Friday, November 30, 2012

Dear Abba, Part II

I had to laugh last evening when I opened my email and found another "Dear Abba" letter, this time from a parent. Without posting her original note, let me give you the substance:
My son's grades have dropped a lot this year and he's always really grouchy in the morning. I don't think he's sleeping at night. Do you think this is just a phase he is going through? Do you think he could be depressed? 
I happened to be at my desk when the email popped up, so I shot back a \ short response:
Have there been changes to his routine? 
Her reply:
We bought him his own computer that he keeps in his room. But we told him that he's not allowed to use it past 10:00 pm. 
Well, let me take a crazy guess: I doubt the kid is suffering from depression. If the first two years of high school found him well-rested and getting his homework and studying done and then, with the introduction of the computer into his room, the grades drop and he's nearly narcoleptic at the table, there seems to be an easy explanation.

Just as I would never put a flowing keg in the middle of an alcoholic's house, I would never put a computer (or a smart phone) in a student's bedroom. Why? Well, they're an enormous distraction: texting, facebook, shopping, searching and, let's be blunt, the unending supply of pornography all are but keystrokes away. Three years of teaching high school boys and listening to them talk: the computer is a never-ending source of temptation. 

Let's just take the cell phone. When we send a text, we expect a response. So if your teen shoots off a text to a friend, it stands to reason that there's an expectation for a response. Well, this can go on ad infinitum, resulting in a loss of attention at tasks at hand: how can you focus on writing a sentence when you are expecting the imminent arrival of a new message? Likewise, for instance, Facebook -- when I had a Facebook account for the Student Senate page, it was not uncommon for me to log in to check messages late at night and find many students still posting at 1:00 or 2:00 am.

At the risk of being totally old-fashioned, I'm a firm believer that young students (below Junior year, at least) do not need computers in their rooms. Heck, I'd suggest having students do their homework at the kitchen table in relative quiet and free of distractions - I'll guarantee that bereft of iTunes, iPhone, iPod, radio, Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Tumblr, Texting, etc., that your student will get his or her homework done both faster and better. In addition, you'll actually see your kids rather than wondering - and wondering rightly - what they're doing in their rooms. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

We'll Get What We Are

This morning I finished reading what may be one of the more important books I've ever read. Co-authored by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers  is a work of sociology intending to understand better, as the title suggests, the spiritual lives of adolescents. Before I continue, let me say simply this: if you are a parent, or someone who works with teenagers, you must buy this book. My only regret about reading this book is that I didn't read it before I started teaching high school.

Let me give a quick layout of the book:
  • Chapter 1 uses the stories of two Baptist teens to establish some of the book's main themes: American teens are religiously complicated; for many teens, religion and spirituality are very important in their lives; few teens are engaged in what many of us believe about them, namely, that they are "spiritual but not religious" or "spiritually seeking"'; American teenagers are typically extraordinarily inarticulate about expressing central tenets of their faith traditions; religion competes for teenagers' time; parents play an enormous role in their spiritual formation; religious involved teens exhibit "more positive outcomes" in life. 
  • Chapter 2 gives the "Big Picture" assessment through the statistical data gleaned from over 2,000 interviews. 
  • Chapter 3 begins to frame the data in chapter 2 by looking at three categories of adolescents: "spiritual seekers", "spiritually disengaged", and "religious devoted."
  • Chapter 4 suggests that American teenagers are influenced by the prevailing religious sentiment of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." (More Below)
  • Chapter 5 May be the best thing I've ever read on framing the cultural context in which teens are raised. It considers the social forces vying for teenagers' time and explores the enormous pressure exerted upon teens by cultural forces that we, as adults, are responsible for. 
  • Chapter 6 considers three teenage Catholics in an effort to understand why Catholic teens are so inarticulate about their faith.
  • Chapter 7 looks at how religious involvement has salutary effects on adolescents' lives. 
I want to make three point about the book. Again, I strongly urge readers to acquire this book. It's not Moses coming down from the mountain, but it's pretty close. 

