This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Liberalism at Assemblies of God University? Further Elaborations on a Recent Interview

Earlier last week, I had the privelege of being interviewed for an article regarding my own experiences recently at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL.  The lady doing the interview was Chelsen Vicari, who works with the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC.   Chelsen is herself a very astute writer, and I personally highly recommend the book she recently published entitled Distortion, as she exposes a lot of the nonsense that has been going on in recent years in the name of "Evangelical Christian," and what she is reporting is actually something that needs to be said.   Chelsen was a great person to talk with, and she wants to expose the agenda of political/theological liberalism that is infecting many Evangelical denominations these days.  Therefore, upon finding out that I was an alumnus of Southeastern, she wanted to interview me.  The full interview can be seen at this link, http://juicyecumenism.com/2014/12/18/squishy-theology-assembly-gods-southeastern-university/, and you are welcome to read it for yourself.  I personally think Chelsen did an excellent job on the article, and she is to be commended.

However, as expected, a tsunami of attacks and opposition against what I said started to inundate my Facebook page when I posted the link, much of it from people I knew.  Momentarily, I will address some of those,  but first I want to give a little bit of the background of my story, as it will clear up any confusion.

A Brief Summary of My Testimony

As I mentioned (and Chelsen accurately noted) in the article, I was raised as a very conservative Holiness/Pentecostal Christian in Appalachia.   Although very conservative theologically though, nominalism existed even among old-time Appalachian Holiness faiths, and there are many people who identify with this tradition but are not as committed to its day-to-day practice - my mother was like that.  Although my mother had believed she discerned a ministry calling while she served in Okinawa during the Vietnam conflict, she never really followed through and eventually lapsed in her religious conviction.  And, by "lapse," I mean she essentially did what many old-timers would have called "backsliding" - she hasn't darkened the door of a church in years, and she also smokes heavily and drinks, despite the fact she is now 68 years old and her health is not as good as it once was.  However, although Mom is not by any means perfect, I owe her some credit in that she raised me to have a healthy respect for the authority of the Bible, and she knows what it says and at least does believe what it says, although she isn't a practicing churchgoer these days.  And, she also knows the difference between truth and error.  I say that because many people - even those who regularly go to church and some who even are pursuing theological training - cannot say they can discern the difference.  Of course, that is the whole point of the article we will get to shortly. Suffice to say, Mom raised me right, although she herself may have lapsed, and along with many godly influences in my life, it helped me to make an important decision when I was a mere lad of 16.

Although I grew up with strong convictions, as mentioned life sort of caused Mom to lapse in her own Christianity, and some bad choices and other circumstances also led to me being raised in what was abject poverty in my childhood.   I grew up in this small West Virginia town where almost everyone there was poor and on some sort of assistance, including our family.  Also in that small town, alcoholism, child abuse, and other ills were rampant, and compared even to some kids I grew up there with, I had it better in many cases - some of the neighborhood kids were treated like garbage by their families, and their parents would be quick to spend the last dollar in the house on booze while the kids went hungry.  Looking back on it, we kids in town had challenges to overcome, and being I still keep in touch with many of them today (thanks in part to social media), I am very proud of many of them and how they turned out, despite what many of us were subjected to.  In a sense, in my own particular case I have to look at it from the perspective of Romans 8:28 - "All things work together for good to those who love God, and are called according to His purpose."  I say that because I may not be the person I am today had I had it easier - God allowed that to make me grow and ultimately lead me to Him, and it worked!  I have shared my story before, but a summary bears repeating here because this is how God worked in my own life.

The town I lived in throughout much of my childhood and into my early teens was a rough place to grow up, and although I cannot say Mom was ever abusive to me - she really never was - it still was not easy, as Mom did drink a lot when I was a kid, and it wasn't always pleasant in other ways dealing with that.  Many a time we too went without food, and I was even forced on many occasions to go to extreme measures - raiding the neighbor's gardens at night, catching fish out of the creek, and on many days my meal was toast or a cooked potato.  By the time I was in my early teens, I was desperate for a change, and one night I made a promise to God that if he delivered us from that hellhole of a place, I would commit my life to him.  In the summer of 1985, God did deliver us out, and for several months some transitioning took place in my life that almost made me forget that promise.  That is, until we moved with my grandmother and step-grandfather to the town of Rowlesburg, WV that November.  Across the street from where we moved, my step-grandfather's sister and her husband lived, and at the time they were involved in a little Southern Baptist church that had started in town there a few years previous, and she invited me to go to church with them one night.  So, I did - and I liked going!  At around that same time, the local storeowner down the street, a Lebanese-American man and his wife Freda, were also alive and very elderly, but Freda also invited me to go to Mass with them at the local Catholic parish in town, St. Philomena's.  And, I went a couple of Sundays with her too.  However, the Baptists really reached out to me, and it finally got to the place that I began to ponder my own soul's condition, and it led me on a cold night in January to the altar at that little Baptist church, and at that altar a godly pastor led a shy, awkward 16-year-old kid to the Lord, and I was born again that night.  It is a journey now I have been on almost 29 years as I write this, with a lot of twists and turns yet I still remained faithful.

I took my newfound Christianity seriously too, and it wasn't long before I started thinking about a call to the ministry.  Upon graduation from high school in 1989, I was accepted into a small Baptist college in Graceville, FL, but during that summer something else happened.  Again, I told this story before, but it bears some repeating,  The high-test Holiness/Pentecostal faith that my mother nominally identified with when I was a kid was something that at times could be scary, especially for a little kid.  And, although Mom nominally held onto the ideas, sometimes in her lapsed state things got a little mixed-up and she would "preach" at me things that literally scared me out of my wits!  Fortunately, the Baptist pastor who led me to Christ and soon after baptized me, Rev. Olen Phillips, helped me, but in the process I also became appalled with some of the stuff Mom had put into my head, and was blaming the Pentecostal movement as a whole.  It was not the Pentecostals' fault - Mom just gave me some wild misinterpretations of what they said - and as I began to grow in my faith I came to realize that and also became open to the Pentecostal experience.  That eventually led to my own reception of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and I spoke in tongues for the first time, at a little Pentecostal Holiness church in Brunswick, GA, on June 21,1989.  Eventually, after a couple of years at the Baptist college, I joined the Foursquare denomination and later finshed my undergraduate education at Southeastern University in the spring of 1996.

It is here now the story picks up and we get into the issues dealing with the article.

Southeastern University - the Before and After

I transferred into Southeastern back in the fall of 1992, and when I did so that year, one thing that impressed me with that campus was the degree of spiritual vibrancy that I found there.  It was not unusual then, for instance, for professors to feel the leading of the spirit, stop class, and pray for the needs of students.  Also, campus revivals were something more frequent then, as many students' lives were touched by the Holy Spirit, and God really worked on that campus.  Also back then, the teaching was sound - you pretty much knew that you were generally getting a well-grounded theological foundation when you walked into a Bible or Theology class on that campus, and often when you walked away from one of those classes you took more with you than just a letter-grade on a paper or test.  That was the Southeastern I knew in the early 1990's.

Somehow though, some strange things had transpired over the past several years, as the leadership changed and the rise of many new theological fads - notably the "Emergent Church" movement, which was at one time merely heterodox but today is outrightly heretical - began to infect many Evangelical Protestant denominations, churches and institutions (I left the Foursquare denomination, by the way, in 1994, and have in the years following become part of the Anglo-Catholic traditionalist movement).  Southeastern unfortunately was not immune from this.  I went through a period of about 14 years after getting my BA in 1996 where I more or less just worked and provided an income for my family at secular employment, and although I wanted to pursue my graduate education, I really had no way of doing that where we lived at the time.  So, in 2011, we decided to move back to Lakeland, and I thought maybe I could finally have the opportunity to pursue that Masters degree I wanted to get.  So, I enrolled, was accepted, and beginning in the fall of 2012 I started my graduate work at what had become Southeastern University.  I had expected some degree of change to have occurred in the years since I had gotten my BA, but not like what I found.  After being exposed to some coursework at SEU in the Fall 2012 term, it was to me as if I had landed on a different planet, and as I progressed in coursework into 2013, it got more bizarre - much of the specifics of that are covered in Chelsen's article, but if time permitted I could report other things too.  Whereas in the past spontaneous prayer for students' needs would be a common thing, it now got to the point where my wife Barbara had to literally pray over me before I went to class down there, given what I was hearing and up against.  During my time there, I largely just kept my mouth shut, observed, and took note of many things - for instance, hearing professors in classes going off on their pet agendas which had nothing to do with the courses they were teaching, a high level of theological and Biblical ignorance when it came to essential doctrines and rudimentary material (one professor, for instance, actually said in class that Jesus was celebrating a Passover Seder when he fed the 5,000 - I know Jewish religious customs, and as I recall there are no fish on the Seder!  Oddly, the professor was supposed to have a Ph.D. and should have known better, as the particular class he was teaching was New Testament Theology).  In time, it just got to be too much - my spirit and emotions just couldn't handle it anymore - and upon some consultation with the bishop of my church communion I transferred out of SEU and instead resumed my education at Franciscan University of Steubenville.  I am happy to report that studies at Franciscan have been refreshing - they have had their challenges, but they have been excellent overall, and I feel I have made the right choice.  That tells you a little of my perspective and where I am coming from.

