Joy and Happiness!
(Overcoming suicide, depression, loneliness, and anxiety):
(Overcoming suicide, depression, loneliness, and anxiety):
This spring the Pastoral Council identified a series of topics that they felt were important to address. One that stood out was the high rate of suicide, depression, loneliness, and anxiety that our society faces now more than ever. I thought it might be a hard sell to do a presentation on those issues: “Come to our workshop on suicide, depression, loneliness, and anxiety!” Still, it is an important issue that needs to be covered. Not to point it out as if it is a hopeless and depressing situation, but to identify remedies to it. Therefore, I pulled out some books, looked at some studies, searched for some solid and common-sense advice that might help, not only to address it, but to help all of us live healthier and happier lives. I also wanted to show the often-overlooked religious component that is a very significant factor for increasing happiness and wellbeing.
THE BAD NEWS:
In the United States suicide rates have gone up considerably over the last 70 years. Statistics show that from the 1950s through 2010 the number of suicides increased but the percent of “suicides per 100,000” didn’t greatly increase. Since 2010, the rate of suicide has increased significantly. In 2022 there were almost 50,000 suicides and the rate per 100,000 increased from 10.6 in 2000 to 15% in 2022. This is an all time high since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This can’t be blamed exclusively on the pandemic either since the higher numbers were well on their way after 2010. Some have said that the reason is because of the scarcity of mental health providers and higher rates of depression, but that doesn’t answer the question of why there are more suicides. The answer lies in a combination of factors including social media, cell phones, internet, porn, disconnect from former institutions that brought community and stability, abandonment of traditional values, restructuring of society in ways that work against strong connected relationships, and an overall lack of meaning and purpose in the lives of many people. This affects the young in particular and young men more than any group. Statistics bear this out.
Loneliness, Depression, and Anxiety:
A Pew Research poll from December 22, 2022 showed that almost half of all women and a third of all men felt psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another Pew Research study in 2018 showed that 70% of teenagers consider anxiety and depression a major problem. A Cigna survey from January 23, 2020 more than 60% of Americans feel lonely. Cigna also showed higher rates of loneliness among youth. 50% of Boomers, 71% of Millennials, and 80% of Gen Z reported that they feel lonely. Highest rates were found among heavy users of social media.
According to the Center for Disease Control, increased levels of loneliness have an adverse effect on their health including a 30% increased mortality risk, 33% higher risk of strokes, 50% higher rates of dementia, and a 400% increased rate of death from heart failure.
WHAT CAN BE DONE? THE GOOD NEWS:
Harvard Study of Adult Development:
The longest study on happiness came from a Harvard study on 268 people plus 1,300 of their offspring beginning from 1938 and continuing for nearly 80 years. The results show clearly that close relationships were most important. Relationships were a far more important indicator of happiness than other factors such as money, success, or fame. For example, on average there was a 10% increase in levels of happiness just by being married. Money, success, and fame contributed somewhere between a 1-3% increase. Those who had marital satisfaction were able to maintain their happiness even when in pain. Those who had no marriages or unhappy marriages suffered more emotional and physical pain in their suffering. Loneliness was shown to be as bad as smoking or alcoholism. Close relationships were indicative of longer years, healthy aging, less mental deterioration, and less smoking and alcoholism.
Okinawa, Ikaria, Loma Linda, and Corsica are locations where people live longer lives. In Okinawa they lead active lives, don’t overeat, eat more vegetables, and practice “ikigai” which gets them out of bed and focuses on their purpose in life. In Ikaria, Greece, there is a routine where the residents engage in a coffee social hour after their siesta. Combining their lifestyle, social connections, and a Mediterranean diet seems to be their secret. Loma Linda, California has a high concentration of Seventh Day Adventists who emphasize a strict vegetarian diet, avoidance of smoking and drinking, and connection in their faith. Corsica not only has the Mediterranean diet, but they are active, highly social, connected in faith, and have a high respect for the elderly. All these areas have a combination of community, belonging, and healthy lifestyle.
The decision to look at life in a positive way and to train yourself to think that way is key to this approach. There is a book that has been out for a long time called Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy by David Burns. The book walks people through cognitive distortions, trains them to identify the particular distortion, helps them to reason beyond them by thinking logically, and encourages them to think and act positively – which contributes to a happier mood. It is like many other areas of life. If you want to be a person of faith, live the faith. If you want to have a happy marriage, do the things that happy married couples do. If you want to be healthy, do what healthy people do. Below is a summary of distortions that need to be identified and overcome:
1. All-or-nothing Thinking: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
3. Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened.
4. Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they don’t count. This allows you to continue to maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
5. Jumping to Conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
6. Magnification or Minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear insignificant.
7. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are. You believe it so it must be true.
8. Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with things you expect of yourself. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct these “should statements” towards others, the result is also anger, frustration and resentment.
9. Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing the error, you attach a negative label to yourself. You think of yourself as a loser instead of just admitting you made a mistake.
10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which you were not primarily responsible for.
The Pew Research Center did a study on the connection between religion’s relationship to happiness, civic engagement, and health. The January 31, 2019 study shows a significant increase in levels of happiness from religiously active people compared to those with no religion or non practicing religion. An April 12, 2016 study shows that actively religious people are happier, have a more engaged family life, are connected to the greater community, volunteer more, and are more generous with their time and resources.
Some Key Takeaways:
1. In the US there is an eleven percentage point difference between religious and non religious (or non practicing) people who say they are “very happy” (40% vs. 29%). This is a 40% higher rate for actively religious.
2. There is very little statistical difference between non religious and non practicing religious in levels of happiness.
3. Actively religious are in better health, are more likely to live a healthy lifestyle, and avoid destructive habits.
4. On a societal level, actively religious are much more generous to charitable causes donating money, time, or goods outside of their religious contributions.
The bottom line is that religious practice and levels of happiness and social engagement are directly related. One’s religious engagement can be the largest single factor for improving one’s perception of happiness. In addition, the healthier lifestyle and concern for others contributes to the health and wellbeing of others.
What the Bible Says:
The Bible is filled with God’s desire and power to fill us with his love, peace, and joy. Merely being in God’s presence adds joy to our lives. Our response to God’s love allows him to fill our hearts with his joy and happiness. Consider the language of these quotes that emphasize joy, delight, rejoicing, exulting, praising, peace, and generosity:
1. God’s presence (Psalm 16:11):
You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.
2. God’s love (Isaiah 61:10)
I will rejoice heartily in the LORD, my being exults in my God;
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation, and wrapped me in a robe of justice,
Like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
3. God’s ways and Word (Psalm 119:111)
Your testimonies are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
4. Gratitude, praise, worship (Psalm 28:7)
The LORD is my strength and my shield, in whom my heart trusts.
I am helped, so my heart rejoices; with my song I praise him.
5. Joy Complete (John 15:10)
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.
6. Trusting God (Romans 15:13)
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the holy Spirit.
7. Generosity (Acts 20:35)
In every way I have shown you that by hard work of that sort we must help the weak, and keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’
20 Tips to Contribute to Happiness, Joy, and Wellbeing:
Finally, from a variety of research, studies, and surveys, we have a good indication of many contributors to happiness that should not be surprising. I’ll post the obvious standouts in no particular order. If you are looking to make some changes and work on your happiness, consider applying some of these approaches:
1. Get rid of addictions and destructive behaviors (sin): These are always destructive to real happiness. Don’t let any addiction take you away from God’s desire to keep you free and happy.
2. Live a healthy lifestyle: Diet, exercise, sleep, avoiding stress, have hobbies, focus on wellbeing, enjoy other’s company, stay in touch with others, etc.
3. Actively participate in your faith: There is no substitute for real and active faith that is lived out. Put your heart into your faith and God will bless you with so much including a happier disposition. Just make sure to practice the faith as Jesus revealed it to us. Pray, go to church, participate in the sacraments, read your Bible, do acts of charity, stay away from sin and superstitions, love, forgive, restore, and witness God’s love to others.
4. Follow the basic tenets of Jesus’ teaching: We were created to live in a particular way. If all we ate was junk food we would be unhealthy because we were designed for real food. In a similar way, when we harmonize with God’s ways, we are living as God designed us which brings us happiness and wellbeing.
5. Use Humor: As St. Teresa of Avila said, “Oh Lord, save me from those sour faced pious people!” Humor is a gift from God and contributes to our joy.
6. Delayed gratification: Postpose instant gratification for something greater. The “something greater” has a better long-term effect on us.
