Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tony Abbott, Virginity and Hypocrisy

In an interview for Australian Women’s Weekly, when Australian Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, was asked what advice he would give to his daughters, he said that women should treat their virginity as a gift and not give it away lightly.

He has received a lot of criticism for that comment. Julia Gillard said it would confirm Australian women’s worst fears about him. She also said that Australian women want to make their own choices and don’t want to be lectured to. He has also received criticism for being hypocritical, as he did have sex before marriage – and for many years thought he was the father of a son by a former girlfriend.

The first thing that should be noted here is it was advice given to his daughters. He was not preaching to the whole of Australia. And if Australian women don’t want Australian politicians telling them what to do, I don’t think Australian parents want politicians telling them what advice they should give their children either.

Why is not okay for Tony Abbott to give his daughters advice regarding virginity? But it’s quite okay for Julia Gillard to tell Tony Abbott that his parenting advice is wrong? It doesn’t make sense to me.

And I wonder what the reaction would have been if Tony Abbott’s advice had been to go on the pill and use contraceptives?

Furthermore, it seems to me that it is very good advice. I remember when I was in high school and all my friends were at that stage when they had either lost their virginity or considering losing it. Some gave it away lightly. Some waited for a while. And I can’t remember one single person saying to me, gee, I’m glad that I lost my virginity with the first bloke that came along. I heard a lot of my friends say that they wish they had waited. I wish I had waited.

Virginity is a precious gift. And I think when we treat it as something of no value, something that can simply be tossed away as soon as the opportunity presents itself, we do women a huge disservice. Because no matter how society tells us we should think about sex, most women – at least the ones I know – feel that their virginity is precious. And when they lose it, they feel as though they have lost something valuable.

To deny this is not to liberate women. It is to hold them captive. For instead of being urged to value that which is precious, they are told the ‘safe’ ways they can give it away for free. This promotes the view that what they have does not have value. And so the expectation becomes that they will have premarital sex, and have it young. And then when they give into that expectation, they realise that it was not really what they wanted to do.

If someone convinces you that the diamond necklace you were wearing was worthless and you gave it away for free, wouldn’t you feel a bit cheated? I think many women feel cheated too.

In all this talk about liberating female sexuality, we seem to have forgotten that sex is different for men and women. I have had many people disagree with me on this point. But I truly believe that is the case. Sex for women is usually more emotional. It is not just a physical act. And most women feel that when they have sex with someone, they are giving away something precious – whether it’s the first time or the 21st time. And when there is sex, with no love, with no attachment whatsoever, it often leaves a woman feeling empty. Not all the time. I will say that. There are some women who have many one night stands and are perfectly happy with that. And there are some men who also need love and attachment for sex to be a meaningful act. But the emotional aspect of sex is far more likely in females than in males.

Is that so wrong? Why do we want to pretend that doesn’t exist? So that we can convince a whole new generation of females that having sex whenever and with whoever they want to is natural? And then we leave them wondering why they don’t feel liberated at all?

Anyway, back to Tony Abbott. And hypocrisy.

Because according to some commentators, Tony Abbott’s advice was also out of line because he had sex before marriage.

If being a hypocrite means giving advice that you didn’t actually follow yourself, I would suggest that most parents are hypocrites. At least the responsible ones.

I smoke. Am I then going to tell my children that they should start smoking because I do? Of course not. That would be incredibly irresponsible. Instead, I will urge them not to smoke and tell them of the dangers. I also wasted my year 12 through wagging practically everyday. Does that mean, when my boys reach year 12, that I can’t tell them to go to school? It’s because I know how much I regret wasting that final year of high school that I will give them advice to pay attention to their studies.

And that’s the thing about parenting. Most parents don’t tell the children to do the things they actually did. We want our children to make better choices than we did. Not the same ones. If my children do exactly the same things I did through my life, then they will be making exactly the same mistakes. And yes, children often do need to make mistakes and make their own choices. But you don’t just sit back and let them do something you know they will regret.

That applies for many types of advice, not just parenting advice. I really hope we never see the day when people can only give advice that they follow themselves. People need to be given advice that helps them make better choices. We don’t want to be a situation where each generation keeps repeating the same mistakes, over and over again, because nobody is telling them to do any better.

And this whole concept that everyone is free to do what they want to do and nobody should tell other people how to live is really, really stupid. Part of being human, living in society, in community, is learning from the experience of others. Yes, we may reject their advice. And each generation that comes up will reject at least some of the advice of their parents. But we should at least give it. They should at least have the chance to learn from our experience, if they choose to. Not to simply find their own way, because everyone is too afraid to tell them what to do.

As for Tony Abbott, I think his advice was very sensible. I’m not generally a Liberal voter, but I do like Tony Abbott. I don’t always agree with him. But I like the fact that he speaks his mind, instead of saying what he thinks the Australian public wants to hear. And I think his daughters are lucky to have him for their father.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Australian Courage and Conquering Fear

As today is Australia Day, it seems appropriate to start this post with what I consider to be one of the most courageous moments in Australian history.

Caroline Chisholm had just persuaded the government to give her an empty barracks building as a house for female immigrants. On her first night there, a couple of rats landed on her shoulders. Instead of leaving, she put out some bread and butter for them and watched them. The next night, she added arsenic. The least she counted at any one time was seven. The most was thirteen.

Now that may not seem like much of a courageous moment. Surely, there are other people who have done way more courageous things than that. And it may not even seem like the most courageous moment in Caroline Chisholm’s life. What about coming to Australia or having nine children or persuading the government to let her have the barracks or taking in the homeless women or riding her horse, Captain, around the countryside searching for jobs for them?

Yet it is true that there are many moments that can be said to be more courageous.

But see, I’m scared of rats. Spiders don’t scare me in the least. I have a spider that has currently made his home in my kitchen window. He is right in front of me every time I wash up. He doesn’t bother me. I don’t bother him. So I’ve decided to let him stay.

But staying in a building filled with rats and having rats jump onto your shoulders. I am finding it hard to think of anything more terrifying. (To show you how deep my fear of rats actually goes, I was going to put a picture of a rat on this post. But I couldn’t do it. I started looking at the pictures of rats and gave up. It’s pretty silly when you’re scared of even pictures of rats. And I’m sorry, to anyone who is frightened of spiders.)

Sometimes the things that require the most courage are not necessarily dangerous. I’m a bit strange in that I seem to be more scared of creatures that can’t hurt me than the ones that actually can. I also have a problem with mice and moths. And I’m not too fussed about snakes. But often people are scared of something because it does have the ability to hurt them. Being frightened of spiders may be a very healthy fear to have. I have had people tell me that I should be a bit more scared of them. That’s possible true.

And it does require courage to face situations where we might be hurt. Other great courageous moments in Australian history include John Simpson Kirkpatrick rescuing wounded soldiers on his donkey or Thomas Curnow alerting the train that Ned Kelly was planning to derail. Courageous because it was dangerous.

And then there’s the fear of things like failure, loneliness, poverty and rejection. They may not cause physical harm, but they’re no less scary because of that.

I’ve heard it said that God will never ask you to do anything that you do not want to do. I think that’s a load of rubbish. I think God often asks us to do things we don’t want to do. Not as some divine punishment. But because it’s what we don’t want to do that we often need to do, for ourselves and for the Kingdom of God. And doing what we don’t want to do usually involves conquering some fears.

In the western world, Christians are not likely to face death because of their faith. But following Christ often does mean facing some other fears. There’s the fear of losing the admiration of others, looking foolish, giving up control, being rejected, suppressing our own desires, losing things that are precious to us, changing our lives and being ridiculed. And these are just some of them.

