Is my religion my hobby?

hobbyI had a coffee today with Graham J. an old friend of mine, who is a believer in Zen Buddhism. He said he recently decided to take his Zen beliefs much more seriously. I asked him if his Zen beliefs were a hobby or a way of life? (Graham knows me quite well  and likes or at least tolerates my habit of asking provocative questions in order to learn more deeply about any subject.)  My hobby is Duplicate Bridge; I take it seriously and my partner and I analyse our performance and try to learn how to play better so we can win more often. But I don’t see Bridge as being very important compared to many other aspects of my life. It isn’t my ‘way of life.’

We discussed this question for awhile. Graham suggested that his desire was to live all aspects of his ordinary life more mindfully. His Zen Master taught him living mindfully required three steps: Clear your mind; Understand the situation; Act.  His way of making Zen his way of life was to practice these three steps diligently, starting with meditating each morning on his day and preparing to live mindfully.

What about me?

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In the Catholic Church Lent is a special time to ‘repent’ and think about your life as a Christian. I don’t think that it was accidental that Graham and I had this conversation on the second day of Lent; God arranged it and sent his grace into our conversation to shape it for His purposes. When I asked Graham whether his belief was only his hobby I was actually asking myself that same provocative question. I’d like to say that I was able to quickly say that I treat my Christian belief as a way of life not a hobby but I have an uncomfortable feeling that there’s too much ‘hobby’ in my practice and not enough ‘way of life.’  And my discomfort is grace again working in me.

I won’t do an examination of conscience here in my blog. I do suggest that you ask yourself the question ‘Is my religion my hobby?’ and listen very carefully to what God has to say to you. One good result of this exercise is that you will come to appreciate God’s mercy and forgiveness a whole lot better.

The fault line in our hearts

the_battle_of_viennaToday I experienced an earthquake — in my thinking. What do I believe?

My personal “earthquake” was triggered by a article that a priest friend of mine emailed me: Is terror intrinsic to Islam? by Father James Schall, S.J. [Click here if you’d like to read the entire article.]

Basically Father Schall’s opinion (and he strongly emphasizes that the article is only his opinion) is stated in the first sentence of his article: “The Islamic State and the broader jihadist movements throughout the world that agree with it are, I think, correct in their basic understanding of Islam.” Here are his major points:

  • The purpose of Islam, with the often violent means it can and does use to accomplish it, is to extend its rule, in the name of Allah, to all the world. The world cannot be at “peace” until it is all Muslim.
  • Jihadism, as it were, is a religious movement before it is anything else. (They believe) Allah does grant violence a significant place. It is over the truth of this position, or better the inability to disprove it, that the real controversy lies.
  • It may be possible for some to read Islam as a religion of  “peace.” But its “peace,” in its own terms, means the peace of Allah within its boundaries. With the rest of the outside world, it is at war in order to accomplish a religious purpose, namely, to have all submitted to Allah in the passive way that the Qur’an specifies.
  • In Muslim doctrine, everyone born into the world is a Muslim. No one has any right or reason not to be. Hence, everyone who is not a Muslim is to be converted or eliminated. This is also true of the literary, monumental, and other signs of civilizations or states that are not Muslim. They are destroyed as not authorized by the Qur’an.
  • We are in fact dealing with a religion that claims to be true in insisting that it is carrying out the will of Allah, not its own.
  • It is easy to write this movement off as fanatical and ruthless, which it is. To the outside world, it sounds horrific, but I suspect not to those who believe its truth and see the current revival of Islam with relief. The second or third class ranking of Islam in the modern world is over. But to the degree that we misjudge what is motivating the renewal of Islam, we will never understand why it exists as it does.

As I read this article, I felt a quaking, first of all, as a reaction of “Oh no! This can’t be true.” The quake then spread into thinking about history and the conflict between the West and Islam that has been going on for well over 1000 years. Then I thought of Armageddon in Revelations and the final battle between good and evil.  Could I be living in the early stages of this climatic war?

What is the answer?

Interestingly (and I think it was grace that provided this to me) there was an article in the Sun-Herald today about the reactions to the “rising tension in the community since the terrorism threat level was raised.” A Muslim who was interviewed said, “We just hope it goes back to how it was before . . . we just want to live in this great country.” Non-Muslims have joined in promoting harmony in the community. There is  a  woman’s group called WISH (Women in Solidarity with Hajabis). The Buddhists are organizing a solidarity march “so people can show support for the Muslim community.” 250 mosques around Australia sent a message that the “protection of human life is one of the five basic rights in Islam and as a Muslim we have a duty to protect humanity.”