Point 1: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

The authors, after an extensive program of interviewing adolescents, found that beneath religious denominations there is what we might consider a "religion within religion" that joins teenage religion: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The traits, as defined by the authors:
  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die. 
It's not as if this were a recited creed; rather, it's sort of a shared religious sentiment that cuts across denominational boundaries. Each of these points could be developed. For instance, point #2 might be expanded to consider what 'nice' and 'good' mean in our culture, which in the USA tends to mean "don't judge other people." This attitude, in turn, leads toward a fairly profound moral relativism and a reluctance on the part of many teenagers to take firm stances on moral issues. 

Point 2: We'll Get What We Are

One of the great canards operative in our culture is that teenagers are essentially mysterious and strange.  Based on their research, the authors suggest that the primary influence in teenage religious growth and development comes from their parents. If parents take their religious life and spiritual development seriously, there is a strong likelihood that their kids will as well. As Chapter 1 points out, adolescents are not per se hostile to religion. But if parents demonstrate a reluctance to practice what they preach, is there any wonder why the kids seem disengaged? 

The Chapter 5 lays out some of the key issues at play in our culture today. It'd be nearly impossible to rehearse the main lines of the chapter in a short space, but the influence of Mass-Consumer Capitalism does deserve quick mention. The culture of mass-consumer capitalism understands humans as "individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumers." So understood, the purpose of a person's life becomes satisfying one's own needs and desires, taking care of the self, putting "I" before "we." 

Teenagers are not a foreign species. I have had many wonderful conversations with young people over the years and I've never thought them to be aliens! Parents and other adult influences, however, must feel empowered to engage them in a meaningful way and to socialize them. Too often, I fear, parents cede authority to our consumer-culture and let the market, rather than the mother and father, rear the children. 

I didn't intend for this to be a book review. It's not. There were so many moments, however, that confirmed my own experiences with adolescents and brought to me a greater sense of awareness of their cultural context that I simply had to say something, even if what I've shared is somewhat stuttering. The richness of this book simply must be experienced. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Did the Pope Just Kill Christmas??

Not quite. As is my custom, I glanced at CNN's website this morning and saw the headline "Pope's Book on Jesus Challenges Christmas Traditions" and, of course, had to read it. In a rare move, I even watched the video at the top (I'm generally a read-the-text guy).

Now, before you start packing up the Creche scene that has been out since Halloween or delete the Christmas music from your play list, it bears reminding: the Holy Father is not seeking to destroy Christmas. Indeed, there is nothing in the CNN story that hasn't been known before by anyone who has done any contemporary Bible study. A few things:

  • It is quite unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25th. How unlikely? Well, I'd reckon a 1/365 chance. Scour the Bible as you wish, but there's no fixed date for his birth. Near as I can tell, it's not the date of birth but, rather, the fact that he was born that interested the authors. What is vital is that Jesus was born, not the date of his birth. The Christian claim is nothing less than this: God, in and through the incarnation, has communicated to us through Jesus' humanity what God is really like. An upshot of this: since we don't know the one date on which Jesus was actually born, we should live each day as if it were Christmas...which means Bing Crosby and Burl Ives can either become the soundtrack of our lives or we become the Christmas cheer they sing about. 
  • The creche scene has many uses in family homes: my brother liked to put plastic army guys in there because it was sort of a cool imaginative environment for playing with action figures. The cow became a great barrier for the kneeling rifle holder to peer over as he took out the grenade-lobbing guy positioned behind one of the wise men. Alas, the tradition about the animals creeping into the manger is an accretion of history, not anything in either birth narrative (Matthew and Luke). This is somewhat reassuring inasmuch as I'd not want some mangy critter approaching my newborn child. 
  • Further, we also know that Jesus was not born during the year '0' or '1'. He's right to note that a mistake was made by a Benedictine monk (see, can't blame Jesuits for everything), and the dating of the calendar wasn't fixed until many centuries later. Thus do most scholars put the year of Jesus' birth between "6-4 BC" in order to account for the error. 
I have to admit, reading the comments on the CNN site is pretty trippy. For the life of me, I cannot get my head around the position of people who think that the person of Jesus is a complete historical myth. Scholars pretty much universally agree that Jesus existed. Who he was and what he meant and means, well, that's a totally different story. I say scholars because most of the people who think that "Jesus" is simply a mythic figure, like Zeus or the Tooth Fairy, seem to be crackpots. That said, let me swing in another direction: I think equally blockheaded those people who think the earth is only several thousand, or million, years old. In my mind, people who reject that there was a Jesus or reject the science of evolution are fellow travelers in the fantasy elevator. Both, that is, willfully ignore history and critical thinking in order to rest within the safety and security of their myths. 

