Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Road to God

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For almost a year, construction crews have been busy around our house, which abuts a street being reconstructed. Some of the work is on our property or on property we recently sold to the city for construction.

The supervisor on the site is a 6ft. 5 in., 250-pound seasoned worker named Larry. He has a big mustache partially hiding a sun- and wind-weathered face. I would guess he’s in his early to mid-60s. His voice is deeper than the sound of the bulldozers whose drivers he oversees. He seems never to rest, always on the job, consulting with workers and gently directing them.

I use the word “gently” above advisedly because Larry is a Teddy Bear. I’ve had to meet with him at least once a week, often with his supervisors or workers, and I’ve never heard him raise his voice or speak with anything less than courtesy and kindness.

Early on he provided me with his cell phone number and often urges me to contact him with any concerns. Much to his credit, the project appears to be finishing on-time.

One-Man Exhibit

So much for the theory that nice guys finish last. Larry, in fact, is a one-man exhibit on the benefits of goodness and kindness. I have no idea about his religion or lack of one, but to quote Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, responding to a scribe who exhibited God-like qualities, Larry is “not far from the Kingdom of God.”

That’s because if you are good and kind, you have captured the essence of Christianity and many other religions. And in the search for God, you’re at least half-way there. The other half may be adopting a religious belief and faithfully practicing it.

I know that religion, including Christianity, has an image problem. When they think of him at all, many people see Jesus as a wimp. Others as a fanatic. Neither, of course, captures the reality of Jesus as presented in the New Testament, the only way we know anything about him.
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Jesus proclaimed his message fearlessly, openly criticizing the Jewish authorities, though he knew it would lead to his death. He stood up to the Jewish and Roman officials, saying little at his trial because he knew the outcome was predetermined.

Throughout his public life, which required incredible physical and mental endurance, he called a spade a spade. That’s not the behavior of a wimp.

The image of a fanatic is equally off-base. This idea’s latest incarnation is in a New York Times best seller called “The Zealot” by Resa Aslan. I read it last year and found it to be a classic case of an author starting out with a theory and making the evidence fit. His theory is that Jesus was one of many
revolutionaries at the time whose main interest was overthrow of the Romans and the Jews that supported them.

I don’t see how you can read the gospels and draw those conclusions. It’s obvious that Jesus was first and foremost interested in the spiritual, in connecting and reconnecting people with his Father. When he opposed the authorities it was to promote an authentic relationship to God. When he defended the poor it was all part of the message that you can’t love God without loving your neighbor.

But in so many people’s minds, Jesus is not the material of a modern hero, not somebody to look up to or emulate, let alone worship as God. No, give us a Trump, a Clinton or even a Kardashian.

I can’t help but think that it’s because the Bible also has an image problem. It may be the ultimate “unmodern” book, ranking right up there with Shakespeare. People don’t read the Bible so they don’t have an accurate image of Jesus, who was courageous, compassionate and kind.


Much is written about how those attributes are fading in our society, and I believe there is some evidence that’s the case – though people in the past may have said something similar about each succeeding generation.

So how do we restore these qualities to our public and social lives? First, by being good and kind ourselves. They spread by example like the contrary qualities of meanness and rudeness. With all the sentimentality about goodness and kindness on social media and elsewhere, it’s easy to be cynical about them but they may be all that will save us from ourselves.

Second, goodness and kindness should be important in how we choose spouses, friends, employees, and candidates for public office. Making choices on the basis of anything less brings much more grief and problems than do choices made on the basis of talent, skill, knowledge or brilliance.

Finally, goodness and kindness bring happiness, to ourselves and the people around us, and put us on the road to God. Larry, it seems, knows as much about that as about road construction.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Thanksgiving Memory of a Near Tragedy

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Back when our daughter, Maureen, was almost two, I ran over her with my car.

I was parked in our driveway and was leaving to go somewhere – I don’t recall where. Leaving the house, I hugged and kissed her at the front door and went to get in my car, unaware that she had followed me. Just as I was backing out of the driveway, she was walking behind the car. She was so tiny I didn’t see her when I checked the rearview mirrors.

She was in the middle of the bumper area, between the right and left set of wheels, when the car passed over her and I heard screams from a neighbor. I immediately suspected what had happened and dreaded getting out of the car.

I found her pinned under the differential, the large gear train located between the two front wheels. She didn’t have so much as a scratch. The fact that she was so tiny and happened to be walking behind the car between the wheel sets of a car with a high frame saved her.