Each of us need to look at all the evidence and decide which side we come down on. One side is the historical evidence Father Schall points toward, and the other side is the evidence of love and hate in our contemporary society. The future will be born out of each person’s decision and commitment to act according to their belief in this answer.

What happened afterwards?

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-son11You know the story well. The Prodigal Son takes his inheritance, goes to a far-off land and wastes it all on riotous living. Starving, he comes home, planning to ask his Father to forgive him and hire him as a servant but when his Father sees him on the road home (he must have watched for him every day) he runs to him and throws his arms around him, welcoming him home as his beloved son, as if he had never left. The older Son, hearing this, becomes very angry with the Father for his generosity but the Father tells him he is loved too but they must welcome back the Prodigal Son. That’s where Jesus stopped the story. The meaning is clear. God the Father loves us as sons, and is merciful to us when we sin and return. He desires that we (the older Sons) treat those who sin against us with  the same mercy.

But what happened afterwards?

After the welcome home party for the younger son, “everyday life” happened in that household. The Father had his two sons at home again but there was very likely a great deal of tension between them. The younger son had wasted his inheritance and likely felt guilty about that. How could he make amends to both his Father and brother? That would be a lifelong task, rebuilding the family’s wealth, half of which he had squandered. And the older son likely felt continuing resentment. You can imagine his smouldering anger. The Father had no way of forcing his sons to understand the implications of his great mercy and what it actually meant to both of them. In human terms, he had to “let them go” to find their own way through the situation which their internal feelings were creating.

I think this story of everyday life is quite realistic. We may experience moments when we encounter God’s grace and mercy but then life goes on, and we experience our own interior life everyday. It’s too easy to say pray or meditate. The habits of our “false selves” continue to cover up the reality of our “true selves.”  As St Paul said, speaking for all of us, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do, and not do the things I really want to do?” Our life’s task is to handle this conflict and (gradually) come to realise what God’s mercy means for us, whether we are the Prodigal or Older Son. (Most like we are both).

I recently read The Genesee Diary by Henri Neuven. He went to live in a Trappist Monastery for 7 months, to find space to learn how to pray better and live more closely to God. Neuven recorded, in incredibly honest detail what happened everyday during that 7 month stay as he struggled with the conflict between his false and true selves. ( Neuven was a very respected spiritual writer and a priest who, one would have thought, had resolved the issues of “everyday living” long before he went to this monastery, but you would be wrong. His struggles were very familiar to me and mirrored back to me many of my own experiences.)

The interior struggles of everyday life

In my coaching and mentoring work I help my clients become familiar with three different aspects of their interior life — their thinking and acting self, their critical self, and their detached observer self. In everyday life all three are encountered. Much of our life is on ‘autopilot’ with our thinking and acting self in control and following well-known patterns. Occasionally, we become aware of a ‘voice’ critiquing what we are thinking and doing — “Why did you do that?” “That was a mistake you’ll regret” and so on. More rarely we experience a third part of ourselves, seemingly amused by the conflict between the other two parts of us — “That’s interesting. Every time I see a homeless person, I feel guilty and criticize myself” and so on. These three parts of ourselves can be seen in a different frame however: that of our “true” and “false” selves.

Our false self develops during our life time out of our experiences, and adapts to the world in order to maximize our comfort and rewards. Peter Berger the well-known Sociologist wrote of this adaptation in his classic work The Social Construction of Reality. But why is this part of our self called a “false” self? This is a spiritual concept not a sociological or psychological concept. “Jesus, and most other great spiritual teachers make it very clear that there is a self that has to be found and one that has to be let go of or even ‘renounced.'” [from Richard Rohr Immortal Diamond] To be automatically in the thinking and doing self, even critiquing it from our critical self is to be caught in the world and adapting to its demands not God’s way. I believe that our detached observer self is the path toward experiencing our true self and God’s call. Let me explain.

I said that my experience is my observer self is objective and amused by the conflicts between my other two selves. This means that the observer self is open to understanding what it is and how it ought to influence our life. If we are a believer, we sense that our true self looks to God as the source of wisdom about everyday living. Initially, we read and converse with others about God’s wisdom, and attempt to apply it in mediating the conflict between the other two selves in order to live out God’s wisdom. Then, gradually, we begin to see that we don’t have the power to live God’s wisdom by ourselves and we begin to take prayer seriously. At some point, we stop worrying about our ability to live according to God’s wisdom (such worrying is, after all, another manifestation of our critical self) and “let go and let God” carry us through life. I experienced this quite dramatically in my ‘conversion experience’ with God saying to me, “I love you just as you are.” I also experienced it again when I saw that I wasn’t climbing the mountain of God so much as being carried by Jesus (and my friends) up the mountain.

