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.  

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Forgoing Words

The past two weeks have been emotionally exhausting in various ways. One thing that has gotten me through has been the morning and afternoon concerts on NPR. I’ve never been someone who casually listens to classical music, but suddenly, it was not only enjoyable, it was filling some void that other methods of self-care were not. 

I like words. I like writing and finding the most accurate way of describing a situation. I like to overanalyze and pontificate. But sometimes there are experiences and emotions that cannot sufficiently be expressing through language (or at least my limited language). Mystical encounters, dark depression, the agony of alienation—moments that defy reason yet somehow seem more real than everyday reality. 

And that’s the importance of music. It touches on that reality beyond our words and reasons. Even as someone who usually prefers the lyrics to the melody, I have to admit that good melody and soaring instrumentation makes the lyrics wholly secondary. I don’t need the Latin or Italian or German to understand the universal human experience being expressed. 

And this goes to my complaint about bad church music too. You can’t tell me that Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor and Dan Schutte’s Mass of Christ the Savior are equal in their beauty or transcendence (and even then, it seems like chant is fundamentally better). There are such things as preference and taste, but there are objective standards too. I don’t have to know the words or even the flow of the Mass to give into the music of Mozart’s Mass. I surrender, and the music carries me. It was written to carry me. It builds, pulling me ever upward, reminding me of my place in the universe, of the beauty of creation, of the love of God.  Schutte’s Mass reminds me of the need for better catechisis. 

Sometimes words are necessary. It is good to analyze a situation or an emotion, to name it and properly understand it. But sometimes words only get in the way. They fail to grasp the weight or intensity. They cloud the experience, create distance between myself and the emotion. If I’m busy describing it, then I don’t have to feel it. Words become a cloak to hide behind, to mask the feelings or the silence. Sometimes it’s best to forgo words.

God is loud in silence. Cardinal Sarah said, “The only reality that deserves our attention is God Himself, and God is silent. He waits for our silence to reveal Himself. Regaining the sense of silence is therefore a priority, an urgent necessity.”

But if the silence is too much reality to bear, then giving oneself over to chant or classical music is a good place to start. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sicilian Vespers

I had a good Lent, which should have been the red flag. The annual Lenten malaise didn’t come. I kept my Lenten promises. I fasted. I made it to daily Mass. That’s not normally how Lent goes. That’s how the first week or two go, and then it falls apart, and I reflect on how Lent is teaching me about trying again, even in the face of inevitable failure on my part. But, no, this Lent was good.

So it all fell apart in Easter. Vices pulled twice as strong. I stopped going to daily Mass. I stepped away from practice or even thinking about it. I was in a dry spell in the midst of feasting. It reached its apex with missing Pentecost. There was no reason for it, and no despair on my part. It was just different, distant.

And then the seasons changed again. The fog lifted, and I looked to God again. Even when I sank into a deep depression, I made it to daily Mass. I prayed more. I stopped going through the motions and actually meant them. I went to confession, got myself cleaned up, and started battling those vices. And it didn’t feel like a challenge, as if I were rallying myself to come back. It just returned, without effort or explanation.

The spiritual journey isn’t a straight line. It takes turns. It slows down and speeds up. It hits bumps. So it’s important to remember that phases pass, seasons change. What feels momentously hard one week comes naturally the next. I am a body as well as a soul, subject to time and tides and climate.

I shouldn’t embrace the times of apathy or distance; I should fight them. But I shouldn’t let the fight lead to despair or indulgence. Sometimes waiting is best course of action. Obedience and patience can seem like passiveness or inaction, but they are real challenges. I think God appreciates when we obey in the face of apathy. It would be better to be motivated by genuine love and devotion, but some days, just showing up is enough. Better intentions can grow from there, and be harvested when the seasons change.

Just 24 more weeks of Ordinary Time.

[Title comes from what I was listening to while writing – classical music has been a Godsend the past two weeks.]