Live Out Your Vows

“In chapter 3 of Genesis, we read that Satan tempts Adam and Eve to turn away from God’s plan. In a way he’s tricking them to think that God doesn’t have their happiness in mind. That the father of lies wants to make them believe that the Father who is Love cannot be trusted and that His Plan, His Will, His Commands not only are too much to bear but are actually keeping us away from what is good for us. And it was precisely in this turning away, this breaking faith, this going against God’s plan that brought on the fall and the challenges in love. At the heart of it, from Genesis to today the question still remains; Do you, Do I trust God?

Marriage is a Vocation

“Whenever we feel like we’re in dire straights or at the end of our rope, we can be assured that if He brought us together then He’ll keep us together. This can be an amazing comfort, knowing that even though we make mistakes, our mistakes won’t be too great to break or dissolve our union together.”

Mystery, Modesty, and Romance

When I was a college student, the director of the Catholic Student Union at Florida State University, Br. Sam Gunn often had words of wisdom to us college kids and the one that I want to write about today concerns dating and romance. At the end of a weekly gathering, Wednesday Spirit Nites, Bro Sam got up and wrote on a whiteboard three simple words, “Mystery, Modesty, Romance” and said something like, “If you don’t understand what this means, then figure it out.” That’s all he said and the night ended.  

This was nearly 20 years ago and I haven’t stopped trying to figure out what he meant. His words were exactly what us college students, stuck in a hook-up culture, needed to hear… when sex becomes cheap and casual, true romance is dead. Basically, in order to have true romance there must be something worthy of pursuing, a great good worth seeking, and a mystery worth discovering. Every person is a mystery and true Eros is the type of love that draws us closer to one particular person with wonder and desire. So, how does one safeguard their mystery from false Eros? Modesty.

Modesty is not synonymous with puritanical prudishness, which purports to cover-up out of fear or because erotic desire is bad. That’s just wrong. Authentic modesty is rooted in a profound understanding of your goodness and knowing that only someone truly worthy has the right to see it. “Don’t throw your pearls before the swine,” Jesus said in Matthew 7:6, resist the pressure to show off what you got, choose modesty. Without modesty, there is no mystery, and without mystery, there can be no romance. MODESTY IS SEXY! (Yes, you are reading that correctly!) Without it, we perpetuate a culture of cheap and empty encounters that degrade human persons of our dignity nor will ever bring satiation to our everlasting desires.

Here’s a quick Theology of the Body lesson that makes these points clearer. John Paul II stated that the body alone is capable of making the invisible visible. The body reveals the person. The goodness of a person’s soul is revealed through the body. Yes, this is a mystery, but the mystery is part of the reality of who we are as people made in the image and likeness of God. To dedicate one’s life towards the exploration and understanding of another person’s deepest mysteries is called sacramental marriage. Only when I have made a covenantal vow to love you until I die, have I earned the right to your most intimate parts (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). It all works together.

The funny thing is that even though Br. Sam stated those words for college students to encourage modesty, as I continue to reflect on them now as a married man, I find that these are also the keys for continued marital romance. I have a deep disdain for the cultural narrative that states sex and romance die after marriage. It’s just not true! In the book, The Case for Marriage, the authors state that according to research married couples report a higher frequency of sexual encounters and higher satisfaction with those encounters than their non-married counterparts. (Take that hook-up culture!) Still, that narrative exists because there is some truth to the challenge of not losing romance in the midst of the craziness of life, work, and raising kids. We like to compartmentalize tasks in our minds to make things more efficient and so we can swiftly move through our day, checking one box off after another. The problem here is that our spouse (or sex with our spouse) should never just be a mere check off the list of things that need to get done. Counselors have a fancy technical term for when that happens in marriage, it’s called Boredom (which is the opposite of sexy).

In this context, the temptation for married couples is not revealing the mystery too quickly (like lusty college students), but the opposite, feeling that you have solved that mystery. Once you state that you have the other person figured out, that is when romance dies, because there is nothing left to pursue. Eternal mystery means that even after 50 years of marriage, there will still be some truth, goodness, and beauty inside my wife that I would not fully understand. There would be some mystery still worth pursuing. Repeatedly finding that newness is crucial to keeping the romance alive. Because newness is sexy. For married couples, the advice usually given to spice things up is euphemistically couched in the term “novelty items.” I caution that because the high of trying a new product is always temporary. It is a bit misguided to expect consumerism to solve bedroom boredom because novelty is primarily a disposition of the heart, not a new toy.

