Article for August 30, 2009

About five stone’s throws from my fifth grade home, a twenty-acre triangle of unincorporated woods was wedged, between a strip of homes on two sides, and a cornfield on the other.  Two substantial pathways cut like brown rivers through the oaks, maples, honey locusts, and sticker-bushes.  With a watchful eye, and slow enough gait, one could just make out a kind of tributary-like third pathway that subtly slit off from one of these two main corridors.  A wayfarer who stumbled upon this third passage would soon find himself winding into a hidden thicket.  Just beyond this tangle of weeds, bushes, and vines, in the heart of the woods, some area high school-aged boys had constructed a surprisingly sturdy clubhouse from purloined plywood, plastic, and two-by-fours.


Occasionally, as if we had just stepped off of the set of the movie, Stand by Me, my brothers and I would screw up our courage and dare one another to spy on the mysterious behavior of these older boys.  On days like this, we would imitate Fess Parker from one of our favorite shows of the time, Daniel Boone.  We would flit from tree to tree, “Mingo”-style (Daniel Boone’s mystical native friend) and then crawl on our bellies like reptiles until we were close enough to make out the camouflaged frame of the enemy’s fort.


Unlike Daniel Boone, or Davie Crocket (another one of Fess Parker’s characters) we were not really interested in scouting out the fort itself.  The territory we were trying to glimpse was the mysterious terrain of adolescence that awaited each of us a few steps down our own individual developmental pathways.


On one such adventure, the lack of noise and activity in the shelter eventually led us to take a closer look.  Like a scavenger from the bottom of the food chain raiding a larger carnivore’s still warm lair, we timorously inched our way forward to the forbidden threshold.  With wide eyes, and hearts beating in our ears, we tried the teenager’s temple door.  As it swung open, the good, honest maple syrup smell of a Midwestern woods was suddenly replaced with the co-mingled odors of sun-baked plywood and dirt.  We stepped through the frame and inspected the pirate’s booty of unsupervised adolescent adventures.  Here on the walls were purloined road signs and the accumulated items from countless neighborhood garages and sheds.  “Wasn’t that our life jacket gone missing about a month ago?”


But the thing that grabbed our attention was a stack of magazines over in the corner.  Like chickens that had just simultaneously spotted a June bug, we were on that stack quicker than you could say, “near occasion of sin.”  Sure enough, they were girlie magazines.  If my comrades had been anybody but my younger brothers, I suspect that I would have immediately sat cross-legged in the dirt, and begun uncovering the mysteries that a curious boy’s mind had been wondering about for years.  Miraculously, the inner-voice of Sister Mary Leonard overpowered the lower angels of my nature.  My brothers and I immediately took the stack to my mom who ceremoniously dumped them into the indoor trash container at my neighbor’s house.  My mom’s decision to discard them in an inaccessible location displayed her intimate understanding of the fickle nature of boyhood virtue.


In this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 7: 1-8; 14-15; 21-23), Jesus displayed a profound understanding of the fickle nature of fragile human virtue.  He described the relationship between the internal world of the soul, and external things.  He explained that external practices are not the sources of evil; evil emanates from the human heart.  And this is precisely why an intentional focus on external practice is so important to the maintenance of the human soul.


The things that we imagine and think in the internal world have a way of showing up in what we eventually do in the external world.  Conversely, the choices that we enact in the external world have a way of shaping the state of our soul in the internal world.  For we humans, there is an intimate, reciprocal-causal relationship between the internal and the external.


That is why it is essential to periodically take a step back from our cultural milieu and evaluate what it is unconsciously feeding our minds and imaginations through the course of our days.  The magazines my brothers and I stumbled upon in the 1970’s were, by today’s standards, not much worse than the slick pages that occupy the check out lanes in the grocery store.  With the click of a mouse, or the spin of an FM radio dial, a shot-glass full of a bottom-of-the-barrel-brand of sexuality is available on demand.  Most of us are aware of the need to protect our children from unwanted messages, or images.  But how many of us have developed an adult sensitivity to the subtle ways in which our culture forms us?  The need to periodically step out of the cultural soup in which we swim, is not limited to the realm of sexuality alone, and is not done merely for the younger members of our congregations


This week’s scriptural passage reminded us that we are made in the image and likeness of God, but we live in a culture that aims to remake us into another false image.  Our job is to not let that happen.



As a son or daughter of God, peace, patience, joy, and love are your birthrights.  Where have cultural influences begun to limit your capacity to experience these fruits of the Holy Spirit?


Do you know what it feels like to be tempted by consumerism?

Perhaps you have felt the call of consumerism when you have held a coveted name-brand in your hands and felt your heart beat just a little bit faster?  Maybe it was the grip of consumerism that you were feeling on the day when you were lonely, or sad, or dispirited, and you attempted to chase those feelings away through a shopping spree?   Have you ever experienced a vague sense of failure as you beheld your friend or relative’s more affluent life-style, and wondered why you were not as successful?  The temptation to quantify our own value based upon what we have, what we can buy, or what status our job provides us are all examples of consumerism.  A colleague of mine has described an attitude of consumerism relative to marriage in which we compare our spouse to other men or women to see if we married the right person.


Experiences like these are the finger-prints of our consumer culture on your soul.


“Us” Verses “Me-ism”

The closest English synonym for the word, “catholic,” is  “universal.”  The antonym for “Catholicism,” then, is “tribalism.”  Tribalism is not limited to regions of Afghanistan, or Africa.  Our own culture manifests the dark and ancient human tendency to establish the firm line between “Us” (i.e. all of those who think, act, speak, and/or look like me), versus “Them” (i.e. all of those who don’t do all of the above).  Do you find yourself engaged in subtle forms of tribalism?  Do you tune into a radio, or television talk show that vilifies someone labeled as “The Other?”  Do you look for common ground with your opponents, or do you find yourself drawing firm lines in the sand?  Could you summarize your opponent’s point of view in such a way that he or she (or they) would agree with your characterization of them?  Can you find good in your opponent and/or their point of view?  Do you hang around only with people who agree with you?


Constant Entertainment

Do you allow yourself the kinds of natural contemplation that used to be plentiful before the age of constant electronic media?  Do you turn off the car radio for quiet time with God?  When you walk, jog, or exercise, do you sometimes turn off the ipod to listen for the birds?  Do you frequently interrupt conversations to attend to cell phone calls?  When do you engage in totally unplugged quiet time?



In our culture, people wear their level of activity as a badge of honor.  The unconscious assumption below a frenetically busy lifestyle is, “my worth is positively correlated with my level of activity.”  So long as we are able-bodied and young, we can pretend that this fiction is true.  One would hope that with age comes enough wisdom to slow down, and put the lie to this fiction.  Instead, many elders read their inability to keep up with a frenzied culture as uselessness.  They feel worth less than those who can produce through frenzied schedules.  And so, the bitter fruit of this cultural habit is that it robs us of  our elders.

Is there a Sabbath built into your week?  Where do you take down time?  How much do you sleep?  When was the last time you had a long, meandering conversation?  Who do you know who truly takes time to slow down?  Who are the elders in your life?


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