family life

Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

Lessons about faith and modern parenting, from heroes of the Czech resistance

PRAGUE -- No matter what was happening outside their apartment walls, Kamila Bendova pulled her six children together every day and read to them for two hours or more.

It didn't matter if the Communists had imprisoned her husband -- the late Vaclav Benda, a leading Czech dissident and Catholic intellectual. It didn't matter that state officials had bugged their flat near the medieval heart of the city. It didn't matter if a friend showed up after being tortured at the secret police facility a block away.

The Benda family faithfully observed the rites that defined their lives inside its second-floor apartment, a site the Czech Republic has marked with a memorial plaque at sidewalk level. Every day, they prayed together, studied together and found ways to enjoy themselves -- while doing everything they could to show others there was more to life than the rules of a paranoid police state.

"I was never good at playing with the children, so I read to them. … That worked for me," quipped Bendova, who, like her husband, earned a doctorate in mathematics. Father Stepan Smolen, a Catholic priest close to the family, served as a translator during a recent meeting with Bendova and two of her adult children.

The family had plenty of books to read. The walls of the Benda apartment, where Kamila Bendova still lives, are lined -- from the floorboards to the high ceilings -- with bookshelves containing 10,000 books and snapshots of her 21 grandchildren. 

The Benda children were especially fond of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," for reasons the family considers obvious. They were the hobbits and, living in a totalitarian state, they knew that "Mordor was real," said Bendova.

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls

The late Steve Jobs loved surprises and, at the 2007 MacWorld conference, he knew he was going to make history.

"Every once and awhile, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything," said Apple's prophet-in-chief. This product -- on sale at the end of June 2007 -- combined entertainment programs with a telephone, while also putting the "Internet in your pocket." His punch line a decade ago: "We are calling it iPhone."

At one point in that first demonstration, Jobs began jumping from one iPhone delight to another. He wryly confessed: "I could play with this thing a long time."

To which millions of parents, clergy and educators can now say: "#REALLY. Tell us something we don't know."

One key iPhone creator has had doubts, as well, especially when he watches families in restaurants, with parents and children plugged into their omnipresent smartphones.

"It terms of whether it's net positive or net negative, I don't think we know yet," said Greg Christie, a former Apple leader who helped create the iPhone's touch interface. He spoke at a Silicon Valley event covered by The Verge, a tech website.

"I don't feel good about the distraction. It's certainly an unintended consequence," said Christie. "The fact that it is so portable so it's always with you … and it provides so much for you that the addiction actually, in retrospect, is not surprising."

There is more to this puzzle that mere addiction, according to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. In a recent podcast -- yes, he noted many people listen on iPhones -- he tried to summarize the cultural, moral and even theological trends seen during the first decade in which the iPhone and related devices shaped the lives of millions and millions of people worldwide.

Rather than being a luxury for elites, he said, this device "has become something considered a necessity, and in this world, if we're playing by the world's terms, of course it is. … The question the iPhone represents to us is: Who owns whom? Do we own the iPhone, or, increasingly, immorally, does the iPhone own us?"

Surviving the Easter crush, 2013

There must a law, deep in the cosmic base code, that if parents dress their nine children in Easter white -- especially when the New England snow is melting -- at least one will fall into the mud. "It was tough," said Simcha Fisher, describing this Easter's obstacle course, "but we survived all that and made it to Mass."

This was not an ordinary Mass, of course. The Fishers -- with children ranging from 15 months to nearly 15 years -- were trying to get into the 11:15 a.m. rites on the day when their New Hampshire parish would be jammed with those known, in commentaries on modern church life, as Christmas and Easter Only Catholics (CEOs), Poinsettia and Lily Catholics or even Two-Timers.

In a kind of Easter miracle, the Fishers found adequate real estate in a pew. "The church was, of course, packed," noted Fisher, in a telephone interview. "The family in front of us was dressed to the nines and they seemed to be trying to break the world record for the consumption of gum" during Mass.

Fisher knows that this narration sounds whiny. After all, this year she approached the most important day on the Christian calendar even more aware than normal of the tensions between Christmas and Easter Only worshipers and the faithful who attend week after week. As Holy Week came to a close, the National Catholic Register columnist had committed herself, in print, to being more hopeful and welcoming this Easter.

