Our Common Responsibility

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I’ve recently begun reading through Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si (Praised Be To You) with a friend at work. It’s 184 pages, so not a quick read, though the language isn’t very technical (so far), so most of me readers should be able to get through it pretty quick if you want to.

It’s broken up into 9 separate chapters, each covering a different angle. I’m partway through chapter 2, and so far I’m enjoying it immensely. There is much that is challenging in it, comforting, and several things that make me grateful for the Catholic perspective on the issue of creation.

I don’t intend to provide a commentary on the entire letter, but only to highlight some of what my friend and I found of interest. I will post more as it appeals to me.

FOR ALL THE CHURCH
For all the talk that this is the “climate change” encyclical (and it is that), it is much more than that. I would submit that even if you don’t believe humans are contributing to global warming and negative climate change, what he presents should be taken on board by all Christians, as a call to the church universal’s responsibility to the creation, of which it is a part. There is a way in which we are to relate to the rest of creation which is proper and ordered, and the all too common way today, which is disordered.

Quoting Patriarch Bartholomew, who wrote “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”. (page 8) Using strong language, which will continue through the document, the Patriarch states that “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.

Drawing on the life of his name sake, Pope Francis draws on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, who is describes as a “mystic and a pilgrim”, who was particularly concerned with “God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. ” (page 9).

Deriding our current mechanistic hermeneutic to reading the book of nature, (Pope) Francis, further recounts that (Saint) Francis’ “…response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. (page 10).

There is much talk of “calling” today. What do I feel called to? To what is God calling me to devote my life? Do we feel called to live in harmony with the rest of the created world, of which we are an integral part? Pope Francis believes our duty is clear: “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.”

ULTIMATE RESPONSIBILITY NOT AUTHORITY
We all come from God. Yes, we have been given a unique place in the hierarchy of creation, but that position comes with ultimate responsibility, not ultimate power. It also restricts our power over our fellow creation. Francis connects our humanity with the necessity to fall in plan with God’s plan.

“Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system”.8 Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.” (Page 6)

He further quotes Pope Benedict XVI who wrote “the book of nature is one and indivisible” and that “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence”. We can’t go on living our lives assuming we can do whatever we want, just because we’re human, and think that the impact of those actions, are amoral, or worse, condoned by God.

Our responsibility to the rest of creation, is perhaps first a responsibility to recognize and affirm that all of creation brings glory to God, not just us. We must therefore tread carefully when we impact the ability of the rest of creation to bring glory to the God that created all us. Francis uses quite forceful language when he emphasizes this point: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.” (page 25).

We, rightfully I think, applaud our artisans who create beautiful art and music, but what homage do we pay to the one who created the forests and the sky, the sunrise and sunset? Do we honour the artist by defiling their painting? Do we scrawl our own initials on it, and claim it to be our own? Never. So, why do we do the same with the paintings of God? Do we seek to replace the beauty of God with that which we create? Believing we can best the Creator-God?

Francis observes “We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.” (page 26).

We are all part of creation. Our unique and special relationship to God and His creation, is an authority in as much as we have ultimate responsibility, not ultimate authority. As our Lord Christ Jesus teaches us, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16 NIV).

The Hidden Temptation

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I am working on a personal project which is leading me in all sorts of directions. Last night it led me to the following quote, which I really liked it, so I now pass it on to you. I’ve bolded certain terms that I found particularly poignant.

The most common yet most hidden temptation is our lack of faith. It expresses itself less by declared incredulity than by our actual preferences. When we begin to pray, a thousand labors or cares thought to be urgent vie for priority; once again, it is the moment of truth for the heart: what is its real love? Sometimes we turn to the Lord as a last resort, but do we really believe he is? Sometimes we enlist the Lord as an ally, but our heart remains presumptuous. In each case, our lack of faith reveals that we do not yet share in the disposition of a humble heart: “Apart from me, you can do nothing”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2732)

In the morning when I get up, I have almost unlimited options of what I can do or focus on. What does my heart seek in the morning? Does it seek the Lord, or seek television. And if I seek the Lord do I only do so when I feel I need help, presuming that God will help me?

The CCC further points out that presumption can flow both ways:

There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit) (2092)

Somewhere between those two is a proper approach to the Lord. 

The easiest hardest 3 steps

Josemaria escriva

About a month ago I changed the name, subtitle, and visual theme of the blog. The subtitle is now: May you seek Christ. May you find Christ. May you love Christ.

I thought I’d take a moment to explain where that comes from. 

Those three brief phrases are contained in a book titled “The Way” by Josemaria Escriva. Escriva is the founder of Opus Dei, a sort of order for everyday folks within the Catholic Church. It’s also a perennial favourite of conspiracy buffs (e.g. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code). Anywho, “The Way” is a rule of life for Opus Dei adherents and has 999 short paragraphs intended to guide followers in their daily life.

