By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 6/22/12 in The Madera Tribune
A loud bark late one night in 1997 inspired me to ask God to send a watchdog or angel to look after my parents’ van, which I had borrowed. The windshield of my 1963 Ford Falcon leaked, and I wished to spare it the day’s rains.
I edited and paginated for The Madera Tribune newspaper at the time and its downtown offices didn’t always feel secure.
Hours later I locked the security door of the building and approached the van. City lights and clouds hid the stars, the blacktop glistened darkly, and the van growled at me.
This puzzled me.
As I reached its door, several soggy doggy faces peered at me from beneath the vehicle. I informed its furry companions that the van was mine so-to-speak, and we parted peacefully.
I suspect God has a sense of humor.
The poet and Catholic bishop John Lancaster Spalding once wrote: “Whatever comes, whatever goes, / Still throbs the heart whereby we live; / The primal joys still lighten woes, / And time which steals doth also give. / Fear not, be brave: / God can thee save.”
Fourteen months ago a morning commute from Madera to Coalinga went astray just past Five Points. I worked for the Coalinga Recorder newspaper then, and thick mud tracks from farm equipment and my own sleepiness collaborated well that day.
On a curve in the road, a tire of mine slipped off the edge of the roadway. I overcorrected and saw myself headed towards oncoming traffic. So I steered my Honda Civic DX across the road into a field of soft earth and stalks of green. My car rolled before landing upright with its roof caved in.
Shaken, I stirred. I brushed off broken glass and hunted for my cell phone. Who did I call? Not the police. My priorities may have been a bit skewed. I called my employer to let them know I wouldn’t be in. Then I left my sister the kindly comfort of an uninformative notification of my accident.
Others stopped and coaxed me out of the car. Several stayed to look after me until a law enforcement officer stopped and an ambulance arrived. The patrol officer eyed my car and said he’d seen other crashes like mine on that road but participants didn’t walk away from them; they were carried away in a less than beautifying condition.
Both Coalinga Regional Medical Center and a chiropractor confirmed my unharmed state.
Admittedly I no longer enjoy a gentle ride on a Ferris wheel. The sensations, little though they be, remind me too much of my swifter tumble. I have not even attempted a roller coaster.
But in truth I had been spared.
Life is full of such mysteries, including the reverse scenario. Why is one person hurt and another untouched? (Matthew 24:40-42) Why do some die while others live on? We all have sorrows, yet how many blessings we enjoy undeserved. Why?
It is the puzzle not only of evil but of goodness.
On the surface it seems simple enough to those who believe in a benevolent God. All the good we know ultimately comes from the creator, who is both its source and sustainer. As for evil, it is but a shortfall, a gap in the wholeness of existence, a lack, and an absence.
Moral evil arises by straying off the path of goodness. Dip even a wheel off the side and control may diminish and your car too may flip. Sin, in particular, is an intrinsically destructive act, whether of self alone or others too.
Yet beyond such abstract explanations that appeal to the mind lies the reality that confounds the heart.
For Christians, the answer to these mysteries can only be found in the contemplation of other ones: mysteries of eternity, God, and most especially of the belief that God with foolhardy love became man to suffer in the place of those deserving of death (1st Corinthians 1:22-25).
Troubled or gifted, we have all been loved beyond our wildest imaginings by God. May we Christians at least imitate him and “rejoice with those who rejoice; and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
“Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering,” wrote Pope John Paul II in “On the Christian meaning of human suffering.”
“But before all else he says: ‘Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross!’”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 6/15/12 in The Madera Tribune
A 3-year-old supposedly went with his father to see a litter of kittens. Returning he excitedly told his mother there were two boy kittens and two girl kittens.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“Daddy picked them up and looked underneath,” he said. “I think it’s printed on the bottom.”
What would we do without fathers?
Well, technically we wouldn’t do anything, because we wouldn’t exist at all. But as Father’s Day nears in the U.S. it is natural to think of the impact of our own on our lives.
The statistics in general seem consistent enough.
In 2002, about 8 percent of poor children lived in married-couple families. Without a father at home, child poverty rose to 38 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). Infant mortality is nearly twice as high for those born of unmarried mothers (National Center for Health Statistics, 2000). Depression is twice as common for single moms as well (Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 2003).
U.S. middle schoolers who don’t live with both genetic parents have four times the risk of an affective disorder (Journal of American Academic Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 2005). Children who don’t grow up with both biological parents use drugs more (Journal of Marriage and Family, 2002), and are more likely to be “delinquents” (Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2000). Violent crimes by children without both parents at home significantly increased in 39 nations studied (Cross-Cultural Research, 2004).
There are so many studies on this topic that I lack the time and space to mention each of them. In the past decade, research has linked the lack of fathers in the home to greater risks of obesity, abuse, neglect, early menstruation, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, repeating grades, alcohol use, imprisonment, and more.
