I Refuse To Be Content With Shorthand-Reality This Christmas

In front of me, there is a rectangle with rows of little squares on it. On each square a little symbol is emblazoned; bits of circles, lines, or a mash up of the two. Whenever I push on one of the squares, the symbol transfers to my screen, and I call this “writing”. Even more amazing is the fact that you can read it, because we’ve agreed by consensus with our forefathers that these funny little shapes on my keyboard correspond to real sounds, and that the sounds can be mixed together to make words, and that the words can serve as a shorthand way of communicating about real things, real concepts, and real people.

The words themselves are not the reality. They are only a crude substitution for the purposes of communication. It would be tricky, after all, to have to hold up a real tree anytime we wanted to talk about one, or a real lion, for that matter. And intangible things like love and mathematics could hardly be spoken of at all without our language of squiggles and sounds standing in for them. For the most part, having a shorthand system to use for talking about reality is a great advantage. But there is a downside to it as well, coming from the fact that words can only mean as much as we already know. For example, if I write my own name:

Seth Lewis

The words by themselves mean nothing unless you already know something about the living, breathing human who goes by that name and is writing these squiggly shapes for you to read. Even with shorthand, there’s no getting around the fact that it takes time to learn the meaning of most realities, and especially so for personalities. This is why novels must devote so many pages to character development – we need descriptions, thought processes, conversations, and reactions to various situations before we can even begin to build a realistic idea of what shorthand words like “Seth Lewis” actually mean in the reality of living flesh.

It should be no surprise to us, then, that the same is true of the word “God”. By itself, it is a funny-looking set of circling squiggle-lines.

But what is the reality behind it?

It’s popular these days to say that the reality behind “God” is whatever we personally desire: Whether I want a cosmic Mother Nature, a mindless Force, or a Holy Father, I can fill that word however I like, and live my life accordingly. The problem with this idea is that if there is any such real being as God, my personal desires won’t be likely to change his fundamental realities. If some strangers online become firmly convinced that they have the truth about what a Seth Lewis really is, how a Seth Lewis really acts, and how I really think, it still won’t change the actual reality of what I am. In the same way, if we want to know the reality of God, we’ll need something better than our gut feelings and natural preferences to tell us.

Thankfully, we have something better: words from God himself, describing to us in detail how he acts, thinks, converses, and works in various situations. Even more than that, we have the historic appearance of God himself in human flesh – the reason we celebrate Christmas this month – to translate himself into our reality. This means that we can now see how this God thinks, converses, acts, and responds to the various situations of life on earth, as a human. This Christmas season, I don’t want to be content with my current understanding of the old familiar shorthand: God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and such. I want to take time instead to mine the gospel accounts carefully and get to know more about the reality those shorthand words represent. More about the Reality that made himself an infant, brought heaven to earth, and reshaped eternity. More about the Reality that has already changed my own reality more than anything or anyone else. I already know the shorthand. I want to know more of Him.

Forgiveness, Repentance, & The Pope

Last weekend Pope Francis was in Ireland for the World Meeting Of Families. With such a title, it’s no surprise that the Pope took every opportunity to encourage and emphasise the importance of the family. But if you only saw the news, you’ll wonder what families had to do with it, because the media and internet were only interested in the Pope’s words as far as he addressed the terrible abuses of Catholic power in Ireland.

This, of course, is understandable. Ireland is a nation with strong historic ties to Catholicism, but it is also a nation traumatised by unspeakable abuse at the hands of far too many in positions of Church authority. To make a terrible situation even worse, leaders who held the power to stop the abusers worked instead to protect their own, leaving a trail of suffering and disillusionment behind. So it’s little wonder that the most discussed aspect of the Pope’s visit to Ireland is his response to these open wounds. As Pope Francis himself said,

“I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the Church charged with responsibility for their protection and education.”

Cannot fail, indeed: The issue is far too large to ignore. He had to say something. In fact, he touched on the subject several times, expressing his sorrow, shame and outrage, and even asking for forgiveness:

“…I wish to implore the Lord’s mercy for these crimes and to ask forgiveness for them. We ask forgiveness for the cases of abuse in Ireland, the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse on the part of representatives of the Church…”

Forgiveness. If ever there was a thoroughly Christian virtue, this is it. The entire Christian faith is build on the costly forgiveness of our sinful rebellion against God through the blood of Christ. And this vertical forgiveness is supposed to work its way out in our horizontal relationships with each other as well. Jesus himself made it clear that if we cannot forgive each other, we have no business claiming to know his forgiveness.

