Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone
Hope, Suffering
4

Rising from the Ashes

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I had always imagined one’s honeymoon would involve sand, sun, and saltwater (probably because the bulk of my family vacations were spent on the beach).  So while planning our spring 2004 wedding, when Peter suggested we honeymoon at Yellowstone National Park, I was a bit taken aback.  “We both love hiking and nature, and besides, it’s on my list.”

It’s on his list.

Though not the most convincing argument, I acquiesced, especially since he promised to set us up with quality lodging (no camping or “roughing it”).

Without a doubt, Yellowstone is spectacular. It should be on everyone’s list.

The geysers…

The hot springs…

The wildlife…

Each morning we would drive from the gorgeous Lake Yellowstone Hotel to a different area of the park.  I started to notice some of the stark trees around the landscape…

Yellowstone showed the scars of fire.  My heart broke to see the scars of such pain amid such beauty.

I remembered the intense “Summer of Fire” in 1988.  I couldn’t believe we were still seeing the effects in 2004.  My rocket scientist husband, who has a bit of the encyclopedic knowledge going on, explained that fires were an ongoing reality in Yellowstone, most of them sparked by lightning strikes.  Like most people, I assumed that fires were bad.  I got all Smokey the Bear: “Can’t they do anything to prevent forest fires?  Or stop them?”  As I shot off endless questions, Peter (who avidly avoids the phrase “I don’t know,”) suggested we tour the visitor center by Old Faithful, which told the Story of Fire at the National Park.

I hadn’t realized that there was such an allegory between “fire” and personal “pain and suffering.”

Conventional wisdom—and the average park visitor like myself—views fires as devastating, destroying everything in its path.  We see fire suppression, on the other hand, as good stewardship.
Sounds a lot like our attitudes towards pain and suffering…

Turns out that the amazing scenery in Yellowstone has been shaped by fire; it is part of the ecosystem.  The National Parks Service explains this ecological phenomenon in the educational resources on Yellowstone’s webpage (which, by the way, is where all Yellowstone fire-related facts and figures in this reflection come from):

  • Natural (lightning caused) “fires are the primary agent of change in many ecosystems”
  • “Many of Yellowstone’s plant species are fire-adapted.”
  • Some 80% of the park’s forest has pinecones that actually rely on the intense heat of fire to crack open the resin and release the seeds inside.
  • Fires actually stimulate the rebirth and growth of some plants.
  • While above ground grasses are consumed by the fires, the below-ground root systems typically remain unharmed, and even increase in productivity after a few years.

In the gift shop section of the visitor center, I picked up the book Fire: A Force of Nature: The Story Behind the Scenery, and was struck by a quote on the front page:

“Fire presents opportunities for new life that don’t exist until a burn.

Isn’t that the truth.

Certainly my own greatest moments of personal growth have occurred in the aftermath of a painful crisis.  The growth might range from learning a difficult lesson to forging a new, better, stronger path.  Sometimes it prompts me to develop compassion, broaden my perspective, and practice empathy.  Other times the crisis has me questioning decisions, priorities, and/or relationships.

Just as the amazing scenery in Yellowstone has been shaped by fire,                                                                                                       the amazing person that I am has been shaped by personal pain and suffering.

I marvel at the idea that whatever part of me which was struck down by personal pain and suffering has somehow been rebuilt.  This dynamic is at the heart of the Christian message: from death comes new life.  Theologians use the phrase Paschal Mystery to refer to the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ.  But the Paschal Mystery doesn’t just refer to what happened to Jesus.  It points to the process of dying and rising that we experience in our everyday life.

And by referring to it as a “mystery” we reaffirm the fact that we don’t always understand how that new life occurs… yet we have faith that it will.

“Fire presents opportunities for new life that don’t exist until a burn.

From death comes new life.

As marvelous as it is, it’s also important to see the word “new” in each of those phrases.  New life.  Different.  Things will never be quite the same as they once were.

Anyone who has experienced personal pain and suffering resulting from the loss of a loved one can attest to that truth: Things will never be quite the same as they once were.

Moreover, let’s be honest: pain is real.  Fire burns.  No one is expected to cheer on suffering wearing a t-shirt that says, “Yay – growth!”  That’s not what faith in the Resurrection is about.

I cringe when I hear phrases like:

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.

Everything happens for a reason.

I know they certainly don’t bring me solace.  I can’t imagine a Holocaust survivor or rape victim finding comfort in hearing any of these clichés, either.

The enormity of the Yellowstone “Summer of Fire” in 1988 was unprecedented.  That summer was the driest in the park’s recorded history.  The practice of allowing for “controlled burns” was called into question as the fires burned from June through September, threatening lives and homes in the greater Yellowstone region.

