Friday, February 29, 2008

Last day to nominate us for the 2008 CBA's!


TODAY IS THE LAST DAY to nominate for the Catholic Blog Awards! The CBA site has posted a LONG list of blogs (over 2,000) that have been nominated, and sadly to say :-( we have not been nominated for anything (as of early yesterday anyway... *sniffle*). Now, I know there are people out there who intended to do so and just haven't gotten around to doing it, so now's your chance! Certainly we are not going to win anything with all the big blogs out there sweeping up awards, and frankly we don't really care that much. But, getting nominated does increase exposure and visitors to the blog, which we certainly would love. Take a few minutes and register on the CBA site, and consider nominating us!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Domestic Church: Giving Our First Fruits to the Lord


Worth reflecting on this lenten season (Luke 12:15-19, 33-34)...
And he said to them, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, `What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
Giving with a joyful heart, and treating money and possessions as God's and not our own, takes some practice and trust in God's providence. If one isn't used to giving regularly and substantially, it can take a huge leap of faith to try to correct course in the midst of entrenched financial obligations like home mortgages (or rent), bills, food, etc. For the vast majority of Catholics, and for many other Christians, this is exactly the case. Absent a solid upbringing that formed habits of giving, coupled with an absence of solid catechesis about the necessity of giving, we're reduced to the guilt-tripped $20 bill in the collection plate on Sunday as our only financial charity. Unfortunately much too often expectations are also set so low from the pulpit at our parishes that the situation becomes a negative feedback loop -- financial charity is so low that priests set the bar low to encourage at least some level of giving, which further indoctrinates low giving expectations, resulting in less giving over time, leading to further lowered expectations from the pulpit. What is needed is some collective backbone, and above all trust in the Lord.

Ultimately there's no single percentage of income that can be applied to every person in terms of necessary level of giving. However, both Biblically and historically, the best place to start is tithing 10% of our income (that's 10% before taxes). That number usually arrives like a rock in the stomach of most Catholics who hear it, simply because tithing is almost never taught or expected at that level. I remember once speaking to a priest about tithing 10% and why it's never taught directly, and he noted that he could never do that or expect that level of giving from his parishioners. That's a sad state of affairs. Our parish, the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, MN, is a tithing parish. That is to say, a 10% tithe is taught and requested of every incoming member to the parish at initiation classes, it's taught from the pulpit directly, and many, many parishioners fulfill this challenge (whether or not all of the tithe is given to the parish -- most split some between a few places). In an over 25 year history, the Church of St. Paul has never had a fund raising drive of any kind. Despite multiple church building expansions, the parish has no debt after recently submitting the last mortgage payment from the last expansion. And this despite the fact that that parish itself tithes at least 10% back to other charities. Last year the parish gave 16% of it's income to charity. Trust in the Lord and solid catechesis does amazing things.

But is a 10% tithe a specific requirement? The short answer is no. A 10% tithe was a specific requirement of the law of the Old Testament, but in Jesus' fulfillment of the law it is no longer binding on the faithful. As such the Church herself does not require a specific percentage, only that each give according to one's ability (cf. CCC 2043). But this is too often passed off by pastors as "So, do what you can" and left at that. We must all keep in mind that:
“...Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:6-7).
For most people, this requires some type of goal or guidance. Certainly if one is in financial straights, or hard times, one is allowed to decrease or suspend tithing (though I know of amazing stories of God's providence in cases where tithing has still been kept in such times). But strictly giving out of our surplus is not what God desires of us in our normal, everyday lives. The Lord asks us to go deeper than that in our discernment, to find the courage to give out of our living instead of simply out of our surplus (remember the poor widow who gave both her coins?). For someone who makes $1 Million per year, giving 10% doesn't really cut it. The proportion of that level of income that is surplus is much higher than someone with an income of say $30,000 per year, thus illustrating that 10% isn't necessarily a magic number. But for that vast majority of us, 10% is a life-altering type of tithe. I.E., you could maybe have a more expensive home, or a more expensive car, were it not for the 10% tithe. And if this is true, then we're off to a good start. We have made the choice to give our first fruits to the Lord and not to material things.

