Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Sunday - Rejoice!

The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!”, and this is the Sunday we light the more festive rose candle.

Long periods of preparation can be draining. If you've ever prepared a field for a crop, or a house for painting, you know that preparatory work can be tedious and discouraging. Jobs like stripping paint aren't the “real” work, so aren't directly rewarding, but they have to be done if the final job is going to succeed.

It must have felt that way for the Israelites. They were promised a Redeemer, and as more prophecies came in a clearer picture of Him emerged. This wouldn't just be the Savior of Israel, this would be the Savior of the whole world! What a high and noble calling! But as the centuries dragged on, and the Jewish people suffered many setbacks, it probably got discouraging.

Advent can feel like that for us, too. It seems to be all about discipline and preparation, and can feel like it drags on and on (especially for children!) It's like spiritual paint-scraping: no fun at all, and just when you think you're making progress, you spot another patch that needs cleaning.

This is why the Church says to take a break. The Third Sunday of Advent reminds us to rejoice – to step back, relax, and refocus on the goal. Spiritual life isn't only about discipline and reform. Those things are necessary, but only as preparation for The Main Event: the redemption, joy, the full spiritual life that Christmas celebrates. The cheery rose candle brightens the array of somber purple. The halfway point is passed, and our vigil will soon be at an end.

From this point on, the burning rose candle will remind us that we've turned the corner and the goal is in sight. Like runners in a race coming within sight of the goal, let's not slow down, or stumble, or give up. Let's redouble our efforts – the very image used in Scripture several places, like Hebrews 12:1. Let's get even more serious about cleaning spiritual house in preparation for the Coming Lord.

The most significant way to do this is to accept the grace of the Sacrament of Confession. Don't pass up this opportunity for grace! Rejoice, your sins can be forgiven in Christ!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Second Sunday

Second Sunday of Advent – 6 December 2009 – The Centuries of Anticipation

Jesus once assured His disciples that “many kings and prophets longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear the things that you hear, and did not hear them.” (Luke 10:24) These words are as true for us as they were for the disciples. We can easily take the Sacraments, Scriptures, Church teachings, and our rich Catholic heritage for granted. We forget that for thousands of years all mankind, especially the Jews, anticipated and longed for the promised Redeemer.

Prophecies of the Messiah are found throughout the Old Testament. These are important for many reasons, such as reassuring us that God is in charge no matter how badly we humans stray from His way. Here are some of the Old Testament prophecies that spoke of Christ:

Toward the end of his life, Moses spoke of “a prophet” that would come after him, whom all Israel should obey (Deuteronomy 18:15-18). The prophet Nathan promised that King David would have a son whose throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:12-14). Both these prophecies were partially fulfilled by other prophets and kings descended from David, but only Jesus perfectly fulfilled them both.

As the time of Jesus' coming drew nearer, the prophetic “focus” became sharper. The Holy Spirit spoke extensively through the prophet Isaiah about the coming Messiah: that He would be born of a virgin (Is 7:14), that He would come from the line of David, walk in the power and wisdom of God's Spirit, and govern a worldwide Kingdom of Peace (Is 11:1-14), that He would destroy oppression (Is 16:5), that He would be called from His mother's womb to not only restore Israel but save all nations (Is 49:1-6), and that He would be abused and suffer to redeem mankind (Is 52:13 – 53:12).

Prophecies regarding the Messiah also came to Daniel, who saw a vision of one “like a Son of Man” being brought before the Father to receive everlasting worldwide dominion (Dan 7:13-14), and to Zechariah, who foresaw that the Messiah would come to His people riding a donkey (Zech 9:9-10) – symbolic of His humility and gentleness, and fulfilled on Palm Sunday. Zechariah was also told of One who would be known as The Branch, who would build the Temple and reign over Jerusalem (Zech 6:12-13). The last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, spoke of the Messenger of the Covenant who would come to His Temple to purify it, that true worship might be offered there (Mal 3:1).

These are but a few of the prophecies regarding the Messiah that can be found in the Old Testament. It is important to know them because they shed light on Jesus' mission, and further explain what He came to accomplish. They also make clear that human history has always been in God's control; a control that continues to this day.

This Advent, let us study these Scriptures, so we can grow to appreciate the gift that we have been given: Immanuel, the God who dwells in our midst. We do not have to wait and wonder, anticipating the far-off day when the Messiah would be revealed. He has been revealed – at Bethlehem, at Calvary, at the Empty Tomb, and in every Mass we attend. Truly kings and prophets long to see and hear what is freely given to us every week – let's appreciate it.

I wrote these myself - honest!

Of late, my life has been consumed by the effort of finding, purchasing, fixing up, and moving into a new house - all in the span of just over three months. This while trying to make a living (with the emphasis on "trying"), stay involved in my parish, and keep the Right to Life involvement going. Needless to say, this has left little spare time for sharing thoughts here, though there has been no lack of subject matter.

So I won't let this effort totally languish, I'm posting a few articles that I threw together for a series on Advent which we're running in our parish paper. Though these weren't originally written as blog posts, I did write them, so I hope they count as content until I can get back to a more dedicated effort.

First Sunday of Advent – 29 November 2009 – The (nearly) Forgotten Season

Advent is a season which is easily be forgotten in our modern culture. It has largely been eclipsed by the commercial “Christmas Season”, which seems to start earlier and earlier each year. While Christmas music is heard everywhere and television is flooded with Christmas specials, all we might notice at Mass is different colored vestments and a wreath with colored candles. Some of us may remember Advent wreaths at home, and perhaps even “giving up” things for Advent, but even those practices have largely faded.

Meanwhile, many are concerned with “putting Christ back in Christmas”. One way to do this is by observing Advent, particularly in homes trying to raise Catholic children. In the Church Calendar, the Christmas season follows Christmas (the “Twelve Days of Christmas” begins on December 25th and ends on January 6th, the Epiphany.) The four-week season leading up to Christmas is Advent, which has its own rites and focus. One way to “put Christ back in Christmas” is to put Advent back into our lives

Advent is a major season in the Christian calendar. In fact, the Church Year begins with Advent, making the First Sunday the liturgical “New Year's Day”. The focus of Advent is not as much fasting (more appropriate for Lent), but simplifying and refocusing. While penance and self-examination is part of this, the themes of Advent are solemn but joyous anticipation and preparation. This can be hard to do amidst the press and bustle of the commercial “Christmas Season”, but it is worth the effort!

We'll be running a series of articles throughout Advent to assist with this effort. Here are some practical hints for families seeking to more fully celebrate this holy season:
  • Get a home Advent wreath. These come with four candles – three purple ones and one pink (rose). These can be lit during dinner or other family times – one additional candle for each week celebrated, with the pink one lit on the Third Sunday. This simple observance can help the whole family focus on this special season.
  • Another classic devotional tool is the Advent calendar. These colorful pieces of art count down through the days of Advent (usually beginning on December 1), with little doors that open and provide Scripture passages for the day. Some versions even have a little treat for each day! These are especially helpful with young children, but the whole family can enjoy them.
  • Simplify and focus your life by setting aside perhaps 15 minutes of television, Internet, or video game time to read Scripture and pray. Readings for each day are found in the bulletin – perhaps you could clip them out and use them all week.
  • Attend a parish or neighborhood Bible Study. Most area parishes sponsor them.
  • Do something “devotionally different” - perhaps a family Rosary or after-dinner Scripture reading, or have a brief family prayer time in the evening.
  • Encourage everyone in the family to attend Confession at least once in Advent.
As a parish, let's try to make Advent 2009 a special time of preparing for the joy of Christmas!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A national conundrum

America is having its national nose rubbed in the issue that it never wants to look at for very long. The issue of publicly funding abortion is forcing the injustice and moral contradiction of the question back into the public conscience - and people are already starting to squirm.

So long as abortion was privately funded, it could remain under most people's radar. If people wanted to pay for one - well, that was their business. Tossing a bone to pro-lifers in the form of the Hyde Amendment that prohibited any Health & Human Services (i.e. welfare) funds being used for abortion was pretty safe: abortions for welfare recipients was a bit of a touchy topic anyway (though some states still fund abortions with their own Medicaid funds).

But now the spectre of getting Federal funds involved in health care payment at every level is once again forcing the issue. When flat-out asked, most Americans - even those who have no objection to the procedure - don't want public funds paying for abortion. But public funding for abortions has long been the Holy Grail of radical gender feminists like NOW, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood. After all, as the largest for-profit abortion provider in the nation, PP could make a lot of money billing taxpaying American citizens for killing unborn American citizens. Pro-abortion forces are not going to easily surrender their long-sought goal, but pro-life legislators such as Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska have dug in their heels and refuse to violate their consciences by voting for public funding for abortion.

So the House and Senate face a Mexican standoff. Though the Stupak amendment made it through the House, knowledgeable observers of both sides say that advocates will not back down. Pro-abortion representatives who may have swallowed hard to vote for the health care funding bill with the Stupak amendment are determined to strip out that wording in conference. Pro-life legislators in both houses are determined to keep it in, or add equivalent wording to the Senate version. Without both parties on board, the bill can't pass.

Meanwhile, people are beginning to see through President Obama's smokescreen statements about how Federal law prohibits funding abortions. They're noticing that the Hyde Amendment was just that - an amendment, not a statute, that was tacked onto the HHS budget every year. There's no guarantee that it would continue to be tacked on - in fact, nobody was expecting the Pelosi House to do so. And it only applied to the HHS budget, which would not be the budget funding health care payments. (Of course, nobody knows what budget that would be, or where the money would come from, but that's another post.) And the proposed health funding reforms would reach far further than Medicaid payments. Also, Obama's on record as saying that paying for "reproductive health services" - industry code for abortion - is central to his plans for health care payments.

