Thursday, June 28, 2012

heaven, hell, and in between: the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory

Today my exploration of Catholic theology will focus (by request) on the doctrine of purgatory. As you may have gathered from previous posts I’m taking a course in Christian Doctrine at Notre Dame, a Catholic university. Each day our assignment is to explain a section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to an audience of our choosing, and I picked you (don’t you feel special?). My hope is that all of us will end up with a fuller understanding of what Catholics believe, and why.

According to Catholic teaching, what happens when we die?

Reflecting on the final phrase from the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in . . . the life everlasting,” the CCC offers assurance to each one who “unites his own death to that of Jesus” and therefore enters “into everlasting life” (§1020). Catholics believe that each of us is “rewarded immediately . . . in accordance with his works and faith” (§1021; cf. 1051). Unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, who envision a time of soul sleep before the millennium, at which time all will be given another opportunity to repent, Catholics limit the possibility of trusting Christ to this earthly life. At death we face one of three destinies: heaven, delayed heaven (i.e. Purgatory), or hell (§1022).

First, a word about heaven. “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ” (§1023). Their entrance into heaven is entrance into eternal communion with Christ on the basis of his death and resurrection (§1026). Catholics have a special name for the gift of seeing God in heavenly glory: “the beatific vision” (§1028, 1053). Spiritual contemplation and meditation on earth anticipate the beatific vision (though faith is the "essential foretaste" of it, according to Dr. Cavadini). Catholics are particularly noted for this aspect of spirituality.

Some, however, are not ready for heaven. “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (§1030; cf. 1054). Purgatory must not be confused with hell (§1031). While the fires of hell bring eternal punishment to the unrepentant (§1035), those in purgatory bring cleansing to the redeemed (§1031). Those in Purgatory are on their way to heaven, but need purification first. Don’t miss this. Our final destination cannot change after death, even in response to someone’s prayers. One bound for hell does not end up in Purgatory and cannot be brought there through prayers of those still living. Purgatory is for saints who need a bit more time to become like Jesus. One of my classmates put it something like this: “Purgatory is a useful doctrine, because most of us won’t be ready for heaven yet when we die.”

Purgatory is later explained this way: “every sin . . . entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin,” which flows naturally from the sin itself (§1472). Dr. Cavadini imagines that for every minute he goes overtime in class, he will spend a week in Purgatory listening to himself talk. While he is only joking (I think!), it’s a good illustration of how Purgatory is designed to refine us. The purification directly relates to the sin.

The "Anastasis" or Resurrection Icon,
painted in the 14th century, depicts Jesus'
descent into hell to rescue imprisoned spirits
(see 1 Peter 3:19)
Gregory the Great based his understanding of Purgatory on Matthew 12:31, which speaks of forgiveness both in the present age and the one to come (§1031). The CCC teaches that this doctrine “is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture” (§1032). The passage cited is 2 Maccabees 12:45, where Judas Maccabeus takes up a collection on behalf of Jews who had fallen in battle while possessing idols. Evidently he sees them as redeemed but in need of a sin offering. Though they are dead, Judas believes they will rise again and commune with God in the life to come. Job also serves as an example, in that he offers sacrifices for his children (Job 1:5). In the words of John Chrysostom, “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (§1032).

The clearest source of this teaching—the Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees—is telling. No wonder the Catholic Church has found solid footing for Purgatory while Protestants have not! It largely depends on which canon is used. Second Maccabees is an Apocryphal book, not accepted by Protestants as Scripture. What Catholics believe about Purgatory is based on the canon they have received by faith, just as our denial of this doctrine is based on the canon we have received by faith, which does not contain clear teaching on this matter.

