Thursday, December 29, 2016

How To Do Church

A while back I wrote about the rift in the church that mirrors the political rift between liberals and conservatives. That rift is even stronger in the protestant world. Over Christmas a bunch of conversations about this with protestant family members got me thinking a bit more. It seems like there is talk of yet another split in the denomination I grew up in. The split was described in an interesting way. There are those who are concerned about doctrine and theology but basically preach to the converted. Then there are those who connect with the culture. They focus on bringing Jesus to the unchurched folk. They like to talk about themselves as having a transformational ministry. That is a reference to Christ as Transformer of Culture in terms of Niebuhr's categories. Yet it seems they are the ones getting transformed. It is easy to see how the world has made them abandon parts of their faith. It is harder to see how they have changed the world in a way that a secular person could not. Still they do connect with people in powerful ways and that is a good thing. 

I have said we should abandon the either/or thing. That Christianity must be understood as a both/and. We connect with our neighbour and we remain obedient to God. If we go to our neighbourhoods and leave out the offensive bits of the gospel then we are not really offering them much more than we would if we were not Christians. In fact, we leave ourselves worse off because we limit God. We don't let Him tell us things that the culture rejects. We always find some way to rationalise caving in to the culture. We are so immersed in worldly thinking that the world's voice is louder than God's voice. 

The other side is that we can't just preach to the converted. There is a real failure on that side as well. Many churches that do things that way are in serious decline. People today are exposed to so many idea through mass media and social media that you can't just teach your theology and expect them to accept it. You need to deal with the realities of the world. 

I am thinking that the either/or thing might be hard to avoid. Some people are just going to much better at connecting people with God who already have a faith commitment to Jesus. Others are going to be better at meeting unchurched people where they are at and proposing Jesus to them. To some extent we can ask people to work on their weak areas but there is a limit to that. What we really need is for these two groups to work together. We need them to respect each other and recognise they need each other.

Now this is quite impossible in the Protestant world because they very quickly disagree on what the gospel is. The relational people are not going to accept that the doctrinal folks have the doctrine right. So the common ground disappears quickly. They find more common ground with other relational people in other protestant traditions. That makes sense because their thinking is formed mostly by the culture and not so much by their faith tradition so differing traditions are not going to matter much.

In the Catholic world there should be substantial agreement on what the gospel is. Often there is still a problem because many Catholics have not embraced the faith fully. So people on both sides of this divide must constantly remind themselves that the Church is the Body of Christ. That liberal and conservative Catholics are supposed to see the other wing of the church as a gift from God. Often there is a danger that we look at ourselves and those like us as being good Catholics and those on the other side as being bad Catholics. 

It is hard because we have the graces required to make this work but we don't always do it. We need to cooperate. We have the faith defined but we are still tempted to ignore the hard stuff. We need to actually take it all with us when we evangelise. I am reminded of a paraphrase someone did of The Great Commission that emphasised the word ALL.  They talked about making disciples and baptising them into ALL of God. That seems like what we need here. We don't decide what parts of God a person is ready for. We give them everything and trust Him. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Three Evangelists

This week we got to encounter 3 evangelists. St Andrew on Wednesday, St Francis Xavier on Saturday and St John the Baptist on Sunday. They all show us different ways we can bring the gospel to other. St Andrew is best know for leading Peter to Jesus. Andrew met Jesus first and was impressed by Him greatly. He does not keep it to himself. He immediately goes to his brother Peter and declare we have found the Messiah. That is quite a claim. Yet Andrew makes it quite quickly and  quite boldly. How many people do that today? How many Christians share big spiritual experiences with close friends and family? Many do not. It is not considered polite in modern society. We worry about what others will think of us. We don't want to be considered a religious freak. Yet Andrew does this and ends up bringing to Jesus the man who would lead the church through its first 30 years of existence. Christmas is a time when we are to experience Jesus once again in a renewed way. When we do tell someone else about it. Let them encounter Jesus as well. You never know what might come of it. 

St Francis Xavier brought the gospel to people who had never head of Christianity before. He was in remote areas of India and Japan where many had never seen a Christian before. He started with the young. He used the Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the 10 commandments. He used a lot of music. Children would often convert their parents. He would baptise the converts very quickly.  Very simple but very complete. Just giving people the opportunity to be saved then moving on to the next village. 

This sort of evangelism is not for everyone yet St Francis complained there were so many who could do it that didn't do it and therefore many souls were being lost. Even if we are not called to present the gospel to strangers we can support those that do. We can encourage them. We can pray for them. We can give alms to their ministry. 

