Friday, November 19, 2010

Facebook Temptations

Is Facebook a force for evil or a force for good? Am I being too much of a squish if I say yes to both? Joe Carter at First Thoughts provides both sides in commenting on a New Jersey pastor’s decision to ban Facebook for married leaders of his congregation. The pastor claims that over the last six months, 20 couples at his congregation have experienced marital problems due to the social networking website.

I’ve been on Facebook for two years now, and I’ve very much enjoyed reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances. It is certainly true that some users do not seem to recognize any boundaries between what should be private and what should be public. Most status updates are innocuous enough, but there are also those that run the gamut from heartbreaking to sad to offensive to tantalizing. Some of my old friends live a life style that I, as a middle-aged husband and father of seven couldn’t and shouldn’t share.

Clearly, there are options for dealing with temptations on Facebook. We can ignore the posts. We can pray for the poster. We can block a person’s updates from appearing on our feed. We can delete the person from our list of friends. Yes, we can also go all the way to deleting our own Facebook account and decline to participate.

Christians, however, are not called to separate themselves from society. We are to act as a leaven. In terms of Facebook, that means that we should sail the waters but navigate within safe boundaries. It is similar to other media through which temptations enter our lives: cable and broadcast television, popular music, glossy magazines, the world wide web, etc. Where Facebook is different is that the flow of content runs both ways.

Others might see the stability, virtue, and dare I say, joy that is present in the life of a practicing Christian, even (especially?) when undergoing adversity and be led to question their own misconceptions. If the biggest barrier to conversion is the scandal of Christians behaving badly, then perhaps the best counter to that is the example of Christian’s living well. In many cases, the only exposure that the worldly are going to get to an authentically lived Christian life is through our status updates. If we all quit Facebook, then they won’t even get that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bring Them Here . . .

Did you catch that second-to-last verse from today’s gospel (Luke 19:11-28)? We’ve often heard different versions of this parable, but Luke’s version doesn’t appear to be read at any Sunday mass, even in Cycle C, which draws mainly from the gospel of Luke. If I were a betting man, I would be willing to wager that most Catholics have never heard this gospel passage. Jesus is telling this parable because some of his followers think that he is going to Jerusalem to establish his kingdom. It is as if he is saying, through the parable, “No, not now. I have to go away for a while first.”

In the parable, what happens to those who rejected the authority of the king while he was gone? “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.” (Luke 19:27). Lest a reader think that the harshness of this passage is an isolated case, I note that the agreement with the Book of Revelation’s letter to the church at Sardis (read at mass yesterday) is chilling: “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life…” (Rev 3:4-5). None of us should be willing to risk having our name blotted out from the book of life.

Oh, yes, the Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and generous in forgiveness. But he is also just. Love of God is paramount, but a little fear (the proportionate awe that keeps our pride in check) is a good and necessary thing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Today, Zacchaeus

Most of us, I think, are familiar with the story of Zacchaeus. It’s a popular tale for sharing with children because of the imagery. Zacchaeus was the curious, but short, tax collector who climbed a tree in order to get a glimpse of Jesus. Jesus spotted him and, much to the scandal of the Pharisees (for tax collectors were considered by the Pharisees to be great sinners) invited himself to dine at Zacchaeus’s house.

What struck me on reading this passage today was the urgency of Our Lord’s response. “Zacchaeus, come down IMMEDIATELY. I MUST stay at your house TODAY.” (Luke 19:5, emphasis added) Zacchaeus had received an extraordinary grace that led him to climb the sycamore tree. He had responded to that grace, but it was a brief moment that wouldn’t last. Jesus recognized that he was looking at a soul on the cusp of conversion. We have phrases in English that fit the moment: “strike while the iron is hot” and “make hay while the sun is shining.” In other words, seize the opportunity of the moment before it passes.

Jesus seized the opportunity to step through the opening and pull Zacchaeus out of himself, and Zacchaeus responded with an act of great generosity and renunciation of sin. “TODAY salvation has come to this house,” Jesus declared (Luke 19:9, emphasis added). We can imagine the joy of the occasion.

As Christian disciples, we must strive to be prompt in responding to the gentle prods of the Holy Spirit. Zacchaeus was open to the good news on that day in a way that he would not have been later in the week. Collecting his contact information and promising to follow up in a few days would have delivered the hammer strike after the iron had cooled and was less malleable. Annanias had to respond promptly to complete Paul’s conversion. Ambrose had to be there to complete Augustine’s conversion.

