Monday, December 15, 2014


As the calendar closes in on Christmas the church calls us to focus on Mary. Particularly the conversation between the angel Gabriel and the blessed virgin.
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
The text is very rich and very familiar. It is the second appearance of Gabriel. Luke has just finished telling us about his appearance to Zachariah. The juxtaposition of the two stories highlight some important differences. Gabriel appeared to Zachariah, a priest, in the temple, next to the altar of incense, during a very solemn liturgy. It is the holiest most religious context you can imagine. Mary is a virgin, from a small town, in an insignificant region of Israel, a nobody planning to marry another nobody. 

The word virgin is used over and over. That is coupled with the word kecharitomene which is translated as "full of grace."  This is a word we have trouble translating because it is a superlative but in Greek they don't use superlatives as easily as we do. So when a word meaning "filled with grace" gets made superlative it is quite something. It means she could not possibly have more grace than she has. That her graciousness could not be more intensive and it could not be more extensive. She is not just a virgin. She as pure as pure can be. 

Mary gets this. That is why it says she was greatly troubled and wondered what this could mean.  She knows this greeting just so powerful. Then Gabriel assures her it is OK. He says she has found favor with God. This is also amazing. Again, contrast this with Zachariah. He is an old priest performing the holiest ritual of his life and Gabriel punishes him for his lack of faith. So God is not that easy to impress. Yet this young virgin has found favor with God. 

Then it comes, the huge promise. You will have the most amazing child. Someone who would be king forever. It could only be the Messiah. Only one problem, Mary had not had sex and by implication was not planning on having sex with Joseph either. How could she have a special child when she had given up motherhood? Was she supposed to discard her vow of virginity? 

The answer was just so amazing. The Holy Spirit was to impregnate her. He was not going to have sex with her like gods in Greek mythology did yet there is some pretty powerful intimacy implied in what will happen. So intimate that the child would be the Son of God.

This has to blow Mary's mind. God not only physically working in your body but becoming the father of your child. When a man has a child with a woman God expects that man to be there for her in a special way for the rest of her life. How much more so will God be with the mother of His child? That is just so much to contemplate.

Mary does not have to grasp it all to give an answer. She knows that whatever is from God is something she wants. No conditions. No clarifications. Just an unconditional Yes. Beautiful. 

We say Yes to God but often struggle when it gets to personal. We don't get that it means facing our deepest fears and surrendering our favorite ideas and repenting of our pet sins. We tend to resist when that becomes clear. For Mary the personal nature of the task was very clear and she did not resist at all.

The good news is if we imitate Mary's Fiat then we will also receive, in some form, what she received. The Holy Spirit can come upon us and the power of the Most High can overshadow us. Then we can bring Jesus into the world in our own way. This is why Mary becomes the model for all of us. She shows us what being a New Testament Christian is all about. It is about blessing the world with the very presence of Jesus.   

Saturday, December 13, 2014


12 Years a Slave was one of the movies Sony Exec Thought Obama Might Like
The recent controversy about Sony executives and their racist e-mails is quite telling. What did they say? They suggested that Barak Obama might like movies that have starred black actors and have themes around slavery. Is that racist? By some definitions Yes it is. They art treating someone differently based on his race. Yet is it really evil? Racism is only evil when it values a human person less based on race. People from different races are different. They often grow up in a different subculture and they connect with different stories. Not all of them but many of them. This is a good thing. Diversity in people groups is something that enriches society. 

So movie executives thinking a black man would have a stronger reaction to certain movies because he is black is not wrong. Yet they took pains to keep this conversation secret. They laughed at it not because it was funny but because it is the sort of conversation you can't have in polite company. It was laughter that happens when you point out the elephant in the room. The man is black. That is likely to effect the way he views our art. Yet we can't acknowledge that because the topic is taboo. 

All of this is confirmed in the way the media reacted to the e-mails being made public. The exact same words were used to describe these e-mails as were used to describe the issues around policing and blacks. Here in Canada the CBC labeled labeled the e-mails racist in the headline with all the baggage that word carries. It shows a real problem in drawing correct moral distinctions. A black man is killed by police. A black man has some assumptions made about his movie tastes. Same thing right

The trouble is we cannot have a decent discussion on race unless we can make these distinctions very strongly. The idea that any distinction based on race is immediately and unthinkingly painted with the blackest moral brush means we can't talk about it rationally. The issues around the police killings are very serious issues. The first rule when talking about serious issues is to avoid confusing them with less serious issues. If the distinctions get lost then you end up with a lot of good thinkers refusing to comment for fear of being labeled a racist. 

A big problem ends up being the media. When they have a choice between printing intelligent responses and inflammatory responses they tend to focus on the latter. It tends to flatten everything. The strongest language gets used by someone and ends up in every headline. That is sad because I think there are some things that show very disturbing racism and some things that just don't. The fact that they all get the same reaction is quite disappointing. The press knows exactly where to go to get the outraged reaction. Once they get the quote then the discussion is over. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Who Are We Not?

