By John Rieping | Published 25 Jan. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
My New Year’s Day resolution to spend less time on Facebook is somewhat intact as January approaches its end. Meanwhile an uncharacteristically action-oriented drive for self-improvement twirls and leaps in my heart like a child who emptied a bag of Halloween candy.
There is movement in the deep.
One superficial wave provoked by such unseen churning has been, as mentioned in a previous column, an online class I’m taking in computer programming from Harvard University. Another is a renewed self-investment in websites built to help people connect in real life.
Those who know me in person realize I am an introvert, that strange species of human whose thoughts leisurely walk a meandering path to every destination. There is a quiet efficiency born of a kind of laziness in the brain of every introvert, and a secret garden behind the sometimes nondescript walls that surround it.
Nonetheless all introverts, whether cool or warm blooded, have a heart that feeds life to countless screaming “children” who have no one else — our desires and dreams, loves and loyalties. By these children, man differs from machine. They are — in a sense — born of a union between the natures of angels and beasts.
The efforts of this introvert to meaningfully connect are hardly unique. In 2012, a 30-something mathematician, Chris McKinlay, found a fruitful distraction from writing his University of California, Los Angeles, dissertation for his Ph.D. in applied math. He wanted to find the optimal strategy for finding a true match on a popular dating site.
So he set up 12 fake dating accounts and programmed his computer to gather information on the female members of the website who fit his general requirements for a mate. After collecting the answers of 20,000 California women on 6 million questions, he learned that they clumped into seven distinct clusters.
Based on their traits, he nicknamed the clusters: Diverse, Dog, God, Green, Mindful, Samantha, and Tattoo. The Greens were new to online dating. The Gods were strongly religious or ethical. The Samanthas were often relatively older, professionally creative, and adventurous. The Tattoos had multiple tattoos and sometimes as many jobs. And so on.
He then set up his real dating profile to honestly answer the questions that were relevant to the clusters of women that most interested him, and then had his computer visit more than 10,000 of their online pages on the site in two weeks. He soon received 400 views of his page daily.
Online messaging and in-person dating followed until, on date 88, he found the woman with whom love bloomed — 28-year-old artist Christine Tien Wang. At the moment, they’re engaged to be married.
Some may find his calculated efforts to find Miss Right cynical, offensive, or immoral. But Wang, as quoted in the February edition of Wired magazine, commented: “People are much more complicated than their profiles. So the way we met was kind of superficial, but everything that happened after is not superficial at all. It’s been cultivated through a lot of work.”
One insight McKinlay uncovered in his labors is the importance of not presenting one’s opinions in a timid fashion. The dating website he used has members assign a weight (from “irrelevant” to “mandatory”) to one’s own answers to a question as well as those of others. Agreement on weightier questions is interpreted as a greater match.
His tests revealed that, regardless of whether you wanted to appeal to many or to a select few, a wishy-washy presentation of one’s views was the worst possible strategy. Either wholeheartedly answer the most divisive topics or reply to the innocuous ones with equal gusto. But a lukewarm person fares badly.
How often many of us allow a desire for the approval of others to dim the unique light we have to offer. Instead of beaming, we glow comfortably. The Jewish founder of Christianity allegedly had a low opinion of such behavior. If the visionary testimony of his “beloved disciple” is true, Yeshua (Jesus) compared it to an unappealingly tepid beverage.
“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I wish you were cold or hot. So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16)
Come. Let us shine.
By John Rieping | Published 18 Jan. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
A week and a half ago the mysteries of my genetic programming were tentatively explained to me. For a $99 fee, a California-based genomics company analyzed my DNA.
It estimated my heritage is 67.2 percent European, 18.5 percent Native American, and 1.7 percent African (the remainder is unclear). Delighted, I forgetfully shared only the first two aspects of that result with a co-worker Wednesday.
"Well, that was kind of obvious," he replied. "We already knew what you were."
He had a point. Those who know me well are aware my father immigrated from Germany, and my mother's parents came from Mexico. You don't need a degree in Mexican history to know the nation's population is heavily "mestizo" (a Spanish term for someone of mixed Spanish and Native American descent).
Yet, to me, my ancestral ties to Germany, Mexico, Spain and, unexpectedly, Africa felt a bit more solid now, like tilled adobe clay of a local farmer's field under my feet.
My genes hold more than markers to my family's past, however. Apparently I also am sensitive to alcohol because of a shortfall of proteins to break it down in my bloodstream. So it may be more harmful for me than for others. Fortunately I've never been much of a consumer of the beverage, despite living in wine grape territory.
