Thursday, March 31, 2005

Like us in every way except without sin

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We must not think of Christ's sinlessness so much as a moral and metaphysical negative, but as a moral and spiritual positive. He did not simply abstain from doing "bad things". Rather, he was so filled with the love of God that it displaced his desire and capacity for lesser goods, i.e., sin. In turn, he calls us to love each and every person to our maximum capacity. The sad fact of the matter is, we do love some people more than others. While we should not content ourselves with this disparity of love, we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Our refusal to love someone we happen to love much more than someone else, for whatever reason (subconscious affectivities, personality compatibility, personal benefits, etc.), is nothing less than a sin against God, whose primary aim is to fill us with his love for his glory. Refusing to be embarassingly loving to our favorite co-worker or neighbor or roommate or student or etc. -- for the sake of "politeness" and "being normal," of course -- is a grave failure to obey our lord.

I guess I've broken through the wall

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The following originally began as a comment at one of my favorite readers' blogs, The Gordian Knot, but it has, obviously, demanded a place of its own here at FCA.

Dear Alexander,

I noticed you have dialogued a little about the Theotokos, our Lady, the Virgin Mary (that's her full name in Ecumenicalese). I have a few comments.

First, about our Lady's perpetual virginity. I agree with you, and maybe even more vehemently than you, that her virginity was and is vital for the integrity of the Gospel. It was not simply a “sign” of her purity, like a psychological reminder for the sake of human observers, but was in fact a “sacrament” (or demi-sacrament) of her purity as the Theotokos. That is, her unsoiled virginity was an efficacious sign of her purity, simultaneously presenting it and preserving it. Her purity as the mother of Christ in the womb primarily ensured Jesus was never estranged from his Father by the fallen corruption of human nature. Secondarily, though, she retained her virginal purity in order to be the fitting mother of all Christians. While sex in its original form (in Eden) was not impure, the fact of the matter is, sexual intercourse now does continue the line of fallen humanity (regardless whether this is called “original sin” or its less Augustinian Eastern names), not only by commission (intercourse) but also by procession (birth). Baptism regenerates the soul (cf. Rom 6), true enough, but only the eschaton will ultimately transform the carnal (“concupiscent”) body into beatified perfection (cf. 1 Cor 15), a perfection our Lady not only enjoyed on earth but even now enjoys as the great maternal comforter of all the faithful. As Jacques Servais says,

Father Louis Bouyer ... has argued that it is a kind of Monophysitism to accept human motherhood in the order of nature but not in the order of grace: “The most pernicious Docetism of Monophysitism is often the one we do not notice, in particular, Docetism toward ourselves, toward our new life as children of God. . . . The attitude of the Christian who imagines that, at the level of grace, it is sufficient for him to have a heavenly Father, and that he has no need of an earthly Mother, is a very dubious one. Does it not imply that Christian life and ordinary life have to remain on different levels, with nothing in common? There is no vainer illusion! There is no Christian life that is different from ordinary life. Christian life is that life placed under the immediate guidance of God without being cut off from its roots in history.[1]

Beyond all this, insofar as Mary is the image of the Church and, thus, of every Christian, her virginity, like all authentic celibacy, was and is an eschatological and efficacious “sign of contradiction” to the world, proclaiming that once reborn in Christ, a Christian must not be re-united to the world. Her virginity remained intact in order for her to the unsoiled mother of our Lord and, in turn, of his disciples (cf. Jhn 19). The purity of a Christian in whom Christ resides in formation is only an abstraction apart from the incarnated “deposit” of it in the concrete person of Mary.

Second, having said all that, Alexander, I’m curious again to hear the objection EOx have against the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception (apart from its “pious” papist promulgator). Let me quote you:

“If Mary was not sinless and pure, what would that say about the sorts of relationships that we should have with God. ... How can He reside in unclean hearts, much less the unclean womb of an undeserving woman?”

If our Lady really was sinless and perfect in every way, doesn’t that extend to her conception in St. Anne? If not, how or when was she purified enough to bear our Lord? If she was purified at some point after conception, or after birth, or even only at the Annunciation, I fail to see how she could have “pleased the Lord” so deeply that she was announced to be the Theotokos (cf. Lke 1). The dogma of the IC escapes this riddle, because, according to it, Mary was preserved from all sin and therefore never actually (actively) morally displeasing to God. Her “sin” was, for her as an individual, only potential but for her as a human, inevitable. The inevitability of her original sin as child of Adam did not however render her in fact sinful in God’s eyes. God simply delivered her preemptively, by the eternal ordained merits of Christ, from the inevitability of original sin, and her actual sinlessness as a pre-conceived person put no “blockade” between this intervention and her reception of it.

The Annunciation is, therefore, a sort of dramatized, externalized allegory of the Immaculate Conception. Our Lady was favored to be the Theotokos by the grace of Christ and her immaculate nature, even from conception, put up no blockade between this even grander intervention and her “fiat.” To quote from Fr. Bouyer again,

"If there is any Catholic belief that shows how much the Church believes in the sovereignty of grace, in its most gratuitous form, it is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception ... .To say that Mary is holy, with a super-eminent holiness, in virtue of a divine intervention previous to the first instant of her existence, is to affirm in her case as absolutely as possible that salvation is a grace, and purely a grace, of God."

But again, had our Lady been tainted by any sin at all, I fail to see how she could have received, morally or volitionally, the grace of being the Theotokos as a single, integrated person, not simply as a segment of Mary used by God for the delivery and nurturing of Christ. God did not choose a “phase” of Mary. He chose the whole Mary, from her first moment to her last – that is, from her conception to her assumption – as realized wholly in the mind of God. Her sinlessness at any point in existence would therefore taint her not so much in our eyes but in the eyes of higher creatures – most especially in the eyes of God Himself, an imperfection I believe He refused to accept for the sake of His dear Son. Like every Marian dogma, Mary’s IC was and is fundamentally promulgated and defended for the glory of Christ. Her IC was, therefore, not so much a gift to her, much less a “reward” in anticipation of her sinlessness – what does God “owe” her or anyone else? Rather, the IC was the supreme gift of God *to His Son*, our Lord, for his Incarnation. “A body hast Thou prepared [opened] for me, O Lord” (Heb 10:5). My dad always spiffed up the car before lending it to me for a date. At the risk of being irreverent, I quite sincerely ask, “How much more would God bless His Son with an ‘immaculate’ vehicle into this world?” (Cf. Mth 7:9-11 for this kind of a fortiori theologic.) As I said above, our Lady’s immaculateness was given primarily for the sake of sparing Christ, in his human nature, from the estrangement all children of Adam suffer by normal birth; a secondary and lasting benefit of it is, of course, her fittingness as the Mother of the faithful (cf. Rev 12).

I guess my point is I really can’t understand how the Eastern Orthodox Churches can exalt Mary as sinless and pure (even more ecstatically than many Westerners) without also affirming the dogma of her Immaculate Conception. I hope you know I don’t mean any of this triumphalistically or snidely. I genuinely want to understand the Orthodox objection to our Lady’s totally immaculate status in the merits of Christ. You know where to find me. ;)

[1] This rejection of “Marian Monophysitism" relates to an essay I have under construction, an essay in which I develop an idea I call “charismatic realism.” I originally intended to send it to Kevin Johnson as an explanation of why Mary still deserves veneration today, even beyond the historical sense of honor more “catholic” Protestants are willing to give her, but I think his email never got it. I sent a copy of it to the Pontificator too and he thought it was pretty nifty. I hope to post sometime before the Second Coming.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Petrine ministry vs. the Papacy

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Very quickly:

Was pondering the claim by Orthodox that Rome has broken the unity of the episcopacy and overstepped the authentic Petrine minsistry for the Church. For argument's sake, I'll agree Rome is (since, say, 1150 AD) no longer worthy to be called the Peter-Rock of the Church. But clearly this only means Rome, and its heretical bishop, can no longer carry on the Petrine ministry. It does not remove the need for a Petrine ministry as such. So, since Orthodox deny Rome its Petrine status, where is the Petrine ministry today? Does any other bishop claim to have even a similar chrism of authority or unity as Rome claims to have (and was granted to have)? If not, why not? If so, on what grounds?

Let me be clear: in the post just linked to, I asked a question -- Can the Fathers' pro-papal statements be reconciled with any communion except Catholicism? -- which I'll now modify. Does any Christian communion other than Catholicism have anything like a Petrine ministry? The absence of such a ministry on its own forces me to stay where I am as a Catholic (shucks, all four days and counting!).

As always, I welcome edifying insights and questions, but, as I just mentioned, I can't promise any prompt reply.


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Hey team, the E-Team, that is,

Apart from the recent purgatory and theism posts, I have hit a wall. I have too many other little things buzzing in my face right now and I'm really tired. I don't think it's acedia, since I'm full of zeal and love since receiving the Eucharist (and boy howdy do I mean that -- I'm considering posting a "testimony" about the changes the Lord has already wrought in me since the vigil!). I think it's just mild fatigue coupled with a vague disinterest in my regular obligations: German homework, Arabic study, grading tests, nightly calisthenics, etc. I just want to rest and read and delight in the Risen Lord.

So, I guess this is my way of saying my blogging will be unpredictably sporadic for a while, at least until I get my steam back. I'm sure you'll be fine without me. ;) And thanks so much all of you for your warm congratulations!