Should we cancel Christmas? What do we do with the Creche? To the first: No. In the shadow of the solstice, December 25th falls on the uptick of sunlight in our days: even in the darkest time of year, we know that the light is growing in strength. That it might not be the exact date of Jesus' birth is not a problem, for we are celebrating the event of God's entrance into human history, God telling us through Jesus' life who God is and what God is all about...unfortunately, we kill Jesus because of this proclamation. And the Creche? Well, keep that, too. In the dark night of the savior's birth, there's something beautiful about the idea that all of creation rejoiced, that not only his parents but also foreigners and shepherds, angels and animals, took notice of his birth. The incarnation celebrates God's entrance into humanity, into history, on our planet. The Word of God didn't just create humans; the creative Word called all that is into being...even the animals. While it may not be directly scriptural, there's something touching about considering all of creation celebrating the arrival of the Word made Flesh. 




Thursday, November 22, 2012

200 Years Behind?

On August 31st, the Roman Catholic Church mourned the passing of Cardinal Carlo Martini, a Jesuit Biblical scholar and former Archbishop of Milan. Several weeks before his death, he granted an interview with the caveat that its contents not be released until after his death. On September 1st, the interview appeared in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and quickly became seen as something of his "spiritual testament." It is a short piece and the English translation can be found by visiting this link; I high suggest reading it. 

I'm struck by the imagery describing the situation of the Church as "embers hidden under ashes." As Martini looked out at the Church, he saw that "our churches are big" and our "religious houses are empty." The emptiness of our churches does not seem to stave either the growth of the Church's bureaucracy or the "pompous" appearance of its rites and vestments. As depicted in the media, American and European Catholicism seems cranky and fearful, entrenched in vacant cathedrals and nostalgically pining for a return to an earlier era. 

The eminent Catholic thinker George Weigel, in a column published yesterday in the Denver Catholic Register, is critical of Martini's final observation. At the end of his interview, Martini says:
The Church is 200 years behind. Why in the world does it not rouse itself? Are we afraid? Fear instead of courage? 
 Weigel replies:
To which one wants to reply, with all respect, "Two hundred years behind what?" A western culture that has lost its grasp on the deep truths of the human condition? A culture that celebrates the imperial autonomous Self? A culture that detaches sex from love and responsibility? A culture that breeds a politics of immediate gratification and inter-generational irresponsibility, of the sort that has paralyzed public policy in Italy and elsewhere? "Why in the word," to repeat the late cardinal's question, would the Church want to catch up with that?" 
Weigel then cites Blessed John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Jerzy Poieluszko as witnessing to the "flame of love" buried beneath the ashes. Ultimately, he concludes, we should not lament being behind our contemporary culture. Indeed, the Catholic challenge is "to get ahead of that soul-withering ideology, and convert those in thrall to it by example and persuasive argument."

