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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent & Emmanuel: Salvation Happens In The Now

One of the things I used to really struggle with about my childhood church was an understanding that placed God's redemption mainly in the future and then only for the best.

We view time as linear. But does God? What does it mean for a being who exists outside of time (indeed, even "before" it) to experience it? I can only conclude that a God who has no beginning and no end must see time as something circular.

We certainly don't. For us time is a line or perhaps even more accurately, an hourglass. I'm 26 years old. I have 26 years in my past. If I'm lucky, I'll have another 60 plus years to come. Those are big bubbles in my hourglass: a large bubble holding the past and a (hopefully) larger bubble holding the future. And what is my present in that hourglass? It's a space with the smallest of dimensions, the slimmest of openings, a small trickle of lived moments.

The Nativity & Crucifixion - birth and death
This moment right now as I type this is the only moment I have. Right now reading this is the only moment you actually possess and move and live. So why does God's presence come only in the future and then for only a few?

It doesn't. My advent reflection last week illustrates that the miracle of the Incarnation means seeing God in all things and at all times. It's the revelation that God is present with creation and therefore always has been and always will be.

Is God's saving work here and now or in the future with the Second Coming and Christ's return? It's not an either/or; it's a both/and!

As Richard Rohr says, God's saving work and redemption is in the future but you first have to see it here, in the present. He notes that if you can see it here, now, then you can see it there and later. This seems to be part of the mystery of the Eucharist - acknowledge God here before you and then you can see God everywhere. Know it now and you'll understand it then. Recognize the alpha and you will know the omega. See the Incarnation in this lowly child in a manger and you'll see the work of the cross. You'll know that God encompasses all time ("who was and is and is to come").

The Incarnation and the coming of Christ into the world means that the saving work is accomplished now and in our present. When we read the gospels, we see that Christ is redeeming, healing, and saving long before his death and resurrection. The sick, the disenfranchised, the sinful, all are saved by Christ in the present moment in which they encounter him (and the criterion doesn't seem to be membership in the right group but merely an openness to God's saving work).

Christ's very being is Emmanuel - God with us - which is "good news" and salvation. Even when we feel we can only hope for salvation in some distant future ("Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom"), Christ assures us that his saving work is happening now: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 24: 42-3) 

Remember the hourglass? It's wrong. Our lives are not gigantic bubbles containing large pasts and futures but  rather infinitesimally small presents. The present is actually the largest part. By far! If we believe God views time as circular because s/he exists outside of it, then God's experience of time, of us, would be pure presence. Our experience of God is purely in the present too.

This is why Christ says that the Kingdom of God is at hand, i.e. "It's here!" This is why we pray, "thy kingdom come." Imagine if we prayed, "thy kingdom come in the future but not right now." We'd be no better than St. Augustine when he prayed, "Lord grant me chastity and continence but not yet!"

Why does all of this matter? Because it makes the Incarnation more beautiful than we imagined. Because The Kingdom of God isn't an idyllic future that only comes later while we have to trudge through the mud in this world. There is mud. There is sickness and addiction and poverty and war and all our selfish egos. But thank God salvation is for the here and now in addition to the later. Redemption and healing and grace all fit in that supposedly-small hourglass space constituting the present.

The coming of Christ shows us the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus' birth gives us hope for a just world now in addition to a just world later. Redemption happens in the present moment through the Son. Advent is the time that this first becomes obvious.

Related Posts:
Advent & Emmanuel: Seeing God Was Here All Along
When Christian Doctrine Fails Us

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advent & Emmanuel - Seeing God Was Here All Along

It's the start of Advent and we are expectant. Advent is a time for preparation, for getting ready for the coming of the Savior of the World in the person of Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel - "God with us."

God with us. There is perhaps no more profound name than that. For millennia religions promised a connection with the divine, that humanity could somehow touch the heavens and experience unity with the gods and that we could do this through ritual purity. Human perfection seemed to be the key. Jump through the right hoops and appease heaven and you'll get your reward.

Much of Christian history seems to have fallen into this mental trap even though our messianic narrative doesn't support it. Most Christians could write a thesis on their lived experience of guilt but only a small few could write as much about their experience of grace. How many of us think religion is about following rules and pleasing God? How many of us have immense guilt because we think religion is about private perfection?

The Annunciation
It's not. The goal of religion is union with the Divine, not to keep you from making any mistakes. The promise of Advent and Christmas and the Incarnation is Emmanuel - God is with us. We are united with God!

There's something funny, something off about our world and ourselves, and we know it. We seem to do it wrong, we stumble, we fail. When so much of creation seems to be harmonious and balanced, we appear disastrously out of step.

But - still - God is with us, constantly reconciling us to himself, redeeming the dissonance.

In my favorite book, Tolkien's The Silmarillion, there is a creation story for that fictitious world. The supreme, God-like being - Eru - begins to sing things into existence. He sings a theme that all the Ainur (angelic beings) add onto, like individual instruments in an orchestra. Soon it's a beautiful and full sound that is singing and weaving everything into being.

But then Melkor (a satanic and human stand in) desires to sing his own theme. He sings a theme of his own design that doesn't complement the original theme of Eru but rather is dissonant with it. Then Eru does something amazing: he inexplicably weaves Melkor's dissonant theme into his own. This happens several times, each time the 'fallen' theme seems much too dissonant and each time Eru reconciles it to himself. Defying all logic, all prediction, Eru reconciles the two themes so that they do indeed fit, and the result is the music is more beautiful than before.

Emmanuel, God with us, is the same reconciliation. It's the same process. Christ enters the world and weaves our hopelessly blundered musical tunes into God's own song, the song. What's even more amazing and beautiful is that with the Incarnation we can see God everywhere and at all times, as Richard Neuhaus says. With the coming of Advent we can finally realize that Emmanuel was here all along, that the Word was here since the beginning and that nothing has happened outside of it. Advent isn't the realization that a hero has arisen. Like Clark Kent changing into Superman before our very eyes, Advent is the realization that the hero has been here all along, we just didn't see it.

The start of the liturgical year means beginning anew our remembrance of the never-ending story, the constant musical theme. We reorient ourselves to having a heart and mind and spirit that doesn't just hope for but sees union with God. Contrition for sin and our brokenness is necessary. But we don't remember so that we'll be perfect from now on. God doesn't want us to focus on our own musical theme, God wants us to see the ways in which our music is part of hers. Preparing for Christmas is about wholeness and union despite ourselves. We can leave the desire for personal perfection at the door. After all, God already has.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christians Can Be Grateful For Gay Marriage

Last week Illinois became the 16th state to allow same-sex marriage. And promptly joined the previous 15 in their devolved, anarchic state of a post-apocalyptic society and broken families. ...Just kidding.

But you might think all of that if you were following Christian responses. The simplest way I can say it is that these responses were largely disappointing.

Most of them talk of gay marriage "destroying the family." One Illinois Catholic bishop even performed an exorcism on the State of Illinois for its sins just 30 minutes after Governor Pat Quinn signed gay marriage into law. Afterward, His Excellency told reporters he wasn't trying to single out any one issue. This is doubly tragic - first that His Excellency would think such an exorcism was appropriate and second that he would not say with courage, "Yes, this is about gay marriage. Yes, I'm opposed to it. Yes, I stand by the actions I performed just minutes ago." However you feel about gay marriage, honesty is admirable.

I have remained indifferent to the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage. I have opinions but I don't feel I have a horse in that race. But many Christians think they do.

