Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lessons from my father

I apologize in advance for what I am sure will be a long entry.  Bear with me.  I have had a month now to digest what happened a month ago today.  Being an introvert, I simmer on my thoughts, slow cooking them.  I filter them through my beliefs, my knowledge, and my feelings.  It occurs to me that I had not just learned lessons from my father over the last month, but over my lifetime.  My dad had not become in his last month of life something that he was not before.  Perhaps I just saw it in its purest form.  Like a pupil whose teacher stops suddenly, I feel a bit lost in fleshing things out, but, flesh them out I must.

My dad taught me many lessons, some were easy, most were difficult.  Many he spoke of frequently, most his actions spoke most powerfully.  Many were consciously listened to, most were subconsciously taken in and molded who I am.  I write this to distill a few of those lessons.

Lesson 1: Who you are is determined by the sum of your choices.  Dad never could have been called a racist, a homophobe, a sexist, or a elitist.  He did not pretend to understand all there was about the human person, but he did know that their choices and free will actions showed the kind of person individuals were.  We were never taught to be suspicious of a person because they were different than we were.  WE were taught to differentiate the person from their failings.  He would be disappointed when people made decisions solely based on one aspect of the person ( race, gender, etc)  Dad did not believe in collecting antagonistic relationships.  Life would present enough of them on its own, there was no need to seek them.

Lesson 2: Playing politics is never worth the rewards gained.  Dad hated politics.  He hated the duplicity.  He hated the back-stabbing, manipulation, self-serving relationships, and deceit necessary to play politics well.  I am not speaking of merely politics as in governance, but more to the point, office politics.  Getting more money was never worth selling out his beliefs.  He was there to do a job and do it to the best of his abilities.  He believed in advancement by merit alone.  If that meant he got passed over for a raise or a promotion, then so be it.  Integrity mattered more than status.  It would have been easy for him to sell out and use the excuse that he had a family to provide for.  He didn't.  If he got a promotion or raise he wanted to know it was because he had earned it.  I always respected that about him.

Lesson 3: Sometimes the bad guy wins and how one deals with that says a lot about the individual.  I never heard my dad say that life was unfair.  He detested the concept of fair and unfair because it was always a subjective thing.  Fair or unfair by whose standards? By what criteria?  Sometimes you could do everything right and still get screwed.  Because you play by the rules does not mean your opponent will.  Sometimes their deceit and machinations gave them the edge.  Sometimes they won the job, the promotion, the raise, and so on. As dad found it more important to be able to look at himself in the mirror than be admired for something he wasn't.  It meant that he got up, dusted himself off, and kept doing the right thing. Sometimes you lose.  The true test of the person was whether the person could walk away with their integrity and dignity intact.  It meant many harsh lessons.  It meant giving up temporary advances and advantages.  It meant not being afraid of failure.

Lesson 4:  It is only stuff.  Dad had great attachment to people and animals.  He loved nature and was fascinated with the outdoors.  People came before things.  Always.  Taking advantage of people to get more things made no sense to him,  Despoiling the world to get more things made no sense to him.  Things were not worth it.  He didn't need copious amounts of stuff.  He lived comfortably and simply.  He could have lived much higher and simply chose not to. He wasn't cheap.  But he didn't spend money for the sake of spending money.  His taste were simple.  He could go overboard, say, on vitamins and supplements.  But for most all else, simplicity of life was what he desired.

Lesson 5: You'll not find nor create heaven on earth.  Heaven was when we died, not now.  Our task here was to be the best we could be.  We were to use God's grace, be detached from material goods, be honest, friendly, and competent.  We cannot change anyone else but ourselves and only hope that our way of life might attract others. Here, people would be dishonest, greedy, envious and power hungry and other people will suffer for it.  Accidents happen, disasters happen, sickness happens, death happens.  That is the nature of the material world.  Fighting it was futile and maddening.  It was we approached these disasters and disappointments that mattered.  He stayed positive even when there seemed no reason to be so.  He did not expect perfection here so it didn't throw him when he didn't get it.   

Lesson 6: Faith matters.  For dad, faith wasn't a set of beliefs treated like a family heirloom to be trotted out for special occasions; it was a daily lived experience.  It was what drove him.  I could go on and on about this but I think it suffices to say that if you read the other lessons, you can see how faith permeated all those lessons.

