Sunday, February 15, 2015

Seeing More Clearly, Thankfully

I know the photo is poorly focused, but this is what I was looking at this morning, just four days after left eye cataract surgery, before the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Peter's Catholic Church: beautiful, century old works of art depicting the Birth, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus. I snuck my iPhone out and hurriedly snapped the picture after marveling at how different the windows looked using only the newly repaired eye rather than both eyes. I thought of doing a blog post.

Left eye covered, the windows were beautiful. But, with right eye covered, the colors were markedly brighter, the whites especially whiter, allowing so much more light to enter. (I can only imagine how much better they might look to someone who didn't get his maternal grandfather's color blindness gene, passed along to him by his mother.) I have about six more weeks now for making such comparisons before the scheduled April 1 surgery on the right eye. After that, I may tend to forget how much improvement resulted, so I am writing this blog post at least partly as a permanent reminder.

What a wonderfully simple miracle cataract surgery is, performed in my case by an ophthalmologist who, sensing my nervousness about having him cut into my eye, assured me that they have the process down to a fine art and that he has done thousands. I said, IV needle already in my arm, "I am in your hands," and he replied with a big smile, "I pray that God is going to bless you through me." I relaxed.

Of course cataract surgery is nothing new. It was first documented more than 400 years before that horrific crucifixion of Christ depicted in the center window above. It was primitive, of course. The "surgeon" would wait until the cataract was hard and completely opaque and brittle and then strike the eye with sufficient force to break up the cataract, the pieces of which would remain in the eyeball but allow some light to enter, providing very limited and unfocused vision. You can read about it here. I'm guessing cataract surgery was not widely practiced until the process used today was invented in 1967 by Dr. Charles Kelman, his incredible story and obituary here.

Now, to borrow some words of Hank Williams, Jr., it seems to me that all my rowdy friends are having cataract surgery. I'm guessing that otherwise we would all be slowly going blind and that, in Bible times, blindness of varying degrees was probably as common in old age as skin cancers and forgetfulness are today. Forms of the word show up 47 times in the Gospels, most often in the Gospel of John which proclaims Jesus to be "The Light of the World," an effective cure for spiritual blindness, and which gives us the wonderful story, in Chapter 9, of the healing of the man born blind and the frustrations the Pharisees experienced trying to figure out how that happened and how to convict Jesus of sin for healing on the Sabbath. One of the most well known Bible verses today is the response of the healed man when questioned by the Pharisees: "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." That single chapter could be developed into a major motion picture, which would probably be a shame.

My cataracts are being caught early before significant reduction in vision, but I certainly look forward to and am thankful for the opportunity to stop the deterioration and to see more clearly. Lest I forget the blessing, I will go back and read this post once in a while.


Here is a little better picture of the windows. St. Peter's has a process under way to publish a book of professional photos of the windows along with full descriptions and histories of each.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Bible Story vs. Bible Stories

Here is an update of a chart from an earlier post. It has not been simplified, and, to get a readable copy, it will be necessary to click on the chart. The reason for the update is preparation for a new Bible study group, and I always like to begin any subject with the view from 30,000 feet. This is an attempt to give a Christian view of Sacred Scripture, the Whole Bible Story, from maybe 50,000 feet...not much detail included. It is a demonstration of my commitment to the *Single Page Principle.

We will probably use this by just taking turns reading and discussing each of the verses, context included.

* My principle that all important ideas and concepts can, with enough work, be illustrated on a single page. It is an extension of Winston Churchill's position that if someone needed a long speech, he needed very little time to prepare but, if they wanted a short speech, he needed a lot of time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Jesus and the First Person Singular

In a Sunday morning class, we were watching a Fr. Robert Barron video in which he talked about the modern tendency to trivialize Jesus as a very smart and very nice guy with a good philosophy of life and lots of interesting stories. The fact is, he said, that Jesus was an unusual and disturbing person who challenged those around him and created a lot of discomfort.

He mentioned the question Jesus asked of his disciples, “Who do the people say I am?” and suggested that great teachers and spiritual leaders, Deepak Chopra, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, for example would explain a way of thinking and living but would not be concerned about who people thought they were. I could add Tony Robbins, Zig Ziegler, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dale Carnegie, and Norman Vincent Peale to his list of folks who wanted or want to show us a different way (some perhaps making a lot of money in the process) but don’t express concern about who people think they are and don’t use a lot of first person singular pronouns.