7. Moral discipline: Avoiding sin and choosing the good contributes to our wellbeing in every way
8. Generosity: It is more blessed to give than to receive. Generous people are happier and more appreciative.
9. Truth and integration: Even a small lie can take us out of an integrated life. Strive to live in truth and don’t let any ideology, cause, or convenience disrupt your integrity.
10. Adventure: Don’t stop learning and experiencing something new. It pushes us to see things in a new and exciting ways, which contributes to a zeal for life.
11. Beatitudes: Matthew chapter 5 lists Jesus’ Beatitudes. They summarize the fact that if we depend on God for everything, we are putting our hearts and lives in God’s hands. He who is the author of all that is good blesses us even in difficulty.
12. Be grateful: Every day is a gift. Look for the ways you can be grateful and allow that to move you.
13. Have a family: Families and children have their ups and downs, but the deep levels of satisfaction, meaning, and purpose that family brings is undeniable.
14. Moral Connection: Not only are we happier when we are morally grounded, but there is a moral imperative to be happy. God calls us to joy and we should live joyfully even if we don’t always feel like doing that. Practice makes perfect.
15. Set goals: Manage time, set healthy routines, tackle the most important tasks first, set goals that are attainable and move you forward so you can be the best version of yourself.
16. Appropriate self-esteem: It isn’t about being narcissistic and selfish. It’s about seeing yourself for how God sees you. You are a child of God. Let that be your identity. Be happy that God made you as he did and ask his help to allow yourself to be who he created you to be.
17. Relationships: Have healthy and close relationships. Do the work to make friends, stay connected, and keep those who truly love you present in your life.
18. Be present: The past is gone and the future hasn’t happened. You can’t drag around the burdens of your past. Give those to God. Be present to those around you and get off your phones when you are with real people. Go ahead and plan and prepare for your future, but the present time is God’s gift. Make that your priority.
19. Get support and face fears: We all need help to overcome our weaknesses and fear. It builds resilience and helps us to not be enslaved to things that should have no power over us.
20. Distraction and Multitasking: Multitasking is a lie. People can only be present to one or two things at a time. More than that we will juggle and not do well. We are distracted by so much and most of it is not important anyway. Focus on what is most important (people). Minimize social media and only use it for uplifting purposes.
July 15, 2023
A Catholic Perspective on Sex and Gender
I met Minori (I’m changing his name for privacy considerations) outside in the parish parking lot. I approached him and said hi and we talked. He said he had questions about Christianity so we talked about that. He was interested in knowing more. I told him I’d be happy to continue the conversation later. About a week later he was knocking on the office door and the office manager didn’t know what to do since he certainly didn’t look like a parishioner. I talked to him again. Apparently, he was wandering around talking to other churches in the area and he wasn’t happy with what he experienced. People had kicked him out, condemned him, and preached at him. He mentioned to me that some didn’t seem to like Catholics that much. We talked some more and since RCIA classs (classes for people to learn Catholicism for those who want to know more or consider becoming Catholic) were starting soon, I invited him to come.
Minori showed up for RCIA and liked what he heard. The idea of a loving God who came to teach us his ways and die for us was attractive to him. Not only was God revealed to us, but he is accessible to us in prayer, worship, sacraments, and the Bible. He kept coming back. Now he was interested in becoming Catholic. I talked to him some more. “Minori, I have to tell you that I need to teach what the Church actually teaches and some of it might be difficult.” He said he understood and that’s what he wanted.
Minori became Catholic. The RCIA group was welcoming to him and treated him as an equal. The Knights of Columbus invited him to be a part of their group. The parish didn’t bat an eye when he was going to church. This might seem what you would expect, but Minori had bright pink hair, breast implants, and wore women’s clothes. He also had some psychological issues. Regardless of the appearances, he treated us with respect and we treated him with respect. We also needed to engage in many conversations. After he was baptized I wrote his “old name” in the baptismal records and his baptismal certificate reflected it. He came to me visibly angry and said he never felt so disrespected. I asked him to explain. He told me he legally changed his name and I put his old name on the forms! I told him, “Minori, I used the form you filled out when you first started RCIA and that’s what you wrote down. I didn’t know that ‘Minori’ was your legal name. Besides, I’ve always treated you with respect and you know that I wouldn’t do something just to aggravate you. We can change the paperwork to your legal name.” Minori became Catholic and struggled through it and became better for it. I came to know him, struggled through it, and became better for it.
I begin with this story because there are a few things that need to be understood from the outset. Everyone should be treated with respect. Pope Francis mentioned that we should engage with people and have social encounters with them because that is where the Gospel is lived out. I agree with this. It’s easy to get caught up in agendas, politics, and activism and lose the interpersonal dimension of who we are as human beings and how we relate to one another. Also, while I came to know Minori, I wrote parish articles and blog posts about transgenderism. It is possible to engage and relate with people with respect and teach the hard truths of the Gospel, but it isn’t easy. We should approach it humbly and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit so we can discern the right way, place, and time to do that. We will have successes and failures, but we need to try because the Gospel is for everyone. We also need to make sure that we aren’t ignoring our own blind spots that need to be addressed. We are all a people in need of repentance and conversion. So, with that in mind, let’s talk about gender issues.
A few things to keep in mind:
1. Who has the right to define who you are?
Who are you, what are you worth, and what is your purpose? Most of us believe things about our identity that are not grounded in God’s reality and how he created us to be. We can easily believe lies about our identity if we get our identity from what we do or what others have done to us. Since we were created by God and are his children, he knows us better than we know ourselves. If an artist paints a picture, they are the best person to reveal what it is. In a similar way, God created us and knows us better than we know ourselves. If we really want to know who we are, we should turn to him to understand how he made us, why he made us, and for whom he made us. We are his beloved children, created as integrated human beings, and meant for a harmonized relationship with him, one another, and creation. We are loved and are not abandoned to “find our own truth”. God reveals who we are in the Bible, Church teaching, in our relationship to him, in prayer, and in the very nature of our physical and spiritual existence. We start by understanding that we are children of God first and foremost. We move on from there.
2. Dignity of the human person.
The dignity of the human person is an essential teaching of the Church and repeats itself in the Bible and Church teaching. Vatican II documents repeat this understanding as they discuss the sanctity of human life, our relationships with one another, and how the social order is designed. It is an often forgotten or ignored aspect of Christian engagement but something that we should always keep close to our hearts for our sake and for the sake of others.
3. The joy of the Gospel.
God’s truth is not a hammer but an invitation to forgiveness, healing, joy, and fulfillment. As we come to understand what God wants for us, we will need to set aside our politics, agendas, biases, and personal philosophies. You may agree or disagree with what I am writing, but my prayer is that we all will strive to conform our thoughts and actions to God’s truth which lifts us up and helps us to lift up others. As St. Paul wrote, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” – Romans 12:2
A short history of addressing gender issues:
About four years ago I wrote a blog about Matthew 19 and marriage. The gist of the blog was that God created us in a particular world and in a particular way. When we cooperate and live in harmony with how God intends the world to be, we do well. When we rebel against that we do not do well. I was addressing the ideal of marriage. God created male and female to come together and make a family. This is a natural institution, but it is also a supernatural institution because it was part of God’s plan for humanity so that we could share love and co-create with God who shares his love for us and creates. Within that blog I have a section on how God’s intention and how he ordered our existence helps us to evaluate some additional areas such as sex and gender.
The full blog article is posted separately below since it gives the Biblical and theological basis for the reason we believe in the integrated person. For now, I want to start by saying that we are integrated human beings by design. This is not merely a theological conclusion. Systematic and consistent philosophy and science harmonize with this belief. Unfortunately, political influence has primacy of place in our current culture and it has caused us to fail in our interpersonal relationships, in our ability to seek truth, and our inability to consider the ramifications of poorly thought out responses to gender theory. It is my belief that we can protect LGBT people from discrimination and also safeguard the truth and common good. We can do this while NOT pitting the two groups against each other for political purposes. We can affirm the truth about human nature while also being compassionate, prudent, and fair. This blog and our discussion cannot be exhaustive. I do hope that it helps point us in the right direction.
A Response to the “Equality Act”:
Two and a half years ago I responded to the Equality Act in connection with the US Catholic Conference of Bishops.
The USCCB wrote:
“The bill is well-intentioned but ultimately misguided. The Equality Act discriminates against people of faith, threatens unborn life, and undermines the common good.”