I'll spare you details on my earwax type, muscle performance, and more. Needless to say, I've been amazed at this glimpse of how much about me had been influenced already at the first moment of my conception. I am reminded of a song lyric of Scripture: “For it was you (God) who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…
"My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my 'embryo' (in Hebrew, “golmi” or “golem”). In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” (Tehillim/Psalm 139:13, 15-16).
Naturally my parents played a pivotal role in my formation. Some may recall my tale a year ago about their courtship (see http://goo.gl/2ZGACN). Fifty years ago today, Saturday, Jan. 18, they wed in my mother's childhood church, St. Alphonsus of Liguori, on historic palm tree-lined Kearney Boulevard in Fresno.
This (Saturday) afternoon at 1 o'clock, Joseph and Theresa Rieping, their five children, 16 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren will thank God with a Mass at St. Joachim Catholic Church. Anyone reading this who wishes to attend will surely be welcome.
In one of the Scripture passages my father chose for the Mass, the apostle Paul writes, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31b)
It is a statement of the obvious that we believers seem to forget in times of uncertainty, pain, or menace. After all, if we believe God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, and loves us, then what do we have to fear? We should always overflow with confidence.
Needless to say, we don't. Most of us falter in it at times, and for some of us insecurity or anxiety is normal. This is partly because we know firsthand how situations can twist against us, despite even our best efforts. We remember or we imagine, and our heart quakes.
Yet Paul went on to write: "Can anything cut us off from the love of Christ -- can hardships or distress, or persecution, or lack of food and clothing, or threats or violence?" (Romans 8:35)
Trusting in God doesn’t mean we’ll never suffer trials, as my parents well know. In marriage, your beloved won’t just be with you amid trouble -- your spouse may sometimes be the source. As my mother once told my father: I will always love you, but right now I just don’t like you.
And there are some marriages, unlike that of my parents, in which it seems evil has the upper hand, or has triumphed. Who of us have not encountered this?
Even so, Paul rightly wrote, "No; we come through all these things victorious, by the power of him who loved us." (Romans 8:37)
How can he say this? Because this is true victory: that "nothing already in existence and nothing still to come ... will be able to come between us and the love of God" (Cf. Romans 8:38-39).
If God is truly as we believe, there is no greater achievement than to have such a lover.
By John Rieping | Published 28 Dec. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
"I will kiss you!" / cried a little bird to the Sun up above / Her little heart light with love
"Come," laughed the Sun, / "and we shall be wed!"
But, though she flapped, / Sky would not bear her / Her wings grew so heavy! / Soon down to the mud sank she
"I am too weak to fly up so high," / the muddy bird cried, / and how deeply she did sigh
Sun beamed and laughed, / "Then I will come down!"
And He did.
And no, my greeting is not late -- at least for me. For centuries, many Christians have celebrated Christmas not as a single day nor as a season that ends Dec. 25. The traditional carol "The 12 Days of Christmas" and even the title of William Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" continue to remind us of this.
While the calendar of the Catholic Church will observe the Christmas season through Jan. 12 this year, the traditional "12 days" extends from the evening before Christmas to the holiday of Epiphany, which customarily falls on Jan. 6. Epiphany looks to the visit of the magi to the newborn Jesus, described in Christian scripture and seen by believers as the first revelation of the Jewish messiah to non-Jews.
In many nations, such as Mexico, gifts used to be exchanged for centuries on Epiphany, not Christmas. But the U.S. tradition, which in the 20th century was exported globally together with the myth of Santa Claus, changed that for many.
Catholics extend the Christmas season until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which commemorates that ceremonial washing of Jesus in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist. For Eastern Orthodox Christians, this latter event is instead remembered on Epiphany, which is for them the primary holiday of this time of year -- not Christmas.
Regardless these times are not jolly for all, whether Christian or not.
One Madera (California) couple I know inwardly grieves the absence of their babe, who died months ago -- far too soon for Christmas. Another couple elsewhere in the U.S., cousins of a friend, has a two-month old boy, Atticus, in intensive care (to help with the medical costs, see http://goo.gl/MmogHC). Due to his precarious health, he received his baptism and confirmation Friday.
A third couple has been bereft of two grandsons, one to a drug overdose and the other to jail. Grief colors their holiday. Meanwhile a fellow columnist at this newspaper had a serious and unexpected brush with death.
Then there is the local family planning the funeral of a 15-year-old boy who died shielding his 13-year-old brother from bullets in a purposeless shooting (how that noble act calls to mind John 15:3).
