Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Comparisons = Trouble

If you’re a Bluffton Packet alert reader and caught last weeks “Pastor’s Corner”, you already know about my unpleasant encounter with the Georgia Highway Patrol that resulted in a “fast driving award” Thanksgiving weekend. I conceded that while no one likes to get a speeding ticket, the State Trooper had a point and the consequences for my dangerous behavior would help me to be safer in the future. It reminded me that as Christmas approaches, it’s good for us to take stock of our lives and see where we need to grow more. It’s not about a guilt trip, it’s about preparing our souls for heaven since much like speeding endangers our lives, sin endangers our souls.

A big mistake we make as we examine our lives is to simply compare ourselves to others. The teens in my youth group do this often. I hear, “Miss Alison, I’m in good shape. I go to church way more than my friends do and I’m like, a lot nicer than them too”. We all do this. How many people out there are patting themselves on the back saying, “I’m not trying too hard to be a good husband or wife, but at least I can beat Tiger Woods at something!” (Not to hate on Tiger, he’s just an easy example right now). There’s a plethora of celebrities and friends that if we were to look to them and compare our lives, we think we’re a-ok.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes from the perspective of a Demon teaching how to ensnare souls and drag them to hell. He reminds his charge to “work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman” when he compares himself to others and finds them less than perfect. Anyone who’s gone to Church has at one point or another looked at the way others are living and decided that compared to them, they’re saints, so the can rest easy for a while. This is dangerous because our goal isn’t to be better than everyone else, our goal is to be like Christ.

Allow me to provide an example. This morning, while the ink was still drying on the paper that told of the lessons I had learned, I approached the Cross Island Parkway in a cluster of about a dozen other cars, all going the same speed. It was a leisurely morning, I wasn’t running late, had been able to consume two cups of coffee and unlike the day before, no one cut me off pulling out from Point Comfort Road so I wasn’t tempted to careen past anyone to prove a point (that was Monday. And my apologies to the driver of the Navy Lexus, you just caught me at a bad time). Like I said, I wasn’t driving any differently from anyone else and I assumed we were all good.

You can imagine my surprise when I once again saw the blue lights flashing in my rearview. I figured the good officer was rushing to catch someone who, like me a few weeks ago, had been endangering the lives of others with reckless driving. I pulled over, pitying the fool that would undergo the same fate I had. But wait, what’s this? He was getting out! I wracked my brain, thinking that maybe my taillight was out or my tags had expired? Surely, it couldn’t be… “Ma’m, do you know why I pulled you over?” I had a sinking feeling it wasn’t because I was having a good hair day. “No…?” I smiled. “Ma’m, I clocked you at….” Well, I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. Let’s just say it was déjà vu all over again.

The error of my ways was my assumption that everyone around me was going the speed limit. We all know that’s the danger of speed traps-- you get caught up in the flow of traffic. Slowing down would be inconvenient. Everyone else is doing it, how bad can it be? We just don’t notice how fast we’re going.

I have a very real fear that frogs will eat me, so I’ve never tested this, but I’ve been told that if you place a frog in boiling water, it will jump right out. However, if you place a frog in regular water and then gradually turn up the temperature the frog will die before it realizes it’s boiling to death. Sin is like that. No one wakes up in the morning and plans to disobey God, just like I don’t wake up in the morning planning to rack up speeding tickets. But we get caught up in the flow of the day and before we know it we’re gossiping, lying, cheating or maybe driving to fast because we’re just not paying attention.

The Gospel of Mark warns us that we need to always be ready for Christ’s return. “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:36-37). As we examine our lives in preparation for when we will meet Christ face to face, we need to remember that “everyone else was doing it” is not a valid. This Christmas, remember that God has gave us the perfect model to follow when he condescended to come to earth as a baby in Bethlehem. Pay attention to what matters.

Speeding, Glee and Georgia

I’ve given my friends and family strict instructions: if I ever say, “oh yeah, I’ll drive to Atlanta for Thanksgiving and then just drive home the Sunday afterwards”, they’re to hit me. Hard. And take away my car keys.

