About seriouslyseekinganswers

I am on a spiritual journey in which I'm questioning everything I think I know.

Book excerpt: Memes worth sharing

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

As I search for an appropriate Christian response to the polarization ripping apart our society, one question in particular confronts me: What can I do personally to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem?

I’ve decided one small step I can take is to examine my relationship with social media. As I’ve done so, I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion: I need to pay more conscious attention to what I post, share and “like” on sites such as Facebook. 

My research suggests that several culprits contribute to social media’s role in dividing us. Algorithms that create “echo chamber” bubbles of one-sided information and opinions. Viral spread of false or misleading information in “fake news” stories with click-bait headlines. Political “discussions” that amount to little more than judgmental blaming and shaming, name-calling, insults, character assassination and demonization of opponents.

But one of the biggest culprits? Endless memes promoting hateful and inflammatory messages.

On any given day when I go on Facebook, I can count on seeing at least a dozen memes from progressives and conservatives hurling insults and accusations at each other. The typical fare has become as predictable as rain in April.

Republicans are people too: Mean, selfish, greedy people.

It was so cold this morning I actually saw a Democrat with his hands in his own pockets.

Folks on both sides of the divide seem to relish in-your-face rudeness.

Excu-u-u-use me if my posts offend you, but the future of my country is more important than your precious feelings.

Misanthropes of all stripes show off their generalized contempt for anyone anywhere who disagrees with them about anything.

I lose track of how many times per day I want to say, “You can’t seriously be that stupid.”

The worst part? I have to admit I’ve been part of the problem from time to time. 

Until recently, I often found myself getting sucked into social media fights – even with people I ordinarily liked – over politics and contentious “hot-button” ideological issues.

Whenever a Facebook skirmish erupted – whether the trigger was a Supreme Court decision, debates about a political candidate’s suitability for office, or a crisis playing out in the news – my first instinct was to try and stay out of the fray. 

Alas, I tend to have strong opinions about a lot of issues (imagine that!) and sooner or later, someone would post a meme I couldn’t seem to resist sharing against my better judgment. Okay, I knew it was snarky. Maybe a bit judgmental or even mean. But it was SO clever.

Then, of course, someone on “the other side” would beg to differ with my assessment of the meme’s cleverness, and before I knew it, I was bogged down in another argument.

Finally, I made a decision: I would no longer post memes that “called out” or in any way disparaged other individuals or groups of people – even public figures considered to be fair game. I’ve been pretty disciplined about sticking with that resolution for the past couple of years.

I’ve also started to ask myself this question: What am I encouraging others to post by hitting the “like” button? Am I inadvertently enabling and rewarding name-calling, character assassination or polarizing comments? With that in mind, I no longer react to others’ memes that do any of these things.

On the other hand, I’m not totally against memes in and of themselves. Some make me laugh out loud, and we can all use a bit of humor after a stressful day – especially if we can have a good laugh without it being at someone else’s expense.

Here’s one of my all-time favorites.

So, in addition to avoiding negativity, I’ve decided to take a proactive approach to the meme-war issue. I’ve begun collecting positive memes and posting them on my own Facebook page’s newsfeed when the feuding gets especially fierce or obnoxious.

If I feel I must respond to a political meme (for example, one that I believe promotes dangerous misinformation), I make a conscientious effort not to insult the person who posted it.

For example, I love this meme. Unlike those that try to shame people who resist COVID safety measures, it uses humor to get the point across about the importance of masking without calling anyone names or assaulting their character.

When the meme wars on Facebook get particularly heated or nasty, I occasionally like to drop this favorite into my news feed, with some words of wisdom “attributed” to our 16th president.

However, I’ve come to believe that part of the problem fueling our culture wars is our modern emphasis on brevity.

It is hard to give a complex issue the depth it deserves when our communication is limited to 15-second sound bites, 280-character tweets, bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans. Or memes. And most hot-button issues are complex or they wouldn’t be “hot button.”

With that in mind, I usually prefer to post memes that have nothing whatsoever to do with political/ideological hot-button issues.

Cute animals are one of my favorite go-to subjects when I’m looking for something innocuously funny to share. I mean, who can resist this adorable kitten?

I can also change the subject to the weather. When I post this meme, Facebook friends like to dicker with me over whether the caption should read “Weather in Kansas” or “Weather in Colorado” rather than “Weather in Illinois.” But at least it’s a friendly argument.

I’ve found that Bible-verse memes can be a bit tricky – such a meme in direct response to someone else’s post can come across as hitting people with a “clobber verse.” (And we certainly wouldn’t want to do that, would we??)

