Friday, 27 January 2012

The Pulpit of the Pub

"The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." --George Orwell
Further to the infamous video, I wanted to offer a couple more thoughts--not to Bethke himself, per se, but in regard to a couple of conversations that I've had about it with a few friends.

One conversation in particular revolved around the simplicity of the message. When I made the point about Bethke's misuse of the term "religion" to mean hypocrisy, and therefore leading him to get down on religion in general rather than those who practise their religion poorly, a friend responded by saying Bethke was preaching a "simple" message geared toward people who weren't familiar with Christianity. He made the point that we have to start somewhere when presenting the faith--that we have to tell them in what, exactly, we're trying to convince them to put their faith in the first place. As such, with that goal in mind, Bethke could hardly be faulted for emphasising Jesus over and above "religion". He went on to say that in the popular culture, "religion" is often automatically associated with all the negative connotations that Bethke rebukes in his video, and therefore when we present the message of the Gospel, we should try to shy away from the "religious" association in order to make the message more palatable.

He wrote,
"Religion" is a heavy word. Those of us who believe will ultimately all admit that the word "religion" carries with it a lot of baggage. When I am doing bar ministry and someone says "You sing about Jesus, you must be religious then" I shudder and typically outline the differences between hollow "religion" and real relationship with Christ.
My friend's reference to "Bar Ministry" reminded me of another scene of ministry taking place in a bar (or tavern, at any rate). This one occurred roughly 700 years ago, and yet the situation is startlingly relevant, I think.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had risen to a status of temporal power that it had never before seen, and, hopefully, never will again. I say hopefully never again, because the worldly ties possessed by the Church tended to make her leadership become all too worldly. Bishops, priests, even popes, were living lives of sinful avarice and lust. While the Holy Spirit, as He does in every age, preserved the Church from abandoning the Faith, nevertheless, the so-called "religious" of the day were living lives that were anything but! Even the monastic orders had traded in their vows of poverty for opulence.

In this milieu of decadence arose a heresy, known as "Catharism" or "Albigensianism". The Cathari (i.e. "Pure Ones") stressed a spiritual relationship with Jesus over and above the trappings of the world and of the religious institution of the Church. In fact, they went so far as to deny the goodness of the world, living incredibly austere and ascetic lives of fasting and penance, in order to demonstrate their revulsion for their flesh, and their desire to die so their spirit could be with God. The Catholics, especially the clergy, in their hypocritical decadence, were hard pressed to offer any compelling rebuttal against the Albigensian rigourism. And many Catholic laypeople, seeing the hypocrisy of their leaders, and the apparent holiness of the heretics, were scandalised by the Church and led to embrace this heresy.

But in every age, when the priest has abandoned the truth, God raises up prophets to call him, and the people, back to the true life of the Gospel. To rebuke the Church, and to resist the Cathari, Our Lord raised up just such a prophetic voice in the person of St. Dominic de Guzman. Travelling through France (the center of the Albigensian heresy) on an ecclesiastical mission from Spain to Scandinavia, St. Dominic encountered the devastating effects of Albigensianism. Dominic very clearly felt the call of God to stay in France and help preach the Truth. In order to be more compelling to the heretics and to the people of the day, Dominic adopted a severely ascetic lifestyle, taking strict vows of poverty. He started the religious community that bears his name, the Dominicans, or the Order of Preachers, and sent them out to preach to all people. He preached a simple Gospel as contained in and exemplified by the Rosary and its mysteries of the Life of Christ. His zeal, his holiness, and his preaching won back many heretics to the truth of the Catholic faith--but the most effective witness was his life of lived charity and sincerity.

While St. Dominic's preaching was simple enough so that the masses could understand and be converted, unlike Jeff Bethke, he never compromised the Message to suit the prevailing attitudes of the day. When the people of the day saw the hypocritical way that the clergy were living, and rejected the Church because of the scandal, St. Dominic didn't respond by saying, "Jesus came to abolish religion. It's not about religion but about a relationship with Jesus!" Instead, St. Dominic became more religious! He combatted hypocrisy by living Religion faithfully, sincerely, and cheerfully!

One such instance of St. Dominic's cheerful ministry brings us right back to my friend's comments about the person in the bar who automatically associates "religion" with "hypocritical legalism" or some such thing. During his missionary travels through the south of France, St. Dominic and a companion lodged in an inn owned and run by an Albigensian. St. Dominic engaged the owner in conversation about their respective beliefs. The whole night long, Dominic patiently proclaimed the love, truth, beauty, and freedom of the Catholic religion. Neither excusing the laxity and hypocrisy of the clergy of his day, nor denigrating the Catholic religion as a whole based on that scandalous hypocrisy, Dominic carefully and lovingly explained the Truth. And when morning came, the tavern in which he was preaching was owned and run by a Catholic!

