By John Rieping | Published 18 Sept 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“A man was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. ... For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”
— Journalist and author G.K. Chesterton
A strange phrase we take for granted today is that of “finding one’s self.” One would think that the “self” is the one inseparable asset one has.
I can imagine easily losing my keys, but if I truly lost my head I would expect an axe or guillotine to be involved — far from a painless loss. The “self” is no less intrinsic. So how is it one can lose it?
A lazy glance at the Oxford American Dictionary reveals the self as “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others.” In other words, it is the core of one’s human nature as a unique person. As such, it clearly isn’t something we lose so much as forget or contradict.
In this, and other ways, our heart becomes a battlefield in which our very life is at stake. Can there be a more intimate war than one waged within?
In ancient times, I suspect, two popular strategies for “winning” this war dominated. One looked within or at humanity. The other turned to an ideal, divinity, or belief deemed greater than the self. Both have merits.
The human-centered methods of self-reflection or social discovery both help one to locate the self.
By introspection, we open our eyes to what feelings and thoughts drive our action and inaction. Once exposed, they find it harder to ambush us and lead us astray. With sustained effort, we may even learn to somewhat tame these otherwise wild horses within.
By social interactions, we reveal by our behavior many truths about ourselves that may not match our self-image. Virtues and vices cannot hide in the light. If we prefer the dark and so stubbornly close our eyes to them, then the hard consequences of some of our acts may yet reach us.
In contrast, the god-centered methods of devotion to a higher purpose or power can aid one in transcending or uplifting the self. After all, why focus on the self only to be limited to it like a prison? Instead the self becomes not the destination but the start of a personal quest. Through self-sacrifice and discipline, some claim to find enlightenment, fulfillment, tranquility, divinization, or an escape from the tyranny of the self. By losing one’s self in such ways, some paradoxically find it.
These human and god centered methods of finding the self are often kept separate, and even in opposition, to each other. Hence we may see philosophy at odds with theology, science vs. religion, pragmatism against idealism, and so on.
This is not ultimately the position of Christianity however. Nor could it be. A central claim of this oddball religion is that the one God and creator of all chose to also become a genuine man of a particular time and place. By doing so, Christians claim, he showed to us both God and a perfect human.
As a result, the Christian way of finding one’s self is simultaneously human and god centered. Within, around, and above should be the focus of believers, Christianity claims, and without all three we will be lacking (1 John 4:20).
The incarnation of God as a man, as believed by Christians, was not only to present an example or teacher however. The God-man also came as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the demands of justice for each of us so that humanity could receive the offer of forgiveness, healing, and a glorious life after death. To sum it up in one word: mercy.
I think then we will never find ourselves without it.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes... / It is enthroned in the heart of kings; / It is an attribute to God himself; / And earthly power does then show like God’s / When mercy seasons justice.” (William Shakespeare, “The Quality of Mercy”)
By John Rieping | Published 11 Sept 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.”
-- Journalist and author G.K. Chesterton
One of the peculiarities of polite conversations is they tend to begin with the deepest questions that often receive the shallowest of answers.
Think back to the last time you ran into someone, whether vaguely familiar or a stranger, with whom talking was an expected courtesy. You exchanged revelations to satisfy the ignorance of the other, whether that lack of information was spoken or assumed.
Who are you? What do you do? How are you? There are those who will gladly inform you about these topics like a dog happily fetching a ball, eager to run and skillful in performance. Some offer merely acceptable replies. Then there are the ones who have to think about the answer.
Be wary. Those are the ones in danger of possibly taking your interest seriously.
We may satisfy this oft-assumed curiosity with a name, a place of origin, a job, or a relationship that binds us — however weakly — with the one with whom we speak. Yet such questions are metaphysical puzzles wherein may lurk dragons fair or foul.
In fair form, the dragon may be one of satisfaction and comfort in who and what we believe ourselves to be — a good daughter, son, spouse, student, worker, friend, lover, Christian, Muslim, atheist, athlete, thinker, etc. In venomous form, the dragon may be shame and doubt over who and what we believe ourselves to be — broken, dumb, fat, ugly, unlovable, old, addicted, useless, abandoned, etc. We find our value in our self image, regardless of how true it may be, and present it to others more than we realize.
And these dragons can sink their poisonous teeth into more than ourselves.
In late August, one such reptile showed itself at the Madera Unified School Board meeting in central California in which some parents expressed concerns about a man hired to work with at-risk students. He was a convicted, imprisoned, and released felon who in the past decade has worked professionally in gang and drug intervention.
As one parent said, “A felon is a felon, is a felon.”