Most of my college friends have ended up in Atlanta since the high concentration of Catholic High Schools there affords more opportunities for us Theology Majors to be employed as professional Catholics. This thanksgiving we gathered to catch up, eat, and engage in the perpetual pastime of girls in their 20’s—try on bridesmaid dresses. But that’s another story.

It was all fun and games until I hit the road at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, naively thinking I had left plenty of time to get back to Hilton Head for a 4:00 p.m. commitment. Maybe I would’ve, if I had opted to walk ride a vespa. However, 2:00 p.m. came and I had crawled about 30 miles in 2 hours. Epic Fail. I finally exited I-75 and may have gotten carried away singing along to my ”Glee” soundtrack as I was finally able to accelerate to the speed limit allowed… and some. My little Honda Civic bounded over a hill and right into the path of two state troopers, radar guns aimed and engines revved. It was a classic, “oh, fudge” moment. They both pulled out onto the road and proceeded to pull over me and another car.

I really am quite good at following rules. As a professional Catholic, I wear my seatbelt, stop at stop signs and even went back to the Hilton Head Airport to pay my parking fees in cash when the attendant was off duty and the “honor system” bucket didn’t allow me to use a credit card. However, I do sometimes drive a little fast. When I have kids in the car I’m overly cautious-- the phone goes unanswered, I stop at yellow lights, only make protected left-hand turns and drive 3.5 miles under the speed limit. However, when I drive alone I will use the time to apply lip gloss, text at red lights and crochet. (Ok, maybe just the first two.) I will also sometimes lose track of the speed limit and drive a bit fast. So, when those blue lights flashed in my rearview I knew that while this was not a happy moment, it was one that was a long time coming.

The state trooper was quite nice, I feel as though if we had met under other circumstances we would’ve had a lovely chat. He explained, apologetically, that he was out there to keep the crowded roads safe and my careening around several miles over the speed limit was problematic. I really couldn’t offer any excuses besides, “Sir, I’ve just been in a lot of traffic. I got impatient and carried away by the emotion of Glee’s rendition of ‘Defying Gravity’. I was going too fast. I’m sorry”. And, now, Bryan County will be richer thanks to my carelessness.

I’m still thoroughly annoyed, but my mother hopes that this officer gave me a necessary wake-up call that I was putting myself and others in danger. She’s definitely right in that way that mothers tend to be. Just yesterday I caught myself slowing down on the cross island as I remembered that I could not afford to make any more donations to the State Patrol. Being chastised caused me to regulate dangerous behavior.

I once spoke with a woman who, when she found out I was a youth minister, said, “Oh, Religion. It just makes people feel so guilty”. My response to her was, “Well, sometimes people need to feel guilty”. To clarify, I wasn’t speaking in judgment of her alone, but of humanity as a whole. In the Gospel of Mark, Christ says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17). God became man so that we could have a perfect example of how to live. The Ten Commandments (the law) are a list of what we should not do, and in Christ we have the fulfillment of this law—a model of how to both avoid evil and do good. When we break the Ten Commandments and do things like lie, steal and cheat, we hurt others and put our souls in danger.

As unpleasant as a speeding ticket is, the state trooper had every right to point out I was breaking the law because I was putting myself and others in danger. In pointing out that I had done wrong (and giving me unpleasant consequences), it’s helping me change for the better. As Christmas approaches and we reflect on the coming of Christ, it would serve us and our communities if we allowed ourselves to be brutally honest with ourselves and look at what parts of our lives are in need of change. Reading the Bible, attending Church and allowing ourselves to be challenged by others shouldn’t be seen as a guilt trip but a chance to prepare our souls for heaven.

A Comittment of Your Lives

A few months ago a friend of mine asked if I could help chaperone his youth group at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC). He had five girls going and needed a female adult to tag along and deal with feminine mysteries like chocolate cravings and crying for no reason. Luckily for him, I said “yes” and gave him my name for plane tickets before realizing that it put me out of town for the midnight showing of the new Twilight movie. This caused an existential crisis-- which comes first, God or fictional vampire heartthrobs?