We have to respond TODAY, both for ourselves and for others. Zacchaeus was saved on the day that he opened the door of his soul because Jesus came through that door on the same day. We are both Zacchaeus and bearers of Christ’s love. Our response is required TODAY. Tomorrow might be too late.

{Disclaimer: My own response record is pathetic. That doesn’t discredit what I’ve written above. It just means that I need to open myself up more than I have in the past.}

Monday, November 15, 2010

Malachi 3/4

Late last week, I decided to look ahead to the Sunday readings. I was using my NIV pocket bible at the time, and I couldn’t find Malachi 3:19-20. After verse 18, chapter 4 started. “Darn Protestant bible,” I thought to myself (being the arrogant Catholic that I am. “I didn’t know that they cut out part of Malachi, too.”

So I pulled out my Ignatius Bible (RSV-CE), and it, too, went from Mal 3:18 to Mal 4:1. OK, I can’t blame the Protestants for excising parts of Malachi. This time, though, there was one of those tiny little footnotes informing me that the verses of chapter 4 were part of chapter 3 in the Hebrew. I was getting confused, so I checked my Catholic Youth Bible (NRSV), which had in the past given me details on such mysteries as Chapter C of Esther. No luck. All that I got was the same tiny little footnote as was in my RSV.

I mentioned this on Saturday morning at our men’s fellowship meeting, and a friend checked his bible (NAB), and sure enough, it had the verses at the end of chapter 3. I didn’t think at the time to ask whether his bible had a tiny little footnote.

Here’s the big cause for my massive confusion: I was always led to believe that the chapters and verses were added by St. Jerome when he compiled the Latin Vulgate. Were the verses of Malachi numbered in the original? If so, then why don’t all of the translations that are based (to the extent possible) on the original languages follow the Hebrew numbering?

In the grand scheme of things, the numbering of the verses in one of the books of the minor prophets is a trivial thing. Whether they’re in chapter 3 or chapter 4 has no effect on the meaning of the words, it just makes them harder to find. However, it leads to one more head-scratching moment, of which I already have way too many.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Running Ahead

Peter wrote (2 Peter 3:16) that Paul could be hard to understand. I don’t know why he didn’t say the same thing about John. In 2 John 9, we read, “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”

Obviously, there is a development of doctrine that takes place over time. It took over four hundred years for the Church to hammer out the doctrines related o the Holy Trinity and the dual nature (human and divine) of Jesus Christ. We believe that this development is guided by the Holy Spirit.

What I want to be able to say is this: that the development of doctrine does not introduce new elements in to the deposit of faith, but rather clarifies the doctrine to exclude incorrect (i.e., heretical) interpretations. Belief in the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary can be traced back to the apostolic age; belief didn’t suddenly begin when the dogmas were defined in the 19th and 20th centuries. Doctrine might be developed by using schools of philosophy to explain theological truths in new ways, such as when St. Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian metaphysics to explain the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (transubstantiation).

Christ himself promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead his Church into all truth. Over time, we have discovered that this works in a negative rather than a positive way. The Spirit does not inspire the Church to proclaim the truth; rather the Spirit prevents the Church from teaching error. This charism of infallibility is focused in the person of the Supreme Pontiff and those bishops who teach in union with him.

Again, as long as we follow the Pope, we should be on pretty safe ground.

As you can probably guess, I tend to look askance at anything that claims to have a new teaching. There are people very dear to me who are involved with a group promoting ideas that are new and supposedly better than anything that has been taught in the 2000 years of Christianity. When asked about this newness, the claim is made that it’s all right there in the scripture (isn’t every heresy?). Amazingly, it took a special revelation for this teaching to be discovered. The Holy See is reviewing it, they claim, and will approve it any day now.

Right. Until that day (I won’t be holding my breath), I think I’ll stick with what I can trust.

Among or Within?

I’d like to make one more comment on Luke 17:21, and that’s related to translational ambiguity. I usually use the Revised Standard Version, but I also reference a pocket-sized New International Version. One translation has Jesus telling the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is “among” them (with a tiny little footnote that says “or within”), while the other translation has the text reading “within”, while a footnote provides the alternate “among.”

