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Gaudete et Exsultate

I really intended to focus on something else, and hopefully I’ll get back to it at some point, but Pope Francis went and released a new document, an apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness, and I can’t just ignore it.

An apostolic exhortation is a teaching document, which is to say it isn’t intended to introduce new doctrine for the church, but to help believers apply the tenets of the faith in the contemporary world.

One of the cool things Francis does in this document is name-drop saints – people recognized by the Catholic Church as having demonstrated what holiness can look like. I’m going to list the ones he mentions here so I can come back and research them.

Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu

Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross (4)

Saint Hildegard of Bingen,

Saint Bridget,

Saint Catherine of Siena,

Saint Teresa of Avila (2)

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (2)

Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên van Thuân

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (3)

Saint Josephine Bakhita

Saint Francis of Assisi (3)

Saint Anthony of Padua

Saint Bonaventure

Saint Augustine (2)

Saint John Chrysostom

Saint Basil the Great

Saint Thomas Aquinas (2)

Saint John Paul II (2)

Saint Vincent de Paul (2)

Saint Teresa of Calcutta (2)

Saint Benedict (2)

Saint Faustina Kowalska

Saint Thomas More,

Saint Philip Neri

Blessed Paul VI

the seven holy founders of the Order of the Servants of Mary,

the seven blessed sisters of the first monastery of the Visitation in Madrid,

the Japanese martyrs Saint Paul Miki and companions,

the Korean martyrs Saint Andrew Taegon and companions,

the South American martyrs Saint Roque González, Saint Alonso Rodríguez and companions.

the Trappists of Tibhirine, Algeria

Saint Scholastica

Saint Monica

 

And for now, I’m just going to drop my favorite quotes from Gaudete et Exsultate here so I can find them later.

My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own
time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us “to be
holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph 1:4). (2)

Referring to Hebrews 12:1’s “great could of witnesses”, he says:

These witnesses may include our own mothers,
grandmothers or other loved ones (cf. 2 Tim 1:5). Their lives may not always have been perfect,
yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord. (3)

 

We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. (6)

7. I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who
raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their
families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see
the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours,
those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them “the middle class of
holiness”

 

Saint John Paul II reminded us that “the witness to Christ borne even to the shedding
of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants”. (9)

 

The important thing is that each believer discern his
or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God
has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not
meant for them. (11)

 

12. Within these various forms, I would stress too that the “genius of woman” is seen in feminine
styles of holiness, which are an essential means of reflecting God’s holiness in this world. Indeed,
in times when women tended to be most ignored or overlooked, the Holy Spirit raised up saints
whose attractiveness produced new spiritual vigour and important reforms in the Church.

 

We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by
bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the
consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by
loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a
living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are
you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are
you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal
gain. (14)

 

16. This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example:
a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts.
But she says in her heart: “No, I will not speak badly of anyone”. This is a step forward in holiness.
Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even
though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that
brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she
takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto
the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.

 

Every saint is a message which the Holy Spirit
takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people. (21)

 

You too need to see the entirety of your life as a
mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you.
Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every
decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received. Allow the
Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world. (23)

 

24. May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to
the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that
this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission. The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite
your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever
open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.

 

26. It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet
while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and
integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be
contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously
carrying out our proper mission.
27. Could the Holy Spirit urge us to carry out a mission and then ask us to abandon it, or not fully
engage in it, so as to preserve our inner peace? Yet there are times when we are tempted to
relegate pastoral engagement or commitment in the world to second place, as if these were
“distractions” along the path to growth in holiness and interior peace. We can forget that “life does
not have a mission, but is a mission”.[27]
28. Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead
to holiness.

29. This does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God.
Quite the contrary. The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an
endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard. We are
overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din, filled not by joy but
rather by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning. How can we fail to realize the
need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt
dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful. Sooner or later,
we have to face our true selves and let the Lord enter. This may not happen unless “we see
ourselves staring into the abyss of a frightful temptation, or have the dizzying sensation of
standing on the precipice of utter despair, or find ourselves completely alone and abandoned”.[28]
In such situations, we find the deepest motivation for living fully our commitment to our work.
30. The same distractions that are omnipresent in today’s world also make us tend to absolutize
our free time, so that we can give ourselves over completely to the devices that provide us with
entertainment or ephemeral pleasures.[29] As a result, we come to resent our mission, our
commitment grows slack, and our generous and ready spirit of service begins to flag. This
denatures our spiritual experience. Can any spiritual fervour be sound when it dwells alongside
sloth in evangelization or in service to others?
31. We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal
life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing
love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to
growth in holiness.

