Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fun with Catholicism

Martyrdom is typically a real downer, but Saint Lawrence proved to have the last laugh when Pope Sixtus II sentenced him to death by way of roasting; while being burned on the rotisserie Lawrence turned to the executioners, and said, I'm cooked on that side, turn me over, and eat.

While it certainly helps to have a clean record if you want to become the moral and spiritual leader of the Roman Church, its not a requirement. Pope Boniface VI was elected pope even though he had twice been defrocked because of immoral activity.

Mass media have brought recent priest sex scandals into the limelight, but its actually been a problem in the church for hundreds of years. These Popes have all allegedly died while engaging in sexual conduct: John VII (murdered by enraged husband of the woman he was in bed with), John XIII (murdered by a jealous husband), Pope Paul II (heart attack while sodomizing a page boy).

While most popes have gone with safe choices when choosing their new pontiff name, there is only one set rule: they cannot choose Peter. Hypothetically, a pope can become Pope Jesus Christ, Pope God, or even Pope Innocent II (but not Pope Innocent I that name was already used).

Many people know that the reason priest cannot marry has more to do with property, and less to do with purity and devotion to God; what most people do not realize is there is a loophole around this clause. If a man becomes a Lutheran priest, marries, and later converts to Catholicism, he is eligible to become a Catholic priest and keep his wife.

The youngest person to ever lead the Catholic Church was only a teen. Pope John XII was 18 when he became pope.

The term devils advocate has Catholic origins. The term was coined by the church to describe the person appointed to give the opposing viewpoint when deciding if a person should be sainted.

Some popes have all the luck; they get several years of good health to leave a legacy. Others not so lucky. Pope Urban VII was elected pope September 15, 1590, and died September 27, 1590. He is most remembered for dying.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Travis is currently recovering from a week-long existentialist crisis*, so he was unable to write a piece for this week. Instead, here is a Sinfest comic strip he really likes.

*Don't worry, he gets them a lot.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Purpose Driven Life

I admit that when the pastor started talking about doing a church wide book club series on Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, I was hesitate. I’m loyal to Oprah’s book club and only Oprah.

The thought of having to read an Oprah book and a Warren book made me feel a bit overwhelmed. Then the pastor announced the week before the study that everyone involved would get a free key chain with the books logo. That settled it. The book had to be good if it came with a key chain—a free one on top of that.

And an amazing thing happened during the study—I discovered that I didn't need Christ, I needed purpose. Before I read this book I was a pretty good Christian. I went to church; I read the Bible; I went on mission trips; I even did a little bit of evangelism. I was happy, but all I had was Christ.

Pastor Warren helped me see that you need more than what Christ could have ever died for to be truly happy—you need to have purpose. Christ can give me eternal salvation, but that doesn’t do me any good on Earth. At the best, commitment to Christ on Earth will get me a stale donut hole at the end of the church service. Purpose, I now knew, can get me so much more.

The more I read the book, the more I realized that being a Christian was tough, required discipline, and didn’t even guarantee happiness.

I started reading the Bible a little more carefully and found this little verse, hidden shamefully between some happy versus, that said ‘endure hardship like discipline.’ Hardship! Discipline! I never knew the Bible said that! I was now compelled to finish this Warren book to figure what to do about this scary little verse.

What Pastor Warren showed me was, yeah, your life is crappy, and the reason it’s crappy is because you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Happiness, he helped me discover, comes from purpose, not from Christ.

The more I considered what he was saying, the more it became crystal clear—if I simply find purpose, then I wouldn’t need Christ until my deathbed. Christ, it became clear, is just a scapegoat for those who cannot face the challenge of finding meaning. I knew it might be hard, but I was determined more than ever to find a purpose.

About the time I was questioning my purpose, my church had a ministry fair that was inspired by Warren’s book. It was like they knew I was questioning my purpose. Tents with fancy signs advertised how I could find purpose by helping others. But helping someone else, hardly seemed to be helping myself, and if I was ever going to have purpose, I needed something self-gratifying. I wasn’t certain helping others is what Pastor Warren would really want me to do.

Late that night, I was watching a Spanish infomercial and I felt I had found my purpose. I knew by the tone in the man’s voice that this was a pyramid scheme, but I also knew that this was it—this illegal pyramid scheme was my purpose. And so I devised a pyramid scheme of my own.

It was a standard pyramid scheme—but there was a catch that I knew people would absolutely love and be anxious to be involved in. My pyramid scheme, you see, had purpose.

According to my scheme, a person would get what I called the ‘Purpose List.’ The ‘Purpose List’ had names on it. Eight names to be exact. The person sent each person on the ‘Purpose List’ five dollars. When this was done, their name would be put on a new ‘Purpose List’ All a person needed to do was send my customize ‘Purpose Form Letter’ and the ‘Purpose List,’ which now included their name, to 100 people. It was that simple. And purposeful!

