Sunday, May 29, 2016

When asked about a gift, the Rev rants about money...

Dear Rev Know it all,

Can you make a suggestion as to a nice gift for a priest?

Jennifer “Jen” E. Russ

Dear “Jen,”
How honest do you want me to be? I am not sure about gifts for order priests, but for a diocesan (parish) priest, it is to be kept in mind that they are responsible for their own retirement at the age of 70, unless of course they keel over before then.  So, cold hard cash is always an appreciated gift. I can’t say what would be good for religious order priests who, unlike diocesan priests, take a vow of poverty, and are supposed to hand over any gifts to their order. Retired diocesan priests hand over their money to pharmacists, doctors, care givers, the IRS, etc. (Yes, I pay personal taxes. Lots of ‘em. I am not a non-profit organization.)

I can tell you more easily what not to give: religious art!  I have enough folkloric Guatemalan multicolored stoles to carpet the Vatican. I also have shelves full of books that I won’t get to read unless I survive until retirement, and rooms full of icons, statues and inspiring wall plaques. In fact, I am looking at one now that particularly irritates me. It is a small glass sign in a wooden stand that says “TRUTH” in big letters. I keep it on my desk where I have to look at it every day so it can make me feel rotten.  I wish it said “NICE.”  Nice is a lot better than truth. I like being liked, and speaking the truth always puts one at risk of not being perceived as NICE.  No matter how polite one is about it, the truth is never what another really wants to hear. Husbands, how often have you lied to your wives when they ask that most dangerous of questions, “Does this outfit make my …um… ankles look fat?”  “No, dearest, if anything your …um… ankles are as petite and graceful as the day we were wed.”  I have no idea what women lie to men about. They must be very good at it, or maybe it’s just that I’m not married. Yes, truth does no one any good. I am not saying that I could tell the truth even if I might recklessly attempt to do so. The best I can hope for is to say what I perceive to be the truth, knowing that I am probably wrong, at least in some measure if not completely. So here goes….

I noticed a few weeks ago that I had my pastoral hand in your pocket seven times at each weekend Mass.  There was the regular collection, after communion a special collection for a diocesan agency, two simultaneously running pledge drives, a collection for some natural disaster and a sale of things in the church vestibule for a truly good cause. I forget the seventh. I think it was some fundraising event to be held in a few weeks.  This is crazy. What in the name of sweet heavenly glory is going on?  We here in the diocese of Frostbite Falls need to ask ourselves some very honest questions, and I for one don’t want to do it. That @#$%& plaque is staring me in the face even as I write! The truth, or at least my limited perception of it, will do no one any good, least of all me who is responsible for keeping the cash rolling in so that we maintain the status quo until something finally happens to fix the mess or to end it.

Oh well, there’s that stupid plaque two feet from my head. Here goes: Have you ever heard of Ni Tuosheng? You may recognize the English version of his name, Watchman Nee. He wasn’t Catholic. In fact, I think he was rather anti-Catholic. He was a Chinese evangelical theologian born in 1903, arrested in 1952 after the communist revolution. He spent the rest of his 20 years in jail and eventually died of maltreatment, still under arrest in 1972. Before the revolution he worked to establish the faith Fuzhou Province and even after his arrest he continued to convert his prison guards. His last words were found written on a slip of paper hidden in his jail cell under his pillow: “Christ is the Son of God who died for the redemption of sinners and resurrected after three days. This is the greatest truth in the universe. I die because of my belief in Christ.”

Once he said, “Isn’t it interesting that money can be such a good tool for discernment.”  I thought this rather disturbing until I had been in the business of religion for a while. To use the words money and discernment in the same sentence seemed wrong. Eventually I realized what he meant. If the work is God’s, there is always just enough to accomplish it. When I was in my second parish some kid named Louie had a very unrealistic idea. He participated in the Pentecostal-style youth group in the parish. It was a very poor Puerto Rican parish that barely managed to keep its head above water in a very poor and dangerous neighborhood. Louie, the dreamer, thought that the Holy Spirit wanted us to host a big rally to get all the gang members saved. We would find a big hall and have Christian Music groups and preaching and we would feed them all breakfast and lunch for the whole weekend. There was no budget.  It never seemed to worry the kids that there was no source of income to fund such an undertaking. They scattered to the four winds, begged food donations, had the local shopkeepers put signs in their windows and somehow managed to reserve the local Catholic girls’ school gym rent free for a whole weekend.

The great event came and about a thousand young people showed up to hear the Gospel preached for two days, meals included. No budget. A thousand hungry kids. Breakfast and Lunch. They even gave the speakers small stipends and made a donation to the nuns who ran the school. This went on for a few years until local religious organizations decided to help. Youth ministries and professional youth ministers were happy to collaborate as long as they could take credit for the rallies in their official reports. The whole thing fizzled when there was something successful to argue about. But for two or three years, a thousand kids heard the Gospel preached and learned to pray at no expense to any diocesan organization. There was no money in it. Nobody made any money off of it. Didn’t have to be any money in it. God was in it. Isn’t it interesting that money can be such a good tool for discernment?