St John the Baptist is a different sort. He preaches repentance to those who are already believers. He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. We need that to. Lots of religious laxity around even among church leaders. Lots of people presuming they are saved. We need people to be convicted of their sin and make serious changes to their lives. 

It is called admonishing sinners. It is considered one of the 7 spiritual works of mercy. Often you hear people talk about not admonishing sinners as being merciful. It is not. People need the grace of repentance and forgiveness. That starts with people understanding that the way they have been living is very wrong. How will they understand that if nobody tells them? We are just too polite. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Last Things

November is a month when the church asks us to contemplate the last things. The traditions 4 last things are death, judgement, heaven and hell. We don't like to think about them much. Obama illustrates this well as he comments on Fidel Castro's death. He says history will be Castro's final judge. Really? If he actually means that it says a lot. Who cares about history? Your reputation is not the most important thing when you are alive and it is not the most important when you are dead. Ultimately you don't control it. History is written by poorly informed people rushing to judgement. The deeper truth is that history's opinion of you or me or anyone pretty much fades to black once we have died anyway. How often will you think about Fidel Castro? For me I don't expect it will be very often. So why does history's judgement matter when it represents just a short-term, frequently incorrect reflection? It does not.

What matters is God's judgement of us. It is not short term. It is eternal. It is never incorrect. It always deals justly with our true self. The one we so often fight to keep other from seeing. Did we cooperate with God's grace in our lives? Did we want to be holy and want to be in friendship with Him? Or did we prefer something else? Wealth, honor, fame, glory, power, the goods of the body, or pleasure? It does not matter. Anything else you choose will be granted you but you you won't have God. You won't be in friendship with Him and that is the definition of hell.

So being judged well by history is just one more thing we can desire instead of God. A lot of times that means being judged well by one particular group of people. The liberal or conservative elite. The people at work. A group of friends that we have come to car about. Our family. We crave a positive judgement. We crave love. Ultimately God offers us the only place where we can be sure to find love and acceptance.

The gospel this week is about the end of the world. People tell us it is good to begin with the end in mind. The end of the world is something good to keep in mind. We can get wrapped up in little disasters like somebody dying or the wrong political party winning or some people you cared about rejecting you. Whatever it is it is not as serious as the end of the world. That is what we are called to be prepared for.

The end of the world is also connected with the beginning of a new life with God. The thoughts of the last things pivot to a contemplation of Christmas on the first Sunday of Advent. That is the way it always is. When we encounter God's judgement with a heart of repentance then God responds by giving us the gift of new life. Not just any new life but the new life of Jesus Himself. The joys of heaven are available now. Emmanuel. God is with us. So let God be your judge not just when you die but today and every day.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Two Thieves

This week's gospel in Luke 23:35-43. It is the account of the 2 thieves crucified with Jesus. There is a lot of Protestant/Catholic debate on this passage and I have gone there a lot lately so I thought I would skip this one. Yet something struck me as I listened to the homily this morning. Our deacon said this this is the only time in the gospels where Jesus is addressed simply by his first name. That seems like just a bit of interesting trivia but nothing is trivial about scripture. Addressing Jesus by his first name is quite intimate. Who does this? Not one of Jesus' close friends. Not even a holy man. A criminal is the one who at least by this one measure has a special relationship with Jesus. So what buys him this special bond? Well, he is being crucified with Jesus. 

That is the part I found interesting. The idea that this special closeness comes when he suffers with Jesus. Jesus talked about taking up our cross and following Him. Yet we hear that and kind of hope that never happens. Yet this intimacy with Jesus that we all want happens in that very place. The place where we suffer and unite our sufferings with the suffering of Jesus. Now this guy had an easier time uniting his suffering with Jesus. Jesus was literally suffering with him just a few feet away. Yet we can choose to do that. We can meditate on the suffering of Jesus during our times of great pain. Tradition tells us that the crucifixion of Jesus is an even that transcends time. It is available to us. We can go to the cross anytime we want to. It can bring us closer to Jesus than we ever imagined.

I have heard that story many times. People saying their faith was basically dead and then a tragedy happened. Often a loved one dies. In the middle of that pain they fall in love with Jesus. We have a choice in that hour of suffering. The choices are voiced well by the two thieves. One is anger at God. Telling God He has to fix your suffering or you will say He is a fraud. 

