The Journey series
I didn't start today's Mustard Seed until after finishing my yardwork before tomorrow's rain. I didn't write it earlier because, as I'll explain, I had unwanted visitors.
Five years ago chafer beetles invaded our back yard. The carnage left by crows and raccoons as they dug for grubs motivated me to finally begin the renovation I had long contemplated. The original concrete slab patio was cracked and sinking unevenly. The aluminum cover was so flimsy that I had to prop it up with 2x4s each winter to keep it from collapsing under the weight of the snow. I also decided vegetables for the family were a preferable crop to chafer grubs for the wildlife. My back yard was transformed into roughly equal sections of covered patio, open patio, raised gardens, and renewed lawn. After two years of construction we had two years of enjoyment. Our yard was a particularly welcome respite last year during covid-19 isolation. This year the chafer grubs, crows, and racoons returned with a vengeance. I converted more of the lawn to raised gardens and we hired a company to remove our torn-up grass and lay down chafer-resistant fescue sod. Two nights later raccoons come at night and flipped the brand-new turf.
After much online research I decided to set up a netting barrier. I was well into the project when my younger son finished class for the day and came to check my progress. Tranquil is not the word anyone would use to describe my mood. Matthew echoed back the advise I gave him so many times. "Calm down. Is your anger solving anything?" I blamed fatigue and took a break to prove it. Matthew patiently continued with other parts of that lecture. How big a problem is this in the grand scheme of things? How much will this matter a year from now? Other people would be glad to have this problem.
After dinner I returned to my project calmly. I couldn't very well reject my own advise. I was happy for the proof that, despite our doubts, children do listen. A few hundred square feet of upturned sod don't really amount to much. Next year this will be a humorous anecdote. Some people would be glad to have a back yard in any condition. Sadly, some people are so hungry they would be glad to have the grubs.
It's not easy accepting this advice when we're the angry ones, but that's exactly when we need it. With a gentle nudge from my son, my anger transformed into a great appreciation for the country we live in. We are truly blessed. We are also very ego-centric. I wondered what God was thinking as He looked down on me. I thanked God for the reminders He sends us every now and then.
Next week: Protests (barring unforeseen circumstances)
This week’s Mustard Seed asks if It's time to ban oil pipelines. My short answer is No!
Identifying a problem is only the first step. If we stop there, nothing will change. We must take the next step, but that step is not immediate change; it's careful analysis. We must determine whether our concern is actually a problem or merely a symptom of an underlying issue. We must identify all the factors involved. We must separate causes from correlations. We must devise viable alternatives. We must determine the consequences of proposed resolutions . We must determine who has the ability to act, who has the authority to act and who has the responsibility to act. We must apportion both real and opportunity costs. Only then should we act. Jumping from the problem to the nearest suggested resolution without proper analysis does not serve well.
In the frenzy to ban oil pipelines, pipelines are not the problem. The underlying issue is global warming. But are we leaping in the right direction by banning pipelines?
Obviously, if people don’t have oil they won’t burn it. But cancelling pipelines won't, of itself, halt the flow of oil. Viable alternatives for fossil fuels and the associated infrastructure are not in place. Oil will simply be shipped by other methods; rail, tanker, and truck; which are more harmful and present greater risk to the environment than pipelines. Restricting the flow of oil may encourage the development and implementation of alternatives, but cancelling pipelines is a much too hasty and counterproductive means of achieving that restriction.
How will we replace internal combustion engines and oil-fired boilers? What are the environmental and economic costs of those alternatives? Our present technology of storing the hazardous waste generated by nuclear power plants has a shorter life than the contaminants. How much damage will be inflicted on the environment and our descendants when those containments fail? Should we trade our imminent problem with carbon emissions for the less immediate but much worse problem of nuclear contamination? Hydro-electric projects significantly alter water flows and usually require the flooding vast tracts of land. What will the ripple effects of that be? Wind and solar power are intermittent and and variable. They require storage capacity to balance fluctuations in production and demand. What will we do with the worn out wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries? Who will supply and maintain the power grids? Wind and solar power are renewable resources but the materials used for their infrastructure are not.
What of other uses for oil? Will we stop using all oil-based products altogether? What will we replace them with? Corn and soy crops are already being diverted to supply fuel and plastic industries. This reduces supply for the food industry. How many people even realize that the switch from oil-based to plant-based products is costing them money at the grocery checkout? I doubt anyone can calculate how much. How many people realize that greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is higher in many areas than emissions from transportation? Why not improve our farming techniques? Non-till farming may have greater impact on global warming than discontinuing the use of fossil fuels (see the links below). Our efforts may be better spent planting veggies in our back yard or community garden than in chanting and carrying signs in a protest march.
Yes, we must tackle global warming, but perhaps we need to give a little more thought to the matter before joining the ban the pipelines bandwagon. Paraphrasing James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister has polyester clothes and drives a gas-engine car to the supermarket, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well without using oil,’ but you do not give them an alternative, what good is it?”
Next week: Protests
This week's Mustard Seed presents some of my thoughts about being woke. Woke originated with African Americans in the 1800s to describe a state of being awake and unable to go back to sleep. Through the 1920s and 30s it became a call to activism against racial inequalities. By late mid-century it expanded to include suspicion of infidelity. With the growth of social media this century it crossed ethnic boundaries and entered general use to describe someone who is perceived as being aware of social issues.
