Saturday, February 6, 2016

Encountering Holiness

Last week the gospel was Luke 4 and we saw how the people of Nazareth responded to Jesus' claim to be the Messiah. They tried to throw him off a cliff. This week the gospel is Luke 5 and we see Peter's response. Peter asks Jesus to depart from him because he is a sinful man. Even in the first reading Isaiah talks about being doomed because he is a man of unclean lips and has encountered true holiness.

What these people all have in common is they get it. They know two things. They know God is holy and they are not. They were not bad people by today's standards. They were all quite religious and did not have any hidden sin that is mentioned. Yet they had God at a distance. At least they thought they did. Yet God drew close to them. God does that. That is the gospel. God comes to earth. We don't go up to heaven. 

When God arrives we have two choices. We can shoot the messenger or we can beg for mercy. That is why they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff. People can't encounter God's truth and be unmoved by it. We tend to water down that truth and try to make it inoffensive. Yet it has to offend. Jesus offended often.

Isaiah and Peter respond to their encounters by pointing out the impossibility of it. I can't stand in the presence of God. My sin will surely become know and it will be Game Over for me. Their response is sorrow rather than anger. It reminds me of Mary's response in Luke 1:34. How can it be since I am a virgin? In the minds of Peter and Isaiah, God having a relationship with them was just as impossible as a virgin giving birth. They were right. Realizing this is an important first step in their walk with God.

Walking with God is a life with deep peace and great joy. Yet it is also full of very uncomfortable encounters like the ones described here. The anger of the people of Nazareth is not out of the question. We will want to throw Jesus off a cliff many times. We should find ourselves telling God often that we are not near holy enough to do what He is asking. That is what a healthy, growing relationship with God works. 

The trouble is we don't just water down the gospel for those unchurched folks who might react badly. We water it down for ourselves. To keep God at a safe distance. We end up stuck in a spiritual rut. It is called sloth. Where we don't react strongly to any spiritual inputs. It is one of the seven deadly sins and for good reason. It can kill our walk with God and Yes it can land us in hell.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Body of Christ

The New Testament readings for the last 2 Sundays have been from 1 Corinthians 12. That is the beautiful passage on spiritual gifts and the extended analogy comparing the church to the body of Christ. There is so much in this analogy. We latch onto the notion that we all have gifts. We like to hear that. We all have an important role in the church and that is true. 

Yet it is just as important to know there are gifts we don't have. Learning to celebrate the gifts of others and to praise God for them rather than to wish we had them. It is so easy to sing a beautiful song and wish you had written it or hear an amazing sermon and wish you were giving it. You end up putting yourself in the centre instead of Jesus being in the centre. It is His body not yours or mine.

Pascal contributes one more thought to this. He talks about the purpose of body parts. Think of a human kidney. What purpose does it have? It's purpose can only be described in relation to the body. Being a body part is not something that is an important part of its existence. It is everything. Without the body a kidney makes no sense. 

His point is we need to be like that with the church. It should not be a part of out life. It should be out life. Our entire understanding of who we are should be in relation to the church. We simply serve the church. Nothing else matters. How many of us really get that?

Then there is the matter of the head. St Paul could have said the head is Christ. He does not. The whole body is Christ. The head is a part of the body. That is the head is another person. A person ordained by Jesus to be the head. This seems important to me because as a protestant I was told that priests, bishops and the pope don't really have role if we have a proper understanding of church. That is that we are all supposed to be talking to Jesus and any authority we accept should be judged by us to be consistent with that. Yet Paul seems to think the body has a head. That is human leadership that we did not choose that should be coordinating the functions of the body. 

The passage does talk about our understanding not being essential to our membership. If the eye says it is not part of the body it does not cease to be part of the body. Yet it is such a gift to be able to grasp that you are part of something larger. Certainly I believed in the Kingdom of God as a protestant. Yet I did not get excited about the movement of that Kingdom in the same way. That is because it was not visible. We just believed in the body of Christ despite widespread disagreement over just about every doctrine and just about every liturgical practice. We believed it because it was in the bible so it must be true but it had very few practical implications.

As a Catholic I see the body of Christ. It is the church. I can learn about her story. I can get to know her saints. Yes there are many connected to her without knowing it but there is a physical reality that is being asserted. That is an awesome thing because you do really feel you are a part of something bigger. 