Isn't the birth of Jesus supposed to bring peace and good will to humanity? That oft-repeated phrase is a variation of the words sung by many angels to shepherds outside of Bethlehem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will." (Luke 2:14)
Yet, despite Christmas, pain of all kinds remains and there are no easy answers. This mystery of suffering can only make sense at the foot of the cross, upon which the grown babe Jesus died -- the self-sacrifice for which Christians believe he came. If we Christians believe even our God was not spared a terrible cross, how can we think we will? Yet that is not cause for despair or stoicism.
Jesus himself would tell his closest followers, the apostles, "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you -- not as the world gives, I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid... These things I have spoken to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have affliction, but take courage. I have conquered the world." (John 14:27, 33)
Peace and courage can be found in God, even amidst hurt.
May the love of God be born anew in our own hearts that we may bring what consolation we can offer, by prayer and deed, to those in need. Let us be men and women of good will to those around us and to our own selves.
"Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
By John Rieping | Published 21 Dec. 2013 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved
The elderly widow of the tribe of Asher took each step carefully as she climbed the stairs up mount Moriah, upon which stood Solomon's Temple and the highest point within the metropolis of Jerusalem.
The stone would not be forgiving if she fell.
Though not a festival or holy day, Hannah would have company enough. Services took place daily. Each week a new shift of priests, chosen from all parts of the land, would perform all the functions of the temple, with a different priestly family responsible for each day and all working together on the Sabbath. Few faces were familiar to her.
But she did not come for them. No, the daughter of Phanuel lived up to her sire's name, for she longed for the "face of God" ("penuel" in Hebrew).
At the top of the stairs she rested, her vigor slowed by age and fasting. But she had learned patience. Behind her the city sprawled, each quarter set apart by sandy, gray and white walls. The roads flowed with people, though not equally or always well. The cool of morning was preferable to the heat of the afternoon.
The interior courtyards of rich homes lay exposed from above, encircled by narrow buildings that looked like absurdly thick walls, some with red sloping roofs and others topped flat -- private paths upon which to look down or out on the city. The homes of the poor were not so impressive, but no less lively.
In either case, all manner of washing, play and work could be seen -- and all seemed equally small now. They did not captivate her attention as in younger years.
Her eyes may have lingered, out of reverence, upon a square building rising above the others with a pyramid-like top pointing to the heavens. Within it the bones of King David rested. How long until one of his kin would sit again upon the throne instead of a puppet of Rome? When would come the mashiah? (Hebrew for "anointed one," in Greek "christos")
Hannah continued onward toward her daily appointment with the love of her life. The view of Jerusalem could be contemplated no more as she walked upon the wide open space of the temple mount, lined with great roof-topped pillars on all sides. Here was enough room for several temples (or 24 football fields), but such multiplicity was unthinkable. On great festival days, massive crowds could be seen here, human overflow from the one temple of the one god.
Smoke rose from the altar of sacrifice, hidden in the heart of the temple, which sat tall at the center of the level top of mount Moriah. "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?" sang the psalmist in her memory.
"He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully... Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob." (Tehilim/Psalm 24:3-4, 6)
Beyond an ornamented railing that non-Jews could not pass, another tier of steps ascended, but a kindly stranger assisted her with them. Soon she entered the walled-in court of the women, the treasury. Beyond it, she too would be allowed no further.
Coins clattered in the 13 wooden boxes that could be found between columns that supported a covered passageway surrounding the court. The offerings were dropped into each box via trumpet-shaped openings of bronze, and some liked to guess and judge the generosity of others by listening for the distinctive sound different-sized coins would make. But she had no interest in that.
As she walked forward, her eyes spotted a particular crack in a stone and a memory awoke of a woman charged with adultery. The penalty for her fault was death, as dictated by the law (Debarim/Deuteronomy 22:24). Hannah's eyes grew wet, and she directed her heart to God and began her prayers.
She remembered the woman, her late husband, her own children and grandchildren, and more. Each loved one led her thoughts to another as she emptied her heart before her God. She lifted each of them up with a trust born of long experience that God listens and cares. "For I know that my redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth." (Job 19:25)
Thus she prayed upon the stones, and she was heard.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 17 August 2013 in The Madera Tribune
Did you hear about the student whose mother had bought him a really cheap dictionary app for his smartphone? He couldn't find the words to thank her.
It gets worse. While defending her purchase, she declared that a good education was a man's best friend. The family dog bit her.
As for myself, the other night I was in the mood for heavy reading, so I read the telephone book. But I couldn't make sense of the plot. There were too many characters.
So I picked up "Butler's Lives of the Saints" and skimmed some life stories. Disappointingly, all the biographies were the same: the main character always died.
