Sunday, July 9, 2017

Smoke and Crowns

Opium is one of the world’s oldest drugs. A Sumerian script details the joys of taking opium 5,400 years ago. It was used as a medicine and sedative by a variety of cultures. In the age of exploration, opium and tobacco were combined and smoked recreationally.

In the early 1800s, in a campaign to circumvent Chinese trading regulations, the British East India Company began selling opium grown in India to independent traders for silver. The opium then reached the Chinese coasts through middlemen and was sold through local dealers in China.

The aggressive marketing of the British led to recreational opium usage spreading wildly in China. There were discussions of legalizing and taxing opium, but in 1839 the emperor banned narcotics and closed the port of Canton. About 2.6 million pounds of opium were confiscated without reimbursement. But the country was already suffering epidemic addiction. By 1900, an estimated quarter of adult men in China were addicted.

St. Mark Ji Tianxiang was born in 1834 in China. Raised a Christian, he served his community as a doctor who served the poor. He got sick and treated himself with opium, soon becoming addicted.

Orthodox martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion
As he battled his addiction, he continually went to confession. Since addiction was not well understood at the time, the priest thought Tianxiang’s continued opium use was a sign of insincere repentance. Tianxiang was told to stop coming to confession unless he was clean (and thus truly repentant).

He couldn’t stay sober, but he still knew and desired God’s love. He continued to go to church, even as he was denied the sacraments. He kept going for thirty years. He prayed for martyrdom, figuring that was the only way he could be saved.

In 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, Tianxiang was rounded up with several other Christians. He refused to deny God, even under threat and torture. He asked his executioners to kill him last so that no member of his family would have to die alone. He watched nine members of his family die before being beheaded himself. He was canonized along with his fellow Boxer Rebellion martyrs. Their feast day is July 9.

There presently is an opioid epidemic in this country. 80% of the global opioid production is consumed in the U.S. Most people addicted didn’t chose opioids. It’s not a party drug. Many were given a prescription for a valid reason. Morphine was a revelation in a time when medical procedures offered no pain relief. Heroin hit the scene as the “hero,” a pain killer not addictive like morphine. Percocet, OxyContin, Oxycodone, Fentanyl (which 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine): each promised all the good feelings in a newer, healthier way, but the addiction came too.

Addicts are seen as criminals, unproductive leeches on society, who waste charity on drugs, who abandon their families, who commit crimes and then demand handouts and methadone and rehab centers. And a lot of that is true. It’s hard to be addicted and productive. And poor decisions abound. But they are still people, people going through a really rough reality, and they deserve to be met and helped as individuals rather than written off as a whole.

What’s most inspiring about St. Mark Ji Tianxiang’s faith is that he didn’t give up, even when the Church gave up on him. So many people leave the faith when people in the church abuse, insult, or ignore them. And that’s understandable; it’s hard to return to a place with such negativity. But Tianxiang seemed to understand that the truth was more powerful than its gatekeepers. He loved God, even when his priest didn’t believe in him or when he was denied the sacraments. He kept showing up. That’s 30 years of loyalty and love that prepared him for his moment of martyrdom.

I worry about the current crisis. There are no easy solutions. And there will always been new drugs and new people becoming addicted. As long as there is suffering, there will be addiction as people try to escape the pain the world can cause. But I am hopeful that there are success stories out there, that there are those who break the habit and sober up and lead productive lives again. I’m hopeful that there are people who are compassionate and willing to help the suffering without indulging their usage. I’m hopeful that even in times of despair and battles and isolation, people can still find God’s love. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Praying and Forgiving

I was never a big fan of Ke$ha (despite concrete memories of blasting “Tik Tok” in my dorm parking lot). But I was definitely team Ke$ha went the reports of her producer’s abuse surfaced. She alleges that he sexually, physically, and emotionally abused her throughout their professional relationship. When she tried to get a new producer or get out of her recording contract that dictated she work with him, she was denied. She was basically left with the choice of continuing to work with her abuse or give up her music.

This week, fours years since her last music release, she released a new song, “Praying.” It’s raw and honest, and the video is filled with religious symbols. She wears wings and sings about moving on, becoming stronger and not holding on to hate. She hopes that her abuser changes for the better. It’s not quite forgiveness, but it’s not letting the evil in her life keep a hold over her. The video was released on July 6, which also happens to be the feast day of St. Maria Goretti.