My dad was not a perfect man.  He would correct me for saying otherwise.  However, it is fair to say that he tried to be the best man he could be.  That was all that could be asked.  I assume, like myself, that when he stood before God, he wasn't asked "why weren't you as good as so and so"; he knew the question would be "what did YOU do with what I gave you."  Allow me to be  a witness for the defense and say, he taught his children what was important, how to face life as it is and not as it should be, and to never allow the drive to get ahead to diminish our loyalty to God or to those he places in our lives.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Death and faith...or lack thereof

In recent days, my dad passed away.  I have said in a previous post, my Catholic Faith has given me great solace and comfort in its teaching that since Jesus Christ, borne out of His great love for, gave His life to redeem us, frees us from enslavement to sin and death so that when we approach that moment of death we can do so with eternal hope.  My dad had this hope and desperately wanted his children to share in that hope. Because I choose to live the hope that my dad modeled for me and wanted in instill in me by having me baptized, I can approach this moment in time with intense calm and hope.  I proudly live this hertiage my dad sought to pass down to his children.

Yesterday, one of my siblings friends, a person who self-describes herself as a liberal and atheist, posted on my sister's Facebook wall a few words of comfort from her perspective.  I know she meant well in helping her friend deal with the loss of her dad, but I was struck by the hopelessness of those words and how they wanted to drag my sister into that same hopelessness, a hopelessness that my dad would have categorically disagreed with intensely and would have taken great offense that someone was using this opportunity to directly dismiss his own deep held faith with one of his children.  Again, I do not want to say that this person had malicious intent.  This person has her beliefs and in a free society she is entitled to express them.  But as someone who struggled with agnosticism in my early 20's, I can hardly condemn her.

For me, finding my way back to faith was first more an act of logic than faith.  It goes like this:  it is physically impossible for something to come from nothing.  All matter is regulated by the properties of time and space.  Logically, only that which is not bound by these properties has the ability to bring them into being, and hence the created order into existence.  It is called the ex nihilo argument for the existence of God.  That the created order is so well ordered even in the seeming chaos points to an intelligent power bearing responsibility for that created order.  It was for this reason that I could never intellectually accept atheism as a viable or logical reality.  It is not logical.  This left me at a Theist or agnostic state.  That whatever created had any relationship with that creation was another question.  That I struggled with.  I had to reconcile the faith I had studied (that my dad had passed to me) with what I saw in this world.  Why did tragedies happen?  Why did good people suffer?  Having been in the seminary, I saw a lot of activity from clerics that did not jibe with the teachings of the Church...if their knowledge couldn't provoke them to authentically live that faith, why should I then give any credence to that faith?  It was their poor witness paired with me wanting to be unshackled by what seemed an empty morality that led me to be an agnostic for a few years.

A few years went by.  Something ate at me about the worldview I was holding: It was awful convenient to hold what I was holding because it changed to locus of authority from outside myself to being myself.  Morality, hence, was whatever I wanted it to be and I found I rarely challenged myself to be a better person. I knew I was supposed to be a good person.  I was honest and diligent at work, I stepped into a supportive role for my siblings after my parents divorced, but I was slightly promiscuous, incredibly materialistic and not a happy person.  I chain smoked.  I was argumentative.  I had a hair string temper.  I had ulcers.  I was comfortable in my agnosticism on one level, but felt a great abyss of emptiness inside that no money, power, or pleasure could sate.  I remember one night sitting on my deck in Missouri and realizing that there would never be enough money, promotions, toys, sex, or other pleasures to fill what was lacking.  Life became futile and meaningless in that absolutely everything that I was could be taken from me and at best all I could get was temporary relief.  I fought returning to faith because it too had disappointed me.  I refer to that next 6 months as the dark night.  I remembered something from my seminary days, a quote from St Augustine: "our hearts are restless until they rest in you."  My heart was most definitely restless and unfulfilled by the earthly trinkets that surrounded me.  Then I started taking the next logical steps.

What made more sense: that this creator created with or without a reason or purpose?  Logically, it made greater sense that there would be intent and hence reason and purpose.  What made more sense:  that the reasons would be malicious or beneficial?  I remember my dad taking me on hikes when I was 4th grader in Indiana.  He loved the outdoors and would point out while we were walking what kind of tree, plant, bird, animal, or rock I was looking at. He is responsible for my love of nature and the outdoors.  I thought much later in life as to why we call natural disasters 'Acts of God', but we don't refer to newly blooming flower, the beauty of new life, the awesomeness of a mountain range, the splendor of a sunrise, the warmth of friendship, the sounds of a gentle rain, the smell of a spring meadow, the sound of a child's laugh, "acts of God' as well?
The earth was full of beauty both profound and simple and co-existed with the ugliness, suffering, and agonies of life.  However because our bodies and the created order are limited to time and space, we grow old, we get sick, and our bodies cease to function.  However, there was something in me that knew that there was more.  That started me on the road of faith.  I saw the profound difference it made in others and I wanted that for myself.