 

32. Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the
contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be
faithful to your deepest self.

 

34. Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God.
Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less
human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the
words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a
saint”.

 

37. Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a
person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the
depth of their charity.

 

41. When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right
road. They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their
own psychological or intellectual theories. God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We
are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of
that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to
control God’s transcendence.
42. Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of
every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed
certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it
devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there.

 

50. Ultimately, the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents
grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential
good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth.

 

57. Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the
worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centred and elitist
complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected
ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political
advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about
the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help
and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than
letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about
communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense
crowds that thirst for Christ.

58. Not infrequently, contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a
museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians
give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to
be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savour. This may well be a subtle
form of pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures. It can
affect groups, movements and communities, and it explains why so often they begin with an
intense life in the Spirit, only to end up fossilized… or corrupt.

 

61. In other words, amid the thicket of precepts and prescriptions, Jesus clears a way to seeing
two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother. He does not give us two more formulas or two
more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so
many other faces. For in every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenceless and those in need, God’s very image is found. Indeed, with the scraps
of this frail humanity, the Lord will shape his final work of art. For “what endures, what has value in
life, what riches do not disappear? Surely these two: the Lord and our neighbour. These two riches do not disappear!”

 

89. It is not easy to “make” this evangelical peace, which excludes no one but embraces even
those who are a bit odd, troublesome or difficult, demanding, different, beaten down by life or
simply uninterested. It is hard work; it calls for great openness of mind and heart, since it is not
about creating “a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority”,[75] or a
project “by a few for the few”.[76] Nor can it attempt to ignore or disregard conflict; instead, it must
“face conflict head on, resolve it and make it a link in the chain of a new process”.[77] We need to
be artisans of peace, for building peace is a craft that demands serenity, creativity, sensitivity and
skill.

 

98. If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an
annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out,
or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see
in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the
Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a
Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?

 

Our defence of the innocent unborn,
for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life,
which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of
development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute,
the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert
euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.[84]
We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel,
spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar,
living their entire lives in abject poverty. (101)

 

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the
situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue
compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a
thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the
shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.

 

115. Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the
various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped,
defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the
good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be
said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their
own discontent by lashing out at others. It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other
commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying,
and ruthlessly vilify others. Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all
things ablaze (cf. Jas 3:6).

 

117. It is not good when we look down on others like heartless judges, lording it over them and
always trying to teach them lessons. That is itself a subtle form of violence.[95] Saint John of the
Cross proposed a different path: “Always prefer to be taught by all, rather than to desire teaching
even the least of all”.[96] And he added advice on how to keep the devil at bay: “Rejoice in the
good of others as if it were your own, and desire that they be given precedence over you in all
things; this you should do wholeheartedly. You will thereby overcome evil with good, banish the
devil, and possess a happy heart. Try to practise this all the more with those who least attract you.
Realize that if you do not train yourself in this way, you will not attain real charity or make any
progress in it”.[97]

 

144. Let us not forget that Jesus asked his disciples to pay attention to details.
The little detail that wine was running out at a party.
The little detail that one sheep was missing.
The little detail of noticing the widow who offered her two small coins.
The little detail of having spare oil for the lamps, should the bridegroom delay.
The little detail of asking the disciples how many loaves of bread they had.
The little detail of having a fire burning and a fish cooking as he waited for the disciples at
daybreak.
145. A community that cherishes the little details of love,[107] whose members care for one
another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is
present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.

 

167. The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life
offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid
and good. All of us, but especially the young, are immersed in a culture of zapping. We can
navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three
virtual scenarios. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend.

 

 

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Why I am a horrible evangelist

One of my Lenten things, one I actually did, was read through Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life again, for the first time in several years. Since I use his 5-fold framework for the Christian life – worship, community, discipleship, service, witness – as an examination of conscience on an ongoing basis, it wasn’t surprising, but his, well, evangelical point that the Christian life should be centered around the Great Commandments (Love God and neighbor) and the Great Commission (go into all the world, preaching the gospel and baptizing) came out strong in my reading this time. Mostly because, while I am working on the former, I am horrible at the latter.