God won, which is how I found myself in a crowd of 21,000 of Team Catholic’s high school and college aged members this past weekend. As we like to say, “there ain’t no party like a Catholic party cause a Catholic party don’t stop”, and NCYC was no exception. As our group of about sixty from South Carolina joined thousands of others to enter the Sprint Center in Kansas City for the first night, beachballs were tossed from Californians, glowsticks were waved by New Yorkers and beads were thrown by the crowd from New Orleans. Kids were chugging red bull, facebooking pictures and chanting the Jesus Camp traditional, “we love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how ‘bout you?” while adding a Catholic spin of, “hold up, wait a minute, put a little Mary in it”.

It was, honestly, one of the craziest crowds I’ve been in. And I’ve seen Dave Matthews at an outdoor venue where bags were not checked thoroughly, if you know what I mean.

What was different about this crowd is that these kiddos were out-of-their minds excited to be with other Catholic teens, worshiping God together. For teens in South Carolina which boasts a population that is a whopping 4.37 3% Catholic, it was an incredible opportunity to see just how many share their beliefs. And, for some, learn how to use a crosswalk in a city for the first time… but that’s another story. For kids that often feel very alone in their faith, it was a reminder that they are part of a universal Church.

In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II spoke of the Church and youth, saying, “Jesus wants to enter into dialogue with them and, through his body which is the Church, to propose the possibility of a choice which will require a commitment of their lives… the Church must become today the traveling companion of young people”. I’m not naive enough to think that just because these kids all showed up for a conference, they’re going to be perfect Christians. However, seeing these teens reminded me how much they’re thirsting for a chance to make the “commitment of their lives” that Pope John Paul II described.

The climax of this was a holy hour and procession held the next morning. Catholics believe that Jesus is present body, blood, soul and divinity in the communion we receive at Mass (we don’t mess around when we read John 6:56, but again, that’s a lesson for another column). Therefore, when we worship we often take time to reflect on this and be in this very real presence of God. When this time of worship began, 21,000 teens simultaneously dropped to their knees (which is not as easy as it sounds in stadium style-seating) and total silent adoration ensued. The teens I was with shared that they left that time feeling touched by God and challenged to take their faith more seriously.

The rest of the weekend included more time of prayer and worship as well as talks on improving ones relationship with God, service to others and making moral choices. Amidst all the craziness that ensues when that many teens gather, the overall message was a challenge to recognize that Christ reigns in their lives, and sometimes that means making decisions that are not easy or popular. And, while it’s always cool to be in a crowd of 21,000 that share your beliefs, it’s what you do when you’re alone or surrounded by those who don’t share your faith and only God is watching that really matters.

When Christ encountered the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) he walked with them, listened and then explained the scriptures to them. They were overjoyed at this encounter and ran to Jerusalem, explaining that Christ “was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). Just like the teens at NCYC, we all need the opportunity to encounter Christ, to be given the opportunity to commit our lives to the one who is greater than ourselves. This commitment won’t solve all your problems, but it does give you a companion in Christ and the Church.

Mirror, Mirror

A few weeks ago I had a chance to visit with a priest I had become friends with while I was in Belize as a missionary. (In light of the last column I about the poker playing priest, I feel compelled to say that I have many friends who are not priests, but this is the Pastor’s Corner and not being a pastor myself, I feel like I have to throw in some anecdotes to keep the status quo.) Father Mark was in Florida to raise some funds for the missions. I met up with him in Jacksonville before he flew back to Central America. I wanted to go to confession before he left, so at the airport he checked in his bags and then we looked for a good place for me to spill my sins to God through one of His human representatives (questions about confession? Another article for another week).

Although many people pray in an airport it’s not easy to find a good place to pray out loud without seeming weird, so after vetoing Starbucks and those little shoe-shine stands, a security guard asked us if we were looking for a chapel. Maybe Father Mark’s collar gave it away, I don’t know. The guard pointed us to the “meditation room” which had a little praying stick figure on the sign outside. So far so good. We walked in and saw some chairs, a few bibles and in the center of the room was a sort of altar. It seemed normal enough, with flowers and a cloth but where there would normally be a cross instead there was a mirror. As someone used to saying mass at an altar with a cross above it, Father Mark looked at the set-up and said, “wow… God is… my image?”

