Piety and Me

aristotle-philosopher-for-though-we-love-both-the-truth-and-our-friends-pietyFor most of my adult life, including also my teen years, I have striven to be a pious Christian. Being a questioner by nature, I have always wanted to know exactly what piety is and how to obtain it.

I remember in high school “senior seminar” class, we studied the American puritans, briefly. I recall being impressed with their austerity and conviction and wondered how they arrived at such certainty and willingness to be faithful to their beliefs. I have always been introspective, and this questioning about puritan piety led me to a time of deep reflection. I was filled with doubts about myself, as most teens tend to be, but I also had, unknown at the time to me, clinical depression.

I loved God. I loved the Church. I loved Christianity. I was persuaded in the depths of my soul that it was the true and correct faith and that I should and would live the rest of my life seeking to be as good and loyal and pious a Christian as possible.

But, in the cocktail of emotions that was my inner self, I could not settle down on anything. I was down and sad most of the time. I would try to be good, and fail over and over. Every time I believed I had made some success, I would fall back; all because of my emotional distress over which I had no control. I thought, however, it was my own fault and the fundamentalism I was raised in reinforced this.

In the year after I graduated from high school, I left the Baptist church of my youth, and became Reformed Presbyterian and a Calvinist. Calvinism, with it’s far reaching implications, gave some structure for me to bind up my emotions. I began to read the works of the Puritans and formed my piety after theirs. In doing so, I very nearly destroyed myself. I was wracked with guilt, constantly. I saw myself as a failure as a Christian and a human being. Perversely, Reformed theology lauds such a view of oneself. It is on this pretense that one may “flee to Christ, resting only in him.” And so, I did.

As the years passed and I reached my mid 20’s, I began to realize that I was actually dying inside. The more I worked to be holy and pious, the more reviling I found myself to be. I began to explore Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and discovered a rich trove of spirituality that not only supplemented my Puritan approach, but seemed to correct it…for a while.

I married in 1994 at the age of 24. We had a very Reformed wedding and continued to attend the Presbyterian church of which I was a member. Then, one year into our marriage, we went to seminary. It was a seminary of a conservative denomination in the Episcopal tradition. At first, I was stoked, but as time went on, the pressures of school, work and marriage took a mighty toll on my life. I was literally falling apart at the seams and had no idea what to do about it.

When 2001 and 9/11 happened, I was in a state of major depression. I had spent nearly that entire summer in bed; unable to work or do anything meaningful. My wife and I were fighting every day and in February 2002, she left me. I returned to my parents house as a broken, confused, essentially dying, man. In late 2002 I admitted myself to the hospital for suicidal thoughts and was sent to a mental hospital for a week. There I was diagnosed with major depression and put on medication. I began to feel better. A lot better. I was beginning to see some light at the end of a long dark tunnel. Yet, I was still broken inside. My faith had failed me. My mentors and their promises of happiness if I obeyed the Lord failed me. My orthodoxy failed me. The only things that did not fail me were my parents and a few close friends.

After I was on the meds for several years, I thought I had “dealt” with the underlying issues that were causing my depression. So, under my doctors supervision, I went off the medications. Within six months I was suicidal again and again admitted myself to the hospital. However, this time, I was determined not to come out of the hospital the same person. I made an oath to myself that I would find out the truth about myself, God and the world, and then I would be free. What I didn’t realize, was that by making such a promise to myself, I had already taken the first step in the right direction by acknowledging that the ways of the past had not worked and I needed to separate myself from them.

I began to systematically deconstruct my entire moral and ethical system in my head. I seriously wanted to start over again and I did my best to rid myself of any and all baggage from the past. I realized what I needed was not to be good or follow the rules, but to have someone, like my parents, who loved me unconditionally. I needed a God like that. Not the God of the Puritans who was impossible to approach and only rewarded impossibly difficult to keep rules.

I was nearly 40 by the time I came to myself, as a real person, and decided I would no longer believe anything simply because someone told me, no matter who they were or what esteem I held them in. I determined to find the truth, but this time without so much baggage from Fundamentalism. I largely threw that out the door with it’s narrow piety and legalism.

Now, as I am in my mid 40’s, reaching on toward 50, I still feel the baggage that I have tried to offload. But, the future is much brighter. In the past, I had lived my life in fear of everything, especially hell. But I have made it clear to myself that I will fear nothing because where there is fear, there is not love. Love being the key to happiness.