PS. I do intend to post the last few segments of sacraments report. In due time.

Apples and oranges

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I don't make the atheist/skeptic blog-tour too much (heck, since Lent, I don't make much of any blog tours), but I did come across an analogy on one such blog that aims to undermine the notion of finding God. As the skeptical blogger puts it:

This is what my life is like. I have four apples. At least I’m pretty sure there are only four, I only bought four, I can only see four and there is no reason to suppose I have any more. There could be five I suppose, but I see no reason to think so. The trouble is, everyone else thinks there are five. I ask people for evidence that there are five apples. I ask them what reason they have to suppose there are five, or to show me how they counted five, and these are the replies I get [thus follows a list of apparently worthless replies]...

I replied as follows:

If I may, the analogy is actually quite skewed. You seem to forget that the question of material existence and God, whom I presume to be the missing 5th apple, is a question of comparing apples and oranges. Life is apples, but not ONLY apples. God is the orange to the monotony of our apples. More importantly, the "point" of God is that he is the very basis on which we say our life is more than just apples. As the source of life, he is the moreness of life.

Alas, in this analogy, the narrow focus on apples only leads us all too conveniently to forget to ask where we got the four apples in the first place. There are such things as apple trees and THEREFORE we all know what apples are and where they come from. God is not simply another apple, nor is he simply an orange, but is in fact the rational, metaphysical and moral basis -- the apple tree -- by which we count, recognize, and enjoy apples. Soren Kierkegaard, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstoff are very helpful in this line of thought. I also suggest you have a look at Thomas Dubay's _The Evidential Power of Beauty_ and Stanley Jaki's _Means to Message_.

Finally, God is not a 5th apple, because God is a person. Hence, the fundamental error in the analogy is that rather than looking for the missing 5th apple, believers are looking for (and have found) the Person himself that provides us so graciously with all our apples. The inherently personal nature of the world cries out for a Person in and above the world, just as the inherently tree-based nature of apples cries out for a source AS WELL AS a goal which all apples (seeds) possess the ability to achieve. Apples are gifts and all gifts are personal. Having eyes for apples only, whether 4 or 40, is not God's fault, but ours.

Purgatory by Michael Taylor, S.J.

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This began as an Amazon review but then it grew into a fuller reflection on the mercy – that’s right – of purgatory. I’m posting it now, without any serious revising, so please forgive its rough stylistic edges or (theo)logical warts.

Fr. Taylor has written a very basic, but surprisingly moving, primer on the doctrine of purgatory. I give this book three stars because Taylor's thesis (cf. pp. 51 & 62) is riveting and, again, quite moving, to wit: purgatory is the loving process of God by which he brings even the most impure of his beloved children into the so-called “fullness of emptiness” so they, in turn, can be truly filled with God's love in heaven. Stated more simply, purgatory is kenosis. Kenosis is the biblical term for the self-emptying of Christ which Christians must imitate (cf. Php. 2:5ff.). Insofar as many of us die far short of this emptiness, and thus sorely unprepared for the fullness of God, purgatory is there to finish the task of sanctification. Part of this self-emptying consists in our mutual support of one another, before or after death, which is pretty much the whole meaning of the mystical unity of the Church on earth, in purgatory and in heaven (cf. p. 28).

I was very pleased to see Taylor emphasize (along admittedly more Eastern lines) the nature of purgatory as the therapeutic, rather than punitive, removal of all obstacles – the uprooting all weeds of selfishness in our souls -- that block God's love from filling us. As Taylor notes, and quite pointedly, purgatory assures us, and quite vividly, that God in Christ will ultimately destroy *all* evil, even the last speck of resistance in yet-to-be-purged Christians. “[Be] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Php 1:6, a verse Taylor did not cite but should have, says I!). Taylor is dead-on when he asks why God should hold up such a high standard for the living but then suddenly turn tail after they die and admit he doesn’t “really” expect them to be Christlike.

This view of purgatory as God’s unrelenting, ever-burning love for us sets the stage for the best line of the book. After admitting the "hard" scriptural "evidence" for purgatory is slim and contestable (p. 26), Taylor catches us off guard by answering the question whether there is a theological basis for the doctrine with these bold words: "Yes -- the gospel message itself!" (p. 53) Heaven consists in enjoying God in complete Christlikeness, a state which prefaced by complete surrender to the cross that crucifies our sin (cf. Lke 9:27 etc.). Purgatory is nothing less than God’s “Christifying” love healing us even beyond death. Purgatory, fundamentally a school of hope in coming glory, is the fire of a God who refuses to let us go.

Having said all that in its favor, I give this book only three stars for two reasons: 1) he often repeats himself, sometimes even at whole paragraphs' length; and 2) while Taylor provides a nice select bibliography, he never cites the works in the text itself, thus impairing the reader's ability to explore cool (or problematic) ideas. I would have especially liked to see him deal more closely with the theology of a "final option," according to which each person has a final "moment of clarity" in which she can either reject or accept God, thus rendering the need for further purification pointless. A free and full rejection simply merits hell; a free and full acceptance of God merits heaven. As Taylor rightly notes, in terms of the Bible and Catholic Tradition, this notion of a final option is poppycock. But he never cites who pushes the idea. I would also have liked Taylor to draw more explicitly from magisterial teachings, but that's just the papist in me. ;)

Allow me now to branch off my review into a more personal reflection on the significance of this book for me lately. I read this book day only hours after I had a discussion with an Evangelical friend about purgatory (yes, it's a very quick read). In that discussion, my basic point about purgatory was that, if we face the biblical picture honestly, it is the only doctrine that solves a basic conundrum of the Gospel. On the one hand, we must be pure to enter heaven. On the other hand, we are not pure, and dying does not magically erase that fact. How then can we, the impure, attain heaven, to live forever with the pure?

My friend kept insisting we are pure “in Christ.” This is true as far as it goes. But my friend was trying to make it go too far. As with so many issues, the Catholic truth, versus the Protestant error, rests on a difference of emphasis rather an outright dispute. Consider the mutually affirmed claim that we are pure in Christ. Protestants emphasize the idea that we are pure *in Christ*, but then have a hard time explaining where we fit into the picture after that. After all, as hard as it is to admit, when we sin, we are no less impure inside or outside Christ. Sin is sin, in Christ or not.

Catholics also proclaim we are pure new creatures in Christ. However, they emphasize the fact that *we* are pure in Christ, that we, as real human beings, truly do become holy. The Protestant notion of being pure *in Christ* is not an ace in the sleeve that exempts us from, or even mechanically conforms us to, holiness. Rather, we in Christ must strive in cooperation with Christ, by the help of his grace, to enter the holiness God has already prepared and into which he calls us (cf. Mth 5:48, 7:13-14, 16:27; Jhn 8:31, 15:1-14; Rom 8:1-14; Gal. 5:16-25; Php 2:13; Col. 3:1-8; 1 Tim. 6:11-12, 1 Pet. 1:13-17; 2 Pet. 1:3-11, etc.). Biblically, far from giving us an “express pass” straight to heaven despite our rank sinfulness, being in Christ actually raises the stakes. This is why the Bible consistently emphasizes the scandal of sinful Christians versus the fate of non-Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 2 Cor. 5:9-11; Heb. 3:6-4:7, 6:4-12; 1 Pet. 4:17-19; etc.). Far from getting a "pass" in Christ, Christians will very likely be subject to an even more rigorous judgment for the simple fact that they had a higher calling (Lke. 12:47-48; Eph. 4:1ff.; etc.). Can any of us say we always live worthily of the Gospel calling, let alone do so at the moment of our death? If not, then, praise be to God, the mercy of purgatory awaits us like a final session of spiritual chemo.

Enough theological abstraction. Let’s look at the cold, hard pastoral facts of life in Christ. Let’s return to our conundrum, which, by the way, has two faces: a face seen by God and a face seen by us. We have just looked at the conundrum from God’s eyes. God sees – and sees all too well – how exactly we do not line up with the image of Christ. Fortunately, however, and he is determined to keep conforming us to that image (cf. Rom. 8:26-38; Col. 3:9-10; etc.).

But from our eyes? What do we see when we at life look through the conundrum of promised eternal bliss for sinners? We see remorse, guilt and the need for repentance. This fact seems obvious to the point of being trivial but it is crucial for the purpose of purgatory. If we are truly and irrevocably pure in Christ, as if he were a mask or a costume, why do we grieve over our sins? If, viewing life after death in Christ, Protestants glow with the assurance they are and always will be pure *in Christ*, why then do they worry about their sins now, before death? If our purity *in Christ* exempts us from post-mortem purgation, why do we dread our sins now? If we need purifying now -- and scarcely seem to get enough this side of the veil -- how can we deny the reaity of a final purgation in God's fiery love?

A typical answer is because we want to love God more and glorify him. This is true! But we must recall the other Protestant tenet that all our works are like filthy rags. The question, then is, “How *could* we, sinners always traipsing around in filthy rags, ever glorify God at all, let alone more?” The answer is, “By grace of course. We can glorify God because we are pure in Christ.” “So we are pure beyond any recrimination?” “Well, no, we all sin.” “So we would need to be purified if we died a sinful disciple?” “Well, no, because we are pure in Christ.” And round and round it goes.

