On Golf and God. A Meditation on the One Thing Necessary

I have lamented with you before on this blog that few speak much of heaven today but focus more on earthly creature comforts as the goal and measure of their happiness. Further, even when heaven is discussed, the description contains everything but the “one thing necessary.” Often when describing heaven one will hear of happiness that that never ends, mansions, gold streets, “purly” gates, and being able to “play all the golf I want.” Others will describe being reunited with loved ones or of being free of suffering. All this is fine and largely true. But what is striking, is the omission of any mention of God. God after all is the “one thing necessary” to make heaven be heaven.

Martha, Martha: This expression, “the one thing necessary” comes from Luke 10:42 where Jesus gently rebukes Martha for missing the main point of life: which is union with God. Martha busies herself with many things, even things that will serve the Lord, but in the end she misses the Lord! To put it in the terms of a modern euphemism: “Fail!”

The “obedient son” in the Prodigal Son story also got it wrong when he angrily tells his father, “You never even gave me a kid goat to celebrate with my friends!” (Lk 15:29).  But of course the goal in life is not celebrate with your friends. It is to celebrate with the Father, God the Father. Hence the Father stands outside and pleads for him to enter the feast and celebrate with him.

The people at the lakeside also missed the one thing necessary. In John 6, Jesus had multiplied the loaves. And later, when they came looking for more free bread, Jesus warned them that getting their bellies filled with worldly food was not the point. They should seek the food the which the Son of Man would given them. When Jesus went on to describe that he himself was that bread, they left him. Thus they would no longer follow in his company and forfeited the one thing necessary.

Well you get the point, namely that God is the point. To consider heaven without including God is a remarkable oversight. It is like describing the ocean without mentioning water. An old song says, God and God alone, will be the joy of our eternal home. He will be our one desire, Our hearts will never tire, of God and God alone!

This leads me to a remarkable description of Hell that I recently rediscovered when reading Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Book: Three to Get Married. We often think of the sufferings of Hell as terrible things like fire, where the worm dies not, wrath, and wailing and grinding of teeth. None of these are per se wrong, they are mentioned in Scripture! But Hell’s deepest suffering is the lack of “the one thing necessary.” Sheen repeats the following joke in his Book:

There is not a golfer in America who has not heard the story, which is theologically sound, about the golfer who went to hell and asked to play golf. The Devil showed him a 36-hole course with a beautiful clubhouse, long fairways, perfectly placed hazards, rolling hills, and velvety greens. Next the Devil gave him a set of clubs so well balanced that the golfer felt he had been swinging them all his life. Out to the first tee they stepped, ready for a game. The golfer said: “What a course! Give me the ball.” The Devil answered: “Sorry….we have no balls. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57).

Wow! Ouch!  That IS the hell of it! To have all that, and lack the one thing necessary! Nothing else really works, or matters much, without the one thing necessary. In the joke everything is in place and wonderfully set forth on the golf course, except the one thing necessary, the ball!  The golf course becomes a golf curse.

In my last parish I lived in a rectory with a long hall. I used to putt a golf ball up and down the hall. I had an executive putt-putt set with obstacles, and golf goals with automatic returns, etc. But in the end, all I really needed was a ball to have fun. I didn’t even need a club, I could use a long umbrella if I had to, or even just kick the ball. My cat would also love to chase the ball up the hall and pounce. But all the other gizmos and gadgets I had meant nothing without the ball, they were useless.  Without the ball even the cat wouldn’t show up.

The heart of Heaven is to be with God. Scripture says, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

The heart of Hell is to lack God, to lack the one thing necessary. God is the sine qua non, the absolute requirement for every other joy or pleasure to make any sense or be operative. The heart of Hell is to have rejected God permanently, and to discover that the absolute and final rejection of Him is to experience the withdrawal of every other pleasure. Only in God will my soul be at rest! (Ps 62:5)

In fact, like the golf course in Hell, those pleasures look back at the denizens of  Hell and mock them, make the suffering more intense. Because, though the pleasures are near at hand, they may as well be ten thousand miles away. They are useless and their nearness only intensifies the pain and the frustration. This is possibly worse than any hell-fire and may well explain the wailing and grinding of teeth by the hell-bound described in Scripture.

