Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam

Jesus, don’t want me for a sunbeam
Sunbeams are never made like me
– The Vaselines

I’ve always wondered why the Jesus narrative is so compelling. Why is Jesus the focus of so much cultural reference. Why, for instance, is the name Jesus Christ considered an expletive whereas Buddha is not? I guess in Christianised societies it may have to do with a rejection of the past. People consciously going against the “not allowed”. But is there more to it than that?

The song by The Vaselines, covered by Nirvana, Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam always hits me when I hear it. It is somehow a tragic song. The simple lyrics seem to hang heavy with pain. And perhaps that’s the reason why so many people relate to the song. Because they feel the pain of not being perfect. Or not being perfect enough, after having been told their whole lives that they needed to be a “sunbeam for Jesus”.

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Tragic figures seem to be drawn to the suffering of Jesus. Jesus is a tragic figure himself and I think subconsciously, a lot of people see themselves in Jesus as he hangs alone on the cross. But there is also something repulsive about the murder of an innocent, the injustice of Christ’s death, which I think affects people deeply.

Why did Kurt Cobain cover this song? Obviously I can only speculate but to me this song is a prayer. A truly honest prayer. It’s something like the tax collector at the back of the temple.

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Luke 18:9-14

There is an element of fatalism in both this song and the tax collector’s prayer. The tax collector’s job was considered “sinful” by many Jews at that time as he would have collected tax for the Roman oppressor. There is no indication he plans on changing his job and it would probably have been quite difficult to do so, but he acknowledges honestly, in front of God, that he is imperfect, and lives in an imperfect world, in an imperfect situation.

The song does something similar. “Jesus, don’t want me for a sunbeam, sunbeams are never made like me”.   Playing off the children’s hymn, I’ll Be Your Sunbeam, it seems to be saying, “I’m not perfect, and I can’t be”. However, the song’s most tragic element is its ultimate rejection of Jesus – “don’t ever ask your love of me”. Despite the catchy tune and tempo, that is an emphatically angry line! And I suspect that, although the addressee of the song is Jesus, it is actually addressed to the Church.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

This anger at the idea that we are born sinful, that we enter the world already damned and need to be fixed is an understandable anger. And to question that idea is a sound theological question which brings you to the table with the likes of St. Paul, Augustine, Origen, and Justin Martyr, just for starters! It can be a damaging idea – which I am not putting forward my own views on here (maybe in a future post) – but it is an idea which seeks to explain suffering in the world. An attempt to answer the question: Why is there evil?

The reason I call it a tragic song is because although this sort of rejection of Christianity is usually equated with liberation from the “shackles of religion”, this song doesn’t hold that feeling – It feels like a goodbye song; a break up song. There is a real sense of loss and disappointment. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

If I could take away a message from this song, and from the prevalence of Jesus in modern culture despite its seeming rejection of religion, it would be that people know they are broken, hurt and wounded. People see the pain and suffering in the world and they direct their anger at the one institution which was supposed to take it all away but, ultimately, ended up adding to it. It is anger against hypocrisy.

I feel that this anger, while justified, is short sighted because the Church did not create Jesus, Jesus created the Church… and we are the Church – and so we need to ask what does Jesus really want me for? Jesus doesn’t want me for a sunbeam, that is completely right – He wants me to, first of all, love and forgive myself, and second, to do the same for others. Forgiveness implies a conscious decision to love a person who you know is imperfect and you know will possibly hurt you again – and this applies to yourself too.

“Don’t ever ask your love of me”. Is the singer telling Jesus he won’t ever love him, or that he can’t accept Jesus’ love for himself? It is difficult to love ourselves and we often forget that the golden rule, “Love your neighbour” also includes “as you love yourself”. A rewording of this rule for our time might hold more weight: Accept your neighbour as you accept yourself.

Do I accept myself?

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments…”

“Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him,

“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

10:17-31

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Thoughts on Holiness

Seagulls over Lac Leman
“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his
heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

These are ideas I’m still fleshing out but humour me for a bit.

I’ve found, as a Christian, a tendency to conflate the word chastity and the word holiness.

Consider a situation where a believing Christian (i.e – someone who accepts the main concepts of the Christian creed) is also sexually active and okay with it. There are many Christians who might view said Christian’s behaviour as sinful or wrong. And there could be many theological arguments as to why it is or isn’t wrong ranging from “the Bible says so!” to “pre-marital sex is contrary to the natural order.”