My piety has greatly changed from my teenage years. I still love God, the church not so much because of the horrendous abuse and evil I have experienced in it. I still want to be holy. I still pray every day. I still seek to do the will of God, but my perspective is very different now. Whereas before, I would be mystified at how to be “good”, I no longer feel the need. Being a Christian is not about right doctrine, tradition, or a specific brand of piety, but about following Jesus. According to St James, “True religion and undefiled before God and the Father, is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” There is a vast difference between the piety of James and that of most Christian traditions today. Most traditions have lost sight of the simplicity of piety as “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” and myopically focused on the emotional/internal aspect of piety. Feeling right has trumped doing right. In fact, doing right, in these traditions, cannot be pleasing to God unless it is done from a “pure heart” aka: right emotional state. I’ve left that all behind. All that matters to me and God is that widows and orphans and anyone who is oppressed, disenfranchised, marginalized, should be treated with love and respect and dignity as is becoming for a human being. I will stand against injustice wherever I see it.

This is genuine piety. Say your rosary. Do your prostrations. Pray the daily office. Fine. But these are merely peripheral practices that have little if anything to do with piety. If you do not love your neighbor as yourself, you have failed both God and the Gospel. That is the bottom line.

The Path to Peace

pT5e4eapcI have written about this a number of times, but it is more pertinent than ever that it be reiterated.

We live in times of great uncertainty and that uncertainty is rooted in fear. Fear of the future, fear of losing the comfortable paths of the past, fear of people who are different from us, and ultimately, fear of losing all that is familiar and being thrust into a world we did not ask for or want.

We are strongly tempted to cling to the past as though we can project its peace and security into the future by holding on to it. We do this in spite of the world falling apart all around us. We turn a blind eye to reality and grasp ever more firmly onto those things which are even now fading away before our eyes.

This week it became more apparent than ever that this is not simply an American problem. It is world wide, and the majority of the human race is in the grip of this fear. Falling markets, declining values, listless workers; everything points to the utter failure of human culture. There is no time in this brief essay to delve into or discuss the causes or reasons, for they are legion. I only wish to do one thing here, and that is point a clear way out.

I have said many times that the opposite of fear is not bravery. Bravery is doing something heroic in spite of ones fear. Not being afraid in the first place is quite a different thing. And, there is only one way to dispel fear: genuine, authentic, vibrant, love. Love is the exact opposite of fear and where it exists, fear cannot thrive.

We are beyond the point of no return. We have extended ourselves beyond the place where petty matters are relevant. There is no longer time to discriminate based on skin, religion, culture or anything else. Literally NOTHING, at this point, is more important than uniting behind our common humanity. We can argue point after point after point and we will sail ourselves and the whole human race into oblivion by our stubbornness and arrogance. We must leave the ways of fear behind and love one another. We must work for the common good. We can afford no less and we owe no less to our neighbor, our brother, our sister, our fathers and mothers.

Perfect love casts out fear, for where there is fear, love has not yet been made perfect.

It is time for honesty and humility, for grace and mercy, for love and kindness. Biases be damned. Opinions be damned. Do what is good and pure and clean and loving. Do not demand anyone conform to your criteria, simply do good to others. Forget “tough love.” The time for that is gone and what is needed now is love plain and simple.

Whatever your religion, you are obligated to love one another. Whatever your culture, you have been taught to be kind. Do it indiscriminately. Love and be kind to all alike, it makes no difference who or what they are.

God bless us all.