Here we see John the Baptist giving testimony. Often testimony is about who we are. We tell people we are Christians and we tell them why. This testimony is mostly about who John is not.
A man named John was sent from God.He came for testimony, to testify to the light,so that all might believe through him.He was not the light,but came to testify to the light.
And this is the testimony of John.When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?”He admitted and did not deny it,but admitted, “I am not the Christ.”So they asked him,“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”And he said, “I am not.”“Are you the Prophet?”He answered, “No.”So they said to him,“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?What do you have to say for yourself?”He said:“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,‘make straight the way of the Lord,’”as Isaiah the prophet said.”Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,“Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”John answered them,“I baptize with water;but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,the one who is coming after me,whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,where John was baptizing.
People wanted to know if John was the messiah. He said No. It was important for the gospel writer to note this because there were some groups of people following John the Baptist even in the late first century. The church wanted to encourage those people to become Christians so they highlighted the fact that John himself pointed to someone greater than he was. He pointed to Jesus.

He even went too far in terms of denial. He denied being Elijah. Yet he really was. Jesus said that the prophesy that Elijah would come as a forerunner to the messiah was referring to John the Baptist. So he was a prophet and really was Elijah in the relevant sense that it was being asked. So he erred on the side of humility. 

There is often a confusion between humility and boldness. We think humble people are those that never make any waves. They labor behind the scenes and you don't notice them. John the Baptist is not like that. He made a lot of waves. He is a strong preacher. He draws crowds. He gets religious leaders to leave Jerusalem and come down to the Jordan to see him. He even had the courage to talk about King Herod's sexual sins,something that eventually got him executed. He was no shrinking violet. Yet he was humble. 

You hear this today. People say we should be more humble meaning we should not make definitive statements about God's will. We should not call anything sinful or disordered. That we should not suppose we have the truth. We are just people and not God. 

Yet it is precisely because we are not God that we must speak. We don't have the right to decide that this or that part of God's word is too offensive or too uncertain. Humility is about being who we are. We don't have the truth. The Truth has us. It does not mean we never confront anyone. It means we choose to fight God's battles and not our own.

This also fits with the second reading from 1 Thes 5. 
Brothers and sisters:Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.In all circumstances give thanks,for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.Do not quench the Spirit.Do not despise prophetic utterances.Test everything; retain what is good.Refrain from every kind of evil.
I found this quite interesting because many of these verses are quoted in widely different contexts. Seeing them all together was surprising. Yet humility is the constant theme. Why do we pray without ceasing? Because we are wholly dependent on God. It is not an impossible rule to follow. It is a mindset that makes the Christian life possible. 

Give thanks in all circumstances. This verse was quoted in a book called The Hiding Place about a Nazi concentration camp. Can we give thanks there? The point is not to give thanks for the fleas as they did. The point is to know God is there and give thanks for that. If you see His presence in the fleas that is great. If you don't then just trust that God is there and give Him thanks.

Don't quench the spirit. This is often used in Pentecostal circles when arguing against church authority. Obviously the spirit is on my side and the pastor had better not reign me in at all or he will be quenching the spirit. Actually the spirit is what should reign you in. Legitimate church authority is one way He does it. 

Test everything. Again this is often applied to others but not to yourself. When we lack humility we think we need to test everything but our own ideas. Somehow it is obvious those are completely in line with God. .

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Eric Gardner and Broken Windows

There is a philosophy of policing called Broken Windows that played a role in the Eric Gardner incident. It relates back to some research on buildings and cars. It found that when one broken window on a car or a building was not repaired the result was catastrophic. The toleration of that brokenness acted like a signal to the whole community to disrespect that property. Soon the car or the building would be vandalized or robbed. People would not pick up liter around it. It very quickly became a worthless thing because people thought of it as a worthless thing. The root of that thinking was the one broken window. 

Now I have heard this research used in reference to our spiritual life. If we have one sin in our life that we ignore or even if a community has one visible sin by one member they ignore then it can be like that broken window. The opinion of that person or that community drops a lot not because the sin is serious but because everyone knows it should be dealt with and it is not being dealt with. That says more than the sin itself. So we should deal with broken windows in our life. If we are in positions of leadership we should deal with broken windows in our community. We need to deal with them promptly because the way people think about you and the way you think about yourself is on the line. The damage done can be quick and dramatic.

So what does this have to do with policing? Apparently police in New York were referencing the same research to justify a policing policy that focused on not tolerating minor crimes. It was used a few years ago when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor and was widely seen as a major success.  The murder rate in NY dropped by more than 50% saving thousands of lives. 

The trouble is it takes a lot of police to do that. So how can you afford it? You focus on neighborhoods where the crime rate is high. Guess what the racial makeup of those neighborhoods is like? The police were already giving Blacks and Hispanics more attention for whatever reason. Now you are asking them to go into their neighborhoods in bigger numbers and enforce relatively minor laws more strictly. What could go wrong? 

The truth is that communities can be kept from chaos with cops or consciences. Using cops to do it will be quite messy. Using conscience is far preferred. The trouble is you have to go into the community and make a moral argument. Our society does not know how to do that. You have to convince the residents of this community that policing laws like cigarette sales more aggressively is a good idea. That there is a moral good that will be accomplished by doing that. If they are not convinced of that then it will just feel like a police state. 

It works the same way in the church and in our personal lives. If the church community is not convinced that a moral good is being done by excluding people in irregular marriages from communion then the policy will seem like a power trip from the church hierarchy. On a personal level, if we are not convinced that dealing with sins promptly and decisively is a good idea then we are going to feel abused by anyone pushing us to do that. 

