A Great Song for Lent

I, like everyone else, enjoy music very much.  I have certain songs that I listen to over and over again and the repetition doesn’t make my wife very happy.  But this post isn’t about the nature of music (if you want a little of that, I suggest Alan Bloom’s piece).  This post is about a song that I listen to once awhile during lent.  I will explain its message to me and hopefully it could be something you could use.

Christian songs are great tools for prayer and reflection, but I find that some secular songs can do the same thing.  One of these songs is called I’m the Only One by Melissa Etheridge.  For those who are unfamiliar with the song, here is the video.

My Reflection:

When I hear this song, I imagine that it is God who is singing this to his beloved child and the first thing that comes to mind is Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven.  In both instances, God is the ever-yearning lover that constantly reminds the human person that there is no happiness and fulfillment in life without Him.

God Is Ever Calling:

The Lyrics

Please baby can’t you see
My mind’s a burnin’ hell
I got razors a rippin’ and tearin’ and strippin’
My heart apart as well

The first four lines of the lyrics is an expression of angst and sorrow.  Now, as a theologian, I’m aware of the problems that can arise from attributing emotions to God, but let us forget that for a moment and turn to the story of the prodigal son.  We are told that young son, returning with sorrow after having spent all his inheritance, finds his father waiting anxiously for his return.  God, like the father of the prodigal son, is filled with angst and sorrow when we, his beloved children, stray far from him, and he yearns nothing more than for us to return to his love.

How Do We Abandon God?

Tonight you told me
That you ache for something new
And some other woman is lookin’ like something
That might be good for you

The next four lines of the lyrics read just like our daily lives.  We begin to replace God in our lives with other things to the point that we no longer have any time for God.  We justify these replacements by saying that they are important.  Indeed, a cheating husband always sees his mistress as something better and justifies his behavior by whatever reason he must to overcome the idea that it is wrong.  We don’t necessarily have to commit a terrible act such as marital infidelity to abandon God, but we could do things like lie, gossip, or even act selfishly.

Advice Given

Please baby can’t you see
I’m trying to explain
I’ve been here before and I’m locking the door
And I’m not going back again

The next four lines act like a warning to us.  To accept or reject a lover that is openly welcoming us is of course our decision, but our decisions have consequences.  When we choose to love someone who loves us, we therefore choose to douse ourselves with that love.  However, if we choose to reject the love that is offered to us, then naturally we do not receive such love.  And if God is Love and love unceasing, then to reject his love is our own decision, but then we are left to live without love…a very terrifying existence.

Her eyes and arms and skin won’t make
it go away
You’ll wake up tomorrow and wrestle the sorrow
That holds you down today

These next four lines are also words of caution: sin is only fake happiness.  The husband that cheats on his wife mistakes lust for love and temporary satisfaction for lasting joy.  We often mistake mundane pleasures as eternal happiness.  We often settle for things that give us immediate release and then having to search once again after the release for another sort of excitement.  We need to become better at discerning what is truly good for us, what is true happiness, as opposed to that which only satisfies our seeming needs but leaves us always yearning for something else after the excitement is over.

The Source of Joy

Go on and hold her till the screaming is gone
Go on believe her when she tells you
Nothing’s wrong
But I’m the only one
Who’ll walk across the fire for you
I’m the only one
Who’ll drown in my desire for you
It’s only fear that makes you run
The demons that you’re hiding from
When all your promises are gone
I’m the only one

The chorus reads like lines out of the Biblical text: there is someone who is willing to do the craziest of things out of love for us.   If there is someone who is willing to “walk across the fire” or “drown in my desire” for us, we can either conclude that the person genuinely does love us or that he is crazy, or that there is a little bit of crazy in love =)  But as Jesus tells us, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend.  Yet, Jesus was not just all talk about love; he showed it.  He freely and willingly laid down his life for our own sake.  The chorus then tell us that the beloved runs from the lover out of fear.  So why do we run from God? Fear.  We run away from things because we are afraid.  It begins when we are very young, like our first encounter with the neighbor’s dog that sends us literally running, and it continues to grow with us and spreads to other areas of our lives.  We start running away from relationships, work, ourselves, and ultimately God.  But unlike the little boy that couldn’t help his reaction to the dog, we can help our reaction to things in our lives.  We can choose to not run away.  We can choose to deal with our problems head on.  What then is our fear?

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How Do We Love?

In today’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus said this to the crowd: ” This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.”  I will not attempt at exegetical work here, but I want to highlight the significance behind this statement.

