Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I Have Returned

It's been over six months since I posted my last blog. It's not that I haven't had anything to say during that time. I think the reasons for not writing have been first, I'm fairly certain no one is reading any of this and second, perhaps a bit of self-effacement. I haven't really felt worthy to be pontificating about my spiritual journey when, to be honest, I haven't been feeling all that spiritual.

I suppose I've been going through a period of questioning. Questioning matters of faith, questioning what I want out of life, and questioning what, at this stage of the game, I can really expect to receive.

I've heard the comparison made that faith is like an onion. An in-tact onion has its own nature, character, and definition. But when you peel back the layers, what you end up with are a bunch of stinking strips. You may still have something onion-like, but the essence (the such-ness) of the onion is ruined. Or a motor. The in-tact motor has purpose, but if you dismantle it, you end up with only a bunch of parts.

Faith is like that. When you believe with humility, it gives you meaning and purpose. But when you start questioning and picking everything apart, or when you choose "a la carte" what you want to believe or, most dangerously of all, begin basing your beliefs on what others do or think, then you end up with a bunch of parts that don't make sense.

It goes back to what I earlier wrote about chaos. That blog entry was also written after a period of questioning. That had more to do with questioning why there was pain in the world. This latest episode has to do with understanding what it is I really believe and how I should then live.

And so here I am almost a year later arriving at the same conclusions. You must live your faith with abandon. You must defer to the teachings of the faith. It's not always easy. But in living life consistently with what you believe, there is peace and freedom. In trying to have it all on your own terms, there is confusion and despair.

It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I Have Arrived

I don't know where the idea came from, but it's one that permeates our society. That is the idea of "having arrived." The idea that, at some point in one's life, they will get to a place where all is well. The planets have aligned, the cosmic dust has settled, all the forces have converged, and you have achieved absolute bliss and fulfillment -- i.e., you have arrived.

Perhaps it comes from Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. For those of you not familiar, it's the idea that once all our baser needs are met (food, shelter, a sense of community and belonging) that were are then somehow self-actualized to pursue our higher purpose.

Or perhaps it's the eastern notion of death and rebirth -- climbing up cosmic rungs until you have reached enlightenment.

There's even the contemporary bestseller The Purpose Driven Life that maintains, once you've gotten your priorities in line and are at one with God's will you will find fulfillment.

On the mundane side of things we are bombarded by the media with the message that, until and unless we have all our ducks in a row (nice house, nice car, happy smart children, good job, hot-looking spouse, thin waist, healthy sex drive, etc. etc. etc.) we have not arrived. And, in the meantime, the media does everything it can (or so it seems to me) to make you feel inadequate (i.e., you have not arrived -- not by a long shot).

The truth is none of us have arrived. And none of us ever will. Not in this life.

It's taken me almost five decades to learn this. And I still haven't really internalized it.

As a kid, I remember thinking "when I grow up and can drive, I will have arrived." As a teenager, "when I have sex, I will have arrived." As a college student, "when I graduate, I will have arrived." And the list goes on, when I get married, when I get a house. when I make so much money, promotions, raises, get rid of my boss, relocation, travel, notoriety, fame............the list goes on and on and can take many different directions.

And then once middle age sets in, you become more and more aware that you haven't arrived, and you probably never will "arrive."

And the truth is, you won't; no one ever does. I've seen older people who have all their ducks in a row, house paid off, funds for retirement, the conclusion of a relatively successful career, lotsa a beautiful beaming grandchildren. And yet, they're still unsatisfied. They have not yet arrived.

In fact, the people who come closest to having arrived are the ones who are able to be at peace with their incompleteness. I don't own a house, I don't have kids, or if I do, they're not the smartest, best-behaved kids in the world. I owe money -- losta money. I have physical problems. My car broke down and I can't get it fixed. I lost my job. I don't get along with my spouse. I'm divorced. I've never traveled anywhere interesting. I don't speak a foreign language. I have no particular talents that make me stand out. I'm not pretty or handsome.

And in their incompleteness, they resign themselves to God (or to the winds of the cosmos, if they don't believe in God). And in that resignation, they probably come as close to arriving as is possible in this life. And probably see more of God's favor than all those with their ducks in a row.

It reminds me of God's call to the lost in the gospel of St. Luke: "Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled."


Monday, January 12, 2009

I am the Weaker Brother

When I was attending Bible college in the 1980s, one of my fellow students was an older man (older to me then; he was in his 30s) who was working as a minister of music at a local Assemblies of God (AG) church. As part of his religious practice, one of the things he abstained from was going to the movies. I don't believe it was official doctrine of the AG that you couldn't attend movies, but the clergy at the church where this man worked had agreed they wouldn't do so.

