The Federalist God is a psychopath

Yesterday, after the mass shooting at baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene wrote: When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.

I gave Fiene the benefit of the doubt. Authors often don’t choose their titles, and editors are always looking for clicks, so maybe he didn’t really mean what the title said.

I read it. He meant it. I’m not familiar enough with Lutheran theology to say whether he’s describing it accurately, but it sure isn’t Catholic theology, and he makes God sound like a psychopath.

First, let’s discuss what Fiene probably meant to say. He meant to say that God can bring good out of any evil; that good will always triumph over evil; that evildoers can kill the body, but not the soul; and that this world is fleeting, but salvation is eternal. He perhaps meant to say that suffering can be salvific, and that physical suffering is not the greatest evil that can be. All true, if perhaps not as comforting to the grieving as he seems to believe.

And he was responding to some awfully cruel and boneheaded comments from the Twitterverse. Snarky atheists are saying things like, “If prayers did anything, [the murdered victims] would still be alive.” They seem to believe that people of faith expect God to leap in like a Jedi and mow down evildoers on behalf of anyone who prays. They betray a complete failure to understand the much-abused divine gift of free will.

Unfortunately, so does Pastor Fiene. Let’s look at what he actually says, what it implies, and how wrong he is.

ERROR #1: The world is evil

When those saints of First Baptist Church were murdered yesterday, God wasn’t ignoring their prayers. He was answering them.

“Deliver us from evil.” Millions of Christians throughout the world pray these words every Sunday morning . . . we are asking God to deliver us out of this evil world and into his heavenly glory, where no violence, persecution, cruelty, or hatred will ever afflict us again.

This is gnosticism. In Genesis, it says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Although creation has been tarnished by original sin, the world is still good, and goodness and holiness can be achieved in this world, in this life. When we pray “deliver us from evil,” we are not asking God to hasten our deaths. We are asking Him to draw us closer to Him in this world so we can be with Him forever in the next.

If death were an answer to prayer, then murder, including abortion and euthanasia, would be the greatest act of charity.

 

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ERROR #2: Everyone who calls himself “Christian” goes straight to Heaven

So the enemies of the gospel can pour out their murderous rage upon Christians, but all they can truly accomplish is placing us into the arms of our savior.

We certainly pray and hope that this is what happened. But we cannot assume that every human who finds himself inside a church is automatically heaven bound. The victims may very well all be saints and martyrs; but the murderer may also very well have shot someone mired in mortal sin. When we sentimentally and carelessly declare all dead people “saints,” we deprive them of what all the dead deserve from us: prayers for their souls.

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ERROR #3, and the worst: Evil has a place in God’s will

Sometimes, God’s will is done by allowing temporal evil to be the means through which he delivers us from eternal evil.

and

We also pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God’s will be done. Sometimes, his will is done by allowing temporal evil to be the means through which he delivers us from eternal evil. Despite the best (or, more accurately, the worst) intentions of the wicked against his children, God hoists them on their own petard by using their wickedness to give those children his victory, even as the wicked often mock the prayers of their prey.

Pastor Fiene comes very close to saying that God wills evil. This idea is so outrageously false, even coming close to saying it is nearly blasphemy.

If God wills evil, He is not God. 

God can bring good out of evil, and He does. God can use suffering to save us, and He does (if we let Him). But listen to me now.

When a man mows down a pregnant woman and her children, this is not God’s will. Not even sorta kinda God’s will, not even God’s-will-by-way-of-man’s-screw-ups, not even a little ugly streak hidden inside the much nicer and larger kind of God’s will that we like better.

God does not and cannot will evil to happen, not even so that good may come of it. God allows evil to happen, because He has given us actual free will. He accepts that evil is in the world because of original sin. But He is the only source of good, and He is the source of nothing but good. Evil cannot come from Him, and He cannot will evil to come about. This is who God is.

When horrible things happen, there is always a contingent of Christians — sometimes even of Catholics — who insist we must breathe shallowly, stretch our eyes open very wide, stare fixedly into the shiny distance, and declare all things good-fine-happy-triumphant-wonderful-terrific and joy-joy-joy-now-now-now. There is always a contingent who will say these things even to the faces of people who have just suffered immense, incomprehensible grief.