Next week: This was going to be a short article. No such luck.

Sunday, May 22, 2016


And so dear Rabbi, after dragging you through 2,000 years of mostly unpleasant history, I am ready to answer your question. Must a Jew convert? Yes. So must the pope, so must the president, so must I, as well as all Jews and Christians, especially the clergy. Convert to what? I must be converted to the righteousness of the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  I have tried to demonstrate that the idea of chosen-ness is at the heart of the problem. If my people are the chosen, then you really should forsake your people and join mine, as was required by both Jew and gentile for centuries. 

At least until modern times, no matter how much a Jew tried to join the Goyim (gentiles), he really couldn’t.  There was always suspicion that the conversion wasn’t real, as in the case of Spain and the conversos. As far as people like Hitler, Stalin and those like them were concerned, the waters of Baptism could never wash away Jewishness. A Jew could never really become a gentile and I suspect the reverse was true. A gentile might convert, but he would never be quite Jewish, maybe his children or grandchildren, but the stain of baptismal water could never quite be forgotten.

My point in all this history is that it wasn’t that way at first. The first century was a heated argument about what it meant to be an Israelite. I have struggled for years to understand righteousness (in Hebrew, “zedekah,” in Greek “diakosyne”).  This is as far as I have come: to be righteous is to be godly, to imitate the love and generosity of G-d as much as possible because G-d alone is truly righteous. The best I can hope for is to imitate, to struggle towards His life giving, generous righteousness. You, a rabbinic Pharisee, believe that righteousness, to the degree it can be attained is available in the precepts of the Torah.  Am I right in saying that the Torah is instruction in how to walk in the way of righteousness? We followers of Jesus claim that He is ultimate Torah, the Torah come to life and the ultimate instruction in how to walk in the world.  I remember asking you to comment on something another rabbi was once heard to say, that G-d is hesed (loving kindness). And, as I thought you would say, you told me that “A Jew cannot say this. All that a Jew can really say is that G-d is ONE. Loving kindness is an attribute of G-d, but we cannot say that G-d is hesed.” 

We believe that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the binding of Isaac on the cross and so doing showed us that G-d is what He asked of Abraham – total, self-sacrificing Hesed and Ahubah, that is, Love. He made us in His own image, an image which we darken with sin and selfishness. We, the followers of the little heretical sect of the Nazarenes insist that Jesus was the Messiah, son of Joseph and that he will return as the glorious Messiah, son of David. We believe He was more than we expected. He was the very heart of G-d, which has always been fixed on His people, Israel. And we believe that He showed us Heaven’s plan which is more than we expected. We claim that He taught us that the ONE-ness of G-d is a One-ness of union, not of isolation and that the destiny of humanity is to be restored to intimacy with the Fellowship that is G-d.

Don’t worry if this is a bit hard to swallow. I am not expecting you to do so.  However, these are not ideas completely foreign to Judaism, especially in the Meditative Kabbalah and exemplified by Abulafia. We Notzri (Nazarenes) are not really completely foreign to you. Even our Trinity which we claim to be perfectly one yet perfectly diverse sounds strangely Kabbalistic because it is about union with the divine. We believe that the Messiah revealed the fullness of the divine nature and has invited us to participate in that sacred fullness.

As I said, I am certainly not expecting you to say, “Oh, now I understand!” In fact, knowing as I do and you knowing me as you do, I can almost hear you saying, “No, don’t be crazy. You misunderstood, and I’ve warned not to get involved with Kabbalah!” Don’t worry. I won’t get involved with Kabbalah. I leave that sort of thing to Hollywood Goyim, but I am trying to say that we, Nazarenes and rabbinic Pharisees or as most people would say “Christians and Jews,” are after the same thing: true union with the divine. We believe it can be attained by grace and trust, and by Heaven’s generosity, but we are struggling after righteousness and we define righteousness by Torah and Hebrew Scriptures.

Most Christians don’t understand this. Why should I expect Jews to understand it? This was what Paul taught and what Jesus incarnated, at least as I understand it. So many have made the whole thing a matter of joining the club. You must be my religion and my nationality to get in the pearly gates and to receive your mansion on a street of gold. There is no mansion. There are no streets of gold. Jesus never talked about a mansion or gold streets. He talked about the Father’s house where there is a place for me and for you and for every human being who strives for and accepts the righteousness of G-d.  To accept Heaven on Heaven’s terms and not on our own, to seek righteousness by our own stumbling towards light, we are in the same boat you and I.

