Friday, April 3, 2015

Slow Victory

One thing modern minds have trouble with is the fact that it takes God so long to bring about the transformation of the human heart. We see the Old Testament where God uses much more brutal tactics to force his way into human society. Humans were much more violent back then and needed God to use violence before they would take him seriously. He did so in way He really does not today. People don't understand. Why could God not just work the way He does today? 

It takes time. Sin closes off grace. The more serious the sin the more explicit God's intervention needs to be. As we slowly learn to cooperate with God's grace we receive more and more graces in more gentle ways. Yet it goes very slow. They say the church sees history in centuries while we see it in years. 

Yet even in our lives we see the same dynamic. We grow in grace but it happens slowly. Every step is a struggle. It can take years before we make a breakthrough. Again we wonder why it takes so long. If God is almighty then can't He move a little quicker?

This is especially true at lent. We make the same fasts and pray the same prayers year after year. Are we making progress? You really have to look back 10 years before anything becomes obvious. Even when we see that we wonder why we have grown in some area and not in others. 

The answer is we need to appreciate just how far we need to go. How big a gap there is between where we were and where God is leading us. If we just changed in an instant we would never get it. We don't really understand the nature of sin until we fight against it and lose. We really don't get how big a deal salvation is. That we are not just made truly good but that such goodness is so far out of our reach. That we don't just need a little help from God. We need to become more and more dependent on Him. We need to invite Him into places we could not imagine when we started our journey.

The other dimension to this is freedom. God can't just ask us to choose heaven or hell. That would not make any sense. Like in the movie the Matrix. There was a choice given to the main character but he didn't really understand that choice because at that point he was still mostly ignorant of what was involved. God does not give us choices like that even if it sometimes feels like it. The choices are between taking the next step down the road to heave or the next step down the road to hell. It is a choice we can understand. We can feel the pull towards good and the pull towards evil. We have the real possibility of going either direction. 

How long does it take before the allure of evil stops being attractive to us? Some sins lose their attraction but there is always something deeper. Every step seems so slow. When you try and explain it to a non-Christian it becomes hard. It is not logical. We trust God so far and then we are afraid to take the next step. Why is it so hard? It is very personal ground we are talking about. It takes time for us to get comfortable with the intimacy. 

So the victory of the cross is slow just like the crucifixion was slow. God could be more efficient. He just wants us to see salvation in all it's gory detail. He ants us to feel it and He wants us to choose it knowing all that. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Advantages Of Being Catholic

I went to mass early Saturday morning. TMIY challenged me to go every day this week. I set the alarm but was up before it went off. I arrived at the church about 20 minutes early. I had a bit of fear in getting there. I used to do that more in my single days. I would arrive early for an event and often find the church doors locked. Sometimes just the leader were there trying to prepare. It was awkward. I wondered if I had done it again. 

The difference is now I am Catholic. I got there and were 6 or 8 people who had also arrived early and were praying. People do that in a Catholic church. Catholics believe there is something about the church building. Jesus is there is the blessed sacrament. If you go to church you come early and just spend time. I guess you forget that a bit when you have a big family and don't end up coming early for much. I guess I still knew that but somehow this morning I was fretting about the awkwardness of those protestant experiences so many years ago. It made me feel at home. 

It is just a small thing but it got me thinking. Frank Weathers calls his blog Why I Am Catholic. I can see why. For years after you convert you get little things that strike you about how wonderful the church is. It makes sense. Jesus' Church should be wonderful in a million amazing ways. Yet when it happens it still strikes us. There is another example of that here

Lent is a big time for that. There is just so much. Connecting with God through fasting and contemplating Jesus' passion. So powerful and yet we rarely did it as protestants. It is the sort of thing that only really makes a difference after a few years. It is the long term, slow burn transformation that Catholicism does well. Protestants are much better at the big life-changing moment. Catholics can learn a lot from them there. Yet so many of our sins go very deep and healing them is long and slow. 



Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lizard Brains

I was at a seminar about parenting children with Downs Syndrome. It was taught by a psychologist. Lots of great information. At one point she was talking about out brains. That we have one section of the brain that controls our fight/flight/freeze type response. It kicks in when we experience stress. She called that the lizard brain. Then there is the other part of the brain where we have reason and logic and language. Now the tendency modern people have is to think good brain/bad brain. Logic is good. Emotion is bad. Right?

She didn't go there. She encouraged us to learn how to connect the two parts of the brain to apply the wisdom of the left brain to the emotional issues of the right brain. I am sure there is nothing inherently wrong with the lizard brain. That is why I don't like the name much. Yet why do I know that? It is rooted in creation. God made us and would not give us such a powerful part of our brain if it did not serve some important function. 

Certainly many religious conversions come from the lizard brain. Atheists scoff at those. People making a decision to follow Jesus based on an emotional crisis. They would be much better off being purely rational. Would we really? I wonder what a purely rational humanity would look like. Emotions are indicators of a deeper reality. It is a reality that the modern mind looks down on but that is where we find the deepest truth about ourselves.

I know the lizard brain is good based on my faith. How can one know it based on logic and science? I don't see how. It appears that there is much time and energy wasted in dealing with people hurting each other's feelings. What is the payoff? We don't need the fight/flight/freeze thing nearly as much as we used to. Physically we are pretty safe. Could we not assess risk better using reason? 

When you don't start with the belief that creation is good but fallen then you can arrive at many different places. You can start to hate a part of yourself. If we are just products of evolution then there is no reason to think parts of us are just not helpful in today's society. We might have outgrown our emotions.

I think that is a big part of why people who are emotionally hurt often feel the need to talk to someone who has been hurt in the same way. They feel the question in society of why don't you just get over it? It is a question based in pure logic. Why should you let a bad childhood or a traumatic experience ruin your life? It is hard to explain that to someone looking for a rational answer. Sometimes it is hard for such people to explain it to themselves. 