But an occasional meme posted to my personal newsfeed – on its own rather than in response to anyone else’s post – can be a subtle, unobtrusive way to share Biblical wisdom in a society that needs to hear it.

Or I can demonstrate love of neighbor by posting a cheery feel-good message.

Religious memes can also be seriously funny. (Who says Christians don’t have a sense of humor?)

If I want to avoid Facebook nastiness, I’ve found I can’t go wrong with a bad pun – especially with some of my friends and relatives of all political stripes (they know who they are).

For a twofer, how about a bad pun that doubles as religious humor – with a cute animal tossed in for good measure?

I’ve found memes that help us laugh at our own foibles are great for sharing – like this one that gently ribs my urge to correct other peoples’ grammar.

Or my “old-timer” frustration with technology.

Finally, there’s always this piece of sage advice, which I may preface with the words “Note to Self.”

Just to clarify: When I say I no longer plan to “like” or share memes that keep the culture wars going, this doesn’t mean I plan to retreat from the political arena altogether.

I don’t plan to stop discussing hot-button issues in appropriate settings such as personal conversations, Bible study sessions or religious education classes. And I certainly don’t plan to look the other way in the face of injustice or forsake my favorite causes.

However, I do plan to stop enabling the trolling, the name-calling, the insults, the character assassination, the demonizing and scapegoating, and the gratuitous rudeness that have become a mind-numbingly routine part of our social media interactions. 

Fear-mongering, blame-gaming, and self-righteous outrage may be the norm on social media these days, but I have a choice whether to participate. Increasingly, I’m choosing not to.

The good news: If I want to share something on Facebook, I’m finding there are all kinds of memes that can make us laugh – or brighten our day or provide a bit of inspiration – without ridiculing or insulting or otherwise bashing anyone.

More good news: I now waste a lot less time arguing about politics with total strangers on Facebook.

Question for readers: What are some positive steps you’ve taken to avoid being part of the culture wars problem? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

A new commitment

Retirement had already represented a major transition. Now that my husband and I no longer punched a time clock, we had entered a new chapter of our lives and – as part of my spiritual direction journey – I had started asking myself a serious question: “What should this next chapter look like?”

Then COVID-19 upended our lives even more. After a year and a half of pandemic restrictions, Pete and I were beginning to feel like characters in the movie Groundhog Day – living the same day again and again … and again. Last fall, a scary hospital experience convinced both of us: “Groundhog Day is over!” Time to turn the calendar to a new day, we decided.

So, we embarked on something quite new and different: We began the formation process to join the Associates Program for the Dominican Sisters in our community.

Dominican Associates are people who embrace the Dominican traditions of prayer, study, community and ministry. Associates undertake individual volunteer ministries in their own churches/parishes and communities. They may also join the Sisters on committees and boards, work side-by-side with the Sisters in their ministries, or provide logistical support for the Sisters’ public events. 

As the Dominican Sisters’ website (link HERE) says – and I just love this: Associates “respond to God’s call to share the Gospel by preaching it through the witness of their lives.”

Pete and I had long admired the Dominican Sisters. During our 20-plus years of working for human service agencies (for me) and teaching at the local Catholic university (for Pete), we saw up close the many valuable contributions the Sisters made to our community (mentoring and helping not-for-profit organizations by serving as board members or in other volunteer capacities) and in other parts of the world (working with the Christian community in Iraq and Kurdistan).

Over the years, we also got to know some of the Sisters very well personally. One Sister in particular was a wonderful mentor to me professionally during my career in human services, coaching me on everything from how to manage a staff to locating possible funding sources for the agencies where I worked. We did lunch together often and she remains a personal friend. Two other Sisters have provided spiritual direction for Pete and me.  

When we learned that the Dominican Sisters were seeking applicants for their Associates Program, and that this opportunity was open to all baptized Christians, Pete and I very quickly decided we would be honored to partner with them in some way.

We completed a several-months-long formation process in which we learned about the dimensions of Dominican life as they are interwoven in study, prayer, community and ministry. The formation process concluded with a one-day retreat during which we were asked to discern the next step of commitment. Pete and I appreciated that the formation sessions were offered via Zoom so we could participate despite our pandemic restrictions.

One of the things we focused on as part of our formation process was discerning where God wants to use us next. We were asked to come up with “commitment statements” in which we agreed to join the Sisters in preaching the Word and witnessing Gospel values through various activities. These activities could include a renewed commitment to things we were already doing, or something entirely new.

Among other things, we learned that Associates in our community assist with the local Sisters’ social justice activities. A couple of these proved particularly attractive to Pete and me – the Sisters’ anti-racism efforts and their coordinating committee working on environmental issues. We decided we will join their efforts in these areas.