It also builds your faith because the church is just the sort of thing Jesus would found. Something that brings God to us. Something that tirelessly teaches the one true gospel. Something that suffers when we sin. Something that unites us and makes us holy. Yet something that remains hidden. It looks human despite its divine origin just like Jesus looks human despite His divinity. The church allows us to participate in the ministry of Christ. That is we collectively become the presence of God in the world.   

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Hearing God's Voice

Wednesday was an interesting day. The men's program I went to in the morning talked about hearing God's voice. Then I went to mass at noon and the reading was exactly the same as one of the passages they had focused on. That is the calling of Samuel as a boy. Where he hears God call repeatedly and mistakes it for Eli. 

What is kind of ironic is I took that as God's voice to think more about what it means to hear God's voice. I often put a fair bit of stock in coincidences. There is a school of that thought that there is no such thing as coincidence. It is always God putting things together to suggest something to us. I would not say always but this one seemed like that. 

In my reading I was struck by some stuff why God seems to hide. That God hides because He wants us to experience how lost we are without Him. If He was always undeniable present and scientifically provable then the idea of a godless life would never really occur to us. It would be like contemplating life without air. We don't normally do that because our need for air is obviously constant and undeniable. 

God wants us to choose Him. He does not want it to be a casual choice. He wants us to hunger for Him. He wants us to be desperate for Him. Yet He also wants us to be able to deny Him. He gives enough evidence to make the seeker believe but never enough to compel the sceptic to believe. 

The fits the data remarkable well. Whether you look at miracles or history or science you find the data always in that middle ground. No matter what angle you look at the question from nothing proves Catholicism and nothing disproves it. That in itself seems like strong evidence to me. That is that you would expect evidence for God if He existed. Yet you would also expect evidence against God to be strong if He didn't exist. At least you would expect the evidence against a developed form of theism like Catholicism to be clear if it was false. The fact that we are in the very unlikely middle ground and Catholicism has declared we will always be in that middle ground seems like a pretty good reason to take it seriously. 

Anyway, getting back to hearing God's voice. This idea of God remaining hidden means that God is not going to zap us in some undeniable way very often. He is going to work in more subtle ways. He is going to use other people. Often He will tickle something in your spirit when He really wants you to listen. It is good to listen to subtle things. CS Lewis says, "Pain is God's megaphone" so if you don't listen to whispers in your heart it is likely He will repeat the message in a more painful way. 

At the homily this morning the deacon made a good point. He said if you say you don't know God's will for your life that is pretty lame. You are supposed to be making a huge effort. You don't need a roadmap for your whole life. You just need a reasonable next step. Is it really that hard? Often we let a lack of certainty paralyse us. Are we playing that game? God has to zap me or I will just continue doing my thing? Isn't that the same game the atheists play? We need to stop. If we really think about it we are not completely in the dark. Do the best you can with the light you have.

God's will does not have to be huge. Today's gospel was the wedding feast at Cana. All Mary did was bring the problem to Jesus. Then she encouraged the servants to do whatever Jesus said. A little intercession and a little exhortation to obey can go a long way. It led to a great miracle of joy. It turned a wedding disaster into the most amazing wedding ever. A wedding that points to the ultimate wedding of Christ and His church. That is what all marriages are supposed to do. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Being Alone

One point I have made in prison ministry is that many saints have spent their lives in a cell that closely resembles what prisoners spend their time in. In fact, many cloisters have cells that are very close to solitary confinement which is used as punishment for prisoners. 

Pascal has an interesting take on this. He says most people can't stand to be alone with their thoughts and their God. That it very quickly makes them miserable. He sees this as hugely significant. We think being rich will make us happy because we won't have to work. Yet it does not. You look at rich people and they find all sorts of things to be concerned about. If they didn't then they would be miserable because they would think about themselves. He sees this as the reason for many sports and wars and gossip and numerous other things. People need to occupy their minds so they can hide from themselves.

At the root of this is the fact that we can't face the truth about ourselves. We know we should be good and we are not. We frequently think far to highly of our talent and accomplishments in many areas. We put our own pleasure above that of others. These are thoughts that don't really fit with what we believe and what we know the data to be. Still we don't want to change. We like to think that way. 

