Category Archives: Religion

A Discussion of Romans

Today we’re going to talk about Romans a little bit. Specifically, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is, in my opinion, an extremely powerful and eloquent expression, one of the stronger pieces of writing in the Bible.

However, it’s often misunderstood and (surprise) used out of context. Quotations from Romans are often trotted out to compel or justify obedience to a secular ruler. That’s not what Romans says, at all.

The reality is, Romans is a discussion of the primacy and perfection of God’s plan and a reminder that salvation comes from God and God alone. It’s a plea to hold fast to your faith and yet to remember you are still a part of the world. It’s an outline of responsibility, not a free pass to ignore responsibilty in lieu of obedience.

I won’t write an entire commentary here, that’d be silly and presumptuous on my part. Be aware, though, that I currently have several commentaries open and have read a bit of Aquinas on this as well. I’m trying hard not to put my own words and beliefs into this. I’m deferring to theologians and philosophers that know a ton more about this than I do here, even though some of their words and interpretations chafe me a bit. I don’t throw them out just because I don’t like them though, I submit to the idea that they have a clearer understanding even if I don’t like what it says.

What I will do is discuss one of the most often (and in my mind misused) passages people like to quote in Romans. Specifically, let’s take a moment to talk about Romans 13:1-2 which states:

“Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. 2 Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.”

This is often trotted out as an argument by the right wing as an exhortation to submit and failing to submit is a transgression. Let’s talk a little bit about what was going on in Rome when Paul wrote this so we can understand where he was coming from though.

At the time, Roman protocol and law was requiring devotion to pagan idols. In addition, a whole lot of newly minted Christians were rebelling against law and order, declaring themselves outside of the law and only answerable to God. They felt they weren’t citizens of Rome but were instead only citizens of the kingdom of God. Paul uses Wisdom 6:1-3 as a foundation to discuss the primacy of authority here. Let’s look at that passage:

“1 Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse! 2 Give ear, you who have power over multitudes and lord it over throngs of peoples! 3 Because authority was given you by the Lord and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!”

I’m going to quote directly here from “A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture” because it says it much more succinctly than I could:

“Can v 2 be quoted to show that a Christian must acquiesce in such a state of affairs as described under nr 1 and regard such a government as established for ever? No, to wait for and co-operate with God’s opportunities by using all legitimate means to bring about improvements in such a government or even to replace it by a better, would seem to be every citizen’s right by natural law. At all events every one by natural law has the right to resist injustice even when this injustice is done in the name of a government. In either case, however, the means employed must be in accordance with the moral law; and here in many cases conscience will have to be the final arbiter for the individual; cf. Boylan, on 13:2; SH 372 (on passive obedience); Lehmkuhl, Theol. Moralis, I (1898) 472; Génicot, Theol. Moralis, I (1922) 287 f.”

Theissen, A. (1953). The Epistle to the Romans. In B. Orchard & E. F. Sutcliffe (Eds.), A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (p. 1075). Toronto; New York; Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson.

We as Christians should be resisting injustice and we should be working within the Christian moral framework to bring about positive change, to bring the injustice back in line. To do otherwise is to turn our backs on our faith.

This is even more clear when we look further into wisdom beyond those first 3 stanzas. In fact, let’s look at Wis 6:1-8:

“1 Hear, therefore, kings, and understand; learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse! 2 Give ear, you who have power over multitudes and lord it over throngs of peoples! 3 Because authority was given you by the Lord” and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!”

We read that part, but what about this part next?

“4 Because, though you were ministers of his kingdom, you did not judge rightly, and did not keep the law, nor walk according to the will of God, 5 Terribly and swiftly he shall come against you, because severe judgment awaits the exalted— 6 For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test. 7 For the Ruler of all shows no partiality, nor does he fear greatness, Because he himself made the great as well as the small, and provides for all alike; 8 but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends.”

What’s that? Hey, you rulers, you better do the right thing because if you don’t, I will come against you. Oh, yeah, we conveniently ignored that followup initially, didn’t we? Yeah, this makes it perfectly clear that rulers can be wrong, and that if they are they’d better be prepared for a whuppin’. Do you want to be reliant on the pardon of God or do you want to just make sure you’re not in a position where you need the pardon? I’ll go for the latter, myself.

Taking it a few steps simpler, let’s use reductio ad absurdum here and see how that reacts. For those who aren’t up on their latin, trust me you’ve seen it before although you may not know what it’s called. This is a common technique of attempting to prove something by taking it to ridiculous extremes. Generally, if it holds up at the extreme, it’s probably ok but often when you take it to said extreme you begin to see how ridiculous it really is.