As if to prove the point, a friend of mine who is a professed atheist but who gets dragged to church (long story) posted this:

An Early Thought for Sunday: Faith is weird. SRSLY. It’s weird. As The Holy Bible explains it, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of thing unseen.”

My faith in science fits this description perfectly, but I would add: Test it, test it, and then test it again. And when you’re done doing that, test it again.

An absolutely crucial element of my faith is bold, unapologetic, doubt.

Doubt. I call bullshit.

My faith in science makes me hammer against it with questions science cannot answer. Science asks. It challenges. And challenges. It doesn’t worship. Faith does.

The fact that my first reaction is “I love this” – the authenticity of his faith claim, the frank assessment of his view of Christianity, the challenge of doubt – probably can be admitted into evidence in the case against me as an evangelist. I mean, the really good evangelists are great counterpunchers who would be already prepping their responses before they finish the first sentence of his post. Not me.

First of all, he’s right. Not only that, he’s not the first to make the point. Lookit, St. Paul writes at the beginning of I Corinthians, one of the oldest books of the New Testament, that we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (I Cor 1:23). Weird, in other words. SRSLY.

So, if I were a half-decent evangelist, I would point to the arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas, who built on philosophical principles to argue for God’s existence at the beginning of his Summa Theologica by pointing to the sheer orderliness of creation as an argument for a creator. Or I would cite the astrophysicists and microbiologists who started out as atheists but realized that what the comic improbability of what they studied with the tools of science led them to a reasoning toward an ordering force. Or throw Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ out there as an example of an atheist journalist who was flipped by his own research. Or I would point to the seeming universality of a moral code, even one we flaunt, as a sign of a natural law. Or that we see cross-cultural examples of heroic self-sacrifice, flying in the face of natural instincts of self-preservation. Or the unfailing existence of laughter, joy, art and beauty as signs that we were made to be more than efficient Darwinist survivors.

But, honestly, I’m not interested in making those cases. It’s not that I’m lazy (though I am). It’s that the God who I seek to center my life around isn’t an impersonal force that philsophical arguments can get me to.

Ultimately, I’m a lousy evangelist because I’m not faithful, I’m not a believer, in the sense that agnostics and atheists are operating in the question. In the West we think of belief as a matter of the intellect, as the will accepting tenets of who God is and what that enjoins upon us. But that’s not what it is, at least for me.

Faith is about the heart, not the head, first. It’s about being in a loving relationship, not a cognitive acknowledgement.

The best I can do as a comparison is to say, I love my wife. Intellectually, I want to understand her as best I can, to know her as well as I can, to figure out how best to serve her, to be sure I understand what she’s saying to me. If you want a discussion about whether or not she exists? Sorry. If you want to hammer me with questions about whether I can prove she is real? That’s a bullshit conversation that’s a waste of my time as I pursue loving her to my fullest. Not interested in the conversation. I’m just going to focus on loving her.

Same thing about God.

Now, before you go Aww, that’s so sweet, stop it. What I just said there is a horrible thing for a Christian who is called to spread the Gospel. Because I’m basically saying to my friends who haven’t already had a loving encounter with God, Good luck to you. That’s awful. I should work harder at helping you meet this God that I say that I know and love.

But the learning about, for me, comes after the encounter, not before, and I can’t manufacture that encounter for you. I could have learned every possible thing about my now-wife, without meeting her, and it wouldn’t have made me love her. I can tell you a lot about this God, but about really doesn’t do the trick. All I can do is ask God to go meet you where you are, and, I’ll be honest, God doesn’t do a lot of things I ask.

Incidentally, my favorite professor in seminary, a New Testament scholar of no relation named Luke Johnson, made a sorta similar argument about the origins of the Gospels.

Today, we get caught up in whether the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate as if the accuracy by modern standards proves its worth. But Dr. Johnson’s belief was that the central moment of Christianity was the Resurrection, which lay chronologically between the life of Jesus and the founding of the “religion”. The earliest ones to encounter the resurrected Jesus were dumb-founded – they had an experience of a risen Jesus that was strong enough that they all died horrible deaths as martyrs rather than renounce that core experience. But they really didn’t know what the heck happened in that experience, and so they used the language they had – not just the actual language, but the stories and archetypes of their culture – to try to make sense of what they had lived.