That ‘true’ self is who we are when we realise that we are not so much making ourselves during life as being made by God. It is why we can feel peace in the midst of conflict, because we know God is in our center no matter what, resolving the difficulties of everyday living for our greatest good and his own purposes. Once we realise who our true self is we can exclaim with St Catherine of Genoa, “My deepest me is God!” What happens afterwards, after this realization,  is a life lived differently, not perfectly, but a life lived in search of the deepest truth about our three selves. As Richard Rohr said, “Life is not a matter of creating a name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had.” That is what I think happened the next day after the Prodigal Son returned to the love of his Father. And to his older brother as well, once he forgave his younger brother.


Those guys are evil!

alqaedaThe ripples from the execution of the American journalist continue in my life.

I was talking on the phone to an American friend the other day and he said, “The Terrorists are evil and so is Islam, their religion.” I told him the head of Australia’s version of the CIA (ASIO) had recently said that such statements are not only wrong but also cause great damage to Australian citizens of Islamic descent, creating a dangerous “we” versus “they” attitude in Australian society. He persisted, telling me of the Sunni / Shai conflict that had been present since the birth of the Moslem religion, which proved (to him at least) that the roots of Islam were tied to war and intolerance. Neither of us actually know very much about Islam so the whole conversation was flawed. Nonetheless, I’m sure such conversations are common these days, hence I’m writing this blog.

What is evil? Who are evil persons?

I instantly called the hooded young man with the knife at the throat of the journalist evil. “He is evil.” Certainly the act of murder of an innocent person is a horrific act. Few of us would debate that. The question I’m raising is what do we mean when we say an individual person is evil (not his act) — and then extrapolate from that person’s evil to the larger group of which he is a member. The syllogism is as follows:

  • That person is evil
  • That person is a Muslim
  • All Muslims are evil

It must be obvious that such reasoning is wrong on many levels.

First of all, as I have already stated, an act can be immoral without the person necessarily being evil himself. I have done some immoral acts in my life, but I don’t consider myself an evil person. I haven’t given myself over to evil completely and intentionally. It was wrong for me to say, “That person is evil.” His act was evil, not necessarily his entire being and purpose.

Secondly, what do we mean when we say “That person is a Muslim?” That he is observed to praying to Allah several times a day? What is in his heart and does it represent the ideals of Islam? What are those ideals when it comes to acts of terrorism? None of us can confidently answer these questions because they involve the condition of a man’s heart and his understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. There are very different views, I sense, about terrorism within the Muslim community.

Thirdly, any statement of the form “All ____ are ____” is wrong in most instances on the face of it. There is simply no way to verify a statement like that and so it is prejudice, pure and simple. (Notice that I did not say all statements like that are always wrong. I would have been making the same mistake.)

But what is evil? Is there a distinction between immorality and evil? Why isn’t the terrorist simply being immoral when he beheads a journalist or flys a plane into the World Trade Tower?

To me immorality seems to have to do with violating the 10 Commandments. Evil is a deeper, nihilistic act, denying even the existence of moral rules and even civilisation itself. Evil wishes to destroy everything ultimately, while immorality wants its own pleasure regardless of the consequences but doesn’t want to destroy everything since it would not longer have the things that give it pleasure. We sense terrorists actually don’t care about anything we care about; they simply hate everything we stand for (and, it seems, even their own religion as well).  In that sense, a person who commits immoral acts is also evil if he has a consuming hatred for mankind and loves death (as terrorists often proclaim).

Notice that I said terrorists not Muslims. It may be possible to sense that a particular terrorist is evil from their statements. It may also be possible to see some external evidence that they are Muslims — but part 3 of the syllogism is simply not supportable. One cannot infer from individual acts or even groups like Al Qaeda that “all Muslims are evil.”


“Pure evil”and my true self

Ginger kitten looking in mirror and seeing a lionThis week the world was horrified by photographs of an American journalist about to be beheaded by a terrorist in Iraq. I didn’t watch the video but the picture of an helpless man kneeling with a knife at his throat was more than enough for me. I agreed with whoever called it an act of pure evil, and wanted someone in power to “take out” the people responsible. I’m certain that I was not alone in that reaction.

