From Misery to Ministry

Agnesi book coverAfter discovering Tony Agnesi through his book A Storyteller’s Guide to a Grace-Filled Life, I’ve looked forward to his newest project. It’s here: A Storyteller’s Guide to Joyful Service: Turning Your Misery Into Ministry takes a look at dealing with tough times, be they simple disappointments or deep griefs, and using them as opportunities for growing in service to other people.

“Lord, if you had been here…”

In an informal style, Mr. Agnesi shares small stories exploring painful situations and ways of responding to them. He is writing for a Christian audience, assuming that his readers have some familiarity with both faith and disappointment. He knows that Martha’s words to Christ in time of bereavement – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” – reflect a deeply human reaction to loss. Where to from there?

Tony Agnesi

Tony Agnesi

One step at a time, responds Mr. Agnesi. He has confidence that in small ways, a day at a time, anyone experiencing major or minor miseries can be equipped for ministry to others. His words might not reach someone in the grip of immediate and profound grief, when looking ahead seems like too much to bear. For anyone capable of reflection, though, Turning Your Misery Into Ministry can be thought-provoking and inspiring.

Small Steps: A Path to Service

The author’s own experience with serious illness makes this a book written for other people, not at them. His descriptions of the ministries in which he’s personally involved enrich the book. His message on every page is I can do this; so can you.

The actions he advises seem obvious, but it’s precisely when challenges are oppressive that solutions are obscured. Pray, even briefly; look a stranger in the eye and say hello; give the gift of listening; do simple things for one’s spouse: page after page is filled with reminders of the little things that draw one’s attention outward, discouraging self-absorption.

That’s not to say he advises forgetting about self-care. He knows that he and his readers need healing and grace and time for themselves.

Grace in the Virtues

Virtues in action are basically habits developed over time. Mr. Agnesi packs his small book with short suggestions for ways to develop those habits. His book concludes with a section called “Grace in the Virtues,” which may seem an odd subject to consider when dealing with miseries large and small. After all that precedes the closing section, though, his reflections on grace and virtue make sense.

Each little step he advises is underpinned with encouragement towards the simple virtues of gratitude and humility. Without them, no one can be equipped for ministry. No formal training or credential can replace them. With them, anyone can begin to offer authentic service to others. Wherever authentic service exists, there is ministry.

Turning Your Misery Into Ministry ends with an exhortation to be passionate, unafraid, and joyful. With the voice of a neighbor, Tony Agnesi invites his readers to join him.

(Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for a review.)

Thoughts After Rome

This post originally appeared at DaTechGuy Blog

Dome of St. Peter's Basilica

Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica seen from Gianicolo Hill, Rome. Ellen Kolb photo.

When an opportunity for me to visit Rome came up unexpectedly not long ago, I dropped everything, including blogging assignments. I will probably never have another crack at a trip to Italy with my husband. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I wanted to go.

I figured I might be able to write along the way. Surely there would be time. That’s not how it worked out. No one warned me of the overload of sights and impressions I’d be experiencing, and the deep contrasts I’d be witnessing. They packed an emotional punch. Perhaps the biggest contrast that hit my Catholic sensibilities was the one between churches as places of historical interest and churches as places of faith.

Rome is a city of church domes, not skyscrapers. Vatican City’s crown jewel, St. Peter’s Basilica, holds a commanding position. A walk through Rome reveals other churches that catch the eye: architectural marvels, places of art and beauty, accessible to believer and nonbeliever alike. One could be forgiven for valuing them simply as museums and artifacts of a certain period in history. That might be what brings someone through the doors for the first time.

Yet these aren’t mere artifacts of a lost time. They are places of worship. It’s odd how I felt that so strongly in St. Peter’s, thronged as it was with tourists. In the little side chapels within the nave, people were kneeling. Maybe one in twenty of the people in the vast church was there for prayer. Yet that five percent made the difference between a museum and a church. I asked where daily Mass was said, since obviously the “main” part of the church was occupied by tourists from all over the world. A guide pointed me to one of the side chapels, set apart only by a quiet attendant welcoming to the pews anyone who wanted to pray.