Some of these fears are unlikely to cause any real damage. Others may very likely happen and cause us some pain.

Following Christ is not about losing our fear for these things. And it’s certainly not about saying, well that looks a bit too scary, and God wouldn’t want me to be scared. It’s about having the courage to do it anyway. Truly courageous people are not those that have no fear. They are those who face their fears head on. They are those who might get scared when a few fears land on their shoulder, but instead of running and hiding, they stay and find a way to conquer them.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Amongst my Protestant friends, the Catholic practice that is most often discussed is confession. Not that it came up a great deal. But I do remember at least a few conversations about it. I can’t really think of any other Catholic practice that has been discussed more than twice.

And the reason I think my Protestant friends are comfortable discussing confession is because they think they understand it. And that ‘think’ should probably be underlined, made bold and highlighted. But things like devotion to Mary and the Saints and transubstantiation are harder to discuss, because they seem so foreign. Whereas confession. That seems easier to get your head around. They think it’s simply telling a priest what you have done wrong. Kind of like pastoral counselling.

But it’s not like pastoral counselling. And I think perhaps that ‘think they understand it’ may be one thing that prevents them from understanding it. Because they don’t look too deeply into it. And as a result, they miss the whole sacramental nature of confession.

It’s hard for me using words like ‘sacramental’ because I always feel like I’m talking about something I don’t really understand. I know I don’t fully understand the nature of the sacraments. I know I don’t come anywhere near to properly understanding the nature and purpose of confession. When I was going to the Pentecostal Church, I thought I did understand it. Now I realise I really didn’t have a clue. So because I do not fully understand confession, I’m actually not going to talk too much about its sacramental nature or anything like that. I’ll leave that to people who know more than me. And in all honesty, I have a feeling this post may be more a Protestant view of confession than a Catholic one. So keep that in mind. (Sometimes I get the feeling that I should start every post with ‘This is written by someone who has no idea what they’re talking about.’) But I write anyway. It’s how I try and make sense of things, I suppose.

Anyway, I have been to confession twice now. And that probably left me feeling more confused than ever. Because it was the same church, but two completely different experiences. For the first one, it was just like having a chat with someone. We sat on chairs. I said what I wanted to say. And that was pretty much it. If I said a prayer, I don’t remember it. It was very casual. The next one was almost the complete opposite. The curtain was pulled over. I knelt down and there was a print out in front of me of what I needed to say and when I needed to say it. That was very helpful actually, because then I knew I things the correct way.

So – confession. My semi-Protestant, semi-Catholic view of it.

In the Pentecostal Church, we are taught that you only need to confess your sins to Jesus. There’s no need for a middle man. But at the same time, they emphasise the importance of fellowship groups and pastoral counselling. So it seems they recognise the value of saying things out loud. And I know, from past experience, that just confessing sins to Jesus alone can leave you feeling a bit unsure about whether your sins are really forgiven. It’s nice to say them out loud and hear that nobody thinks you have been permanently separated from God for what you have done.

But at the same time, sin does cause a separation. And I think that could be a very important point. Because when people are just confessing their sins to Jesus alone, it could lead to them failing to see that separation. When it’s just a simple matter of saying I’m sorry God, good I’m forgiven, then it doesn’t really seem like that big a deal. And confessing to other people in the church may be beneficial psychologically, but spiritually I do not believe it does anything to heal that separation. It’s kind of nice to go, oh well, so and so doesn’t think what I did was too bad and so and so struggled with the same failing. And now I have a whole heap of bible verses to read – that generally (in the church I was at, at least) are more designed to make you feel better rather than anything else.

But speaking from a psychological viewpoint, it can be very hard when you have something on your mind and you can’t tell anyone.

Just forgetting about sin for a moment. There are many occasions when someone has something they would like to say, but they can’t or are afraid to. For instance, I have a friend who really hurt me a while back. We’re still good friends. And I have never told him how much I was hurt by what he did. Because I decided to forgive him instead. And the reason I decided to do that is because I knew nothing would be gained by me saying something. It wouldn’t benefit him. It wouldn’t benefit me. But at the same time, there’s this thought in the back of my head that kind of hurts a bit, because it is left unspoken.

The attitude nowadays seems to be speak whatever is on your mind. Because it is good psychologically to get whatever it is out into the open. But sometimes what you are thinking won’t do anybody any good. It may not even be because it would hurt them. Sometimes it won’t hurt them at all. But it’s not going to benefit them from a spiritual perspective.

I used to think that anytime I had anything nice to say about anybody I should just come right out and say it. I still probably lean towards that view a bit. But I have realised that just because something will make someone feel good doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be beneficial to their soul. And that can be hard sometimes. It can be downright difficult to want to say something but know it’s not the right thing to do.

Anyway, I’ve kind of gone off track a bit here. (Probably a case where the unspoken thoughts inside my head tried to make a dash for freedom.) But the point is that when people have things they want to say, but don’t or can’t, it can be difficult to deal with. It’s hard to live with unspoken thoughts. They’re not the most agreeable of mind-guests.

So emotionally, getting thoughts out into the open can be very good for you. But spiritually, it can be quite detrimental.

So one of the benefits of confession can be simply to get some of those outspoken thoughts out in a safe place. And fellowship groups and pastoral counselling aren’t covered by the seal of confession. I know people who have shared things in fellowship groups that were later shared with others. I myself told the pastor’s wife something, who later went and told her husband.

But it is a very minor benefit, considering what else confession does.

Because if unspoken thoughts are difficult to live with, sin takes it to a whole other level. Unconfessed thoughts affect your mind. Unconfessed sin affects your soul.

And in the grand scheme of things, feeling a bit of mental anguish or emotional turmoil isn’t really that big of a deal. It can be nice to get it all out in the open. But it’s not really that important. If I die with thoughts left unspoken, it’s not really going to matter. But if I die with unconfessed sin, it may very well make a huge difference.

I am going to leave this post here. I don’t feel like I’ve finished. But maybe it’s not a post that can be finished now. Because in order to finish it, I do need to understand more about the reason and purpose of confession and its sacramental nature. It seems like haven’t even touched on what’s important and as soon as I starting to get just a teensy little bit closer to it, I run out of things to say.

It’s the way I feel about a lot of things these days. As though I’m looking at faith through a pair of binoculars. And just as something starts to get into focus, the binoculars fall from my hands. And I realise how far away I am from what I was looking at.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Watering Friendships

I am a plant killer. I have a row of pot plants on my verandah, all filled with very dead plants. The last plant I bought, I joked to the person I was with that if plants had thoughts, they might consider being bought by me similar to a death sentence. You can almost hear them saying, ‘Pick someone else. I have a wife and family.’ And then after the plant is gone, the other plants say in hushed whispers, ‘Poor Lavender. And so young.’

I’m not quite so bad with friendships, but I’ve been known to kill a few of them too. Over-watered this one and smothered it. Under-watered this one, so that it died of neglect. I am fortunate to have some very good friends. But I think the survival of those friendships has more to do with the fact that they are hardy plants that have learnt to survive in tough conditions, rather than any proper care of them on my part.

Even though I do tend to kill almost all the plants I buy, I have managed to plant and grow two. A rose bush and a wattle tree. They’ve been going for years and are unlikely to die any time soon. Strangely enough, I probably take better care of them than I do of the new plants I buy. I guess it’s because I know they’re going to stick around. Whereas with new plants, there’s always this semi-expectation that they won’t be here for long. I feel like I shouldn’t get too attached, just in case they’re dead by the end of the season.

