Sunday, June 7, 2015

Corpus Christi

Today is the feast of Corpus Christi. That is the body of Christ. It is when we remember the great gift of Himself Jesus gives us in the Eucharist. What I was reflecting on today is the craziness of it. Discussing the idea that maybe someone made up the resurrection of Jesus. Maybe they made up the idea that Jesus is God. Maybe they made up all the miracles. It is a bit much. Could early Christians really believe so much based on no real data in an environment of persecution. If you read them it is harder to believe. The Apostolic fathers had the mindset of staunch conservatives. They fought heresies and searched instead for a deeper understanding of what came from the apostles and the old testament.

Yet after all that I think what maybe the least plausible thing for them to make up is the teaching on the Eucharist. Saying Jesus is God is a stretch, a big stretch. Saying Jesus told them to eat His body and drink His blood is beyond a stretch. Jews didn't even eat meat until all the blood was drained. They would never drink an animal's blood. Yet the early Christians are supposed to have made this up? It is just impossible. Yet the teaching of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist goes right back to the beginning and without controversy. John relates the words of Jesus in John 6 acknowledging how radical they are yet not backing down from them at all. His disciple, St Ignatius of Antioch, uses these words as an argument against Gnosticism. That is that the body of Jesus must have been physical because it is physically present to us in the Eucharist. It is an interesting argument because it would make zero sense if anyone believed in a symbolic Eucharist.

Then we have St Paul. He accepted the teaching of the apostles without any explanations. Jesus said, “This is my body.” So you had better come to the table contemplating that fully. A lot of the teachings of Jesus are explained further by St Paul in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection. It is quite significant that for this he just relates what Jesus said and did.

So if you are a skeptic and think Jesus was just a man then how does this story come into being? It kind of raises the bar on the liar-lunatic-lord argument. That is whoever sold the early church on this idea had to have been crazy. It is just a hard thing to believe. If it isn't true then there is no benefit at all to believing it. You can see why the resurrection might be popular to believe. You can see why the divinity of Jesus might be implausible but might also have some upside in being attractive to some. The eating and drinking of Jesus' body and blood? Who is going to be attracted by that. The Romans would not be. One of the few really strong moral prohibitions they had was against cannibalism. Yet Christians just asked to be accused of cannibalism by teaching this doctrine and, in fact, many Romans did make that claim. Where is the benefit?

So there are many teachings that came from Jesus that the non-Christian has to find a source for. The New Testament changed human society in so many ways. Where did the wisdom and power come from? Much of what flowed from that secular people agree with. The dignity of the human person. Love as a central virtue. The importance of forgiveness. Yet whoever brought us these ideas also brought us many ideas about God, about miracles and about resurrection. That is strange enough but the Eucharist is so much stranger. They tend not to want to believe Jesus taught anything that would make them label him crazy. Yet his followers arrive at such a strange place. How does that happen? 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Peter's Miracle

I was listening to a homily at my son's graduation mass. It frustrated me because I saw the potential for such a good homily from this gospel. We got a series of nice wishes that could have easily come from a secular person. So I did something I probably should not do. I started to compose a better homily in my head. Still, having lost some of my blogging momentum, I thought I would try and share of those thoughts here. The gospel was Luke 5:1-11:

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
What we see here is Peter having an encounter with Jesus. Peter is a fisherman. He has fished all night. Yet he has not caught any fish. This is a symbol of emptiness. Peter's is working hard and things are not working out. He has done nothing wrong. Yet the blessings are not coming.

This happens to people. Sometimes they are even doing quite well materially. Yet they feel they are empty. They work very hard and feel like they are getting nowhere. Often it is because they have not found their vocation. We need to know we are created by God with a purpose in mind. If we are doing something other than what we were created for it is never going to be quite satisfying.

So what do we do? We go to Jesus. Peter does that. He calls Jesus “Master.” He lets Jesus use his boat. He is comfortable with Jesus to a point. We can be like that. We come to a graduation mass. We are comfortable with Catholicism to a point.

Then Jesus tells Peter to “put out into the deep water.” St John Paul reflected on this and saw Jesus inviting us to go deeper with Him. To go beyond the shallow religious observance and let Jesus into the deeper thinking of your life. When you ask: Who am I? What kind of career should I pursue? What kind of marriage and family life do I want? What kind of person do I want to be? When you go out into those kind of deep waters then take Jesus with you. Let Him be your master even there.

What follows is a personal miracle. Something that amazed Peter but someone who is not a fisherman would think, So what? This can happen to you. When you let God into you personal place of failure and give Him control He can work miracles that will amaze you and only you. He shows not only His power but also a willingness to tailor that power to precisely your frustrations.

This touches Peter deeply. He knows that Jesus is much more that just his master or rabbi. He is Lord. That is a word used in the Greek scriptures to refer to God. He gets it. I am not dealing with someone who has some interesting ideas about God and life and whatnot. I am in the presence of the divine.

Yet he reacts in a way we might find somewhat strange. He asks Jesus to leave. Why? Because Peter has something darker than his failures. He has his sin. Like the song says:
When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Peter would relate to a song like that. He has things about which he is quite rightly ashamed. He was hiding them from Jesus. They were just to embarrassing to face. Now he knows he cannot do that. You can't come close to God and keep any secrets. So he tells Jesus to go.

What comes next is a relief for Peter but also for every one of us. Jesus tells him not to be afraid. That He has great plans for Peter. It is a relief for all of us because we all have those demons hidden somewhere. It means we can come to God as sinners and not be afraid. It means we can still become what God intended us to become despite having made some mistakes. Even if we have some things we do over and over that are not very nice and perhaps downright despicable we don't have to be afraid of God. We can be honest and we will be loved.


What is more, that does not put us at the back of the line in terms of God. You need to understand that we are all sinners. Jesus used Peter powerfully despite the fact that he messed up quite a few more times. The powerful thing is he knows he is a sinner. He knows he needs forgiveness and Jesus is willing to give it. That is the first step to being a great saint.

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.