Divine Providence?
I’m leaving out what is usually referred to as “divine providence. That’s the traditional Christian view, and that of some other religions, that God can – and sometimes does - intervene in our lives. Personally, I believe that God can do so but probably does so rarely and that it’s impossible to know when it happens. I think of God as the parent of adult children who recognizes their freedom, even freedom to fail, but when necessary helps them out directly.

“Divine Providence” is a theological problem that’s “beyond my pay scale,” however. I believe the incident with Maureen may have been one of those times when God intervened and my wife and family and I are grateful for the outcome. It’s among so many things – the majority of which I’m undoubtedly unaware – that I have to be grateful for on Thanksgiving.

Many people have had similar experiences, incidents that could have been tragic but for various reasons weren’t. We just don’t know whether God is involved, but people searching for God develop a sense for God’s presence and know that ultimately and inexplicably, God is in charge and deserves our continual gratitude. 

Every year I’m amazed that in a country like ours, which is so wrapped up in the material, so much into “conspicuous consumption,” so enamored of people who amass wealth and fame, we still celebrate a holiday like Thanksgiving. I’m not sure about the extent to which Americans are conscious of its meaning, but it’s admirable that we have a holiday to recall how much we have to be grateful for.

Growing up in a different culture, my wife, Amparo, is perhaps more tuned in to Thanksgiving than I am. It’s become a bit ho-hum for me but she so appreciates the fact that a day is set aside to be grateful. She reminded me that this blog would be published on Thanksgiving and gave me ideas for this post. Here’s a sample.

·       We teach our children to say “thank you,” not just to be polite but to learn the importance of gratitude, to be moved by the generosity of God and others. To what extent are we adults aware of its importance?

·       We should be grateful for material things, like roofs over our heads and warm winter beds, but even more for the essentials like faith, family, friends, health and the beauty of nature.

·       It’s hard to be grateful when we’re in the habit of comparing ourselves to others. It’s like the person who receives a gift of a scarf and says “Thanks, it’s beautiful,” but thinks, “If only it were blue instead of red.”

·       Though comparisons make us less grateful, being thankful makes us more empathetic to other people’s problems and helps people searching for God to be generous, especially to God’s favorites, the poor.

·       If a prayer of thanksgiving – such as one before the main meal of the day – isn’t among your family traditions, maybe it should be, thinking of at least one thing for which you are grateful. No need for embarrassment. The vast majority of people, even unbelievers, don’t seem to mind.

Since I’m mentioning a lot of family members in these blogs lately, I’ll add one more. My brother, Dick – a priest in Kansas City who died in 2008 – was a generous and grateful person who several times reminded me that “you can’t outdo the generosity of God.”

I often think about that when I recall the great gift that is Maureen.       

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Aging and Other Unmentionables

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My Dad, Leo “Pat” Carney, died in 1995 at the age of 94. A native of Emmetsburg, Ia. – named after Irish patriot Robert Emmet and once a magnet for Irish immigrants – my Dad wasn’t flawless but was a great father to whom I’m eternally grateful.

My mother died much younger, so her aging is not fresh in my mind. But I now see my Dad when I look in the mirror. I see his wrinkles, his receding and thinning hair, and a face that exaggerates the worst aspects of my appearance.

I’m him when I struggle to come up with a word or name I thought I knew well. I’m him when I fail to overcome a long-held bias or when I’m tempted to criticize young people for the way they dress or talk. I’m him when I worry about not living up to expectations about being an “active, vibrant elderly person.” I’m him when undergoing those occasional age-related humiliations.

His Last Driver's Test
I accompanied him, at around age 88, to his last driver’s test. The examiner stood in front of his car, a used vehicle which he had recently bought and with which he wasn’t familiar. I wasn’t allowed in the car but stood near the driver’s side window.

It was a warm day and his window was open. The examiner said, “Turn on your left turn signal, Mr. Carney.” He fumbled around, and I whispered, “The lever on your left, Dad.”

“You can’t help the applicant,” the examiner warned. “Now your right turn signal,” she barked. Again, he struggled to find it. I gave him another hint.

“Please move away from the car, sir,” the examiner scolded. I did what I was told.

With the examiner strapped into the passenger seat, they left for the driving part of the test. I felt sorry for both of them and prayed they would return in one piece. I knew there was little chance he would pass.

Pat Carney
When he got the negative exam results, he didn’t complain but I knew he was crushed - though maybe on some level he knew it was for the best. Our family was sympathetic but relieved. Anticipating the time when I will no longer be able to drive, I will share that humiliation.

The elderly have lots of special problems but are relieved from others by age and retirement. So far, I can say that my 60s and part of the 70s have been among my best years.

When it comes to the elderly, we seem to focus on the problems rather than the benefits. It seems, in fact, that society would rather pretend aging didn’t exist. And dare I mention death? That subject is even more taboo.