So why should we Christians be grateful that gay marriage can be legalized? Because the government still has no interest in defining the spiritual realities of sacramental marriage. And it doesn't claim to.

There's a reason that when you are married in church you still have to register your marriage with the state. The church will recognize your marriage from the moment you say, "I do." The state only cares about the legal framework being followed and that you've signed a piece of paper.

What's happening with gay marriage is a legal action. I normally champion holistic seeing - that we can't separate spiritual from emotional from physical. But when it comes to governments, they have a very specific purpose and function, and it is not a spiritual one. They are interested in structuring a productive, healthy, society and, in our very fortunate case, allowing citizens to pursue their own happiness.

American Christians love the separation of Church and state, and I mean absolutely love it. We go bananas for it, especially when something like universal healthcare comes to the fore. We want the government to stay out of our religion! But then we turn around and expect that our religious beliefs should be the basis for governing on the issues that we actually do care about. Like gay marriage.

But here's the truth: Christians don't realize how lucky they are that the issue of gay marriage has developed the way it has. We aren't facing the issue of people wanting marriages between three people or with minors or to loosen divorce entitlements to make "marriage" a somewhat fluid definition. We aren't looking at an assault on the structure or seriousness of marriage. We're looking at a group who wants to keep the structure but just be a part of it. Our biggest issue is that gay couples want to affirm marriage's importance as-is.

The issue of our time is that gay couples want to buy into our system: they want monogamous, lifelong relationships, a house in the suburbs, two kids, holidays gathered with their families, and on and on and on. It looks exactly like the image of marriage Christians hold up except for the couple being gay. Some Christians understandably think that that part does matter though others don't. What I'm trying to say is that this image is not so scary. It's not foreign. And since our Constitution is a legal (and not spiritual) document, it's hard to argue they don't have that right.

"But society will break down! Children need a mother and father." Granted, it's hard to argue that by natural design children don't need a mother and a father because, after all, every human has required them for his/her existence. But since gay couples understandably won't be naturally producing their own children, this means there will be more stable couples in society willing to adopt. This is huge! The world has so many children in desperate need of loving homes.

And before you condemn gay couples who want to adopt children you need to answer the question, "Am I willing to adopt a child in need? When I'm married and/or financially stable, do I plan on doing it then?" If the honest answer is no, then you have lost any right to deny adoption to them. People who condemn gay couples adopting but refuse to do so themselves are like the Levite passing the robbed man on the road and then saying the (good) Samaritan shouldn't be allowed to help. Do you think a child in search of a forever home is going to care that their parents are gay? No, no they won't. This particular principle of help and love coming from outcasts is such an offensive theme in the gospels that even today Christians deny its application in our lives.

I see a difference between asking "do you approve of gay marriage" and "should gay marriage be legalized," not because of the answers necessarily but because the questions get at two fundamentally different things.

Our government is designed to not govern based on religious conviction. And the legalization of gay marriage affirms that. For that reason I can say, "Thank God."

Related Posts:
When the Church Fails Homosexuals
Where is God, the Right or the Left?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Catholic in Wheaton: Who Owns C.S. Lewis?

It's been 50 years since C.S. Lewis' passing. I have a profound respect and admiration for the man. The fact that I'm one of thousands writing about him this week is a testament to his influence and legacy.

There's nothing wrong with Lewis, humanly imperfect as I'm sure he was. I love him. But here comes the honest part: part of me is sick of how we see and talk about him. Part of me is sick of how Evangelicals see and talk about him.

Living in Wheaton, there's a joke that Lewis is called, "St. Jack." The joke is somewhat obvious - that Lewis is held in such high regard he's practically a saint. But the joke, though everyone in Wheaton seems to be in on it, has a surprising non-effect. Wheaties appear to like to joke about how much they overly esteem Lewis with one breath and then continue praising him with the next.

The articles and posts I've seen written about Lewis in the past few weeks are smart. They know their stuff. They know that Lewis is an apologist who didn't have degrees in theology or religion nor did he claim such credentials. They know that Jack's strengths lie in his imagination and storytelling.

But like Relevant Magazine's recent post on Lewis, while admitting Lewis never claimed to be a theologian, Evangelicals continue specifically calling him "theologian." Religious fields - ethics, apologetics, theology, biblical studies - can all overlap and be connected to one another but they're not interchangeable. Lewis was an utterly fantastic apologist. He understood love perhaps as well as anyone. And the writings we know and cherish from him cover the realm of spirituality. But spirituality is not theology any more than general mathematics is advanced calculus. And Evangelicals regularly don't seem to know the difference.

"Big deal. Aren't you being pretty nitpicky?" you might ask. No, I'm not, and I'll tell you why.

Because Evangelicals claim Lewis as one of their own. Rather than say, "we greatly admire Lewis for his unique contributions," Evangelicals seem to want to say, "Here's our man! He's just like us. He stands for us. And what he did reflects and represents us." And if you identify with him and believe he speaks for your group, then inflating his resume is a matter of self-interest.

Now, I completely admit this is just one man's opinion. There's a danger of projecting too much onto any one group when you start generalizing. But as someone who lives in arguably the most Evangelically dominated community in America, when you're close to but not necessarily a card-carrying member of that community, you notice exclusion. You notice being left out. And this view of Lewis is a prime example.

In Dale Fincher's blog post from Soulation he does call Lewis a theologian but more importantly he claims that it's fairly obvious Lewis' influence on Christianity is greater than anyone else in the 20th century. Think about that claim for a second and at first glance, do you disagree? If you're Evangelical, chances are higher that you don't.

I know someone who personally knows the aforementioned blogger, and certainly nothing ill was meant by that statement. He has a great voice and this claim wasn't even the main point of the post. But that's also kind of the point: a certain view of (Evangelical) Lewis-as-most-important is simply and subtly assumed. The truth is such a claim is not obvious to "Christians," it only seems obvious to Evangelical Christians.

I, for one, could point out that whereas Lewis understands love like no one else, J.R.R. Tolkien perhaps understands the subtle nature of evil better than anyone I've ever read. I could point out that Thomas Merton's writings contain as much spiritual depth as Lewis'. I could call to mind that Mother Teresa's legacy has more widespread recognition, reach, and teaching than Lewis' works (wildly popular as they are within Evangelicalism). Or I could give the example of Pope John Paul II - the leader of 1 billion Christians - who not only could claim supreme spiritual sway over 1/6 of the world's population but was also one of the main forces causing the fall of communism, a legacy whose practical, moral, and spiritual effects will be felt for centuries.

In my more generous moments this Evangelical view that Lewis is something like the most influential Christian of the 20th century seems simply due to the fact that his writings prove so accessible and universal. In my more cynical moments, I conclude that Evangelicals assume their sphere is the only Christian one and that all of the above figures aren't considered equally influential Christians because, well, they're Catholic.

I'm struggling with myself. I don't know exactly why I have such a strong knee-jerk reaction to all of the "C.S.-Lewis-is-the-best" craze. I think it's partly the inaccuracy of the "theologian" and "ethicist" labels for him. Part of it is wanting to turn a critical eye to the bandwagon that most people seem to be jumping on this week. But part of it is a feeling of exclusion.

I don't get the sense that Evangelicals feel they share Lewis or need to. I get the sense that they claim ownership of him. It's frustrating to feel that some of Lewis' other beliefs are flat-out ignored for the sake of convenience, like, say, the ones in affirmation of purgatory, the communion of the saints, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. (Of course, any claims that Lewis was 'practically Catholic' are also inaccurate.)

