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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Most At Home

I feel most at home in the Bible. That's not an odd thing for a Christian to say, I hope. And this is not to say that I have some great training or special insight into it, though I do have some training. Nor is it to say that I am this great prayer warrior, who always applies the Scripture to my life in the proper way, at the proper time.

It is to say that I'm continually thankful for the Magisterium. We Catholics don't have to sit around arguing about what the Bible says. We can start getting into its spiritual meaning, and really letting God speak to us personally, without doubting anything about its literal sense.

I tell people all the time how lucky we are, because we are freed up to be doers of the word, and not only hearers. Then again, that freedom is in the context of widespread ignorance concerning the Scriptures among American Catholics.

Certain clergy have probably been responsible for this ignorance of Scripture, and perhaps some lapses in morality and piety have contributed. Yet we have the option to read the Sacred Scriptures anytime. I'm reading lots of things, but why not the Scriptures? You can't memorize it or cite it unless you read it in the first place.

It is altogether true to say that we get to hear more of the Scriptures that almost all other Christians, in the liturgy. It is also true that if we don't individually and personally invest time in reading the Scriptures, we will forget them. And we cannot love what we do not know.

I also take this as a personal challenge to myself, as much as I'm giving it to you. Let's read the Scriptures. Let's get to know Jesus, whether we read about him directly in the New Testament, or indirectly in the Old Testament. All of it is our story, and it is for us, and to us.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Gift Of Self-Sacrificial Love

I'll spare you the usual Catholic speaker platitudes that jump right to, "We should have that same sacrificial love for each other!" No, we need to think about the Cross, before we try to apply it to our lives. The Protestant and Reformed error is to say that the Father is pouring out wrath upon his Son. I'm simply not going to waste any time refuting that on this occasion. On the other hand, all of us should rightly fear the idea proclaimed in some quarters that Jesus did not die for our sins, or that there is no hell. We do need forgiveness of sins, and the sacrifice of the Cross was the means by which it was accomplished. It is a picture of the Father's love, but it is not only a picture. There is also wide agreement--though it does not appear so at first--that we are not only saved by Jesus's death, but by his life.

Jesus made the enduring sin offering, and the reason the treasury of merits is inexhaustible is because Jesus is well-pleasing to the Father to the maximum degree. Indirectly, this is why forgiveness of sins can be really offered to the worst of sinners. In Christ, any person can become super-abundantly well-pleasing to the Father.

This is no easy universalism; you don't get the forgiveness unless you ask for it. Ironically, Calvinism and universalism agree on one point: we are not important enough to mess up God's alleged plan for our lives.

I think we as Catholics--even in preaching--jump right to, "let us do x." Do such and such with what power? Our own? Practically, we're often a bunch of Pelagians. In reality, we must contemplate Christ, before we seek to integrate his good news into the world. I must become him, and he must become me. When we are one, and he is in control, then I have something to offer. This is why we are a Eucharistic people, because we will become what we have consumed. "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."

Just because he doesn't need us doesn't mean we have no value. His generosity elevates us. This is the mystery we refuse to accept: God does not merely tolerate us; he adores us. It is also this love which prods us, if we should be standing outside of his friendship at any one moment. The offer of the gospel is this: do you want to accept this love, or to disdain it? When it is accepted, it grows and becomes more deeply personal, intimate on a level that often makes people uncomfortable. But the love also enlarges us to receive it, and not to draw back in fear from its advance.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Dark Truth

This is a fair warning: this post will contain extremely bitter thoughts. Sometimes, we know goodness from its opposite.

It seems to me that most people, if given a choice between suffering with you, and inflicting suffering upon you, will take the latter. Some more intentionally than others. I confess that I have been tempted to say that I don't want to love or trust anyone. Or at some level, it is more than a temptation. This pandemic has given me cover to get away from people, and frankly, to not feel bad about it.

On the other hand, I suppose that if I am buffeted by all these emotions, I haven't given up. I can't say that I don't care what people say and do, because that's obviously not true. Still, I want not to care. It seems like it would be a great grace to me if I did not. On another hand still, the recognized experts in not caring are sociopaths. I'm fairly certain I don't want to be a sociopath.

And then there's forgiveness, of course. But even to think about that fills me with a certain guilt, as if to offer it is a betrayal of my own heart. On the other hand, I least of all want to inflict suffering, even if I think in unguarded moments that they would deserve it. Maybe at least the outer edge of forgiveness is to want good for those who have hurt us. I feel a long way from sharing a beer and a hug, but if you press me, I'm not one for vengeance; I just need it to be known that I am here, and it has not been a pain-free journey.