Therefore this Christian cannot be “holy” while they continue living in such a way. But say you are this Christian, and you are living a sexually active life but you still believe in social justice and caring for the marginalized in society; Mirroring Christ in compassion and the bravery to stand up against injustice. With “fornication” as the measuring stick for holiness removed, the places where you are really not practicing are highlighted. Sex is often the Christian strawman. If I’m not doing it before marriage, I’m okay! It is somehow the “prime achievement”.

Now I think chastity gets a bad rap. As it is often misconstrued, it is not the same thing as celibacy.
Chastity as defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church is “successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.” CCC2337
It goes on to say “Chastity presupposes respect for the rights of the person, in particular the right to receive information and an education that respect the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life.” CCC2344

It is essentially the calling of humankind to become less selfish, less attached to material things, less sexually irresponsible and more self-aware.
To be chaste is then a part of holiness but to narrow chastity to mean “no sex before marriage” is to simplify its meaning.

I don’t think holiness is something we can see. It’s something I’ve thought about many times in Mass while I am kneeling or bowing down to pray. I’m torn between being able to worship with my body, to pray through my posture and with the concern with what others may be thinking. Whether positive or negative.

I shouldn’t care what other people are thinking but whether I choose to stand and kneel as required or bow before receiving the Eucharist, there is an internal monologue worrying what people might assume about me based on how I participate. Which is very silly – And why it is silly to look at other people in Mass and make assumptions about their participation. We can’t see holiness.

Cross in Wilderness

I believe holiness is brought about by an internal disposition of being open to our own insecurity and fallibility. Which is why someone like a drug addict who steals in order to support his habit could still be holier than a pious church goer; If he acknowledges his actions are wrong and admits he can’t beat his addiction and knows he is unlikely to stop stealing and lays this before God consciously or not, I believe God’s love and mercy are extended to that man incalculably! i.e. He is made Holy.

Holiness is a gift. Grace is an undeserved favour. And when it comes to faith working in love (what we do as Christians), we are accountable to God and to no one else. He knows our situations, our circumstances and our hearts.

There is no need to prove our holiness to others, and their view of our commitment or zeal is irrelevant. Whether we choose to pray standing up, on our heads or quietly in the corner, it has no bearing on our holiness whatsoever.
I’m not saying we can do what we want but that morality is complex and we are all flawed. We cannot make assumptions about other people’s relationship with God.

The way I see it is we should take care of each other, and God will take care of our holiness.

Sometimes We Break

Diary

I am the sum total of every moment that has lead up to now. Memories of night swims with friends in the Newlands Resevoir, the intimate moments of vulnerability, soft kisses and gentle tears, mistakes of pride, mistakes of shame, darkness, joy, finding Christ, losing Christ, losing myself, letting Christ find me… letting Christ love me.

And life whirls on in a blur of autumn leaves, winter nights, and spring-filled pain that summers into new beginnings. Every wound, strike upon my back, my breast, self inflicted, yet mirrored upon Him. Not in judgement but in Love. As I break He holds me together and the storm rages on.

I remember a reflection I once did. It was from a spiritual guide. I was a statue, a construction of time and weather; crafted with care and precision. Imagine, the reflection lead, that you are a statue. What do you look like? And finally, how does Jesus see you?

As I followed the instructions, I pictured a broken, flawed statue; Blackened by time, cracked and chipped and slowly crumbling. Over my arms were chains, locked into the ground.
I imagined Jesus coming to see me, this ruin. What could He possibly see in me, how could He love this? And yet, in my minds eye, quite unexpectedly, He embraced me. With all the chains and cracks and flaws and brokenness, He just loved. I could only cry in response.

As I’ve travelled through Europe the last three weeks, I’ve met beautiful people from all over the world. Sometimes it was a long discussion in a backpackers, and other times it was a brief encounter in broken French and dramatic gestures. But each moment was another chip into the stone face of my life, creating definition, refining me. And yet, in the whirl wind of isolated travelling, what I thought would be a chance to escape myself, my thoughts and fears, has been just the opposite. I left, but it turns out I came with too. And there have been many moments of looking at myself, this broken scultpure, and trying to remember what it felt like when Jesus embraced me in my brokenness. Because sometimes that is hard to believe.

Often thoughts will turn against me and I will think there is no way I am worthy of following Him. He wouldn’t want me. This hypocrite. This blind guide. Yet I remember His followers – The tax collector, the zealot, the denier, the traitor… All broken, all called.

And perhaps that is the key. He calls me, not because I am worthy, but because He loves me.
In every broken moment, He is there. In every quiet forest walk, He walks beside me. In the silence of a dark night, He whispers my name.