May you seek Christ. May you find Christ. May you love Christ is found in paragraph no. 382. The whole paragraph reads:

When I made you a present of that Life of Jesus, I wrote in it this inscription: “May you seek Christ. May you find Christ. May you love Christ.” These are three very distinct steps. Have you at least tried to live the first one?

Yes, friends, they are three distinct and separate steps. The sentence is short, but challenging, full of depth of purpose and meaning.

Which step are you on?

Totus Tuus

Living with Anxiety: Part 3 When it is absent

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When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.
– Psalm 94:19

Much like the stress we would all like to avoid but know we can’t, anxiety haunts us the same way. Some level of anxiety can be good, but even more so, some times we can get anxious just but its sheer absence. It makes us anxious when we observe a situation from a distance that we deem as requiring urgent intervention but the people directly involved don’t seem to be concerned. Think of a horror or suspense movie when the heroin is walking down the dark hallways, about to open the door and we know the predator is right there willing to attack. We yell at the screen (or in our heads) “don’t go in there”, “turn around and run away!”.

Surely such is the case with the story of Abraham and his Son Isaac told in Genesis 22. The Lord instructs Abraham to:

“Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

He is commanded to murder his own son, on command from God.

As the narrative progresses we see Abraham leading his son up the hill to burn an offering to God, not telling Isaac that he is the offering.

We, the readers, know what Abraham knows and the tension mounts along with our anxiety. “Abraham, stop, how can you do this?”. “God, stop this, how can you command the murder of an innocent child?”.

But, no intervention comes, instead:

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

Finally, as the story reaches its climax and our anxiety is as high as it could be…

11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

Finally, the Lord intervenes. The one who started it, is the only one who could stop it.

12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Finally, we have relief. Isaac is saved, a more suitable and traditional sacrifice is provided.

This is the cycle of anxiety. An event we don’t understand or don’t think we can control happens (or we preview it happening). Then our emotions take over and overwhelm us, inhibiting our ability to respond appropriately to the situation. It’s easy for us to get overwhelmed by events in society such as terrorism, crime, death, illness, or divorce of those close to us. We want to fix the situation, but feel we can’t and that can raise our anxiety because we care about these people, even if it is a broad concept of society.

Scripture is full of anxiety inducing stories, many of which are the “difficult” passages that we just don’t know what to do with. When we talk about walking in the tension of scripture, say between the teachings of Christ and the apparent opposite ethic present in the Old Testament, we literally mean sometimes we have tension or anxiety. How are we to understand the totality of scripture, in light of Christ’s teachings and a loving God?

This is the tension and anxiety present in any honest follower of Christ and it is an anxiety that only He can take away. Through prayer, honest searching of the scriptures we can know Him better. We won’t likely ever truly know how it all fits together, but we must continue to trust in the God as revealed through Christ and continue to be taught through the Spirit in all of scripture.

Living with Anxiety: Part 2 What is it?

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Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.
– Proverbs 12:25

I’ve dealt with anxiety longer than I’ve been a Christian (about 8 years at this point) and I realized today that I’ve never really done a study of any significance on how the subject of anxiety intersects with my faith, beyond the most superficial (God is in control). As I outlined in my previous post I have an underlying assumption that seeking professional help is not necessarily a bad thing. Whether it’s delving deep into root causes or learning coping techniques from a therapist or trying medication monitored and prescribed by a physician, none of these are inherently bad so long as the Christian takes responsibility a) for their treatment and b) doesn’t eject their faith or see their treatment as somehow separate from their faith. We need to submit all thing to Christ and not see any particular thing as separate from Him.

So, having set that base parameter, I wanted to use this post to start looking at what the meaning of anxiety is in Scripture. It won’t all fit in a single post, so this will spill over, but I’ll make a beginning.

First, let’s define what anxiety is in a Scriptural context: The Encyclopaedia of Christianity rightly notes that anxiety “is an emotion that functions on different levels. Any adequate definition must therefore take account of these levels, explaining and distinguishing them, and finally weaving them philosophically or theologically into an anthropological whole. (1) Looking at the use of the term “anxiety” in Scripture, the Eerdmans Bible Dictionary notes that “various degrees of anxiety, ranging from concern to fear and dread, are depicted in both the Old and New Testaments.” (2)

Anxiety is not just one “thing” in scripture, or more accurately, it does not manifest for one reason and in one way alone. There’s no “sola anxietus” (ok, I totally made that up). Eerdmans notes that in scripture anxiety may manifest for reasons of the natural parental concern towards a child, (1 Sam 9:5), reasons of personal distress (1 Sam 1:16), loving concern (2 Cor 11:28), natural disaster (Jer 17:8), and of course, the Psalms and Proverbs are replete with tales and warnings of an anxious life (Psalm 127:2, Proverbs 12:25). Finally, Jesus and the epistle writers have much to say on the subject, but we’ll get to that in subsequent posts.

This multitude of interpretations is represented in the secular psychiatric community as well. The bible of mental health professionals, the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM), lists at least 12 different anxiety disorder categories. From “Acute Stress Disorder” to “Agoraphobia” to the very large pool of “specific phobias” to “panic attacks”. While these categories may not match up well with the use of the term in Scripture, it does help us to understand that regardless of what angle you look at the problem, it is not just a single “thing”, but an expression that can have a variety of meanings.