I heard a story the other day that warmed my heart in a strange way. Apparently, there was a lady who was at least self-aware enough to know that she had broken a few eggshells in her life, so to speak. I even think I saw that she knew that she came off as a kind of prickly pear. Anyway, she wanted it proclaimed at her own funeral that she was truly sorry for anything she had said or done to offend anyone. That seems like something I would do. Yet I can imagine a person in my life saying, "No, you did a specific thing; you don't get to make a general apology to cover a specific thing." That's fair enough, I suppose. I might say in reply though that I'm not so good at guessing games.

I make the odd general apology to the Lord all the time, because there is something about my conscience that seems to think I'll land in hell on a technicality. The Lord, however, is full of compassion. He's not the dense one. I hope there's a saint somewhere who prays, "Lord, I'm not malicious, I'm just dumb."

I suppose I can't just rewind to 2018, and start over. That's an appealing thought. It's the kind of thought that occurs to people who feel like they were left for dead somewhere, and yet have gone on living. This is exactly what I experience: that some part of me has been taken away, and I won't get it back.

There's a truth that breaks through that I have no right to deny. Whatever I have lost is not truly lost. Jesus and the saints are keeping it for me. It is for God to decide when he will restore me. If he wills that I should walk around as half a man, I'll do it. If I'm gonna believe, I might as well believe all the way.

Monday, April 13, 2020

I May Well Be "Tedious"

I could read 30 columns all criticizing Donald Trump. He doesn't become more acceptable to me as time passes. In fact, one of the things I promised to myself is that I would never stop being angry in some form about the things which ought to make a person of good conscience angry. That's the danger in the politics game: you've got your side, and as long as either your side is winning, or the other side is as appallingly bad as they've always been, you feel the pressure to ignore or overlook wrong things from your own side.

The grisly reality of abortion, and the damage of the sexual revolution still doesn't go away. I can't join the opposition, because the opposition believes in the tenets of the sexual revolution. It's difficult, because I do believe the government is supposed to be a force for good, to actually regulate the exchange of goods and services for the sake of the common good. I'm not on the Right, precisely because I believe the common good exists, and is more than simply a collection of private goods. We should apply the ethics of believing that we're all in this together to the exchange of goods and services, and to the role of government, and to the protection of the vulnerable innocent.

Yet I do long for the day when the president of the United States again behaves presidentially. We're going to need a replacement for that to happen. It doesn't mean that I want anything bad to happen to Donald Trump. It doesn't mean that I agree completely with AOC. It does mean that if the rest of the country decides to use Joe Biden as a palate cleanser, I'm not standing in the way. Furthermore, I will be in fervent prayer concerning Joe Biden's opinions and actionable political beliefs regarding the sexual revolution. You'll forgive me though, if I can't bring myself to be upset, if and when he wins.

What is a "bad" president? I think the quickest and easiest way to be a bad president is to be a bad person. I think this despite whatever individual opinions I may have on the prudential issues of the day. With respect to the definition I just provided, I think the best president in the last 50 years is perhaps Jimmy Carter. The economy wasn't good, and the Iran hostage crisis didn't work out to Carter's benefit politically, but there is nobody in this country that looks at President Carter today with malice in his heart, or maybe not even a negative thought. On the issues of taxes or guns, or whatever we usually judge presidents by, the issues fade with time. But did he bring us together when he had the chance? When we had a crisis far beyond any of our abilities, did he say words that let us know we would be OK? Did he ever make us embarrassed to be citizens of our own country?

I might choose to vote with different criteria, and you might as well. But for me, character counts the most. I will not apologize for believing that, and for acting upon it.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

I Have To Say Something (Liberal Jesus Meme Edition)

You know, if anyone is currently in a position to criticize right-wing American fused religiosity, it's me. I have the ability, the willingness, and the inclination. I just saw a meme from John Fugelsang, a man who was a minor comedian-actor in the '90s, and as much as I'd love to pile on the president and his wacky supporters, I gotta deal with this meme instead. You know how they go: re-cast Jesus as a rebel and a revolutionary, and point out how non-judgy he was, mention the outcasts and sinners, take a couple jabs at political opponents and current issues, and we're done. 