With controlled burns, a fire ignites naturally – with a lightning strike, firefighters monitor as Mother Nature does some “spring cleaning” through the burn, and the fire extinguishes naturally.

The fires that summer were just too big and too out of control.

A total of 248 fires started in greater Yellowstone in 1988; 50 of those were in Yellowstone National Park. Despite widespread misconceptions that all fires were initially allowed to burn, only 31 of the total were; 28 of these began inside the park.  In the end, 7 major fires were responsible for more than 95% of the burned acreage. Five of those fires were ignited outside the park, and 3 of them were human-caused fires that firefighters attempted to control from the beginning.

Between the evil of arson, the enormity of the problem, and the imminent danger to others, Yellowstone National Park needed help.
More than 25,000 firefighters, as many as 9000 at one time, attacked Yellowstone fires in 1988.

There was a lot of damage.
Ecosystemwide, about 1.2 million acres was scorched; 793,000 (about 36%) of the park’s 2,221,800 acres were burned. Sixty-seven structures were destroyed, including 18 cabins used by employees and guests and one backcountry patrol cabin in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone was certainly affected by the fires, but all was not lost; it was not devastated; it was not destroyed.
The effects on many plants and animals are still being studied, although in the short-term, most wildlife populations showed no effect or rebounded quickly from the fiery summer. In the several years following 1988, ample precipitation combined with the short-term effects of ash and nutrient influx to make for spectacular displays of wildflowers in burned areas.

Contrary to what was feared, the fires of 1988 did not deter visitors. In 1989, more than 2,600,000 people came to Yellowstone—the highest annual visitation of the 1980s.


While we are in the midst of the flames of suffering, it is difficult.  Even Jesus wept.  But that is not the end of the story.  From death comes new life.  We are people of the Resurrection.  Faith in new life is what it means to be a people of hope.

As a people of hope, withstand the fire.  Understand that controlled burns are a part of life.  Ask for help.  And when rising from the ashes, be sure to identify and appreciate “spectacular displays of wildflowers” whenever you see them.


“Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstones © Depositphotos.com/kwiktor”

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Tree of Life
Love, Love and Relationships
1

Let’s Talk About Sex

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If you have been following along in the series of posts I have offered on Love and Relationships, now is the time on Sprockets when we talk about sex.

As a Catholic high school teacher (and now as a contributing author and editor to a Catholic high school textbook series), I frequently have the opportunity to discuss sexual morality with teens.  I approach this opportunity as a privilege, and I am confident that I teach it well.  Part and parcel to my self-understanding here is that I refuse to discuss the topic without spending time on what love is and what love is not.  Moreover, I refuse to discuss the topic of Catholic sexual morality as a set of rules.

When I teach about sexual morality to teens, I emphasize the importance of understanding what the Church teaches and why.  Because it is only then that a person can decide whether or not they agree.  It is not my role to dictate behavior and dole out judgment, nor do I need everyone to agree with what I teach.  I ask only that they understand.

A Christian discussion of sex begins with human dignity.

As Christians, we have a vision of what it means to be human; the fancy theological name for this is Christian Anthropology.  We were created in the image and likeness of God, which gives us each a unique specialness.  In all we say and all we do, we are called to respect this inherent human dignity in ourselves and others.

In creating us and designing our way of being with each other, God has a vision for what is supposed to be expressed and experienced in sex, and God’s vision is phenomenal.

Christians believe that God intended for the sexual aspects of our bodies to be a way for two people to say: “We love each other enough to become one.”

The fact that they become one flesh is a powerful bond established by the Creator. Through it they discover their own humanity, both in its original unity, and in the duality of a mysterious mutual attraction.  – Pope John Paul II (Theology of the Body, 10:2)

You’ve heard the phrase from Genesis 2:4, “two become one.” We know that is what physically happens in sexual intercourse, but we’re selling ourselves short if we think that’s all that happens.

The Catholic Theology of the Body sees sexual intercourse as God’s way of letting two people signify that they have become one – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  It is as if we are saying:

I love you so much that I give my whole self – body, mind, and soul – to you completely, without any reservation.

This complete union involves a total gift of self – mutually given and received in all four senses of love (agape, philia, storge, and eros).

This intense message is communicated with the body, in the body, through the body – it’s a bodily language.  The body was designed by God to be truthful.  Look at our bodily reactions, like sweating when we’re nervous.  Have you ever tried to suppress laughter when you find something hysterically funny?  Think about how lie detectors work.  When we lie and when we laugh, the body reacts!