“For our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us… He wants us so to take heed that he is the foundation of our whole life in love, and furthermore that he is our everlasting protector, and mightily defends us against all our enemies, who are very cruel and very fierce towards us, and so our need is great, the more so because by our falling we give them occasion.” – Julian of Norwich

Little “Christian” Boxes

Box

Image Credit: Gisela Giardino

Labels are ridiculous things.

They push up the price and they make clothes more difficult to iron.

They also stop people from thinking for themselves.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the “ideal Church”. What would it look like? Who would be its members?
There appears to be a paradox in Christianity at first glance. We are told that our faith makes us fully who we are, yet often individual expression is frowned upon.It happens on all fronts, whether you are “liberal” or “conservative” or “whatever”.

Take a label like “Worship Music” – As Christians, we tend to accept that it is what it is and there is a certain sound to it and a certain way to play it. Who said that that was the case? Who decreed that henceforth all Christian songs shall be of the progression G,Em,C2,D ?
Who decreed that we shall repeat the chorus twenty times with more and more fervour each time?
Who said there should be a lull midway through where the “worship leader” can interject an emotive prayer?
Why should I like that kind of music? Why should I? Because I am Christian???

This ethos extends to bigger issues; That there are certain ways to act about particular topics.
Any choice to act contrary to the “done way” is seen as a rejection of the actual teaching.

“Hey come and stand on the corner with our anti-rhubarb pie pickets!”
“Erm….. I…”
“You are anti-rhubarb pie aren’t you?”
“Well… yeah…”
“Great! Come along!”

If I don’t want to picket rhubarb pie, does that exclude me from the club? Am I somehow less committed? Who decided that picketing on the corner was the best approach anyway? Sure, someone did, somewhere down the line but since then no one else has bothered questioning the status quo. “It’s just how it’s done.”

Protest Picket Pie

Image Credit: Kheel Center (modified)

Okay, I know I am generalising and exaggerating. But I am doing so for effect.

The question is, what does a Christian look like? Hopefully, themselves.

We don’t sign away our personalities at our baptism. Sure, we put on Christ, we change our lives and our priorities, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be who we are. I believe that at our cores, we are good, we are made in the image and likeness of God. After we were created, God saw that all creation was very good. I feel quite convicted that our belief in God should draw out our uniqueness, draw out who we were created to be. It should not conform us to a box. There is no Christian box.

My friend pointed something out to me recently which took me by surprise. I was essentially telling him everything I have just written above and he responded, “I don’t want my Church to conform to me. It should challenge me.”

It was that comment that prompted me to write this post. He is of course, spot on.
At the crux of this debate is, what is the purpose of Church? To bring together believers? To praise and glorify God? To have communion with God?
Perhaps there is a clue in the final words of the Mass. “The Mass has ended, go forth to love and to serve the Lord.” To which we respond, “Thanks be to God!”

My challenge is to stop being so focused on the inward functioning’s and dynamic of the Church and to flipping get out into the field and make a difference in other people’s lives.
My prayer is that we, I, may let go of my preconceptions of how a Christian should be and rather let my heart be led by love.

Perhaps the inverse argument is true… Perhaps when I can embrace all variations of the Christian expression, rather than expect Church to embrace me, perhaps then we have the beginnings of a truly Catholic Church.

The Happy Ending

Busted beatle in Limpopo

“Everything will be alright in the end and if it’s not all right it’s not the end”
Patel… or John Lennon.

“Shut it”
Me
This is not a post about pessimism.

This is a post about reality.

Usually when it comes time for me to write  my blog post, I am wrestling with ideas and topics, carving out arguments, chomping at the bit to get writing.

Today is different. None of my “theological questions” feel that important. Rather, I’ve been pondering the idea of “the happy ending”.

How often has someone told you that things will work out?
“Don’t worry, everything will be okay in the end. These things sort themselves out.”
To be honest, that is easy to say when one is a reasonably well off middle class individual.
And in many cases, in those circles, it is true that things will “work out”.

But tell that to the people in South Sudan, the people in the Gaza Strip. Tell that to starving children, or the people dying alone in hospital.
“It will be okay!”
Actually, for many of them, it won’t.

Israeli Soldier

Israeli soldiers deployed in Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield, April 2002

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, because saying things will be okay is how we make reality easier to deal with.

I believe in prayer, and I believe in the power of prayer to affect some sort of change in the world. How? I have no clue but I have experienced it in my own life and know God hears our prayers. Usually He surprises me with the way He answers them though.

But when it comes to praying for a situation like the one in Israel and Palestine, where do you start?

This is one of the biggest arguments against the existence of God. How could an all loving God allow such suffering to happen on earth?

I discussed this recently with a friend and we concluded that there is no way to answer this question. The “text book” answers are embarrassingly bad attempts at explaining the existence of pain and death in the world.