“Human dignity is central to what we believe as Catholics. Every person is made in the image of God and should be treated accordingly, with respect and compassion. That means we need to honor every person’s right to be free of unjust discrimination. The Equality Act purports to protect people experiencing same-sex attraction or gender discordance from unjust discrimination. Although this is a worthy purpose, the Equality Act does not serve it. And instead of respecting differences in beliefs about marriage and sexuality, the Equality Act discriminates against people of faith precisely because of those beliefs. In the process, the Equality Act codifies the new ideology of “gender” in federal law, dismissing sexual difference and falsely presenting “gender” as only a social construct.
My response was as follows:
The “Equality Act” is being presented as if we have to choose between one of two mutually exclusive options:
A. Being a bigot in favor of discrimination, or
B. Being a good hearted person in favor of freedom and equality.
The truth is that we can protect LGBT people from discrimination and also safeguard the common good while preserving religious liberty. And we can do this while NOT pitting the two groups against each other for political purposes. We can affirm the truth about human nature while also being compassionate, prudent, and fair. We should also honestly address the serious problems with how the law would be applied, particularly to transgender situations:
a. Similar to teenagers who can get abortions without their parents’ permission, this opens the door to hormone therapy and possible reassignment surgery to minors.
b. The Act says, “An individual shall not be denied access to a shared facility, including a restroom, a locker room and a dressing room, that is in accordance with the individual’s gender identity.” This would apply to “all public accommodations” and expands what the government considers “public” to include private institutions.
c. What is taught and encouraged in schools and society because of this law would place political ideology over and above more objective standards of truth.
Women would no longer be a distinct category. “Gender identity” is what one thinks one is rather than the reality and truth of human nature. Biology matters. Biological males not only pose an unfair competitive athletic advantage over women, but a real danger. No law should make what is factual subordinate to an arbitrary sense of self perception – especially at the detriment of real differences between the sexes.
3. Future Implications:
If “self identity” is the absolute measure of being, there is nothing to prevent future “self identities” to include other self-perceptions such as age, race, or anything else.
As you can see, the concerns of the bishops and my own concerns have come to fruition. The following year on “Trans Visibility Day”, more directives were given that expanded gender theory even further. Here were my responses to the new directives:
My Response to New Directives Given on “Trans Visibility Day”:
This Thursday, March 31, 2022, the White House commemorated “Trans Visibility Day” by releasing a series of statements and resources that include the promotion of “gender affirming care” for children and youth. This includes social affirmation, puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and sex change surgeries. A fact sheet with linked resources claims that gender reassignment surgeries in children are necessary, puberty blockers are reversible, hormone treatments in children are “partially reversible”, and social affirmation is to be encouraged. Additional resources claim that early transgender surgeries, hormone treatment, and affirmations are crucial for the health of kids and teens who identify as “transgender and nonbinary”. Additional concerns I had were:
1. Gender Theory:
Gender theory and ideology is being driven by political activism rather than objective truth and more specifically scientific truth. Resolving these issues should not be dependent on power and political affiliation. Rather, we should take a step back and approach them in a deliberate manner that transcends activist ideology and roots decision making in objective moral and scientific standards.
2. “Gender Affirming Care”:
Promoting and implementing procedures and ideologies under the umbrella of “gender affirming care” does unnecessary damage particularly to children and youth. For example, research has shown that 84-94% of children who suffer from gender dysphoria “grow out of it” by the time they become adults if nothing is done. Children are socially susceptible and not of an “age of consent” because of their limited developmental capacity. It is reckless to give life altering decision making to children and promote gender ideology to susceptible children who can easily confuse reality and fantasy.
3. Damage to Children:
The most cited reason advocating gender reassignment in children and youth is to prevent depression and suicide. Depression and suicide that might come from gender dysphoria are real and should be addressed, but surgical interventions have not been shown to have a measurable impact in overcoming these serious issues. Counseling and support that helps children and youth to come to accept who they are physically and mentally is much less intrusive and coincides with what the vast majority of children will become as adults without long term physical and psychological damage.
4. Truth Matters:
We are being told that we need to not only acknowledge that a woman who feels she is a man can consider herself a man (or vice versa), but we are being told that they actually “are” the opposite sex and we need to affirm that. In addition, we are being told that sex and gender are “malleable” and entirely dependent on the feelings of the individual. Those who do not affirm these theories are often labeled as discriminating bigots. This limits the pursuit of truth through free and open intellectual inquiry. It does not follow that affirming the reality of sex is discriminatory or hateful. Rather, affirming reality and truth is a public service. I still stand by the assertion that we can protect LGBT people from discrimination and also safeguard the common good while preserving religious liberty. Perhaps a quote from my blog last year can act as a summary of why the integrated human person is rooted in reality:
“Sex and Gender. Who we are as a male or female is not separate from who we are as integrated human beings. It makes no sense, from a Christian perspective, to separate our bodies from our minds. We are not Gnostics who believe that our bodies and our spirits are opposed to one another. We are not materialists who believe that we are merely physical beings. We are not spiritists who believe that there is no matter at all since this world is an illusion. The Christian perspective is that we are made, body and soul, in the image of God. Our sex, whether male or female, is an essential aspect of who we are as a person. One can believe his or her sex and gender is different than it is, but philosophically, that is no different than believing that one’s age, race, or physical characteristics are different than they actually are. It doesn’t mean that people who do believe these things are treated unjustly, but it also doesn’t mean that an integrated perspective is abandoned out of convenience or political expediency. Again, we can look to natural law and God’s restored intention to understand how our sex is not the enemy of our true self. Instead, God’s created ideal brings us to a fuller acceptance of a reality where we thrive as human beings.” – Fr. Mike’s Blog (Order and Chaos of Matthew 19)
5. The One-sided Narrative:
As I considered writing this statement, I was amazed at how little objective information was available. The vast majority of articles simply repeated back activist talking points with no real discussion of opposing viewpoints. When gender theory is accepted wholesale and promoted in our schools, institutions, government policies, and culture, there is a real disservice to the truth and wellbeing of society. I hope that readers of this reflection will consider the impact of far-reaching policies and parents will be especially attentive to the implications these might have on their children.
The Path Forward:
The Archdiocese of Portland wrote a document on gender that was published this spring. It included an overview of theology as well as making some policy recommendations. You can find that document here. It mostly addresses the issues from a theological perspective but includes some medical, sociological, psychological, and scientific data. I think in the future we need to encourage the facts to supersede the politics that currently dominate the discussion. There is ultimately one truth and having a systematic and comprehensive analysis of this issue from all the related fields will help us to best know how to respond and which policies best serve the many people who are affected. We should be especially attentive to the human factor and the long term repercussions. Finally, let’s remember to reaffirm truth, keep learning, help, care, and introduce people to Jesus and his liberating Gospel. See your identity as God defines it. Help others to see their identity as God defines it. We are all beloved sons and daughters of God. He will never abandon us or reject us. He wants to heal you, forgive you, love you, and keep you as his own – and he wants that for everyone else as well.
Order and Chaos of Matthew 19
The Pharisees asked Jesus about the conditions necessary for divorce to be legal. Jesus’ answer goes much deeper than divorce. Jesus answers by going back to God’s original intention with creation. People were created to live within the harmony that God built into creation itself. The sin of Adam and Eve (humanity) disrupted that ideal, but the Messiah will renew and restore humanity and creation. Therefore, divorce came about because of sin, but in the restored kingdom of God to come, relationships, and our very selves, match up with God’s created order and do not contradict it. Therefore, this future culmination is to be strived for in the present even while it hasn’t been fully realized. Those who are restored by the Messiah and live “in the kingdom” apply it to their lives not only in marriage, but in every aspect of their being and in all their relationships.
The Text (Matthew 19:1-12)
When Jesus finished these words, he left Galilee and went to the district of Judea across the Jordan. Great crowds followed him, and he cured them there. Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” [His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” (NAB-RE)
Jesus was asked a question about divorce. Jesus decided to answer the question by going back to God’s original intention in creation itself. When we understand how God originally intended the world to be, what went wrong, and how the Messiah is God’s plan to restore all things in the “new creation”, it helps us to understand why Jesus did and said what he did.
The question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?”
Among Jesus’ contemporary Jewish rabbis there was a division on the understanding of divorce. One school, Hillel, took the view that divorce was possible for virtually any reason. All that the husband needed to do was provide a written bill of divorce to make it public and official. The Shammai school was more restrictive. They said it was only for select reasons that it could be possible. The question is trying to get Jesus to take a side. Is divorce possible for a broad variety of reasons or only for select reasons?