It's this sense of exclusion I feel from the way Lewis is talked about that eventually starts to get under my skin. It's the same frustration I experience when I hear people talk about "Christians" (meaning Protestants or Evangelicals) vs. "Catholics" (who somehow aren't Christian?). It's the same frustration I feel when I hear that Evangelical missionaries are "taking the gospel to Latin America," all predominantly Catholic countries where missionaries are needed but not because the gospel failed to arrive almost 500 years ago with Catholicism. And it's the same frustration I experience with the simple title of Christianity Today magazine*. As well-intentioned as I believe Billy Graham's magazine title to be, it's a little insulting to every Christian outside of Evangelicalism. Imagine being a woman and picking up a copy of Americans Today only to find its content was exclusively catered to men and male-specific issues. It would be difficult not to feel excluded. If one is to use an inclusive label like "Christian" one shouldn't do so exclusive-ly.

I suppose my plea to Wheaties, to Evangelicals is to honor his legacy but to not be possessive of Lewis. He's not one of you and your group. He's one of us and our larger, Christian group. And maybe that's healthier. Maybe that's more than enough. Maybe you don't have to claim, "Wheaton is the Harvard of Christian schools," but broaden your mind to be more inclusive. Say, "Wheaton is the Harvard of Evangelical Christian schools," if that sort of claim is necessary or important to you. If you don't already, maybe give some thought to how you, like any Christian group, don't represent the whole but are only part of it. An important part! A wonderful part! A truly beautiful part! But just a part and not the "everything." It's quite necessary to recognize important voices and vital contributions but equally important is viewing them in their proper context. Just as we should with Lewis.

*Christianity Today is a publication I read regularly and greatly appreciate. They do absolutely wonderful work and apart from the small matter of what I think is a very poor title, I am a great fan of the magazine as well as its message and mission. I hope it goes without saying that I am also a great fan of Evangelicalism and of Wheaton, my home.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Should Christians Feel Guilty About Being Rich?

Last week, Jen Pollack Michel of Christianity Today wrote a piece entitled, "Fellow Christians: I'm Rich and I'm Sorry," partly in response to the media controversy surrounding Evangelical Elevation Church pastor, Steve Furtick, and the 1.7 million dollar home he is building which the church owns and he isn't paying taxes on with his undisclosed salary. Furtick is a megachurch pastor in North Carolina who has written a popular book he claims primarily paid for his home. The Furtick affair brings to light an important question: how should Christians regard real wealth, what many of us call being "rich"?

With a great deal of sincerity, Michel discloses that she too has, at times, felt guilty about being rich. She describes feeling guilty for having nice things or for splurging for a higher-priced item at the store that is admittedly a luxury and not a necessity. Michel's take is refreshing and sheds light on an important conversation to have about Christians and money. But she misses a few points and I think in reading the article it's easy to gloss over some principles about wealth.

As Michel points out, "wealthy" is a relative term and that always needs to be kept in mind. Ultimately Michel concludes being rich isn't a sin (one might read, "never" a sin). But I really don't see that echoed in our faith.

Exorbitant wealth, i.e. so much money you wouldn't know what to do with it, actually is a sin if hoarded, the same way a single person keeping a refrigerator full of steaks would be wasteful since one person couldn't reasonably go through them before they went bad. And even if they did, that person would be a glutton (another serious and convenient sin we Americans like to forget about). And that's kind of the point of the controversy around pastor Furtick and other leaders. We don't want gluttons representing God.

The German Catholic Bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, has been in the news in the past couple weeks and he puts Furtick to shame. He's been dubbed the "bishop of bling" for his extravagant and unseemly lifestyle as a Christian shepherd. He spent $42 million on the renovation of his residence alone, including lavish home decor like bathtubs and tables costing tens of thousands of dollars each.

There have been a lot of conversations about income inequality in this country and how it has recently grown. Many Americans think that CEOs' income should be somehow tied to the lowest-earning employee at the company, say as a percentage of that lowest salary (for example, a CEO could not earn greater than 20 times the mail room worker). Being neither economist nor ethicist, I can't say if this is a good idea. But if that's the prevailing attitude toward CEOs, what do we think the attitude toward pastors and spiritual leaders is, especially outside our churches? As Catholic blogger Kevin O'Brien said of abuse within the Catholic Church, It is not surprising that our shepherds fall short of the high standards of the Christian Faith. It is surprising that they don’t even rise to the low standards of the secular world.”

For better or worse (I tend to think the former), pastors are held up as examples of the Christian life. As lay Christians we are all called to be an example of the Gospel and Christ's love but some of us can do that more visibly than others. Furtick may have some very wealthy congregants who are also building lavish homes. But that doesn't make the news. Instead, a pastor does, one who mixes personal finances with church finances, refuses to disclose salary, and whose defense for his 1.7 million dollar home included, "It's not that great of a house!" and the explanation that other people have nicer homes than his rather than saying with honesty as Jen Pollack Michel did, "I'm rich" and that she sometimes does, sometimes doesn't feel guilty about that.

Often the point of Scripture's references to wealth isn't that having it is a sin but that it is a danger to right relationship with God. It really is. We know it's an obstacle for our own salvation when we have it (see Matthew 19:24) and we know how we use it can be a scandal to others.

It's tricky to say if being wealthy is wrong. I think the answer is, "it depends." And it doesn't depend on an income threshold but on how you regard and care for your wealth. If it makes you complicit in the exploitation of others, yes I do think wealth is a sin. If it draws you into even greater care and concern for the poor, no I don't think it's wrong.

Perhaps our model should be Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a wealthy man and a tax collector. Jesus doesn't encounter Zacchaeus and tell him his profession is wrong or criticize his income. Jesus doesn't criticize anything about him actually. But Zacchaeus' encounter with Christ results in the right attitude toward wealth when he responds: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 

If we have more than we could ever reasonably need then yes, I do think that kind of wealth is a sin if hoarded. In this case, it's especially important for Christians to be charitable and not hold onto 90% of their income. Give freely! It's not a numbers or percentages game but keep in mind that Zaccheaus only keeps half and that's before he makes restitution to those he's exploited. 

More importantly, when we have wealth we need to say, "have I gained wealth through defrauding anyone?" "Is my wealth the result of injustice and privilege?" (Unlike Michel, I don't think 'privilege' simply means 'blessing.') "Have I gained because others have lost?" And if that's the case then we are to make amends as Zacchaeus undoubtedly did. Only in that sort of encounter with God can wealth become relegated to its proper position as a mere part of our story rather than an obstacle we push along in front of us.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I'm in Love with Judas

Judas Iscariot. Probably few names carry so much stigma, so much detestation. Call an American a "Benedict Arnold" with sincerity and they'll know you're implying something pretty serious. Call them "Judas" with a straight face and you may have just ruined a friendship. It doesn't feel good to be brought to Judas' level - the lowest of the morally low.

Judas, after all, betrayed God. He literally sold out Jesus for wealth, and not even fabulous wealth but a modest sum (30 pieces of silver). He took someone he loved, someone who was Love to him, and rejected him for his own selfish desires. Maybe it was jealousy. Maybe it was greed. But whatever it was, it was petty and inexcusable and something none of us would ever do, surely.

Of course, if you've been a Christian for a while, you've probably thought or been told, "Well not so fast - you and I are just like Judas because when we sin we reject and betray God too." That's true. Making that connection, seeing Judas as the archetype for all of us is extremely valuable, and transformative if you let yourself reflect deeply on it.