We will continue to be involved in our own church congregation as well, but in some rather new ways. When COVID broke out and many of our own church activities moved online, we found new ways to contribute our time and talents. I have been serving on our church’s community service committee (via Zoom) and helping keep our church’s micro pantry stocked. Since the beginning of the year, Pete and I have been leading an adult faith formation group on Zoom.

Our formation process as Dominican Associates was formalized and celebrated this past weekend through a commitment ceremony held in the convent’s beautiful chapel. In the photo below, I’m reading my commitment statements while my sponsor stands by my side.

Here are my commitments as I join the Sisters in preaching the Word and witnessing Gospel values:

  • Continuing with spiritual direction, in which I examine my relationship with God, prayer, my personal values, my investment decisions and various lifestyle choices.
  • Continuing to be an active member of my own church congregation by teaching (with Pete) a “Sundays @ 6” faith formation class offered via Zoom, serving on the congregation’s community service committee and helping with food pantry efforts.
  • Serving as a bridge-builder for peace and reconciliation through my writing, my interpersonal relationships and my involvement in social justice work. This will include participation in the Dominican Sisters’ anti-racism efforts.
  • Doing my part to preserve and protect the environment through my own habits, such as better recycling, environmentally-friendly gardening and lawn care, creating flower beds for pollinators and reducing our household’s use of fossil fuels. I will also be joining the Dominican Sisters in their Laudato Si’ Action Platform efforts.

Pete and I are definitely looking forward to this new chapter in our spiritual journey.

Another prayer of thanksgiving

Dear God,

I recently wrote a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the blessing of having my beautiful Olaf DaVinci in my life for 15 years (link HERE). Today, I’d like to offer another prayer of thanksgiving.

My little Champaign Le Chat has been such a source of comfort to me while I grieve the loss of his brother. And he’s definitely been a blessing to me in his own right.

Oley and Champaign were adopted together from an Animal Protective League shelter 15 years ago, and they were inseparable right up until Oley’s passing. So I’ve had I to remind myself that he is grieving as much as we are.

Champaign has his own story, which is pretty remarkable, actually. We have reason to believe he was abused in a previous home and it took time and lots of love to heal his fear of people.

But, as we would discover, love wins. Every time.

When we first encountered him at the shelter, the poor little guy was hiding under a chair. He trembled as I reached under the chair to pet him, but when I stroked his fur, he leaned into my hand, as if drinking in the affection. There was no way, however, that he planned to come out from his hiding place.

Once we got Champie home from the shelter, he took a long time to warm up to us. For the first two weeks, he hid in the basement, only coming up to eat when Pete and I were gone.

Fortunately, Oley cheerfully served as his guardian angel. The two liked to hang out together, and they loved to chase each other around the house while yowling loudly – especially at 3 a.m.

Slowly but surely, Champie finally came out of his shell. And when he did, he became quite the little character.

There’s nothing like being ignored by a cat, but he lets me know I’d better not ignore him! This little guy will actually hiss at me to let me know I need to pet him.

Sometimes in the morning when I’m getting dressed, he walks up to me, hisses at me, and then immediately hops up on the bed and rubs up against me, clamoring for attention. Too funny!

Here he sits, on his throne, the king of all he surveys.

He has a talent for finding the sunniest spots in the house. Here he is, rolling over and playing cute, as he basks in a shaft of light in the sunroom.

The Champ has made it known that a cat bed is whatever he decides it should be. (Cat beds purchased specifically for that purpose from Chewy? Boring!)

He loves to turn pillows into cat beds. This is one of my favorite photos – I like to call it “the Prince and the Pea.”

Speaking of cat beds, people clothes are the absolute best. He may have the whole bed to snooze on here, but Pete’s clothes prove too irresistible.

He often likes to station himself in my office as well, and does a superb job of monitoring me while I’m at my computer.

He can be such a sweet, silly boy! Sometimes he just sits in the litter box. Yep, just sits there, as if daring anyone to come into his territory.

Not to worry, the litter box was clean when this photo was taken. But still …

Champaign has never been a “lap cat,” even after deciding that Pete and I were safe. The few times I’ve tried putting him on my lap, he scrambles back off as quickly as he can.

But he does enjoy snuggling next to Pete and me in the evenings, and we get to take turns cuddling him. The former little scaredy-cat loves the attention. It’s like he’s making up for lost time.

One of his favorite snuggle-time activities is “helping” me read. He cuddles up next to me most nights while I’m reading myself to sleep, and sometimes in the afternoon during nap time.

To help our little Champie through the process of grieving for his brother, the vet has recommended we give him lots of hugs and snuggling, and we’ve been happily complying with doctor’s orders.

I think the love is helping both him and us. I know for sure it’s helping us, anyway!