And yet.

This?

What about justice for those who have been so deeply wronged? Crimes have been committed. Can forgiveness really just brush over them with a bit of white paint and call it a day? What will be done about the rottenness underneath? Thankfully, the Pope recognised that there is more to the story when he ended his prayer for forgiveness this way:

“May the Lord preserve and increase this sense of shame and repentance, and grant us the strength to ensure that it never happens again and that justice is done. Amen.”

Repentance. If ever there was a thoroughly Christian virtue, this is it. It is the unqualified admission of wrong, the recognition of a need to change direction, and the the act of doing so. According to the Bible, no one can receive God’s forgiveness without it. God is certainly willing and able to forgive anyone of any wrong, no matter how horrible, and he does not even require payment. He paid the high price himself on the cross, and it is enough. But there is a requirement that still remains: We must admit our wrong, renounce our rebellion, and turn away from our life lived in selfish independence from God, turning instead to live a God-centered life fueled by strength that God himself supplies. This is repentance.

There is no doubt that Pope Francis drew on excellent words during his visit to Ireland: repentance, justice, forgiveness. But words are not enough. What the nation needs now is a living example of what true repentance looks like. When the cheating tax collector Zacchaeus met Jesus and repented in the gospels, he did not stop at asking forgiveness from those he had stolen from. He gave the money back, times four! The Catholic Church right now has an opportunity to show Ireland and the world that repentance means more than just saying sorry. But to do this, it will take more than well-chosen words on a weekend visit: We need to see a Church that is so committed to the healing of those she has hurt that she would spare no expense and shy away from no humiliation in her quest to make things right. We need to see people who have done wrong coming forward, willing to take the full legal consequences for their crimes and make what restitution they can. We need to see a hierarchy actively and aggressively bringing dark deeds into the light and dealing with them in justice. In other words, we need to see a Church that takes repentance seriously. Not only with words, but with a true change of direction away from self-protection and towards giving herself for the sake of others.

Jesus preached a message of repentance often during his ministry on earth. The Catholic hierarchy has an opportunity right now to show the world what he meant.

On The Origin Of Humanity’s Superpower

“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
But I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?”

So sang Sir Paul McCartney, and all it takes is a few minutes listening to the radio to prove him right. Same goes for silly rom-coms and royal weddings. For some reason, we humans get a bit silly over love. No matter how scientific our philosophy or cold and calculated our theory of existence, there’s nearly always someone in our lives who holds a mysterious power to break through our rigid shell into the gooey centre of our humanity where love is the unrivalled (and often unruly) ruler.

We love. It’s what humans do. The only real difference between us is where we each choose to direct our love: Some turn it in on themselves, while others turn it outward and upward. Still, the common thread of all humanity is this incredible ability to passionately, forcefully love with every fibre of our being.

It’s our superpower.

Our history, literature, and films have documented its use in detail, even in fantastic hypotheticals. And yet – where is the origin story? What explanation can we give for this fire burning in our blood? If it wasn’t a spider bite or an experiment gone wrong, how did it become so intensely strong that it can drive the most rational creatures on the planet to break our bodies and give our lives for the sake of a beautiful face or the colours on a flag?

If we listen to certain scientists, they calmly explain that what we call “love” is actually the inevitable result of meaningless mutations, chemical reactions, and survival instinct. This would make sense if all we ever loved was ourselves, but it makes utter nonsense of our monuments to strong heroes who sacrificed their lives protecting the weak. Survival of the fittest? This origin story doesn’t make sense of us. Our superpower is not a cold-hearted advantage over others. We have a word for people who use power that way: villain. Heroes are always born of love: For nations, for cities, for friends, for family, for strangers – for others.

In all the world, there is only one origin story that does justice to the strength and centrality of our love: It is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine has certainly been the cause of head-scratching through the centuries as we try to understand how God can be one God in substance and nature, and yet exist in never-ending relationship between the three distinct persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But this mystery of the Trinity solves the mystery of us: It shows us that love is central to humanity because love is central to the nature of God. God created us as relational beings because God is a relational being. Why does our passion burn so hot? Because it was kindled in the furnace of God himself. No other concept of God or theory of human beginnings can tell us why it is that we long so desperately to know and be known, to love and be loved. But if the God who made us in his image is himself relational by nature, then he could even be a God whose love is strong enough to cause him to give his life for the sake of humans who rebelled against him. If you want to know why the symbol of the cross is the most common monument on the planet, look no further than this: it is the place where the origin of love became love’s ultimate expression.