Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hide in Plain Sight

 What's he think?

 Every year in Wednesday Night Sunday School we cover this bit of Isaiah:

"The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master's manger; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand."

And connect  it to these bits of Luke:

"And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn."

"And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."

See, Luke mentions the manger twice so we can understand the birth of Jesus in the context of chapter 1 of Isaiah: here's the Messiah right here in this manger, he's the master, nobody knows about it but dumb animals and the like. That is, Luke says manger to point out something from the past. I mean, what other reason would Luke have for bothering us with where Mary happened to plop Jesus? But he specifies manger to also say something about the future. I've been teaching Catechism of one sort or another since the late 90s, and don't think I've ever mentioned this other connection about mangers and Jesus:
 Miracle bread in Bethlehem*, get it? No? How about this:

Miracle bread and flesh, see? No? OK then, this:

You know: "the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." Of course the dumb-yet-French-speaking ox and ass knew perfectly well all along that you put food in a manger**. But that would be Isaiah's point: sometimes the dumb and lowly know better than their betters.
*Bethlehem:  בֵּית  לֶחֶם Beyth Lechem, House [of] Bread.

**Manger: French, to eat.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Greenville-Ephrathah 11

 Li'l 'phrathah

Recent news:

"A federal appeals court in Washington has reinstated the lawsuits for two religious colleges challenging a federal law that would compel them to cover contraception, abortifacients and sterilization in their employee health-insurance plans...During oral arguments Tuesday, HHS lawyers promised that the government would “never enforce” the mandate in its current form against Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school in Illinois, or Belmont Abbey, a Catholic liberal arts college in North Carolina." (National Catholic Register)

But what makes the story Ephrathah-worthy?

Last week I was listening to one of the local Fundamentalist radio stations; their format is music, news, and gospel-preaching. When Catholicism comes up, it's in the context of its false teachings. In fact right now, the radio preacher is saying we've become our own priests and don't need a priest in a box. Straight to Jesus, amen! That's fine with me: I'm glad they just say what they mean. But when their newsman introduced the above ruling, he said it was in favor of "two Christian colleges," which he then proceeded to name. It would've been easy enough say a Christian college and a Catholic college, which is what I would've expected. It's a small thing; but not less significant to me for its smallness.

Kind of like the first Ephrathah.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hommage au Chacal

This scope lets me see nearly 40 years into the future

Five or six nights a week, My Fabulous Wife and I will watch an episode of something on Roku or Netflix. Lately we've been watching Season 1 of Homeland, and I've noticed some homages to a few of my favorite movies. 

The first homage I recognized is based on this line from 1974's Chinatown: "When Mulvihill here was sheriff of Ventura County, the rum runners landed hundreds of tons of booze on the beach and never lost a drop. He oughta be able to hold on to your water for you." (Jake Gittes) In one of the first episodes of Homeland, Carrie (IIRC) makes a similar snide remark about a cop she thinks is corrupt, or at best, incompetent. She paraphrases the Chinatown line into a reference to illegal drugs.

Next is from 1972's The Godfather: 

"Hey, listen, I want somebody good - and I mean very good - to plant that gun. I don't want my brother coming out of that toilet with just his **** in his hands, alright?" (Sonny Corleone). In Homeland, Carrie and an FBI agent are arguing about a SWAT team fiasco. One of them uses the same vulgar imagery as Sonny to describe the hapless shooters.

After these two, I was primed for any other homages I might recognize. Then last night in Episode 9, "Crossfire," a scene opens with a sniper in the woods. I pause the show, and tell Janet, "This is going to be an homage to Day of the Jackal (1973). He's going to set up a target on a tree, then zero in his scope. He'll take two shots, adjusting his scope after each one; then take a third shot which will hit the bull's eye." I press Play, and- he does just as I expected. 

Near the end of the episode, the sniper fires another shot, this time with his rifle held steady by resting the barrel on a knife he has stuck into a tree. This is yet another Jackal homage based on the image at the top of the page, where the assassin steadies his rifle by tying the barrel against a tree.

Always fun to see that moviemakers and I like the same movies.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review 2, Sort Of

Originally posted at New Evangelizers on Dec. 13

I read a Whole Lotta Books, but most of them aren't germane to my blog content. And if you want a review of Neptune's Inferno or Korsun Pocket, there are plenty out there that I can't improve on.