But fatherhood doesn’t exist simply to reduce dangers to children. For many monotheistic religions, fatherhood is used to describe God’s loving and authoritative relationship with humanity, so much so that “father” is virtually a universal title for God.
Even so, the intimacy and tenderness of God for us has also been spoken of as reminiscent of motherhood too, at least in Jewish and Christian scriptures.
“The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representative of God for man,” explains paragraph 239 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.”
A month ago I shared a claim by Christians and Jews: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Bereishit/Genesis 1:27) This, I wrote, is the source of human dignity for man and woman alike.
But that isn’t all.
It also means that man and woman, when united in love, reveal God more fully than either can do alone.
There’s nothing greater any parent can share with us than divine love.
I’ve almost drowned more than a half dozen times, and never learned to swim properly. I tried to stay in the shallows of swimming pools but sometimes slipped into deeper waters.
Before I passed out while sinking on one occasion, I saw a shadow above me. I must have grabbed it, and my father managed to get us both out of the water without getting pulled down himself. I awoke lying on a poolside chair.
A handful of years ago I described the incident poetically:
Blue water spun around as I stared up / as if the foam and sky did duel that day / only to lose when darkness drank their cup / while in my limbs all fight did drift away.
I did not think of death as I sank down / Instead my thoughts took in this stunning view / — a noisy blue glass swirl bereft of sound / that dimmed too fast as beauties often do.
A shadow passed before my mind did fade / and I reached out to waken in the light / My father's foot had cast a saving shade / For I -- though gone -- held it with sleeper's might.
Years pass and now I drown this time in fears. / They captivate, but God is no less near.
Pastor Tyrone Carter of Aphesis Apostolic Church pauses during his speech to 185 protesters while his wife Bernadette waves a pom pom outside St. James Anglican Cathedral in Fresno, California, for a noontime Stand Up For Religious Freedom protest rally Friday, June 8. (Photograph taken by John Rieping)
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 6/08/12 in The Madera Tribune
Thirteen new movies will premiere in U.S. theaters today (Friday), and about half will be rated R. “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” and other films will compete with “Men In Black 3,” “For Greater Glory,” and other incumbents.
But not all crowds will be at the cinema.
Some will be at St. James Anglican Cathedral, 4147 E. Dakota Ave., in Fresno and more than 150 other sites across the nation at Stand Up for Religious Freedom rallies. Sixty-four thousand Christians and Jews attended similar events March 23.
The gatherings, unaffiliated with any political party or religion, have been organized to protest the mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services requiring all employers, regardless of conscience objections, to provide abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization through employee health plans.
The mandate enacts part of President Obama’s health care law.
Pastor Gary Comer of First Southern Baptist in Madera, Pastor Jim Franklin of Fresno’s Cornerstone Church, and others will speak at the nearby noontime rally.
They aren’t the only ones unhappy about government’s heavy hand. A CBS News Poll released Thursday found that 41 percent of U.S. adults want the entire health care law overturned when the Supreme Court decides on its constitutionality later this month. Another 27 percent want the law kept but the mandate overturned.
Less than a quarter of Americans polled last week want the whole law upheld.
Why is the mandate, in particular, a sore point in the attempt to reform our health care system?
“The very thought that big government is forcing Christians to pay for something they find egregious strikes at the core of our country’s religious freedom,” wrote Comer on the website Facebook.
Wasn’t that First Amendment conflict resolved when President Obama announced an “accommodation” Feb. 10 in which insurance companies would be forced to provide the controversial coverage for free?
The proposed compromise — though lauded by Democrats who initially opposed the mandate — never materialized. HHS finalized its unpopular rule March 12 with no alterations. Without inclusion in the rule, the accommodation is a legally unenforceable promise.
Even if it had been added, other problems remain.
First, the mandate goes farther than any existing state laws by including sterilization and eliminating existing alternatives for religious employers, such as dropping coverage or self-insuring. Religious groups that self-insure and religion-affiliated insurance companies would have to provide coverage they object to all the same.
Secondly, the HHS rule’s religious exemption is so narrow it would prevent religious ministries from serving those of other beliefs. Imagine the nation’s 600 Catholic health care institutions in the U.S. — 12 percent — only being allowed to treat Catholic patients.
Third, the mandate offers no conscience exemption at all to individual private employers.
Other parts of the health care law pose difficulties as well.
In violation of the Hyde Amendment, Section 1303 of the Affordable Care Act includes taxpayer funding of insurance coverage that includes elective abortion. Those who oppose abortion for religious or moral reasons can’t opt out.
None of this is acceptable in a nation with a long tradition of freedom of religion.