Now understand this, my friends: I constitutionally despise reductionism in political thinking. The reason I am where I am politically is because I don't like taking shortcuts through ideas for short-term political expediency. I left the Republican Party because of Donald Trump. I also began to see the weaknesses in the conservative movement with respect to economics because of the smallest exposure to the Catholic philosophical tradition, and to the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. I should love this meme, but I don't, and I'll tell you why.

Let's just take one small sentence and deal with it. It said, "Jesus wasn't anti-gay, and never mentioned abortion or birth control."

Jesus never mentioned these things, because he didn't have to. When you approach the New Testament text, and you are introduced to Jesus in the Gospels, you need to realize that everything you will read Jesus saying assumes that every word of the Hebrew Scriptures of what we call the Old Testament--with respect to a moral precept--is assumed to still be in force. This is the same Jesus who said, "Anyone who breaks the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." Even if I granted you the right to erase that famous verse in Leviticus concerning homosexuality--even if no other text in the Bible spoke disapprovingly about homosexuality--it would still be wrong. The same goes for contraception. It is contrary to the natural law, which means that every person in conscience ought to know that it is wrong. The Catholic Church did not reaffirm its teaching concerning contraception for its members only, but she sees herself as the guardian of all the wisdom and moral truth that can be known by humanity. As apologists from here to New Mexico will tell you, all Christians believed that contraception was wrong in all circumstances, until 1930. Adherents of other religions likely believed similarly, until they didn't. Eyes see, and ears hear, but it is somehow beyond the pale if you ask most people, to believe that human sex organs are designed for a purpose as well.

Questions of identity are tricky because we have lost so much as a society. Whenever I see someone from an intact family that has never been broken apart by divorce, I get a little jealous. Frankly, I wonder if people are creating new identities because the ones that they were supposed to be able to count on were taken away from them. There are other tragedies as well. We've been left to fend for ourselves, and most of us are just trying to do the best that we can. Yet maybe we call people "haters" and "bigots" because to question what we have been taught in the culture, to question what is natural and normal, may force us to confront our deepest pain. Not many people have the courage to do that, and not when plenty of people are lining up to reward you for pretending that everything is OK.

None of these memes are ever totally wrong. After all, I'm the guy who likes this song. But at the end of the day, we don't get to decide what the truth about Jesus is, or who he is. We can decide what we're going to do about it, and about him, but we don't get to alter any of it.

The Raw And Real Easter Post

Happy Easter, everyone. To tell you the truth, I haven't felt much like celebrating. These feelings have gone on for many months. It was the worst day of my life. Seven months ago. Never mind the details. I reached out for help, and I heard in effect, "You're not good enough. You're not being your true self. Many people are disappointed in you." I have been frozen in that day since it happened.

But you see, no one is actually harder on me than myself. The outward confidence, the outgoing gregarious nature, all that is the fruit of overcoming the internal struggle, the negative self talk that by definition must be false. I give all of you the good stuff, and I keep the bad stuff between God and me.

It had brought me so much joy to see the good work that God was doing in so many other people. I was once called "The Encourager" in college, and it sort of internally stuck. This is who I am; this is what I do. And it's not happy-clappy or fake. If you have something great about you, I'll find it, and I will tell you what it is.

All of a sudden, I felt as if I didn't belong. After the shock wore off, I was really hurt and angry. I felt like I was someone's discipleship project, or an accessory to some image that someone wanted to project. To be told that I didn't care, or that I didn't care enough, or in the right way, well, you can kill a man like me with something like that.

That night was a little scary. Okay, it was a lot scary. I took the grace that was available to me and I just sat there. I don't think I moved for three hours. I said the words out loud, "Go to the bathroom. Wash your hands. Brush your teeth. Drive your chair." I definitely had The Bad Thought. For the second time in my life. But the gift of sorrow is a true gift. The deepest grief nevertheless tells us that we are alive. I don't mean just our bodies; I mean our spirits. I am alive and I am feeling something. The tears would not stop. I was thankful for the tears.

I had to go to Kentucky the next day. I ate meat on a Friday, because Bryan Cross said so. He's used his unique authority in this way a couple of other times, and I've been grateful each time. I met my friend Matthew in person for the first time when we got to Kentucky. The Internet is a wonderful thing; I know and love people that I have never actually looked in the eye. Matthew's face was the most welcome sight. He didn't know why; he couldn't have known why.

The resurrection of Jesus means to me today that the flashes of anger, of grief and loss, the feeling of being set aside, of not being enough, are not true. They are the manifestation of death. But death and hell have been defeated. Even if I can't seem to keep myself on the right side of that ledger, it remains true. That's my Easter hope.