Maria Goretti was born 1890 in Italy. Her father died when she was young, and her mother struggled to raised the children alone. On July 5, 1902, an 18-year-old man grabbed Maria while she was sewing on the steps of her home and tried to rape her. She cried out that it was a sin and he would go to hell. The man began choking her, then pulled out a knife and stabbed her 11 times. When she tried to reach the door, he stabbed her three more times.

Her family rushed her to the hospital. Halfway through the surgery (which was without anesthesia) the surgeon asked Maria, “Think of me in Paradise.” She didn’t realize the seriousness of her condition and said, “Well, who know which of us is going to be there first?” The surgeon replied, “You, Maria.”

The next day, she forgave her attacker and said she hoped to see him in heaven. She died later that day. Her attacker was captured and admitted to the attack and that he had attempted to rape her before. He remained unrepentant until a few years later when he had a dream that he was in a garden with Maria. She gave him lilies which burned his hands. When he was released from his 30-year prison sentence, he went to Maria’s mother to ask forgiveness. He was present at her canonization in 1950. She is the patron of young women, purity, and rape victims. While St. Maria Goretti is known as a martyr, her strongest testimony is the forgiveness she was able to show her attacker. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

In God We Trust

Despite my faith in God, I’ve always maintained that the separation of church and state was a healthy part of this nation’s history. And it is a part of history: I’ll list the Enlightenment and Deist influences in our founding when others claim the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. I’ll point out that “under God” was only added to the pledge and “In God we trust” only added to our currency in the mid-twentieth century. I’ll cringe when I see an American flag in a nave or sanctuary.

On a selfish note, if there was not a separation of church and state, then Catholicism would have never been tolerated here, and my joining the Church would have been a monumental hurdle. On a less selfish note, the country had seen the corruption of European intermingling faith and politics, resulting in lots of bloodshed, and sought a place where one could express his conscience without the threat of execution. People could worship freely and express their political views freely and work together on common interests. The public square could be civil without being uniformed. 

But over time, that idea of diverse ideologies coming together to build society got distorted. It is no longer alright to have differing ideas. Diversity means diverse in looks, ethnicities, genders, and orientations. But you must be uniform in your religious and political stances. This article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the current problem with liberalism: in its claim to celebrate diversity, it is intolerant of an individual’s conscience. 

As I became Catholic, my political stances became more liberal. Issues of social justice, dignity of work, just economics, respect for the environment, preservation for all life, were all influenced by my understanding of the faith. But so too were issues of family structure, sexual ethics, and religious liberty. In the binary world of American politics, I couldn’t find a home—even if I wanted to. 

In liberalism, it’s kinda-sorta ok to believe in God. As long as that belief doesn’t contradict established liberal politics. Your God loves the poor, hates war, and is all about love is love is love? Come on in. Your God requires you to follow certain moral standards, profess a creed, and convert others? Take your bronze-age ideas elsewhere, bigot. Hippy Jesus is very big; he was just a brown dude who spoke up for outcasts and preached love. Well, he also overturned tables, cursed trees that didn’t bear fruit, warned of hell for non-repentants, and asked his followers to eat his body. Oh, and he was God; that was kind of his thing.

Jesus didn’t come to organize the masses in political resistance or overthrow the Empire. He didn’t come to chill with prostitutes and thieves and be totally cool with their lifestyles. He came to defeat death, to open up the kingdom of heaven, to reunite man with his creator. He poured out mercy and love. But that mercy and love has a context that cannot be pushed aside in favor of feel-good relativism. 

I used to think it was sort of silly that America took up the banner of God in its fight against “godless” communists. How did saying “under God” undermine a political foe? But it was true that the communists were godless. Atheism was the state religion. Adherence to the state system was the de facto doctrine. Who needs a God-guided conscience when the political state can instruct you? 

Maybe the USSR fell, but part of its ideology has won. Because there is a belief in western politics now that beliefs must be uniformly secular. God-guided conscience cannot be tolerated, even when tolerance is a purported principle of the state. A politician can advocate for a just wage, banking regulations, environmental protections, and universal healthcare. He can even say that abortion restrictions are counterproductive. But because he believes everyone is a “sinner” and that abortion is “wrong,” he is not welcome in the public forum. Concepts like “sin” and “wrong” are transgressions to modernist liberalism.

A Muslim bowing toward Mecca or a Hindu throwing dye during Holi or a Christian with ashes on his forehead are acceptable. But non-Enlightenment philosophies that lead to those rituals aren’t. Keep the look; drop the belief. For a believer, the truth is deeper than public displays of cultural diversity. The rituals point to faith and the faith is rooted in truth. How could someone be expected to reject the truth in favor of hegemony? God is more important than human politics. Truth is more important than human feelings. 

