Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Remember You Are Dust

Happy Ash Wednesday, everyone! 

We went here today to drink beer. You should be jealous.
I know that's an ironic greeting, but here in our house in New Orleans, after weeks of dealing with drunken revelry, we feel like hosts whose unruly guests have finally walked home. We are enjoying the peace and quiet on the street, the public transit, the general ability to travel to places without a map - the basics.

I think this Ash Wednesday is particularly poignant because of Benedict's announcement. In case you are living underground, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI will step down by the end of February, meaning that, by this time next month, there will be a new leader for the 1 billion Catholics and their/our much beleaguered institution.This is rather unprecedented.

There are many theological and personal reflections on this topic. One, Benedict has spent the seven years of his papacy shoring up the theological bones of the Church. In a way, stepping down reminds us that Pope is an office, not a personal cult (like that of John Paul II). Perhaps that will be the theme of the conclave that meets to elect his successor.

After seven years of centralizing authority in Rome, this would be too little too late.

But I'll take it, nonetheless. We are all dust, and to dust we will return. Is this what Joseph is thinking? The Vatican, too, is dust; so is St. Peter, who was buried there twenty centuries ago, and so is John Paul II. Being dust in our universe is a great honor, no matter the gold content of your robes (or the ruby sheen on your slippers). Does Joseph remember that, too?

I hope so. In the least, his resignation signals a turn away from nostalgia and pride, towards modernization and humility. I am down with that.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Prayer

I'm a week late, I know I know, but it's mardi gras and all, so I hope you'll forgive me.

This week's liturgy included the "Fishers of Men" gospel story, as well as the "Here I Am, Lord" story from Isaac. In both stories, God calls people out, to do good work, and in both stories they refuse. "But I have eaten unclean foods!" protests Isaac. God doesn't care. God gets him started.

That's what it's all about. We have a mission - to live a more compassionate life. None of us are there yet, but we cannot hide in our insufficiency. We have to get started.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday Prayer

The Book of Job speaks to the topic of ignorance in a beautiful song:

Job 38:1-18  Then from the heart of the tempest Yahweh gave Job his answer. He said:
2 Who is this, obscuring my intentions with his ignorant words?  3 Brace yourself like a fighter; I am going to ask the questions, and you are to inform me!  4 Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Tell me, since you are so well-informed!  5 Who decided its dimensions, do you know? Or who stretched the measuring line across it?  6 What supports its pillars at their bases? Who laid its cornerstone  7 to the joyful concert of the morning stars and unanimous acclaim of the sons of God?  8 Who pent up the sea behind closed doors when it leapt tumultuous from the womb,  9 when I wrapped it in a robe of mist and made black clouds its swaddling bands;  10 when I cut out the place I had decreed for it and imposed gates and a bolt?  11 'Come so far,' I said, 'and no further; here your proud waves must break!'  12 Have you ever in your life given orders to the morning or sent the dawn to its post,  13 to grasp the earth by its edges and shake the wicked out of it?  14 She turns it as red as a clay seal, she tints it as though it were a dress,  15 stealing the light from evil-doers and breaking the arm raised to strike.  16 Have you been right down to the sources of the sea and walked about at the bottom of the Abyss?  17 Have you been shown the gates of Death, have you seen the janitors of the Shadow dark as death?  18 Have you an inkling of the extent of the earth? Tell me all about it if you have! 

Job 42:1-6  This was the answer Job gave to Yahweh: 
2 I know that you are all-powerful: what you conceive, you can perform.  3 I was the man who misrepresented your intentions with my ignorant words. You have told me about great works that I cannot understand, about marvels which are beyond me, of which I know nothing.  4 (Listen, please, and let me speak: I am going to ask the questions, and you are to inform me.)  5 Before, I knew you only by hearsay but now, having seen you with my own eyes,  6 I retract what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The First Step to Spiritual Honesty

The past two posts address abortion. Abortion is a moral flashpoint for all of us who are looking for a way to be good, free, moral people outside of the confines of traditional religion because, for those of us coming from Christian and especially Catholic backgrounds, it was the moral issue. So, to say the least, I think we are familiar with the issue, and maybe a little conflicted about a solution.

The March for Life approach assumes that we are not conflicted about the issue, as if it were a cut, done, answered question, instead of a very live, slippery, and unsatisfactorily answered question. That's why I dislike it.

There's more.

Future spiritual communities must be able to ask big questions honestly.