Let’s say that yes, Romans says we should absolutely submit to every temporal authority and that every temporal authority is in fact appointed by God himself. Let’s say that it also states that we are compelled to obey and to do otherwise is a transgression against God. We will use that as the supposition we want to test.

Ok, well, that may be fine for your current favorite authority (let’s use Trump as an example). “Gary, Trump was appointed by God, it says so right there in Romans, so you must submit”.

Hmm, ok, if that’s true than it also means Obama was appointed by God. I sure don’t recall you submitting. In fact, I remember a lot of hatred. Oh, not ridiculous enough? Ok, that also means Putin was appointed by God. So was Pol Pot. Stalin too. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law early, your argument would also mean that Hitler was appointed by God and our resistance to his slaughtering of the Jews was against the commandments in Romans.

Yeah, it’s starting to go off the tracks pretty quickly, isn’t it? So, can we all agree that reductio ad absurdum here reveals that yes, this extreme is ridiculous and therefore we need to reexamine our initial premise?

In reality, it’s important to place the scriptures fully into the time they were written and to examine the things that were going on. Romans 13 is an admonition by Paul to remind his followers not to think too highly of themselves and to remember to place themselves into the world, not outside of it. At the time, it was a widespread belief that, as followers of Christ, they had gained total freedom from the world and were no longer a part of it. They were instead only responsible to God’s law and could openly defy temporal authority simply because of that. Paul was intent on correcting that misconception.

In point of fact, Paul’s letter is just as much an admonition to authority to act justly as it is for us to recognize just authority. Do not fall into the trap of saying “well, I was only following orders”. We don’t get to stop thinking and be absolved of responsibility for our actions just because we’re Christians.

Don’t Call Yourself a Christian

Probably not going to make a lot of friends with this statement, but if you don’t like what I’m about to say, either stop reading or feel free to prove me wrong with intelligent discourse. Stuff that does not contribute to a respectful discourse will be deleted with no apologies.

I’m going to go on official record and state outright that I absolutely 100% believe that modern day Trumpism/right wing MAGA style conservatism is fundamentally and diametrically opposite of what Christianity teaches. I do not believe that you can follow both, because the core tenants of MAGA-ism go directly against the core teachings of Jesus Christ.

Jesus taught radical unconditional love. Jesus was a refugee, a brown skinned refugee who fled his home country to avoid violence. He hung out with hookers, thieves, tax collectors and lepers. Jesus never once taught a message of hate. He commanded us to love. Period. The core fundamental teachings of Christ are to LOVE.

Matthew 22:36-40 CLEARLY states this, unequivocally and without reservation.

“36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

A very wise man who happens to be the father of my friend stated that the fundamental rules of life are to remember “You are your brother’s keeper” and that “everyone is your brother”. I think that pretty neatly encapsulates Matthew’s statement above as well.

So many “Christians” want to pick and choose parts of the bible. They love to quote Leviticus but conveniently overlook Matthew. Jesus brought a new covenant and a new law and where they are in conflict, the New supersedes the Old testament.

Jesus did not say “Love thy neighbor as long as he looks just like you”. He said LOVE THY NEIGHBOR. That means thy brown-skinned neighbor, thy gay neighbor, thy refugee neighbor, thy neighbor who plays his music too loud, thy neighbor who is disabled and can’t work, thy neighbor who got raped, got pregnant and had an abortion, thy poor neighbor who didn’t grow up with the opportunity for education that you got. There is no line. Everyone is your neighbor. Love thy neighbor.

ANYTHING that teaches a divergence from that is not from Christ. Anyone that spouts that is not from Christ. God isn’t “using Trump to fix America”, but it’s quite possible the father of lies is using Trump to deceive and divert the believers and destroy us. He loves lies, he loves destruction.

Christianity is love, not selfishness. It’s “you first” not “me first”. God doesn’t need to wrap his agenda in lies, hate and selfishness in order to succeed and anyone that espouses these things is not from God.

Christianity is easy to understand, but wicked hard to actually do. Loving everyone unconditionally is damned hard and none of us succeed at Christ’s level. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re not being held accountable though. Don’t call yourself a Christian if you aren’t willing to even try to follow the teachings.

Organized Religion

I recently had someone who I dearly love tell me they were no longer a Christian. They are in a phase of their life where they are questioning their beliefs, questioning the world and trying to convince themselves that whatever they believe is ok.

First, I got upset. Then I prayed. Then I cried (yes really). Then I prayed again. I asked him to help me find the words, to help me find his message and to be an instrument of his will. Then I left it in God’s hands and went to bed. It’s 5:30 am now and I woke up a few minutes ago, got down on my knees and thanked him for giving me the words and helping me to see what I needed to say. Now, all that is left is to say it.