Friends need just as much care as plants. Too much water and they drown. Too little water and they dehydrate. It can be a hard balancing act trying to get it right. Which can be scary when you’ve seen a few friendships die from improper care, like I have. I do tend to worry occasionally whether I’m saying the wrong thing or not saying the right thing. It’s not like I live like that all the time. But there is this fear sometimes that I will kill the friendship. Especially with people that mean a lot to me.

It would be good if friends came with instructions. (Then again, plants do and I still manage to kill them.) But something along the lines of ring up once a week, meet for coffee once a month, send birthday card once a year. Remember to ask about any new developments in their life. Listen to problems carefully. Offer advice only when needed. Sprinkle liberally with laughter and tears.

Jesus’ friends didn’t always treat him the right way. Peter denied him. James and John asked for a place at his side in the kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus’ friendship remained constant. That’s something to keep in mind. Even though I may sometimes worry about my friends disappearing, I know that Jesus is not going anywhere. His love is hardier than my rose bush and wattle tree. Neglect him or deny him and he will still be there. Ask for too much and he will still be there. He’s not going to suddenly leave just because I do the wrong thing. He will never leave.

And that is very reassuring. Because I’m human. And I know there’s a good chance I will do the wrong thing. If not this very minute, then possibly in the next hour or so. It’s nice to know that whatever I do won’t suddenly kill the friendship. And it’s also nice to know there will always be someone’s love and friendship I can count on, no matter what I do. Not just for a season. Not just for a year. But always.

Art that Makes You Feel Something

What is the purpose of art? It’s a question that has been asked often, but is very hard to answer. For determining the purpose of art is like determining the purpose of furniture. It depends. Different art forms are created for different reasons. Art can be created to impress art critics. It can be created to entertain people. It’s purpose might be to spread a message or say something important.

There is one thing, though, that I believe a lot of art tries to do. It tries to make people feel something.

One way of doing this is by shocking people. There are those who say that it is getting more and more difficult to shock people these days. To a certain extent, this is true. A woman’s bare ankles used to shock people. Nowadays, we can be confronted with full frontal nudity without even blinking. But at the same time, shocking people is really very easy. Just ask the group that did the Jackson Five skit with blackened faces on Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday. Or the people in charge of KFC’s advertisement, where someone gives West Indian supporters fried chicken. They managed to shock a whole lot of people without even trying to.

Another way to make people feel something is to make them happy. Entertain them. Get them to enjoy themselves. Make ‘em laugh. Most of the art that tries to make people feel happy falls into the category of popular culture. It’s entertainment of the masses. It’s not really taken too seriously. As a side note, I find it quite strange that art that shocks is often considered more highly than art that makes people happy. Because I think it is easier to shock people than get them to smile. If I wanted to shock a room full of people, I could simply walk in there with bags full of rubbish and empty them on the floor. And to really increase the shock value, I could even mix the recycling rubbish with the general waste. But if I wanted to entertain them, if I wanted to make them smile, if I wanted them to enjoy themselves, I have to put a bit more effort in.

There are many different ways that art can make people feel something and these are just two examples. But they are also instances of where the feelings often are only skin-deep. Joy and anger can be something completely different. But shock and happiness tend to be surface feelings. Easily felt and easily forgotten.

And there’s nothing really wrong with this. Sometimes we just want to be entertained, without having to think or feel too much.

But in my opinion, good art makes you feel things a bit more deeply. It doesn’t just make you feel things on the surface. It seems to dig deep and touch your soul. It can make you feel alone or sad or uplifted or amazed or all of these things at once. And no matter what words you use to describe it, they never seem enough.

This is going to seem a strange story to tell. Because I am going to describe a situation that may have involved a movie, but isn’t really what I would consider great art. But even though it’s not great art, it’s the best way I can find to explain what art can do. One day, I was watching Bruce Almighty with my son – see I told you it wasn’t great art. But at the end of it, my son just started crying and crying. He couldn’t stop. The tears were just pouring down his face. So I’m kept asking him ‘What’s wrong? Why are you crying?’ And the only answer he could give me was, ‘I don’t know.’

And that’s what art can sometimes do to you. You can have such deep feelings and you don’t even know why. Not only is it difficult to describe what you are feeling, it can be difficult to even describe why you are feeling it.

I’m not sure what any of this has to do with faith or Christianity. Maybe it has nothing to do with faith. Maybe it’s just something interesting, but relatively unimportant, about human emotions.

A line came to me as I was writing that. ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.’ I didn’t know who wrote it or even why it would suddenly come to me. But I did a search on Google and found out that it was a quote by St Augustine. I’m still not entirely sure why that quote would suddenly come to my mind. But maybe, just maybe, it’s because art sometimes reminds us that we are restless. When we feel something deep inside, we are forced to confront the fact that, deep inside, we need God.

The idea for this post came when I was listening to an old podcast, from the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. A panel was discussing whether art should be dangerous. That wasn’t what got me writing though. Instead, it was the discussion about whether art should be shocking.

But in a way, it’s kind of appropriate. Because I think art should be dangerous. It should make us feel alone and frightened and uplifted and amazed. And those are all dangerous feelings. It should be dangerous because it reminds us that we are restless. It should be dangerous because it shows us how empty we are without God.

Art that is shocking is not dangerous. Art that makes you happy is not dangerous. Art like that is easily forgotten. But having to face your need for God. That can change your life. And what could be more dangerous than that?

(Image details: Michelangelo Buonarroti's The Creation of Adam. From the Sistine Chapel. Image is in the public domain.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010


1. An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.

That’s the definition of ‘miracle’ according to The Free Dictionary. But the definitions of miracles we have in our mind can be quite different. To some people, a miracle is ‘an impossible event’ or ‘something that always has a rational explanation’ or ‘a coincidence’ or ‘pure luck’. To others, it may be ‘any occurrence where God intervenes’ or ‘something that can only be explained by supernatural means’. Miracles might happen never, everyday or only occasionally, depending on who you talk to.

Ena Zizi believes she received a miracle. She is the 69-year-old woman who was rescued after being trapped under rubble in Haiti for a week. She says she spent the week praying to God. On a much lesser scale, my son believes he received a miracle. He was looking for a toy and could not find it anywhere. He prayed before going to sleep at night and the next morning it was on top of his toybox.

Now these may be miracles or they may not be. Ena Zizi may have just been lucky. My son might have moved his toy to the top of the toybox without noticing. If they are miracles, they are the sort of miracles where another possible explanation can be found.

For those who do not believe in miracles, the other explanation is the only possible explanation. If God does not supernaturally intervene, then there must be some other reason for what happened. But for those who do believe in miracles, sometimes the intervention of God is the most likely explanation.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine I have paid a visit to my neighbour and mentioned in passing that I like carrot cake. The next day, there is a carrot cake by my front door. Now the most likely explanation for this is that my neighbour left me the carrot cake. But then imagine a friend comes over and says, ‘Well I have never seen your neighbour. I’m not even sure that she exists. And there are any number of other explanations for how you came to receive that carrot cake. Some other friend may have put it there. Perhaps someone dropped it off at your house by mistake. Maybe someone was given a carrot cake that they didn’t like and instead of throwing it out, they put it at the front door of the nearest house they could find.’

Now all these are possibilities. They might have happened. But the best explanation is still that my neighbour gave me the carrot cake.

To simply point out that there are other possible explanations for something is not to prove that a miracle did not happen. And sometimes those other explanations seem a lot less likely than the possibility that God actually intervened.

And then there are the miracles where there is no other possible explanation. To those who do not believe in miracles, these are simply impossible and could not have happened. So you end up with a whole lot of books that promise to tell you about the real Jesus – which ends up being nothing but the Jesus of the Gospels, with all miracles removed. In other words, it ends up being a Jesus that is nothing like the Jesus of the Gospels at all.