Good must come from the heart. If it is imposed from the outside it can be fine for a while but the heart must change at some point or it won't be sustainable. Either we will go back to evil or we will resent whatever forces are preventing us from going back there. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How We Read The Bible

Called to Communion has a huge post up that is a review of a huge book. The book is called Politicizing the Bible. It is an analysis of history and philosophy. It is by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker. One of the commenters on the post said it is for the eggiest of the eggheads. He has a point. There is 400 years of historical data to analyze and they do get into the details. Even the post takes a while to read.

Still the point it makes is huge. It digs into the precise issue that exists with so much biblical analysis. How doe we approach the biblical texts? What assumptions do we make? Do we even know that we make them? That is the key. Lots of people think they are approaching the scriptures in the only rational way you could approach them. Actually they are making huge philosophical assumptions they have never bothered to examine.

Like the title says they do see political motivations in the way people approach scripture. Yet that is not what concerns me. I am more worried about what those presuppositions are and how we can get people discussing scripture to at least recognize what they are. The two main ones they identify:
The two . . . presuppositions that contribute the most to achieving this aim through exegetical method are the bias against the supernatural and the notion that the core of Christianity is moral rather than dogmatic. A critical approach and a deeper knowledge of history do not produce these presuppositions, we shall argue. Rather, the presuppositions determine the way that exegetes are critical and the way they use history. We hope to make this clear to the reader as the following chapters unfold. . . . This union of tools with secularizing presuppositions constitutes what is almost invariably meant by the historical-critical method
If you talk to anyone about biblical scholarship you see these assumptions on display. The anti-supernatural  presupposition is the most obvious. They approach scripture already convinced that none of the supernatural events described in it could possibly be true. That begs what should be the central question. Is it true? The scriptures are in large measure an account of supernatural events. A lot of the stories have no reason to be there except that they describe a miracle. That is the central message. God is revealing Himself to man and we know it is legit because these miracles occurred.

The bulk of modern scholarship does not even consider this message. The assumption is that somebody somewhere somehow invented all the miraculous elements of the story. Yet this is not just one or two stories. The gospels have miracle accounts throughout. So does the book of Acts. This is one reason you see scholars focusing so much on the epistles. They can't make any sense of the gospels. If every miracle claim is a counter-factual assertion then it is difficult to imagine who wrote them and why. It is more difficult to imagine why anyone in the first century took them seriously. 

When you ask people about their assumptions some will point back to Hume. Hume said miracles were infinitely improbable and therefore no amount of evidence would overcome that because natural evidence can only be finitely improbable. The trouble is that takes as a premise that miracles are infinitely improbable. It does not explain why people find that premise so plausible. To find that out we need to go back further than Hume.

In fact, this book goes back much further than Hume. It begins with William of Ockham back in the 14th century. When most people try and find the beginnings of modern scientific humanism they start at around 1700. This book ends at 1700.  The idea is to go deeper. Not to ask how modern philosophy flowed out of the Age of Reason but rather asking what presuppositions the Age of Reason is based on and where did they come from? 

Showing people the source of ideas does not prove those ideas wrong. Yet it does beg the question of whether this process could have or should have gone any differently. This is especially true when you see that many of the major players were  not motivated by a desire for truth but quite often it was a short term political goal they were most concerned about. 

What flows out of this is criticism or the criticism or perhaps skepticism of skepticism. That is to ask whether it makes sense to demand proof for every detail and to reject those that don't pass the test. What you could do is allow the whole thing to stand or fall on its own terms. That is asking whether the story the bible tells is true. If it is then the various pieces of it do not need to be verified independently. They can be deemed trustworthy because the source ultimately is God. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Adventure And Advent

Advent is about waiting. Yet it is an active waiting. Like an adventure where we know something is coming but we have to struggle to get it. We want to get to the end quickly yet God takes us on a journey. Often we don't understand it. The first part of this week's second reading is from 1 Peter 3. It goes like this:
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you,not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
I hate this passage. We are looking to make spiritual progress and God might decide to delay something 1000 years? I know it is likely hyperbole but still. Franklin the Turtle is a character in a series of children's books. Once he asks his parents for a pet and they say they will think about it. Franklin comments that his mom and dad could think about things for a long time. I feel a bit like that when I read this. 

We need to understand patience. Patience is the lack of sorrow at slow spiritual progress. That does not mean we are inactive. John the Baptist was not inactive. He was looking forward to the coming of Jesus yet he was preaching very effectively. Mark even says, "All the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River." That is obviously more hyperbole but he is describing a hugely effective ministry.  

This is the sort of patience we need this Advent. A patience that makes big changes in our lives to prepare for the coming of Jesus. John always points to the future but he lives the present radically. Living in the dessert. Eating locusts. Wearing camel's hair. The Messiah is coming. We have to repent.

This is the way we need to be in our spiritual walk. We have a new liturgical year starting. We have a new birth of Jesus into our lives and our hearts. Those crooked paths need to be made straight. If you have ever tried to reroute a road or a path you know it is not an easy thing to take something that is crooked and make it straight. You pretty much have to rip it all up and rebuild it. 

