By John Rieping | Published 19 July 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“I grew up in church. As a child, going to church felt natural. But recently, Christianity has been a hard ‘thing’ to swallow, if that makes sense. I noticed that you're probably Catholic ... Have you always been very spiritual, or did you have ‘bumps in the road’? How did you come to believe?” — An online reader
British author G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap... When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.”
Our very lives as young children rely on whether those who care for us are trustworthy, and whether they are or not we want them to be so. They may tell us God or Santa Claus exist and some of us accept this as truth initially, for we may not know either divinity or Santa personally but we know our parents. So we believe.
But times come when our child-like faiths quake, because we have learned the imperfection of our parents, ourselves, others, or life itself. A contradiction or unsatisfied question births one doubt or many. If no remedy is sought or found, our trust in what or who we’ve believed wavers or dies.
All who live beyond childhood must pass through this in some aspect of our beliefs. This is not because of lost innocence and ignorance, which are commonly blamed. Rather it is because children accept a world handed onto them by others and are not held responsible for what they’ve received. It is not so for adults.
The world may exist before us no less than for kids, but our understanding and response has become something we pay the price for. There is always a cost for convictions, and a higher one for having none at all.
As a child, was I interested in spiritual topics like angels, miracles, and so on? Yes, as well as equally fantastical ones like magic, unicorns, elves, dragons, and more — not to mention androids and alien life forms. Children tend to have a hunger for both clarity and possibilities.
Did I ever question the existence of God? I did. Repeatedly as a young child I’d imagine God did not exist and linger dizzily on the edge of that cliff staring at the ramifications. Yet I never jumped off.
Franciscan friar William of Ockham, England, proposed that, in the absence of certainty, a solution with the fewest assumptions should be favored. This “razor” of his remains popular with scientists to this day. And I have never leapt into atheism because I believed then and now that God is both the most rational and the simplest explanation for so much I have encountered and learned of existence.
Whether hard to swallow or not is irrelevant. In my experience, it is the simplest truths that are the most difficult to embrace. We often create complications instead as a labor-saving device.
My first major crisis of faith came around age 10 when I decided I didn’t want to join my family for Sunday morning Mass. I locked myself in the bathroom — the only lockable room.
My mother and sister pled with me through the door to no avail. So my dad said to leave me be. John may not be going that day, he said, but that didn’t mean the family wouldn’t. He herded my family out the door and I could hear our automobile start up and go.
At that moment, I reflected. I did not want to go to church. I had other activities I wished to persist in instead. But did I believe in God? I searched my depths and I did. Yet whether or not one believes in God, the consequence of that belief remains a choice. Thus came a point of decision: did I love God?
I did, and realized then I wanted to worship God — not because of family but out of love. So I unlocked the door and ran into the street, chasing after my family.
That would not be my only such rebellion, but resolving them has always involved a sincere search for answers, whether within or outside, and the choice to respond to what I uncovered.
The word “crisis” comes from the Greek word for “decision” (krisis) or “decide” (krinein). A crisis is a healthy and normal opportunity to grow in one’s convictions. Fear not.
By John Rieping | Published 5 July 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“I would possess a host of lovely things, / But I am poor and such joys may not be. / So God who lifts the poor and humbles kings / Sent loveliness itself to dwell with me.”
— “Wealth,” by poet Joyce Kilmer, killed by a sniper while serving as a U.S. soldier in World War I
Whether boisterous or somber, patriotic holidays invite us to return for a time to the freshness of childhood and see anew the gifts of our communities and nation.
There may be homes beyond counting on this planet, but to toddlers theirs is the first to exist. Nearly seven billion humans live, but those in a babe’s family are to them the first. The morbid statistics of wars numb the mind and heart, but when someone you love as a child returns no more it is our first casualty.
Each child puts the world on trial.
First love, first kiss, etc. On and on a child explores the frontiers of existence until at last the world may seem tame or old, and the colors of our latest joy or grief sit upon or blend with layers of others on the painted canvas of our being, no longer innocent.
So holidays whisper to the aged soul, “Look here,” or, “Forget not.” Those who ignore the invitation fail to sip from an imperfect fountain of youth, for it is not the world that grows old as we live. We do.
In our daily lives, beauty smiles, truth speaks, and goodness gives. Let us not let darker encounters or the mere dullness of repetition blind us to such gifts. Be refreshed and thankful, at least on holidays.
But how much better if we fought to hold onto the best of a childhood spirit even as our energies unavoidably weaken.