It is now time to expose some of the attacks I have gotten against my stand on this due to the exposure it got from the article, and as I do so, I hope it clears up a lot for the readership.

Answering The Flak

As mentioned, when Chelsen published this article last week, I got a lot of feedback - some of it has been good, some not so good, and some just ridiculous.  I want to take some of those statements and respond to them here.  I am withholding names of the people, and am instead focusing on a few things that caught my attention.

1. "Just because you don't agree with it does not mean it should not be taught."   This was a comment by a classmate I had graduated with back in 1996, who himself had some liberal views of his own at that time.  There are some problems with a couple of phrases from this argument.  First, it is not about whether or not I disagree with something, although much of what I was addressing I do disagree with - rather, it is about being faithful to what the Church and Bible have historically taught, and much of what is being taught there now doesn't do that.  Also, about whether or not it should be taught; again, not the real issue.  It is important to know theological trends, and there is a difference between teaching about differing viewpoints and openly advocating for one while ridiculing others.  My issue here is what is going on - there is a sort of groupthink going on there at that campus, and if you sit in classes you are exposed to only one view, not many, and everybody at least acts like they all agree - that is the problem.  When a real issue arises or a dissenting voice is heard, it is often ridiculed.  If it were merely about teaching the fact that other views are out there, while at the same time stating the view of the particular school and denomination (rather than the professor's opinion) and why there is disagreement, I would not be even raising the issue to begin with. 

2. "Your conservative viewpoint is just as valid as a liberal one"  This is one that is commonly bandied about to avoid real debate and discussion, and essentially what this is really saying is "Oh, can't we all just get along, tiptoe through the tulips, and not be judgmental about everything?"  Fact is, every denomination - including the Assemblies of God, which is Southeastern's affilliating denomination - has doctrinal standards, and the duty of the teachers in such institutions is to uphold and instruct others in the doctrines their denomination holds.  Every professor at SEU - or at least they used to anyway - used to have to sign a statement pledging to do just that.  Problem is, in recent years I have heard some things that are contrary to the doctrinal statement of the Assemblies of God (called the "Statement of Fundamental Truths" I believe) and it essentially would be dishonest for a professor to put his signature on something saying he believes and upholds it while at the same time teaching something totally in opposition.  And, if I may be so bold, I have come to a shocking conclusion - many current Religion faculty at SEU these days are lying to get a paycheck when they sign those statements, and that is wrong.   


3. "We follow what we believe."  This statement follows a couple of sentences of prior discourse by its author leading up to it that essentially says "I can disagree with you, but we're all right, and nobody knows for sure."   In essence, the argument had to do with an interpretation of a Scripture passage in 2 Timothy 3 that talks about the "falling away" in the latter days of many calling themselves "Christian," and the author of the quote used the reasoning that liberals view conservatives as the "fallen ones" too and that both views are valid.  The guy who wrote this - and I went to school with him too - is obviously confused; what he is embracing is a radically pietist/mystical individualism that has led to many a cult leader wreaking havoc on the religious world and society as a whole in past decades.  Jim Jones, for instance, followed what he believed too, and we all know how that ended!  Daniel Applewhite, and his Heaven's Gate cult from a few years back, also followed what they believed - where are they today?   My Archbishop, Mark Haverland, addresses this very thing in his book, Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice (Athens, GA; Anglican Parishes Association, 2011) on page 63 when he says, "However, the seeds of failure are present even in those forms of Protestantism that are doing well in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  For instance, the Southern Baptist (Convention - my add), the largest Protestant denomination in the United States in this period, is theologically committed to the individualistic ideas of personal inspiration in the reading of Scripture and the autonomy of the local congregation.  Over time, in the context of a secular culture that is hostile to religious truth and traditional theological perspectives, such an individual and local focus will produce the same secularization found in other Protestant bodies.  Likewise, the emphasis on the authority of personal religious experience found among the charismatics lends a sujective and individualist cast to their movement that will, in the long run, lead down the familiar Protestant path."    This has happened even to some vibrant spiritual movements in the past - remember Conrad Biessel and the Ephrata Cloister?  Biessel started out as a Sabbatarian Dunkard, but then became influenced by pietist mystic Jakob Boehm and later lapsed into esotericism due to his individualist pietism - the Rosicrucians and Mormons came out of a similar mindset too.  Also, as to secularism, let's look at how late Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann defines it - "the absence of man as a worshipping being."  The more the religious communities try to emulate the secular world, the more they lose their spiritual vibrancy and focus, in other words, as they begin to adopt the tactics of secular society.  So, to answer my friend's quote, no, we don't merely "follow what we believe," but rather we follow what the Church teaches historically.  We are allowed some leeway though in secondaries, but when it comes to the essentials, it has been already given to us.  As we grow in our faith, we will understand what we believe if we struggle, provided we humble ourselves and open up to the Church's instruction. 


4. "A good theological education requires that all sides are fairly given voice...even if we don't agree with their conclusions."   The individual who said this was originally an academic advisor at SEU before moving onto a program to complete his doctoral studies.  He misses this big-time though, as the true purpose of a good theological education is to prepare those who are partaking of it to more effectively communicate the doctrines and tenets of their faith as leaders in churches and other institutions.  And, although to be fair it should never ignore that "other sides" are out there, at the same time the purpose in educating about those "other sides" is to prepare the student to answer their differences and errors with the historic positions of their religious communion.  A second thought about this statement that is the sad reality at SEU too though is this, and it centers on the second part of the statement - "even if we don't agree with their conclusions."  The reality is that many students are not given the opportunity to disagree with anything being taught, as instead the "conclusions" are often presented as facts, and as I had seen many times at SEU, they are even "pentecostalized" - one student, although very intelligent and articulate, nonetheless ignorantly tried to say Jurgen Moltmann's "Theology of Hope" (or some called it "realized eschatology") was "Pentecostal."  Also, if all sides are given fair voice, I have to ask this gentleman something - how is it that on two separate occasions and by two separate professors I heard people like D. James Kennedy and Francis Schaeffer ridiculed, and Church of God evangelist Perry Stone called "dangerous," while the latter professor also extolled a known postmodernist philosopher by the name of Merrold Westphal, a man who believes Nietzsche is a "prophetic voice of Christendom?"  I would not say that is giving fair voice, would you??  The word for this is "double standard" -  the said professors say this essentially - "let's blast the more traditional viewpoint and extoll our more "enlightened" approach, shall we? "


5.  " I think your issue is more with Protestantism as a whole. If I just believe what the church teaches me, where is my discernment? Dont I get to decide what I believe. If Luther would have just kept his mouth shut rather than challenge what was being taught, we might all be Catholic today."   This argument was so absurd that it almost begged for a response, and so it is going to get it.  After going off on how "I'm OK, you're OK" we all are, despite our differences, in his earlier posts, this guy let his true colors be revealed by turning it into a Protestant/Catholic issue.   There are many, many things this fellow failed to realize, so we are going to rock his world now!


First, it is the whole Protestant issue, because this individual knows little about me or my positions.   For one, I think Protestants are fellow Christians, and I myself have a very rich Protestant past with many good things.  Second, I have studied a lot of Protestant denominations, and I know their strengths as well as their weaknesses - I have just published my own book, for heaven's sake, about small denominations and fellowships, and it is actually putting them in a very positive light!   The point of my position was not to make a Protestant/Catholic issue out of anything, as believe me, Catholics have their own issues with liberalism in some quarters which defy historic Church teaching.  Therefore, there is no anti-Protestant bias on my part at all - the point I was actually making about SEU is that it has moved away from its own roots, and in the process a lot of its own rich heritage has been lost in favor of a more flaky secularized agenda.  