With love and gratitude,

God’s other book: Jubilee Farm

What better way to spend a lovely spring day than walking around a little piece of Eden?

Jubilee Farm was established in 1999 by the Dominican Sisters in our community as a center for ecology and spirituality.

According to their web site (link HERE), the farm is designed to be “a peaceful destination, a place of integrity, a home to farm animals and wildlife, an educational resource, a demonstration of living in an ecologically responsible way, an oasis for spirituality, a special gift to those who seek solace and spiritual enrichment in nature.”

For Pete and I last weekend, the farm was also a just-plain-magical place to spend a warm sunny Sunday afternoon and snap lots of photos.

While we didn’t even begin to explore all 164 acres of this mini-paradise, we did get to meet some lovely farm animals. The llama and alpaca, below, provide fiber for the Sisters’ weaving and craft classes as well as plenty of friendly hospitality to guests who visit the farm.

In the photo below, we see more than a pretty little pond. Working together with the local university, the Sisters at Jubilee Farm are engaged in a long-term plan to revitalize the farm’s prairie areas, small wetlands and remnant oak savannas.

In the summer and fall, we’ll be able to see several species of native wildflowers in bloom.

Next to the farm’s entrance, we encountered about a dozen chickens, which the Sisters raise for eggs.

These hens came in a variety of beautiful colors and were very friendly, some of them coming up to greet us as we stood at the edge of the fence looking in.

Peering into a greenhouse, below, we could see tables full of herb, vegetable and flower seedlings grown from organic seeds with no chemicals.

The Sisters sell herbs and pollinator-friendly seedlings and engage in study to learn about sustainable agriculture and healthy foods. They also conduct vegetarian cooking classes.

Amiga, a gorgeous and very friendly tortoiseshell cat adopted from a local shelter, introduced herself to us early on.

She followed us everywhere and managed to appear in several of my photos. Of course, a creature as adorable as Amiga can “photobomb” all she wants to! Right?

One of the farm’s more amazing and popular features is an outdoor labyrinth. A labyrinth allows people (and certain creatures) to follow a defined pathway to the center of the circle and back out again, praying and meditating as we go.

For more than three millennia, millions of people have used labyrinths as an aid for prayer. The one at Jubilee Farm is mowed right into the grass, as pictured below.

All along one of the walking trails, we could see raptors silhouetted against the sky. We also found this “Peace Pole,” pictured below, which proclaims its message in six different languages.

Jubilee Farm has three major walking trails, the longest a half mile, and all trails have benches along the route where we can stop, rest and engage in spiritual reflection.

Nature prayer is one of my favorite kinds of prayer, and Jubilee Farm certainly lends itself to the practice. We already know that we will be visiting again and again.

A prayer of thanksgiving for a truly magnificent cat

Dear God,

My heart is broken!! Two weeks ago we said goodbye to our sweet Olaf DaVinci. I’m just now able to write about it.

I firmly believe animals are one of your great gifts to us, God, and I thank you for every day of the 15 years that this furry little friend and constant companion graced my life.

Oley was a big, beautiful, majestic and totally lovable Maine Coon cat with a flamboyantly irrepressible personality. He had a studious little face, thick luxurious fur and a magnificent plume of a tail. Here he is on the table in our sunroom, the king of all he surveys.

You first brought him into our lives at an Animal Protective League shelter when he was a year and a half old. He insisted on coming home with us. And I do mean insisted.

We had gone to the shelter looking for a cat to adopt and had spent at least a half hour petting a variety of cute kitties to see if one of them might choose us. When Pete sat down on the floor, Oley immediately hopped into his lap and began giving him repeated head butts, as if to say, “Me! Me! Me! Look no further!”

When we told the shelter staff we wanted Oley, they told us, “He has a friend.” They then introduced us to Champaign, a very frightened kitty who had been abused in his previous home and spent most of his time hiding under a chair to avoid being bullied by other cats.

Champie and Oley had formed a tight bond at the shelter and the staff said it would be really nice if they could be adopted together. So home we went, with two long-haired tomcats. We’ve never regretted that decision, despite a lot of shedding.

Champaign spent the first two weeks hiding in the basement, only coming upstairs to eat when Pete and I left the house, and it took quite a while for him to truly warm up to us. But Oley kept him company and Champie eventually came around. Now he’s a regular cuddle bear, thanks to some socialization from Oley as well as from us.

Oley and Champaign liked to hang out together when they weren’t negotiating territory. (They had the house, and us, neatly divided between them.) One of their favorite places was a chair in the sunroom.