My friend is right--people do have a dismal perspective on religion--especially the Catholic religion these days. Ironically, there's significantly less reason to have such an opinion today than there was in the 1200s! Nevertheless, these negative associations persist. Is the cure for the problem my friend's, and Bethke's, solution, to create a false dichotomy between the Religion that Jesus founded, and Jesus Himself? Is it to play word games with "Religion", to make it mean something that it doesn't, simply in order to tickle the ears of our audience? Or is the real solution, St. Dominic's solution? To preach the Truth with love, patiently, sincerely, and joyfully? To fearlessly and tirelessly preach the Simple Gospel, but accurately and clearly, and not oversimplifying it?

If lazy language does indeed cause foolish thinking, as George Orwell prophetically warned, then the real witness to the Gospel must present that Gospel faithfully, articulately, and sincerely. With reverence for our hearers, let us clearly elucidate the Truth, in a way that they will understand, but without compromising. And above all, let us follow the example of St. Dominic. Let us live the Truth.

Truth: Study it. Live it. Preach it.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

What If I Told You That Jesus Came to Emancipate Religion?

"Nobody who fails to keep a tight rein on the tongue can claim to be religious; this is a mere self-deception; that person's religion is worthless. Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father, is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows in their hardships, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world" James 1:26-27
I was going to just type out verse 27 above, but considering the source for this reflection, I thought the bit about reining in the tongue would be appropriate, too. There's this video going around right now. I'm sure you've heard of it. A guy wrote a poem about Jesus abolishing "religion" that's soared in popularity. Many people have really resonated with his message. Others have reacted pretty strongly against it. I fall pretty much in the second camp--hence the reflection.

Now, there are a lot of brilliant responses to Jefferson Bethke's video, and I'll include a couple of them at the end of this post. But their very existence certainly begs the question--why am I writing this blog? Many more talented and intelligent people have already done the work for me, after all. And I'm pretty sure this blogpost won't get 16 million viewers in a week's time! So why? I hope it's not for vainglory or a need to pick a fight. I just know that over that same week of 16 million views, I've had many conversations with people who haven't seen the responses that are out there, and who have been caused to question their religious beliefs based on Bethke's comments. So maybe my blog won't contribute much to the grand scheme of the "religion vs. Jesus" debate--but maybe it'll say something or reach somebody that might have gone unsaid or unreached otherwise. Oh--I was going to try to make it rhyme, but, well, I know where my strengths don't lie!

Now, my point with citing St. James' comments on bridling the tongue apply, to my mind, to Bethke's video in this regard: The words we speak can have damaging effects in ways that go beyond simply lying or insulting speech. In the case of this video, the damage occurs mainly through imprecise speech. The wrong or careless use of words leads to many harmful misunderstandings. If we give Jefferson Bethke the benefit of the doubt, we can appreciate that he was ranting against hypocritical self-righteous legalism, and not against "Religion" as such. But instead of actually ranting against "hypocritical self-righteous legalism", he simply calls it "religion." Instead of telling hypocrites, "Hey, you should be more religious!" he instead tells everyone else that they shouldn't be religious at all!

In Bethke's defence, he has specifically clarified that he wasn't intending to attack the Church, but only to attack those who don't practise what they preach:
If you are using my video to bash "the church" be careful. I was in no way intending to do that. My heart came from trying to highlight and expose legalism and hypocrisy. The Church is Jesus' bride so be careful how you speak of His wife. If a normal dude has right to get pissed when you bash His wife, it makes me tremble to think how great the weight is when we do it to Jesus' wife. The church is His vehicle to reach a lost word. A hospital for sinners. Saying you love Jesus but hate the Church, is like a fiancé saying he loves his future bride, but hates her kids. We are all under grace. Look to Him.
Unfortunately, though, the 16 million people who've watched his video aren't necessarily going to read his clarifications. He hasn't removed the video, or edited it to elaborate on and explain his clarifications. And so the message that "religion is bad" is still getting touted, and people are still left wondering whether they should leave the very Religion that Jesus Himself founded in order to seek Him better!

And that's where I have a problem!