So the virgin birth, the prophecies, the allusions to the Jewish Messiah, the exorcisms and healings? Yes, there were contemporary parallels to all of these in the literature of the day. That was the authors’ point, to Johnson – take all that those roles and images applied to a slew of now-forgotten contemporary heroes, and Jesus was all that and a bag of chips. If they could have found other stories of divinity conjoined with humanity, they would have used those too. Not to try to sell someone on a concept that was, well, seriously weird. But to try to testify who it was that they experienced after Jesus died a gruesome death, who it was they loved so much that they followed him down that same road. Experience first, about-ing later.

Sorry. I really do wish I was a better evangelist. If I find a good one, I’ll send her or him your way. If I ever get the knack, I’ll circle back to this. (Not that you wanted or asked for one.) But Happy Easter nonetheless, whether it comes wit a life-changing experience or just nightmarish parking in the church lot and some milk chocolate bunnies.

How many kinds of people do you see?

How many kinds of people do you see?

I notice that a lot of people see two kinds of people: Good People and Evil People.

Some people see only one kind of people: We are all basically the same, even though our background and experiences shape us a little and our choices can shape our future.

Some people see lots of kinds of people: we separate people out by their gender, race, class, region, religion, sexual orientation, age…all of these make us significantly different, so if you build out a grid, you get lots of different kinds of people.

But maybe there are no kinds of people.

No matter how you split out identities into kinds, you’ll always find people who don’t fit their “kind,” and plenty of people sorta fit their kind and sorta don’t. That’s why we shouldn’t put people in boxes.

But I also think it oversimplifies things to say that there’s really only one kind of people. Usually, that “lowest common denominator” humanity that we all share looks like the culturally dominant model of life – like white male privilege or whatever. Where we come from isn’t everything, but it isn’t nothing, either.

But mostly, I have to reject the “two kinds of people” approach. When I was in high school, we learned about the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which argued that an all-knowing and all-powerful God who exists beyond time already knew who would be saved and who would be damned, before any of us ever got started. And my reaction was, I would give that theology credence if I ever met people who both believed in predestination and believed they were not among the elect.

It’s sorta the same with the Good People vs. Evil People. I have yet to meet someone who thinks of themselves, truly, as evil. And people I respect who work with folks that the rest of us would call EVIL says constantly that he has never met anyone who is evil; just despairing, or damaged, or mentally ill. And in most cases we can’t decide on who is Evil and who is Good – it almost depends on who we agree with and who we don’t.

There are extreme cases. In the week since the Parkland shooting, I have seen the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, referred to as an “animal” and “a monster” by victimized families (who I don’t blame) and elected officials (who I do). Undoubtedly, what Cruz did was evil. Full stop.

But I was talking to a friend I greatly respect who lives in Coral Springs, whose son is a hear away from attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, whose husband knows well the police officers who responded to the scene knowing they had their own children inside. And what she said to me through tears was this: There were not 17 victims that day. There were 18. 

If we want to say that Cruz was a monster or an animal or an Evil Person, well, certainly his last heinous acts make that case. But my friend’s point, with which I could not agree more, is that if Cruz is a monster, he was made so by the rest of us. We didn’t surround his adopted family with enough support. We let him slip through the holes of our non-system of mental health and social support. We didn’t react to the signs of distress; not only law enforcement, but all of those who could have reached out. And we created a culture in which violence was an easier choice than it could have been. What he did was Evil, exponentially so. But that isn’t enough to make the rest of us Good.

So I’m going to stick with “no kinds of people.” Let’s understand that we all have Evil and Good within us, and we all create Evil and Good around us, and as much as we want to grade on a curve, the scale is really absolute. Let’s understand that we all have a past that shapes us and all have a future we can shape, and we’re not all the same, but we’re also not irrevocably different. And let’s understand that the future we shape is an interconnected one. I heard about a conference whose theme was “The Power of One,” and my thought was The power of one was evidenced by Nikolas Cruz, killing and destroying. The power of creating and sustaining takes not one, but all.

That’s how many kinds of people I see. How about you?

