Monday, November 29, 2010

Blaming God

The news agencies are all a-buzz -- or maybe a-Twitter would be a better term -- about the online comment made by Stevie Johnson of the Buffalo Bills after he dropped a touchdown pass that could have meant a win for his team.

"I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!" Stevie tweeted Our Lord severely from his iPad, presumably not on his knees. "YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO..."

I prefer to believe that Stevie meant this comment tongue-in-cheek, but there are a lot of people out there who have taken him seriously and are berating this poor kid up to threatening him with eternal damnation for being so cheeky. From the picture I saw accompanying the news article I read, Stevie looks like a mere child I mean, a young man in his twenties, so I can't be too hard on him because this is a lesson that a lot of oldsters I mean, adults twice Stevie's age have trouble learning.

For the most part, I blame modern American Christianity, which has devolved to a place where the term "Christian" is somehow seen as synonymous with "I am healthy, wealthy and too blessed to be stressed!!!" Which is a phrase that makes me search hurriedly for a small wastebasket every time I hear it, because yuuuuuck. What in the world does being blessed have to do with a lack of stress? Because let me tell you, some of the most blessed times of my life have been when stress levels were shooting straight through the top of the stress-o-meter. But the red-line stress levels weren't because God's care and concern weren't with me; it was more a lack of my own trust that things would work out, no matter what. (As it turns out, things did work out, which made me feel very chagrined and apologetic.)

At any rate, I can't see anywhere in the Bible through my own reading or through hearing it at church every Sunday where God owes us anything because we "praise [Him] 24/7," which I don't think is possible anyway, even for contemplative orders of nuns and monks. He offers us the gift of salvation through His grace and the merits of His sacrificial death on the cross, but owing us, like, a happy life free from pain, disappointment, sorrow? No, that's not right. That's like a teenager going up to his or her parents and saying, "You owe me a car because I've remembered to make my bed without being reminded for the past year."

After all, Jesus's Passion, the culmination of His three year ministry on earth, His raison d'etre -- reason for being -- was our salvation and that was accomplished through pain, disappointment and sorrow from Gethsemane to Calvary. There was no escaping it if He wanted to carry out the plan to save us from the wages of our sin, which was death. So He voluntarily chose to walk the road of sorrows and when He told us that if we wanted to be His followers, we'd have to take up our own crosses and follow Him? He meant that we were going to walk the same road in this life, but He promised it would be worth it once we gained heaven.

This earth is not the place where we'll perfection of body, soul and mind. In the book of Revelation, St. John wrote of seeing "the new heaven and the new earth" in chapter twenty-one. "He will wipe every tear from their eyes and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away," the apostle wrote. "The one who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new."

So when we approach this life as a time and place of perfection, where God is our own personal genie who will grant us our wishes of perfect health, perfect prosperity and perfectly caught football passes, we're setting ourselves up for bitter disappointment of the sort that Stevie expressed in his tweet. "Look at all I do for you! You owe me, God!" A lot of times, I have found that this "owing" concept has a lot to do with "Scriptural Promises," which are random verses plucked out here and there and taken vigorously out of context, with no regard to surrounding passages or even the scope and sequence of the Bible as a whole. In that way lies danger, because when a person does that often enough, it happens that the resulting religion they cobble together for themselves bears no resemblance to actual Christianity in either the spiritual or historical sense. Instead, it becomes more akin to a New-Agey sort of gnosticism. It may feel good to believe this invented quasi-Christian philosophy -- after all, who wouldn't want to experience prosperity, perfect health and so many blessings raining down from heaven that stress just got knocked over flat on its back? -- but it doesn't have any basis in real Christianity.

Real Christianity is rugged. It is not for people who are so delicate, they can't deal with the concept of money troubles or illness, seeing those things as signs that one has somehow missed God's will because otherwise, things would be rosy. It takes some real character to be a good one, not that I'd know because I'm one of those who still, in my mid-forties, has to fight down the urge to flip the bird at people who cut me off in traffic. It takes courage to believe without seeing, to be kind to your enemies and to extend charity when none is extended to you. It takes a strong person to believe that thing might not be okay right now, in fact, things might be disastrous right now, but to rest in the promise that someday, maybe not in this life but in the next one, things will definitely be okay. It takes a lot of doing to read your Bible, attend to your prayers and do your duty to God as a grateful thank-you for the generous gift of His Son. Authentic Christianity takes some faith and some works and sometimes it comes so easy that you could swear you're drifting along, borne up by angel's wings, and sometimes it's so hard, you just want to chuck it all out.

But then there's that part of you that echoes St. Peter words in John 6: "To whom shall [I] go? You have the words of eternal life." I hope that Stevie will learn this lesson as he continues with his career in professional football, whether he catches passes sent his way or whether they drop like stones right at his feet. I hope I'll continue learning this lesson, taking the advice of the great saints who have gone before us - St. Therese and St. Theresa (who once grumpily said, "If this is the way You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them," a concept which I feel Stevie could heartily endorse.) St. Vincent de Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Catherine of Siena and St. John Vianney. Every single one of those people went through a time of bitterness and sorrow, some of them died difficult deaths, but none of them threw up their hands and said, "This is not what I was promised in Your Word! I want a do-over! I want my money back! I want to speak to the manager!" They all persevered and they won out in the end. I'm sure they had their times of wondering what the heck was going on, because who doesn't? But they held on. We can learn from them. We should learn from them; they have so much to teach us about authentic faith and spirituality for Christians.

One of the things I like best about being Catholic is this picture: Life is like a steep uphill climb, rough terrain like one might find in the hills of Judea.The path is there right in front of you, but it's obvious that there's not going to be any kind of easy ascent. So there's Jesus right ahead of you, beckoning you onward with a friendly smile and a look of love in His eyes so deep and so true, you just know that He knows you're going to make it.

He carries a lantern to light the way so that you can see the particularly bad spots and not miss your footing. On one side of you is your guardian angel, on the other is the Blessed Mother. From time to time, you fall down on the path. Okay, make that many times. But each time, Jesus stops and waits as your angel and your heavenly mother haul you up by the elbows. They dust you off and get you back on your feet and Jesus sets the lantern down so that He can bind up your wounds. "There. Better now?" He asks, and then it is onward and upward again, no time to stop, no time to look back.

All along the way, there is encouragement and kindness. Your angel and your holy mother pray for you every step, adding their voices to yours as you talk to Him. "Jesus, I need help. I'm so tired," you say. "Yes, Jesus," says Mary, "She is so tired. He is so weary. Please give her refreshment. Please bless his life." Your angel chimes in, "Yes, please, Jesus, help her be strong. Help him not to grow weary in well-doing." Jesus listens to our questions, provides us with answers, hears our complaints and deals with our fears and our frailties, constantly challenging us to be better, be bigger, walk stronger, get tougher....all while having the tender, loving faith of a little child. In short, He is there every second, always ready to come to us with His arms outstretched, every time He hears a heart cry out to Him, in the ancient words of the daily prayer, "Deus in adjutorium meum intende; Domine ad adjuvandum me festina"

God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.

Stevie, you and I will keep on learning as we climb the path of salvation with Him, and as your Christian sister, I think the question I'd like to ask you if we could meet face to face right now is this: "What is He trying to get you to learn through that dropped pass? Could the lesson be that He is there with you whether you win or lose? Whether you look like a star or more like a burnt match? Since there is no humiliation that you experience that He hasn't experienced tenfold before you, could you be with Him in His time of need, share His pain and fear and humiliation this coming Holy Week? Could you give yourself completely not only to be known, but to know?"

I say it to myself, too.

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