It made me think about the extensive use of the first person singular by Jesus. Here are some examples:

"Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." - Matthew 4:19

 But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."  - Matthew 8:22

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. - Matthew 9:9

"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” - Matthew 10:32  

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  - Matthew 10:37-40  

 “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” -Matthew 11:29

 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” - Matthew 12:30  

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” - Matthew 16:24
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” - Matthew 18:5 

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." - Matthew 18:20

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." - Matthew 19:21
 “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  - Mark 1:1

Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?"  Jesus said, "I am; and 'you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,' and 'coming with the clouds of heaven.'"  - Mark 14:61-62

Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” - Luke 13:32  

"I am he (Messiah), the one who is speaking to you." - John 4:26
"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” -  John 6:35
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." - John 8:12
He said to them, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” -  John 8:23
Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am." - John 8:58

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” -  John 10:9 

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” -  John 10:11
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” - John 10:27

"I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” - John 11:25
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” - John 14:6 

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” – John 14:15

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” – John 15:1  

Christians read the words “I am,” the most fundamental first person singular declaration, coming from Jesus, especially in John 8:58 above, as hearkening back to the words of God when Moses encountered him in the burning bush in Exodus 3 and, upon being challenged to step up and lead the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, asked God who he should say told him to do such a foolish thing. God replied, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

Jesus was certainly loving in his encounters with many people but doesn’t seem to have been a “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” as suggested by a once popular hymn (based probably on Matthew 11:29 minus the “yoke” issue) except perhaps in his dealings with children. With followers and potential followers, he was confident and direct with such imperatives as, “…sin no more,” “sell your possessions,” and “keep my commandments.” His teaching challenges us to focus our own use of the first person singular to statements such as, “I believe,” “I confess,” “I pray,” “I forgive,” “I love,” and “I will.”

We may be in danger of trivializing Jesus by asking a subjective question such as “What would Jesus do?” Often what he did was heal people, cast out demons, or perform other miracles, make outrageous claims or demands on his followers, or tell wise and provocative stories. Those are not things we do very well. It may be more helpful in our spiritual journeys to first ask, “What did Jesus say?” and “What did Jesus do?” Then we can focus on what we will say and do in response.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Church and State, Christianity and Islam, Good News, Bad News, and No News

This week there is a report of the beheading of four teenage Christians in Iraq because of their refusal to convert to Islam. I am willing to concede that Islam may be, or may at least become, a religion of peace if it is stripped of and separated from any political or state power, but that is not the current situation. Alignment of church and state is always tragic, and Christianity also has suffered many shameful failings when established as the official religion and sanctioned by the state.

We are still trying to overcome the residual effects of the Emperor Theodosius's A.D. 380 decision, expressed in the Edict of Thessalonica, to make Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. How much better it would have been had he simply expanded the concept of freedom of religion begun by Constantine sixty seven years earlier in the Edict of Milan. He should have stayed on "the right side of history" and left such theological endorsements entirely up to the Church. Had he done so, the infamous Crusades would have rightly been seen as struggles for religious freedom rather than as Christian vs. Muslim.

I suppose Mr. Ron Prosor, who explained the current persecution and extermination of Christians in the Middle East in an April 16, 2014, WSJ Editorial, must have no credibility and shares that problem with Canon Andrew White who reported the beheadings. I know of no other explanation for the failure of ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN to report daily on this horrible activity. Such stories could displace at least  the regular Kardashian reports.

Last evening Brian Williams chose to dedicate part of his precious twenty two minutes to a bit of fluff about some new study which concluded that men are idiots and do stupid things. He missed a perfect opportunity to point to the current situation in the Middle East, including our role in it, as obvious proof of the hypothesis.

As the suffering and death go on, we can and must give thanks to God daily for the separation of church and state and freedom of religion we enjoy in the United States of America. Such freedom was not a sure thing and was not present in early settlements here. We can thank God for leadership of such as Roger Williams for avoidance of establishment of just another theocracy here in the "Land of the Free." Let us exercise that freedom and defend it from every encroachment, even as we remember that it is "freedom of" and not "freedom from" religion that we are guaranteed.

As a reminder of early American history, here is a picture I took earlier this week of an explanation posted in The Museum of Charleston, Charleston, SC.

Thursday, April 3, 2014 Context

In the last few weeks I have read "Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters," by theologian and scholar N. T. Wright, "Killing Jesus" by Commentator Bill O'Reilly and historian Martin Dugard, and a short reflection on the tenth day of Lent, "Why Was the Cross Necessary?" by Catholic theologian Father Robert Barron.  That was all topped off with a single sentence about Jesus from Paul David Hewson, aka Bono.

Both O'Reilly/Dugard and Wright do an excellent job of putting Jesus in context, O'Reilly/Dugard taking the unusual approach of explaining more extensively what was going on in the Roman Empire and in Jerusalem in particular, and Wright, also considering Rome, but emphasizing the Jewish world view, based on their history, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the fulfillment of prophecies therein.  Wright uses a "perfect storm" metaphor to explain the disruption that occurs when the Jewish world view, the Roman world view, and the arrival of God, in flesh, announcing a new world order, the coming of the Kingdom of God, collide. Both books give a pretty clear understanding of why the crucifixion of Jesus was a quite reasonable, and even necessary, response to Him in the eyes of the powers that were. 