Some of them try to take the ‘other explanation’ approach to Jesus’ miracles. I have seen it suggested that with the feeding of the 5000, Jesus did not really multiply the loaves and fishes. Instead, when people saw he was feeding the crowd with such a small amount, they felt guilty and brought out their own food. Some of these authors take a semi-miraculous view and suggest that maybe God could have prompted their sudden guilt-induced generosity.

They can accept things like the feeding of the 5000, because that has another possible explanation. But as for things like Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, they come to conclusion that it did not happen because it could not have happened. People do not get brought back to life after they have died.

And so they claim to demythologise Jesus by stating that some of his miracles have rational explanations and the rest of his miracles did not really happen because they do not have rational explanations. And what we are left with is a man, who we can accept, because he did nothing out of the ordinary. He didn’t rise from the dead. He wasn’t born of a virgin. He performed no miracles. He only did the type of things that normally happen.

Sounds like a pretty ordinary man to me. But it doesn’t sound much like the Son of God. Why would God send his Son to earth, just to do the same kind of stuff that can be found at any shopping mall or suburban street?

I like how N. T. Wright puts it. He says that ‘what happened to Jesus is not what normally happens’.

And so, for those who accept that Jesus really was the Son of God, what seems more likely? That he came to earth and acted as an ordinary man? Or that he came to earth and performed miracles?

And if Jesus did perform miracles during his earthly life, doesn’t it also seem possible that God may still be performing miracles now?

I believe in miracles. I believe they happen all the time. Sometimes they’re so extraordinary that no other explanation can be found. Sometimes they’re little miracles, mini miracles as I like to call them, where God just intervenes a little bit to answer a prayer or help someone. There will always be people who seek to find other explanations for these miracles. And no doubt, they will find them. But there will also always be people who recognise that sometimes the supernatural intervention of God is the best possible explanation.

(Image details: Raising of Lazarus by Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Urge to Complain

This week, someone did something I didn’t like. Plus, it involved my children, which is more annoying than if they had simply hurt me. My first temptation was to ring that certain person and tell them what I thought of them. But then I decided it wouldn’t really solve anything, and would only make things worse for my boys. My next temptation was to ring up a friend. I was pretty sure, if I searched around for, oh, about two seconds, I could easily find somebody else to agree that what she did was pretty awful. But I didn’t do that either. My sister sent me an email today. And at the end, I was about to add a footnote about this horrible thing this person had done. But I ended up deleting it.

The first temptation, when someone does something we don’t like, is always to criticise them. And if we don’t criticise the person to their face, we criticise them behind their backs. Ring up a friend. Send an email. I suppose the modern version is to send a text message or put it on Facebook.

Little children do it. I don’t know how many times a day, I have one son or the other coming to me and telling me what terrible things their brother has done. It’s a pretty common reaction for children to have. And I don’t know why they continue to do it. Because it never gets a good response from me. It may be normal for children to tell on their siblings, but it’s not something I want to encourage. I am hoping that as they mature, they will eventually grow out of it.

Then again, maybe not. Because I know my initial reaction to anything is still to tell someone. Just like a little primary school child – So and so did this today. Usually, I talk myself out of it. But that desire to dob is still there. And sometimes I may not tell anyone, but I end up doing a blog post about it. I pretend that it’s okay, because I am writing a blog and this is what I want to talk about. But maybe all I’m really doing is satisfying that urge to complain.

Maybe that’s all I’m doing now.

Someone did something wrong. Despite the initial temptation to ring her up and yell at her, I decided that wasn’t the Christian thing to do. I also decided that ringing her up and speaking calmly to her about it wasn’t in the best interests of my children – because it would mean saying that my son said that you said this. Also, it seemed quite petty. Save my phone calls for more important issues. Then I decided that even speaking to someone about it wasn’t the most mature way to handle it. Not only wasn’t it mature, but it would only fuel my anger. Because I knew that whoever I spoke to would agree with me and start complaining about it as well.

So instead I write a post. I might kid myself that this is a mature way to deal with my feelings. But it’s still giving into that temptation to complain. And very similar to the childish need to dob on someone. It’s just a different way of doing it.

It’s not the first time I have acted out of anger this week. I was in a shop and, without going into all the details, I waited as people who came after me were served first and I was treated as if I were not even there. I got so angry that I left the tops I was buying on the counter and stormed off. It didn’t make me feel any better. In fact, I felt so bad, that I went back later to apologise.

I think releasing our anger may sometimes help. But generally, it just leaves us feeling angrier. The problem is it’s often hard to deal with our anger by not saying anything. I wish I could. I wish that I could handle offence a lot better than what I currently do. It would be nice to hear that someone has said something or done something and simply put it out of my mind. Forgive and forget. I believe that the people who find it easiest to forgive and forget must be some of the happiest people around. For they have peace, where others have anger and bitterness.

I would like to experience that peace one day. In fact, one of the things that I would love to accomplish somewhere near the end of my life (for I know there’s no chance I’ll be getting there anytime soon) is the peace that comes through that type of forgiveness.

I may be far from that at the moment, but there is one thing I know. If I am ever going to get there, I will need to resist the constant temptation to complain about what other people have done. And I will also need to stop writing blog posts that are only fuel my anger.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Irrational Faith

In Beyond Critical Thinking, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael S Roth discusses the universities’ emphasis on critical thinking and the limitations of such an approach. He points out that not only do universities encourage critical thinking in the context of higher education, but that they are producing graduates who believe that ‘being smart means being critical’. Roth also says:

The skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship, is not completely without value, but we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers or, to use a currently fashionable word on campuses, people who like to "trouble" ideas.

‘Self-satisfied debunkers’ have not just popped up recently. They have been with us for quite some time.

In The Theological Orations, Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390 AD) says that God should not be talked about before people ‘who watch what we do with overgreat care and would take the spark of what is wrong in us to become a flame, and secretly kindle and fan it and raise it to Heaven with their breath and make it higher than the Babylonian flame which burned up everything around it. For since their strength lies not in their own dogmas, they hunt for it in our weak points. And therefore they apply themselves to our, shall I say, ‘misfortunes’ or ‘failings’ like flies to wounds.'

Gregory of Nazianzus’ main point was that philosophising about God should be kept within proper bounds. (And, I might add, advice that I find extremely difficult to heed. I would talk theology with my dog if he would let me.) But it does say something interesting about approaches to Christian beliefs.

For it does seem that there are a number of people who want only to point out the flaws in what Christians believe. Then we get a whole lot of Christians pointing out the flaws in the atheists’ arguments. Everybody is doing a great deal of critical thinking. But I’m not sure that any of it gets us any closer to understanding God.

God’s existence does not rely on our ability to put forward a good argument. If I do a terrible job of explaining why I believe in God, that does not mean my belief in God is misplaced. And if someone finds faults in what I am saying, that does not mean that what I am saying is untrue. In a university essay, a student will get good marks if they give good reasons for their thesis – regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Conversely, if I fail to state good reasons for my beliefs, it says more about my lack of ability to put forward a good argument than it does about the beliefs themselves.

And so it seems to me that people who want to point out the flaws in what Christians say or believe are proving nothing more than who is the best critical thinker. Which I suppose can be quite an interesting exercise for some people. And I guess it can be quite an ego boost to know you bested someone in an argument who has beliefs different to your own. But it doesn’t really seem like a very productive exercise to me. Maybe I’m missing something.

Second, Christian faith does not rely on reasoning alone. To some, this automatically discredits it. If critical thinking and good arguments are held up as the ultimate method by which all issues should be resolved, then anything that cannot be proven is seen as irrational. In such a world, I suppose it makes some kind of sense to point out why belief in God is not a rational belief to have.