I thought that was quite excessive. "Well, what about G-rated movies, can't you watch those?" I asked. He replied that, if someone saw him going into a movie theater, someone who had a weakness for watching sinful movies, then that person might use it as an excuse to continue with their bad behavior -- that he would then be causing his weaker brother to stumble.

The idea of avoiding behavior that may "cause the weaker brother to stumble" is found in various places in the writings of St. Paul. "...if food causes my brother to stumble, I will eat no meat forevermore, that I don't cause my brother to stumble." (I Cor. 8:13)

For a long time, I always thought of the weaker brother as someone else -- newly converted Christians who haven't yet shed their worldly ways, or people with histories of addiction. Now I realize that it is I who am the weaker brother. It's me who Saint Paul was concerned about. Me who is prone to stumble.

Without Christ, I am the alcoholic, I am the batterer, I am the licentious voyeur...and all the rest. Without Christ, I would be living in the gutter if I were still alive at all.

I am often amazed at those outside the Church who are able to carry on such fine lives. They manage their money well -- own their own homes, eat all their vegetables, send their kids to good schools. I wonder what force it is that constrains them to such discipline. Love of family perhaps? Insecurity or fear? Vanity? I don't know. I only know that, for me, my natural state is one of self-absorption, leading to self-indulgence, depravity, and ultimately chaos.

It is only in Christ that I am able to love -- truly love. And out of that love, act.

But back to this idea of weakness. Human weakness is an insidious thing, perhaps the most insidious thing there is. I was recently reminded of this by some disturbing behavior on my part, bordering on the sociopathic. I never set out to do something sociopathic. I didn't sit down one day and say to myself, "I'm going to start acting like a sociopath." However, after a period of time of slowly, incrementally, allowing this behavior to take hold, I found myself mired in something very ugly.

It was then I realized that I am the weaker brother. I also realized that my "sociopathic" behavior was born of many other personal behaviors that I had allowed to get out of control.

Drinking, materialism, sexual lust (I say "sexual lust" because there are other lusts as well), sloth, among other personal sins, had clouded my mind. But how did I manage to get so ensnared in these things again? You see, I have many times in my life repented, changed my ways, cleaned up my act. And yet, there I was again, wallowing in the muck.

There's a passage of scripture where Jesus talks about a man having been rid of an evil spirit and then the spirit returns, bringing with him other spirits, only to pollute the man's soul all over again -- worse than before. Now I've always struggled with the exact meaning of this as it pertains to me. I don't believe I am possessed. But I do know that, without being spiritually on guard, I do fall prey time and time again to my vices. And that there are spiritual forces that subtly whisper in my ear in order to hasten such a fall.

The idea of it being "the brother" or the fellow Christian who makes one stumble is a sad one. One in which I am sure the devil takes great glee. I have Christian friends (brothers) who drink too much, who engage in casual sex, who are arrogant and self-serving, and probably most common, who are materialistic and live to acquire. When I see these behaviors I, the weaker brother, begin listening to the voices saying: "It's ok to do this or that; everyone else is doing it. Look at so-and-so, they're doing it and they're no worse for wear." And slowly over time, I give in here, I give in there, and it is only Christ who is able to reach his nail-scarred hand down and pull me up, knowing that I will only fall again anon.

I have no great answer for those like me. Only remember to pray for God's protection and also remember that our true paradigm is Christ. Look not to the person on the left nor the right. Only look to Christ.

In Him,

The Weaker Brother

Sunday, November 16, 2008


The last two or three weeks have been both very busy and very emotional for me. Just too much going on and too much to think about. It's times like these when I start getting angry, first at life and then at God. And that's when I start critiquing the universe and pondering why everything's so screwed up. Next comes self-pity, frustration, rebellion, and ultimately chaos. It's a little viscous cycle I go through from time to time -- more often than I care to admit.

Things kind of came to a boil yesterday when I found myself watching one of these horrible shows on television that show humanity at its worst. This one happened to be on sex slavery -- young girls being forced into prostitution. As I watched, I kept asking, "how can God let this happen?"

This begs the question, "how can God let a lot of things happen?" How can he let wars, and executions, and torture happen? How can he let birth defects, famine, and disease happen? And so on and so on. This is another little cycle that I get trapped in from time to time.

The temptation is to give up on God or, at the very least, to distance myself from God. "I don't understand God. I don't understand his ways. I don't understand why he lets these things go on. Therefore, I'm just going to keep my distance ...ignore things. Just do what I want and try not to think about it."

This is when I begin to unravel.

It's hard to explain. So let me borrow an illustration that was once given to me by a Greek Orthodox priest.

He told me that truth, or order, or sense, if you will (i.e., that which makes sense) is central to who God is. When we move towards that center, things that don't make sense to us now will begin to. Or at least we will begin to trust God and have peace. He said the opposite of that center is chaos. The nature of evil is not so much nefarious as it is chaotic. It is the absence of reason, the absence of order, the absence of truth. Chaos is dangerous because there is no order and there is no truth. Rather, we become the arbiters of reality. And that's when people lose their senses and all kinds of nightmarish things occur.

