On the Cosmology of Fireworks

One of the great paradoxes of creation and our existence in God’s world is that many blessings are unlocked by explosive, even violent, forces. The cosmos itself is hurtling outward in a massive explosion. Here we are, living part way through that explosion.

When I consider the fireworks on the Fourth of July, I often think that each of those beautiful, fiery explosions is a miniature replica of the cosmos. Everywhere in the universe, the burning embers we call stars and galaxies glow brightly as they hurtle outward at close to one hundred million miles per hour. Yes, from one great singularity, God sent the power of His fiery, creative love expanding outward, giving life, and seeming almost limitless. The cosmos is unimaginably large, but its creator is infinitely large.

Even here on Earth, a relatively cool and stable bit of dust compared to the Sun, we stand upon a thin crust of land floating over an explosive sea of molten, fiery rock. The Book of Job says,

As for the earth, out of it comes bread; Yet underneath it is turned up as it were by fire (Job 28:5).

This fiery cauldron produces the rich soil in which we grow our very bread. The smoke and gases of the fires provide essential ingredients of the atmosphere that sustains us. The molten fires beneath us also create a magnetic field that envelops Earth and deflects the most harmful of the Sun’s rays.

Yes, all around us there is fire with its explosive violence, yet from it come life and every good gift.

To small creatures like us, God’s expansive love can seem almost violent. Indeed, there are terrifying experiences near volcanos and from solar bursts that remind us that love is both glorious and unnerving. It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God (Heb 10:31).

In some of our greatest human works, we too use violent means. The blades of our plows cut into the earth, violently overturning it. We raise animals and then lead them to slaughter for food and/or clothing. We break eggs to make omelets. We stoke fires to cook our food and warm our homes. We smelt iron and other ore we violently cut from the earth. Even as we drive about in our cars, the ignition of the fuel/air mixture in the engine causes explosions, the energy from which is ultimately directed toward propelling the vehicle.

Violent though much of this is, we do these things (at least in our best moments) as acts of love and creativeness. By them we bring light, warmth, and food. We build and craft; we move products and people to help and bless.

Yes, there is a paradoxical “violence” that comes from the fiery heat of love and creativity. The following is an excerpt from Bianco da Siena’s 14th century hymn to the Holy Spirit, “Come Down, O Love Divine”:

Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming
.

Fire—can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Let the fire burn; let the seemingly transformative “violence” have its way. It makes a kind of paradoxical sense to us living in a universe that is midway through its fiery, expansive explosion of God’s love and creativity.

Disclaimer: I am not affirming gratuitous violence for selfish and/or merely destructive ends. The term “violence” is used here in a qualified manner, as an analogy to convey the transformative and creative power of love phenomenologically.

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Two Teachings on Discipleship from Jesus

In the Gospel for today (Monday of the 13thWeek of the Year) Jesus gives two teachings on discipleship. They are not easy, and they challenge us—especially those of us who live in the affluent West.

Poverty– The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is a critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us.Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God, or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse, the potential disciple of Jesus seems to have had power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he saw Jesus as a political messiah and wanted to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only do they not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that piles of wealth are seldom our lot. Why? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful shortcuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less comfortable place to lay their head. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Thus “poverty” is a discipline of discipleship.What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that is poor. However, it also means being free of the many obligations and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your possessions. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered. Yes, poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.

Promptness (readiness)The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple!”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because. There are always a few things resolved first.

It’s the familiar refrain: I’ll do tomorrow!

There is peril in procrastination. Too many people always look to tomorrow. But remember that tomorrow is not promised. In Scripture there is one word that jumps out repeatedly; it’s the word now. There are many references to the importance of now or today rather than tomorrow:

  • Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).
  • behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
  • Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).
  • Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There is an old preacher’s story about delay: There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man.The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there’s a Hell and most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there’s no Hell or that there’s no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “You’re the man! That’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a discipline of discipleship. It is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

Here are two disciplines of discipleship. They are not easy, but the Lord only commands what truly blesses. There is freedom in poverty and joy in quickly following the Lord!

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Love is Not About Abstractions

In the Office of Readings during the sixth week of Easter, we celebrate the Word becoming flesh. We read from the First Letter of John, which emphasizes the Incarnation of Jesus and demands that we experience the Word becoming Flesh in a practical way in our own lives.

Fundamentally, the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity becoming flesh, means that our faith is about things that are tangible. As human beings, we have bodies. We have a soul that is spiritual, but it is joined with a body that is physical and material. Hence it is never enough for our faith to be about only thoughts, philosophies, concepts, or historical facts. Their truth must also touch the physical part of who we are. Our faith must become flesh; it has to influence our behavior. If that is not the case, then the Holy Spirit, speaking through John, has something to call us: liars.