The problem is that I don’t think belief in God is rational. I – like many other Christians, I’m sure - didn’t come to my beliefs through good arguments and critical thinking. I came to them through faith. And for some, faith is a very bad reason for believing anything. For others, it is the best possible reason.

When my sons were babies and they were hungry, like all babies, they cried. They could not tell me they needed food. They certainly could not explain their reasons for wanting food. If I had entered into a debate with them on whether they actually needed food or not, I would have easily won. But it wouldn’t have removed their hunger. And what is the best reason for feeding a baby? A good essay on the necessity of giving babies food or a baby who cries because he is hungry?

I have a hunger – a spiritual hunger. My soul cries out for God. And I cannot put those cries into words, for that hunger belongs to a place whose language I have not yet learnt. Yet still I know that hunger is real. And I know the God I cry for is real.

And if that knowledge rested on how well people debated the issue, that knowledge may easily be lost. But it rests on something far more important than that. For this knowledge is not the kind of knowledge that sits in the mind, pushed and squeezed by all the other notions that are competing for the same space. It is instead a certainty that lies deep in the soul. And it is far too deep and solid to be affected by anyone’s critical thinking.

I’m sure, if you try, you can find flaws in this post. I did not argue this very well. I did not show my reasoning here. This point seems to contradict another point. That sentence goes against what the evidence tells us.

So point out its flaws. Destroy my arguments with your critical thinking.

Just don’t expect me to care.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Story of a Heretic

There was a time when I thought I should start every bible study a bit like an AA meeting. Except instead of saying, ‘Hi, I’m Liz and I’m an alcohol’ I should say, ‘Hi, I’m Liz and I’m a heretic.’

I do not have any great expertise when it comes to heresy. My only claim to knowledge is that I have a book titled ‘Medieval Heresy’, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for three years and I still haven’t found time to read. I do not really know what heresy is. When does something become heretical? Is there a difference between heresy and dissent? Are all Protestants automatically classed heretics? And do Protestants have people they think are heretics? (During that time I felt like a heretic, it was actually amongst Protestants.) Is there a boundary when an opinion crosses from ‘inaccurate’ to ‘heretical’? Or are any inaccurate opinions automatically deemed heresy?

So as you can see, I am not an expert. If you are looking for information on what heresy is and how it should be defined, press the back button on your browser. You’re not going to find it here.

But what I seem to have is a lot of thoughts about heresy and how heretics are treated. Recently, I was reading a blog post called Hildebrand on Schism, Heresy, Truth and Unity at Non Nobis. The post suggested that heretics would be better off leaving the Catholic Church. And there were some good points. But it also stirred up a lot of feelings about my own path. And how I have been treated and what I actually needed at the time.

Before I get to that, I should make one point clear. This post was talking about people within the Catholic Church. And I do realise, strictly speaking, that a heretic is someone who disagrees with the Catholic Church (not any of the multitude of other denominations around.) I guess if the way to define a heretic was as someone who disagreed with the church they were in, then you could simply find a church you didn’t disagree with and be a heretic no more.

However, my feelings about heresy and about being a heretic come from a time when I was not in the Catholic Church. And so I am going to talk about that time – even though it doesn’t really fit the proper definition of heresy. Well I did say I wasn’t an expert. Go back and read that part again and consider it my disclaimer.

Now I am not sure that I ever had any beliefs that would be considered heretical. (And this is where my lack of knowledge can be very limiting.) But I never denied Jesus’ resurrection of the dead. I always believed Jesus was fully God and fully human. Yet at the same time, I know I definitely considered some pretty heretical notions. And I did tend to say things that the people in my church did not like much at all.

And there were two ways that people generally dealt with this. They would either say, well if you believe that, you’re not a real Christian. End of conversation. Full-stop. It’s like they simply ticked me off their ‘people I want to talk to when I get to Heaven list’ and that was that. Not very helpful. In fact, often incredibly hurtful. To be honest, it still hurts. I wanted someone to help me, not simply dismiss me.

And the other response was just as unhelpful. Because that’s the whole ‘Well I disagree with you, but that’s okay’ approach. End of conversation. We just agree to disagree and everyone’s happy, right? But I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want someone to simply accept what I was saying. I wanted someone to show me why they disagreed with me. Have a discussion with me. Don’t just ignore the subject in case someone’s feelings get hurt. I’m a big girl. I can handle someone disagreeing with me.

That might sound contradictory. First I say that some people hurt me and their responses still hurts me. And then I say don’t spare my feelings. But see, there is a difference between having an honest conversation, where you actually talk to me and one where you simply shut the conversation down.

Maybe the whole problem comes from our approach to opinions or questions. If someone states an opinion, all we can do is either accept it, reject it or agree to disagree. If someone disagrees with us, we start focusing on how we can win the argument. If someone asks a question, we wonder how they’re trying to trick us. If I answer that the wrong way, will that mean that they’ve won the debate?

But sometimes people ask questions or state opinions from a sincere desire to open up the conversation. They don’t just want to tell other people what they think. They want to hear what others think. Especially if they’re searching. And the sad thing is that it’s often the searchers who are labelled heretics. But searchers realise they have not yet found the truth. That’s why they consider opinions that might be ‘funny’ or ‘strange’. That’s why they ask questions that make other people uncomfortable. They are looking, seeking desperately for something that makes sense.

And so often, they are opening doors – any door they can find – just hoping to find something, just trying desperately to get a little closer to the truth. But the problem is every time they open a door, someone wants to slam it back in their face. Either with a ‘You’re not a real Christian’ or ‘Don’t won’t to talk about this. It could become uncomfortable.’

Let’s be uncomfortable. Who says we have to be comfortable? I don’t recall Jesus saying pick up your comfy lounge chairs and follow me. We are to pick up a cross. And I believe, strongly, that any sincere search for the truth will involve quite a large degree of discomfort. People who are afraid of being uncomfortable should just give up the search altogether. Go back and lie in their ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ feathered bed. And I know, from my own experience, I was never searching for a comfortable Christianity. If I was, it would not have taken nearly so long to find it.

I heard this quotation from Blaise Pascal on a podcast today:

There are only three types of people; those who have found God and serve him; those who have not found God and seek him, and those who live not seeking, or finding him. The first are rational and happy; the second unhappy and rational, and the third foolish and unhappy.

I don’t know how much of this post has been about heresy. Probably not too much. But maybe it was never really a post about heresy at all. Maybe it was just a post about my unhappy search for God. About conversations that never started and doors slammed in my face.

Sometimes I write because I have something I want to say. Sometimes I write because I hope my writing has something to say to me. And sometimes I write because I’m searching for answers and the computer screen is the only one who won't walk away

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My son - Bigger on the Inside than the Outside

It seems that my youngest son makes his way into my blogs far more than my eldest son does. I don’t know why this is the case. Certainly, it’s not planned. And it’s not as though the younger son is anymore religious than the older one. My oldest son once spent an entire school holidays reading the bible. And he’s always eager to talk about God or Jesus or something to do with Christianity. He’s just asked for religious podcasts to be placed onto his iPod. This includes episodes of Paul Camarata’s Saintcast. So I’m expecting that, by the end of these school holidays, he’ll know more about the saints than I do. (Not that that’s saying a lot.)

That’s not to say that my son’s only interest is God. He likes Lego and learning about inventions and space and the environment. He gets out in the backyard and collects bugs and leafs and does experiments. And like most boys, he loves his Playstation.