Jesus’ response would have been shocking in his time. Not only is he not choosing to place his answer under the opinion of other rabbis of his day, but he seemingly contradicts Moses himself who was considered the human author of the Jewish Law that the rabbis were interpreting. Is Jesus claiming to have an authority above Moses? Jesus’ response is nuanced so that it doesn’t contradict Moses’ prescription for divorce. Divorce was “allowed” because of the hardness of the hearts of the people, but it was never God’s intention. To explain this, Jesus goes back “to the beginning” which would be the Genesis story of creation. What does this mean? To understand that we need to understand the creation story within its original context.
Creation as an ordered harmony between God, people, and creation.
Marriage predates Christianity and Judaism. For that reason, the Catholic Church has always maintained that it is a “natural” institution as well as a religious one. The institution of marriage is built into the way things were practically and morally designed. This is not merely for reproductive purposes, but also for the purpose of aligning our state of being with the way we were created in the first place. A fish will not thrive outside of water because they were created to live within the created order in water. Pack animals will not thrive if they are isolated individuals because they were created to live in a community of a pack. People were also created in a particular way and will thrive when they harmonize with that physical, spiritual, emotional, and sociological order. This concept is generally reflected in a biblical, philosophical, and theological concept called “natural law”. Natural law states that there is a natural moral order that can be known because it is built into creation and our relationship with God and one another. We do well when we conform to God’s natural law or order and we do poorly when we disengage from it or rebel against it.
So how did God create people? Jesus answers this as he says, “Male and female he created them. For this reason, a man leaves his father and mother, is joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” Therefore, people are created within a relationship that contains the uniqueness of the sexes which is also complementary and unifying. Harmonizing the social institutions according to God’s design in creation allows people the ability to thrive in a way that is not possible if people pursue behaviors and institutions that are not complimentary to this design. Now, let’s consider the story of Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve:
For the scope of this reflection, I don’t need to explain every aspect of the creation story. There are a few built in aspects that should be understood though. First of all, the story shows how God brought order to overcome the chaos. Part of this order is the division of things such as air and water, light and darkness, birds and fish, plants and animals, etc. Male and female and the ordering of the sexes is part of this order. Secondly, human beings are different in kind, not merely in degree. That means that human beings aren’t just slightly smarter animals, but are in a uniquely covenanted relationship with God. Therefore, human beings have an obligation to be obedient to God and stewards of his creation. Thirdly, only after sin is introduced into the story is the harmonious relationship with God and his ordered creation disrupted. The effects of that disharmony will need to be overcome in the future. Some preliminary “renewals” will take place such as the story of Noah, and the system of purification that will be found in the sacrificial and dietary regulations of the Mosaic Law, but a complete restoration will only come about through a total restoration that God initiates through his Messiah.
With that in mind, we can look at the story of Adam and Eve before their sin. Adam was created but the design was not complete. Only after woman was created as an equal to man was that act of human creation complete. Two verses in particular help to explain this:
God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27).
The LORD God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken.” (Gen 2:22-23)
Man and woman are distinct, equal, and complementary but not identical.
The Question of Divorce:
When Jesus was asked the question about divorce, there was an assumption by the Pharisees that divorce was acceptable. The question revolved around the conditions necessary to make it morally permissible. When Jesus invokes the creation story, he reminds them that divorce is a consequence of sin and a fallen world, but it does not conform to the intention of God in the beginning nor is it the reality in the restored world. Jesus is teaching them that rather than settle for the reality of a fallen world, we would do well to strive for the restored reality that renews our lives and very being in accordance with the way that God designed us.
In today’s world where divorce is common, how are we to interpret this teaching? It can be tempting for many to brush it off as unrealistic or archaic. In the ancient world people didn’t live as long, there was a stronger social pressure, religious institutions instilled values more profoundly, and families were more interconnected. In today’s world there is abuse, a lack of love, pressure, infidelity, immaturity, inability to make commitments, selfishness, addictions, and multiple forms of issues. Yet, it would be a mistake to think that we are that unique. Divorce existed in Jesus’ world to a larger degree than many people realize, and he still told them to strive to live according to the resurrected and restored reality. In addition, his teaching isn’t only for married people. He reminds his listeners that there are also those who don’t marry, those who can’t marry, and those who are celibate for the sake of the kingdom. Everyone is told to strive towards God’s perfect ideal.
This teaching strikes to the heart of the gospel teaching. Jesus is much more than a savior who merely forgives us so we can go to heaven. His “good news” kingdom is one where we, by faith, enter into through his death and resurrection and live within even while we await the final culmination of the promise. In other words, we don’t need to wait for the second coming to live within the restored order that the Messiah brings. The Word, the sacraments, our worship and prayer, and living according to Jesus’ overall moral teaching enable us to live within God’s original and renewed creation. Therefore, Jesus’ teaching on marriage simply reflects that it should conform to the renewed reality that the Messiah brings.
Divorce is a part of our world and there are many reasons for it. What is our response to that reality? Is it defeat and hopelessness, or is it a desire to apply what God has given us so that marriage can be lifted up? We start where we are at and strive toward that heavenly ideal knowing that, even if we never completely fulfill those ideals, we are better off to the degree that we are able to. This is the teaching that Jesus is giving the Pharisees. They are looking down the wrong path. Instead of seeking how to divorce, they should have been seeking how to lift up and restore marriage within the messianic promise. This outlook applies to other areas of human vocation as well.
Extending the Message to the Full Context:
There are other lessons that can be made from Jesus’ reference to Genesis. Just as marriage should be ordered to the ideal of God’s intention, other areas of our cultural life can do likewise. Let’s briefly look at how our ordered existence helps us to evaluate some of our current issues:
1. Sex and Gender. Who we are as a male or female is not separate from who we are as integrated human beings. It makes no sense, from a Christian perspective, to separate our bodies from our minds. We are not Gnostics who believe that our bodies and our spirits are opposed to one another. We are not materialists who believe that we are merely physical beings. We are not spiritists who believe that there is no matter at all since this world is an illusion. The Christian perspective is that we are made, body and soul, in the image of God. Our sex, whether male or female, is an essential aspect of who we are as a person. One can believe his or her sex and gender is different than it is, but philosophically, that is no different than believing that one’s age, race, or physical characteristics are different than they actually are. It doesn’t mean that people who do believe these things are treated unjustly, but it also doesn’t mean that an integrated perspective is abandoned out of convenience or political expediency. Again, we can look to natural law and God’s restored intention to understand how our sex is not the enemy of our true self. Instead, God’s created ideal brings us to a fuller acceptance of a reality where we thrive as human beings.
A sad consequence of a disordered understanding of creation is a misconception that creation either doesn’t matter at all or that it is the only thing that matters. On one end of the spectrum, some Christians see creation as something that will be destroyed in the future. Therefore, they abdicate their responsibility to be good stewards of creation since they will be separated from it. On the other end of the spectrum there are the materialists who believe that only creation is important. Therefore, they see human beings and the spiritual world as enemies of the planet. The Christian perspective sees an integrated whole where God, human beings, and creation live together in an ordered and harmonious relationship. This is possible through the combination of natural law with gospel teaching. Therefore, our delegated authority as stewards should put us in the forefront of the environmental movement. Not because it is “above” human beings, but because it is part of our service to God and one another. In addition, since Jesus will restore all of creation in the new heavens and the new earth, we participate in the restored order now by how we steward, even while we await the full realization of Jesus’ restored order.
It can be dangerous to forcibly apply an overall perspective to every individual case. Not everyone or every situation is capable of the ideal. Abusive relationships are an obvious example. Yet, individual abusive relationships do not nullify the overall benefit of the family structure. The ideal of a healthy and unified marriage with children remains true even if there are individual situations where this is not possible. It would be a mistake to look at an exception to the rule as a reason to wholly abandon the rule itself.
The lesson of Jesus’ teaching is that we should pay attention to the way things are built into creation itself. In the very act of creation, God built his order into our world in a way that is knowable and accessible. Jesus, the Messiah builds on this order, restores it, and adds the dimensions necessary to complete it. Our participation in the life of Christ is a participation in the restored order that God completes in the Messiah.