In honestly and truthfulness, think about who you trust with your deepest, darkest secrets.  In fact, what would it take for you to open yourself up to someone and be totally vulnerable – like emotionally naked – with your whole life?  In God’s design and vision, through sex, the body communicates that two people become one physically, emotionally, and spiritually, with exactly that level of vulnerability and openness.  What does it take to get there?  It takes the reliability and trustworthiness of the solid commitment of marriage.

In reality, we know that there are multiple “levels of commitment.”  To facilitate this part of the conversation, I have identified what I like to call:

Ms. Dienno’s Levels of Commitment

  1. Just Friends – both people enjoy each other’s company, but there is no “relationship claims.” The idea of “Friends with Benefits” would fall in this category, because although physical activity is implied, there is no commitment
  2. Casually Dating indicates that a very low level of commitment exists.  Often referred to as seeing or talkin’ to each other, this sometimes reflects the initial stages of a potential relationship.  However, low-level of commitment means that the relationship is not necessarily exclusive.
  3. Exclusively Dating indicates official “couplehood,” where both can expect to be romantically involved only with each other.  Interestingly, this level requires both parties to have a (sometimes uncomfortable) relationship defining conversation.  Seeing (or talkin’ to) anyone else is clearly understood as cheating.
  4. Serious Relationship refers to couples who have “been together forever” to the extent that it would not be surprising for their families to find out that they are intending marriage; in fact, this level includes the period of engagement.
  5. Marriage is the deepest, most serious commitment.  A commitment which is to last a lifetime.

Now take the “Meaning of Sex” sentence and apply that to the “Levels of Commitment.”

Sex is a bodily gift of one’s very self, involving as much emotional nakedness as physical.  Tremendous openness and vulnerability are needed to be able to truthfully express the Meaning of Sex sentence (I love you so much that I give my whole self—body, mind, and soul—to you completely, without any reservation).  When both husband and wife give themselves to each other without reservation, it is a wonderful, beautiful, incredible act of intimacy, and it feels great.

Certainly, two people need to love each otherwith agape, philia, eros, and storgefor the complete gift of self in sex to be truthful.  However, without the reliability and permanence of the commitment of marriage, the body knows that it cannot completely, freely give itself.  In sex outside of marriage, the body does, in fact, have reservations – particularly when it comes to vulnerability.

Any Christian teaching on sexual morality would need to extend from this holistic vision of truthfulness and love, of respect for one’s own and another’s human dignity.

Whether it comes to the bodily experience of sex in your own marriage or teaching your children about sex, my greatest hope is that we honor this beautiful vision.


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Love sign language
Love, Love and Relationships
3

Feeling Loved

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I love my husband.  And I know he loves me.  In the REAL LOVE way.  But sometimes I’m just not feeling it.  Why is that?

After 7 years of marriage (11 ½ years together), we’re definitely beyond “You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling. But from the kitchen to the bedroom, we know we need to cultivate agape, eros, philia, and storge.

I have been trying to get him to read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages for quite some time.  He’s not just a guy; he’s a science guy.  An engineer.  And I know expressing “emotions” isn’t his thing.  But gosh darnit, I know we really, truly love each other, and I’d just like him to tell me in the way I’d like to hear… you know?

“We must be willing to learn our spouse’s primary love language if we are to be effective communicators of love” (14).

Gary Chapman identifies five different ways that we express and experience love.  What makes one person feel loved emotionally isn’t necessarily what makes another person feel loved.

1.  Words of Affirmation – Verbal affirmations and compliments, expressions of gratitude and appreciation.  Spoken with encouraging words… kind words… humble words… genuine words.

2.   Quality Time – Giving the other your undivided attention, focus, time.  Doing things together.  Having quality conversations.

A central aspect of quality time is togetherness.  I do not mean proximity… Togetherness has to do with focused attention.” (59)

Offering someone Quality Time means offering your understanding and sympathy, as you give your attention to the person…not necessarily offering advice (unless that’s what the person is asking for).  We can do this by

  • maintaining eye contact
  • giving our undivided attention to the other
  • listening for the feelings being expressed
  • observing the other person’s body language
  • refusing to interrupt the other person – seeking to understand what they are saying and waiting to respond

Many of us… are trained to analyze problems and create solutions.  We forget that marriage is a relationship, not a project to be completed or a problem to be solved.” (62)

3. Receiving Gifts – This love language has less to do with the monetary value of the “gift” than it does with the thought behind it.  The gift symbolizes love.  It represents the fact that the person was thinking of the one they love (be it friend, family, or beloved).  These gifts of love may be purchased, found, or made.  They needn’t be extravagant nor expensive.