On the other hand, the New Evangelization Thing absorbs lots of my free time via 6th-grade Catechism class; and before that, teaching RCIA and Adult Ed with an explicitly Evangelical context. Although back in the late '90s when my wife and I were doing that, we didn't speak of, and I don't think we even had heard of, the New Evangelization. We were simply about helping old and new Catholics understand their faith in a way that enabled them to explain it to their decidedly un-Catholic friends and family.

It's only been in the last 10 years or so that I became aware of the phrase "New Evangelization;" JP2 first used the term about 30 years ago. I didn't know! Regardless, the Bible-Belt Catholic world I inhabit has had an Evangelical posture at least at the margins for what, 15 years or more? So it ain't all that New around here anyway.

About 8 years ago our parish had a 'Called and Gifted' workshop put on by the Siena Institute. It's 'designed to help Christians discern the presence of charisms in their lives.' I didn't attend, already having discovered that my charism was making 6th-graders suffer in Catechism class. But I thought the whole premise was intriguing, and later bumbled into Siena's website and blog. The blog was an eye-opener for me: Siena staff held Called and Gifted events all over the Anglosphere, and the blog was full of close-up observations of worldwide Catholicism: some encouraging, some pretty bleak. Now this was amazing to me because virtually all my friends in Upstate S.C. are gung-ho Catholics; time-treasure-talent Catholics; motivated, energized Catholics. And there are dozens and dozens of them: last Christmas/ New Year's we had two drop-in parties, invited about 100 of our "closest Catholic friends" and still couldn't invite everyone we wanted to.

One day at Siena's blog, founder Sherry Weddell posted about a lonely fired-up Catholic somewhere who didn't know a single other fired-up soul in his parish; and I commented how shocking that was, since my S.C. parish has more than you can shake a stick at. She asked if I belonged to St. Mary's parish in Greenville (she had done the Called and Gifted program here). I said yes, and Sherry remarked that it was not a typical parish.Well, yeah: but that atypical? And there are parishes that apathetic? 

In the meantime I was hearing more about the New Evangelization, which was an idea that harmonized well with my observations and goals in 6th grade Catechism class. I believe the Church is caught in a generational riptide where indifferently-catechized adults are indifferently-catechizing kids; who then grew up to be indifferently-catechized adults, etc. I'm not saying that Institutional Catechism is incompetent, but I am saying it's not very compelling by the time it goes into children's ears. At least I don't find it compelling. And my class goal is explicitly that the kids not just learn their faith, but learn it in a compelling way; and prepare now to evangelize later. I tell them in the first class that they have to pay attention and learn everything they can because I expect them to grow up to be catechists and evangelizers. And they start with their parents: their homework is to tell their parents what they learn. Breaking the riptide must start here and now, and will be a big part of the New Evangelization.

But I tell you what: I've read and heard hundreds of thousands of words about the New Evangelization on video, in print, and in person. And it all strikes me as 95% recycled generic Catholic information with a new name slapped on it. Or a lot of exhortation: like a football coach motivating his team in the locker room. Which is fine, but if the coach hasn't first trained his individual players in how to execute, they'll just get their asses whupped, exhortation or not.

So this brings me to the book, Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell.

I first heard the term 'Intentional Disciple' at the Siena blog. It's the best one I know of to describe the sort of lay Catholic without whom there will be no New Evangelization, just a lot of talk about the New Evangelization. I like to say 'fired-up Catholic' or 'motivated Catholic;' but 'Intentional Disciple' is much better. Now Sherry could have defined that term on page 1, and then exhorted us to be intentional disciples and get out there and be New Evangelizers or whatever for another 249 pages, but she doesn't. She and her staff have been training, working with, and listening to, thousands of individual Catholics for more than a decade. So her book is based on that accumulated one-on-one, boots-on-the-ground experience.

Sometimes I tell My Fabulous Wife, "Bein' married t'you ain't like being married t'other women;" which is a compliment. Likewise, reading Forming Intentional Disciples isn't like reading other books on the New Evangelization. Which is also a compliment. The first few chapters describe the indifference and lassitude of the vast majority of the Catholic laity. Some info is statistical (not too much), but Sherry also includes lots of personal testimony from Catholics she has interviewed. Stuff I never heard of and would not have guessed at; and I expect most Catholics wouldn't guess at, either.

