Archive for January, 2009

Doubt

I was thinking earlier today about doubt and the different roles it can play in our lives. As I recently learned in my Church History class, some of the great theologians of our history have discussed the value of doubt. Pierre Abelard, specifically, said that doubt is part of the process of truly understanding things and ultimately coming to a position of faith. In fact, he says, faith is the product of doubt being resolved (if you want more on this specifically, you’ll have to read his work, Sic et Non).

In some ways, I agree with this. Doubt is necessary for our spiritual maturity; without it, we are simply the product of blind belief in something. Doubt is a sign that we have really thought about something, struggled with it, and come to an understanding with a greater sense of clarity and purpose. I used to tell my high school students, “Don’t believe all things things because I told you to, or even because you learned them from your parents or your church. Test them out for yourself. Sit with them. Wrestle with them. Because when that faith gets tested, you will have already established a relationship and dialogue with it. You’ll know why you believe something instead of just believing it.” I told them this with the hopes that they wouldn’t just ditch their faith once the first crisis away from home hit, as so many young people seem to do these days.

Yet doubt can also play another role. It can poison. It can deceive. Doubt can cause someone to second guess or even redirect their God-directed path. This kind of doubt is quite dangerous, and something that every human being has to face in the dark moments of  desolation.

So how does one know the difference between healthy and cancerous doubt? I think it goes back to the “fruits of the tree” notion. What does the doubt cause within you? Does it inspire you to continue to move outward, excite you, motivate you to know more? Or does it contract you, pull you darker inside yourself, and even spill over into other parts of your life with its permeating darkness? You will know the tree by its fruits.

Radical Grace…or the Grace to be Radical

In my studies, I have learned a lot about the cultural and p0litical conditions of the early church. Here these believers were, in the middle of the most powerful empire in the world, attempting to live by the values of a fledgling faith which pushed them to the very borders of the socio-political structure. They risked becoming outcasts, losing friends, losing work, losing land, and later losing their lives to hold to these values.  The challenge that St. Paul described to transformation in many of his epistles was not simply an inward call.  To be a true Christian demanded every aspect of one’s known life.

Today, we face very similar problems that plagued the early Christians: our society is dominated by values that are not consistent with the Gospel. We are surrounded by bloodlust, greed, abuse of power, and sexual temptation. The culture that surrounds us convinces us that these things are simply part of everyday life because it endorses and encourages them, thus trying to convince us that they are normal. We live in the modern day Roman Empire.

Yet somehow the call to press against this tide is muted by the two thousand years that have separated us from the early Christians. While it is no less relevant, the lines between a Christian lifestyle and the Empirical Culture are blurred by the different context and the backdrop of theological controversy which has been associated with the Christian name. Being Christian, at first impression, usually isn’t about following Gospel values, but rather is about a particular political alignment. In addition, the patterns of everyday life in America has become cemented by the machines that keep it thriving. The convenience factor plays a large part in this, but so does the media. So does the “do-everything, be-everything, have-everything” message with which we are constantly bombarded.

Yet being Christian still means the same thing as it did 2,000 years ago. It means that to follow Christ we must have the courage to swim upstream. We must be open to God’s grace within us, and to follow where that Spirit asks us to go. It means living expansively, not inwardly. It means finding community instead of building fences. It means seeing a brother and sister in each person, someone made by the same God to whom we pray in our nightly prayers. It means being an example by our very lives, which comes as a result of this rejection of “the norm.”

Of course, this is done each within the context of one’s personal vocation and call by God. But one thing is certain: to truly be Christian, we must be willing to let this radical grace transform us from the inside out.

The Work of Our Hands

This weekend my husband and I spent a quiet day making wonderful things for our home, sharing in activities like sewing new valances for our kitchen and dining room, baking two loaves of homemade bread, rolling out a fresh batch of homemade pasta, and baking blueberry muffins. We spent the day laughing and talking, and even got in a walk to the local grocery store. It was one of my favorite days in recent memory, and there have been a lot of good days lately!

One of the beautiful values of this day was the opportunity for us to create, and to see the fruits of our labor. In our meal, we enjoyed our hard work. On our wall hangs the benefit of hours of labor and love. It was fulfillfing, but even more than that, we accepted the invitation to create, and enjoy the creation. God’s little metaphor for the day.