Indeed. Such a large mirror made for a great place to check your hair, but as far as “meditation”, looking at ones reflection did not seem like the best way to ascend to union with the Divine. I’m not criticizing Jacksonville International Airport—(please take no offense since you already seem to have it in for me, making me throw away my hair product bottles that exceed carry-on regulations) – The “meditation room” was probably just something to do with the an old smoker’s lounge. The mirror just gave me a lot to think about.

When we pray, we are first striving for union with God but we also are seeking to know ourselves better. Sometimes looking at ourselves is not the best way to do this. I know that when I’m having a really good hair day, I don’t even notice if my socks don’t match til my friend is laughing at me (I wish I was pulling this example out of the air, but it’s happened). We can be so taken with how great we appear in some ways we don’t notice our faults. This can happen in the opposite way too—we get overwhelmed by our faults and can’t see what we do well -- but this seems less frequent in our self-esteem generation. In prayer, we need to see ourselves as we as God sees us. He doesn’t want us to leave Church with warm fuzzies if there’s things that we really need to change. In other words, he wants you to know if your socks don’t match.

St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic, warned against “imaginary virtue” explaining “the wiles of the devil are terrible; he will run a thousand times round hell if by doing so he can make us believe we have a single virtue which we have not”. We need to constantly examine our lives and especially our actions to see what virtues we lack and where we need to practice and improve. Now, let me clarify that I’m not advocating guilt—just an honest examination of how God is calling us to grow. This comes from looking not at a mirror but at Christ himself. St. Paul had caught on to this when he wrote to the Romans, saying, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death? God, thanks be to Him, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:24-25).

Next time you think a mirror tells it all, look instead at Christ on the cross. Pull up “Passion of the Christ” on Google images and just stare at what the love of God looks like. He denied us nothing-- not even his only Son. Hebrews 12:4 reminds us, “in your struggle with sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”. Don’t compare yourself with who you were a few years ago before you started your awesome bible study or with your neighbor who sleeps in instead of Church two out of four Sunday mornings. Look only to Christ’s example, rejoice in how He’s helped and continue to model your life after Him.

The Poker Playing Priest

Ok. I have to brag. The “Poker playing priest” is a friend of mine. Seriously. He actually taught me how to play Texas Hold’em. What? You haven’t heard? Well, crawl out from under the rock and allow me to fill you in. A few weeks ago I got a call from Fr. Andrew Trapp, a priest who was ordained (made a priest) two years ago and spent his first year in ministry at St. Gregory the Great, here in Bluffton. When Team Catholic’s priests and youth ministers were not out leading young people on mission trips, retreats and lock-ins we’d sometimes gather and play poker (we didn’t have money, but we’d wager things like, “winner gets a free pass at nap time on the next mission trip”). Fr. Andrew’s a meticulous poker player. Before, when I’d occasionally play with friends I’d fake it by just looking for matching colors and shapes in my hand. However, Fr. Andrew would have none of that, he insisted on making sure we understood the lingo and now I know a full house beats a straight.

I digress. So Fr. Andrew has since been moved to a parish in Myrtle Beach that is attempting to raise funds for a new building. Father called and explained that he had figured out a way to aid in the fundraising and proceeded to explain the elaborate process of qualifying for the Pokerstars.Net Million Dollar Challenge reality show. He had to finish in the top ten in an on-line tournament that 10,000 participate in. If by some chance you do that, you can post a youtube audition video and if they like it they’ll interview you and maybe pick you to be on the show for a chance to play in several rounds against various celebrities and pros. If you win that you win a spot at a table to play for a million dollars.

I was half-listening when he finished with, “and last night I finished fifth in the on-line tournament”. “What?!” I was not expecting him to have already finished baby step number one to a million dollars. To make a long story short, with the permission of the Bishop, he made a youtube video that had just the right combination of paintball and poker to pique the interest of the directors and after winning on the first show, the building fund is 100,000 dollars richer. (To see highlights from this epic journey, youtube “poker playing priest”). He returns to the show in December for a chance to win a million dollars.