God’s love for us in not just a theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can be seen, heard, and touched. The challenge of the Christmas season is for us to allow the same thing to happen to our faith. The Word of God and our faith cannot simply remain on the pages of a book or in the recesses of our intellect. They must become flesh in our life. Our faith has to leap off the pages of the Bible and the Catechism and become flesh in the way we live our life, the decisions we make, and the way we use our body, mind, intellect, and will.

Consider the following passage, read at Mass during the Christmas season. (This excerpt is fairly representative of the tone of entire First Letter of John.)

The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:3ff).

Note some teachings that follow from it:

1. Faith is incarnational. What a practical man John is! Faith is not an abstraction; it is not merely about theories and words on a page. It cannot be reduced to slogans or pious sayings. It is about a transformed life; it is about truly loving God and making His Commandments manifest in the way we live. It is about the loving of neighbor. True faith is incarnational. That is to say, it takes on flesh in our very “body.”

Human beings are not pure spirit; we are not just intellect and will but also flesh and blood. What we are must also be reflected in our bodies, in what we physically do.

Many people spout this phrase too often: “I’ll be with you in spirit.” Perhaps an occasional physical absence is understandable, but after a while the phrase rings hollow. Showing up physically and doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. Our faith must include a physical, flesh-and-blood dimension.

2. A sure signJohn said, The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Now be careful of the logic here. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of faith; it is more the fruit of it. It is not the cause of love; it is the fruit of it.

In Scripture, “knowing” refers to more than an intellectual level. It refers to deep, intimate, personal experience of the thing or person. It is one thing to know about God; it is another thing to “know the Lord.”

John is saying here that in order to be sure that we have deep, intimate, personal experience of God, we must change the way we live. An authentic faith, an authentic knowing of the Lord, will change our behavior in such a way that we keep the commandments as a fruit of that authentic faith and relationship with Him. It means that our faith becomes flesh in us. Theory becomes practice and experience. It changes the way we live and move and have our being.

For a human being, faith cannot be a mere abstraction. In order to be authentic, it has to become flesh and blood. In a later passage, John uses the image of walking: This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:6). Although walking is a physical activity, it is also symbolic. The very place we take our body is physical, but it is also indicative of what we value, what we think.

3. Liar? John went on to say, Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar. This is strong language. Either we believe and thus keep the commandments, or we are lying about really knowing the Lord and we fail to keep the commandments.

Don’t all of us struggle to keep the commandments fully? John seems so “all or nothing” in his words. His math is clear, though. To know the Lord fully is never to sin (cf 1 John 3:9). If we know Him only imperfectly, we still experience sin. Hence, the more we know Him (remember the definition of “know”) the less we sin. If we still sin, it is a sign that we do not know Him enough.

It is not really John who speaks too absolutely; it is we who do so. We say, “I have faith. I am a believer. I love the Lord. I know the Lord.” Perhaps we would be more accurate by saying, “I am growing in faith. I am striving to be a better believer. I am learning to love and know the Lord better and better.” If we do not, then we risk lying. Faith is something we grow in.

Many in the Protestant tradition tend to reduce faith to an event: answering an altar call or accepting the Lord as “personal Lord and savior.” We Catholics do it, too. Many Catholics think that all they have to do is be baptized; they don’t bother to attend Mass faithfully later. Others claim to be “loyal” or even “devout” Catholics yet dissent from important Church teachings. Faith is about more than membership. It is about the way we walk, the decisions we make. Without this harmony between faith and action, we live a lie. We lie to ourselves and to others. The bottom line is that if we really come to know the Lord more and more perfectly, we will grow in holiness, keep the commandments, and be of the mind of Christ. We will walk just as Jesus walked and our claim to faith will be the truth and not a lie.

4. Uh oh, is this salvation by works? No, but it is a reminder that we cannot separate faith and works. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of saving or real faith. Properly understood, the keeping of the commandments is the result of saving faith actively present and at work within us. It indicates that the Lord is saving us from sin and its effects.

The Protestant tradition erred in dividing faith and works. In the 16th century, the cry when up from Protestants that we are saved by “faith alone.” Faith is never alone; it always brings effects with it.

Our brains can get in the way here and tempt us to think that just because we can distinguish or divide something in our mind we can do so in reality, but this is not always the case.

Consider, for a moment, a flame. It has the qualities of heat and light. We can separate the two in our mind, but not in reality. I could never take a knife and divide the heat of the flame from its light. They are so interrelated as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a flame are distinguishable theoretically, but they are always together in reality.