Another issue is this statement "Don't I get to decide what I believe?"  If you are a committed Christian - Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise - the answer to that is an affirmative NO!!!  There are a set body of essential doctrines that transcend Catholic, Protestant, or other divisions which are commonly held and accepted by all Christians and are non-negotiable - the deity of Christ, the Trinity, salvation by Christ alone, etc. - and once you have accepted salvation in Christ, you have already decided to believe those things.  As Catholic Christians, this is also called historic Church teaching, and is upheld and authenticated by the Church and proclaimed by Scripture.  As an Evangelical, you would believe in Sola Scriptura, and if your denomination is historically Evangelical, many of your doctrines are going to come out of the plain reading of Scripture itself (although in many cases that more fundamentalist people want to admit, many doctrines common to all Christians owe their existence to the Holy Tradition of the Church, and they are concurrent with Scripture as understood by the Church - I personally don't adhere to Sola Scriptura as a Catholic Christian myself, but understand what it is saying.).  So, to answer that question, your decision has already been made when you either converted later in life, or chose to believe that which your parents taught - and, as part of the Church now, you are not in a position to change it.  


As for the Luther reference, Luther would be nailing a new "95 Theses" on the door of Bush Chapel on SEU's campus if he knew some of the crap being taught in the name of "Christianity" today.  Luther had his issues - and believe me, that could merit a whole discussion in itself! - but although the fruit of his efforts has not always been good, he was doing something legitimate.  Luther was addressing abuses that were being perpetrated in the name of the Church, and actually never opposed fundamental Church teaching.  Therefore, this argument on the part of my detractor is unwarranted to this situation. 


6. "
Using one disgruntled person's perspective to cast aspersions on a University is irresponsible."  This is one person's attack on Chelsen's credibility as an author, and it was unfair to her and unbalanced.  Also - and I see this a lot! - this characterization  of me as merely a "disgruntled person" is so ridiculous that it is almost laughable.  To begin, I am not merely "disgruntled" - I have had other professors in my undergrad years I disagreed with as well but at the same time they were respectful and legitimate disagreements that both they and I appreciated, and it has nothing to do with disgruntlement.  I have raised some serious issues with this interview, and Chelsen also saw them as serious enough to warrant attention to write it.   It is not merely my personal kick to do this either - I would rather not personally, as I don't have time for answering attacks and I definitely don't have a personal desire to masochistically put myself out there just because I am "disgruntled."  This clueless person who wrote this statement doesn't know the  full story, and perhaps should go to the source (like they challenged me to do, I might add!) before making such baseless accusations.

I have dealt with six "gems" that I have gotten back, but there is much more - both comments on my FB posting of the article (which I had to end commenting on) and posts on Chelsen's article page have said some ridiculous things - I have been attacked as being "baseless" in my accusations (despite sitting in class and hearing a lot of this stuff), my faith has been attacked (some wag actually attacked the fact I was Anglican, even though the doofus failed to realize that I am not, nor have I ever been part of, the Episcopal Church - the Anglican Catholic Church, the communion I am part of, is a separate and much more Catholic and conservative jurisdiction),  and some students and faculty of SEU have tried to gloss-over the issue with a weak apologetic.  Alan Ehler, who is the Dean of the College of Religion at SEU (where a lot of these issues are happening) even felt compelled to respond and said something like this - "Southeastern University is affiliated with the Assemblies of God (AG) and upholds the AG's Statement of Fundamental Truths. (The statement can be found at http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Stat... These include belief in the Trinity, including the deity of Jesus Christ, the final authority of scripture in all matters of faith and practice, and salvation as only coming through faith in Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection. All religion, Bible, theology, and ministry faculty are required to uphold these core doctrines in their courses"   On paper, that may be the case, but perhaps Dr. Ehler needs to shadow some of his faculty and find out what they are really teaching - I know the Statement of Fundamental Truths well, and although I have never been affilliated with the Assemblies of God personally, when I did my undergraduate studies at Southeastern years ago, they required us then to take a class in them to know them (as I was Foursquare in those years, I upheld them because essentially they were the same as my denomination anyway).  I have an issue with Dr. Ehler's statement in that he is resting on the assumption that all his Religion faculty at SEU are enthusiastically upholding what the Statement of Fundamental Truths said, and if that were really the case, this whole discussion would not even be necessary.  Fact is, the professors are affirming one thing when they sign a piece of paper to get their tenure, but teach something radically different in their classes.  Hence, the issue - I personally would not subscribe now to the A/G Statement of Fundamental Truths personally (as an Anglo-Catholic, we're simply a little different in that regard) but they do have a lot of good doctrine in them and if I were an SEU professor with Assemblies of God ministry credentials, I would take it as a personal responsibility to make sure I was committed to upholding what I affirmed with a signature.  To do otherwise is to lie, and last I heard, lying is still a sin.   So, to Dr. Ehler, I respectfully say, "wake up!"

Much more could be said, but frankly, I have other things to do.   However, I close by saying this - Southeastern and other colleges like it (it is not alone) have some serious issues to address, and they had better do so seriously because they are grooming the next generation of leaders in their denominational traditions.   I don't hate Southeastern at all - it is part of my history, and when I did go there as an undergrad I got a fantastic education.  But, I am concerned about the direction it has taken in recent years, and I only pray real, genuine revival - much like the revivals that mark that school's past - would come to that campus.  I also see SEU and other colleges like it now as a new mission field - students are lost, many of them don't really have a Christian experience of any kind, and this presents an opportunity for more traditional, conservative communions like mine; what a witness we could have on a campus like that!  A conservative Anglican priest in another jurisdiction, Fr. David Valentini, is even proposing a traditional Anglican campus outreach, and this is not such a bad thing to consider.   It is ironic though that many Evangelical college campuses these days are in need of evangelization themselves - Lord help us who name the name of Christ but don't bother to properly disciple the new generation!  I only pray that in the future, and before it is too late, SEU will see that it has some things to work on, and maybe a renewal can happen on that campus.  Therefore, we cannot hate SEU, but rather should pray for it; especially those of us who have that institution as part of our own history.  



Monday, November 10, 2014

"Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit..."

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
(Matthew 5:3)

I am choosing this verse for a teaching because there is a lot to say about what is going on with it this week.  With the economy and an increase in people losing their jobs, homes, etc., it is imperative that we understand what this verse means.   There are many out there - including a lot of these "New Evangelical Emergents" - who are getting on this "social gospel" bandwagon, and there is a lot of talk in college classrooms and some churches about the plight of the poor.  However, are they really understanding what Scripture says?  That is what we want to examine here.

I want to begin this teaching with a story.  Last week, in Fort Lauderdale, a 90-year-old man and a honored war veteran by the name of Arnold Abbott was given a lot of flak by the mayor of the city, a career politician by the name of Jack Seiler,   Given that Fort Lauderdale has a long and very notorious history for being an epicenter of cocaine trafficking, the porn industry, and other illicit (and downright dangerous!) activities, I found it personally interesting that Seiler decided to pick on a 90-year-old man - so, what was his offense?  Abbott was giving a plate of food to a homeless person!  I became so incensed about this incident that I wrote Seiler myself and chewed him out, and what I got back from him in return (which, I will give the man credit - he is one of the few politicians that actually responds!) was a bunch of self-loving accolades about how he supports aiding the homeless, etc., and that he only wants to regulate where their fed.  What Seiler failed to mention though is what the cost of such regulation is to many charities, and can a 90-year-old on a pension afford all the permits and other nonsense involved just to feed someone a bowl of soup??  I would guess not, and let me just say this - if someone feels a calling to feed homeless people, they should be able to act on that calling without some idiot politician fining them, charging them for permits, and then even putting them under arrest for a bowl of soup.  So, it is safe to say that Seiler's logic just didn't make the grade, and if I were a professor and he was taking my class, I would flunk his butt so quick he would not know what happened.  Abbott is a good man, with a good heart, and if he wants to serve chicken soup to transients, for heaven's sake let him!  I mean, there are worse things going on in the world than a vagrant getting a blessing of a hot meal from a 90-something year old man.  Seiler would be more wise to invest the resources wasted (at Fort Lauderdale taxpayer's expense, let's add that!) in fighting the rampant crime that blights his city.  For one thing, Seiler should be attacking the porn industry, or maybe fighting some of those cocaine and human trafficking rings.  Anyway, enough said, as this now leads into my next section of this discussion.

