Hitler did was with the consent of the people, whom he had primed to fear and hate certain groups of people. He started by posting lists of Jews who were accused of committing crimes. He started by reminding Germans of what a shambles their country was in, and then he told them, over and over and over again, whose fault it was.

And then they let him do whatever he wanted.

We have seen this before. We have seen this before. There is no Mexico City Policy, no phone call to the March for Life, no promise of new jobs that can justify the American Kristallnacht that our president is openly trying to engineer.

Resist. Even if you need a job. Even if you are pro-life. Even if your city is full of people who don’t speak English. Even if you think Hillary belongs in jail. Even if you voted for Trump. Resist this path we are on. Remember who you are, and resist.

***
EDIT Friday around 5:00 eastern: Thanks to a reader, I realized that I misread and mischaracterized Trump’s statement. It was an honest error, not a malicious one, but that’s no excuse. I have edited the post to make it more accurate.

The original passage, as far as I can reconstruct it, read:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish –‘lists of “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal) who have committed “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license).

The corrected passage now reads:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).

I apologize for the error. It does not change my argument in the slightest.
Kristallnacht image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-083-42 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Can we endure the light?

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There was a man who could read people’s souls, and he would sometimes deliver messages from God.

It sounds fishy, but if you saw his face, especially his eyes, you’d believe it. For some reason, he visited my house when I was a teenager. When I came in the room, his dark eyes pooled with pity, and he asked, “Is there anything you would like to ask?” There wasn’t. I was on an ugly, dire path, and I knew it, but I wasn’t ready to turn around yet. So I walked out of the room. Fled, really. I could see that he was very close to God, and I couldn’t stand being that close to him.

It is not enough, you see, to recognize the presence of God. You can identify holiness, but it won’t do you any good if you’ve been living in a way that doesn’t prepare you to endure it.

Herod, for instance, recognized the Christ. Or at least he was well-versed enough in scripture to know that something big was coming, something that could change the world. But when he found Him, his whole thought was to extinguish that light, because it was a threat. Not to be endured.

Herod was a brilliant, powerful, and exceptionally brutal tyrant, who protected his throne by killing everyone who might someday threaten it, including his wife, two of his sons, his wife’s grandfather, her brother, and her mother. You cannot live that way and then suddenly rejoice when your savior comes. You don’t want a savior, when you live that way. It’s not that you don’t recognize salvation; it’s that you hate it.

The magi, on the other hand, also found and identified the Child Jesus, and had (what an understatement!) a different response. Before they ever appeared in the Gospel, they had spent years studying scripture and anticipating the arrival of the Savior. But their studies clearly brought them beyond some academic knowledge of the coming king. Isaiah spoke of glory and brilliance, a “Hero God” — and yet when the magi found Him in Bethlehem, just another poor baby Jew, they still knew who He was — and they rejoiced, and adored, and gloried in His light.

It’s not enough to identify God when you find Him. It won’t do you any good unless you’ve been living in a way that makes you ready to want salvation.

Several years ago, I had a little glimpse of Jesus. He was in the form of another man, someone who served God with every moment of his life. When I walked into the room, he was on his knees on the floor, binding the ankle of a boy who had hurt his foot. The boy was not grateful, not at all. He sulked and pitied himself, but the man radiated love. His posture was a living expression of love. The room shone.

This time, when I saw holiness, I didn’t run away. I stayed and watched, because the light of charity that shone in that room had something to say to me: “Be like this.”

In the first reading at the Mass of the Epiphany, Isaiah says:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.

Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.

This is a light that may reveal all kinds of things. It’s not enough for those “nations” (and we are the nations) to recognize and identify God. It’s not enough to be able to realize what holiness is when we see it.

How are we preparing, before that light appears? The magi knew it was coming, and they prepared themselves to welcome and adore it. Herod knew it was coming, and he made plans to extinguish it. Herod acted like exactly like Herod when His savior appeared, and so will we act exactly like ourselves when we meet God.

Just being in His light will not be enough. If we live like Herod, we will respond to Him like Herod, with fear, with loathing. We will see the light, and we will want to put it out.

When the glory of the Lord comes to shine upon you, what will that light reveal?

***

Image: “Epiphany” by Gallardoblend via Deviantart
This essay was originally published on Aleteia in January of 2016.

Who’s your monster?