Of course, I recognize that there is one Ultimate Creator. But in Catholic spirituality, we also understand that we are given the opportunity (and the challenge) daily to become co-creators with God. This notion doesn’t suppose that humanity is the source of anything, but that we participate in God’s eternal act of creation by becoming the instrument for the fulfillment of that creative act. Yes–once again, it’s about fulfilling our potential.

This made me think a little bit about what it means to truly appreciate the work of one’s own hands. How often do we do this–acknowledge the potential that we have within us, and then, upon the creative act being completed (whatever it may be), take a moment to sit back and appreciate…to give thanks? How often do we recognize the value of the work of our own hands?

Perhaps one of the reasons that this process is no longer as common is the constant availablity of things that are not the work of our own hands. Prepackaged food, store-bought clothing (often sewn continents away), gardeners and housekeepers. None of these things in and of themselves are necessarily bad, but I wonder if they slowly strip away our appreciation of the act of co-creation.  In addition, because of the instant availablity, our society has lost the appreciation of the work that goes into the final product. Once that appreciation is lost, we are one more step from those who labored to create those goods–and that removal causes a distance that makes abuse easily ignored.

What about the acts of co-creation as a means to connect with God? Psalm 138 says, “Lord, your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of your hands!” Through this Scripture, we pray that God doesn’t leave our fate to the hands of someone else, but that he continues to participate in the eternal creative process. We ask that he doesn’t bow out of that relationship…and yet it seems like American culture tempts us to do the very thing we beg God not to do.

What is a practical solution here? Not everyone has the talent, time, or inclination to sew their own clothes, grow their own food (or even cook their own food), and sometimes people don’t even have the time to clean their own houses or mow their own lawns. How does someone caught in the throes of the non-stop American life return back to a relationship of co-creation and appreciation?

I think the first step may be the hardest and most uncomfortable: slow down. Just slow it down. Take on one less project. Enroll the kids in one less sports team. Watch one less TV show. Make at least an hour of free time during your day, and don’t fill it up with emptiness. Then, spend that hour doing something that gets you back in touch with peaceful gratitude. This could be taking a slow walk at sunset with a spouse. This could be sitting with your kids, painting. This could be sitting on your front porch. But I think the first step has to be one of radically pushing back against the constant bombardment of stimulation and activity.

I think that once one gets comfortable in this place of gratitude, it is inevitable that he or she craves more. But, if done in a healthy and prayerful manner, it will also blossom into more than that: it will grow into an awareness of the relationship with God and God’s creation. And, like in any good relationship, the person will begin to wonder, “What can I do for the one I love?” 

Benefiting from the work of our hands is not pleasureable or valuable because it is a source of pride or a means to show off a talent. Rather, it is an opportunity and a reminder that all creation comes from and through God, and in order to be a co-creator, we must inevitably recognize and respect that relationship.

Winter Quarter

I thought I might take this opportunity to update all of me fantastic blog readers (aka, my family) about what the Winter Quarter entails for me. So far, after a week and a half of classes, I am pretty pleased.

I’m continuing to take Greek–the program requires 3 consecutive quarters of Greek with the same class and the same teacher, so we’re all in it together through June. There are good points and bad points about this, but I really  like my classmates and we at least laugh a lot together as we struggle through paradigms and parsing.

I’m continuing my studies in church history by taking the next of the 3 class series, which is Medieval and Reformation History. Originally I was a little worried about this class, being the only Catholic amongst a class of 60 Protestants and talking about the Reformation. But this teacher is pretty darn amazing, and I think he is probably my favorite professor yet at Fuller.  Not only is he incredibly engaging, but he makes things relevant. In addition, his sources and presentation of facts feels faily objective, which I appreciate. I mean, it would be ridiculous for me to say that the medieval and reformation periods were times of wonderful, moral, and meaningful work on the part of the Catholic hierarchy. But it’s also nice to feel like I’m not entering a place where I’m going to be beaten over the head with how horrible my personal choice in faith is. It’s all about context and recognizing the inevitable human element throughout all of history, in all ways. So yes, I love being in his class. The reading, however, is a bear. Long and tedious–and I have never been a person who is strong in history. Grade-wise, I’ve always done well, but I’m more referring to just the mental ability to retain it and keep it all straight. It truly is not my strong point. So that is a challenge for me this quarter. But so far, so good.