90-year-old Arnold Abbott, the "most wanted man" in Fort Lauderdale for the heinous crime of giving a bowl of soup to a homeless person.


Let's see, we need to get back to the verse at hand.  Matthew 5:3 is part of a well-known passage of Scripture we are familiar with as the Beatitudes, and they were the central premise of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  The first part of these are things that are "blessed," and interesting enough, the "poor in spirit" are one of the first mentioned.  However, who are the "poor in spirit?"  Upon looking into it further, as well as having the able instruction of my Theology professors at Franciscan University, I came to realize that there is a huge hermeneutical error in the application of this verse as many traditionally understood it.  Many people - including a lot of advocacy groups for the poor, etc. - focus it seems solely on the word "poor" without including the "in spirit" component of the equation, and that is where some clarification is needed.  Cardinal Jean Danielou, in his classic 1965 text Prayer as a Political Problem (New York:  Sheed and Ward, 1965) notes that the word "poor" has several meanings, and material poverty is only one (p. 10).  The more important poverty to address, Danielou notes, is the poverty in spirit, and what that means is this - a poverty of spiritual renewal and growth, or as Danielou can be quoted, "Socialization and rationalization leave little room for a personal life.  Society is so disordered that large numbers have to live in a poverty which makes a personal life impossible. The result of the secularization of society is that God is no longer present in family, professional, or civic life.  A world has come into being in which everything serves to turn men away from their spiritual calling." (pp. 16-17)  What this means is quite simple - the one who is cut off from God, either intentionally or unintentionally, is truly the "poor in spirit."  The "poor in spirit" are to be reached out to, because they lack something integral to the human soul that only God can provide.  The "poor in spirit" can be a wealthy man - a recent example of this is the late actor Robin Williams, who recently committed suicide - or it can be a person who is also materially lacking.  However, they are still outcasts - to use author Flannery O'Connor's term, "freaks." - and are most in need of Christ's love.  With the Christmas season coming upon us soon as of this writing, I would urge you to read Charles Dickens' classic tale A Christmas Carol in that light - Dickens understood who the true poor character in his story was, and it was Ebenezer Scrooge, a freak and an outcast despite his great wealth.  This doesn't mean, of course, that the Church should discourage feeding the financially poor and homeless (as Arnold Abbott faithfully does), because that is vital too.  However, let us use the right Scripture to support it, and Matthew 5:3 doesn't.    However, maybe our approach to that can be different too.  Let me briefly address that.

I have taken some interest in recent months in this new phenomenon called the "Tiny House," and to be honest, there is something attractive and practical about those small homes.  What really was fascinating though is that God moved on the hearts of some people in various cities to provide those for homeless people, and I have to admit, it is a fantastic idea.   In cities such as Austin, TX, and Greensboro, NC, charitable organizations are banning together to innovate this idea, and by all indications it is working and starting to be considered in other areas of the country.  The first one of these I heard about was in Austin, TX, where an organization by the name of Community First Village is implementing these tiny homes in a designated area.  The property this Community First Village sits on is about 27 acres, and with the assistance of another organization, a Christian ministry called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, they have an 87% success rate over a 9-year period, and it also includes services to help residents get back on their feet with employment assistance, as well as teaching them how to farm, grow food, etc.  Please take a look at their webpage at http://mlf.org/pave-the-way-home/.  

Community First Village in Austin, TX.

It must be understood that although efforts like Arnold Abbott's are good, and he has my 100% support, at the same time there is more to dealing with the problem of the homeless than just soup kitchens and flophouses too.  Many homeless don't want to be homeless, and given to proper leg-up, they can rise above their situation and be restored to some level of dignity that they as human persons deserve.  The problem with a lot of so called "advocates for the poor," however, is that they seem to revel in the fact that homelessness exists, and while they bewail it a lot, they do little about it other than a lot of talking, a lot of supporting soup kitchens and flophouses, and also some pathetic attempts to "understand" the homeless by doing a weekend hangout by sleeping in a cardboard box or some other stupid activity.   The homeless don't need you setting up housekeeping in a cardboard box next to them, but rather need someone to offer them a way out, a hand-up.  How do I know this?  I grew up poor, and I know what poverty is - although the food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and other things are nice and meet a need, what the poor really want is to not be poor anymore!  And, provided the right opportunities are made available to them, this can happen.  However, many so-called "poverty advocates" are in reality influenced by socialism, and socialism doesn't want to improve anyone's life, but rather wants to suppress everyone else.  If socialists had their way, there would be no higher education, no success in business, and no individuality - an economy run on socialism wants to run its subjects' lives, and has no interest in their dignity as human beings.  And, that is why so many "programs" fail miserably - the poor are still as hopeless as ever, and they are being told that the answer is to bring everyone down to their level.  However, as the ultimate hypocrisy, I don't see many of these advocates for this socialist "utopia" suffering - many of them have six-figure incomes, kiss butt with government officials, and live in lavish homes.  Same is true of many Theology faculty these days, in particular those in some Evangelical schools who are influenced by this whole postmodern "Emerging Church" junk - that is a reason why you see some professors at these institutions (which are supposed to be theologically conservative) hanging out with the likes of notorious socialists such as Cornel West, or spouting rhetoric about proposing a new type of "Christian Marxism" and other such stuff.  Yet, they are doing oh so little to actually help the poor they soapbox so much about, and I have seen homeless people scoff at them because they know better too.  As a matter of fact, such people create more poverty, because if they really would put their money where their mouth is, they would come down on the tuition costs for the students they are instructing, as many of their students are at times stressed over where their next meal is coming from because the exhorbitant tuition being charged has left them without a means to eat.  It is a scandal that I have addressed before, but there it is again for your edification.  

So, to wrap all this up, here it is.  The "poor in spirit" may not be synonymous with the materially poor, but could mean the alienated in society; some are self-alienated, others are ostracized because they don't fit the ideal of the groups they have to deal with everyday.  Reaching out to some of these "poor in spirit" may even save lives, because there are some of these designated "freaks" of society that may be contemplating ending their lives because they are lonely, rejected, and are labeled "freaks."  That is one reason Jesus blesses such people, because He has a heart for them.  If some professors at certain institutions would have that sort of compassion for some of the students they deal with, I believe it would give them more credibility.  

Flannery O'Connor said that at some point, before Christ extended His grace to us, we were all "freaks," and she is right - all of us have been condemned by original sin at some juncture in our lives, and had no hope, but then Someone provided a way, and that One is Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ died for the sins of the whole world, because He, and He alone, is the Agnus Dei, que tollis peccata mundi.  As the Agnus Dei, He was slain for each of our sins, regardless of what they are.  If anyone reading this feels like you are alienated, there is good news - Jesus Christ wants to embrace you and endow His promises to you, and He had you in mind those many years ago when He underwent a hideous torture and death on the Cross - His love for you knows no limits, and to Him you are not a mere "freak" but rather an image of God - when God created you, he did so with a unique purpose in the image He saw of you.  Therefore, you are known and special to Him.  That is why today, you need to make a decision - Christ accepts you, and wants to take you as His own, but a gift must be received in order to be effective as a gift,  And, that is what it is - a gift, and the most precious gift of all; eternal life in Him.  God gave you the free will to accept it, and it is always there for you - you just have to step up and take it.  Christ died for the whole world, that we all might have eternal life (John 3;16), and that includes you.  Also, you don't have to be on a certain level to be worthy of it - you can't be anyway, because Romans 3;23 says that all of us (and that includes you, me, and every other person on this earth) have sinned and fallen short, and as a result none of us are righteous in ourselves (Romans 3:10).  As a result of that sin, we all deserve death (Romans 6:23), but now here is the good news!  First, if any man sin (and we all do, believe me!) Jesus serves as our Advocate before the Father, and is the propitiation for that sin (I John 2;1-20.  Second, if any travail (and for that person who is contemplating suicide over hopelessness, this is you!) Jesus says, "Come unto me, all you who travail and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).  You can do that right now, and then you need to be assured that there is a group of people out there, the Remnant Church, who have been there, and they will be there for you.  However, also understand that the unpredicability and fragility of our own lives on this earth makes this urgent too, and if you are in such a state as to where you are contemplating something extreme, please stop and really think and consider what has been said to you today - Jesus wants so much better than that inner bondage you are feeling, and He loves you enough that He gave His own life for you, and therefore all He asks is that you seek Him with an open heart and a contrite spirit, and He will hear you.  That is the essence of the Gospel in a nutshell - Jesus Christ is the ultimate mercy, God Himself offered to save us from that which seeks to destroy us.  And, with that being said, my prayer for anyone now is that the Lord Himself will use these words to touch these people today, and if you are not one but know someone like this, please reach out to them - you may be that blessing to a particular "poor one in spirit" that Christ intended.  God bless until next time,


Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Judge Not..." What It Really Means

I was not actually planning on doing another article for 2014, but a recent incident forced me to take a look at an issue we hear a lot about these days.  It has become a sort of new "11th Commandment" in this increasingly secularized and post-modern culture to say that we are "not supposed to judge anybody," and often it is based on a Scripture in Matthew 7:1 - "Judge not lest you be judged."  No one, of course, wants to be "judged," but there are a couple of problems with that desire, so let's examine those first.