The other is brutal honesty. He admits he fears God. He admits he committed the crimes he is being punished for. Then he admits he is desperate. He wants to be with Jesus and he is not. So he asks. Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. That cry for mercy that we hear so many times in this book of Luke. 

Jesus does not end his suffering. He remains on the cross. Jesus comforts him by saying they will suffer together and go to the next world together. That is the same comfort He gives us. We are not told out suffering will end. It may go on for a long time. What we are told is Jesus will be close to us every step of the way. That when we meet Him in our darkest hours we can continue to have that relationship with Him even when those hours have past. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Christians And Trump

My biggest fear from a Trump presidency is that it will be seen similarly to the Bush presidency. That is that Bush was seen as the proto-typical Christian. People thought about being Christian very much in those terms. I can't be a Christian because I can't think like Bush. Often people identify 911 as the event that spawned the New Atheism movement. That all religious people could be labelled as violent because these religious fanatics were obviously evil. Yet I have rarely heard this argument. 

What also happened right around that same time is that Bush became president. His win was associated with the Christian right. He was not just supported by evangelicals. He was an evangelical. So people, quite understandably, took him to be a typical Christian. If you did not know any conservative Christians he was the stereo-type. 

Think about it. The New Atheist associated Christianity with violence and with a lack of intelligence. I would not say that about Christians I know. They tend to be quite a bit less prone to violence and on average quite intelligent. Yet the association works. Why? Because Bush's policies were quite violent and they were often anti-intellectual. So it was not a big leap for people to assume all Christians were like that. 

Now we have Trump. He has much weaker ties to Christianity. He does not self-identify as an evangelical. His personal life shows nothing a Christian would find impressive. Yet conservative Christians voted for him. Some of them did so with great hesitation and some of them were with Trump from the beginning. At the end of they day their support for Trump was pretty solid. Stronger than their support for Romney. 

Now many would say they voted against Clinton more than they voted for Trump. They would have preferred someone else. Still I can see that in the minds of the people who don't know many Christians they can easily associate Christianity with being impressed by Trump.

We need to get to a place where Christianity is not associated with any political party. We need to transcend politics. Pope Francis said this on Oct 2nd.

Now, I will set the issue aside and speak about something theoretical, rather than speaking about the concrete problem. When a country has two, three or four candidates who are unsatisfactory, it means that the political life of that country is perhaps overly “politicized” but lacking in a political culture. One of the tasks of the Church and of higher education is to teach people to develop a political culture. 
There are countries – I am thinking of Latin America – that are excessively politicized but lack a political culture. People belong to one party or another party or even a third, but for emotional reasons, without thinking clearly about the fundamentals, the proposals.
He ties this sort of problem to a failure of the church and of higher education. It makes sense to me. The spectacle of people being pressured to embrace all the the agenda of one party or the other is a symptom of people having a poor understanding of philosophy and/or theology. They don't understand the connections between ideas. Which ones are logically connected. So people run back to their party and just swallow everything. 

In same ways it does reflect badly on Christianity when Christians behave this way. It means they have not developed a sophisticated way of critiquing the politics of the day. They just pick a side like everyone else. It is not completely true. Conservative Christians have pushed certain policies into the Republican platform that would not otherwise be there. Still it is quite limited. 

On the other side you have progressive Christians that really have not impacted the Democratic party even in a limited way. The Democratic elite have impacted them for sure. In fact, they are so dominated by secular thought it is hard to find places where they disagree with atheists. 

So what do we do? We carve out for ourselves a place that is truly counter-cultural. Can we do this without the Catholic church. I thought so once. I thought the Christian Reformed Church I was part of did this well. Their secret? Christian education. They really took that seriously. So they could maintain their own robust intellectual tradition separate from secular thought but broad enough to address all the issues that come up. Pope Francis also mentions education. 

Still GK Chesterton says the Catholic Church "is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age." Ultimately we can't separate ourselves from our culture without the graces given to us by God in the church. We will inevitably get God wrong in some serious way on some issue. So yes, we need to educate people to think with their faith in every area of human endeavour. But we need to be guided by the church when we do so. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

A few years ago I saw The Blind Side and reflected on how modern Christian art tends to be terrible except when it is telling true stories. I though the same thing when I recently saw Hacksaw Ridge and a Netflix thing called Unconditional. Both are telling stories where faith played a big part. Both tell them with out removing the religion as Hollywood often does. Yet they are good stories. They are messy. Christians struggle. They don't pray and have problems just go away. They suffer through both physically and mentally. They think they hear God's word but they are not always sure. 