We have talked at length about why religious communities have failed - hierarchy, judgment, and nostalgia. All three are founded on the notion that someone has knowledge that someone doesn't have - the knowledge of leadership, morals, or righteous history. Haves and have-nots. Rich and poor. Chosen and unclean.

Us and them.

But when you look inward, are there not many unanswered questions? Do you truly have the knowledge?

No. None of us has knowledge. We all face our universe as peasants. We don't even know what we don't know. To pretend as if we know, as if we have knowledge, as if we know what is right and wrong in the face of our expanse of Universe, or before the Presence of God, is pure vanity.  
Fact: we do not know. Goal: Wonder and Awe.
Acknowledging the truth of our ignorance is the first step to learning. We all exist in that damn uncomfortable place of the ignorant student. How would it be if I went into Greek class and pretended to know Greek already? I would not learn, and it would be my own fault. 

But then, everything can be our teacher. 

We must be ready to learn from each other, and that requires that we first admit our ignorance. You cannot do this at a rally, and I do not think it is possible in many churches. But it is the first step to spiritual honesty.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Abortion and Hearts: Don't Get Too Excited

Absolutely fail.
Last post I wrote about our stance when talking about abortion. Rallies like March for Life absolutely fail to address the problems that lead to abortion, and, what's more, they prevent honest conversations by creating an "us/them" atmosphere.

We can find a solution to abortion by dropping the pride and recognizing that no one has a solution yet. 

Now that's a hard pill.

Religion is not built for finding new answers. It's no surprise that religious groups and pro-life rallies come together, because for many religion is an answer to life's unanswerable questions. For many, that is the point of faith: to keep those questions of "Why" and "How" out of mind with easy, memorized answers. Thus they embrace biblical literalism, papal infallibility, and the cult of clergy as the places for answers.

That is simply not true, and those crutches get in the way of actually finding answers to difficult questions. Scientists have faced this for hundreds of years, and now we're familiar with the "God of the Gaps" dilemma. When religious authorities make God answer any questions, people who actually find real answers (by humbly, persistently approaching the problem) are made out like they reject God. So instead of an atmosphere that encourages people to answer big questions, we are left with a bunch of wrong answers and no will to answer anything.

That's what the March for Life does for abortion.

I have Faith and Hope that answers exist. Maybe an honest conversation about contraceptives is a start, or fighting rapists around the world. 

But whatever solution we do find, it won't be found in the pages of a Vatican encyclical claiming eternal absolute moral authority. That is pride, and it is not helping. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Abortion: An Issue with Legs

Yesterday's prayer continues to resonate when I think of abortion.

The question is how to promote life when lives are in competition. From any point of view, we can agree that we have a long way to go before we find anything like a satisfying answer. As Merton says, "In one sense we are always traveling, and traveling as if we did not know where we were going."

"A Prideful Sham"
Think of folks who annoy you from the other side of this issue. I'm thinking of some right now. They annoy me because of their smug certainty that they are right, and their horror that I would oppose them, and that I would deny their perfect logic. That's why they're annoyed at me, too. We're all annoyed at each other because we all know the answer. But we don't. That's a prideful sham. 

We must start from humble ignorance whenever we arise to tackle this issue - and, in so doing, attempt to solve the equally great, contingent problems of health care, family, and violence. There are simply too many questions and no satisfactory answers to any of them right now. So to discuss abortion with pride or certainty is fraud.

Instead, let's take up the more difficult, honest position: humble, hopeful unknowing. You'll recognize that as the position one must take to meditate or to pray, and to be loving

The position works because it forces us to stop judging each other, trust each other, and to have hope that we can rise above our challenges every day. "But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore, in that sense, we have arrived and are dwelling in the light."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday Prayer

I'm preparing an extended, dialectical post on abortion for next week. But for now, I am happy to recall Thomas Merton, the twentieth century's answer to monasticism in the West and the East. He remembers that God - our answers, our perfect love and compassion - is both the nearest, most natural thing to us, and the most distant goal of our species. I felt this keenly when debating abortion at Policymic, since a compassionate response seems so natural, but the fiery response pretends to be better. I hope we can all overcome the competitive debate and find the God of compassionate answers.

In one sense we are always traveling, and traveling as if we did not know where we were going.
In another sense we have already arrived.

We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life, and that is why we are traveling and in darkness. But we already possess Him by grace, and therefore, in that sense, we have arrived and are dwelling in the light.

But oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived!

(via Dating God)