That's nice, but what are church-going Catholics supposed to do when faced with CEOs chattering during Mass "like they're in a football stadium," while turning the "Resurrection of our Lord into a photo op, turning what should be the most joyous holy days into an occasion of sin for faithful Catholics," she wrote.

It's one thing to promise to be more understanding, he noted. It's something else to struggle with the reality of legions of almost visitors.

"I really am glad that they're there," wrote Fisher. "It's got to be better than never going to Mass, and I do believe that the Holy Spirit could easily use that opportunity to send a powerful word, a lingering image, a stray idea into the mind or heart of a fallen-away Catholic, and a casual visit that was made just out of habit, or to please someone's grandma, might be the first step to coming back home to the faith. And yeah, they're not being reverent. Neither am I, by going through the motions while grumbling in my heart.

"But I know my limits. I know I'm not going to suddenly turn into Mother Teresa, especially if I show up 40 minutes early and STILL have to spend the whole Mass on my poor tired feet, trying to keep nine kids docile and attentive when the strangers who did get a seat are playing on their Gameboys. With the sound on."

At some point, this crush will affect whether some believers -- even the most faithful -- are willing to endure the tension in Easter pews, noted Joe Carter, senior editor at the Acton Institute. Recent numbers from LifeWay Research indicated that only 58 percent of self-identified Protestants, 57 percent of Catholics and 45 percent of nondenominational church members said they were likely to attend Easter services. It's legitimate to ask why so many believers are staying away, he argued.

Perhaps this trend can be explained with the help of a quip by baseball legend Yogi Berra, said Carter. When asked why he no longer frequented a popular restaurant, Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Fisher said that, before opting out of Easter rites, frustrated parents could seek less popular services in the parish schedule, make strategic plans to arrive 45 minutes early and have family pep talks with their children about what to expect. And then there is the "Hallmark trap" in which worshipers are tempted to expect a picture-perfect Easter packed with emotional goodies.

It's easy to mutter, "But I DESERVE a flood of peace and grace and joy on Easter, because it's the Resurrection, dammit! But there's no guarantee Easter will work out that way," wrote Fisher. "We need Easter because we're crappy people who get mad at other people, even during Mass. ... Thank God the graces of the Risen Lord don't come to us only when it's a picture-perfect Mass."

Memory eternal: Healer for the healers

Some of the seminarians in the Bible Belt chapel were shaken when Dr. Louis McBurney described -- in gentle, but clear terms -- the hurdles and pitfalls that awaited them in their first churches.

"I talked about ministers' problems and how, sometimes, professional counseling was what was needed," said the witty physician, whose counseling work was built on his evangelical faith, as well as psychiatric credentials from the Mayo Clinic. "When I was through, the seminary president strode to the microphone to deliver the benediction. He said, 'Lord, we're glad that you have called us to be your servants and that all we really need is Jeeee-sussss. Amen.'

"There is still a whole lot of resistance out there to ministers getting help."

McBurney shared that story in the mid-1980s, a decade after moving to Colorado with his wife, Melissa, to open a private and for years secret facility dedicated to helping ministers save their marriages and careers. I visited the Marble Retreat Center as a journalist, entering with the understanding that patients could remain anonymous and that I wouldn't publish its exact location. It was crucial, you see, for troubled clergy to be able to tell their flocks that they were spending two weeks taking a break in Colorado -- period.

The lodge, in those years, was packed with symbolic details, like the toy owl named "Sigmund." There was always a fire burning in the stone fireplace in the 12-by-15 foot den that patients simply called "the room upstairs," even on summer days. The flames consumed dozens of tear-soaked tissues during group-therapy sessions.

McBurney was a true pioneer, serving as a healer for men and women who -- as spiritual leaders -- struggled to find a haven in which they could face their own sins. The 70-year-old therapist died recently of complications from head injuries suffered in a household accident. He was semi-retired and his work continues at the lodge in the Crystal River Valley, which has worked with 3,600 patients in 36 years. Today, there are nearly 30 centers that do similar therapy for clergy, part of a national network ( that the McBurneys helped create.