But what if even that really isn't the story of Judas? We know Scripture tells us the Satan "entered" Judas and this was partly the cause of his betrayal. Beyond that, we don't know Judas' motivations, though a love of money probably played some part.

But what if there's more to Judas? What if greed and inexcusable, outright rejection isn't the whole story? What if there's more of ourselves in Judas that we care to admit?

I learned an important lesson during my time in grad school: an apologist is not a theologian is not an exegete is not an ethicist, and so on. So let me say I'm not trying to do theology or exegesis. I'm not trying to rewrite Tradition or even offer a different explanation of Judas for the truth of the matter. But examining another possibility gives us an exercise and a different perspective, one that may prove more helpful for the developed Christian.

What if Judas was a decent guy? What if Judas didn't hate Jesus, didn't have anything against him, and actually wanted him to succeed? And what if that were the problem?

I remember hearing a theory about Judas. The theory entertains the idea that Judas was (almost) just as faithful as the other apostles. He loved Jesus immensely. But he desired "success" for Jesus and success on the prevailing terms of the time. Admiration. Freedom from Roman rule. Political power.

Maybe Judas thought Jesus had wasted enough time already. Why didn't Jesus just reveal himself as the Messiah and lead Israel into a golden age? Jesus was missing his window; the people were ready. But It seemed Jesus needed a push. Threaten Clark Kent and he'd reveal himself as Superman. Arrest Jesus and he would show his divine power. He'd be revealed for whom he truly was.

That wasn't what happened, of course. Judas' betrayal didn't force Jesus' hand and it didn't turn God into the god Judas wanted. Judas didn't get to have God on his own terms.

Judas perhaps saw in Jesus the strong leader, the charismatic personality, the surety of conviction, and the strength to do whatever it took to save God's people. But he didn't see the utter humility. He didn't see the total rejection of political power and of divine force when Jesus was tempted in the desert. Judas didn't see that the Christ planned to teach and to achieve through suffering. Judas saw only the parts he wanted to see.

And aren't we the same? Aren't we a little in love with Judas, with our own ideas of who and how God should be? This helps explain why so many Christians love a strong show of force, love when we're elevated rather than brought low, love to refashion God based on our own rules ("drinking is wrong, even though Jesus did it!"). And it explains why so many Christians reject suffering, especially in their own lives. Suffering isn't a very respectable, let alone attractive path.

Just this morning I heard a definition of suffering not as pain but as resistance. Resistance to the pain is suffering. Resistance to God's plan is suffering. Resistance to the Great Truth that has its being completely outside of us and yet dwells within us is suffering. Resistance to going down as the way of going up is suffering.

Based on that definition, oh how Judas must have suffered! It's no wonder he was tormented. He had missed the message of Jesus, the gospel, completely. We risk doing the same when we don't trust in God and can't be critical of our own attitudes and assumptions. 

Judas' way is a path to power, something so immensely attractive to wealthy megachurch pastors, to the bishops, and to all of us through our human nature and American values. In this way, Judas serves as a sort of prophet-in-the-negative, giving us a warning not so much of what not to do but of how not to be. It's easy to love Judas' way but it ultimately can't lead us up at all. It leads us down into the darkness of our selves.

Related Posts:
Forgiving the Unforgivable: Betrayal, Sept. 11, and a Navy Shipyard
The Real and True Enemy

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

15 Ways To Be A Good Christian

Here are just a few tips that I've gathered from Christian culture. I hope they prove useful

Jesus was dying for you to make partner
  1. Don't have any doubts. To have a "dark night of the soul" and struggle with your faith as Blessed Mother Teresa did for 50 years is a scandal and shows a lack of fidelity.
  2. Don't question your leaders. Whether priest or minister, these leaders of the faith are appointed as godly men (yes - men! God has given different faculties to different genders. It's about playing to your strengths). Being completely uncritical is the best way to ensure a conflict-free community.
  3. You either give your authority to the community or you keep it all for yourself. Trying to find a balance among Scripture, Tradition, and your own experience is a risky business. Faith shouldn't require risk.
  4. God teaches you only through the good things! Pain, suffering, relapse, wounds, and all forms of "dying" are best left to the saints; it's a happy life of blessings for the rest of us! Count all the happy things as what God wants for you and just chalk up all the painful things as giant intermissions in God's predestined plan. They couldn't possibly be the things that teach you most.
  5. Beware of anything that claims to be Truth but isn't found in the Bible. If it seems true, if it appears to speak wisdom and resonates with your soul but it has the wrong label, look out! If you study any other religion or belief system for reasons other than to dutifully convert their adherents, you're playing with fire.
  6. Speaking of, "ecumenical" is just another name for "unfaithful." If other Christians don't see things the same way as you, it's best not to give an inch. Tolerate them, of course, but eventually through a lack of approval, freedom, and a space for dialogue, they'll see the beacon of truth that you are and most likely convert.
  7. Have only nonnegotiable truths. Once you've found the truth, why would you ever need to change your mind? You wouldn't. Your understanding at age 8 will be the same as at age 18 which will be the same at age 78! That's how spiritual growth works. The belief that your faith could evolve or change or take on a new perspective is a very dangerous one. Just remember, if Jesus himself appeared to you and told you something different than your pastor, you would just have to rebuke him in Jesus' name!
  8. Sundays should be regarded as a floating personal day. While a moderate view that it may occasionally be okay to miss church given certain circumstances is too strict, it does touch on something true: you are not obligated to your church community! After all, showing up to church is primarily about you and what you'll get out of it. Communing with god in nature or giving yourself instruction is a perfectly good substitute.
  9. Remember, if Jesus were on earth right now, he would probably look, act, and think the exact same way as people in your own ethnic, gender, and socio-economic group.
  10. If you're the CEO of a successful nonprofit like Intervaristy, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Catholic Charities USA, Young Life, or Samaritan's Purse, then know that it's perfectly acceptable for you to make up to $700,00 a year. Yes, it's difficult for a rich man to find the Kingdom of Heaven but by that point you're probably such a good Christian that you can manage just fine.
  11. Read the Bible literally and only literally. Deeper meaning can be complex and confusing.
  12. Be a soldier for Jesus! Soldiers are much more respected than servants, and they don't have to take you-know-what from anyone.
  13. Count on the government and politics for promoting the gospel. Converting people through our very lives is a long and, quite frankly, arduous process. Enshrining our religion in our government and classrooms through whatever means possible is a much simpler method. People can easily learn Love through mandates. It helps to have the national flag in your worship space.
  14. Don't see yourself as God sees you. That's a privilege just for Him. Be sure to beat yourself up over even the smallest sins and constantly dwell on your totally depraved state. Contrition isn't enough - you should believe that you really are worthless.
  15. Hold dear that the gospel was meant to be exclusive and not inclusive! And you should believe most people who say, "What Jesus really meant was..."
Related Posts:
When Christian Doctrine Fails Us

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The 10 Commandments of Cell Phone Etiquette

It's my time to vent and decry what the "crazy kids" are doing these days. This comes from months (maybe years) of observing cell phone users in their natural habitats and feeling that more than a few things were off. As always, this is an 'in a perfect world' scenario and not a manifesto I have tattooed on my body and religiously follow myself. But I try, and I think they're solid rules nevertheless. If I forgot an important one, please let me know in the comments!
Superman, a classic selfie-abuser
  1. Thou Shalt Not Flip Through Photos Other Than The One Shown To You
    Someone is excited to show you a photo on their phone! What do you do? You start scrolling through everything like you're the NSA. This is about the general issue of privacy. If someone leaves their phone by you and they're away and it lights up/rings/beeps, you know what you're entitled to do? Say, "You're phone is going off." That's it. Period. You can't read their history, texts, or even who's calling. Their whole life is on that phone. Respect that they probably don't want you to know every part of it.

