We were made for hope

The morning news is rarely uplifting. Even less so, the morning news that includes an interview with the man who recently headed the government agency on biomedical and public health research.  But not too long ago I heard just such an interview, and quite unexpectedly, it gladdened my heart.

The man is Francis Collins, and until recently, he headed the National Institute of Health, one of the agencies tasked with combating COVID in the US. He is also, as the public radio host pointed out in her introduction, a Christian.

I guess I’ve been hiding under a rock for several years, because I haven’t been aware that an evangelical Christian who used to be an atheist has been head of this agency for the last 12 years. Now, this isn’t a tidy story. He has apparently been a thorn in the side of the “haven’t we outlawed this religion nonsense yet” crowd, but at the same time, under his leadership, the NIH has gone full steam ahead on some grossly unethical research

His personal faith is not really what this essay is about, though; although it was pleasant to hear a man so humbly describing his conversion story, and a public radio host listening so respectfully. If you haven’t heard it, here is how he told it to the host, Rachel Martin:

It was medical school. It was that third year of medical school, where you’re not in the classroom anymore. You’re on the hospital wards. You’re sitting at the bedside of good North Carolina people whose lives are coming to an end, sometimes with a great deal of pain and suffering. And you’re realizing your medical tools are inadequate to actually help them very much.

And I had a moment where a patient of mine, who I’d gotten kind of attached to – an elderly woman kind of like my grandmother – who shared her faith with me and then turned to me one afternoon and said, you know, Doctor, I’ve told you about my beliefs, and you haven’t said anything. What do you believe? What do you believe? Nobody ever quite asked me that question. And, Rachel, at that moment, I realized, I have no idea. I have settled on atheism because it was the answer I was most comfortable with, and it meant I didn’t really have to look into this. But I’m a scientist. I’m not supposed to make big decisions without looking at evidence. I’ve got to look into it.”


What he did next was to ask a pastor friend some challenging questions, and the man directed him toward the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which led him to understand that science is meant to answer one kind of question, and religion is meant to answer another. You don’t have to choose one or the other, despite what so many on both sides of our deeply divided society believe, or want to believe.

The host asked him about that divide, and about how he finds hope. He responded that he finds it in his faith. Then he said:

“I also have hope that human nature, despite all of its foibles, is basically put together in a way that over time we find a way to do the right thing, even after making a lot of mistakes along the way.”

This struck me as a message from Heaven. And this is the part I really want to focus on.

Here is a man who believes that God made us. And how did God make us? To be good. Maybe not all the time, and maybe not perfectly, and maybe not right away, but eventually, stumblingly, partially, or even just as a race: That’s what we do. That’s what the human race is: It is good. I guess I had forgotten that!

It’s become commonplace, in these dreadful, exhausting times, to look backward through history and to see plainly the fruitless cycles we seem doomed to walk through, over and over again. We struggle, we gain ground, we flourish, and then we come to ruin, over and over and over again. This is the story of mankind, on every continent, in every age, sooner or later, in big ways and in small. It seems like a story of constant, inescapable ruin. Fruitless, pointless.

But here is a man who saw this cycle as a story not of repeated failure, but of repeated hope. He is 71 years old, and he still thinks that people are basically put together in such a way that they are oriented toward the good, at least to try. This is a thing he’s saying in the beginning of the year 2022, after leading the fight he leaded, and after seeing what he’s seen.

I do believe, as we should all believe as Catholics, that there will eventually come an end to the world. There will not just be endless cycles to human life. Human history as we know it will someday cease, and a new age will begin, and we don’t know what that will look like. But I think that, right up until that time (which, Jesus insists, we do not know), it’s our job to keep turning and turning over the soil to find the next harvest.

It’s been a deeply discouraging few years, for countless, cascading reasons. We may have allowed ourselves to half believe that we’re just plain run out of goodness, as a human race.

But that’s not how we’re made.

What do you believe? What do you believe? I believe we were made by God to be good. We were made by God for constant conversion. There’s always the possibility of conversion, always the chance to try again to do good. If an atheist doctor can decide to ask hard questions about existence, then I, who already know about God, can decide to look for Him in my fellow fooling fumbling humans. We can ask God for help, and we can find that goodness, one more time. 

 

Photo by Kumaraguru via Pixahive 
A version of this essay was originally published on March 8, 2022 in The Catholic Weekly.

Everyday martyrdom for the weak and afraid

If you have ever looked in the mirror and thought with shame and distress that you could never die for your faith, think again. Life in Christ is a life of a thousand, million little deaths: deaths to old ways of thinking, death to false security, death to complacency, death to trivial comforts. Any time you inquire about your Faith, you are whispering to Christ, however reluctantly, that you are open to killing off some part of yourself that does not deserve to live.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Photo: By nieznany – Polish Righteous awarded with medals for bravery by the Holocaust Remembrance Authority. Cropped and color managed by Poeticbent (dyskusja · edycje), Domena publiczna, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7130230

At the Register: Something Other than God: Jennifer Fulwiler’s New Memoir

. . . is great! Of course it is. But it’s even better than I expected.