“A gift is something you can hold in your hand and say ‘Look, he was thinking of me,’ or ‘She remembered me.’ You must be thinking of someone to give him a gift.”  (74)

4.  Acts of Service – This love language is about doing things for the one you love… things you know they would like you to do.  Acts of service require forethought, planning, time, effort, and energy.

Jesus offered us an example of the way in which acts of service demonstrate love when he washed the feet of the disciples.

5.   Physical Touch – This love language includes all forms of affection: from hand holding to the supportive friendly hug, to kissing, to a marital embrace, to sexual intercourse.

In this, there is the recognition that all forms of touch (including the refusal to touch) express emotion – positive or negative.  The thing to remember is that while this love language includes sexual intercourse, that’s not what it’s all about.  Holding someone tenderly while they cry… squeezing a hand in excitement… patting a shoulder in encouragement… These are all forms of expressing love.

Chapman explains that we each have a “primary love language” in which we express and experience love.  We need to pay attention to what our beloved’s love language is so that we can express love in the way they primarily communicate love.

This explanation is so simple, yet so profound.  And it explains so very much.

In my case, my primary love language is quality time, with words of affirmation close behind.  My husband definitely enjoys quality time, but he primarily speaks acts of service.

Chapman challenges us to try to speak our beloved’s primary love language – so that they feel the love we have for them.

I’d go a step further and say that it’s also important that we hear the love our beloved is expressing to us in their primary love language.

If I hadn’t read this book, I may have missed appreciating some of the wonderful things he does for me as expressions of love – like something as simple as making me a cup of tea every morning with breakfast.  Or recognizing that making me breakfast (or dinner) is an act of love.  Without a doubt, I heard his expression of love when he built me a little shelf to hold all my jars of loose tea.

I know he loves me.  But sometimes I need to hear it in my love language (particularly in words of affirmation).  And this isn’t easy for him.

But he’s trying.  And that means the world to me.

And both of those—that he’s trying and that I know it—are important.

It’s important that we do this for all of the special people in our lives: spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, etc.

How do you express and experience love?  How do the important people in your life express and experience love?   Are you speaking their language?


“Love sign language © Depositphotos.com/altanaka”

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Sanding
Action, Projects, Transformation
2

Take the Time to Do the Prep Work

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I am a project person.  From brainstorming to execution to reveling in the completed product, I love projects, especially the home-improvement, crafty, organizational ones.  I think what I love most, however, is how much I have learned through doing projects.  I’m not talking about the technical stuff, either.  What I’m talking about is wisdom.

About four months ago, I decided to refinish some old, tired looking patio furniture from IKEA.

Originally purchased eight years ago, the set fit the necessary criteria: it had a TABLE and CHAIRS that we could AFFORD, and it was STURDY (at least sturdier than the plastic stuff).  Neither ugly nor attractive (nor comfortable), we never really enjoyed the set.  And after we got nicer stuff, it was pushed to the margins of the yard, somewhat functional, but hardly used.

Refinishing the set was going to be a four-step process:

  1. Clean and Sand the Wood
  2. Prime with an oil-based paint
  3. Decoratively paint
  4. Finish with polyurethane

In all honesty, I don’t necessarily enjoy every part of every step in any given project.  Specifically, I neither enjoy cleaning years of caked on dirt and spider webs nor do I like sanding.  But if there’s one thing you cannot skip it’s the prep-work.

Taking the time to do the prep work always pays off in the long run.

In the case of this project, I begrudgingly admitted to my insistent husband that yes, I wanted to avoid frustration when it came time to paint the chairs, and yes, I wanted my efforts to be long-lasting, so yes, I would take the time to clean and sand the wood.  Yes, I would properly prime everything with the smelly, difficult-to-clean oil based paint.

In reality, “taking the time to do the prep work” applies to practically every aspect of our lives.  Take the “PIES” model of self-examination: Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Spiritual.

  • Physically, when we don’t properly warm up or train, slowly building up to the goal, we are more prone to hurt ourselves.
  • Intellectually, when we don’t do the necessary reading or studying in preparation for a class or a meeting, the parties involved experience the frustration of wasted time, and the failure to perform can have ever-widening implications on our jobs, our reputation with others, and even in our personal integrity.
  • Emotionally, taking the time to do the prep work can impact our ability to truly be in the present moment.  Sometimes this is about coming to terms with where we are in the process of “change.” Other times, this is about working through “differences.”  Acknowledging and attending to emotions helps us to be more present to one another in the situation at hand, rather than being fixated on the past or the future.
  • Spiritually, taking the time to do the prep work is about cultivating ourselves as people of justice.  Spiritual prep work is about developing the moral character to be good people who do the right thing.  It’s about becoming a person who means it when they pray, “Thy will be done.”  It’s about setting aside the time to be with God in prayer while reflecting on life.  It’s about aligning our whole selves with the folks to whom Jesus says, “Come, inherit the kingdom…For I was hungry and you gave me food.” (Matthew 25:34-35).
When we take the time to do the prep work, the finished product doesn’t just look awesome.  It is awesome.  Through and through.