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged,” writes British author and journalist G.K. Chesterton. “They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”
Jews and Christians believe in a Creator God who performed the work of creation and then rested — not out of necessity but out of love. This same God, we believe, repeatedly looked at what existed in this infant universe and declared it good and very good (Bereishit/Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
Unlike us, I think God doesn’t tire of saying it either.
“Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony,” Chesterton mused. “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Therein lies a source of Christian hope, for we believe in a God who “makes all things new” (Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17; Revelation 21:5) — including us if we allow it. Though popular culture prefers to speak of being “wicked,” “bad boys,” or “naughty” as desirable, Christians recognize that innocence renewed means eyes reopened — to the goodness of the world and ourselves.
Of the many joys of existence, one we may forget yet so deeply long for is the knowledge that someone loves us no matter how predictable we may be in hurting ourselves and others.
By John Rieping | Published 10 May 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
I hadn’t flown since 1998 nor taken a true vacation in 11 years. But love beckoned, and change followed — as so often happens.
Curiosity about a minor detail of a photograph on an online dating website began a correspondence that ultimately led to my leaping into the sky between the aluminum wings of Alaska Air and Horizon Air passenger planes. The first hop carried me to Oregon and the second left me in Washington state.
Both states were far more hydrated than my seemingly cloud-repellant home of California.
Across the U.S.-Canadian border sat my destination of Vancouver, British Columbia. The following days reacquainted me with the tree-seasoned metropolis I had last visited as an older child. Little seemed to have changed compared to the few and incomplete memories I still had of the mostly familiar yet mildly peculiar land.
Updated oddities included the emergence of plastic polymer Canadian currency in 2011 to replace the older paper bills that, as a child, had astonished me with their colorfulness.
What draws me to our northern neighbor always seems to be a dear person in my life. This spring’s journey of mine sought time with a chaste lady friend of mine. My previous trip in September 1984 had been to see Pope John Paul II with my family, who drove there from Madera as part of group from St. Joachim Catholic Church.
Back then the Hough family, strangers to us but devout fellow Christians, generously shared their home to my family and I for the week, fed us and led us to lovely places. We all belonged to a multi-religion movement known as Focolare (www.focolare.org), which focuses on living out the Christian gospels to build a unity born of love and truth.
We saw the steam-powered clock in Vancouver’s Gastown, crossed a long and narrow rope suspension bridge in a grand park, gazed out like an eagle from the lofty Vancouver Lookout viewing deck, and more.
I even randomly met a U.S. actress of the day, Erin Gray, then star of the TV sitcom “Silver Spoons.” I approached her to ask for an autograph, but turned around when faced with two serious and muscular men — presumably bodyguards — who flanked her. The trio’s expressions were unreadable behind sunglasses.
She was not the star we came from afar following however. We met John Paul II, canonized this April by the Roman Catholic Church, at Abbotsford Airport.
My father had an impressive camera with him for the occasion while I had my cheap toy equivalent. He and I waited for what seemed an eternity at the edge of our assigned seating area to try to capture the pontiff when he passed by before the open-air Mass. Yet, shortly before the anticipated moment, Polish mothers with their children in traditional ethnic clothing commandeered the barricades and routed many adults there, including my dad. As a child, though, I stayed and took the desired photograph in an unexpected reversal.
I felt like such a hero, though fittingly the secret to my triumph was my littleness.
The only words spoken that I recall from my youthful adventure in British Columbia were not by the pope however. They weren’t even significant. I had overheard the Hough’s daughter practicing her numbers in French, and became concerned she had her Spanish wrong. So I spoke with her parents to try to help. They patiently listened and explained it was not the language I mistook it for.
Yet even there in that humbling moment was a message I still remember clearly: love. I saw it in my family, in the kind Houghs, in countless strangers, and even in the Polish mothers who perhaps wanted the bishop of Rome to see an echo of his homeland.
In his Abbotsford sermon, John Paul noted: “During the whole of Jesus’ earthly life, this heart (of his) was the center in which was manifested, in a human way, the love of God.”
Our own hearts were ever meant to do the same, Christians believe, for we humans are made in the image and likeness of a God who is love. Yet we can fail gravely in this. Is it any wonder then that some struggle with or despair in belief of God?
It is only natural to find it difficult to believe in what is unseen or contradicted in our lives. But God was never meant to be invisible. Let us who claim to believe ask for divine help to show God to all through our love.