Genesis recounts The Fall of Man and to me that was the early Jewish people trying to explain what they observed in the world. They were trying to answer that very same question. Why is there suffering? The conclusion? Because “man”.

You see, free will is an interesting thing. If you stopped a baby from trying to walk out of fear that she would fall down and hurt herself, how would the baby learn to walk? Genesis seems to be saying that God gave us free will to choose right or wrong because if He made us only capable of choosing “right”, then it is no longer “right”. We are just preprogrammed robots and our “choosing good” means nothing. The same applies to love. The Church would argue that God gave us free will so that we may freely choose to love Him. God will not force us to love him or choose Him.
He loves us so much that He refuses to impose Himself on us but rather tries to get our attention through gentle whispers.

So, we have free will to choose wrong. And we readily do.

I have no explanation for suffering. When I was in London last year, I experienced two of the worst weeks of my life as a result of a recurrence of my Anxiety Disorder – Primarily Obsessional OCD.

I can remember sitting in my matchbox-sized room thinking, what if I don’t get better? (Typical OCD thinking) I remember begging God to help me but at the same time asking myself, why should He? What if He has given up on me? What if I am destined to be another statistic? A mental case, locked up for life. A tragic story of a young life gone too soon.

Because that happens and what can we say in those situations. “It will be alright”?… Please. It’s usually best to not say anything in such cases.

But before I send you into a spiral of despair and existential meltdown, I’d like to challenge you and myself to think of how to do something about the suffering around us and two, (bare with me here if you aren’t Catholic… or Christian) find a picture of a crucifix. Here I’ll help:

Basilica of Saint Sabina - Crucifix

One of the earliest depictions of the Crucifixion in the Basilica of Saint Sabina, Rome

And think about the fact that Christians (we, us, I) believe that the man hanging on that cross is God (well, not literally the little figurine on the cross, but you know what I mean).

GOD, the Being that spoke the Universe into existence, dead on a cross, after being beaten and tortured. “Everything will be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright it’s not the end.”

Flip, I guess His disciples were like, “This dude said He was God. Now He’s dead. Peace out!”

We all know the rest of the story though.

So the point is, suffering. Everyone suffers. People die of cancer, children get bombed in Gaza, people die in their own faeces in hospitals here in South Africa. Where is God?

On that cross.

Before you roll your eyes, let me try elaborate. The way I see it is that if Jesus took on humanity’s sin and suffering (as we believe) then that includes all suffering, from the beginning of time to the end of time. (That’s a lot of suffering)

Why did He do this? Because our freewill remained so important to Him that rather than click His fingers and solve all the problems, He stepped into the ring and showed us how to suffer and showed us that we are not alone.

So in taking all of humanity’s sufferings on Himself that means that all suffering finds its meaning in the cross. That child dying of starvation, his death is not meaningless. He is innocent and his death is unjust and not the will of God but in his dying he is “making up for what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” Colossians 1:24. The Church has a specific and complex teaching on this which I believe and extend to the idea that a dying child’s sufferings join with Christ’s sufferings on the cross and so, in a mysterious way, bring about the salvation of mankind. That little child, in union with Christ, saves me. And all I can do in response is fall before God and weep in sorrow and in joy in the knowledge that His love for me is too vast to fathom and that He gathers all the little children to Himself. And we are all His little children, stumbling along on this earthly pilgrimage.

So I can’t explain why there is suffering, but I can say that I believe that God can take our suffering and transform it, even when it seems utterly and completely hopeless.

Even when it is the end and it is not alright, God will always have the last word. Not suffering and not death.

Wood engraving Crucifixion of Jesus 1866 by Gustave Doré.

Crucifixion of Jesus 1866 by Gustave Doré.

“Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me. There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house; if it were not so I should not have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you.”
Jesus:
Speaking to his disciples soon before his crucifixion.

Those Crazy Catholics

St.Michael'sThis is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
1 Corinthians  11:24

Catholic’s are a pretty bonkers bunch if you think about it. I mean the narrative of Jesus is pretty out of this world (literally), we ask the Saints to pray for us and we think Jesus’s mother was a pretty cool lady.

We also have this kind of, sort of strange yet somewhat unquestionably important belief that at Mass, the bread and wine presented on the altar truly (and we mean truly) become the Flesh and Blood of The Risen Jesus. We go so far as to say that the little white host that the priest holds up in Mass IS Jesus. Like really.

Crazy right? Well… Not so much from a scriptural perspective. The opening verse of this post is one of the many instances where we are told what Jesus said at the Last Supper. “This is my body”.

So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”John 6:53

Eish.