My final class is another Biblical Studies class, but this time I’m moving back into the Old Testament…and I mean all the way back. The class is called Pentateuch, which is essentially the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. So far I really enjoy the class, although I must say that it makes me long for the professor who taught my very first theology class (ever) when I was an undergraduate at LMU, Daniel Smith-Christopher. Daniel taught Old Testament, and he was another one of those guys who just captivated you the entire time you were in class. He had the combination of genius and stage presence, and it turned the class into a dreaded requirement into one of my favorite classes ever. Thus, while I am certainly enjoying my Pentateuch class, there are times when I miss being at LMU. That being said, the reading is really, really interesting, and I feel like I am adding to my knowledge base. Pentateuch is one of those classes that if you grew up as a literalist when it came to the Bible, it can throw you into a crisis of faith because it turns all of that upside down. Luckily, I already had that moment of “Whhaaaaaaaaaaaat??????” back in Daniel’s class, so this time around will probably be a little less mind blowing and a little more scholarly in terms of my reaction.

So there are my classes! They all take place in a neat little time span of 7 1/2 hours on Mondays and Wednesdays. Exhausting, exhilarating, and ever-blessed.

God’s Time

Kairos is a Greek word meaning an “(appointed) season or time.” I have often heard it translated as “God’s time,” which is in stark contrast to the other Greek word for time, chronos. You may be familiar with this term because of the word “chronology” and its meaning is similar–a linear time, one that has a definite beginning, that continues forward, and that has a distinct ending. We often live with a mind only pointed toward the chronos of our lives, rarely stopping to recognize the kairos.

Many are familiar with Ecclesiastes 3:1-9 (if for no other reason than the popular Byrds song), which talks about the fact that there is a season for all things under heaven. Immediately after this text is the most important line, however, in Ecclesiastes 3:10: “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end” (NAB). Eternity is set in our hearts; as much as we like its stability, we are not bound to the limits of chronological time. We have the capacity to recognize God’s time–a time that isn’t dominated by constant multi-tasking, or eaten up by addiction, or neglected by an inability to rejoice in the present moment–is an acceptance of the gift of now, coupled with a recognition that now is not forever.

There is a double side to this concept. On one hand, God’s time is the gift of now, and to appreciate that gift, we must commit to being fully present to each moment. Being fully present is more difficult than it may first appear; it means that we are not consumed by anxiousness or worry of what is to come, and that we are not anchored to an event in the past. It means that when we are talking to someone, we are really listeningto everything they say–not thinking of the next point we want to make, or the dry cleaning we have to pick up after the conversation is over. It means that when we are spending time with people, we are not distracted by television or the internet or a text message. Instead, we wholly respect the dignity of their presence, and do not let “stuff” (by this I mean things that cannot reciprocate in relationship, like a television) inhibit that recognition of dignity. It means we recognize the gift of now, a moment that will never occur again in quite the same way.

On the other hand, kairosalso implies that now is not forever. God’s time means that there is an appropriate moment for everything, and because of this, it is an invitation to a type of detachment. Not detachment in the pop-psychology sense, but a spiritual detachment that recognizes that no one thing, person, place, moment, or situation can ultimately satisfy the deep craving in our hearts. Ron Rolheiser calls this craving a “holy longing.” The longing that we each have is one that, if perceived properly, can be recognized only as our longing to be fully immersed in God’s immediate presence. Of course, this is impossible on earth, so many of our human experiences of longing are smaller extensions of our soul’s deepest ache. What does this mean in terms of detachment and kairos? Basically, if we recognize this greatest longing, we can understand (or at least have an awareness) that any one thing (person, place, moment) that we want to hold on to or preserve forever is merely a reflection of the Ultimate Joy.  As much as we want it to be the source of satisfaction, it only has the capacity to serve as a foretaste.  With such a perspective, joy can be more deeply relished, sadness and grief can be eased, and impatience can be seen as an invitation to awareness.

