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. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Zacchaeus

The story of Zacchaeus is just a classic story of grace. At the centre we have a sinner meeting Jesus and having his life transformed by the encounter. The ending declaration by Jesus that "The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost" is really the climax of the story Luke is trying to tell.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.
The story starts off with an image of evil. Jericho was a city associated with sin. Then Zacchaeus is identified as a chief tax collector. Tax collectors were considered traitors. Chief tax collectors? That has be worse.
He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-figtree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
Now we are given a picture of Zacchaeus wanting to see Jesus. He climbs a tree. This is a huge embarrassment for a rich man. Yet he does it in front of a crowd. He is not mildly interesting in seeing Jesus. He is determined, even desperate. It remind us of the blind beggar last week begging for mercy. Here we have a rich man humiliating himself in another way but also wanting God so much he does not care what anyone thinks. It makes us wonder about our own desire for God. Do we want him that much we don't care about our reputation?
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
Then Jesus comes to "the spot." He invites Zacchaeus by name. This is so typical. We approach God with fear and trepidation and when we finally overcome all that and meet God we find He was expecting us! He knows our name. He has been looking forward to us inviting Him into our home. We are overwhelmed with the intimacy of God's love. 
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Then we get two reactions. The reaction of Zacchaeus and the reaction of "all the people." Zacchaeus gladly welcomes Jesus. The reconciliation he longed for but almost didn't dare hope for was now a reality. Jesus was right there and wanting to come to his house. Imagine that. Jesus at the house of the chief tax collector.

The rest of the crowd imagined it all right. They didn't get it. This guy was in league with the Romans. Remember these are the followers of Jesus. They are supposed to understand at some level that they are sinners saved by grace. Yet they continue to be confused when another sinner receives the same grace. We can get like that. There can be some sinners we don't want saved. We want God to see them like we see them. That is as hopeless cases. As somehow worse sinners than us. 
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
This is very interesting. Zacchaeus is offering to do penance for his sins. This comes from the Old Testament. Jesus here has a wonderful opportunity to say that this concept is no longer needed under the new covenant. Yet He does not say that. He accepts this penance as a proper response to receiving forgiveness. Not earning forgiveness but making an attempt to make right what you have wronged on some level. 
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Like I said before. This statement summarises not just the point of this story but of the whole book of Luke. According to the structure of the book this is where we should expect to find the climactic moment and this is what Luke gives us. Jesus is here to save the lost. Even those who are so far lost they barely remember where they came from.  Everyone thought Zacchaeus had forfeited his status as a son of Abraham. Jesus says He has not forgotten the dignity we were created with. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

One Flock, One Shepherd

At a prison bible study we were reflecting on John 10. It talks about Jesus as the good shepherd and thieves and robbers trying to steal the sheep. There is a lot there in the way Jesus cares for His sheep and protects His sheep. Even the idea that a shepherd in that day would risk his life for the sheep.

When it came to the thieves and robbers I talked about both the Protestant and Catholic ways of reading this text as I often do. Protestants would say thieves and robbers exist. They would be teaching something very different from the truth (as they see it). Often they would include Catholics and many other Protestants. Conservative Protestants would put liberal Protestants in this category but not those who are closer to them theologically. It all made sense to me as when I was Protestant.

The interesting thing is it didn't make sense to the prisoners. They get a mish-mash of Protestants denominations coming to the prison. They didn't get how the sheep would know Jesus' voice. As a Christian Reformed person talking to other Christian Reformed people I could easily appeal to common sense. Yet this sort of sense is not common to people who have experiences many contradictory religious ideas. That is actually more common these days.

Then there is the phrase that Jesus says that Protestants mostly ignore. He says in verse 16 that "there shall be one flock and one shepherd." Catholics see that as an obvious reference to the church and the pope. Protestants? Like I said, it is mostly ignored. To the extent that it means anything it would be spiritualized to the point where it becomes unfalsifiable. That is this invisible group of people has this invisible bond of unity with this invisible shepherd.


There is some visible unity in the Protestant world. I know I craved it when I was Protestant. Yet a lot of it is just a unity among some subset of protestants that happens to agree with you on an issue. It is like George Bush's coalition of the willing in Iraq. You just list those who agree with you, ignore those who don't, and declare it to be some sort of consensus. 

Yet what sort of community was Jesus really envisioning when He said there shall be one flock and one shepherd? If He foresaw the current Protestant reality would He not have said that He would be shepherding many flocks? Would He have just asserted that His sheep know His voice? Is there any amount of disunity that would indicate that Protestantism has a serious problem?

That does not mean the church needs to be homogeneous. Catholicism has many orders and many movements and many different spiritual personalities. They even have movements that reform other movements that have grown lax. There can be many moves of the Holy Spirit all withing this unity Jesus talks about.