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In what areas of your life do you take the time to do the prep work?  In what areas do you need to be more attentive?  How have you noticed the difference prep work makes in your own life?

“Plank preparation with sanding sponge © Depositphotos.com/simazoran”

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Painters
Love, Love and Relationships
6

The Truth About Love

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Have you ever had one of those random moments in life—personal or professional—when someone asks you something, and when you open your mouth to respond, you’re amazed by the profound insight that comes out?  You know you said it, but the wisdom had to have come from God?

Well, years ago, while teaching in Austin, I took a group of students to work at an orphanage in Mexico.  In addition to showering the children with attention and affection, we did a bunch of home-improvement style projects – from cleaning to painting to repairs.  The poverty was staggering. While we helped both physically and financially, it was abundantly clear that our charity was not going to bring about a real and lasting change.

That evening, we did the Mission-Trip-Circle-Up conversation to discuss and process our day.  One student, Travis, was extremely conflicted: “I feel really good about myself, but I feel guilty for feeling that way.  We have so much, and they have so little.  It just doesn’t make any sense; I don’t like the fact that I feel so good about myself.”

I suggested to Travis that “feeling good” was not reflecting some kind of “superiority,” but rather he felt good because he was participating in true agapic love.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus called us to love one another as he loved us; to participate in agape.  This was not a “to-do-list” task, but an invitation.  The act of selfless giving in service (and in love) feels great because in it, we experience the divine.

And it doesn’t matter which kind of love we’re talking about: philia (friendship love), eros (passionate love), storge (family affection), or agape (unconditional giving of oneself for the good of another).

What a profound “God-is-love” truth.

The act of selfless giving in love feels great because in it,

we experience the divine.

For some reason, when talking about love, it’s a lot easier to get our heads around what love means when we take romance out of the equation.  But this same dynamic of selfless-giving-feeling-great applies to all four loves.

Allow me to explain:

Remember Erich Fromm’s definition of love (from Art of Loving 19)?  I concluded my post on dependency (I Need You to Need Me), with this:

 Mature Love “is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity” or individuality.

If we were to diagram that one, it would be two stick figures choosing to come together to hold hands, maintaining their integrity, freely capable of individuality.  This “pattern” can and should apply to all four kinds of love.

In all four types of love, one can and should be able to give of oneself without giving up one’s identity.

Going on, Fromm names four basic elements that are common to all types of love:  Care, Responsibility, Respect, and Knowledge.

  1. Care – When we care about someone or something, we are concerned for their well-being.  When we don’t care, we don’t love.
 Care “is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love (Art of Loving 24).
  1. Responsibility – Instead of limiting our understanding to some assigned “duty,” Fromm goes to the root of the word:
Responsibility, in its true sense, is an entirely voluntary act; it is my response to the needs, expressed or unexpressed, of another human being.  To be ‘responsible’ means to be able and ready to ‘respond’”  (25).
  1. Respect – Without the element of respect, the element of responsibility “could easily deteriorate into domination and possessiveness” (26).

Respect is the ability to see a person as they are, to be aware of their unique individuality (26).

It’s about respecting the person’s human dignity – in God’s image (not your image).  This means allowing the other person to grow and unfold as they are (not as you would have them become…even if you have the best of intentions).
If I love the other person, I feel one with them, but with them as they are, not as I need them to be (26).

Love means letting people be free to be who they are, right now.

  1. Knowledge – As we seek to become closer with people—friends and family as well as our beloved—we come to see how many layers there are to truly knowing someone.  Knowledge of a person is key to real, mature love.

We all have had “THAT conversation” with someone, and we recognize it as a turning point in a relationship – be it as friends or lovers.

Fromm points out that “Care, responsibility, respect and knowledge are mutually interdependent.”  They are all attitudes found in love, and they are each needed to balance one another.
“To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge. Knowledge would be empty if it were not motivated by concern” (26).

So then love is all these things:

  • Agape, Eros, Storge, Philia
  • The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth – M. Scott Peck
  • Union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity and individuality, practiced with care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge – Erich Fromm

Love is all of this and more.


Painters by Bart Everson licensed under CC BY 2.0

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