I recently posted a brief response to a Fr. Richard Rohr reflection and think I generated more confusion than enlightenment on the concept. It seems after me saying what I said some saw it as me saying that Heaven and Hell were not afterlife experiences. I didn’t say that, and seeing as though I have no evidence of the contrary I would not assume to say so. However, the primary point I was trying to make seemed to remain largely misunderstood. Why should I be surprised? Often this is the response I get in a Facebook post. So, I’ll try here to explore this concept a little more deeply and see if we can come up with a better understanding.
In my original post I was echoing what Rohr was saying which is certainly not a new concept of Heaven and Hell being a choice that is made now, not after death. My guess is that among Christians I would have close to 100% agreement on that statement. But where this apparently got murky was when I began saying that the actual experience of Heaven or Hell, as Fr. Richard Rohr suggests as well, happens upon our choosing, when we choose it. This is not to imply that our earthly experience negates, or replaces, what is to come. Never did I, nor did Rohr, say this, but it seemed to get interpreted this way by both my Christian and atheist friends on Facebook. This might explain why Rohr is so polarizing, especially among Catholics. If what he’s saying is that easy to misinterpret then no wonder he’s looked at skeptically, as am I when I try to reflect upon his reflections. But again, I’m always misunderstood so nothing new here. But let’s try to make this a little more clear, nonetheless.
Jesus was clearly saying something of Heaven, or paradise, was attainable now. He uses the expression of the “Kingdom is at hand” repeatedly. Does he mean that eventual access is at hand if we wait until the afterlife, or is he inferring something much more profound and elusive? Fr. Rohr seems to believe so and I totally agree. Even if we look at the controversial exchange with the St. Dismas, the “Good Thief”, we see what could easily be understood as the coming of the Internal Kingdom from his acceptance of the lot he has been granted. Again, not saying that there’s no afterlife here, but what we do know without debate is that there is a life. It’s quite easy to take a step back and look at the crucifixion as the perfect metaphor for this understanding. Here we have Dismas in acceptance and the other criminal in denial. One is present to the reality of the moment and the other is vehemently in opposition to what is now and living in a future that doesn’t exist and never will exist.
This is what I believe is the primary problem in Christianity. We have a lot of professions of faith but very few true expressions of faith. When we have God fearing, bible believing, Christians stockpiling weaponry for the apocalypse it’s not a very solid expression of what should be the single most recognizable trait of the Christ follower and that is peace. If we have peace we can trust. If we have trust we can love. Jesus says repeatedly in scripture, be not afraid. We hear him speak constantly of not allowing worry to get in our way. Now I may be wrong, but if you’re not worried why then do you need a stockpile of weapons? People at peace with the now don’t need to be prepared for anything other than the now, and that requires no preparation.
I’ve mentioned before Katie Byron and the book Loving What Is. I’ve also read her, Mind At Home With Itself. She is expert at getting people to see outside of the traps of the fear of what was or what may be. Even the moment can’t be grasped according to her teaching. So why would we allow anything to bog us down? She approaches this with a self-inquiry she calls The Work. It’s a very simple way of seeing that the anxiety you’ve developed around an issue is really just a construct of your perception and not really real at all, at least not provably so. Once you walk through her simple examination you’ll find yourself laughing at the way you handled the situation before. All of the tension and anxiety that we wrap ourselves up in is gone in seconds once we start asking these questions of ourselves.
Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said things like, “look at the birds and flowers”. He was inviting us to get in the moment and in the moment see God’s providence all around us. We don’t do that well. I don’t do this well. I don’t see Christians doing this well. I was talking with an Eastern Rite Catholic friend recently who says his priest finds it trivial when people ask him to pray for certain outcomes of things. He said that the East sees God’s providence in every moment and in every situation to the point that the ultimate expression of faith being an acceptance of what is, the way it is, right now.
I have to admit that I once struggled majorly with serenity. I even had a talk that I’d do for men’s groups about not accepting the “things I cannot change” as the Serenity Prayer suggests, but rather to tackle every ounce of discontentment with pure action and fortitude. This isn’t how I see it now. I see the moment as being the moment. And while I haven’t eliminated all of my anxiety, I am way better at accepting the providence of God even in the things that I’m not crazy about. This, to me, is where Heaven begins. My yoke of will to the will of God says I’m willing to take whatever he gives me. If I truly have faith I don’t really need to profess that as much as I need to express it. Can I be seen as accepting the moment, or am I always running toward tomorrow, or worse, yesterday?