It is blasphemy. Christ wept when Lazarus died. Christ begged for his suffering to pass in Gethsemane. Christ cried out in agony and desolation on the Cross. Why? Because suffering is real. Death is horrible. It is not from God. He accepted and allowed and used all the evil and suffering that came into the world through sin, but it was not His will that there should be evil and suffering. He wept.

This is why we hoist a crucifix front and center in our churches, and not a risen Christ: Because this good, great, beautiful, lovable world is soaked with real suffering and real grief. The Christian thing to do is to weep with the ones who mourn, just as Christ did. Not to tell them that a tricksy, winking God somehow wills it, somehow doesn’t mind our blood being spilled, and it’s really all right their babies are riddled with bullet holes, because God, that bastard, willed it to happen.

The crucifix means salvation. The crucifix also means that an immortal God knows what it means to suffer, bleed, and die. It means that God, the source of all that is good, has been pierced for our sins, and that salvation flows from his hands, feet, and side to wash away sin. Only goodness flows from Him. He pours out Himself. He does not, cannot, pour out death.

If you think there’s no difference between what I said and what Pastor Fiene said, then the God you worship does not know pain and is not truly human. He is not, in short, Jesus.

When you are sad, cry.

On the drive home this morning, I decided not to turn on the radio. I wanted to cry, instead, and I didn’t want to be distracted.

We’re fine. Thank God, we’re not dealing with floods and sinkholes and wild boars and floating fire ants, and we’re not refugees or victims of famine. I’m just sad because, among other reasons, I left my five-year-old off at kindergarten for the first time. In her excitement, she ran too fast, tripped, and scraped her knee. With a bloody cut and a hole in her tights, she suddenly lost courage, and so did I; so we clung to each other a little longer than I planned. It’s a tiny, manageable loss, this child heading off to school. But I did want to cry on the way home.

We sometimes want to erase grief immediately, to send an emergency brigade out with a firehose to wash things clean. When a mother miscarries, for instance, she may report to her doctor that she cries, feels sad, and is having a hard time sleeping. I’m not talking about months down the road; I’m talking about grieving immediately after the death of a child. Of course she feels sad. But a doctor’s response is often, “You are depressed. Let me write you a prescription so you feel better.”

Let me be clear. When grief and sorrow are debilitating, antidepressants are a godsend. If sorrow lasts too long and has too much power, it can become paralyzing depression, which roots itself deep in your psyche and separates you from living a full life. I have been on antidepressants myself, and so have some of my family members. Some people castigate mental health drugs as artificial or as a mere band-aid, but in many cases, they can truly heal and restore us to health, to our true selves.

But grief and sorrow are not in themselves pathological. They are, in fact, the only appropriate responses to death, to grief, to separation. I forget the context, but Florence King once skewered oafish do-gooders who couldn’t even wait for the blood to stop flowing before they lept in howling, “Let the healing begin!” There’s nothing healthy about trying to erase grief before it can even declare itself.

That’s why I didn’t want to be distracted by the radio this morning, even though I knew it would stave off tears. Distractions don’t heal grief; they merely chase it into hiding, where it eventually morphs into something uglier, and harder to live with than tears.

We are afraid of grief, and rightly so; but we should also be afraid of losing the ability to feel, and the ability to understand ourselves. When we chase grief away the moment it appears, we are deliberately blinding ourselves to some true part of our own lives. No good can come of that. When we don’t know ourselves, we aren’t free.

Maybe it’s easy for me to say so, while my sorrows are small. But I take my cue from the Psalms, where people with big sorrows also felt free to pour them out without reserve. They wanted the healing to begin, yes, but not before they had their say:

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
    Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
    that was inflicted on me,
that the Lord brought on me
    in the day of his fierce anger?

13 “From on high he sent fire,
    sent it down into my bones.
He spread a net for my feet
    and turned me back.
He made me desolate,
    faint all the day long.

[…]

16 “This is why I weep
    and my eyes overflow with tears.
No one is near to comfort me,
    no one to restore my spirit.
My children are destitute
    because the enemy has prevailed.”

It is good to sit with sorrow for a while. I know it’s not a new idea, and not a ground-shaking one, but maybe you need to hear it today. If you are sad, let yourself cry. If someone you love is sad, don’t try to steamroll them into healing right away. Sorrow has its place, and sorrow will have its due.

