Monday, December 29, 2008

My Wisest Words

I try to put some thought into things I say and write, especially when those things are for public consumption. I try to study where I should, think through what I want to say, and craft my words precisely.

But sometimes things happen that remind me what true wisdom is, and where it can be found. For instance, for the week around Christmas Day we stayed with my daughters' families, and had a grand time with the grandchildren. One of my grandsons is only five months old, so there's not much conversing we can do, but he likes me and I enjoy bouncing him and singing him nonsense syllables. This babbling serves no functional purpose except perhaps as a source of amusement to those watching, and is hardly dignified, but that doesn't matter. My grandson enjoys it, and while I'm doing it, he's all that matters.

Therein lies the wisdom that discursive reason cannot grasp. At his age, the little guy is that curious combination of totally self-centered and utterly unselfconscious. He has not yet learned to be sly, or to work things to his own advantage (those days will come soon enough). He simply exists out of his own center, living life as it happens. That outlook seems contagious, for when I'm playing with him, I find myself doing the same thing. I'm not thinking of his education, or character formation, or any other such weighty things (those days, too, will come soon enough, albeit secondarily for me). I'm simply being grandpa, and enjoying our time together. I'm not planning, or executing, or evaluating, or pondering - I'm just being, and relating out of that being. It's a skill that babies and a few others possess, and we adults tend to lose along the way.

This isn't to say that there isn't virtue in contemplation, or carefully deliberated action. But there's also a place for simply being, and enjoying who you are and who you're with. Hopefully we'll all take some time to do that during this holy season.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Payoff

Temperamentally, I can look at life – particularly Christian discipleship – with a grim eye. I tend to relish themes like counting the cost, and not looking back once you've put your hand to the plow, and the sacrifices necessary to follow Christ. Highlighted in my Bible are verses pertaining to trials and difficulties and struggles. The past two posts on winnowing and smelting are typical of how I look at the Christian life and attendant struggles.

This outlook may be a helpful counterweight to a culture that focuses more on the comfort and benefits of the Gospel that the associated cost – when it pays attention to the Gospel at all. However, even useful counterweights can introduce imbalance if they are not kept in check.

That's why it's helpful for people like me to step back occasionally and remember that the struggle and trial and purification has a goal, and that goal is good. The winnowing ends, and you have good grain. The ore is finally smelted, and you have the pure metal. The trial brings the victory and the cost brings a payoff.

We are now into the Fourth Week of Advent. Four candles are burning in the wreath, and in days it will be Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, the celebration so festive that the Church taught a whole culture how to celebrate it. Every year the Feast comes around as a reminder that yes, we do have a Redeemer. The road to redemption may be long and trying and difficult, but there is a road where there was none before, and that road has an end.

Perhaps symbolically, this Christmas Ellen and I are away from home, at our children's homes, where all of us far-scattered ones are regathered. During the final countdown days of Advent we will be together. There will be conversations and good coffee and books to read to little ones and plenty of rest and fun and feasting. We will celebrate each other, and our Redeemer, and when the joyous morning comes we will exchange gifts as an expression of our love and esteem for each other, in commemoration of the Great Gift Who was given as the ultimate expression of love. Some days later, we will separate again (though we are never far out of touch), for we are still in this life.

But the day will come soon (very soon, in the grand timescale of things) when we won't have to separate any more. The Advent that is this life will come to an end. The purple will be put away, for the penance will be finished, and the white will come out forever. The True Feast will begin, and the full meaning of all the best Christmas mornings and weddings and reunions and family feasts will be realized. We will then taste the fullness of what all those joyous occasions only gave us the scent of.

So enjoy this Christmas, even in the midst of whatever trials you are enduring. May God bless you as you celebrate the Incarnation, the coming of hope beyond hope, and the opening of the road that had been utterly closed to us.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Refining by fire

Smelting is another Scriptural image for purification. This is the process by which metal is extracted from ore. Most of us moderns have learned of it from diagrams or pictures of industrial processes performed in modern factories far removed from where we live. But to people of Biblical times, smelting was much more immediate and familiar. Large quantities of crushed ore were piled into ovens and heated with a charcoal fire while air was pumped in. The result was a lot of useless slag and a very small amount of more concentrated metal-bearing residue. Once you got enough residue, you did the whole process again to separate out more slag (or “dross"), and then typically again and again until you finally had something like workable metal (hence the reference in Psalm 12:6 to “silver...refined seven times").

Every aspect of smelting was dirty, hot, backbreaking work. From making the charcoal to mining and crushing the ore to working the bellows to digging out the furnace, there was nothing glamorous about it. Smelting was a lot of work for very little return, but it was the only way to get metal, which was necessary for survival. It also provided an immediate object lesson in spiritual growth and maturity.

Granite is good, solid rock. You can hew it, form it, polish it, even engrave it, and it will hold up. Likewise iron is good metal, suitable for forging and hammering. But ore is neither good rock nor good metal. It is too crumbly and weak to serve as building material, too brittle to be hammered and formed, and even too soft to be used as an abrasive. If it isn't refined, it's useless.

This refining process illustrates two things. One is similar to the lesson of grain and chaff: what looks like a lot is in fact very little of value. A large pile of even high quality iron ore might yield a pound of iron; a large pile of a more precious metal such as copper or silver might only yield an ounce or so – and that only after lots of hard labor.

Another lesson is one that is directly used in Scripture several times: that the trials and struggles of this life are like the fire of the smelting furnace, used by God to separate out the precious spiritual maturity from the slag of the natural life. Thus when God in Deuteronomy 4:20 referred to Egypt as “the iron furnace" out of which He had drawn His people, nobody missed the point. This was not only true personally, as individual Israelites could see how the struggles they'd endured had increased their dependence upon God, but also corporately. According to rabbinic legend, only about 20% of the children of Israel chose to make the Exodus – the remainder stayed behind in Egypt, and their identity and memory is lost to history.

God used this smelting image again and again throughout Scripture. “The wicked" were compared to slag in Psalm 119:119, in Isaiah 1:22-25 Isaiah states that the pure “silver" of obedience has become slag that needs to be purified by trial. God explains to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 22:18 that the nation of Israel has become like slag. God uses the image of refining in Daniel 11:35 to explain how "the wise" will be purified through difficulty, and in Zechariah 13:9 God uses the same image to explain how He will deal with all His people. One of the final prophecies in the Old Testament, Malachi 3:2-3 compares the Messiah to "a refiner's fire".

Which is an interesting thing to keep in mind during Advent. Excitement and anticipation builds as we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Messiah. A few of us even hope for the Second Coming. But then, the Jews were excited about the Messiah's coming, despite the stern warning of Malachi (read Chapter 3 again) and the nearly brutal words of John the Baptist in his day. The Jews (and we) hope for goodies and good times; what they (and we) are promised is smelting. Sure, the result is good, but it's very hard on the ore, and a lot of useless bulk gets thrown out along the way.

From this perspective, Advent looks less like a countdown to fun and more like a challenge to our courage and character. Do we have the cojones to stand up and ask for "the treatment", knowing that smelting is not only painful to endure, but embarassingly revealing? How will we feel when the furnace cools and we learn that what we thought was a lot going in was mostly useless slag? ("That little hunk at the bottom is it? The rest of this is just junk?") Yet that trial by fire is the only way we become what we're meant to be. Without it, we're nothing more than debris on a hillside.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Chaff of Life

When it comes to purifying things, there are two images that occur repeatedly in Scripture. One is winnowing, and the other is smelting. For most of us in the modern urban West, these examples lack the potency they had for the original hearers, so we tend to just skim over them. But especially in a season like Advent, where purification is a central theme, it's beneficial to look a little closer at both processes, and how they're used in Scripture, to see what we can learn.

When grain is harvested, you get more than just the grain. You get the husks (or hulls), bits of straw, dust, and other debris in there as well. The general term for this is “chaff”, and it's all waste. In order for the grain to be useful, the chaff has to go. In Biblical times, this was usually done by tossing the harvest on a round flat area, known as a threshing floor, and worked over with a stone something like a big rolling pin, or a wooden framework known as a threshing sledge. This broke the grain free from the chaff. Then workers would take things that looked something like leaf rakes, called winnowing fans (or forks), and with them scoop up the contents of the threshing floor and throw it into the air. The grain, being heavier, would fall back down, while the lighter chaff would be blown away.

Winnowing has a couple of effects. First, it substantially reduces the volume of the grain. A bushel of unwinnowed grain might look pretty full, but much of it is fluff. Once it is winnowed, there is a lot less of it, but it is a lot denser, and all of it is valuable. Another thing winnowing does is thin out the impostors. When viewed from the proper angle, an empty hull can look just like a kernel of grain. Only when you pick it up and it crumples between your fingers do you realize that you didn't have what you thought you did.