In large measure, I agree with Weigel - Catholic do need to proclaim their faith in both word and deed, by both argument/engagement and example. Indeed, Christianity's critique of culture is nothing new:
And Peter testified with may other arguments and exhorted the crowd, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." so those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand person were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers." (Acts 2:40-42)
The irony of Weigel's column is simply this: his characterization of our secular culture as "embittered, aggressive and narrow-minded" seems a mirror image to today's Catholic Church! Where is our Catholic joy? Where is our excitement in the Eucharist?

I remember the Church of my youth: in the 1980's, my parish was filled. Today, my own siblings won't go to Mass. While I'm disappointed, I can understand their reluctance: the Church seems in turn cold and hostile. They are far more apt to make it to the gym daily at 6:00 am than they are to make a Sunday mass. Why? Because at the gym they feel a sense of community, a sense of common purpose, a sense of life.

When Cardinal Martini spoke of being behind by 200 years, I don't think he meant that we had to accomodate the Church to today's culture. I think he meant that we can't spend our days wistfully gazing into the past and pining for its return. We need to allow the Gospel to take root in our hearts in our lives in this era and let the Word of God speak to this culture.

The Holy Spirit is not dead and it continues to blow upon the embers of the Church, the embers that possess the ability to enkindle the fire of love in our hearts, in our world. We needn't be angry or embittered, but joyful that God still calls out to us, still invites us, still commissions us to make disciples of all nations. Rather than being antagonistic toward culture, what if we were to make our lives signs of contradiction to the culture, allowing our whole selves show the way to and riches of joyful discipleship? Again, look to the Acts of the Apostles:
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
There is life still within our Church, even if it is sometimes hard to detect. It falls to each one of us to uncover the ember that burns within each of us and allow it to ignite our lives. My little fire might not be much, but I suspect that if I allow it to join with others, soon it will become a beacon inviting others to join us around the fire of faith, finding food and welcome, and a growing sense of what it is to be the Body of Christ. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

An Update and an Oireachtas Prayer

I beg the indulgence of readers for the rather long pause in blogging action. Late in the evening of November 10th, I learned that a former student had taken his own life. The news reached his classmates on Sunday morning and, while I was playing a feis in Chicago, I seized every break I could to respond to the texts sent by his classmates, to answer phone calls, or just to pray quietly for the young man's peace and for consolation for his family.

The week that followed found me on a hastily booked flight back to Detroit (thank the Lord for reward mileage) where I attended the wake and the funeral. It was not exactly the homecoming I would have liked, but I'm glad that I had an opportunity to be present to the family and to lend an ear to students as they grieved. Since my return to Boston on Saturday, I've found myself to be possessed of little energy and I'm particularly grateful for the holiday weekend and hope to use these days for refreshment.

It seems strange to say this but, I believe this may be only the 2nd time in 22 years that I'm not going to be going to Mid-American Oireachtas. The Mid-American Orieachtas is a regional Irish dancing championship competition and I attended as a spectator for the first twelve years and then as a musician for the last ten. All of my teenage and adult memories of Thanksgiving involve hotels and Irish dancing, so it's a bit surreal to think that I'm going to miss the whole event. With all that has happened this month, perhaps it is a good thing that I'm not playing: I really do feel the need to rest.

I would like, however, to offer a prayer for those who are going to be competing this weekend, both in Grand Rapids and in Philadelphia (Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas).

An Oireachtas Prayer

Good and Gracious God,
We place ourselves in your presence and invite
your Spirit as we begin this year's Oireachtas.
We have practiced.
We have rehearsed. 
We have sacrificed for the love of Irish dance.
We have invested time and money and effort. 
Lord, we ask only that you help us to do our best this Day.
May we remember that underneath 
the wigs, the dresses, the sparkles, the make-up, and the sock glue
that we dance with bodies and talents you gave us. 
With every click and every treble, O Lord, 
may we give you glory 
and celebrate the the gift of our teachers 
who have shown us how to dance. 