By John Rieping | Published in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
In ancient times, today was known as Lazarus Saturday. The name refers to the organizer of a supper that Yeshua (Jesus) ate in the community of Bethany “six days before the Passover” (cf. John 12:1).
That naturally wasn’t the first visit of Yeshua, but it would be his last.
The Greco-Syrian physician Loukas (Luke) describes the first meeting (Luke 10:38-42). Yeshua had arrived in the village of Bethany, which sat a few miles east of the metropolis of Jerusalem, and a woman named Marta (Martha) welcomed the traveling rabbi into her home. While Marta busied herself with serving her famous guest, her sister Mirriam (Mary) sat at his feet and listened.
This irked her sister, probably for multiple reasons. For one, Mirriam’s pose was customary of male students listening to a religious scholar.
Jewish boys began their formal education around the ages of 5-7, either in the synagogue or at home. They would first be taught the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph Bet, and then memorize and study verses from the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch.
Note that I said “boys.” Jewish women received little formal instruction, did not read from the Bible in the synagogue, were not taught Jewish law, could only observe religious ceremonies, and weren’t expected to attend on festivals and feast days.
Mirriam’s adoption of this student role before a rabbi was scandalous.
Moreover, Marta didn’t think it was fair that her sister was just sitting around while she was busy with the work of being a good host. So she complained: Rabbi, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!
Surely to Marta’s surprise, Yeshua not only didn’t scold Mirriam for her revolutionary behavior, he praised it: Marta, Marta, you are full of care and trouble about many things, but only one is necessary. Mirriam has chosen that good part, and it will not be taken from her.
This wasn’t the only time Yeshua defied expectations in a radical way. Those unwilling to accept this struggled with his hard teachings. From there, it was only a step onward to reject the teacher too.
The memoir of the “beloved disciple” says that when Eleazar (Lazarus) later died of illness, Yeshua wept, prayed, and called his friend forth from the cave in which his corpse had been entombed (John 11:1-44).
Talk of this alleged miracle frightened Jewish religious leaders.
It wasn’t the first time a self-proclaimed messiah had arisen. Decades before, a tall and handsome slave of King Herod gathered followers, declared himself king of the Jews, plundered and burned the royal palace at Jericho, and did the same elsewhere, according to Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. The commander of Herod’s infantry led Roman soldiers against this “messiah,” Simon of Peraea, and beheaded him.
Likewise a shepherd named Athronges and his four brothers led a flock of rebels against Herod Archelaus. Less than a dozen years later, Judas of Galilee marshaled a violent fight against the Roman census. All of the lives of these so-called messiahs had ended amidst bloodshed, and Jewish leaders decided it would be better if only one died this time — Yeshua — instead of many.
In this context, Yeshua ate in Bethany with his friends Eleazar, Marta, and Mirriam in the house of Simon the leper on the sabbath (Matthew 26:6-13; John 12:1-11). Unexpectedly, Mirriam washed and anointed his feet with costly scented ointment and wiped them dry with her long hair.
This was another scandalous gesture by Mirriam, and yet once again her teacher praised it. Leave her be, he told his indignant apostle Yehuda of Keriot (Judas Iscariot), for it is for the day of my burial she kept this spikenard.
It was the custom of the day to perfume the newly dead to soften the eventual stench of decay.
The next day, which Christians call Palm Sunday, Yeshua rode a young donkey into nearby Jerusalem. There was symbolism in the choice of transportation, for a horse was the mount of war and the donkey a steed of peace.
He was met with cries greeting him as the king of Israel and you can easily imagine the alarm of those fearful of another disastrous false messiah.
So began the time that fourth-century Christians called the “Great Week” (now known as Holy Week).
Spy Wednesday was the day Judas joined those plotting against Yeshua; Holy Thursday, his last supper; Good Friday, his death; Holy Saturday; and Easter Sunday, new life.
By John Rieping | Published 8 March 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Earlier this week, an Internet meme amused me.
In its first of two panels, the image showed the faces of the characters of the classic movie "Star Wars" -- robot C-3PO, Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, and young Luke Skywalker -- as they stared ahead. Below them was the film quote, "You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
The second panel showed the characters from behind, but the panorama before them was not Mos Eisley space port on the planet of Tatooine. Instead it showed the U.S. Congress in session.
I shared it online with a friend, who commented she was coming to agree with its sentiments more and more. Dangerously, her words made me reflect, and I realized I could not embrace the meme's cynicism.
Power may indeed tend to corrupt, as British historian Lord Acton proposed in 1887, but that doesn't necessarily mean that all politicians are dishonest and unjust.