In the Old Testament, God frequently used the image of winnowing to drive home what He would do with those who ignored His law. One of the significant prophecies John the Baptist made about Jesus pertained to winnowing (“His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:17) The obedient and faithful were the grain, the hypocritical and superficial were the chaff. When the Pharisees heard that, you can be sure they thought of Jeremiah 15:6-9 – and trembled.

What does this do for us here in Advent? It seems to me that the important thing is to notice that chaff is not something harmful like poison ivy, but it is undesirable specifically because it is useless. Even though it is an expectable part of growth (grains cannot grow without hulls), ultimately the chaff is simply discarded. It is natural, it is even useful in its time, but when harvest comes around (which was the purpose of all that tilling and planting and cutting), it is cast aside.

It's also important to note that the chaff is the visible part of the growing. Look out over a field ripe for harvest and you see golden stalks swaying in the breeze, their rich heads rustling as they rub together. Y'know what? All that you can see is waste – ultimately chaff. The valuable part, the kernels of grain, are hidden away and have to be extracted, separated from the hulls and straw. A particular stalk might look robust and impressive, but only after the externals are removed does anyone know how much grain the stalk actually grew.

So it is with our natural life and all the accouterments that go with it. The work schedules and menu plans and home maintenance and retirement accounts are natural and sometimes necessary parts of our lives, but they are concerns that belong to this world. Like the hull that shelters the grain, their purpose is to nurture the spiritual life that is what the Sower really wants from the field of our lives. And if that's true for the productive aspects of our earthly lives, how much more is it true for the movies and the video games and the other idle things with which we fill our time. Again, not that any of those things are innately bad, any more than hulls and straw are, but they're not the goal of our existence.

Perhaps Advent is a time to ask the Harvester to do a little winnowing in our lives. See what harmless but useless distractions He could call to our attention and help us remove. We may not yet be able to experience the ultimate winnowing in our lives, but it may help us to have some of the chaff removed, if only so we can see that our baskets maybe aren't as full as we thought they were – and that much of what they're full of isn't worth all that much.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

We aren't ready

Advent is an interesting season. In the modern West it has been nearly eclipsed by the mercantile Christmas season (or “XMas”, as C.S. Lewis puts it in his classic essay.) Even for those who strive to observe Advent, such as our family, it can seem a season without depth. When I was growing up, Advent was sort of a “mini-Lent”, and we gave things up or made resolutions, but it never had the grim severity that accompanied the season approaching the Passion (for one thing, that steadily increasing sequence of lit candles was a promising countdown to the Big Day!) So the season tended to devolve into flat rituals, such as opening the doors of the Advent calendar and reading the specified verses. Even the Mass readings took on a predictable cant: “A voice cries out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord!'” “For unto us a Child is born...” The theme of sober preparation, of getting ourselves ready, gets lost in the merriment accompanying the approaching holiday, and lost along with it is the underlying statement implied in that theme.

Implied statement? What would that be?

That we're not ready.

Not ready? How can that be? Aren't we careful to follow all the Church instructions regarding Mass attendance? Do not many of us consecrate even common days to the Lord with Rosaries, or saying the Liturgy of the Hours, or Scripture study? Do we not pray and seek the Lord several times a day?

Perhaps we do. But the ancient cycle of the Church Year was drawn up by men who did those things as well, and in their wisdom they ordained that there should be such a Season, and its message should be: Prepare. It may profit us to examine their reasoning more closely.

In what ways might we be not prepared for Christ's coming? There's an interesting incident in Israel's history that gives a clue. It's in Joshua 24, in the same context as the famous “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” passage (v. 15). In verse 23, Joshua instructs the people to “put away the foreign gods” and to make good on the repeated promises they make to follow the Lord alone (v. 16-24)

But what are these “foreign gods”, and why would this generation of Israelites have any? The literal word is teraphim, and scholars agree that these were household idols – we might call them talismans or good luck charm charms – that people tucked into nooks and crannies of their homes (or tents, as the case may be.) These weren't big, public idols – the last time the Israelites tried that, it was with a golden calf at the foot of Sinai, and the results were catastrophic – but petty little tokens intended to bring luck, or watch over some portion of the hearth or home. In the Israelites' eyes, they weren't so much blatant idolatrous rebellion as minor fetishes.

God didn't see them as minor. He wanted to be the only God the Israelites had, and have His law rule every corner of their lives. But neither did He see these petty godlings as the kind of gross offense the Golden Calf had been. The Israelites brought them out, renounced them, and buried them under a tree.

But you can bet that these petty distractions crept back in over time – as similar things do in our lives. That's why times like Advent are helpful. Perhaps that can be a focus for us: asking God to help us see the petty trinkets and tokens we've let creep in. What are we looking to besides God? What things might He want to clean out? If we did hear a knock on the door of our lives and knew it was Jesus, would we rush to open it for Him? Or would we call out, “just a second!” and scurry about tucking away things we wouldn't want out in plain sight when He walked in? If so, what are those things, and what can we do about them now?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Proverbs 31 for men

The Sunday just before Christ the King Sunday, the Old Testament reading was Proverbs 31 - the account of the diligent wife. Though (sadly) few Catholics could peg this passage from the opening verses, most evangelicals can. It recounts the attributes of a faithful wife, and is often read at times like Mother's Day. I get a kick out of catching Ellen's eye when it's being read, for though she doesn't plant vineyards or spin her own yarn, she's diligent in tending to our house.

I've spoken to men who loved Proverbs 31 as kind of an ideal standard for women, but lamented that there was no equivalent for men. But actually, there is - though it's found in an unlikely place. The passage is Job 29, specifically verses 7-17. It reads thus:

When I went to the gate of the city
and took my seat in the public square,
the young men saw me and stepped aside
and the old men rose to their feet;
the chief men refrained from speaking
and covered their mouths with their hands;
the voices of the nobles were hushed,
and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths.
Whoever heard me spoke well of me,
and those who saw me commended me,
because I rescued the poor who cried for help,
and the fatherless who had none to assist him.
The man who was dying blessed me;
I made the widow's heart sing.
I put on righteousness as my clothing;
justice was my robe and my turban.
I was eyes to the blind
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy;
I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked
and snatched the victims from their jaws.
(New International Version)

Lest anyone think Job was simply blowing his own horn here, remember that God Himself referred to Job as "blameless and upright", which presumably involved a fair amount of humility. We can safely assume that Job exaggerated nothing, but was simply telling things as they were.

We guys tend to like the part where everybody stands and falls silent when we show up, but the thing to notice is why they do that: because Job aided the helpless, and took up the cause of the outcast and the victimized. He doesn't boast of his substantial wealth or community influence, but rather that he took the part of those who had nobody to help them.

Scripturally, this is the mark of a manly man: the willingness to put his strength at the disposal of the weak. This obviously requires sacrifice, and sometimes confrontation, as that last verse indicates. The confrontation part doesn't go down well in our culture, and to many pragmatic men may seem a dangerous step. After all, why alienate that guy? I may have to do business with him in the future, and maybe there's another side to the business about the rental units...(or whatever).

But Job didn't see it from the perspective of what he might gain from a situation - he only saw the victims and their plight. That was enough to move him to action. I can't count how many times this passage has given me comfort in the years I've been fighting the pro-life fight, because if there is any group that is in "the fangs of the wicked", it is unborn children.

It's interesting to note the difference in tenor between the two passages. In Proverbs 31, it is to a woman's credit to tend to her own home, while in Job 29, the noblest work for the man is to see that righteousness is established in the public arena.

I remember being at a men's retreat, and hearing an evangelical pastor for whom I had great respect interrupt his talk to state plainly, "Y'know, I've had it up to here with 'nice'. God doesn't need 'nice' men, he needs strong, courageous, and forthright men. Our culture puts such a high value on 'nice' that it turns us into wimps." Job would agree. Taking up the case of the stranger and breaking the fangs of the wicked are not the actions of a 'nice' man, but of a strong one. That's the kind of man I want to be.

So there you are, guys - that's our Scriptural equivalent. If we want our wives to be "Proverbs 31" women, we should strive to be "Job 29" men. Be warned: it isn't necessarily nice, but it is right. It will be costly, and may involve confronting people (particularly "the wicked", who can be quite intimidating). But that's the standard, and one that was exemplified by Our Lord Himself.