However, shadows of this doctrine may be discerned in other passages. In 1 Corinthians 3:13, Paul describes the fire that will “test the quality of each person’s work” at the judgment day. First Peter 1:7 speaks of a similar fire for believers. The Bible is not explicit about what happens “in the meantime” as we await final judgment and the full revelation of the kingdom of God. For this reason, we should hold our opinions on the subject with a looser grip. Until we experience it ourselves, none of us can really be sure what will happen in the time between death and final resurrection. The Bible is very clear, though, on our final destiny. It’s either life with God (i.e. heaven) or life without him (i.e. hell).

Hell is an unpopular doctrine in our time. Long gone are the days of “fire and brimstone” preaching. But what the CCC has to say about hell is important. Based on the teaching of Jesus (§1034; 1056), Catholics affirm that hell lasts forever (§1035), and that it is freely chosen, not predestined by God, who wants all to be saved (§1037; 1058). Hell is a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (§1033, emphasis mine). When we die without repenting and receiving the love and mercy of God for us, we choose to be separated from him forever (§1033; cf. 1057). The reality of hell should move us to repentance (§1036; cf. 1041) and motivate us to share the good news of God’s love with as many as possible. A final judgment awaits all people where we must “render an account of [our] own deeds” (§1059; cf. 1038–1039). After that Christ will reign over God’s kingdom with the help of the redeemed (§1042), “and the material universe itself will be transformed” (§1060; cf. 1043, 1047).

Catholics and Protestants together look forward to the day when all will be made right. We long to see our Savior face to face and spend eternity with him. And we each, in our own ways, strive to become more like him in preparation for life everlasting. Whether that process of sanctification continues after we die is a matter of debate, but on the end result we’re in full agreement. Ultimately we’ll enjoy the presence of God forevermore.

My next post will treat a related subject, the “communion of saints,” which for Catholics involves prayers for and to those who have died. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Are Science and Scripture Compatible?

I'm blogging from the campus of Notre Dame, where I am taking a course in Christian Doctrine from Dr. John Cavadini. Each post in this series will examine a particular area of Catholic theology in hopes of understanding it more fully. Today's topic is a hot button within Evangelical circles, but Catholics have managed to avoid much of the controversy that plagues Evangelicals. While a great many Evangelical churches teach a literal, 6-day creation of the universe, Catholics do not and never have. Their faith in the bible as Scripture has been able to co-exist more-or-less peacefully with the advance of scientific theories about the origins of the universe. How have they managed this? 

Catholics carefully distinguish between what the Bible is and is not trying to say. This allows for a robust theology of creation but leaves room for science to do what science is supposed to do—describe what can be empirically tested. I’ll start by attempting to explain what Catholics do see in the Bible about Creation, and then move on to what they don’t see.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) insists that God created the universe (§279), and that the existence of this God “can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason” (§286). However, though we can discern the existence of a creator, we cannot discern the answers to questions about the meaning of creation, or about the origin, vocation, and destiny of humanity without revelation (§287–288). Scripture tutors and converts human reason by telling us that we belong to our Creator and inviting us into a relationship with him (§288). The first three chapters of Genesis are first in the Bible not (necessarily) because they were written first or even because the events they describe are chronologically prior to everything else, but because they lay the foundation for understanding God’s purposes for creation (§289). Creation is more than just the beginning of life, it affects everything else.

We might think of creation as a little like a wedding. A wedding is not just the first thing that happens in a marriage, it inaugurates and defines that marriage—a binding commitment entered into freely by a man and woman who love each other and will from that moment on forsake all other loves. The wedding is performed by someone with the authority to bind these two together in the sight of God. It takes place in the presence of family and friends, and even those relationships are changed. Parental roles are diminished, handed over to the new spouse. Husband and wife are no longer their own, they belong to each other. The theological richness of a marriage ceremony is like creation because it is an event that not only indicates the start of life but defines what kind of life it is and the roles that each one plays in it.