Then there is death. If you get a chance to think deeply about your life you can't really avoid contemplating the significance of your own death. We tend to view the universe from our own perspective so thinking about our death is thinking about the end of the universe as we typically envision it. We don't like to think about that. So we are determined to distract our thoughts somehow.

Many Christians are not much better. Many Christians still have a disconnect between what they believe and their own thoughts, words and actions. They say God is the centre but their thoughts focus on themselves and they don't want to change that. Privately they can believe the little bit of religious observance they actually do is probably enough. Yet their theology does not say that. So they need distraction as much as anyone or these kinds of discrepancies would become intolerable. 

Yet as a counter-cultural witness we have the cloistered monks and nuns. Even among laymen we have many forms of contemplative prayer. How can this work? Christians can accept their own wretchedness. We can accept that because the mercy and grace of God is even greater. Our sin goes very deep but God's love goes deeper. If you can grasp those 2 truths than you can be alone with God and it can be great. If fact, for the cloistered person it is all they want. They take vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience just so they can maximize their time of prayer and solitude. 

This is the key difference. Christianity offers God as the ultimate goal. This goal satisfies when you pursue it but also when you achieve it. So many goals can preoccupy us in the pursuit (money, romantic love, political power, etc.) yet when we get them they turn out to be empty. People are willing to make huge efforts to climb these mountains yet being at the summit quickly grow boring. Christianity is not like that. The summit does satisfy and bring long lasting deep joy.


This is one reason why we have trouble imagining heaven. We know there will be eternal peace and joy. Yet we have nothing on this earth that can give us that. Yet we will no longer have this disconnect between what we are and what we should be. Then we will no longer find ourselves intolerable!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Imagination

The word imagination has been coming up for me a lot lately. It started when I was reading about Blaise Pascal. He talked about some of the limitations of reason. It was a lot of ideas that have crossed my mind before. The notion that arguments can be rejected by people even if the reasoning is sound because they just don't have the mindset to go there. I used the word tradition to describe what keeps people from thinking in certain ways even when presented with a good argument. I could see that people from the reformed tradition, including myself, had trouble processing Catholic arguments. We could not refute them, we just didn't find them convincing. 

Pascal describes a similar thing but he uses the word imagination. That the human mind needs to be able to imagine something before they will be able to go there. Imagination can distort reason so logical arguments don't work. It seems like a similar idea except with a different word. A different word impacts people's imagination differently. People who would baulk at the idea that some tradition or other unavoidably shapes their thinking might react very differently to the idea that they need to change their imagination. Some traditions are very negative on the word "tradition." 

The other difference, again a difference that impacts more the imagination than the logical content, is using this to talk about secular thinkers as well as those formed by a particular religious group. That makes a lot of sense. Secular people think they love logic but often simply dismiss very well-reasoned objections. 

I like the idea of imagination better for evangelism. It is much easier to envision changing someone's imagination than changing their tradition. I think Pascal is right that this does not have to be deeply ingrained. People's minds can be changed quite quickly if you find a way to move their imagination. A good story can do that. So can a loving relationship. 

The other way the word imagination was used is in the context of grief. A friend talked about how he could not imagine a joyful and fruitful life after the loss he had suffered. That thought seemed to resonate with others who were suffering grief. It explains why logic has limited value when dealing with a grieving person. They simply cannot accept your conclusion because it is unimaginable.

In this case it seemed that just understanding the problem helped a lot. Just seeing that your mind needs time to grasp that certain things are possible. That gives people the courage to just keep going expecting that a new day will dawn eventually. 

It is easier when you are dealing with something that is irretrievably and undeniably lost like a loved one who has died. In the case of evangelism often the old mindset is something you can go back to. AA people talk about hitting rock bottom so you cannot imagine going back to you old lifestyle. That gives people the strength to re-imagine a whole new way of doing life. I guess a fear of hell can do that for people. Convince them that they have to change no matter how hard it is.

Still it would be nice for people to change their imagination without hitting rock bottom. At least for protestants we can't really use the fear of hell because we can't say definitively they will go to hell if they don't convert. We can come closer for atheists but even then we can't completely exclude the possibility they might be saved already. 

I think just knowing you have to enable their imagination before you can move them with sound reasoning makes a big difference. It means that you should not expect people to be rational. That can allow me to be more charitable when they dismiss my arguments. 