  2. Thou Shalt Not Ignore Voicemails 
    Look, I get that voicemails are annoying. But if you don't want people leaving you a voicemail, don't set it up in the first place. If someone takes the time to leave you a voicemail, the least you can do is listen to it. Don't make them feel like an idiot for talking to a computer for over a minute for no reason. If it bugs you that much, let your friends know you're not a voicemail person and they'll soon get on board.

  3. Thou Shalt Not Talk On Speaker In A Public Area
    This is kind of like a huge middle finger to every other human around you. You're not that important that you can dominate the auditory space with your now-public conversation. I know; holding the phone right in front of your face is so much easier than lifting it another 5 inches to your ear but life is hard.

  4. Thou Shalt Not Bring Out Thy Phone During Quality Time
    This should be obvious but it's not. Are you Vladmir Putin's photographer? Are you Miley Cyrus' publicist? Then you probably don't need to check your phone every 5 minutes. Set aside time that really is important to you: dinners, dates, babysitting your niece, and so on. If you can't go an hour or two being "disconnected" (ironically translated as "being present where you are") then you probably have serious FOMO issues.

  5. Thou Shalt Put Thy Phone On Silent When Entering A Public Building.
    This just makes sense. If it's a church, school, office, restaurant, you don't want that thing going off anyway. If it's a crowded place, you probably won't hear it otherwise. Just get in the habit and you won't be that person who forgot to silence his/her phone despite the very public announcement at the beginning of the event to do so.

  6. Thou Shalt Not Get Push Notifications For Facebook
    Do you really have to know the second someone "Likes" your photo or status? Or comments? Are you that starved for attention? Don't get me wrong, these things are nice but I fail to see the necessity for a notification of something that could potentially happen 30 times a day. Just check it when you check it. Don't give some electronic program permission to interrupt your life so frequently. Facebook is an attention whore and shouldn't be encouraged in this way.

  7. Thou Shalt Not Leave Keyboard Sounds On
    COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY and a personal peeve. I don't always notice it but I take a commuter train to work every day and it happens often enough. You know what one of the most annoying things is? Hearing iPhone keyboards or candy crush chime away for 50 agonizing minutes. Imagine the "Prize Wheel" from Wheel of Fortune spin-clicking in your ear for close to an hour and you'll understand.

  8. Thou Shalt Not Abuse The Selfie
    I am not anti-selfie. Really. We all have our own cameras on phones now and it's fine to document your life; that's what cameras are for. But don't abuse it. It's like morphine: sometimes necessary, and quite enjoyable, but if you go crazy with it you will die.

  9. Thou Shalt Not Text and Drive - Seriously
    Come on, people. How stupid are we? (I've broken this rule too.) It's kind of like downloading illegal music. Yes, we all know it's vaguely wrong but somehow having that 99 cents in our pocket instead seems so worth it. The only difference is when you illegally download music, you rarely run the risk of actually killing multiple people. Just stop! It's a phone, after all, and that call function still works if you need to communicate with someone.

  10. Thou Shalt Experience Your Phone As An Aide For Life, Not Life As An Aide For Your Phone
    I do social media marketing and I get it. Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and on and on are all great. The message is just not to abuse them. Don't constantly be looking through your eyes judging what would make a great Instagram. Don't plan activities primarily so you can post about them online. Live your actual life and then use social media as a tool for sharing parts (not the whole) of it with others.

What Others Are Saying About This Topic:
Cell Phone Etiquette: 15 Rules to Follow via The Huffington Post
Are Cell Phones Ruining Relationships? via Donald Miller's blog

Related Posts from Blogles:
I Don't Get It

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Serviam!" - The Need for Discipline

One thing I think many Christians are missing is discipline. This is seen in obvious ways like declining attendance on Sundays, a lack of any outward requirements for a Christian faith, and so on. I try to give equal credit where it's due when it comes to different religious traditions but I have to say that discipline is something the Catholic tradition has really mastered. I've been really blessed by that exposure, and maybe it was even one of the reasons I was attracted to Catholicism in the first place.

"Discipline" kind of has that old school connotation to it, as if it were something your grandfather would admonish our generation for not caring more about. But I've learned through experience that it's often the thing that saves me from myself. I don't know if there is anything valuable in discipline itself, though maybe it's a good way to conquer the will. But it's an extremely helpful tool in your belt when it comes to the spiritual life.

Where It Leads

St. Michael and Lucifer
When I first moved to Chicago a few years ago I briefly had as my spiritual director an Opus Dei priest. Most people know that prelature from Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Brown may have presented only an unflattering caricature of Opus Dei but he got one thing right: they are gluttons for discipline.

I learned about Opus Dei from my spiritual director and have spent the past few years acquiring a recognition of the necessity for some form of discipline in the spiritual life. You don't have to be an ascetic or practice self-flagellation (usually done with a whip-like device called a "discipline," by the way). But it is helpful to have a playbook, a rubric, or an outline for your spiritual life. You don't have to always stick to the outline but you should be aware of its presence even when you don't.

After learning a little about Opus Dei spirituality, I adopted a few practices. The moment they wake up, they jump up, kiss the floor and say "Serviam!" meaning "I will serve." The phrase itself is an echo of St. Michael who declared he would serve in response to Lucifer's "Non serviam" - 'I will not serve.' I don't jump up and kiss the ground, mostly because I usually hit the snooze. But I've found that if I initially dedicate my day to service, my perspective is much more tuned to God's frequency. If I don't, I have a hard time recalling God in my everyday encounters.

So I've adopted some very practical regiments, most of which are personal. But I'll say I try to begin every day by literally saying out loud, "Serviam! Serviam! Serviam!" As an exegesis professor of mine used to joke in reference to Hebrew, "If you say it three times, you've got it covered."

I give Catholics a lot of credit for building discipline into the life of the Church. These outlines provide a lot of structure that we as humans honestly need.

When I'm doing well and practicing the disciplines I've put in place for myself, my spiritual focus is so much greater. Actually scheduling time for prayer, time for reading (Pope John XXIII said, "just as food is necessary to the life of the body, good reading is necessary to the life of the soul."), and other disciplines has the most remarkable effect: I'm more fully present wherever I am, whatever I'm doing.

Discipline leads to awareness. It leads to living in the present and practicing the purest form of spirituality - "to accept the sacrament of the present moment and to find God in the present moment," as Richard Rohr so brilliantly puts it. When I'm undisciplined, my day passes me by. I come to the end of it as one who arrives at his destination having noticed nothing along the way. (Thank you, GPS.)

It's Background Music

I took a trip to see my family earlier this year and on the way back I had a man sitting next to me on the plane who literally make one comment to me every 10 minutes. Honestly, it was pretty annoying. When I had my headphones in, I was listening to really beautiful music but couldn't hear the man who still made comments to me. I'd have to remove my headphones and ask him to repeat what he said. But when I did that, I couldn't hear any music anymore; I only got the little remarks of the man and the hum of the plane.

Finally I realized that I should just leave one headphone in and let the other ear take in the sounds of the cabin. Voila! Success. I was no longer deaf to the world around me but I still had that music underlying everything I was experiencing. That is what spiritual disciplines are to me. That is what mindful living does for us - it lets us be "in the world" but "not of it." On the plane but not completely filled by that external world.