That is what Advent is about. To rip up those old paths that you know are crooked but you have just gotten used to them. Dig them up and put in a new straight path that is ready for the Lord to come. We hear it every year but we need to do it. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Be Ready

This week we enter a new liturgical year. We move from considering the second coming of Christ to Advent where we are expecting the first coming of Christ. For the first Sunday of Advent we kind of conflate the two. The gospel comes from the end of Mark 13. That is Mark's apocalyptic chapter where he relates Jesus' predictions about the end times. Jesus last words tell us something about how we are to read apocalyptic scriptures. The point is not to figure out exactly what God is doing in history. Rather it is to be aware that you don't know and just be ready for anything.
Jesus said to his disciples:“Be watchful! Be alert!You do not know when the time will come.It is like a man traveling abroad.He leaves home and places his servants in charge,each with his own work,and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.Watch, therefore;you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,whether in the evening, or at midnight,or at cockcrow, or in the morning.May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
What does the command to "Watch!" mean here? When servants don't know when a master is coming do they stare at the door so they will see the actual moment he arrives? What would be the point of that? Watching is more in the sense of watching yourself. Be alert to the fact that the master is coming and it could be anytime. You need to be ready 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. During good times and bad. Eternal vigilance is the only option.

Now we are sitting here almost 2000 years later and it is hard to be too concerned with these words. Am I really supposed to order my life around the chance that Jesus could come back right now? Does that not seem like a really far-fetched possibility? 

The truth is there are two other ways Jesus can come that we have to be ready for. The first one is that we could die. That might also seem far-fetched but we actually have many examples of people who died and had little to no warning. We can't afford to play games with such a thing. We need to remain in a state of grace at all times. That is the most basic part of being ready. Don't commit mortal sin. If you do commit a mortal sin then go to confession as soon as possible. Don't put it off because we really don't know the day or the hour.

The other way Jesus can come is by touching you personally. Maybe it is at church but it could also be through someone you meet or something you read or a movie you see. Jesus can come to us anytime and anywhere. Mother Teresa had her moment on a train. We need to be ready. This kind of spiritual sleep does not cost us our salvation but it can cause us not to become all God would like us to become. What would have happened on that train if Mother Teresa was busy playing Angry Birds on her iPhone? Nothing would have happened. It is good for her and good for the world that she was switched on to God in her spirit. 

God is full of surprises. We should never assume we have God figured out. That we know what He wants from us and we just do it and that is that. We need to be about our business and not neglect anything. Still if God is not blowing you mind every now and then, then you might be missing something. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Love And Death

Watched the movie The Fault In Our Stars. It was quite refreshing. Modern romances almost never show a couple falling in love without introducing a love triangle. There is always another guy or another girl. It immediately changes the story from two people getting to know and trust each other to a competition. My guess is most people's experience with love is not a competition. People date and decide whether or not to give themselves to this person totally and forever.

This couple actually talks about things. The talk matters. That is it is not just fodder for the relationship. It drives the plot as well as the character development. Like real life. It works so well they don't even need a sex scene. Of course, this is Hollywood, they do have one. Yet it is clear the movie would be better without it and their relationship would be better without it.

Still it gets very close to a Catholic understanding of what a sexual relationship should be. The concept of "Until death do us part" is very much present. They are both dealing with cancer and not really up for anything frivolous. They want to know if the other person is truly willing to walk through some serious pain with them. In fact, Disneyland is mocked as a hopelessly unserious thing.

It reminded my of Angela's Ashes where Frank McCourt falls in love with a woman who was not expected to live long. There is sex and they are not married but you wonder. They are giving themselves for as long as they both shall live. He says he never loved any woman as much. You wonder if the church should expedite marriages like that. People wanting to walk through such suffering together maybe don't need the normal marriage prep course.

This clip from Fr Barron goes into some details about the presentation of Christianity and nihilism in the movie. I agree with him that both are there and the movie tilts towards nihilism but refuses to embrace it. It wants to believe that love is stronger than death but wonders if that is really the truth. Can we still accept Jesus' claim that this is so despite the existence of modern science? It seems to want to say Yes but ultimately indicates the truth is No. That is the fault line in the title. We want love to win but in the end death actually wins. So we deny it.

Jesus does not just say love is stronger. He proves it. He died and rose again to show us exactly that. The other thing is Jesus does not just say it as a matter of fact. He says we need to believe it. We need to have faith in God and believe in the resurrection and live a life of love in the face of death and suffering. This movie does not go there. Christianity is not just an academic exercise in figuring out what is true but a challenge to embrace Jesus as the Truth.

So it is not really a conflict between nihilism and Christianity but rather between nihilism and a pseudo-Christian romanticism. It does not really consider the fullness of Christianity. It is a bit like Moral Therapeutic Deism but not quite. They have suffered to much to believe the therapeutic part. So do they believe any of it? That is all that remains. Embracing all of it is not even really on the table.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sheep And Goats

This week's gospel is one of the more famous passages of scripture. Jesus' description of the final judgement. It is sometimes called a parable. The passage does not indicate that. It reads more like Jesus just telling us how He will judge us. Like a teacher who wants his students to pass the final exam. He gives then the questions and indicates the most common mistakes. 
Jesus said to his disciples:"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,and all the angels with him,he will sit upon his glorious throne,and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,'Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,I was thirsty and you gave me drink,a stranger and you welcomed me,naked and you clothed me,ill and you cared for me,in prison and you visited me.’Then the righteous will answer him and say,'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’And the king will say to them in reply,'Amen, I say to you, whatever you didfor one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’Then he will say to those on his left,'Depart from me, you accursed,into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.For I was hungry and you gave me no food,I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,a stranger and you gave me no welcome,naked and you gave me no clothing,ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’Then they will answer and say,'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirstyor a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,and not minister to your needs?’He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you,what you did not do for one of these least ones,you did not do for me.’And these will go off to eternal punishment,but the righteous to eternal life."
Abp. Chaput once preached on this and said the message is simple. If you ignore the poor you go to hell. Any questions? There is a lot to be said for that but there is much more depth in this text. It goes to the vary basis of how the grace of God transforms us. We need to cooperate with that grace so it helps to know just how it works.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Boredom of Secularism