Order and Chaos:
The ancient worldview of order and chaos is not irrelevant to our current situation. Some would say that those philosophies are merely cultural and don’t apply to our situation as enlightened people. I believe that is a mistake. As I have hopefully pointed out, directing our lives to a well ordered ideal is a constructive and helpful way to address many issues such our relationship between the sexes, family issues, environmentalism, personal psychological wellbeing, and spiritual integration. It’s not to say that there aren’t areas of nuance. We do need to be able to consider the human elements of these things and not be a slave to natural law in a way that is similar to material determinism. It does, however, give us the ability to see on a larger perspective that our worldviews matter. To the extent that we cooperate with the way that God created, the intention of his original creation, and the reality of the restored creation, we will be more integrated, healthier, and more likely to find ourselves in the harmony that God desires for us all.
Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
I have heard people talk about the ancients as if they were gullible and naïve. Maybe they believed in the resurrection because they were not as sophisticated and scientific as we are? This type of snobbery against anyone who happened to live in a time other than ours is unjustified. They knew that people didn’t just “rise from the dead” and would not believe wild stories about it anymore than we would. They would be skeptical. In fact, St. Thomas refused to believe when the other disciples were describing Jesus’ resurrection unless he saw him and touched his wounds. Yet, the disciples did all come to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Why is that? The simple answer is that it was and is more reasonable to believe in the resurrection than not. This is not an exhaustive list of reasons, but I hope it will give you something to think about.
1. Jesus Really Died
I have read some books and opinions such as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and “The DaVinci Code”. They propose that Jesus didn’t really die. Instead, Jesus faked death but was revived afterwards by his disciples. There are so many problems with this theory. First and foremost, the Romans knew how to crucify people and they were good at it. People died during crucifixion. Also, how would a half dead Jesus inspire confidence in his disciples who revived him? They might run and escape, but they wouldn’t boldly preach and go to their death for him. Jesus needed to truly die in order for the resurrection to matter and inspire the disciples to boldly proclaim Jesus as Messiah – and that’s what happened.
2. Jewish Burial Customs
The Gospels describe various Jewish burial customs that were accurate historically. After someone died, their friends and family members would wash the body, wrap the body in linens, and anoint with a good quantity of myrrh, aloes, and other perfumes (Nicodemus gave 75 pounds to be used). Then they would place the body in a small tomb for a year. After a year, they would gather the bones and bury them in a sarcophagus permanently. The women who went to the tomb were following these burial customs and they all knew he had died. Since Jesus died just before the Sabbath, the women waited until afterwards before bringing the oils for anointing. This was not only to give honor to the person, but a way of honoring the sacredness of the holy land that God gave to Israel.
3. The Empty Tomb
Soldiers were posted in front of Jesus’ tomb. By ancient law, if a soldier fell asleep at their post, that would be considered a capital offense and they could be executed. Afterwards, when Jesus’ body was gone, the soldiers and the authorities claimed that the body was stolen after the soldiers fell asleep. There are a few issues with their theory. First of all, since falling asleep at a post was a capital offense, they had a good incentive to perform their duties as required. Secondly, how would the soldiers know the body was stolen if they were asleep? Thirdly, going to the tomb and rolling back a huge stone was not something that could be done stealthily. The tomb was empty, but not because the body was stolen.
4. The Condition of the Disciples:
The disciples just witnessed their Lord and Master crucified. They were defeated and in hiding. They were hardly in a position to steal bodies from trained soldiers, make up stories about a resurrection, and go to their death defending a story they didn’t believe. Something must have happened that emboldened them to proclaim the resurrection and die for Jesus and his Gospel. The best answer to why the disciples responded as they did is that they experienced the resurrection of Jesus and afterwards boldly proclaimed that reality.
5. The Details:
The details do not follow what you would expect from a made-up story. Women in that day would not be considered credible witnesses, yet the Gospels claim that they were the primary witnesses of the resurrection. The fact that many didn’t recognize Jesus in his resurrected body is not something that would have been included if the story were made-up. A “folded” headpiece not only demonstrates that a robbery didn’t take place, but it is also a detail that shows that the resurrection was not rushed. The descriptions of Jesus “not being a ghost,” eating, and having his wounds are details that are different enough to sound credible. Someone making up a story would have done it differently.
6. Conversions and Testimony:
Roman and Jewish historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and other later traditions seem to repeat the practices of Christians and the reality of Jesus. Even though extrabiblical history is not abundant, it is interesting that what does exist doesn’t claim to deny the resurrection. What is known is that the history of the New Testament matches up with what came to be later. Many works were written around and after the time of the New Testament writings. Much of this was based on the testimony of the witnesses of the resurrection. The women and the disciples were primary but not exclusively the only ones who saw the risen Jesus. St. Paul alone in 1 Corinthians 15:6 states that Jesus appeared to more than 500 disciples at one time, and they could still be contacted to verify his statement. Christianity took off as a movement and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire within three hundred years and spread outside of the empire. The number of conversions were huge considering it was illegal to even be Christian during that time. It’s also remarkable that the conversions were not imposed from political or military leaders but through grass root testimony.
7. The Most Reasonable Answer
Today we are asking a question that has been asked for 2,000 years. Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Did he rise from the dead? I have given a purposely brief explanation to show you why it is more believable to say he rose from the dead than to say he did not. There is much more that could be written. I think a better question could be: How could everything that happened be possible otherwise? If Jesus had not risen from the dead, his body would be in a tomb, the disciples would have left defeated, and Christianity would have died with Jesus. But his body was not in the tomb nor found, the disciples believed and proclaimed the risen Christ, and the witnesses and testimony helped Christianity spread in an unprecedented way. The most reasonable explanation for all of this is that Jesus rose from the dead.
March 27, 2023
A brief history of the Passover:
I have people ask me about the Passover and how it developed. A full explanation would take too many pages but what people mostly want to know is how was it celebrated and how did it develop over time. People also want it brief and readable, so here it is:
You will see variations on the history of Passover because of the sketchy historical documentation. The accounts given in the Old Testament include many details but they can be idealized and reflect later practices. In this brief outline, I realize there is room for alternative dates, theories, and practices but this is a generally accepted outline by historians and Biblical scholars.
Pre Moses (2000 – 1200BC): For herders, lambs were born in the spring. For farmers, the first crops would have been the barley harvest. Feasts developed to celebrate the new food and life sources that the new lambs and barley brought. First born lambs were sacrificed and eaten. Barley was unleavened because old stored grains were often exhausted and old leavening practices (similar to present day rye and sourdough) depended on living leaven. Besides, it took longer to leaven grain and barley didn’t rise much anyway.
Moses (1250 – 1150BC): There are various theories about the date of the Exodus and how exactly it happened, but the first Exodus Passover took place while the Hebrews were leaving Egypt. It celebrates the “passing over” of the Angel of Death, from slavery to freedom, and from Egypt to the Promised Land. Former feasts of lambs and unleavened bread are now combined with the themes of divine intervention and liberation.
Post Moses (1100s – 1000BC): The combination of the lamb and barley feasts and sacrifices with the telling of the Exodus story by household or clan takes place but varies to some degree depending on region and clan.
Monarchy (1000 – 587BC): The practices and celebrations became more unified among families from David to Josiah (1,000 – 622BC) because of stability and communication during the Monarchic Period. With the reforms of Josiah (622 BC), the Passover was moved from family celebrations to exclusively being done in the Temple. Pilgrimages took place to Jerusalem and the families would bring their pascal lambs to be sacrificed and roasted at the Temple. Unleavened bread was eaten for seven days following.
Babylonian Exile (587BC): Some remembrance of the Exodus happened but probably not celebrated with lambs and unleavened bread because they are outside of Jerusalem.
After edict of Cyrus the Persian and Jewish return to Jerusalem (538BC): After the second Temple was rebuilt, Passover resumed. Priests sacrificed lambs and the people would eat at the Temple grounds after roasting. People would eat unleavened bread for 7 days afterwards. It was possible to have everyone eat at the Temple because of the small Jewish population at that time.
After Hasmonean Reform (165BC): Head of households sacrificed their lambs at the Temple. Drinking wine and singing the Hallel praise songs were introduced. Eating still took place at Temple grounds followed by 7 days of unleavened bread.
After Herod the Great (37BC): Because there were too many people to have everyone eat in the Temple area, the laws were relaxed so they could sacrifice at the Temple but eat the meal anywhere in Jerusalem. This would have been the era where Jesus celebrated his Passovers and also the Last Supper. Christian transformation of Passover comes with the Last Supper which celebrates the Eucharist as the New Passover commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection and beginning the New Creation. This is celebrated weekly on Sundays and commemorates freedom from sin and death while bringing his people to the Father and the Kingdom through him.
