lessons learned

Love Is Here to Stay

On Brittany Maynard and George Gershwin 

In 1938, George Gershwin, gifted composer and songwriter with his brother Ira, died at a tragically young age of brain cancer. His death was sudden, and Ira was devastated. George had left one song melody to which Ira had not yet written the words. When he finally sat down to write them, he entitled it, “Love is Here to Stay.”

In the sentimental lyrics, it’s easy to hear the echoes of Ira’s grief as he copes with George’s death. Most renditions don’t include the intro, but it speaks poignantly of a search for stability in a tragic world:

photo credit: wmky

The more I read the papers
The less I comprehend
The world and all its capers
And how it all will end.

Nothing seems to be lasting—
But that isn’t our affair
We’ve got something permanent,
I mean, in the way we care.

The song then enters its main theme, the theme of everlasting love:

It’s very clear,
Our love is here to stay
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time they go—
But oh, my dear, our love is here to stay. . . .

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble;
They’re only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.

Of all the songs the brothers wrote together, this posthumous one touches the most powerful truth: that human beings, in the midst of suffering, want a love that doesn’t end. They don’t want a world that constantly changes, that gives only to take away, a pain-filled world that crumbles around us leaving us empty and longing for something permanent. It’s hard enough to cope not only with “the world and all it’s capers,” but, like Ira Gershwin, with a more personal—we can even say, more painful—loss. Even surrounded by a disintegrating world, the human heart finds solace in the permanence of love and in knowing that love makes perseverance through suffering valuable.

Yet, not everyone sees value in suffering with love. For some, love is a many-splendored but totally temporal thing, which suffering renders impotent and death cuts off with finality. To them, heartache, pain, and suffering are simply to be avoided at all costs, and ultimately an invitation to despair.

I was reminded of this sadder perspective when I encountered the recent buzz over another individual suffering from brain cancer—Brittany Maynard, a woman who has very publicly decided she would rather commit suicide than accept suffering for herself or her family. Her response—at root a pitiable but also selfish one—stands out in particular contrast, for me, with the other people I know who have battled similar illnesses.

One woman, Elise, who is battling breast cancer, has five children, one of them an infant, and is facing this battle with a radically different attitude: an attitude of loving trust, of confident surrender to the Providence of God. Or I think of Andre, a 14 year old hero, who lived every day of his short life to the fullest even though he spent his final years suffering in a hospitable bed with a very low “quality of life.” His suffering, his sacrifice, his courage and joy, and especially his faith in God, fundamentally impacted—even sanctified—the people around him.

This is the difference: people like Brittany see no value in suffering that is offered up in love, but people like Andre and Elise really live their belief in a loving God who can bring goodness out of the worst heartache or most devastating medical diagnoses. They really live the love only hinted at in the sweet 1930s love song—that real and perfect love, the love of God, which is here to stay. It is a permanent, life-changing event, in the face of which death and suffering have lost their sting. Unlike Brittany, they face the painful, frightening battle or suffering and death with a response of love—a love that fills their suffering with significance far beyond the comprehension of the world.

And that mystery is why, while everything may indeed be going to hell in a handbasket and maybe after all the world is coming to an imminent end around us, Christians live differently. “We’ve got something permanent—I mean, in the way we care.” We don’t face radical loss the same way as other people do. We face it with the confidence that no matter what comes, this changing life is not all.

Christians live differently, because for us, this life is just the beginning. As impermanent as this world is, we know we’re destined for something more. This life is only the prelude, the intro to the final love song—when Love will be here to stay.

photo credit: classicfm


When Love is Inconvenient

I spent ten days on a friend’s couch a few summers ago. I was interning in DC, and being from out of state, had nowhere to go between the end of the school year, the start of my internship, and the time that intern housing opened up where I was supposed to stay the rest of the summer.

photo cred: the guardian

With most of my belongings crammed in my car, I lived out of a suitcase or two for awhile, my compact life scattered around the tiny living room of my friend’s apartment.

That internship did a lot for me: helped me hone my career options, put some solid professional experience on my resume, and networked me a few references that I’m positive had serious impact on landing me the full-time job I have now. And in a partial way, I owe that to the generosity of my friend—since taking the internship would have been, oddly, considerably more difficult to arrange without her couch.