I was watching something by CBC on the Berlin Wall. A few comments on it struck me. They talked about how satisfying it was 25 years ago to fight for freedom and to win. Then they said there was nothing today that had anywhere near the same gravity. Women's rights? The chancellor of Germany is a woman. Gay rights? The mayor of Berlin is gay? German's antinuclear movement was a cause for a while but they won very quickly. What great good was there to fight for?

This is a problem with modern secularism. It's highest goal is tolerance. Guess what? Tolerance is pretty easy. All you are doing is ignoring other people and letting them do their own thing. That is setting your goals pretty low. When people try and be all that a human person is meant to be you offer them exactly nothing. No wisdom. No leadership. No vision. Nothing like that might offend anyone. What you offer them is your indifference. 

John Paul II called indifference the opposite of love. Love is willing to good of the other. Hate is willing the ill of the other. He said that is not really the opposite because you are still engaged with the other. Indifference is the opposite. You might still interact with that person but only to use them for your own ends. You remain indifferent to whether they experience good or ill. 

Tolerance is like that. We don't care to give our fellowman good information about right and wrong. We don't care if he is ruining his life. That is his business. All we care about is consent. If nobody is being forced to do anything then we just wash our hands of the whole thing.

Christianity expects more. God has give us the gospel by sending His Son Jesus. So we are obligated to propose to anyone who will listen that this gospel is true. Whether they listen or not we are obligated to care if they get hurt even if they do it to themselves. Consent matters very little. What matter is what is right. 

Tolerance fails for any number of reasons. Yet one that is underrated is expressed here. That is tolerance can leave us with nothing to do. We are to address intolerance but in a social democratic state like Germany most of that is done. These young people were expressing that. There is no major victim group left out there. Humans have a desire to pursue the good and they know they have not achieved it. Yet they are essentially being told there is nothing to do. 

So what happens? People go in different directions. Some respond with societal suicide. White Europe has basically stopped having children. If people are not energized about building a better tomorrow then they will not have much energy about populating the world of tomorrow. 

Some people are reacting by rejecting tolerance. That is by saying one theory of the good is right and should be embraced while all others should be rejected. Unfortunately one of the most popular choices for this one theory is Islam. People see something wrong with the West. Islam can explain what is wrong. They ask people to fight for what is true and right and good. Humans are wired to want to do this. So Islam is appealing. At the very least they know it is not their parents religion. 

Catholicism is gaining some appeal this way to. There is a hidden group that has embraced the Catholic faith as the true and good and right thing to fight for. Yet they are hard to find. The established Catholic church in many ways hides the faithful remnant. Many Europeans don't distinguish between secularism and mainstream Christianity. They see the watered down Catholicism that dominates the scene right now and assume that is all the church has to offer. In the case of Catholicism they need to be convinced you are not just proposing the same religion as their parents warmed over.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Well Done, My Good And Faithful Servant

This weeks gospel is a very famous parable. The parable of the talents. It is so much a part of our culture that the word "talent" actually came into our language this way. A talent is an amount of money. Yet contemplating this parable caused it to mean a natural ability or an aptitude. That meaning has become so pervasive that many don't even associate the word with money at all. Here it is:
Jesus told his disciples this parable:"A man going on a journeycalled in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one--to each according to his ability.
Then he went away.Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them,and made another five.Likewise, the one who received two made another two.
But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the groundand buried his master's money.
After a long timethe master of those servants came backand settled accounts with them.The one who had received five talents came forwardbringing the additional five.
He said, 'Master, you gave me five talents.
See, I have made five more.’His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master's joy.’Then the one who had received two talents also came forward and said,'Master, you gave me two talents.
See, I have made two more.'His master said to him, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,I will give you great responsibilities.Come, share your master's joy.’Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said,
'Master, I knew you were a demanding person,harvesting where you did not plantand gathering where you did not scatter;so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
Here it is back.'His master said to him in reply, 'You wicked, lazy servant!So you knew that I harvest where I did not plantand gather where I did not scatter?
Should you not then have put my money in the bankso that I could have got it back with interest on my return?
Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten.
For to everyone who has,more will be given and he will grow rich;but from the one who has not,even what he has will be taken away.And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside,where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'"
Jesus is telling us about the final judgement. Matthew 24 has the apocalyptic discourse where He talks about the tribulation and false prophets and all that. Then in Matthew 25 he gives us 3 pictures of the last judgement. The 5 wise virgins and 5 foolish virgins, this parable of the talents and finally the picture of the Jesus separating the sheep and the goats based on "As you did it to the least of these you did it unto Me." 