From Now On

From Now On (with a great backstory)

This last song on the soundtrack seems, in some ways, the most “gospel-y.” There’s a little flourish in the piano before the first chorus that has a gospel flair, and the sound, once the song gets ramped up, is very reminiscent of contemporary Christian music’s Rend Collective.

The theme is at least in part reminiscent of a core Christian message, that the essence of sanctification of a life is the stripping away of all that is not holy, until all that’s left is reliant on God. So while Barnum is singing to his circus family, the words could be offered by a Christian who has weathered similar hard times as prayer.

A man learns who is there for him
When the glitter fades and the walls won’t hold
‘Cause from then, rubble
What remains
Can only be what’s true
If all was lost
There’s more I gained
Cause it led me back
To you

Per the discussion earlier about how easy it is for those who have earthly success to embrace it as the source of their meaning rather than faith, the second verse echoes both the seduction of fame and power and the ultimate emptiness of it.

I drank champagne with kings and queens
The politicians praised my name
But those are someone else’s dreams
The pitfalls of the man I became
For years and years
I chased their cheers
The crazy speed of always needing more
But when I stop
And see you here
I remember who all this was for

It’s valuable to sit with this insight for a while, but I’m afraid I’ve already beaten the point into the ground in my earlier posts, so let me close with a different reflection from the song. Pasek and Paul weave two mantras into the chorus, “From now on,” (which is hearkens back to St. Paul’s call in 2 Corinthians 6 that “now is an acceptable time”) and “Come back home.” Literally, the “home” Barnum et al. refer to is a bar, which…, but more broadly, they are talking about a return to the circus life from which their family formed.

But some Christians hear “home” as “heaven,” not in this song but more generally. So let me talk about the afterlife for a minute, even though it has nothing directly to do with the show.

Among some of my non-believing friends, religious belief is sometimes equated with belief in an afterlife. This cuts both ways – while some ridicule religious folk for believing in life after death, others are a little wistful that they can’t find it in themselves to believe in an afterlife.

To be fair, many people of faith also focus on heaven and hell as a key motivator for faith. This is often how we open an evangelical call, at least if church marquees are any indication. My favorite is a New Year’s Day homily I heard a young priest give (he didn’t claim authorship): “Last night you raised it. Today, you feel like it. Repent, or you will inhabit it.”

I don’t find that line of reasoning particularly motivating. Nor do I find its opposite, extolling the joys of heaven, all that persuasive. It’s not that I don’t believe in an afterlife; it’s just that I think if your purpose for faith is achieving a heavenly reward, you’re missing the point of the whole thing.

Faith is not about a transaction but about a relationship. When we say we believe in God so that we can go to heaven, we reduce faith to an investment plan, where we contribute in order to achieve a future payout. I don’t believe that’s what God wants.

God wants a loving relationship with us, his creation. Love isn’t something you can commit to starting at a future date – you wouldn’t say to someone, “I don’t love you now, but I plan to begin loving you in five years, so let’s talk then.” Love happens in the now, and while it can grow with time and practice, if what we commit to is love, we commit to it today.

Now it may be that my beloved isn’t with me this moment but may be in the future. That doesn’t negate my love for my beloved right now; it simply means that when we are reunited, I will be able to experience and express that love in profoundly better ways. But even in my beloved’s absence, I can still soak in that love, and even when the separation is painful, the love is fulfilling.

That is how I can best describe my thoughts on the afterlife. To the extent that I love God now, I experience God’s love for me now, too, and it is wonderful. It is enough as it is to “justify” the relationship. If a better way to live out that love comes later, super. If not, this is enough. We experience heaven (the loving presence of God) and hell (the absence of relationship with God) now, in each moment. What comes after death, I suspect, is an amplified version of how we live today.

So if heaven is one of those things that “has waited for tomorrow, start tonight.”

Actually, THIS is the Greatest Show: The Circus and the Mass

I’m posting all the lyrics to the opener to the show here, interspersed with commentary,  (I don’t have a video clip to share; here’s the official song, though), which I won’t do for the rest of the posts. It is an impressive, attention-getting opening and closing, and from the little bit I said about ritual, it marks the doorway in and out of a liminal space; it gets the audience charged up and prepared to enter into a different world. And I couldn’t help thinking, as a Catholic, “This is what mass should be like!” (Sorry, this one is going to be more relevant to those in high-liturgical churches).