Reading the creation story in light of Christ, Catholics affirm that the creation of the world does not only concern material origins (how stuff came to be), but signals the beginning of God’s plan to redeem the world (§280). By creating the world, God was taking the first steps toward saving it. Creation answers the big, basic questions about our origin and destiny, the meaning of life, and our vocation in it (§282, 289). It teaches us these truths:

-“The totality of what exists . . . depends on the One who gives it being” (§290).
-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit worked in “creative cooperation” to create all things (§291–292).
-Everything was made for God’s glory (§293). He is glorified when he fills our whole vision and we find our life in him (§294).
-God made the world out of his own free will, not because he needed us (§295). This contrasts with all other ancient Near Eastern creation stories where the gods needed people to feed them and do their work for them.
-Just as God created all things out of nothing, so he gives us a transformed life through no effort of our own (§296–298).
-Creation flows from the goodness of God, and is therefore good and ordered (§299).
-God is both transcendent over creation and present within it (§300).
-God has not abandoned creation. He continues to sustain it and work out his purposes in it. “Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence” for humans (§301).

I love the way the CCC describes creation. It is so theologically rich, pointing towards worship of the God who made us in order to invite us into his Trinitarian communion. Beautiful.

But what, then, of science? What happens when scientists say that the world is not young but very, very old? What happens when they propose evolution as a model for human origins -- a system requiring millions of years and billions of mutations?

The CCC does not condone any one scientific theory, but it does map out the relationship between science and Scripture in way that allows for the possibility that scientists may be right, at least on some things. Sandwiched right in the middle of rich theological reflection, the CCC digresses into a discussion of science under the unspoken premise that “all truth is God’s truth.”

“The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers.” (§283)

However, Catholics recognize that the question of the meaning of life is “beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences” (§284). Science can (perhaps) tell us when and how the world came into being, but not what its purpose is (§284). As Dr. Cavadini explained, “We tend to think of the first chapter of the book of Genesis as if it were a primitive, scientific account” that needs updating with the discoveries of modern science. But what if Genesis 1–3 is not making any scientific claims? Science has to do with phenomena that can be observed, tested, and verified. The concerns of Genesis 1 and 2, for example, “goodness” and the “image of God,” are outside the bounds of scientific inquiry. If they are not scientific statements, then science cannot replace them with anything else. The account of creation in Genesis evokes mystery (How can there be light before the sun is made? How can birds and fish eat before plants are made? Does God really speak out loud before anyone is there to listen?). It evokes worship and gratitude for God’s goodness. In Dr. Cavadini’s words, “The doctrine of creation cannot be proven, because it’s a revealed truth, but we can bear witness to it by living out our gratitude in a virtuous life.”

The CCC celebrates the accomplishments of modern science, without embracing any one theory of origins, even while it charitably rejects many philosophical models of the world that are not compatible with Scripture (Pantheism, Dualism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism, Deism, Materialism; §285). Certain “scientific” theories are, of course, also excluded, in particular those that go beyond what science can properly describe by excluding the involvement of God in the process. Returning to the marriage illustration, we might think of it this way: biologists can explain the mechanics of the sexual act, the interplay of hormones and even the behaviors that typically precede and follow such an act, but they simply cannot capture or measure (in scientific terms) the meaning or significance that a particular act of intercourse has in a relationship or comment on its moral rightness or wrongness. In the same way, scientists can talk about animals or people and their development over time, but cannot comment on the meaning or purpose of life.

So Catholics joyfully accept the witness of Scripture and allow it to inform the way they think about everything, but they do not press Genesis for a scientific account of material origins. In this way they can nurture morally-responsible scientific inquiry without fearing its outcome and at the same time worship the God who made everything and continues to uphold it by his word.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Yesterday was an exciting day at our house. Easton turned four! I arrived home from Notre Dame in time to celebrate with the family. Indeed, we have much to celebrate. Our baby is now dressing himself, brushing his own teeth, done with diapers, and riding without training wheels!

