Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Good It Is

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
-Psalm 133
I just got back from a long weekend visiting my brother in Copperas Cove, Texas. He just returned from his second tour in Iraq and my sister and I went down for four days to spend some time with him. It was a great time. I spent more time talking with him in those four days than I have in the past ten years put together. How very good and pleasant it was.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Truth and Openness

Let your word be "Yes, Yes" or "No, No"; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
-Matthew 5:37
Continuing my slow, deliberate pace through Matthew, I came to the passage on oaths today.

I had reflected in previous days that Jesus' teachings on anger and adultery were both double-sided. That is, he first warns against being angry with a brother and then gives instruction on whaat to do if your brother is angry with you. Then he warns against "adultery of the heart" and then immediately follows it with prohibitions of actions that would force others into adultery (the sayings about divorce).

The double-sided nature of these teachings makes perfect sense if, as I previously concluded, Jesus is teaching a community to be a righteous community. None of us are in this alone, and so in everything we do, we must uphold one another.

With that as my personal context of understanding, I was looking for something similar in the teachings on oaths, but it isn't there. I thought about it, I considered that perhaps there is an implicit reciprocity in this. If everyone in the community is to "let their 'yes' be 'yes' and their 'no' be 'no,' it is encumbant upon the others to accept this as such. It requires trust.

But then I wondered, what if another person abuses this trust? Is this not poison to the community? How can it be remedied? That was as far as I got most of the day.

Then this evening, I picked up Joan Chittister's book on The Rule of Benedict, and the section I read tonight included Benedict's admonition, "Bind yourself to no oath, lest it prove false, but speak the truth with heart and tongue."

Sister Joan comments, "Holiness, this ancient rule says to a culture that has made crafty packaging high art, has something to do with being who we say we are, claiming our truths, opening our hearts, giving ourselves to the other pure and unglossed." Good stuff. She may as well have been commenting on this section from the Sermon on the Mount, and I suppose indirectly she was, given that Benedict is so obviously referencing it.

So this reinforces my understanding of the main point, but it doesn't solve my problem of broken trust. When a coincidence like this comes along, I expect it to resolve my difficulties. :-)

Then I read on and saw that the very next thing Benedict talked about in his rule was bearing injuries patiently, loving your enemies and blessing those who curse you. And what do you know, that's going to be the next thing Jesus talks about too. Again, it may be that Benedict is simply following the order of the Sermon on the Mount, but either way it gave me my answer.

What do you do when someone you've trusted has lied to you? You bear it.

I don't think Jesus is telling me to be a dupe. I can recognize that I've been lied to. I suppose I can even tell the other person I know they've lied. (Would anything less be honest?) What I can't do is repay evil with evil. What I must do is react with love.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pascal's Wager

There's an idea known as Pascal's Wager. In the commonly heard form, the idea is this: If God exists and you believe in God, then you will receive eternal life, and if God does not exist and you believe in God, you will have lost nothing. On the other hand, if God exists and you do not believe in God, you will have lost eternal life. Therefore, you should make the "wager" of deciding to believe in God, because the possible return so greatly outweighs the risk.

Pascal's Wager is often much maligned for two reasons: (1) because it is seen as an attempted proof of the existence of God, and (2) because it is treated as though there were nothing more to it than the brief sketch presented above.

This second point is where I'd like to start. I was wondering about Pascal's Wager recently. I thought Pascal, being a mathematician, could have been just dense enough to come up with an idea as thoroughly unsubtle as the above sketch, but then I thought Pascal, being a philosopher, must have thought more deeply about it than that.

So I did some reading. It turns out Pascal was starting from an assumption of irresolvable uncertainty. Reason alone cannot assure us of either the existence or non-existence of God. There is no indisputable evidence for the existence of God, but there is also no indisputable evidence of the non-existence of God. So how does one choose? Pascal considered the potential reward for each choice and the potential risk for each choice. He concluded that choosing to believe in God offers the possibility of infinite reward with at most a finite risk.

But there were still a couple of problems. First, Pascal recognized that simply "choosing God" wouldn't be enough. Faith, Pascal knew, involves more than simply making a rational decision. And that leads to the second problem -- a person can't choose to have faith. So what can a person do? Pascal says:
You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.
-Pensées, 233
Act as if you believe, do the things that believers do, and this will lead you to faith, Pascal claims. I'm not sure I'm sold on that. It could work, but I'm not sure. Pascal asks:
Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
-Pensées, 233
This I like, and to me, this is the strength of the argument. Ultimately, I don't think faith can be said to be about believing or not believing some intellectual proposition. I think faith is more a matter of how we live our lives. What sort of life will I choose? Will I choose a life where I look after only my own interests, constantly in struggle with the world, fighting daily for what I believe is, or at least could be, mine? Or will I choose a life where I make myself vulnerable to others by being open to them and asking them to be open to me? What is the outcome of these ways of life?