How this all plays out will be high drama. The longer it drags out, the more the media will be forced to talk about abortion - something they're very skilled at not doing. The more they talk, the more people will think. A man who doesn't want to look at the gross injustice of abortion can look the other way so long as it's "a personal choice". But when he is forced to pay for that "personal choice", he tends to look a bit harder. And perhaps this time he'll notice that abortion slaughters 1.2 million children each year. And maybe, just maybe, he'll ask his legislator to vote against funding that.

And maybe, just maybe, his conscience will move him to do a little bit more.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Seduced by illusion

Two interesting things happened recently. They seemed unrelated, but seem to me to share a common thread.

One was the selection of President Barack Obama as the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. There was much comment from many quarters on this, especially when someone put together that the nominations for the prize closed just two weeks after Obama's inauguration - far too brief a period in office for him to have done anything to warrant such an accolade.

The other thing was the results of a rather out-of-the way online contest sponsored by the online magazine, which is a digital phenomenon in the GQ/Esquire/Maxim mold (think Playboy lite). Apparently their annual online survey of "Most Influential Men" turned up an interesting result: the man in question was imaginary. That's right, according to those who voted in the poll, the most influential man was the character Don Draper of the television show Mad Men. This surprising result was so intriguing that Rabbi Yonason Goldson wrote a superb column for Jewish World Review that makes several excellent points far better than I could.

To me, the connection between the two events was obvious: in both cases, those making the selection had voted for appearance, not substance. That Don Draper didn't exist and had never done anything in the real world was irrelevant; the important point was that he appeared to be the kind of man that the voters wished to emulate. The same criteria influenced Obama's selection for the Peace Prize: at the time he was nominated, he'd done nothing but run a campaign (and had done a masterful job of it) - an event which is pure image in America's media-dominated culture. Even following the nomination announcement, the media was abuzz with commentary such as this column, which gushes about Obama's acceptance comments.

The gap here between image and substance is frightening. What is even more frightening is that few think it remarkable. Anyone who knows history is aware that a sharp intrusion of actual events can shred even the most artful and well-constructed image (just ask the builders of the Maginot Line). One has to wonder how a culture who elects illusory images as their leaders will respond when they are faced with an actual challenge - because it is at times like that that illusion will shred and evaporate.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Thinning out

This weekend I pulled a file folder from my drawer and threw most of the contents away. I kept only one sheet, which I signed and handed over to my son. The sheet was the title to an old car which we inherited and he was taking away to fix up and sell. The other papers were various records on the vehicle - repairs, transfers of ownership, registration, etc. (Yes, I'm one of those compulsive types who keeps those things, because from time to time they really come in handy.) Of course, it made sense to throw it all away now, because my son wouldn't need them, nor would whoever he sells the car to. But the act got me thinking about the fact that I'm probably going to be doing a lot of that over the upcoming months.

We've sold our house to the state and are currently within the 90-day window we're given to find another house. Moving is going to happen within the next couple of months, and when it does, I imagine we're going to be startled at just how deep our roots have sunk into this place we've inhabited for the past quarter century. Of course there'll be the emotional component, but I'm currently facing the simple physical challenge of clearing out every nook and cranny of this place. There will be a lot of dumping of things which at one time I thought were or might someday prove valuable (or I wouldn't have kept them).

That's going to be a challenge to my cautionary mentality. Some people relish throwing things out, but I'm not one of them. I'm not as bad as my late mother-in-law (who is in a class by herself), but I like holding onto things that may still have some value. But moving is going to make me face some hard realities about just how much value some things still have. I'll have to face facts like (for example) if I squirreled something away five years ago in the chance I might need it, and I haven't needed it at all in that time, I'll probably never need it.

I imagine there's some profound life lesson awaiting me as I sort through closets and throw out years accumulated things which I once thought might have value but time has proven do not. I may even post some of what I learn here. But right now, the prospect leaves me feeling drab and desolate. I'm not looking forward to this impending thinning of my life - which is a little odd. My patron is St. Francis - whose feast is today, incidentally - and though I chose him in an moment of adolescent indecision, his example has had a surprisingly strong impact on my life. I admired and sought to emulate his example of owning little in this world in order to focus on the next. As a family we've tried not to focus on accumulating material goods. We've lived in this old home which has served our needs (pretty much), driven cars until they stopped working, not sought to have the biggest or best or newest anything unless there was a practical justification. "Franciscan" well describes the way we've sought to live and raise our family. So perhaps the thinning out of our lives which we currently face is an opportunity to see how Franciscan I really am.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Of Grapes and other thoughts.

We're currently in the process of looking for a house. We've sold our current one to the state and have 90 days (now 80 and counting) to find a new place. All we've done is view some houses and submit a couple of bids. Currently we're waiting to hear back on a couple of them.

One of the houses we visited is a vacant foreclosure with a somewhat unkempt yard. Actually the state of the foliage around the back and side of the yard indicates that it was once tended, perhaps by longtime occupants, but has not been properly maintained in recent years - possibly by the immediately prior tenants, the ones who were evicted. None of the overgrowth was unreasonable, and we were delighted to find that some of it was concord grape vines. Somewhere in the house's history someone kept a small grape arbor, and the fruit on the untended vines was just ripening.

Since the house seemed suitable in other ways, we are currently bidding on it, and thus may end up buying it. But in the meantime, I was loath to see the grapes simply rot on the vine, so I went out to the vacant house and picked several pounds. While doing so, I noticed something about the bunches that I'd never seen before: a tremendous variation in the maturity of the grapes. Most of the bunches had everything from plump, sweet grapes of rich purple to tiny green bumps the size and shape of nonpareils. This struck me as odd - most grape bunches I'd seen in the store, and even on the vine at the local orchards, were of reasonably uniform maturity even if they varied in size.

This got me wondering about the vine. These were grapes from undressed vines - the arbor hadn't been tended for years, and the branches were twisting and sprawling all over the place. I'm just speculating, and I'd happily hear from someone who knows more about growing grapes, but I wondered if the irregularity of the grape maturity could be traced to the fact that they grew untended.

If this is true, it would illuminate another teaching of Jesus' that would make perfect sense to His immediate audience but be opaque to we non-agricultural moderns. I'm referring to His statement at the start of John 15: ""I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." I've always appreciated this passage as an encouragement not to be one of the branches that bears no fruit (i.e. good works), as well as an encouragement to persevere in times of difficulty (pruning). While both these understandings are good and appropriate, if I'm correct in my speculation about the kind of fruit borne by undressed vines, there would be yet another reason.

We all know that one of the struggles of following Christ is bearing fruit in all aspects of our lives. We all know people (perhaps ourselves) who might excel at one or two areas of discipleship but fail in others. You know - the man who might have a disciplined intellect and superb teaching ability but is emotionally immature and inconsistent, or the man who can be counted on to show up for every charitable work but can't be bothered to study Scripture or advance his understanding of God's truth. Might this inconsistency be like the fruit of untended vines, where you might pluck a bunch and only be able to use half the grapes because the others aren't suitable?

Again, I don't know if these phenomena are related, but if they are, the example of the vine dresser and the fruit would speak clearly to an audience familiar with agriculture. The intent of the pruning (trials of life) would be to produce not only more fruit (good works), but more consistent fruit. Saints and spiritual advisors have often spoken of the desirability of a consistent spiritual life - that one who is faithful in prayer should also be knowledgeable of God's ways, patient in demeanor, abundant in charitable deeds, and so forth. Could this consistency be the result of careful pruning by the Father, even as consistent clusters of grapes may be the result of well-dressed vines?

I'd love to know for certain, but I suspect there's a connection. I hope that makes me more patient the next time hardship or humiliation or struggle comes my way. I want to be a branch that bears consistent clusters of grapes, every one ripe in its time, succulent, and suitable for nourishment.

For the record, I picked several clusters and culled through them. About 1/3 of the grapes were unsuitable, but those that could be used were turned into a delicious batch of homemade grape jam. We'll enjoy the jam all autumn - but part of me can't help but think of the bunches that bore only one or two suitable grapes, and were judged unsuitable and cast into the garbage.

I don't want to be one of those bunches.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A shift in vision

I was driving along the lake shore road recently, and I found myself looking a bit enviously at the magnificent mansions people had erected along the lake. The towering brick homes communicated grandeur and stability; the well-appointed grounds bespoke tranquility and order. I sighed, perhaps with a bit of covetousness - I knew families who lived in some of those homes, and some of my kids had friends who lived in some of those them. I look at places like that as I drove past, but knew I'd never be able to provide a home like that for my family - they were well beyond anything I could afford.

But still, but still, it would be nice, my frantic imagination protested as I backed into the driveway of the old, weed-beset two-story that had been our home for 25 years. The siding was faded and the chimney was chipping and the front window was cracked. It was anything but a mansion, but it was what we'd been able to afford while raising our six children. With another sigh, I glanced back in the direction of the magnificent lake shore homes which contrasted so starkly with mine.

