Sunday, July 5, 2015

Live prophetically

Readings: Ezk 2:2-5; Ps 121:1-4; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

You'd think with one of my three favorite passages from the New Testament apart from the Gospels (2 Cor 12:7-10- the other two are Romans 12:1-2 and Phil 2:3-11) as one of the readings for today it would be easier to post a reflection on our readings for this Fourteenth Sunday if Ordinary Time, but it is not.

It is important to note in our passage from 2 Corinthians that Paul actually quotes our risen Lord as saying to him, "power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). Do we believe this? Do we live this way? Are we ready to live lovingly and joyfully contra mundi, not expecting to be lauded, let alone supported, or even understood? While living for the One who made us and redeemed us is the path to sanctification (i.e. becoming "like" Him) is an utterly good, truthful, and when done in the correct spirit (the spirit borne of authentic love for God and neighbor), beautiful way to live, it requires great courage, great faith, and deep hope in the One who was not well-received in his hometown of Nazareth upon His return.

Flannery O'Connor once averred, "You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd." These days the truth will make you more than odd, it will often and increasingly make you an object of opprobrium. While being a disciple of Jesus does not necessarily make this any easier, it makes it understandable. Preceding the words "power is made perfect in weakness" in the Apostle's citation of the risen Lord are these words: "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor 12:9).

You want to be "prophetic"? Our current cultural, social, and political climate gives us a prime opportunity to be prophetic. This is not just true with regard to bearing witness to the truth about marriage being the conjugal union of a man and a woman- though this may be the prime and most readily available way right now to be prophetic in virtually any Western milieu- it is true about economic justice both at home and abroad (everyone should care about the plight of Greece, a classic case of the strong oppressing the weak), matters of race, as well as war and peace. For those of us who live in the U.S., Independence Day weekend strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to reflect deeply on these things and speak prophetic words and to live prophetic lives precisely because we love our country and our fellow citizens. We must be relentless because the God who loves us is relentless. Our relentlessness is not coercive, brutal, or mean-spirited, even when our witness is not well-received. True charity is the fruit of hope, which is the flower of faith.

There was probably no more prophetic papal act in recent times than Bl. Pope Paul VI's promulgation of Humanae vitae. A prophet does not necessarily, or even even usually, call down God's wrath on people. Prophets do not typically see into the future like a fortune-teller. A prophet is one God uses to call His people back to fidelity to the covenant. What the prophet usually does is simply point out the natural consequences of refusal to heed the prophetic message.

As we see in our first reading from the Book of Ezekiel, it is no business of the prophet whether the ones to whom s/he is sent pay heed to or reject the inspired message, which is never something new, novel, or simply made up. Primarily, the way to assess the authenticity of any claimed prophecy is by its continuity with what God previously revealed, keeping in mind that all God had to reveal culminated with the coming of His only begotten Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ (Gal 4:4-5), who established His Church on the rock foundation of faith as expressed by Peter on the road to Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13-20). The sole business of the prophet is to bear witness to the message with which God has entrusted him/her.

As Catholics we often reduce our sacramental language to so much flowery rhetoric. For instance, we often hear that when we were baptized we were constituted members of Christ's royal, priestly, and prophetic people. In fact, according to the Rite of Baptism, after an infant or child who has not yet reached the age of reason is baptized and just prior to being anointed with sacred Chrism (looking forward to Confirmation), the celebrant says, "As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life." What does this mean?

If you desire God's kingdom you must seek to make it a present reality by living in this odd way. But you can't expect to receive an earthly reward and this must not make you bitter, or rob you of your joy. The joy of the Lord is my strength.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Benedict Option crystallized and distilled

With gratitude to my friend, who is truly a companion, Fred, on this U.S. Independence Day all I am offering is this from Bishop Massimo Camisasca, who is a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St Charles Borromeo and bishop of of the Diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla, Italy:
St. Benedict's goal was neither to save the Roman Empire nor to create a Europe. He simply understood that the essence of Christianity lies in free persons who come together to give their whole lives for the sake of the truest thing that ever happened to them
St Benedict

My liberty, my freedom, as a human being was not won or granted by any man, woman, or group of people, save One. It is Him I follow. Nobody can validly infer from this that I don't love my country. I do, very much. By a not-so-strange convergence, St Benedict's feast day is 11 July.