As far as I am able to see, the life that is open to others, is the life that will be more worthwhile and rewarding. Yet to some extent, this takes me back to Pascal's starting point. My reason is weak. I cannot always see what is the best way of life. I cannot always see the way that leads to a better, more open life. How do I find the way? My answer is that I can't rely on my own reason to find the way. I must trust myself to the teachings of Jesus -- Jesus who said:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
-Matthew 7:24-27
Here, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, I find the meat of Pascal's argument. Live this way, and you will find life. Do not live this way, and you will lose it.

George Grigorieff

The Portland Tribune had a really wonderful story this Thursday on George Grigorieff, a local homeless man who died just before Christmas. The story was printed on the front page, above the fold, and continued for two more full pages inside, complete with several color pictures.

It's a very moving story, including details about his early life, how he came to be homeless, a few details of his final days and an account of the memorial service in which he was given full military honors. I recommend it highly. Unfortunately, most of the photos were not posted on the online version.

We Are the Light of the World

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
-Matthew 5:8
I've long had a problem with other people's interpretations of the Beatitudes. So often they're treated as commandments. Some people hear, "Blessed are the meek," and they seem to automatically translate it to, "Thou shalt be meek!" That's always kind of gotten under my skin. These are announcements of blessing, right? But the human heart is an hopeless seeker of merit, and so the natural reaction is to ask, "What do I have to do to earn that blessing?" And the only answer in sight is, "Be meek." So it becomes a commandment. The problem is, it doesn't work quite as well with "Thou shalt mourn" or "Thou shalt be persecuted."

Against this, I've seen (and been taught to see) the Beatitudes as blessings, announcements of God's favor. But despite my best efforts, I haven't really been able to dig in and get more than a shallow grasp on this. I've always been in danger of slipping into a sort of "Minnesota nice" view of it, like the woman in Monty Python's Life of Brian who says, "Oh! It's 'the meek'...'Blessed are the meek.' That's nice. I'm glad they’re getting something because they have a terrible time."

I've gotten some help from Christian thinkers from Dallas Willard to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I can't remember exactly who put it this way (maybe Willard), but I remember reading someone who said the Beatitudes are a description of what life in the Kingdom of God is like. I liked it, but it didn't really sink in with me. But this week, as I reflected on this passage, by God's grace it did sink in.

I would describe my understanding this way: The Beatitudes are a vision of Christian community. I think my problem in the past is that I've always tried to view things too much from an individual's point of view. "I'm poor in spirit, so I score. I'm not mourning, but I'm happy that those who are will be comforted." Or, on my best days, I saw the people of God in the "blessed" column and God on the "blessing" side.

And I guess this was my real breakthrough this week. I saw that the people of God are blessed through the people of God. We are both blessed and blessing because God is in our midst.

The poor in spirit are welcomed into the community. The community comforts those who mourn. The community values the meek and helps them to thrive. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice will have their fill in the community. The merciful will meet mercy within the community. The pure in heart will see God all around them in the interactions of the community. Peacemakers will be called childern of God in the community. Persecution will not overcome the community. All of this is because God is in their midst.

This understanding gives the Beatitudes an overwhelmingly strong connection to the sayings about the salt of the earth and the light of the world that follow, and invites me to continue applying this sort of view further into the Sermon on the Mount.

One of the great shortcomings of modern English is that you (singular) and you (plural) are the same word. It causes us to hear things like, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," and respond, "Who me? Oh, thank you very much. I'll work on that." But with a suspicion fed by my above insight, I looked it up. Those "you's" are plural.

Unless the righteousness of the Christian community exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, the Christian community will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

It's even more pressing, isn't it? It's not just my soul on the line now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
-Matthew 4:20
Peter and Andrew are fishing when Jesus calls them. They leave their nets and follow him...immediately! I would imagine with most people, assuming they were inclined to accept Jesus' call to follow him, would say something like, "OK, fishers of men, that sounds good. We'll be done here about five..." But, no, Peter and Andrew followed immediately. They left their nets even. Did they even take the time to haul them in and put them away? The text makes it sound like not. It's quite remarkable.

Chapter one of Genesis tells us God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Jesus' calling of Peter and Andrew is like that.