None of these pictures lines up very well with the protestant notion of Sola Fide. That is salvation by faith alone. All of them clearly refer to salvation yet none of them mention faith. None of them mention sacraments or mortal sin either so the typical Catholic way of talking about salvation is not really affirmed. Jesus says the divine life has to change our behavior in certain ways. If it does not we should really wonder if we have it.  

Jesus wants us to know how we will be judged. It is an exam. He want us to pass. So he gives us the questions. For the parable of the talents the question is simple. What did you do with what you were given? Exactly what is Jesus talking about? Is He saying we should be venture capitalists and buy and sell and trade? Is He concerned that we develop our skills and abilities and use them to the fullest? Yes, but that is not the essence of it. Remember how this ends. This is a matter of salvation. It is not a matter of prudence. So what is it?

What does God give us? Money? Yes. Ability? Sure. Most of all God gives us love. Unconditional, self sacrificing love. Do we all experience it with the same intensity? Not really. Yet we all receive a huge amount. Remember even one talent is a lot of money. We all receive forgiveness. We all are given graces to help us transform our lives and become holy. What do we do with them? We give them away. If we are really living the faith and letting God transform us we don't want to simply receive God's grace we want to become a giver. What do we give? Money? Yes. Time and talent? Sure. Yet we give more. We give it all. We start to really love. 

How do we know if we are doing this right? We know because we grow. If we are constantly building others up and being a blessing to those around us then somehow we end up with more. More people to love and more people to give yourself to. You become like the 5 loaves and 2 fish. You just let Jesus break you and give you away and somehow there is more and more that you are able to give. Fr Baron calls it spiritual physics. When you give it away you end up with more. 

Jesus' point is that you need to be having this dynamic happening. You need to be seeing your love and your circle of influence growing. If you don't you are missing it. You are not really embracing God's grace. You have made God's gifts an idol. Whatever they are you are not using them to experience divine life but rather you are living in fear of losing it. 

The fear of losing God's favor can be good when it motivates us to act. What is happening here is the fear is paralyzing. People become so concerned with doing something bad that they never do anything good. What is behind it? It is an inaccurate image of God. He sees God as someone just waiting to catch him in a mistake. What need to be more concerned with what we can do right. Sure there are some things we need to avoid yet all the things we say No to are to allow us to say Yes to something else. We need to say Yes to our abilities and Yes to the people in our lives and Yes to many opportunities and on and on. 

That is what the life of the 5 talent man looks like. He is not winning 5 more talents at other people's expense. He is living the free, total, faithful and fruitful love. That love will overflow and create an abundance of blessing for you and everyone around you. That is what the grace of God is meant to do to us. That is what it will do if we cooperate. Then the Father will look at us and say:
Well done, my good and faithful servant.Since you were faithful in small matters,I will give you great responsibilities.Come, share your master's joy.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bodies And Temples

In this weeks gospel Jesus gets angry. He gets violent. He scares people. For many it is the most confusing thing Jesus does. Why does he do it?
Since the Passover of the Jews was near,Jesus went up to Jerusalem.He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves,as well as the money-changers seated there.He made a whip out of cordsand drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen,and spilled the coins of the money-changersand overturned their tables,and to those who sold doves he said,“Take these out of here,and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”His disciples recalled the words of Scripture,Zeal for your house will consume me.At this the Jews answered and said to him,“What sign can you show us for doing this?”Jesus answered and said to them,“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”The Jews said,“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,and you will raise it up in three days?”But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.Therefore, when he was raised from the dead,his disciples remembered that he had said this,and they came to believe the Scriptureand the word Jesus had spoken.
Why does he do it? Because he is consumed with zeal for the house of God. It is around the time of the Passover. In the other gospels this story is places right near the crucifixion. It is almost like Jesus is asserting His authority to get the Jews to kill him. John tells us the story from a different angle. He focuses on Jesus love for the temple, His Father's house. Yet there are two temples. Herod's temple that existed in Jesus day and the temple of Jesus's body. The temple, especially at Passover, was a place where God's presence would come to earth. It was the holiest place of earth. In fact one room in it was called the Holy of Holies. 

John is saying Jesus' body is the new temple. That He is the presence of God on earth. He predicts not just His death at the hands of the Jews and His resurrection on the 3rd day but that this would make the temple and the Passover obsolete. 

Today the temple also points to two things. First of all it points to the church. A physical temple is no longer needed. The sacrifice of the mass can be offered anywhere at anytime. It offers us a much more powerful ability to connect with God because it is Jesus' body. If the Eucharist was only a symbol this would not make any sense because a symbolic Lord's Supper cannot replace the Holy of Holies. For Jesus body to make the temple obsolete it has to remain present to us and it has to be holier than the Old Testament temple. Only the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist makes that true.

The other thing the bible compares to the temple is our bodies. Jesus' body is the presence of God on earth. We become that when we are baptized and receive the divine life. Then it becomes important that our bodies be a house of prayer and not a marketplace. 

Marketplaces in Jesus' day were much like they are today in the middle east. They were loud. A lot of confusion. A lot of negotiation. Really just a free for all. The temple was different. There was a center. The Holy of Holies. One man was allowed into that sacred space. That event informed everything else that went on inside the temple. 

St Paul makes the connection with our sexuality. Is our sex life a free for all? Is there negotiations and confusion and really no center? What we need is the Holy of Holies. That is our vocation of marriage or religious life. That needs to dictate what we do with our sacred places but that in turn needs to inform everything else in our lives.     

