Monday, March 31, 2014

I AM the Resurrection

Lent is about death. Our penance is often called mortification because it is about getting us in touch with our own mortality. On Ash Wednesday we are told that we are dust and to dust we will return. On Easter we embrace new life and victory but in lent we want to embrace the cross and suffering.

Yet we don't suffer without hope. We don't experience resurrection yet but we know it is coming. So we have some readings that feel like Easter readings but they are in lent. They belong in lent. In lent we need to walk by faith and not by light but an important part of that faith is that all our sufferings will be turned to joy one day.

Jesus suffers in the story of Lazarus. It says over and over again how He loved Lazarus. He weeps. At one point  He "became perturbed and deeply troubled." Jesus knows what is going to happen. He is going to raise Lazarus from the dead. Still He takes His time to weep with Mary and Martha. He lets the Jews question His power. Lazarus is dead 4 days. He could have prevented the death. Martha even says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

There is a question behind that statement. Why? Why were you not here? We sent for you. You came but not in time. You love us yet when we needed you most you were not here. Where were you? We tend to ask God that question to. When something bad happens, especially something we have prayed would not happen, then we wonder. What is going on?

Jesus does not tell her why. Instead He make a huge claim
I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?
The claim of  resurrection is in the Old Testament. The first reading from Ezekiel is a good example. Yet Jesus centers the resurrection not on God's promise but on Himself. Believing in Jesus is the difference between life and death. Believing here is not just a simple intellectual ascent. It implies an obedience. See this

The point is that if we believe this, as Martha does, then it should change the way we process funerals. By extension it should change the way we process all suffering. It is temporary. We are made for a world where this does not happen. We still weep. We weep because we love. If we care for someone then it hurts us when something bad happens to them.

Still we are comforted by two things. First, God weeps with us. He is not distant. He does not lack understanding. He loves more than we love so He hurts more than we hurt. Secondly, we can be comforted that the resurrection is coming. That is to say Jesus is coming because He is the resurrection. We know the suffering will end and we know justice will be done.

There is an interesting connection between last weeks gospel and this weeks. Some scholars have suggested that Lazarus was disabled. They base this on the fact that the house where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived was not referred to as the house of Lazarus but the house of Martha. Why not? In those days, when there was a man living in the house it was referred to as his house. One explanation is that he was physically or mentally disabled. Obviously last week we had a blind man at the center of the story. So the church is being led to focus on two handicapped people at this important time of the year.

It also puts another twist on Jesus strong emotions around this event. Three times we are told Jesus  loved Lazarus. Jesus loves everyone. Still it is worth noting that He loves the disabled. We think so much about how God can use our abilities. We should probably think more about how He can use our disabilities. Is there any area where you lack talent? That is a disability in the broad sense of the term. Maybe that is the way God will use you to bless others. Maybe it is singing to your kids when you can't hold a tune or sharing your faith in front of a crowd when you hate public speaking. Sometimes our willingness to embarrass ourselves makes a stronger impression than when we play to our strengths.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ehrman's Latest on the Divinity of Jesus

Reading about yet another "historical Jesus" book that seems to come out every Easter. Bart Ehrman's How Jesus Became God is reviewed by Religion News Service. There was one interesting bit.

But while working on this book, Ehrman arrived at a dramatic about-face on fundamental issues relating to the Christian religion. Ehrman had previously assumed that the deification of Jesus did not take place until some six decades after his Crucifixion, around the years 90 or 95.