The benefits of tithing are enormous. Tithing fosters cheerful giving. How easy and joyful it is to give when we've set aside 10% of our income each month, like a bill, instead of being guilted into giving a meager amount from our wallet in the collection plate. The pain is also much less after we've made that first adjustment to our lifestyle to accommodate tithing; one gets used to living off of 90% of our income soon enough. Living off 90% of our income alone has enormous benefits in causing us to let go of our money worries and our control issues and let God have control. Seeing that we really are just fine living off 90% of our income has a sobering affect on all those worries we used to have when living off 100%. Planning and diligence in this area are work that is rewarded with heavenly treasure (the only kind that matters). Too often we live as lavishly the maximum of our income will permit (or worse, beyond our income) that when confronted with the prospect of giving 10% it seems ridiculous, or that we couldn't possibly do that. Starting small and gradually working up to a significant level of giving is certainly a valid way of remedying this situation.

I pray that in the coming years of the new springtime of the Church that the Holy Spirit ignites a new wave of catechesis, generosity, and trust in the Lord in the area of tithing!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Living Stations of the Cross, a Lenten Devotion

The Stations of the Cross is a popular Catholic devotion, especially during this holy season of Lent. Many parishes pray the Stations on Friday evening, perhaps preceded by a fish fry or soup supper. I wanted to give a bit of publicity for an upcoming event, the Living Stations of the Cross, which will take place at our parish this week. We have attended this very prayerful and reverent re-inaction of the passion in the past, and have found the evening to be incredibly powerful. The presenters are all youth from the parish and their portrayal includes beautiful musical accompaniment. The Living Stations will be presented on Thursday, February 28 and Friday, February 29 at 7:00pm. Friday evening will also include Adoration and Benediction. So, if you're in the area and wish to experience this powerful evening, join us at the Church of Saint Paul in Ham Lake, MN.

Oh, and I have to mention that our darling Maximilian will be portraying "Baby Jesus". (Baby Jesus, of course, isn't specifically part of the Stations of the Cross, but they do begin their story with the Presentation of Jesus in the temple.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I've added a new design element to the blog...


Not that I'm trying to, oh I don't know, further enhance the blog design in order to be nominated for, and eventually win, "Best Designed Catholic Blog" in the 2008 Catholic Blog Awards... oops, did I just write that?... anyway, not that I'm trying to do that, but I've added some cool new functionality to the bottom of the sidebar at the right (down by Cardinal Newman :-). It's blog widgets from, a site where you can catalog your library of books and do all sorts of cool things with it. I've added books on home building, homeschooling, and art to our online library so that we could link to them through these cool blog widgets. I love the simple design with small pictures of the book covers. Take a scroll down to the bottom of the sidebar and check it out!

(And feel free to ask either of us about any of the books if you want more information. I hope to add more books and more categories in the future.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Like moths to a flame...

Contractors are an interesting bunch. After all of the reading I did recently on contractors, how to interview them, how to bid out your project, how to draw up a contract, and how to deal with contractors on the job site, I feel much more educated on the way a contractor thinks (and why) and how they approach a project. It's too much to go into in one post, but suffice it to say, unless you have a particularly benevolent contractor, once you sign a contract and construction begins, you and the general contractor are adversaries. Contractors have incentives to cut corners and try to slip a few things past you (if you are not careful) because they can make a higher profit that way. And in many ways it's simply part of the contractor culture to do this, and it's rationalized in a myriad of ways (e.g. "The homeowners have no idea how much extra work I'm doing for them, I'm more than justified in recouping some cost by doing only one coat of paint instead of two"). So assuming your contractor is a really nice guy and would never doing anything like cut a few corners is a naive assumption. There are two options: 1) you can try to find a contractor that, as his references will attest, actually is interested in doing a quality job despite the opportunity for extra profit, and puts his ideals above his profit, 2) and/or you can educate yourself and be proactive and firm so that the contractor understands you are fully prepared to check his work and hold him accountable. We're going with BOTH options 1 and 2, as we hope to inform you in the future (the contractor we are most interested in is bidding our project right now, and we'd probably wait until a contract is signed to introduce him).