There is a tendency today to preach the religion of secular humanism. People want to turn away from God or from Christ. They want to believe that people are inherently good and left to their own devices they will do good and grand things. They trot out all the evils that organized religion has done and use that as an example of why religion is bad. What they fail to do is to present a fair and balanced account. They fail to even attempt to balance the scales with all the good things religion has wrought in this world as well.

Yes, people have done horrible things while wearing the mantle of religion… Christianity is not the only religion that has suffered from this. However, religion has also clothed and fed billions of people. In the name of religion, people have trekked across the world to vaccinate, cure and feed billions of starving children. Religion has provided a safe harbor for refugees during wars or strife and it has also provided safe harbors during the casual violence of everyday life. Religion has driven people to the streets of Calcutta, the horrors of the Molokai leper colony, the backwaters of Africa and the urban sprawl of New York to combat disease, pestilence, famine and poverty. Religion has provided food banks at local neighborhood churches for when there’s no place else to turn. Religion has driven people to provide clean water for isolated villages, to build schools, to eradicate diseases. Religion has inspired men and women across the world to give of themselves in order to ease the suffering of lepers, of AIDS victims, people burnt and blown up in wars, people born crippled or blind. Religion has driven people to their knees to give thanks to their creator for the gifts he has given them so that they might share those gifts with those around them who have fallen off the edge of society and into homelessness, prostitution, poverty or a million other ways to be ignored by the mainstream society.

Religion has staffed suicide hotlines and given people hope where they had none. Religion has made strangers stop in the street and provide comfort to dying accident victims. Because of religion, people have quit drinking, quit smoking dope, quit beating their wives or children. People have reached out and reached up not because they have the strength themselves but because they have the weakness and humility to turn to something larger than themselves for help.

Let me be perfectly clear. I approach the topic of organized religion with trepidation. I went through a phase in my life where I questioned it too. I never questioned God, though. I never questioned Jesus Christ and I never believed he was simply a “man with a message”. I doubted the church but I never doubted God and I never doubted that Jesus Christ, the only son of God, born of the Virgin Mary and become man, died for me and my sins so that I might be forgiven. I never once doubted that Jesus loved me even when I couldn’t love myself. Yes, I pushed him aside and refused to embrace that love but I never doubted it was real, only that I deserved it.

The truth is I don’t deserve it. None of us do. That is the central beauty of it, that we can fail to deserve it yet it is still there for us, more rich and deep and all-encompassing than we can ever truly grasp or comprehend. We can’t ever deserve it, all we can do is be thankful for it, acknowledge it and accept it for what it is… an unconditional gift of love, the hardest thing in the world for us as humans to accept and understand.

Secular humanists like to believe in the power of intrinsic good. They like to believe that left to their own devices humanity will self-motivate to be good. Again, let me be perfectly clear here. There is nothing good in this world that isn’t a gift of God. The most beautiful works of art and architecture, poetry and music to praise him are a testament to the power of God inspiring man. The most beautiful “secular” creations can’t even hold a candle to them. The “intrinsic good” in man doesn’t inspire people to anywhere near the heights that religion has driven people to. The “intrinsic good” in man doesn’t exist, the “good” in man is there because of God, ONLY because of God. Yes, some good things have been done secularly but these are pale shadows of the things that God has driven man to do and are simply but a reflection of the enormity of the emptiness of man, striving for something we can never deserve, never understand but only accept and embrace.

When the secular humanists can hold up examples that can stand up to the faith and gifts of Mother Theresa or Saint Damien of Molokai they may begin to just scratch the barest surface of what organized religion has wrought for good in this world. When they can point to the billions of people they have fed, clothed, washed, healed, educated or simply comforted without any sense or desire of recompense they can have the tiniest amount of legitimacy in the discussion. When they find the humility to accept that there is something out there larger than themselves, they can begin to realize the beauty of being able to give two loaves when they themselves only have one.

Is organized religion perfect? No. Organized religion is an institution of man and it reflects how screwed up man can be. It is like anything else in this world, imperfect, stumbling and occasionally falling in the ditch. Many people like to think this would be a far better world without it. Religion is all those things. It is also, however, a reflection of the beauty and grace of God in that even when it stumbles and falls, it gets back up and continues to strive for good. Any discussion of the “evils” of organized religion is incomplete and unbalanced without the discussion of the grace of God and the things he has done and continues to do in this world through the imperfect offices of man. Thank God for organized religion because without it, this world would be even more messed up than it is.

