Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Beauty of Bad Theology

Good theology leads us into a deeper understanding and trust of the nature and persons of God.  Bad theology, on the other hand, distorts our understanding of who God is, fostering distrust.  So, how can there be “beauty” in bad theology?

My experience in ministry has shown me, time and again, that bad theology is an expression of our wounded hearts.  The steady stream of thoughts that bounce around in our heads are jam-packed full of theology, some of it good, and some of it not-so-good.  In many parts of our lives, the theology of our hearts is good theology.  We know those places through intimacy with God, others, and of course, fruits of the Spirit.  Where I experience interior peace, hope, love, joy, etc., the theology of my heart likely matches up with the truth of who God is.  Good theology, all around.

And, here is the beauty of bad theology.  Where I do NOT experience interior peace, hope, love, joy, etc., the theology of my heart reveals my distorted understanding and relationship with God.  It shows me exactly where I have been wounded and attacked by the enemy, and exactly where God desires to touch my heart and soul.  It shows me where I do not trust God.

Since our emotions are really the language of our hearts (not our hearts, just the language they speak), try this exercise for yourself.  Pay attention to the emotionally charged thoughts that come into your mind, and the issues in your life to which they are attached.  Listen for these kinds of statements/emotions:
·        I’m all alone.
·        Nobody understands me.
·        Everybody hates/rejects me.
·        It will never get better.
·        I can never have what I desire.
·        I am forsaken/abandoned.
·        I’m not good enough.

Each of these statements represents bad theology that resides in the heart, which ultimately, represent distorted beliefs about ourselves and God.  The scriptures, of course speak truth directly to these beliefs of the heart.  After all, I “know in my intellect” that I am not alone, that God understands me completely and loves me as I am.  You may well even hear the scripture citations in your head, “I knew you before you were born”, “I will not leave you orphaned”, etc.  But, the scriptures also tell us “As a man believes in his heart, so is he.”  So, while our heads may “know” good theology, the wounds in our hearts often “believe” bad theology.

So, the next time you hear one of these rotten theological apples, resist two key temptations.  Resist the temptation to “kick it upstairs” to your intellect at the expense of your heart.  And resist the temptation to shame and self-loathing.  Instead, recognize that Almighty mercy is knocking at the door to your heart.  It is the overwhelming goodness of a loving Father saying, “Let me into this place where you don’t trust Me.  I want relationship with you right here.  In this pain and hurt, I want to bring healing and mercy and grace.  My heart for you is deep and abiding intimacy- with Me.”

Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him…”.  Yes, even in the bad theology in the deepest places of our wounded and scarred hearts.  Especially in the places where we do not trust Him, where we may not even love Him, He is working for our good.  He is working for your good.  Pay attention to the beauty of that bad theology, for that is His fertile ground.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Was Ever Thus

"…Pope Francis is a man of discernment, and, at times, that discernment results in freeing him from the confinement of doing something in a certain way because it was ever thus.”  Cardinal Sean O’Malley

As Catholics, we are steeped in a deep religious tradition that is filled with meaning and symbolism.  Step inside one of the great cathedrals (even in America), and you will feel the weight of holy history.  Pick up the Catechism, and be amazed at the beautiful, almost lyrical, communion of Grace and Truth. The Church, in her wisdom, gives us countless ways to encounter God. 

Yet, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, among the most influential and respected of American prelates, points out that the Holy Father has consistently challenged a certain something in our tradition, devotion, and practice.  This “challenge” has already made more than a few Catholics uncomfortable, perhaps even irritable.  Could it be that Francis has a desire to make many, many more of us uncomfortable?

What he wants to make uncomfortable within us, I believe, are those devotions, practices and traditions that fail to move our hearts into deeper communion with God.  A devotion practiced for the sake of familiarity or sentimentality, but lacking in true meaning and intimacy would seem to be what Cardinal O’Malley categorizes as “was ever thus”, something done because we’ve always done it that way.

Francis’ own words consistently call us out of the practice of routine for its own sake, and into intimacy.  Said another way, Francis is calling us out of a certain complacency, a certain deadness of heart for deeper life in Jesus.  In a recent homily on Jesus' return to Nazareth, Francis said of the Nazarenes, “they are so confident of their faith, their observance of the commandments, that they did not need another salvation.”  The Holy Father went on to say, “This is the drama of the blind observance of the commandments…”

I believe that this pope is rebuilding the heart of a Church squarely laid on the foundation of his predecessors.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI have provided an accessible theological, anthropological and philosophical foundation on which Catholicism can speak to the world, and speak to its own, in this tumultuous post-modern era.  Francis is building a home on that foundation, where the human heart finds life and communion with God. 

In that, though, he calls us out of our comfort, our complacency, out of inertia, and into the deep.  Our observance of tradition and devotion should always take us somewhere, else we are simply practicing something because it “was ever thus”. 

In striking words, the Holy Father speaks clearly, 
“An authentic faith always implies a deep desire to change the world. And this is the question we should pose ourselves: do we too have great visions and zeal? Are we bold too? Do our dreams fly high? Are we consumed by zeal? Or are we mediocre and satisfied with our theoretical apostolic plans? Let us always remember that the strength of the Church does not reside in herself or in her organizational capacity, but is instead concealed in the deep waters of God. And these waters agitate our desires, and our desires expand our hearts.”

So, I invite you to ponder these questions:

Do I have great visions?

Am I bold?

Do my dreams fly high?

Am I consumed by zeal?

Am I content with the “was ever thus” in my life?

What desires is God agitating within me?