Married couples, this Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to find new ways of reconnecting. Instead of the same old date night, try something different. Do an adventure together. Start a new project. Do a work of service together. Something that gets you working as a team again and gives you the opportunity to see your spouse’s strengths shine again. Discover something new about who he/she is. And whatever the date is, choose to avoid talking about the duties or checklists of the day, but the hopes and longings for the future. When was the last time you talked about the bigger questions of life? When was the last time you and your spouse wondered together? Reconnect with that sense of wonder for the person you married and use that as fuel for the marital embrace.

Dating and engaged couples, this Valentine’s Day, choose modesty and preserve the goodness of your mystery. Take this as a time to continue learning how to love one another and enjoy this season of discovery in your relationship. Every season is a gift and possesses its own challenges. It is hard to believe that now, but you will understand that in time.

St. Valentine, pray for us!

God’s Great Plan

“With all the attacks and struggles happening onto marriage, inside and out, demands that all of us come to a deeper understanding of what marriage is, live it out to the full, protect it, defend it, and find ways to strengthen and build it up.”

Storms Will Come

“Seeing these beautiful perfect pictures so I guess they conclude they must be beautiful perfect marriages. But while marriages are beautiful, they come with struggles. It’s not a unique phenomenon, no more than struggles working toward a degree, advancing in a career, running a marathon, or exceling in a sport. None of us should be deceived to think that any marriage is without difficulties.”

Masculinity is Not Toxic

I’m feeling fired up right now about the many recent charges against men and “toxic masculinity.” I think we have to calm down a bit, see the goodness in manhood, and not merely define the entire male side of the human race in negative terms.

 Is there a toxic masculinity? Of course, because sin manifests in every heart and often takes on the form of sexual lust in the male heart. Case in point, I recently attended a Pelicans’ game with my third son and overheard a conversation between the two men sitting behind us. They were ogling over the women on the Dance Team and one was telling the other that he would leave his wife to be with one of those dancers. That is a clear example of when masculinity becomes toxic.  

There is no apology for the sexual sins of men. I absolutely applaud the #MeToo movement and the brave women who have shared their stories of pain and brought to light something that far too long has been kept quiet. Yet, as a society, we are notoriously prone to overgeneralize and quick to cast wide dispersions on groups of people. Yes, we still do this even in our modern pluralism. And I worry that, as a man and a father of four boys, the typical message communicated about men is one of fear and suspicion. Or worse: be weak and goofy.  

Listen, I know about the rambunctiousness of boys, as I said, I have four of them. We don’t own nice things in the house because accidents are common in our home and things typically break. They are like wild mustangs that need appropriate outlets and focus on their energies, which takes time to cultivate. Yet, to shame them by telling them that their strength is bad or a threat to society is awful. (I don’t think anyone is saying it that bluntly, but the cultural milieu certainly points in that direction.) Not all men are pigs. Not all men are sexual offenders. Not all men are losers. The strength of men is a gift. But like all gifts, it must be tempered and sharpened, not disregarded, and not overindulged in.

Even when I was in my wayward-preconversion-years of late high school, I understood that a man should offer his strength to the women he cares about. When we would go Latin music dancing at clubs, we had a rule that if a suspicious guy would come over and dance with one of the girls in the group, one of the men would need to step in, and take her away from the situation. She just needed to give a certain glance back at us and we would head over to remove her from the creepy dude. Another simple example of this is walking a girl to her car at night. Whether you like her or not, it is still the right thing to do. Chivalry is not dead. I believe these examples highlight the key to an authentic masculine expression of love: creating safety.

In this context, masculine strength is not primarily for chopping down trees, combat, or personal gain. It is for creating a safe space for those whom we love. Safety is one of the best things a man can offer the women and children in his life. A woman senses this in her husband, she feels safe when she trusts that she will be taken care of. Unfortunately, lazy, selfish, and immature men don’t provide that for the women in their lives. And neither do nice guys.