— Gary D. Foster

Musings About Faith

My faith is an important thing to me. I don’t consider myself all “holy holy”, and I’m sure as heck not a bible thumper by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that having a spiritual outlet in my life is important. I generally suspect people who aren’t capable of believing in something bigger than themselves.

I’ve been feeling a bit out of touch with my faith for a little while now. I’m a practicing catholic and am used to being at church every sunday, as well as on holy days of obligation. One of the benefits to being a regular attendee is that you find yourself caught up in the rhythm of the church, you find yourself falling into the cycles and seasons of the church that are wrapped up around Lent, Advent, Ordinary Time, etc. and you just naturally go with the flow. The cycle of the church and of the “spiritual” seasons impose an order on the otherwise chaotic year and is, at least for me, something that is very welcome. I am, after all, very much a creature of habit and ritual.

Lately I’ve been out of cycle quite a bit. I’ve been moving, preparing for a wedding, finding a new church, etc and haven’t settled in to my new church yet. I don’t know anyone there, and I’m not involved in the daily or weekly life in the church. This is weird for me, since I used to know hundreds of the people in my old parish and I also volunteered and taught RCIA bible study classes for the catechumenate during the year. I’d march them out of the church after the Liturgy of the Word and we’d go off and discuss the day’s readings. I’d do what I could to gently instruct them and help them understand the faith they were moving towards and every Easter I’d go to the vigil and watch them be baptized. I always felt a small amount of personal pride and joy in watching them and welcoming them into the church and I miss that.

Once things have calmed down a bit I plan on doing what I can to fix this. I’ve made a serious commitment to myself to learn to pray the Rosary properly. I understand the basics but the whole joyful/sorrowful/luminous/glorious mysteries thing has me a bit bamboozled. I recently heard it explained in a way that made sense to me though, and I think with a little bit of applied diligence I can incorporate this into my faith life. I’ve also decided that I am not just a “sitter” when it comes to my parish, I want to get to know the other people in my parish and be involved in the rhythm of life either as a lector, by getting involved with the RCIA program, or some other program they offer. It’s important to me to be a do’er, not a sitter.

I’m not really sure where this all leads me, or where I will end up. I don’t picture myself taking holy orders anytime soon (heh), and I surely don’t intend on ever becoming super-churchy but I do believe that my own faith and my own spirituality is something that I need to pay attention to and nurture… every bit as carefully as I nurture my family, my relationships or myself. Life is, after all, a delicate balancing act and this, at least to me, is important for me to keep balanced.

— WF

On Meeting God

I hope you all will take this essay I wrote by way of an apology for not posting lately. This is a deeply personal essay I wrote for one of my classes, and I’ll share it with you here. Those of you who wrote me wanting to know where I was and if I was ok, thanks for the concern :) Actually, no, I haven’t really been “ok”, I’ve been stressed pretty heavily and busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest, but I’m hoping to get things back under control very soon. Please take a small part of me as my apology to you.

On Meeting God

I met God one day. He wasn’t much to look at, if truth be told. He’s short, about 5’4” or so with wild unkempt brown hair, a ragged bushy beard and a timid demeanor. It took a lot to get him to talk, kind of like coaxing a scared rabbit to take a bit of food from your hand. He was cold, wet and hungry. He needed comfort and compassion, and in the process he saved my life.

Life wasn’t treating me particularly well. The economy had crashed, leaving me to deal with the loss of my job of six years as well as my entire way of life. When my job disappeared, my newlywed wife left as well; it seems all my time at home cut into her affair with an ex-boyfriend. All my friends also lost their jobs and left the area. My family lived back in the Midwest, and I had virtually no emotional support. I could no longer afford the house I bought for myself and my new bride. I had very little idea where I could go or what I could do.

None of these events in isolation were particularly devastating but taken all at once they became a heavy load to deal with. I got a first hand look at real depression and the realization of just how black life can become. Dogged determination and stubbornness kept me going each day. Every morning I’d dutifully drag my sorry self out of bed, go through the motions of living each day and pray for some sort of reprieve. I had a part-time job at least, a few hours of the day to get a small taste of human contact. I worked as a barrista at a small coffee shop, serving coffee and a forced smile to all my regular customers.

The night before I met God was particularly black. A storm raged outside and the rain whipped against my windows. I remember standing in my home office, staring out the window, unable to see the orange trees right outside. My orange trees always comforted me; they symbolized my California dream. Not being able to see them made me wonder just how much of my dream I had lost. I felt bereft of everything, empty and wrung out. I felt my emotional anchors rip loose as I finally gave in to that roller coaster drop into deep depression, the pit that had been tugging at me for the past year. I finally gave in and gave up.