Come to think of it, there is one more thing I'd like to add. It is from Dante's Paradisio. The Pilgrim is speaking to Clemence, wife of Charles Martel:
Ah, souls deceived, devoid of piety, who turn your hearts away from the True Good, raising your haughty heads towards empty things! (Canto IX, lines 10-12- Mark Musa's translation)

Friday, July 3, 2015

Doubting Thomas and Christian experience

Today is the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle. He's better known as "Doubting Thomas."

It's always disturbing to me when Christians and non-Christians alike reduce being a Christian to moralism and then gauge the "Christianity" of themselves and/or others by how well their life/lives conform to a rigorous set of moral prescriptions and proscriptions. I wholly agree that our Lord sets the bar impossibly high, insisting that act and intention align to do what is good and avoid what is evil. Our intention cannot be so we can earn merit in order to go to heaven. Try as you might, you'll miss the mark. If you're anything like me, you won't even come close to hitting it. Rather what we do, or refrain from doing, must flow from a genuine love of God and of neighbor.

Loving God and our neighbor, while distinguishable, are inextricably bound together. So bound together are they that we read in Sacred Scripture: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). See what I mean? If I ask myself how often does what I do, or refrain from doing, rise to this standard I am bound to be disappointed by the honest answer. But then I am not really all that holy, which is why I need help. I don't write that in an attempt to be charmingly self-deprecating. It's true. I am not very holy. I am not very righteous, which makes the times I am self-righteous all the more ironic.

The point of the above digression is simple: in Jesus' apostles, or, as they are denoted in St John's Gospel, His 12 closest disciples, we do not find 12 guys who have it all figured out, who have their act together, who have their path to God's kingdom greased so they can easily slide along it. Jesus chose flawed, broken people because there weren't any other kind of people to choose. Even so, I often wonder, weren't there better people around to choose? Looking at it from a moralistic perspective, I am pretty sure there were better people. From a divine perspective, the answer is - Jesus chose the right guys. Jesus came to reveal God to us fully. I don't believe for one minute that Jesus chose Judas because His mental checklist, like that of a casting director, required Him to choose a betrayer. But that would be a digression beyond the scope of this reflection, but worth deep consideration and meditation (see Andy Freeman's take on Judas here and here).

Doubting Thomas, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311

And so, Thomas...

When Christians, myself included, read the Gospels we're prone to romanticize it beyond belief. Reading the Gospels this side of Christ's resurrection makes it very difficult for us to understand how disappointed and even disillusioned Jesus' disciples were after His death. WTF? I am sure doesn't begin to express what they were feeling. I believe my own experience, which is the only one I have, confirms Thomas' experience, which is that disappointment and disillusionment constitute the starting point of grace.

George Carlin, who became and remained a disillusioned Catholic most of his life, once said, "Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist." But isn't it our idealism that gets us into trouble in the first place? I mean, there is the world as I would like it to be and the world as I experience it. If I live life this way every day I have a huge chasm to bridge every day. I'll be honest, many days I choose to live this way. I'll be brutally honest, those days suck.

The answer to this truth about human existence is not to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, but through the eyes of faith. As with our tendency to reduce being Christian to being "moral," we all too often think that to see ourselves, other people, and the world through the eyes of faith is the same as putting on rose-colored glasses. No! Faith requires us to see ourselves, others, and our circumstances for exactly what they are. At least for me, the power of the writings of Joris Karl Huysmans, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy lies in the fact that each in their own way show us just this. But for a Christian to leave it at that (i.e., seeing everything for what it is) is also to reduce reality. It is a failure to engage reality according to all the factors that constitute the world.

"The world," what an expression! What is "the world"? I take my cue from the very beginning of Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "The world is all that is the case."