A cat with a personality such as Oley’s naturally managed to acquire a number of nicknames. At the vet’s office, he was Mr. DaVinci. To us, he was Fluff Budget, Little Bud and Baby. Oley could do the “hang dog” look so well, another of his nicknames was Puppy Cat.

No matter what we were doing, Oley always wanted to be in the middle of it. If I was making the bed, he and Champie would both jump up and “help.” If I was sitting at my desk, Oley would literally tap my arm to let me know he wanted onto my lap. If I was sorting laundry, into the basket he’d hop. “Oley, do you need to be washed?” I would ask him.

God, this little cat you created didn’t just have a distinct, unique personality. He was a real character, in the best sense of the word. He was the most irrepressible kitty I ever met, bar none.

Here he is, hoping to persuade Pete to give him a bite of people food. (Cat food? Boring!) When friends came to the house, he would make the rounds, getting each guest to pet him and share tidbits of smoked salmon or cheese.

The camera couldn’t capture the way his cute little nose would work while he brazenly wheedled us for people food. But the photo below captures a little bit of his flamboyant boldness.

Usually during meals, he would start out sitting in the middle of the table, then inch closer to one of our plates very slowly, as if he thought we might not notice.

He loved his water straight from the tap. As he got older and a little arthritic, he had Pete trained to lift him up to the sink so he could have his sip.

According to Oley, one needed appropriate supervision in order to practice one’s instrument. Oley gladly provided this service.

Even the most onerous task can be made more endurable with the right assistance. Oley often helped Pete grade student papers.

He had a way of making sure I kept my priorities straight as well. Anytime I sat down at my desk or in my recliner, there he was. He loved sitting on my lap.

He could be really patient when he needed to indulge his humans a little. Pete and I have a habit of kissing our kitties on the head to show them how much we love them, and just because they’re so darn cute. The oh-so-patient look on Oley’s little face when we did this to him was priceless.

Our cats have always seemed to know when one of us is sick or sad and needs company or comforting. Here, both Oley and Champaign joined me the day I got home from gallbladder surgery.

Oley sat in my lap for hours and let me stroke his soft fur as I mourned the loss of both my parents, followed by at least a dozen family members and close friends during this ghastly pandemic.

One of best things our sweet Oley did was join me for morning meditation. I had already developed a meditation ritual when he came to us – sitting in my recliner with a cup of coffee by my side while I journaled about my priorities for the coming day. And Oley, being Oley, wanted to be right in the middle of it.

For 15 years, my little cat burrowed his way into my morning ritual, sitting in my lap while I journaled and prayed. Sometimes Pete would join us as well, serenading us with his dulcimer. (I wish I had a picture of this.)

Champie always looked up to Oley, and frankly, so did we. In the end, when Oley’s health began to deteriorate, he would prove to be such a brave little trouper as I tried medical interventions that would help him for a while. He certainly taught me some things about life.

The Bible in several places talks about animals on the other side of eternity – lions lying down with lambs, cows and bears grazing together and children safely playing with all of them. I just know Oley is there right now.

I love to imagine that the first thing Oley did when he met Jesus was to jump into his lap and greet him with some serious head butts.

God, I will always be grateful for the wonderful gift you gave us when you blessed us with our beautiful Olaf DaVinci. Today, as I try through my tears to count my blessings, I certainly count this magnificent little creature to be one of those blessings.

With love and gratitude,

More recipe kit ideas

In a previous post, I wrote about the micro food pantries that are popping up outside churches, schools and businesses in communities around the country (link HERE).

Then I added a post about stocking your local micro pantries or food pantries with the same kind of meal kits or recipe kits offered by meal delivery services such as Sunbasket, HelloFresh or Blue Apron (link HERE).

Meal kits or recipe kits are great for micro pantries and food pantries because it is often hard for people using the pantries to find all the ingredients they need to make a particular recipe.

From time to time, as I think of ideas for meal kits or recipe kits, I will share them. Here are a couple of ideas for meal kits, one for Chili 3-Way and one for Tuna Tetrazzini, using all nonperishable ingredients.

The Chili 3-Way recipe is one of my favorite go-to recipes at our own house when we’re in a hurry and need something quick. For the pantry recipe bag, I would add a second can of chili to make the recipe large enough to feed a larger family if necessary.

For the Tuna Tetrazzini, one can put a box of the Tuna Helper and a family-size packet of tuna in a gallon freezer bag, and assume the family has the milk and butter called for in the recipe already in their fridge. But one could also add powdered milk, along with olive oil to replace the butter. That way the person picking up the bag will be sure to have everything needed. (I use olive oil instead of butter myself. Healthier!)

Question for readers: Do you have any great ideas for recipe kits for food pantries or micro pantries? Please share your suggestions in the comments section below.