A few days later I was talking to my 96 year old friend Joe and asked him what he thought. He had an interesting response. “It sure raised a lot of questions, not the least of which is where is God in all of this?” Yes, I thought to myself, if any good can come out of such an act, then raising that question about God’s response (or lack of response) to an act of pure evil will cause many people to reflect on something that they might not ordinarily think about. Is God actually involved in our world? Or does God distance himself from such things and so-to-speak avert his eyes, ashamed of what his greatest creation –man– is capable of.  To find my own answer, I tried to see this terrible event through Jesus’s eyes.

Coincidentally, I have been reading several books about our “true” self and our “false” self. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest says this — “Our false self is who we think we are. It is our mental self-image and social agreement, which most people spend their whole lives living up to — or down to.” (1) Rohr also describes the true self using a passage from 2 John 2 – “There is a truth that lives within us that will be with us forever.” Rohr calls this an “immortal diamond . . . something utterly reliable, something loyal and true, something we can always depend on, something unforgettable and shining.” (2) Saint Catherine of Genoa ran through the streets shouting “My deepest me is God!” St Paul in his letter to the Colossians (1:27) also shouted, “The mystery is Christ within you — your hope of glory.” Life is a journey of discovery of our true self.

So, when I try to see this act of pure evil through Jesus’s eyes, I am trying to let go of my false self and allow Jesus’s words and thoughts (my true self) to emerge and put this act into God’s perspective.

My false self’s reactions

In a way, it’s easier to see what isn’t God’s perspective by considering my own normal perspective. If I think about my initial reactions to the pure evil of that beheading — again all completely understandable — I can see my false self’s patterns:

  • My anger was instinctive, triggered by the desire to get even with the terrorists who did this horrible act.
  • Rationalizing why the USA probably couldn’t send in its commandos to find and kill these men.
  • Asking why the media gives these terrorists what they want — publicity, stirring up hatred.

All these reactions came to me in the first 5 minutes after seeing the evening news program with the picture of the poor journalist and his executioner.  They were based on my ideas about “an eye for an eye” justice and how power ought to be used in the modern world to defeat evil men. All these reactions could be easily shared with my friends — they would understand and probably share many of them. It was only my elderly friend Joe who brought the provocative ‘God question ‘into play. (Although, after awhile, before seeing him, I did have hints of my true self’s reactions. More about that later.)

Where do these ‘false’ self reactions come from? Basically I have formed them throughout my life. I love western movies, where the ‘good guys’ march down the dusty street and slay the bad guys. That defines the epitome of a happy ending to a movie for me. “Taking out the bad guys.” I was a Marine in the US Armed Forces as a young man and of course there was a sense of duty and honor connected with being a Marine and defending the innocent with force. In other words, I collaborated with the cultures I lived in to form my false self for most of my life including the present. But for the past 30 years or so I have been aware of another subtle theme playing in the background of my thinking and behavior.

My true self’s reactions

After awhile, when my initial angry reactions to the evening new story about the beheading cooled off, I had another thought. How did that journalist feel at the moment that picture was taken, an instant before his death? I put myself in his shoes and found that his story might have another dimension to it. He had willingly placed himself “in harm’s way” in Syria to tell the story of what was happening and possibly bring the violence to an end. That’s why he was captured by the terrorists in the first place and held for over 2 years. He might have been feeling a sense of peace amidst his fear that he had done his best even though it all ended badly. (I learned today that the journalist may have volunteered to be the one executed, saving the other captives, supporting this view.) Then I thought of Jesus’s thoughts as he hung on the Cross. His entire life had been spent helping others and now, at the end all that was lost. Even his friends had deserted him. Yet, he was faithful to the Father’s will for him. Perhaps Jesus felt some small peace amidst his desolation and fear.

In identifying Jesus and the journalist I was experiencing my true self’s reactions. I was being shown that, no matter what a situation looks like, God is there, sharing in the pain and possibly bringing peace to assuage the terror. Then I thought of everyday life. When I identify with another person’s situation and pain (or joy), that is my true self. When I match that situation against what Jesus experienced, and try to see it through his eyes, that is my true self growing in wisdom. And when I act to be with another in their pain (or joy), that is Jesus acting within me.

I can’t do anything except pray about the terrorists in the world and their victims. But I can let my true self enter these terrible situations — and all the ordinary situations of others in everyday life. I can learn more about the nature of God’s love in everyday situations and tell others about what I experience and understand about life in my true self. That is how one lives in the Kingdom every day.

(1) Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return

(2) Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond

The man from Yemen

christians-muslims_lrgI took a taxi to a doctor’s appointment in Double Bay today. As so often happens in Sydney, the driver had an accent and I asked him where he originally came from. “Yemen, twenty years ago.” We chatted about how great Australia is then I asked him if I could ask him a serious question. “Yes, of course.” I asked him if he experienced prejudice against Muslims here in Sydney. “Sometimes but those people don’t know what they are doing.” He had a forgiving attitude towards people who didn’t wish him well. I told him I was a Christian and that we both worshipped the same God, meaning God the Father. He agreed. When we reached the destination, I tried to tip him and he refused. Pointing at his heart, he said our conversation had been enough gift.