Being a Job 29 man can come naturally, if we let it. I had a glimpse of it this past weekend when we had our grandchildren stay the night - the first night away from their parents for both of them. It was a planned, deliberate step to get them accustomed to the idea, and it had the expected tears and calls for parents, particularly at bedtime. The morning went all right until my granddaughter bumped her head and Momma was not around to comfort her. Upon hearing her tears, her cousin brought her his teddy bear and consoled her, telling her not to cry and that her Momma would be here soon. He missed his mother every bit as much as my granddaughter did, and probably would have loved to commiserate with her. But her distress caused him to forget his, and he devoted his efforts to easing her burden. This is a two-year-old version of Job 29 in action - a very good start.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Truly Scandalous Post



Before proceeding, I advise you that you may find what I'm about to say offensive.











I'm serious. I intend to be almost brutal here. If you're easily scandalized, I recommend you skip this post.











Very well. If you're still reading, remember that you've been warned. Here goes:


I just turned 51 years old. My income this year has been just shy of $27,000. And oh, yes - I weigh about 240 pounds.

There. If you're a member of modern Western society, you are probably at least really surprised, maybe shocked, and perhaps truly scandalized (but I warned you!) But this response raises a question:

Why?

These are all simple facts, some well known and some easy to guess. They have no moral component, and revealing them harms nobody. This being the case, why is it that it is considered at least very unconventional, if not outright rude, to talk about personal details such as this?

There are many facets to that question, but I have a guess as to one reason: we humans are reticent to speak casually about that which we deeply honor. What we worship or revere, that which we perceive as bringing meaning and value to our lives, is not typically the topic of casual conversation. We may talk about these things under certain circumstances, but these are protected matters - hallowed ground, as it were.

Given that our culture reveres - if not worships - wealth, youth, and physical attractiveness, it stands to reason that income, age, and appearance would be protected topics. It has not always been this way. For instance, in literature from just a few decades back you can find quite casual descriptions of people as "pudgy" or "fat" - something that would be considered gravely insulting now, but at the time was merely a description of physique. Back then, different things were revered - two examples being personal religious belief and sexual behaviour. The personal details of those were not topics for casual banter.

Let me be clear about what I mean by this. I am not saying that in prior generations people did not know about someone's religion, or were unclear as to where babies came from. But the deeply personal aspects of these things, the most intimate details, were private. Everyone might know that a man was Catholic, and he might even be quite public about it - but what he discussed with his spiritual advisor, or pondered during his personal times with God, were not for public consumption. It might be public knowledge that a couple went away for a getaway weekend, but what they talked about (and where) would not be a water-cooler conversation topic - and it would have been considered gauche to ask.

This is one place where the purveyors of sexual license got things badly wrong - and were allowed to get away with it. I remember one of the catchphrases of the 1960s being that we needed to talk openly and frankly about sex, because it was nothing to be ashamed of. But shame wasn't the issue. Though some schoolmarms may have misunderstood this, the reason sex wasn't discussed casually was not because it was shameful, but because it was sacred.

In most corners of our culture, that has changed. Now, it is common to find intimate sexual details discussed on television, written up in newspaper columns, and even posted on weblogs. Even people's religious experiences - usually packaged under the category of "spirituality" - are often found in similar places. But have the effrontery to ask someone's age or weight, and you'll probably be stared down as a boor. In this day and age, such things are simply not discussed.

Socially and personally, we humans seem to be hard-wired this way. These matters rarely need to be outlined explicitly - social cues are usually enough. We pick up quickly on what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to discuss, what is acceptable and what is shameful. What topics fall into which categories says a lot about what kind of people we are, and what we value.

Why is this important? Because we can't change something if we don't recognize it. We catch more values from our cultural surroundings than we know. If we're going to cultivate particular values and reject others - particularly if we're going to be passing those values to the next generation - we need to be conscious of where we're getting those values, and their long-term import.

For my part, I don't care if my grandchildren know me as the pudgy grandpa, or know that we don't have enough money to get them elaborate presents this year. But I hope they notice that I spend special time with Jesus every morning, and that part of the reason their grandparents have such a stable and loving home is that we take care to spend time alone together. They won't need to hear every detail. The beneficial results should speak for themselves, and hopefully the message of what is not casually discussed around our home will communicate what is truly important.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Yo ho ho...

I know this is off my usual blogging wavelength, but I couldn't resist. Being a Coast Guard veteran and a member of the Navy League, I'm a bit more attuned to the modern problem of piracy than most people. To many moderns whose only exposure to piracy has been books like Treasure Island and movies like Captain Blood and the recent Pirates of the Caribbean series, piracy seems somehow romantic, almost chivalrous.

The reality is both more prosaic and more brutal. Pirates have been the scourge of the seas as long as men have shipped goods by water, and if the term "scourge of the seas" conjures up images of Johnny Depp, you need to think again. Because a ship is a self-contained society, separated from the law and enforcement mechanisms of land, anyone who seizes control of a ship has absolute mastery of those aboard. When pirates take a vessel, they're usually interested in the cargo - the crew and any passengers are an inconvenience because they are an incentive to a rescue attempt. In a captured ship, anyone aboard is effectively under a death sentence. The best they can hope for is being held for ransom, and a more likely fate is savage execution. The fate of any women doesn't bear considering.

It doesn't take much for piracy to prosper - usually just a lawless country, what the modern media would call a rogue state. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the nations of the Barbary Coast of North Africa were such states. The famous line about "the shore of Tripoli" in the Marine Corps Hymn is a reference to the Marine Corps role in the taming of the Barbary Pirates which operated out of those states. There was nothing swashbuckling or romantic about them. The major world wars of the 20th century and the powerful navies that arose around them put piracy in abeyance, but with the dawn of the 21st century and the rise of various lawless areas around the world, piracy has returned. Particularly dangerous are the Straits of Malacca, along the remote western shores of Myanmar and Malaysia, and the waters around the Horn of Africa, hard by the lawless "nation" of Somalia.

The piracy near Somalia has been getting more attention of late. The most recent incident was a major score - the capturing of a supertanker carrying about $100,000,000 worth of crude oil - but piracy had been on the upswing in that area for some years. I find it interesting that following the seizure of the supertanker, the "government" of Somalia (such as it is) stepped forward to announce that it would rescue the vessel "by force if necessary.". Here's a hint, minister - these are pirates. Force will be necessary.

The impact it has on all of us is indirect but inevitable. The more piracy on the seas, the higher insurance rates are for shipping. Higher rates get passed on in the form of higher transport costs, which find their way into the prices we pay. Since one of the world's piracy hot spots is right by where much of the world's oil floats on its way to market, part of the higher oil prices will be a "piracy tax".

My bet? Another piracy incident or two like the taking of this supertanker, and you'll see a multinational coalition steaming toward Somalia to deal with the problem at its root. Navies came into existence to deal with pirates, and they've never forgotten that mission. Even ships from countries at war have been known to set aside their difference long enough to deal with pirates. So if you hear of such a thing, don't be surprised, and don't feel sympathetic toward the pirates. They deserve what they get.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bishops Beware!

Those Catholic bishops had better watch out. They're skating on thin ice, and could be letting themselves in for real trouble.

At least Chris Korzen thinks so.

Who is Chris Korzen? A lay political activist whose credentials include being a union organizer, software designer, and executive director of "Catholics United". This is a group who is far more in love with their '60s style activism than they are with Church teaching on matters like murdering people, so they set about to create their own magisterium to assuage their consciences. To nobody's surprise, they succeeded! They made a big push this past election to assure Catholics that they need not worry about voting for the vocally pro-abortion Barack Obama, because there were other issues that somehow counterbalanced his idea that slaughtering innocent children was acceptable public policy. One might guess that they were somewhat successful, given that about 54% of Catholics voted for Obama.

Then the bishops made their dangerous mistake. Following the election, the bishops voted "to forcefully confront the Obama administration over its support for abortion", and decried public figures like pro-abortion Kansas Governor Sebelius and Senator Joe Biden (they could have included our Governor Granholm) for continuing to come forward for Communion while publicly defying Church teaching.

All this inflammatory rhetoric alarmed Mr. Korzen. In his eyes, it was clear that the bishops don't know what side their bread is buttered on. Don't they watch CNN? Don't they realize who won the election? In the wake of the bishop's statement, Mr. Kozen laments, "What are the bishops going to do now? They have burned a lot of bridges with the Democrats and the new administration."

I'm sure the bishops are quaking in their loafers.