Then my vision blurred a bit, and my sight took on a new perspective. The miles seemed to drop away, and the intervening houses and trees stepped aside, and again I saw the houses along the lake as if I were standing just in front of them. But this time my eyes showed a different picture. Gone were the clean new bricks and grand picture windows; instead I saw leaning and tumbling piles of bricks shored up with broken and rotting timbers. Tattered curtains blew in and out through broken windows, and gaping holes yawned in poorly shingled roofs. In place of well-tended lawns there were patches of weeds amidst untended sand. Where polished oak doors had stood now splintered shards hung from broken hinges, and the garages were littered with debris.

Aghast, I looked back at my home. But standing there was no longer the simple house I expected; instead there stood a stone castle of six towers. The towers were anchored into solid bedrock, and stood high and strong, their stones solidly joined and well-mortared. The towers were connected by high walls also made of stone, so that each tower not only stood strong but supported, and was supported by, its brethren. The towers and walls were topped by strong battlements, and above them all fluttered a white banner. On the sides stood two other towers, joined to the structure by more walls, and those in turn were joined to other towers fading away into the distance.

Now, this was a mansion, I thought. Not something thrown together to please the eye or impress visitors, but a solid, lasting structure that would serve a purpose and last for generations, one that could be built upon and expanded in the years to come. I wondered what had happened to the houses along the lake, and why they had fallen so quickly.

Then my vision blurred again, and before me I again saw our simple home, and was content.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A very odd feeling

I'm not a big home handyman. Ellen doesn't keep a "Job Jar" of the type Blondie kept for Dagwood, and if I'm doing pick-up work, it's most likely to be on the keyboard rather than with wood boards.

Not that I can't do what's needed about the house (though I need to psych myself up for it at times) - I can plumb and drywall and nail and lay flooring if necessary. I might let the earliest signs of a problem slip for a while, but eventually a little voice in my head nags me with, "You can't let that go on!" So I'll eventually drag out the toolkit and reseat the toilet or nail down the loose boards or whatever, if for no other reason than I don't want the house deteriorating over the years. This custodial instinct was taught me by my dad, and though it isn't as strong in me as it was in him, it's still there.

Which is why that drip in the bathroom sink is annoying me so much.

You see, we're the last residents of our house, and we won't be residing here much longer. We've lived here for 24 years, raised our six children here, and will be moving out before Christmas, possibly before Thanksgiving. Our property lies within the footprint of a major public works project, so the state is buying up our home under eminent domain. It will eventually be demolished, along with every other home along our stretch of street. We received the state's offer earlier this month, signed the acceptance papers this week, and will be closing on the sale sometime in September. We'll have 90 days from the closing to move out, at which point the utilities will be shut off and the house will stand vacant until the bulldozers come to raze it.

This being the case, it makes no sense to do any long-term maintenance on the property. Sprucing anything up, or even patching something that's deteriorating, won't make a bit of difference to the state (much less the bulldozers.) We've known this for years, and haven't done any major improvements for years (which explains the state of our garage). But it's now at the point that even the most trivial of repairs aren't even worth it.

Like the bathroom faucet I mentioned. It's dripping again, and I know just how to fix it. The parts cost less than $3 at Home Depot, and it's ten minutes with screwdrivers and pliers. Nothing to it.

But it's not even worth burning the gas to drive to the store for the parts. In the brief amount of time we have left in the house, the amount of water that'll drip out that faucet is so trivial that it's not worth any effort to repair.

That's the odd feeling. That custodial instinct keeps yammering, "yes, but over time that problem will...", but my reason knows that "over time" doesn't matter in these unusual circumstances. Thus I find myself looking at the slowly dripping water, or the weeds in the yard, or the posts of the garage porch, and realizing that there's no point in doing anything about any of it. In a matter of weeks, the property will be vacant and shut down, the lawns mowed by state contractors. The state of the siding or the weeds in the driveway cracks won't matter to anyone.

In a way it's relieving not have to worry about these small matters, and I'm sure my custodial instinct will have plenty to work with once we move into whatever house we end up with. But for now, it's odd to be enduring this little contest between my subconscious and my reason.

I think I'll go shut the bathroom door.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Two important phrases

One of my daughters has a job abroad this summer as a nanny. With her kind and outgoing personality, not to mention lots of experience with nieces and nephews, she's a natural for child care.

But she's found out something interesting with her little charges, a seven year old boy and a three year old girl. Being children of a well-to-do family (the sort that can afford a foreign nanny for the summer), they've been raised with pretty much everything handed to them. My daughter, who is supposed to expose them to English, is finding that another vital part of her job is exposing them to the two critical phrases that make so much difference in human interaction:

Please and Thank You.

When I was young, my mother and father drilled into us the importance of saying “please” and “thank you” asking things of others. I always thought of it as good manners, and continued the habit with my own children. As soon as they were able to understand, requests had to be accompanied by “please”, and “thank you” was demanded whenever something was done for them. They learned, because they had no option – and now they are teaching those same manners to their children (or nieces and nephews, as the case may be.)

Perhaps it's the distance of grandparenting, but as I watch this habit of courtesy being inculcated into the next generation, I'm appreciating that this simple habit is more than just a social habit, a mannerly convention. I'm seeing that making these simple phrases part of our basic human interaction radically affects how we view and deal with others.

I've heard it said that we humans are at a sensory disadvantage when it comes to how we perceive the world. From our earliest days, our senses tell us that we're at the center of the universe. What we see, hear, feel, and so on gives us the impression that the world does revolve around us. Only what others tell us, how they treat us, and how we're taught to treat them, can disabuse us of that notion.

Learning to ask “please” is an important tool in that effort. When we use that phrase, we acknowledge the humanity of the other person. We're not treating them as a means to an end, but as an equal, of whom we are making a request. I think this is particularly important for children to learn toward parents, because parents actually are de facto slaves to their children when they are young and dependent. Even young children are not stupid, and can realize that those big people are pretty much at their beck and call. But when they get old enough to realize that they can exploit this, they can begin to learn that important phrase that forces them to realize that Mom & Dad – and everyone else – are to be treated with dignity.

Thanks are what we offer when we appreciate something that has been done for us. It is a simple expression of gratitude – but gratitude does not come naturally. Those under the illusion that the universe revolves around them do not express gratitude. Only those who have learned that it doesn't realize that grace is part of existence, and gifts should be appreciated. Interestingly, learning to express thanks cultivates the realization that the universe doesn't revolve around us. Learning thanks is not only an expression of maturity, but a path to it.

It is to my parent's credit that I was grown and out into the world before I learned what the phrase “treating someone like an object” even meant. I'd heard it, but it mystified me. I only came to understand it when I encountered people who did that. Oddly, those were the very people who so rarely said “please” and “thank you”.

I wonder if there was a connection?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Books you need to read

I don't often give orders to my readers, but this time I'll make an exception...

One of the most difficult things about living in an information-dense culture like ours is getting out of it. We are inundated by images, noises, publications, and the new phenomena of web content, all of which sweep us along like a great tide. The attitudes, presuppositions, and outlooks that dominate this flood of information are rarely examined, and the power of this tidal surge makes it difficult to rise above it, to understand it critically from a detached point of view.

Of course, this is the goal of a true liberal education - to anchor one's understanding and conceptual framework in a foundation that lies deeper than the transient intellectual trends of any particular time. And though my formal education wasn't broad enough to be considered truly liberal, I've tried to deepen my informal education to be liberal in the classical sense.

That has meant a lot of reading over the years, and I wanted to pass along some of the books that have helped me most. Those who know me will hear me constantly recommending them. A couple I've loved for years, one I just finished recently, but all three are invaluable. They all help the reader rise above the rhetoric and assumptions of our culture and examine things from a different perspective. There are many books that help do that, but these three address particular challenges facing our culture. If you want superb analysis of critical modern problems, and are brave enough to have your presuppositions challenged, I cannot recommend these works too highly.

The Flight from Woman by Karl Stern
Psychiatrist Karl Stern offers a keen insight into one of the central intellectual imbalances of our age: the exultation of the discursive intellect at the expense of the intuitive intellect. He explains how the triumph of rationalism following the Enlightenment led to a neurotic imbalance of thought and perception in the modern mind. This work is a rigorous intellectual workout but well worth the time.

Family and Civilization by Carle Zimmerman, as abridged by James Kurth
I'd heard of this scholarly tour de force years ago, but understood that the multi-volume work had gone out of print. Fortunately, ISI Books undertook the task of re-releasing it, in the process abridging it for the lay reader. This is not just another "family values are deteriorating" screed - Harvard sociologist Zimmerman prepares a sweeping survey of civilizations throughout history and how they relate to the family structures that underly them. Of course, his analysis of where our culture stands in light of historical patterns is not cheering, but he backs up his conclusions with firm research. If you want to understand the relations of the family to civilization, this book is a must-read.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
An NYU professor and student of Marshall McLuhan, Postman was a keen thinker and critic of modern culture. This book is considered his masterpiece, but don't expect another "there's nothing but trash on TV" rant. Postman begins his critique with epistemology - the understanding of how we know what we know - and takes the reader through the history of oral and written cultures to set the framework for understanding how a video epistemology changes a society.

I recommend that anyone who seriously wishes to understand our culture, the challenges we face, and possible solutions, should study these books carefully. You'll be rewarded.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Things I learn from my pets

Last week we were forced to give our pets flea shampoos. Neither the cat nor the dog enjoy baths, and they really don't enjoy getting wet, lathered, and then being forced to sit there in that state for five minutes or so to give the pesticidal wash a chance to do its job. The cat, who has sharp claws and is not averse to using them, took two of us, while I was able to mostly manage the dog by myself - at least until it came time to rinse off. At that point he decided he'd had enough, and kept pulling away from the rinse water. I had no way of explaining that if I didn't rinse the soap off him, he'd be in much worse shape. Finally Ellen had to step in and rinse while I held him. It was an hour-long effort that I did in my swim trunks and followed with a shower.