See, contrary to what our post-modern rebellious, individualistic culture likes to think, "Organised Religion" isn't a bad thing. It's not about starting wars or building expensive church buildings to the detriment of the poor. It's not about defining how good you have to be before Jesus will love you. And it's certainly not about pompous, self-righteous hypocrites showing how holy they are by judging everyone else.

Religion, specifically the Christian Religion, is about helping us get to know and grow closer to God. It's not about having a list of rules and beliefs in order to limit our freedom, but precisely so that we can truly be free! When we know the boundaries, we can be free to live safely within them. That's what the Church is about! That's what a home is about--parents who raise you, who tell you when to go to bed and that you have to eat your vegetable; who tell you not to play in the street and not to hit your brother. The Church lays out certain things that we must believe and things that we must not believe, that we must do and that we must not do, in order to free us from the harm that we will otherwise do to ourselves and to others. It's a loving Church; a loving Family. Recently, Heather King put it this way:
Catholicism is not counter-cultural in that the world is liberal and Catholicism is conservative. It’s counter-cultural in that it is explosively, wildly, anarchically radical. Catholicism is our hearts, our bowels, our erotic energy, our lives! Catholicism is not some timid, rigid, dead set of rules. The whole purpose of the rules is to allow us to explode within them. To follow Christ, to be Catholic (or catholic-in-spirit) is to hover on the edge of metaphorical orgasm and to consent to continue to hover, indefinitely, in almost unbearable tension…which paradoxically allows us to break out in all kinds of other sublimely interesting, glorious directions and ways.
Consider a romantic relationship. Many who want to denigrate "religion" will contrast it with a "relationship with Jesus". But what does it mean to have a relationship? When a couple first begins that journey of falling in love, their desire to be with each other and know each other is insatiable. Their gestures of love and romance come naturally and spontaneously. At the same time, their desire to pledge themselves to each other exclusively, formally, and publically is also a natural, spontaneous part of being in love. But those early passionate feelings eventually wane. The "I love yous" and the flowers, the setting aside of special times for dates, the taking the time to eat together, to talk together, even to make love to each other, can end up seeming more and more like work. What once seemed like freedom now seems oppressively restrictive. If our attitude toward marriage is the same as the common evangelical or atheistic attitudes toward religion, then we will see very little point in sticking to our relationship with our spouse. After all, if a relationship is supposed to be about passionate love for my spouse, and I'm not getting that in this marriage, then let's end the marriage, right?

Religion, on the other hand, comes from that same stock of common sense that says, when in the humdrum of married life, we will stick it out and say our "I love yous" and make even more effort to really be good to each other--not because I feel like it, but because I truly want the best for my spouse. Love isn't about feelings; it's about actions. And we prove our love most by doing the actions especially when we don't feel like it. If the goal is a relationship with Jesus, then Religion is how we maintain that relationship during those times when we'd really rather not.

And the amazing thing is, those "Our Fathers", those Rosaries, those beautiful church buildings, and especially those Sacraments, actually serve not only to keep us going when we just don't feel like it, but more, they can rekindle those feelings, too!

The word "Religion" comes from the Latin re- ("again") and ligare (compare "ligament"). In sum, it refers to binding or joining together again. It images a triage. Since the Fall, we've lost that vital connection with God. The various religions throughout history have been our ways of staunching that wound in our souls; of fixing our dislocated spiritual joints. In Christianity, God Himself made that healing possible. Jesus Christ established the true healing Religion. He is the one who "binds up" our wounds, and He gave that binding and loosing authority to Peter and the Apostles, not so that they could lord it over us, but so that, through the ordaining of successors, that life-giving religion could be preserved and passed on throughout all generations!

Jesus didn't come to abolish religion! He came to set us free to be truly religious! Through His Grace, that is, through His very life communicated to us through the Sacraments, He has made us able to live the kind of free, full life that is ultimately at the core of who He made us to be. The very irony of our modern society's desire to be free, to be out from under the oppression of the "establishment" of religion, is that they're striving for the very freedom that True Religion provides--that passionate, explosive, orgasmic freedom!
As promised, here are a few of the great responses inspired by Bethke's video

Monday, 16 January 2012

What I Saw In Haiti: Chapter 8

So, it's been ages since I've updated my Haiti story. It's been ages since I've done much blogging of any kind. Hopefully, I'll be able to rectify that in this new year, starting with this post! Things from this point will begin to be a bit less chronological, as much of what happened between Monday and Friday has become somewhat blurred in my memory. But Monday itself is pretty etched in my mind. It was an important day.
In his First Apology, St. Justin Martyr describes the celebration of the Christian Liturgy in great detail. Despite writing in c. AD 150, it describes what happens even today at every Catholic Mass. At the end of the 65th chapter, after describing the Liturgy, he mentions that Deacons would take the Eucharist to those who could not be at Mass for various reasons. While today, this ministry is performed by priests and deacons still, it has been opened up to certain commissioned laypeople as well, known as "Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion" (Priests and Deacons, of course, being "Ordinary" Ministers of Holy Communion).