What are the bishops going to do now? It sounds to me like they've already started doing it. It's called "shepherding their flocks." Also "fulfilling their mission" and "being mindful of Him to whom they must answer." This is something that the Pax Christi types have forgotten in their push to align themselves with the political structures that they prefer: the ultimate answer isn't going to be given to a Senate subcommittee or in the Oval Office, but before the Throne of Christ.

Despite his education at a college "in the Jesuit tradition", Kozen clearly does not understand that there are times when it is wise to burn bridges. Specifically, when your land is in danger from invasion, and you have to deny the enemy access to your vital territories. For too long the Church has given moral ground to the likes of Pax Christi and politicians who want the benefit of being known as Catholic without having to burden themselves with obeying Catholic teaching. These spineless compromisers have grabbed control of seminaries, chanceries, and publications in dioceses across the land, watering down clear Church teaching and encouraging accommodation with the Spirit of the Age in order to get closer to the political power of the land. The Church has too long been plundered and ravaged by these worldlings, to the point where it's not surprising that a majority of Catholics bought their lies.

"Catholics United" and their ilk are clearly suffering from severe anthropocentrism . Focused on the words and the works of man, they think the political structures of this world are what really matter, and forget that there will be a moral judgment. I am thankful that the bishops are remembering that there will be, and are starting to take a stand on the topic. A lot of us Catholics have been waiting for them to speak out, and are praying that they have the courage to continue to do so. It could cost them on the cocktail circuit, and probably with some major donors, and certainly with compromisers like Kozen and Pax Christi - but it will be obedience to He who really matters.

Come to think of it, "Catholics United" is a suitable name. It leaves open the question of "united to what?" From their words and actions, it is clear that they wish to be united to the forces of this world, to the Spirit of the Age, and to political power that will give them temporal gains. In contrast, the bishops are choosing to be united to their Divine Head in obedience to Him and to their oaths and office. I am glad of that, and happily unite myself to the bishops rather than some transient worldly order that will perish quickly. If it means burning bridges with compromisers and worldlings, so be it.

God willing, this is only the beginning of what they will burn.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Watch out, America!

Here's a picture from Barack Obama's first press conference:






That woman to the left of Obama is our own governor, Jennifer Granholm. I don't know what she's doing there, or what she's done to earn such prominence with the popular incoming president, but she has been tapped to be one of Obama's advisors and is strongly rumored to be one of his picks for cabinet or other prominent public office. (This possibility is causing a lot of excitement here in Michigan, for varied reasons.)

Here's a warning to the rest of the nation: you'd better watch out if this happens. Granholm plays well to the media, but she's run Michigan's economy into the ground over the past six years. She blames the auto industry, and the prior governor, and the other party, but the essence is that Michigan has been in a one-state recession during her entire term. It's true that the auto industry has been struggling, and that has caused a ripple effect through the auto parts suppliers, and Michigan's economy is joined at the hip to all of that. But where other governors might have recognized the severity of the situation and worked with the Legislature to take radical steps to deal with the crisis, Granholm clung to her pet ideologies and took orders from the political supporters who put her in office. Any steps she considered had to be signed off by the unions, and the green lobby, and the radical feminists, and any one of a number of liberal groups. Needless to say, nothing was ever done while our state has slid into a deeper economic slough - the surest measure of which has been our severe population loss

I have a good friend who is a state legislator and has had to work closely with the Granholm administration on several issues, particularly the explosive and high-profile issue of tax policy. I trust his judgment (after all, he's friends with me, isn't he? :D ), and his take on Granholm's character is that she's no leader. She knows how to put on a press conference, issue press releases, and give speeches that others write, but when it comes to envisioning or suggesting new direction, she leaves it to her subordinates. This is probably why the special interests put her in office - they knew she'd be safely malleable, a tool to implement their policies rather than a leader who would make actual decisions.

So America - be careful if this woman is chosen. She'll be a figurehead, a mouthpiece - but no true leader. Like Jules in Lewis' That Hideous Strength, she'll be there for public consumption while others run the show behind the scenes.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Burden of Freedom (part 2)

Does anyone think that a frightened American public, faced with national poverty from decades of reckless public and private borrowing, and a declining standard of living, would not sacrifice all these institutions and checks and balances, to be assured comfort and security? Especially when the tool of the media lies so readily available to convince them that this is what's best? Realize that I'm not postulating scheming partisans rubbing their hands in back rooms and cackling about how they will soon Rule the World. This would happen in well-lit conference rooms, possibly under cameras and lights, as gravely concerned people discussed the steps necessary to deal with the crisis. Quietly, stealthily, and gradually the steps will be taken - and all for the common good, because people are in grave need.

Is America ready to stand up to the doorpost and have our collective ear pierced? If so, we'd best remember why that institution was ordered the way it was, and what that pierced ear meant.

The Burden of Freedom (part 1)

Jewish law strictly forbid self-mutilation (Lev 19:28), but there was one exception. Exodus 21 outlines the steps to be taken if a Hebrew slave serves out his six year period of indenture but decides that he wants to stay with his master for good. The master must stand him by the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl, which marks him as a permanent slave of the household.

If this seems harsh, it's because it was. Since God wants all His people to be free, if any of them opted for voluntary slavery, they would be allowed to do it, but they would have to pay a price. The rabbis interpreted the piercing of the ear symbolically. God's people were supposed to have heard His call to be a free people directly at Sinai, and later through Torah, but if they chose slavery instead, then their ears were clearly closed and needed opening - or "piercing", to use the Biblical term.

Why would somebody choose slavery? Because being free is harder than it might seem. True freedom is not unfettered license to do whatever we like, but the freedom to take responsibility for our own lives in the context of a moral social order. It is sounds great in principle but proves difficult in practice. It involves sacrifice, and personal responsibility, and taking risks - risks that might pay off, or might not. Freedom comes with no guarantees. The free have the potential to advance their lives - but also to wreck them. Because of this, the safety of slavery is preferable for some, for it means that someone else takes responsibility for your welfare. All you have to do is please your master and you're taken care of.

I think it especially important to remember this in the wake of America's recent presidential election. With all the rhetorical buildup, from the incessant mantra of "change" to the hymns sung by the Obama Youth, the assumption was that Obama should "do something" about people's lives, particularly their economic situation. It doesn't matter that the largest cause of the current economic problems was people making unwise personal decisions. They borrowed more than they could reasonably pay back, or purchased more house than they could afford in hopes that it would appreciate rapidly and they could sell it for a profit. These are the kind of decisions free people have the liberty to make, but with them comes the possibility of failure. Embed this same folly into the business decisions of corporations large and small (did anyone expect people who were foolish about their personal finances to suddenly become wise when they went to work?), and you have a recipe for economic calamity.

What people want now is someone to stand between them and the consequences of their actions. Most people, and especially my generation, the Baby Boomers, have expectations about what life should be like, and it does not include a lower standard of living. Humans in general and my generation in particular wants to take risks, and should they succeed, we want the benefits, but if they fail, we don't want to take the consequences.

What we forget is that freedom and consequences are inextricably bound. You can't have one without the other. The minute you ask someone to stand between you and the consequences of your actions, you put yourself in the place of the slave who doesn't want to leave his master to live the life of freedom intended for him. It may not be direct and it may not be immediate, but the effect will happen.

This is one reason why I'm so concerned for my country, and the rhetoric flying around, and the expectations being laid on the president-elect, to the point of adulation (e.g. the Obama Youth). These are frighteningly close to the actions of a people who is wanting a saviour - essentially, a master - to shelter them. They want it so badly that they will sacrifice anything - even their freedom - to get it.

Am I being alarmist? I hope so. I hope I am dead wrong about this. I hope everyone is right when they say our system of government, our venerable institutions, and our checks and balances have seen presidents come and go, and endured worse circumstances than this, and still they stand. Yet at the same time I realize that our founding fathers such as John Adams recognized that throughout history, the next step from democracy was despotism - as happened in France from the Revolution to the time of Napoleon. The impetus was always the same: what the dictator offered was order and security in the face of impending or real social catastrophe, and the people jumped at it.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Wisdom

"All get what they want; they do not always like it."

Aslan, The Magician's Nephew

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Day Post

“To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom, and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions; in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom, and approximate the miseries of complete despotism.”

“All efforts to destroy the foundations of our holy religion, ultimately tend to the subversion also of political freedom and happiness.”

“Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.”