The Muslim and Hindu and Christian can fundamentally disagree on many things. And that may cause problems. But they can also agree on many things and work together. Literacy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, decent housing, decent wages. The basics of society don’t require philosophical uniformity.

So maybe it is unfair for America to slap “In God We Trust” on its courthouses and currency, because not all Americans trust God or worship the same one. But not all Americans are secularists either. Some are religious, the true kind of religious where their faith shapes their values and politics, where it permeates their daily lives. Religious liberty means no state religion, including a state religion of “none.” It also means that citizens are free to practice their faith and advocate for a society that reflects their religiously-rooted values. We individuals can freely say in the public forum that we place our trust in God.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Dissolution of Hope

God’s not distant. He’s all too close. I do not doubt his love. I do not doubt he’s desire to see me reconciled to him. But I’m distant. I’m arresting his will. Why do I have such power? Why do I feel so strong? My sin feels so mighty that it’s overpowering my Creator. My God whom I love but can’t seem to love enough.

My strength is illusion, yet it’s jarring. The weight of free will. The clear realization of my brokenness, of how far I am from where I claim I want to be. In the moment there isn’t guilt or contrition, not yet, because it isn’t about me. It’s about the cosmic injustice of someone like me having so much ability to thwart God’s will. 

I’m unwilling to call it despair. Despair is for the people who doubt God’s love, who are going through a dark night of the soul, who experience distance or rejection or judgment. If anything, I’m the opposite, overwhelmed by it all. Yet the root is the same; somewhere I have taken on burdens I don’t need to take. I have rejected hope by refusing to place my trust beyond myself. 

After missing Mass for, well, every day since Sunday, despite actual efforts to go several times, I finally caught some chapel time alone. I like chapels when they’re dark and quiet anyway. I couldn’t kneel for more than a few moments due to scrapes on my knees. So I just sat there with Jesus, watching the little red flame flicker, holding on to that flicker like a lifeline. 

And I knew God was patiently there with me, just being. “You don’t have to reach out. I’m already here.” He knows reaching out is too difficult a burden for me right now. 

I don’t have to seek his attention or explain myself or pretend it’s all ok or check down a list of symptoms to prove it’s not. I don’t have to make it to daily Mass. He’ll take my chaplet when I’m waiting outside the closed recycling center. He’ll take my gratitude when I’m picking myself off the ground, blood running down my hands and knees. He’ll take my tears and confusion when I go home to cry during lunch and don’t know why. 

He’ll met me where I am even when I find myself in places I don’t recognize.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Dark Waters

The past month or so has been challenging. Not because anything’s wrong—everything has been going well in fact. But my broken brain doesn’t know that. I’ve been fighting moments of darkness—of sticky black clouds caught in my chest, of paralyzing fatigue, of thoughts I don’t want to revisit once my mind is right again. The surface remains calm, too calm, numb. The unsettling calm before a storm. 

I don’t know how unwell I might be; I just know I’m off from my normal. The world feels a little off. And I try to self-care by buying fresh flowers, hanging more art, not being alone too long. There is an undercurrent of urgency to find the fix, fill the void before I really fall in. My day becomes a set of rules: sleep, hydrate, shower, clean, don’t cry, don’t binge, don’t drink, don’t call that person and burden them with the chaos you can’t yet explain, don’t cry again. When I feel normal, I worry about how long it will last. Because some sticky black clouds don’t wash away in the summer’s afternoon thunderstorm.

I want to be better. I want to not be better because my writer’s block has subsided. I understand the stereotype of the addicted writer now. It’s a balancing act of tapping into the insanity of creativity and staying stable enough to survive the real world. For now I’m choosing the latter, but I sympathize with those who chose the former. 

I know there are brighter days. I know there are solutions. I know God loves me unconditionally. But knowledge doesn’t stop the drowning; I have to swim too. I have put in effort when effort feels insurmountable. Somewhere in this mess are lessons. Somewhere I can probably learn how to properly understand and utilize suffering. Something about it all is miserably and beautifully human.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Perfection in an Imperfect World (part 2)

The world is not black and white. But it’s not all hazy gray either. There are lines; there are rules; there are standards. As Christians, we are called to give up our selfish desires and to not lean on our own understandings. We have a higher calling. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 10:33).