First,  we live in a world that often values comfort at the expense of truth and virtue.  What I mean here is that we often overlook or glamorize wrongs so that we won’t have to deal with the uncomfortable part of telling someone we love or care for that they are doing something wrong.   This attitude, of course, extends from personal relationships to societal relationships.  Instead of pointing out the wrong, we embrace our loved ones’ wrong-doings as their personal choices and that they are the only ones affected by them.  And they in return  buy into our embraces and are convinced that they are the only ones affected by their choices.  And because choices no longer affect others but only ourselves, no choice is ever wrong per se, only different.

Second, we blur the distinction between the actor and the action.  The reason why we are scared to tell people that they are wrong is because we are scared that they will think that we think they are bad people.  Our fear is not without merit since some of us do not seem able to make the distinction between a bad deed and a bad man–that a good man could perform a bad deed while a bad man good perform a good deed.  We must realize that people are not totally defined by their actions, even though their actions are a part of their personal constitution.

Third, we mistakenly call bad things good because we have a serious misunderstanding of what good is.  We value the right things according to the “time of season” and we value the wrong things all the time.  We value family only when Thanksgiving and Christmas is around; we value our boyfriends, girlfriends, fiances, and spouses only when Valentine’s day is around.  Yet, we value material things everyday of the year, e.g. the latest and best cellphones and TVs.  We think that obsession with our bodies is a good thing, and that anything less than a six-pack is shameful.

So What Does Jesus Teach Us?

As a student of theology, I’m always so astounded by those who suggest that Jesus was always loving and never said anything mean or offensive to those around him (to be fair, I’m also very astounded by those who seem to suggest that Jesus came to destroy all sinners and spread a message of hatred).  As apparent in today’s Gospel, Jesus was not afraid to call a spade its name.

While he is loving, for he is Love Incarnate, he is also, well, loving!  What this means is that it is because he loves so deeply that he must point out our wrong-doings so that we may learn to be virtuous.  But just because he calls out the wrong does not mean that he ceases to love us.  Just because a mother tells her son that she does not like his addictive actions does not mean that she has ceased to love him.  The very contrary is true: she loves him all the more because he is broken and needs love to heal.

Additionally, Jesus is keenly aware that our choices are not “just our own”, but that they are made to affect those we love as well as those around us.  We are not meant to live alone, such is why we are born into families, establish friendships, fall in love, marry and start families (some of us).  Thus, our decisions affect more than just us, they either build or tear down our relationships.  If we are to seriously love, we must learn to think about how to build those we love up through our own actions.  We must not misconceive the bad for the good; and most importantly, we must learn to call the bad bad and the good good.  We must not be afraid to tell those we love that they have done wrong, and they must do the same for us.  Finally, we must learn to distinguish between the sinner and the sin; we must love the sinner and hate the sin, not the other way around.

We Are Dust

Growing up poor

I grew up in a very remote rural hamlet of Vietnam called Tu Bong.  Our day to day living is like what you see in a film depicting the 1800s.  We used oil lamps and candles for light, we used the river that ran through our hamlet for bathroom purposes, we used a well for drinking water, we brushed our teeth with salt, and there were many other things I recall that tend to surprise people who I’ve encountered here in the United States.

Among these very simplistic and “archaic” ways of life, I remember two the most.  I remember making cars out of clay, drying them, and then hauling them around with my friends.  And I also remember getting to start the fire everyday so my mom and cook dinner.  These were my two favorite activities as a child before we moved here to America.

Now when I say that I got to start the fires, I mean to say that for me that was one of the best things I got to do all day!  How many little boys do you know who do not love to play with fire?  I certainly loved fire (and still do, just ask my friends), and everything about it.  However, starting the fire and playing with it while it is still flaming is always so much more entertaining and interesting than watching it burn out and turn into ashes.

So what does this have to do with Ash Wednesday?

When I was younger, anything I found went into the fire and they all burned (eventually).  The very same case is true these days, minus the few things that I know would smell terribly if I burned them.  Some burned brighter than others, some burned longer than others, some burn out almost instantly, but all of them end up being ash at the end of it all.

On Ash Wednesday, the Christian is called to remember that he is made from dust and to dust he shall return.  As Christians, we are called to live our lives in holiness so that others may witness it so they may turn to Christ, the source of all that is holy.

So on this day, we are all reminded that we are like all things that burn: that no matter our length of life, our age, our race, our genders, our vocations, we will all end up dying and having to face our God like all those things that I set aflame.  Yet, despite our ending up in death, we can still choose to live our lives differently, which will either bring Christ to the world or shield the world from Him.