Science + Faith = Christianity

Tiffany_Education_(center)Contrary to the opinions of many, Christianity is an evidence based religion. The claims of Christianity are rooted in history. Let me be clear, Christianity per se, is not about theism. It is about the man Jesus who lived in Palestine about 2000 years ago. Christianity claims that Jesus was born, lived and died and subsequently raised from the dead. This is the core claim Christianity makes. Should the body of Jesus ever be found in the desert, the whole religion will have been revealed to be but a misguided ruse. The absence of such compelling evidence against Christianity, though, does not *prove* it’s truth.
We are far removed, historically speaking, from those who claimed to witness first hand the resurrected Jesus. Because of this, we cannot consider the claims of Christianity to be self-evident. It is a certain perspective with which we interpret documented events. We cannot therefore, condemn those who do not see things the way we do as Christians. Judgement is always best left to God.
Jesus remains, imo, the most unique character in history. Not because of who the Church says he is as God Incarnate, but because of what we believe happened, historically, 2000 years ago a short while after his death. He was a great moral teacher, a miracle worker, a prophet. The very early Church didn’t know what to make of him. All kinds of theories arose about him ranging from the now orthodox opinion that he was God incarnate, to the disavowed opinion that he was a phantasm.
The fact of his blatant humanity has always been scandalous; even to many Christians. He is GOD says the pious mind in a failed effort to “preserve” his deity. In so doing and making this emphasis, his humanity is lost and we no longer have a God incarnate.
Jesus is bound to history. Demonstrate that he did not exist or was not raised from the dead, and Christianity is dead. Period. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of history and verification of historical data to Christianity. As St Paul argued, “if Christ is not raised….then you are still dead in your sins.”
I see so many Christians dismiss or vehemently object to issues like evolution because they say it conflicts with the Bible. They then have to come up with cockamamy conspiracy theories about how science is out to destroy Christianity. In doing this they do not realize that they are removing Christianity from a firm historical basis and placing it into the realm of the mythical and legend. To deny science is to deny the Faith. As St Augustine stated, “All truth is God’s truth.” Therefore science must not only be embraced, it must be revered.
Faith is not ignorance. Faith is not opposed to science. In fact, faith cannot exist without science. Science tells us the facts. Faith tells us what those facts mean for us. Science cannot answer the question “Is it right to kill?” Only faith can address this issue. Science can tell us the results of killing, the pros, the cons, the long term effects…it can provide data. But it cannot speak on the morality of it. It takes something beyond science to do this. Call it faith, intuition or what have you, it is beyond the realm of science.
Science can be performed even by lower animals. We have all seen animals learn by repeating something, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. This is science at it’s most basic. But it is faith that is unique to humanity. At least so far as we know. Lower animals do not seem to have any moral concerns. Occasionally we see animals do things that appear to approach love or care, but we really, at this point, have no way of verifying that is what they are actually doing. Humans alone among the species have the ability and drive to make moral judgments. But without science, without data or facts, moral judgments are meaningless. Lions kill their prey, but it’s not murder. Lizards mate but it’s neither marriage nor rape.
The long and short of it is that without history (science) Christianity cannot exist. Likewise, without Faith, Christianity is an empty claim. It takes both together for Christianity to live.

The Beastly Priest

There once was a priest
who was a little beast
His name was Daniel Brown.
Hellfire and damnation
was what he preached
in the church in the center of town.
Women would swoon
in the warm afternoon
when the heat of the hellfire was hot
Ol’ Daniel would bellow
and scare all his fellows
til repentance they had got.
The little ones cried
and the elderly died
under the hand of the beastly priest.
At judgement I”m sure
he’ll come out like manure
Because he didn’t care in the least.
When the graves open up
and the carrion birds sup
When Armageddon is nigh
Then Father Brown
will stroll into town
to watch all humanity die.
Some call him “Scratch”
others, after a match,
call him Lucifer because of his smell
But the truth, dark and sordid
Is Farther Brown always courted
The devil in his preaching of Hell.
The moral is this
you cannot achieve bliss
by threatening people with fear
For fear leads to dying
and eternal sighing
in the place where nothing is dear.
If you’re going to preach
then season your speech
with mercy and grace and love.
For this is the way
that in the end will pay
with everlasting joy up above.

The Truest Hope for Mankind

nativity-sceneThose who know me, know I take my faith very seriously.
Those who know me, know I try not to take life too seriously.
Those who know me, know I have a warped sense of humor.
Those who know me, know i am no prude or puritan.

On this Christmas night, 2015, what that means is I am again in wonder and awe that the Almighty God became human. I am not so confident in myself that I claim to comprehend what it means. My best guess is that the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, revealed himself as human being, born in the most humble way possible, to demonstrate to us what “impresses” God. In a world full of “christians” who believe that there are a few lucky souls who will make it to heaven, with the hellish destination being the primary one for most of humanity, I find myself thinking they must be joking. God, who knows nothing but absolute bliss, perfect happiness and everlasting joy, all in Himself, with no need for anything or anyone else, THIS God, became a creature who poops, pees, eats, sleeps and does everything a creature does. He humbled himself in order to send a few us to heaven? LOL! If God is going to do a work, he does it to its fullest. He doesn’t cut corners. He never fails. He didn’t come to save a few, he came to save us all! He defeated hell and death! He holds the keys to them both! Keys are for opening locks. He opens the gates of hell and of the grave so that those who are in them can be freed.