My dad had every reason to be a bitter man by worldly standards.  He was snatched from his home by DFS as a pre-teen.  He bounced from one horrific foster home to another till my grandparents adopted him.  His 23 year marriage ended badly.  He never got rich.  He never got powerful.  He had an incurable disease in Parkinsons that would eventually make his mind a prisoner of his body.  I could go on and on about how many things he had to endure and the disappointments this life heaped on him, however, as I watched my dad in this last month, I saw a man of deep faith who was full of joy even as his body was turning against him.  In that last month, I witnessed a man at peace with the world, with God, and with himself.  As I sat by his bed with two very good friends and watched him take his last breath, I can not describe adequately the calm and peace of that moment.  Everything inside me told me that all that my dad had hoped and desired in this life, he was  now experiencing.  I'll not allow any atheist to rob me or my family of that moment.  I will not allow them to infuse their hopeless world view into this moment.  This person can believe what she wants, but I choose not to share in such a maudlin worldview or allow my siblings to hear that view unchallenged.  

Anyone who knows me well or has heard me preach knows that our Catholic preaches that we are to be a people who merciful, charitable, kind, forgiving, compassionate, faithful stewards of God's gifts, including the world in which we live, and faithful witnesses of Christ.  When we fail to live to these standards, we give scandal and give ample fuel to those who would dismiss God and faith altogether.  Dad knew this and grew more and more into this and wanted his children to know the fulfillment he felt.  It troubled him that not all did.  I know it troubled him when I didn't.  I know he now prays for his children and grandchildren because he wants us to be with him...he modeled a path...if we are wise we will try to walk on it despite all life throws at us.  I told my dad two things minutes before he passed from this life: I would take care of his dog for as long as Buddy lived and that I would watch out for my brothers and sisters.  I asked him to intercede to help me do these things.

To my sister's friend:  I know you meant well.  You wanted to comfort my sister and I deeply appreciate that.  However she is my dad's daughter first.  Both you and I have made our decisions.  Fair enough.  I introduce a little philosophical nugget known as Pascal's Wager in reference to God. If you are right and I am wrong, I can live with that.  I have spent the majority of my life inviting people to be selfless, to be merciful and forgiving, to be good stewards of our blessings, to help those in need, to respect the integrity and  dignity of every human person..even though at times I can fail to live up fully to that.  If you are rightI wont' be cognizant to realize it anyway and thus have no regrets.  I have a joyful and fulfilled life even though I will never be wealthy, powerful, or indulge in certain pleasures.  I have that same calm and peace my dad had and I see it as the most precious part of his inheritance and example for me and my siblings.  However, if I am right, then I have lived a life that has told God my desire for heaven and union with Him and you have rejected him.  All judgment amounts to is a verification of our own free choice.  God condemns no one to hell, it is a personal choice each person makes.  Truth be told, I would just as soon have you on my side.  Yes there are things in the created order that bring sickness, suffering and death...but we were not created to just be is transitory at best.  If God has indeed given us a part that will transcend time and space (the soul), my ultimate hope and peace lies there.  That is why when my dad whom I loved a great deal passed from this life, I had no sense of loss or any sense of overwhelming grief, ( I did cry profusely as I spoke my good-bye, my promise to carry on the heritage he wanted to pass on to me and my siblings and his grandchildren and ask for his help), the legacy of faith my dad left filled that moment with intense calm and peace.

At his funeral this coming week, it will be celebration of my dad and his deep felt and well justified faith in God.  Dad suffered greatly and had his long Good is the time to celebrate his share in Easter.
The closing song of my dad's funeral mass will proclaim his belief, my belief,  and the belief of every faith filled Christian:
Sing with all the saints in glory,
sing the resurrection son!
death and sorrow, earth's dark story
to former days belong!
All around the clouds are breaking
soon the storms of time shall cease.
In God's likeness we, awaking,
know the everlasting peace!