Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I had a rare hour-long conversation with a friend of mine from high school the other day. She had a baby girl a few weeks after I had my youngest daughter, so we talk often and share what our kids are doing as we walk this beautiful path of motherhood together.

During our most recent conversation, we were discussing cloth diapering (which we both do) and how much easier it is than we thought it would be. Both of us have had numerous encounters with people who see that we are cloth diapering and hasten to exclaim, "God bless you! I could never do that. I just don't have the time/patience/skill."

I always answer, "Sure you could! It's not hard at all, just a couple more loads of laundry every week." My friend and I were discussing why our automatic reaction to these comments is to assure the other person that cloth diapering isn't that much harder than disposables. Really! It's not inconvenient at all!

Why is convenience the ONLY question here? What about the cost savings, the benefits to the environment or the fact that they're free of chemicals? None of this seems to matter when it comes time to choose between throwing a used diaper in a pail to be later rinsed and washed versus tossing it in the garbage and never thinking about it again.

Are we really so bound to the idea of convenience?

The short answer is YES. Witness the rise in elective c-sections and scheduled inductions. It's too hard on some mothers and doctors, apparently, to wait for labor to start naturally. Never mind the 2-fold risk of maternal mortality when the c-section isn't medically necessary. Never mind the harm to the baby, the extra cost to the insurance companies, or the fact that it's major abdominal surgery. Convenience trumps everything else.

Look around you next time you're at the grocery store. The number of products that market convenience are staggering. Tired of wringing out that mop? No need to worry! Just buy a box of disposable mop heads and throw them away as soon as you're done. No time to vacuum up that pet hair or open a window and air out the room? Here's a bottle of chemicals you can spray around to make your house smell nice. Never mind that both these products pollute the environment through their manufacture, use and disposal. Never mind that they're expensive and unnecessary. If they make your life easier, that's all that matters, right?

Studies have linked the rise in obesity among children to our diet of high-fat, fried, and/or processed foods. (Though plenty of other sites contest those findings.) Still, every health expert agrees that we need more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and less sugar and fat in our diets. The best way to do this is to cook from scratch: you govern exactly what goes into your meal and assure your family of optimum nutrition. Yet the invariable answer from today's busy family is that "We don't have time." Many supermarkets have come up with solutions for us, from pre-cut broccoli florets to pre-marinated chicken breasts. At an increased cost, of course. There's labor and packaging involved that aren't factors when you buy a whole chicken or a stalk of broccoli.

I have to ask what we're doing that we don't have time to chop up a couple stalks of broccoli. There are families, I'm sure, where two incomes mean the difference between food on the table and empty plates, but for most of us, it comes down to choices. What are we choosing that necessitates this unhealthy reliance on convenience?

It's not that there's anything wrong with modern conveniences by themselves. I'm certainly not advocating we all get rid of our washing machines and start pounding our clothes against rocks. But convenience is a luxury that we ought to balance against the cost it entails. Be assured, there's always a cost.

In truth, I'm actually upset about the way our society's obsession with "fast and easy" has spilled over into other areas. My husband came home from a recent trip with a story about a friend he'd met who had warned him repeatedly and most earnestly to "Stop at two." Children, that is. Seems this poor fellow has three kids and they're not worth the herculean effort it takes to raise them.

I'm sure he thought he was doing my husband a service by warning him away from the life of misery that he's apparently been consigned to, but I'm indignant at the message it sends: If it takes effort, it's not worth it. Isn't this a temptation that pulls at us every day? Isn't it easier to drive to the post office instead of walking five blocks? Isn't it easier to buy a Halloween costume from Target than be creative and cobble one together from what you have at home? Isn't it easier to throw your plastic bags away than return them to the store for recycling?

Well, maybe "easy" shouldn't be the penultimate goal all the time. Maybe we ought to be thinking about what's right instead of what's easy. Because, frankly, cloth diapering is right. Recycling is right. Simplifying is right. Sacrificing is right.

Sometimes things aren't easy. My husband has a comeback for this: "Suck it up." I prefer "Offer it up" but hey, whatever floats your boat. Just because it's hard doesn't mean it isn't worth it.

Picture credit: The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe by Joseph Martin Kronheim

Saturday, November 17, 2007

And your point is?

I often struggle with doubt. I think we all do, or at least, I hope I'm not the only one who sometimes lies awake thinking "Do I possibly just have everything completely wrong?" Part of it's a lack of self-confidence, a leftover sense from my childhood that I know nothing and should just follow the instructions given to me by others.