The ordeal probably mystified the pets. They know nothing of parasites or their long-term dangers, much less of human aversion to sharing living spaces with infested animals. We could see from their itching that they didn't enjoy their little guests, but they couldn't even make the cause-and-effect connection between the discomfort and the small insects, much less between the remedy and relief. To them it must have seemed that their loving masters, who provide food and water and affection and walks, had suddenly gone berserk. They were pinioned, soaked, covered with smelly stuff, thoroughly drenched, and then rubbed with towels. And then they weren't even allowed back inside for an hour or so! No amount of soothing talk and reassurance could make up for this bizarre behaviour on our part.

All this got me thinking of how God must have to deal with us humans at times. His understanding stands much further above ours than ours does above our pets. What spiritual and personal problems does He understand of which we have no comprehension? Maybe there are times we need the spiritual equivalent of a flea bath - how do we respond when we're suddenly pinioned, drenched, lathered, immobilized, and thoroughly rinsed?

I know I have a tendency to howl and struggle and fight what I'm being put through. Most of all, I begin to wonder about the One who is subjecting me to all this. What did I do wrong? Am I being punished? Have I been forgotten? What happened to the love and comfort and consolation? I forget that God may have reasons that He can't explain to me because I have no framework for comprehending them, any more than my pets have a framework for understanding flea baths.

For my pets, the matter ultimately had to come down to their trust in us. We were their masters, who had a long history of caring for them. Though they balked and fussed, they submitted to our care. It took a bit of brute force at times, but had they wished to really fight, we wouldn't have been able to help them. As it was, their familiarity with us, and the history of care we had with them, mollified them enough. Their trust in us helped them through the ordeal, after which they were in much better shape.

I hope I remember that next time God subjects me to something difficult in my life. When He pinions me in some difficult circumstances and starts doing things that are troublesome and inexplicable, I hope I fall back on trusting Him. Maybe He's cleaning up some spiritual parasites I didn't know I have, or working on some personality problem or besetting sin that has troubled me all my life. Maybe someday I'll be able to understand why I'm being put through this, or maybe I never will. But I hope I'll have the trust to sit still and let Him do whatever His wisdom deems necessary, and not doubt His love and care for me.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Movies I love, and why (#1)

I'm proving terrible at consistently blogging. I think part of the problem is one I share with my daughter - if I fire up the text editor to write something, I want to write something worth reading. To me, that means writing thoughtfully, and well, on a meaningful topic. In other words, I have to voluntarily do the sort of thing that was a dreaded assignment to most of you back in your school days.

I don't mind much - it wasn't nearly as hard for me in my school days, and it's not a crushing load now - but it is still labor, and I have things crowding out my time these days. So when I sit down to the keyboard and think, "maybe I'll write a blog post", another part of my brain says, "no, you've another responsibility you should discharge first." So blog posting keeps getting put off.

This despite ideas for posts that keep flitting through my mind. Thoughts on current events, thoughts on things I read, thoughts on life in general, all act like sparks on the tinder of my mind, generating flares of thought that make me think, "I should write a few paragraphs about that!" I even keep a list of potential post topics, because more than once I've found myself getting home from a lengthy drive (or whatever) and realizing that I'd clean forgotten the superb topic that had occurred to me. But because of the aforementioned factors, few of these superb ideas see the light of day.

So I'm going to try something my daughter is trying: lowering my standards a bit. I'll try to rein in the perfectionism, and sit on the urge to turn every post into a masterpiece. I'll try jotting less deeply, more often, and we'll see how that works. One of my bright ideas for generating posts is to write about movies that I like that nobody who knows me would think I'd like, so I think I'll start with that.

I remember reading somewhere that there is really only one story in all human history - the heroic tale of the Redeemer and the redemption He brings. All other human stories are extractions from, or portions of, the Great Story. (I could swear I read this somewhere in Neuhaus' Death on a Friday Afternoon, but I haven't been able to find the reference.) I find this statement compelling, and since hearing it tend to view stories through this lens. When I read a book or see a movie, I tend to ask, "What part of the Great Story does this convey?"

However, even with such an outlook, those who know me might find it unusual that one of the movies I really enjoy is Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning. From the trailers and marketing, one gets the impression it is nothing more than another blow-'em-up, shoot-'em-up vengeance flick of the type I typically avoid. And though it has its share of shooting and explosions, the reason this movie appeals to me is that the story is much more subtle and complex than mere "action".

To a lover of the raw vengeance flick, the film gets off to a very slow start. A morose, depressed, and introspective agent named John Creasy (Washington) can't escape either his horrible memories or the bottle. A well-meaning friend gets him a job as a bodyguard for the daughter of a wealthy Mexican family. This duty seems about equal to his current abilities, but his perky, vivacious charge Pita (Fanning) won't let him curl up within his responsibilities. With trust and charm she draws him out of himself until he is once again reengaged with life.

Then happens the very thing Creasy was hired to prevent: Pita is kidnapped. Creasy nearly gets himself killed trying to prevent it, and does some killing of his own, but is left for dead as the girl is swept away. While he lies in a hospital bed, things go very wrong with the ransom. A brutal kidnapping ring, dark family secrets, crooked cops, and crooked lawyers all collide in a terrible mess that apparently gets Pita killed by the kidnappers because of a botched ransom drop. By the time Creasy is well enough to stand, it's all over.

Then he decides to "do what I do best" - visit destruction on those who destroyed little Pita. A bit more of his murky past comes into focus: he had been a counterinsurgency agent around the globe, and as his friend and onetime coworker puts it, "Creasy's art is death - and he's about to paint his masterpiece." And paint it he does, with laser focus and unflinching determination. He takes on a powerful circle of corrupt police officials, ferrets out the dirty secret of Pita's father, and hunts down those who run the brutal kidnapping ring that took Pita and so many others. I won't tell the final ending, except to say that it involves Creasy making a final and heroic sacrifice.

So what about such a film could reflect part of the Great Story? To me, Creasy's single minded determination to repay everyone who profited from Pita's kidnapping reminded me of the ultimate Judgment of God. The criminals, their hands red with the blood of their victims, are themselves brought to judgment. One man tries to intimidate Creasy with his connections to the powerful. That earns a calm and brutal response which makes clear that his connections are useless against this judge. Another tries to wheedle, yet another promises favors, another offers bribes. They all fall, because they are all out of their reckoning. None of what they offer carries any weight with Creasy, who is trying to extract justice for the murder of the little girl he loved. It is grimly gratifying to see this justice roll on, unstoppable as a tidal wave, sweeping before it every barrier until the ultimate perpetrators are brought to the light.

For me, it is helpful to be reminded that a day like this will come for the world as well. In this day we struggle with injustice on all sides, and the powerful oppressing and destroying the weak. We struggle against it as best we can, but seem to have little effect. Part of our burden as God's people is to bear, and struggle, and pray, but at times it seems like the injustice is too great.

But we've been promised the day will come when the Just Judge will come, and visit on all of us that which we deserve. There will be those who try to impress, or wheedle, or bribe - but nothing will avail. The consequences of their sin will be visited upon them, unrelentingly, implacably, and there will be no escape. Injustice will end because Christ will put an end to the unjust.

I think this is what makes Man on Fire so gratifying for me despite the violent and brutal parts - it is a distant, murky glimpse of the ultimate justice that we will one day see. After all, the injustice of the world is violent and brutal, and the Scriptural descriptions of the Day of the Lord are no less so. May that day be hastened, that the innocent may no longer suffer death and oppression at the hands of the powerful and uncaring.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Name we most need to hear

The recent situation with the "internet sensation" Susan Boyle highlights an interesting aspect of human nature that's worth considering. If you're one of the few people on the planet who hasn't heard of Miss Boyle, she was an unknown Scottish spinster with an incredible voice who got her big break on the talent search show Britain's Got Talent - her debut performance can be heard here. Once on the internet, this snippet garnered an amazing number of views, and soon the hitherto unknown singer was talked about everywhere. It seems the recognition for her tremendous singing talents was finally at hand.

The rest of the story, so far as it can be understood through the media filter, is not so pleasant. As the show's season progressed and she was increasingly lionized by the public, her composure began to crack. Reports of public outbursts, breakdowns, and erratic behaviour began to surface. Shortly after the final show in the competitive Talent season, she was hospitalized for exhaustion. Whether she'll participate in a post-season live tour is currently in question.

My point here is not to laud or demonize Miss Boyle. Her vocal talent is beyond question, and I wish her the very best as a person and as a Christian sister. But without speculating on motives or internal factors - about which we know nothing, regardless of what the media may say - there's one lesson that can be drawn from this incident.

We humans like to hear our own names. It's part of our fallen condition - our overweening egos crave feeding, and hearing our names in the mouths of others is rich fare for them. We like seeing our names in the papers, and the thought that people we don't know could be discussing us gives a bit of a thrill.

The problem is, this isn't healthy. Especially for we fallen ones, the name we most need to hear is Jesus. Great saints and spiritual masters stress that the more we hear His name and the less we hear our name, the better - and the most blessed state of all is self-forgetfulness. When we are so caught up in Jesus that we forget ourselves, then we're getting close to where we should be.