Believers who point out Church teachings or challenge others to follow God’s standards are sometimes called Pharisees or zealots. They are told they are more interested in the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. But the law does have letters. I've said before that those who grew up in a strict environment need to learn about God's grace and those who grew up in a lax environment need to learn God's rules. I'm in the latter, but I sometimes fear preaching what I learn for fear of being seen as unloving.

The Pharisees whom Jesus challenged were chided not for their laws but for their hypocrisy. And we all can be hypocrites at times. We fail to do what we preach is right. But rather than changing what we preach, we should change our actions to match. If the rule is “be perfect” and we are imperfect, it is better to become perfect than to create a rule “be imperfect.”

The first word Jesus uttered once he began his ministry was “repent.” Jesus loves us all. He died for us all. That doesn’t mean he approves of all our choices. We are all welcome, but we must repent and turn from our sin. It would be sinful to withhold the truth from someone because of modern notions of relativism or ecumenism. 

One of the teachings of Jesus that even non-Christians love is “judge not.” When Christians point out ideas or behaviors that contradict Christian morality, they are reminded to not judge. But the secular world telling Christians to not judge really means “Christians, shut up.” They want to be tolerant of religion as long as religion is kept behind closed doors for a couple of hours a week. Displaying or preaching religious ethics is too “judgmental.” And didn’t your God say not to judge? Don’t be a hypocrite. 

The problem, of course, is that Jesus actually said, “Judge not lest ye be judged” (Mt 7:1). It is a call for righteous judgment and an end to hypocrisy, not a call for relativism and complete tolerance for all actions. We cannot judge a person’s soul, his intentions, or his state of grace. We can call out evil actions. We can instruct others to turn from sin. We cannot docilely let evil be tolerated out of fear of being called judgmental hypocrites.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The second part of that sentence is my least favorite part of the Lord’s Prayer. Sure I want God’s forgiveness, but I’m not so sure I want to be forgiven only as much as I’ve forgiven. I’m a sinner and a hypocrite. I should work on that. The best way to not be a judgmental hypocrite isn’t changing the standards but to change myself, to turn away from sin, to work toward perfection. I’ll fail, but I’ll put the work and the trust in. God’s grace will cover the rest of the way. He is perfect; I am imperfect. His rules are perfect; my adherence is imperfect. It isn’t complicated after all.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Perfection in an Imperfect World (part 1)

It isn’t complicated. We know what the standards are. Love God; love others. The Creed outlines our belief. The Bible delivers some of Jesus’ messages rather bluntly: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19); “Whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father” (Mt 10:33); “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

It’s in the follow-through where everything falls apart, where it does indeed get complicated. Trinitarian formula at baptism? Ok, easy enough. Not denying the faith under persecution? A gut-wrenching situation where I don’t know if I’d do the right thing. Be perfect? Impossible. Why would Jesus set up standards we can’t possibly meet? Humans are imperfect, and this is an imperfect world. Isn’t it unjust to demand perfection from us? 

Good news! God knows we’ll fail, and he offers us salvation anyway. It’s the Gospel that we all know: Jesus came for us men and our salvation. God loves us unconditionally. Our sins are washed away. We receive salvation by grace not merits. 

And that’s all true, and it is good news indeed. But it’s not the whole story. Christianity is not a Doctor Who Christmas special; not everyone gets saved. The Bible says otherwise: “Many are called but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14); “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt 7:14); “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 7:21).

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We fall into traps of imperfect philosophies or reasonable justifications. We convince ourselves that the ends justify the means. We lean on the notion that God will forgive any and all imperfections and therefore indulge in our messy, imperfect world. 

But counting on God’s forgiveness is presumption. God gave us standards. We are held to perfection because God is perfect. Assuming “God will understand” or “He’d never condemn a good person” is shaping God to be who we want, not what we have seen him revealed to be. We want God’s mercy to fit into our created understandings of “good” and “bad.” And, being in the imperfect world, we can get those wrong. God does love us. He does forgive us. But he also calls us to be perfect, to suffer, to let the chaff separate from the wheat. His love is unconditional; our salvation is not. 

Perfection is unattainable. Sometimes it even seems unknowable, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are called to it. We do not get to dictate the rules of the universe. There are rules and standards and expectations. They are there to guide us and form us and help us grow toward holiness. They are how we come to know God and how we align our wills to his. In growing closer to him, we grow to understand the rules and the need for the rules more clearly. Order in a chaotic world is a lifeline. It can keep us from drowning in our own desires and idols and confusion. My Western individualism rankles at submission, but in the end, I have no purpose other than bow to my creator. To follow his standards. To love God; to love others. To go and make disciples. To proclaim the Gospel. To be perfect.