Jedediah Morse, scholar and encyclopedist, 1799

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bad Catholics

This election year brought the usual assortment of public figures who wanted to gain a measure of support by playing off their Catholic identities. Of course there's Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi making her harebrained remarks about the Church's teachings on when human life begins. Here in Michigan, where the bishops have come out strong and united to defeat the ballot proposal to legalize human embryonic experimentation, we've got our pro-abortion Catholic governor stating that "as a Catholic, I can say to be pro-cure is to be pro-life." This irresponsible statement earned a firm response by the steadfast Bishop of Lansing, Earl Boyea, as well as a swift backpedal by the governor ("She was just speaking for herself", said her spokeswoman. Oh, really? Then why toss in that "as a Catholic" preface?)

Most responsible Catholics are aware of these public hypocrites and how they emerge every election cycle to try to trade on their Catholicism while escaping the moral and public obligations of their faith. One comment I commonly hear about these people is "they're not real Catholics."

I'm afraid that is false - they are real Catholics. Being a Christian isn't like joining a club or party or other human organization. Becoming a Christian is a one-way thing: once baptized, always baptized. You can reject the faith, you can apostatize, you can go completely the other direction, but you can't become "non-Christian" in the way you can become "non-Republican" or even "non-American". Baptism and confirmation are covenant ceremonies, and covenants cannot be undone.

To be fair, most people who would say "those aren't real Catholics" are doing it with the best of intentions: they want to dissociate the hypocritical behaviour of those Catholics from the true teaching of the Church, and make clear that their practice does not match true doctrine (as Bishop Boyea was swift to do in his response to Governor Granholm.) But it would be more accurate to state that these are bad Catholics who either do not understand Church teaching or choose not to follow it.

The thing to remember - and pray about - is that their Catholic identity does indeed "count", but not in the way they think. The common pattern of salvation history is that God visits judgment on His people first. He holds them to a higher standard, and if they fail, they pay a steeper price. It was that way with the Jewish people, and it is that way with His Church.

In other words, being a Catholic on the day of accounting isn't necessarily a good thing. In fact, it may be a very bad thing indeed. One will hardly wish to shout out how Catholic one is when the Judge will simply look down and say, "Then you should have known better." For those who disregard Church teaching and disobey her moral injunctions, Catholic is the last thing they'll want to be when they stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ - but they won't have any option there, either.

I'm not trying to say, "be patient everyone - they'll get theirs come the day." Anyone who is offhand or complacent about that grim possibility is either deficient in charity or not really apprehending the severity of what is at stake (in my case, guilty on both counts). That any of our brothers or sisters should stand at risk of what they might be facing if they don't turn is something that should move us to the depths of our souls. That is why we should be most diligent in prayer for all those who neglect the Church's teachings, thereby risking their souls - and most especially for those in public office, who risk leading others astray by poor example. We should get no satisfaction from the thought that this or that politician or actress or whoever will certainly get their comeuppance in the end. We should renew our prayer that God will shower the grace of repentance upon them, that they might turn from their disobedience before it is too late.

It is no act of charity to tolerate public disobedience of Church teaching while still claiming a Catholic identity. To do so is callous indifference to not only the public scandal presented by the disobedience, but also the state of the soul of the offender. This is why Bishop Boyea's response to Governor Granholm's statement was the act of a good pastor, both of his flock and Governor Granholm. It's worth calling attention to a critical part of his statement: "...to be in favor of Proposal 2 is not to be pro-life. A well-formed Catholic conscience would never lead a person to support Proposal 2 'as a Catholic'." The hue and cry in the media treats this like a political criticism. In fact it is a serious and well-crafted pastoral statement, and it indicates the deep concern Bishop Boyea has for Governor Granholm's soul.

If we want to see better Catholic practice in our society, we need to start it by being better Catholics ourselves. An important step in that is to cease responding to the public disobedience of high-profile Catholics in manners appropriate to the political realm. Sure, we can decry that such things happen, but every time we should pray for them. They are our brothers and sisters, and we should be praying that they turn from their disobedience and seek the grace of forgiveness.

Isn't that what we'd want someone doing for us?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Earth Is Not Sacred

There. I've said it right up front so that it's clear where I'm going. I'm responding to the resurgence of nature worship so prevalent in our society. The idea that the Earth is sacred, implicit for so many for so long, is coming out explicitly in many areas, so much so that Ellen and I saw that very phrase ("The Earth is sacred") made repeatedly in a brochure published by a diocesan organization and distributed in a parish.

Of course, I'm not objecting to clean air and water, or good stewardship of nature. I'm objecting to the hijacking of the term "sacred".

In modern usage, "sacred" has come to be a kind of superlative expression of value. If something is valuable, we might say it is "special". Something of extra value might be "precious". But to describe something of extreme value, we reach for the word "sacred".

But that's not what the word means. Sacred technically means set apart for special use. It isn't necessarily tied to value of any type (economic, sentimental, etc.), but describes nature of usage. The opposite of "sacred" is not "worthless", but "common".

For instance, let's say a family had an heirloom knife which had been used to cut wedding cakes. Perhaps it had first been used by a great-grandfather at his wedding, and he had set it aside to bring out at his children's weddings. The only purpose of this ceremonial knife was to cut wedding cakes, and stories were told about the various weddings at which it had been used. Perhaps the knife itself was of simple make, with a wooden handle and a cheap steel blade. As a knife, it might be nothing so nice as the well-balanced surgical steel Wusthofs in the block on the counter. But it would be "sacred" - that is, reserved for special use in a certain context. That's what "sacred" means.

Naturally, "sacred" is usually a term associated with religious observance, but it doesn't have to be. As long as man has been conscious of something greater than himself - even if it's only something passed down from a great-grandfather - he has set things aside for special use. Carrots may need to be cut, but do not use that knife. Sheep may need to be pastured, but not in that grove. When God commanded the construction of the Tabernacle, and eventually the Temple, in the Old Testament, He stipulated that there were spaces and implements that were set aside for special use in worship and other ceremonies. All the other spaces and implements could be used for ordinary things.

By this definition, the Earth, in the sense of the world and environment, is not sacred - it is common. In fact, there is nothing more common than the Earth. This is not to say that the Earth is not valuable. It is arguably the most valuable thing we have - but it is meant for ordinary use. We till, and mine, and build upon, and travel over the Earth, conducting our ordinary business. The Earth is valuable, and should be well cared for, but is not sacred.

The pivotal concept is greatness. It is when dealing with things greater than ourselves that the sacred comes into play. That's when we start making distinctions between what is used when dealing with the Greater Thing and what is used when dealing with ordinary things. When anyone invokes the term "sacred", they're making an ontological statement - they're saying something about the nature of things. The heirloom knife may be constructed of ordinary wood and cheap steel, but its usage connects the family members to something greater than themselves - their heritage. The ciborium may look like a bowl, but one would not eat Fruit Loops out of one - and if one did so consciously, it would an ontological statement.

This is where the environmentalists - even the well meaning diocesan ones - are wrong. By referring to the Earth as "sacred", they state implicitly that the Earth is by its nature greater than the men who walk on it. This is not true. The Earth may be as good as men, but it is not greater. Divine revelation tells us that if there's something sacred on the face of the planet, it is mankind. The Earth is entrusted to man's care as something precious and valuable, but if anything is set aside for special use, it is man himself, steward and lord of Creation on God's behalf. Granted, that same revelation tells us that we've fallen from our position, and thus abuse and maltreat that which we were supposed to treasure and cherish, but that did not undo our original nature, and neither did it exult the creation above us. Those who contend that the Earth is by nature greater than mankind are elevating the Earth to a position to be venerated or worshiped - even if they're only doing it unconsciously.

In the long run, this strategy may backfire badly on the nature worshipers. If history tells us anything, it is that men are iconoclasts. They don't want to hear about things greater than they are (just ask God). They tend to eventually tear down temples and defile sacred groves and use holy artifacts to mix wine at orgies. Talk too long and too loud about the sacredness of Earth, and you may end up triggering a response that you don't intend. It might be better to keep Earth in her proper place: as a good thing to be valued for what it is, not elevated to what it is not. Just because something is common doesn't mean it isn't valuable and appreciated (like the Wusthofs). Calling something "sacred" when you intend to say "precious" serves nobody.

Keep the term "sacred" for what it should be used for. Then everything will fall into proper order.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bathing in babies' blood

Just before Moses returned to Egypt on the mission God gave him from the Burning Bush, the Egyptian treatment of the Israelites reached a new low. According to rabbinic legend, the aging Pharaoh came down with leprosy, which made the approach of death not merely frightening but also painful and revolting. His court magicians and physicians advised him that the only cure for this leprosy and aging was to bathe in the blood of babies.

Since the Pharaoh did not want to slaughter his own subjects if he could avoid it, he reached for the easiest alternative: the babies of the Israelite slaves. A baby was slaughtered each day to provide the fresh young blood that would supposedly fend off the flesh-devouring disease and renew his failing youth. This was part of the heavy burden under which the Israelites were groaning when Moses returned in Exodus 4.