The same God?

Perhaps it shocks you when I say the Muslims and Christians (and Jews for that matter) all worship the same God. Actually I’m just following Jesus’ example when he said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Woman believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain or in Jerusalem.” [John 4:21] We Christians believe in the Trinity and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit and God the Father are one God, and three persons. Jesus / God is including the Samaritan woman (someone outside the boundaries of orthodox religion, Judiasm in this case) in the act of genuine worship. It seems clear to me therefore that Muslims who worship One God are included in Jesus’ prophecy.

Why do we Christians find this so hard to accept? There is a long history of enmity among the three religions who worship the One God. (Just as there is a long history of enmity among the different branches of the Christian religion.)   The Muslims call Christians ‘infidels’ and Christian think of Muslims as people who don’t acknowledge the truth about Jesus. Yet the taxi driver and I both readily admitted we worship the same God. Are we woolly-headed or naive? Is it my duty to convert him so he believes in Jesus? Many Christians say “Absolutely! Otherwise he won’t get to heaven” and base this on biblical verses such as “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” [1 John 5:12]

The man from Yemen and salvation

As a very simple definition, being saved is being found worthy to live with God forever in heaven. God alone decides who will be saved, balancing his justice and mercy. God will decide whether the man from Yemen is saved. To say that God cannot save the man from Yemen is to deny God’s infinite love and power. The church nurtures and sustains the faith of Christians and is our mother and our teacher, for which we must be forever grateful. The Catholic Catechism puts it this way: “We believe the church as the mother of our new birth, and not in the church as if she were the author of our salvation.” [Catechism, Article 169] So salvation is a mystery lost in the depths of God and not some automatic entitlement of Christians, who must strive to be saved even though they are members of the church. If we Christians must strive to climb the mountain of God, so must every human being. Which leaves the question about the man from Yemen and salvation.

The most honest answer I can give about his salvation is I don’t know. Only God knows. But I hope the man from Yemen is being carried in God’s hands, and somehow I believe that he is. Years ago I was very worried about a man who was dying and wasn’t a practicing Christian. I was very anxious about what I must do to “save” him. I went to church and heard the story of the Roman Centurian who came to Jesus to get his help for his sick servant. When Jesus turned to go to the Centurian’s home and see the servant, the Centurian said these famous words, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus was amazed and said, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. . .” [Matthew 8:5-13] After hearing this, I suddenly heard very clearly, “Don’t worry, I have this man in my hands” and was very peaceful after that.

I think that my experience says that if we are meant to be involved in someone else’s salvation, God will let us know and also tell us what we must do. If we feel urgency to save people, we must pray so that we can distinguish our own ideas about what obligations we have as a Christian from what God’s is calling us to do in his plan of salvation. As I talked with the man from Yemen, I felt his faith and peacefulness as a servant of God the Father. Must the man from Yemen be baptized to be saved? The Catholic Catechism puts it this way: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” [Catechism, Article 1257] In other words, if God called me to bring the man from Yemen to the Christian faith, to “assure his entry into eternal beatitude” [Catechism 1259] I must cooperate with God’s grace to do that. But he is in God’s hands and God can find his own ways to bring him home, if he chooses. I assume for many Muslims and Jews (and other good people without faith in the one God) that is within his merciful and just plan of salvation.




Can we know Jesus’s mind?

e6b06feae55279cfb5023848b530e14eI was having a conversation the other day about some “liberal versus conservative” issue when I found myself quoting something Jesus did, as if I knew his mind perfectly. That got me to thinking — how much do I really understand the mind of Jesus? Or better yet, how much can human beings understand the depths of God’s mind and motivations? Some Christians say that the Bible contains what God teaches us about his way of thinking; other Christians add tradition. But both groups imply that, somehow we Christians know the mind of God. Our Jewish ancestors in faith never believed that. So when did we become so well informed about how God thinks?

The simple answer is, by observing Jesus and informed by the Holy Spirit, we have come to understand God’s mind about some aspects of life in God’s presence. Over 2000 years, we have discussed and pondered Jesus’s teachings and example and, since he told us (and Philip) “if you see me, you see the Father” we see God’s actions and understand what they signify for us. That is enough, for now. We are on a journey to full understanding but will never reach that fullness until we are face to face with God in heaven.