Such thinking works well when speaking of inanimate objects. When I plug in my cell phone to charge it before I sleep at night, I would be a bit puzzled if I woke up and found it had transformed into a toaster. The only changes common to objects are that of decline: food goes bad, toys break, clothing wears out, and so on.
With animals, including humans, such a mindset can mislead. A gentle household dog may meet up with other pet dogs at night and roam the area together brutally attacking livestock like a feral wolf pack. A once good student may become a poor one when strong emotion grips the heart, and the reverse is just as possible. And so on.
We well know that change is possible and likely, but the dominant threads pulling on our heart — such as love of a child or spouse — make us foresee good or bad changes without cause, and distrust what does not fit our vision.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis pondered the words of the Jewish rabbi Yeshua (Jesus) in the Gospels: “Be merciful, just as your father is” (Loukas/Luke 6:36). This command of Yeshua is easier or harder to follow depending on “who” is the person involved. What of jailed criminals, Francis asked on behalf of skeptical Christians, must we be merciful to them too?
“Some will say, ‘This is dangerous. These are bad people.’ Listen carefully: any one of us is capable of doing what these men and women in prison have done. We all sin and make mistakes in life. They are not worse than you or me. Mercy overcomes any wall or barrier, and leads us always to seek the face of the human being. And it is mercy that changes hearts and lives, that is able to regenerate a person or enable him to be newly reintegrated in society.”
Mercy disturbs our clear understanding of “who” and “what” we or others may be, and it may complicate our lives. But it liberates as well. Because mercy is a dragon slayer that reminds us where our value truly lies — in our shared humanity, made in the image of God (Beresheit/Genesis 1:27).
By John Rieping | Published 4 Sept 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“ ‘I wish life was not so short,’ he thought. ‘Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.’”
— J.R.R. Tolkien
Time travel can be lovely sometimes.
I learned in April that my grandmother, Carmen Najar Lozano, had written a letter dated in the year 2000, eight years after her death in 1992. She had left it with my late aunt, missionary nun Sister Conception (nicknamed “Conchita”), to be shared after my grandmother’s death.
It was discovered in the belongings of my aunt after her own passing in 2013.
“Esteemed and dear children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” it began in Spanish, which I here poorly translate. “For all without exception a greeting from your mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who always prays to God with the Virgin Mary for your protection. Now, a great wish that will make me very happy, is that you are always united in not doing less for any member of the family.
“Help the brother who you encounter in need, aiding, that you may be rewarded [by God] a hundredfold and none of you will be lacking. My children, do not forget that I ask this of you, the same as I ask you do not forget your sister Conchita. All of you receive the blessing of your mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.”
In a way, her letter could be considered her last will and testament, though it distributes blessings rather than property. She wanted her progeny to remain united in love, mercy, and prayer to God — and wisely saw those three as a source of divine blessings.
She is not the only one to leave a spiritual testament of sorts.
In August, the Islamic State executed freelance journalist James Foley, 40, in Syria after two years of captivity in an attempt to pressure the U.S. to halt its air strikes. His mother would write on Facebook, “We have never been prouder of our son Jim, he gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Less than three years before, Foley’s alma mater — Marquette University — published an essay by Foley on his previous imprisonment for reporting in Libya. Foley, a Catholic Christian, shared how prayer sustained him at that time, convinced him he “wasn’t alone,” and delivered him.
He concluded, “If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”
His words echo beyond the grave to offer a glimpse into his heart, where surrender to God offered him the surest shelter amid storms of death.
Not all records of our life evoke pride however.
This week the world learned that hackers of Apple’s iCloud (a computer file storage service) had been finding, trading, and selling explicit and private photographs of more than 100 female celebrities for months before a collector known as “OriginalGuy,” and possibly a later copycat as well, posted many online.
A third of the images were reportedly doctored and faked, according to Business Insider on Wednesday, and some of the others had already leaked to the public beforehand. But the lack of respect shown by the involuntary exposure caused shock and an FBI investigation.
Less recently, private contractor Edward Snowden revealed how the U.S. government had already been infringing upon the privacy of users of communication technology.
As we live, traces remain of how we lived and what we lived for. It has ever been so, but we can have short attention spans and quickly forget about it. Yet how do we want to be remembered? What words should we have shared? What deeds should we have done? Who do we want to be?
Such questions rise most readily at the ends of roads we walk, whether the end of school, a job, or a life. Yet it is now, as we are in the middle of our unfinished living, when we can make the greatest difference with the answers. There is no time machine we can use to undo our past.
May we turn not to government or celebrities but to God, and decide anew who we want to be, how we want to live, and what we want to live for. For it is only with God’s help that we will be able to do it well.