If I had practical advice, which I feel free to give knowing I don't always follow it myself, I'd say get a morning prayer, the same morning prayer. Dedicate the day to service and love. And add to your routine a few small disciplines, whatever works for you. Start small and give yourself a break; I've given myself plenty. And if you can find the magic formula for sticking to them, you will be aware that your life is increasingly saying, "Serviam! Serviam! Serviam!"

For some ideas of your own disciplines, I highly recommend Pope John XXIII's 10 commandments for daily living and happiness.

Related Posts:
Living as a Hypocrite
Of Saints and Halos

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

4 Things Evangelicals Can Learn From Catholicism

I want to make something clear: this is not intended to be a condemnation of Evangelicalism or Protestantism. I grew up in that tradition and have a great respect for it. That being said, I do think there are fair criticisms to make, and ecumenicism does not forbid us from doing so. I also know I could easily write a post about what Catholics can learn from Evangelicalism. Perhaps soon I will. 

1. The Church is big enough for all of us.

It's a funny thing that all Christians accept we are not called to judge and yet we turn around and always find a convenient excuse to do so. I'm happy to be a member of a faith community (Catholicism) that is spacious enough for all types of people! It spans countries, ethnicities, and cultures. And it especially spans dichotomies of right v. left, liberal v. conservative, etc.

This week it was announced that the Vatican will be canonizing Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. This is no coincidence. JPII was a champion of conservative, traditional values and John XXIII is the pope who sought to modernize the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Catholicism is an umbrella with space for both Opus Dei and Catholic scholars doing "queer theology." We have it all! I don't know what the Church would look like in a perfect world but in this world, the Church welcomes all types and a wide-range of gospel views, without the need for splitting the church into smaller, "more pure" communities. Evangelicals seem to often get caught up on not compromising their principles. While anti-gospels should be refuted, we may find our smaller, purer communities look nothing like the "all are welcome" Church our spiritual forbears spoke about.

2. The Church's mission is to meet material needs, not just spiritual ones.

You have to care for people's physical needs, and you very often have to care for those needs before you can meet a spiritual desire. Imagine missionaries who visited the starving of the world and told them the importance of changing their doctrines. Now imagine missionaries who show God's love through meeting physical needs. The beauty of the gospel is that meeting these needs is spiritual ministry. There is no distinction between the natural world and the spiritual world. Christ in the gospels is often meeting (seemingly) physical needs of people first. He feeds them or cures them or returns lost loved ones to them. Do we think Christ did anything outside of the Father's will?

Yes, Catholicism holds that works are part of salvation and a means of obtaining grace. But most Catholics don't think of doing good works as merely a way to assure salvation. Most Catholics think of good works as simply what a Christian should do. And the simple reason is that literally every Sunday we say prayers for the poor, the needy, the disenfranchised. Evangelicals need not adopt the theology but the philosophy of ministry is a fruitful one. (And for the record, many Evangelical communities are doing this already.)

3. Proselytism is solemn nonsense. You have to meet people and listen to them.

Before you say, "that's too far!" know that this is a direct quote from Pope Francis in a recent interview. Another name for this principle could be, "accept people on their own terms." Francis has spoken at great length about this, saying that Catholics can meet Protestants, people of other faiths, and even atheists on their own terms. They can all listen to their consciences and try to follow those as best they can and that we can meet in that space. He's actually offering validity to honestly-held beliefs, even if they aren't in accordance with our own religious creed. We should take a moment to really contemplate that.

I'm reminded of when I told my father I was becoming Catholic after growing up Evangelical. Eventually he accepted my decision and told me about the one Catholic friend he had had in college. My father related how that man had still been a good Christian: he read the Bible, attended small groups, and even spoke in tongues. I realized my father could accept a Catholic when he looked and acted just like him. That's quite fine but it's not accepting people on their own terms and I dream of a much bigger Christian unity than that. Listening to people and finding what commonality we can opens up a much bigger world. Not all views are created equal or correct but Christ showed a greater need for peace, justice, and respect than he did for arguing doctrine.

4. The purpose of religion is divine union, not social order.

To be fair, this is a problem in both Evangelicalism and Catholicism but I think it tends to be a more systematic trend for Evangelicals. Perhaps the difference is that Catholicism is diverse enough to have voices who have always and loudly advocated this principle, even if they've been labeled "liberal" or "progressive" for doing so. I'm quite appalled to hear from Catholics, the bishops, and a multitude of Evangelical voices that gay marriage destroys the family, that God takes a special interest in America, or that politics is where the gospel should be lived out. This is an affront to the message of Christ.

The gospel and all good religion seek to transform people. When was the last time who you are was transformed by a law? The counter-intuitive message of self-donating love is meant to recreate you in a different likeness. It's not meant to restructure society from the top down. The gospel is the good news of the lowly. It's a completely grass roots message; it starts at the lowest levels. Our example of the one person arguably at the "top" who had real divine authority - Christ - is an example of someone who said, "who made me judge over you?" Compare that to Moses' supposition of power - even when trying to do the right thing - and his condemnation by a mere slave, "Who made you a ruler and judge over us?" Evangelicals need to realize that the rules and attitudes of society are not the rubric for if God is respected. Having "Christian values" reflected in society doesn't mean that God wins. And not having them doesn't mean that God fails. Our God is so much bigger than that. If Evangelicals let go of their need to make everyone else live according to their principles they may, in fact, find more freedom in how they personally live the gospel.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Many Ways of Reading Pope Francis

Pope Francis recently gave an interview that has been making the internet rounds. Conservatives & Progressives, Catholics & Protestants, and Christians & non-Christians alike have all taken note. Perhaps its "groundbreaking" nature is largely due the tone and emphasis His Holiness gives to the subjects discussed, which include everything from gay rights and women in the church to community and prayer.

Fr. James Martin, SJ is an editor at America - a national Jesuit Catholic magazine and the publisher of the full English translation of the interview - who stated last week on NPR that the Francis' interview was notable for it's "candor" and its "vulnerability." He's right. In the interview, we find a lot of very human pronouncements that admit fault, sin, and humanity, something many Evangelicals like Christianity Today's Kevin Emmert noted. summarizes the most interesting parts from their perspective from the interview, which seem to be those that admitted too much emphasis on abortion and gay marriage debates and the need for a more "balanced" and welcoming approach by the Church when it comes to social issues. (For various reactions to Pope Francis' interview by religious leaders in the LGBTQ community, click here.)

As a new poll From the Huffington Post describes (decide bias for yourself), reactions to Francis' words have been mostly positive in the general as well as religious public. But it turns out Protestants are twice as likely as Catholics to think that the pope's comments went too far.

In talking with traditional Catholics from my generation (who believe the Magisterium and official teachings of the Church), it's clear that Francis' comments even made some of them nervous. Is he reshaping Church doctrine? Is he rewriting Catholic/Christian theology?

Different Theology? Not Really.

The answer is a clear: No. Unfortunately for the high percentage of American Catholics who think the pope should adopt stances that better reflect the attitudes of the faithful, His Holiness is not reworking the Church's theology. In fact, he even recently defrocked and excommunicated an Australian priest for his overt support of women priests and gays, leading one liberal blog to lament, "Despite all due temptation, he remains a Catholic." (Oh no!...) As R. R. Reno of First Things notes, taking Francis' remarks to constitute new doctrine is "a distorted reading of what he has in mind for the Church."