While many people treat aging people as they do the rest of humankind, others seem to believe that since many aging people don’t produce anything, they have little value. I’ve seen agedness referred to as “human obsolescence.”

Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney in “Aging, the Fulfillment of Life,” write that many people view aging as “a sad human fate that nobody can escape and should be avoided at all cost, (and) that growing towards the end of the life cycle is a morbid reality that should only be acknowledged when the signs can no longer be denied.”

There are several problems with this view. The first is that everybody’s aging, even though most people don’t like to think or talk about it. But isn’t it a matter of accepting our humanity, which includes aging and death? 

What Is Our Destiny?

Many would say they simply don’t want reminders of our destiny. But what is our destiny? Believers and people searching for God can’t simply adopt society’s views, first because aging is as natural a process as its opposite, the development of an infant, and secondly because death is not an end but a beginning.

I know, for many it may be as hard to imagine an afterlife as it is to imagine entering into oblivion, the view of death held by many. That’s because we view the afterlife in human concepts and talk about it in human terms.

Lifting language from the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, the writer of the First Letter to the Corinthians in the Christian Bible assures his readers that "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him." Indeed, God looks at death differently, says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. “…To him all are alive.”

That’s another way I’m like my Dad. Despite doubts, he believed that after death he would be welcomed into God’s kingdom.    

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Luther: The World is What It Is

Martin Luther/Google Image
Growing up Catholic, I was not a fan of Martin Luther or the Reformation. Reformers attacked my beloved church and removed millions of people from the Kingdom of God as I imagined it.

As a seminary student, I began to see Luther and the Reformation differently. Luther, a 16th century Catholic monk and priest who saw firsthand and up-close the corruption that had eaten into the church like flesh-eating bacteria, gained greatly in my esteem.

And I have to ask, would Luther initiate a Reformation as a member of today's Catholic church? Judging by what the extent to which the Catholic Church has reformed itself and Luther's own words late in life, I doubt it.

It's interesting how people who are considered geniuses and great personalities in history often come to see their work differently in old age.

Last Thoughts of My Patron Saint
I often think about what are reported to have been among the last thoughts of my patron saint, Thomas Aquinas, considered to be among history’s greatest thinkers. He wrote innovative works on philosophy and theology, including his crowning achievement, the Summa Theologica, still studied by many theology students.

It’s a massive, several-volume work about how we know God, the place of humans in God’s plan, about Jesus and the sacraments. He never finished it because after some kind of revelation toward the end of his life, he said that by comparison, all he had written was “so much straw.”

In his lifetime, Martin Luther saw his own movement breaking apart and was saddened that it had divided Germany along religious lines. It would do so in much of Europe, and the divisions have multiplied and last to this day.

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It would have been nice had he and subsequent reformers been able to right the wrongs without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but that didn’t happen and possibly couldn’t have happened given the church and secular politics of the time.

But like Aquinas, Luther had misgivings about his life’s work. He didn’t repent about having tried to reform the church but he seemed to be less than pleased with what replaced it.

“The world is the world,” he lamented. “If I had to start over with the gospel, I would do it differently. I would let the vulgar crowd stay under the pope and privately give relief to those who are anxious and full of despair.

“It behooves the preacher to know the world better than I did when I was a monk,” wrote Luther near death, quoted in the book, “Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer” by Scott Hendrix. “Back then I thought the world was so upright that people would rush forward as soon as they heard the gospel. What happened, however, was the contrary.”

So now we are left with a divided Christianity, which is a barrier for some people who are searching for God.

Happily, the divisions are narrowing. Pope Francis recently traveled to Sweden to help celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Ironically, Francis is a member of the Jesuit order, one of whose main missions after its founding in 1540 - 23 years after Luther began his reformation - was to fight Luther’s ideas.

But the Associated Press reported that “Francis and the Lutheran federation president, Bishop Munib Younan, drew sustained applause at the end of (a service) when they signed a joint declaration pledging to improve relations through dialogue while working together to heal conflicts, welcome refugees and care for the planet.

Together at the Table?
The aim of a separate dialogue among Catholic and Lutheran theologians is to bring Catholics and Lutherans together at the Eucharistic table.

"We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another," Francis said. "We too must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge."

Differences in how Christians interpret Jesus’ teachings shouldn’t surprise us. They occurred while Jesus was still alive and were evident among his earliest followers. Disagreement appears to be part of the human condition.

It shouldn’t be a barrier for people searching for God. According to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, God loves all of us and invites us to love him/her in return. With prayer and discernment, we have to decide the best way to do so.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Our Place in the Universe

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I’ll bet as you go about your daily chores, you think about how the universe is expanding and how it affects you, right?