"The world has changed and we can be thankful for that," said Dr. Steve Cappa, who now leads the center with his wife, Patti. "It's hard for us to explain the kind of religious stigma that surrounded discussions of mental illness when Louis and Melissa began their work, especially if you were talking about trying to help troubled ministers."

The challenges clergy face are easy to describe, yet hard to master.

* Lay leaders often judge a pastor's success by two statistics -- attendance and the annual budget. Yet powerful, rich members often make the strategic decisions. As a minister once told McBurney: "There's nothing wrong with my church that wouldn't be solved by a few well-placed funerals."

* Perfectionism often leads to isolation and workaholism, with many clergy working between 80 and 90 hours a week.

* Clergy families live in glass houses, facing constant scrutiny about personal issues that other parents and children can keep private.

* Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be "as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper," McBurney said.

* While most clergy sincerely believe they are "called by God," they also know they are human and, thus, wrestle with their own fears and doubts. Many ministers have dreams in which they reach their pulpits and discover they are naked.

To be perfectly frank about it, said McBurney, it shouldn't be hard for traditional believers to understand that Satan tempts ministers in unique and powerful ways.

Yet, in the end, sin is sin and most ministers know it.

"Pastors are used to telling people about right and wrong," he said. "Knowing what to do is not their problem. They feel a special sense of guilt because they know what God wants them to do, but they can't do it. ...

"It's hard for ministers to confess their sins, because they're not supposed to sin. They also struggle to believe that God will forgive them, because they have so much trouble forgiving themselves."

What, me worry? Whatever

EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns on teens and ethics. Take comfort in this: The items on the following "to do" list do not apply to all teens today.

Lie to your parents about those wild weekend plans -- check.

Steal that scarf you want at the mall -- check.

Download that term paper off the Internet and add a few mistakes to confuse the teacher -- check.

Inflate your volunteer hours at your church's soup kitchen to pump up that college application -- check.

The problem with the Josephson Institute's latest survey -- the 2008 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth -- is that it contained so many bad numbers that many depressing readers were tempted to pin an "all of the above" verdict on most teens.

Consider the numbers on stealing. Nearly of third of the students surveyed -- 29,760 in 100 randomly selected public and private high schools -- admitted stealing from a store during the previous year. Also, 23 percent said they stole from a parent or relative. The numbers were lower for honors students and those who attended religious schools, but around 20 percent of them stole something from someone.

It's easy to criticize the young, but it's also important to know that they're learning these behaviors from the adults around them, said Michael Josephson, founder of the Los Angeles-based ethics center.

"Did you lie about your child's age to save money? Did you provide your child with a false excuse for missing school? Did you lie about your address to get your child into a better school?", he asked, in a commentary about the survey. "Most of us stray from our highest ethical ambitions from time to time, but we usually do so selectively, convincing ourselves that we're justified and that occasional departures from our ethical principles are inconsequential when it comes to our overall character.

"Most of us judge ourselves by our best actions and intentions, but the children who watch everything we do may be learning from our worst."

The sobering numbers leapt into headlines nationwide, while the researchers said the truth was almost certainly worse -- since 26 percent of the participants admitted that they lied on at least one or two of the prickly questions. Students took part in the survey during class sessions, with guarantees of anonymity.

Other results noted by the institute included:

* More then eight in 10 students -- 83 percent -- admitted that they lied to a parent about an issue of some importance, while 43 percent of the students in public and private schools said that they have lied to save money.

* In a 2006 survey, 60 percent of the students said they cheated on at least one test and 35 percent cheated two or more times. This year, the numbers rose to 64 percent and 38 percent on the same issues.

* The Internet makes plagiarism easy, with 36 percent of the students confessing that vice -- up from 33 percent in 2004.

* Self-esteem is not a problem, since 93 percent of the students reported that their ethics and character were satisfactory and, in a popular quote from the survey, 77 percent said, "when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."