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What do we tell ourselves, when we see the zombies coming for us? That society has already collapsed, so there’s no sense in trying to go out and rebuild or save anyone. That the only sensible plan is to cut ourselves off, to build a ball, to hunker down, to dig in. They’re not real people anymore anyway, so let them tear each other apart. Save yourselves.

Tell me that doesn’t sound familiar. Tell me it doesn’t mean anything.

Read the rest at the Register.

Do Christians do good because they fear Hell?

satan drawing

Imagine that I go for a walk in the mountains. Halfway up, I come across a little unexpected stream, with bracing cold water that sparkles over the mossy stones. The sweet smell of the waving weeds intoxicates me, and for one giddy moment, the shadow of a falcon races over my path. There are berries and wildflowers, sweet breezes and a new kind of birdsong, something wild and delightful that I’ve never heard before.

So I tell everyone about it. Most people say, “How beautiful! I love the mountains, too.” But one guy sneers, “Yeahhh, I’d scuttle up there too, if I shared your primitive fear of carnivorous valley monsters.”

I go, “Huh?”

And another guy goes, “Why, I don’t blame you a bit. It’s probably emotionally healthy for someone with your neurotic anxiety over coronary disease to take an aerobic uphill hike.”

And I go, “Yeah, but—”

That’s kind of how I feel when I talk about being a Catholic, and two different types of atheists respond. When I posted about my little girl’s belief in God, the first type berated me for “[t]elling a 5-year-old they need to obey a magical ghost who lives in the clouds or else terrible things will happen to them.”

And I’m like, “Huh?”

And the second one is like the much more civil atheist, who said that he would have had a far less polite response to the first atheist, speaking “as someone who doesn’t worry about going to hell for doing whatever I feel like.”

And I go, “Yeah, but—”

These two atheists have something startling in common: They both assume that a major feature of Catholic life is a constant fear of Hell.

Now, I believe in Hell. And I do fear it. At least two of my daily prayers specifically ask God to preserve me from that fate. But does a fear of Hell motivate good behavior?

When someone is nasty to me, my first reaction is to respond in kind (and too often, I give in). My second reaction, though, is to say, “Wait, wait, wait. Can I do a little better?” And why would I do that?

If you can stand another analogy, imagine that I’m sitting at a table with a beloved friend and mentor—someone who has always been kind and patient with me, and who is always secretly fixing things up to make my life better.  Today he has prepared a delicious meal, with all my favorites: five courses, perfectly matched wines, everything fresh and prepared with love and skill.

So I’m enjoying this meal tremendously, talking, laughing, having a wonderful time. Suddenly my host looks out the window and says, “Oh look, it’s that guy who commented on your post! Why don’t you wrap up one of these extra rolls and toss it to him?”

And I say, “NO!!! No, no, NO! It’s mine, all mine! I’m too tired! He’s a jerk! Why should I! Nobody cares about me! I can’t spare it anyway! I can’t believe you expect me to do that! Wahhhhhhhh!” and I fall to the floor, pulling the tablecloth with me, and lie there in a puddle of spilled gravy and broken glass.

Or, I could say, “Ehh, it’s just a roll, and I have this huge feast. Okay, buddy—my host seems to see something in you that I don’t. So here you go.” And I do it because I love my host. Am I afraid that he might cut me out of his will if I don’t share the roll? Maybe—but in practice, the relationship just isn’t like that. I worry less about his wrath than I do about my own foolishness: When I behave badly, it’s because I’m not thinking of him or his generosity at all.

Most of the time, when God asks us to do something good—to do something better than our original impulse—we do it not out of fear of punishment, but because we recognize that God is so good to us, so generous. And most of the time, all he asks us to do is to toss the other guy a roll. It’s not fear that motivates good behavior. It’s because we realize that God has given us a tremendous amount of love, and the least we can do is to pass it on from time to time.

Is the fear of Hell a useful way to control my sinfulness? Sometimes. But most often, if I commit a mortal sin, it’s when my heart is halfway in Hell anyway—so the fear of going there is not much of a deterrent. I behave much better when, rather than trying to avoid Hell, I’m trying to act more like I’m already in Heaven. I’m much more likely to share the wealth if I take a minute to look around and realize what a feast I have in front of me.

So yes, I fear Hell. No, fear of Hell doesn’t usually do much to change my behavior. Believe it or not, atheists, but that’s how it goes!

***

***

This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.