A few years ago, on another unexpected journey, I made a pilgrimage to St. Mark’s in Venice. The main doors, the big ones, were designated for tourists, of whom there were many. Who could visit the city without taking in that stunning edifice? For those wanting to pray, there was a smaller door off to the side: not to shunt anyone aside, but to guide pilgrims to a quiet area devoid of cameras and chatter.

In both Rome and Venice, I recognized those little side chapels as powerhouses, even if my Italy guidebook didn’t.

I came home to my little parish church, where the architecture is far more modest and draws no tourists. No one would ever confuse it with a museum. I came home to neighbors as appalled as I by the news of yet more abuse, more episcopal failures, more reminders that if my faith in God relies on anyone’s miter and staff then my faith is doomed to shatter.

Tough news to come home to after Rome, for sure. Yet in a way, my journey had set me up to face tough news. Rome was a challenging place for me. Beautiful and vibrant, yes. But around every corner and under every dome was that contrast and tension: museum, or house of worship?  I think that as long as those side chapels are occupied by people at prayer, the tension resolves in favor of worship.

I think that these days, both in Rome and at home, prayer is not only worship of God but also an act of defiance against people who need to be defied: all those who would weaken others’ faith, break bruised reeds, betray trust. A dangerous attitude, that. Prayer without humility and love becomes the clanging cymbal of which St. Paul warned us. Yet abandoning prayer altogether leaves the field to the museum-goers. I’m not prepared to do that.

Rome and Vatican City were a revelation to me. Nothing I studied prepared me properly for all the food, sights, history, and the accompanying  sensory overload. Yet quite against my will, elbowing its way into all my other memories is that sight of people praying off to the side in St. Peter’s. One in twenty, giving soul to the church, quietly pushing back against all that would render it a mere museum.

Photo by author: dome of St. Peter’s seen from Gianicolo hill.

Cecile’s Legacy

This post originally appeared on DaTechGuy Blog.

The Twitterverse murmured #ThankYouCecile the other day to mark the end of Cecile Richards’s tenure leading the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Hats off to the Babylon Bee for skewering that bit of social media hashtagging: “Woman Celebrated for Killing 3.5 Million People.”

That satirical bull’s eye came just a few days after another one from the same source: “Planned Parenthood Defends Bill Cosby: ‘Sexual Assault Is Only 3% Of What He Does’”. I wish I’d written that.

But in all seriousness, Richards is a consequential woman. It would be a mistake to pretend otherwise. Planned Parenthood has had high-profile leaders before and will have them again. What sets Richards apart are the sheer bloody numbers and her solid brass determination.

PP is now the nation’s leading abortion provider, with more than 321,384 “abortion services” provided in FY 2016 alone. In the same year, according to PP’s annual report, revenue was $1.459 billion, of which $543 million came from taxpayers.

That transfer of funds from your pocket into PP’s, on such an appalling scale, was made possible because of a false message that Cecile Richards delivered unceasingly and confidently: abortion is health care. She didn’t invent the message, but she honed it to a fine edge and wielded it like a surgeon.

She knew that quibbling over what abortion terminates wasn’t good for business. Even seeing abortion as a “right” wasn’t enough to fulfill her vision. Selling abortion as health care, as a positive good, was the message she used to elevate PP to the economic and cultural position it now holds.

The political influence, the virtual extortion of funds from taxpayers and fellow nonprofits alike (cf. the Komen breast-cancer charity), the serene composure with which she dismissed the damning videos documenting the sale of fetal body parts by some PP affiliates: all of it can be explained and defended by buying into her defining message, abortion is health care.