I think the only authentic witness, and what is sadly lacking in our faithful today, is that expression of faith that resembles heaven. I’ve seen some people with such fervently outward prayer lives that I wondered if they had a moment of real peace. If all you’re doing in your “faith walk” is trying to bend God’s will then how is that an expression of what you believe? Or, if you’re so concerned about worshiping and connecting with God you forget to connect with those right in front of you how effective can you be as witness?
Jesus says to let tomorrow take care of itself, that has to include the afterlife, if you ask me. Have no anxiety, he says. Take no extra provisions, he implores. If this is all true why don’t we start living like that? That expression of faith could literally transform the world.
First, I want to start by saying, I’m not slamming Christmas here. And just because I typically use the X spelling, doesn’t mean I’m saying we need to x out Jesus. That’s just an old abbreviation of the Greek. It’s not a bad, nor a disrespectful thing to do, as I was taught growing up. But this has nothing to do with how we spell. For me, philosophically, there has always been something very wrong with Xmas. And, unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m now doing anything to stem that. But here is what I know about what I think Xmas is supposed to be that I don’t see happening anywhere, not really.
First, Xmas is the coming of Christ in the flesh. In the Catholic world we have the fancy understanding of “Incarnational Theology” to describe this. Because we’re Catholic we have fancy understandings of everything. Nonetheless, this is a very carnal experience. Raw, if you will, organic. God has become man. That man is forced to be treated as an animal at his birth. And, the savior of the universe is born in a messy place at a messy time and almost no one noticed it happening. It’s a very normal, hidden and quiet experience. The Magi weren’t there, yet, btw. They somehow got mixed up in the nativity scene but it wasn’t just a week or so later but likely a couple of years. This is why we see King Herod ordering the slaughter of the male children under the age of 2. That’s an aside, but definitely critical to the Epiphany story, but back to the carnal, organic, rawness that should be Xmas.
So how in heaven’s name did we go from the lowly stable to the modern expression of Xmas consumerism? Charlie Brown’s Christmas was always my favorite growing up. It seemed to strike the very nerve that was always unsettled in me as a kid, and remains unsettled in me. We measure the merit of our Xmas celebration with the gifts that our kids want, that we make every effort to buy, going in debt on credit cards and stacking massive mountains of gifts under our tree? And we encourage this by asking, often before Halloween, what it is they want for Xmas.
Our 5-year-old seems to get it. So far, he’s really not been into the gift thing. He’s excited about the date of Xmas. He’s counting down the days and has the 25th circled on the calendar, but it’s not like this is a big deal for him. We’ve tried to pry it out of him only for him to finally say he wanted what his 10-year-old brother wanted, that we already said his brother couldn’t have, in order to give it to him. That’s a beautiful expression of the quiet, but something we quickly lose and something he will likely lose as well in years to come.
I read a lot of Fr, Richard Rohr. His constant drumbeat is about living in the divine presence. If we can understand that now is the time and that what we are waiting for is really available right now, just as Jesus intimates by saying “the kingdom is at hand”, then we might actually be on track. See, we even twist the very simple teaching of Jesus to assume that the “at hand” means, “coming soon”. This is isn’t it at all. I’m even a little miffed at the Church for deciding to implement the Advent season. What are we waiting for? Why do we need to prepare? Can’t we just have all of this right now? Is there really something different coming that isn’t available right now?
My mom was a huge Elvis fan, so of course, beginning about this time of the year there was a lot of Elvis’ Christmas album spinning on the turntable. And in the pops and cracks of the sound that’s uniquely vinyl the baritone croon of Elvis would ask, “Why can’t everyday be like Christmas?” I get the sentiment, I really do. But I think a better question to ask is, why can’t Xmas be like everyday?
I grew up in Shelbyville, KY. At the time, it was a small community of about 5000. In grade school I remember a lot of fear over child abductions. This seemed to have hit national news about children in small towns and rural communities being targeted so there was a general caution that bordered a bit on hysteria. My mom was leery of any white van that rolled through the neighborhood to the point that she would call me in the house if she saw one driving down our road. I recall a local bank exhausting efforts to focus intently on child safety. They sponsored fingerprinting campaigns in the school and printed our report card holders with an additional message to drive home the point of child safety. I remember the slogan on the card sleeve saying, “In life, just as in baseball, the important thing is to get home safe”. It was an effective single-issue focus. So effective that without anything but I guess I would assume that bank had well over half of the community’s business. Everyone knew what they stood for and seemed to respond by trusting them with their banking.