After destruction of Temple (70AD): When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, the Passover needed to be revised according to the post Temple reality and the newer rabbinical reformulation of the faith. The Passover Seder meal is reformulated under Rabbis Gameliel II and Johanan as it is mostly celebrated by Jews today.
March 19, 2023:
Tragedy That Is Bad and God Who Is Good
The earthquake in Haiti inevitably brings up the age old question, “Why would God allow something like this to happen?” Whether people are religious or not, there is something in all of us that searches for answers to questions like this. Why did this terrible thing happen to a people so poor and destitute to begin with? We know that things like this shouldn’t happen. The world should be good and peaceful. There are some conclusions that people make in response to questions like Haiti. I’ll list them below. The Christian response is the last one.
1. God, who should be good, should help all to be well. Since all is not good, God either doesn’t exist or He just doesn’t care.
This answer stops too soon. It doesn’t go deep enough. For example, the fact that we know deep down that it is not how things should be cries out that God does exist and He does care. Think about it. Why would we have an internal conviction that things should be different and God should care if the object of that desire did not exist. If God didn’t exist or didn’t care we would just accept it as normal and not think twice about it. If God didn’t exist there would be no “why”. Using another metaphor, an itch has an object to be scratched. The question points out what we know that in the depths of our souls: that God exists and is good. Therefore, when we see a tragedy or an injustice we naturally see the incongruity of the situation. So we need to go deeper to find the real answer to the question, “why does Haiti happen when God is good and bad things shouldn’t happen”.
2. God is punishing his people.
Rev. Pat Robertson made the news because he said Haiti happened because they made a pact with the devil 150 years ago during their revolution for independence. First of all, there is a problem with the historicity of this statement. Haiti’s slave revolt was against the French and many of the leaders reverted to their animist roots but this is much different than making a “pact with the devil.” But let’s leave that aside and deal with the question. Does God punish his people? In this case the answer is no but it is true that we can bring things on ourselves if we do not follow God’s ways. For example, God gave me free will and if I overeat, drink alcohol, and smoke I shouldn’t blame God when the doctor says that my health is terrible. When someone chooses to murder someone, God doesn’t murder but rather it is a consequence of the sin that someone made because of their free will. I guess that God could stop all sin from happening and thus the consequences of sin, but that would be contrary to the gift of free will that he gave us. It seems that God allows bad things to happen as a consequence of free will because his gift of free will is not worth taking away to prevent all evil from happening. In Haiti’s case, if the sin of corruption of their government were removed from the equation, maybe building codes would have been better and many people’s lives would have been saved. Even so, it doesn’t make sense to say that God did it to punish them. It also doesn’t fully explain why it happened because we know that God is good and he would not punish a generation 200 years later for the revolution’s lapse into animism. There needs to be an additional answer.
3. God is a loving God but tragedies do happen.
This is a tough concept because a loving God and tragedy seem to be in opposition. On the surface that is true but we should qualify a few things. First of all, we should remember the free will explanation from above. Since God respects our free will he does allow us to make bad and even evil decisions and those decisions affect others. It is not that God wills for rape, murder, and starvation to happen, but he allows it as a consequence of free will. The alternative is that we would not have the ability to choose good or evil or to do evil. That would also mean that we would not be free to choose him. The ability to choose God freely is a fundamental gift that we have. So one way to look at it is that God preserves the gift of freedom even though it might mean that evil happens. But that isn’t God’s fault, that is our fault. We have the ability to choose good and if we did that would be what God would want in the first place. But it is also true that not every bad event that happens occurs because of evil on our part. There are natural disasters as well. The difference here is between moral evils and physical evils. Moral evils are preventable by our making good decisions. Physical evils occur as the natural order of things: tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, many sicknesses, and the like are examples of these. It seems that Rev. Pat Robertson was making the mistake of combining both of these groups. It is a common mistake and Jesus himself corrected it in his own preaching. For example the tower that collapsed (Luke 13:4) and the man born blind (John 9:2) were two specific occasions where Jesus rejects the concept that all bad things that happen are a result of particular sins. He said that the tower didn’t collapse on those people because they were worse sinners and he said that the man was born blind not because he was a sinner, but to glorify God (through his healing). So sometimes bad things happen because of our free will and sometimes bad things happen in spite of our free will.
4. Conclusion: Then why do bad things happen that we do not have the power to change?
I need to mention that God can and often does intervene and prevent natural disasters. But for now, let’s look at a few reasons why he might allow them:
1. It gives us an opportunity to help and care for others. One positive side effect of Haiti is the outpouring of generous help by others. God gives us an opportunity to do ministry and respond in love.
2. It reminds us that this world is transitory and not how it should be. One of the points of the Genesis creation story is that after the original sin, the perfect harmony with God and his creation was changed and needs restoration. We have the promise that it will be fully restored one day in the New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev. 21). Jesus has begun the first stage of that restoration but it will only be fully realized in the fullness of time when he comes back. In the meantime natural tragedies remind us that we still await the total fulfillment of the promise.
3. It reminds us who remain that life is short and we are mortal. For example, sickness reminds us that we are mortal and that should inspire us to look to heaven as our final and real home.
4. It gives us the opportunity to participate in the suffering of Christ (Romans 8:17). If we are faithful even in suffering, we imitate Jesus’ example and participate in his redemptive process.
5. Let’s be honest, sometimes bad things happen and we will not know (on this side of heaven) why they do. Often there aren’t good reasons that we can come up with. But we can trust that in the end Jesus will make it right (Lk 16:19-31). Also, we won’t know the reasons why God allows what he does but we can trust that his ultimate plan is for good and when we are in heaven we will have all the reasons revealed to us. In the meantime we live by faith trusting in his ultimate goodness. I guess it all goes back to that – we do what we can and have faith that God will do what he can. even if we can’t have it all figured out, we can trust that God in his goodness does.
March 14, 2023
Religiosity and Religious Practice
The Lesson of the Sacred Heart:
This year I have been giving special attention to the first five books of the Bible often called the “Pentateuch” or “Torah”. Pentateuch means “five books” and Torah means “Instruction” or “Law”. I started noticing themes that repeat themselves in these books. For example, there is a strong teaching that following the Mosaic Law leads to blessing and life for the Jewish people, the moral law is a blessing for all people regardless of their religious belief, and following the entirety of the Law coincides with living within God’s own holiness. These themes carry over and are fulfilled the new law that Jesus brings in his Gospel, but for now I want to focus on one teaching that is easily overlooked. How did God expect the Jews to follow the Law of Moses and how are we as Christians supposed to follow the Law of the New Covenant in Christ?
When I was a kid growing up in Grants Pass, we would sometimes go to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Medford. A huge fresco of Jesus was painted in the apse of the church with the words: “Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.” This told me that Jesus and his teachings are not centered in a religiosity of neurosis, obsessiveness, and scrupulosity, but a life that is refreshing and blessing us in every moment. It is the fulfillment of the Torah’s insistence that following the commands of God gives us “blessing and long life in the land.”
This overall understanding of religiosity has historically not always been the case. The devotion of the Sacred Heart came about as a response against a rigid and scrupulous religiosity called “Jansenism”. Jansenism taught that almost nobody was saved, religious practice needed to be extreme, and God is a harsh judge who shows no mercy. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque received visions of Jesus appealing to her to promote the devotion of the Sacred Heart as a sign of his love and mercy to a people who were increasingly being caught up in the net of Jansenism. Why is the “Sacred Heart” model correct? Because God has continually called us back to a positive and life giving religiosity in the way we practice our faith.
The Lesson of God’s Law:
Genesis describes creation where the focus isn’t so much that God created the world, but that he created it for us in a way that enables us to live and thrive. In a similar way, God gave us his laws and religious practices to help us to thrive in this life and the next. Our faith is not a torture mechanism to beat us down and render us helpless but a framework to live within so that we can have blessing in this life and the next. God’s law is described as accessible and doable in a way that does not make outlandish demands that are overly burdensome or not possible (See Deut. 30:11-13). His Law is to be followed in a way that does not excuse them away or make them exceedingly stringent. We can hear this within the command to not add or subtract from God’s teachings or commands (See Deuteronomy 13:1 and Revelation 22:18-19). God gives us laws and teachings that require a certain moderation in our religious practice because left to our own devices, human beings have a tendency toward laziness or obsessive extremism.