Dr. Louann Brizendine in “The Female Brain” stated that when women are looking for a potential mate, that question of provision is very active in her mind due to primal and evolutionary needs for survival: Can he take care of me and my children? Or is he a bum? Is he worthy of my heart and body? Or are we just going to be friends? Physique, power, and status go a long way in attractiveness, but again this becomes toxic when men use those traits to take advantage of women rather than protect them. Dr. Jordan Peterson has stated something similar in his lectures; a woman is looking for a man who can offer her more than what she already has. Woman are always looking to marry up not down.

Therefore, men need to have something to offer. We need to get our act together and find ways to mature. We need to “stand up straight with our shoulders back” (borrowing Peterson’s First Rule) and not settle for lazy slobbery, quick gratification, or just being nice. The challenge is on us to step up to the plate and push past the cultural forces that want to say that our physicality is a curse to society. In doing so and taking the initiative to show love in a masculine way, we can change the cultural narrative and bring back hope to relationships. This isn’t going to happen overnight, but if we can just commit to being 10% better today, then we certainly will be heading in the right direction.

For more on this topic of masculinity, please listen to the first episode of Always Hope, where I interview Dr. Jennifer Miller on the topic.

All Ways Hope

As God would have it, the greatest gift I received this Christmas season was not under a Christmas tree or mistletoe, but at a graveyard, of all places.

On January 18 of this year, my family commemorates the third anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death. Roger, married to my oldest sister Rosie, was a faithful husband, father, successful surgeon, and a renaissance man of sorts: he could paint, play blues guitar, garden, and draw iconography. In early 2012, Roger was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which would eventually claim his life.

As I watched Roger’s illness progress, I learned much about life, suffering, and death. I learned that life doesn’t stop just because you are sick. It is almost cruel the way that the stressors of life continue to pile up. Rosie and Roger have two girls that they still needed to raise and decisions they still needed to make about school, discipline, vacations, extra-curricular activities… all the normal stuff that you and I fret about, just they had to do it all with his declining health. Looking at them evoked the same panicked feeling I get when I am about to lose a round of Tetris; the blocks keep on falling regardless of how you have them organized. Yet, through the instability of their lives, love was ever present.

Roger and Rosie were devout Catholics and graciously received the gift of their local church. Every day someone from the parish would come at 6am, get Roger ready, and take him to daily mass. Then, in the evening, someone else would come and get him ready for bed, taking him to the bathroom, picking him up from his wheelchair, and placing him in his bed. For a man who was a doctor and used to being in charge, he accepted his fate with grace and humility. Roger died peacefully in his sleep in his home. When the nurse assistant found him the next morning, Roger had somehow turned himself towards the wall where the pictures of their wedding day hung, staring at the framed picture of Rosie in her bridal veil with an eternal smile on his face.

I promise you, I’m not making this up. We forget in life that there is a larger story at play and we often do not see all the interconnected parts due to our limitations of time, senses, and space. We cannot possibly be aware of everything God is doing. That is way we trust in His providence in all things. And that is precisely why I have called my show “Always Hope,” because I believe that we just need a little more instruction of how to see God’s goodness in the midst of the struggles of life.

For our recent Christmas vacation, we took our annual tour of the state of Florida to see our family. One of our regular stops is seeing Rosie and her growing daughters. It was December 31 and we all went to mass to celebrate the vigil of Mary Mother of God. Even though we had been in Stuart, FL a few times since Roger’s passing and funeral, we had yet to revisit his graveside and thought it would be nice to pay our respects. Here is where I received my aforementioned Christmas gift.

As we approached his graveside and read his headstone, there were the usual inscriptions of his name, loving daddy, husband, brother, son, date of birth, and date of his passing. But at the bottom there was a distinct phrase in quotations, “All Ways Hope.” My mouth floored. Even now as I write this, I’m still in disbelief. Apparently, when Roger got sick, “always hope” became his motto; his standard response when people expressed their pity or sorrow over his condition. So much so, that when my two sisters and their families did an ALS charity ride with him before he died, “All Ways Hope” was the team name. They wrote it that way as a play on the words: we don’t just always need hope, but we also need to see all the ways hope manifests in life.