And I mean that seriously. If you believed what Catholics profess, then the Mass should be “the greatest show.” It should be a liminal moment where “the impossible comes true.” “It’s everything you ever want. It’s everything you ever need. It’s here right in front of you. This is where you want to be.”

Look, I know that’s probably not your weekly or daily experience. It’s not mine, unless I’m really focused on the meaning of what we’re doing. But consider what we claim to be true about what happens when we get together:

  • The God who creates and sustains everything meets with us.
  • We recall that God has mercy on us for everything we do wrong.
  • We hear God speak to us through sacred Scripture and preaching.
  • God changes simple bread and wine we bring into His body and his blood in a participation in the sacrifice of God’s own Son to reconcile us to Him.
  • We eat the Body and Blood so that we can be united with God.

If we understand God as the all-powerful Creator of all things and also understand this all as an expression of God’s intense love for each of, specifically, well, that’s a lot more “impossible comes true” than tigers, elephants and stunts.

I already talked about the power of ritual to lead us to a transcendent reality. Just look throughout these lyrics at how strongly that liminality is evoked. And, if you profess that the ultimate purpose of life is union with God, and that this is the one path to get there, the hunger in the first verse is understandable, tangible.

Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for (woah)
Been searching in the dark, your sweat soaking through the floor (woah)
And buried in your bones there’s an ache that you can’t ignore
That “ache you can’t ignore” evokes St. Augustine’s famous line in his Confessions: “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Taking your breath, stealing your mind
And all that was real is left behind
Maybe it goes without saying that that one line tips the hand that this song is about the circus, about an empty show, rather than about ritual.
Don’t fight it, it’s coming for you, running at ya
It’s only this moment, don’t care what comes after
Your fever dream, can’t you see it getting closer
Just surrender ’cause you feel the feeling taking over
It’s fire, it’s freedom, it’s flooding open
It’s a preacher in the pulpit and you’ll find devotion
Besides the obvious religious allusion of the last line, there is a long history of Christian mystics reporting ecstatic personal encounters with the holy that sound much like this.
There’s something breaking at the brick of every wall it’s holding I’ll let you now
So tell me do you wanna go?
Where it’s covered in all the colored lights
Where the runaways are running the night
Impossible comes true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
We light it up, we won’t come down
And the sun can’t stop us now
Watching it come true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
colossal we come these renegades in the ring
(Woah) where the lost get found in the crown of the circus king
Lost get found – another bit analogy in Christian literature, echoing Jesus’ declaration that He is the good shepherd that searches for his lost sheep.
Don’t fight it, it’s coming for you, running at ya
It’s only this moment, don’t care what comes after
It’s blinding outside and I think that you know
Just surrender ’cause you’re calling and you wanna go
Where it’s covered in all the colored lights
Where the runaways are running the night
Impossible comes true, intoxicating you
Oh, this is the greatest show
We light it up, we won’t come down
And the sun can’t stop us now
Watching it come true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
A note on the “colored lights.” One of the things that sets spectacles like circuses, sports and shows apart is the sensory overload of colors and lights. Recall that Christian churches have often tried to design their sacred space with stained glass and bright candlelight. While this is now more about consistency with earlier tradition, at the time, those were the “high-tech” means of “wowing” a crowd.
It’s everything you ever want
It’s everything you ever need
And it’s here right in front of you
This is where you wanna be (this is where you wanna be)
It’s everything you ever want
It’s everything you ever need
And it’s here right in front of you
This is where you wanna be
This is where you wanna be
This bridge, repeated like a religious chant, is one that has far more truth for religious ritual than a show.
When it’s covered in all the colored lights
Where the runaways are running the night
Impossible comes true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
We light it up, we won’t come down
And the sun can’t stop us now
Watching it come true, it’s taking over you
This is the greatest show
When it’s covered in all the colored lights
Where the runaways are running the night
Impossible comes true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
We light it up, we won’t come down
And the walls can’t stop us now
I’m watching it come true, it’s taking over you
Oh, this is the greatest show
‘Cause everything you want is right in front of you
And you see the impossible is coming true
And the walls can’t stop us (now) now, yeah
This is the greatest show (oh!)
This is the greatest show (Oh!)
This is the greatest show (oh!)
This is the greatest show (oh!)
This is the greatest show (Oh!)
This is the greatest show (oh!)
(This is the greatest show)
This is the greatest show (oh!)
This is the greatest show!
So listen to this song and think about what a mass would look like that lived up to the claims this song makes. What we profess we believe meets this over-the-top standard. What we deliver as a Church seldom does, and that’s usually because the community, which both performs and attends, ceases to remember how profound we proclaim it to be. It’s also because we have (usually) sapped the “liminality” out of the mass through familiarity and safe choices. But that fails to render it any less true that this really is the greatest show.
We should strive for worship that warrants the lyrics of this song.