Faith requires an object. You can't have faith in faith. There is no point in having faith in fate, which is both arbitrary and indifferent towards you. The cornerstone of faith in Christ is His resurrection from the dead, which "is the case." This is why it is so vital to have a personal encounter with the risen Lord. It is not enough to have just one encounter with Him. We need to encounter Him over and over, daily, if you're up to it. Where does this encounter happen? It happens in the ordinary circumstances of daily life. He meets us in our need via our acknowledged neediness. This is why C.S. Lewis wrote, "Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done." Sometimes I find this simple statement frightening and discouraging (see "Beginning anew each day is a grace"). As He did with doubting Thomas, Jesus shows us time and again that the path to the Father's house runs straight through disappointment and disillusionment. How else can we break through to what is real? Eugene Peterson put it this way: "Our faith develops out of the most difficult aspects of our existence, not the easiest."

Our traditio is Rich Mullins' "Surely God is With Us," the demo tape version of the album we was working on prior to being unexpectedly killed in an auto accident way back in 1997. Has it been that long? Damn.

Monday, June 29, 2015

What's the big deal about re-defining marriage?

We cannot neatly separate personal morality from social morality. I believe the word we use is "compartmentalize." We can't because the reality is our lives are too integrated for us to even make such a separation possible, even should we desire to do it. In other words, we're just not built that way. Just as Wittgenstein questioned whether it was possible to have a wholly private language, we should question whether there could ever be a truly and wholly private morality. Hence, as Catholics, we cannot separate the Church's moral teaching from her social teaching.

There are Catholics who seek to give priority to personal morality at the expense of the Church's social teaching, who often dismiss the call of Christ to sacrificially assist those in need as "the social Gospel," preferring instead to practice a "Jesus and me" spirituality. Other Catholics seek to minimize personal morality in favor of the Church's social teaching. To give one relevant example of the latter type, they often decry the Church's teaching on sexual morality as an unhealthy obsession with "pelvic issues." What it means to be Catholic is to embrace both at the same time in the recognition that the two are inextricably connected and intermingled as well as mutually reinforcing. It is, therefore, noteworthy and far from coincidental that Bl Paul VI wrote and promulgated the encyclical Populorum progresso and the encyclical Humanae vitae.

This is why in light of last Friday's Supreme Court ruling that conferred state recognition on same-sex "marriage" the Church in the United States has to steer a course between irrational apocalyptic dystopianism and utter indifference, pretending that the ruling is no big whoop.

Prior to Friday's decision 19 other countries already recognized same-sex unions as "marriages." Any idiot can see that the Church is still present, still active in all of those countries. But it's fair to ask, even after accounting for the differences in cultural context, whether the Church in those countries has handled the aftermath of this radical change well or poorly. It's important to note that this is not the first radical redefinition of marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court, just the latest. The blow dealt to marriage by no-fault divorce was at least as deleterious, if not more so, than last Friday's ruling. It was really the court's decision in Griswold vs Connecticut that the court, on a 7-2 vote, devised the "right to marital privacy" that the unhealthy and destructive privatization of marriage set sail.

So, why get worked up about marriage? Is it fear that the Church will be destroyed? Heavens no- the gate of hell shall not prevail. Because in reality many, if not most, Christians are homophobes (whatever that transient and useless term means today) whose greatest wish is to see people who are homosexual burn in eternal hellfire? A million times no. Is it anger and resentment over how much worldly power the Church has lost? Nope. Then what is it?