It is so refreshing because these stories show how God works in real life. He uses us powerfully but it 
often does not feel that way. Often it feels like we are being stupid or being selfish or just failing. Yet God is using the fact that we are there. That we are not just there physically but there with our heart fully engaged and willing to make sacrifices. We are annoyed because we don't have things figured out but that is not really a problem. God has them figured out and you just need to trust Him.

The story of Hacksaw Ridge is a miracle of sorts. That is if it was fiction we would never believe what the main character does is humanly possible. Yet he did it. Because it is a true story we can't just dismiss it. This man did something extraordinary and if you ask him how he did it he will talk about God. He was able to overcome pain and risk of death and do what he did only because he felt strongly that this was God's will for him in that moment. He had done God's will in some very hard circumstances before. That is the way he lived and if he was going to die on this ridge he was going to die that way. 

Mel Gibson does not shy away from any of the ugliness of battle. That makes this movie so much more intense. In a lot of ways it is hard to watch. Yet that speaks to. Desmond's father tells him that war would take his young faith and rip it apart. It was true for the dad. He was traumatised in WWI and never really recovered. He is a pathetic character because of it. Yet we see that embracing the faith rather then rejecting it it is not only possible but vastly preferable. That life's struggles are not easy. They are hard and even terrifying. Desmond is not without fear. Yet he still trusts that God is with him even on this day. 

Not only does Desmond have a profound experience of God on the battlefield. He enables others to have it as well. The story does not focus on the people he saves so much but they are in a bad way. They are wounded in an area that the Allies have pulled out of. They cannot flee. The Japanese are killing those who surrender. Staying put likely means succumbing to their wounds after many hours of suffering. What do you think ran through their minds? I am guessing that many of them were praying. I am guessing that to many of them Desmond showing up seemed like an answer to an impossible and desperate prayer. It is one of the greatest privileges God gives us as Christians to be an answer to somebody's prayer. The real Desmond Doss in an interview after the film talks about the smile one man gave him and how rewarding it was. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

An Argument on the Resurrection

This weeks gospel is quite interesting for those of who like to get involved in apologetics. In Luke 20:27-40, the Sadducees ask Jesus a question. Really they are making a theological argument.  Asking a hypothetical question intending to show their opponents theological position is wrong. Many modern Christians would exit at this point. They don't want to get involved in debates about doctrine. They say nothing good ever comes of them. Yet Jesus does not go there. He is up for debate. He not only answers them he makes a counter-argument. 

The question is on the resurrection of the dead. This was a big point of disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees believed only in the fist 5 books of Moses as the Word of God. They saw no evidence of the resurrection in those books so they rejected that doctrine. 

Jesus' response is interesting. He addresses the alleged problem and explains that marriage is for us on earth but not for heaven. This fits with the Catholic notion that marriage is a foretaste of heaven. That once we have the fullness of heaven the foretaste is no longer needed. 

Then He says "even Moses showed that the dead rise." This is key. When He makes his counter-argument He only uses what the Sadducees would accept, that is the 5 books of Moses. His argument seems like a bit of a stretch. I can really see how people could have studied Exodus 3 for centuries and never concluded that it taught the resurrection of the dead. Yet it at least gives food for thought that God did phrase things in an odd way if the dead are not raised. So it is not a slam-dunk argument that is impossible to get out of. It just shows some kernel of the doctrine is there. The final appeal is to the nature of God as a God of the living and not of the dead. 

This connects well with what we are to do in defending the faith. We need to explain the whole faith in terms of correcting and misunderstandings and clarifying any apparent contradictions. That means we need to know what we believe at some level. 

Then when we deal with others who don't believe we should be able to use the evidence they do accept and show ways in which it points to Catholicism. If someone will accept the bible as the Word of God then use that to show some of the Catholic things they reject are actually in scripture at least in kernel form. 

Similarly if people only accept reason we need to find reasons why much of Catholicism makes sense based on reason alone. We won't  have a rock solid proof for everything. Still the most counter-cultural idea can be see to be logical when just looking at the human person. 

This asks a lot of us. We need to learn to explain our faith in a number of different ways based on who we are talking to. Yet this is what love looks like. We start by listening. We listen to what others really believe. We listen to learn. We also listen to find connections between their beliefs and Catholic teaching. We affirm what is true. Then we show them the path to the fullness of truth. It takes a lot of effort. It is not as simple as just publishing the case for Catholicism and being done.