Judging has become a cardinal sin in this day and age, and to be labeled "judgmental" means that somehow you are some sort of prude, a snob, and (gasp!) a religious Pharisee or something.   However, here's the thing - whether we liked it or not, we all have already been judged twice if we are Christians.   We were judged guilty of original sin when Adam and Eve first sinned in the garden, and we inherited that curse of original sin when we entered this world.  Therefore, we need to give a little refresher course on that.

Romans 3:23 states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and what that means in many cases is multiple times!   Why is that?  Because in ourselves, we have no righteousness - it is not something that is endowed upon us at birth (Romans 3:10).  And, thanks to our ancestor Adam, our judgement has already been sealed if we don't know the way of redemption, and that penalty is death (Romans 6:23).  This is where the Cross comes in - Jesus' shed blood on the cross is what provides a reversal of that judgement, because through His shed blood for us we are made righteous in the eyes of God.  However, it doesn't just mean we are covered-over with some kind of blanket.  Dr. Regis Martin, my professor at Franciscan University, once explained it this way in a Theology of the Church class - imagine that each of us is a dunghill, and as a dunghill the stench of sin is upon us strongly.  However, Jesus enters into that dunghill, breaking down and destroying the stench of sin, and in time we are transformed - from where the dunghill once sat, a rosebush arises.   Many of our Evangelical friends unfortunately miss this in that they think that our reception of Jesus is like a snowfall over the dunghill - all it does for them is that it covers the stink, but the sin is still there.  You must remember something - at the fount of baptism, all of our original sin is washed away and we become a new creation in Christ who transforms us.  We are not merely a stinky dunghill covered with snow, but we have become the rosebush.  Sure, on occasion even roses are prone to bugs and blight (this is the sin and imperfection of our own human nature) but repentance prunes off those bad leaves and heals us from that sin, provided we are aware enough to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit to repent in the first place.  Which now brings us back to the original discussion.

Many post-modern Evangelical Christians have this mentality of the covered dunghill - they feel as if they are covered but often think they remain a dunghill that has just been "destunk."   Therefore, if all we are is just covered dunghills, each of us must stink as much as the other, right?  So, we have no right to "judge" each other when some of that snow of redemption melts and the stink wafts back out, right?   Instead, the stink, according to these people, is sanctified and it is now OK to be a "stinky saint" mirroring the world because somehow we don't "judge" others that way then.  The logic behind this is flawed however, and here is why - often, those who are on this "do not judge" bandwagon often are possibly engaging in something that they should not be engaging in, and to judge someone else is to expose them for a similar thing.  However, as I shall explain momentarily, that type of thinking has gaps.  This is one reason why it is often interesting to hear these people saying "do not judge" all the time, for what they are really saying is this - "I don't want you to judge me for something I am doing that maybe doesn't fit 'your' view of Christian experience."  I will also get into that shortly as well, as this is a flawed understanding too, but I wanted to set up the background first before moving forward.

I want to tell you a little story to illustrate my first refutation of the above arguments.  Some time ago, a lady who was a devout Christian had a fall upon hard times and ended up out of work for a considerable amount of time.  She (rightly) trusted God, and soon her situation began to turn around.  However, some people in her family went through a similar situation, and although her family was equally faithful and devout, here is what she said to them - "Are you too proud to work at MacDonald's?"  Mind you, the person she was directing this at has a college degree, and has worked too hard to go to MacDonald's for a job, so yes, that was true.  But, the problem was did she have a right to make that judgment about her family members without knowing the full story?   This is what Matthew 1:8 is talking about - this is unjustified judgment, and it was totally inappropriate.  That lady should have remembered a little parable of Jesus about this that is found in Matthew 18:22-35.  In that story, if you recall, a man was indebted to the king for a huge debt of what would be millions of dollars in today's economy, and as the king was getting ready to pronounce judgment on this man for his inability to pay, the man gave a hearfelt plea for mercy, which the king was moved to grant.  However, like an idiot, what does this newly-liberated jerk do?  He goes out, chases down a guy who owes him about $5, and has him thrown in prison!    The king heard about that and was furious, and as a result that punishment was reinstated.  The lady in question should take heed to something like this, because in actuality she is a management-level professional who herself has been out of work for a considerable amount of time, and she is also thinking about selling her house because she may not be able to afford to keep it, yet she so eloquently dispenses this "advice" about MacDonald's on others - in her situation, if this is such an easy answer, she should maybe try that herself!  Of course, in reality, we all know that if MacDonald's is a career choice, something is very wrong (and degreed people don't normally aspire to flip burgers anyway), but that is beside the point.  The point is that this lady chose to judge the situation of another, due to a circumstance they couldn't help, and that is what Jesus spoke against.  That type of presupposed judgmentalism is uncalled for and doesn't do anyone any service.  However, is this the same as showing concern about some things that go on in God's name purposely in many churches?   Let's examine that now.

In the historic teaching of the Church, there are two types of practices and teachings.  One type are called primary teachings, and they are essential to the Church's testimony and are not up for debate or change.  By "teachings" I also am referring to common traditions and practices which have been part of the Church from the beginning.  A good example of something primary is the celebration of the Eucharist - it is always to be celebrated with only wheat, the "fruit of the vine" (grapes), and water, and is only to be administered to the baptized.  So, Dorito's and Pepsi-Cola are not acceptable as Communion species!   Also, for anointing, only olive oil can be used - you do not crismate people with lard or Pennzoil, sorry!   Another practice that is a primary is marriage - it is only between one man and one woman, and should always be viewed by the Christian as a sacramental union.  Therefore, it is not consistent with Church teaching to support things such as "gay marriage," polygamy, or any other deviation of the marriage covenant.  And, another hot one is music - Church music should always be compatible with Church teaching, and aid in the worship of the Church, and thus is set apart for that purpose.  For this reason, "Christian rock" isn't a proper genre for the worship setting.  Whether or not people listen to "Christian rock" in an informal setting is their business, as the Church doesn't really address that specifically except to say that we need to be careful to not encourage sinful lifestyles and behavior (which rock music in general tends to do).  All of these are examples of primaries that should not be messed with in the life of the Church.

There are other things, however, which are called secondary teachings, and on these there is some leeway.  For instance, the mode of administering baptism is a secondary - as long as it is done with water, it is acceptable. Also, as a secondary, new hymnody (so long as it is consistent with Church teaching) is not only allowable, but is also a real thing - gifted people of all generations are inspired by God to write new sacred music all the time, and that is part of the inherent creative ability God gave us, and to use such a gift to glorify his kingdom is not only good, but also commendable.  Other things as well - charismatic gifts, using a keyboard instead of a pipe organ, the office of deaconness, etc. - are all secondaries and are perfectly fine in that they don't compromise essential Church teaching.   But, even with secondaries, they have their time and place.  Some secondaries, for instance, have been in practice before, later dropped, and then revived - the office of deaconness is one such thing - and that is acceptable as well.  It largely depends on the need for them in that particular time for the Church.   That being said, let's talk about "judging" in this context.