I think Mark Shea captured "what it is" very well when he noted that radically redefining marriage by making it include what is not only foreign, but contradictory to it is but one more way that Western society forces "the weak [to] carry the burden of the strong’s selfishness." As Mark is wont to do, he states his case in very strong terms, which is why I encourage you to read his post "What Gay 'Marriage' Does..." There can be no doubt that concern for the overall welfare of the divorced wife and perhaps for her children constitutes part of the rationale underlying Jesus' strong condemnation of divorce. All of this is more than enough reason not to remain silent. In short, the Church cares deeply about marriage because she would that all her children endeavor to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

But how we speak up matters. Dr Chad Pecknold, professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, asked, "Could it be any more obvious that what we need now is not simply monasteries but missionaries to a lost people?" That brings us to back to #MissionofJoy. Our mission of joy seems something fitting for us to reflect on today, which is the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Our need to touch Jesus

Readings: Wis 1:13-15.2:23-24; Ps 30:2.4-6.11-13; 2 Cor 8:7.9.13-15; Mark 5:21-43

Since this is a written reflection on the readings for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time and not a homily I am going to deliver from the ambo, I am going to do a lectio divina-like exercise. I will choose a sentence or phrase from each of the three readings as well as from our Psalm and then attempt a synthesis:

"For God formed us to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made us" (Wis 2:23).

"You changed my mourning into dancing" (Ps 30:13a).

"your abundance at the present time should supply their needs, so that their abundance may also supply your needs, that there may be equality" (2 Cor 8:14).

"Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction" (Mark 5:34).

This week we have been bombarded by the word "equality." It's difficult if not impossible to argue against the equality of people. I'll go one further, when thinking about people and God or people and the law, it's not even desirable to argue against the equality of persons.

As human beings it only takes a little experience to see that there are ways we're equal and ways we're not equal. To state a simple case-in-point, my drawing talents are not equal to someone who can actually draw. Equality becomes problematic when we begin to assert that equality erases differences that are part of the world, that arise from reality, that are embedded in nature, like the complementary difference between men and women. Erasing differences in the name of equality is not equality, but ideology. Ideology is served by propaganda. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not an ideology and relies on evangelization and catechesis, neither of which are indoctrination.

In our second reading St Paul tells us Jesus, who was rich, became poor so that we can become rich through our poverty. According to Paul, how do we become rich through poverty? By giving what we have freely to help others, putting the need of the one with less before our own wants. Our poverty is not merely a way we're all equal, it is the way we are equal. Luigi Giussani expressed this well when he said, "Existence expresses itself as ultimate ideal in begging. The real protagonist of history is the beggar: Christ who begs for man's heart, and man's heart that begs for Christ."

It's when you freely give Christ that for which He begs, your heart, that you stop merely existing and begin to live life eternal. It is by this giving yourself to Him body, blood, soul, and humanity that you are made infinitely rich. This is a paradox. The only way to unravel it is by trusting the Lord. It is by giving yourself to Christ that you experience the beginning of being restored to God's likeness, which, unlike the imago Dei that is ineradicable, is lost through our brokenness and can only be restored by God's grace given us in Christ through the power of their Spirit. Because grace builds on nature, it is by giving your heart to Christ that you experience your imperishable nature that comes from your being made in God's image.

Like the women in our Gospel who was afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years, you need healing. Once you grasp this need, in whatever way you become aware of it, you become a beggar. The woman Jesus healed became a beggar after she spent everything she had seeking a cure. Whether you turn to Jesus as your first option, or, like the woman in today's Gospel, come to Him in desperation, He will not turn you away. He will heal you and restore you by His amazing grace.

Jesus, I trust in You.


What I was leading up to at the end of my previous post was captured beautifully by the Denver Catholic, which is the official newspaper of Archdiocese of Denver. In writing about how we might face our present circumstances the authors correctly note that, generally, there are two roads we can walk:
Go on the defensive. We've clearly lost the culture war, but we can try to convince the public that our view is the correct one.

Realize that we don't live in a Christian culture, and therefore must engage it as missionaries.

Option one is equivalent to declaring ourselves victims. Option two is to accept the challenge of living as authentic followers of Jesus Christ in a world that has largely forgotten Him.

Jesus Christ is real. We Christians have experienced the sweetness of a personal relationship with Him. Our mission is not to punish or coerce those who have not experienced this—instead, we must invite them into relationship. What better way to do this than to show the joy of living the Catholic faith?

We ask you to join us in the ‪#‎MissionofJoy‬ campaign.