Then she describes real people and real parishes where things were turned around by small groups of...intentional disciples. At this point she could exhort you, the reader, to make a bunch of intentional disciples, turn around your parish and get busy with the New Evangelization! But she doesn't: the bulk of the rest of the book describes a step-by-step process of, you guessed it, actually Forming Intentional Disciples. Some of it is managerial and general, but there's lots of specific, interpersonal stuff in it as well, such as:

  • Talk explicitly about Jesus. 
  • Questions to ask people to draw them out about how their faith is lived (or not).
  • How to listen.
  • The stages people go through to become intentional disciples, and how to recognize where an individual is in that process. And again, these chapters are full of examples of real people in real parishes. 

The last chapter is titled 'Expect Conversion,' which would be a vacuous exhortation except that it is preceded by 11 substantial chapters containing concrete steps, specific advice, and real-life examples of what is already being accomplished by parishes using Siena's system. Particulars aside, the main reason I like this book is that it plops the responsibility for New Evangelizing right where it belongs: in the lap of the laity. And having done so, it then shows how the laity can get the job done. Not by talking about the New Evangelization, but by generating a critical mass of intentional disciples in one's parish. Based on my experience, if a parish has that, the rest happens of its own accord.

I'm not going into more detail. I'll close by saying that any Catholic who wants to see his or her parish become salt and light to the world would find Forming Intentional Disciples both an interesting read and a useful guide.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pitchers 15: Shoot

We want a real Messiah

Here's the board from the 11/28/12 Isaiah class. This is when the kids remind me that the Jews want the good old days back, when David and Solomon whipped Israel's enemies, and the Chosen People weren't little dogs living in a big-dog world. Some drawing accompanies me reading a series of Isaiah prophecies while the children figure out what they might mean.

The lower left sketch shows how highway builders trim down the high points and use that material to fill the low points to make a smoother road, as in: "prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level."

Above that is the Temple on the Mountain, both of which figure repeatedly in Isaiah.

To the right is the sort of Messiah/ Mashiah/ Christos/ Anointed One which the Jews are hoping God will send them: a fighter who's gonna get Israel some payback from the likes of Babylon. Once this cartoon is drawn, we start on the prophecies.

"Y'all tell me who David's daddy was. Joseph! No, but close...Jesse!  Yes. And David's son? Solomon!  Yes again. And what sort of Messiah were the Jews hoping for? One like David and Solomon. Yes. Now we're going to learn about a lot of Isaiah's prophecies to see what sort of Messiah the Jews were actually going to get.

Y'all tell me about the Jesse Tree from last week. It's a tree that grows out of Jesse and Jesus is at the top. Yes...here's Jesse, he's kind of lying on a sofa so the tree can grow out of him...here's the tree, it goes way up. That doesn't look like a person! So what? I just said it's Jesse. Use your imaginations, you're 6th-graders. Anyway, Israel's enemies have conquered Israel, and cut the tree down (I erase it). All that's left is...this...stump. There ya go. I need the green marker now...OK, what would Israel like to happen to this cut-down tree? For it grow big again? Yes, like so, tall and green with a conquering King at the top. But let's hear what Isaiah has to say about this stump: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse..." Do y'all know what a shoot is? No? Look, it's like this...just a little green sprout with a leaf or two:

Could you build a house from that sprout, that shoot? No it's too flimsy. Make a fishing pole? No it's too small. So what's it good for? Nothing. Right, it's not very practical. But who is that little shoot coming out of Jesse's stump? David? Umm, no, this is a prophecy, David's in the remote past. Ummm...Jesus!  Yes! So why is Jesus a little green shoot instead of a big strong tree? Isn't the Messiah supposed to be big and strong? Yes! So...? Well, Jesus wasn't big and strong. Right. Isaiah is telling Israel that the big strong David and Solomon tree isn't coming back, but a humble little twig will grow that's related to Jesse and his kingly descendants."

With this foundation we then look at about a half-dozen Jesus-specific prophecies, time permitting. The little shoot sets the mood for the rest of them. Now I could have just said hey, listen to this verse, it means that Jesus is meek and humble like a little sprout and he's not what the Jews expected in a Messiah. But the kids learn so much better if they can access the emotional content, and see some fast sketching that helps them think.