No? Well, Tom Siegfried, writing in Science News, calls the expanding universe “the greatest intellectual upheaval in the human conception of the cosmos since Copernicus,” who lived about 500 years ago.

I see a couple of parallels here between science and religion. The first is that scientists are constantly making inferences about the universe from their observations. They don’t actually see the universe expanding. They infer it from what they can see and from mathematical calculations based on their observations. And that’s the case for lots of other cosmological discoveries, like the Big Bang and black holes.

Religion does something similar. Few people, if any, have actually seen God. But there are plenty of reasons to infer his/her existence. Among them is the fact that virtually all civilizations have had some idea of God. Similarly, all people seem to have some idea of right vs. wrong, what some people call the natural law “written on their hearts.” From these and other observations, we infer God’s existence. (This is, of course, leaving out the question of the “gift of faith.”)

How God Reveals Him/herself
The Hebrew Bible describes how God, presumably after preparation of just under a million years - the reported duration of human life on earth - reveals him/herself to human beings, and the Christian Bible says that God actually becomes a human being to show us, among other things, how to be one.

One of the names of this God-man is Emanuel, in Hebrew, “God with Us.” For believers, it responds to the question heard throughout the ages, “Where is your God?”

A second parallel between science and religion is that few people who accept these inferences about God think about it much as they go about their lives. All in all, we’re pretty ho-hum about it, and maybe that’s for the best. If we really grasped its awesomeness we probably wouldn’t get anything done.

Ancient believers made inferences, too, from the astonishing beauty of nature. Here’s a sample from Psalm 8 in the Jerusalem Bible translation.

Rabbi Polish
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“I look up at your heavens, made by your fingers,
At the moon and stars you set in place -
Ah, what is man that you should spare a thought for him?
The son of man that you should care for him?”

Writing in a recent issue of America Magazine, Rabbi Daniel Polish says that for the ancient Hebrews, the heavenly bodies weren’t objects of worship as they were for some surrounding civilizations, but that “the splendors of the heavens point beyond themselves and testify to the power of their Creator.

“And yet even as we feel the greatness of God so deeply, we feel welling up within us – as Job must have felt – a sense of our own smallness and insignificance.” But the psalm continues,

“Yet you have made him little less than a god,
You have crowned him with glory and splendor,
Made him lord over the work of your hands,
Set all things under his feet.”

Infinite Worth of Human Life
Although we might imagine ourselves unworthy of God’s attention, writes Polish, this psalm “affirms the infinite worth of human life.”

This idea isn’t popular in today’s world. In so many places and so many circumstances, life is cheap. People are disposable, replaceable. Animals and even plants are considered just about as smart and valuable. We’re not all we thought we were. Sometimes, we’re even ashamed to be part of the human race.

“And yet we matter,” writes Polish. “…We are of the greatest possible significance to the order of God’s creation.”

These ideas should shape the lives of believers, and provide thought fodder for people searching for God at a time when so many are wondering about their place in the universe.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

An “Aha” Moment

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You know how you can have an experience that you’ve had many times before, that has become almost routine, and then, out-of-the-blue, it brings a new insight?

I’ve had that kind of “aha” moment watching sports on TV. One of them was when I first saw a slow-motion version of a major-league pitcher in the process of throwing a fast ball. After seeing it – how unnatural it appears, how it stretches the flexibility of the human body to its limits – I realized how hard it would be to hit and how vulnerable the pitcher is to injuries just from the act of pitching.

I had one of those kinds of moments while attending Mass recently. Let me say at the outset that I understand that this was a subjective experience and that some people may never have such insights at religious services.

Can Bring Insights
It’s just that I write plenty about the problems of belief and religion, and when writing about God and religion for people who may have given up on them, I shouldn’t omit ways in which religious services can bring insights into their lives and their relationship to God.

I was watching people receiving communion, several hundred old and young people, parents with teen and young children in tow, whites and blacks and tans, and thought about how the parents, by bringing them to Mass, were trying to pass on their faith to their children. All were approaching the bread and cup with varying degrees of attention, devotion, and faith and it occurred to me how extraordinary it was.

What caught my attention was how many parents over the centuries have been successful in passing along this faith, and that 2,000 years after Jesus, so many people are still following him. Worldwide, that includes about 1.2 billion Catholics and 900,000 of Protestants, adding up to over 2.3 billion people who follow Jesus.

That’s amazing and unprecedented in human experience. The question isn’t why so few people go to church but why so many still do. What could account for it? Cynics might say naïveté or gullibility. I believe it’s the continued work of the Holy Spirit.