Our goal is to fill social media, and Catholic media especially, with messages of hope and joy, not victimhood and retaliation

This strikes me as being wholly in accord with what Pope Francis has called us to do since the beginning of his pontificate, which is to be missionary disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Subsequently, I have added to my labels for Καθολικός διάκονος #MissionofJoy. Along with the authors of this boldly simple and Spirit-led initiative, I urge all Christians to take some time and discern how you can be a missionary disciple of Jesus on a mission of joy.

In the wake of Obergefell

Given how much I write about marriage I suppose it would be odd not post something on yesterday's Supreme Court ruling in the Obergefell case (read all opinions on yesterday's ruling here). The long and short of it is that, as of yesterday, in all 50 states of the United States, as well as in U.S. possessions and territories, the union of two people of the same sex must now be recognized by the state as a "marriage."

There are many ways to react to yesterday's ruling. In my view, the important thing is that yesterday's decision in no way impacts the reality, rooted in nature, that marriage is between a man and a woman and oriented towards having and raising children, which serves the common good. Yesterday's judicial fiat will have no impact now or ever on Church teaching with regard to marriage. Based on the emotive logic of Justice Kennedy's majority opinion, however, I firmly believe that, in terms of what the government will ultimately recognize as "marriage" yesterday's radical departure is merely the first redefinition. I can't see how, in the aftermath of the Court's decision in Obergefell, marriages that involve more than two partners of either sex is too far behind. Why do I make this prediction? Because there is a large enough number of people who live this lifestyle demanding it be legally recognized and sanctioned and because yesterday's decision did not really re-define marriage so much as simply expanding it to include something it is not through the use of flowery rhetoric and little solid reasoning.

Moving from the political to the pastoral, I found Dr Ed Peters' post, "Two thoughts re the Supreme Court decision on 'same-sex marriage,'" very useful and level-headed. Succinctly stated- "We have lived with persons in pseudo-marriage for many decades; so now the pool of such people is larger. The pastoral challenges in consequence of this latest decision are greater as will be the sacrifices needed to meet them." Meet them we must for the salvation of souls and the flourishing of everyone; for love of God and our neighbor.

It's easy to be pessimistic in the face such upheaval, but if it means anything to be a Christian, it means being a person of hope. Our hope is in the name of the Lord/Who made heaven and earth. Rather than wishing, the theological virtue of hope is about trusting God. It's important to understand that God's purposes cannot be thwarted. Anyone who knows anything about salvation history knows God brings about His purposes, foremost among which is the salvation of all, in the most unexpected ways and often through seemingly impossible circumstances.

My hope is not now nor has it been for many, many years in a particular government or even in any particular form of government. The important thing for Christians now is not merely to give witness to what we believe, but to bear joyful witness to the beauty of marriage in word and example. We must continue to love everyone and treat every human being with the respect their human dignity deserves, keeping in mind always that each and every person ineradicably bears the imago Dei. I know that most people who disagree with what the Church teaches concerning marriage, which sadly includes no small number of Catholics, do so in good faith in the belief that they are being charitable towards all.

What is the truth about marriage? I think the statement issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops yesterday in response to the Supreme Court ruling spells it out very well:
The unique meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is inscribed in our bodies as male and female. The protection of this meaning is a critical dimension of the “integral ecology” that Pope Francis has called us to promote. Mandating marriage redefinition across the country is a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us, especially children. The law has a duty to support every child’s basic right to be raised, where possible, by his or her married mother and father in a stable home (read the whole thing here)
For those convinced about the deep natural and supernatural truth of marriage we will begin to learn what it means to be strong when weak, to find power in powerlessness:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood (Heb 12:1-4)
We need look no farther than the witness of Christians whose religious liberty has been denied in states that began recognizing same-sex unions as marriages well before yesterday's ruling to see what this means.

I believe with my whole heart that to love another is to love her/his destiny. Yesterday I watched President Obama's response to the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell. In his remarks, the president spoke of the United States as a land where you can make your own destiny. Many people find such phrases inspiring. To be sure, such flights of fancy are very common in our political discourse and are employed by both parties. But if you take some time to ponder what this might actually mean, the incoherence of these words becomes readily apparent. To make one's own destiny is not to have a destiny, that is, a destination, a transcendent end for which you are lovingly made.