I doubt that the alternate choice of words is due to ambiguity in the meaning of the ancient Greek. More likely, I think, is that multiple texts of antiquity have been discovered, and come use on Greek word, while others us a different Greek word, and we simply don’t know which is original. There’s also the possibility that the original gospel was not in Greek at all, but rather Aramaic. (This possibility is endorsed by a very small minority of scripture scholars, based on work done in back-translating the Greek into Aramaic and discovering some interesting word-plays in the resulting text.) No knowing the languages involved, I don’t even know how close the Greek words might be to one another or how likely a transcription or translation error from the Aramaic might be.

In Jesus of Nazareth, Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) argues that “the kingdom of God” should be interpreted as referring to the person of Christ, based partly on the “among” translation of Luke 17:21. Other commentators have argued that “the kingdom of God” is internal to the individual believer – an assertion that would be supported by the “within” translation of Luke 17:21.

It’s one little word, but the type a spirituality that a person follows could be flavored by the word choices used in the Bible that person reads. Unfortunately, we apparently don’t have any way to know what Jesus actually said to the Pharisees. Where the heck is that Q fragment when you need it? I think that I’m on pretty safe ground if I use the same translation as the Pope.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Signs of the Kingdom

The similarities and contrasts between today’s gospel (Luke 17:20-25) and Sunday’s gospel (Luke 21:5-19) is interesting. Today, we read of Jesus telling his disciples, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation” and “the Son of Man in his day will be like lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.” On Sunday, we will hear him tell his disciples what signs to watch for: wars and revolutions; earthquakes, famines, and pestilence; fearful events and great signs from heaven.

Do these statements all refer to the same thing? Are we moderns to see these as applying to a past event, our current circumstances, or some time in the future? All three could be true.

The first, about the kingdom defying observation, seems apt in two senses. For approximately thirty years, the Son of God lived among us without appearing extraordinary. Surely, he would have been known as being unusually virtuous, but purely in a human sense. It wasn’t until after his baptism that he began his public ministry, performing miracles in testament to his authority. But he is also present in the Eucharist in a way that defies observation. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote (as translated), “What the senses fail to fathom, let us grasp through faith’s consent.”

What of the lightning in the sky? Lightning flashes briefly, illuminating the darkness and providing a brief moment of stark contrast. Certainly this could apply to the second coming, but it seems to me that it would be equally applicable to the three shocking days of Our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection. Those three days were like a lightning strike in the history of the world.

As for the wars, earthquakes, and famines, doesn’t the text imply that these are signs of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple? I have heard apologists argue from historical records that these things did indeed precede the destruction of the temple.

Interpreting these sayings as referring to the hidden life of Jesus, or the Eucharist, or the Paschal Mystery, or the Siege of Jerusalem does not rule out other interpretations. They could be interpreted as references to the second coming of Christ at the end of time. We cannot know the date, and looking for it won’t hasten it or make it immanent. When it happens, we’ll know it. It will not be a secret; rather, He will come in glory. Reading the signs of the times can be a risky business. Paul, without contradicting Christ, wrote to the Thessalonians that the second coming would occur at a time of peace and complacency.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Leo the Great

Today is the memorial of Pope St. Leo the Great. Not only is he recognized as one of the great popes, he is also one of the Doctors of the Church. Leo was bishop of Rome from 440 to 461, and he is responsible for defining the papacy as we've come to know it. Not only did Leo provide much of the theological basis for papal authority, he exercised that authority in governing the Church, resolving disputes between contentious bishops, and establishing the principle that the Church is separate from the state.

Leo famously rode out to meet Atilla the Hun, convincing him not to sack and pillage Rome. He was not so successful with the Vandals, who did enter Rome, but pillaged in a more gentle manner than was their typical mode.

Leo forcefully combatted Christological heresies, such as Nestorianism (that Christ was two persons, one human and the other divine) and Monophysetism (that Christ had only a divine nature and not a human one). He called the Council of Chalcedon to affirm that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures, fully God and fully man. Leo also did all that he could to make life miserable for the non-Christian Manicheans.

It is because of Pope St. Leo the Great that we see the bishop of Rome today as the successor of Peter, the vicar of Christ and the human head of the Church on earth.

