Tuesday, March 8, 2011

When Facts Do Not Equal Knowledge

There are certain questions that both baffle and annoy every teacher. They baffle because one wonders why the student decided to ask this question in the first place because it had no place in the discussion. It annoys because the point of the question was not to gather knowledge but rather point out lack of desire on the part of the student to learn this or any other material. What is that question?

"Why do I have know this?"

I was given the opportunity in the last week to enter the western civilization class for freshmen at our school. They had just finished the Renaissance and were entering the period of the Reformation. I was invited to lecture on the Reformation and decided to use it as an opportunity not to preach but to educate the students on the basic theological concepts which stirred such heated debate. It is not everyday that these students gain insight into the roots of why people have theological arguments. My goal was to show them that during the Reformation people were passionate about their salvation and that they were very concerned about their relationship with God and the Church. I hoped that the students would use those insights to gain knowledge about religion can have a significant role in how people think, feel, and act in this world.

Unfortunately I ran into a brick wall. I want to say first and foremost that the few students who asked these questions do not represent the more than 60 that I taught. They don't even represent the entire section of the class they were in. But what they said, and the attitude they demonstrated against learning something they weren't used to is indicative of a dangerous attitude many young people of this generation, and older generations as well, use as a defense mechanism against caring and involvement. Instead of seeing the world outside of themselves as a place rich with knowledge where they are called to learn about others and through that learning gain insight into themselves, they instead view the world as an opportunity for personal advancement, where they are able to use a system of education to attain the ideal lifestyle.

This begins at an early age and is only compounded in high school and college. Students in many high schools are encouraged to find careers, not vocations (vocations in the sense of what one would dedicate their life and passion to). Their parents and peers inform them that there is no deeper meaning to life beyond comfort and self-indulgence, followed by a security earned through a high-paying job and the proper connections. What is excluded is God, his love, and his will. There is no room for self-reflection. There is no room for a soul.

The sad irony is that when tragedy strikes, which it always does, these same individuals who have wanted nothing to do with God will then ask "why did God allow this to happen?' or "if God is so loving, why doesn't he take this pain away?".

As Christians we are called to love God with all our hearts, our minds, and all our souls. This called is tied intimately to the amount of energy we exert trying to get to know this God of the universe who created us, love us, and wants a relationship with us. It is why we are called to preach the Good News, because not everyone has heard it yet! The challenge I feel is to see these students as needing Christ in their life, as needing the love that only God can provide. I have to remember that my heart is not perfectly open and that it still hardens when God wants most to break it open.

The question that remains is how we will reach out to students about this wonderful faith when it feels like we don't even speak the same language, when words like salvation, sin, and grace have little or no meaning.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In the Line of Duty

Today for the second time in less than a month a police officer has been killed in the line of duty in the city of St. Petersburg. All three deaths were brutal and unexpected. All three have left a gaping wound in a community that extends far beyond just one city but instead to a community comprised of men and women who live their lives protecting others.

Seeing this tragedy made me reflect on a key question. I've often asked my students to place themselves in the shoes of people who have had to make difficulty decisions or sacrifices. I've asked them to state how they would respond. My question is not if I would engage in a conflict with criminals in an effort to protect citizens from physical harm. Rather, my question has been brewing since the last All Saints Day.

On that day armed gunmen killed two priests in a Catholic Church in Iraq, along with many parishioners in a despicable act of violence and persecution. Those priests were willing to be martyrs for their faith in a part of the world where the term "Christian" goes hand in hand with threat of death. As an individual who is striving to the priesthood, to enter into that brotherhood of men and women across the world whose goal is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to bring God's love, mercy, and forgiveness while always striving to help souls, the question is if I would do the same.

The truth is that there is no way to know what we will do. Christ even tells us not to prepare beforehand what we will say. We are to trust in the Holy Spirit given to us by Christ. We are to depend on God in our moments of deepest despair and distress. It is when we look to other motivations and other sources of strength that we find our strength failing.

There are brave men and women in all manner of vocations who will gladly trade their lives for ours, who would put themselves in physical or spiritual harms way. Let us always honor them and their sacrifice.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt is Free!

One cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of joy at the realization of a decades long struggle for a people who have suffered under dictatorial rule. It is moments such as these that humanity as a whole can rejoice at the value of freedom and pause for a moment to reflect on the precious freedoms we enjoy and so often take for granted. These reminders of the price of liberty help us to place in perspective our own struggles.

My sincere prayer is that the sacrifices offered by all Egyptian people will yield equality for all Egyptian people. Women, the poor, and other minority religious groups such as Christians deserve a new place in this country's future. The challenge now will be to build a country that values all people equally.

As Christians we must place the struggle for political, economic, and social freedom in the context of our spiritual struggle. However our struggle finds fruition not in the fight against tyranny, and never violence, but rather in the surrender of our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls to the will of God. Uttering this sentence may seem to be most abstract declaration one can make in a world where we are constantly called to action for a cause. However, before we can act in the service of God we must first pause, and allow God to work in us.

There is a constant temptation for us to believe that we can do all things by ourselves. Our studies of scripture, theology, and the Church, our service to others, and the recognition of our gifts are all meaningful components of a healthy spiritual life. But if we do not acknowledge that all these are gifts from God then we have placed the glory for salvation and grace on the crown of our heads as a laurel.  When Paul reflects on the strength that comes from his weakness he is not humiliating himself. Instead, he is placing his life and influence in the proper perspective.  As servants of God we are instruments of his grace. In fulfilling our call we are not becoming God, just answering the call to imitate him.

Today is a day of celebration for the Egyptian people. Tomorrow will be the day when the real work of building a nation begins. I pray that God will bless them with patience and sound judgement, and that they will protect the innocent and the one's who have always been closest to the heart of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Asking God's Forgiveness in the Digital Age

The moment I saw the headline I knew that I would have to write a commentary on it.  "Catholic Church Approves Confession App". The article in the Washington Post was brief but upon further investigation I discovered that the app in question was seemingly harmless, seemingly. There are two real harms taking place here and while one is considerably worse than the other I am not sure that I could ever approve or either.

The Iphone application in question costs a reasonable $1.99. It was developed by a private firm in Indiana and given the imprimateur by a bishop to make it officially allowed to be used by Roman Catholics. The purpose of the application is to serve as a tool whereby the user can have a thorough examination of conscience before entering the confessional. On the surface it appears to be harmless but a question arises when we begin to discuss the theological implications involved (darn those theologians) and spiritual health and development of those using it.

In full disclosure I am not Roman Catholic. For the first 30 years of my life I was a participating member in full communion with Rome. However, my views on issues of authority and collegiality, as well as a persistent call to fulfill my vocation as a priest led away from the Rome to the Episcopal Church. If the Episcopal Church were to endorse this app I would denounce that with the same veracity as I do at this time.

Growing up there was always a disconnect between the theology of the sacrament of reconciliation and its practice. I learned about the importance of going to confession regularly. I agreed with that  and I still do. I feel that just as we go to the doctor for our physical health that we should seek out a spiritual physician regarding the health of our soul. Ideally I would be able to speak to someone who has experienced sin in their own lives, dealt with sin in a community setting and could offer me guidance on how to deepen my prayer life.  Unfortunately, the reality of most confessional experiences I have had, and I fear many others as well, is the 3 minute "please list your sins, followed by an absolution". I am not  implying that every priest or every penitent has this experience. But with fewer priests to offer the sacrament, and still a healthy number of people going to confession, the constraints of time are being felt. Also, priests are finding many penitents that are wholly unprepared to receive the sacrament and have to be talked through its basics. This is where the Iphone application comes in. It provides the examination of conscience and a way to gain insight as to how our spiritual life with God has been developing since we last checked. What pains me is that this application could become a crutch whereby people lean on it and resort to giving a list of their offenses rather than delving deeper into the roots of their sinfulness. It is when we are able to understand how our sins affect others, ourselves, and our relationship with God that we gain insight into the covenantal nature of God's love. Sin becomes less about the breaking of a law and more about realizing our place in God's creation and how we are called to love and virtue.