Fortunately, at this point, the Catholic Church steps in and says, “Well, yes, of course, all of our works, in and of ourselves, are filthy rags. But in Christ, *we actually* become aligned from the inside out with his person, which, in turn, actually transforms our filthy rags into holy offerings. Alas, given the freedom of our wills, we can, and often do, resubmit to the yoke of slavery. Assuming we are under that yoke – a yoke that displaces the yoke of Christ and therefore blocks the fullness of God’s love which is heaven – then, clearly, we are still in need of purifying. Praise be to God that he will purify us, even if only in a twinkling of a metaphysical eye, and we, *we ourselves*, shall indeed be pure in Christ. This is final mercy of perfection is called Purgatory.”

The fundamental problem for a Protestant is that somewhere between the impurity of our final days and the purity of our eternal days in heaven, there is a crucial gap. Somehow the gap between an impure death and a pure eternity must be filled. The love of God demands it be closed for us to enjoy full union with him; the holiness of God demands it be filled for man to honor God inculpably. Protestants admit as much by claiming in one breath that we all die impure, while in the next breath insisting we are pure after death forever “in Christ”. But, obviously, at some point, in some way, we went from *being* (and not merely feeling) impure in Christ to *being* pure in him. From God’s eyes this is a real, ontological, moral and metaphysical transformation. In our eyes, it is a psychological liberation from the sense of shame and guilt, such as our first parents enjoyed (cf. Gen. 1-3 and Rom. 6-7). From either perspective, however, a transformative intermediate phase – call it purgatory – is logically and biblically inescapable.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

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Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

Christus ist auferstanden! Tatsächlich auferstanden!

Cristo resucitó! Resucitó en verdad!

基督復活了! 他真的復活了!

(No more blogging today, Easter Sunday. Gotta try to call friends and family. But I do have some goodies cooking, so stay tuned! And yes, it's official, I'm Catholic and I've received our Lord in the Eucharist twice now!)

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man (VII)

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Anointing of the Sick:

1499 "By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ."

In all honesty, this sacrament doesn’t “do” as much for me as the others. Even so, I know by faith this Sacrament is just as much gift as the others. My psychological dullness aside, what I do appreciate about it is how it, like the other Sacraments, continues the work of Christ in our age. It is crucial for the Church to walk as Jesus walked. Therefore, any church that avoids or, worse, flatly denies the reality of Christ’s healing ministry today, already shows itself out of step with him. Jesus came to give sight to the blind and life to the dying. Anointing is the ongoing sign of Christ’s mission for wholeness. Even when it appears not to have worked – in the case of a death, or a worsened condition, etc. – we can trust in the oil of anointing to be a covenant reminder, a sort of oily stain of grace, waiting to be redeemed on the final Day. The oil of Anointing is the grease of grace.

Another thing I like about Anointing is how it shows God’s concern for the whole spectrum of human life. God restores and nourishes us from birth (with Baptism), to maturity (with Confirmation, Eucharist, Confession, Orders and Matrimony), all the way to sickness and death (with Anointing). At every point along the way, God has given us the means of grace to meet our needs. Recalling the fundamentally nuptial nature of Christianity, I see the Sacraments, and Anointing in particular, as God’s way of sticking to his marriage vows. In wealth and in poverty. In sickness and in health. In life and in death. Every drop of consecrated oil is a burst of God’s marital grace breaking through. Every drop is the voice of God whispering “I do”, without a second thought, to his Bride’s often beleaguered heart.

Having said all these nice things, I confess again most of it is head-faith, and the sacrament of Anointing has not yet satisfactorily clutched my heart.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man (VI)

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Confession & Penance:

1422 "Those who approach the sacrament of Penance obtain pardon from God's mercy for the offense committed against him, and are, at the same time, reconciled with the Church which they have wounded by their sins and which by charity, by example, and by prayer labors for their conversion."

I. What Is This Sacrament Called?

1423 It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus' call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.

It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner's personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.

1424 It is called the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a "confession"—acknowledgment and praise—of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.

It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest's sacramental absolution God grants the penitent "pardon and peace."

It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the love of God who reconciles: "Be reconciled to God." He who lives by God's merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord's call: "Go; first be reconciled to your brother."

I love the idea of Confession because it keeps me humble and honest; I love Confession itself, however, because in it, I meet Christ, and in him I meet my maker and my only best hope. The sacrament of Confession consists in the fact that I enter the Church in guilt and shame but exit in peace and holiness. As an idea, Confession is one of the most alluring Sacraments. I am intrigued by the almost constant availability of confessing to another human being, as the Bible says we should. As an ecclesial reality, however, I am also daunted by the availability of confession.

Why is Confession so daunting? The sacramental concreteness of it makes humility, and at least a dim sense of holy guilt, inescapable like no mere spiritual “self-awareness” can do. Confession drives humility into us at all the main levels of our being: the mental, the physical, the verbal and the spiritual. At the mental level, the mere act of planning to confess immediately brands you as a sinner. Merely planning to confess marks you as a sucker in some people’s eyes, but as a fledgling saint in the eyes of the Church. Even the dimmest consideration of confessions shows you are a person enlightened enough, by grace, to the simplest of truths: you are not perfect.

Beyond mere planning, at the physical level, the act of entering a confessional forces you to take time out of your busy schedule for the sole purpose of admitting you are a sinner. How embarrassing! Imagine explaining to colleagues why you can’t join them for lunch: “I can’t go; I have to confess my sins.” Your legs become living instruments of humility as they propel you into that infamous corner of shame mixed with hope.

Finally, at the verbal level, even if you are “hidden” behind a curtain or grating, the act of openly declaring your sins to another human being is no small thing. Even on the assumption there is nothing supernatural in the Church, and therefore nothing divine in the confessional, we must still admit how powerful such a practice is for releasing and checking otherwise unbridled antisocial impulses. Call it, if you insist, a mere anthropological ritual of social compromise and inner release. Even then, Confession has an anthropological utility I can’t deny.

Fortunately, though, Confession is not just an anthropological ritual. It is the very scalpel of God. Entering the confessional is like laying on a surgical gurney. Voicing your sins is like lying belly-up under huge bright lights that leave nothing to the imagination. Most importantly, receiving the priest’s absolution is nothing less than encountering the risen Christ present as always to forgive and heal us. And here we are the core, at the spiritual center of man. The Sacraments, remember, are the “seven fingers” of an otherwise purely “spiritual” God [as discussed in Part II of this series]. Confession is, therefore, nothing less than our reaching out by faith to the expert hand of God as he reaches out in love. In Confession, we meet God as he reaches into our world through a man’s tongue and carves out our sin like a surgeon excising a tumor. The priest is not much more – or less – than the surgical glove worn by God, until that final Day when all blinders fall away and we shall know as we are known. All tumors shall have been burned away and there we shall stand: naked and scarred, but whole and holy.


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I can't believe it's getting this close. Maundy Thursday tonight. It was powerful. I sinned in anger only minutes before arriving at Mass (ah, Taiwan traffic). I guess that "helped" me begin on the right foot, which is to say on the penitential bended knee.

Along the same lines, I have felt pensive this week. I feel like I want to cut every extraneous thing out of my schedule so I may carve even the smallest bit more space in my life for the Lord. I cancelled my German class Wednesday and have even slowed my reading pace from “maniacally obsessive” to “merely feverish”. Also, at the risk of wearing my devotion on my sleeve (contra Mth. 6:16ff.), I intend to fast from some favorite creature comforts until Easter Sunday.

As for the Mass tonight, before leaving home I prepared by reading the missal in English, which helped me follow along in Chinese. (Nothing like a Chinese Mass to encourage me my Chinese is actually making progress!) I couldn't make much sense of the homily, but the Scriptures were enough to reflect on in the meanwhile. As the Mass progressed, I was increasingly aware of the gravity, the enormity, of sin which Christ bore for us. Towards the end of the Mass, as the Holy Gifts were transferred from the altar to a side monstrance, I nearly wept[1] as I envisioned Christ being carried to his passion at the hands of sinful men and women. As then, so now. Then, as the bishops, priests and deacons stripped the altar, snuffed the candles and removed the flowers, I felt almost physically pierced by the sight of Christ' wounds. His Passion flared to life in my heart, nearly blinding the eye of my soul. Like St. Thomas, precisely in beholding our Lord's wounds on our behalf was I able to recognize him as my Lord and my God (cf. Jhn 20:24ff.). St. Thomas's confession captures the essence of the Holy Week, for they are a divinely inspired and paradoxical blend of repentant grief (Good Friday) and stupefied joy (Easter). I recalled his words with such force, they nearly broke through my lips to break the silence around me.

Apropos silence, that is how I ended my time with the Lord at Mass. I asked him to help me hear his voice. I asked him not so much to help me insist the world around me "shut up!", but rather that *I* become deaf to the world. Christ is well known for healing the deaf, but I think he deserves just as much awe, or more, for deafening the sinful. I need to be deafened. Fortunately, when we repent, the silence is deafening. Repentance is largely an act of muteness on our part, in which we shut up long enough to acknowledge we have no basis for a “retort” before a holy God. The muteness of repentance, in turn, strikes us with deafness to all things unholy and thus opens our ears to all things holy. "In my silence, O Lord," I prayed, "help me to deafen the world. As I listen to you – in that silence of awe – may the world go deaf. Not with my shouting for your name, but in my silence before your glory."