But she didn’t know any of that would happen. She didn’t have to put me up for ten days. She barely knew me, had graduated several years before I did, and the only claim I had to her friendship was that we had worked on the college newspaper together. But when I approached her with my awkward and rather desperate request, she welcomed me to her home, fed me, and put up with my mess and the fact that I had to use her shower and borrow her blankets for more than a week with not only social graciousness but real charity.

Often, when we think of charity, magnanimous but relatively easy actions come to mind. Dropping a dollar in the poor box; smiling at someone we dislike. (Which are truly charitable actions.) But while it is easy to envision ourselves fulfilling these neat, practical little acts of charity (at our convenience, when we remember, as we see the need), love doesn’t work that way.

What about those other times? When love isn’t convenient? When it isn’t easy? When it means disrupting our carefully balanced routine, dropping our hoped-for plans, putting us out of our comfort zone and even requiring that we be uncomfortable to help someone else?

Love often asks kindness when it is inconvenient; charity when it is annoying.

Love is to be there for someone who needs us when we really wish they weren’t having this crisis right now and when we feel sure we have more productive ways to spend our time.

Answering the phone when you’d rather continue what you’re doing; being patient with a child when you’re both feeling grumpy or tired. Offering assistance when it’s easier and safer to offer advice. Resisting the urge to just dismiss the homeless man on the corner with the thought, “Somebody will take care of him.”

In these ways, love asks more than we want. Charity turns its eyes to us and expects us to answer with generosity. As Paul said in the readings for today: “Love never fails.” When we succeed, when we choose to be other-centered, then that is love—whether it’s convenient or not.


“Oh, no,” I thought, as I pulled into the church parking lot in search of a Mass. “Here we go again. The 60s in all their glory.”   Against the morning sky, the irregular silhouette of the brick building looked nothing like a church.

Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here.
I passed through the vast lobby into the angular church: sterile, bare, and plain. The one artistic touch was the stained glass windows, but I’m pretty sure I had seen them before–in the nightmare I had after reading Dante’s Inferno. Worst of all, behind the sanctuary the brown brick wall was broken only by a large, white square. The boring stucco outline reminded me vaguely of a parking garage. No colors, no aesthetic appeal. Just a blank backdrop.

To be fair, what the church lacked in design, the priest made up for in reverence. While I find it hard to feel I’m in a church when the decor tells me I’m in a town hall or modern art museum, by the consecration the “jaws-of-hell” stained glass windows had ceased to distract me.

But suddenly, as the priest raised the consecrated host above his head, it disappeared. I blinked in astonishment. Against the blank cream-white square of the sanctuary, the cream-white host was virtually invisible. “Behold the Lamb of God,” proclaimed the priest, as I could behold nothing but his raised hands and arms stretched up above the altar.  Just as I made an act of faith that the host was no longer bread but the Body of my Lord and God, so too I had to make an act of faith that the host was even there.  I simply could not see it.  My mind raced back to Thomas. “Blessed are those who do not see, but believe.”

Coming out of that church, I realized: when you paint your world one color, all distinctions and meanings disappear.  As I mused upon my invisible God and my blindness caused by the bad backdrop, it reminded me of another kind of blindness I encounter every day. “Why can’t they see?” I have cried in disbelief at the headlines I read this week. Radical gay-agenda activists are ranting more and more about “marriage equality,” and daily I discover that for many people, who man is and the purpose of sexuality have disappeared. They have gone blind.

What to me always has been, and always will be, an obvious and self-evident truth, is to them simply invisible. “Love is love,” they declare–a tautology disguising their ignorance of what love means. Their blindness is all-encompassing. Men can be women. Women can be men. Even children are sexualized to push the gender-destroying agenda. It is truly heartbreaking to witness their open-eyed delusion and wonder how they can be shown the truth.
LGBT activists chose a rainbow as their emblem, but I believe a blank, single color–like the wall of a parking garage–would be much more appropriate. They use one and only one standard by which to measure their actions: sexual satisfaction. Human nature, the love of God, natural order written in our heart–none of this matters to them. All that matters is the satisfaction of their sensual desires, even if they are self-destructive and unnatural. Blinded by their overriding misconception of love, they cannot see the reality of the love of God.