But I think these conservative voices, both Evangelical and Catholic, also seem to miss the point. While the most liberal wings in these camps may not have reason to rejoice at a reworking of Catholic theology, the most conservative camps cannot simply pass off the pope's comments as a mere misinterpretation. In typical Sam-fashion, I'm choosing a middle way.

The Middle Way

Francis does say some remarkable things. He emphasizes a much more important role for women than perhaps any other pontiff has, and while it's not full and equal ordination it does speak of unique contributions needed from women in a way that doesn't relegate them to subservience, submission, or second-class status, which is something a lot of Evangelicals (and Catholics for that matter) could do with hearing.

Another lesson for Evangelicals would be Francis' emphasis on finding God in all things. There is no distinction between the secular and the holy, the profane and the sacred. Growing up Evangelical, my family's world mirrored but was distinct from the real world as if we were a holier version. We "needed" Christian music, Christian camps, Christian clubs. This left me with a very heavy sense of the fractured nature of reality into good and bad, Christian and secular, black and white. Such dualism doesn't account for the goodness of all God's creation and it doesn't make for a healthy worldview. When you're afraid of dirtying your hands by touching the "unclean," it's very difficult to be Christ's hands in the world.

The real point I want to make is that there are two dangers for those reading Pope Francis' remarks. The first is to think that the Church no longer has an opinion on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. The second is to think that Francis is not trying to fundamentally alter the way all Christians think and act in the world, especially the conservative among us.

His Holiness is making an important case: we think we are helping by advocating so vehemently for certain social issues but we are actually presenting an unbalanced and untrue view of the gospel. Do you get it? Francis is saying that we are hindering people from hearing the gospel! It's not that these issues don't matter but when the world rightly finds Christians to be overly emphasizing opposition to certain social issues, the gospel is diminished. The gospel is about living in a loving way the Divine Mystery of God's love, and that extends well beyond our current focus of a few social issues.

Francis' interview is actually a call to action. It's a call to nonjudgment, something both Catholics and Evangelicals need to internalize. It's a call to moderation so that the gospel is presented holistically. And Francis' words are a call to fundamentally change the way we love so that we're not defined by rants of what we're against but by humility and love in service to what we are for. 

The pope used the analogy of a "field hospital" for the Church. Another one might be a great ship. Francis wants us to be one full to the brim with life preservers, not cannons. And can't we all get on board with that?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Forgiving the Unforgivable: Betrayal, Sept. 11, and a Navy Shipyard

As fate would have it, I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness in the past few months. I finally reached a point where I was ready to write about it, and it was already the subject for this week's post. Then I remembered it was the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Then tragedy struck yesterday as a shooter went on a rampage in the Washington Navy Shipyard.

I've had to think about forgiveness after quite a rift with a friend in the last year. "Personal betrayal" would not be too harsh a label to put on it. At the time, I was so upset and hurt that I quickly wrote the person off as somehow other - not a rational, normal person like me.

But after a bit of time you wonder about the Christian message of forgiveness. You begin to think that the Seventy times Seven principle doesn't exclude you and your own relationships after all, however unfathomable your situation must have been to Christ at the time he made that ridiculous rule. (Insert sarcastic font here.)

A very natural response is anger. It's so easy. It's easy to feel angry at those who thoughtlessly hurt us or hurt others or at the leaders who refuse to do the hard work of compromise and change so that these tragic events don't continue to happen again and again and again.

And trust me, I have more experience with anger than most. My first experience writing for an audience was authoring letters to the editor and later editorials for my college newspaper. I quickly developed a reputation as the guy who was always going off on something (always for an egocentric worthy cause, of course). This became apparent after my friends starting inquiring what I would write about next by asking me, "So what are you upset about this week?" Play that game long enough and you'll learn - one way or another - that anger is very seldom productive, let alone healthy.

Being the victim is quite nice for your ego. It lets you feel wronged, superior, and untouchable all at the same time. And like me, you may have been genuinely abused by something. But as soon as you realize you sort of like being justified in your anger and your hurt, the game is up; you see your own flawed nature is taking it too far.

The attacks of September 11th certainly warranted a response. But where did we turn? We waged a war in Iraq that did not meet any of the criteria for a Just War by Catholic theological standards. Yet how many Catholics opposed it? How many Christians? It didn't even meet the standards of rational thinking since Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But we were angry and forgiveness is not the way of a successful political establishment. And if our country weakly forgave our enemies, how could our national pride ever live with that? Anger needs an object. Forgiveness seems to need nothing.

Now we have a fresh tragedy: a gunman shot dozens of people at a naval shipyard. It's unforgivable. Isn't it? What does forgiveness mean?

"Forgiveness" as Not-Caring is Impossible

I've come to think that forgiveness as I was taught forgiveness to be is impossible. If we think of forgiveness as a "forgetting" or "getting over" or "sweeping aside" of something, then who among us can really do that? "Forgive and forget" as the saying goes. But who can forget? Logically, you can't. We humans don't have the capacity to select and delete our memories short of repression. And how do we stop caring?

If there's a way to somehow sweep under the rug what once deeply hurt you, I'm not sure I know it. And that's not forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness must be an expanding of your view to see holistically, to see things and people as they really are, 
to see them as God sees them.

Do you think the victims' families of the shooting yesterday see that young man as Aaron Alexis or as "the shooter"? Does Alexis' family see him as the shooter or as the person they knew and loved? Now, we have stories of the good this man did and also the ways in which he was so troubled. We learn that he was both "sweet" and "angry." He sought out healthy practices like meditation and yet suffered from PTSD and violent outbursts. One acquaintance described, "He’s a 13-year-old stuck in a 34-year-old body." The picture of "the shooter" of our 'enemy' starts to become more recognizable and more human. He shares something with us, and that's a very hard thing to admit. But it's the only way to forgiveness. We have to find acknowledge our shared commonality, even if it's only in relation to the Imago Dei

If you can expand your view from seeing merely this one event at the shipyard to the totality of who this person was, then I think forgiveness is possible. It doesn't make this event any less tragic. It certainly can never excuse what Alexis did. But it also doesn't demonize him as a no-good, evil, unforgivable man. If he is created in God's image like the rest of us, then God doesn't see him through such labels. And though it's tempting, neither should we.

This was the conclusion I finally had to reach for myself concerning my own friend. That person isn't a terrible person (quite the contrary). They don't deserve terrible things or to be written off as something "other", someone less worthy of love or consideration or care. It's not an excuse but it's a way to forgive. Seeing all of this person, their good qualities as well as their shortcomings, gives you a way to understand and to naturally let go. And maybe that's the beauty of it: it's natural and almost effortless. It's a right way of seeing that once you've done it, doesn't demand much work at all, and certainly never an attempt to forget or excuse.

Without condoning or condemning, a holistic view of the depth of any person can help us see them realistically and find a way to forgiveness, a way of letting go. It's the way out, and the way to "love your enemies." And I think we could all use that kind of escape.

Related Posts:
The Real and True Enemy
How Should Christians Respond to Pain?
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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

When Christian Doctrine Fails Us

The Buddha, the Enlightened One, was once teaching his disciples about his own doctrine. To explain, he gave them a parable of a man with a raft. He said to imagine a man who came to a river too deep to wade and too wide to swim. The man wished to cross the river but, there being no bridge, decided to build a raft in order to cross. He built the raft and exerting himself using his hands and feet crossed to the other side. The Buddha then asked his disciples if the man would be wise to say, "This raft was a good thing. I shall strap it to my back and carry it on my journey so that it may continue to be valuable for me." The disciples heard this and answered, "No, that would be quite foolish."