This is an immense time for me, dear readers. Please pray for me.

Dear St. Francis de Sales, heavenly writer, pray to the Lord that I may have a tender heart. Pray to him that I may attain a heart as tender as his own Sacred Heart, which was and is pierced by me and for me. Help me learn how to shepherd the wayward just as our Lord taught you to do so.

Dear St. Ignatius of Loyola, mentor of the meek, pray to the Lord that I may have Christ's strength – but only insofar as I use it as he did so. Help me learn the strength of humility just as our Lord taught you to do so.

Dear Sts. Cyril and Methodius, pray to the Lord our God that I may serve him in the unity of his Church, both in word and in deed. Pray to the Lord for mercy, as I so often fail to live in the unity of God's Good News. Pray to the Lord that I may truly know the unity and peace of God, both in my soul and in the larger communal life of the Church. Help me to live and die for the unity of new life in Christ, a wholeness which only God's love can bring.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Church, and my own Mother in Christ, pray for me now and at the hour of my death (ah, Taiwan traffic). Help me to thirst for holiness just as you did. Help me to trust I will indeed be filled one day, just as you were from the first moment of your life. Thank you, dear Mary, for reminding me that if we have the obligation, even the instinct, for awe in the presence of angels, all the more should we have the awareness of glory in a vessel of grace such as yourself.

Dear Lord, thank you so much for providing these great saints (in heaven and online) to support me at this time. May we all be one, O Lord, as you are one, both in the purity of your soul and in the mystical communion of the Most Holy Trinity. I am not worthy to receive you, O Lord, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

[1] I have the faintest sense some readers think I'm being hyperbolic or, let us say, spiritually sensationalistic when I say things like this. I hope I come acrossa s genuinely as I mean to, but, assuming they're right, my hyperbole exists in how I experience things, not in how I report them. I admit to having a hyperbolic heart, I guess, but I try at all costs to avoid having a hyperbolic voice.

Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man (V)

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The Eucharist:

1322 The holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord's own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.

1323 "At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.'"

1324 The Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life." "The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch."

The Eucharist was, far and away, the strongest magnet in my journey into the Church. This fitting, since, in the Eucharist, Christ is raised up in mercy-giving glory. Christ promised that when he is raised up, he will draw all people to Himself (cf. John 12:32ff.).[1] Once I actually understood the Eucharist – well, as far as the word “understand” can apply to such a sublime Mystery! – once I understood what the Church meant by the Eucharist, I knew, deep in my heart, there was no turning back. The Eucharist came for me the pearl of great price, for which I was willing to lose anything (cf. Mth. 13:44-46): my Protestant assumptions, my Evangelical reputation, my intransigent anti-Catholicism, even the dignity of not panting “unspiritually” for physical bread and wine etc. Once I understood the offer Christ made in the Lat Supper, and therefore continues to make through His Church to this very day – once I grasped this immense invitation, I knew I could only say Yes. To know Christ humbled Himself every Mass into the form of meager bread – just as he humbled himself in history in the form of a slave (cf. Php. 2:5ff.) – to know this offer and to know I loved Him meant nothing else than panting for Him in that Eucharistic feast.

It’s strange to say, but one of the most powerful Eucharistic experiences I ever had was in my former Presbyterian (PCA) church back in Florida. I was an usher that Sunday and held the loaf out to members as they came forward to receive what were meant to be the Holy Gifts. Although Presbyterians, like all Protestants, reject the doctrines of transubstantiation, the propitiatory power of the Mass, and the identity of the Lord’s Presence with the Gifts, I was overcome by the reality of all three of the truths in a little Presbyterian service over two years ago. As the people came forward, I held out the bread for them to tear off a piece and consume.

Mysteriously, the longer I held the bread, the more truly I knew I held Christ Himself.[2] Every time someone tore off a hunk of the bread, my heart winced, knowing, on the one hand, that such was what our sin did to Christ’s body on the Cross – and does to his Body the Church today – and yet, on the other hand, that such brutality is exactly how God deigns to reconcile us to Himself. I shouted within my heart for the people to tear off the life-giving bread, because without it, they were dead in their sins. I knew Christ’s humility and presence then in a way I never did before, and have only felt again in a few moments of Eucharistic adoration.

Christ is the light from the East and the Eucharist is his love in the feast. The Eucharist is the fullness of Christ's offer to mankind today. Receiving this gift entails mankind be as fully – officially and spiritually – united to His Body as possible. Agreeing to be formally united to the Catholic Church means you agree with its view of the Eucharist and desire to be just as formally and fully united with Christ himself in that gift. The Holy Gifts are not and cannot be mere symbols, or even more robust "consubstantial" realities, since Christ's offering was and is pure and completed by no lesser thing. Christ was not a ginger bread man offered on the Cross; he was flesh and blood, soul and divinity. His sacrifice in the Mass, therefoire, cannot be a ginger bread offering. It must be the same Christ through and through. The Bread and Wine truly are Christ himself apart from anything else because Christ offered the Father to us – us to the Father - in Himself apart from anything else. All our gifts are gifts we give back to God. If it is to be our greatest gift to God, the Eucharist must therefore be nothing less (or more) than God's greatest gift to us: Christ's Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

[1] Incidentally, this passage in John 12 was one of the more significant Scriptures to shake my Calvinism. While Calvinists emphasize the irresistibility and particularity of the Father’s call described in John 6, they rarely ever mention this passage only six chapters later which expands on the Father’s draw: he draws all people synergistically to Himself in Christ, by grace, not merely a monergistically predetermined set of the elect by fiat.

[2] Of course, since the pastor lacked the sacramental authority to transform the Gifts into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord, what I experienced was the sacramental truth trying to burst through the veil of unconsecrated bread. I was sensing the Spirit groaning for the fullness of truth in yet thwarted sacramental means.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Jumbo shrimp?

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Square circles?

Good Jesuits?

Eh, all things are possible with God.

Here's a Russian Byzantine Jesuit, Fr. Steven A. Armstrong, I think is pretty nifty. Have a look see.

Here's another cool Eastern Jesuit site.

I admit, from this distance, I can't say they all really are good Jesuits, but I can say the East is good and these guys agree.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Having read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars...

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this is fairly large news (even though I know I'm behind on this):

Troops capture major Abu Sayyaf camp in the Philippines
(AP, 25 February 2005)

Philippine troops have captured a major camp of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group, a military commander said Friday.

The mountain stronghold of the Muslim extremist group outside Indanan town on southern Jolo island was overrun Thursday by about 400 soldiers from the army's 53rd Infantry Battalion, said Jolo military chief Brig. Gen. Agustin Dema-ala. ...

The camp is also a sanctuary for local Abu Sayyaf commander Albader Parad, whose gunmen killed three soldiers on security patrol in Indanan on Feb. 19.

The Abu Sayyaf, notorious for kidnappings and beheading hostages, is on the U.S. terror list.

Nunc dimittis

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Schiavo Judge Refuses Request to Connect Feeding Tube
(Bloomberg, 22 March 2005)

U.S. District Judge James Whittemore denied an emergency request by Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, who had exhausted state court appeals. The Schindlers filed a federal lawsuit early yesterday after Congress and President George W. Bush took extraordinary action to authorize U.S. court review.

"This court concludes that Theresa Schiavo's life and liberty interests were adequately protected by the extensive process provided in the state courts," Whittemore, who held a two-hour hearing yesterday in Tampa, wrote in a 13-page opinion. He said he refused to order the feeding tube reconnected because he didn't see a "substantial likelihood" that the Schindlers would ultimately succeed on the merits of their case.

And as for the likelihood of Terri Schiavo continuiung to live with the assured support and affection of her parents? Or that Terri is being snuffed out despite the merits of her dignity as a person? Forest missed for the trees.

Church seeks end to death penalty

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(by Justin Dickerson, Los Angeles Times, Posted on Tue, Mar. 22, 2005)

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says it will use educational programs and expanded political-advocacy efforts to try to stop capital punishment. ...

"We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C. "We cannot defend life by taking life." ...

A survey of 1,785 Roman Catholic adults of all demographics shows a general trend away from support of the death penalty, pollster John Zogby said.

"In past surveys, Catholic support for the death penalty was as high as 68 percent," Zogby said. "In our November survey, we found that less than half of the Catholic adults in our poll now support the use of the death penalty."

The survey also found that the more often Catholics attend Mass, the less likely they are to support the death penalty, that Catholics 18 to 28 years old are less likely to support it and that a third of Catholics who supported the death penalty in the past now oppose it. The poll has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

Fairly interesting piece (why gush?)

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China’s Course Parallels Old Germany’s
(James P. Pinkerton, Newsday -- BEIJING, 22 March 2005)

Like Germany in the 19th century, China in the 21st century is demanding its place in the sun. Today the world is witnessing a clash of national interests with no easy, peaceful solution.

I note with some pointed interest that Pinkerton does not address any parallels between China's aggressive population control policies and then-Germany's eugenic misanthropy. Is a threat a threat only if it threatens the born and viable?

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi...

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...miserere nobis, Domine.