What About Today?
As a pastor, one of my primary jobs is to assist people in their religious practices. For some it is to remind them that God does require more of us than merely believing in God and being a nice person. For others, it is helping them to not become scrupulous, obsessive, or worship a religious practice more than God himself. Over the last ten years I have noticed both extremes as a reflection of the greater culture, and it is something we should all be aware of and concerned about.
I kept up with a friend I knew in college who married a man who tended to be drawn to extremes. If the Church had a fast day, he would want to fast for a week. If the Church asked for prayer and penance, he would look for the most difficult prayers and penances. She mentioned to me that she and his counsellors would work hard to keep him moderate and balanced in his religiosity. In the last few years I have seen something similar with parishioners. Why is this? My theory is that political polarization, social media, a lost culture, agenda driven ideologies, and internet celebrities have all added to this issue.
A Biblical and Catholic Response:
Going back to my original point, God calls us to a religious practice that is life giving. If you find yourself tempted to pull away from religious practice in a way that leaves you isolated, unaccountable, and outside of God’s instructions, resist that false teaching. God gave us clear instructions that he wants us to worship him within the context of the Church’s people and teaching. If you find yourself being drawn to ascetic practices that go beyond what the Church requires, be very cautious. It may start off as a genuine desire to grow in spirituality, but if we are not careful, it will lead to a cynical, scrupulous, judgmental, obsessive, and extreme form of spirituality that does God, his people, and ourselves a great disservice.
Going back to the mural at Sacred Heart in Medford, Jesus tells us today what he told his followers 2,000 years ago: “Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.” Embrace that spiritual model and apply it to your spiritual practices. Then you will find what you need to avoid the pitfalls of our current culture and to dwell within the life giving Gospel that Jesus intends us to have in our faith, worship, and spiritual practices.
December 20, 2022
The Process of Affirming Gospel Values
In the last few months I have noticed that I have spent a lot of time encouraging Christians to see that our morals and values are not based in politics or popular culture but in the consistent person and message of Jesus. It seems simple enough but there are difficulties with the assumption that this statement is easy to understand and apply. Is it meant for us only or also for others? Who’s version of “the Gospel” do we believe? Isn’t basing morals and values in religious belief arbitrary? What is the “Gospel” anyway? Aren’t all opinions valid? Do I even have the right to advocate beliefs that are based in Jesus’ moral teachings anyway? To many it seems overwhelming and difficult so it is avoided altogether. Instead, issues are examined through political positions, subjective opinions and polling data – even for the majority of Christians. Is there a better way to approach this?
This came to a head a while back because of a news story in 2017. A woman who was terminally ill publicized killing herself and CNN as well as other blogs, social networks, and news agencies reported it as if it were a heroic and positive act. I somewhat expect the news and social networks to push the sensational story but what I didn’t expect to hear was Christians justifying it, supporting it, and even promoting it. The real issue is deeper than whether or not someone supports assisted suicide. I am finding that the underlying issue is that people do not know how to apply Gospel principles to everyday moral events. This writing is not intended to address every issue or even fully address this one. Rather, it is intended to assist Christians in applying Gospel morals and values to issues and situations in a way that will be beneficial to them as well as others.
I firmly believe that Gospel morals and values are knowable and are beneficial to us and others. I also have noticed that much of what I have come to understand as “Gospel values and morals” are somewhat intuitive from years of thought, study, prayer, and spiritual practices. This commentary was also a good exercise for me because I had to articulate for myself how I come to moral decisions while at the same time being faithful to the Lord I know, love, and serve. So now, lets get started and we’ll start at the beginning.
What Is “The Gospel”?
Most people don’t understand what the Gospel is. They think it is the preachy opinions of preachers. When I refer to “the Gospel” I am being specific and it is more than just “preacher culture” or even “The Bible”. I know that for some this might seem questionable, but let me explain and I think you will agree that in order for the Word of God to be authentic it must be understood within a larger context. Let’s be honest, anyone can make the Bible say whatever they want it to say and people have used the Bible to justify every kind of evil. Therefore, when I say “Bible” I mean a consistent, historical, theological, scholarly, and culturally appropriate understanding of the Bible. When I say “Gospel” or “Word of God” I include the person of Jesus, the words and deeds of Jesus, and the consistent faith of the Church where the Bible was formed and nurtured.
The Word of God is more than a book. It is a person. It is Jesus. And how does Jesus reveal himself to us? In words and deeds. We know of these words and deeds because they have been written down for us but we also know them because they were preserved within a context of faith that the disciples received from Jesus and then passed on in the Church. In other words, if you want to understand the Bible, you are doing a real disservice to yourself if you are reading it apart from the consistently held beliefs of the Church that received it and passed it on from the beginning. Also implied is that Word of God is understood within a context of relationship with Jesus. A scholar might know something about the Bible but they can never “know” the fullness of the Bible without knowing God because it is a book of faith, written within the context of faith, for people of faith, to be understood and applied through faith. This is why academics apart from faith can so easily make such obvious mistakes such as claiming that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, other “gospels” were lost, Paul made up a new form of Christianity, etc. Applying scholarly tools is beneficial but divorcing the Bible from the faith it was written within is dangerous.
To summarize, when I say “Gospel” I am including the Bible together with the received, passed down, and consistently understood faith that it came from and serves. I am also including the person of Jesus and what he did as well as what he said. These aspects serve each other and form a consistent and knowable deposit of teachings that we can draw from to know God’s ways and how they apply to us as people of faith as well as humanity as a whole. This Gospel is rooted, knowable, consistent, and pierces the biases and whims of cultures and individuals.
What Are Gospel Values?
The first point to consider is whether the Gospel is only for Christians or if it is also worthwhile for all people. Just to be clear, Jesus and the early Church always understood the Gospel as being “Good News” not only for believers but for everyone. Why is that? Isn’t that forcing religion on people to say that? What about those who don’t believe that Jesus is the Savior and Son of God? What of his message should be universally applied and what should be received as a matter of personal faith?
We need to make a distinction between revealed beliefs that can only be known by God’s revelation and beliefs that can also be known through an ingrained common sense, reason, and “natural law” (in the Thomist sense). Knowing Jesus is the Son of God comes only through supernatural revelation but knowing murder is wrong can be known through many avenues including reason, an internal sense of right and wrong, philosophy, the Bible, Church teaching, and societal norms. In other words there is a difference between a religious belief and values or morals that are known through many avenues – and are also confirmed and solidified by religious revelation.
When I speak of Gospel “values” or “morals”, therefore, I am speaking of those aspects of the Christian faith that are knowable outside of divine revelation even though they are also confirmed and taught explicitly in God’s Word. These values and morals are beneficial to all people and, therefore, should be promoted as a public good and not just as a subjective personal religious belief. This should not be a shocking revelation. Even if a non Christian, grounded in a different moral foundation, may not believe this, it is reasonable to expect a thoughtful Christian to do so. For a Christian, if God is the God of all and Jesus is God’s truth revealed for all, the Gospel values and morals also carry with it a universal application whether one is religious or not. It is also understood that the Gospel “Good News” is, when properly offered, truly a liberating and beneficial way of life. However, we should understand that not everyone will immediately embrace the universal application of the Gospel and we will need to base our promotion of Gospel Values on something more than “God says so.” For now I just want to make the point that much of the Gospel message has to do with values and morals and we, as Christians, do a great service to the common good by promoting them.
Why Don’t More People Promote Gospel Values?
I might be oversimplifying but I believe that the majority of Christians are afraid to promote Gospel values because they feel they don’t have a right to express their moral beliefs if they also happen to be based in religious belief. I hear this in many ways. For example I still hear statements such as, “I personally believe that abortion is wrong because I am a Christian but I also believe that people should be able to choose for themselves.” What is being said implicitly is, “My values and morals which are based in what I received from the Gospel message of Jesus has no universal validity or application for others or the betterment of humanity.” Sure, maybe they wouldn’t say it that way, but it is implied. If we, as Christians, believe that the Gospel is beneficial to all, let’s do ourselves and others a favor and stop implicitly pretending that it isn’t.