A few weeks ago Easton asked Dad to take the training wheels off of his bike. We were a little surprised, but he insisted, so we tried it. On his first try he kept telling Dad to let go. Within 24 hours he could start, stop, and turn, and now he's an old pro. This distinguishes him as the youngest member of our family to reach this milestone. (Danny was 10, Carmen and Eliana were 8, and Emma ... well, after seeing her brother take off on 2 wheels she decided she'd better try it, too. So Emma, at 6-1/2 has followed in her brother's tracks). That means we're a family without diapers and without training wheels.

For those of you who don't have the joy of watching Easton grow up before your very eyes (that's most of you), he is an adorable kid.  He loves to figure out how things work, and often asks for a screwdriver so he can check out the insides of his toys. We'll often find him during his "nap" time with a flashlight all taken apart. He loves to try putting it back together to see if it will still work. It usually does. When given the opportunity, he would almost rather "study" the instruction manual ("map") than play with a toy. He pours through his Thomas the Train catalog, memorizing the names of all the best trains, and carefully examines the instructions for his remote control car set, showing us which parts are missing and how everything works together. Yesterday he got real tools of his very own and two toys that needed batteries installed, including a fire truck and a train (among other things). He was such a happy kid!

Easton's Birthday Lunch at Two Toots Train Restaurant
in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where your food is delivered to you
 on a model train. A little boy's dream come true!
Trains, tools, musical instruments, books, school, "time with Mom," helping Dad, and hanging out with his sisters are all high on his list of favorite things. And he's high on ours. What a blessing to have been entrusted with Easton! He hasn't lost his baby cheeks, in spite of his other accomplishments, so we'll keep kissing them while we can.

Friday, June 22, 2012

do Catholics have true faith?

Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Notre Dame, Indiana

I’m blogging from the campus of Notre Dame, where I am taking a course in Christian Doctrine from Dr. John Cavadini. Each post in this series will examine an area of disagreement (or perceived disagreement) between Catholics and Protestants. My hope is to grant you access to particular points of Catholic theology that you may have found confusing. Because while a particular matter may seem odd to us as Evangelicals, chances are good that it actually makes sense when taken as a part of a bigger picture. In my first two posts I examined an unexpected (to me) area of disagreement: the role of Natural Theology. Today I want to discuss an area of perceived difference: faith. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I've lived on the East Coast, West Coast, Rockies, and now the Midwest. I've lived in a predominately Catholic country (the Philippines) and traveled to others (Panama and Venezuela). My impression in each place (though I'm no expert) has been that Evangelicals have a dim view of Catholic theology. Many might even say that Catholics believe in salvation by works, while we believe in salvation by faith. Another version goes something like this: Catholics have (dead) religion, while we have a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Whatever the reason for this misperception, I cannot say, but it does not square with official Catholic teaching. I suspect it has something to do with age-old Reformation battles. Maybe, too, there is a sense in which – at a popular level – it is true, at least for some. But when I look around me in class I see Catholics (all or most of them, I presume, are Catholics) with a vibrant faith in God and a desire to lead others to saving faith in Christ. And when I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) I see so many things I can joyfully affirm.

Listen to this beautiful selection:

“By his revelation, ‘the invisible God, from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into his own company.’ The adequate response to this invitation is faith.” (§142)

Did you catch that? Catholics believe that God invites us into intimate relationship with him, and that our response must be one of faith. But even faith cannot be considered a good work, because “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him” (§153). Luther, I’m told, didn’t want to call faith a virtue. But in the way that Thomas Aquinas understood it, faith is wholly dependent on God’s grace. Later the CCC says, “Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit” (§154, §179).

What, then, is the nature of saving faith? Is it simply an intellectual decision about who God is?

Dr. Cavadini answers this with an emphatic “No!” For him, faith is not just belief in the sense of an intellectual assent. It is not just knowing something. It involves submission (§143), putting our trust in Jesus (§151), obeying him, and giving ourselves fully to a relationship with him. He says, “believing is a kind of seeing that allows you to see farther than you really can” (cf. §164). You might think of faith the way a pilot responds to his instruments in a fog. He cannot see the landing strip with his own eyes, but he trusts the accuracy of the instruments that tell him what his angle and speed and altitude should be. His faith in the instruments is not a dead assent to their truthfulness. Faith requires him to take action on the basis of what the instruments say, to entrust his very life to them.