The persistent and perennial question, which remains at the forefront was posed powerfully by Msgr Luigi Giussani: Is it possible to live this way? "What way?" As a disciple of Jesus Christ. Of course, the answer is, Yes, it is possible to live in this peculiar way regardless of circumstances.

Circumstances, while often challenging, are the stuff of life. Circumstances make it possible to have experience, which is the God-given instrument for our human journey. The only way to verify the truth of what we believe is by living this way through all the circumstances in which we find ourselves throughout our lives.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Nostalgia: suffering to return

To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, It's been a quiet week here at Καθολικός διάκονος. This seems appropriate to me somehow.

I am a nostalgic person. Just like I find it (pedantically) necessary to qualify my use of "ambivalent" by pointing readers to what it means (i.e., having simultaneous conflicting reactions, beliefs, or feelings towards someone or something) I think a similar qualification is necessary for "nostalgic." First, what I do not mean by nostalgic is sentimental even while admitting that nostalgia certainly has an affective dimension.

As to the what it positively means to be "nostalgic," last summer in a post on the Odyssey (see "Odysseus and the quest for home"), referencing Milan Kundera's short novel Ignorance I also considered nostalgia:
"The Greek word for 'return' is nostos. Algos means 'suffering'. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return." Nostalgia is not a place, it's part and parcel of being human, of the "human condition," such as it is, or least how the vast majority of us experience it. Like Odysseus, it is what drives us forward. I suppose we can imagine nostalgia to be a "place." If we do, then, like those insubstantial figures Odysseus encounters, we might become stuck there. What we truly long for does not lie behind us, it lies ahead. How can our return lie ahead and not behind? This can only be satisfactorily answered by the poet: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time" (T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding")
In thinking a little more about it, more than a place nostalgia brings on a certain restlessness that prompts a journey, a sallying forth, to that place to which I long to return. But then the lyrics of Social Distortion's "Ball and Chain" come to mind as well: But wherever I have gone/I was sure to find myself there/You can run all your life/But not go anywhere."

I find echoes of this all over the writings the St Paul, especially in the 7 letters that were almost indisputably written by the apostle:
Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-17)
Our Friday traditio is The Motels "Only the Lonely"-

We walked the loneliest mile
We smiled without any style
We kiss altogether wrong
No intention

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Year B Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Job 38:1.8-11; Ps 107:23-26.28-31; 2 Cor 5:14-17; Mark 4:35-41

I think like a lot of people in this age when human beings have exerted such mastery over the earth, I spend a lot time trying to reduce God to my own measure, to make of God someone I can persuade and manipulate into doing what I want Him to do, especially for me and for those close to me. But God cannot be manipulated. God wills and seeks to bring about only what is good, what will, in the end, accomplish His divine purposes.

Our first reading, taken from the Book of Job, demonstrates what it means to revere God as God. This reading includes the first verse of chapter thirty-eight and then jumps to pull in verses 8-11. Chapter thirty-eight, the beginning of the culmination of the whole book, is when God finally deigns to respond to Job’s insistent and persistent demand that He answer for what He has done to Job. Remember, Job was good and just. So good and just was Job that God was bragging on him to Satan. Satan responded by basically asking God, “Who wouldn’t be good, just, and grateful if they were as blessed as Job?” Indeed, Job was a wealthy man, possessing much land and an abundance of livestock. He and his wife had ten children. Unlike in our own day, having many children in ancient Israel was seen as a great blessing from God. Parents who had many children were considered wealthy and blessed and not merely because they lived in an agricultural society. God then permitted Satan to do to Job whatever he wanted short of killing him.