In life, don’t miss the one thing necessary, which is not a thing at all, but is God himself. The Father, in the prodigal son parable came out and begged his second son to enter the feast and celebrate with him. The Heavenly Father does the same now….What is your answer?

On the Paradox of Order as a "Proof" of God’s Existence

One of the things that most amazes me about the universe is its order. And its order is even more striking in the face of another force of apparent disorder. Let me explain.

The Source of order. When we look at things we can observe that, left to themselves, things tend to fall apart and and become disorderly. I think that science calls this process entropy and that it is related to the second law of thermodynamics. But consider with me for a moment a house in Detroit. Let’s say that in 1890 human beings assembled basic elements like wood, nails, brick, glass, and so forth and ordered (or assembled) these materials into a complex system known as a house. It has divisions, known as rooms. It has a purpose, known as shelter. Now, as long as humans live in or near the house and maintain it, the house continues to exist as an orderly and purposeful system. But suppose now it is 1985 and, due to the economic factors, the house becomes abandoned. Within a few years the order of the house will begin to decay. Perhaps within fifty years it will have completely collapsed and been reclaimed by the earth. This illustrates the tendency of things to fall apart unless they are acted upon by some force outside themselves to order and sustain them.

The Paradox of order – As we look around we DO see that entropy (the tendency of things to fall apart or revert to less complex states) does exist. And yet we ALSO observe the exact opposite. All around us is order and purpose. Somehow things have sprung up into orderly systems. Explosive disorder (the big bang) swirled into orderly and complex systems known as Galaxies and solar systems. Here on earth from the most basic elements of dust and water, complex life forms have developed. These life forms exhibit order and purpose. A complex ecosystem interacts at multiple levels and exhibits tremendous order and synergy. And all of this exists in world where we also learn that, without some unifying force things tend to fall into disorder. Life is ordered energy and death is disordered energy. Order is a paradox.

What causes the order and directs the purpose and complex interaction and order of all things? To me, creation shouts the existence of one who orders and directs its. We who believe call this someone, “God.” It seems evident to me that without God’s purposeful ordering of things, the tendency of things to fall apart and return to basic, less complex systems (entropy) would envelop all things. Just like the abandoned farmhouse described above, all the complexity and biodiversity we see in the world around us would collapse and be reclaimed by more basic elements. Like the farmhouse, something or someone sustains all this, and orders it.  Creation shouts out God.

I suppose I might call this argument for the existence of God, the Argument from the Paradox of Order. But in reality it is rather close to an argument that St. Thomas advanced in the Summa long before my current feeble attempt:

The fifth way [of demonstrating God’s existence]  is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. (Summa I, 2.3)

Here is a beautiful video that rejoices with wonder and awe at what God has made:


Believe in God? You’re never alone!

In downtown Washington, I noticed this sign on the side of a bus stop. It seems that a group of atheists has purchased advertising space throughout the Washington Metro system with this depressing message.

“To spray paint or not to spray paint?”; That was my question.

I had immediate thoughts of how I could possibly blunt this foolish message.  Though I would never actually do such as thing, the use of spray paint came to mind. I was outraged to say the least. But, the most comforting part of my reaction was that I was not alone in my anger.

Don’t believe in Atheists? Join the Club!

I do not exactly have a poker face so my disgust was fairly obvious to others at the bus stop. Immediately, another of my fellow Washingtonians shared his disgust. Soon enough, several people at bus stop were praising God by talking about the ridiculousness of such an ad campaign.  It should be noted that not one atheist was in sight to defend the sign.