But let us speak of literacy more sublime. There is an ancient practice of prayer known as "lectio divina," a phrase that means "reading God" or "divine reading."
It traditionally involves reading the Bible slowly, with imagination and thought.
We Christians tend to read the Bible like we drive on the freeway, eager for our destination. But lectio divina requires reading like a car trapped in rush hour traffic -- stop and go.
A 12th century Carthusian monk, Guigo, wrote of it: “Reading puts, as it were, whole food into your mouth; meditation chews it and breaks it down; prayer finds its savor; contemplation is the sweetness that so delights and strengthens” ("Scala Paradisi").
How to do it
Begin by seeking out silence, letting go of distractions, and focusing on God. A prayer may help.
Next, read a sentence or phrase, and then reflect upon it. Put yourself in the circumstance mentioned, ponder what it must have meant to those present, or listen to its echoes in your own life. In whatever way you choose, "Go to your bosom: knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know," as William Shakespeare once wrote.
Then speak to God about it or just spend time with God.
After an uncomfortable pause, continue on. Lectio divina will test one's patience at first if done properly. But the temporary breaks are necessary, like in any conversation, to make space for a two-way exchange.
Lectio divina isn't "Bible study." It is meant to be an encounter. The goal isn't to master knowledge. It is to embrace God.
The Cistercian monk Charles Cummings sums it up better than I: "Sacred reading allows the word of God to touch and awaken my heart. 'Indeed,' says the Letter to the Hebrews, 'God's word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword... It judges the reflections and thoughts of the heart' (Heb. 4:12). When I spend time in sacred reading I invite God's word to penetrate my heart and to evoke from that deepest center of my being a response of surrender, wonder, praise, regret, petition, love. In the words I read, God speaks to me; in my prayerful pauses I respond to God, verbally or wordlessly."
The final step of lectio divina is living out God's Word.
In his 2010 exhortation "Verbum Domini" ("Word of God"), Pope Benedict XVI noted: "We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity."
Lectio divina remains a daily prayer for many monks and nuns as it more or less was for their earliest predecessors, the "desert fathers" and "mothers," who fled Roman decadence by seeking the desolation of the deserts of Egypt in the 4th century.
These days other Christians of all kinds likewise find light in "reading God."
By grace, may we be able to sincerely say: "Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother's arms, even so my soul" (Tehilim/Psalm 131:2-3).
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 13 July 2013 in The Madera Tribune
"Grant misery to me, my Lord and my God," my mother prayed repeatedly Thursday morning. She meant "mercy." But her dark malapropism didn't alarm me. She has moderate Alzheimer's disease, and her reasoning and memory suffers from its creeping blight.
She has better and worse days. I remember one incident when I, my dad, and other family members took her to her favorite eatery, Lola and Rico's Restaurant at 12889 Highway 145, a few months ago. She spotted her youngest grandson, Zachary. Mistaking him for myself as a child, she called out "Johnny" over and over until -- prompted by my brother -- Zachary came. "How are you feeling, Johnny?" she asked.
How fitting that her question would be that. Though I can seem stoic, I have always been an emotional person and in younger years confided in her often. Now I felt a disorienting but happy sense of deja vu as if I were glimpsing my own past from afar in a sort of out-of-body experience.
I imagine that every mother still sees the child in her grown offspring. But my mom sees me best in other children now -- yet loves me all the same.
She generally has a more difficult time when the sun has set, so the longer days of summer are kinder to her. My father, siblings, and sisters-in-law know this best, as they help far more than I in the evenings. Any who desire marriage should see such examples.
My father has grown closer to God, I think, along this spousal journey of heroic love. Without God, family, others, and the refuge of the farm upon which my parents live, I don't know how he would cope.
The Jewish prophet Yirmiyahu of 6th century BC once wrote, "O LORD, I know that the way of a man is not his; neither is it in a man who walks to direct his steps." (Jeremiah 10:23)
Years ago, I jotted that Scripture down along with others. It was a reminder to myself to surrender to God's wishes. Looking it up, I'm not surprised I didn't record the next verse: "Correct me, O LORD, but yet with moderation and not in fury, lest you bring me to nothing." (10:24)
In this 21st century AD, how often do we pray to be chastised?
Well, technically, my mother prayed for "misery." As she spoke them, her words reminded me of the Latin word "misericordia," which means "mercy" and has the roots of "misereri" ("to pity") and "cor" ("heart"). Yet the Latin word "miseria" means "poverty." Romance languages, such as Spanish, continue to use "miseria" and "misericordia" thusly.