There are many people who are part of these contemporary worship services who feel that they should not be "judged" for what they do, yet what they are doing, based on the above discussion, is tampering with primary aspects of the Church's life and teaching they shouldn't mess with.  Yet, if you call such people on that, they will bristle and instantly accuse you of "judging," but is that really the case?   First, if it is a legitimate concern, it is probably so because the Church has ruled on it, and the person expressing the concern is not making the judgment, but rather the Church is - the verse in Matthew 1:8 says nothing about the Church making a judgment of what is or is not a valid practice, and indeed, Christ gives a lot of leeway to His Church to guide and direct its members in that regard. For instance, let's read in Matthew 19:19 about this.   Depending on which Christian denominational tradition you are part of, this could mean a couple of different things.   If you are a Pentecostal, you may have an understanding of this verse as meaning that believers have the right to bind evil spirits and release blessings, but that is not the story or context.  If you are a Roman Catholic, this means to you the authority of Apostolic Succession, specifically the office of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope).  A little closer, but not quite.  The real meaning of this verse is that Jesus imparted a teaching and regulating authority to the Church which endows her with the power to enforce teaching on primary issues (binding) and to allow leeway on secondaries (loosing).  And, it is that context I am addressing this.  So, yes, the Church has the office and power to judge, bestowed by Christ Himself, and in having that authority, those of us who are part of her should be educated enough in the teachings of the Church to uphold what she says and educate others as part of our own individual Christian witness - if we fail, then we are accountable.  Therefore, for the CCM crowd, the Emergents, and others who are making huge efforts to redefine things, let me say this to you - I have the authority to discern that what you may be doing is wrong, but you don't have the authority to change that.  And, this is not my judgment - if you have an issue, familiarize yourself with actual Church teaching and examine it for yourselves.  I personally don't have that authority to judge, and you give me more credit than I deserve - it is the Church you are to take those matters up with.  That, therefore, should dispense all this "do not judge" misunderstanding.

This has been a brief but intense teaching, but let me summarize as follows - it is time that people understand the context of some verses in Scripture before trying to use them to justify their own behavior, and it is important that such Scripture passages be understood in the light of how the Church has traditionally taught.  Matthew 1:8 is one such verse, and hopefully today I have done my own small part to correct misinterpretations.  God bless until next time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On Dreams and Their Meaning

This will be the last theological teaching I do for 2014, and I wanted it to be something significant so I decided to deal with something that has been on my mind for a while.  What inspires this is the fact that over the years I have had some significant dreams, and some of them I truly feel were messages I was receiving from God about specific things.  As I began to look into it more, I understood that through the centuries God has spoken to people through dreams - we see it all through the Bible, and as Catholic Christians we are well aware of Church Fathers and saints who have received illumination through their dreams.  However, this has been a subject which many Christians, including many pastors and theologians, have chosen not to touch for a variety of reasons, and perhaps the best one is one I want to address now.

Much of what you hear about dream interpretation comes unfortunately from one of two sources - either it is New Age/occultic or it is Jungian pop-psychology.  Much of what is in those two systems is contrary to the Word of God and to the teachings of the Church, and this fact alone has caused many Christians to eye the practice of dream interpretation warily.  However, what is important to note is this - many occultic practices are corruptions of things God intended man to use for his own benefit, and what originally was a gift of hearing and discerning God's voice has been twisted by occultists to be a form of divination - since dreams are portals to the spirit realm, it makes sense that demons can screw with people's spirits also and cause them to receive false revelation.   That is why it is time to tell Christians that dream interpretation is not in itself evil - every human being on the planet has had dreams at some point (probably many times!) and the Bible itself bears witness to the fact God speaks in dreams to people.  However, it is also imperative for Christians to use wisdom and discernment when exploring this, as it is important to also remember that 90% of your dreams are not messages from God at all; most dreams just reflect things in our subconscience, and there are things to be learned from that as well.  Therefore, I am hoping to give you a balanced and brief lesson here about dream interpretation, and hopefully you can use it responsibly and with proper discernment.

There are at least three different categories of dreams people have, and they are the following:

1.  Plain, regular dreams - These are the dreams we have the most, as they are just manifestations of our subconscious thoughts that sort of mesh together and create their own scenario.  These dreams usually reflect our innermost desires, fears, memories, anxieties, and other such things, and although they cannot be said to be from God obviously, they can reveal a lot about ourselves.  In my own case, I have had many dreams, for instance, about familiar places, but they are places that don't exist - they contain parts of different places I have been that sort of collide together to create their own little world - for instance, I have had dreams of places that look like my native West Virginia, but such a place may also have palm trees like where I now live in Florida, or I may have a dream about some place we used to live being located in another place we used to live at one time.  Never worry about these dreams, as they are just part of who you are.  Nightmares and erotic dreams sometimes fall into this category as well; if you have dreams like that, then I would suggest not eating spicy food before bed or watching too many episodes of Baywatch!

2.  Attacks and deceptions of demonic entities - These type of dreams can take on a number of forms.  Some years ago, for instance, my wife Barbara dreamed she was being choked in her sleep, and it was a demonic attack; she spoke the name of Jesus, and it stopped instantly.  Also, these dreams can be sexually-motivated, prey on some of your fears, or you may actually see demonic beings in your dreams.  If these are a regular occurrence, you may need to seek spiritual counsel from a priest or pastor who can pray over you.

3. Actual messages from the Lord - These are rare, but you will know them if they happen!  Dreams like this have a lot of symbolism in them, and you may notice vivid detail, specific numbers, and even some actual visions of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, angels, etc.   A dream like this will also stick with you for a long time, and if you can't get it out of your mind, perhaps it is time to talk to someone because it is highly possible that God is communicating to you.   Joel 2;28 talks about this as being an eschatological phenomenon too, as he prophesies that "old men shall dream dreams," and being I have had several dreams like this over the years, perhaps I am an old man!  One such dream I had a couple of years prior to this writing was actually a sort of vision of hell, and I can still remember it to this day.  In this dream, I saw an underwater lake, and although the water was crystal clear to look at, it also appeared inky black and would spontaneously combust.  I remember warning some people in the dream not to drink the water lest it cause them peril of some sort, and although a bit bizarre, I had no fear myself about it.  I truly believe what that dream represented was a vision of what hell is possibly like, a "lake of fire" in a rather mysterious sense.  And, there was a message there for me too - I was to tell people that something they are partaking of is in reality damnation to their souls, although it looks refreshing initially (could it be a heresy I was to warn about?  Who's to say!).  In another dream I had earlier this year, it was a little different.  In it, I was visiting one of our parish churches in our diocese (which is called Good Shepherd, in Palm Bay, FL).   The altar of the church faced the east and the ocean, and while looking out a window I noticed a large fish that resembled a goliath grouper stranded in shallow water, and in the distance was this huge crocodile stalking it.  After looking into the symbolism of that, I realized that God was giving me a message for Fr. Lock, the rector of the parish over there whom I had recently met at our diocesan synod.  The message was that there was some sort of growth (spiritual possibly) that was taking place at such a rapid pace that the church was outgrowing its current position - that was the grouper in the shallows.  Soon there would be some sort of adversity that would threaten the church (the crocodile) but the church would be delivered from it and move into the place God wanted it (the fish breaking free of the shallows and finding deeper water).   I later contacted Fr. Lock about this dream, and he understood its significance, which leads to another point - if you have a dream like that you believe to be from the Lord, be sure to first talk to your spiritual shepherd (priest or pastor) about it, and then share it with the person or institution dealt with by the dream.  This establishes accountability to discern the true source of such a dream too.

That being said, let me briefly touch on symbols in dreams, as imagery plays a pivotal role especially in spiritual dreams which God may be communicating with us.  Symbols are those things which, to use a liturgical/sacramental understanding, which point beyond themselves to a deeper meaning.  These symbols take on a number of attributes in dreams, and here are some of them:

1.  Numbers
2.  Colors
3.  Objects
4.  People
5.  Places

As a sixth thing, I would also mention sensory perception, as yes, you can smell, taste, touch, and hear things in dreams too!  These elements are present to a degree in most dreams we have, but they become more significant and enhanced as we dream things that may have a message - for instance, the other night I had this really interesting dream about a place called Three-Finger Canyon, and upon doing some research, I found out it is actually a real place in Utah I didn't know about, but the dream had nothing to do with Utah.  Upon looking into it further, there are three parts of the name that have significance - the number three, the symbolism of fingers, and the symbol of a canyon.  I went to several sources, both psychological articles and Christian sites, and putting it all together it came to this - a canyon always is part of a river, which represents life's journey.  In the dream, the place of the name was a trickling branch-off of a larger river, and when a river slows to a trickle, it means a melancholy or disappointment in life.  The number three is always associated with tradition (a good thing in this case) or completeness, and a finger means discernment and instruction.  A green directional sign pointed the way to this Three-Finger Canyon in the dream, and we were heading east but turning to the left and north - East is the direction of blessing, while a left turn symbolizes a spiritual change.  North, on the other hand, symbolizes judgement.  So, as I look at this, what I was able to put together was this - I am going the direction of blessing, but need to spiritually examine myself in the light of the three-fold instruction of Church, Tradition, and Scripture (makes me think of von Balthasar's "Threefold Cord of Catholicity!") and proceed in that direction in order to prepare for the blessing - the road will seem disappointing at first, but later in the dream I came to a railroad track which I ended up living in - it was a LONG train, and at the front of it was a house.  Railroads are another thing that stresses the right path of tradition.  The house was old at first (established tradition) but was later remodeled (spiritual renewal) with an elevator (symbolizing God bringing to a new place). The track headed back to the eastbound road, and at the other end of those long cars was a sitting-room with blue carpeting.  As I started to really comprehend how all this fit together, it was a retrospective dream, as over the past 17 years that has been exactly what has happened - it was as if God was telling me he had to re-route me as a form of loving judgment to purge me of some things while instructing me in the right ways (which had its agonizing and disappointment too), and upon doing that I was then to proceed upon the road he intended for me.  The hope and inspiration in that dream was something I had been needing, and it ministered to my spirit.   This is the sort of thing God will speak to you in a dream, and it will always be a message that conforms to historic teaching and the clear teaching of Scripture too.