IVF jewelry and the scandal of sentimentality

Last week, pop science entertainer Bill Nye set off a wave of righteous indignation by asking, “Should we have policies that penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world?”

The only response is, of course: What the hell do you mean, ‘extra?'” What is an extra child? Who is disposable and extraneous, and who gets to decide? Are you “extra,” Bill Nye? Am I?

Last night, I saw for myself what an extra child looks like. An Australian company called Baby Bee Hummingbirds will take your extra, unused IVF embryos, preserve and cremate them, and then encase them in resin as “keepsake jewelry.”

The founder asks, “What a better way to celebrate your most treasured gift, your child, than through jewellery?”

Well, you could let him live, I suppose. You could allow him the basic dignity of spending time in the womb of his mother, to live or not, to grow or not, but at least to have a chance. You could celebrate the life of your child by giving him some small gift of warmth and softness, however brief, rather than letting him travel in an insulated pouch from lab to lab, frozen and sterile from beginning to end. You could conceive a child so as to give him life, and you could rise like a human should above the blind proliferation of biology.

I have not experienced the anguish of infertility. I can easily imagine how the ancient, unquenchable desire for a child would drive a couple to consider IVF. Who would fault a loving couple for wanting a child?

I can imagine, if I had no guidance, seeing IVF as a way of simply bowing to the inevitable awkwardness of life. We’d rather do things the natural way, but sometimes nature fails us. If science offers us a workaround, and we end up in a place of love, what does it matter? I can imagine thinking this. It is natural to want children.

And it is natural to want our children to remain with us even if we can’t hold their plump, warm baby bodies in our arms. We want something we can touch. I can imagine this: Knowing, no matter who thinks they’re just “extras,” that these embryos are more than just specimens. I can imagine wanting to keep them safe, or something like it.

And so the mother does the thing that makes the most sense to a pagan, when nature fails her: She bows to artifice, and finds a way to bring her children with her, clumsily, sentimentally, but grasping at something that seems true: We are made to be with the ones we love. We are supposed to be able to give them life, and to keep them safe.

She knows they are her children. But does she know what children are?

In order to turn embryos into jewelry, one must believe that all children, and all people, can be made safe. One must believe there is such a thing as safety in this world.

“It’s about the everlasting tangible keepsake of a loved one that you can have forever,” says the founder of the jewelry company.

But mothers, and fathers, and you barren ones, listen to me. You cannot have any loved one forever. Don’t you know that they all go? Don’t you know this?

Sometimes it happens before we even knew they existed; sometimes it happens when they are old and feeble, frightened and crying for death. But they all go. No one is safe. No one can be preserved. Why are you lying about it? Haven’t you been through enough springs to know that winter always comes? Haven’t we been through this? No one is with us always, until the end of time.

Anyway, hardly anyone.

Imagine, a body encased in glass, made portable, made consumable. But not jewelry. Instead, a sunburst, a fountain of life, a wellspring, the maker of worlds somehow contained, first in His mother’s womb, and now on our altars, through springs and winters and then through springs again.

The body inside is a willing victim. Not preserved in death, but alive forever, immortal. Here is the difference between the scandal of the Incarnation and the scandal of sentimentality. The Incarnation invites us to accept forgiveness, bought for us through His death. Sentimentality puts our sin always before us, but tells us we can be comforted through everlasting death.

I do understand. We want the body. We grieve when the beloved one is lost to us, even if, like the parents who make “extra” embryos, it’s entirely our fault that our children are cold and dead. We want to heal our grief, to control it, to contain it.

That is not how sin is healed. That is not how death is conquered. Healing comes when we send our dead to be with Him, not preserved forever in death, but to be restored forever in His life.

I commend all the dead, all my beloved ones who are passing away like the grass: Go and be with Him. You don’t need to stay here with us, to comfort me in my weakness. Go and be with Him.

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Embryos image by ZEISS microscopy via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Monstrance image by Aleteia image department via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

Not lost forever: Miscarriage, grief, and hope

felt-baby

We have reason to hope that even those little, innocent ones who never had eyes to see the light of day or the waters of baptism will be welcomed into heaven as well, not smuggled in the pockets of a low-ranking god, but recognised and called by name back home by their Father who made them.