Our words reflect our thoughts, so why have so many considered mercy and poverty to be neighbors? Pondering this I recall the story of the widow's mite.
While Jesus and his followers were at the Temple of Jerusalem, they did what many of us still do in public places -- people watching. They saw many wealthy persons throw large donations of money into its treasury. The bags of coins must have produced a satisfying crunch, and if they were loose you can just imagine the clatter.
Then a widow came and threw in two "mites" -- to be exact, two "lepta." The Greek word "lepton" means "small" and described the tiniest coin in the Roman province of Judea. Like U.S. pennies used to be, lepta were made of copper and weren't worth much.
Jesus commented: "Amen, I say to you, this poor widow has cast in more than all they who have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in (was) of their abundance, but she -- in her want -- cast in all she had, even her whole living." (Mark 12:43-44)
His words turn my thoughts upside down. If mercy and poverty are linked, I had thought, surely it would be because we should pity the poor. But that is not what we see here. Instead, it is the poor woman who gave of herself beyond the point of comfort and security and is praised for generosity.
Those of us who are Christian claim God showed us the greatest mercy in his suffering, death, and resurrection. Does this not suggest that being merciful may, even should, be uncomfortable?
Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India, once said: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Jesus said, 'As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.' The Father's love, the Son's love, and our love is but a giving until it hurts."
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 27 April 2013 in The Madera Tribune
I went to a woman's funeral in Fresno less than two weeks ago. I did not know her well. But some of those dear to me loved her much. So I mourned with those pained by her absence.
Love shows itself in such seemingly opposite ways, from laughter to tears. But despite its many expressions it always, if true, draws us out of ourselves. Love is a kind of gravity that pulls us.
But it isn't fate.
A joke tells of a 7-year-old girl who shocked her parents by telling them a boy in her class had kissed her after school.
The father asked, "How did that happen?"
"It wasn't easy," she said, "but three girls helped me catch him."
In another joke, a kindergarten teacher at a Christian school explained the 10 Commandments. After explaining the command to "honor thy father and mother," she asked, "Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?"
One boy quickly raised his hand and answered, "Thou shall not kill."
Love cannot be forced. It must be a free choice or it is not love. We all know this, yet this freedom can frighten us. All of us fear rejection at times.
Professor Brene Brown, Ph.D., of the University of Houston has written three New York Times best-sellers based on her decade of research on shame and vulnerability. Yet her study came about unexpectedly. She had intended to study personal connection, but when she asked people about it they kept sharing about heartbreak and exclusion.
After six weeks of this, she decided to follow this common thread in people's stories. She wanted to decipher what it was that seemed to undermine relationships again and again in people's lives, and discovered it was shame -- a fear of being unworthy of connection.
So she spent the following decade trying to define and find the solution for shame.
She found that shame prevents people from being vulnerable with others, because we don't wish to be fully exposed as we are. However prudent vulnerability is necessary to connect with others.
Those who suffered least from shame were those who believed deeply in their worthiness to connect with others -- their lovableness. Because of this, they had the courage to be exposed as imperfect and had compassion, first for themselves and then likewise for others. They accepted emotional risk and vulnerability as necessary to connect with others.
There's more Brown concluded from her research, but you can pursue her words yourself if interested (www.brenebrown.com). Instead let us consider a comment left under an online video of a 2010 TEDxHouston talk of hers, "The power of vulnerability" (http://goo.gl/opQRQ).
"The problem with believing that one is unconditionally worthy of connection is the fact that people seem to like you and connect with you based on many conditions…," wrote sn3192 on Wednesday. "Believing that you're worthy of connection for simply breathing oxygen may be wonderful, but delusional."
That question returns to the uncomfortable root of the problem I think. Where does our worth and lovableness lie? If who we are is defined by what we think, say and do, then how can we be lovely despite the ugliness in some of that?
After all, shame is comfortable with partial exposure. It is only unpleasing parts of ourselves that it wishes to conceal. Yet such "invulnerability" is enough to unravel love, because it prevents us from being wholehearted with others.
Christians, I think, have an answer to this puzzle. We humans are lovable because God first loved us and loves us still. Even if we were the worst of terrorists, God would love us no less. We could be the greatest in every possible way, and God would love us no more than now. Because God loves us utterly and completely in any case.
We have worth not because we breathe oxygen, but because we humans were made in the "image" of God.
Like God, we have a higher understanding and a free will. This freedom that can unnerve us with fear of potential rejection by others is the same freedom that God reverences and respects in us. God loves us wholeheartedly while knowing we can reject him.
So what now?
"A new commandment I give unto you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)