Ignoring the contrasts and harmonies of men and women in their God-intended roles, they obliterate distinctions between genders. They level all things by one crooked ruler, paint all the earth one color, all one theme: so it is not surprising that their ability to see the truth disappears. They deliberately discard the context in which sexuality is meant to be understood; so they cannot see what sexuality actually means.  Sex is for two inseparable ends: the loving union between a man and a woman in a permanent relationship, and the procreation of children as the fruit of that love. If you reject that–as we did in the 60s when we embraced contraception in our marriages and modern art in our churches–then the authentic context is gone and the truth disappears. Divorce, abortion, and gay marriage logically follow as steps along a blind path, deprived of the light of truth.

Soon the Supreme Court will decide whether to legalize gay marriage in the United States, and gay rights activists are pushing hard to erase all lines between men and women. Against the backdrop of their disordered desires, God’s design disappears and they can no longer see the truth; and they want everyone else to see it their way, too.
But though many will keep telling me, when it comes to differences between men and women, that there is nothing there to see–just as some tell me the Eucharist is only bread–I believe that men and women are intrinsically different. I believe God made it that way. And I believe that that is not only incredibly good, but incredibly beautiful. It may be a long time before we leave behind the inheritance of the 60s, the backdrop which robbed our churches of their designed beauty and threatens to rob our marriages of their beautiful design. But I know that even if we cannot see the restoration of truth in society, the truth is still there. The Lamb of God is still raised on high, invisible though He may be, and He still shall take away the sins of our dark, blind world.

Not Waving But Drowning

–a version of my article was also published at Catholic Exchange today.

British author Stevie Smith (1902-1971) once penned a striking poem called “Not Waving But Drowning.” The poem retells a real-life incident in which a man swimming at a beach began to drown; when his friends on the shore saw him gesticulating wildly, they misinterpreted his signals for help as cheerful waving at them:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving, but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
 . . .
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always  
 . . .
I was much too far out all my life  
And not waving but drowning.
Smith’s poem hints at the unhappy truth that human perception is flawed; that there is too often a disparity between the way we perceive someone and the reality about them. In fact, frequently what we see of another person’s life is not merely different from but totally opposed to the real story.
It was exactly this grim poem about misperception that came to my mind when I opened my Facebook page and contemplated a sickening social ill splattered like a headline across the top of my news feed.
A woman I know in her 20s was bombarding Facebook with pictures of herself kissing her boyfriend, bragging about how happy she is shacking up with this year’s bedmate. How she’s so much in love. How nothing on earth could make her happier than being the live-in girlfriend of this hottie hunk of man—unless a cure could be found for the cramps her contraception gave her from time to time.
My heart ached at this depressing situation, and yet this was only one example of an all-too-common problem: that many young people I’ve encountered appear happy and content to live on a strange level of unreality: the world of sexual license and self-serving materialism. Some have dived so deep into this secular worldview it seems unlikely they’ll ever resurface to sanity. Atheism, agnosticism, and anti-religious sentiments are prevalent in my generation. Getting drunk is a good time; sexual sins are not sins to them; hook-ups, contraception, and gay marriage are the norm of “love”; and anyone who objects to these things is a narrow-minded bigot.  They seem satisfied that their notions of true happiness apparently reach no higher than owning the newest iPhone, beating the latest video game, or achieving a romantic relationship that resembles the Twilight series.
I realized, however, that, just like the people on the shore in Stevie Smith’s poem, my perception of this situation is not quite accurate. External signs of happiness, “wavings” in which the obstinately-secular flaunt before the world what they profess makes them happy (such as the hooked-up couple whose “love” is not grounded in a life-long commitment before God, or the college student who denies the existence of God and seems overjoyed at purchasing a newer piece of technology or attending the midnight premiere of the latest blockbuster)—these external trappings of happiness and high emotions are signs not of flourishing but of failing; of empty souls slowly drowning in a world flooded by materialism.
People who have plunged into this secular mindset aren’t really doing what will leave them satisfied. Alcohol, drugs, and extra-marital sex can’t actually give lasting happiness or lead to human fulfillment; they just effect a cheap imitation of joy for a very short time. And people who seek nothing higher will ultimately find themselves lost, unhappy, and restless, with bitter hearts and broken lives. The material pleasures with which they surround themselves are not happiness, but only empty replacements for the deeper joy of vocation and virtue—and will leave the souls who embrace them still floundering for something real to cling to.
The contracepting couple without the grace of the sacrament of Marriage to keep them going in tough times probably won’t still be together when they’re middle-aged, let alone next year.  The young atheists in times of suffering will fumble for some humanitarian meaning to life that will eventually leave them cold and seeking satisfaction elsewhere. Even if at the moment they seem quite content with their situation, that’s not the whole story.  We don’t see the damage they’re doing to their own hearts; hearts flailing for help because they’re not yet in the right place. The tragedy is that, unlike the poet’s dead man, they don’t seem to realize it. They’ve been much too far out all their lives; and they are not waving, but drowning.  


