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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

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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.