There's a great quote from theatrical literature that underscores this. It's from the play The Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt.

Thomas More is arguing with William Roper, his son-in-law, against the idea of vigilante justice and people being their own arbiters of truth. Roper, in turn, maintains that it's alright to violate the law for the greater good. But then More questions who's to decide what that greater good is. At the height of the argument, More says:

"And when the last law was down and the devil turned round on you,
where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is
planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, man's laws, not God's, and if
you cut them down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds
that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the devil the benefit of the law for my
own safety's sake."

His point here is that we need rules. He's talking about the civil law of course, but the idea that without rules we are indeed subject to the "winds that would blow" is well taken.

Earlier in the passage he makes an equally astute observation about God's law.

"I am not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager."

His point here being that we as humans can't fully comprehend God's will. What he's confronting here is the lynch mob mentality of his son-in-law, wanting to take the law into his own hands. More does acknowledge that God's laws are indeed superior to man's, but that we're are not in the position of enforcing them as much as we are deferring to them. It is not our purview to figure them out as much as it is to obey them. Hence the need for our own civil law -- something we can navigate.

Therefore, I defer to God again regarding the evils of this universe. Adopting such an attitude doesn't make everything make sense, but it does place the burden on the proper shoulders (God's, not mine).

C.S. Lewis, in his book A Grief Observed, where he was trying to make sense of the tragically non-sensical death of his wife, concluded that, "Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our contradictory notions. The notions will be knocked from under our feet."

I submit to God's sovereignty thereby placing myself away from the outer fringes of chaos. Let us pray for those who dwell there.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Spiritual Voyeurs

Last night I was composing an email message when I got on the topic of the author Roberston Davies. This woman I was writing to had said that Davies was one of her favorite authors. I wanted to say something about him (to impress her, of course), but the only book of his I ever read was Fifth Business, the first of his Deptford Trilogy. And that was a long time ago. I remember finishing the book but not finding it quite compelling enough to read the other two in the series.

That being said, the more I thought about the story, the more I remembered. I even vaguely remembered a certain passage from the book where the main character, Dunstan Ramsay, recalls the different churches in the town where he grew up.

"We had five churches: the Anglican, poor but believed to have some mysterious social supremacy; the Presbyterian, solvent and thought--chiefly by itself--to be intellectual; the Methodist, insolvent and fervent; the Baptist, insolvent and saved; the Roman Catholic, mysterious to most of us but clearly solvent, as it was frequently and, so we thought, quite needlessly repainted."

Another interesting thing about the Ramsay character was that he made a point about not being particularly religious (or perhaps not religious at all) and yet his profession in life was that of a hagiographer -- one who studies saints. As I recall, this came as the result of his life being spared in a bomb explosion during World War I. Right before the blast, he saw the statue of the Virgin Mary, and from that moment on he had an undying curiosity about saints.

The phenomenon of people being attracted to religion in some sort of intellectual way, yet not expressing piety or acknowledging its truth, has always intrigued me. I call these kinds of people "spiritual voyeurs."

In my first year of college I took a course entitled Early American Religious History. It was an upper division seminar that I enrolled in by mistake. However, since I was interested in the subject and since there were dismally few students enrolled, the professor let me remain. (He even kindly gave me a B- on my term paper.) The course was not about Native American religions as the name might suggest. Rather, it was mainly about American Protestantism, from its beginnings in Europe through the Second Great Awakening. I remember the professor asking the class up-front whether any of us were actually religious. Only I and one other fellow answered affirmatively. I always wondered at that. Why would people enroll in a course on religion if there felt no spiritual pull?

On this same subject, another character from fiction that comes to mind is Roger Lambert from John Updike's Roger's Version. Lambert is a defrocked and disaffected Methodist minister, who teaches church history at a modernist New England seminary. Again, it's been a long while since I read the book. But I do remember the scene where Lambert is sexually tempted by his promiscuous niece. I also remember him having all but abandoned his religion. And at the end of the book, when his young wife begins attending church again, he is greatly chagrined and asks her why. She responds, "To annoy you." I enjoyed that ending.

And then there's good ol' Sri Joseph Campbell. I was going to transition to him at this point, but I think that's another blog entry in itself, perhaps two.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Ringing of the Angels

In my childhood, I had the good fortune of growing up across the street from a park -- a park with the rather humdrum name of "City Park."

I spent many hours at City Park -- hours filled with playing, fighting, running, football games, teasing and being teased, juvenile lewdness, playground politics, and the first pingings of boyhood crushes. Childhood.