Lord, in twenty years, it will be hard to recall how we placed. 
Time will have faded our memories of where we stood on the podium
or what medal we took home.
We will remember, though, the good times we have shared
and we will tell with delight the stories we remember. 
Bless this weekend, Bless our dancing,
and bless those who have given us the gift of Irish dance. 

May we all dance today as we hope to dance in eternity:
members of the heavenly ceili
dancing to You, the music of our lives.

We pray this through Christ our Lord, 
our Teacher, our Musician, our Music, and our Metronome. 

Amen. 


Saturday, November 10, 2012

College Application Advice for the Control-F Generation

One of my former students, a member of the Control-F generation, wrote me last week asking advice about applying to college. He's the sort of kid many would regard as being a great "whole package" applicant: smart, good test scores, committed to service, a multiple-sport athlete, high regard by teachers, good sense of humor, and an all-around nice guy. In my limited experience with high school students, he stands out as one of the better I've encountered and I'm sure he'll have no trouble gaining entry to the college that is right for him.

He headed his note "Advice" and began with, "Dear Abba." I don't know if he intended the allusion to the Dear Abby advice columns, but it did make me laugh. Since his question did arise from a genuine concern, especially one that affects many families this year, I thought I'd offer my thoughts on two things: (1) the teacher letter of recommendation and (2) the student's own personal statement.

Teacher's Letter of Recommendation

I wrote over twenty letters of recommendation this Fall for students. It takes me about 30-40 minutes to compose each letter, because each one begins from scratch. That is, I don't have an extant template that I follow and plug in the student name where needed (Believe me, I've seen this done). I do, however, have a formula I follow for each letter. Bear in mind, I do not extend to more than a single page and each paragraph is rather short, running at most to 5 sentences, usually being only 3-4:


  1. Introduction of Applicant - I try to seize upon a personal detail that stands out to my mind. Sometimes, this can be jarring: "X is a loser" and then I talk about how the student lost an election or lost weight;  or, "For the first two months of the semester, whenever Y raised his hand, a cold feeling of dread washed over my body,"  and talk about how the student's incisive mind always kept me on my toes. One letter began with, "Z has the perfect smile," and I went on to discuss how his teeth, which were noticeably off center, perfectly matched his personality. 
  2. Applicant's Strengths - My second paragraph attempts to draw a composite picture of the student's strengths. His ability as a writer, analytical abilities, clarity in expression, enthusiasm for learning, and those qualities he will bring to a college campus. I think of this as laying out the amenities of a car: I'm not giving an evaluation, per se, but trying to show what the kid has going for him.
  3. Applicant's Need for Growth - Listen, contrary to the belief of many parents, not every kid is perfect. My third - and to my mind, most crucial - sets out the areas that I consider necessary for the student's growth. My operative question is this, "How does this student need to be formed over the next few years?" My goal here is to let the reader know (1) that I know both this kid's strengths and weaknesses and (2) that the college has the opportunity to contribute to this formation. Every student has room to grow and I see it as my role as a teacher to indicate those areas, sharing my viewpoint with the admissions committee. 
  4. Synthesis and Conclusion - I now draw points (2) and (3) together and give my holistic recommendation. I've told some schools how much more their campus life will be enriched by a student's presence and how much influence they'll be able to exercise over the continued formation of his character as a force for good in the world. Sometimes I've asked schools to take a chance on the student. I've given enthusiastic support and tepid approval; some I've recommended without reservation and others I give cautious approval. Overall, I attempt to be totally honest with the committee: if I've represented the student accurately, I trust that they'll see my efforts at transparency and will trust that I'm being truthful. 
As I said, this letter is one single page and I do my best to keep my paragraphs relatively short. If the student has a diminutive form of his name "Timmy" or "Danny" I generally resist using it in (1) - (3) but will mention it in (4). Ultimately, I see my role as helping the student's case before the committee and the committee in selecting an incoming class that will be able to make best use of the school's resources. 