I had no idea about any of this. I have long desired to start a podcast and went through many, many different names and ideas before settling on “Always Hope.” Now, this could just be a massive coincidence or it could be the clearest moment of grace I have received in a long time. Call me crazy, but I am choosing the later. Since, it is a young show, I must confess that I have been filled with the same worries and questions that anyone starting out feels: Is it worth it? Is it helping people? Does anyone care? How long will it take to grow an audience? Therefore, seeing the name of my show on Roger’s headstone was the greatest gift I could have received this Christmas. It was a pat on the back and encouragement from both God and Roger to keep going with the show, trusting that it will do what it is supposed to do. It put all those fears to rest, because for that moment I was reminded how ignorant I truly am to the Will of God. It felt like the dose of humility that often comes to the impetuous child when he realizes that he is about to get what he asked for and wasted all that time throwing a fit for nothing. (btw, that’s me in a nutshell).

I never get signs like this. I’m too practical for it. And God knows that. But this one I could not deny and I wanted to share it, so that you could be blessed by it, too. God bless.

P.S. I had written a previous article about about Rosie and Roger as a guest columnist for the Clarion Herald, click the link if you are interested.

 

 

 

Giving Your Spouse Permission

“In that passage in Matthew’s Gospel, where he talks about the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, and you see that splinter, and you think ‘there’s that splinter, I’m going to pull it out’, we were warned that before we go do that, first remove the plank out of your own eye.”

Advent: A Season of Memory

“Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child.”

Ratzinger, Seek that which is Above, p16.

 

Before rushing into the New Year, the season of Advent is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what has been. As we approach 2019 with hope and anticipation, this liturgical season is an invitation to tidy up the lingering memory of 2018. As Dr. Brant Pitre said in episode 6 of Always Hope, in order to cultivate the virtue of hope, we must work on our memory. In as much as Advent is a season of hope, it is a season of memory.

The year is coming to a close, new beginnings are just on the horizon. Whatever 2018 brought, is already in the past. Whatever 2019 will bring, has not yet been etched into history. Advent finds us in between what has been and what will be. And although past behaviors are not always a good indication of future results, only the fool refuses to examine his life and learn from his successes and failures.

We can and should celebrate the joys of this year: A new baby! A new job! Graduation! A new love! Overcoming an illness! Weight loss! Whatever blessings came to you this year, praise God and rejoice! Or maybe this was a hard year for you and there were areas of deep struggle: Continued stress at work. Cancer or illness. Adult children troubles. A messy divorce. The lingering tension of having put off that difficult conversation yet again.

As we take this season to pause and reflect on what has been, the intention is not to get lost in those memories or to make reflection an end to itself, but rather to draw into our conscious awareness the gifts and struggles of the year and lay them before the infant child in the manger. We always journey through Advent towards Christmas. And we go through Christmas into the New Year. Jesus is the hinge of time. He is the Alpha, the Omega, and the Ever Present I Am. This is the season, as the Earth is approaching the end of another lap around the Sun, that God invites us to reflect on the past, rest in the present, and ultimately rejoice for the future.

It is with full intention that Christmas was placed near the winter solstice since it is the darkest night of the year. (Unless you’re in Australia, then it is the middle of summer. Sorry Mates for the Euro-normative biases!) In the shadow of night, Jesus comes to save the world. Recalling this event should bring joy. That’s an understatement. Let me say that again… the single greatest event in history isn’t God creating time, but stepping into it and redeeming it. The Death and Resurrection of Jesus is the reason why we look at Christmas with wonder. How is it possible that this little Child will save the world? How is it that God Almighty would personally experience every aspect of human life (except for personal sin)? And for no gain of his own! The only reason he steps into time is for us, to elevate humanity to its proper dignity. God became man, so that we could, too.

In the midst of the shopping and commercialism of the season, please take time to think about the events of this year. Was it a good year? Was it hard? Did that risk pay off? Did it flop? Is that yet to be determined? How did I grow this year? How did I take steps back? Am I physically healthier? Am I more loving today than I was on January 1?  Meet these questions, not with judgment or condemnation, but with the tender love of the Child Jesus. God can and desires to bless every memory of 2018, we just have to pause and actually bring them to him.

I’ll end with this, one of my favorite Christmas songs is Little Drummer Boy (if you can forget the anachronism and false historical narrative). I have no gift to bring, Pa rum pum pum pum, That’s fit to give our king, Pa rum pum pum pum…” Do any of us really have a gift that’s fit for the King of Kings? Probably not. But the best we can give is the same that he has given us… life, memory, and relationship. Our history, our present, and our future. As God has given us Time, we, in turn, give our subjective use of that time back to him. In that vein, we can offer everything that has happened in 2018 like the little drummer boy, as a humble attempt to bring our very best to him.