Woke in its earliest sense is a very useful term. It's the state that makes me an early riser even though retired. Once my mind becomes active I'm awake regardless of my comfortable warm blankets.
Woke in it's second sense is testimony for it's own need. African American slang originated as code to evade oppression. One couldn't be punished for saying something their oppressor didn't understand. Yet this use is is more than mere recognition of a particular state. It acknowledges the need to adapt to the present while urging a fight for a more just future.
Woke in the third sense appropriates the first sense more accurately. Once one suspects infidelity it's very hard to stop. Relationships rely on trust and, once broken, trust is hard to regain.
Woke in the current sense is much too loosely defined. It would do well to draw more from the second sense. Once one recognizes a social issue it is hard to forget it, but recognizing it is not enough. We can't proceed as if it doesn't exists and we shouldn't just allow it to continue. It's of little use to say, "it's broken and they should fix it." Are we truly woke if our familiarity with a social issue remains superficial; we are aware that something is an issue, we protest, but we never examine alternatives; we never consider how to get from where we are to where we ought be? Can we be woke about every social issue?
"Your Mustard Seeds are about faith," you might say. "What has this got to do with my faith?" Go back to the start and consider how woke we are about our faith.
Next week: More Woke
Last week I wrote about distraction. This week's Mustard Seed is about prayer.
I often meditate on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. I am Peter, sleeping. I know that my friend is God on Earth, yet I can't muster the strength to stay awake with Him for just one hour. I complain later of a thorn in my side. How many thorns were in the crown he wore? I am one of those thorns. He asks little and gives much. Me?
This meditation convicts me most when I find myself distracted during the holiest of prayers. I can't recall a single Mass through which I remained undistracted, awake, for its one hour. Blame is easily shifted; the child fidgeting in the pew; the lady singing off-key; the noise behind me. These tiny things distract me from something far greater.
How much easier still it is to excuse ourselves in daily life. "I have too many thing to do. I need to work and cook and clean." To what purpose? If we are busying ourselves merely to stay alive, healthy, and happy we are missing the point of being. God created us for a purpose. We won't find that purpose by fitting the world in our life. We must fit ourselves into creation. Then, instead of darting from moment to moment, paycheck to paycheck, we'll have a reason to live.
As with most quests, the best place to start is by asking one who knows. God will tell us our purpose — if we ask. We'll find out — if we listen. Pray in silence because His voice is gentle. Listen in all the ways He presents Himself to us through His creation. We must pray every day, not for what we want, but for what God want's of us. Not for what we want, but for what we need. If we don't receive what we believe we need, have faith that God has given us better; He can't do else. Pray for discernment. God will equip us for our purpose.
Working in a remote camp, I learned focusing on the means at hand led me forward while focusing on things beyond reach distract me. I found a solution to many problems in the scrap pile. Browsing through hardware catalogues offered simpler solutions, but they were always weeks, months, or forever away. Distance was a barrier I couldn't broach. Budget was another barrier. I couldn't venture beyond those limits, but there was always a way to keep the camp running. I discovered much more by doing things the way I could than I would have learned by doing the same thing the easy way that wasn't available. So too with life. We have limits, we can't always do as we please. We don't have everything we want, we must make do. What we feel we lack often leads us to something better.
Next week: Woke or Awake.
This week I stare at the wrong side of my deadline, victim of today's topic. With spring approaching, I have gardens to prepare and seedlings to start. Nature's deadlines are strict, if I miss them I'll have no crops to harvest. Knowing I have more activities now than through winter, I still walked many frivolous paths. Instead of Netflix and YouTube falling victim to my added duties, I sacrificed my Mustard Seed.
"Father," the voice through the confessional screen said, "this list is almost the same as my last one. I try, but I don't see I'm any better."
"Pick one sin," Fr Bill suggested. "Focus on that. Of course avoid the others, but focusing on the one will help you see your progress."
A few months later the old farmer proudly approached Fr Bill after Mass. "I took your advise. I was always very distracted so I focused on that and now I no longer am!"
"Distraction's a hard one to master," Fr Bill said. "If you've done that I'll give you a prize."
Lou smiled. "How can I show you? What's my prize?"
"Nothing too difficult," Fr Bill replied. "Just say one Hail Mary without distraction and I'll give you my horse."
"That's it?" Lou's heart raced as he confidently began, "Hail Mary, full of — Do I get the saddle as well?"
When I first heard that joke, I wondered just what type of sin distraction is. I quickly classed it as sloth. Later, as distraction invaded my meditations, I saw my rash analysis was itself slothful. Distraction is a bit like a Swiss army knife with a blade for each of the seven deadly sins. Distraction also stabs at all ten commandments. Each time we stray from the straight and narrow path we are branching off to follow a distraction.
A few week's ago I watched Netflix's documentary, The Social Dilemma. It reveals how social media employs psychologists to make their offerings addictive. Usage is monitored to see which elements command most attention. There are no monthly fees for Google, YouTube, et al, but they are not free. Time is money has taken on a new dimension. While we have been watching our money these companies have been picking our pockets of time. Time we spend with them is time we don't spend elsewhere.
We are accustomed to money as a commodity. We must learn to value time as a commodity. Just as we prioritize financial expenses, we must watch where we spend time. Distraction is to time as impulse buying is to budgets.
Next week: I'll pray.