Buried deep in the survey form was another question that would be of special interest to clergy and other religious leaders who work with the young. When asked if they had done "things in violation of my religious beliefs" during the past year, 48 percent of those polled affirmed a simple answer -- never. Another 15 percent confessed to one violation of their personal religious beliefs.

This survey is more proof that something has gone wrong with the way Americans are teaching their young people the meaning of right and wrong, said evangelical activist Charles Colson.

"Instead of being rooted in an objective moral order that exists independently of ourselves, right and wrong are subjective -- they're the product of the person's 'values.' In that case, it makes perfect sense that people can lie, cheat, and steal and still be 'satisfied' with their ethics," he said, in a radio commentary.

"After all, they are not answerable to God or the community, only to themselves. The question isn't, 'How shall we live?' but, 'How do I feel about it?' "

NEXT: The theological content of "whatever."

Sacred meals, Baptist and Orthodox

It's hard to hold a proper Southern Baptist dinner on the grounds without someone bringing a lemon pound cake.

The recipe John David Finley grew up with was as down to earth as cooking can get, with one cup of butter, four eggs, the grated peel of half a lemon and the right amounts of flour, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, salt and nutmeg.

But somewhere between the lines is the joy of his paternal grandmother, Lula Mae Finley. And those black-eyed peas -- you'll need a ham bone -- are just black-eyed peas, unless you have the chopped bell pepper and jalapenos in there. Then you're talking about New Year's dinner with Owen Jefferson "Popo" Finley, Sr. That homemade vanilla ice cream? That's part of the legacy of the Rev. Owen Jefferson Finley, Jr., who survived the hell of Omaha Beach on D-Day before spending 38 years as pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in McAlester, Okla. The list goes on and on.

People used to teach old recipes to their children back in the days before interstate highways, fast-food empires and televisions ate the family dinner hour, said Father John David Finley, author of "Sacred Meals: From Our Family Table." It's a book about cooking, of course, but it's also a memoir about the ties that bind his past as a Southern Baptist preacher's kid to his adult life as an Eastern Orthodox priest, composer and evangelist in Southern California.

"One of the most important things I've learned in life is that food isn't just food," he said. "At some point, I realized that I was preparing and serving certain foods at certain times of the year not just to honor or remember my grandparents and my parents, but to enter into a kind of communion with them. ...

"Suddenly I saw the Communion of the Saints in a whole different way. I realized why food has been so important to the church's theology since the very beginning."

At the deepest level, there is the bread and wine consecrated in the altar rites of the Divine Liturgy. But the ordinary foods of life play key roles in the Eastern fasting traditions of Great Lent, the six-week season in which observant Orthodox believers strive not to eat meat and dairy products. The fasting traditions of Great Lent lead to Holy Week and the great feast of Pascha, or Easter. The Orthodox feast this year is on April 23, using the ancient Julian calendar.

Father Finley said the goal, through the church's feasts and fasts, is for families to realize that the meals they share together are also sacred. Thus, the altar table and the family table are linked. Both are "manifestations of the ways that God feeds us throughout our lives," he said.

It's hard to grasp this in an age in which food is surrounded by golden arches and plastic toys more often than golden vestments, incense and icons.

"There's no room for fellowship in a McDonald's culture," he said. "Every now and then people realize this. They feel isolated and rushed and cheated. They know something is wrong."

"Sacred Meals" features commentary on this subject from an Eastern Orthodox pioneer in North America, the late theologian Father Alexander Schmemann.

"Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian," he wrote. "A meal is still a rite -- the last 'natural sacrament' of family and friendship, of life that is more than 'eating' and 'drinking.' To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that 'something more' is, but they nevertheless desire to celebrate it."

This is precisely what Finley and his family will celebrate Sunday when the midnight rites of Holy Pascha give way to a communal feast -- rich in meats, cheeses, eggs and non-Lenten treats -- that will last into the hours just before dawn.

"Our basket will have to include ham, because I can't imagine a Finley feast without ham," said the priest. "Then there is that great Pascha cheese that the Russians make. It's almost like cheesecake that you spread with a knife. They eat it with that wonderful bread called 'Kulich.'

"I have to make that for the children. You know a food has become a family tradition when the children yell at you if you don't make it."