As you can see, even bad drawings work well with narration.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Greenville-Ephrathah 10: World Premiere

 Li'l 'phrathah sez: Git fired up 'bout Evangelizin'!

Saint Mary’s Catholic Church will host George Weigel for his premier lecture on his new book Evangelical Catholicism : Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church. For more information about the event, click here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lesson Plan on the Fly

I have a syllabus of sorts for the whole year, but it's rare that classes start or end as predicted. So before every class I take a look at where we left off and make a quick lesson plan based on that. Here's the one for Dec. 12, which took only a few minutes to work out:

1. Isaiah Xmas- Last week we finished the Old Testament by reviewing a bunch of prophets and prophecies, right up to the last words of the last book. But I didn't cover any of Isaiah's Christmas prophecies because I save them for the last class before Christmas.

2. Review O.T.- Then we'll close out the Old Testament by reviewing the whole thing in about 10-15 minutes, starting with God before Creation, and ending with Malachi's prophecies:

"Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts."


"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes."

Mostly I just prompt the kids: "and then what/ who's next/ what's this mean?" They usually surprise me with how well they remember.

Intro N.T. - A few minutes of big-picture discussion about how the N.T. will be different from the O.T.; but also how they complement each other. I may compare them to the husband & wife in a marriage.

3. Imm. Conception- Part of the N.T. intro involves figuring out why the Immaculate Conception thematically lies between the O.T. & N.T., but is not mentioned in the Bible. I usually pull in some discussion of the Annunciation as well, just enough for them to see how the two are related, but separate, events.

& Isenheim-  I'll hand out an image of the Annunciation from the Isenheim Altarpiece. It shows how Mary is a hinge between the two Testaments based on symbolic elements which the kids can figure out. We'll also use this to discuss the Annunciation, and analyze another batch of elements. We also look at and act out a terrific portrait of Eve and Mary, emphasizing how the two women represent the Testaments. We also use this picture to discuss Mary's pregnancy. The images work well as a pair to transition from the O.T. to the N.T.

4. John the Baptist- for the first time this year, the kids will hear me read from the New Testament as we get started not with Jesus, not with Mary, not with John; but with John's parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Time permitting, we'll start on the Annunciation once Elizabeth is pregnant.

Isenheim & Mary/Eve- these rectangled words reminded me to put together this side-by-side handout of these two images:

 Eve and Mary by Sr. Grace Remington, O.C.S.O; and the left-hand panel of the second configuration of Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece

That's all the Lesson Plan I'll need. I've taught this material before; so yes, it's sketchy, but it's enough.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas & Epiphany

(Yes, that Christmas; but no, not that Epiphany.)


Years ago the mother of one of my students (Abby) made me a terrific little thank-you note which still sits on the base of my computer screen. I should mention that Abby was a Very Good Student. She must be about 19 years old now, a young woman.

This year I am teaching Abby's younger sister, Katie. We're getting close to Christmas, and before Wednesday night's class started, I received another thank-you from their mother; this time in the form of a Christmas-tree ornament. I'll have to tie it around the base of my computer screen.

G.K. Chesterton fans, eat ya hearts out...and uh, Merry Christmas!


In class we we covered bits of prophecy by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi. I read each passage and the kids figured out what each one prophesies. Mostly they anticipate something about Jesus, but not always. This is the bit I read from Daniel:

"...lo, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him... Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads stood before him."

The kids will readily connect this to the Second Coming. I'll say a bit about the 'son of man,' and tell them to look out for Jesus quoting Daniel after he's arrested. ("I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his robes, and said, "He has uttered blasphemy.")

But before I could get to any of that, Abby's-younger-sister-Katie blurted out, "That's the same as the song at church last Sunday!" And I'm looking at her: huh? what? Last Sunday we had that song! Umm...ok...yes, yes, we did, genius daughter, this one!" and I sang the opening verse, more or less:

"Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
something-something of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign."

"That's an Advent hymn! Yes daughter, we just started Advent last week! The words are based on Daniel’s prophecy! You are too smart! By the way y'all, lots of hymn lyrics are taken from the Bible, so pay attention, you may recognize stuff from class in the hymns. And if you do, you will of course point it out to your parents."  

I should mention that like her sister Abby, Katie is a Very Good Student.