Granted that none of us know anything about Miss Boyle, and that speculation from a distance on data obtained through the media is very dangerous, I'll still venture a guess that some of her struggles arise from suddenly hearing her name far too much. By all accounts she was a quiet, retiring homebody, little known outside her immediate circle. To be abruptly catapulted into international notoriety, with her name showing up in television broadcasts and on the lips of millions of strangers, seems a recipe for an overdose of attention. Suddenly she was hearing her own name almost everywhere. Could that have knocked her emotional equilibrium off balance? Only God knows, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Interestingly, this state of fame, of wanting to hear our own name in our ears, is a powerful attraction to many of us, including myself. In the economy of the fallen world, fame is a powerful currency. People will work hard and suffer deprivation and humiliation for the prospect of being famous. Yet Miss Boyle's experience, as well as many others through history, indicates this currency is as false as any other found in the world.

For twenty years now, part of my daily discipline has been saying morning and evening prayers - lauds and vespers in the classic cycle. There's definitely something about opening a day and closing it with the name of Jesus on your lips. The more we work on making that Name part of our daily life, the healthier our spirits will be.

So the next time you hunger to hear your own name - maybe when you feel slighted or unrecognized - try whispering the Name above all Names for a while. That's the Name our fallen ears most need to hear.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Stealth Propagandists in the Culture of Death

Those seeking to form the attitudes and outlooks of this culture had better be careful. There's a stealth propagandist working against their post-modern agenda, and it is not only subtly effective but charming and profitable as well.

I'm speaking of Pixar Studios.

First we had the unapologetically pro-family blockbuster The Incredibles, a fun and fast-paced tale of fidelity, parenthood, and right vs. wrong.

Then we had WALL·E, a celebration of the nobility of duty, diligence, and hard work. It not only exulted the lowly and simple - not an uncommon theme these days, but still refreshing to see - but took a Swiftian satirical swipe at consumerism and self-indulgence that made some of us quite uncomfortable.

And now we have Up.

If you didn't see this animated wonder on its opening weekend, I don't want to spoil your fun. You can stop reading now and go see it (the 3-D version is worth it). But if you don't mind hearing a few "spoilers", or you've seen it, feel free to continue.

The movie's protagonist is Carl, whose shares with his life-love Ellie a longing for adventure and excitement. But after their childhood meeting, the story of their adult lives from marriage to widowhood is told in poignant silent form, nothing but vivid visual vignettes of their life together. (There is a similar "silent" stretch in WALL·E - could the world of masterful computer animation be resurrecting the art of silent film?) When the story resumes with dialog, Carl is an old curmudgeon who picks up the earnest young scout Russell, and the main portion of the film progresses.

The first bit of stealth propaganda lies in the scenes that summarize Carl and Ellie's life together. First, their married life is portrayed as a rich and joyous union. Second, children are seen as a complete blessing - envisioned in the clouds, lovingly prepared for, and eagerly anticipated. The brief but heartwrenching scene in which a doctor delivers the news that there would be no children for them causes Ellie to dissolve into tears - and some of the audience as well. The remainder of their story is still good, but clearly only as good as they can make it, living as they are under the shadow of infertility. Ellie's eventual passing leaves Carl with an emptiness which he has no idea how to fill.

Young Russell is simply a kid looking to get his badge requirements signed off, but as he and Carl end up on their adventure and get to know one another, it slowly emerges that Russell's home is broken. His father used to come with him to scout meetings, and they used to sit on the curb outside the ice cream shop and count cars - but now there's Phyllis, and dad isn't around much, and doesn't have time for doing things with his son. Not much is said because not much needs to be said. The topic is not just painful, but shameful, and one can feel Carl's shame that any fellow adult would treat a child so.

So first the movie portrays not just marriage but childbearing in a completely positive, healthy light - so much so that the loss of the childbearing component hits the viewers as the tragedy it is. Then it goes and shows divorce from the child's perspective, laying bare the brutal damage it does to the innocent. Then the film has the audacity to go and get critically acclaimed, even earning raves and a top rating from our local liberal movie reviewer. See what I mean about stealth propaganda?

It's clear from such stories that we humans are hardwired to just know that certain things align with the order of creation. It is right and good for men and women to marry, and to accept children as the incarnation of their love. It is a tragedy, not a blessing, when those children are denied. No boy should ever have to explain to a stranger that his father's companion is not his mother. No matter what excuses our minds and tongues make, our hearts know better, which is why they respond to tales such as this.

Which is why I say that the propagandists of this culture had better watch out. If they're not careful, all the work they've done with their nihilistic comedians and anti-heros will be undone by the story writers and animation wizards of Pixar, who put out stories echoing themes that people just know are right. Stories about lifelong love and fidelity. Stories about the challenges and blessings of raising children. Stories that speak of things like divorce as they should be spoken of - in hushed and shamed voices. Stories that resonate with the human heart, and will be unconsciously absorbed and made part of the viewer's attitudes.

And furthermore, Pixar will make a tidy profit doing it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Opportunity Notre Dame Missed

Again, waaay overdue here, but life keeps intruding. Blog posting is something I do when other responsibilities allow.

This is dead news - the president has returned to the White House, the protesters are gone, and the crucifix covers have been stowed away. In the judgment of the media, Obama suffered no serious political setback, and since that's what really matters, all is well.

But the fact that the Obama Notre Dame Commencement Address / Honorary Degree controversy is history gives me a chance to look back on it, and consider things that matter more. The thing that stuck out most was the opportunity that Notre Dame had, but forewent. Of course, anyone who knew anything about them would have been able to predict that they would have done so, but it was still an opportunity they could have seized, had they the will.

When the controversy about Obama being invited to give the Notre Dame Commencement address broke, the ND administration was swift to point out that inviting seated presidents to speak at their commencements was a university tradition. They had invited pro-abortion (Clinton) and pro-life (Bush) presidents, and they had come to speak. This was not only an appeal to tradition, but a subtle boast about the University's stature (how many other universities can claim a tradition of having the sitting president accept their invitation to speak?) Notre Dame's claim seemed to be that since inviting presidents was tradition, how could they violate that tradition just because Barack Obama was so fiercely pro-abortion?

But therein lay their opportunity, had they wished to truly bear witness as a Catholic university. It was a tradition, and furthermore, everyone knew it. It was expected that Notre Dame would extend an invitation to Obama, since that's what they did with presidents.

All they would have had to do was not extend that invitation.

There were any number of other parties they could have invited to speak. They wouldn't even have had to make a big fuss about it. ("Here is the President of Notre Dame, standing on the steps beneath the Golden Dome, burning the invitation he would have sent to President Obama.") All they would have had do do, ever so quietly and discreetly, was nothing. To those who knew, that non-extension of the invitation would have said what was necessary. Everyone knew that Notre Dame invited sitting presidents to speak at their commencements, why not this year? The intelligent would have been able to connect the dots, and see that Obama's fierce and vocal pro-abortion stand was in discord with the University's Catholic identity.

But that non-invitation would have come at a cost. To take a stand against the Culture of Death, to send a message from the heart of their identity as a Catholic university, Notre Dame would have had to take a blow to its stature as university who can get sitting presidents to come speak. The non-extension of an invitation this year would have surely meant that any subsequent invitations would be discarded, and Obama would never come to speak at Notre Dame. Their string of presidential commencement speakers would be broken, perhaps permanently, and their prestige as a university would have suffered.

Anyone who knows anything about Notre Dame understands that if presented with a choice between speaking the truth as a Catholic institution and bolstering their prestige as a university, the outcome is foregone. This is why I mentioned earlier that anyone who knew anything about them would be able to predict what would happen. But this is the opportunity they forewent. It is truly a pity, since by not inviting Barack Obama they would have been implicitly extending an invitation to an even more prestigious Speaker - one who may not have stood behind the lectern, but whose Presence would have made far more difference.

What a shame they settled for so little.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The New Priesthood

One of the vilest monsters in the modernist bestiary is The Exploitative Priest. This character is abhorred because he preys on ignorance and superstition, holding the simple enthralled by his claim to be able to interpret signs and omens, and even to foretell the future. His wickedness is exhibited in his swiftness to command compliance or risk ostracism and excommunication. To those who are pliant to his will and learn his doctrine, he holds out the hope of clemency and salvation, but those who doubt his word or question his teachings are damned as infidels or heretics.

Human nature being what it is, there have certainly been such clerics in history, though not as many as the modernists would like to believe. Furthermore, the Gospel of Christ, when properly understood and preached, is quite different than most religions in human history. The Exploitative Priest is found more widely in paganism, as Daniel 14:1-21 testifies.

Modernists assume that the presence of The Exploitative Priest is due solely to the conniving, scheming, and political skulduggery of The Religious Party. If they'd just leave the simple people alone, they could live their lives in peace. But I think the situation is more complex than that. In fact, looking around this postmodern world, it seems to me that people need a priest figure, even if all he does is exploit them. Furthermore, if there isn't one, they'll seek until they find one.

I don't know why this is. Maybe it is because people want to be connected to something greater than themselves. Maybe it is because they cannot escape the guilt within their breasts, and if they deny the path that God has provided to excise that, they'll find some other path to assuage it. But whatever the reason, it seems that people clamor for a guilt trip, and won't settle until they get one.