In Pia Desideria, Philip Jacob Spener reflects that the Jews of his time couldn't believe that the Christians really thought Jesus was God because the Christians did not obey Jesus' commandments. It's a very profound insight. The Jews obey God's commandments because they are God's commandments. Christians....? Jesus himself asked, "Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, but don't do what I say?" (Luke 6:46)

Is it because we have some uncertainty about who Jesus is? Protestants often approach the question of obedience to God's commandments from the perspective of debating what we are required to do. But if Jesus is who we say he is, and here I don't simply mean "if he is God" but rather "if he is the Good Shepherd who calls to all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens promising them rest"...if that's who Jesus is, why would we hesitate to do everything he says. I think, for me at least, it's because I'm afraid to give up control like that. I'm afraid it won't be as good as what I would choose for myself. I know that's ridiculous, but that's the way the human mind works, isn't it?

In the prologue to his Rule, St. Benedict says, "Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love."

Lord, grant me that kind of faith!

Saturday, January 10, 2009


I was reading Joan Chittister's The Rule of Benedict this evening. She was talking about the role of the superior in Benedictine monsteries. She said the superior is meant to be like Christ, "simple, unassuming, immersed in God, loving of the marginal, doer of the Gospel, beacon to the strong."

This last phrase, "beacon to the strong" grabbed my attention. For me, it conjures up the image of a popular leader, surrounded by equally popular heroes -- sort oof like David and his mighty men. It's not an image I like, mostly because I can't picture myself as one of "the strong."

As I reflected on this, I saw how this connects to one of the problems I have in living the Christian life. I want to be strong. I want to be a great person. I want to be heroic. But I'm not. If there's one thing that life has taught me about myself, it's that I'm ordinary.

That's OK. I know it is. Even so, I can't shake wanting to be more than I am. I want to be like Martin Luther or Francis of Assisi or Augustine. Paradoxically, I know that it is a weakness for me to strive for that. It's not who I am, and that is my calling -- to be who I am.

So I go back to Sister Joan's list of Christ-like attributes, and I take hold of "loving of the marginal." This is one of my favorite things about Christ. He loves the marginal, the weak, the little, the lost. He loves me.

Friday, January 09, 2009

He Will Baptize You With the Holy Spirit

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
-Matthew 3:11
John points beyond himself to Jesus. That's what the Church has said about him from the beginning. His mission was to prepare the way, to point people in the right direction. John is typically associated with repentance, turning away from sin, but John himself says this isn't sufficient.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to John to be baptized, he tells them to "bear fruit worthy of repentance." It's not enough to avoid sin, as the Pharisees were well known for doing. It's not enough even to rest presumptively on the promises of God, for John says, "Do not presume to say to yourselves..." (As an aside, I think the problem here is that they are holding the promises of God up to the wrong person. The Bible holds in great esteem those who are willing to hold the promises of God up before God who will make good on the promises, but to "say to yourselves" is to talk to the wrong person.) What's needed is an actively good life.

For that we need help. Matthew tells us John is the one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." In turning away from sin, we are clearing the way, making straight the paths -- nothing more. The real action happens when God enters in and together with him we run on the paths of a life lived according to his will.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

God With Us

The Hassidim tell the story of the preacher who preached over and over, "Put God in your life; put God in your life." But the holy rabbi of the village said, "Our task is not to pur God into our lives. God is already there. Our task is simply to realize that.
-from The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages, by Joan Chittister, OSB
God is in my life. Even when I'm not aware of it, even when I'm not seeking God, God is in my life. Imagine what this says about God.

The typical religious model involves pious people praying to God and God responding to their prayers. But consider that God is active in my life even when I haven't prayed. My life, all of it -- the good, the bad, the ugly -- is a manifestation of a life lived with God. The world around me -- again, all of it -- is a manifestation of a world filled with God.

What could I learn about God from this simple fact? Imagine if instead of relying on theology to tell me what God is like, I tried to learn what I could about God from examining my life and my world in light of the fact that God is there. I know as theology this is a shaky proposition at best, and disastrous at worst, but isn't this how we form our ideas about people? Granted, we're often wrong about people, but when we're trying to form a relationship rather than an analysis, this way of knowing someone works quite well.

There's a danger that theological assumptions will taint the conclusion. If I place high importance on the idea of God's omnipotence, I'm likely to conclude that God has caused everything I've seen happen. That's a distortion of what I have in mind. It's an analysis. If there's a conclusion there to be had, I'm on the wrong track already.