God’s other book: February friends

We hadn’t gotten much snow at all for most of this winter. Just a dusting or two. But the month of February made up for lost time – two major snowstorms just a few days apart.

What I really love, in addition to the beautiful scenery, are those hardy wildlife friends who stick around for the winter rather than flying south or hibernating out of sight.

They are brave …

Good thing God gave all those little birds some warm feathers and outfitted the squirrels with fur coats. Brrrrr!!

Book excerpt: Creating God in our own image

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

During my participation in Bible study groups, 12-Step meetings and spiritual direction sessions, I have frequently been encouraged to evaluate different concepts of God. Most discussions have tended to focus on a pair of competing images – Loving God versus Angry God.

The benevolent Loving God provides for our every need and wants us to love and care for each other. John 3:16 tells us God “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The Angry God of my childhood understanding, on the other hand, was a short-tempered bully who frankly hated people and regretted having created us. This ‘God’ reserved an especially hot place in you-know-where for kids who asked “Why?” when told by an adult to do something.

Critically evaluating the ideas we hold about God can be a valuable exercise. Many of us who grew up with the image of a perpetually angry and capricious bully have benefitted from advice often heard around the tables at 12-Step meetings: “It may be time to fire the ‘God’ of our childhood understanding and meet the real one.”

Lately, I’ve noticed another “God” wreaking havoc in the U.S.: The Culture Warrior God. This false god, I’ve come to believe, is responsible for fueling much of the toxic polarization in both our churches and our secular society.

CULTURE WARRIOR GOD appeals to our self-righteous instincts and our resentments, as well as our desire to fit in with peers. This god has many faces:

  • The god who plays favorites. Culture Warrior God favors one special group of people over all others, and – by some stroke of luck, coincidence or superior righteousness – the favored group just happens to be the group we belong to or identify with. This group may be our own church congregation or denomination. (Not to worry: Culture Warrior God assures us that members of those other denominations aren’t real Christians anyway.) But the favored group may also be a nation, a racial or ethnic group, a political party or followers of an ideological movement.
  • The god who dabbles in politics. Culture Warrior God just happens to be a card-carrying member of our own political party or ideological camp and – to make it easier for us to conflate our religious beliefs with our political agenda – has personally authored a creed that includes 650 boxes for us to check. We may suspect parts of the “creed” were developed by bending and twisting Biblical teachings until they conform to our political party’s platform. But if this editing process makes us nervous, it’s best not to say anything, lest we be cast into the outer darkness for eternity. Or canceled by our peers in Culture Warrior God’s chosen group. (Peer pressure is certainly not limited to junior high school.)
  • The god who hates Those People. Culture Warrior God encourages us to reject and condemn anyone who votes for the wrong candidate in an election, refuses to check every single one of the above-mentioned 780 boxes, or otherwise fails to look, act and think the way we do. One way to hold these nefarious transgressors accountable is to publicly call out their sins on a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter and invite others to pile on. Yes, we know the Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, and only those who haven’t sinned should cast stones. But Culture Warrior God assures us that Those People’s sins are WAY more egregious than our own. Besides, stone-casting helps signal to our peers how virtuous we are.
  • The god whose “messengers” mustn’t be questioned. If the leaders of Culture Warrior God’s chosen group say something is true, then it’s true. Period. Never mind if the Bible says something a bit different. We must never challenge even one of the 870 boxes we are asked to check as a condition of sitting at the popular kids’ table. (Ever notice how the number of boxes keeps growing? Best not to mention that little detail either.) Unlike the members of all those hundreds of other Christian denominations, we can trust we have the corner on the Ultimate Truth because Culture Warrior God has told us repeatedly our group is the only one that really “gets it.”

I HAVE TO ADMIT  that the contrarian in me often finds it easier to articulate what I don’t believe than to discern what I do believe. But I think I can safely say it’s time to fire the Culture Warrior God of our adult creation, right along with the Angry Bully God of our childhood nightmares.

What the many faces of Culture Warrior God add up to is a god created in our own image.

It’s tempting to believe this particular form of idolatry is limited to fringe cults like Westboro Baptist Church or white Christian nationalist movements. But if we’re completely honest, we must admit this thinking can pose a challenge for all of us, even if we identify ourselves with a traditional brand of Christianity such as mainline Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal or Orthodox. And Culture Warrior God’s siren song can appeal to us whether we lean toward the conservative or progressive side of the political spectrum.

One problem is that many of us subconsciously anthropomorphize God – that is, give God human characteristics. (Does an elderly white man with a long beard and flowing robes come to mind?) We also tend to cherry-pick Biblical teachings that match our biases – whether intentionally or not – while reflexively ignoring those inconvenient passages that challenge our cherished worldview.