So far we've interviewed three potential general contractors; all three very nice men. But one can see from talking to contractors why there is a historical dislike of contractors for architects, and vice versa. Show a contractor an architecturally designed home, and many of them will wonder why it isn't more "normal" and just like everyone else's. For instance, take this pic of the model of our home design:
One contractor , that we weren't particularly impressed with, said, "Why don't you just swing the half of the home on the right over behind the other half so everything's connected?" Weeelllll, that's not the design, and that's not what we would want, and there's reasons why the home is designed the way it is. He went on, "Why is brick running up the wall on the side of home here? Why don't you move the brick over to the other half of the home so it faces the street?" Ummm, I don't think you'd understand. "You're going to have a really different looking home you know." Hmmm, I guess that's part of the point. "You know, sometimes architects do things that really can't be built that way." Got it, understood. Next!

I will say, one of the benefits of talking to contractors at this stage is that they can catch things that really are problems with the design. Like moths to a flame, all three we interviewed pointed to the exact same things when we asked, "So do you see any major issues or causes of concern in the design." Here they are:
It took each contractor roughly 5 seconds to point to both of those areas. The concern: moisture damage and snow accumulation. These are real concerns that require an actual design solution. For the intersection of the two main volumes of the home, the main concern is rain runoff going straight into the side of the brick and down into who knows what cracks and crevices. Fortunately, all of my reading paid off again, as I knew a solution: a gutter that is set into the edge of the roof. Here's a similar looking home, and notice that there are no exposed gutters. That's because they are set into the edge of the roof itself, as I show in the second pic below (see item 1).
This is workable with most contractors, the only unknown is cost. We'd like to do these gutters everywhere (not just the problem area noted above) because they hide what is one of the most unsightly features of the American suburban home: exposed gutters. But it's too early to tell without a cost estimate.

As far as the double-peak garage, this is more of an issue. Not only is there the question of moisture collection between the peaks and drainage, but a bigger issue is snow collecting between the peaks in the winter and the substantial load that would put on the garage roof. That load would have to be estimated in order to determine if extra supports would have to be put in place, or if special truss designs would have to be used. This was a very big issue with two of the contractors, while the third thought it was an issue but was confident it could be resolved by the truss designers he works with regularly, and without too much extra cost. We're looking at a few design changes for drainage though, such as what you see below, where the trough between the two peaks is actually sloped slightly from back to front (click to enlarge).
Ah, the joys of getting into the details. One thing's for sure, much money is saved by getting into the details this far in advance and drawing up a contract with the general contractor that includes a nearly flawless design. Most homeowners charge right into construction without having fully developed the design, and many dreaded "change orders" ensue, with each change order costs lots of money and lots of construction time (especially if work has to be re-done).

Saturday, February 16, 2008

You better believe we'll get tickets to this...

I am totally psyched to learn that the "Vatican Splendors" exhibit now touring the U.S. for a limited time (check out the excellent website here), and only showing in three cities in total, is coming to St. Paul, Minnesota! Do you hear that fellow Minnesotans? This is potentially a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some of these works of art that are rarely even shown in Rome (the works of art in the exhibit are only allowed to be away from Rome for up to 1 year). I highly recommend the little YouTube style video they have on the front page of the official website to get a good flavor of what is contained in the exhibit. For anyone living near St. Petersburg, FL (currently showing) or Cleveland, OH, you are blessed with the chance to see this exhibit as well. For us Minnesotans, they don't yet say where the exhibit will be showing yet, but I have to believe it's going to be at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I'm trying to think of a specifically Catholic place they would show this, and I don't think there is one that could handle the traffic.

At any rate, I'll be keeping an eye on the official website to pre-order tickets!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The 2008 Catholic Blog Awards are here!