As Exhibit A of this hypothesis, I offer the modern Global Warming / Climate Change hysteria. It has all the trappings of the Exploitative Priest scenario: the prophets of doom (led by their Elijah, Al Gore), the guilt, the apocalyptic vision, the path to salvation, the sacrifices and offerings, the interpretation of the omens and foretelling of the future, damnation - the whole smash is there. There's even the transcendent reality of The Earth - a semi-mystical concept that differs quite sharply from the physical reality. A true scientist would be amazed that this unproven mythology has seized the popular imagination so strongly on the basis of such threadbare and contradictory evidence. The fact that it has seems to me strong evidence that people need to feel guilty, and if they deny guilt in one arena of life, they'll have to expiate it somewhere else.

The real mystery is why people not only tolerate exploitation, but seek it out. Perhaps their hearts know that justice will demand something of them for their sins, and want to pay it in the way they prefer. Whatever the reason, I find it cruelly ironic that the modern world that went to such pains to demonize all religion as being simply the product of the Exploitative Priest has turned around and created an even more exploitative priesthood of their own.

C'mon back, guys. It's much simpler than that.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Fourth Last Thing

I'm waaay overdue on a post here, for which I apologize to anyone who happens to follow my musings. I've had several ideas for topics, but have felt that I needed to "wrap up" the posts regarding the Four Last Things before continuing. Here goes with the final, and most difficult topic:

If people rarely consider or discuss hell, then they almost never consider heaven - at least, not seriously. To the modern mind heaven seems to be either an assumed state or a distant irrelevancy - or both. Questions about who will get to heaven, and under what conditions, are considered gauche. Admission is assumed, even for those who disregarded anything to do with God or salvation in this life. To see this in action, just try suggesting to a family member that such a dear departed is anywhere but "at peace", and you will be castigated for being insensitive and judgmental.

Another more subtle attitude sounds more altruistic: that we shouldn't worry ourselves about heaven because it cheapens any good we do on earth. The idea is that we should want to do good for its own sake, not because it would qualify one for some long-term payoff. A more jaded extension of this view sneers at "pie in the sky bye and bye", or disparages some as being "so heavenly minded that they're no earthly good."

The result of these casual attitudes has been a culture full of people so earthly minded that they're no heavenly good. If there was someone who was heavenly minded, it was Jesus. He even did some scoffing of His own - at those who would consider any good of this world to begin to compare to the blisses of eternal life. If you read Jesus' words - His actual words, mind you, not His words interpreted by some socially-conscious preacher - you find two overriding themes: first, that the purpose of His entire mission, the telos of all the pain and suffering, was to open for mankind the door to heaven. The second is that this admission to heaven was far from foregone. He often warned His disciples most severely that the way was narrow and difficult, and that few would obtain it.

Two major influences helped form my perception of heaven: my father, and the writings of C.S. Lewis. My dad (the one who kept warning me about divine judgment) kept echoing Jesus' words to me - about how nothing in this world even began to compare with the glories of life with Christ. But it was Lewis who helped me see that the beautiful, wonderful things of this life were only beautiful and wonderful because they were little glimpses of heaven. This helped me see beyond the cultural cartoon mythology of heaven as this not-particularly-exciting place where people in robes wandered around on clouds. I've known plenty of beautiful things in my life: stunning sunrises and joyous Christmas mornings and touching homecomings and majestic concerts and quiet evenings at home with my family and so, so many other things. Lewis helped me understand that the only reason those things were beautiful and meaning-full was that through them, I touched eternity - or eternity touched me, as the case may be.

This has become how I think of heaven: not simply as an ultimate goal to be reached beyond the grave, but as something that is seeking to break into this world, to burst forth with a superabundance of life and joy and beauty. That seems to be what you find in Scripture as well. Our parish Bible study is going through the Book of Acts, and in every sermon from Pentecost to the end, there's an undertone of something seeking to burst into our world. That's our role as Christians: to "infect" this drab, drear, monotone world with the color and symphony of heavenly glory. I loved Lewis' image of the Incarnation as like an invasion, a reconquista by the rightful King of the world, and we are His partisans, receiving His supplies and working to expand His reign on this earth. That's the Church's mission, and our mission as members of His Body. Every good deed we do, every act of charity and work of mercy, is an infusion of heavenly glory into this sin-damaged world.

This is not to denigrate the ultimate place of heaven, true union with God and a New Creation. But it is not something we just have to mope around and wait for, putting up with burdens and sorrows here in hopes of an ultimate payoff. Of course, we won't see the full payoff until all creation is redeemed, but we can be a conduit of heavenly grace to the world even amidst our trials and struggles. If we focus on that goal, and strive for it, we bring it closer, and a little more of our world comes under Christ's dominion. That's what being "heavenly minded" really is - and nobody has ever done more good for this earth than those who think like that.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Third Last Thing

In the classical meditation on the Four Last Things, the third is the unpleasant one, the one the modern world doesn't wish to mention or even think about.


Hell here means the place of final damnation, eternal separation from God, the place prepared for Satan and those who followed him, both spiritual and human. No second chances, no rescues, no escape hatches. Hell is the destination for those who want nothing to do with God.

Hell has to be one of the least meditated-upon topics in modern society. If we think about it at all, we consider that it was for the Middle Ages, we think, or for Puritans – narrow, superstitious, uneducated folk who were dominated by cruel overlords and driven by fear. In these more enlightened times we understand that God is Love, and would never be so cruel as to send someone to such a terrible place as hell. Well – maybe the Jeffrey Dahmers and Josef Fritzls of the world, but not somebody like me.

Would He?

From what I've seen, modern consideration of hell goes no deeper than a hare-brained pseudo-syllogism that runs something like this: I'm too nice a person to damn anyone to eternal suffering, and God's far nicer than I am, therefore God won't damn anyone either, and thus we don't have to worry about hell.

Besides (continues the modern argument), of what benefit would it be to meditate on such a downer concept as eternal damnation? Why ponder hell if nobody's going there (except perhaps a few really bad people)? That's hardly enlightening or uplifting, and isn't religion all about being enlightened and uplifted?

There are so many ways to respond to the modern attitude toward hell that one hardly knows where to begin. But I'll try by starting with this last attitude, that hell is a downer not only unworthy of meditation, but deserving to be consigned to the bin of relics next to hair shirts and penance pilgrimages. Obviously, I believe that to be false, and that hell is very worthy of meditation, but for a reason that sounds incongruous.

We should meditate on hell as a demonstration of God's love for us demonstrated in His respect for us.

That's right – respect. The existence of hell is required by the existence of free will. A being that can choose, can choose to be somewhere other than with God. That may be a foolish and self-destructive option, but if free will exists, it needs to be there. And if a being is truly loved, it is truly respected, and if it is truly respected, it is permitted to make its own choices, even if those choices are foolish and self-destructive. In fact, to preclude certain choices is an expression of disrespect – and ultimately of something less than love.

Here's an example: in Hayao Miyazaki's classic Spirited Away, the slave driving witch Yubaba has no mercy on anyone – except a giant baby who she keeps in a posh and well-furnished nursery. (By “giant” here I mean just that – the infant is as tall as two men. Anything is possible in the spirit world in which Spirited takes place!) Yubaba prattles baby talk to this spoiled “infant”, cleaning up after it and pacifying its tantrums. By appearances, she loves this baby more than anything. But appearances can be deceiving, as demonstrated by the witch's smothering “love”. The titanic infant is, essentially, imprisoned in his nursery, stifled and stunted by the very thing that has provided for him. In reality, the baby is a pet – doted upon and looked after, but not respected. Only a strange alignment of circumstances permits the baby to escape into the real world, where he meets challenge, difficulty, and ultimately maturity.

God is no Yubaba. He's not interested in slaves or pets, but free beings capable of receiving and returning charity. That means He has to permit us to make choices and take risks, and yes, that includes the ability to choose an existence without God.

But why would any one choose that? The answer lies all around us, in a culture that is increasingly making clear that it wants nothing to do with God. Oh, we'll take the good parts – intellect and senses and a beautiful world to enjoy and other people to love and relate to. Just leave behind those rules about how we should treat each other, and certainly don't mention returning gratitude and worship to the Being who made all this goodness.

The problem is, we can't. God and the good things He creates are a package deal. If you take one, you have to take both. Reject one and you reject the other. That's ultimately what hell is: the rejection of God, and with that the rejection of all the good that God brings. That means puppies and sunsets and vacations and beaches – and, for that matter, creativity and beauty and love.

I can hear the whining already: “But why is God so vindictive? Why deny those goods just because we want nothing to do with Him? Is God like a child who scoops up his marbles and storms off just because things aren't going his way?”

A couple of points about that. I'm not up enough on the metaphysics of it all, but I suspect that is an impossibility. Good without God is probably one of those logical contradictions which C.S. Lewis so thoroughly skewered in Mere Christianity. But let's presume for a moment that if someone doesn't want anything to do with God, God will depart, and leave behind the goods of sense, intellect, and even a physical world in which to live. What kind of existence might that be?

Poets have speculated on that very possibility. One of the more famous exercises was the play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, wherein hell for three vicious, sinful people is simply being locked in a room together. No racks, no fires, no demons – just sinful human natures clawing at each other unmitigated by any compassion or charity. The effect is quite chilling. And mystics through the ages have speculated that hell might be nothing more than sinners repeating for a bleak and dreary eternity the sins which damned them: endless conversations consisting of nothing but bitter gossip, perhaps, or ceaseless banquets at which gluttons have nothing to do but stuff more and more food down their gullets. Even with our limited imaginations, the prospects of such eternities make us shudder – or should.

But why would anyone choose such an existence? If offered the option between such a bleak and empty existence and everlasting joy, why would any rational being choose bleak emptiness?