Ehrman now acknowledges that Jesus’ followers — the inner circle who knew him personally — came to believe he was divine almost immediately after they became convinced of his Resurrection, a historical revision that moves up the timeline by several generations.
This is a big deal. What has happened is that a major scholar has rejected his long-held working theory about how Christianity came into being. He has come out with a new theory. He still does not accept the Christian story but it is significant that he can't settle on one. He defended one view for a long time and now acknowledges there are such serious problems with it that it needs to be rejected. How long will this new theory last? If I was cynical I would say as long as the books keep selling.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Sex Stories

There are a lot of stories out there trying to attack Christian sexual morality. Personal testimonies that say I did something that Christians say is good and got a bad result or I did something Christians say is bad and got a good result. For example there is My Virginity Mistake at Salon.
Had we had sex before our relationship transitioned into a contract, I would have known that there was no passion, no spark, nothing happening between our bodies. I would never have agreed to marry him because sex is a significant part of a relationship and therefore a significant part of our relationship was failing. With the failure of our sex life, I felt like less of a woman, no longer a sexual creature but more of a plant. Sitting there, day in, day out, wilting while I waited for someone to take care of me.
Without having sex before marriage, I blindly walked up an aisle and committed myself to a man who didn’t know me and gave my long-held virginity to someone with whom I had no more chemistry than a second cousin.
It is a sad story. She tells it very well. She does some things right. Yet she does many things wrong. She uses contraceptives.  She talks about being pushed into marriage. She has divorce in her head on day one of her marriage. So if you think about Catholic theology that every marriage should be free, total, faithful, fruitful. Waiting with sex gives her faithful but she is missing the other three. So when she has a bad result she blames it on the one thing she does right rather than the many things she did wrong. That is a bit strange.

Yet in some ways it is not that strange. Sometimes Christians put such an emphasis on avoiding sex before marriage that people go away thinking that is the whole of Christian sexual morality. If you make it to the altar as a virgin your marriage will be great. It is not that simple. A good marriage still takes effort. Even a good sex life does not just happen automatically. The point is you are supposed to have a solid relationship to deal with any issues. It is not that there things will be easy.

The motivation for dealing with problems does not come from just wanting great sex. It also comes from knowing this relationship is for life and knowing you will have to raise children together. Those are two things she didn't have. It is so much easier to say this is not working lets just get divorced. It is especially easy when she does not plan to avoid remarriage or even casual sex after a divorce. The last paragraph.
Soon after our divorce, he got remarried to someone who suits him better than I ever could have. And years later, I can confirm that I am not that woman who has no interest in sex. I don’t quilt. I haven’t compiled a grocery list in bed in years, and I now know that sex can be amazing … with a bartender who only knows your first name, a pilot you meet on vacation in Costa Rica and yes, with the right guy – sex in a marriage can be beautiful. The key is to figure that out before you find yourself walking down an aisle in a dress that costs more than the family car (my mother has since reminded me). It isn’t the most important thing when it comes to love. But for me, I learned that sex is important enough not to wait.
This hints at another theme that is common in many of these stories.  That is that good feelings imply you have not made a mistake. Casual sex can feel good. So can drugs. So can murdering someone you hate. A good feeling does not make it moral. The question is not whether it is good but whether it is good enough. Sex is meant for a relationship that is open to life and not open to divorce. That can work through intimate problems and not just take advantage of some short term attraction. The goal is not amazing sex but amazing love.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Light And Purpose

Lent brings us back to some very well known readings. The first reading focuses on how God sees us rather than how other people see us or even how we see ourselves. David is seen as a shepherd boy and so is not even invited to the meeting where a new king will be anointed. Even Samuel gets it wrong and wants to anoint Jesse's oldest son. God says No. He looks at the heart and not the outward appearance. It is a passage that is often read at confirmations because God has a plan for David and it explicitly says that when he was anointed with oil the Spirit of the Lord was upon him from that day on.

This ties in well with the first part of the gospel where Jesus is asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus says neither.  Again, the way everyone else looks at someone turns out to be not the way God looks at him. God does that. He makes plans for us that are so much better than people expect. It should totally change the way we look at other people. Nobody is a nobody. God has a plan for every person. You can't tell what it is. You can't know their heart and you can't know God's mind. So embrace the mystery of every human person and expect miracles. Expect them in your own life as well.