Basically, when people ask Catholics why we believe such crazy things we just point at Jesus and say, “Ask him!”

This is, in fact, a serious and contentious issue among Christians. Actually, one could say it is the issue. Now there is a lot of theology around this topic and I will leave it to you to Google “What do Catholics believe about the Eucharist”, if you so wish. Long and short of it, we believe when we receive communion (The Eucharist i.e: The Body and Blood of Christ) we are unified with God, we enter into His mystery but even more amazingly,  He enters into our human frailty. He wants to be with us that much.

Jumping off cliff

Leap of Faith?

The Mass is the “re-presentation” of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross offered by the Priest who is acting in the person of Christ and not by his own authority. But it is more than that still. It is a sort of metaphysical time travel where we actually are present at the Last Supper and at the Crucifixion. It is a renewal of the New Covenant “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And, believe it or not, it is kind of like how Catholics see sex as the renewal of the marriage covenant. Renewing the bond. Growing closer in unity.

At face value, I hear ya, bonkers. But if you look at it from a metaphysical and spiritual point of view, especially from the Catholic vantage point, it makes some sense. Catholics believe that we are body and soul, not respectively but as one. Just as Jesus is both Human and Divine. We are both body and soul, the two cannot be separated.

The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church – Para 365

And as such, we see our bodies as good. Kind of like what God said when He made us… (see Genesis).

So that’s why, at least in the way I see it, the Eucharist can have a metaphysical effect on us as a whole being.

Glenbeigh St. James' Church Nave Triple Window Omnis Honor et Gloria 2012 09 09

But it is more than that. It is a sacrament of the Church and so through it we receive God’s grace . This means it is salvific (a means by which we receive the Lord’s saving grace). “Nonsense!“ you cry. It does sound a bit crazy, but then, hey, ask this guy:

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

John 6:54-59

The people listening to Jesus were so offended by what He said that it is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus says something and the people stop following him because of it.

In all seriousness, I grew up Catholic but hardly knew my Faith and although there were many things I didn’t know or understand, somehow I knew the Eucharist was important. Now it is the centre of my life. If the Eucharist is actually Jesus Christ, who gives Himself to us under the guise of Bread, then “give us this bread always.” It is a mystery. A Mystical Union beyond human understanding and it is the most beautiful thing on earth, hands down without a doubt.

may we come to share in the divinity of Christ            1 Peter 1 vs 4
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.              Phil 2 vs 8

Prayed by the priest during the Preparation of the Gifts.

A few weeks ago I was at a small, intimate Mass. I went up for communion last and as I received the Chalice (the Blood of Christ), which is wine (but is actually Blood… See transubstantiation), the priest said to me, “Finish it.” I didn’t know they could ask a lay person to finish the Chalice…. Now this is wine… 14% proof and the cup was full.

So, I did what I was told and downed it. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the recessional hymn. Who said that Mass was boring?

The Fear of Christians

Christian debate

Source Wikicommons

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. – The Words of Jesus as penned by the Apostle John – Circa 1st Century.

I had a conversation with a friend recently and something he said struck me.

“There is no reason for there to be a divided church anymore”

St.John's Fragment

Rylands Library Papyrus P52 – Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are over 33,000 different Christian denominations (and counting). We all look to the Bible as an authoritative text.
I find it a bit odd that we consider the Bible an inspired, authoritative guide, and the guy we follow and consider God is recorded as having said the prayer “that they may all be one.” Yet we are not one, we are divided 181.7 times to the power of 2.

There are a number of reasons for this that I am not going to get into. Lets just say it had something to do with some corrupt clergymen and a guy called Martin Luther back in the 16th Century. (over simplification, I am aware.)
Essentially this was the start of the Protestant movement, which separated itself from the authority of the Catholic Church, rejected the Churches claim to truth and thus turned to the Bible as the sole source of revelation.

Fast forward to today and Christians are a divided people.

This history of animosity and misunderstanding has made modern-day Christians cautious to say the least. On both sides of the Catholic – Protestant debate are those who choose to claim “complete truth.”

Bringing up discussion of church with my friends of different Christian traditions usually involves a lot of tip toeing and gentle wording. When meeting other Christians and mentioning I am Catholic, a common response is, “Oh, cool……” and then the conversation moves on.

But is this tip-toeing and awkwardness really necessary?

I think my friend who said there is no need for a divided church was onto something. So much of what we perceive as differences upon closer examination prove to be not so different after all. There are some big fundamental theological differences, yes, but perhaps not as many as people think.