“No weapon formed against you shall prosper!” – Isaiah 54:17

Here is the irony. A sign designed to insult our faith in God and turn others further away from Christ prompted a bunch of strangers to share our testimony of the goodness of God. It was almost like we were having church while waiting for a Metro bus. Now, admittedly, most church services don’t start with a deacon exclaiming, “Can you believe this mess?!” but, it was church nonetheless.  This experience was proof to me that God’s prophecy to Isaiah was true – “No weapon formed again you can prosper.  Every tongue you shall prove false that launches an accusation against you. This is the lot of the servants of the LORD, their vindication from me, says the LORD.” – Is 54:17.

The weapon in this case was a sign at a bus stop insulting our faith.  The result was a group of Christians exclaiming their faith.  When something like this happens, how could you NOT believe in God?

The New Evangelization”

The Archbishop of Washington recently released a letter entitled “The New Evangelization.” As the title suggests, it concerns itself with the need to spread our faith as well as strengthen the faith of those who already call themselves Catholic. The need for evangelization takes on a new urgency when one realizes that the enemy is hard at work doing the exact opposite – just read the signs.  And remember, if you don’t believe in God, you are more alone than you think!

Check out Cardinal-designate Wuerl’s letter at http://www.adw.org/pastoral/pdf/ADW_PastoralNewE_Eng.pdf

How about a Little Humility

When I was a little kid the science books said that the universe was in a steady state and had existed forever. There were some theories about the universe actually expanding but these were not accepted by most who declared the steady state universe to be a matter of “settled” science. Though evidence had been building through the 20th Century for an expanding universe (red shift etc.) and the “Big Bang” that started everything,  many ridiculed the Big Bang Theory with slogans like “Big Bust” and “Big Boom.” Discoveries in the mid sixties (e.g. background microwave radiation) shifted the debate and the Big Bang Theory won the day. But the fact is, in my own lifetime cosmology (How we understand the universe) has undergone a seismic shift. The science was not so settled after all.

When I was in High School the scientific world was all abuzz with climate change. But in the 1970s “climate change” referred to the fact that a new ice age was coming. It was held that man made pollution would so block the sun’s rays, that by the year 2000 the ice caps would be advancing and winters in the north would become increasingly frigid and summers shorter. The usual calamities were predicted: widespread hunger since growing seasons would shorten, extinctions etc. By the dreaded year, 2000,  many the same climatologists were predicting global warming and the same catastrophic consequences but now postponed to 2050 or beyond. These climatologists demand that we accept that their conclusions are “settled science.” Another seismic shift in my own lifetime and pardon me if I am a bit less certain than is demanded of me.

Science has brought us many blessings, but it would seem humility is not among those blessings. We do well to rediscover words like theory, possibility, assumption, premise, thesis, supposition and the like.

I am not attacking science here. True science is comfortable with the fact that, as evidence changes, so do theories. Likewise, our capacity to measure changes and generally gets better. This brings forth new data and shifts theories, sometimes in significant ways. This is part of the scientific method wherein data and evidence are accepted and interpreted in an on-going way so that theories grow and sometimes change.

But we are living in a world increasingly dominated by advocacy science. The “cause” too often eclipses the science.  Funding too has become a pernicious influence and whole scientific disciplines start to follow the money more than the data. “Popular” and politically savvy theories get funded, unpopular less politically correct ones do not. Popular media also influences science more than it should.  Some scientists get the interview, others do not and thus pop science often eclipses the truer and careful laboratory science.

Through it all, there are still wonderful scientists and great things happening in science. And the best of it is restoring a  lot of humility to the equation. Quantum theory is bewildering to be sure but it is showing the limits of our current understanding. Physics is bumping up against metaphysics, science is rubbing shoulders with philosophy, the material world seems to be pointing beyond itself.

This is not an essay in radical skepticism. There ARE many things we do know. But there are so many more that we do not know. We are not even sure how something as basic as gravity works. What we know amounts to a period at the end of a sentence in one book in the Library of Congress. And there are a LOT of books in the Library of Congress. Scripture says of the created world, Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of Gods’ works have we seen. (Sirach 43:34). It is humility that is necessary in the great pursuit of science.