Don’t you love the cover? It’s finally ready for just plain buying, rather than pre-ordering. And check out Jennifer’s site for the launch party including a HUGE contest with LOTS of excellent prizes. Dammit, it’s no fair that someone who write so well should also be such an excellent promoter! Well, I hear she has big feet, so there’s some comfort.

Next Year in Jerusalem

Have you taught your children that, while Christmas is very important, it’s really Easter that’s the greatest feast of the year? Do they buy it?

When I was little, this point of doctrine was obvious: All during Holy Week, my father could be heard practicing the Exsultet to chant at the Easter vigil, as my mother fried and ground up liver and onions in preparation for the Passover seder. The fragrant schmaltzy steam of the chicken soup, the palm leaves, bags of jelly beans for Easter Sunday and the boxes of jellied fruit slices for the seder—these were all equally essential for Holy Week. We drooled over the growing heaps of luscious Passover food as we suffered the final pangs of Lenten sacrifices. My mother covered her head to bless the candles at the start of the seder, and then a few hours later, hovered over us in the pew to save us from singeing our hair on the Easter candles. I can’t imagine eating leftover gefilte fish without a chocolate bunny on the side; and I can’t imagine hearing “Christ our light!” without echoes of “Dayenu!” – “It would have been enough!” still lingering, both exultant prayers of thanksgiving to the God who always gives more than we deserve.

You might be pardoned for imagining some kind of schizophrenic clash of cultures in my house, but that’s not how it was. My parents did struggle to synthesize the incongruities between Catholicism and Judaism (and for a hilarious read, check out my mother’s account of interfaith communications). My parents were raised secular Jews, and went through a long and strange exodus through the desert together, and eventually converted to Christianity—and then, when I was about 4, to Catholicism.

But for us kids, there was no incongruity: Growing up Hebrew Catholics just meant having much more FUN on Easter than anyone else. My Christian friends wore straw hats, ate jelly beans, and maybe dyed eggs if their mothers could abide the mess. We, on the other hand, whooped it up for an entire weekend as we prepared for and celebrated the Passover seder, the ceremonial feast which Jesus ate with his disciples at the Last Supper. At our seder, which we held on Holy Saturday, there was chanting and clapping, giggling over the mysterious and grisly ceremonial roasted egg and horseradish root, glass after glass of terrible, irresistible sweet wine,

special silver and china that only saw the light of day once a year, pillows for the chairs so we could “recline,” and the almost unbearable sweetness as the youngest child asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

It was different because, every single year on that night, there were laughter and tears. The laughter was always more: I waited with bated breath for my father, after drinking his third or fourth ceremonial glass of wine, to trip over the Psalm and say, “What ails thee, o mountains, that you skip like rams? And o ye hills, like lung yams?” And then there are the tears, when we remember the slaying of the first born, and a drop of wine slips from our fingertips onto the plate.

Most Catholics are familiar with the idea that Moses prefigured Christ: Baby Moses was spared from Pharaoh’s infanticide, as baby Jesus was spared from Herod’s; Moses rescued his people from slavery, as Christ rescues us all from sin and death; the angel of death passed over the houses whose doors were marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb, just as death passes over the souls of those marked with the sign of baptism. Moses brought the Jews on a generation-long journey through the desert, during which God showed constant mercy and forgiveness, and the people demonstrated constant faithlessness and ingratitude—a journey which is mirrored in the lives of everyone. And Moses eventually brought the people within sight of the promised land of Canaan, as Christ has promised He will lead us to the gates of Heaven.

I will always remember my father pausing in the middle of the ceremony, and holding up the broken afikomen matzoh to the light of the candles. When he had the attention of all the children he would ask, “Do you see the light, shining through the holes? Do you see it?

It is pierced, just like Jesus’ hands, feet and sides were pierced. And do you see the stripes? Just like Jesus was striped by the whip of the Romans.” And then we would replace the matzoh in the middle compartment of a silken pouch. This special pouch held three sheets of matzoh (a Trinity?)—and the middle one would be hidden away (as if in a tomb?). Until it was taken out and consumed, we couldn’t have dessert. All the sweets that were waiting in the other room—the chocolate and honey sponge cake, the fruit slices, the nuts and blonde raisins, the halvah and the macaroons—all of these had to wait until that middle piece was found and found (resurrected?) again.

But what always stopped me in my tracks is something my father discovered one year. Imagine, he told us, the Hebrews in their homes, painting their doorpost and lintel with the blood of the lamb as the Lord commanded. They would raise their arm to brush the blood on the top of the door, and then down again to dip again into the blood; and then up to the left, to mark the post on one side, and then to the right … does this sound familiar?

Act it out: up, down, left, right.  It’s very possible that, thousands of years before Calvary, the children of God were already making the sign of the cross.

Make of it what you will. At our house, what we made of it was that God loves us, has always loved us, and always will love us. “I have been young, and I have grown old, and I have never seen the righteous man forsaken or his children wanting for bread” (Ps 37:25). We are all the chosen people, and God speaks to us each in our own language, through our own traditions.

And I believe that he laughs and weeps along with us when we say with a mixture of bitterness and hope at the end of the seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

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[This post originally ran in Register in 2011 – re-posted at the request of several readers]