Then the Buddha asked his disciples to imagine the same man and the same river and the same raft and the same exertion and the same crossing. And upon reaching the opposite shore, this time the man says, "This raft was a good thing. I shall tie it up here and leave it by the shore and continue on my journey." The Buddha asked his disciples if this would be wise, and they answered, "Yes."

The Buddha then gets to the heart of the matter and says, "Like this raft, my doctrine is for crossing over and not for carrying."

Will Assent Save You?

As Christians, what does this mean for us? Can we simply ignore this strange "eastern" teaching as pagan or perhaps even anti-Christian? If it wasn't said by someone from our community, can it still be true?

I worry that Christian doctrine, though by no means untrue, is nevertheless failing our communities when it promises salvation.

The problem isn't that our doctrines are unsound, too few, or too undeveloped. The problem is that we think by assenting to a belief or fact, we will gain salvation. The problem is that we think merely acknowledging doctrine will transform us.

We have entire religious communities - including Evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Catholic - who think that they're going to get to heaven because they have all the correct beliefs and moral purity codes. Belief is not transformation and it's not Christ-likeness. If we're honest, we can admit that most doctrine requires very little of us; someone who goes from disbelieving the Virgin Birth to believing it really doesn't need to undergo any real transformation of the heart and very little of the head.

When we finally die and encounter perfect union with God, S/He isn't going to pull out her/his book and say, "Congratulations! You assented to all 21 of our essential doctrines so come on in!" 

Doctrines are not important for their own sake. We forget that the entire purpose of doctrine is to illuminate, to draw us into deeper layers of the Divine Mystery, which means deeper layers of knowing (and of unknowing). Doctrine is only valuable insofar as it points us toward Truth. It is for crossing over and not for carrying.

That's not to say we can discard doctrine at will. That would be too simplistic. But at some point we should be reminded that though Paul often uses "faith in Christ" as a requisite for salvation, does that merely mean believing in an historical event - that Christ died for the sins of the world, including your own?

Because it is a doctrine. A powerful one that can point you toward a place you should be but not one that will satisfy you if you simply strap it to your back. This is why we have so many Christians who seem eerily reflective of their non-Christian neighbors as if the division were a only a mirror instead of the Divine Love living through them.

Information Instead of Transformation

I worry that the crisis of Christianity isn't a shortage of priests or secularism or issues of sexuality but rather that few of us experience actual transformation. The Church too often informs us (of doctrines) rather than transforms us. And I now believe that the transformation is the much more essential step. The information and the label of "Christian" is still important but secondary in the Kingdom of God.

C. S. Lewis believed this too. How else could he advocate as he did in The Last Battle that those who imitated God's Love but were adherents to the wrong religion were still saved? It seems Lewis took to heart Christ's teaching on the sheep and the goats.

And this emphasis on doctrine leading you to an experience of Truth is all that seems to matter. Perhaps this is why Christ never says, "You must have a personal relationship with me" or "Say the sinner's prayer" but simply, "Follow me." While all of these can belong, a journey with God is much more demanding than signing our names to a statement of belief.

The Buddha knew this too and illustrated it beautifully with the raft. But it's because crossing over is the only way to experience God. Carrying God as a possession isn't enough. 

I wonder if Christ would say to us as the Buddha said to his disciple, 
If you were to follow the Dharma (The Way) purely out of love for me or because you respect me, I would not accept you as disciple. But if you follow the Dharma because you have yourself experienced its truth, because you understand and act accordingly - only under these conditions have you the right to call yourself a disciple of the Exalted One.
If we started emphasizing total transformation as higher than total assent to doctrine, wouldn't we find that we were a people for journeying well instead of a people self-assured with the right answers? Journeying together asks more from us. We should trust that.

Related Posts:
The Spirit of the Law

God in Evolution
When the Church Fails Homosexuals

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Equality in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15

This is the last reflection in a four part series on Friendship. The topics are inspired by each of the four verses in John 15:12-15 addressing friendship but are by no means an exegetical study. Instead, I let each verse serve as a springboard for discussion:
(12) This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (13) No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. (14) You are my friends if you do what I command you. (15) I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I call you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

"I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I call you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father." -- John 15:15

Amazingly, in verse 15 Christ gives us a definition for friendship. God himself defines friendship for us! And it's clear that friendship involves intimate sharing, presence, and humility. Now we see that friendship also involves a sense of equality.

Christ defines friendship in terms of mutuality, revelation, and equality. Because Jesus so openly shared of himself - what he knew and was and did - the disciples are redefined from "servants" to "friends." That's quite a shift.

But it makes perfect sense. Imagine a friendship where one person thought they were better than the other. Or more important. Or had more to say or a greater need. I can't imagine that scenario working because it's very difficult to feel friendly toward someone who would regard you with such self-centered disdain. If you would be loved, be lovable. And friendship is love.

One of the most awe-some aspects of Christ's very person is the way he continually strips away barriers, even the ones we think our religion has given us. He redefines holiness by willingly becoming "unclean" through contact with sinners. He overcomes the dualistic thinking of the religious elite of his day. He regards with humanity and grace those who show God's love but are outside of the 'saved' religious label, which is precisely why telling a parable of a "good" Samaritan was so paradigm-shifting. Could we accept a parable about a "Good Muslim" who shows the love of God in ways many Christians fail to? Somehow I don't think most of our churches could.

Jesus is sending a message of equality, first in personal relationships and then outward. We learn in Philippians 2:6 that Jesus who was God still "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." Not only does this tell of us the reality of the true inequality of Jesus with his disciples and all of us but it flips the importance of such a claim on its head by saying that Jesus is putting himself on our own level. God comes to us and shows us the model of equality in friendship.

Reuniting the Divided

A sense of equality in friendship does not mean that we forget to acknowledge our unique characters. But it is certainly a shift of focus to what unites rather than what divides us. You cannot have meaningful friendship without a sense of equality, a sense of oneness and mutuality.

Practically, this means not being selfish in our relationships, what you might call, "Friendship 101." The first social lesson we learn as children - to share - points toward this deeper sense of sameness and equality. And it's always tragic to see a friend who hasn't learned this, who dominates a conversation or regards others merely as supporting characters in his/her own life's drama.

Children have to learn that their own self is not the only thing that matters or even the most important. We learn to share, to extend our own desires to others. Once we regard our friends as equals in dignity and worth and need then our thinking starts to change. We forget to rank in importance me v. them or my group v. everyone else. We start to see the connection between everything.

We start to realize that many of the "important" splits we hold aren't even true, let alone helpful. We start to see that there is no split between the mind and the body; we are one in being. We see that life and death are not opposing forces but two sides of one coin. We start to see that our "good selves" and our "bad selves" are also one without a need to destroy our shadow. And finally we see that all of creation is one because it's all part of The One.

Jesus himself regards all of us with equality and levels dividers between God and you and others. He says what you do to others you do to yourself and to God, what you do for God, you do for yourself and others.

I think in friendship this principle of sameness and equality opens up a much bigger way to love one another. We regard someone else not as better or worse but as an equal reflection of God's love and the unity of creation. We can acknowledge our deep, foundational equality as the German poet, Friedrich Schiller, wrote in words now famous in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" 9th Symphony:

Joy, Bright Spark of Divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy heavenly sanctuary! 
Thy mystical power reunites
All that custom has divided;
All men are brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wing.