Why I don’t say “I’m so blessed.”

The other day, a woman lashed out at me for announcing my latest pregnancy online. This particular woman’s stock in trade is lashing out; and since I’m pretty sure I don’t (as she accused me of doing) parade my perfect children around like perfect trophies to prove that I’m a perfect Catholic mom, I didn’t give her anger much thought. Just another angry person on the internet.

Later, out of curiosity, I read more of her comments. And then my heart broke.

It was a lot of what I expected: You Catholic moms think you’re so great! You think I’m bitter, but I’m not! Who cares what you do with your stupid perfect lives! You think you’re happy, but you’re not!

You think that just because I don’t have any kids, God doesn’t love me!

Oh.

It was as transparent as a child who howls and screams that he is not tired, not tired at all. Only no one was going to come to this woman, pick her up, soothe her, and put her to bed. No one was going to say, “It’s all right, sweet one. I hear what you’re saying. Let me help you and give you what you need, so you will feel better.” She thinks that God doesn’t love her, because He didn’t give her any children.

It’s not true.  God loves you. But I don’t know how, just like I don’t know how or why or how much He loves me. He makes rain fall on the wicked and the just, and woe to the just who think that they deserve the rain.

This is not easy. When we love somebody and want to show them our love, we give them things – do nice things for them – make them feel our love in the way we know best. If I spent four months hunting for the perfect present for my husband, and he acted like it just randomly fell out of the sky because he’s a lucky fellow, I would be annoyed. No! I would think. I gave you that on purpose, to prove that I love you! This is personal!

And it is personal when God gives us good things.  But it’s not proof of His love, exactly. It’s not that simple. Yes, everything that is good comes from God, and He deserves our thanks and praise for the things He give us. But the problem comes when we look at His gifts and draw conclusions about ourselves.

This is why I rarely say, “God has blessed us” when I mean, “We have good things” — whether it’s things like the sunny little house where we live, or a car that keeps running one more year, or a happy weekend, or a living, breathing baby (or ten). I say, instead, “We’re so lucky.”

I mean that the good things that come to us are only the hem of the mystery of God’s goodness. They are only a rumblings in the outskirts of the real workings of the economy of grace. It is a very good thing to be grateful and to praise God for the things we receive. It is a monstrously bad thing to conclude that we got them as a reward for good behavior. And all too often, at least in the 21st century of the United States, that is how we use the word “blessing.”

Witness the blaspheming Osteens telling us,

To experience [God’s] immeasurable favor, you must rid yourself of that small-minded thinking and start expecting God’s blessings, start anticipating promotion and supernatural increase. You must conceive it in your heart before you can receive it. In other words, you must make increase in your own thinking, then God will bring those things to pass.

Tit for heavenly tat, in other words. Well, Jesus wasn’t small minded. Jesus’ Father loved Him, and look at Him. Look at Him:

PIC Grunewald cruxifix

 

 

This is why I do not say that I am blessed, even though I know that this is the word that is technically, theologically sound. I think it means something different to modern ears. I am afraid that it says something so loathsome that I don’t want to risk it.

If my happiness is a sign that God has blessed me, what does that equation say to people who aren’t experiencing “promotion and supernatural increase”? To the people whose house is washed away, whose husband is shot down, whose womb is barren? It says what my reader said, without knowing she was saying it:

God does not love me.

So I don’t say that I am blessed. Instead, I say that I am lucky to have all that I have, because it is closer to something that I cannot express:  in my best hours, my witless bafflement in the face of God’s mercy to me and my family. I am lucky, not because my good fortune has no meaning or no purpose or no design, but because I do not know why it happens. It happens because God loves me in this way at this time, when I am just and when I am unjust. I do not know why.

Why do I have, and why does she not have? I don’t know. It is easy for me to see that God loves me, because I am simple: I see that He has given me many things, and to my childish soul, that spells love. When I pray for other people, I often ask that He will bless them in obvious ways, that He will make it as clear as possible that they are loved. I suppose this shows some arrogance, telling God how to do His job. But really it’s fear.  I am afraid to learn more about the other kind of love.

We Should Be Afraid

“Be not afraid,” says the angel. Be not afraid, and entrust your life to Christ, who wants only good for you.