The next Sunday, I visited Pastor Warren's Saddleback church in Southern California. While people were in church, I set up a table outside. I made a pretty little glittery sign that said, “MY PURPOSE DRIVEN PYRAMID,” and waited for church to finish so I could sign everyone up.

As it happened, I didn’t have to wait long. Before the service even let out, two very nice looking biker dudes told me I could not solicit on church property. I told them that I had to—it was my purpose. They seemed to sympathize with me—I think they were looking for purpose too—but they still made me leave, and said they’d pray for me.

I was disappointed in Pastor Warren. He seemed so sincere when he said he wanted me to have purpose, but he wouldn’t help me once I found it. It was like he’d given me a cookie without the milk. What kind of sick person does this?

As I thought about everything, a revelation came: Pastor Warren had already beaten me to the Purpose Pyramid Scheme. He sat on the top of the scheme and convinced other church pastors if they would have their church members pay 20 bucks for his purposeful book, then their members would find purpose, and they in turn would convince their friends to buy it, and so on and so forth. Warren’s purpose driven pyramid scheme is perhaps one of the most brilliant of them all—but that still left me with no purpose of my own.

Friday, March 20, 2009

How Fundamentalism Hijacked Conservatism

I am currently reading The Conservative Soul by Andrew Sullivan. I don't consider myself a conservative (I don't really subscribe to any one political philosophy, to be honest), but Sullivan is one of my daily reads, and I like the way he analyzes current events.

In the book, Sullivan claims that modern conservatism has strayed far from its original purpose. According to Sullivan, true conservatism means keeping tabs on government spending and expansion, and promises individual freedom and rule of law. However, under the Bush administration government spending reached an all-time high, torture became acceptable, and many conservatives favored religious dogma over civil liberties. So what went wrong? Sullivan sums it up in one word: fundamentalism.

In fundamentalism, things are either black or white; no greys are allowed. All authority resides in one person/book/ideology. For fundamentalists, whether they are secular (Marxists and Nazis) or religious (Islamic and Christian extremists), the goal is for all citizens to submit to this one authority . . . often by any means necessary.

The result, according to Sullivan, is the Bush administration. An administration that used torture as a interrogation, passed all spending bills, and proposed a Constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

So how can conservatism bounce back? Sullivan's alternative is a "conservatism of doubt." Ultimate truth exists, but, according to Sullivan, it's so beyond our human understanding that we can never fully grasp it. While the fundamentalist never doubts, Sullivan says the conservative knows there is at least a 1% chance that s/he might be wrong.

Sullivan makes makes some good points. To me, however, the problem isn't believing that the Bible is the infallible Word of God; it's believing that one's own interpretation of the Bible is infallible. As Shakespeare once said, even the devil can use Scripture for his own purposes. And unfortunately, for many fundamentalists the Bible clearly says that if gays are allowed to marry, or if we don't blow up Iran, then God will rain fire and brimstone on America. Or something like that.

As far as Sullivan's "conservatism of doubt," he's got a good point. We humans are imperfect, so there is a good chance that we've got it all wrong. I'm not sure how it translates into politics (I'm only three quarters through the book). But I will say this; contrary to what fundamentalists believe, America is not a "Christian nation." We are a nation made up of various races, genders, sexual orientations, religions, income levels, etc. It would be foolish for the government to cater to only one group of people while completely ignoring the needs of others. But this is what fundamentalism does.

What do you think?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Forgetting How to Pray

There are all kinds of lessons they teach you in church; the one I hear least often is prayer. How do you pray?

I suppose the reason for this is because it's supposed to be natural. What you say is between you and God--you’re not supposed to think about what you say, you’re just supposed to say it.

Growing up in a Methodist church, prayer had always been more of a ritual; people did not say, “Let me pray for you” and the church prayer chain was meant strictly for gossip. Prayer was strictly kept to the ones you could read off in the back of hymnals, and the Lord’s Prayer, which half the church never seemed to remember completely.

It wasn’t until college, when I joined a campus Bible study, that I saw the more charismatic side of prayer. I remember after the study the leader had everyone huddle around in a circle for what he called “prayer time.” He went around the circle and everyone said what they needed prayers for. It was a nice gesture, but when it came turn for me to say what I wanted people to pray for, I said, “I’m good.”

Next it was time to pray, “Everyone just take turns praying for someone.” The leader said. This can’t be good, I thought. As I closed my eyes to pray, all I could think was Okay, what person do I pray for, and what is their name, and when should I pray--if I pray now will someone else start to pray at the same time and then I'll interrupt them and we'll have to decide who to pray for. And what if my prayer isn't good enough? What if I pray to short or too long?