Cavadini says, “There is no way around faith if you really want to see God.” Faith is absolutely necessary to be a Christian (§161). We can never prove the existence of God, because if we could do so, then he would cease to be God. If our prayers evoked a reliable and audible response, then he would no longer be God because we could evoke him at will. His divine qualities are precisely what make him outside the grasp of our senses, of our reason (§157). He is free. He does not depend on us. We must admit that he is bigger than what we can comprehend, and that we depend on him for life itself. That’s faith. And whether you are Catholic or Protestant, faith is the key to entering into a living relationship with the God who made you, loves you, and gave his own life for you so that you could really live.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

pizza and natural theology: a follow-up question

So my Protestant readers (most of you!) may have a follow-up question on the issue of Natural Theology. At least, I did. My question was this:

Do Catholics consider the process of becoming open to revelation (through the use of natural reason) a work of God?

If so, it would be somewhat equivalent to the Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace, or to the Methodist doctrine of prevenient grace. Is our desire to know God, which we work out through human reason until we encounter revelation, evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts? Is our spiritual quest of God preceded by God’s quest of us?

From what I’ve read so far, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) does not address this question exactly, but it says that people are “made to live in communion with God” (§45), and our “free response to his grace” is part of his “eternal plan of ‘predestination’” (§600). In that way, grace plays a key role in our coming to faith somewhat analogous to that described by Reformed Protestants or Methodists. The CCC explains it this way:

“Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome the revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.” (§35, emphasis mine).

Catholic teaching is clear—even our faith in God is a gift. Without his grace, we would not be able to put our trust in the God who has revealed himself to us. Perhaps, too, Natural Theology does not sound so foreign when situated in its context. The main difference between Catholics and Protestants on Natural Theology is the degree of depravity that resulted from the Fall or the degree of optimism that remains about human reason. On one thing we agree—grace is always necessary for salvation.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

pizza and natural theology

I’m taking a 3-week course at Notre Dame on Christian Doctrine. In our first class together, Dr. Cavadini pointed to a key difference between Catholics and Protestants. It has to do with the answer to this question:

How much can we know about God without the help of Scripture?

The fancy name for this is “Natural Theology” (theology is ‘the study of God’ and by ‘natural’ we mean ‘without divine intervention’). In short, Catholics tend to be more optimistic than Protestants about how well Natural Theology works (or at least about its potential). Some Protestants reject it completely. Before I lay out the differences, an illustration may help.

Imagine you arrive home from work one day and find a pizza on your kitchen counter. You are thrilled, because you are hungry after a long day of work, but you are also puzzled because you live alone (if you don’t, just pretend) and you have no idea who brought you pizza. You look around for clues, but see nothing. The kitchen is clean, as if no one has been there, but when you open the oven you notice it is still very hot. Whoever left the pizza cooked it in your kitchen and did a very good job cleaning up! You take a closer look at the pizza. It has your favorite toppings! Whoever made it knows you well, and their sense of timing is exquisite. It’s hot and ready. How did they know when you would be home? Then you notice something else—this is no frozen pizza. It has a homemade crust, hand-tossed by the looks of it, with sauce carefully spread and lots of gooey cheese, but none of it spilling over onto the pizza pan. Whoever made this pizza was an artist! 

You decide that they evidently wanted you to eat it, so you grab a couple of slices and sit down to eat. While eating, you keep thinking about who it could have been. You have a growing list of words that you could use to describe this person, but no name and no face, just a big question mark. You have that warm and tingly feeling, knowing that you are loved, but you can’t get the question mark out of your mind. You just have to figure out who it was!