A long time ago in our very own galaxy, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) considered political theory to be a branch of the philosophy of ethics. By ethics, humanity aspires to happiness by a life of virtue, he taught, and by politics we cultivate virtue in a people so it may be happy.
Such thinking is not so distant from us. After all, some of our laws clearly exist to discourage and punish behavior our U.S. society views as bad, whether it be voyeurism or bribery. When our morality shifts, the laws of our democracy often belatedly follow, and sometimes the other way around.
Late in February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reminded me anew of the connection between politics and ethics with his justification for President Barack Obama and himself refusing to uphold laws they consider wrong. Elsewhere, more than a handful of state attorneys general, fellow Democrats, have also abandoned their similar sworn duty.
In the latter cases, the issue revolves around constitutional amendments or laws limiting the definition of marriage to one man and one woman.
Attorneys general must resolve, Holder said, "not merely to use our legal system to settle disputes and punish those who have done wrong, but to answer the kinds of fundamental questions -- about fairness and equality -- that have always determined who we are and who we aspire to be, both as a nation and as a people."
In short, Holder, Obama and others are following their consciences, like many brave souls in history have also done in the face of what they see as unfair laws.
It is an unexpected stance from members of an administration that on Feb. 18, 2011, rescinded many existing conscience protections for medical workers, who previously were allowed to refuse to offer services that violated their morals or religious beliefs.
No longer would federal law allow pharmacists to say no to prescriptions for abortifacient drugs, a doctor to decline to treat a lesbian for infertility, or an ambulance driver to reject taking a woman to an abortion.
While the U.S. president and attorneys general follow their hearts, the unelected citizen has been told that the law trumps their convictions.
The award-winning play and movie "A Man for All Seasons" dramatizes the true tale of Sir Thomas More, the high-ranking chancellor of England during the 16th-century reign of King Henry VIII. Ultimately More would be executed rather than deny his conscience and accept the king's claim to be the spiritual head of Christianity in England.
In the drama, More's future son-in-law, Will Roper, urges him to detain a man openly willing to betray More for profit, but he will not: "Go he should if he were the Devil himself until he broke the law!"
This outrages Roper, who thinks laws should be ignored when dealing with evil people.
More replies with equal passion: "What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ... And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!"
Whether in theater or history, More embodies the paradox of deep respect for both law and conscience. May God raise up more such politicians.
By John Rieping | Published 14 Feb. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Contrary to my usual sloth, I drove to a cinema on the last weekend of January. Lest anyone yawns, realize I last did so for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 2012. My own trek involved no dwarves or dragons, but it did have more drama than expected.
As is my tendency, I failed to notice the steady march of the clock until only just enough time remained to reach the matinee of “Gimme Shelter.” I rushed out of my apartment, accidentally selected the wrong destination on my GPS navigator’s touch screen, and impatiently chose a new one.
My sub-compact car sped down State Route 99 and I arrived minutes before showtime — at the Police Science Institute in Fresno, California. Apparently my hasty fingers had erred twice.
“Better late than not at all,” I thought.
I redirected my GPS device and followed its advice across Fresno’s surprisingly busy afternoon streets. At the multiplex, lines of people extended like fingers from the box office, which had lost connection to its computer network. After a wait, I bought my ticket and hurried through a nearby open door, which a security guard soon informed me was the wrong one. Out I went, then back in.
I sprinted to the darkened cave where “Gimme Shelter” lit a wall in front of invisible tiers of seats. I groped up stairs and down a row of feet I stepped on to finally slouch into a seat. My self-contentment at my patience and determination to support an exceptional film would quickly be broken by two women on my left.
“Another door closes,” one of them said repeatedly in a loud sing-song tone.
A glance revealed both were adults, one older than I, and the “mockery” kept flowing out. No one else spoke up, so indignantly I scolded them about theater behavior. The elder nodded without upset and they left. It was only then I figured out her 20-something companion had the mind of a child. I had completely misunderstood.
I shed tears about more than the movie during the next two hours.
How often we see what we presume rather than what is present, especially when stressed. This bias extends far beyond encounters with strangers.
In the fantasy novel “The Truth,” author Terry Pratchett writes, “Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things... well, new things aren’t what they expect... because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds... Not news but olds, telling people what they think they already know is true.”