Given the combination of our human limitations and our human egos, is there a way for us not to create God in our own image, at least to some extent? Is there a way to avoid putting our own spin on Biblical teachings? How do we know when we – or the group we belong to – might be doing these things?

Here are some clues I’ve come to recognize as red flags:

  • When any belief system claims God favors one group of people exclusively. (If I’m interpreting Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 correctly, God does not favor any one group of people over any others.)
  • When God starts sounding too much like a conservative Republican, a progressive Democrat or a member of any other secular political party or ideological movement. (We’d do well to focus on following the Lamb, not an elephant or a donkey.)
  • When we secretly believe in our heart of hearts that our own little group of believers – out of the thousands in existence – is the only one that gets everything completely right.
  • When we choose our congregation based on how closely its interpretation of Biblical truth aligns with our political beliefs – or at least refrains from challenging them. (For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine,” warns 2 Timothy 4:3-4. “But having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.”)
  • When a group or leader discourages questions. (A group whose leaders or truth claims can’t be scrutinized or challenged is not a religion – or even a legitimate political party or ideological movement. It’s a cult.)
  • When we feel a bit too much glee at the prospect of God punishing someone who doesn’t share our views. (A former pastor at my church once observed that some people take as much comfort in the idea of certain other peoples’ eternal damnation as they do in the idea of their own salvation.)
  • When God agrees with us on every single controversial issue and disapproves of all the same people we do. (This should be a dead giveaway.)
  • When a group hands us one of those lists titled “People God Hates.” (We can confidently pitch said list in the recycle bin. ’Nuff said.)

PERHAPS ONE ANTIDOTE to our tendency to create God in our own image is a dose of humility. While I do believe there is an Ultimate Truth, no mere human being, including me, will ever have a corner on it – at least not on this side of eternity. “For now we see through a glass darkly,” 1 Corinthians 13:12 reminds us.

We can also use the mind God gave us to develop our critical thinking skills. When people say we mustn’t question God’s will, I suspect what some of them really mean is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” Whether or not we question God’s will, we can certainly question another human being’s interpretation of it. Sometimes this is exactly what we need to do.

If we want to take the first step toward healing the divisions in our churches and our larger society, we need to stop asking, “Is God on our side?” Instead, we need to ask, “Are we on God’s side?”

Question for readers: What helps you avoid the pitfall of creating God in your own image? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Spiritual direction: The journey continues

As I begin the new year, one of my priorities is to resume the spiritual direction journey I began nearly five years ago.

Spiritual direction is a partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. Several factors led to my own decision to seek such direction: the transition in focus and priorities prompted by my retirement; the “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something, losing loved ones and developing chronic health problems myself; and the internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.

For three years, I met monthly with my spiritual director for one-hour sessions in which we discussed everything from trying new prayer techniques to eliminating clutter to improving creativity. Sister M. offered a variety of suggestions for homework assignments, allowing me to choose which ones I might find most helpful. Sometimes she would have me write my thoughts about a topic. Other times she might have me create an image, or take my camera and go for a walk. She recommended various reading materials as well.

Then the COVID-19 lockdown commenced in March of 2020 and put a stop to any face-to-face meetings. Six months after that, sadly, Sister M. died. While I found her homework assignments and reading suggestions enormously helpful, what I found most valuable of all was her completely nonjudgmental attitude as I grappled with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. And I know she would want me to continue my journey.

So a month ago – after a hiatus of more than a year – I had my first session with Sister K., my new spiritual director. To help us get started, I’ve written an overview of what I worked on with Sister M., where I am right now and where I want to go from here.

These are some of the main issues Sister M. and I worked on:

  • Doubt. For most of my life, I had been pretty sure there was a God. Yet, nagging doubts about God’s existence continued to creep in from time to time. Sister M. allowed me to discuss this issue frankly and honestly – without passing the slightest hint of judgment.
  • Prayer. We explored a variety of prayer techniques, some familiar and others new to me. Among them were meditation, prayers of petition and intercession, prayers of thanksgiving, writing and journaling as a form of prayer, nature prayer, and practicing better mindfulness in church. For more detailed descriptions of our work on prayer, click HERE and HERE.
  • Clutter. We discussed how to eliminate clutter of all kinds, from the physical clutter in my house to my overloaded and chaotic schedule to the various kinds of spiritual clutter that distracted me from my priorities and threatened to crowd attention to God out of my life. Click HERE to see a fun and illuminating homework assignment Sister M. gave me.
  • My writing. From age 10 onward, I’d dreamed of writing a book. More than 50 years later, that goal was … still on my bucket list. So, with encouragement from Sister M, I decided it was time. My book – with the working title We Need to Talk – will examine the polarization ripping apart our society and share my personal search for an appropriate Christian response.
  • A toxic situation. For several years I had dedicated an average of 5-10 volunteer hours per week to a local not-for-profit organization and contributed hundreds of dollars. While not church-related, the organization served a cause dear to my heart, and I had previously thought nurturing its development might be a significant part of God’s plan for my retirement years. However, warring factions within the organization seemed more focused on vanquishing each other than they were on the mission, and I needed to make a decision about my continued involvement.