So far, the story illustrates Natural Theology. You have been using the powers of human reason to figure out the identity of the pizza-maker. You are certain that the pizza didn’t show up by chance. It was intentional, and someone did it. You’ve figured out certain qualities of that person: he or she is loving, kind, careful, conscientious, timely, creative, and thoughtful. But you still don’t know who it is. Dr. Cavadini follows early Christian writers (Justin Martyr, Origen and Augustine) who point to Socrates as the ideal example of someone engaged in the search for truth using human reason, that is, Natural Theology. Socrates is open and proceeds from one question to another to see what he can discover, but the quest is never-ending. At the end of Natural Theology there is some certainty, but also still a big question mark. Who made this pizza for me?

Imagine, then, that you finish eating, put the leftover pizza in some Tupperware, and head to the fridge. When you get there you find a note on the door that you missed earlier. It reads:

Hi hon!
I hope you liked the pizza! Sorry I couldn’t stay to eat it with you. I had a dinner appointment with friends, but I wanted you to know that I love you.
Love, Mom 
(p.s. just because)
Suddenly it all makes sense. Mom has a key to your house. Why didn’t you think of that before? She knows your favorite toppings and what time you get off work. You were right: she really is loving, kind, careful, conscientious, timely, creative, and thoughtful. Now you have a person to link with that list, and now the knowledge you gained without the note contributes to a stronger relationship with someone in particular: your mom.

The note on the fridge is like Scripture (revelation). In Scripture God reveals to us his name and his intentions for us. Natural Theology only gets us so far. If we’re thinking well, we can figure out a lot of things about God, but we still can’t really enter into a relationship with him until we know who he is. A Catholic would say that Natural Theology gives us certainty, but not completeness. You were certain that someone made you pizza. You knew a number of things to be true about that person, but you didn’t have complete knowledge. You didn’t know who made it or why. After you read the note, those things became clear.

Natural theology prepares us for revelation. And though God gave all of us the gift of reason (§159*), the proper use of it is up to us. Catholics do not think that this faculty is totally damaged by sin. It has the potential of working properly, though without revelation it never works perfectly. If in our quest for God we are truly open to him and don’t close off the search prematurely, then we will attain understanding. This knowledge can be certain (under the right conditions), but not exhaustive (§46–47). Many (most?) versions of Protestant theology have little place for Natural Theology. The Reformed doctrine of 'total depravity,' for example, sees our reason as totally corrupted by the Fall, unreliable and guaranteed to lead us astray. But on one thing Protestants and Catholics agree. Both groups believe we won’t have saving knowledge of God until we encounter special revelation (i.e. the Bible). In spite of the value they place on Natural Theology, then, Catholics still recognize that our reason can only get us so far. We cannot know God fully or intimately without revelation. We can think about pizza all day and never know who to thank for it.
Hopefully this vignette has given you a (pizza-flavored) taste of what I'm learning at Notre Dame. My goal for this course is to understand more clearly what Catholics believe from their perspective. Too often we rely on caricatures of each other's believes without really stopping to listen. Our assignments for the class are to re-explain parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to a particular audience, and I picked YOU! If there are particular areas of Catholic Doctrine that you would like me to write about, leave a comment and I'll see if I can work it into an assignment. Thanks for learning along with me!

*section numbers in parentheses refer to the relevant section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Monday, June 11, 2012

seeing Jesus in 3-D

Almost a year ago Gordon-Conwell asked if I would contribute to a weekly e-devotional celebrating 20 years of ministry at the Charlotte campus. I was honored to have this opportunity to reflect on how my studies at Gordon-Conwell transformed the way I see Jesus. The devotional was released today, but you can read it right here:

[Jesus said], "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he [smeared over] the man's eyes with the mud and said to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam." So he went and washed and came back seeing.... They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, "He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see." Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" Then they turned again to the blind man, "What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened."...Then the man said, "Lord, I believe," and he worshiped him. Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind."
John 9:1-39, selected

I first saw Jesus in 3-D at Gordon-Conwell—Charlotte. Just as Jesus appears to be stepping right out of "The Sower" fresco and into the chapel, so he stepped off the pages of Scripture during my studies.