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Last Things

This Sunday is All Souls Day. It is a day in which we pray for the dead. All Saints Day is Nov 1st and is focused on those in heaven. All Souls Day is focused on those in purgatory. The tricky part is we don't actually know who is in heaven and who is in purgatory so we typically just pray for the dead. 

November 2nd is also my mother's birthday. The reason that this connects is because my mother's health has not been that good. She is turning 81 and suffering from serious dementia. In some ways it feels like she is already in purgatory. Purgatory is a place of purging. A place where our remaining flaws are removed. It is not pleasant but it is necessary for us to enter heaven. I can see that in my mother. A woman who has had serious control issues for much of her life has become completely dependent on others. It is very hard for her. Yet it will allow her to arrive in heaven with a better heart. 

Purgatory is just that same process completed after we die. Really we all should be in that process now. We should be embracing suffering to grow in holiness. Christianity is all about cooperating with grace. God gives us a road to holiness but not an easy road. We need to want it. After we die all that changes is the choice. During this life we keep choosing between hell and purgatory every day. Our choice at our death is our final answer. If we choose purgatory we will get to heaven. 

If Purgatory always leads us to heaven then why doesn't God just zap us and make us perfect quickly and painlessly? One reason is that God knows us. St Augustine prayed, "Give me chastity but not yet!"  We are all prove to do that. We want holiness but we find reasons to wait. God lets us know that waiting until we die is not going to mean a quick and painless transformation. It is going to be more difficult than it would be if we stepped up the the challenge during our lifetime. That is not the only reason to pursue holiness now but God knows that adding that incentive will cause us to make better choices. Fear is not the best motivator. Love is better. Yet God will use fear.

So why have a day about it? Partly to remember where we are headed. November is the time when we contemplate the last things. They are Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. It is good to contemplate them because we will face them and we don't want to be unprepared. It is easy to go through life without really considering our mortality. We have been blessed with strong survival instincts. We don't like to think about the fact that nobody actually survives. Yet we need to think about it. So it is good that the church gives us an occasion to do so.

The other thing it does is it encourages communion. We are not in this alone. We are to pray for the dead. The dead are to pray for us. We can do penance on their behalf. We are all part of the body of Christ and we are to help each other even if we are separated by death. It is the most natural thing. People we knew and loved while they were alive we continue to love after they have died. Death does not have the victory. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Main Thing

Mat 22:34-40:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,they gathered together, and one of them,a scholar of the law tested him by asking,"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
He said to him,"You shall love the Lord, your God,with all your heart,with all your soul,and with all your mind.This is the greatest and the first commandment.The second is like it:You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
There is an old saying that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. There is a lot of wisdom to that. People start to get lost in details and lose track of what really matters. For Christians what really matters is love. The Pharisees were big on commandments. They took great pride in how well they observed them. So when they asked Jesus this question they expected to get an answer that made them look pretty good. Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes. Could he possible answer with any law they did not keep better than those people?

There is an interesting spiritual physics in this reply. Jesus starts with the notion that God should get everything we have. All of our hopes and dreams, all of our opinions, all of our possessions, all of our emotional and physical energy, everything goes to God alone. Unconditional love. Nothing is held back. 

It begs the question about the second commandment. If God gets everything then how can we be talking about loving our neighbor or loving our self? You just gave everything to God. You have nothing left. What gives?

Loving God does not imply hating everything else. Loving God implies loving the things God loves and hating the things God hates. So we love ourselves but only in that way. That is we only see ourselves as good because God created us and God loves us. We don't love ourselves in an egotistical way at all. That is why our love for ourselves is the same as our love for our neighbor. Our neighbor is created by God and loved by God just as much as we are. So we love them not only just as much as we love ourselves but for the same reason. It is all part of our love for God. 

Modern Christians tend to see love of God and love of neighbor as competing. You get the so-called progressive Christians who have liturgies that really focus on community and celebrating our dignity as children of God. They try and love their neighbor by focusing less on loving God. The result is sentimentalism. They get a lot of things right but when God's word does not line up with what feels right for their neighbor or even themselves then they have trouble. They end up creating an image of God that matches their feelings. The trouble is that image does not match scripture or tradition or the magisterium. It does not match their personal experience either. Their theology becomes a mess.

The conservatives can have problems to. They can fall into the same trap as the Pharisees. Get the doctrine right. Get the commandments right. Live them as best you can. Yet that is all. Don't give your heart. You can believe that God loves the poor but still not love them yourself. You can even believe God loves you and not love yourself. 

Then Jesus says the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. What He means is the whole Old Testament. The law refers to the first 5 books. The law and the prophets refers to the whole thing. The point is that all of the Christian religious life has to be lived out of love for God or it is going to lose its value. If we learn about God, if we sacrifice, if we make moral choices, if we worship, if we serve the poor, whatever we do if we do it without that agape love for God we fail. St Paul's beautiful writing from 1 Cor 13 comes to mind.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Render Unto Caesar

The Pharisees went offand plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,"Teacher, we know that you are a truthful manand that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion,for you do not regard a person's status.Tell us, then, what is your opinion:Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax."
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?"
They replied, "Caesar's."At that he said to them,"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesarand to God what belongs to God."
This weeks gospel is a trap for Jesus. The Pharisees are get together with the Herodians. That is quite something. The Herodians were considered traitors by the Pharisees. Suddenly they are working together? It is often that way. People can be united in their love for Jesus and they can be united in their hatred for Jesus. Differences that would otherwise be huge can be laid aside. 