Teen kills 9 at Minnesota high school, home (NBC, MSNBC and news services -- Updated: 8:19 a.m. ET March 22, 2005)

The teenager, identified as Jeff Weise, apparently killed himself after exchanging gunfire with police. At least 14 other students and teachers at Red Lake High School were wounded in the nation’s worst school shooting since the Columbine massacre in 1999 that killed 13 people. ...

Red Lake High School, on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, has about 300 students.

The reservation is about 240 miles north of the Twin Cities. It is home to the Red Lake Chippewa Tribe, one of the poorest in the state. According to the 2000 census, 5,162 people lived on the reservation, and all but 91 were Indians.

Did I mention I have felt a call to serve in Native reservations? Did I mention it just got a tad stronger?

Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man (IV)

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1285 Baptism, the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Confirmation together constitute the "sacraments of Christian initiation," whose unity must be safeguarded. It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace. For "by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed."

Although Confirmation is not quite as “exciting” or “dramatic” as Baptism and the Eucharist, for me it is nevertheless a much weightier sacrament. Baptism and the Eucharist are pure and total gifts of God to us. Whereas the activity in Baptism and the Eucharist are overwhelmingly the work of God on us, Confirmation calls upon to co-labor with God. Whereas the former two sacraments call upon us almost solely to receive grace – like a baby being cleansed or spoon-fed – Confirmation “raises the stakes” and calls upon us to live and serve with the power and mercy given us in the two former sacraments.

In terms of their economic relation to the Holy Trinity, the former two Sacraments are highly Christological and Paternal (i.e., of the Father). Baptism and the Eucharist root us in a deep ontological way into the concrete redemptive Person of the Son of God and thereby objectively align us with the eternal counsel of the Father Who sent the Son. Confirmation, by contrast, is highly pneumatological, in that it is the means by the Spirit of God elevates us into his “rhythms” of grace.

Confirmation is the key to the analogy of Jacob I just mentioned [in part III about Baptism]: it is itself the Spirit-led walking of a Christian into, and not merely “inside,” the newness of life. The Father plunges us into redemption in Baptism. The Son reclaims us -- mind, body, soul and heart -- in His life in the Eucharist. And the Spirit transforms us – in fact divinizes us! – in Confirmation.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man (III)

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1213 Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: "Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and in the word."

No joke, I was “blown away” when I first read that baptism is the “gateway to the life of the Sprit..., and the door ... to the other sacraments.” This idea taught me a new and radically important meaning of baptism. For years I had thought of baptism as merely a “primal sign” of God’s cleansing rebirth in Christ. I knew as much as it was a great sign, and it showed God was still at work among his people. But then I realized that baptism is much more. Once I realized that sacraments in general are much more than reminders – that they are the very fingers of God’s grace – then I realized that the foundation of sacramental grace, baptism, is a direct touch of God which make us wholly new. We enter a new phase of life, a new mode of existence: we become members of Christ, forgiven in His death and alive in His resurrection. Just as Jesus rose from the waters of the Jordan into the love of the Father in the glory of the Spirit, so too we rise from baptism into the glory of that triune love.

Finally, one of the things I appreciate most about the sacrament of Baptism is its indelibility, its divine permanence. As the Catechism says,

1272 Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated.

The union of a man and woman in marriage is just as strong and irrevocable for the Church as the union of a sinner and Christ in Baptism. What God has made a new creature stays a new creature. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9). And what God has done, let no man undo – or even pretend to re-do.

This, the irrevocability of Baptism, reminds me of Jacob’s limp after wrestling with God: he walked with a limp ever after as a sign and a reminder of his encounter with God (cf. Gene. 32:31ff.). His limp became an intrinsic part not only of his memory about God but also a feature of his own body. So it is with Baptism, the limp of grace: in it, God overcomes our sinful nature and pours an indestructible “memory” of grace into our souls, making such a cleansing encounter an intrinsic part of our identity. In Baptism, God dislocates the power of sin in all humans, frees them to walk in the new life and gives them a permanent sign of this change (cf. Rom. 6:1ff.).

The crucial point of this analogy is that Baptism becomes a seal not only of the remission of our past sins, but also of our present and future lives in Christ. As the Catechism says,

1265 Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of the divine nature,” a member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Just as Jacob walked away from that wrestling match with a limp into greater maturity with God, so too we walk away from Baptism into greater and greater maturity in Christ. Jacob was defeated – broken – in order to walk. Likewise, we are defeated – buried – in Baptism in order to walk in grace. We are reborn not merely passively out of sin, but also, more dynamically, reborn as living members propelled into the mission of Christ in the Church! Though we have marred God’s originally good creation with our sin, God remakes us truly good – in Christ – and Baptism is the sign and the seal of this irrevocable restoration.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Barlaam was an ass, yes, but...

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[This 'ere is primar'ly fer Jonathan Prejean, but y'all a' we'come t' jone in too, Ah reckon.]

I’m unconvinced Western theology's view of divine simplicity has the decisive weight it allegedly has in the Catholicism-Orthodoxy debate. My fundamental objections to, or at least reservations about, Palamism are the following:

(1) It lacks dogmatic force because Palamite theology is a theologumenon. Without an ecumenical declaration in defense of it, it cannot have the weight it needs to have for various critics. As a corollary, I fail to see how the Orthodox could produce such an ecumenical decree in their current relationshsip with Rome.

(2) In conjunction with point (1), Rome seems remarkably open to allowing the essence-energies in its truly catholic dimensions. As a Catholic, I see no reason to make it a more divisive issue than the episcopacy teaches me to understand it. There really are Byzantine Catholics, and St. Thomas really does defend "uncreated operations"[1] of God, honest. The simplicitly addressed in Florence must be understood as referring to the intrinsic simplicity, the pure self-sufficiency of the Godhead, apart from any extrinsic basis or motivation. Any undue conclusions drawn from those councils that actually do trap God within necessity should be corrected. But the doctrines themselves seem technically beyond reproach, particularly since they were undersigned by Orthodox at the time.

(3) What's necessary for the Thomist goose is necessary for the Palamite gander. The energies seem to me just as necessary in Palamism as creation allegedly is in Thomism. Certainly, creation is not God Himself in the way the energies are described to be God Himself. Nonetheless, one of the key points about the energies is that they are necessary to God's being. God is not God without them. Further, they allegedly free God from any (Thomistic) necessity based on His essence. On account of his "enhypostatic" energies, God is not bound by His own essence but can *freely* extend Himself in creation and in man. The Palamite claim is that Thomism forces God to create (or to redeem) since His action and will co-inhere in one absolutely simple essence.[2]

The fundamental problem for Palamism is that the energies are, like creation and redemption, inherently exterior acts of God -- they are "God for us" -- yet they also derive directly from God’s pure essence. How then, after all, are they and their effects so free from the necessity of essence? Indeed, I’ve had a leading proponent of Palamism admit this is a huge bugbear of a problem, so decisive in fact that he says it would discredit all of Christian theology. That being the case (in his eyes) I think he and any other Palamist needs to cool his jets while the work of ecumenism continues this side of the eschaton.

(4) We truly know God in Christ, which also entails we know him in the manner of Christ (even if perhaps not in the same intensity). If Christ knew the essence of God, then we can too. If he did not know the essence of God, how can he be said to truly communicate God to us in the energies? Did Christ, as true man and true God, behold the divine essence? If not, what of his unity with the Father as the Second Person of the Trinity? If so, how could he, a human, know the unknowable essence of God? How could he, as God, be one with God without also, as man, being “swallowed” or nullified by that beatific vision (as I gather Palamists insist any mortal knowledge of the divine essence would bring about)? If Christ could and did know the divine essence, and if we are to be made like Christ, and if we are said to possess his very mind, and, one day, if we are to know God as we are known by him (in works, energies and essence), then what remains of Palamism?[3]

Now, having said all this, let me hasten to add I highly respect the fundamental aims of Palamism. I admire Palamas's genius and piety. I greatly admire the basis of Palamism being in PRAYER. I also greatly appreciate the holistic emphasis of hesychasm, neptic piety and theosis. I am, in fact, drawn by the heart to the Byzantine view of salvation, even in spite of my intellectual reservations. My objections are against the supposed "one shot, one kill" nature of Palamism vis a vis ecumenism, not against its obvious merits. I look with awe on the light of the East, and I see Palamism as one of the brightest gems glistening in that _orientalum lumen_. My point, really quite modest, is that light, whether from the West or the East, merges with light, and that the valid differences in the Church must be defended against simplistic triumphalism.[4]

Peace be with you and please forgive any triumphalism or condescension on my part, in this post or otherwise.

[1] Cf. e.g. ST III.Q9.1a.

[2] The divide being forced between God’s essence and his energies – let us say between his will and his work – is all too reminiscent of Islamic theology, wherein Allah has an inscrutable volitional essence which is quite possibly (and sometimes certainly) foreign to any of his manifested acts. Because Allah's essence is pure and inaccessible, and because, therefore, all we have is his providence within our mode of being, then Allah may or not really be what revelation shows him to be. In Islam, the providential "energies" of Allah are effectively one God (call him "Allah for us"), while the true essence of Allah is another god ("Allah for Allah"). And in Palamism? How do I face "God for us" and "God for God"?

[3] Cf. John 5:19-20, 8:38, 2 Corinthians 2:16, 1 John 3:2-3, etc.