The second theme starts with the second reading.
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.
Live as children of light,
for light produces every kind of goodness
and righteousness and truth.
Notice the phrase "you are light." It does not say you have light or you can shed light on things. It says you ARE light. We are so transformed that light becomes who we are.  Our love, our joy and our peace illuminate God and also illuminate the evil that men do.

Again this ties in well with the gospel. The blind man who was darkness becomes light. One of the people who he enlightens is himself. He ends up worshiping Jesus. The pharisees are the opposite. They try to put out the light. It was done on the sabbath. Maybe it was not the same man. All their arguments fail and they finally resort to violence. Jesus ends with “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains." A clear warning that they are spiritually lost and need to make a radical change.

It is amazing the scandal the blind man creates just be being transformed by Jesus. That is what we are to be. Jesus should change us so much that people get confused by it. People should be investigating whether you are really the same person. The change should be that miraculous. Then expect people to react both ways. They can praise God for the miracle that you are or they can use every means at their disposal to discredit or destroy you.

The reaction you should never get is "ho-hum." That is too often the case. We say we are converted yet the change is hardly noticeable. We say we were once darkness but now we are light yet nobody really notices anything.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Gay Rights

We have seen a huge concern about gay rights pop up in recent times. Where did it come from? Why did so many people come to the conclusion that gays are mistreated and it needs to stop? Mostly it came from Christianity. Christians have taught the world that all people are children of God. We have taught the world not to judge and not to discriminate. These are ideas that go back to Jesus. You read the parable of the Good Samaritan and you can see that we are to have compassion even on those people who are different from us.

People forget that. They see Christianity as the enemy of gay rights. Sure, Christians have said gay rights should have limits. Just like preserving an endangered species is important enough to limit our freedom to hunt, preserving marriage is worth limiting people's freedom to marry. Still the gay marriage idea is pushing a Christian idea too far. It is a failure to understand the nature of marriage rather than a misunderstanding about how gays should be treated.

What about all the Christian people who have engaged in anti-gay behavior? It has happened. People misunderstand the faith. Bad religion can result in bad acts. Homosexual acts are seen as sin but Christianity does not teach that people should go out and beat up sinners. Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. Christians don't always live that but that is the ideal in Christianity. We want to be like Jesus.

So who is the best protector of gay rights in the future? Christians. Strange but true. Human rights has always been about preventing the majority from abusing a minority. Why is that bad? It is based on the dignity of the human person. Does every human person have this dignity? Why is that? Why can't we just decide one group is icky and does not have human dignity? If you remove Christianity from the picture there is no reason. You can demonize one group and abuse on them all you want.

The first victims are likely to be Christians. We see gay groups leading the charge to rid society of anyone who holds to the Christian view. How far will they go? I am not optimistic that about any restraint. So far politicians and courts have been eager to join the mob rather than protect the abused.

So what happens next? We know. It is not like this has never happened before. When one minority gets abused then others follow. So what will protect gays from becoming the next target? Nothing. They have always been a minority that is fairly easy to demonize. Who will defend them if that happens? Christians. The precise group that refused to move when gay was trendy will be the same one that refuses to move when anti-gay becomes trendy.

People think society has become so sophisticated now that extreme abuse of a minority could not happen. It is not true. People remain sinful. When we neglect the grace of God we become capable of great evil. I would say we are still a few decades away from a truly evil society but we seem to be headed there.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Inerrancy Summit