Again and again I found the key to understanding him was the Old Testament. Most of Jesus' life and teaching is unintelligible without it. With the Old Testament close at hand, Jesus' identity comes into sharp focus. He intentionally does things to fulfill prophecy and signal that he is the long-awaited Messiah. Not only that, he does what God alone is expected to do!

An example is found in John 9. The story there is familiar—Jesus heals a man born blind and the Pharisees are disgruntled. How does the Old Testament help us understand this event?

Jesus announces that he is the light of the world.
     We know from Isaiah that Yahweh is the light dawning (Isaiah 60:1-3).

Jesus smears mud on the blind man's eyes.
     Isaiah, too, was told to besmear the eyes of Israel as a picture of God's judgment (Isaiah 6:9-10).

The blind man sees.
     Isaiah tells us the blind will see when God's kingdom is established (Isaiah 35:5).

In this event we encounter Jesus as a prophet who brings judgment on unbelieving Israel. But he is more than a prophet. He inaugurates the kingdom of God the prophets only foretold, and claims to do what Yahweh alone can do: illumine the world.

Our response can go one of two ways. We can accuse him of blasphemy like the blinded Pharisees or we can worship him like the man who can now see.

May we have eyes to see Jesus clearly today!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

finding our vocation

One of Eliana's 5th grade teachers asked her what she wants to be when she grows up. She gave the same answer that I did for most of my childhood: "a missionary in South America." If she'd had more time, she would have given the longer answer: "I want to be a lawyer working with the International Justice Mission in Ecuador, helping the poor fight for land rights and providing safety and freedom for women who have been raped."

That, my friends, is a great dream for an 11-year-old to have. If she aspired to be a professional basketball player, I might be concerned, because it would be so out of the blue. But this is a dream that fits her -- with a keen ability with languages, a love for travel, and a heightened need for justice -- she's got what it takes.

A clear sense of vocation fuels daily discipline. It gets Eliana up in the mornings to do Rosetta Stone Spanish before she heads off to school. It motivates her to work hard to earn good grades, and then keep working even when no one is watching, like when school's out. Yesterday she received a Presidential Academic award bearing President Obama's signature. Today we spent our first morning of summer vacation (by request) . . . homeschooling. Eliana (11) taught Easton (3) to write lower-case letters while Emma (6) and I worked on cursive. Next came math and vocabulary. What a blessing to have such motivated children!

Teaching is a vocation that took me a while to discover. It wasn't until an education class in college that things clicked for me and I realized what I was born to do (though Mom and Dad knew it all along). Now, more than 16 years later, I'm in the thick of preparation for a teaching ministry. Being a woman in academia brings unique challenges (childcare chief among them), and so I was delighted to discover a newsletter designed with women just like me in mind. The Well, published by InterVarsity, is "a virtual gathering place for graduate and professional women to receive wisdom, care, challenge, and inspiration as they seek to follow Christ in the academic or work world." If you check out their current featured articles, you might be surprised to see that you know at least one of the contributors. I was delighted when they asked if they could publish a recent blog post.

I'm reminded of Paul's words to Timothy: "Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you . . . Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all" (1 Tim 4:14-15). It's one thing to decide to be a lawyer, or a college professor, but quite another thing to become one. Natural talents and spiritual gifts must be nurtured and shaped by daily discipline over a long stretch of time. Nobody wakes up in the morning and finds themselves in an academic career. It's the culmination of thousands of daily choices, the fruit of discipline nurtured by mentors who are a few steps ahead of us on the journey. That's why I'm so glad to have a resource like The Well, a companion for the long pilgrimage of finding and fulfilling my vocation.