The biggest part, though, is that I love and respect my husband so much, yet he has completely different views. That has to affect me. I can't just disregard those with opposite opinions as either uninformed, or uncaring, or uninterested. I have to face the fact that my intelligent, worldly, educated, thoughtful husband has just come to an entirely different conclusion about the existence of God and our purpose in life.

He's asked me before how we can possibly be sure God is out there. My answer, "You just have to believe," is pretty much a non-answer to anyone who isn't already a believer. I've jumped through some pretty outlandish hoops to come up with some justification for him but I've always gone away empty-handed. An old adage comforts me: "For those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who do not, no proof is sufficient." I've come to accept that I, personally, will not be bringing my husband to Christ by the persuasive power of my intellect or my ability to debate theological issues. I wouldn't really want that anyway. If he did enter the Church based on my arguments, I'd be worried for the rest of our lives that he'd encounter someone even MORE persuasive and follow their lead.

No. I want my husband to believe, and for that, Christ has to reveal Himself.

Yet I'm left with these lingering doubts and challenging questions for which I have no answer. What is the point of religion, if it doesn't DO anything? True, there have been miracles, but we're never guaranteed one. So we can pray and maybe our prayers get answered and maybe they don't. Thus the atheist says, "Why pray?" If the only benefit to prayer is a personal one, then it seems to be a pretty selfish exercise. And wouldn't your time be better spent either preparing for problems, learning concrete skills to deal with them, or proactively changing the world for the better? What really brought down the Soviet Union? The millions of rosaries Mary asked us to pray? Or an increase in communications technology which empowered the Soviet people to take charge of their government?

What about helping the poor? I've always cringed inwardly whenever I see a movie or read a book about the missionaries in foreign lands who get asked, "Why are you here, so far from home, doing this for us?" and then answer, "Jesus commands us to."

*headdesk* That's hardly the way to show God's love to the world. Dawkins has rightly criticized the Christians of this world for citing fear of hell as their motivation for doing good. Surely people are not so incredibly self-absorbed that the only way to get them to be nice is to threaten them with an eternity of pain? And if that's true, what does that say about our belief that we're created in God's image?

Most fundamentally, though, the criticism I have no answer for is the one that cuts the deepest. It has been people of faith, in the name of God, who have committed some of the worst atrocities and acts of hate against their fellow man. The faithful person can accurately cry, "But they have perverted God's message, not fulfilled it!" And even Hitchens acknowledges that atheists have done evil acts too, but the core question is this: if believing in God does not make someone a good person, then what use is religion?

My favorite priest gave an outstanding homily a few weeks ago and cited some disturbing statistics. Only 20% of Catholics tithe. And the average percentage of income given to the church is 1%. Obviously, these numbers don't translate literally. If only 20% of people are tithing, they're giving more than 1% of THEIR incomes, but you get the picture. Our mother Church gets 1%, the US government probably gets 30%, and the remaining 69% goes toward making ourselves as comfortable as possible.

Why is this? Why would the largest, most organized religion in the world have such selfish followers? I know personally a half dozen people who are truly good Catholics. They help the poor, they attend daily Mass, they follow the precepts of the Church, they are humble, generous, loving, peaceful, good people.

Is this God working in them? Or is this just how they are? Because for every person I name, there's someone else who goes to Mass and calls themselves Catholic who lives as selfishly and carelessly as any non-believer.

If there's no difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, what exactly does following Christ achieve?

When these doubts threaten to overwhelm me, I turn them over to God. Because I know in my heart He is real. He made us, He loves us, He sent His son to save us. For me, the point is to love Him back. Period. But I also think that being a Christian HAS to change you. It has to make you rethink your natural impulses and reevaluate your worldview. No society in this world is set up to care for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. The free market system and natural selection emphasize strength, intelligence, aggressiveness and foresight. None of this meshes with Jesus and the gentle, generous, simple, humble, trusting way He preached. We Christians should be visible as outsiders wherever we go, and not just for wearing crosses. We should be focusing on exactly the things society disdains, pursuing those avenues society considers worthless, protecting the people society would rather do without.

We should be transformed in Christ. Our faith should be a light that shines so brightly in our lives that no one can ask what good religion does this world. It should be abundantly obvious.

If it isn't, we're missing the whole point.

Picture credit. (Props to my husband for expanding my musical repertoire. Our son loves this album almost as much as the soundtrack to Aladdin.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Earthly Justice

I spent some time at a nearby cemetery today. As part of All Souls week, we Catholics can gain plenary indulgences for the souls in Purgatory if we do a few simple things. While there I saw a gravemarker with dates from 2004 to 2006. "How sad," I thought. "A little child." Then I looked below it and saw a similar stone with dates from 2002 to 2006. November 10, 2006, to be precise, and I realized this poor family had lost both their children on the same day.