Something I am learning is that I don’t have to be threatened by other Christians. If a friend tells me about an amazing worship service at her church where people broke down crying, lives were given to God and an old lady’s cataracts were healed I can fall into the trap of worrying that if God is moving in someone else’s church, then maybe I am in the wrong place. Letting go of these insecurities has been a process of accepting that God is God and can work through whoever and whatever means He chooses.

There is a passage in scripture in which the disciples tell Jesus that a man was casting out demons in His name. They told him to stop but Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

I am finding this realisation incredibly freeing. It gives me a sense of joy to be able to acknowledge my brothers and sisters in other churches; Their successes are my successes and their struggles are my struggles. I truly believe that we are unified in our belief in Christ and in our baptism, despite our differences in name.

Before writing this article I read through parts of the Vatican II documents NOSTRA AETATE (In our Age), which speaks about the Churches position on other religions and UNITATIS REDINTEGRATIO (Restoration of Unity) which discusses the Catholic approach to ecumenism. I found them quite beautiful in many ways and to end, I thought I would share with you what stood out for me.

All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials. But let all, according to the gifts they have received enjoy a proper freedom, in their various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in their different liturgical rites, and even in their theological elaborations of revealed truth. In all things let charity prevail. If they are true to this course of action, they will be giving ever better expression to the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the Church…
…Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church. – UNITATIS REDINTEGRATIOCHAPTER I, Paragraph 4

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. – NOSTRA AETATE – Paragraph 2

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. NOSTRA AETATE – Paragraph 3

“He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8). NOSTRA AETATE – Paragraph 5, quotation from 1 John 4:8

Who Needs to Be Saved? Part 2: Sinner!

Sin.

Road in KwaZulu NatalWhat a word. In modern society it is laden with preconceptions of judgement and negative connotations.
Even Christians struggle to say the word in fear that someone might be offended.
It is a word which has lost its true meaning in many ways. If I told a random man on the street that he was a sinner, he’d likely be upset with me and think I was a fundamentalist nut. But if I told him that he was someone who made mistakes, and had hurt people in his life, would he disagree?
Sin means to err, or to make a mistake. To miss the mark or target. To not get it right.
Don’t we all do that?

In a Christian context we believe that when we “don’t get it right”, it has an affect upon our soul.
God hasn’t condemned us, or marked us, we’ve damaged ourselves.
That’s the concept. At least, that’s how I see it.

I am a sinner, you are a sinner, Pope Francis is a sinner. What does that mean?
You see, sometimes I think, why do we need salvation? I wonder when early humans decided that they had an intrinsic problem.
Was it an evolutionary process of discernment as they came to the realisation that killing one another was ultimately not such a great idea and more could be achieved in community?

But what of the concept of failing in the eyes of the Creator?
This is an idea shared by other religions in some form or another. That being said, not all religions believe in a Supreme Deity but there is a general agreement that humans are in need of attaining a “higher state”.

And then of course, there is the indisputable fact that people still kill and maim and fight each other; We lie and steal and are cruel. We can be pretty messed up.
(And yes, I know people can also be good to one another too!)

Is the idea of sin a straw man? A man-made invention with a man-made cure? Or do we have a Divine Law written on our hearts that helps us know right from wrong?

I suppose these are questions I can never really know the answers to, but I believe that in asking them I open my heart up in tolerance and understanding.

China Town, Soho, London, Christians see sin, getting it wrong, hurting one another, bad things, whatever you want to call it, as something that separates us from God. If God is all good, and all good comes from Him, then bad cannot return to Him as the source of all good. You follow? So we need to find a way to repair ourselves in order to get back to God. This brings about the mother of all questions: How?
Perhaps by being good? Seems feasible but could you ever be good enough to reunite with the source of all goodness?
Sacrificing things? Would an all good Being really want us to slaughter animals (and each other) to appease Him?

So the crux of it is: If God is real and we know a little about His nature, as I discussed in Part 1, and if sin is a real thing that has an effect on our souls and separates us from God then we all need to be saved. Being saved just means being reunited with God. Different Christian denominations believe different things about just how that reunion with God is brought about but we all agree that it is only possible because of Jesus Christ.
And you might be jumping up from your seat saying, “Aha! Got you! Why would an all loving, all good God kill his own son!!!! That’s a pretty barbaric way of reuniting us to Him, Eh?”

And I say back to you, “Great point.”

But then, you see, Jesus is God. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A unity of love.
So God became a man (Jesus) and was both Father and Son. Different persons yet the same God. Confused? Me too.