I agree that the Roman Catholic Church is not promoting this as a replacement to the sacrament. But promoting it as an official tool only propagates the archaic notions that have taught about the proper way to seek forgiveness. I'll openly state that while I am still learning about the practice of seeking forgiveness in my new home the Episcopal Church I am finding that it is not perfect either. But I contend that the theology of presenting oneself before God in prayer and trusting in his forgiveness is a viable option. However, I also feel that it is but one "tool in the toolbox" and not the only one. Community repentance and face to face confession should also be employed when necessary.

While my qualm with the Iphone application was theological, the second is ethical. In learning how this app was developed I came to learn that it was through the private sector. My question is if individuals should be charged for materials such as these that directly inform and educate their spiritual development. Couldn't the Church have developed this application on their own and provided it free of charge to every person who wanted this in their toolbox? This demonstrates clearly how the Church, and many other religious organizations, will always remain one step behind the technology of the times.

At the end of the day I have found that seeking forgiveness for one's sins can be a humbling, difficult, and sorrowful process. While it is essential that we have tools that helps us along the way, it is even more vital that we depend on the men (and women if you are Episcopalian), who have been trained to be our spiritual advisors. In the future if I am fortunate enough to be ordained I won't mind if a penitent comes to me with their Iphone in hand discussing their examination of conscience. After they have finished I will ask them to close the app and speak from the heart as to what has brought them forward to seek forgiveness and what God is placing on their hearts now about his love and the mercy he has extended to everyone through the death of his only son Jesus Christ. I guarantee you there isn't an app for that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Question of Questioning Faith

I never cease to be amazed by the diversity of religious experiences I encounter among young people. Some of them have little if any contact with their spirituality, pushing it aside because it interferes with what the world tells them. Others are very in tune, but still in danger of letting their piousness become arrogance. In the middle are those who are agonizing over whether or not to ask the most important question of their lives: "Does God exist?". I say that they are agonizing over whether or not to ask the question because deciding first is there is a question to answer will determine what path you will take. If you decide that there isn't a question because God doesn't exist then you have already chosen the path of least resistance. You have stopped before you even started. Yet if you decide that there is a question and that you are unsure of the answer then you are ahead of the game than even many devout followers of religion.

Questioning our faith in God is not only natural but necessary. It is through asking questions about who God is, what role he has our lives, and how we feel about him that we come to understand if just a little what life is all about. I myself am glad that I questioned my childhood faith while in college because it helped me tear down the extraneous structures built around my faith and left me with the most important component of all: Christ.  I discovered that Jesus Christ is at the center, and that if he isn't then I am off the path on which God wants me to be.

This stream of consciousness has come about after a discussion with a student. I was given the opportunity to ask them questions about their faith, about who they thought God was, and what that meant for her. She surprised me by being so frank. She told me that she wasn't sure if God existed. She wondered if she believed only because others believed and that her faith wasn't genuine. I told her that she was very wise for her age. I told her that it was important to question her faith and that doing so was not offensive to God. In fact, it gave her an amazing opportunity to draw closer to God in a personal way that was closer than she had ever experienced. I encouraged her to pray more, to listen closer at the mass, and to listen more than anything to what God was placing on her heart.

I think she appreciated the talk and how honest I was about my own doubts. Raising children in this world is difficult. We wonder how we are to grow their faith when it seems so fall. But we must remember that the kingdom of God belongs to the little children. Their faith may be child-like but it is by no means small.  My sincere prayer is that we will draw closer to God by asking him to draw closer to us. Our souls are meant for him and we must strive to open them a little more each day.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Ethically Speaking #3

The latest ethical dilemma I have presented to my students does not involve anything dramatic as the choice between two children or the surrender of one's life for another. Rather, it tackles the day to day areas of our lives that are governed by choices we often make without thinking twice. I posed to them the follow question:

Each day Americans purchase countless goods that are manufactured overseas. These goods are made by people who make far less than any worker in the United States. In many cases the conditions in which they work are deplorable and nothing that our laws would allow here (in theory). However, though we know that these abuses of human rights occur we still purchase the products. Are we in violation of our ethics? Why of why not? What should our course of action be in relation to the personal cost and difficulty in may involve?