Another factor is the external societal pressure that Christians have to keep all aspects of their Christian belief and practice from being expressed in public. This is especially true in moral beliefs and politics. Granted, none of us wants laws mandating church attendance and belief in doctrinal formulas, but as we have seen above, values and morals are another matter. I also find it interesting that we are the only group that excuses and excludes itself from discussion because our belief is grounded in faith in addition to reason. Think about it, when was the last time a secular atheist said, “I personally believe in abortion because I am a secular atheist but I also believe that it shouldn’t be legal.” Of course they wouldn’t say that because they feel they should be free to promote their convictions even though they are based on their personal opinions and reasoning. So why are Christians so timid to promote their moral beliefs when it is based on their personal opinions, reasoning, plus thousands of years of a consistent Gospel teaching that validates it?
Finally, I think many people don’t promote Gospel values and morals because they don’t really know them. Many people promote what they believe to be a Gospel truth when in reality it is really more based on a shallow sound bite. It takes a lot of work, prayer, discernment, and practice to know and apply Gospel teachings. How well do we know the Bible? How well do we know Church teaching? How many times do we really pray and discern before coming to an opinion on a moral issue? How well do we reassess our convictions and weigh them against what the Gospel actually says? How often do we change our opinions in favor of the Gospel even if it means going against the cultural or political tide?
Let’s be honest, we could all do better. Because we don’t know the real Gospel we believe mischaracterizations of the Gospel, repeat popular substitutions for the Gospel, and rationalize our beliefs even though they run counter to Gospel principles.
How Do I Apply The Gospel?
I’m going to use the example that I mentioned earlier and one that you may have seen in social media and news sources. On November 1, 2017, a woman ended her own life. The story was used to advocate euthanasia and promote laws to make it more available. There are different arguments for and against someone doing this. On one side you have the argument that the brain tumor is slowly devastating and the potential pain is real. Why not allow someone to end it on their terms and not have to let loved ones suffer needlessly? On the other side you have the uneasiness people have with suicide, the eroding of the sacredness of life, suggestive pressures, and the implication that terminal people’s lives are somehow less valuable and the dying process is without significance.
You all can guess the arguments for assisted suicide: “You can’t judge until you are in the same situation!” “You should have the right to do what you want with your own life.” “Isn’t she courageous for sparing her family the misery.” First of all, our hearts go out to her for suffering this disease, but it is not judging her place before God by evaluating the actions that she is promoting with the fuller Gospel message. If she is advocating a moral judgment based on her belief, are we not able to make a moral judgment on the greater issue of assisted suicide based on our belief as well as the Gospel teaching? How do we do that?
Most of us have seen loved ones suffer in similar ways and we know it is real. But we have to be able to evaluate assisted suicide from a moral position and judge that within the context of the Gospel teachings. Then, we should be totally comfortable saying that we love the woman, feel for her plight and family, don’t condemn her personally, yet at the same time uphold and promote Gospel principles because they are not only good for her and her family, but they also are beneficial to humanity and society as a whole. So what are “Gospel principles” that apply to this situation?
The basic Gospel values and morals state that: Life is sacred. Suicide is wrong and destructive. Sick people should be cared for and loved. There is value in suffering even though you do what you can to manage and alleviate it. Human dignity continues to exist in its fullness among the sick, elderly, and disabled. If someone does kill themselves, it is not our place to condemn them but it is our place to point out that the action of suicide is wrong. Not only are these statements basic Gospel values and morals but we believe they are also universally beneficial. We also believe that people of good will can appreciate the morals and values of the Gospel teaching regardless of their religious (or lack of) persuasions.
In addition there are other other factors that are more purely religious in nature like God alone has the power to give and take life, eternal life should be considered in the decision, etc. We can also bring these aspects into our decision making process but you will notice that they are not the only reasons we believe in a particular moral point of view. In addition just because there is a direct religious component to our values and morals does not exclude us from promoting these Gospel ideals as a matter of public policy any more than others who promote their opinions based on other philosophies or perspectives.
The skeptic will say, “You are just saying those are Gospel values and morals, but how do I know that they aren’t just your opinion?” That is a good and fair question. How can I make those generalizations? Because they conform to the consistent message of scripture in context, they harmonize with the historical understanding of these issues during the faith of the Apostles, and they follow the consistent passed down teaching of those areas throughout the Church’s history. They can also be prayerfully, humbly and lovingly applied. Instead of cherry picking isolated scriptural texts or “proof-texting”, I am appealing to a comprehensive method. This is a multifaceted approach utilizing the words of the Scriptures, examining the context of the Scriptures, considering the historical understanding of these teachings during the time of the early Church in the Apostolic Age, and validating it with the consistent teaching of the Church throughout the ages. All of these in combination point to consistent Gospel values and morals that can easily be applied to this situation.
It is beyond the scope of this project to supply the Scriptural quotes, footnotes, historical studies, patristic sources, and Church teachings that make up this assessment, but all of these are accessible to the curious. It does bring up my final point. How can we gain access to the information necessary to be able to form solid opinions on what are Gospel values and morals? The answer to this question is easier than you might think.
Getting the tools
So often it is implied that knowing the Gospel or knowing the Bible is too difficult for the average person to attempt. I totally disagree with this spiritual snobbery. God made it accessible to the vast majority of people. The “kerygma” or basic saving message of Jesus and his teaching is not on par with theoretical calculus. It is simple enough to be learned and known. What is really lacking is the initiative one needs to take to get in there and discover it. Today more than ever we have the tools and the time at our disposal yet laziness and apathy prevail. So where do we start if we want to take the Gospel message seriously?
First of all, familiarity with the Bible is critical. We don’t need to be Biblical scholars to be familiar with the overall message and teaching of the Bible. The life of Jesus and his words are a great start. Pour over the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and get to know Jesus through his words and deeds. Add to that the teaching of the early Church in the other New Testament letters. Finally, reading the Old Testament gives context to the New Testament.
Secondly, get to know the Church’s historical and ongoing teaching. In the Catholic Church we have the official Catechism of the Catholic Church and the doctrinal teaching of the Church. Spend some time with it. Look at it as helping to give you a point of reference or framework for belief. This practice will help ground you and keep you from basing your faith solely on personal speculation or ever changing cultural values. Look at it as you would a good friend who is sharing insights that bring stability and wisdom. If you are not Catholic, read the early Church fathers and come to know how the early church worshipped, believed, and practiced its faith. It will give you new insights and help keep you from getting stuck solely within a 21st century American mindset.
Thirdly, spend time in reflective and humble prayer. Prayer does many things. It connects us to our God and helps us to see things differently. It has a way of humbling us, peeling away our biases and stubbornness, and helping us to focus on the more important issues. When you have questions about some moral issue it is good to read the scriptures, know the Church teaching, and apply the Gospel morals and values, but prayer has a way of clarifying not just the issue but its application in a particular situation. It keeps us loving and charitable and gives us the insight that we need to communicate the Gospel so that it will be seen as humbly offered, loving, and helpful.
Fourthly, religious participation and practice is essential. Assuming that your church is grounded in in the Gospel, you will receive instruction and help to understand things that you would not come to on your own. There is value in community as well as the challenges that come to us at church. This happens not only in the preaching on Sundays but also through the various retreats, workshops, classes, and interactions with Gospel teaching. Think about it, where else will you hear real Gospel teaching and practice and where else will you be open to hear the Gospel challenge and form your personal beliefs? Also, where else will you humbly offer yourself to the Lord and his ways in worship according to his terms? Our churches keep us centered in something greater than ourselves. It is no accident that there is a serious difference in polls between practicing and non-practicing Christians. Non-practicing Christians are far more likely to reflect the morals and values of society in general. Practicing Christians are far more likely to affirm Gospel values and morals while at the same time affirming cultural beliefs that also conform to them.
Offering the Gospel as a Remedy:
So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that you have made a decision to ground your morals and values in the Gospel, you spend the time to know it and prayerfully reflect on it, and you are committed to promoting it publicly as your participation in the public forum. How will this work? It will not be easy and it might mean speaking up when you are the only one doing so. I think it is helpful to keep the loving and prayerful approach in mind. Not everyone will get it and those that do it might take time. Don’t get frustrated, be consistent and persistent, and don’t take it personally when people don’t seem too interested in listening to you. People who need to hear it will hear it and what we do to affirm the Gospel message will have a positive effect with God’s help. It is his work, not ours. We are just called not to be afraid to offer the Gospel message and promote it as a public good.
This article is not an end of the discussion but hopefully a beginning. The process I propose is not the Gospel but a way to it. My hope is that it will help people to take it seriously and promote it for the good that Jesus intended it to be. It starts with all of us doing our part.