And then there’s Dr Who. My son loves Dr Who. Each month, we get delivered a couple of DVDs, with pages that are separated and filed into a folder. I am sure he’s seen every episode we have at least five times – and he’s read the pages at least a few times more. Although I’m not quite sure why he needs to continue reading them. Because he seems to have soaked up every ounce of knowledge that’s in there. If I happen to have any question about Dr Who at all, my son will know the answer. He even knows a fair bit about Dr Who episodes from the older series, which he has never seen.

Now anyone who watches Dr Who – and maybe some of you who don’t – will know that Dr Who travels through time and space in a TARDIS. And a TARDIS is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

I think that’s a fair description of my son. Bigger on the inside than the outside. One reason why I may have talked about my younger son more is that my younger son says more. He’s constantly talking, telling me about this and that and everything else that’s on his mind. My oldest son doesn’t say nearly as much. I think he’s too busy thinking to talk.

There are many times when I will find him completely lost in thought. So much so that he often doesn’t even seem to notice what’s going on around him. When we are all eating dinner or going for a walk, my youngest son and I will be having a great conversation and my oldest son is just staring off into outer space. I am sure that my son has been to more places in his head than Dr Who (in all ten regenerations) has ever been to in the TARDIS.

And from a mother’s perspective, this can be fairly annoying at times. It is so frustrating to tell both boys where we are going and what we are doing, only to have my 10 year old say, five minutes later, ‘Why are we going here?’ Or to watch him practically run into people, because he’s not paying any attention to what’s going on around him. I’m sure he goes to some very interesting places in his head, but I do wish he would spend a bit more time down here on earth with us humans.

Yet at the same time I think being bigger on the inside than the outside is a pretty good trait to have. Certainly, when it comes to our spirituality, we should all be bigger on the inside. Our inner spirituality should be so much deeper than our outside spirituality. And if we could open the door and take a look inside, there should be a depth and breadth that would never have been imagined from outward appearances.

Unfortunately, it’s not always the case. In Matthew 27:28, Jesus told the Pharisees that they are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead man’s bones and filthiness. And even those who are not so unclean on the inside, may be paying more attention to their outward appearance.

There’s a saying that you what you feed, grows, and what you starve, dies. Some people are too focused on feeding their outward spirituality than they neglect their inner spirituality. So their appearance of being a religious person grows, while their inner life slowly shrinks. Opening the door to their inside life may be less like opening the door to a police phone box and finding the TARDIS, and more like opening the door to a palace and finding a wardrobe.

I am confident that my son’s inner spirituality is bigger than his outer spirituality. There are times when I go to switch off his light at night, after he has been reading, and it’s only because I happen to look up at the right time that I see he has been reading the bible. And then there’s the comments and questions that he suddenly comes out with, that shows he has been thinking a great deal about something related to his Christian faith. I think that if I opened the door to his inward spirituality, I would be quite amazed at what I might actually see. At least I hope so.

And I also hope that, although my inner spiritual life may not be the size of the TARDIS, it may always be at least a little bit bigger than it seems from outward appearances.

Note: When I read this post out to my son, as he was standing behind me, he informed me that Tardis should actually be TARDIS. So you can thank my son for the fact that TARDIS should now be written the right way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Saint Thomas More - Conscience and Integrity

In the Robert Bolt play, A Man for All Seasons, Norfolk points out to Thomas More all the names of the people who had already signed the Oath of Succession and says, ‘Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?’ Thomas More replies, ‘And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

Even when I was attending Protestant churches, I had a deep admiration for Thomas More. And one of the reasons why I admired him so much was that he was a man who followed his conscience – despite the cost.

Even when just about everybody had signed the Oath of Succession and many people were urging him to do the same, Thomas More refused to sign it. Even when his friends and family could not understand his actions, Thomas More still refused to sign. Even when he knew there was a strong probability it would end in his execution, Thomas More refused to sign.

The Oath of Succession declared that Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legal and their children were legitimate heirs. It also involve renouncing the power and of any foreign authority or potentate and repudiating any oaths made to such a person (which would include the Pope). Thomas More was eventually executed for treason on 6 July 1535. Four hundred years later, he was canonised, on 19 May 1935.

Another scene involving Thomas More that I like comes from the television series, The Tudors. Cardinal Wolsey says, ‘Thomas, let me give you a little advice. If you want to keep the love of a prince, this is what you must do: You must be prepared to give him the thing you most care for, in all the world.’ Thomas More replies, ‘The thing I care for most is my integrity.’ Of course what makes that scene so poignant is that, in the end, Thomas More was not prepared to give up his integrity.

Integrity. It is (or at least should be) universally recognised as an admirable trait. But although ‘integrity’ as an idea is generally well thought of, people who actually have integrity are often thought of quite badly. I have never heard anyone say they dislike a person for having too much integrity. And yet people are often disliked for reasons associated with their integrity.

People of integrity do not do the right thing only when it suits them, but all the time. Their actions are not governed by self-interest or appearance, but by their consciences. And they will follow their consciences, even in the face of opposition. And that opposition doesn't usually stand up and applaud them for their decision.

Henry VIII did not give St Thomas More a pat on the back for following his conscience. He chopped off his head. Although it’s not on the same scale, in more recent times, pharmacists have received harsh criticism for refusing to sell contraceptives.

I believe most people think integrity is a good trait, and admire people for following their consciences – provided their conscience doesn’t tell them to do anything they don’t like.

Yet despite my admiration for people who follow their consciences and my belief that people should be allowed to follow their consciences in most cases, I do think conscience can be a bit of a cop out. In the scene from A Man For All Seasons, the inference is that St Thomas More will go to Heaven for following his conscience and everyone who signed the Oath of Succession will go to Heaven for following their consciences and there will be great fellowship in Heaven.

To a certain extent, I believe that people will be judged on how well they follow their consciences. If my conscience (or God) tells me not to do something and I do it, I expect I will be judged more harshly by God than those who were not told the same thing.

Yet at the same time, it creates a very relative idea of conscience. As though conscience were this thing that was wholly dependent on the person. And what may be right for one person may be completely wrong for another person. Maybe that’s sometimes the case. But surely not always.

Are we seriously to expect that every person who signed the Oath of Succession was following their conscience? Or that God wanted them to sign it and that Thomas More and John Fisher were the only two people he decided shouldn’t sign it?

Once we start saying you follow your conscience and I’ll follow mine, it makes it very easy for people to decide their conscience is telling them to do whatever works best for them. Perhaps the people who signed the Oath of Succession did not feel their conscience was telling them to do any different. But maybe this was because they refused to listen to their conscience for fear of what it might say. It is very easy to examine our consciences and pray for God’s guidance when the decisions we make will involve no sacrifice. But when these decisions may cost us greatly, we’re not so eager to see what God or our consciences has to say.

Not everybody shares my admiration for Thomas More. The Catholic Church views him as a saint. To some Protestants, he is seen more as a villain. This image of Thomas More was no doubt exacerbated by claims made in Foxe's Book of Martyrs that Thomas More used torture on heretics. Yet Thomas More denied these charges throughout his life and many scholars believe the charges are false. But Thomas More certainly saw heresy as a threat and seems to have approved the burning of heretics. (Although he did not, as some portrayals would have it, burn them himself.) That’s a hard thing for Protestants to accept. To be truthful, it’s sometimes a hard thing for me to accept. Yet I also know that I cannot judge the people of the past by the standards of today. What now seems like unjust cruelty may then have appeared the only option. From Thomas More’s perspective, it would have seemed better for a few to die than for many souls to be lost.

Men of integrity will always do things that others do not understand. St Thomas More made decisions that were criticised then, are criticised now and, no doubt, will be criticised for years to come. But I somehow think Thomas More would be quite fine with that. For Thomas More did not seek the approval of men. He sought the approval of God, in the best way he knew how, to follow his conscience wherever it led him.