Single issues can do that. A solid focus on one thing, and only one thing, can easily garner a ground swell of those who support your single issue. Child safety is a good one. This is a great common denominator that almost everyone can agree is important. Put that child in their mother’s womb and you’ll get even more fervor, both supporting and opposing fervor, mind you, but fervor, nonetheless.. However, when you take that single issue to the voting booth, as often “values” voters do, you just might be doing yourself and those you supposedly care about a greater injustice in the long run.
Suppose, and this is not at all the case, but just suppose that the bank I mentioned was skimming cash out the back door to pad the executives’ off-shore accounts. And lets extend that imagination even more to suggest that not only were they embezzling money, they were funding human trafficking and sex tourism in resort locations around the globe. Suddenly their quaint message of child safety seems a little ironic, at best. Again, just drawing a comparison, please don’t think I’m suggesting anything nefarious from my hometown bank.
I heard a news report on Morning Edition on NPR this morning with interviews of Roy Moore supporters in Alabama. I don’t care if it’s this special election, or any general election since 1973, there are always single issue voters who say abortion is the only litmus test. This is, quite frankly, both dangerous and irresponsible. By the way, I’m all for a single issue. But what has happened here is that we’ve selected one species of tree to protect instead of protecting the whole forest.
The Catholic Church is a stalwart in the efforts to rid the world of abortion. And it’s likely the effective campaigning from many a fervent Catholic that has brought the abortion issue to be bright-lighted so radiantly as the single issue it is. However, abortion is but one of many issues that all fall under the one big single issue of Human Dignity. Let’s go back to the forest. If we effectively promoted that the entire forest needed to be preserved, not just White Pine saplings, then we might actually be on our way to making real environmental progress and protecting the saplings. If we adopt this attitude maybe now we’re not going to saw down the mature oaks to make way for the little White Pines. Maybe.
This is essentially what we do when we hinge our voting decision on the single issue of abortion. The official Catholic position on this is that one is free to choose even a pro-choice candidate if the reason for the vote being cast isn’t because of a hope of expanded abortion access. This is good news seeing as how well over half of self-identifying Catholics are registered Democrats according to a number of polling sources. If you appreciate the fact that a candidate is in support of expanded social safety nets, for instance, even if their position on abortion is hawkishly supportive, then vote for them with a clear conscience. You don’t need to hold your nose and push the button as many think they need to do. And, if your moral integrity is challenged by all the options you have on a ballot then sit the election out. There is no moral authority to cast a vote. Voting is a right and a privilege. It is not compulsory.
So let’s work on shifting the single-issue focus to the forest and not the tree. If we were to examine the impact of Human Dignity in every election or choices may be broadened. If we look at policies that could improve the opportunities for mothers to have the support they need to be parents instead of looking only at the unborn then maybe we can make honest choices that aren’t so seemingly coerced. As I listen in every election I hear the same lament, “he’s not my first choice, but he’s at least pro-life”. Shouldn’t that reflection tell you something? If it’s true then examine why this individual isn’t you’re first choice and then really vote, or choose not to vote, with a completely clear conscience.
Human Dignity is a single issue just as the forest is a singular location. But, the forest is home to a number of trees, vegetation and animal life that makes it a much better choice for focus. Do we kill the wolves to protect the rabbits? Not when the forest is our focus. Sometimes it’s the subtle ways of looking at things that make all the difference.
Be single-issue focused. Just make sure it’s the right single issue.
The Gospel of John can be confusing on a number of levels. It’s believed that this Gospel account is written by one of the youngest and most educated of the early Christ followers. It’s definitely literary in ways that the other three synoptic Gospels seem to only be literal. So when we hear this passage of Jesus saying that “the poor will always be with you, but I will not”, we have to ask what exactly is the author getting at here, because he is always getting to something deeper. I have to believe this is an inference to what we hear Jesus intimating in Matthew 25 with the separation of the Sheep and Goats.
In that Matthew passage Jesus is clear that there are times when we will see him in the poor and times when we will not. The times we don’t will be indictments on our own intentions. We will have ample opportunity to serve if only we stay vigilant, or awake, or Woke, as it’s more popularly known today. Jesus also offers strong condemnation of those who claim to “know him” but who refuse to follow this supreme command to love others. And if we simply offer lip service, but not actually care for other’s needs we’re placing an additional indictment on ourselves, as well. Check out the second chapter of James for more on that.
This is why it is so refreshing to me to see the work of someone like Ginny Ramsey of the Catholic Action Center. In the time I’ve known here, which spans close to 20 years now, she has been accused of everything from not praying with her residents, to even disrupting the neighborhoods she’s tried to serve. She’s been dealt personal blows with family tragedies, and all the while stood firm in her commitment to the “least of these”, as Jesus illustrates.