[4] I'm sure to many readers my anti-triumphalism is the bitterest of ironies, coming as it does from a papist, but oh well.

Look, ma, I'm famous!

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I made the Web!

Church on the Web

Palms Sunday

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No, that's not a typo. Or, at least, it's not an unintentional typo. Today is Palm, or Passion, Sunday, and I simply combined the two ideas. The palms signal the crowds' fair-weather devotion to Christ, while the Passion shows us our true capacity for evil. We, sinners all, wave palms in our hands only days before piercing the palms of Christ's hands. As we heard in the Gospel reading today, we humans shouted "Hosanna!" only days before shouting "Crucify!" Such is life on Palms Sunday.

Out of nowhere, only minutes before the Mass started, I was asked to read the first passage. I was nervous, but it felt so good to be *involved*, even just a little, in my parish. Even so, it took me a few minutes to "warm up" today at Mass. I've been tired and I wasn't sure what the order of worship was to be. As I listened to the readings, though, I was drawn into the mystery of redemption. During one of the kneeling times, I was struck quite forcefully by the idea that Christ chose to enter Jerusalem ("a death he freely chose"), and how his courageous love empowered me to enter his New Jerusalem. He chose to enter our world precisely so we could choose to enter his Kingdom. As Max Lucado titled one of his books, "he chose the nails." Christ chose the nails, rose again, and now calls us to choose his pierced palms.

Once again, I waved my palm branch at Christ to welcome him into my life as King. "Besiege me, O Lord, overtake my defenses." I wave the palm of praise, but it is only by grace, the grace shed in Christ's blood and spread over the whole world in his resurrection -- it is only by this grace that I can shout "Hosanna!" without also capitulating to shouting "Crucify!" in my thoughts and actions. Sin is a metaphysical accident, a moral aberration; holiness is the only necessary force in the cosmos.

Certainly the high point of Mass today was the moment I readied myself to receive the Eucharist – and then came back to my senses. “No so fast, Mr. Protestant,” I told myself. One more week until the Easter vigil, until I enter the fullness of God’s home on earth. What might have seemed like a legalistic leash actually hung around my neck like a necklace of reward. My anguish and confusion and patience are all about to be vindicated. God has been with me the whole way and now he bids me walk one more week without his Holy Gifts. The wait is worth my while.

Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man (II)

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1113 The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. There are seven sacraments in the Church: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.

One of the great ironies, or perhaps paradoxes, of the Catholic faith is that while there are technically only seven sacraments, in reality the entire life of the Church is sacramental. On the one hand, the sacramental work of God is defined by seven specific acts. On the other hand, the whole Church itself – herself! – is one massive, living sacrament of God’s redemptive love. As the Catechism says,

774 ... The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense, that the Church is called a "sacrament."

775 "The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men." The Church's first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God. Because men's communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race. ...

776 As sacrament, the Church is Christ's instrument. "She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all," "the universal sacrament of salvation," by which Christ is "at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God's love for men." The Church "is the visible plan of God's love for humanity," because God desires "that the whole human race may become one People of God, form one Body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit."

This all sounds great, but some people are dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic view. Some people, especially Eastern Orthodox and Protestants, criticize the Roman Catholic tendency to number the mysteries of God as if they were body parts. Why does the Church of Rome feel compelled, let alone justified, to number and index the seven sacraments so precisely? Critics claim the very nature of sacramental grace defies such limiting, scientific precision. As if God’s ways could be numbered and listed like a recipe!

Believe it or not, I basically agree with this criticism. God’s ways are bigger than ours, and his mercies are beyond counting. Nevertheless, I am a Catholic and agree with the Church that there are only seven sacraments properly so called. How do I reconcile these competing ideas about the sacraments? How do I, as a Catholic, reconcile the idea that God’s sacramental grace is bigger than any human list and yet that there are seven sacraments per se?

I reconcile the ideas by thinking of the seven sacraments as the seven fingers of God. The typical hand has exactly five, very well defined fingers. This quantifiable anatomical fact does not, of course, nullify the mystery of the whole human body, much less demystify the whole human experience those five fingers navigate! So it is with the seven sacraments: they are the distinct, well defined “anatomical” facts of the hand of God in the Church. How do they destroy the mystery of grace when in fact they apply and reveal it?

I think the criticism against Roman Catholic sacramentology as too rationalistic, or even too mechanistic, is based on a perception, a misperception, that sacramental priorities are out of order in Catholicism. Non-Catholics are often inclined to think that because the Church has a number on what exactly are the sacraments, it can (and does) just as easily naively disqualify any number of things as not “really” sacramental. Critics may have the impression the Church is sacramental because the Church has defined the seven sacraments, as if the whole body hung above earth by the sheer good fortune of clutching heaven with seven magic fingers. But the opposite is true.

The sacraments are sacramental because the entire Church, as Christ’s Body, is sacramental. The whole body emerges from heaven on earth precisely means of those seven “magic” fingers. One day, when the sky is rolled up and the veil is rent, the fingers will be seen for what they are: not as seven ornate pieces of jewelry on an otherwise graceless collection of believers, but rather as the natural outgrowths of a Body bursting with life and studded with the jewelry of grace! There’s no denying God’s sacramental grace – his very life in the Church! – is amazing beyond quantifying. But at the same time, God has chosen to focus his love and life into seven concrete channels, called Sacraments. Far from nullifying grace, the sacraments, even with all their precise numerals, manifest grace.

I think this image of the concrete fingers of spiritual grace is very appropriate since it fits the larger biblical pattern of the Incarnation. On the one hand, we all know God is infinitely greater than the bounds of man. But at the same time, we believe God focused his very self into the singular man, Jesus of Nazareth. The sacraments are the singular channels of grace Christ uses to extend this supreme focus of grace – the Incarnation – into the whole world. The sacraments are the rituals the Church performs in the Spirit to enjoy the grace God gives in Christ. Conversely, the sacraments are the acts God performs in the Spirit to ensure the worth of the rituals of the Church in Christ.

Reported about two hours ago...

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Congressional leaders hoped a deal reached Saturday would clear the way for a brain-damaged woman to resume being fed while a federal court reviews the right-to-die battle between her parents and her husband.

President Bush changed his schedule to return to Washington from his Texas ranch on Sunday to be on hand to sign the legislation. ...

"We are confident this compromise addresses everyone's concerns, we are confident it will provide Mrs. Schiavo a clear and appropriate avenue for appeal in federal court, and most importantly, we are confident this compromise will restore nutrition and hydration to Mrs. Schiavo as long as that appeal endures," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said earlier at a news conference. ...

The Senate session Saturday evening was convened to formally give necessary permission for the House to meet Sunday, when it otherwise would be in recess under a previously passed Easter recess resolution.

The plan is for the House to act on the two-page bill Sunday, or just after midnight Monday morning if someone objects to the bill being taken up on an expedited basis Sunday. ...

Michael Schiavo urged Congress to stay out of the matter, saying he is just trying to carry out his wife's wishes.

"I feel like the government has just trampled all over my personal life," he said on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Friday. "It is uncomprehensible that a government can walk all over somebody's private judicial matter, because of their own personal feelings."

I am so glad to see this new parry by the culture of life. Now that I'm not so much in the thick of it as I was before, I confess this case is draining, with all its ups and downs, all its legal complexities pitted against moral truths, but I nevertheless feel hope. I'm amazed Terri has had her NG tube removed three times now and will likely be rescued just as many times. My oscillating ardor about Terri's situation says a lot more about me than it does about anything else, but I thank God he has given such grace to her parents to fight for so long. I also thank him for giving such grace to the many people who have prayed for her so much more nobly and patiently than I. Since I've fasted from other blogs for Lent, I can only imagine the maelstrom of online activism.

Praise God, this news gives me a burst of hope and prayer. Join me. Let us pray and speak out for the dignity of Terri, a living icon of the human dignity as it is assailed by the world today.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Humanity takes another hit at its own hand

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Terri Schiavo has begun her slow death by starvation. Meanwhile, the culture of death smirks with joy as its sizes up its next target.

I was very happy to see the Vatican chime in about this travesty.

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the academy usually does not comment on specific cases before courts, but "silence in this case could be interpreted as approval."

The bishop told Vatican Radio March 11 that withdrawing Schiavo's gastric tube would not be a matter of allowing her to die, but would "inflict death." ...

Bishop Sgreccia said he also was concerned about the precedent the court's decision could set in the United States, creating a situation in which euthanasia is seen "as a right."

"For these reasons we consider illicit the decision to remove Mrs. Terri Schiavo's gastric feeding tube," he said.

Bishop Sgreccia told Vatican Radio that the Catholic Church does not support keeping people alive at all costs, going to extraordinary and even painful means to postpone death.

However, he said, keeping a patient clean, warm, fed and hydrated is not the same thing as "therapeutic obstinacy" or the refusal to accept death.

Worth your time

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And much more worth your help.

World on Fire

"The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Pray to the Lord he would send more."

Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man (I)

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2669 The prayer of the Church venerates and honors the Heart of Jesus just as it invokes his most holy name. It adores the incarnate Word and his Heart which, out of love for men, he allowed to be pierced by our sins. Christian prayer loves to follow the way of the cross in the Savior's steps. ... 1439 Only the heart of Christ who knows the depths of his Father's love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy in so simple and beautiful a way.