So far so good. We understand the basics but there are mysteries in the depths of God that elude us. What are the implications of this?

  • There are certain things that we can assert that brook very little contradiction. One of these is “God is love.” We may not understand the depths of God’s love but it’s certainly very clear that God commands us to love each other as he loves us. Working that command out in our daily living is certainly connected with what it means to be Christian.
  • There are other things that are mysterious by their very nature. One example is the balance between God’s justice and God’s mercy. Since God is perfect, his justice must be perfect at the same time that his mercy is perfect. God’s mercy and justice are only concepts until we apply them to people. What about a terrible criminal who repents on the gallows? Worse yet, what about the same criminal if he doesn’t repent? It’s too simple to say, one is saved and the other isn’t. Such dichotomies and judgments are human not divine. In the depths of God and the human soul, no one, not even the criminal himself can be perfectly confident in his understanding of God’s justice and mercy as it will be encountered at the Last Judgment.
  • Then there is how God understands human choices and success/failure.  By our nature we are fallen, inclined to sin. As St Paul said, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do yet not do the things I want?” Human freedom and sin and God’s view of human freedom and sin is an unfathomable mystery because God is infinite and our human soul, being God-like, is also beyond our grasp. Yes, each person has a basic sense of right and wrong built in, and there are clear commandments from God. But — and I think every adult has experienced this — when one makes moral choices, the execution often is flawed and falls far short of what we wish we could achieve. I have often said to myself that, if it wasn’t for God’s mercy, I’d give up. My hope that God’s mercy is there to balance his justice is what keeps me going many times.

All this is meant to point to one thing. When we Christians proclaim we know God’s mind in discussions or arguments, we are going a step too far. The other person may have an equally clear (to them) idea about what God is thinking and we may both be wrong. Lesson: It is better to be humble than proud when it comes to understanding God.


Leadership on the cutting edge

Mike Baird had just become the Premier of New South Wales — like the Governor of a state for my American readers — and the press struggled to understand how he could be a committed Christian and the leader of all people of all beliefs in his state. In an article in the weekend News Review in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled Dangerous Virtue, a Professor at Regent College ( a “small theological school and seminary” that Baird attended) was quoted as saying in a speech to a graduating class, “Be dangerous to those who diminish the importance of the individual person, in the womb or in the twilight years, or in between — to those who trample the individual soul, out of deference to the convenience of other family members, the health of the economy, the good of the state, or the well-being of the planet.” The Herald then made a pointed comment related to Mike Baird — “An Australian listening may be forgiven for thinking that (the professor speaking at the graduation) is calling for his young charges to oppose pretty well everything that marks business as usual on Macquarie Street (the place where Baird presides over the NSW government).”

The newspaper is confronting us and Baird with a question commonly put to Christians in politics — “What exactly does this man believe and is he going to be a fair leader for all people of all beliefs, or a biased pitchman for Christianity?” Baird to his credit doesn’t engage and answers this unasked but obvious question in a way that everyone can support — “I think my time there (at Regent College) taught me in a very deep and significant way to respect everyone . . . I have this very deep sense that every person matters, that is hopefully what I will bring to government.” His answer is an astute politician’s way of avoiding the question. “What do you believe about God and how will you follow His Will in the Kingdom in your job?” That question and its answer is basically asked of every Christian in every role or job in our secular society. There is no question that Christ asks all Christians to be leaders in changing the world and to be counter-cultural. But what does Jesus intend us to do, in real life?

Jesus’ way of leading-

Here are a few points about Christian leadership that we can see in Jesus’ teaching and example:

  • Jesus led by example. He didn’t seek leadership positions and in fact avoided them. He wanted his disciples to keep quiet about who he was, and never asserted his authority even though he could easily have become a widely popular leader and revolutionary.
  • Jesus empowered others. He gathered disciples around him and taught them what they needed to know after he had left them after the Ascension.
  • Jesus ignored the politics and policies of secular rulers and focused on the individuals who were effected by these essentially unjust laws and cultures. He left all politics and power struggles to “Caesar” and focused on advancing God’s Kingdom no matter what the secular system and culture believed or did.
  • Jesus was consumed with loving not doing. He was not results-oriented but relationship-oriented — The relationship between God and man was intimately tied to the relationship between a man and his neighbours.

These points may seem otherworldly and impractical and, in a way they are. Jesus advocated not worrying about what you would eat or wear — God will take care of our human needs. Jesus knew many Christians would end up working for wages to support their families, or even as Premiers or Company Presidents. He simply said, don’t take that part of your life too seriously and lose focus on the much more important aspects of life — your relationships with God and neighbour. Learn how to keep all these things in balance. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “Lord, teach me to care and not to care.” Mike Baird seems (from a distance) to be following Jesus’ way of leading.