Well – we are being offered the option. From the perspective of eternity, that's what our lives are: one long question about which we'd choose. But simple mental assent isn't enough. Everyone wants good – the question is whether we want the God from which the good comes. Our lives are a long opportunity to answer the question. God gives most of us a chance to enjoy the goods while pondering the question and its terms. If we look hard enough, we can even see that the lesser goods are just signposts pointing to the greatest Good, the one thing we should really want. If we want that greatest Good, or even to still have the lesser goods that come with Him, He's opened a door to permit that to happen. But if by our lives and actions we prove that we don't want the greatest Good – well, He'll respect that decision. That will be hell.

The thing is that none of us knows exactly when the question is going to be closed. That's why it's good to meditate on hell, and to examine the kind of answer that our lives are giving to the most important question of all.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Path of Humility

Those who ponder the significance of Christmas quickly come to realize that once you get beyond the presents and carols, the Feast of the Incarnation is a celebration of humility. The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, came to be born into obscurity and poverty - even, as Chesterton observed, in a cave beneath the earth. This is the far deeper and more profound meaning of the Feast that invokes worship long after the crèche is packed away.

If this is true of Christmas, it is far more true of today, the Feast of the Annunciation. This is when the Church celebrates the visit of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary as recorded in Luke 1, when she gave her fiat to the Lord's wish that she bear His Son. When she assented to be used in God's plan of salvation and the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, the Divine Son was incarnated in her womb first as an embryo.

That's an abasement so deep that some were literally scandalized. God Himself dwelling within the sexual organs of a human woman? The concept was so outrageous that the Greek philosophers just scoffed, and the Gnostics were offended. It was even too much for certain Christians, such as Bishop Nestorious, who taught that it was the human Jesus who dwelt in the Virgin's womb, not the divine Christ. It was in condemning this heresy that the Church brought into common usage the term Theotokos, Mother of God, to affirm that both Jesus human and divine natures were present prenatally.

That's what strikes me: the humiliation which the Son of God voluntarily endured for our sake. As Scripture says, "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." (Phil 2:5-7) When I was younger and my blood ran hotter, I relished the martial imagery of Christ triumphing over evil with a mighty victory, His enemies scattered on the ground at His feet. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the manner of that victory: it was gotten through humility and weakness, by Christ not only deigning to come as a man (which would have been humiliation enough), but to put Himself into our hands to be cruelly and unjustly mistreated and executed.

It's that humility that's the surprise. We men think in terms of mighty conquerors because that's how we like to rule: the strong overcoming the weak by force of arms, the greater will overcoming the lesser ones by strong and persuasive words. But here was the greatest Will of all choosing not to conquer and rule like that. His arms were the ones He stretched out to be nailed to the wood, and His words were those of forgiveness. No wonder the people of the day couldn't understand this manner of conquest - it didn't look at all familiar.

This ideal of strength in humility, of conquering through weakness, is a hidden truth, but it is found in the most obscure and mystical of wisdom through human history. For example, the Chinese sage Lao Tzu recognized it, and used the image of water to illustrate the power of humility ("The highest goodness, water-like, does good to everything and goes unmurmuring to places men despise; but so, it is close in nature to Tao" - Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching.) In another place he recognizes that lowliness and humility is usually the lot of those who love wisdom ("But honor comes to me when least I'm known: The Wise Man, with a jewel in his breast, goes clad in garments made of shoddy stuff." - Chapter 70, Tao Te Ching.) These cryptic images hint at the ultimate humility of the Incarnation and the Passion.

The lesson I'm coming to learn in my old(er) age is that the Path of Humility that Jesus walked is not only something He did to make my salvation possible, but the model for my own growth in Christ-likeness. When I was younger I got excited about mastering demons - now I understand that it's a struggle for me just to master my own weaknesses and disordered appetites. Decades of trying to overpower them through main strength has only proven that they'll pin me every time. If I'm going to be a blessing to the world like I want to be - heck, if I'm even going to make myself a proper disciple - the Path is clear. My Master has already walked it, and He calls me to follow. It leads down, down, down to the depths of humility and self-abnegation. I don't like it - in fact, I hate it, and the Old Man within me screams in protest for he knows that his tomb lies that way. But if I'm going to reflect Christ to a world that needs it, I'm going to have to walk the trail He blazed.

Maybe that's something that can mark the Feast of the Annunciation. If Christmas is marked by gratitude, and Good Friday by sorrow and repentance, and Easter by joy, then maybe the Annunciation is the true feast of humility. The Blessed Mother models perfect human humility in her assent to God's plan – a plan that brought her no end of difficulty and pain. Jesus Himself demonstrates infinite humility in coming into her womb as an insensate embryo, there to grow in the same manner as the humans He came to save. I need to take that mission just as seriously, and embrace the humility Christ has for me.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Fritzls of California

The trial of Josef Fritzl in Austria, with all its sordid detail and dramatic developments, has captured the imagination of the world. It has all the necessary components to rivet our attention: brutality, imprisonment, deviant sexual behaviour, murder, enslavement. Surely, we think, this is true evil in our midst, and it isn't a good thing we're not like that.


Before we get too smug about how righteous we seem by comparison to a lustful, dictatorial sadist who enslaves and murders his own offspring, let's consider the root of this evil. Essentially, Fritzl disregarded any authority that would restrain his appetites. He decided that his own judgment overruled religious teaching, moral law, civil law, social custom, family tradition – anything that would stay his hand. Of course, this brought about what it always brings about: the Law of the Fist – might makes right. Those within the small scope of his power were ruled by brutal force and exploited for his gratification.

Despite what we'd prefer to think, the root of this wickedness is not lust, or greed, or desire for power. It is pride. The pivotal movement, the essential choice that led to all those other horrors, was Fritzl's exultation of his own will as the ultimate authority in his life. From the moment he discarded the Law of God – or even of human law, which reflects God's Law – as having any authority over him, those terrible results were predictable. It all began with his pride.

This is what should disturb us. While not many of us will have the opportunity to lock our daughters in a dungeon to be raped at our leisure, we are all faced with the temptation to set aside moral laws and exult our wills as the ultimate authority. Every morning when we put our feet out of bed, we risk putting them on the first steps of the path that leads to that kind of perverted depravity.

Which brings us to the subject of California. Amidst the media-stirred frenzy following the passage of Proposal 8 last autumn, one of the responses has been a ballot initiative that would eliminate state recognition of marriage and replace it with “domestic partnerships”, which could be between any two people for any reason. This initiative will certainly be surrounded by a flurry of commentary from all sides, but I doubt that any of it will attend to the foundational premise of the effort: the idea that society has the authority to redefine what marriage is. The parties circulating these petitions are assuming without question the principle that marriage was created by society, instead of the other way around.

That's pride. Though it is expressed in a different manner and in a different venue, that's the same sort of pride that Josef Fritzl exhibited when he decided to discard morals and customs in order to remake his “family” in the form that pleased him. It is dethroning any authority that would tell them they couldn't do something they wanted to do, and enthroning their own egos in its place.

I've little doubt that this initiative will make it to the ballot in California. It may lose, but it will be there, and will be debated and discussed ad nauseum. Through it all, the subtle message will spread that customs, morals, and laws that are inconvenient can be set aside. A certain number of people will come to realize, as Fritzl did, that they don't have to wait for any laws to change. If they can set up their own little kingdoms, they can define their own laws and impose them on people within their power.

That's why I fear that we've only seen the beginning of the Josef Fritzls of the world. May God help the innocent.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Truly fighting evil

Our culture loves comic book heroes. For many years now, one of the surest ways to make big money on a movie has been to base it on some superhero. Not only do we like the idea of someone having some kind of special edge such as the ability to climb walls or a super-capable suit of armour, but we like the idea that these advantages can be used for "good". We get a visceral kick out of seeing the mob bosses or the cruel warlords or the sadistic psychopaths get their comeuppance at the hands of the the hero. It's nice to see the scales tipped toward good for a change, given how often they're tipped the other way.

This is hardly a new idea - it's just the latest incarnation of a theme as old as mankind. The image of The Hero kicking the stuffing out of the Bad Guys and rescuing the victims is a thread that runs from Beowulf to Iron Man and will presumably continue as long as men tell stories. The Evil is always over the top: excessive, egregious, and crying out for action. The response is inevitably force in some form, be it sophisticated intelligence or technology or simply superior strength. The Evil is vanquished and life can return to normal.

The drawback of this view is how it treats Good, Evil, and the conflict between them. For one thing, something as blatant as warlords terrorizing villages or psychopaths blowing up hospitals is but an extreme manifestation of evil. It is like a big, bright dandelion flower in the middle of a green lawn. It's obvious, and for that reason the most offensive, but it's only the most visible aspect of the problem. The Superhero Solution is the equivalent of firing up the John Deere and mowing off all the dandelion flowers. Swift, decisive action with dramatic results - there you go, all green again, problem solved.

Any groundskeeper knows that mowing off the flowers doesn't solve the dandelion problem - you have to dig them out by the roots. Similarly, the problem of evil cannot truly be dealt with by simply blasting away the most obvious manifestations. To eradicate evil, you have to dig it out by the root. But that simply moves the question: what is the root of evil?

If Scriptures is to be believed, then the answer is as simple as it is intractable. The root of evil is the unsubmitted will - a will that chooses its own way over God's way. This is a problem we all share, great and small, superheroes and supervillans. The solution is conceptually simple but practically impossible: perfect submission of our will to God's. There's only One Man who has pulled that off, and He's the true superhero.