A friend of mine here in Taiwan recently mentioned he keeps little reminders around his office and apartment to spur him towards devotion. “It’s All About Heart,” the reminders read. My friend is a Protestant, so I was struck by a double irony as he spoke. First, he’s basically using crude icons in the same way he might claim Catholics and Orthodox abuse ornate ones. Second, I immediately thought of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (and Mary), a locus of Catholic devotion I’m not too familiar with but which nevertheless tugs at my own unsacred heart.

One of the main features of my RCIA process has been confronting and embracing my heart as a genuine vessel of grace. I am not, and cannot be, all brain or all desire. I am also affection and enjoyment and whimsy -- and, well, heart. The joy of God’s salvation does not, and cannot, simply resonate in my mind like a sharp metallic note, but does, and must, also vibrate in my heart like healthy, living flesh. As Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.” Further, we must not forget the deeply nuptial meaning of biblical and, therefore, Catholic faith (cf. CCC 796). In the Bible, God continually pursues his people as his bride, and laments their sin as nothing less than adultery. The Christian faith began in a womb, in the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the spouse of the Holy Spirit. It continues today in the Church, the virgin Bride of God.

The bottom line is, Jesus calls us –- calls me –- to love the Lord with all our mind, soul, strength and heart. Hence, in this report I would like to (try to!) emphasize the meaning of the Sacraments for my heart, and not just my mind. In fact, taking the lead of a recently deceased blogger named Gerard Serafin, I will make each instance of “heart” appear in red ink.

Los misteriosos santos

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As part of my final steps in RCIA before initiation, Fr. Ramon wants me to write a report on the Sacraments (or, in Spanish, "los misteriosos santos"). I will post what I've got one part a time until around the Triduum (Thursday-Sunday, March 25-27). The multi-part report is titled "Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man". In it, I have tried to emphasize the personal, psychological, phenomenological -- and perhaps even emotional -- meaning of the Mysteries for me, rather than leaning on my usual crutch of abstraction and intellectuality.

I welcome all edifying comments and/or questions.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Things I lack, things God offers

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Tenderness, holiness and stillness.

Strength, used in Christ's manner.

Gifts given for giving.

Those things have to do with the first Taizé meeting I've ever been to. God willing, (since I'm certainly more than willing!), it will not be my last. Providence University offers an hour of Taizé prayer the second Monday night of every month. It was truly awesome, truly awe-some. It was not awesome in a way that I can or should rave about. It was too serene and unassuming for a novice’s rave review. Taizé is in fact the antithesis of raving. Although I didn’t know each and every word we sang in Chinese, I knew enough of the original Latin to keep my bearings. As the time wrapped up, I reflected on the three things I began this post with. How did I come to see those things I lack? First a detour.

I met with Sr. Regina today, a USAmerican nun of the Sisters of Providence. She's been in Taiwan for 26 years and who is now my godmother. We plan to meet two Mondays a month, while Fr. Ramon and I will meet on the two alternate Mondays of each month. It was so nice being able to open up to her, in my mother tongue. She asked me what "area of specialty" I might want to grow in, a question which fairly stymied me. Me, having an area of spiritual expertise? How funny! What she meant, of course, was if there were anything "on my heart" I especially wanted to be discipled in. I was surprised how quickly the ideas of stillness, depth, tenderness and patience came to mind.

Even more pressing, upon further reflection, was my aching desire for holiness. By holiness I do not mean moral goodness, although I do long for that. Rather, I mean a sort of transcendent guilelessness which enables, and in fact presses, me to touch and receive all thing s with pure hands of unflinching love and transparent humility. How cracked and dry is my soul! How hard is my heart! One of the clearest sources of inspiration my patron saint, Francis de Sales, has given me is the desire for a tender heart. I often ask him to pray God would make my heart tender, as tender as I gather St. Francis's heart was. I am also inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola's stillness in the midst of his tumultuous, unrelenting self-offering. God calls me to be in the world but not of the world. I, however, am usually in and of the world in almost equal measure.

Finally, I am constantly inspired by the Blessed Virgin's immaculate holiness, a holiness which was given to her so she could nurse, cleanse, comfort, carry and discipline the Son of God, the Savior of all mankind. Her immaculate womb bore the Savior her equally immaculate hands enabled her to receive all things with unflinching love and transparent humility. And now, those same immaculate hands, raised into glory in intimate union just below her Son, reach out to us to nurse us just as tenderly and unflinchingly with the balm of heavenly prayer. I need the tenderness of St. Francis, the stillness of St. Ignatius and the holiness of Our Lady. In short, I need the things God offers. Those three blessed saints are simply supreme expressions for me of gifts God still offers me.

End of detour.

So there I knelt on the carpet, surrounded by candles and few remaining contemplatives. I offered myself to God once again, asking him to consume me as surely as the flames around me would consume paper. And there I asked God for his strength, strength to make it through each day, strength to keep pressing on. But then God called me short and reminded he does not offer me sheer strength as such. He offers me the strength of Christ. He offers me strength which demands I use it in a Christlike manner. The technical term for such strength is meekness: power under the reins of holy love. I have a great deal of innate energy, but so often it is a carnal strength, angry, exasperated and nervous. But God offers me strength precisely in order for me to be like Christ, and for nothing else! God grant me only the strength necessary to be like Christ. If more energy should propel past his model, weaken me. If less strength should drag me behind his pace, strengthen me, O Lord.

Finally, this very humbling insight about the quality, rather than the quantity, of my strength led me to consider all my gifts: intellect, health, means, faith, wisdom, and so forth. Why does God give me such gifts? Why do I want more gifts? The orthodox answer is so that I may give them to others. I have gifts and want more of them; but God wants me to use my gifts precisely as gifts to be given, and then he will grace me further.

Aside form all this deep work of the Spirit in my heart, I'm happy to report our first Bible study of the semester went very well. Four students, Isaiah 65:17-21. God wants to make all tings new. But what does that mean? And why does he want that? The east answer to the first question is that the new world will be much this world, only better. There will be food, wine, homes, families, babies, the sky and the ground -- in short, a new heavens *and earth*.

Fair enough, but why does God want to make things new? This, Jean's question, led me to a helpful analogy. Imagine you are a parent and you have prepared a meal for you and your children to eat in joyful, wholesome unity. Alas, your kids reject your food and your company. There they sit, for days, not eating, never warming up to you. What happens to the children? They wither, they languish, they grow ill. What, then, is the response of a loving parent? What is the response of love Himself? Make a new meal -- which means tossing the old, rotten food out. Why? Because you love your children. Because you want to see them healthy, strong and happy, together with you and each other.

The food, you see -- like all creation itself -- is but the means of unity at the table of love. The new meal -- like the new creation -- is but the mode of the new meal, crowded by repentant children, dimmed perhaps only by the absence of unrepentant eternally starving, eternally dying, children. In time they forget the table, if for not other reason than their hunger consumes their vision. Such is sin: an all-consuming obsession that clouds our minds from the one, obvious, loving solution just across the table. At any rate, I impressed upon my students the fact that while God will indeed transform everything on one final day, He begins the new world now. He begins the newness right now, in and through each one of us. Do we want the old world or will we relinquish its ashes and follow God in Christ by the Spirit into his new world. The Eucharist, of course, is the feat of love on earth as the new world forms around us.

Lastly, I'm also happy to report my first German lesson at Prov. U. went very well. I will be teaching students basic conversational German in preparation for their trip to World Youth Day in Köln, Germany n August. How I wish I could go too! We’ll see. As I reviewed my whole day on my ride back home tonight, it dawned on me: what do I lack to say, in truth, I have a wonderful life? What else do I need? I am loved by God. I am entering full communion with His Church. I am able to use my skills every day in intellectual and relational ways. I am gainfully employed. I am seeing the world. I am healthy. The only twinge of longing I sense is for people in my life -- friends and family -- enjoy my wholeness with me.

For now, I need to receive the gifts God offers.

Good night.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Being a language guy and all...

0 comment(s) of my readers sent me the following links to some way cool resources:

German Audio Bible Online:

Septuagint Interlinear Online:

I commend them to you.

And while I'm on the subject, I want to give props to my reader's own sumptuous webpage materials. He is a former-fundamentalist Catholic with very deep devotion for the Eastern riches of the Faith. Props:

Eastern Liturgy Links:

Byzantine Catholic Daily Prayer & Lectionary

St. Blog's got rugby

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Not being a Catholic, I'm not technically a member of St. Blog's parish. But, as I will be Catholic, and as I stood in for two months for the formidable St. Blog's parishioner Mark Shea, I may as well be a member. A chap sent me and some other Catholic bloggers the following announcement...

Hello St. Blog's people...

A friend and I have created a site for Catholic bloggers from the british isles, trouble is - we're having difficulty finding them. We would be very grateful if any of you who come from England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales could get in touch. Also, if you could pass this message along (on your blogs maybe?) that would be fantastic. My email address is and the site is located at

Have at it.

The arms of God

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Psalm 22:22 I will declare your name to my brothers;

in the congregation I will praise you.

23 You who fear the LORD , praise him!

All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!

Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

Hallelu Yah, I made it this morning to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Xitun Road (西屯路) this morning for the 11 AM English Mass. If for nothing else but the novelty of visiting a new parish in a new part of town, it was such an invigorating feeling going there! I didn't know what or who to expect, though on Thursday I had met the priest, a Vietnamese named John Nhuan, who had studied and lived in the USA for about 20 years. I made sure to leave home early so I could have ample time to pray and reflect before worship began. I climbed the stairs to the chapel on the second floor. It was much smaller than the Sanmin Road parish (三民路教堂) I have been going to for months, but somehow also humbler, warmer and brighter.

I knelt to pray for about ten minutes and then got my bearings. I was overjoyed to see a steady trickle of Filipinos finding their seats. (It was, and actually always is, such a comfort to be in the company of Filipinos, especially Catholic ones. Don't ask me why; it's just one of my cultural affectivities.) There was a handful of white-like-me foreigners and some other not-so-sure-what non-Taiwanese. Two funny (dare I say adorable?) Filipino, or maybe Sri Lankan, altar boys chatted about boy-things before Fr. John entered. I loved the diversity of it, and I suspect the different demographics of Our Lady has much to do with its warmth.

After the general confession, we performed a penitential rite. After reciting a prayer before confession, we said a litany of repentance, the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, meanwhile people had the chance to enter the sacristy at the back of the room for confession. Once that was all done, we continued with the Mass. Fr. John's homily was heartfelt and simple: we need both bodily and spiritual healing; Jesus has met these needs with the sacraments of anointing and confessional; our return to God in these sacraments makes Jesus very happy. Oddly enough, although he had lived in the USA so long, Fr. John's English really was quite hard to understand at times. I guess he went there too old, his neural tongue already fossilized in Vietnamese. Despite any small problems with his pronunciation, I was very grateful to be able to worship in my mother tongue. As I may have said, it's one thing to remain or progress as a Catholic in a non-Catholic foreign country. It's something entirely different, and entirely more trying, actually to become a Catholic in such an inaccessible setting. English worship is a good crutch for me as I make my infant steps into the Church.

Today has been a very nice (dare I say tender?) day. I feel the arms of God, reaching out through the Church, more closely around me every day. Lord, here am I.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Miserere nobis

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Village buries poisoned children
Thursday, March 10, 2005 Posted: 4:22 PM EST (2122 GMT)

SAN JOSE, Philippines (Reuters) -- Hundreds of grieving villagers walked under scorching sun Thursday to bury 12 of 26 Filipino children poisoned by a cassava snack [apparently called "kamoteng cahoy" -- EBB] they ate at school in central Philippines. ...

Most of 90 children, aged between 6 and 13 years, were sent home from hospitals on Bohol island in the central Philippines after their conditions improved, a day after eating the local delicacy during a mid-morning school break on Wednesday. ...

Some 2,000 villagers joined the families of 12 dead children in a mass burial at a public cemetery on Thursday afternoon.

From a Roman Catholic church, men carrying 12 small wooden coffins on their backs walked for over a kilometer under an intense afternoon sun on a dusty village road to the cemetery in the middle of rice paddies.

Distraught mothers of the dead were hysterical, crying and clinging tightly to wooden coffins that were slid into concrete tombs. Some men cursed the old woman who cooked and sold the cassava fritters and balls suspected to be poisoned. ...

Troy Gepte of the health department's National Epidemiology Center told reporters in the capital Manila that children may have been poisoned by cyanide in the fried cassava.

"Based on data and information regarding the cassava, cyanogens occur naturally in the root crop," he said. "These are compounds which contain cyanide. The cassava should be boiled or dried first before using it as a food ingredient."

Please pray for these dear people, and the souls of the dead.

Friday, March 11, 2005

How to fold a shirt

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in about four seconds.

Also, go here for some neat-o photos and an update from a good friend about my trip back to the USA.

My reception into the Church is picking up steamn and I am getting more excited by the day. I'm also attempting to explain the gospel in every one of my classes this week, so students better understand the Easter performance they will see next Monday. Of course, stirring them to consider the new and eternal life Christ offers is a good teaching motivation too. ::imprecise smiling emoticon::

(Yes, this was worth breaking the surface for a quick breath of blog air. Saying "I'm busy" would be redundant and saying "Saying I'm busy would be an understatment" would be gratuitous.)

Monday, March 7, 2005

He Has Said the Word

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I just preached this at our Sunday night English service. It was a powerful message for me, and generated some good small group discussion. I welcome your comments.

6 March 05 - The Shelter

He Has Said the Word - Luke 6:47-7:7, 9-10

47 Every one who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built.

49 But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” 7:1 After he had ended all his sayings in the hearing of the people he entered Capernaum.

2 Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. 3 When he heard of Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 And when they came to Jesus, they besought him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue.”

6 And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.” …

9 When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well.

Who is worthy to have Jesus enter his house? Am I? Are you? Was this centurion worthy of such a Guest?

The answers to those questions in order are: “No one,” “No,” “No,” and “No.” I am a sinner. You are a sinner. The centurion was a sinner. So why did Jesus have such a good reaction to him?

Jesus liked the centurion’s “style” for one simple reason: the centurion had faith. As Jesus exclaimed, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (v. 9). Jesus always responds in amazing ways to even the simplest faith. What exactly was the centurion’s faith? It had two parts, two meanings, for him.

First, by faith the centurion knew he was not holy. He knew he was a sinner. He knew he needed to be healed. This is why he approached Jesus so indirectly, and so humbly. First he sent some Jewish elders to talk with Jesus on his behalf (v. 3). Then he sent his friends to mediate between him and the Lord (v. 6). The Jews said he was worthy of Jesus’ visit (v. 4-5), but the centurion knew the dark truth: he was totally unworthy. As he said through his friends, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you” (v. 6-7).

Hence, he kept his distance from Christ. He kept his distance from the holiness of Christ like a man soaked with gasoline keeps his distance from a fire. The man dripping with gasoline, like the centurion dripping with sin, knows he cannot simply walk into the presence of such glorious power. The centurion’s sin, like gasoline waiting to burn, would destroy him in the fire of God’s holy love.

So, by faith he knew first that he needed healing. But that is not all. Also by faith he knew Jesus could save him. He knew Jesus could make him and his servant well. This is why he contacted Jesus as soon as he heard of him (v. 3). This story was not just about a sick servant; as the centurion knew, it was about a sinful centurion in need of a savior.

By faith, the centurion kept his distance as an unworthy sinner; but also by faith he got as close to the Lord as he could in the hope being made worthy. So we see how faith strikes a balance: one the one hand, we must grieve and repent of our sin; on the other hand, we must hope and rejoice in the Lord’s mercy. To have only one of these parts of faith – guilt or hope – is not enough. We must believe in our terrible sin AND in Christ our wonderful Savior.

Now, you might notice a strange thing: Jesus never actually entered the centurion’s house. Such distance was expected of Jews in Jesus’ day, since entering a gentile’s house was considered unlawful and unclean. So why didn’t Jesus just go into the house and show God’s love was bigger than such petty barriers? Why didn’t he remove the distance of bigotry? Was Jesus afraid to enter the dirty gentile centurion’s house?

If we stopped before the last verse, this story might let us think that. After all, even though Jesus praises the centurion’s faith, he does not go with him into his dirty gentile house. Without the last verse, verse 10, it’s easy to suspect not even Jesus overcame the racial barrier between Jews and gentiles.

But that’s the beauty of the last verse! It’s the last verse! It has the final say! It gives us the whole story! It shows us Jesus’ true heart and mind! In light of the last verse, we see that Jesus did not enter the centurion’s house because he did not need to. He did not enter the house in his flesh because he had already been there in his Spirit. He sent the centurion’s friends back without him because he had already sent his healing presence ahead of them.

Jesus, God the Son, did not enter the house because his holy spirit, God the Spirit, was already there! The centurion was most definitely not worthy of Jesus’ presence. But Christ’s love, by the power of the Holy Spirit, overcame his sinfulness, as well as the racial barrier. The healed servant was a sign that God’s love reaches beyond the Jews to all peoples. The centurion had faith and found his healed servant as a living sign of the new health of his soul.

How do you and I fit into this story? What does it have to do with us today? Today, right now, you and I are the centurion and, fortunately, Jesus is still Jesus. Right now, you and I are not worthy to have Jesus in your life. Right now you and I are dripping with the gasoline of sin. But there is hope.

If we cry out to Christ with faith, he will shield us from the fire of God’s wrath and will clean us from the gasoline of sin. And as we lose our gasoline, Jesus draws us closer and closer to the fire of God’s holy love. One day, if we have faith, we will shine forever like diamonds in the light of God’s love. And yet, one day, if we are without faith, we will burn forever like garbage in the fire of God’s wrath.

If you have faith tonight – faith in your sin and even greater faith in Christ’s mercy – then you can return home tonight, like the centurion’s friends, and find your soul made well. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

The Good News is that, by his death and resurrection, Jesus HAS said the word. At the Cross, he spoke a decisive word of love which has overcome all barriers and all the distance between God and man, between man and woman, between Jews and gentiles – and between you and God. If you have faith like the centurion, Jesus shall make you worthy to receive him. He has said the word. He loves you; he died for you; he rose for you. And now he wants to enter your home. Open the door with the key of faith and receive him tonight.