Indeed, there is a season for all things. During the last few weeks, my husband and I were able to spend some time with his family on the East Coast. We drank deeply of our time together, rejoicing in moments of “normalcy” as we spent hours baking, sewing, sitting around the table talking, and taking drives together. As our time came to an end, I think that both my husband and I suffered from the inevitable return to jobs and school, and were saddened that the time came to an end. Yet the time was also sweetened by this inevitability, and we paid special attention to being fully present in each moment.  On the other coast, my own family was frantically preparing for the next step in home renovation, and as part of the process were busy packing up most of their house in order to ready it for new carpeting. Their season was one of hurriedness, of doing what was necessary for the time, and of needing to know that the stress and frenzied activity would not be forever present.  They had to be attentive to the Now, but they didn’t have to despair that the Now was Forever.

Kairos is actually the true reality of time; God’s time places each activity in its appropriate moment. It’s up to us to recognize that appropriateness, to rejoice in it–and to know that it is fleeting, until the day when the reflection transcends into the real thing.

The Perfect Gift

There are so many things I want to say, so many things that I want to write about at once. My absence has been in part because of holiday festivities, in part because of a brief health challenge, and in part because of a temporary lack of balance. Suffice it to say, I am hoping to remedy this as a new year and new quarter begins.

Despite all I want to talk about, I have to start somewhere focused–I’ll talk more about the incredible past few weeks at another time. Today, I feel compelled to talk about something that we have thought about a lot throughout the Christmas season: gifts. Yet my thoughts for today do not center around anything that can be bought by human hands at a department store.

One of my hopes for creating more balance is getting back to the gym and honoring my body. This is part of my holistic approach to glorifying God, but it really hit home this morning in a new way as I was drying off from my post-workout shower in my gym’s locker room.

As I got dressed, I noticed several other women in the locker room. One of them was a young, fit, beautiful woman. I subtley watched her as she got on the scale. Almost automatically, I thought to myself, “I would love to be her weight!” Yet I was unsurprised to see her face drop at the private number shown to her, saw her check herself from several angles in the mirror, and return to her business of going on to her workout.

It was then that an interesting thought occurred to me: as I watched her get on the scale, I thought that I would have loved to be that fit. Yet there was undoubtedly some woman in the room who would have thought the same if they watched me participating in the same frequent female ritual. And likewise, someone that would have thought similarly of her.

I considered our bodies–our beautiful, capable, brimming-with-possibility bodies. There is so much we can do, so much that is largely unappreciated. I also thought about how this lack of appreciation extends so much further than our bodies, often spreading to our talents, our individual gifts…even our very worth. There is so much that, in our American culture, that we dismiss or even disdain because it simply isn’t enough for us. We want more, we want better, we want it all.

What does this have to do with gifts? Everything, when viewed through the eyes of God. For what greater gift is there than our very selves, wholly unique and perfectly crafted?

I have a humble but personal insight into this. This Christmas, my husband and I tried to make gifts instead of buy them. This gave us the opportunity to really think about the people we were making the gifts for as we created them, to spend time with them in prayer even though we weren’t physically present with them. It let us create something that we knew would be just for them, that fitted them, that they would be able to use and enjoy and feel connected to us whenever they did so.

Yet what if our parents and siblings had opened the gift, looked at it carefully, and said, “Why didn’t you make it nicer/better/more useful?” Or worse, what if they had said, “I really don’t want this one–I want what you gave to them!” We would have been heartbroken. Why? Because we had made that gift with all of the things that we thought would be most beautiful and suited to each particular person. The gifts weren’t the same, but they were given with an equal amount of love. How awful it would have felt if those gifts had been rejected!

I wonder if this is how God must feel when we wish we had a different body, talent, or even personality. There is no greater joy for a gift-giver than seeing the gift enjoyed and used by the one to whom it is given. How, then, is the best way to glorify and thank God? By using and enjoying the gifts we are given–our bodies, our minds, our emotions…all of it. To know that each of our attributes were crafted uniquely for us by our Creator, knowing that we were the best possible person to receive them in that combination. And that in the process of our creation, that God was already thinking of how much God loved us and wanted to be present to us…even before we were born.