What I want to do is to start with my personal experience of God, primarily in prayer, and from this I want to learn to recognize God in the world around me. I want to learn about God in this way. What does God do? What does God leave undone? What does God want?

Is this circular reasoning? Yeah, I think it may be. Most of what I write in this blog I write just for myself. I feel like there's something here, but I can't quite get at what it is.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

No Crying He Makes

Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.
-Matthew 2:13
The story of the Holy Family's journey to Egypt parallels the story of Jacob's family's journey to Egypt. Both times God is sending his chosen ones to Egypt for protection. In the cases of Jacob and his children and grandchildren, it was to preserve the family in a time of famine (Genesis 50:20). In this case, it is to protect Jesus from Herod's murderous rage.

Both of these incidents, however, have a problem. What about those who didn't escape to Egypt? We think of the Holy Innocents as martyrs, but what about the Canaanites who faced the severe famine?

Kurt Vonnegut prefaces his novel Slaugherhousse Five with the following lines from "Away in a Manger":
The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
Vonnegut wonders, why doesn't he cry? Isn't their plenty to cry about?

What does God think of the Holy Innocents in Canaan?

This is one of the challenges of faith, but paradoxically, for me at least, it's also the cornerstone of my faith. In the first chapter of the aforementioned book, Vonnegut talks about the inevitability of war, and then he says even if there were no war, there'd still be plain old death. It's horrible, but it's the only condition in which Christianity makes any sense.

Lord, increase my faith!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Guiding Light

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.
-Matthew 2:9
I took a decidely allegorical reading of this passage today, in the traditional, monkish sense. I saw the star as the initial, unmediated inspiration of God in the human heart. The untrained, uninitiated heart, I think, has some awareness of God (Romans 1:19). But it only gets us so far, and perhaps not even to the right place.

The gospel story says the wise men came seeking the King of the Jews because they saw his star. It doesn't say (yet) that the star led them. They had to stop and ask directions. And when they did that, they encountered the scriptures. Only after they received a Word from the scriptures are we told that the star that they had seen guided them to the Christ child.

So, rounding out my allegorical reading, the human heart receives the light of divine inspiration but needs help. Then, with a Word from the scriptures, that initial light becomes a guide which leads us to Christ.

This is the problem, I think, with seeking God directly and within. Too often we end up going to Herod (whom Gregory the Great says symbolizes false piety), asking him where we should go. Were it not for the grace of God, we would deceive ourselves. But the scriptures help us to see clearly the light of divine guidance and inspiration and to follow it to Christ.

Friday, January 02, 2009

God With Us

Before they came together she was found to be with child.
-Matthew 1:18
I often try to imagine this story from Joseph's perspective. He's just been bethrothed. He's dreaming of his future with Mary. He's making plans for his life. And then he finds out that his bride is pregnant and he's not the father. How tough would that be?

As I read, I know how the story turns out even before Joseph does, and Matthew's telling doesn't leave even him in the dark for long, but when I try to imagine the story from Joseph's perspective, I know that life is lived in that long pause between when he find's out Mary is with child and when he meets an angel in his dream. And beyond that, he lives the rest of his life without really seeing the fulfillment of these things.

Now as Matthew tells us the story, he says all these things happened to fulfill Isaiah 7:14. In context, Isaiah 7 is a story about Judah in a time of crisis. Things aren't going the way they'd hoped. Assyria is a looming threat in the world, and Israel is trying to force Judah into war. Into this context, Isaiah tells King Ahaz to stand firm in his faith in God because "God is with us."

If Joseph were anyone else, that could have been all he needed to hear. "Joseph, things aren't going the way you planned, but stand firm in your faith. God is with us."

This is where I see the story's relevance for me. My wife isn't going to bear the Son of God, but there will be times in my life (more of them than I'd like to admit) when things aren't going to go the way I'd planned. What can I do in those times? I can only trust in God, knowing that whatever happens, God is with us.

Arising from Sleep

It is high time for us to arise from sleep.
-Romans 13:11 (as quoted in The Rule of St. Benedict)
I never publicly put this blog to rest. Perhaps the fact that my last two posts were memes was a sign. I ran out of things to say, and then taking a break from it I lacked motivation to return, but I was never sure I was ready to let it go.

Now, I think maybe I have a second wind. This doesn't involve a New Year's resolution or anything. Not exactly, anyway. I do want to focus more on devotional reading of the Bible this year, and I'm hoping blogging some of my thoughts will give me a way to crystalize some thoughts, but the blog itself isn't a goal, just a means.

Anyway, knowing that by now this is probably mostly a note to myself, let's see where it goes this time.