So because our “damaged” souls cannot return to an all good God (remember they are damaged because we do things that aren’t right, and we know it. Even something like saying something hurtful to a parent in a moment of anger is ultimately not a good thing.) God is all good (yo). That is why we say Jesus died for our sins. God died as a way for us to be repaired. For our damaged souls to be fixed.
Why? Because He loves us. And what about the whole dying thing? Why couldn’t He click his omnipresent fingers and save us like that? Well, because then it wouldn’t be our choice to be with Him. We had to see Him die (or at least read about it) in order to understand how much He loved us. He could have appeared and said, “Hey guys! I love you!” and we’d say, “Prove it!”

So He did. He took the bullet for us people. That’s the message in its simplest form!

(As a sidebar: If you like to think that you’ve lived a reasonably good life and that you feel that you definitely aren’t destined for (thunder-clap) eternal damnation and are wondering why our all good God can’t just make us clean when we die, well then you aren’t too far off from the Catholic concept of Purgatory!)

There are so many complex layers that just cannot be unpacked in one post but it has been an interesting process for me to write it and to realise those complexities. And so as usual I finish with more questions than answers but somehow I feel I need to say that I am comforted deeply by Christ and by the concept of a love so great that it is willing to sacrifice everything for me.

Who needs to be saved? I do.

Hanging in there

Image Credit: My sister

Who Needs to be Saved? Part 1: Certainty and the Nature of God

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Lately I’ve been asking myself a lot of hard questions. I’ve also been trying to teach myself long multiplication because my mathematical abilities are atrocious but that’s another story.

I’ve been wondering about the Christian concept of “Salvation”. What is that? Why do we need it? Is it fair? Is it unfair? You know, the usual queries. I won’t address that specifically in this post but I will lay down the groundwork.

I am someone who craves certainty. This probably says something about me… Perhaps that I am insecure. Because if I wasn’t insecure, I would have no issue with uncertainty (I’ll try elaborate on this a little later)

And so I find myself asking, “How do I know that what I believe is true? How can I be sure?”
It is difficult to find valid evidence to support my beliefs. I cannot rely on spiritual experiences, weird coincidences or other people’s testimonies as they are personal and relative experiences. So as pieces of evidence, for me, I find myself torn as to what to think.

This, some will say, is a lack of faith. Maybe so. Or maybe it is a deepening search for authentic faith. Either way, it means I examine the very core of what I believe and I have to be brutally honest with myself, which can be scary.

Ultimately though, as someone wise once told me, the only thing we can be certain of is that nothing is certain. It is a scary step to admit this as it makes me vulnerable. I personally feel that sometimes when people aggressively hold onto their beliefs and are uncompromising, it is because deep down they are afraid they might be wrong. I am like that often. Hence, being okay with uncertainty brings a peace and removes the fear of being proved wrong. Because, yes, I could be wrong! As I write I realise that this is all very reminiscent of Alan Watts, who I love but don’t agree with on a couple of key points. (digression)

But, I still search for certainty, I haven’t reached that Buddhist/Wattsian level of detachment and so, in order to try and understand what I believe, I try and strip down my beliefs to their essentials. In my search I usually start at, well, the start.  Here I ask the cosmic void, who are you? Who caused this?

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. – Ancient Creation Text by Moses… potentially… but probably a whole host of anonymous authors.

Table Mountain from Somerset West

So, I weigh the evidence and rationalise that something can’t just appear from nothing (and not the scientific version of nothing, which is actually something but as in nothing… which we can’t even imagine because you can’t imagine nothing. So stop trying to. Or you could look at my bank balance, that might come close) and I conclude that something must have caused all of this. It had to be a creative force, beyond human understanding.

In having determined that their must be some kind of Divine Being or God, I then have to decide  who I believe this God to be. Here it is up to me to look at the various Faith traditions and the world around me to determine what I believe about God. This is where being objective becomes particularly difficult as I am inevitably influenced by my cultural upbringing and environment.  That being said,my view of God is that He is a loving, creative being who is actively involved in His creation and who reveals Himself through people, sacred tradition, sacred scripture and ultimately in Jesus Christ.

Now you might ask, given the fact that I said earlier that I crave certainty, how I can jump to such specific conclusions when I am not able to logically work out why I believe them?
Great question! I don’t know either. Except to give the trite and unsatisfying answer that I just do.
I speak about this a bit in some of my other posts about God and Jesus.

Suffice to say, I cannot be certain and I find it very hard. But if there is a God, and He created me, do I not belong to Him? Do I not owe Him everything I have because it is His anyway? And if He placed me on this beautiful earth, surely there must be a purpose for that too?

One thing that I has been growing in my heart over the years is the realisation that Love is the most important aspect of my life and faith. If I can truly love, in a self sacrificing way, wanting the best for others, then I am taking steps in the right direction. And if that is what I desire, can I assume the same and more about the Being that created me?