Now, the Catholic Action Center is expanding services in a brand new facility. And, in addition to the expansion, is doing the same thing they’ve always done with the extended outreach to the greater Lexington community with the Faith and Community Christmas Store in partnership with Southland Christian Church. These very tangible entrees to the community should show us what faith really looks like. The Catholic Action Center doesn’t hold political rallies or lobby the legislature for policy appeals, they don’t know on doors, or eve hold prayer services. But, they are there 24/7 with a place for the most marginalized members of our community to come out of the cold, be fed and find warm welcome.
Mother Theresa, now St. Theresa of Calcutta, experienced similar criticism. Some accused her of universalism, or even polytheism, because she dared to simply let the lepers she’d pulled from the streets to die with dignity and love as opposed to rushing them to a priest for baptism and confirmation. Her willingness to serve the Christ in the most distressed apparently wasn’t enough for some who felt the need to find fault in her noble actions.
There will always be the critics. Detractors will always detract. But at the end of the day only one thing really matters. If we take care of the individuals in most need we are then truly serving Christ. And I would challenge it’s only then. We glorify him when the poor are fed, clothed and sheltered. There is really nothing more to this mystery. Jesus says the law and prophets are surmised in the simple understanding of how we treat each other. We essentially love God by loving others. It has to start with the human elements, with real humanism. If we deal effectively with what we can see, the unseen will essentially fall into place, so to speak.
The poor are always with us. Jesus conversely is only there when we choose to see him in those who are most in need. Empty platitudes and postures mean nothing without the goods to back it up. To refer once again to the Book of James, faith without works is dead, he says. So it’s great to know that Ginny, and the Catholic Action Center, is so very alive.
Enjoy the podcast.
simply It’s been said that the only individuals who are open to change are babies with wet diapers. I believe this. And, I believe that I can no more be frustrated with someone not seeing my view politically than I can with a crying baby with a soiled undergarment. I know it sounds perhaps belittling to approach the dynamic this way but the bottom line is that we all need conversion on something. And I think the biggest litmus test for your need for that conversion is just how black and white you see your world.
I’ve been there. Even when evidence is compelling against the either or mentality, just look at the many contradictions to this in nature, I was dogmatically positioned to accept zero gray matter. Kind of interesting when you put it that way, isn’t it? The very organ of the body that allows are reasoning is exactly that, gray. Yet many of us, in our infantile perception, assume that everything is black and white, either/or, Us against Them.
For someone who craves certainty, and we all do to some extent, this is a seductive approach to defining boundaries. If this line is bold enough in the sand then I can have comfort knowing it’s there, we think. What we’ve forgotten here is that the line is in the sand. It’s sand. Sand shifts. This isn’t cement we’re talking about and even if it was it’s prone to crumbling over time. The allure of easy answers and sound-bite mentality is pervasive and far from immune to one political party, although we’d like to consider one being superior, and generally it’s the one to which you claim membership.
In a recent Facebook post the topic of music was discussed. Some, and I’m painfully well aware of this, think anything new is bad. The classics are the only real music, some think. But where is that classic era? Is it the baroque period or the bebop jazz? Is it the funk of the 70s or the New Wave of the 80s? When we boil these arguments down, any argument pitting one philosophy against another, we’ll easily find there is nothing of any real substance here. It’s all a matter of perception and often times, more banally, simply appetites and tastes. But there is very little depth to these pigeonholed perspectives. Tell me that the music you love is emotive, transcendent and connective and I’ll agree with you. The beauty there is that music could have been written in early 20th century as easily as the 21st.
We need to take a similar approach on our political philosophies. Can we truly identify our criteria? My guess is for many the answer is no. What do you truly value? Can you at least answer this? I would challenge you to begin there. Do you really value freedom, or is it security? Do you put your family first or is it your flag? I think that when you begin to ask yourself these kinds of questions you may find that your politics really don’t align with your real values. Now what do you do?
This has been my journey over the past few decades. I know I’m not fully there on a lot of issues and pray I will still evolve more on a lot of questions. But I have, at least, boiled my values down to three simple criteria.. This is now my litmus test for all I do and think. Is this upholding Human Dignity? Is this truly Socially Responsible? And, does this ultimately contribute to the Common Good?
These are the simple question I apply and overlay to any situation. And what’s amazing by doing this the dividing line we generally are willing to fight for will often dissolve. That’s scary for some. I realize that. But just as the wet diaper needs to be changed, and the baby only knows discomfort rather than a solution, we too might just need a little change, too.