This sounds so abhorrent that many moderns refuse to believe it happened, thinking that it must have been imagined in later years by vindictive Israelites in order to demonize the hated Pharaoh. But history shows that these practices were not only known to many cultures, but could be expected from the sort of "balance magic" that was common in those times. The cure for the creeping death of old age was the life and vigor to be found in the blood of the very young.

It is even easier to understand if we recognize that without assurance of redemption, the dread of aging and death is still so strong even today that it will drive people to do exactly what Pharaoh did: sacrifice the innocent and helpless young in hopes of staving off the onset of death. Because isn't this exactly the nature of embryonic stem cell research? Oh, certainly the practicioners have changed. It is no longer the junior priest holding the struggling victim over the silver basin while preparing the killing stroke - now it's the lab technician in the white coat with the pipette. The paradigm has changed as well: we're no longer trying to finesse the cosmic balance, we're trying to coax proteins and enzymes to do what we want them to.

But regardless of particulars, the essentials remain: we're destroying the very young in hopes of gaining an elixr or tonic to stave off old age and death. We may think ourselves less barbaric because the process doesn't require slicing the throats of infants, but the effect is the same. Whether we go for their blood or their genes, the victims are still destroyed - and for the same reason. We attempt to excuse our behaviour by contending that that small cluster of cells isn't "really human" - after all, it has no features, and you need a microscope to see it! But the same excuse was used regarding the Israelite babies - it's not like they were human, they were just whelps of slaves.

And so things will always end when the Divine law is ignored. Those with power will find the will to use it in an attempt to stave off that which they fear, even to the point of murder. They'll assuage their conscience by dressing up their brutality with noble-sounding motives. ("I am the stability of Egypt!" "Create hope for those with illnesses by allowing study of possible cures!"), but it's always the same old thing: the weaker suffer when the strong are faced with something beyond their strength.

So it is that we, in our day and age, find ourselves on the exact same moral plane as Pharaoh, and for much the same reason. I find it no coincidence that this is happening just as my generation - the Baby Boomers - are approaching later middle age, and having to come to grips with their own mortality. We who tried to imagine "no hell below us; above us, only sky" are reading obituaries of friends, and people younger than we. That which we have been running from and denying all our lives is catching up to us. Like Pharaoh, we frantically scramble for the wizards, praying that they will have a cure, willing to submit to it no matter how morally abhorrent. Were we wiser, we would learn from what happened to Pharaoh and his entire nation.

Not that I expect wisdom from those driven by panic.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Victim of Beer Bigotry

I hope anyone who's reading this can tolerate a brief diversion from some of my usual "heavy" topics. I want to beef a little about an all-too-common problem in American culture.

Beer bigotry.

Yup. This culture is hung up on beer. Liquor and wine are there as they always have been, but in most situations the only other alternative is beer.

Oh, I know there are the hard lemonades and Zima-type things and stuff like Smirnoff Ice, but these all have a common foundation: malt.

In other words, they're slightly reworked taste blends on top of brewed malt - which is the same basis as beer. Heck, for that matter even most of your pre-bottled "mixed drinks" like pseudo-margaritas and pseudo-daiquiris are malt based (read the label carefully.)

This puts me in a fix, because I've never been able to develop a taste for brewed malt beverages like beer, even the premium brews. Even distilled malt such as Scotch I can only take so much of. I prefer an alternative, and I don't always like wine. I'd like a real alternative to the aisles and aisles of beer cans and bottles.

Like what?

Oh, how about cider? Hard cider was a very common drink in colonial America - far more common than beer, for that matter. A good cider has about the same alcohol content as beer, but isn't sweet. It's dry, but with a fruit base that hasn't a touch of malt. My favorite is Strongbow cider, imported from England, but that's hard to find and rather expensive. More available is Woodchuck cider, brewed in New England. Our daughter, who passed through Ireland on the way to her semester of study in Europe, reports that Bulmer's Cider is quite tasty.

Ellen and I both love cider - it's something we can sip together. In fact, during our Stratford week, one of the things we love about Bentley's Inn is that they serve draft Strongbow.

But can you find cider in the U.S.? Despite gallant efforts by the Woodchuck people, cider remains a scarce commodity. It's a shame, really. You don't have to hate beer to love cider - it's a nice taste sensation no matter what. Our sons-in-law, who appreciate good beers, also love cider. But there's a beer bigotry that's hard to overcome - so much that some people don't even know that there are alternatives to beer.

This leads to a catch-22 situation: because cider is hardly known, there's little demand, so distributors don't push it, so stores & restaurants don't stock it, so it remains obscure. Example: when one local emporium got a liquor license, they surveyed their customers to ask what kind of boutique beers they should stock (it's that kind of place). Ellen suggested Strongbow, figuring it was sufficiently exotic. They reported back that their distributor carried Strongbow, but recommended they not carry it because "nobody buys it."

Ummmmmmmmm...

See the problem we cider lovers are up against? But there are encouraging signs. Our local grocery stores are starting to stock at least Woodchuck amber. My daughter and I found that E.G. Nick's in Lapeer had Woodchuck on the menu.

I have a suggestion: let's start a "malt alternative" groundswell. You don't have to hate beer to participate, you just have to be open to alternatives. Look for a spot with some cider (brace yourself: it's about the price of premium beer) and give it a try. Odd are that you'll like it, even if you still prefer beer. If we get some demand going, the cider brewers will be encouraged and the distributors will offer more options.

Let's break free of beer bigotry.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Reality gap



The hype. (In particular notice paragraph 11.)

The reality.

Clearly, just what Michigan needs.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Jeremiah 44

Jeremiah 44 contains an interesting exchange between the prophet and some exiles from the land of Judah. The exchange happened after the hammer had dropped - God had finally brought upon the people of Judah the judgment against which He had warned them for so long. The Babylonians had devastated the land, destroyed the Temple, and killed or taken into slavery almost all of the people. Only a few destitute remained, and they are at a loss what to do. They went to Jeremiah to ask him what the Lord said (Ch 42), and the response was to stay in the land, submit to Babylonian rule, and wait. But this wasn't what they want to hear (Ch 43), so they decide to take shelter under the wing of the other major military and political power of the day. They decamp to Egypt, kidnapping Jeremiah and Baruch in the process.

Once down in Egypt, the rebellious Judahites resume the very practice that got them in such trouble: idolatry. Possibly in honor of the annual festival of the Phoenician goddess Astarte, the exiled women start sacrificing to "The Queen of Heaven". You can imagine Jeremiah pulling his hair out as he runs about in a panic (v.1-14), essentially saying "What do you think you're doing!? These practices are the very things that got you in this fix! How can you possibly resume them?"

The response of the women is instructive. It boils down to, "We used to do this back in Jerusalem, and we had plenty to eat and drink then, and lived in security. It's only been since we stopped sacrificing to Astarte that these catastrophes came upon us, so we're going to do it." (They're very careful to state that "everyone was doing it" (v 17), and anyway, their husbands knew what they were doing and approved (v 19) - one gets the impression that they doth protest too much.)

This is the critical point: they got everything "bass ackwards" (as we used to say in the service). Though the prophets had repeatedly warned them that idolatry would result in destruction, they had their mental earplugs in. They didn't want to hear all that depressing talk of death and destruction! Even after the judgment took place, the habit of not listening was too strong. They attributed Divine instructions to human motives (43:1-4) and drew the entirely wrong conclusion from what had befallen them (44:18). Needless to say, their deliberate deafness and faulty logic did not avail them in the end: the Babylonians eventually conquered Egypt, too.

I was reminded of this incident when reading our local newspaper, which came out today with an editorial supporting a ballot proposal here in Michigan. For 30 years we've had a law forbidding the use of embryos, fetuses, and prematurely born babies for destructive medical experimentation. This ballot proposal which the newspaper supports would lift that law, making it legal to destroy little humans to use their tissue for experimentation.

One of the justifications being offered for this is the economic benefits. Michigan is in dire straits thanks to our economic over dependence on the auto industry, and people are grasping for alternatives. The glittering illusion of advanced biotech has everyone salivating, and to many it seems that the only obstacle is this pesky law.

What's the connection between this and Jeremiah 44? Consider this: since the late 1960s, when people started agitating to overturn laws banning abortion in America, over 50 million children have died under the abortionist's knife. All that time we've had God's name on our money and enjoyed the largest, most prosperous economy on the face of the earth.

