Chaos and Anger

Sometimes we want to think that churches and other religious centers should always be places of peace and calm. That will never be. Churches, and all organizations, face a common, insurmountable problem. By definition, they are made up of people.

In a society were interdependence is de-emphasized, many people choose to keep their contact with all organizations to a minimum. In a way that makes sense. The fewer people we interact with, the fewer people we can have conflict with.

When Christians contemplate the life of Jesus, they are faced with a different view. We are taught that one person of the Divine trinity chose to leave an environment of perfect love and peace to spend more than 30 years with human beings and all their passions, mistreatment and, in his case, to suffer crucifixion at their hands. He knew what was going to happen and he came anyway.

It has long been the teaching of the church that the interaction of members of the church helps us learn how to love one another. The ancient Christian teacher and writer Tertullian once said “Solus Christianus, nullus Christianus” – A Christian alone is no Christian.

I have heard this put many ways over the years. One preacher told us we were all rocks on the bottom of the river and the way we push against each other is what polishes us to get ready for heaven. However we put it, it is easy to say and follow when everything is going smoothly. It is quite a different thing to remember it and live it when a given church (or parish) is in the middle of chaos.

This question has become totally not theoretical for me and the fellow members of my local church in the last few weeks. A month ago we had two full time priests and, as far as most of us knew, everything was going well. Now both of those priests are gone, maybe permanently, and we have fill-in priests and are dealing with our bishop to get help to keep the parish going.

In addition to all the chaos and confusion, we are seeing people leave while others stay and people are taking sides. Instead of a spirit of love and cooperation, we are in danger of creating an environment of anger and self-righteousness. The question is now whether love or anger will prevail.

I am reminded of an episode called “The Day of the Dove” from the original Star Trek television series. In that episode, the Enterprise crew find themselves trapped on the ship with an equal number of Klingons in an endless series of battles. They realize that when they are killed in a battle, they return to fight again. The solution comes when they realize there is a creature on board who has created the conflict and feeds itself from the hatred it is generating.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was telling this story in a science fiction format in a setting “where no man has gone before.”  But there is nothing new in this concept.

The Christian teaching is very clear that there is one who wants to destroy our souls and poison everything good in us that God put there. Whether you call our adversary the devil, Lucifer or the destroyer of souls or any other name, he exists. He seeks to put us at each other so that we forget we are here to show God’s love.

In times of chaos and anger, we have to decide what we want for our souls and those of our neighbors. There is obviously hurt and anger and shock. We may feel the need to lash out. At a minimum we need to express our hurt and anger. Hopefully our friends involved in the situation will be able to provide ears or shoulders as needed.

But we need to keep in mind that at each moment we are feeding ourselves either the “good food” of love and understanding and peace or the “bad food” of hatred, anger and self-righteousness. No matter how much we feel wronged by others, if we dwell in that hurt or anger we harm ourselves, not them.

The “winners” in this will be those who turn to God the soonest. The more it hurts, the angrier we feel, the more important it becomes to turn quickly. He is waiting to help us. He will help as much as we let Him. He is calling to each of us, no matter what “side” we are on, to turn to Him now. He won’t make us turn. If we insist on being miserable in ourselves and to others, He will honor our choice.

In some ways we want to cry, “Why us?” but in a sense it is a tribute to our spiritual readiness. We are being offered a test at the next school grade level in our spiritual journeys. How soon will we be able to “pass the test” or “win the game” by turning completely to God?

It is my fervent hope that we all choose God sooner rather than later. May our parish become a place where all who come, or return, are welcome and see only the love of God.


Who Made This Up?

Those who disparage religion like to say that humanity creates God in their own image and then worship their own creation. With the Gods we find in many places of worship, it is easy to believe. We have monotheism and polytheism. We have vengeful gods who will kill or punish everyone who doesn’t believe in a single version of a creed. We have gods whose love is nonjudgmental and all accepting.

Then, of course, there are various versions of the afterlife. In some religions, people seem to delight in the idea that all the “evil-doers” will be punished. In other versions, the afterlife will be an undemanding time of “Peace in the Valley.” In all these cases, it is easy to see what kind of person could create the scenario and why they would find it comforting or satisfying.

In the fourth century, Christianity, by a declaration of the Emperor Constantine, moved overnight from a persecuted religion to the state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine called for a council of the church leaders to define the religion in a way that could be commonly understood.

It is hard for those in the twenty-first century to understand the kind of people who participated in this council. We are used to seeing church leaders surrounded by pomp or evangelical preachers flying from one preaching assignment to another in private jets.

Many of the bishops who met at Constantine’s orders became a bishop when their predecessor was martyred for his faith. Others who came were missing arms, legs, eyes or tongues because of their refusal to deny their faith. To put it bluntly, these people were not about to politely compromise to come to agreement on a doctrinal statement. Their God was real to them and they had proven their willingness to sacrifice.

The God they described is “one God in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).” This was the god they experienced and the one they proclaimed.  More than that, the nature of the relationship between the three persons was critical to their understanding of the nature of God and, surprisingly, the nature of man.  As my parish priest explains it, “the Church’s experience of God is one God in three persons who are united together (dwell within each other) in an unceasing movement of mutual love.”

Given this understanding of God’s nature, why was humanity created and how are we supposed to interact with God? Here comes the part I find it hard to believe humans just made up.

The Trinity, or three-in-one God, sharing perfect and continuing love among them, wanted to share that love with others. In order to have more persons to participate in this love, He/they said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”

We are not here to be servants to a ruling monarch. We are made not only to love God but, believe it or not, to be loved by God. We are made to be the beloved children of God, not just servants. But there is more to it than that.

We are called to “Theosis” which literally means we are to become like God. Since we are always the created and God is always the Uncreated, we will never be God. Exactly what is being asked of us? We are being asked to love like God so we can enter into the Trinity’s “unceasing movement of mutual love.”

God’s love is shown in the parable of the woman caught in adultery.  It is not a soft, “That’s OK, dear” kind of love.  The command “Go and sin no more” shows that the sin is real and since it is real, the forgiveness is also real.

Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card quoted San Angelo’s Letters to an Incipient Heretic. This balance of sin awareness and forgiveness “is noteworthy because is so startlingly rare in our experience…. [Jesus] dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation. So, of course, we killed him.”

This is the love and forgiveness we are called to in theosis.  It is not a glib acceptance. We will know that what we have done was harmful to ourselves and others and we will know that we are forgiven. Also, since we ask to be forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we will be asked, or rather expected, to understand the reality of sins committed against us and grant forgiveness and love to other people.

So this is the kind of God these people “made up” so they could worship a god in their own image. It is a three-in-one God who created us to love us and wants us to join in an eternal circle of love.  That love is the pure love that truly recognizes real faults and yet loves and forgives. 

There is only one aspect of this “made up” God and afterlife that makes perfect sense to me. We have all of eternity to learn to love as God loves. That sounds real to me. Eternity might just be enough time for people like me to learn to love like that.