There is going to be a big conference to focus on defending the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Lots of big names coming out. John MacArthur is leading it but he says Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Sinclair Ferguson, Carl Trueman, Iain Murray, Ian Hamilton, Derek Thomas, Miguel Nunez, Steve Lawson, RC Sproul, Mark Dever, Paige Patterson, Steven Nichols and Kevin DeYoung will be speaking. That is a pretty impressive list.What brings them all together? MacArthur puts it this way:
Current publications demonstrate that the true doctrine of inerrancy is under attack. Some of these attacks are subtle while others are more blatant, but anything that undermines the absolute inerrancy of Scripture destroys the foundation of all Christian truth. Trusting the Bible is everything. Next year's Summit will address this crucial issue, and give it the attention it deserves.
It makes me continue to wonder how long evangelical Christianity has. When I was young nobody questioned biblical inerrancy. OK, maybe the odd scholar did but scholars say lots of weird things. Mostly it was assumed. We never had to defend it. It was just taken from the reformation that scripture was the one sure source of truth. Now we are seeing it being attacked. Questions are being asked deeper and deeper inside the evangelical fortress.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Modern Heroes

Our family finally watched the finale of Breaking Bad. Then we moved on to Sherlock Holmes. It seems our culture keeps cranking our very similar heroes. Guys who are absolute geniuses. Not just smart but so smart there just isn't even anyone close to them. Gregory House is so much smarter than any other doctor that he routinely calls them idiots and nobody denies it even behind his back. Jack Bauer often disagrees with the decision-makers at CTU. He is always right. They are always wrong. He knows it to. Walter White is way smarter than all other chemists. Sherlock Holmes makes all the detectives look like fools. It comes back over and over again.

Theses heroes are also rule-breakers. They break moral rules and they break the law of the land. They are not above rules but it seems to us like they should be. They live by consequentialism. That is that if something will have good consequences that makes it good even if the act would normally be viewed as evil. Now one of consequentialism's big problems is it assumes we are smart enough and unbiased enough to predict what will happen.  So it makes sense that our heroes would be free from this. They are smart enough and cold enough to analyze the data rationally

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Divisions In The Church

There is a new  article at Christianity Today on church unity. Interesting thoughts. She calls it a lament. I think that is the appropriate response when we think of the divisions in the church. It is often the first thing people mention when they explain why they are not Christian. Christians disagree about what the truth is. 
Ecumenism is the word that de­­scribes the historical movement for global church unity. I used to think of it as either a boring academic exercise in doctrinal compromise, or a winner-takes-all struggle to forge one monolithic superchurch.
This is a big issue for a lot of people. We fundamentally disagree. In order to solve that problem we will need to deny some doctrines we think are true. That can't be good.  Then what are we to achieve. One big church? Often protestants don't even get why that would be desirable.  They typically like their current arrangement. Why rock the boat for something as nebulous as unity?
After five years in the field (I work for a Lutheran ecumenical organization), I'm no longer dismissive. The quest for church unity is a wild, wondrous, and strange act of penitence for Christians' often callous disregard of that little word one in John 17 and the Nicene Creed. We confess that the Holy Spirit has called one church into being. But almost all the evidence points in the opposite direction. What does this mean? And how should we respond to it?
This is huge. God commands unity. Yet it seems impossible. God does not command us to do something without giving us the grace to be able to do it. We need to trust God. If He commands it then it must be possible and it must be good.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

8 Principles of Evangelism From The Woman at the Well

jn 4:5-42

The woman at the well is one of the most amazing readings. It is so long and jam packed with less than obvious meaning that you don't know where to begin.  So many angles that it can be looked at from. I am going to approach it from the angle of Jesus' style of evangelism. How does He go about touching other people with the good news?
  1. Jesus goes into neighborhoods where good religious people don't go. The gospel says He had to travel through Samaria. Most religious Jews did not do that. They avoided contact with Samaritans even though it made the journey longer. Jesus reaches out to those who many say are rejected by God. He goes where they live. 
  2. Jesus talks when most would find it awkward to talk. He asks a Samaritan woman to get him a drink of water. You don't just strike up a conversation with women you don't know in this culture. Yet He asks for a drink. Related to that, He send the disciples into town to buy food. Remember they are going to be very uncomfortable talking to anyone because they are Jews in a Samaritan town.
  3. He turns the conversation to faith very quickly. When she wonders about His behavior He brings up God. He talks about living water. She does not get it at first so He makes the supernatural nature of what He is talking about more explicit. It is a powerful image. The water that I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. You wonder if she thinks he is crazy. 