The final thing I wanted to stress in this discourse about dreams is this - be sure to keep a record of all your dreams!  It is a suggested practice to write them down immediately upon waking, as the details are still vivid and fresh, and the best way to do that is a regular journal.  Journaling in recent years has become a sort of new thing that many church leaders and others advocate, and it is not a bad practice to get into.  Not only with writing down dreams, but the recording of all aspects of your life that are relevent will be a sound historical record that will be a valuable resource one day for those of your family (or you even) for doing a family history or an autobiographical narrative.  I have journaled personally for almost 20 years, and it is now a regular habit - you don't have to do it everyday, but it is a good practice to get into regardless.  And, especially with dreams - even if they are not something clearly conveying a message of the Lord, a dream can be something that reveals your own inner thoughts and can later help you to make sense out of some things.  I also recommend resources such as Perry Stone's excellent book, How to Interpret Dreams and Visions (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2011), as well as The Secret of Dreams: The Only Serious Catholic Guide to Understanding and Interpreting Dreams by Sj, Pedro Meseguer, which is a good sound book on the subject from a Catholic perspective.  There are also scores of websites, but be careful - make sure to research who they are, because some of them may come acrosss as Christian but may actually be occultic.  Again, dream interpretation is a tricky thing to research, and it requires sound and mature discernment.  

I know this was a bit of an odd discourse, but I felt led to discuss it with you, and hope it will help some of those reading this who may be struggling with why they are having unusual dreams about things and if there is a reason behind it.  God bless until the next teaching. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Philosophical Reflections on Reasons for God's Existence

This will be the last deep theological post I will be doing for 2014, and it is something I felt like I needed to do based on what my first year at Franciscan University has taught me, as I have a new appreciation now for the relationship between Philosophy and Theology, and that is what I wanted to talk about.  As I am writing this, I am midway through a Metaphysics class I am taking, and one thing we are discussing is how the idea for the existence of God can be proven philosophically.  It is this idea I want to share some thoughts on, so let us begin.

First, it must be understood that there is even a certain amount of truth within pre-Christian schools of thought, including the Greek philosophers.  This is one proof, I truly believe, for the validity of God's literal creation of the universe, in that many people have a certain amount of truth, although over many generations it has become corrupted - mythology, for instance, has at its foundation some fact, but through both corrupt limited human nature and the deceptions of demonic forces, the story has gotten twisted over the centuries.  And, it still happens today - for instance, I watched a documentary recently about a scientist named Juris Zarins, who (rightly) believes the Garden of Eden was a real place, although his theories on its location are limited.  While Zarins correctly noted the Flood stories, etc., and their universal significance, he also made a grave error - Zarins believes the Biblical account was hijacked by the Jews from the Babylonians and Sumerians.  Problem is, Zarins has it backwards - it is in reality the Biblical account that is correct, while the other mythologies have corrupted it.  This same fallacy is also evident in many Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, regarding the fact that an ultimate "Good," which Aristotle correctly identifies as God, exists and that all things emanate from it, but unfortunately Aristotle's "God" is also a corruption of the facts, based on much of what he derived from Plato, who in his Republic presents a very monistic idea of God.  We'll be discussing that more at length shortly, but I first wanted to make another point before we proceed.  The fact about Greek philosophy and its values to civilization is that it actually was on the right track - it asks the right questions, and it explores the answers.  However, it falls far short of the truth in many aspects as well because it is incomplete knowledge, and it took Christian theologians and philosophers such as St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, and in recent times Romano Guardini and others to sort of fill in the missing pieces.  And, that is what we are going to be talking about here.  My spiritual mentor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, correctly noted in one of his writings that both Jews and Greeks were greatly blessed of God, and noted that the Greeks were equipped with both a language and a philosophical system that was best suited for expressing ultimate metaphysical reality (Stephanou, Eusebius, "The Orthodox Church and Israel," at http://www.stsymeon.org/articles/28-the-orthodox-church-and-israel {accessed 10/16/2014).  In short, God in his infinite wisdom orchestrated things in such a way that according to Romans 8:28 and the principle it embodies the Greek language and culture were in place at just the right time to aid in the propagation of the Gospel.  It doesn't mean that Greek philosophers were perfect by any means (which is quite obvious!) but it does mean that just maybe God gave the Greek people of the time that desire to know higher truth and thus they gave a foundation upon which the theology of the Church could be built.  This therefore lays the foundation for my discourse now I wish to share with you here.

We start first with Plato, and the Republic.  In this classic philosophical text, Plato spends a lot of time writing about what he called "the Good," and in Book II he describes this "good" as a beneficial cause of all good things - this "good," he elaborates, is a "god" who alone is responsible for the minimal amount of good things that happen but not the bad (Plato, The Republic Book II in Grube, p. 55 {Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992}, 379c).  This would substantiate a Biblical premise in Genesis 1;31 - "Then God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good."  However, let us keep in mind that Plato was also a pre-Christian pagan philosopher too, and although he was on the right track, his premise in the Republic has two flaws.  First, by asserting that only "the Good" can only create good and that bad things come fron another source, Plato espouses a radically dualistic cosmology.  Second, Plato has a monistic view of the universe in that his theory of forms and substance involves a central mobilizing factor (formal causality) and that all substance emanates from it and is part of the form.  This is classic pantheism unfortunately in that Plato believes that all is "god" and although there is a core "form" to this "god", all else emanates like apendages from that "form" as substance.  Again, this is where some corruption happened in the original truth, for indeed everything does have a single creative force (or person, whom we as Christians know as God) but at the same time the creation is distinct from the Creator.  Also, the good and bad in reality happen in life, and sometimes bad things are used by God to accomplish his purpose too, although sin and wickedness are not something that are part of his attributes.  Therefore, the radical dualism factor present in Plato's idea - which itself evolves from what I would theorize is a root Indo-European concept that shows up also in both Zoroastrian and Hindu belief systems as well - would not be compatible with the Christian message in that Plato equates good and evil as somehow coexisting equal forces with different origins - evil is never equal to good in classic orthodox Christian soteriology.  However, Plato does have some rudiment of a truth that probably goes back to mankind's creation - that an ultimate source exists that was the cause of all that exists.  As Christianity began to come onto the scene, many Church Fathers were used of God to build upon the basic premise of Plato in completing the missing parts of Plato's premise, and what we have then is the beginning of what is called the ontological argument for God's existence.  Now, let us talk about some of that a little bit.

Over the centuries, there have been two basic arguments proposed for establishing God does exist, and they are these:

      1.  Ontological - begins with a single idea (God in this case), and establishes that God exists as a              real being from beginning.

      2. Cosmological - Establishing God exists from evidence of effect (meaning the order of the                   natural world authenticates God's existence).