What I find so cool about this story, besides a friend being on T.V., is how Father Andrew has shown that Christians—even spiritual leaders—are not confined to reading the Bible and praying all day. In fact, much can be accomplished when Christians seek to engage the world where the world least expects it. Father Andrew clearly explained on his website ( that he did not have to spend any money to win, nor did he use his church’s time (like other workers, priests get a certain amount of time off each year). What he also shared is that he had many interesting conversations with the cast and crew of the show. His goal was first to represent the priesthood well and then, hopefully, win some cash.

I see this as such a great example of “what would Jesus do?”. Looking at the life of Christ, he did not just hang out in the religious spots. He also hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes—he didn’t just chat with them on the street, he partied with them at their homes. While we have to share the Gospel in ways that we’re comfortable, we should be constantly evaluating our skills and talents to see what new places Christ is calling us to go. We can be quick to think that certain people or places are beyond the need for Christ— we think He came for our Sunday School class, but not those we play bunko or golf with. The reality is that we need to take the Gospel outside of Sundays and look for ways to bring Christ to the world… where they least expect it.

The Sea Turtle Massacre of '09

Heading home on the Cross Island Expressway was a breathtaking sight last night. It was one of those perfect nights when the road is empty and you can really appreciate the moon and its reflection on the water. Seeing the light shimmer off the Broad Creek I thought to myself, “I’m so glad to see an almost-full moon, knowing it lessens the likelihood of sea-turtle hatchlings dying as a result of attempts at romantic ambiance on the beach”. Yes. That’s seriously what I thought. After the community of Hilton Head watched in horror as dozens of sea turtles scrambled to their accidental death a few weeks ago, we’ve all probably come to a greater appreciation of how important the moonlight is.

In case you Bluffton folks missed the latest island news, a marriage proposal took a tragic turn when luminaries arranged to form a heart on the beach were left lit overnight. Dozens of baby sea turtles emerged from their nest and instinctively started scrambling in the direction of the light which they assumed to be reflecting off the water but were actually only candles stuck in the sand. None of them made it to the ocean and they died from exhaustion or at the hands—erm, claws—of snow crabs who emerged the clear winners in this story.

Regardless of how you feel about sea turtles, snow crabs, or any other aspect of the circle of life, one can imagine how pathetic it would have looked to see all those turtles scurrying away from the ocean. From our vantage, it’s obvious which is the moon and which is a paper bag, but from the turtle’s perspective it probably wasn’t so easy to tell the difference. Especially with all your newly hatched brothers and sisters also confused, it must have been easy to just go with the flow. The image got me thinking about how we often allow ourselves to be distracted in life.

The first commandment God gives the Israelites when He makes them His people is, “I the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other Gods besides me” (Exodus 20:1-2). Throughout the Old Testament, people stray from God and worship everything from power to money to a golden calf. They fear that God isn’t who He promised, and their neighbors seem to be better off from burning inscence before a pile of gold.

We can look at the Israelites and roll our eyes, wondering how dumb can you be to put your faith in a golden cow. I mean, it makes for a nice Sunday school coloring page but that doesn’t really apply to us in the present. We’re very enlightened; we know who we are and where we are headed. Or do we?

I think that to God, sometimes we look a lot like those baby turtles. God creates each one of us to be with Him forever in heaven. This world is not our home. Sooner or later we’re going to die and depending on the choices we’ve made, our soul will spend eternity in heaven or hell. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:13-15).

Just like the turtles mistook the lanterns for the moon, lost track of the ocean and died following the wrong path, we can become entranced by idols in our lives and stray form our path to heaven. And it’s not always the obvious golden calf. We can get distracted by subtle things. What starts as skipping Church one Sunday for little league turns into skipping for a month cause we’re just too tired to get everyone together in the morning which turns into only going on Christmas and Easter... which turns into finding God in “nature” and wondering why our kids have taken up shaking tambourines in togas at the airport.

Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but it’s true that once we allow our focus to stray from God, we risk never finding our way back. There are many things that compete to be gods in our lives, many things that are good and seem deserving of our attention. But we need to remember that ultimately, there is only one road that leads to heaven and one God to be followed.