To me, Saint Thomas More is a hero. A man worthy of respect and admiration. To others, he is nothing of the sort. But even those who disagree with him, even those who dislike him, should be able to see that he was a man of integrity. And surely St Thomas More has something to teach all of us about following our consciences, even when it costs us.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Preschool Portraits and One Dimensional Beings

Yesterday, I was looking at a tea towel I bought when my son was in preschool that has self-portraits of all the people in his preschool class. Many of the children in that class have ended up in his classes through primary school. So I see them a lot. I know what they look like. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to learn that what they actually look like is nothing like their preschool self-portraits.

Even their self-portraits have changed. At last year’s fete, they had books that included self-portraits from every child in my son’s year. And those paintings looked a lot different than what is on my tea towel. But they still did not look anything like the real person.

The paintings were back to back in plastic sleeves, and the names were written on the other side of the painting. So in order to find out who had painted with portrait, you had the take the paper out of the paper sleeve and look on the back. My children were with their Nanna and Pop as I was searching through the books, so I thought I would be there for ages, taking out each piece of paper until I came to my son. Because I could not recognise any of the portraits as real people.

But I actually ended up taking out only one piece of paper – the one that belonged to my son. Now this isn’t to say that my son did such a good representation that it actually looked like him. My child is no more artistic than anyone else. But even though his self-portrait looked nothing like the real person, I know him so well that I could see the real person behind the portrait.

It’s easy to see that one-dimensional preschool portraits look nothing like the people they are meant to represent. And nobody would be foolish enough to go into a preschool class and start looking for a child with a triangle head, oval body and stick legs. We know that the real person will not conform to this picture of them.

But how many times do we draw one-dimensional pictures of people in our heads. We may not be drawing shapes as such, but we take certain aspects of them and turn them into shapes we understand nonetheless. That person votes Labor – so instead of drawing a triangle, we draw a picture of what we think a Labor voter is meant to be like and have that idea in our head. She likes Bon Jovi, so instead of drawing an oval for a body, we draw a picture of what we think a Bon Jovi fan should look like. Instead of feet, we draw something that represents what we think Christians are like.

One of the reasons why children’s drawings look so different to the real thing is that they tend to see everything in simple, familiar shapes. (Which isn’t a bad way to start drawing, by the way.) But the problem is that nobody’s head is really round or triangle or oval. It is a different shape that doesn’t conform to the shapes we learnt in primary school. Our arms and legs are not sticks. They have bumps and grooves and angles. Our bodies are not just one big square or oval, but have many different parts to them. The shapes of our body are different to anyone else’s shapes.

And the shapes of our personalities are also different to anyone else’s shapes.

We do not conform. The person who likes Bon Jovi may actually spend more time listening to classical music and opera. The Labor voter may believe that abortion is not a right, even though she thinks people who have abortions need compassion and understanding. And considering the variety between Christian denominations, there is no one shape or form that will cover all of them. Christians do not fit into a nice little shape that is easily recognisable to the outside world.

We are not just square pegs in round holes. We are shapes that don’t even have names, let alone holes for them to fit into. We are more faceted than a brilliant cut gemstone. We have sides and grooves and bumps and curves. We are multi-dimensional beings.

You cannot judge the quality of a gemstone by just one brief glance. You need to hold it up, inspect it carefully, look at it from every angle, see how it responds to light. And yet humans (who are more faceted than gemstones) often do get judged by just one look – or at least a few brief glances. Or we see them in a different setting and tell them they have changed.

And the thing is, we can never see every aspect of a person. We just can’t do it. Even if we spend our lives living with someone, we will never know all there is to know about them. And I don’t think we can ever know every aspect of ourselves either. There are veins running through us that we may never see. But we often show ourselves as one-dimensional beings. Sometimes I think we even try to conform to other's one-dimensional views of us. Can you imagine if you looked at your head in the mirror and said well it looks like an oval, so I better try and make it even more like the perfect oval shape. We don't do that. We know that although our heads may look oval, they were never meant to be perfect ovals. That's what makes them unique.

But God does see all of us. I think that what we see, compare to what God sees, is as different as preschool self-portraits are to the real person. He sees what we’re really like. Not just what other people think we’re like. Not just what we think we’re like. He doesn’t just see the different sides to who we are. He sees below them. He sees what’s inside just as clearly as he sees the outside.

And the last point I would like to make is that when gemstones are cut and polished, it can bring out beauty that an untrained person would never even have known was there. I think God not only sees what we are really like. He sees what we can be like – if only we let him shape us and polish us.

Grizzly Adams Productions

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ukrainian Christmas - Tradition and Connection to the Past

Happy Orthodox Christmas.

I am half Ukrainian and so today was kind of my Christmas – or my second Christmas, as I used to say when I was a child. Many of my friends used to think I was incredibly lucky to have two Christmases instead of one – that is until I told them that Santa Claus didn’t come twice. Despite that, I think I am lucky. Not because I have two Christmases. But because Ukrainian Christmas is one of my favourite times of year.

Our Ukrainian Christmases (as I believe is the case for Christmas in the Ukraine) was very focused on tradition. We had a number of things that we did every year. This included having a 12 course meal on Christmas Eve, which started with a dish made from poppy seeds called kutya. Some of the other children detested this dish. But tradition was that you had to eat at least some of it. So they would take the tiniest bit possible – and still take double as long to eat it as everyone else. I didn’t mind the kutya. But there were dishes I did not like. And you were meant to eat a little bit of at least each dish. (Mind you, the rules were not too strict on this, as my English mother did not like many of the dishes on the table. Plus, another tradition was that the dishes must be vegetarian – which for Ukrainian cooking means a lot of cabbage. And my mother cannot eat a lot of cabbage. So as she couldn’t eat every dish, she didn’t make us eat every dish either.

Despite the relaxed rules, it was hard to avoid eating a lot, with my grandmother constantly telling people to eat. Even the dead had food put in front of them. On the table there was a candle, with photos of those who had passed away leant against it. A plate was put in front of these photos so that a meal could be given to them as well.

The reason I am speaking in past tense here is because my grandmother is now too sick to prepare the Christmas Eve meal. And unfortunately, there are many Ukrainian dishes that I may never eat again. I know I will never have a Ukrainian Christmas Eve meal again.

But anyway, this isn’t a post about how much I miss my grandmother’s cooking. It is a post about tradition and connection to the past.

I have never been to the Ukraine. I may never go. Yet there is a very strong connection between me and that country. Not just through blood – although this is part of it. But through tradition. For every Christmas and every Easter, I would do the same things, eat the same food and hear the same words as the people in the Ukraine were doing now and had done for many years.

And that creates a bond. A bond cannot be formed by simply being part of a family or sharing a common interest. A bond is formed through doing the same things together. And even if I am on one side of the world and someone else is on the other, there is a bond between us, for we share the same traditions and practices.

One thing that I continue to do is go to the Ukrainian Christmas Mass. There was a part of me that loved the Ukrainian Christmas Mass when I was a child and part of me that couldn’t stand it. Because it is all in a different language. Although I started learning Ukrainian as a child, my father insisted I give it up. He thought it was not a useful language. Today I took my children to Ukrainian Mass for the first time. My son turned to me at the beginning and said ‘I don’t understand what he’s saying.’ I said, ‘That’s okay. Neither do I.’

I wish I did. For I disagree with my father. Ukrainian is a useful language. Maybe not for getting a job or achieving success. But it is useful nonetheless. For it would be one more connection with the Ukraine. It would be another bond between me and the country where my father and grandparents came from and my ancestors lived for centuries. It is not only success in the present that is important. Connection to the past is also important.