Politicians don’t want to support taxpayer dollars going to the nation’s largest abortion provider? (Hey, I can dream.) They’re after your health care. A pastor speaks out in defense of human life? He’s after your health care. A journalist documents commerce in fetal body parts; a court upholds an abortion regulation, however mild; peaceful pro-life witnesses pray silently outside a PP facility: what they’re really after is your health care.

Abortion is health care is a hellishly lucrative legacy for PP. It’s the message that keeps half a million of your dollars going to the nation’s leading abortion provider. No wonder Richards was rewarded with compensation in excess of half a million dollars a year.

Health care and abortion are two different things. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort for the truth to regain its rightful place. Don’t ever doubt that one person can make a difference. Look at what Cecile Richards left behind.

Conscience Meets Access (and Takes a Hit)

The original version of this post first appeared on DaTechGuy Blog.

In the days leading up to the adoption of the latest spending bill in Washington, my social media feeds were full of posts from a variety of pro-life groups addressing one topic: including protection of medical conscience rights in the spending bill. To anyone unfamiliar with the federal budget process, an appropriations bill would sound like an odd place to mention conscience rights. But as we know, all kinds of oddball things work their way into budget deals.

As it happens, the conscience protection act promoted by pro-lifers was not included in the spending bill approved on March 22. I would have shrugged – a pro-life initiative rejected in Washington? so what else is new? – if not for a similar disappointment closer to home. A week before the federal spending bill was adopted, a bill to protect the conscience rights of medical professionals was rejected in my state’s legislature by a two-to-one margin.

Lest you think this is a partisan problem, note that the GOP holds majorities in the legislative bodies at issue here.

I was at the hearing for the state-level bill. The thrust of the opposition to conscience legislation boiled down to this: abortion is health care, and those who don’t want to participate in abortions have no business in the medical field.

By the way, this is where we wind up when we hear the abortion-is-health-care lie without pushing back. But back to the arena…

The argument against the state-level bill was couched in terms of denial of access: if a pharmacist doesn’t want to hand out an abortion-inducing drug, that might prevent or delay a woman’s abortion; if some doctor refuses to participate in abortion, he might let a hemorrhaging woman bleed to death. (Nonsense, but some legislators swallowed that whopper whole.)

There were also some dark mutterings about slippery slopes, although no one used that term: if we respect conscience rights for one or two or three procedures, where will it end? How much disruption can we tolerate in order to accommodate “conscience”?

The supporters of conscience legislation testified to the primacy of conscience, which our own state’s constitution explicitly recognizes as a natural right, not one that needs to be granted. They cited the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They spoke of their religious and ethical beliefs and how they shouldn’t be fired for sticking to them.

“Access” met conscience, and “access” won.

These state and federal votes were hardly the last word. They’re intriguing, though. They indicate to me that hostility to conscience rights is alive and well, even in more-or-less respectable circles. Indifference to those rights might as well be open hostility. Fortunately, there are people pushing back.

I kinda liked Cardinal Dolan’s pushback on the federal vote.

The failure of Congress to include the Conscience Protection Act in the 2018 omnibus appropriations bill is deeply disappointing. The CPA is an extraordinarily modest bill that proposes almost no change to existing conscience protection laws on abortion—laws that receive wide public and bi-partisan support. The CPA simply proposes to provide victims of discrimination with the ability to defend their rights in court to help ensure that no one is forced to participate in abortion. Those inside and outside of Congress who worked to defeat the CPA have placed themselves squarely into the category of extremists who insist that all Americans must be forced to participate in the violent act of abortion. We call on Congress not to give up until this critical legislation is enacted.

 

Book Review: A Storyteller’s Treasury

Tony AgnesiTony Agnesi is a storyteller. He’s built an audience by sharing his Catholic faith using whatever tools are at hand: writing, podcasting, speaking. You need never have heard of him before in order to enjoy his newly-released book, A Storytellers Guide to a Grace-Filled Life. 