The tyranny of certainty

CertaintySometimes there are ideas in society that are so prevalent that we cannot see them or their effects. One of these is the modern certainty that human knowledge defines the scope of what can be known. Eric Voegelin in Science, Politics and Gnosticism traces this idea back to the so-called ‘enlightenment.’ He quotes Neitzche and Marx among others to illustrate the origins of our modern refusal to ask questions outside the limits of modern science.

  • Nietzsche speaks of a “fundamental will of the spirit” which wants to feel itself master. The spirit’s will to mastery is served in the first place by “a suddenly erupting resolve for ignorance, for arbitrary occlusion . . . a kind of defensive stand against much that is knowable.” [1]
  • Marx says, in the same vein: “All of so-called world history is nothing but the production of man by human labor. The purpose of this (Marx’s) speculation is to shut off the process of being from transcendent being and have man create himself.”

To simplify, this idea can be summarized as if man can’t understand trancendence or God, it’s useless to speculate about such things. This position, of course, ignors the Greek philosophers as well as Christian theologians and thinkers who started with being as a whole and reasoned based on its existence. Neitzche and Marx and many others threw out the baby with the bathwater (There is no reality other than what science can validate) because it didn’t serve their purposes. As Voegelin says, “There has emerged a phenomenon unknown to antiquity that permeates our modern societies so completely that its ubiquity scarcely leaves us any room to see it at all: the prohibition of questioning. . . We are confronted here with persons who know that, and why, their opinions cannot stand up under critical analysis and who therefore make the prohibition of the examination of their premises part of their dogma.” This especially apllies to science and its philosophical foundations.

Questioning and indifference

Why do some people refuse to examine their ideas? One reason is that their idea may be wrong; too much in their life would have to be rethought if their idea was shown to be wrong. Another, harder to see reason is that we live today in a ‘culture of indifference’ where one idea is as good as another. So what if my idea is wrong; it’s as good as yours. You can see this in the ideas that some people post on Facebook. Here are a few examples:

  • “Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways – Jack Daniels in one hand – chocolate in the other – body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming “holy Shit, what a ride!!” [A variation of the epicurean idea “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”]
  • “Be who you really are, do not change for anyone, and always always dream big enough to achieve.” [Life is about dreaming the future that we want for ourselves and then achieving that future.]
  • “Thoughts lead to purposes, purposes go forth in actions, actions form habits, habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny.” [We create ourselves through our thoughts, and that’s it.]

You may feel some of these statements make sense, but try asking, “How does the person who made this statement know it’s true?” Or better yet, “Where is God and his grace in this statement?” Why do people make such statements?

If we don’t have some certainty in our life then the ambiguity becomes intolerable. So we create that certainty for ourselves, alone or as part of a community. Even Christians. We rarely ask, If a person believes that the Bible is not the revealed word of God, what would it mean to be a Christian for such a person?  But Paul raises exactly that point and answers his own question: “What then are we to say about such things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhhold his own Son, but gave him up for all , will he not with him give us everything else?” [Romans 8:31-32] Our faith rests on revelation and our experience of Jesus as God or it rests on nothing. Paul knew we would have such questions because we are human. In fact questions are the usual way our faith is developed. To have no questions is not human. Certainty is not the normal human state and is tyrannical because it leads us nowhere. Jesus anticipated that common human situation and showed us the way forward.

Jesus wished to spark questions

One very obvious thing about Jesus is that his actions were ambiguous. He hid who he was from everyone except his disciples — and even they didn’t clearly understand that Jesus was God until after the resurrection. His life invited questions. “Who do men say that  I am?” Who do you say I am?”  Even when he performed miracles, people were confused, even his disciples. Speaking  of the miracle of feeding 5000 men, Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you not yet understand?” — and they didn’t. [Matthew 8:21] Jesus could have easily just told them directly that he was God yet he didn’t. We can speculate why he acted liked this but it is obvious that he wished men to ask questions.

As Christians, when we encounter people who have fixed ideas (certainty) about how life ought to be lived — even other Christians — ought we not to spark some doubt, and a consequent search for new ideas  and a fuller understanding of what life is all about in that person?


[1] Voegelin, Eric (2012-03-27). Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Kindle Locations 430-431). Regnery Publishing. Kindle Edition.