The question is simple but the issues it raises are anything but. I will not lie. I am a hypocrite. I knowing consume goods that were created in places where the conditions are as such that I would not to work there or have my children work there. I give the example of Apple Inc.  The issues surrounding workers and suicide are well documented at the factories in China that churn out Iphones, Ipads, and other electronics. But this knowledge has not deterred me enough. Why?

My theory is that the distance from the factory to my hands is too great geographically and conceptually for me to make the connection that it wasn't some faceless and anonymous worker who made this product but rather a human being with a soul. The close I make the connection the harder it becomes for me to allow the exploitation.

But let's separate foreign made goods from the equation. Abuses are occurring here in our own backyard. Think of all the migrant workers who earn barely enough to feed themselves and their families after working 15 hour days. Are they being treated justly? Is our motivation for lack of action based on how much we pay for orange juice?

In the end our values must be in sync with the core of what it means to be Christian. We are thoroughly intertwined with this world. We have let it embed itself into our everyday life. But we are not of this world. Rather, we have been sent back into the world to change it for the better. Could we resolve to consume more responsibly? I'm not sure but I like to think that we could try a little a time to influence those around us, our elected officials and others. The irony that I am typing this blog post on a computer made by possibly exploited workers is not lost on me. Instead it saddens me and reminds that no matter how little the issue may seem, if it affects someone then it should concern all of us.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Obedience As A Four Letter Word.

Today our younger students, ages 3-10 spoke about one of their favorite subjects: Obedience. Growing up I distinctly remember the concept of obedience, the need to obey those who were older and wiser as one lesson I did not want to learn. Adults seemed to only lord their authority over children and people at church always emphasized that if I loved God that I should always do what he says. As a child obedience was always abstract and distant while the enforcement of a rule was always up close and personal. Now that I am older and pondering each day my Christian faith, I see that it is the rules that must be placed at a distance and the idea of being obedient that must be closer to my heart on a daily basis.

Let me preface this by facing that there are definite rules handed down by God that we are called to follow.  You can start of course with the Ten Commandments. These handy guidelines for life are essential in helping us to understand our relationship with God and with those around us. But we should also look to the simple, but very difficult, commandment that Christ offers. When he tells us to "Love our neighbors as ourselves" he is not disregarding the old Law. He is placing it in a language that crystallizes the essence of the message: love. Love is at the core of the rules God has asked us to follow. Love is also at the center of our obedience to him. As Saint Paul says so famously "If I have not love...".

So then what is the relationship between obedience and love. I prefer to begin by looking at whom I am called to obey. Is is someone who knows more than me, has authority over me, is seeking to guide me? If the answer is no then obedience is not required. If the answer is yes then I must examine my relationship with them and seek ways to obey. In looking at the relationship with our parents and those who take care in raising us we realize that more than anything they seek to protect, guide us, and mold us into strong and healthy individuals. All things that grow require nurturing and guidance. I remember a tree that was planted in my front yard fifteen years ago. As a sapling it needed the constraints of guide ropes and stick in order to help it grow straight. At first it may have seemed that we were hurting the tree and desiring to simply mold it into something that we saw that a tree should be. But in reality we were trying to help the tree become the best tree it could be.

Such is the same with God and us. He is not seeking to infringe upon our free will. Our free will is a gift from God that makes us the most unique of all his creations. But that will is not perfect and needs limits. It needs constraints and guides that help us to see how to become the best human beings we can be. In a Christian sense this goes deeper to mold us into the image of Jesus Christ. Christ serves as our model of obedience because he had the option and the opportunity to defy God's will but instead chose, through a perfect and sinless will, to follow God's plan of salvation through to the end.

In a practical sense this requires an enormous amount of humility. Unfortunately in our society humility has not been a trait greatly praised and promoted. Instead we are to proud of ourselves in all things, revel in our rebelliousness, and declaring any supposed authority of God as unjust. If our own authority, our own ways of living and loving one another are so good, then it begs the question: why have we not advanced in our humanity?

The answer is simple. We still need God as a guide. We still Jesus Christ to serve as our savior and our example. If we had the power to do so ourselves then we would have done so long ago. In the end, obedience is not about following a set of arbitrary rules. It is about learning how we are to love God and one another. It is about humbling ourselves to the point where we can admit that we don't know what is best for in every moment. It is saying "Lord not my will, but your will be done."