This collection of more than 70 brief stories could be read as a guide, as the title suggests. If “guide” implies to you a cover-to-cover formal approach, though, don’t be put off.  Each story stands on its own. A few minutes at a time with one or two or three of the stories is refreshing. This is a book to leave by your favorite seat at home, or to carry when you’re traveling.

Each story includes some questions – challenges, even – inviting the reader to draw from the well of God’s grace. Scripture references aptly complement each story’s theme. Practical steps and reflections wrap up each piece. A story could take only a couple of minutes to read, and the time wouldn’t be wasted. Taking time to reflect, though, brings the real rewards.

Agnesi never forgets Who’s in charge. The grace of which he writes isn’t his to dispense; it comes from God. Agnesi doesn’t talk down to his readers; he assumes he’s dealing with adults who sincerely seek God, even in the middle of struggles that seem overwhelming. He knows he’s not writing for angels.

His tone is a gift to his readers: calm and kind, with just enough edge and challenge to inspire even a temporarily-bewildered believer. He’s a guide walking alongside the reader, not goading from behind.

The Storytellers Guide is divided into five chapters, each with a theme. The section on Holidays has Lent and Advent entries, as one could expect. A surprising one: Father’s Day. Agnesi takes that secular observance and turns it into what it ought to be: a celebration of the God-given gift and responsibility of fatherhood.

The tone and structure of the book make it adaptable for group study.  While it’s written by a Catholic man, it has no figurative “Catholics only” signs. All it needs is a reader in search of a grace-filled life who is willing to listen.

A Storytellers Guide could have been written by your most encouraging friend, who has seen your messy life (and has probably lived one of her own), and is still willing to help point you in the right direction. No false cheer, no nagging. This is a guide worth seeking out.

SPECIAL OFFER: A Storyteller’s Guide to a Grace-Filled Life is for sale at Tony’s web site. He will personally autograph the book, and he’s offering FREE DOMESTIC SHIPPING (Media Rate).  Go to https://tonyagnesi.com/store to take advantage of the offer!

The book is also available at amazon.com or at Barnes and Noble.

(Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for a review.)

Link shared on #OpenBook linkup at My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com.

 

Pro-Life in Secular World: “We Need Everyone to Be On Board”

Excerpt from my report from the 2018 Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life

January 20, 2018, Washington, D.C.

The driver of the Route G2 Metrobus assured me that I was at the right stop. “The building’s straight ahead of you.” I stepped off the bus a little uncertainly, then spotted the protesters flanking the doors of the nearest building. This must be the place, I thought. Nothing like a pro-life event to foster free speech. Welcome to Georgetown University.

The protesters, about two dozen young women, were between chants as I got to the building’s front steps. One of them said to the others in a tentative voice, “OK, let’s do ‘pro-life, that’s a lie,’ OK?” She sounded afraid someone might say no. A moment later they all took up the chant: pro-life, that’s a lie, you don’t care if women die. 

Their voices faded quickly as I moved into the building and was caught up in the friendly crush of a crowd, seven hundred strong, arriving for the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life. This has been an annual event since 2000, organized by Georgetown students, yet I hadn’t heard of it until just a few weeks ago.

So why did I tack an extra day on to my March for Life trip in order to catch a bus to Georgetown? Because of the speakers, and the conference theme: (Ir)religiously Pro-Life: the Future of the Movement in a Secular World.

I left later with the same questions I’d had when I arrived: how and where is that working? Where’s the synthesis? I don’t doubt that it’s possible – but where to start?
For now, I’m encouraged to know that I’m not the only one pondering the questions.

Read the rest of the post in my email newsletter.

The Incomplete Journey

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I recall what former President Obama said on another MLK Day a few years ago.

“Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”

True then, true now. That’s one reason I’m heading to Washington, D.C. in a few days for the March for Life. Presidents of all vintages are welcome to join me.

[adapted from a January 2013 post at Leaven for the Loaf]