There are questions, but God is in the questions.

All this I have put to the test of wisdom. I said, ‘I am resolved to be wise,’ but wisdom was beyond my reach – whatever has happened lies out of reach, deep down, deeper than anyone can fathom. Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) – circa 3rd Century BC

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You Aren’t Thinking of Christianity

Christianity 
Line breaks: Chris|tian¦ity 
Pronunciation: /krɪstɪˈanɪti 
Verb

Here’s a hypothesis: When you think of Christianity, you aren’t thinking of Christianity, you’re thinking about a pre-conceived, societal construction of what Christianity is.

A word like the Bible might conjure up images in your mind of fire and brimstone falling from the sky, sexist ideologies and possibly even a really nice guy going around healing people and fishing and stuff. I guess we tend to forget that the Bible is a collection of books and letters written over a very long period of time in Hebrew and Greek containing some seriously revolutionary ideas. eg. “Love your neighbour.”…. No, sorry, I mean, “Love your enemy.”

Maybe we picture Jesus as a white hippie.

When we talk about Christians, we might think of fake smiles and niceties; No swearing and one beer kinda folk.

None of these images represent true Christianity. In fact, I don’t believe any image can represent Christianity.

This is my idea: For the Church to be truly Universal (katholikos) it cannot have an image.

Simply put, if I know someone who rocks out to Metallica and wears dark eyeliner, I have to believe that she can find a home in the Church without sacrificing the identity she relates to. If you recoil, perhaps it is because you have attached a label/idea to the music and symbols that go with a goth or rock image and they clash with your preconceived notions of what should and should not be seen in a Church?

That’s why I have a problem with contemporary “Christian Music”. It’s a box. You will like this music because you are Christian and you will sing this song because it is a worship song and you will be filled with joy, okay?

I don’t have a problem with people liking Christian Music, I even enjoy some of the songs. I have a problem with the label and the automatic attachment of the musical genre to the religion.

We’re not destined to be the Church of Same.

We are different parts that make up the Body of Christ ( an ancient spiritual text said this very same thing)

I’m not saying anything new but I feel that often people forget that Christianity is a “radical” religion. It calls its followers to some pretty high ideals. Christians are called to challenge, to go out into the darkness and bear light.

Christianity is the most widely practiced religion in the world but also the most persecuted.

All over the world for centuries, Christians have given up their lives rather than renounce their faith. Would you label those people as “churchy types”? I’m sorry but you don’t do something like that because you really enjoy the music at church and the fellowship and the brownies served after Mass.
You do it because of one thing, one person, and His name is Yeshua.

Christianity is about Jesus and all our belief hinges on whether or not He rose from the dead. If He didn’t, then our faith is for naught, if He did, then I’ve got some serious soul searching to do.

Now, this is where I lose you. Oh, he said Jesus, I’m out of here before he starts singing Kumbaya.

Before you go consider this, as a Christian I should (should being the operative word) be willing to die for the person who considers me his worst enemy. I should rather he lives and I take his place if his life is threatened. Not because I have a death wish but because I recognise his inherent dignity as a human being. I recognise God within him.

This, for me, is the other vital element in calling myself a Christian. Do I live it?
Do people feel as though I genuinely want the best for them, that I genuinely want to improve the lives of those who are in need?

Christianity is a verb.

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Fr Miguel Pro SJ – Moments before his execution by firing squad. His last words, “Viva Cristo Rey!” -“Long live Christ the King!”  Image source

Now, here’s the catch. Most of us, including me, don’t come close to living up to these ideals. We struggle to love sacrificially.

But here’s the catch of the catch. That’s okay.

This is the asterisk next to the Ten Commandments. Give it your best shot but if you mess up it is not game over. The reason for this is, again, Jesus. God became man to show us how to live and also how to love. He chose to die for all the terrible things that people do in the world so that the people who do those terrible things might have a shot at redemption. Because God believes in us more than we believe in each other. If there was only justice and no mercy in this world, it would be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and everyone would be blind and toothless.

Without Mercy, Christianity is like a Convent boarding school, but without the ideals, Christianity is the ’60s.

So, hidden behind this societal preconception of what Christianity is, is a religion that calls its followers to love together, to suffer together, to forgive unconditionally, and to lay down their lives in service of those who are in most need of help.

That is Christianity. That is my religion.

Open Doors USA

*Disclaimer: The point of this post is to provide a rounded, general introduction to what I feel Christianity is and how it should be lived. It is not a doctrinal statement or theological argument but a personal reflection on some complex ideas which I don’t claim to fully understand.