In short order Job lost his land, his flocks, and, most painfully, all of his children were killed. If that were not enough, Job was afflicted from head to foot with boils, great, oozing, scabby sores. As a result of all this, his wife and his friends asked Job what he had done wrong to anger God to such an extent that these afflictions befell him. While Job refused to curse God, as his wife urged him to do, he was equally adamant about his innocence; he had done nothing to earn God’s wrath. Job covered himself in sack cloth and sat in the ashes of a fire, his head to the ground, awaiting God’s response. This story, which I have greatly compressed, is what goes on for the first thirty-seven chapters of the Book of Job. It is in chapter thirty-eight that God, who has been silent, finally answers.

In our reading God asks Job, Who made the sea? Who made the clouds? Who set the limits to sea, thus preserving dry land? In short, over the next several chapters, God helps Job to see that only God is God and that God cannot be reduced to our measure, lest we content ourselves with making an idol, a false god, and worshiping it.

This seems a fitting reading given what happened Wednesday evening at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, when 8 members of the church, along with their pastor, were violently attacked by a gunman while they gathered together to study the Bible. What happened is incomprehensibly evil. But what happened causes believers, like us, like Job, to ask some deep and searching questions.

In the wake of such events we ask, Where was God? Even while we may acknowledge that God, being all good, did not in any way cause this evil to happen, we ask, “Why didn’t God stop it from happening?” After all, what could be better, more meritorious, more pleasing to God than going to church for Bible study on a week night?

Thursday evening, as I was still pondering these things, I came across what I would call a provisional answer in a book on St Thomas Aquinas: “On Thomas's view, we pray in order to dispose ourselves so as to receive properly what God wills to give us. We pray, so to speak, to change, not God's will, but our own disposition” (Kerr, Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction 82). I call this answer provisional because it is very theoretical and abstract and so not only not very satisfying, but kind of scary.

A more satisfactory answer has to be more concrete, more reassuring. This why our Gospel for today gives us a much more satisfying answer than we find in Job or the writings of the Angelic Doctor, even while it is in in perfect harmony with what we read in our first reading. The basic message of our Gospel reading today is that God cares about us deeply, more than we care for ourselves. Jesus shows us we can trust God. The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’ response, in which he stops the storm and calms the turbulent sea, shows that He cares deeply. After demonstrating His power over nature, He asks the disciples a very probing question: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

Let’s face it, sometimes life is terrifying. It seems like Jesus is asleep, not paying attention, not caring about what happens to us. But if His passion and crucifixion show us anything, it is that He is with us in our suffering. If we trust Him, Jesus will lead us safely through life’s storms to the far shore, where we will dwell forever in the Father’s house.

On this Father’s Day let’s call to mind and keep in mind that by virtue of our Baptism, we are God’s children through Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist we see that the Lord is alive. He gives Himself to us so that we, in turn, can bring Him to others; make Him present wherever we are no matter where that might be or the circumstances we face.

The witness of the sole survivor of the attack in Charleston, along with surviving family members of those who were killed, show us what it means to fully trust Jesus. When facing the person who committed this unspeakable crime they forgave him. The sister of Depayne Middleton-Doctor, one of those who were killed Wednesday night, said to the man who freely confessed to murdering her sister and eight others in cold blood, “I acknowledge that I am very angry… But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul” (see "‘I forgive you.’ Relatives of Charleston church shooting victims address Dylann Roof").

God’s family is a love-built family. Our Lord taught us that violence begets violence. He came to give us something better than the lex talonis, which enjoins an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth. Jesus shows us how to break the cycle of violence. If you want the kingdom of God, then, like the members of Emmanuel AME Church, you must seek to make it a present reality.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Depression, suicide, and the Cross as hope in reality

I found it highly telling that yesterday when I posted an article from the Deseret News on my Facebook timeline ("Utah ranks 5th for overdose deaths, 14th overall for injury deaths") that highlighted findings from a report compiled by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "The Facts Hurt, A State by State Injury Prevention Policy Report, 2015," nobody responded either by commenting or "liking." It seems that some facts do, indeed, hurt.