The first was an idea that was first articulated by St. Anselm in the 12th century, based on this Platonic premise of the "good" that was ultimate source of good things, which he developed into a doctrinal truth based on sound theological premise.  St. Anselm, in his Monologion, notes this idea by filling in Plato's gaps and clarifying some things when he says this: "Furthermore, not only are good things good through the same thing, and all great things great through the same thing, but it seems that all existing things exist through some one thing." (Williams, Thomas, trans.  St. Anselm: The Monologion and Proslogion {Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1996} p. 12).  He also notes further down the chapter that nothing exists through nothing, but rather that the logical conclusion is that all things exist through one thing that exists through himself (God).  God, therefore, for St. Anselm, is the Good.  Albrecht Ritschl develops this further by saying that the Good and the Holy are in fact synonymous, as Jaroslav Pelikan notes in a book I don't really agree with yet does have a value in this premise - Ritschl's theory of the Holy and the Good is based on the premise that moral dimension exists to confront a dead orthodoxy and make it vigorous by applying it to one's life of faith in a practical way (Pelikan, Jaroslav. Fools for Christ {Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1955} pp. 60-61).  Although I don't agree with where Pelikan goes with this (he almost canonizes Nietzsche as a saint, as does Merold Westphal and similar postmodernist writers like him) an important point is made - the "Good," by virtue of our assumption that it signifies God, is by nature also the "Holy" too, and although not in the monistic sense Plato subscribes, we as creatures of this ultimate "Good" source contain within us some attributes of that ultimate "Good" (God) and we live them out in a practical way by our behavior, etc.  This is where we start getting into more cosmological argument, because then if we look at it that way, our reflection of the root nature God gave us - in particular the moral aspects of it - authenticates where it comes from.  So, what then do we do with this?   Let me now give my perspective on it.

I want to explain the proof of God's existence by reconciling what normally would be two different schools of thought - by causality, God exists, but by effect his existence can be authenticated.  What on earth does that mean??   Well, in Genesis, God is affirmed as the ultimate source of the universe - it is he who created it with a mere word (rhema) he imagined and spoke forth - that is ontological in the truest sense.  But, at the same time, the order of creation has the imprint of its creation upon it in so many ways, which is also cosmological.   Therefore, the case for God's existence is for me ontological cause with cosmological effect, simple as that; they are both right!  And, that is exactly what orthodox Christian teaching affirms, and again we go back to von Balthasar's Three-Fold Cord of Catholicity - the Word Celebrated (the Holy Eucharist), the Word Proclaimed (Holy Scriptures), and the Office which authenticates both (the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church).   The microcosm of the Church reflects as well the order of creation in a cosmological sense too - the spoken word of God (ontological cause) is authenticated in the order of His creation (cosmological effect).   And thus, we have a basis for a doctrine of creation!

This short teaching was unfortunately more brief than I wanted it to be, but I hope to develop it further later, as this only serves as both a summary of what I have learned in reflection, as well as an introduction to a bigger subject.  May God bless us all as we continue to grow and comprehend the immeasurable riches of God's Word, for as again St. Anselm would say, "We don't understand to believe, but rather believe to understand."  And, coming from that direction, it will begin to come together and make sense as we grow in our spiritual walk.  Thanks again for allowing me to share, and will see you all again soon. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Personal Legacy of Faith And Encouragement in Trials

"Commit your works to the Lord, and your thoughts will be established" - Proverbs 16:3.

We live in times that often scoff at tradition and the past legacies of our forefathers, and we even tend at times to forget our own beginnings, opting instead for the present-day postmodernist mantra of "Change is Good!"  Change is inevitable, yes, but not all change is good.  Sometimes, we need to revisit ourselves to recall some aspects of our testimonies that have been forgotten, covered in dust by the fads and fashions of our times, and in doing so we might be surprised at what we do discover!

Over the years, I have had many prophetic words spoken over me - some of them have been just plain ridiculous and easy to dismiss, but I do believe some people have that gift and on rare occasions something the Lord speaks through another has an impact.  Back around 2005, a Black Pentecostal friend by the name of Eric wrote me to tell me he had had a prophetic vision concerning me.  In the vision, as I recall, I was in this dark cave - he said it was dark, lonely, and oppressive.  However, I found a shovel in that cave and started digging, and as I did so I began to uncover indescribable wealth in precious stones and gold.  This prophetic word had nothing to do with economic wealth - rather, what it was saying was that I would be going through some low period in my life (which did actually happen soon after) but in the adversity I was to dig for the "treasure" being obscured by the circumstance.  Not long after that, I began to pick up on both my genealogical research and my own personal story, and as I did so over the next several years, it was indeed like a treasure of riches that I had uncovered.  I share that, and will elaborate some on it, to tell you today that there is some encouraging news for your own circumstances, and maybe the circumstance itself was ordered by God in order for you to regain a lost focus of what He has called you to.  Let us talk a little more about that.

The power of a personal testimony is not merely in the compilation of a "I-love-me" list of past accomplishments or spiritual blessings.  As good as those are, they are also incomplete.  The power of a testimony is in both a comprehensive record of the good and the bad.   This is consistent as well with Scripture, because even the most righteous people we read about in Scripture had their imperfections and shortcomings - the ultimate testimony of Christ's redemption of mankind would not mean much if it didn't.  I have told my story elsewhere, so I am not going to do a word-for-word regurgitation of it here, as many who have read my writing for some time may already know it well anyway.  However, suffice to say, it took a lot - and I mean a LOT!!! - of disappointments, failures, and rejection in my life to get me where I am today.  It also entailed a lot of personal accomplishment, spiritual blessing, and other positive things as well.  In God's ultimate economy, it is both the positive and the negative he uses to shape us into that person he wants us to be, and although it may really beat us up at times, we are beaten-down maybe for a season but we are not kicked out.  

Romans 8:28 reminds us that for those of us who are of the "household of faith," all things do work for good.  Also, related to that is a declaration in Philippians 1:12 of the Apostle Paul that admits that the things which happened to him specifically (and us generally by extension) turn out as a means God uses to further the spread of his Gospel.  We may not see that when the trials hit us upside the head, but this is why we need to be reassured that these trials are only temporary, and the bigger picture is something we should keep in focus.  I know how hard that can be at times, because some of those trials are huge - losing a job, finding out you or a loved one has a terminal illness, facing opposition and attack from a society that is openly hostile to people like us, etc. And, I also know what it is like to be frustrated - God and I have had some really nasty fights with each other over the years, I am not happy to admit, and there have even been some occasions when my daily prayers had degenerated at times into a rant in which I have called God some nasty names, openly challenged him, etc.  Let's be honest here - some of you have had those moments too, haven't you?   It's OK - God knows we have human limitations, and at times we do reach them, and he is big enough to even take the verbal abuse we may heap upon him, and thanks be to God he is!  If not, honestly, I probably would have had a lightning-bolt slice through my skull a long time ago!  Some Biblical characters likewise have done this too, and we are talking exemplary people - Jacob wrestled what many believed was an early incarnation of Christ (see Genesis 32), Moses got ticked at God and whacked a rock in the desert (Numbers 20:11), Elijah got so despondent he laid under a tree in the desert to die (I Kings 19:4-18), and even Job questioned God's dealings with him.   Bottom line is, if you do lose both patience and temper with God, you are in good company!

That being said, let me tell you the rest of the story in my case.  Usually, after I have blown up at God in frustration, it is not long afterward that I feel the conviction of what I had done, and I do repent of my emotionally weak moment quickly.  Let's face facts here - if you have been in the Church and have walked with God for as long as I have, you already have a lot invested in serving Him and the kingdom.  Therefore, just the mere imagination of a life without Christ at this point on one's life is usually enough to make one realize that there are no alternatives - Jesus Christ is the answer, and perhaps our brief moment of emotional weakness or weak faith is an opportunity to remind us of that fact.  Also, it is important to remember that when we reach a certain point, it means a breakthrough of some sort is on the horizon too - God is not one to impose on us limits he doesn't know we can handle, and we got to remember that ultimately he is in control of all of it.  Nothing is ever permanent except God himself, and therefore whatever we are going through will ultimately end, and we will have restoration.  

That is my word today for you, if any of this fits your situation at present, and there are some things to recap:

1.  Recall your personal legacy, both good and bad - God used those things to make you who you are

2.  Getting mad at God is human and it can happen - we are not all "holy minions," and we have limitations. When it happens though, just cool off, repent of anything you have said, and then move forward.

3.  All things - the good, bad, and ugly - work together for our benefit, as it is God's plan for us to make us into the people we need to be.

4.  Trials and tribulations are temporal, and they do not dictate the total course of your life - as a preacher named Mark Chironna once said, "Your present position does not dictate your future potential."

Hopefully that will be encouraging to some of you today reading this, and soon I am also going to be doing a practical teaching on dealing with opposition and rejection, as some of us know about that really well too.  Both of these teachings should be taken together as a way of reminding you of God's love for each and every one of us, and that we are not defined by our circumstances.  On that note, I will conclude and hope to see you all again soon.  God bless!