This is where our superhero paradigm breaks down. We envision the Good Guy showing up and imposing his will on the Bad Guy, usually by exercise of extreme force. There's no submission - it's all subjection. It's human will against human will, and the one with the most strength wins. We hope it'll be the guy with the good intentions, but sometimes that's where our knuckles get white gripping the theater seat. The idea is that one human will overcoming another human will is sufficient to address the problem.

But that's never sufficient. I'm not saying that there aren't men with good and noble wills as well as men with corrupt and depraved wills. What I am saying is that someone with a good and noble will recognizes that it takes all the effort he can muster to submit that will. Truly conquering evil within another will is beyond his ability. Efforts to subdue other wills may be necessary to prevent complete chaos in human society, but in the long haul they can only bind evil for a time - it's just like mowing the heads off dandelions.

As long as we're enamored of the Superhero Model, we won't truly conquer evil in ourselves or anyone else. It perpetuates the myth that evil is something obvious, dramatic, and (most of all) Out There. The true path for conquering evil has been modeled for us: perfect submission of will. That's the only real example we've been given, and our only way of truly battling evil, because our own will is the only one we can really conquer. The problem is that submitting our will is far less excitement - and far less entertainment - than watching the Bad Guys get thrown around or blown away or outsmarted by the Good Guy. But we have to decide whether we want illusion or reality.

Part of the impact of the recent movie Gran Torino lies in this very tension. The gruff, profane hero Walt has to deal with some real evil threatening those he cares for. He tries the Superhero approach, directly confronting the evil mano a mano. It backfires horribly, and he realizes that direct confrontation is useless. The young lad he befriends wants to respond with more superhero tactics, but Walt takes another path that involves submitting his will - and that ultimately conquers. (I won't spoil it - but be sure to see the movie.)

We love the idea of fighting evil. Are we willing to do what it takes to really do so?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rev. Walter Barnes

Last night the world lost another light. His name was Rev. Walter Barnes, and he was a seemingly obscure Anglican priest who lived and ministered in southeastern Ontario and southeastern Michigan. I only knew him briefly through my association with the Cursillo movement in Sarnia, and because he was interim pastor of the small Episcopal church in a neighboring town. I know he served as a WWII chaplain, and pastored churches in Sarnia, Stratford, and I believe London as well.

By the time I first met him he was either approaching or just past 80 years of age, and though his mind was still sharp, his hearing was going. But that didn't dampen his commitment to Christ, his enthusiasm for the Gospel, or his love of everyone that he met. Walter treated everyone with courtesy and charity, and always listened completely to whoever he was conversing with (though by the time I knew him, he had a tendency to cock his head slightly to get the best advantage from his hearing aid!) My only regret was that I knew that circumstances would prevent me from truly getting to know this unique and precious saint. I made a couple of Cursillos with him, and attended his church a few times, but was never truly in his flock. I do not begrudge those to whom he was able to truly minister! I have a friend who considers Walter to have been his spiritual father, and I'm sure there are many who share that opinion. He was that kind of man and that kind of minister.

He had retired from the pastorate well before I met him, but was still plenty active (including coming out of retirement to act as an interim for the neighboring church. When he finally had to leave, the church sputtered for a while then closed completely.) Once he "really" retired, I didn't have a chance to speak to him except when he ran into a computer problem. I gather he was just quietly declining at his home, but around the turn of the year he suffered a stroke. I just heard today that he died sometime last night.

I have no fear for Walter. He presents before the Throne of Christ a set of credentials that no man would be ashamed of. If I can be half the minister he was, if I could touch a quarter of the lives he did, if I could reflect Christ's light to a darkened world with a fraction of the brilliance he did, I would consider myself a success. But we who where illuminated through his sacrifice and ministry now live in a world rendered darker by his absence.

But I know what Walter would say. He'd tell us to work harder to scrub away the sin in our own lives, so that we could better reflect Christ's glory ourselves. He'd tell us that if we thought things were dark, we had only to step closer to Jesus, where it was brighter. I'll try, Walter. For your sake, I'll try. I know you'll be praying for me, for all of us who considered ourselves your sons.

It'll just be a little harder without you here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Policy By Mythology

Well, as expected, Barack Obama signed an executive order today lifting Bush's executive order banning federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Spouting the media fueled hype about all the medical miracles that can be expected, hope for the future, blah, blah, blah, the president did as he was told and signed the paper authorizing our taxes to be used to kill human beings in hopes of using their tissue for medical treatment.

There are several frightening things about this, but to me the greatest seems to be that this guy, who is supposedly steering an effort to mend a collapsing economy, can't see the plainest economic fact about this whole matter. If killing embryonic humans to harvest their tissue hold such promise, then why aren't private investors lining up to fund it? That way they'd own the patents and have a corner on the wonder cures, and would make a killing as they are rolled out. Not only should federal funding not be needed, it wouldn't be wanted, since that would cloud the issues of ownership and royalties.

Yet, strangely, the private investors are nowhere to be found, so the hue and cry from the universities and research firms is that federal funds are necessary to unlock this fountain of youth. Nobody, least of all this supposed wunderkind of a president, seems to question this mysterious lack of investors. The answer is right there to see: the private investors did line up to fund it. They have already flushed their billions to no avail. For over a decade, heavily funded ESC research has been going on in venues like Singapore and Korea, which have no restrictive laws. This research has failed to turn up even a single laboratory success, much less a reproducible cure. In fact, the only success in research has been the discovery of more and more roadblocks to progress, causing some ESC researchers to speculate that workable ESC therapies will never be found. Investors are out billions, and are forcing firms like ESC International to back off their ESC research and pursue other paths.

You'd think the president and his advisors would have done a little research before making this policy change - but no. They're beholden to the cultural mythology regarding stem cells. I've written elsewhere about the counter-rational faith in embryonic stem cells, and how impervious it is to facts and logic (we won't even mention moral considerations). So we end up with policy guided by mythology, excused by press releases, and (of course) not missing a chance to take a shot at the despised, reviled prior president.

We humans excel at telling ourselves stories to insulate ourselves from realities we'd rather not face. But as my father liked to point out, there will come a day when the those stories will be stripped away, and we face the unvarnished reality of what we did, why we did it, and how we deceived ourselves about it. On that day, I think I'd rather be the president who put into place a policy protecting embryonic humans, rather than the one who removed that policy.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Second Last Thing

When raising me, one of the kindest things that my father did was to repeatedly remind me that one day I would stand before the Throne of Judgment and answer for everything I had done in my life. This was something he kept constantly before his own eyes, and I remember him recounting more than once how he'd faced some occasion for sin, and the knowlege of his ultimate judgment deflected him from sinning.

The concept of final judgment is so unpopular these days that it's barely mentioned. Were it not for the enforced cycle of Scriptural readings for the Liturgy, I suspect that passages pertaining to judgment would barely be heard. The image of a God who judges doesn't fit well with the preferred modern image. (This is predictable, given that "judgmentalism" is one of the few mortal sins in the modern consciousness.) Since we see ourselves as all basically good people with good intentions, what's to judge? We far prefer the image of a friendly, welcoming God who awaits us on the other side of death with a pair of spiritual slippers, a big hug, and a hearty welcome. As far as all those passages in the Old and New Testament regarding a glorious Throne, and having to answer for every casual word, and being judged according to what we have done - well, we can just interpret those away as applying to others, or maybe just avoid reading them.

This tacit avoidance speaks louder than we imagine. If we are truly so noble and guiltless - "good person" being the popular term, as in "I'm not a bad person - I'm a good person, aren't I?" - then what have we to fear from judgment? The fact that it's not an image that we find comfortable looking at or pondering makes clear that deep down we suspect that maybe we aren't such "good people" after all.

That's why one of the classic Christian meditations has been on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Thinking about judgment forces us to face the gritty reality that maybe we aren't as good as we'd like to think. My father's consistent injunction to remember the judgment had to be a fruit of this habit, and it's been helpful to me through my life. I wish I could say it had kept me nearly sinless, but that isn't true. However, when I've struggled with sin, the knowledge that I would someday answer for my actions has strengthened my resolve to fight it. I'm sure that was part of my father's intention in teaching me as he did, and I hope I did as well with my children.

One thing that does stand out about The Judgment, if you think about accounts like Matthew 25: damnation was pronounced on the basis of what wasn't done. The sins of the condemned are sins of omission - not feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick, and so forth. This flies in the face of our cultural fixation on being "good people" - which is defined as not doing overtly evil actions. Apparently avoiding evil isn't good enough for a holy God - the practice of charity is what's important. The sins of the rejected in Matthew 25 - as well as the rich man who let Lazarus die at his door and earned punishment for it - was the not doing the acts which charity demanded. That really makes me think. Just when I'm patting myself on the back because I think I'm disobeying less than I was last month, the reality of judgment smacks me in the face. How well am I doing in what really counts?

That's what pondering judgment does for us, or at least for me: it helps me to judge myself, so I might make necessary changes before it's too late. That seems to be the intent of the meditation - not to create fear-paralyzed peons trembling at the imminent prospect of standing before the Throne, but to help us consider our state soberly, and adjust our lives accordingly. That's what my father did. He didn't go about each day trembling in his boots at the prospect of facing the Throne of Christ. He trusted in God's love and forgiveness. But he never forgot what he'd have to answer for, and tried to live so as to have to answer for as little as possible.

I'm trying to do the same.