That is unfortunate because to some extent or other we are all being influenced by deep emotional forces we don't completely understand. That is rooted in our blindness to the spiritual. Many of our deepest emotional needs mirror spiritual realities. We want authentic sexual intimacy because God is love and we want to be like God. We want good human fathers and mothers because we need to be children of God. We hate violence because we know we are meant to live in peace. If we see these lizard brain longings not as accidents of evolution but as desires for something more then we can love that side of us.

Psychology still gets that but does not admit it gets it from the Christian assumptions embedded in society. We see that being questioned more and more and science cannot arrive at the same conclusions. Science can only say what is and not what should be. So modern psychology has the tendency to assume what is for the majority of humans is what should be. That is they are losing their awareness of our fallen nature. Our hearts desire perfect parents and perfect lovers and perfect peace. In short our hearts desire God. The more psychology loses sight of that the less valuable it will be.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Stephen Fry


Stephen Fry has been getting a lot of attention for this YouTube clip. I don't know why. It is a fairly old argument. It focuses on a few of the most difficult examples of the problem of pain and basically acts as if all of life is full of those examples. Like every child dies of cancer or has their eyesight lost to some strange insect. The truth is these examples are shocking because they are rare. If they are the only things one can think of when assessing the whole of human existence then we have really lost perspective.

This does remind me of something Bl John Henry Newman said in one of his sermons. He said some people have shown so little interest in God or being close to God or being holy or anything of the sort that sending them to heaven would just be cruel. Heaven is about intimacy with God. It is about love. It is about purity. It is about self-sacrifice. Some people simple do not want that. They want ignore God and focus on themselves and try and use other people to pursue their own happiness. That is not heaven. That is hell. Yet that is what many have chosen with the way they have lived their life.

Fry is like that. I am not sure he is being totally honest about his innermost feelings but assuming he is it is quite striking. He comes before God. He can imagine no sense of awe. He can give God no credit for anything good in the world. All he can do is throw out the typical atheist talking points. Not really being willing to concede atheism has been proven wrong even when that is the premise of the question. For a guy like that heaven would not be mercy but would be a violation of his freedom. He really makes a very good argument for hell.

Like I said, you hear these same arguments  made over and over again. I always try try and draw them into a rational discussion. Atheists love to think of themselves as being rational but rarely react well when their beliefs are questioned rationally. In the case of the children who die of cancer I typically ask if all death is considered problematic or just the death of children. Just trying to discern the real issue. If all death is what is being questioned then Christians have a response to why people die. If death itself is not the central issue but just the fact that some people die younger and with more pain then other then that is another issue. There is something to be said on that to but it is a bit different.

Atheists almost never answer questions like that. They often response with outrage and ridicule. That is OK. Still they should admit it. They should say they don't like the fact that Christians respond with reason and logic to their raw emotionalism. Yet somehow they think of themselves as the logical ones. It is too strange.

Now you need to be careful. People make these emotional arguments and you don't know their story. Maybe they have had a child die of cancer. That is a very different situation than some guy looking for the hard cases to make his point. Then you really do want an emotional answer. The logical reply might seem cold. So throwing around all this emotional rhetoric to short-circuit the logical debate also ends up being very insensitive to the people who have actually lived the emotions. Many continue to believe in a good God. We just need to be sensitive to the fact that these are real people living these very hard realities.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Religious Extremists

Spielberg at Auschwitz Memorial
There was a statement by Steven Spielberg that made me think. He was talking about some of the recent violence against Jews. He said said one of the main sources of hatred was religious extremism. My thought was what the phrase means. It has to do with the quantity of your religion rather than the quality. That is the problem is not bad religion but rather too much religion. It suggests the solution is not to find a better religion but rather to simply believe whatever religion you have less intensely. 

I know he was not trying to make a controversial religious statement. I rather suspect he was going for the opposite. That is the point. This is the kind of thing people say without thinking about it. I should not pick on Spielberg. Any number of folks are making similar points.

It really does not make any sense. Religion is something extreme. It is the answer to life's biggest questions. What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What happens after I die? How can I know what is highest good or highest truth?  If we have answers to these questions they have to have an extreme impact on us. If a religion does not give you something to live for and something to die for then why bother with it? 

The truth is that it is the content of the religion that is the problem rather than the intensity of it. That is one of the ways to evaluate a religion. Ask yourself about the people who believe it most intensely. Are they good people or are they scary? Catholicism has its saints. There is no better way to evaluate the faith than looking at the saints. Do you want to be more like they are? 

When it comes to violence the key question to ask is if a religion respects the dignity of the human person even if that person does not believe that religion? Do Christians respect non-Christians? Do Jews respect gentiles? Do Muslims respect non-Muslims?  How well developed and consistent is this teaching? Does that religious group have a strong consensus around the idea that non-adherents do have the right to live and to put forward ideas that are offensive to their faith?

The reason Spielberg does not go there is obvious. To ask the question is to answer it. They one major religion that lacks that strong consensus is Islam. All other religions seem to have a few people who have gone nuts but very few. The vast majority of even very strong adherents do not believe in violence even against their most offensive opponents. 

Islam is a different story. From Al Qaueda or Boko Haram to ISIS to Hamas we have Muslims concluding over and over that violence is the way to go. Even extreme violence against defenseless people. It is not that they are too religious. It is that they have embraced the wrong religion. 

Spielberg can't say that. Modern society has as a dogma that all religious are the same. They give you some comfort. They give you some guilt. They give you some holidays. The trouble is it isn't true. They are not all the same. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mary

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

Racism

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.