Well, the time is here to nominate your favorite Catholic blogs for the 2008 running of the Catholic Blog Awards, and we're excited to be eligible for the first time in our young history. Ecclesia Domestica started in the Summer of 2007 and never got a chance to participate in the Catholic Blog Awards last year, but we've built up a wonderful audience of regular readers since then and hope to make a good showing so that others can learn about our blog and our home project. And plus, it's just plain fun to participate and vote for other peoples' blogs that I have come to admire.

So here's the deal: from February 15-29 you can nominate your favorite Catholic blogs in any number of categories at this website (you do have to create a user name and password, but it's easy). The categories change a little from year to year, but here were last year's categories (the one's with a "*" are categories I know for sure we don't fit in, but feel free to consider all the others :-) ):

Best Apologetic Blog*
Best Blog by Clergy/Religious/Seminarian*
Best Designed Catholic Blog
Best Group Blog
Best Individual Catholic Blog*
Best Insider News Catholic Blog*
Best New Catholic Blog
Best Overall Catholic Blog
Best Political/Social Commentary Catholic Blog*
Best Written Catholic Blog
Funniest Catholic Blog
Most Informative and Insightful Catholic Blog
Most Spiritual Catholic Blog
Smartest Catholic Blog

After February 29th, the nominating closes and the voting runs from March 3-17. Vote early and often!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I'm a nerd


As you may know, I'm an engineer. It was about time that I put some of my general skills to use on our home project. So once my brother updated our floor plans with all the relevant dimensions (so that we could give this to the contractors we interviewed), I knew I now had all I needed to make a complete 3D CAD model of our home, one that we can now tour on our computer and get a better perspective for making decisions. I used the freely available Google SketchUp to do the modeling (it's the program that is used to make all of the 3D buildings in Google Earth and Google Maps, if you've seen them). Here are some pics of my model... (click to enlarge)
Some of the exterior colors and textures won't be accurate (I had to choose something), but the physical features and relationships are just as they would be in real life.

What's cool about a virtual model is that you can walk through and discover things you never saw before in the floor plans. For instance, this is a view from the kitchen all the way down into the family room. On the floor plans, it's this... (click to enlarge)
But in the virtual model, it looks like this... (click to enlarge)
I never realized that my brother aligned that window waaaaay at the end with this "hallway" of sorts, and it's a great architectural detail. That window looks out onto the woods, and it's a great way of providing another visual sightline that draws your view outdoors.

If you remember that from the front door you can see straight through the home out to the wetland, you can see that here (looking through the front door to the other side)... (click to enlarge)
Another great thing about having a model like this to play around is the ability to see things that might be re-done to save cost. For instance, in the pic above, the brick that is lining the garage wall to the left of the trees is probably not necessary and it probably wouldn't compromise anything visually to remove it.

Here's a pic of the family room... (click to enlarge)
We're thinking of going with an exposed flue with a prefabricated firebox as I've shown above instead of a brick facade and fireplace. It's a great way to add visual interest while significantly reducing cost. Another thing that I learned in reading all the books I checked out at the library!

Here's a pic of the balcony on the second floor in the back of the house... (click to enlarge)
It will be fantastic to open the doors to the kids' rooms and let them play out there, while having the containment of being fenced-in and upstairs. Great for little kids. Molly can already imagine setting up a chair on a nice summer day.

We most likely won't be able to afford the outdoor patios and the covered walkway and balcony right away, but we'll get them built at some point and look forward to lots of indoor/outdoor activity. I must confess, my men's group and I like to conduct our biweekly meetings, which regard growing in holiness and following Christ, outdoors in the summer evenings... and with the occasional cigar (simply partaking of the Lord's bounty)... and I have had visions of this as well :-)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday Activities


Today we skipped our "normal" school routine and spent the morning doing various activities to mark the beginning of Lent. Here's a photo of the kids coloring our "Alleluia" banner which has been buried in a snowdrift in our front yard. Throughout the Lenten season, we refrain from using the praise "Alleluia". Our banner will be dug out from the snow (which will likely still be around considering our early Easter) on Easter Sunday.