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stepping Into the Storm

It looked to be a good day of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.  The weather forecast was for coastal thunderstorms- welcome to Florida.  Thirty minutes after leaving the dock, and ten minutes after running out from under some dark clouds, I looked over my shoulder, back toward the safety of land, and I had a bad, sinking feeling.  It was barely 9 am, and those dark clouds had gone to ugly menacing black.  The only safe water was further out, further from the safety of the shore!  Within a couple hours, those “coastal thunderstorms” had ballooned and pushed us 25 miles offshore.  Even there, the lightning and cold threatening wind was enough to unnerve all of us aboard the boat.  The waves built into these blockish , close together three to four foot tall walls of water, slamming into the hull like heavyweight punches, causing the boat to take on this eerie lurching shudder.  I’d spent enough time on boats to know that the voice in my head that was saying “Not good” was right on the money!  Every boater knows that there is an inverse correlation between boat size and wave size.  A 30’ boat feels quite spacious on a calm sea.  In 5’ stacked seas, that same 30 footer feels like a teacup!

And so I come to think of 2 Gospel accounts involving boats, men, and waves.  The first is Matthew 4.  Crossing the lake, the disciples are left to sail while Jesus takes a nap at the rear of the boat.  A violent, nasty storm comes up.  The disciples, some of whom were pretty “salty” and veteran sailors, with years of experience on the water, were hearing a warning go off in their heads that sounded like “Not good”.   “Bad storm”.  “Danger”.  It was an “I could die out here today” kind of storm.  Meanwhile, Jesus snores… 
This, as the story recounts, becomes a kind of embarkation point for faith.  Jesus quiets the storm, asserting his dominion, and points out how little is the faith of his disciples.  The message is clear and simple, even if not easily learned.  Jesus is always with us.  No matter the circumstances, even when we think He’s asleep, He is always, in a certain sense, “in the boat”.  That is a difficult lesson, all by itself.

Next, in Matthew 14, Jesus ups the ante.  Jesus actually makes the disciples get into the boat and head across the lake.  Jesus, essentially, sends the disciples into harm’s way, into the storm.  I can relate to that!  How many times have I felt like God actually exposed me to harm?  At least, that was (and sometimes is) my perception.  But, besides the “keep your eyes on Jesus” message that is blatantly obvious, there is a deeper message.  While Matthew 4 is the starting place of faith- believing that Jesus is with me, Matthew 14 is a place of maturing in faith.

Maturity is not about weathering the storm, enduring the buffeting, and clinging to Jesus in a sinking boat (although I admit I have felt like this a lot in my life).  Rather, it is about leaving the boat, what appears safe, and stepping into the storm.  Now, walking on water is miraculous all by itself, even on calm water.  But, stepping into a storm takes WAY more faith than stepping onto flat water.  Calm water offers, at least, a momentary illusion of stability.  And if it doesn’t go well, treading water on a calm day isn’t too hard.  But, when the waves are taller than your head, and the wind is so strong that it blows the tops of the waves off, sinking equals drowning.

And that is the place of mature faith.  Ultimately, “Stepping into the Storm” is our call as Christians.  Wherever that storm is, whether in our hearts, in our families, or in our culture, we are called to step right into storm! 

So you aren't left hanging, we ran upwards of 70 miles that day, dodging lightning, wind and rain squalls.  In the end, we found a little gap between 2 nasty thunderheads, and shot through it to a beautiful afternoon, a beautiful sun-drenched shore in the distance.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

3 Rocks for Christmas

Growing up, the Charlie Brown “Peanuts” specials were a household staple.  In the Halloween special, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, Charlie Brown goes trick-or-treating with all his friends.  While all his friends receive candy and treats, Charlie Brown leaves every house saying, “I got a rock”. 

The Church, in her wisdom, gives us rocks, too.  Not for Halloween, but for Christmas!  And not just one rock, but three!  In the gift of the three rocks, I believe the Church, and our Lord, are trying to communicate a deep truth to us.  It is a truth that can help live a life that is deeper in intimacy with the Lord, with greater freedom and greater joy.

The first rock appeared on Christmas Eve, in the sweet Gospel readings that echo to us from a different Charlie Brown special, as Linus recites, “For born to you is this day, in the City of David, a savior, Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you.  You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, laying in a manger.”  A manger…  A manger, if you don’t know, is used in a stable or barn to hold feed for animals. As a kid, I used to help my grandpa shovel feed into the manger for cattle on his farm.  In Jesus time, a manger was a rectangular piece of rock or stone, with the top hollowed out to hold feed for cattle and other livestock.  Of course, that hollowed out piece of stone worked well as a makeshift crib.

The gift of the second rock appeared on December 26, the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr, who was stoned to death.  Really?  From angels and nativity sets and “Joy to the World” to being stoned to death?  That’s a pretty big transition in 24 hours.  Talk about squashing your Christmas cheer!  The final rock appeared on December 27th.   It’s the gospel account of Peter and John racing to the tomb, bearing witness to the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. 

Three rocks in three days, and a great lesson.  God’s desire is to birth new life in us, more Jesus, into our hearts of stone.  When God births something new in our lives, what comes next is death.  New life in Christ, whether it is healing, desire, hope or anything else, requires death.  It might be death to self, death to expectations, or death to sin, but it is certain death.  And, after that death, after the pain, after the suffering of letting go of flesh and sin and worldliness, there is resurrection.  There is life, abundant life.  Peter and John understood what an empty tomb meant.  We should too.  We suffer not for sufferings own sake, for suffering is always an evil.  We suffer, though, willingly and joyously for the resurrection- that is the joy that is set before us.