In Beau-Sejour, there is a very elderly gentleman named Père Dodou, who was somewhere in his late 80s or early 90s. In a previous chapter, I mentioned the oldest man in the village, Tonton Jan, and how the respect he was afforded made him something akin to the mayor of Beau-Sejour. If Tonton Jan was the mayor, then Père Dodou was his deputy. Due to his advanced age, and the infirmity which accompanies it, Père Dodou could not make the trek to the church for Mass. One of his family members asked Père Ronal if he would bring the Eucharist to him. Père Ronal agreed, saying that he would bring it after the morning Mass on Monday. Father Bill was invited to come along, and he in turn invited any of the team who wanted to go--to which I enthusiastically agreed.

That Monday morning, I was roused by Fr. Bill outside the tent calling anyone in our tent who wanted to go to morning Mass to get up. I hastily got dressed, brushed my teeth, and hurried around to the front of the church (remember, our tent was directly behind the church--would that I lived so close to my parish now!) While Sunday Mass is in a more formal French, daily Mass was said in Créole--and so all the progress I thought I'd made in understanding Mass from Sunday was rendered rather useless. Nevertheless, the Mass is the Mass (and, by the end of the week, attending Daily Mass in Créole, I was managing to make some pretty good headway--even understanding large portions of the homilies!), and Jesus is truly present, whether I understand all the words.

After the event that was Sunday Mass, I was somewhat expecting the turnout at daily Mass to be larger. In this I was somewhat disappointed. It's rather comparable to the regular turnout in Canada. What did surprise and impress me, though, was how many men attended daily Mass! In Haiti, Catholicism isn't just a religion "for women and children". Not that it is here, either, despite the derisive epithets of the "enlightened".

After Mass, I joined Père Ronal and Fr. Bill as we prepared to visit Père Dodou. Accompanying two vested priests, as well as a few other Haitien men who were, if I recall correcctly, members of the Legion of Mary, seemed to me very like a scene out of the Ancient Church of St. Justin Martyr's day.

Père Dodou's home was something that we here would consider a hut. In fact, I'm pretty sure the Haitiens living in Port-au-Prince would consider it the same! It was a small, one story house of wood, with probably no more than three or four rooms. Beside it on his little property was a corn-mill, as well as a few chickens running about. Despite being a hut, though, Père Dodou's wife kept it immaculate. In the room we were in (I suppose one might call it the living room), the table was covered in white linen, and the floor newly swept. Père Dodou and his family were there, as were Père Ronal, Fr. Bill, the couple of gentlemen who came with us, and myself. I honestly didn't know what to expect. I suppose I thought that bringing the Eucharist to someone who couldn't make it to Mass simply involved showing up, giving them the Host, maybe praying a prayer, and then leaving. What actually happens is a whole mini-liturgy, where the Gospel is proclaimed, the Our Father is prayed together, and the Rite of Communion is carried out. I was struck by the beauty, the simplicity, and the reverence of it all. This was no mere external religious exercise. This really was bringing Jesus Himself to others!

When the Blessed Virgin Mary brought to Elizabeth our pre-natal Lord, John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth's womb, and she blessed Our Lady and the Fruit of her womb. The experience of brining Jesus, similarly hidden in the Eucharist as He was then inside of His Mother, to Père Dodou, was an amazing blessing, not only for him, but also for me. It reaffirmed once again the truth that Jesus is truly Present in the Eucharist, and put a desire in my own heart to be able to bring Him to others who would otherwise miss out on Communion with Him due to their infirmity.

As a result of this visitation to Père Dodou, when I returned home, my wife and I took the training to become Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and I have been blessed again and again to be able to bring Our Precious Lord, and His peace and companionship to sick and lonely people in our parish community. The effects of our journey to Haiti continue to ripple out, both for the people of Beau-Sejour, and for the members of my team. May we continue to bless each other through this Twinning Project!
In our next chapter, I'll narrate some surprising results of Saturday's afternoon spent sketching the people of Beau-Sejour, as the team gets down to work!