Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Pope's Ailing Health, Redux

This author of this AP article about the Pope's Easter homily is taking a page from the media's playbook from the last ten years of John Paul II's life: throw in extraneous references to his ailing health.

It begins the third sentence in: "The 81-year-old pope tripped as he climbed up to his gilded chair on the loggia, but recovered without incident and delivered his speech to the crowds below."

It's almost like the reporter is secretly hoping for a trip which results in a plummet off the balcony, or at least a nasty gash to the forehead.

It goes on: "Benedict celebrated Easter Mass after presiding over the solemn, three-plus-hour Easter Vigil ceremony Saturday night. At the end of that service, Benedict sounded hoarse and looked tired. But the pope — who turns 82 on Thursday — appeared well-rested by Sunday morning and held up well throughout the Mass."

Everybody, use your most patronizing tone and say it with me: "Oh, good for him."

Is this really news? An 82 year old man naturally can't be expected to retain his voice after presiding over a 3+ hour Mass. There's a guy named Joe in our church who has got to be pushing 90. Why not a gripping exposé on how he did for the Easter Vigil?

The Humour of John

The Apostle John is believed to have authored (or had very close connection to authoring) the fourth Gospel. In it, he always references himself in the third person as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (itself a profound statement of his humility and his wonder).

He really seems to have enjoyed writing the account of the Resurrection.

And I don't mean strictly from a spiritual sense. I mean that, if you read it closely enough and remember that we're talking about a translation from a foreign language whose culture was 2000 years separated from our own, there seems to be a bit of a dig at the Apostle Peter.

Take a close look (emphasis added):

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him." So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.

Maybe I'm way off base on this, but it almost seems like John is sending a subtle jibe against Peter. It's like he's saying, "When we heard the tomb was empty, Peter and I ran towards it. I beat him there. Sure, he went in first, but I beat him there."

This is the type of friendly banter which two dear friends can engage in. Peter, being considered the first Pope, naturally commands the respect of John, but it's clear that their friendship transcended the hierarchical structure of the Church.

What do you think? Does anybody else see that joke in there?

In The Beginning, There Was Me

If you pause to look back in the most ancient recesses of your memory, to find the earliest memory you have, you will be struck, as have I, by one singular fact.

I am all I know.

Despite my intricate intimacy with my wife, my profound knowledge of the character of my children, my participation through childhood with my siblings, and even my knowledge of the three persons of the Trinity, formed through decades of reading Scripture, the teachings of the Catholic Church, the writings of the saints, and the various smatterings of wisdom from my brethren in Christ over the years... in the beginning, I am all I know.

And yet as well as I know myself, the knowledge that God has of me is far deeper. Even the great Saint Paul wondered why he did the things he didn't want to do; I too am continually puzzled by my impulses. What makes me tick?

God knows.

Literally, God knows.

For in the beginning - the REAL beginning - God was. If I believe the words of Scripture, he formed me from my beginning. For some reason, he deemed it appropriate that my originating sperm cell, among millions (yay Dad!) should unite with the ovum, and here I am.

The mystery of Christ's suffering and death on a cross makes this truth all the more powerful. For if God knows me better than reality lets me know myself, and if he should suffer and die to free me from my sins and to welcome me into everlasting bliss, does this not elevate my (or reveal my elevated) status as a human being?

An old hymn says:

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

The paradox of Christianity is that I can acknowledge fully that I am a worm of a man: sinful, lost, careless, hopeless, loveless... and yet once I accept the warm embrace of Christ, restoring me to the love of God Almighty, I am a king and a priest; a heavenly nobleman. My worth comes from the fact that in the beginning (my beginning), I was spawned into existence because God willed it.

This thought occurred to me after receiving Communion at the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday. When it all comes down to it, it's just me and God. Everything else fades to black when I ponder his love for me. Everything else in my life could vanish - my wife and kids, my job, my blog - and if I am left with nothing but my knowledge that God specifically called me into existence out of nothingness, I will still be blown away by his love.

For I know that my redeemer lives.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Tyranny of Self Improvement

I'm at a point in my life right now where I am being forced to grow in many areas. My job is challenging - not beyond possibility, but enough outside of my comfort zone that I'm required to stretch. My family life has reached a new level of chaos. My volunteer work at our church and school are requiring increased diligence and responsibility. And through this all, I hear the call of God to simplify, to live life as frugally as possible, and to stay connected to him through prayer.

So growth is happening. Some would call it maturity.

The last time God brought me through such an intense phase of maturity was right before I met my wife. As a teenager, I was constantly lovesick. I needed a girlfriend in the worst way. I knew I was a catch and couldn't figure out why the young ladies I knew didn't seem to realize it. My desperation reached a frenzied pitch until one day God led me to a book called "Wide My World, Narrow My Bed" by Luci Swindoll. In reading it, he challenge me to abandon the hunt for a girlfriend/wife and instead to be content being single.

It took me some time, but I got there. Then he really rocked my world.

"Now James," he said to me, "I want you to be happy being single."

That was a difficult step. "Content" I could do; peace comes easily to me. But "happy"... that was another thing entirely. It meant giving up my quest for what I thought would bring me happiness and to surrender not just my heart to Jesus but my mind as well. It meant to find joy in what I had up to that point perceived as the ultimate despair: being alone.

So I rebelled. Not openly, mind you. I was never the kind of guy to sleep around or go drinking or experiment with drugs. But in my spirit, I said NO to God. I turned away, and although I kept up appearances, for a time I abandoned the concept of believing that God loved me. Over the course of several months, he wooed me back, and I did reach that point where I was able to think about the single life and genuinely smile about it.

God appreciates irony, and it was about two weeks later that I met my wife. Although I was puzzled at God's timing then, it makes perfect sense to me now. He does want me to be happy, but he wants my happiness to come from following his plan for my life instead of my own plan. If I had met Dawn in my own frantic search for the perfect woman, I would not have been wise enough to know I had found her.

Anyway, the point of that story is that right now I'm at a point in my current life where God is saying to me, "You enjoy your down-time and your relaxation, but I want you to give those up and take on the work of the kingdom. I want you to sacrifice your own idea of what will bring you rest and trust me to provide rest for you. You say you don't want to be one of those people who takes on too much; I want you to abandon your idea of what is too much and respond to my call."

So here I am. I am struggling not to rebel against this new direction.

I believe that part of this journey will require me to become more capable in my public speaking, so I am joining a local Toastmasters club. This morning I came back from my second meeting. At the end of the meeting, we all cast ballots on who was the best speaker, best evaluator, best dressed, etc. Today I won an award, and I suspect that I shall be a frequent recipient of this one:

In case you can't make it out, it is the award for Best Humourist. The trophy itself is a horse's rear end.