Actually, they lost even more than that. A drunk driver ran up on a curb and killed these two children and their mother. Their father survived with injuries. From what I could determine, the driver was sentenced to 48 years in prison, eligible for parole after 33. The blogosphere seems to consider this a travesty of justice, but I wonder...what is justice in this case? What is justice in any case?

As the wife of a lawyer (and a woman who aspires to law herself) I've always been a firm believer in justice and our system of law. No, it's not perfect. Nothing on this earth really is. But I've always felt it's an essential part of a free society. If there is no retribution for a wrong committed, then there is no point in declaring something wrong in the first place.

But it brings home to me how empty and meaningless earthly justice can be. For the truly horrendous crimes and for those who deeply, deeply suffer, there's nothing that we as humans can do that even approaches making things right. The problem with justice, as I see it, is that it's a reaction to a wrong. It's a response. And by its very nature, it can only offer a part of what has been lost because it's never possible to erase the past.

Sometimes I find myself frustrated and discouraged by this idea: that there's nothing we can do to make things right for people who have suffered. Particularly in the worst cases, as with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the genocide in Rwanda, or the violence of suicide bombers, I'm left wondering what anyone can do. 48 years in prison won't bring back the Binghams. It probably won't prevent this sort of tragedy from happening to anyone else, either. There's plenty of drunk drivers out there, and all our laws and punishments for DUIs haven't made it any safer to cross the street in Denver. So what to do?

The answer lies in our focus, and it is one of the reasons why I am a person of fervent faith. If we focus on this life as the only form of our existence, then every ounce of our strength has to go into protecting people while preventing and punishing acts of injustice. And when our efforts fail (as they must) we are left with the sense that nothing has been accomplished.

But if we focus on eternal life, the entire point of our existence changes. It's not incumbent upon us to bring peace to every corner of the world or eradicate all suffering. Suffering is part of life, as a recent post on Et Tu, Jen so eloquently showed. We have not failed if suffering remains. We have succeeded if we brought comfort to the afflicted, if we dedicated ourselves to reaching out and touching as many people as we can with the love of Christ, if we in any small way freed another soul from the darkness of its burden and brought healing to the injured.

I understand that many atheists see this as a cop-out and an excuse to do nothing about preventing tragedy. It's one of Hitchens' major complaints about Mother Theresa, that instead of working to heal and help the people who came to her in Calcutta, she merely held their hands and gave them her loving presence while they suffered and died. I can understand his outrage; after all, if life is the whole point, then it's a crime to withold any and all extraordinary measures to prolong it. The money Mother Theresa received should, in Hitchens' mind, have gone towards alleviating poverty, medical care, food for the hungry, social change, etc etc etc.

But this misses the point of Mother Theresa's ministry, which was to bring love and comfort and hope to the dying. Not hope of earthly life, but of salvation and eternal life. I think Mother Theresa saw the truth in a way most of us cannot. All the money in the world will not eradicate poverty (certainly not in India where the societal hierarchy prevents the sort of intraclass movement that our country is built upon.) Rather than expend her energies trying to make this earthly life better for those who were suffering, she dedicated herself to bringing a small glimpse of Heaven into their hearts.

I absolutely believe that we ought to work tirelessly and passionately to bring change in the world. That's the point of this blog, to help me do whatever I can for the poor. Fundamentalist regimes that trod on the personhood of their citizens are an affront to the dignity of human life. Greedy dictators who sap their countries of natural resources and leave their people to starve are as thoroughly evil as people can be. Acts of hate and violence against minorities and people of differing viewpoints are anathema to the inclusive love God has for all His children. I support the organization of a free society in which each person is respected from the moment of conception, and is given the right and opportunity to choose their own path.

But Jesus has said, "The poor you will always have with you." In His wisdom He has told us the future and revealed a fundamental truth of life: there will always be suffering. And, too, there will always be men who choose to do evil. That is the price of free will.

So when we are faced with tragedy, with crime, with injustice, what is our response? As Christians, it must be love. The desire for vengeance has no part in the message of Christ. Nor does the misguided attempt to punish the transgressor for his act. Earthly justice may serve to deter future drunks from getting behind the wheel, or decrease the chance of his committing the same crime again, but it doesn't bring much comfort or healing to the victims themselves.

That's our job.