Pope St. Leo the Great, pray for us!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Spiritual Life is Like a . . . Pimple?

Here's one that I'd never heard before. Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR was a guest on last week's Life on the Rock. About 23 minutes into the show, Doug asks him about overcoming difficulties in the spiritual life, and Fr. Stan proceeds to say that it's like getting a pimple on your nose. Really? The inner life is like a zit?

Grudges and Mustard Seeds

I like to think that I’m not the grudge-holding type. That’s not to say that I don’t observe a person’s behavior and make future decisions accordingly. For example, I once asked a certain friend for help moving a heavy appliance. I will never ask for his help again, even though he remains a friend. That’s not the same thing as holding a grudge.

Judging from the reaction of the apostles in today’s gospel (Luke 17:1-6), grudges were not so easy to let fo of in the Mid-East culture of 200 years ago. For all I know, the problem might persist to this day.

Jesus says something in today’s gospel that shocks the apostles. He tells them first that temptations to sin are sure to come; then that the one through whom the temptation comes is doomed; finally, that they must forgive any sins committed against them. The first two seem reasonable, but the third causes the apostles to beg for more faith.

As I sit here thinking through the meaning of this passage, three possibilities come to mind. First, the temptation and woe verses could be tied to the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), which they immediately follow. The problem here is that it’s hard to tie the source of temptation to any figure in the Lazarus tale. Second the temptation and woe verses could be a stand-alone aside. Such an interjection, however, would seem to interrupt the flow of Luke’s narrative. I have no doubt that some scholars who subscribe to the theory of Markan Priority and the existence of the mysterious Q document probably see this as the most likely explanation.

A third option, however, is that Jesus is drawing a connection between the temptation and its source to the one offended by the sin. In that case, did my brother sin against me because I tempted him to, or is his sin against me a temptation to me to sin in retribution? Is the forgiveness that I extend to my brother for my benefit or his? Is this one of those cases where the answer is not either/or, but both/and?

When the apostles object that their faith is insufficient, Jesus responds that they only need a little: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” Was it a statement of encouragement or frustration? Letting go of the grudge was more than the apostles could imagine.

Even if I can extend forgiveness to others more readily than the apostles , that gives me no cause to look down upon the them. I have my own obstacles that keep me from fully embracing the holiness that is the human vocation. In my imagination, I can picture Him telling me sadly, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed,…”

Friday, November 5, 2010

Planning for the Future

I have a daughter with Down syndrome who is integrated into the first grade at our local school. The intellectual impairment that comes with Down syndrome can range over a fairly wide spectrum. I would estimate that Erin’s intellectual ability fall in the upper middle of this spectrum – I believe that she’s a little more capable than most children her age with Down syndrome, but she’s still considerably less capable than her typical peers, and she has a stubborn streak that causes occasional difficulty.

My dear wife has great hopes for the amount of independence that Erin will eventually achieve. I, on the other hand, have resigned myself to the expectation that Erin will always be dependent upon us to a significant degree. Naturally, I wonder what will happen as we, and Erin, grow older, especially if a time comes when we are unable to provide Erin with the assistance that she needs. Two recent stories related to this concern caught my attention.

First was a segment that aired October 8 on NPR’s All Things Considered. The report told the story of how Al Etmanski, the father of a daughter with Down syndrome, helped to create, and is now the president of, the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN). PLAN’s mission is to “help families secure the future for their relative with a disability and to provide peace of mind.” The organization works to help parents plan for both the social and financial future needs of their special needs children.

The second story was featured in the October 20 issue of the Arlington Catholic Herald. Gabriel Homes is a private nonprofit organization with seven homes in the Arlington, Virginia area. Their mission is to promote “independence through residential placement, training, and community integration for adults with mental retardation.” The biggest problem for Gabriel Homes is that their waiting list is twice as large as their capacity, and they typically have only one opening per year.

PLAN is in Canada and Gabriel Homes is in Virginia. With Erin in only the first grade, I haven’t seriously looked at what might or might not be available here in west central Ohio.

Two Cents on Midterm Election Recriminations

In the wake of the midterm elections, there is some renewed discussion out there regarding the Buckley Rule and the perceived weakness of the Republican Senate candidates in Delaware and Nevada. I wish to contribute my two cents.