The Student's Personal Statement

This will not be surprising, but I see the Student's Personal Statement in a manner similar to the Teacher's Letter: it needs to show some degree of self-awareness. That is to say, my understanding of the personal statement is to demonstrate (1) you know yourself, and (2) that you have a sense of how you're going to benefit from college

A friend recently told me that she has friends who have spent $3000 - $4000 helping their children's college application process, money spent between test preparation, writing coaches, and then spending money so that students can have spectacular experiences to serve as fodder for essays. I never had that sort of money to spend, so let me offer some free words of advice: 
  1. You Are Your Experiences - I'm not convinced that a high schooler needs to have lived in a kibbutz or have cured cancer to be a viable college applicant. Most students don't have these experiences. Each applicant is unique and while some experiences - a summer job, taking care of siblings, losing weight, struggling to make a team - might not seem to be overly sexy, they are still the applicant's experiences and they have contributed to the young man or woman who is applying. To be sure, there are some extraordinary experiences. Yet I should think it more remarkable for a student to show how an 'ordinary' experience, upon reflection, has exercised 'extraordinary' influence on one's life. 
  2. Gain Self-Knowledge - This flows from (1). Students today are often reduced to a what: a test score, a GPA or class ranking, a position in the starting line-up. Each student needs to claim his voice in order to speak in his own voice rather than relying on numbers and rankings to speak on his behalf. Before the student begins to write, a list should be drawn up of all those experiences that have made him the young man he is today (or  her the young woman). In looking at the outline, is there some theme or pattern that emerges? What does this trope indicate? 
  3. The College is Older than You - I saw a statement of a friend's daughter which, no joke, basically said that the university could not possibly survive without her. She was a 4.0+ student, took 8 AP courses, had a 35 on her ACT, played three sports, baked brownies from scratch, and was going to save the world as a piano-playing surgeon. Or something like that. I suspect statements like this are pretty common. One needs to remember that these colleges have been around for a lot longer than you've been alive and, quite probably, will outlast you as well. It's seldom that an 18-year old freshman has changed the course of a university in the first year, so some degree of humility is necessary. I mean, think about it: if you're perfect, why would a college want you? What role do they have in playing in educating someone who is obviously superior to every other candidate?
  4. Write in Light of the Purpose of College - Here's my main point: college is not a box to be checked-off but, rather, an experience of ongoing formation where the skills you have uncovered and developed in high school will be stretched further. College is, ideally, a place where a student's mind and character are given further formation. This doesn't always happen, of course, but I think it's the goal of a good college. Can you show, in your statement, that you're a person who is unafraid of embracing new challenges, that you have enough self-awareness to know both what you're willing to offer a college community and to know how you wish to grow in the future? Consider this as inviting the committee to help you in your life's journey, to give them a chance to contribute to your human formation. 
  5. Three Coordinating Questions - I would suggest three coordinating questions to help a student frame a letter. One needn't answer the questions so much as reflect on them as grist for the writing process: (1) Who am I? (2) How did I become who I am? (3) Who do I want to become in the future? If those are topic headings, they may help to give clarity to the story, or statement, the student will share with the admission committee. 
  6. Be Yourself - Just as the Teacher's Letter aims to give a good composite, so too should the student's letter. You don't need to be perfect, you need to be you. It's okay that you're not always perfect, or that you've struggled, or that you've failed: it makes you human. I know I've learned more from failing than from having lessons come easily. Often, I've failed in life when I've not been true to myself, an often painful reminder that when I am myself, I am the person God is calling me to be. If I college doesn't want the authentic student, then it's not the place for the student. Put your best - meaning your real - self forward and trust that the right school for you will see in you the promise of the type of student they want to cultivate. 
These are simply my thoughts. Of course, not every student needs to worry about this process: this advice is primarily intended for students applying to the more selective schools. In particular, I have in mind the sold all-around student who works hard, is involved in various programs (Boy Scouts, Music, Art, Sports, Service), has good grades, and is possessed of a desire to be an agent of change in the world. 