Monday, March 10, 2014


Mat 17:1-9
The story of the transfiguration is just a bit strange. Jesus takes only His most trusted friends. Then He instructs them not to tell anyone until after He rises from the dead. It is a special glimpse of the supernatural just for them. His face shines like the sun. His clothes become amazingly white. It is just this wow moment. Then it keeps happening. Moses and Elijah show up and start talking to Jesus. They don't want to go. Peter makes a comment about building 3 tents. Most likely that is just expressing a desire to stay on this mountain a long time. If that is the case it would be quite ironic because it seems Peter's suggestion precipitates the end of the vision. A cloud comes, then a voice, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him." They are terrified at the cloud and the voice.

Then it is over.They go from being overwhelmed by the amazing presence of God to being alone with Jesus. There is a real emphasis on that. They saw no one else but Jesus alone. He touches them. He speaks to them. He calms there fears. Still the supernatural stuff is gone. Jesus is just His normal human-looking self. It is a bit of a letdown. They have all this amazing new data and no hard evidence to back it up. Who is going to believe them? Are they going to believe it themselves?

A lot of Christians can remember a mountain top experience. A time when the reality of God was so clear and so obvious. Maybe it was on a retreat. Maybe we experienced an amazing answer to prayer. Maybe we just had a moment where we knew God was speaking to us. Whatever it was it is something that happened and strengthened our faith.

The trouble is they end. Often we don't have any objective evidence that what we experienced was real. We know we experienced God but we kind of wonder if people will think we are crazy. Sometimes you are wondering that yourself. Maybe I am just nuts enough to make this all up in my mind.

This is why there was so much emphasis on being left alone with Jesus. He is all they had but He is enough. What they saw on that mountain is still true. He is still the Son of God. He still has the face that shines like the sun and the clothes that are dazzling white. In fact that picture of Jesus is just as true and just as real as the ordinary man that presents Himself to the world every day. We like to say we get back to the real world when these experiences are over. Like the mountaintop experience was somehow not real. It is real. We need to hang onto that.

So what about us? We are not even left with Jesus. He has ascended into heaven. What are we left with? The church. The same thing we always had. Still it is enough. The teachings, the sacraments, the saints, the community, everything that the church is. That is enough. In some ways it looks just ordinary much like Jesus looked just ordinary. That means we need faith. We need to walk down from the mountain and declare that we have experienced God. Maybe not right away. Jesus suggests they wait. Still they do tell the story. Many believe it. Many do not. You always get both responses.

This happened just before they had to witness the crucifixion and the resurrection. Jesus knows they need something to strengthen their faith. We like to declare we don't need miracles. We just believe based on God's word. If that is true then that is wonderful. Yet if we really follow Jesus right to the cross we probably need all the help we can get. That is when we have these mountain-top experiences.

It is a kind of pride to say you don't need them. The say you are somehow above miracles. It is a rationalist pride. I am not one of those wacko Christians. I am a good solid thinker. Yet the bible is full of wacky stories. The central story of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection is the wackiest of all. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Good Pain

Why is lent hard to grasp? We don't seem to get the concept of what is good. The secular idea of what is good is often framed in what causes the least pain and the most pleasure to the most people. There is a Christian version of the same thing. You first ask about salvific impact. That is whether this action is likely to cause people to go to hell who might otherwise go to heaven or vise versa. Then if that is negligible then revert back to the secular, pain and pleasure answer.

Now it is not quite equivalent to secularism because Christians trust the bible when figuring out what will make people happy. Still long term human happiness is the driving force. Eternal happiness and divine revelation are factored in but the secular notion of pain and pleasure still rules.