This is how it is with faith and works. Faith and works are distinguishable theoretically, but the works of true faith and faith itself are always together in reality. We are not saved by works alone or by faith alone. They are together. Faith without works is dead (James 2:14). In other words, faith without works is a nonexistent concept; it is not a saving or living faith. Rather, as John teaches here, to know the Lord by living faith is always accompanied by keeping the commandments and walking as Jesus did.

So, faith is incarnational. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, really and physically. Similarly, our own faith must become flesh in us, in our actual behavior.

The following was sung in my own parish by the St. Luke’s Ordinariate Choir:

Kindness Is Not the Same as Love

Many decades ago, C.S. Lewis wrote about the problem of substituting kindness for love:

We [speak] nowadays almost exclusively [of God’s] lovingness …. And by love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others happy …. What would really satisfy us would be a god who said of anything we happened to be doing, “What does it matter as long as they are contented?” We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in Heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves ….

Kindness, as such cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering.

[But] As scripture points out, it is bastards who are spoiled: the legitimate sons who are to carry on the family tradition are punished …. With our friends, our lovers and our children we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.

[Hence] If God is love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness …. [And] though he has often rebuked and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense  (The Problem of Pain, Chapter 3).

We do well to ponder that being loving is not the same as being kind. Love should not be reduced to mere kindness, but our reductionist culture has tended to do so. The results have often been problematic. To reflect on this problem, I’d like to use some insights from an article by Peter Kreeft, written some years ago.

Kreeft defines kindness as “sympathy, with the desire to relieve another’s suffering” [Envoy Magazine, Vol 9.3, p. 20]. Kindness is certainly a good thing and has an important place in our relationships. It is evidenced by goodness, charitable behavior, pleasantness, tenderness, and concern for others. According to Aristotle, kindness is an emotion manifesting itself in the desire to help someone in need without expecting anything in return.

However, as Kreeft himself notes, it is a great mistake to equate kindness with love. Kindness is an aspect of love but it is necessarily distinct from it, for it sometimes happens that love, which wills what is best for the other, may deem it best not to remove all suffering. For example, a father may impose punishment on his child out of love.

Kindness generally seeks to alleviate suffering and negativity, but love understands that suffering often has a salvific role. My parents disciplined me out of love. Had they been merely kind to me, I would likely have been spoiled, undisciplined, and ill-prepared for life.

Paradoxically, the more we love, the more we see mere kindness diminish. Consider how kind we can be to strangers. We may sometimes give money to strangers with no or few questions asked, but if our children ask for money we want to know why. And even if we give it to them, we may lecture them about being more responsible with their money. The interaction may be less kind, but it is more loving because it seeks to solve the underlying problem rather than merely relieving the symptom.

The good eclipses the best. Herein lies the danger in reducing love to kindness: In simply seeking to alleviate the suffering of the moment or to give people what they want, many deeper issues go unresolved and can even be worsened.

Welfare has engendered a slavish dependence in some people in our country—and it is not just the urban poor to whom I refer. There are many other entitlements that some feel they cannot do without. There are numerous corporate subsidies as well that fall into this category.

Rather than addressing the root causes of poverty, dependence, or even poor business models, kindness interrupts love’s deeper role and treats only the suffering of the moment. In this sense, the merely good (kindness) replaces the truly best (love). True love gives what is best, not merely what is immediately desired. Kindness too often looks merely to relieve whereas true love looks to heal, something that often involves painful choices.

Further, many false expectations are centered on the exaltation of kindness over love. In our culture, this is manifested in the fact that suffering of any sort is seen as unbearable and even a reason for legal action. It has also led to our insistence on comfort accelerating out of control. The demand for euthanasia flows from this sort of thinking as well.

A final, terrible effect often flows from mistaking mere kindness for love: it disposes many towards atheism. Here I will simply quote Peter Kreeft directly, because he says it so well:

It is painfully obvious that God is not mere kindness, for He does not remove all suffering, though He has the power to do so. Indeed, this very fact—that the God who is omnipotent and can, at any instant, miraculously erase all suffering from the world, deliberately chooses not to do so—is the commonest argument that unbelievers use against him. The number one argument for atheism stems from the confusion between love and kindness [Peter Kreeft, Envoy Magazine, Vol 9.3, p. 20].

Kindness is certainly a positive attribute and surely has its place, but we must carefully distinguish it from love. Exalting kindness over love amounts to a denial of the wisdom of the cross. Kindness focuses on comfort and the alleviation of suffering, which is itself a good thing, but love is a greater thing, for it focuses on healing and wills what is best, not merely granting what is desired. Sadly, however, many prefer temporal relief to healing.

This video tells a beautiful story, one of how kindness is tied to sacrificial love and seeks to bring healing (even at great cost) rather than mere relief.