Pretzels are a traditional Lenten bread as they are twisted to look like praying hands (arms crossed over a chest with hands on shoulders). We read the story of two monks who made this traditional bread for the village people and then made our own pretzel dough and twisted them into their shapes. The recipe we used made a pretty dry dough, so the ropes were difficult to make and twist, but we did our best. After about five or six, we resorted to making "pretzel patties." The kids ate these pretzels and drank water for our light Ash Wednesday lunch. (I did offer cheese as well, but Clara declined as it was more fun that way.)
Here's Clara with her Lenten pretzel.

Aidan proudly displays his pretzel (while Max is annoyed in the background)

And Ella has already started taking bites (even before prayer-gasp!)

Max is relieved to finally have some pretzel for himself. Yummy!

We also brought out our "crown of thorns" and read the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. This Lenten season, when someone in the family makes a sacrifice or does a special good deed, he or she will take one of the thorns out of the crown. We considered requiring that the kids insert a thorn back in the crown every time they misbehave, but we thought that was a little much considering they haven't reached the age of reason :-)

We intended to take the entire family to Ash Wednesday Mass this evening, but Ella got a stomach bug right before we were about to leave. Brendan took Aidan to Mass and the little guy was very proud of his ashes. Clara stayed home with me and thank goodness she did. She earned several opportunities to remove thorns from the crown while I scrubbed floors, loaded laundry, and RE-bathed Max who decided that crawling through Eleanor's various "piles" would be a fun idea. Luckily, Ella is just as happy to hear a story from Clara as she is from me. I also had plenty of time to reflect during these evening moments as I remembered the story of St. Faustina's potatoes turning into roses for the Lord. And as Brendan was kind enough to point out when I once mentioned that cleaning vomit was not my favorite part of motherhood, "This is my Mother Teresa-hood."

God's blessings to you this holy season.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Thank you Laura!


Laura "the crazy mama" has graciously bestowed an "Excellent" rating upon our humble blog (thank you!).
Me being the typical male, I was horrified to find out that I would actually have to do work as a result of this, and nominate 10 other blogs. Luckily, right now I'm at work, and I just can't do it.

But I'll send some traffic Laura's way and hope people get the chance to check out her and her wonderful family. And Minnesotans stick together (literally, you can get your tongue stuck on us in this weather). We just came out of a cold snap where it was regularly in the -20's air temp (degrees F, though degrees C is almost equal in that temp) with -40 degree windchills (or more). I love that, because it keeps people from moving here to experience the good life. If we didn't have a spell like that every once in a while (and faithfully report on it), then everyone would want to move here and it would be too crowded (note: notice I did not say "overpopulated" :-), it would just take me much longer to get to work).

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Domestic Church: Dealing With Television


Let's say you are a family that is trying to strive for holiness, trying to foster virtue in children, and trying to do everything possible to make Christ the center of the household. You've instituted family prayer, you educate your kids in the faith, and most importantly you try to actively live the faith so as to be an example to your children. It goes without saying, you are by far the primary influence on your kids... hopefully. Well... maybe there is some competition on that point. Despite all your best efforts to protect your children's innocence, there is another presence in your home with the potential to subvert those efforts and provide an entirely different education for your children; an education in the ways and values of the world. That presence is the TV.

Let's be frank for a moment. If you were Satan, and wanted to powerfully subvert the influence of parents on their children, what better way then to send a trojan horse into the homes of millions of families; a wolf wrapped in sheep's clothing? This is in fact what has happened in the last 50 years as TV has made its way into our homes with some real benefits (good programming, relaxation, entertainment) that mask the monstrous drawbacks (sexual, violent, anti-family, anti-parent, anti-Christian, downright Satanic programming). There a have been a very small number of times in my life where I can honestly say that I was spoken to by the Lord in a real way, and one of them had to do with TV. About 4 years ago I had an extremely vivid dream, where the Lord chose the Blessed Mother to deliver a message that scared the daylights out of me. The Blessed Mother showed me a vision of our family, and in our struggle to follow Christ we had rebuffed many attempts by Satan to "sift" us from the Lord. In Satan's struggle to influence us and our children, he had resorted to the last and best means to counteract our influence on our children, the TV. I remember having woken up extremely startled and in a sweat, with a last vision of a conduit established into our home where Satan could still quietly exert influence... indeed, it was already going on. I remember immediately telling Molly we needed to cancel our cable TV subscription, and that we needed to seriously consider how we use TV in our home. I also praised God that he would communicate this message in such a direct way. I had always been a big TV viewer, watching hours and hours of TV a week, never willing to give up cable TV (despite the obvious horrible programming on some channels) because I was so into sports I couldn't bear to give up the ability to watch all the sporting events I had come to love. Within minutes, I finally had the conviction and the clarity of focus to do a complete about-face.