Ultimately, this is just common-sense advice, offered for free. If it's helpful: great! If not, ignore everything and do whatever is best for you or your student. I have limited experience but, after years of reading about the process and helping many students through it, it's my best effort to give a way of thinking-through two of the more daunting tasks associated with applying to college. 


Friday, November 09, 2012

My New Nemeses

Well, I'm glad to report that I've found my new rivals here in Boston: Wild Turkeys. These accursed creatures seem to stalk me, as I see them almost daily on my way to class. Some days, they're standing on the cars in our parking lot; other days, they are blocking the sidewalk. Last week they stopped traffic as they strutted across the road...I watched the cars slow down and stop as they arrogantly took their time. Just yesterday, one of them was waiting in ambush and, when I opened the door to go out, it attempted to come into the house.

The one in the foreground appears to be the leader. I think he remembers me in particular...I know I'd remember the person who charged at me with a rake! It may sound irrational, but I have a feeling that this will be a great class of the wills. When I was a novice I did battle with peacocks. Now, as a theologian, I take on the turkeys. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Life Interrupted

I am grateful that there has been a distinct lack of religious rationalization of Hurricane Sandy. That is, I haven't heard of any prominent religious leaders attempting to 'make sense' of the destruction and loss of life by portraying the devastation as "God's will" or "retribution for sin." In the Northeast, it seems, there is just a quiet numbness as people look out to see what the storm has wrought, sort out how it has interrupted their lives, and begin to pick up the pieces...if there are any pieces to pick up.

I use the word interruption deliberately. We have all had the experience of being deep in conversation when something - a phone call, a whining child, a stranger - intrudes upon the moment. When the issue is addressed and the two parties try to pick up where they left off, it is usually with the line, "Now, where were we?" Yet, we know, that in the wake of an interruption the conversation never resumes in quite the same way.

Perhaps no Old Testament figure captures this better than Job. Job - wholly righteous in God's eyes - suffers the calamitous loss of his livelihood, his family, and his health. His life interrupted, he consigns himself to a pile of ashes where he bemoans his life in the company of three friends. Again and again, his friends offer pious platitudes trying to make sense of Job's suffering, interrupting Job's speeches with their theories of God's justice and there efforts to conceal a disturbing reality: we live, all of us, in a world where very bad things can happen to very good people. Finally, God interrupts all of their speeches and addresses the gathered group: God's ways and human ways are not the same and our human minds cannot comprehend the whole of creation. God's interruption doesn't give Job answers but it does accomplish something: Job knows that God has heard his cries. Job - isolated amongst his friends who will not listen to him - knows that he is not alone.

After an interruption, it is impossible for affairs to "return to normal." The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a child born with special needs, a cancer diagnosis, the breakup of a relationship: these are all interruptions which break up the normal flow of our lives and change forever life's course. Our temptation is to try to resume life as it once was, but this is impossible. At best, we can take note of the change and adapt, grow, and move forward.

As the rains subside and the full scope of the damage is surveyed, let us be careful not to imitate Job's friends. We needn't offer sweeping explanations (God's punishing us, It's a wake-up call) nor blame the victims (I told them to move from the shore, She never should have bought that condo). Indeed, we should be aware that when we try to explain away a tragedy, our efforts to impose our sense of order on things does nothing for the victims. As a society and as a Church, let us find the courage to listen to the silence and to respond not with formulas and reasons, but with open hands and receptive hearts. For those who are able to help, let them help. For those who having nothing to give, let them open their hearts in a prayer of solidarity that those whose lives have been interrupted and changed forever may know the grace of Job: they are not alone. 

On Dissertating

An old acquaintance, seeing my blog post from yesterday, emailed me this morning. He, too, is enrolled in a doctoral program and he was sho...