I hope such a mistake explains the unacceptable behavior Feb. 5 by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
I refer not to its accusation of a conspiracy of silence about Catholic clergy misconduct and resultant harboring of abusers. This old claim ignores reality. Anyone involved in this area knows of the church’s efforts to clarify its policies and to add strong safeguards for children. I saw firsthand these sincere and extensive changes from the inside, so-to-speak, as a seminarian and a Benedictine monk (temporary vows only) as well as later as a volunteer in youth ministry.
I refer not to committee claims that the Holy See promotes violence against homosexuals or their children. The Vatican has explicitly condemned “all forms of violence against homosexual persons” (apostolic nuncio to the UN, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, 2008) on multiple occasions. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 2358, teaches “they must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
No, I refer to recommendations that the Catholic Church contradict its long-standing teachings on the dignity of the human person, including those involving sexuality and abortion. Such an attack on religious liberty is outrageous.
However we Christians must never forget what our freedom is for.
“Religious liberty is a foundational right. It’s necessary for a good society,” said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2012. “But it can never be sufficient for human happiness. It’s not an end in itself. In the end, we defend religious liberty in order to live the deeper freedom that is discipleship in Jesus Christ.”
Let us correct errors and stand up for our rights — but with love. If we falter as I did at the theater, let us work on a better sequel.
By John Rieping | Published 25 Jan. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
My New Year’s Day resolution to spend less time on Facebook is somewhat intact as January approaches its end. Meanwhile an uncharacteristically action-oriented drive for self-improvement twirls and leaps in my heart like a child who emptied a bag of Halloween candy.
There is movement in the deep.
One superficial wave provoked by such unseen churning has been, as mentioned in a previous column, an online class I’m taking in computer programming from Harvard University. Another is a renewed self-investment in websites built to help people connect in real life.
Those who know me in person realize I am an introvert, that strange species of human whose thoughts leisurely walk a meandering path to every destination. There is a quiet efficiency born of a kind of laziness in the brain of every introvert, and a secret garden behind the sometimes nondescript walls that surround it.
Nonetheless all introverts, whether cool or warm blooded, have a heart that feeds life to countless screaming “children” who have no one else — our desires and dreams, loves and loyalties. By these children, man differs from machine. They are — in a sense — born of a union between the natures of angels and beasts.
The efforts of this introvert to meaningfully connect are hardly unique. In 2012, a 30-something mathematician, Chris McKinlay, found a fruitful distraction from writing his University of California, Los Angeles, dissertation for his Ph.D. in applied math. He wanted to find the optimal strategy for finding a true match on a popular dating site.
So he set up 12 fake dating accounts and programmed his computer to gather information on the female members of the website who fit his general requirements for a mate. After collecting the answers of 20,000 California women on 6 million questions, he learned that they clumped into seven distinct clusters.
Based on their traits, he nicknamed the clusters: Diverse, Dog, God, Green, Mindful, Samantha, and Tattoo. The Greens were new to online dating. The Gods were strongly religious or ethical. The Samanthas were often relatively older, professionally creative, and adventurous. The Tattoos had multiple tattoos and sometimes as many jobs. And so on.
He then set up his real dating profile to honestly answer the questions that were relevant to the clusters of women that most interested him, and then had his computer visit more than 10,000 of their online pages on the site in two weeks. He soon received 400 views of his page daily.
Online messaging and in-person dating followed until, on date 88, he found the woman with whom love bloomed — 28-year-old artist Christine Tien Wang. At the moment, they’re engaged to be married.
Some may find his calculated efforts to find Miss Right cynical, offensive, or immoral. But Wang, as quoted in the February edition of Wired magazine, commented: “People are much more complicated than their profiles. So the way we met was kind of superficial, but everything that happened after is not superficial at all. It’s been cultivated through a lot of work.”
One insight McKinlay uncovered in his labors is the importance of not presenting one’s opinions in a timid fashion. The dating website he used has members assign a weight (from “irrelevant” to “mandatory”) to one’s own answers to a question as well as those of others. Agreement on weightier questions is interpreted as a greater match.
His tests revealed that, regardless of whether you wanted to appeal to many or to a select few, a wishy-washy presentation of one’s views was the worst possible strategy. Either wholeheartedly answer the most divisive topics or reply to the innocuous ones with equal gusto. But a lukewarm person fares badly.
How often many of us allow a desire for the approval of others to dim the unique light we have to offer. Instead of beaming, we glow comfortably. The Jewish founder of Christianity allegedly had a low opinion of such behavior. If the visionary testimony of his “beloved disciple” is true, Yeshua (Jesus) compared it to an unappealingly tepid beverage.
“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot: I wish you were cold or hot. So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16)
Come. Let us shine.