There a couple of theories about taking control of the television. I used to laugh at drivers who had a bumper sticker on their car saying "Kill your television." I thought it was extreme and silly. I don't laugh anymore. Anyone who decides to get rid of television altogether has my utmost respect, and I certainly agree that is a good option for solving the problem of the influence of television in the family. It also encourages reading and seeking out other, more wholesome forms of entertainment. But, I also think it is possible to have a television in the home and exert control over it (instead of the other way around). We have chosen to go this route for a number of reasons.

First, we homeschool in the classical method, which has a huge focus on reading and a marked de-emphasis on any learning having to do with a screen. So reading is already a primary form of entertainment and learning in our family (which is one of the reasons we wanted a small library in our new home). Second, we as a rule don't allow our kids to watch broadcast television programming, especially unmonitored. There is too much filth on TV to risk that, and even good programming has horrible commercials. We exert control over their viewing by only allowing DVD's and videos, and only ones that we have approved (and there's obviously no commercials). Also, we limit TV viewing as much as possible to 30 minutes per day. There are days where this doesn't happen, but most days we stay within this limit. Sometimes during nap time our older kids will watch a movie (Clara knows "The Sound of Music", "Mary Poppins", and "Heidi" backwards and forwards). As our kids grow older, the TV can be used on occasion to edify and instruct with educational films. We don't have cable TV now, and we won't in our new home either. Molly and I do watch one program after the kids go to bed ("Lost" on ABC), and we like to rent movies for our own in-home "dates" (we've made our way through many of the Jane Austen movies recently).

One question for us has been, how will we place and contain TV's in our new home? If anyone out there doesn't realize it, the way you will view TV is about to change shortly (whether you like it or not). By February 17, 2009, all TV signals broadcast over the airwaves must be digital, and all standard analog signals will be shut off. This means that if you have a TV, and you are getting broadcast over the air, your TV will not work come February 17, 2009. You either have to buy a converter box to convert the new digital signal back to the old analog for your now obsolete TV, or you need to buy a new HDTV. Men of the world are now uniting in having a fantastic excuse to pitch getting a new HDTV to their wives ("Hey, we have no choice, the government is making me do it."). HDTV's have come way, way down in cost, and will continue to this year as masses of people buy them. We are going this route, simply because a new home overs a good cut-over point, and newer flat TV's will work well with the aesthetic of our home. We will have one smaller flat TV in the Master Bedroom, and one more standard flat TV downstairs. Never under any circumstances will there be a TV in a children's bedroom. Likely, the only place the standard TV can go is in the family room, which means it needs to be contained and out of sight so that it takes an act of the will to watch TV. How can this be done?

I've found a couple options, neither of which I like very much, but it's a start. Here's someone who came up with a (rather ugly) cloth cover for their TV.
It's an option, but I think the cover would not be used all the time because it would take too much effort to put it on the TV (eventually, we humans revert to the path of least work). Another option is something like this:
I think this is a little heavy-handed, and may not fit our interior, but it's an option. A more likely alternative is that I will have to design something and make it myself. I like the fact that you can have a nice, clean look with the flat TV on the wall, and the cabinet kind of ruins that. Maybe some kind of roll-up cover? Or a few pegs on the wall, over which a nice wood cover is slid? Who knows, as long as the TV is out of sight, out of mind until we choose to use it.