The prayer time was meant to be a personal experience—a way for everyone in the group to feel close to each other. It made me feel uncomfortable.

The problem was I was over thinking about the prayer time; but I don’t think I’m alone.

Perhaps I’m just being cynical here, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a small group study—maybe fifteen people—and during the prayer time there’s always some person who wants to be the prayer hero. Who is struggling to remember every single prayer request, and then adding to it—they’re praying for the economy, the President, for their parent's dog who might have a cold, and their Grandma who’s hoping to win big at bingo. And they appear to be doing the prayer in one giant single breath—and all I can think is “shut up with your prayer already!” It’s not communication with God—it’s a thesis on pointlessness.

Then there are the dinner table prayers--they start the same and end the same. How many different ways are there to pray for food? And if all you ever say is "Father, bless this food" how do you keep that prayer sincere? At some point prayer just seems to be more a ritualistic tradition then a prayer.

The prayers are valid, of course, and sincere. But still, I can't help but wonder if we'd all be just a little less tense praying—if we were thought more about what a prayer is and how to do it—how to free your mind of everything and just talk to God. Churches teach many things, but they often fail to teach the most simple: how to pray.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Pro-Life and Pro-Rape?

While going through my Google Reader the other day, I came across a story via Andrew Sullivan about a nine-year-old Brazilian girl who became pregnant with twins after allegedly being raped by her stepfather. Her mother took her to get an emergency abortion, but then the local archbishop excommunicated the mother and the doctors who performed the abortion. However, according to CBC News, the stepfather was not excommunicated because "the crime he is alleged to have committed, although deplorable, was not as bad as ending a fetus's life."

Now, I'm personally not a fan of abortion. I would love to see the Obama administration develop ways to reduce the number of abortions in America. But seriously, what the eff?!?

Let's consider the situation. This man supposedly attacked a poor, innocent girl, and yet he doesn't get excommunicated? He only gets a slap on the wrist, while the victim's mother is punished because she doesn't want her daughter to go through the agony of carrying children conceived through hate and violence. (Yes, I do make an exception for rape and incest.) Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture?

In a time of need, a woman and her daughter are shunned by their church instead of comforted. Meanwhile a predator is not excommunicated, but only chastised. I'm not a Catholic, so I don't know what the rules are about excommunication, but to me I think the Vatican needs to rethink its policies.

*NOTE: It could be that the stepfather didn't get excommunicated because he hasn't been found guilty yet. But that article doesn't mention that, so I'm assuming that's not a factor.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dear God, I am American, What Are You?

Click here to read the questions

These are funny but the kids asking these questions are completely innocent. Questioning God is such a taboo situation. I question God often, but never my faith. I think it helps me grow, and makes me realize at times, the best questions are always left unanswered, or are meant to be experienced.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Clique, Part II

As we grew, and our juvenile years took us all the way into teenage angst, our clique survived—once you create a clique in church, it’s quite hard to get out of it—it’s like a gang in this way. Before we’d occasionally hang out with the other kids because their parents made them—that’s what good Christian’s did, they found pity groups to take on as projects; as the other groups grew, they no longer had to do as their parents said, which was fine by us, because we never liked be someone else’s project anyway.

It is in your teenage years that you really see who your friends are; when all innocence is removed and you stick by each others side in spite of the differences in choices that you make.

Mike didn’t have the choices I had. His home was hard and most saw his destiny was to follow in the footsteps of his loser siblings; people like him did not succeed. Unfortunate for Mike, he wasn’t strong-willed enough to prove these people wrong. He got a girl pregnant much too early, and dropped out of school not long after. Despite his flaws, he was in my clique, and, like I said, you stick by each others sides despite the choices that you make.

I have had scoliosis (curve of the spine) all of my life; when I was sixteen, it had got so severe that my back was curving into my lungs; I had two choices: surgery or a life of disability. I obviously picked the first choice. The surgery lasted nearly ten hours and was complete with complicates soon after (my lungs collapse a few days later). When I was alert enough to take more visitors then just my parents, the minister appeared, and by his side was Mike, who had insisted someone drive him to the hospital so he could see me.

I was in the hospital for two weeks; in that time Mike, who had responsibilities far greater then visiting a friend in the hospital, found ways to get the hospital often—despite having no car and the hospital being forty minutes away. I went to the churches youth group often, and knew many of the teens there well—many of them I had known since I was old enough to talk. And yet Mike was the only youth from the church who came to visit me; not event the youth pastor who was paid to minister to the youth full-time, made the trip.

A few days after I had left the hospital, I had got a card in the mail. It was from the churches youth group. Collectively they decided they would send many a get well soon card. I knew the card had been a great inconvenience for them, when some of the one line notes, spelt my name wrong.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Does It Offend You, Yeah?