In a sense I don’t want you to join my club. I want to be allowed to join yours, though I may not understand it in same way as you. I genuinely believe that that the Torah is G-d’s heart and Jesus of Nazareth is the Torah come to life. There are a thousand reasons to say this is wrong, but this Jesus has drawn me closer to righteousness, despite my resistance to His invitation. 

We Christians and Jews are not strangers and we must not be. You have brought me closer to the Messiah by your patient explanation of Torah, and I can only hope that I have brought you some little encouragement as you pursue the life of righteousness. Together, let us both be ever more converted to the G-d who is ONE!

Your friend and devoted student.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 19

Continued from last week…

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” Charles Darwin, the Descent of Man.”

In 1517, the Reformation killed Christendom. In 1618, the Thirty Years’ War killed Europe. In 1789, the French Revolution killed God, and in 1859 with the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin pointed out that we had never really needed God anyway. We weren’t God’s creatures. Evolution had created us by means of sexual selection. To be fair to Darwin, he wrote in The Descent of Man, quoted above, that we really can’t kill inferior and savage peoples, we should simply not encourage them to breed and hope that they would just be absorbed by superior races like the English I imagine.

Later readers of Darwin, like Hitler and Hitler’s friend Margaret Sanger of Planned Parenthood took Darwin’s ideas to their more logical conclusions. The inferior should not be allowed to breed. In the Thirty Years’ War and the French Revolution, the nation state had replaced God and Christendom as the object of worship. We, Us, Our Nation was superior and all others inferior. Our way was better, our music more beautiful, our laws more perfect and our genetic material more special. Darwin had discovered that the purpose of natural life was not love nor was it virtue. The most insistent purpose of life is the struggle for resources and the survival of the fittest. There was no room for a loving God in a cruel world.

The readers of Darwin applied these ideas to the new age of 19th century nationalist imperialism. The nations of Europe scrambled for control of resources among the inferior nations of Asia, Africa and the land still held by indigenous Americans and Australians. These chosen superior Nations, each more chosen than the other, needed resources. By this, they meant territory. A nation, according to these Imperial Darwinists was an organism. Its purpose was survival and thus, the control of resources. The inferior would just have to take their lumps and part with their possessions, and if need be by their lives.

There were however two special nations, two nations that didn’t have any land at all, and didn’t seem to want any, first the Roma people, the “Gypsies,” but far more significantly, the Jews. The Jews may have been chosen by God, but now that there was no God, they were nothing more than parasites. The Gypsies lived off the land and what they could take with them when they left for greener pastures. The Jews were far more insidious, according to some of the Imperial Darwinists. The Jews didn’t move on. They settled in like an infection, loaning money and controlling factory production and art and theater. They controlled the press, the manufacture of weapons, public opinion, etc., etc. They had to be rooted out like any infection. Europe was about to meet just the physician to perform the operation: Adolf Hitler.

Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist Party was not a madman. He was evil, not insane. He coolly, reasonably convinced a whole nation, famous for its art and science, that the Jews were nothing more than a parasite nation living off the wealth of others since they had no resources that is no land, of their own. Hitler could dispassionately decide that an entire ethnicity should be extinguished, because there was no God who loved and had chosen Israel as His Firstborn. The German People were the true chosen, and Hitler in effect was the god who had chosen them.

In ten years six million Jews would be rounded up and killed. They were among the 80-million-person butcher’s bill that the glorification of the nation and Imperial Darwinism had demanded.  (I have no stomach for holocaust deniers. In my grandfather’s town in Germany there were 300 Jews as there had been since the Middle Ages. In 1945 only 3 remained alive. Most of the 80 million dead were the direct or collateral casualties of war. The Jews, the Gypsies and many Poles were butchered not as the result of war, but for the sake of genocide.) A parallel horror continued in Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and much of the rest of the world until 1991. It continues to this day in Cuba and to a lesser degree in China and Vietnam. 

Karl Marx, an atheist of German-Jewish background, created a social philosophy that promised an earthly paradise, since there was no heavenly one. In the chaos following Hitler’s death and the end of the Second World War Marxist Socialism took over a third of the world and cost the world even more lives than had the world wars. The death of God in Europe and America and the worship of nation, the race and the State had spawned Darwin, Margaret Sanger, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Marx and the litany of sorrow that was the 20th century.

The result of all this is that Christianity is no longer the required state religion of any country that I can think of and, more often than not, Christianity in any form is discouraged if not persecuted. Christianity is no longer a state. It has the opportunity to become a religion once again.

Curiously the madness of the 20th century has witnessed the birth of a Jewish state after 19 centuries of statelessness. In a sense, we are back to the years of the birth of Christianity. Christianity claims to be a spiritual Israel, and Judaism has become a very concrete state in this world as well a religion. This amazes me.

Next Week: I am now ready to answer the Rabbi’s questions.