Penny one: the Buckley Rule. William F. Buckley famously remarked that his vote in a particular election would go to the most conservative viable candidate. I happen to think this rule should be applied to the actual vote at hand – a primary vote should not be projected forward to the general election. I refuse to cast a primary vote based on a candidate’s “electability” as proclaimed by mainstream media pundits. Isn’t that how the Democrats ended up with John Kerry as their presidential nominee in 2004?

Penny two: voting for weak candidates. Sometimes, a vote is cast not because of enthusiasm for Candidate A, but out of revulsion for Candidate B. If I lived in Delaware, I would not have wanted to vote for Christine O’Donnell, but she would have nonetheless been the recipient of my votes against Mike Castle in the primary election and Chris Coons in the general election. If she was unable to expand her support much beyond her opponents’ negatives, the question that really ought to be asked is why no better representative of conservative ideals stepped forward to challenge Castle for the Republican nomination. She at least had the courage to enter the arena.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Misplaced Prayers

Catholic News Agency (CNA) has a story posted today about a bishop in the Philippines who is attempting to correct misplaced, superstitious Marian devotion.

At first glance, they seem to have great faith – praying fervently, invoking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and watching for signs of God’s will. But these apparent signs of piety have a different meaning for some Filipinos. They’re trying to pray their way to a winning lottery ticket.

On reading the story, I was reminded once again of the assertion by St. John of the Cross that even something as good as prayer can be an occasion of sin if done for the wrong reasons. The circumstances surrounding an action can turn something that is almost always good into something that is not good.

There were two other things that caught me attention in this story, though. First was the way my confused brain kept combining “Grand Lotto” into “Grotto.” It’s quite remarkable, given the Marian context of the story. Second was the web ad that appeared next to the story in my browser. The ad was for a site called “Filipino Cupid” – a Filipino dating service – and featured pictures of Asian women in skimpy swimwear. Hardly an ad appropriate for a Catholic news site!

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Saints Collection

Before All Saints Day passes us by, I want to note something with some humor (and just a tint of cynicism). Because November 1st falls on a Monday this year, All Saints Day is not a day of obligation in the United States. Ditto if it falls on a Saturday, and if it falls on a Sunday, it just replaces the ordinary Sunday, which is already a day of obligation. Also, since Monday is our pastor's day off, there was no mass at our parish today, just the usual morning communion service presided over by a deacon. However, there was still a contribution envelope for All Saints Day to put in the collection basket that wasn't passed at the mass the wasn't celebrated.

I'm sure that it's just coincidence, but just yesterday, we received the report from our parish finance committee on collections and expenditures by our parish over the fiscal year just ended. Maybe they can increase donations by printing more envelopes for holy days that aren't celebrated.

In Praise of Podcasts

Have I ever shared with you my enthusiasm for podcasts? I love ‘em! I get the opportunity to listen to programs from C-SPAN that, if I tried to watch on TV, would surely drive my wife and kids from the room, if not prompting a full-scale mutiny to take control of the remote. It is by podcast that I listen to some of my favorite EWTN programs, and they are delivered right onto my computer for me. I am grateful for that, and it occurs to me that I really should send them a donation.

Football Faith

On EWTN’s The Journey Home last week, Marcus Grodi and his guest, Doug Lessels, talked a bit about football. I never played football – I ran cross country in high school – so I naturally relate more to the metaphors that St. Paul uses in his epistles. Football, unlike running, is more of a team sport. The quarterback might be the star, but if his linemen aren’t blocking, he’s going to get sacked. The wide receivers has to run his route in order to be where the quarterback is going to throw the ball, and even if he doesn’t get passed to, he still forces the other team to cover him.

We are all part of the team that is the Church. Paul said that the hand, the foot, the ear, and the eye were all part of the same body, codependent upon one another. St. Therese recognized that in God’s garden, both roses and little white flowers are necessary, and if she was to be a little white flower, her aspiration was to be the best little flower she could be. We all have our gifts; we all have our role to play, and we all have a responsibility to and dependence upon our teammates.

We are not without our coaches and cheerleaders. On All Saints Day especially, we are reminded of those who have taken the field before us and gained entrance to the glorious Hall of Fame. The letter to the Hebrew tells us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

So yes, football fits. Baseball fits. Running fits. Sports competition mirrors the spiritual life, and whatever your sport might be, there are important lessons that you can learn from it.