“Our parents and grandparents did not come to these shores to help build America's cities and towns, its infrastructure and institutions, its enterprise and culture, only to have their posterity stripped of their God-given rights,” wrote the Most Rev. Armando Ochoa, Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Fresno, earlier this year.
Ochoa asked that people of faith would commit “to prayer and fasting that wisdom and justice may prevail, and religious liberty may be restored.”
As Supreme Court justices debate among themselves about Obama’s health care law, Ochoa’s request and today’s protest rally — planned months ago — seem more timely than ever.
A joke tells of a little girl who felt ill while in the middle of a worship service at church.
“Mama,” she said, “can we leave now? I have to throw up!”
“Then go outside to the restrooms,” the mother replied.
A minute later, her daughter returned to the pew.
Her mother asked, “Did you throw up? How did get back from the bathrooms so quickly?”
“I didn’t have to go outside, Mama. They have a box near the front door that says, ‘For the Sick.’”
These days it almost seems as if the U.S. government wishes to imitate all of the generosity of that little girl but none of the innocence. What was meant to aid the sick will instead carry an unpleasant gift for people of faith.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 6/02/12 in The Madera Tribune
Yesterday the movie “For Greater Glory” debuted in U.S. theaters, which include nearby Fresno Stadium 21 and Manchester Mall 16. The film tells the widely forgotten story of Mexican resistance to a nation’s attempt to suppress Catholicism. While it is a tale of heroes, it also features more flawed characters such as a Catholic priest, Rev. Jose Reyes Vega, who fought in the war against the government of Mexico. Of the 4,500 priests in Mexico at the start of its persecution, Vega and one other, Rev. Aristeo Pedroza, became generals and perhaps three others joined the fight.
The church itself wanted a peaceful solution and worked to end the conflict. Moreover, its Code of Canon Law prohibits those who voluntarily murder anyone from being ordained or exercising the ministries of a clergyman. While killing combatants in a just defensive war would not be considered murder, at least one incident of the war may have crossed that line, and it involved a priest.
It would be the worst outrage committed by those who rebelled against Mexico’s persecution of Catholicism — the Cristeros.
On Tuesday, April 16, 1927, Vega led a holdup in the Mexican state of Jalisco. According to the Associated Press days later, Cristeros derailed a train engine and defeated federal soldiers, who according to witnesses fought from inside the passenger cars amid cowering innocents — human shields. Vega’s brother died in the attack, which lasted more than two hours.
Next the rebels seized a shipment of money intended for the Bank of Mexico, robbed passengers of $100,000 in valuables and cash, and ordered non-combatants to exit the train, which was then drenched with fuel and set afire. Unfortunately, not all were able or willing to obey. When Cristeros realized this, they reportedly helped rescue those they could, both the wounded and the dead.
Even so, about 46 soldiers and 50 or so passengers were burnt to death.
Mexico’s government used news of the disaster as “proof” the Catholic Church directly promoted violent fanaticism and that existing anti-religious legislation was justified. Support for the Cristeros weakened. All Catholic bishops were expelled from Mexico.
Now I could easily list government cruelties against Catholics in Mexico during this era, such as a priest who died after soldiers cut off his hands on Oct. 29, 1927, “to prevent him from ever again saying Mass.” Thousands were martyred for their faith in God.
But by reciting such injustices I fear I might downplay a genuine tragedy. The film “For Greater Glory” is honest enough to show blemishes of the Cristeros, and I think it is important to do so.
We Christians claim to know divinely revealed truths, yet we often fall short of divinity. This should be no surprise to us, because Christianity — like a hospital — exists for the healing of those wounded, albeit spiritually. Nevertheless how hard it can be to admit imperfection.
What’s more, the perfection we aspire towards as Christians is not that of comic book superheroes, mythological demigods, or the latest American idol. Rather it is the perfection of supernatural love, a love that demands a whole gift of self to God and others.
Missionary sister Mother Teresa once said, “In loving and serving, we prove that we have been created in the likeness of God, for God is love and when we love we are like God. This is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’” (Matthew 5:48).
Giving one’s self often means vulnerability and exposure. It could be no other way. Only an open container can give or receive. But there is treasure to be won!
Like many today, Jessica Powers (1905-1988) longed for escapades and romance on the high seas as an 18-year-old: “I would have wed a pirate chief, / had I lived long ago, / and made my home a ship that rides / wherever winds can blow!”
Instead she became a published poet before entering a Discalced Carmelite convent in December 1941 and becoming Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit.
Her daring love affair would be with God.
In her poem “Beauty, Too, Seeks Surrender,” she wrote: “God takes by love what yields to love, / then pours a glowing allness / past the demolished walls and towers / into the spirit’s smallness.
“God’s beauty, too, surrender seeks / and takes in the will’s lull / whatever lets itself be changed / into the beautiful.”
The gift of divine love is worth its risks, for God is never outdone in generosity.