The O'Reilly/Dugard book claims to be historical, not theological, and describes Jesus not as a Messiah but only as a man who "galvanized a remote area of the Roman Empire and made very powerful enemies while preaching a philosophy of peace and love."  The only thing that really bothered me about the book was the slant in this phrase describing the response of Jesus to the question of whether it was OK to pay taxes to Caesar: "Why are you trying to trap me? Jesus seethes."  Well, he did address them as hypocrites so maybe he was "seething."  Or maybe he was just feeling sorry for them.  Anyway, such interpretation is more characteristic of historical fiction than of history. Don't let that keep you away from the book.  I just want you to know I noticed it.  

The Wright book is a theological treatise and goes beyond the crucifixion with chapters titled, "Under New Management: Easter and Beyond," and "Jesus: The Ruler of the World."  It is a book that can help Christians see the big picture, the total Bible Story, and avoid the mistakes that easily come from picking and choosing verses out of context and basing ones theology on them.  

Then there was Father Barron's reflection for the 10th day of Lent, pure theology, explaining why The Cross was necessary.  It is very short, and you can read it here

And then Bono's declaration, included in this brief clip of an interview:  "When asked, "Who was Jesus?," Bono answered, “That is the defining question of what Christianity is about... Either he is the Son of God… or he was nuts.”  Note the switch from present to past tense. I will go with the present tense alternative. Of course that is the choice also of Bono, Barron, Wright, O'Reilly, and Dugard.  

All of these are highly recommended reading for these last few days leading up to Easter, day one of the new creation.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Defining God Down, So He Can Be Denied

Revised, with apologies, December 17th, 2013.

The Experience of God by Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart is a critique of both the faulty logic of modern atheists and of the easy targets provided them by simplistic understandings and explanations of God by people of faith. 

To whet your appetite for Hart’s books, he, in speaking of those on both sides of the God-No God debate, argues that, “none of them is talking about God in any coherent sense at all.”  He goes on to write, “…my chief purpose is not to advise atheists on what I think they should believe; I want merely to make sure that they have a clear concept of what it is they claim not to believe.”

Hart bemoans the rise of ideological extremism, fundamentalism, not only in religion but in politics, economics, etc., and argues that "the new atheism is often just the confessional rote of materialist fundamentalism..."  He identifies "...young earth creationists who believe that the two contradictory cosmogonic myths of the early chapters of Genesis are actually a single documentary account of an event that occurred a little over six millennia ago...' as "opponents against which (the new atheism) is well matched."  Hart identifies such Biblical fundamentalism as a phenomenon of the last century or so and makes the case that it is in no way a return to the faith of the early church.

I suppose we are easily tempted by the first Genesis creation story (Genesis 1) in which God says, “Let us make man in our image,”  to imagine the inverse, God in our image, a sort of super human who creates just by speaking and who would act and rule and judge just as we would if we were perfect and had all that power.  The Genesis writers seem to have done that in the second Genesis creation story (Genesis 2), saying that God created man by taking something available, some dust from the ground, and making something else, a man, out of it, or taking a rib from a man and making a woman from it. That would be crafting or manufacturing, not creating. 

This is not to marginalize the beautiful inspired Genesis creation stories that teach essential spiritual truths, primarily that God created and that what He created was good.  Thanks to the divine gifts of self awareness, curiosity, intelligence and technology, we know a lot more than the writers of Genesis about the incredibly complex and ongoing creation processes God put in place.  We can even replicate some of those processes.  We have some evidence about how species change over time and some theories about the origin of species, but we still don’t have a clue about where all this matter and energy and life and reason come from, about how God created out of nothing.  As Hart writes, "The world is unable to provide any account of its own actuality, and yet there it is all the same."     

Hart never mentions Jesus or the incarnation.  Writing about the God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other major mono-theistic faiths he says, “I want to distinguish…between, on the one hand, metaphysical or philosophical descriptions of God, and, on the other, dogmatic or confessional descriptions, and then to confine myself to the former.”  Of course he is a confessing Christian, but writes, “It may be that one faith is truer than any other, or contains that ultimate truth to which all faiths aspire in their various ways; but that still would hardly reduce all other religions to mere falsehood.”  Hart explains up front that his book “forthrightly and unhesitatingly describes a God who is the infinite fullness of being, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, from who all things come and upon whom all things depend for every moment of their existence, without whom nothing at all could exist.”  It sounds like St Luke, writing more concisely in Acts 17:28 – “For in him we live, and move, and have our being;”

And this from Hart on atheism:  “I acknowledge up front that I do not regard true philosophical atheism as an intellectually valid or even cogent position.”  He sees it as a “fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd,” that, “must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”  Could we believers sometimes be guilty of that same wish?

I’m not going to spoil the reading with any more quotes.  Hopefully this has whetted some appetites for a challenging read.  You can get it on your Kindle for $11.99.  And, meanwhile Christians, as Christmas approaches, can give thanks for Immanuel, God with us.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Major Topics in Catholic Christianity

Just in case anybody was wondering what it is all about...
(Click on the chart for better readability.)