Anxiety operates on a spectrum as most of us well know. There is a certain amount of anxiety that is normal, even I would argue, among Christians. At so-called normal levels it can be a trigger or a warning and it only really becomes a problem when it leads us to act stupid or to engage in unhealthy coping strategies. There is also a distinction to be made between individual and group anxiety. In Scripture we can see possible examples in the stories of Judas who betrayed our Lord and the masses of Jews standing before Pilate demanding the murder of Jesus.

Anxiety affects not just out psychology but our physiology; in other words, it affects our thoughts, the way we interpret the world around us, and that manifests through our actions or inactions. My natural tendency is to withdraw and hide from the world, but I know this is far from the best thing for me. It is in these instances where a small group of trusted friends are an invaluable resource, as is a loving spouse if are so lucky to have one.

The Greek word that is most often translated anxiety can also mean “worry, care or free from care” and the Hebrew word comes from a root meaning “care or anxiety”, so the emotion or experience that we call anxiety is not all bad. In fact, it may only be bad in certain doses or circumstances. On a quick glance it may be that anxiety at its root reflects that we care about something or someone and we fear being able to aid the person or situation. This is certainly true for me. Financial stress is a big deal for me because I have a wife and a baby on the way in December, so being able to provide for them is very important and hits me on a number of levels. I might also experience anxiety because I fear not living up to some self-imposed standard of how I should be.

Another dimension to anxiety is its use as a tool of spiritual abuse. That is, church leaders, bible teachers, etc, who will guilt you into thinking that your anxiety is inappropriate, foolish or even sinful because the Bible “clearly” teaches that we should not feel that way. Is this true? We’ll examine that question later on as well.

Anxiety is a multidimensional thing and we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that, even in Scripture, it always means the same thing. We’ll delve deeper into specific Scripture passages in the next post.

(1) Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, vol. 1, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 87 (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999-2003).
(2) Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 62 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).

Living with Anxiety: Part 1 Coming to an understanding of my anxiety

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The opposite of joy isn’t sorrow- it’s  hopelessness. The opposite of peace isn’t warfare -it’s anxiety.
– Tim Keller 

I’m anxious today. Yesterday was worse. It’s hard for me to focus and to get work done. I’ve dealt with anxiety for a very long time, in fact for as long as I remember. I had a hard time getting to sleep last night because I became so anxious about our financial situation. The summer months are tough because my hours go down and we have to dip into savings. I’ve been looking for full-time, better paying, work, but it’s been slow going. I’m currently waiting to hear back whether I’ll be invited back for interview #2 for a job. It’s not just financial issues, though that is the most potent at the moment. I also struggle with perfectionism and issues of self-esteem; I have for most of my life.

I’m not very good at calming myself down, no matter how many tools I might try. Writing sometimes helps, which is partly why I’m writing this now, but I end up typing really fast and jittery and my brain can’t produce fast enough for my body; I just shake. There are other things like counting backwards, counting the books on a shelf that can calm me down. Sometimes I pray, listen to worship or Taizé music or the sounds of running water. I try to meditate on a verse of scripture but I find this rarely helps since I’m far to jittery and the volume of my anxiety too high. I was hoping my swim earlier would have helped but it didn’t. There are other unhealthy ways that are out there too: over eating or spending, curling up into a fetal position on my bed and still other ways. While I generally manage to stay away from most of those, I know I could slip at any moment which brings about its own challenges. Like many I had a lot of anxiety in University, closely tied to deadlines and grade performance expectations (which I set on myself).

It’s a terrible feeling really and I don’t like it at all. I find it hard to focus, to breathe and to think. I don’t feel motivated to do anything but have learned to push through it at least somewhat, but I’m never as productive as I usually am. I have an appointment to get my haircut in 19 minutes. I don’t want to go, but I will because a) I need a haircut in case I get a call for interview #2 and b) I don’t like breaking commitments made to others.

Anxiety is not actually the problem per sey but a symptom of an underlying problem. I’m not alone of course, anxiety and related disorders seem to be on the increase. I’ve tried medication and it doesn’t do much for me and to be honest, I’m happy about this. I don’t have a problem with psychiatric medicine as a category, but I generally prefer not be on medication for anything if I can avoid it. I also don’t have a problem with seeking “professional help” such as through a counsellor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I’ve been seeing professionals for years to help me deal with a host of issues. You wouldn’t necessarily know it though

I went to visit with a friend which helped and the anxiety had subsided greatly, though it was still present. I woke up this morning and felt awesome, I’ve had a great sleep, but now the anxiety has returned. This sucks. Oh well, at least I have something to talk to my counsellor about today.

Scripture has a lot to say about anxiety, though I have trouble really making it part of who I am. The next little while will see a few posts examining this idea of anxiety and how it relates to the Christian life.