How about you? Do you have a passion buried inside you just waiting for the right season to take action? You may not be able to throw yourself into it completely at this stage of your life, but perhaps there are tiny steps that you can start taking now . . . so that when the time comes you'll be ready to roll.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

dutch treat

I haven't fallen off the face of the earth . . . I just hopped over to another time zone for a few days. My parents, brother, and I spent the past 5 days in Lynden, Washington, where we moved my Oma (Dutch for Grandma) into a retirement home.

The guys moved the heavy stuff, while Mom and I got
things settled just the way they had been in her old home
Danny and I have moved 11 times in our 14 years of marriage, but this was the quickest move I have ever seen. John and I arrived Thursday before noon, and by bedtime the whole house was packed. Friends showed up with a truck at 8am the next day and by noon she was all moved in her new place. By bedtime on Friday her boxes were all unpacked, beds made, and pictures up on the walls. It looked just like home. That left Saturday and Sunday to help Oma find things in her new apartment and get into a new routine. At first she kept saying she felt "like a cat in a strange warehouse" but by the time I left she was settling in and said she would like it there.

Along the way we discovered lots of treasures: photos, memories, friends old and new, and humor. Inviting my brother along to help guaranteed that humor would be on the menu. My kids call him "Uncle Hilarious" and know him for his tickling. Tickle he does, in spite of my protests. He and I flew the Denver-to-Bellingham leg of my trip together, and collected our first jointly owned barf bag. I add a bag to his collection almost every time I fly (he has a whole box of them in his basement -- it's an inside joke). We commemorated this trip by writing on the barf bag about our first flight together (that one we had when he was still a baby doesn't count).

Humor turned out to be an essential element to an otherwise difficult transition. Oma liked living on her own and didn't see any need to move. But at 91 years old, with a very unreliable memory, dizziness, diabetes, and incontinence, we all agreed that we couldn't wait any longer. The residents of her new home were more than welcoming, inviting us into their apartments and into their hearts. We soon figured out that "all the cool kids" had rolling walkers with a place for a meal tray, and that most of them took a good month to figure out the floor plan of the building. If Oma forgets her room number or how long she's lived there or what her husband did for a living she'll be in good company. Peer pressure already persuaded her to put her keys on a bracelet and a name tag on her cane. We're hoping that she'll soon realize she doesn't need to drive.

A sketch of Oma I made a few months ago
I love it that I had 4 days to eat meals in the dining hall and get to know all of Oma's new neighbors. John, Winifred, Elaine, Liz, Francis, Anne, Jack, Bob, Catherine, Loretta, Berdita, Janice, and the others are dear, dear people with stories to tell and smiles to share. I loved the way they lit up when I remembered their names. The staff who work there are so friendly. I hate it that I can't drop in every week to see them all.  If I didn't already have a career in mind, I would seriously consider something in geriatrics. It was an absolute treat to stay there with Oma.

A dutch treat, that is. Only in Lynden is the "V" section of the phone book longer than any other letter. There are enough Van- and Vander-something-or-others to populate a small planet. Nowhere else do people reply to "What's your name?" with their last name and then their maiden name before they divulge their first name (as an afterthought). I met one lady who groaned when I asked her her last name. "Jones," she sighed, and we all laughed. To fit in all she'd need to do is add "Vander" to the front of it! Dutch coffee flows freely in the dining hall, and you can even pick up Dutch conversations at times. When I left for the airport, Oma was singing hymns in the lobby with other residents.

Oma's new home overlooks a golf course and she can see
Mt. Baker from her living room window
I'm thankful to be home again with Danny and the kids, but really grateful to have been part of this important transition for Oma. Given some time, I'm confident that she'll be happy in her new home. The new apartments being constructed across the street will obstruct her view of Mt. Baker somewhat, but I reminded her that the best view is yet to come. While she wasn't too excited about this move, she's very much looking forward to that one. Meanwhile, she's in good company.