“It was a crazy night but . . . y’know. YOLO.”

UrbanDictionary.com defines “YOLO” as an acronym for “You Only Live Once,” and says it is “mainly used to defend doing something ranging from mild to extreme stupidity.” The new term recently rose into popular parlance after its use in a rapper’s song, and went viral across the cyber sphere as a Twitter craze; #YOLO has become a buzzword for crazy, irresponsible behavior. Got drunk last night at the party? Well, YOLO. Got a tattoo? Did some dangerous stunt? Tried meth? Spent $1,000 on shoes?  Oh, y’know, you only live once. Carpe Diem. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. YOLO.
When I first heard this phrase, and the way it is commonly used, it brought to my mind the day, not long ago, when I attended the funeral of a young man named Andre. I had never met him, but I had been following his story for several years. He was only 16.
In the middle of 8th grade, Andre was unexpectedly diagnosed with leukemia. This summer, after several years of intensive chemo and painful complications, Andre’s earthly body failed him, and he passed away.
His funeral was deeply moving, and at the same time, it had a note of joy; because in spite of all the suffering—the unimaginable suffering of his illness, and the deep sorrow of his family—Andre lived life to the fullest. His family testifies that he was a miracle of moral strength and incomparable faith. He never stopped hoping that he would be healed; he continued his studies, took up new hobbies, was thankful for the blessings he had. He kept on each day doing as he ought to have done. Friends and family spoke of his beautiful smile, his determination, his love.
As I said before, I never knew Andre personally. But as I sat there listening to the testimony of his faith, marveling at his amazing trust in God’s plan for him, it struck me that, while perhaps other may have experienced more than he did, this young man did more with his less-than-seventeen years than many people do with seventy.
He didn’t get to go to college. He never even had the normal “high school experience.” He was confined to a hospital bed for much of the last two years of his life. But he had only one life to live, and he made it a life worth living, by putting his all into everything he did, his love for his family, and whatever trial or task God put before him.
Many would say that Andre had a low “quality of life,” and would pity him because his sufferings prevented him from doing many things.  Such people take “quality of life” as a sort of measure of how much a person is able to enjoy or experience; which is why people say that someone without money for luxuries, or someone who is wheel-chair bound, has a not-so-wonderful quality of life. That particular view of life is what drives YOLO-ists. You only live once. You only have one shot at getting as high as you can, doing daringly stupid activities, experiencing different things in this life to the fullest, they say.
But do people with that attitude comprehend what it really means to say “You Only Live Once?”  On my deathbed, would I be glad if I had done those sorts of things? “Gee, I’m awful happy I won that drinking contest. And my life would have been so much less awesome if I hadn’t gone bungee jumping, or partied it up that one spring break.”
Wouldn’t I rather ask myself, “Did I spend my days well? Will my friends and family have been blessed to know me? Have I given my all for what I believed in? Have I loved others as much as I can, given of myself to help them as much as I can? How has my love borne fruit in my life and in the lives of others?”
Because in the end, it isn’t what wild experiences you had that matters; ultimately, what will matter is how you lived through each ordinary day, whether you lived a worthy life, glorifying God in all you did and pursuing Him with all your might. Yes, it can be hard; it will probably mean less cheap thrills and more living for things that really matter in an ordinary life of work and prayer–maybe even bearing terrible crosses, as Andre did–all for the sake of a far more lasting joy. It will take time, and effort, and giving your all to love to the fullest for God. But, y’know . . . you’ve got one chance. Just do it. YOLO.