The paradox of aging

gpa_sleeping_on_the_sofaI was talking to a friend of mine on Skype other day, about being “older” and its challenges. His name is Rev. Brian McCaffrey and he is very experienced in this topic, being the Chairman at the Northeast Forum on Spirituality & Aging for the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Older Adult Ministry. [Click here to read more about this ministry to older people.] What caught my attention was a statement he made, that we “learn to live with paradox” the older we get. Our maturation process depends on holding life and death together in our minds as we enter the “dying process.” Our opportunity is to “glorify God” by learning to do this process jointly with God.

The dying process

As I get older ideas about death and dying seem more important to me. I have been “doing life” for many years and haven’t really focused on death. Now, it looms just over the horizon, perhaps only a few years away. As I said to Brian on our Skype call, I’m not afraid of what comes after death, just the “process of dying.” He agreed that going to an aged care facility seems like something to be avoided — but then said that he has come to see that many of these seemingly helpless and dependent people are “glorifying God.” Jesus glorified his Father in the death he was to endure on the Cross: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” [John 17:4] It seems clear to me that how we end our work here on earth is important to God, even ‘glorifying’ the Father. What can this mean?

The process of dying certainly involves letting go. First we ‘retire’ and depend on our savings and other sources of income. We let go of certain aspects of our lifestyle. Then we begin to lose our health and depend on others to help us find ways to manage our wellness. Finally, we become so frail that we depend on others to do many things for us. At the end, this even includes bathing us, feeding us, and changing our ‘nappies’ as we become almost infantile. We may or may not keep our mental acuity. So, we must ‘let go’ of many things in life whether we want to or not. But just letting go because we have no other choice does not ‘glorify God.’ Choosing to let go in a particular way is what Jesus means by glorifying God. This is where the paradox of aging comes in.

The paradox of aging

What is the paradox of aging? For me it is the inner conflict between ‘fighting’ and ‘surrender.’ You sometimes hear people say, “She fought hard to stay alive” about a dying person. The will to live is essential; otherwise people just fade away before their time. The desire to continue to live is clearly a good thing. But then we discover that, no matter how hard we strive to live, we eventually come to the point where we (and medicine) can do no more. We must ‘surrender’ and die. In my imagination I can see myself on my death bed doing this, right at the very end. But that isn’t what Jesus did. He entering the process of dying much earlier in his life — he knew his life was inextricably tied to the Cross — and ‘surrendered’ to God’s will. In fact, Jesus’ entire life was one of surrender to God’s will, not ‘fighting for life’ or his own goals. The paradox of aging is we must devote energy to living and we must also learn how to negotiate the process of dying.

So, how do we resolve this paradox? We come to accept that we cannot make the transition from earthly life to eternal life by ourselves — we are completely dependent on God. That is certainly difficult for most of us to swallow. Being independent, achieving our goals, realizing our dreams is what western culture celebrates. Yet, that is not a mature way to view life. Learning to ‘surrender’ and be carried by God — because we cannot carry ourselves — that is a mature view of Christian life. My mother was 96 when she passed away — and she is my personal model of a mature approach to the process of dying and glorifying God. She lived at home, cared for by my sister until the last 3 months of her life. She didn’t want to go to a nursing home but she knew my sister couldn’t care for her anymore so she bravely accepted the transition. I hope I can be as mature as she was, at the end.

Ascending the mountain

Another helpful way to think about the paradox is to use metaphors for the process of dying. We need metaphors to understand things we have never experienced before. They help us imagine new possibilities. Pope Benedict imagined the process of dying this way, in his book Jesus of Nazareth: “The ascent toward ‘loving to the end’ (cf John 13:1) is the real mountain of God.” If you read the beginning of Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel, you might initially be surprised, but then when you think about this chapter, Jesus was showing us the way to both live and die. It was the Last Supper and Jesus knew he would die soon. He (the Master and God) washed the feet of his friends. The metaphor of ascent to God is turned on its head. Ascending the mountain isn’t about some heroic demonstration of courage in the face of death, or stoicism in the face of fear and suffering. Jesus unmistakeably demonstrates that it is about serving others.

How do we serve others in the process of dying? Each person discovers their unique situation and tasks as they approach death but Jesus’ message is clear: Don’t look inside yourself for strength in those moments or days. Serve others and trust in the Father for strength. “Let go and let God” as the saying goes. We can’t serve others or reach the top using our own strength. The process of dying is not a letting go of life; we know we are approaching eternal life as we ascend God’s mountain. The process of dying is a letting go  of self, trusting that God holds us in His hands. How do we know we have let go of ourselves? When we focus on others — family, friends, nurses, doctors, other people in the same circumstances. “Loving to the end” is what the process of dying is all about.