Yet despite not understanding it, it is still a beautiful Mass. And perhaps even more beautiful for the fact that I do not understand it. I must simply be there. And sometimes I think we place too much emphasis on thinking, and not nearly enough emphasis on just being present in God’s presence.

It’s hard to say why a connection to the past is important. I can’t present you with a detailed argument that follows each point to a logical conclusion. But I’m not sure that the benefits of tradition are meant to be presented in such a way. Tradition, connection to the past, is not one side of a debate. It is simply part of us. None of us should be isolated beings, suspended in mid-air and mid-time. We are connected, both to the past and to the future. We are also part of something that is bigger than ourselves. And to understand those connections, to embrace them and to recognise their importance is to gain a better understanding of who we are. Rather than trying to prove that, maybe we should simply accept it.

Christianity also has many traditions. And some may say that those traditions are not important. But like the traditions of Ukrainian Christmas, those Christian traditions also remind us that we are connected to something. We are connected to the past. We are connected to the present. We are part of something larger than ourselves. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are not just doing something in memory of what Jesus did, a long, long time ago. We are spiritually connected to that event. We also form a bond with all the people who have celebrated the Lord’s supper, all around the world, both here and in the future.

Oftentimes people want to get rid of tradition because they see no reason for it. Unless it serves some practical purpose, why bother doing it? A bit like my father telling me I shouldn’t learn Ukrainian. But it is not only things that have a practical purpose that are of value. Sometimes the most valuable things are those that are not ‘practical’ at all. Then again, maybe they are practical, but just not in the way that the world defines practical. They may not do much to feed our bodies, but they do a lot to feed our soul.

Here is a picture of the Ukrainian Church I went to today. There was a beautiful picture of Mary and Jesus on the table, but unfortunately they changed it before I had a chance to take a picture.

Here is a picture of my sons and me outside the church. The one with the grumpy face is the one who complained that he couldn't understand the service.

And here is a Ukrainian Christmas Carol. If you don't understand what is being said, don't worry, neither do I.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

U2 - Yahweh

One of the top stories to come out of the Vatican this week is that, in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Gaetano Vallini has reviewed U2: The Name of Love by Andrea Morandi. Okay, maybe it's not one of the top stories. In fact, it's probably more like somewhere down the bottom. But it is a good excuse to write a post on one of my favourite songs, Yahweh.

Actually writing a post may have been a bit of an exaggeration as well. This could end up being just an embedded video from YouTube.

Because I'm sitting here and I really do not have any idea what to write about this song. But I think that's part of its appeal. It is a song I like to listen to when I am struggling, when I am depressed, when I feel inadequate. It's a song I like to listen to when I don't know what to say.

I first heard this song when I was going to the Pentecostal church. One thing about Pentecostal worship music is it tends to be very positive. Even when it speaks (or should that be sings) of difficulties, it is always followed with a line about how God will solve our problems and make everything right again. Which is fine, I guess, in a way. But I often found it a bit fake. How many times did I sing songs about life being so wonderful when you have God, when my life was a complete mess? It's hard to sing Hillsong music without feeling like a complete hypocrite sometimes.

But Yahweh (as in the song, Yahweh, not the God, Yahweh) seemed real. This was not happy clappy music. It was a song about struggle, about sin and about pain. Yet for all that, it is a song that has hope in it as well. There may be darkness before the dawn. But there is a recognition that there is a dawn. Pain comes before a child is born.

I like secular music about God because it doesn't try to paint a glowing picture. It does speak honestly about how people feel about Him. And sometimes, I think, we need that honesty. We need songs that speak to how we really feel, not just how we're meant to feel. Another song I particularly like is Hey God by Bon Jovi. That is definitely not a Christian song. It speaks about struggles and basically asks God, why he isn't doing something. To give you an idea, here's some lines from the chorus:

Hey God, there's nights you know I want to scream
These days you've even harder to believe
I know how busy you must be, but Hey God...
Do you ever think about me

This is not a song I agree with. And yet it is a song that I like because I know there are many people in the world that feel like this. And I really feel for people who are reaching out to God, but feel like God just isn't listening to them, or that he doesn't care or maybe that he doesn't even exist. But that's a subject for another post.

By the way, the article from L’Osservatore Romano can be found here. It's in Italian. But you can translate it through Google Translate.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

King Arthur, Freedom and Getting on Our Knees

Near the beginning of King Arthur, as King Arthur is praying, Lancelot tells him that he doesn’t like anything that puts a man on his knees. That sentence seems to sum up the movie’s attitude towards Christianity. It is also a good reflection of today’s attitudes towards religion.

We don’t like bowing down or being subservient to anyone. Servanthood is seen as a fault, rather than something we should aspire to. We like to be masters of our own destiny, controlled by nobody, answerable to no-one. To obey is seen as a removal of our freedom to choose. And our freedom to choose is something we cling to tightly.

Freedom is a theme that runs strongly throughout King Arthur. The knights hope to obtain their freedom. And yet they maintain that they always were free men. At the end, they fight because they are free. Their freedom gives them the freedom to choose.

And religion (or at least Roman Christianity) is seen to be taking away that freedom. One of the scenes in the movie shows that the Roman bishop has walled up pagans. The message is clear. Roman Christianity will cage you and then kill you.

The only Christian who seems to have any compassion is King Arthur himself. And yet King Arthur’s Christianity is different to that of the Romans. He has a strong admiration for Pelagius and is horrified to learn that Pelagius has been ex-communicated. (Pelagius denied original sin and claimed that all men were free to obey God’s commands.) Although King Arthur has a form of faith that seems compassionate and worthy, he is also portrayed as someone who believes in a dream that does not exist.

The movie may have been set in the past, but the views contained within it belong to today. And so the question now should be does the movie have a point? Does religion, in fact, control people and take away their freedom?

If we search through the bible, we will find many things that seem to suggest that Christianity gives people freedom, rather than taking it away. The Old Testament speaks often of how God rescued the Israelites from captivity. And there are many scriptures in the New Testament that talk about the freedom we have in Christ. Here are just a couple of them.

"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. (1 Corinthians 10:23).

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. (Galatians 5:13).

Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:16-17).

One of the most important gifts God has given us is free will. One of the most important things Christ accomplished on the cross was setting us free from sin.

But because it is freedom, we are free to use that freedom in whatever way we choose. We may use it to reject God and obey our own selfish desires. However, if we do that, we are not really free at all. For we have become slaves to sin instead. We do not like anything to be master of us, and yet when we continue to sin, sin becomes our master. Romans 6:14 says ‘For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.’

If, however, we use our freedom to get down on our knees before God and seek to serve him and do his will, then we keep our freedom. For we obey God out of love and choice, not control and coercion.

Today was the Epiphany. And the gospel reading for today was Matthew 2:1 12. In that passage, the Magi fall down and pay homage to Jesus. It’s an appealing story, because the idea of three important people paying homage to a baby in a stable seems to contradict the world’s concept of importance. And it is true that God does that. God’s idea of importance is not the same as the world’s. But it should also be remembered that the Magi did not choose some random baby in a stable to pay homage to. They paid homage to Jesus because they recognised that he was more important than they were.

But they did so through choice. They were not forced into worshipping Jesus. They freely choose to do so.

One of the parts I do like in King Arthur is where the knights fight at the end, not because they are forced to, but because, now that they are free, they choose to do so. In the same way, Christians are called to serve God, to get down on our knees, to seek to do his will, not because we have no freedom, but because we do have freedom. And that freedom enables us to freely choose God’s way and to offer him the love and obedience that he deserves.


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