For a while, my spiritual progress felt agonizingly slow – at least to me. But when I step back and look at the whole three years, I realize I’ve actually made quite a few strides. I’ve also gotten much more comfortable with the idea of incremental progress. Baby steps, Sister M. would say.

Here’s where I am right now:

  • Reassurance. I’ve discovered that going outside is something I can easily do whenever I encounter those pesky doubts about God’s existence. I can watch sunsets. Listen to cicadas. Smell flowers. Take a walk and feel the breeze against my face. Experience evidence of God with all my senses. (Click HERE to read my post about nature prayer.) For me, finding a way to effectively address my occasional doubts has been huge.
  • Regular meditation. I had already developed a morning meditation ritual – sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cat in my lap and a cup of coffee by my side while I journaled about my priorities for the coming day. I’ve now added evening meditation as well, and I’ve become much more disciplined about including at least one meditation session per day. Click HERE to read my post about meditation.
  • A clean house. Sister M. recommended I devote one hour – and only one hour – each weekday to sorting through “stuff.” While I haven’t yet tamed all the clutter (I still have several boxes marked “miscellaneous” in the basement waiting to be sorted), my house at least looks presentable most of the time.
  • An abundance of writing. Since beginning my spiritual direction journey, my creativity has soared. I’ve posted more than a hundred entries to my blog and have written several book excerpts. To read about my book project, along with some excerpts, click HERE.
  • Photography. As I engaged in nature prayer, I also acquired a new hobby – photography. I even invested in a new camera with a 40X zoom, which has allowed me to capture stunning close-up photos of birds and other wildlife. For the past couple of years, I’ve been posting some of my favorites on my blog under the heading “God’s Other Book.” For examples, click HERE and HERE.
  • Freedom from abuse. After five years of relentless conflict and escalating abuse at the above-mentioned organization where I volunteered, I had to admit the organization’s dynamics were never going to change. And no matter how worthy the cause, I was doing untold damage to both myself and my other relationships by continuing to participate. With much sorrow, and after consulting with my spiritual director, my pastor and a valued mentor, I walked away. Summoning the self-respect and courage to walk away from an abusive situation was an enormous step for me.

So what’s next, as I resume my spiritual direction journey? Mostly, I’d like to maintain and build on my progress. Here are some things I’d like to focus on:

  • Surviving COVID-19. I need to figure out how to live with this never-ending pandemic. I’m slowly beginning to grasp the reality that things aren’t getting “back to normal” anytime soon – if ever – so we all might as well adjust to “the new normal.” What should that look like? How do my husband and I continue to have useful, worthwhile and abundant lives while at the same time protecting our own health and the safety of others?
  • Self-care. 1 Corinthians 6:19 reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and my medical adventures of the past few years have sent an unmistakable message that I need to take better care of mine. Toward that end, I’ve been experimenting with recipes designed to make healthy eating more enticing. After much adjusting and tweaking of ingredients, I’ve managed to come up with a few recipes that I share on this blog from time to time (examples HERE).
  • Values clarification. From the beginning, I have been questioning all kinds of dogma, from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological, and I would like to continue this discernment process. For me, this has started with questioning a lot of things I thought I knew, along with values other people – whether liberal or conservative – want me to hold. I want to develop a value system that both my rational mind and my conscience can accept, rather than simply parroting a set of values that will let me fit in chameleon-like with my peers and surroundings.
  • My writing. I want to keep working on my book. The excerpts I’ve written so far have outlined why I think our society’s culture wars are so damaging. As I keep writing, I want to focus on additional questions: How do we engage people who disagree with us, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? Even if we think someone’s values are totally wrong, how do we change hearts and minds if we demonize certain people and won’t have anything to do with them? And perhaps more importantly, how do we as Christians avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grows ever more partisan and angry?
  • Service to others. For the past couple of years, I’ve participated in our church’s community service committee, and my husband and I will soon begin teaching an adult faith formation class. We are also training to become part of the Associates Program for the Dominican Sisters in our community. Associates assist, among other things, with the Dominicans’ social justice activities. One of the things we’ll focus on as part of our training is discerning where God wants to use us next.

I’m ready to get started!