That is not actually what Christian theology teaches. Human happiness is not the center. Loving God and loving our neighbor is the center of what it means to be good. We know that yet we don't really. We are so immersed in secular culture and often don't understand our faith as well as we should. We end up buying into the secular notion of goodness to some degree.

That is why we can't make sense of lent. Lent is about pain as a good thing. That makes no sense if your central notion of goodness is minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure. Well, maybe your pain is designed to benefit someone else in some way. Maybe, but we are not supposed to try and make that happen. We need to keep our penance a secret. So what is the pain for? It is to make us better lovers. Better lovers of God and better lovers of other people.

Doesn't it boil down to the same thing? If we pursue love won't that make the world the best place it can possibly be in terms of happiness? Eventually it seems like it will. Still in the short term there are no guarantees. Jesus was the greatest lover and they killed Him. So we need to accept sacrifice. Not just short term sacrifices for obviously greater goods but long term sacrifices for goods that we only see by faith.

We find so many reasons for prayer, fasting and alms-giving. In some ways love is not meant to be rational. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. So if we love God and He wants us to give up some of the pleasures of this world then we do it. The fact that the benefit to us is not clear means our motivation is going to be love. That is why fasting to impress other people is so strongly condemned. Then it stops being love and starts being pride.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Jesus Tempted by Satan

MT 4:1-11

This week we are preparing for lent and we go with Jesus into the wilderness. He is led there by the Spirit. That is instructive. The wilderness is a metaphor for trial and suffering. Yet it is God that lead Him there. He does not run away from spiritual battles. He fights them and He wins.

How does He win? First of all, He fasts. He goes 40 says without food, a serious fast. Serious fasting has kind of gone out. Sometimes we take a weekend to get serious about our faith. That can have a huge effect. Jesus is sinless yet He embraces a 40 day fast.

The next thing that jumps out is scripture. Jesus faces His temptations with scripture. He knows it. When Satan makes a suggestion He knows exactly where in the bible that is condemned. We need to learn from this. So often Catholics have a notion something is wrong but can't tell you where in the bible or the Catechism that it says that. Not only do they not have it memorized they don't have a good way of finding it either. They don't know people who know their faith. They don't know the helpful websites or apps. All they have is a vague recollection of an often poor spiritual formation.

What does that produce? Fear. Catholics panic when they are challenged on their faith. Not because their faith is weak but because their knowledge of it is weak. Then there is a bigger fear. They are afraid that if they did know the answer that it would not be a good answer. In other words, they really don't believe that Catholicism is true. That is what faith means, believing that God's word is truth and that man's word is not. Remember the last few weeks when we read 1 Corinthians about the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of men? Often when we don't understand our faith and don't see enough examples of that then we don't see the pattern.

The people that challenge your faith are very confident. They are quick to question your intelligence. They are quick to dismiss the church as a bunch of ignorant old men. They are certainly quick to ridicule the idea that God might have given the church some amazing truth that man still needs. You need to know it isn't true. Even if you don't know the details on this particular question you should know enough to recognizer the foolish arrogance of man in the face of God for what it is. You should not fear them. You should be afraid for them.

Now in practice there are some attacks you hear over and over again. It makes sense to research some answers on those. The life issues. The sex issues. Find out what the thinking of the church is on these matters. Theology of the body is a good place to start. A searchable version of the Catechism is helpful as well. Catholic Answers probably deserves to be mentioned.

The last interesting fact here is that the devil quotes scripture. A lot of times people use this passage as proof that Sola Scriptura or the bible alone is a true principle. You could actually use this passage to prove Deuteronomy Alone because all Jesus quotes is Deuteronomy but that is another matter. The important thing to notice is that both Jesus and Satan quote scripture. So it is possible to use scripture for good or for evil. So how are we supposed to know? The answer is tradition and the magisterium. What has the church always believed about this passage? What is the current teaching of the pope and bishops? Those questions will separate the solid teaching from the mass of people using the bible for their own purposes. Not all those people are bad, most are not, but many are mistaken on some key points.