All right, but what about when someone else’s life is entrusted to us? What about when we have the power over someone else’s life — the power to alter it forever, even the power to end it?  Remember what happened to Uzzah, who saw the Ark of the Covenant wobbling, and without even thinking, he stepped forward and grabbed hold of the thing. “And The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; and he died there beside the ark of God.”

Fear of the Lord means that at very least we should hesitate. Sometimes we should not be comfortable and confident. I wrote the post below for Crisis magazine in December of 2008. It’s relevant again, and over and over again, when we bluster and grandstand about executing criminals, waterboarding terrorists, or any time we hold power over the life of another human being. Human life is where God resides in this world. When we stretch out our hands to take hold of it, we should be afraid.

_____

A New Hampshire jury must decide
 whether to sentence Michael Addison, a convicted cop killer, to execution.
He is a terrible man who bragged about his plans to shoot a cop, if he needed to, while committing his many crimes. His defense team is concentrating on his unhappy childhood. The picture that emerges is of a self-serving jerk who grew up to be cold and evil, and he isn’t sorry now.
My husband argues that the Church’s teaching on the death penalty — that it must be reserved for cases in which it is necessary to protect the community — can apply in cases like this: If people who shoot policemen are not executed, then we are tolerating the murder of policemen, an intolerable crime. The safety of the community depends on criminals’ knowing that they will not get away with killing a cop.
I don’t know if he’s right or not. It may be so. Either way, the problem terrifies me.
Many years ago — when I was a new mother, the world was black and white, and the subtleties of Dr. Laura Schlessinger guided my thinking more than any other intellect — we had an upstairs neighbor who was a drug addict.
She was a mess. She was clearly high most of the time. Her hair was chopped and frazzled, her skin and mouth were a wasteland, and she could hardly string two sentences together. She stumbled up and down the stairs past my door, not knowing if it were day, night, or the end of the world.
The only thing she could communicate clearly was that she had just had a baby girl, and she was always looking for a ride to go visit her tiny little one at the hospital. The baby was, of course, sick. She was very premature, probably suffering from withdrawal from the moment of birth.
Miraculously, the child survived, and her terrible mother became almost radiant as she reported the baby’s progress to me. Soon the baby would be able to leave the hospital, she told me — but I didn’t believe her.
Then the day came. The baby was strong enough to be discharged. My neighbor fell into my apartment, half-undressed, sobbing with a terrible sound. “They’re going to take my baby away from me!” she cried. “They’re taking her away!”
Well, of course they were. I couldn’t believe that she didn’t know it would happen. This woman didn’t even know whether she was wearing clothes or not, and she expected the nurses to release a fragile, sick preemie into her care.
It was terrifying. It was absolutely necessary that this thing be done — that the baby be taken away from her mother. The mother clearly deserved it, and the poor baby deserved it, too. But it was the worst thing in the world. You should have heard that mother cry.
Here is another short story: My grandmother died last month. She was 89 years old, and she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 19 years ago. It was like watching a sand house torn away by the tide. She just dissolved.
She had been a rock-hard, funny, sarcastic, boundlessly generous visiting nurse, and now she was a quivering collection of wasted limbs and a ghastly vacancy where her mind used to be. Everyone suffered. She did; her husband did, before he died; and my mother, who cared for her for years, suffered very much in many different ways, and it went on and on and on.
When my grandmother died, it was a relief for everyone. We were so glad for her release from the dark and fearful cell her mind had become. My sister said that she felt that Nana had been out of touch with us for so many years, but now that she was dead, she had been given back to us. We could talk to her again.
At the funeral Mass, it wasn’t hard to stand there and remember these things — her baptism, the Last Rites, the tender mercy of God. The Resurrection.
It was only at the end, when the undertakers braced their hands against the smudgy shroud that covered her coffin and began to heave this burden down the aisle of the church, that it became a terrible thing. She was leaving.
As a Catholic, I know what happens after death. And yet I do not know. They began to sing that drippy hymn “Be Not Afraid,” and suddenly I was afraid. It was right that I should be.
All we really know is separation. We try and hope, but what do we know? We do the best we can to deal with the enormous, shattering burdens of life. But we should be afraid. There is much to hope for, and we trust God. But in the moment, unless we are already dead ourselves, there is much to fear.
So now the jury must decide if this terrible man, this unrepentant murderer Michael Addison, should be killed. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. Maybe no one will even miss him. He deserves it. It’s the way life goes, and sometimes these terrible things need to be done.
But I hope that, when we do it, we are afraid.