Therefore, REJOICE and see 2018 in the lens of Providence. We are all a work in progress. Take time to rest with Jesus during Christmas, before we get back to work in 2019.

Happy Advent, Merry Christmas, and may your 2019 be filled with blessings and grace!

Darn It St. Nick

When couples first get married and start the process of sharing their lives together, it is often the little things that trip them up. It is those accidental encounters that you cannot fully prepare for that cause some of the most heated disagreements: Why did you fold my t-shirt in half and ruin the collar? Who puts the toilet paper going under instead over the roll? Did your mom let you get away with squeezing the toothpaste tube from the middle? Those aren’t the questions that come up in the standard marriage prep inventory, because they only arise as a result of living together and two separate traditions colliding together in the holy union of marriage.

Every couple goes through these growing pains and one such incident for us was the jolly fat guy in the suit, Good Ol’ Saint Nick himself. Laugh now, but Santa Claus hung over our newlywed home for years. The question was quite simple, “Are we doing Santa Claus with our kids?” But the answer was not. We literally had to shelve the conversation and did not come to a full resolution until Gabriel (our firstborn) was old enough to care about Santa.

Kristin grew up in a typical American home, she lived in the same house her whole childhood, with three sisters, various pets, and a chimney that Santa could go down. She was taught that Santa brought the gifts and everything was okay. I, on the other hand, am an immigrant from Nicaragua and my parents had to leave the country with their four children to flee communist persecution in the early ‘80s. By the time I was 10, we had lived in two countries, three states, and 7 different homes. Eventually, we settled in South Florida, where there are no chimneys for Santa.

This might be a news flash, but other countries in the world have different traditions for Christmas and gift giving. In Nicaragua, it is the Niño Jesus who brings the gifts, yet I remember the one Christmas when my parents tried to do the Santa thing as a way of assimilating into the American culture. I was 5 and my older brother was 7, we had very specific requests for our toys and when we opened the gifts from “Santa” I saw that my brother got the gift I asked for and he got the one I requested. We just looked at each other, laughed, switched gifts, and knew that our parents had tried their best, but there was no Santa.

Kristin grew up with Santa Claus, I did not. Gabriel was three years old and now it was time to decide, were we going to do Santa or not? I was adamant against Santa, not just because of my cultural upbringing but because I had also heard too many stories of people being crushed when they found out that Santa did not exist and left wondering if God existed, too. That wasn’t a risk I was willing to take with my kids. Kristin thought I was being overly-dramatic and looked at the beauty of wonder, the sacrifice of parents to help their kids see the magic and mystery in the world. Whose perspective was correct and what would we do?

After years of back-and-forth conversations and prayer, we finally came to one of the best compromises we have ever come up with in our marriage. We decided that on December 6, which is the feast day of St. Nicholas, we would read stories about the real St. Nicholas to our boys and have them write their Christmas lists as a letter to him. We would teach them that the letter is a form of petitionary prayer to the great saint, asking him to ask God for these gifts on their behalf (as well as other prayer intentions for the family) and to remember that “all good gifts come from God,” as it says in James 1:17. Through this, we have been teaching the boys how to pray to the saints appropriately and acknowledge that every gift ultimately comes from God, not from the petitioned saint himself.

Then on Christmas morning, after a period of waiting, they can open their gifts with a spirit of gratitude for whatever they receive, even if it is not exactly what they requested. As in life, we should certainly make deep and earnest requests to God, yet wait with expectant faith as He answers those requests appropriately.

Now we had found a way to honor the mystery of Christmas, the truth of St. Nick, and create a new family tradition that was uniquely our own! God is good. While certainly, not every one of our little squabbles has had this clean of a resolution, I can honestly say that I’m grateful we could find a peaceful solution to this problem. My encouragement to each of you is that if you are finding yourselves in a tense disagreement, to continue to be patient, pray for wisdom, dialogue with each other, and be open to a surprising solution to present itself. You never know what little gift God has for you.

Happy Advent and Merry Christmas!