So what is the trap? Paying taxes to a foreign ruler was something they they thought was wrong. Yet they did it because they knew the Romans would kill them if they didn't. They could not imagine Jesus admitting He was disobeying a religious law simply to save his neck. Yet at the same time they knew Jesus' neck would be on the line. That is why the Herodians were there. If He even hinted that Jews should not pay taxes Herod would know very quickly and that would not end well for Jesus. 

It is interesting that Jesus used the word "image" to suggest it is OK to pay money to Caesar. It connects with Gen 1:26,27 where the bible says we are created in the image of God. So we give money to Caesar but by implication we are to give ourselves to God. It is a problem when God's chosen people are beholden to a foreign ruler but the problem is not that they have to pay a tax. It goes much deeper. 

This passage is often used as a springboard to talk about church/state relations. The church has always held that political leadership should be a separate thing from spiritual leadership. Even during the lay investiture controversies where secular rulers were often also bishops there was at least the notion that a representative should give that person the symbols of his ecclesiastical office. That the king should not do that. 

The truth is that whenever the church and the state have become to closely aligned then it is the church that suffers. The church should try to influence the state but only the same way she influences everything else. That is by teaching the faith effectively. If people know their faith then they should go out and live their faith in their political life and in every other area of life. 

There is also the problem of laymen just assuming God is on their side in a political fight and using that belief to justify all sorts of unChristian tactics. Yes, bring Christian truth to the political arena but also bring Christian charity. Charity without truth becomes sentimentalism. Truth without charity becomes fanaticism. We need to bring to really transform politics. You rarely see it. 

Now there are some who argue that any religious idea should be left out of political debate. That is quite incoherent but still you hear it all the time. If something is good public policy then how do you know if it is good for religious reasons or it is just inherently good? What is often behind this is another definition of goodness. A secular definition that they think is more right because it is less religious. Of course it is neither more right nor less religious. 

For example, some might label the good of having equality in marriage a secular good and the good of having marriage be for a man and a women a religious good. Then they would argue that separation of church and state means we need to let equality trump gender. 

Yet where does the notion of equality come from? Some countries have the death penalty for homosexuality. They don't see equality as something obvious. Why is it obvious to us? If we honestly look at where these ideas come from we have to admit religion played a big role. 

In fact, you could say that marriage between a man and a woman is a less religious idea. It has strong roots in biology. That is the way humans reproduce. Yes, various religions have affirmed this but it has always been basically an easy question because the biological data is so strong. 

So putting these truths in different categories is not really about secular truths and religious truths. It is more about what the people in question agree with and what then don't. Labeling an idea as religious is basically arguing that you don't like it because it seems to Catholic. What you might call the genetic fallacy. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

California Consent

There is an interesting new policy on consent in California public universities. They are demanding that people get explicit verbal consent before any progression of intimate contact. So there is a lot of potential for humor. In theory a man and a woman should have to ask each other dozens of questions during intercourse and demand clear and unambiguous answers to each one. 

It reminds me of GK Chesterton's line that if you don't obey the big laws you don't get no laws. You get a thousand little laws. Rebecca Frech has a funny post on this. 

I have said before the very concept of consent is quite problematic. You are working at the wrong level. You are assuming a superficial, short-term thing like consent is going to be adequate for something that has very deep and very long-lasting consequences. It does not work. It gets even worse when you consider the effect hormones and alcohol have on decision-making. The moment sex is about to happen is a really bad time to consider whether or not you want to do this. 

The California law does seem to make it a little less likely that people who are double-minded will consent. If it makes some people pause and ask their slightly reluctant partner if they really want to go through with it then that is a benefit. I am not sure how often that will actually happen but it has the potential to do some good.

I do worry that it will make some chaste Christian dating illegal. If you have an understanding from your shared Christian morality that sex is not happening anytime soon then you can allow for impulsive behavior. Having a man kiss a woman without asking should not be illegal. Asking changes the dynamic a lot. It makes it cold and calculating. Women want to feel like a man really desires them. That her womanhood has connected with his manhood and caused him to be overwhelmed by her beauty. A kiss says that. A question does not.

The key is the context. When you have a context that assumes chastity then you can embrace the impulsive nature of sexual expression and still keep boundaries. You don't have to worry that either party will interpret a great kiss as consent to sex. You know you are not going there. There is a freedom in that. 

Christians need to learn this. We focus on chastity. Yet chastity is only half the battle. What you should not be doing. What about what you should be doing? You should be shaping your sexual desire. You should be connecting it with love rather than lust. Yet what does that look like? It seem there are a lot of Catholic young adults who have trouble there. Men whose pursuit of women is so subdued and so polite that women simply don't respond. Logically they should be a good couple but he does not know how to spark the relationship to life. At some point you have to just kiss her.

So one problem with this law is that it equates virtuous sexual expression with rape. Kissing a girl as an honest act of erotic love in the context of Christian morality is a good thing to do. A good thing that many more conservative Christians don't realize is good. Often they are uncomfortable with anything erotic. There is a lot of confusion there. So this law might make that confusion worse by categorizing all intimate contact as sexual assault.