In theology too humility is essential. Here,  as in science,  there are many things we know by faith and are certain about, things which God himself has revealed. But many other things are mysterious to us and we dare not ever think we have God or even the mystery of our own life fully figured out. God is “Other” and cannot be reduced to our thoughts or words. And thus we speak with clarity about what has certainly been revealed. But we also reverence the mystery of what is beyond our understanding with humility. To hand on what has been revealed intact and to insist upon it is not the arrogance that some claim. Rather it is the humility of accepting what God has revealed intact without selectively choosing what merely appeals to us. But even as we speak of what we surely know by God’s revelation, we are always humbly aware of what we do not know.

In the Book of Proverbs there is an important reminder: Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Prov 26:12) 

By the way, double click on the picture above and you’ll get a better look at how beautiful it really is. It also illustrates how the huge mountains on this planet are tiny compared to the vast universe. So too our knowledge compared to what can be known.

Here is a good video that shows a consistent lack of humility in the many prognosticators of our day. It is a very cleverly done video.

Wonder and Awe File: On the Magnificence and”Minificence”of Creation

I know,  I made the word up: “minificence.” I’ll define in a moment. But I want to ponder with you for a moment the awesome mystery of size and numbers as we look out and as we look in.

Outer Space: As we look out on to God’s Universe we cannot even fathom how huge, how magnificent, is the size of the universe. We cannot comprehend such size.

Inner Space: But what is equally amazing is how vast a universe exists, hid from our unaided eyes, in what we might call “inner space,”  that tiny, almost invisible world of microbiology. In just a drop of pond water may exist hundreds of thousands of bacteria and microorganisms, a veritable universe unto itself. Indeed, in every human body exists trillions of microorganisms in a kind of microbial fauna. Eighty different types of microorganisms live in the mouth alone. Every square centimeter of human bowel contains as many as ten billion organisms. Every square centimeter of skin contains 10 million individual bacteria. Even on our eyelashes are  colonies of helpful bacteria and microorganisms that help keep harmful bacteria away. These massively numbered civilizations, universes really, of microorganisms, are only known recently with the invention of powerful microscopes. And to the micro-world of microorganisms, our bodies must seem as massive as the universe of outer space seems to us. If a microorganism could think, it would look upon our mere tiny bodies as a vast universe to large to really comprehend. Instead of trillions of stars, there are trillions of microorganisms. And to a microbe on eyelash,  a bacteria on the toe exists millions of light years away.

Minificence and Magnificence! If outer space is magnificent (from the Latin magnus meaning large or great) then inner space is (according to me) minificent (from the Latin minimus meaning small or tiny). The abundance of life in these “small” worlds is unimaginable. To the microorganisms which accompany me I am a universe too vast to comprehend. But I am but one man and there are over six billion human beings on this planet. And I, even we collectively,  am not large at all. I am an infinitesimally small speck, on a slightly larger but still tiny speck of dust rotating around a fiery spark called the sun  in a galaxy of over 200 billion other fiery sparks (or stars). And this is just one galaxy and there are over 125 billion other galaxies in the known universe so large that it would take over 100 million light years to cross it.

Time for wonder and awe! We’ve moved from inner space to outer space in a matter of moments but we really cannot comprehend numbers like these. It’s time for wonder and awe. God does all this with a simple word, and it is so. He knows the depths of our souls, the tiniest forms of life that cling to us. Every hair of our head is numbered and known to him. He knows the farthest fringes of the universe. He made the stars and calls them by name. Ah the Lord: He who dismisses the light, and it departs, calls it, and it obeys him trembling; Before whom the stars at their posts shine and rejoice;  When he calls them, they answer, “Here we are!” shining with joy for their Maker. (Baruch 3:33-35). One of the great hymns says: O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder; Consider all the works Thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

Do not forget to meditate on God’s wonders. It is a great antidote to pride. God has done unspeakable and marvelous things. And more is unseen than seen. The book of Sirach says: Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of his works have we seen. (Sirach 43:34)