The refining fire of this moment

Life has a way of sorting out your priorities for you.

We all have a story we tell ourselves and maybe others about what’s really important to us, what our core values are. A lot of times, that story reflects what we want to be true about ourselves, but maybe not our reality. Usually (at least in my life), we excuse the inconsistencies between what we say is important and all the other stuff that we give our hearts to by saying that they work together toward an integrated whole. My career supports my family. The time I spend watching TV or playing fantasy football refreshes me so that I can be a better parent. It’s all good.

That’s especially true with seemingly innocuous stuff, I think. If you’re spending time on things that aren’t innately bad and are generally socially accepted, it’s easy to fit them in to your professed value system. For a while.

But Life has a way of intervening in a way that shows you where the seams are between your integrated system and asks you to choose which is more important: you say your marriage comes first, but it’s your next promotion you can’t get your mind off of. You say your kids are your priority, but you won’t get off your Facebook feed to spend time with them. Eventually, those cracks show and you have to choose what really is important to you. Even if you don’t acknowledge the choice as such, that’s what it is. You may have told yourself that all of the elements of your life fit together just fine, but that was a ruse to explain a gap in your professed and lived values.

I raise this because I’ve been reflecting on a couple of items that came across my feed this week and their broader import, particularly for Christians in America today. The first impetus of this reflection was a blog post by Beth Moore, about her “identity crisis.” While she does not explicitly spell out the context for this crisis in the post, it’s pretty reasonable to assume this loss of identity, which is really a distancing from the community she identified with, has been sparked by some of the more scandalous elements of the Trump campaign and presidency – the Access Hollywood video, the “whataboutism” of his soft stance on the “alt-right” in the wake of Charlottesville, maybe some other things. It appears from her post that many of her friends, the community she identifies with, are excusing or justifying comments or actions that she don’t think jibe with the ethics of following Jesus. Based on the comments on her blog, she is not alone in this.

The post as a whole reads as a very personal elaboration of the tweet pinned to her Twitter profile:

And as much as I ache for this woman I know only as the author of my wife’s favorite Bible studies, I know that what she’s going through is, if not inevitable, for the best for those who, like her, truly want to be followers of Jesus. We are at a moment in America in which many Christians are facing a rapidly opening gap that had been just a seam not long ago between their politics and their profession of faith. Let me explain.

Sociologists of religion and anthropologists will tell you that religion serves a culture by legitimizing the power structure of that culture; this is the primary “feature” of a religion from a sociological perspective.

But Christianity (and, I suspect, other religions) has a “bug” that undermines this feature. Its foundational belief is in an omnipotent God who merits all respect and honor and who calls for a response of radical and unremitting love for God and neighbor (universally defined). If “loving God through loving each other” is our prime directive, it’s a directive both insatiable and simple enough to overcome qualifying and contextualizing.

We who profess this faith tend to layer on other things on top of that faith. We are Christians, sure, but we’re conservative Christians or progressive Christians or nationalist Christians or Catholic Christians or Evangelical Christians, or, or, or. We tell ourselves, especially because those around us in the Christian Community think and act and talk the same way, that these modifiers integrate into a larger whole that binds together, but the seams always fray eventually. It does so for progressive Christians and conservative Christians when they dive so deep into the Gospel and soak in its message that they are confronted by the places where their modifier doesn’t quite breed the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that Paul describes as the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. People struggle to keep the seams together, and sometimes they push away from focusing on God so much so they can stay comfortable in their modifier. But, again, that’s a choice of it’s own.

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I drafted this in August, then, uncharacteristically, left it in draft. That was pre-#MeToo. Still works, I’m afraid.