Have you ever wondered what death might taste like? I pondered that question as I found myself sitting on the floor of my office, my .38 in my hands. I didn’t really remember taking it down from the closet shelf, didn’t really think about it as I turned the shiny pistol over and over in my hands. Relief, respite, and defeat were my only thoughts. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I apologized to God. Sobs wracked my body as my dog snuggled in my lap trying to comfort me. I said goodbye to him that night, my tears wetting his fur as I hoped he’d be able to cope with losing his daddy. I would miss him terribly in whatever life I was headed for next.

I put the barrel to my lips, wondering if I’d taste the lead of the bullet as it smashed through my teeth. I wondered if I’d have time to feel the pain, and I worried about staining the carpet. I hated the thought of leaving a horrible mess for someone else to clean up. Funny that even at my blackest moment the mundane details weighed heaviest on my mind.

Huge consequences often hinge on small decisions. We can spend all the time in the world planning out a course of action, only to make a snap decision that changes our future. That night, as I sat there in my office kissing the barrel of a .38 pistol, I felt overwhelmed by exhaustion. I was just too tired to pull the trigger; too tired to meet my maker. I wanted to be rested when I plead my case to God. I carefully placed the pistol on my desk, scooped my dog up in my arms and went to bed. “Tomorrow,” I said to myself. “Tomorrow I’ll go home.” Besides, what was one more day? Nothing but a day to say goodbye in my heart to everyone.

Morning came early. My alarm clock screeched me awake at five a.m. and I stumbled through my morning routine. I thought to myself, This is my last day, after today I can rest. That mantra carried me through the morning as I went through the mundane tasks of opening the café; unlocking the safe, brewing the coffee, baking the bagels, and counting out the cash drawer. The chilly day and the storm no longer held power over me. My decision had been made and I drew comfort from the knowledge. I knew I’d meet God that day; I just didn’t expect him to come walking through the door.

I glanced up as I heard the bell on the door chime. My early morning regulars came through the door, streaming around a man who parted their path like a rock parts a stream. The man, obviously homeless and afraid, stood in their path as the water dripped from his old army jacket and pooled at his feet. I saw a look of quiet desperation in his face as our eyes met, and I instantly knew he felt like an intruder on civilized society. He turned and bolted out the door as I turned to make the morning lattes for my regulars. My heart leapt out of my chest and followed him as he fled. I felt connected to this man somehow; I felt as if our mutual despair connected us somehow, and I couldn’t bear to see him cold, alone, and afraid.

I’ve always been taught that charity should be an intensely private thing, never to be trumpeted or bragged about. I made no explanation to my customers as I left them standing at my counter; I was just concerned he would escape. I took a hot cup of coffee with me as I headed for the door and hoped I’d catch him before he disappeared. Somehow I managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of him as he turned into the alley beside the café and I caught him, pressed the steaming latte into his hands, and almost bodily dragged him back inside. Once inside, I took his coat from him, made him sit down and plied him with day-old cinnamon rolls. My admonitions finally overcame his protestations, and I could see the relief spread across his shoulders as he sat by the window, silently eating and watching the rain.

I’m not sure when Albert left the café, but I do remember talking to him in between customers. I found out his name, wheedled a little of his life story from him, and gave him the simple respect one human being deserves from another. I treated him as I would want to be treated, without pity and with a quiet dignity. I didn’t really notice he had left until Mr. Porter, one of my favorite regulars, came over to pat me on the shoulder. His look said it all; pride and respect shone from his eyes. I felt embarrassed, charity should be private, but I respected the opinion of the man and his approval struck me deeply.

The rest of my day passed uneventfully. I cleaned the things I’d dirtied, filled the containers I emptied, and said the things that needed to be said. End of shift rolled around, my replacement took over, and I quietly drove home. I stopped to pick an orange before I went inside. My regular routine took over: bills to pay, animals to feed, dishes to wash. Finally, bedtime rolled around and I crawled under my quilt, tired and ready for rest. My dog curled up in my arms, and my cat took up her usual spot, draped across my feet, purring gently.

Just as I started to slide over the edge into my dreams, a sudden thought hit me. I sat bolt upright in bed as the realization of a task left undone blazed across my mind. I could see the pistol waiting on my desk; I could hear it calling to me. Strangely, at that instant, I also saw a face in my mind; I saw the face of Albert as he said to me, “I was hungry and you fed me.” I saw God in his eyes, and I knew he loved me. I felt him reach out to me and fold me into his arms. Tears sprang to my eyes as a wave of relief washed over me. I knew my depression had ended but not in the way I expected. I laughed gently to myself as I drifted off to sleep, a quiet “Goodnight, God” on my lips. I had hit bottom and bounced. I was on my way back up.