But God's wrath cannot sleep forever, and one of the first ways He starts getting people's attention is what I call "lifestyle afflictions". In the Old Testament it might be things like droughts or raiders. These days it might be things like unemployment or shaky financial markets. Point being that when people in their easy, comfortable lives get complacent and sinful, God has ways of removing their ease and comfort in order to get their attention.

People can respond to these methods in many ways. If they're wise and listen to God's word, they'll turn from their sin and come back to God. If they're dense and stubborn, they might not make the connection between what they're doing and what they're suffering. But if they're blind and rebellious, they might do what the wicked Judahites did in Egypt: draw the totally opposite conclusion and decide that what they need to do to solve their problems is sin some more.

This is my concern for my state. I'm not trying to say that our current afflictions are necessarily some kind of message from God (though it wouldn't surprise me if they were). I am trying to say that if we think writing murder into our laws will solve our problems, then we're being as foolish as the rebellious Judahites of Jeremiah 44.

And look what happened to them.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Descent from The Highest

One of my favorite books for contemplation is Tao Te Ching, the classic book of Chinese wisdom penned by the mystic Lao Tzu. This morning I was reading Chapter #18, which spoke of a historical progression - in fact, a devolution:

The Mighty Way declined among the folk
And then came kindness and morality.
When wisdom and intelligence appeared,
They brought with them a great hypocrisy.
The six relations were no more at peace,
So codes were made to regulate our homes.
The fatherland grew dark, confused by strife;
Official loyalty became the style.

(Blakney translation)

The "Mighty Way", or Tao, is the highest order of things, the uncreated and mysterious that lies behind all that exists. Following Tao is the highest road that any person or society can follow - as it apparently had in the depths of the antiquity to which Lao Tzu refers.

But it declined - and notice what replaced it: kindness and morality. Wow - what could be wrong with kindness and morality? Those are good things, right? True, they are - but they're lesser goods than following Tao. They're second-best to the greatest good.

Note what follows them: wisdom and intelligence. Apparently these are tertiary - if you can't follow Tao, and are unable to even be kind and moral, you can be wise and intelligent. But here we see the first mention of outright evil: apparently with wisdom and intelligence come "a great hypocrisy". This is easy to observe in everyday life: we all know people who are wise in a cunning fashion, even using "wisdom" to justify evil, and it is easy to find those who use great intelligence to advance themselves at the expense of others. These can slip in when the greatest goods in a culture are wisdom and intelligence.

Which explains why "the six relations"* were no longer at peace. With wisdom and intelligence so easy to counterfeit, strife would be almost inevitable. To deal with this, laws were drawn up, but they were an inadequate substitute for Tao. The cancer spread "from the roots" - originating in the homes and families, it seeped out into the culture at large until the entire "fatherland" was plunged into strife. At last all that was left was "Official loyalty" - an idiom in Chinese wisdom literature for external observance of norms with no internal disposition of true obedience.

As I read this, I thought over the past couple of centuries of Western civilization. To a layman like myself, it seems that we have followed this very path. Once obedience to Tao Himself - Jesus Christ - was presumed. Then it became optional, but it was presumed that people would be kind and moral even if they weren't obedient to Tao. This didn't last long, as following generations asked the inevitable question about being kind and moral: "Why should I?" Wisdom and intellect were exulted above even the lesser goods of kindness and morality, and obedience was not even on the radar. This brought what the Sage said it would: counterfeits and hypocrisy. Basic human relations degenerated, and strife seeped through our culture. This is where I see our general culture now: in the state where "official loyalty" is the norm, with cunning and self-promoting intellect the highest most are expected to attain.

Does this mean all is lost? Has everything sunk so low? No - there are still those who seek to be kind and moral, and those who seek the highest good: devotion and obedience to Tao. But a culture that has its standards set so low is only one step short of the final fate that the sages predict:

Annihilation.

*Blakney's footnotes explain these as basic human relations: father and son, elder and younger brothers, and husband and wife. I don't know enough about the cultural context to comment on that, but regardless of specific application, the inference is clear: the most basic human relations, which should have been harmonious, were not.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Mortal Sin of Sarah Palin

I don't intend to make this site a spot for a lot of political commentary, save when it incidentally intersects with cultural and social commentary. Many are chewing up bandwidth regarding the U.S. Presidential race, and its most recent entry, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, so I probably wouldn't add anything new in the realm of political commentary.

However, I have been interested to see the severity of the reaction to Palin's appointment, particularly among hard-core pro-abortion feminists. It has gone well beyond disdain for her political stands. She has been reviled and castigated by the hard left in a way that words like "vitriolic" and "venomous" cannot capture. (Jonah Goldberg does a great summary in his column.)

Why the rabid response? It is far out of proportion to someone who simply stands on the other side of the political fence. My suspicion is that they despise Palin with such savage hatred because she has done the unthinkable, the inconceivable:

She denied their god his sacrificial victim.

When you've fought the pro-abortionists as long as I have, you get to know their strategies. It isn't easy to get a culture like ours, which favors fair play and the protection of the weak and helpless, to accept the mass slaughter of innocent children as public policy. They have to resort to oblique tactics, which they do by starting with The Hard Cases. Any apologia for abortion always begins with these.

Of course, the first is RapeAndIncest. This is glossed over in one phrase, without thought, and is always offered first because it strips away one argument against abortion - i.e. that the woman already exercised her "choice". Since a RapeAndIncest victim had no choice, surely one would not wish to impose upon her something she did not choose? Of course, this argument leaves unaddressed the question of how just it is to punish a child for the sin of her father, and glosses over how abortion makes it simpler for crimes like incest to be covered up and thus perpetuated. But those considerations do not occur to most who are faced with this argument - they simply concede the ground.

Then comes the next hard case: the Defective Child. What if the child is (*sigh*)...Not Quite Right? Such occurrences are tragic, and nobody's fault, but why make a bad situation worse? What hardhearted cad would, for the sake of abstract principles, force a woman to carry to term a child with a severe birth defect? Who can ask that of another person? What kind of a burden would that be on the family? And what kind of life would the baby have, anyway? Would it not be better to deal with the problem before it became a problem? And, since nobody wants to be a hardhearted cad, this ground is conceded as well.

At this point the argument is effectively won. The focus has been shifted from the humanity and rights of the unborn child to other factors, and from there it is easy to move on to other hard cases (the unwed teen, the poor woman, etc.) But it all hinges on those two wedges to force the door. Those two hypothetical cases are the linchpins of the popular acceptance of abortion in our culture. Without them, people would have to grapple with the savage reality of abortion, but so long as they can be trotted out, the critics can be silenced. After all, who can blame a woman who discovers that her child is carrying a gene for a severe illness, or has a defective heart? There might be a quiet clucking of tongues, and a gentle shake of the head as the eyes are averted, but who are we to judge? And so, in the name of compassion, the "defective" child is almost automatically sentenced to death.

Until someone like Sarah Palin shows up to strip away the noble-sounding phrases and expose this argument for what it truly is: bullying and cowardice.

To begin with, she already has four children. Four! Isn't that already a little - er - over quota? She's a very successful career woman with a high profile, high stress job - and she turns up pregnant. To most die hard feminists, her life circumstances alone indicate an abortion should be considered, if not assumed. But then she learns that the child she carries is "defective"! You can almost hear the indignant sputtering. Surely this, this of all circumstances, would qualify for a Hard Case Scenario B exception. A no brainer, easy call - when would you like that appointment?

No, says Sarah Palin and her family. Even though it is difficult to accept, they refuse to make the appointment. They will not take the innocent one down the long stone street to the temple to leave him with the ravenous god who claims his blood. From the eldest to the youngest they accept him, love him, cherish him - and all before she stepped into the public spotlight.

And how the brutal god and his acolytes scream and gibber with rage! Not only is the god denied his blood feast, but by choosing life the Palin family gives the lie to the excuses, the platitudes, and the cliches by which "defective" children are usually condemned to death. The brilliant light of love shines into the darkness cast by this common excuse, and like roaches scuttling for the baseboards, the apologists of death must flee before the simple witness of a family who accepts and loves all its members, "defective" or not. The shallowness and selfishness of the second excuse is laid bare as a simple housewife and mother utters the very words of God: "when I look at my child, I see perfection."

That is her offering, and that of her family: love and acceptance, not cowardice and blood. No wonder the pro-aborts hate her! She shows them for what they really are, and denies their god his rightful sacrifice! How dare she?

Maybe she dares because she bows down before a different God.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Magical Stem Cells

There has been much furor over Joseph Biden's campaign trail comments implying hypocrisy on the part of those who care about children born with birth defects but oppose "stem cell research". Most of the response has centered around the implicit (or not) reference to little Trig Palin, but what seemed to slip by was the implication regarding stem cells.