Are you in hell? Are you dying? He holds your keys. Someday, in this life or the next, you will be freed. Freed to be all you ever dreamed and hoped for and so much more that you cannot begin to imagine it.

Jesus shows us the way. Follow him. There is no hell he cannot rescue you from. No death so thorough, you cannot be raised. Follow him. Imitate him. Do what he did. Live as he lived. Trust him.

Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word and Logos of God, the truest Hope for mankind.

Love Believes All Things

Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrated to us the incomprehensible love of God. It is often said that God “loved us so much he sent Jesus to die for our sins.” Yet this adage is said in a context neither amenable or conducive to grasping exactly what happened on Calvary. It is generally conceived as a fact that Jesus’ death carried some kind of weight with God so that a transaction was made in and by which sins could be forgiven.

Jesus’ death, it is said, paid the penalty due to our sins and satisfied God’s justice so that we might be able to come to God. God’s love in this is in his willingness to send Jesus to suffer and die on our behalf.

The problem I see with this notion is that God is made to have no other option. Jesus was sent as an expediency, a means to a desired end. That is to say, if God wanted to save us, this is how he had to do it.

But God is not bound by anything. He has no obligation, neither does he have any need to follow a particular method to accomplish his ends. He is totally and utterly free to accomplish anything in any way and by any means. He does not use expediencies.

It seems to me that in order for God to have freely sent Jesus, there had to be no compelling reason or requirement that he do so. Jesus came freely to live among us, to suffer as a man and to die at the hands of his fellow men.

God did this for love. Pure, unadulterated, spotless, clean, ineffable love.

Love.

But what is love?

Love is unlike anything else we might envision or consider. Unlike other things, love has no boundaries. It has no requirements. It has no beginning or end. It is free and limitless. Love is not based on what one is or what one does but rather on the bare fact that one *is*.

Suppose I say I love you. Suppose we share a life together as friends or as marriage partners. If my love for you is based on something about you, what if that something changes or even disappears or becomes something else? Can my love withstand that? No. It can’t. My love for you will fail as soon as you change. But God does not change, “I am the same yesterday today and forever.” He then cannot love us like this. His love is unchanging. Not that it is static and cold, but it is perfectly true, faithful and loyal.

Love believes all things; it ultimately does not care what we are or what we have done. Love is steadfast in it’s movement toward us. It is perpetual. If I change, God’s love for me never falters. If I fail him, he loves me still.

Love seeks primarily the happiness, the well being, the “Shalom” of the other, the beloved. It does not pass judgment based on differing attitudes of right and wrong. For instance, God does not say, “I love you, but…” He will never say this. He cannot. There are no “buts” with love. Love is free and unconditional.

Love which attempts to manipulate the other to a certain set of beliefs or behaviors, is not divine love. So called “tough” love is not love unless it is an attempt to rescue us from self-destruction. Suppose I become addicted to some destructive behavior, like illicit drug use. Love does not merrily go on it’s way and ignore my abuse. It seeks to redeem me from that self abuse, yet it does not withhold itself in any measure. Love seeks the happiness of the beloved. It does this by giving oneself to the beloved. If I am a drug addict, and you tell me “don’t do that” but do not give the means to accomplish what you are asking of me, then you are not loving me. You are attempting to manipulate me and love is not manipulative.

Jesus is the epitome of love. He freely came to human kind. He became a man. He gave himself, in his humanity, to us out of his love. We chided, abused, mocked, scorned and murdered him. Yet his love remained intact to the very end. Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing. Not only did he not judge those who killed him, but he overlooked their malice as only love can do. To death he treated humanity as his best friend, his beloved.

Jesus said that no greater love can someone have than to lay down his own life for his friend. Yet while we were enemies of God, Christ died for us. Even while we were nailing him to the cross he considered us more than acquaintances, more than a mere friend. He considered us his beloved. His bride. He abandoned all his “rights” as God in order to show us his love.

That should make us think twice before we go about claiming our rights of one another.

Self giving coupled with the desire to achieve and attain the shalom of another at any cost, that is love.

I could go on about the various kinds of love we humans have and what they mean, but none of them hold a candle to the love that Jesus Christ showed us when he opened the Father’s heart to us and loved us to the death on the cross. This is the love that all other loves are to imitate. This is the love that saves the world.