It also causes me to think about my own imagination. I need to make sure that I allow Jesus to reshape it through His church. Through the teachings but also through the sacraments and through the stories. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Holy Family

Boy Jesus Teaching the Elders in the Temple
Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. It is always the Sunday after Christmas. On Dec 28th we have the feast of the Holy Innocents. That is when we remember the children in Bethlehem who were killed by King Herod. In recent times it has become traditional to think about abortion at that time. The modern massacre of children that continues in our society. Yet it is interesting that of the two feasts the Holy Family is considered greater. That is that focusing on how to do family right is more important than thinking about how badly society is currently doing with children. We don't ignore those dying from abortion but we want to give a Yes to how we should raise children more than we want to say No to what we are currently doing. That is true even when we are seeing the massive moral failure that abortion represents today. 

The story in the gospel is interesting. Jesus is a 12 years old. The go to Jerusalem for the Passover like they do every year. Jesus stays behind. His parents don't know. It takes them 3 days to find Him. You would think with a sinless mother and a sinless child stuff like this would not happen. Families are like that. When you think you have things figured out something happens to shock you. Kids are growing up and they are much more complex than we give them credit.

The other thing that happens is we underestimate the power of religious rituals. They went to the Passover every year. It became a little bit routine. A bit like going to church or doing family devotions can become routine for us. Yet these sort of things are quite powerful. Just because it is routine for us does not mean it is routine for our kids. When something impacts them we might not be ready for it. That is OK.

Then there is the 3 days. The span of time that is pointing forward to the 3 days that Jesus spends in the grave. The reality of the family is the reality of love. We can suffer when children make sinful choices and brings bad consequences on themselves. Yet there is the other side. They make good choices. Yet their love leads to suffering. It is still hard for the parents. 

It says they didn't understand. That Mary took these things into her heart. They talk about the difference between creating something out of knowledge or creating something out of love. If we build something with out knowledge we always understand it. Yet it is limited. It can never do more than what we know how to do. 

When we love another person there is no such limit. We often don't know what is going on because there is a relationship between God and this other person which we mostly don't see. Yet it is not limited by our knowledge either. Our children can end up being much greater than us. That is where the real joy comes. Not that we reproduced ourselves. Any ape can do that. What is great is when our children are able to love God and to bless people in ways we never could.     

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Fruit of the Womb

Christmas has at its core the choice of Mary to say Yes to life. She chose a difficult path of motherhood in the face of ridicule so that God could do something wonderful through her. in this weeks gospel Elizabeth utters the now famous line from Luke 1:42, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Elizabeth goes on to say, "Blessed is she who believed that the Lord would fulfil His promises to her."

Yet many still don't get the connection with our own openness to life. That what Mary did is what we are all called to do. When God calls us to bring new life into the world it is a sacred thing. That love must involve saying Yes to the fruit of that love. To render love sterile is to stop loving the whole person. Really not loving the whole person is not loving at all. 

I am reminded of some conversations at my company Christmas party. One workmate of mine was expecting his second child in February. Both him and his wife repeated a few time that they were definitely done after this. It seemed like with every message of congratulation came a message of sterilization. Some even went into comparing various vasectomy doctors. This is before baby #2 is even born. 

I didn't know what to say. I didn't say anything. Still I wondered at how we can see children as a blessing and at the same time be so eager to stop them from coming. Yet it maps very well to how society sees God. We want His blessings but we don't want too much. We want to love but only to a point. We don't want to give ourselves totally to the beloved. You see this in the high numbers who self-identify as Christians yet don't go to church often and don't follow most of the more counter-cultural teachings of Christianity. 

I am reminded of a gospel from a few weeks ago from Mark 9:36,37.
He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Here again Jesus connects welcoming children with welcoming God. Really there are a lot of parallels. We have an impulse to love children and an impulse to love God. We know that is right. Yet the cost is incalculable. It is like writing a blank cheque. Except what you are committing to is not limited to money. Both children and God are allowed to make very personal demands. 

We see this with refugees as well. They are not safe. Of course not. A culture that wants safe sex also wants safe refugees. Guess what? God is not about safe. He is about faith. He does not guarantee anything except Himself. Not comfort, not health, not success as you imagine it. He does say He will be with us. Is that enough?