Apologies in advance to everyone who thought I was talking about the band.

My future-brother-in-law says that the movie Four Christmases was pretty awful. His main complaint, however, wasn't about the hokey script, cliched plot, or flat jokes. What ticked him off was a Christmas pageant scene near the end that "makes fun of Christians." I haven't seen the movie personally, so I can neither agree nor disagree with him. But as he said this, I could only thing of one thing: "As long as they're making fun of Christians and not God, then what's the big deal?"

While it's true that the Bible says the world will hate us, I think Jesus was talking about more than just the media making fun of us. Since we have religious freedom here in the States, American Christians usually don't face the kind of persecution that Christians in China or Iran would face. So for many America Christians, "persecution" means "some one on TV is making fun of us." Many conservative pundits rant about the so-called "politically correct age" where, supposedly, you're not allowed to talk negatively about anyone except Christians. However, that's not entirely true. On shows like "South Park" and "Family Guy," they poke fun people of all religions. I think it only seems like Christians alone are the butt of jokes because Christianity is the most well-known religion in America. I'm sure if "Family Guy" took place in India, there would be a lot of Hindu jokes.

Besides, Christians do some pretty ridiculous things sometimes. We've got our own language ("Christianese"), mega-church cliches, badly made movies, poorly written books about Armageddon--come on, we've got plenty of material!

While I don't have a problem with people making fun of Christians, I personally don't like it when people make fun of God. For example, there was an episode of "The Sarah Silverman Show" where she sleeps with God. I usually love Silverman, but that was taking it too far.

Maybe the reason why many Christians are offended by potshots is because, ultimately, no one wants to be stereotyped. While fundamentalism has tainted Christianity's image for most people, not all Christians subscribe to that extreme way of thinking. And yet for many critics like Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, there is no difference between the moderate believer and the extreme fundamentalist--both are dangerous nutjobs.

The critics will say what they want. Sometimes they're on the ball, and sometimes they grossly stereotype. If they bother you, then the best thing to do is to just ignore them and live your life. We've already got enough to worry about; Peter Griffin shouldn't be one of them.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Clique, Part One

Apologizes in advance for not posting this on Monday…I’ve had it finished, but it was a crazy day yesterday and there was no opportunity to paste it into the blog…


Church can be quite territorial; somehow, I’m really not sure how this works, people find a pew on Sunday and they claim it. If someone else sits in this pew, then there is chaos, and all order is disturbed; even the minister does a double take to see who dares to disturb the order of the mundane.

And somehow, again I’m not sure how all of this works, cliques are established within these territorial areas; so it happens that the gossips, the do-gooders, the youth, the newlyweds, the elderly, etc all have not only their cliques, but assigned seating.

As it also happens, there is always one group of untouchables within the church, and they to have their seats too—in back of the church usually, though sometimes the church decides to put them up front so everyone can look down upon them with both scorn and pity (a stare so complicated that only true church people can do it); these are the people that are poor and broken, and come to church because their lives are in such disorder (financially, spiritually, and matrimonially) that they have come to realize how desperately they need God—in this way they are more honest and pure about their belief then anyone else in the church, and, as it happens, they are commonly mocked for this.

I don’t quite recall how it happened, but, as a youth, I came to dwell in the untouchable’s domain. I was not neither poor nor pure about my faith; I fit no of the qualifications of the clique. If push came to shove, I suppose the only reason I ever came to enter the clique was because of Mike.

Mike’s family resembled the true definition of the untouchable church clique—siblings were either addicted to drugs or popping out babies by their fifteenth birthday; Mike’s mother did her best, but had fled from an abusive marriage only to find herself with six kids and no money to support herself; she did what any mother would do in such predicament—she worked minimum wage jobs 50 to 60 hours a week and relied on the older kids to take care of the younger ones.

Mike did not belong to any clique because his family was from the untouchable clique; and I did not belong to any clique because I was to reclusive and awkward to fit into the coolest juvenile clique at church: The Bible Thumpers clique—also, I did not like thumping on my Bible, which was a must for such group.

And so it came to past that Mike and I formed our own clique, which, I suppose was unofficially the untouchable’s untouchable offspring—though, theoretically, I was not the offspring of an official untouchable, I hung out with his family enough to have the seal of approval from everyone at church.

Together we were a united group of rejects that even the Sunday school teachers did their best to avoid; they put us at the back tables, so we would not contaminate the rest of the kids, and gave us the worse crayons and markers when it came time to do arts and crafts projects. In spite of the Sunday school teachers complete disregard of us, they still did their best to make us welcome—they knew that they had to have at least one group of rejects support the churches claim of righteousness.