Still, we are human. It is not wrong to look for physical reminders of abstract truths.

Read the rest of my latest for the Catholic Weekly.

My Aleteia piece on the suffering faithful…

gesu crucifix

 

 

is spotlighted today:

The Church is full of the obedient wounded. The flock who never strayed have troubles of their own, and some of these troubles come directly from original sin, the effects of which no doctrinal development, pastoral compassion, or rigorously trained professional can completely undo.

Poor family, they need to hear that their sorrows are known to God and to the Church. That the cross still hangs there above the altar because it must be faced, sooner or later, even when we’re inside the walls of the Church. Sacramental marriage is not a safe, cozy nest where no predators can find us. Every marriage includes some element of the cross.

Read the rest at Aleteia.

By the way, have you seen Aleteia lately? It’s gorgeous. They’ve revamped their whole site, and Elizabeth Scalia is bringing on lots of great writers.

Also, I’ve received tons of mail in response to the open letter to the Synod Fathers from Monica More that I posted last week (Married to an Angry Man). I am grateful that so many people took the time to offer responses and help. Please be patient while I work on responding.

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Benny and the Jerk Balloon

My three-year-old may be the most emotionally healthy person in the world.

I came across this old photo, and remembered the day. We were playing in a school gym after a baptism, and she found this half-dead balloon lying under some bleachers. Oh my gosh, she had so much fun with it.

benny jerk balloon 2

So, when it was time to go, I ignored the warning alarms in my head and said she could take it with her.

Of course, as soon as we stepped outside, a gust of wind came and swiped her precious balloon right out of her hands. At first I thought it would come back down, and we chased it across the parking lot, but it went up, then down again, then up just out of reach, and then up and up, over the trees, way over the church roof, and then it was gone.

Worst.

I remember being three, and I remember the desolation of the lost balloon. One minute, the world is buoyant and glad, and then suddenly it’s all grief and loss and wild injustice.

I’m getting old. I’m getting tired of the way the world is, where a little girl can’t even have an orange balloon to make her happy. I didn’t even dare look at her, expecting the sobs to come pouring out. I thought, “I can’t stand it. I’ll buy her another balloon. I’ll buy everybody a balloon! I’ll buy all the balloons in the world!”

She just stared after it for a minute, and then she said, “Jerk balloon.” And that was it. She was fine.

I want to be Benny when I grow up.

For the Child Crying

Help me, I beg the Father, to take up the task of Advent. The memories that awaken are silent Anna, raging Pat, chirping Mikey, his poor hand on the rail, begging his father, “No, Daddy, no!”

Read the rest at the Register. 

I have a job for you, baby.

Not the little guy who just kicked me for the first time, that I could feel, just yesterday (yay!). I mean the other one, the one I lost. I wrote about how hard it was not to have a body to bury. You want to be able to take care of your children with your own hands, but I couldn’t do that, and it hurt.

Now, as the months have gone by and the pain of loss has receded, I still find myself bewildered about what to do with the baby’s soul.

When I found out I was pregnant last time, I prayed for the baby’s protection constantly, and turned him over to God. So I have a strong hope that, whenever it was that he left us, he was already baptized through our desire and intention to do so, and he went straight into the arms of his loving Papa in heaven. This is a good thing! I am not worried.  I love him, but God loves him more.

But, what to do when I pray for my all children, one by one? I was never sure when I got to this child. It didn’t feel right to pray for him. Even though I know no prayer is wasted, it seemed like asking for something that was already given.

And I know that many parents pray to their lost unborn babies, and that seemed reasonable, but felt odd, too. Probably this shows that I have a poor understanding of the saints in heaven, but praying to him felt like turning him into a spiritual being, which made him foreign, elevated beyond the family, not really our kid; and at the same time, it felt like too much to ask of such a little guy. I’m not going to tell my five-year-old when Daddy is having a hard time at work or Mama is worried about school; so why would I spill the beans to a seven-week-old fetus, even if he is enjoying the Beatific Vision? I know, I’m over thinking it, but it just felt weird!

But yesterday, it came to me: Baby, you pray for the new baby. You two hold hands and be good to each other. Take care of each other while Mama is taking care of the rest of them. Aha! Everybody needs a job. We are at our best when we know what we are here for.