Reclaiming Hope

A confession: I get a lot of books from people, and most of them, I never read. (I also give a lot of books to people. If you’re run of them, let this absolve you of any guilt you feel for not reading them.) I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind the gift of a book, and if I had infinite time, I’d like to reward the kindness of the gift by reading each book and starting a conversation about it, but life gets in the way. The fact is, I really don’t read many books at all, no matter the source. When I do, they have to be relevant to a passion of mine, or fill me with curiosity, or challenge me in some way. Otherwise, they sit on my desk, until they move to my bookshelf, which is a parking lot from which the cars never exit.

So when I was given an advance copy of Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope, I really wasn’t sure I’d read it. I am passionate about the intersection of faith and civic life – it was the topic of my graduate study, and with the election of Pope Francis I rediscovered this passion and started this incredibly sporadic blog as an outlet – and I was happy to see someone writing on the topic.  I was struck by the title, in particular. Last year, when what the idea that is becoming Love Not Fear started rolling around in my heart, the phrase that first popped into my mind was “Hope Not Fear,” which I rejected, because the word “Hope” has, for the last eight years, been tied so closely with President Barack Obama that I felt that using it would immediately evoke a political response that wasn’t at all what I was going for.  But hope itself is still a theological virtue; the title “Reclaiming Hope” spoke to the need to recover the value of the term and the ideal.

I ended up reading it, mostly, because I was added to a Facebook group of fellow sneak-peekers, and was encouraged and fascinated by the mix of mostly millennial, mostly evangelical members who were really excited about the prospect of reading this book. So I dove in.

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I am pretty firmly non-partisan, and while earlier in my life I had partisan rooting interests, with each passing year I find myself more and more rejecting the binary system our society seems more and more committed to. My primary reason from eschewing partisan loyalties is rooted in the First Commandment about having no other gods; too often, I encounter people who conflate their political agenda with their faith such that it’s hard to tell whether they can conceive of a God who is big enough not to be put into a partisan political box. My encounters with God tend above all else to challenge me to stretch beyond my comfort zone. I see in others, and can reflect on my own past, that too much commitment to a political ideology risks tuning out the message God has for us, and I think the current environment tends to lead partisan-committed people to resist seeing their opponents as fellow children of God worthy of respect.

All of which is to say, I really appreciate how Reclaiming Hope presents as a whole a picture that will likely make everyone a little uncomfortable.  My hope is that people interested in faith and politics will read the book in its entirety and resist putting it down when it makes you feel uneasy.  For conservatives, the first section of the book is a possible barrier, as Wear tells his story as teenage volunteer on the Obama ’08 presidential campaign and mid-level staffer in the Administration, and, perhaps more challenging to readers who may have doubts about the President’s own faith, as Wear pulls out and focuses on several clear statements and entire speeches President Obama gave in which he spoke to his faith directly.  Even if you were never tempted to buy the theory that the President is Muslim, if you weren’t a fan of his, you may be challenged to read through this first section, which comes across as pretty glowing. (One quibble – as someone who didn’t closely follow this element of the presidency, I hope the e-version of his book includes links to the primary source speeches he references.)

The second section, on the other hand, will challenge liberals.  Wear spells out in some detail five different issues in which President Obama failed to live up to the hopes Wear had for the President to be a “uniter, not a divider,” to quote a predecessor, on issues important to faith communities. This could have been a very different book – a much more stark tale of Wear’s innocence lost and a sweeping disillusionment with the president he went to work for – but it doesn’t read that way. Even when Wear is disappointed with the decisions of the Administration, he refuses to name names of those who undermined his work (while heaping praise on the people he worked with who treated him with respect).  Even so, committed Obama supporters will fill uneasy with the way Wear depicts the five issues he lays out.

The third section of the book, and the shortest, is where I hope Wear will speak more in the future. His last two chapters address “reclaiming hope” by remembering that the Christian’s hope is not in a political platform, party or candidate but in the God she professes. He then begins to explore some ways he thinks that faithful citizens and faith communities can and should make a difference in today’s society. It’s a taste of what could and should be a much bigger conversation – something like the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that Wear’s book is one worth reading if the intersection of faith and politics in the US is of interest. He writes from a perspective that isn’t often heard, and it may well not be your perspective. But the encounter will help you define your beliefs on the topic, and in the process may help you reclaim hope.