Of course, Biden follows the approved script by using the generic phrase "stem cells" without distinguishing between adult and embryonic stem cells. Nobody objects to using adult stem cells, which nobody has to die to donate. Only embryonic stem cells cause the moral problem, because someone has to die to provide them.

But the real hollowness of Biden's statement lies in the implicit promise that stem cell research could somehow, someday yield a treatment or cure for a genetic condition like Down's Syndrome.

I've stayed abreast of developments in all forms of stem cell research for years. I've seen outrageous claims made by ESC evangelists, but never have I heard even the most rabid propagandist go so far as to claim that stem cell therapies could cure or treat Down's syndrome. Yet nobody blinked when Biden made this outrageous statement that didn't have a shred of scientific backing.

Why not?

Because embryonic stem cells are magical.

That's right: magical. To the modern mind and imagination, embryonic stem cells play the same role as magic did for prior generations. The "promise" of embryonic stem cells fits into the same imaginative niche as the Philosopher's Stone did for the Renaissance alchemist. Once located and the secrets unlocked, All Things will be possible, be it the transmutation of elements or freedom from weakness and decay.

Anyone who bothers to research the nascent field of cellular therapy knows this to be nonsense. Truly revolutionary changes in medical treatment, such as antibiotics and x-rays, have long since been made. The stem cell treatments that have been developed - all with adult stem cells, of course - are simply more tools in the array of options available. No miracles, no restoration of youth, often simply the arresting of a deteriorating condition - real progress, but slow and undramatic. Even if therapies were eventually developed from embryonic stem cells, the same results could be expected.

But anything so prosaic as the facts cannot hold a candle to the glittering promise of one of the oldest of human myths: eternal youth and vibrant health. Every race and culture has tales of the elixir or fountain that postpones the ravages of age, or the hidden valley or castle whose residents remain forever youthful and vigorous. Typically only The Worthy are fit to discover these wonders, though the definition of Worthy has varied by time and culture. To some, it would be the most triumphant warrior; to others, the most innocent or just plain lucky. One suspects that the modern criteria would be sufficient academic credentials and ample federal funding, but the idea is the same. The longing for immortality, the dread of the pain and humiliation of disease and aging - these are potent forces even when we shove them to the back of our minds. We hunger for a solution, and are willing to sacrifice anything - even our own children - to the hope of attaining it.

Every age has magical hopes. For example, take the Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. which was cutting edge science fiction in its day. At one point the protagonist is taken to the heart of the nearly magical Nautilus to be shown the source of its power. This turns out to be (drum roll, please): electricity. One can imagine the Victorian shivers at the potential of this mysterious wonder force. The modern reader, who probably knows more about electricity than the most advanced scientist of Verne's day, simply shrugs and asks, "Generated by what?" Actual knowledge and common usage has a way of demystifying the magical, because it forces people to face the practical limitations of grandiose ideas, and to come to grips with the problems as well as the potential of a solution. One gets that impression reading the actual scientific literature on stem cell research: the air of caution, the acknowledgment of how little is known, the qualified phrases used when discussing the potential for use of the research.

But none of this makes it into the press releases or the offhand comments by ambitious politicians. Those parties aren't interested in informing or instructing, they're interested in telling people what they want to hear, and the people want to hear about magic. Someday the research will bear fruit, and cellular therapies will take their place in the array of available medical treatments. People will look back with a smile on the early claims regarding these therapies. They'll wonder how anyone could have believed such things.

But of course, that age will have moved on to embrace their own magical hopes.

Monday, September 08, 2008

"Our Church, too"?

I recently had an unfortunate disagreement with someone to whom I am moderately close. I'm not a fan of relational discord with anyone, and much less with someone like this. And much as I'd like to simply put the whole thing behind me, there was one comment that was made in the midst of the disagreement that has had me pondering.

The immediate topic of dispute was abortion. Like me, this person is Catholic, but unlike me, she is pro-abortion, and sees no conflict between that and participating fully in her parish life, including taking the Eucharist, being a cantor, etc. I've simply been silent on this matter for years, ostensibly out of interest in relational harmony but probably more out of cowardice. However, this disagreement provided the opportunity for me to express my concern for the state of her soul, not simply for her pro-abortion stand but for her continuing to take the Sacraments.

Naturally, she took my concern as condemnation, accused me of being Torquemada and enjoying it, etc. But in the midst of it all, she made an interesting comment. "There are lots of people who think like I do", she said, "and it's our Church, too!"

With that one phrase, she betrayed the fault in her thinking, and her view of the Church.

"Our Church"? Last I checked, it was Jesus Christ's Church. Not my Church or her Church or Joseph Ratzinger's Church or Hans K√ľng's Church, but Christ's Church. That means He sets the conditions for participation. The Church is not, at root, a human institution. Her members are human, but her Head is Divine.

It seems to me that the crux of the issue lies here. A person who looks on the Church as the dynamic expression of Divine activity in the world is going to think very differently than one who sees the Church as simply another human institution. The former view ultimately sees the Church as a family with God as Father, while the latter sees it as a political institution that can be swayed and changed by humans.

This is not a trivial difference. If the existence of the Church and terms of participation therein are set by an eternal, immutable God whose will cannot be swayed by any human pressure, then statements like "you shall not murder" are understood to be absolute. Whether the commandment is ignored or obeyed, it remains valid because it has been spoken by the defining authority.

But if the Church is a human institution, whose existence depends on the participation of its members, then it is defined by those members and can be changed by them. This is a political or anthropocentric perspective (to tie in to my earlier posts).

To be fair, my friend was somewhat handicapped here. You see, she was educated at one of our land's premiere "Catholic universities" - and yes, it's one of the ones that threw over the faith for the secular agenda a couple of generations back. Thus her education about the Church was big on the importance of the Church's human members throughout history and how different things were across the centuries, and very short on the enduring Presence of Christ and the things that remained constant despite the various times and cultures which the Church has served.

In short, her outlook is tuned to the human externals of the Church, rather than the Divine Heart and His immutable laws. That's what she was taught, and she's comfortable there. My suggestion that she will have to answer for disobedience someday didn't fit her outlook, and was therefore violently rejected.

I'm very thankful for something that was taught me long ago by my own father. Again and again he drilled into my thick young head that someday I would stand before the Throne of Christ and answer for my obedience and disobedience to His holy law. One of the answers I'll not be able to give then is that lots of others were with disobedient right along with me. And one thing I certainly don't want to have to answer for: behaving like His holy Church was somehow mine.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Weblog resurrection

It's been (literally) years since I tried my hand at web logging, but now I'm stepping back in. I thought this one was totally moribund, and had actually started a different weblog (which I've since deleted), but thanks to my wife, I was able to retrieve this one.

So I'll take another stab at blogging. Why? After all, the first venture died of neglect - what makes me suppose the second will be more successful?

Good questions. The plain response to the second is: I don't know that it will. I know part of the reason that my maintenance of the other blog tapered off was that shortly after I started it, I got heavily involved with an online forum. The interactive dialog nature of forum participation was more to my temperament than keeping an online diary, and before long I was a moderator there. I made many friends there, and am still an active participant.

As for the first question: why blog at all, especially if forum participation seems more my "thing"? Well, partly because I find myself wanting to say things that don't fit the brief post model suitable for forums. Also, I've found myself making lengthy comments on other people's blogs. To me, this indicates that I feel I've got enough to say that I should probably say it in my own venue rather than camping on other people's.

But the most immediate and pressing issue is a very practical one, and I'd best warn everyone up front about it. Here in my home state, Michigan, we're facing a terrible referendum this November, and I need a place to post thoughts about it. I'll post about other things, and hopefully get enough in the habit that I'll keep on posting beyond November 5th, but there's a lot on the line with this issue, and I'll be saying a lot about it.

So to begin: for full information, people should visit the MiCAUSE website to get the background. The Other Side has a website as well. I'll probably be referencing it from time to time, if only as an example of how emotional appeals and half truths can fatally deceive. I've already had a piece published in our local paper on it, which in turn was a response to a piece the week before (which, unfortunately, I didn't preserve a link to).

That'll be enough to go on for now. I'll be back, possibly later today. One of the things that doomed my last effort was the internal urging that I had to be Massive and Profound and Terribly Insightful with every post, which meant that if I didn't have a tome ready to post, I felt I wasn't ready. I'll try to amend that this time. Brief posts, though hopefully always thoughtful, will be more the rule.