Given that Utah's suicide rate is way way higher than the nationwide average (national average is 12.5 suicides per 100,000 and Utah's is 20.6 per 100,00), I also found it telling that this disturbing fact (I will try not to go off on a philosophical discourse about the nature of a "fact") was not noted in the lengthy headline. It's tough stuff and, I believe that here in Utah, there are some deep underlying socio-religious causes.

Needless to say, given my own struggles, these measures of events that happen in the world pre-occupied me a good portion of yesterday afternoon, especially in light of the mass murder in Charleston. For many people, including me, it's all too easy for what happened in Charleston this week to only highlight our fear and our insecurity, maybe even robbing us of our hope. Instead, let's let it provoke the question, "In who or what do I place my hope?" My hope lies in the the beautiful witness of those who were senselessly gunned down, the lone survivor, who, in the ego-manical machinations of the killer, was let go to tell the world what happened, and that of their surviving family members (see "‘I forgive you.’ Relatives of Charleston church shooting victims address Dylann Roof").

It was wonderful that this post by Heather Parrie showed up this morning in my Facebook feed. She deals very forthrightly with the reality of depression, the kind that leads to contemplation of ending it all: "The Semicolon Project"
We’ll start here: a semi-colon is a place in a sentence where the author has the decision to stop with a period, but chooses not to. A semi-colon is a reminder to pause and then keep going... I got this tattoo as a promise to myself that I would never willingly end my sentence
I would never presume to speak about these matters on behalf of anyone other than myself, but I often find it very difficult, close to impossible, to face reality, to deal with the circumstances in which I find myself. As a a result, I waste a lot of time and energy wishing for a change of circumstances. This week I finished re-reading Fergus Kerr's Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction while sitting by the pool at the Boy Scout Camp in Millcreek Canyon, a beautiful outdoor setting in a lovely corner of God's creation, which helped me experience, again, the reality that creation itself is a sacrament. I ran across this, which I found useful, timely, and a provocation:
On Thomas's view, we pray in order to dispose ourselves so as to receive properly what God wills to give us. We pray, so to speak, to change, not God's will, but our own disposition (82)
Don't worry, Thomas accounts for that which God determines to fulfill precisely through our prayers, but that is beside the point I am trying to make.

I found Kerr's summary of the Angelic Doctor on prayer useful because it showed me, yet again, that reality, when engaged according all the factors that together constitute it, is cruciform. If I take the cruciform shape of reality as axiomatic, then, by definition, at times life is inevitably painful. So when, and, at least for me, only when, united with Christ's suffering my pain bears fruit, has a point, a purpose, an end towards which it is directed- the ultimate end for which I have been lovingly and uniquely created and redeemed. In this way, my pain becomes my sanctification. But I am aware that this pain can also be my (self-imposed) damnation. I don't mind sharing that in my sometimes realistic grappling with these things part of my inner dialogue is telling myself, "Lean into the Cross until you have splinters in your hands, on your cheek, on your forehead, and in your chest." Now, this may not be useful for everyone. It is useless to anyone who does not have a sense of just how much s/he is loved by the Lord. It is one of the ways I experience His love most directly.

It's pretty damn difficult to stand-up with a boulder on your back and ask for help. This is true for a lot of general reasons, but even more true for specific reasons peculiar to the person who is being crushed by this weight; everyone experiences these things through the prism of her/his personality. And so, for those truly struggling, it's not easy to just say to that person, "If you're feeling the weight crushing you, reach out for help." Here's something useful: if you know someone who struggles with these things, call her, text him, email, just let that person know you're thinking about them and you care for them, remind that person s/he matters to you. If you are blessed not to be so afflicted, these simple, consistent actions mean more than you'll ever know. We live in a society and culture that induces existential angst and produces mental disorders.

Heather went on to write this about her tatoo -
Another thing: my tattoo is just slightly crooked. At first that bothered me. And then I remembered that life’s a little crooked, too. And now I love it even more
I am more than a little off-center, that is, eccentric, which, I strongly believe, makes the One who loves me with an unfathomable, unfailing love, love me all the more.

For further reflection, I invite you to pray with Psalm 139.