The park was my second home, my respite from my parents and older sisters. Throughout my childhood, from my earliest memories until the age of 15 when my parents separated and we left the neighborhood, the park was there for me.

At 6:00 each evening, as I would be running across the grassy field or climbing on the monkey bars, I would hear them. The clear cooling sounds of bells. There was something about them that would always make me pause, something that would alter my awareness somehow. It was always a calming feeling. Always. Afterwards, my activity would resume for a time, but never with the same fervor as before. And then it would soon be dusk and time to go in.

Eventually someone explained to me that those were the bells from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in our town (there was only one) was named Holy Rosary Church.

It was at some point during my last years in the neighborhood -- the sad years of my early adolescence, when my world began its spin into uncertainty -- when I was sitting with my friend Mark on a wooden picnic table, under a large oak, and the bells came ringing across the air from the steeple of Holy Rosary.

"The ringing of the angels," said Mark.


"The ringing of the angels, from the Catholic Church," Mark asserted.

"Oh, I didn't know it was called that."

"Yeah, every evening at 6:00 they ring the angels."

I didn't pursue the matter beyond that. I figured, since Mark was a Methodist, he probably didn't know much about it anyway. But I was left with a wonderful image in my mind of angels responding the ringing of the bells, being called down from the heavens into our community -- coming down, circling the bell tower and then dispersing into the evening light, to minister, or to hold vigil wherever the need may be. To protect all those good Catholics out there in the city of Woodland against the coming night.

Whether Mark's information was wrong, or whether I just heard it wrong, I do not know. However, I've since learned that "the ringing of the angels" is actually the ringing of the angelus bell, which dates back to the middle ages when a special bell (other than the main church bell) was used to call people to prayer, specifically the Angelus devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Angelus Domini nuntiavit Marie, Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto.

(The Angel of the Lord brought tidings unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost.)

My notion of angels swooping down into our town, like Capser and his ghost friends, though perhaps cute, was just the imagining of a thirteen year-old boy.

There was something good and other worldly that came to me through those sounds of my childhood. But since there was no one to instruct me, I had to make sense of it on my own. However, despite my ignorance, I think the bells still had something of their intended effect.

I think within us there is a susceptibility to daily rhythms, even a desire for such. When those bells rang at 6:00 every night, something inside me responded and turned to them. There was a change in my day at that point. And even though I may have returned to my play or conversation, I knew the day, now evening, was heading in a different direction. Home -- to dinner, to bed.

And I think the prayer itself, The Angelus, being prayed by the faithful across town, was a part of this. Penetrating my spirit, turning me even then towards truth.

We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts, that as we have known the Incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by His Cross and Passion we may be brought unto the glory of His Resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Jesus and the Stock Market

Last night I was channel surfing when I came upon an infomercial where an older Asian man was hawking a get-rich-quick scheme to middle-aged folks like me, stressing how much money they (we) would need in order to retire comfortably. He said 1.2 million. I don't have anywhere near 1.2 million. In fact, I'm quite poor. And I found it depressing to watch.

This all comes at a time when the stock market is crashing and Wall St. executives are getting little bitty hand slaps for having bankrupted the American and world economies, and then trotting off scott-free to their luxury condos in the Caribbean or their New England estates. And Nero fiddles while Rome burns.

But as I was watching this guy, the words of Christ mercifully came to my mind: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust doth consume, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth nor rust can consume. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Then it occurred to me how blatantly opposed to Christ our society has become. In the "good old days" (whenever those were) we at least made the pretense of having Christian values (or Hindu, Moslem, Jewish, or Buddhist values -- with respect to charitable behavior, all religions basically agree). That we care for the poor, that we are abhor deceit and dishonesty, that we adhere to some form of "golden rule." But now we are unashamedly greedy and selfish, we even celebrate it. We have dignified looking men in coats and ties -- the type we tend to respect and look to for leadership -- telling us that greed is good and that our aim should be to beat down the other guy.

We are voyeuristic as well. We seem to almost take glee in the misery of others. We watch Jerry Springer and Maury Povich exploit people on their TV shows. We have an insatiable appetite for violent entertainment and pornography. The news is full of gruesome stories of parents murdering children, and teachers and clergy sexually abusing those in their charge. And we as a society take it all in like Roman citizens relaxing in their seats at the coliseum.

We must continually be reminded then...

"Lay not up for yourselves treasures here on earth."

"There is a way that seemeth right to man, but the end thereof is death."

"Man cannot server two masters."

"Trust in the LORD with all thy heart and lean not on thine own understanding."

"In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world."

"God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you. Now who will get the things you've accumulated?'"

"And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell."

It's amazing how potent, and how right, the words of the Bible are. We truly must keep our eyes averted from the transitory lies of this world. We must be about the business of preparing our souls for eternity.