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It reminds me of the passage in the Acts of the Apostles – the book of the Bible that describes the birth and early life of the church – in which in the post-Jesus era, the apostles were arrested by Jewish leaders for continuing to preach about their crucified master.

They were hauled before the Jewish leaders, told to cease and desist, and jailed, but miraculously escaped and returned to preach in the temple. They were returned to the Jewish court where the leaders “were enraged,” and wanted to kill the recalcitrant apostles.

But a Jewish leader named Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people,” spoke up, reminding his colleagues that many contemporary rebellious men had fomented trouble and their causes had come to nothing.

“…Let them alone,” he advised about the apostles, “for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”

Two thousand years later, billions of people are still following Jesus, evidence that Gamaliel was wise and that faith in Jesus is from God.

The gospel read at the Mass I attended was also noteworthy. Its message should appeal to modern people, many of whose greatest complaint about religious people is that they’re judgmental and hypocritical. And this teaching of Jesus, showing his deep understanding of human nature, may be among the reasons we still follow him.

Prided Themselves
According to the author of the gospel of Luke, Jesus told this story “to some who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else.”

A tax collector and a Pharisee went to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Tax collectors were considered by the Jews as little more than traitorous thieves for collecting for the Roman occupiers.  Pharisees were experts in the Jewish law but viewed by Jesus and his followers as legalistic and self-righteous.

“The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, ‘I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I’m not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.’  

“The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’

“This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God,” said Jesus; “the other did not.”


Thursday, October 20, 2016

How to Grow Faith  

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Even with 20 years of formal Catholic education, I’ve struggled with faith most of my adult life. Does God exist? Was Jesus really God? Am I fooling myself about God, Jesus, life after death?

I know I’m not alone. I suspect the vast majority of people of faith have similar doubts. But doubt doesn’t constitute an absence of faith. Everyone has a different way of approaching this problem. Here are my thoughts on the matter of faith and doubt.

First, I believe that faith isn’t just a question of the mind. We probably make most of our decisions - even the most important one, like the question of belief - based on emotion or a mix of emotion and reason. And that mix makes me and millions of others come down on the side of faith.

Accepting Uncertainty
Secondly, faith means accepting uncertainty, which doesn’t seem a problem in other aspects of our lives. Uncertainty is as pervasive as air. People we were certain were loyal friends turn out not to be. Before Einstein, Newton’s physics were certain. Almost daily revelations show we can never be certain about the effectiveness and safety of medications.

Third, faith is incremental. Jesus acknowledged as much when he used the analogy of the mustard seed. We need to act on whatever “amount” of faith we have and be grateful for it.

So if we have some degree of faith – if only the size of a mustard seed, which is no larger than the period at the end of the next sentence – how do we keep it and grow it? The point of Jesus’ analogy, I believe, is that even a minimal amount of faith is enough to believe that “anything is possible.”

Prayer, it seems to me, is the best start. If we believe in God, even with doubt, we should ask him/her to help us believe. And prayer, wrote the great mystic Teresa of Avila, “is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent converse, with him who we know loves us.”

Those in the Judeo-Christian tradition should read the Bible. Christians could start with something easy, like the Acts of the Apostles and graduate to the gospels and the letters of Paul. In the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, at least the early chapters, is also relatively easy to read.

Besides that, we should look for what will support our faith: articles, books, movies, TV shows, plays, conversations, friends. God knows there is plenty to influence us in the opposite direction.

Research has shown that many Christians, at least, depend on the knowledge of their faith they learned in elementary school. The rest of their knowledge may have grown exponentially but their faith is stuck in the rudiments, with a child’s understanding in an age when an adult’s understanding is needed like never before.

That’s not to say that believers need a formal education. Neither the prophets nor Jesus mentioned having an academic degree, but in an age when knowledge in every other aspect of our lives is exploding, having a child’s grasp of our faith is an obstacle, for us and those with whom we come into contact.

Fr. Herbert McCabe, an English theologian and philosopher who died in 2001, has some insight on the subject of faith.

“Faith,” he wrote, “is about what is beyond the horizon of the humanly possible. Faith is exploring into what people could never achieve by themselves. Faith is the mysterious need in us to get to where we could surely never go.

“Faith, in fact, is about what we call God. Faith is the inkling that we are meant to be divine, that our journey will go beyond any horizon at all into the limitlessness of the Godhead. Faith is not our power to set out on this journey into the future. It is our future laying hold on us. …Faith is not something we possess. It is something by which we are possessed.”

I still ask myself all those doubting questions mentioned at the start of this blog, but not as frequently as before. And I can attest that faith does indeed bring peace and joy.