Some of us will choose to live our faith like a log set aflame, a fire magnificently bright that burns for a long time, while some of us will live our faith like a piece of paper set aflame, a fire burning brightly, but short-lived because our faith is only dependent on the feel-good moments that God can provide for us.  Some of us will choose to live our faith like the steady burning charcoals that are never really on flame nor burned out, a monotonous burn that bores even the most excited pyromaniac.

So Ash Wednesday calls us to mind the fragility of our human conditions and along with it our very own call to holiness.

Ave Maria, ora pro nobis!

Is Hell That Scary?

My life has been a tad crazy ever since I added a new vocation, fatherhood, to my list of vocations as husband and teacher.  Yet, with all the craziness, I would trade none of these roles for anything else.  Why? To borrow my mother’s wise words, “there is something more valuable than gold and pearls here!”  Indeed, there is something very valuable here.  My family is much more valuable than any amount of gold or pearls in the world combined!

When people are extremely valuable to us, we do not wish to be far from them, and we yearn for them when they are not around.  Such was the feeling I experienced two weeks ago when I left my family for five days to go on the March for Life—this was the first time I left as a husband and father.  There was a sense of yearning that was unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.  I missed kissing my wife and daughter good night; I missed kissing them goodbye in the morning as I head out for work; I missed cuddling with my wife as we hold Madison in front of us and try to make her laugh, which most of the time ends up with her looking at us like we’re a couple of loons.  Yet, all of these mundane, and perhaps profane, actions are more valuable than gold and pearls.

And yet again, what if I discovered tomorrow than I will no longer be able to do these things ever again?!  The very thought of this question makes me cringe and sends angst through my soul.  Its reality would devastate my being and perhaps I would really turn loony!  I would rather suffer the most intense physical pain than to be separated from my loved ones.  And this is what I suspect the martyrs understood when they were willing to undergo the most intense physical pains for their beloved Christ rather than apostatize and suffer hell.

So what about Hell?

So what is hell?  There are biblical depictions of hell as a place of great suffering—suffering that none of us would ever want to endure—a place without Love.  And when I was younger, I understood hell to be great pain; pain that is understood only in reference to the body, not the soul.  As I grew, however, I have experienced and understand different types of pain and I think I’ve come closer to understanding the pain of hell.

If St. Augustine is to be believed, and I think there is very good reason to, then we are created out of love and for Love.  Since we are created by God for Himself, we are therefore restless until we rest in Him.  Where and when are we with God eternally?  In heaven.  Where and when are we without God eternally? In hell.

If my love for my family, finite and measurable, can turn me into a mess when I’m without them, then my love for my God, created to be infinite and immeasurable, would torture me in an ineffable manner when I have committed myself to an existence without him for eternity.  So is hell scary?  I would say yes! Yes, it is!  But not the same kind of scariness that we experience from physical pain.  This is a pain that is deep in the soul; a pain experienced from being without someone you love for eternity; a pain from sorrow, despair, and lament.  It is a pain that ought to scare the hell out of anyone!

The Sin of Lucifer

I must first apologize for the fairly technical post, but I just find this so interesting.  It is Aquinas’ take on the sin of Lucifer, explained as best I could in simple terms:

It has been said by various authorities that Lucifer sinned by seeking something good, and perhaps this position bears repetition.  The devil’s sin is to seek unauthorized equality with God.  However, it cannot be said that he seek divine equality absolutely because this would be contradictory to God’s essence on God’s part (nothing can be equal to God for he is ipsum esse subsistens [subsistent being itself]).  Also, it cannot be possible that there should be two of this kind, mainly that participating esse (existence) cannot be equal to which is essentially the esse itself.

Further, we cannot blame the structure of the devil for his sin for it is natural to intelligence, even separated intelligence to understand its own substance.  Therefore, naturally it knows that its being is participated being and not subsistent being itself.  In Lucifer’s case, since there is a certain natural knowledge in him that has not yet been corrupted, he should have realized that his esse is participating esse.

Moreover, the will always desires something good either for itself or for another.  But it cannot be said that Lucifer have sinned because he wanted divine equality for another, (for he could without sin want the Son to be equal to the Father) but he sought equality for himself.  Further, if another angel were to be created and given authority which necessitates him to come closer to divine authority, Lucifer would not have cared what would happen to him.  From this, it is apparent that the angel did not seek to change his identity.  If, however, he were equal to God, even if this were possible, he would not be himself because his species would change if he was raised to a higher rank in nature.  Likewise, he could not desire what was not absolutely subject to God.  Then because this is impossible, neither could it occur to him as possible for he himself would cease to exist. 

All angels, however, are designed so that whatever is of their perfection they would immediately hold it from the principle of their creation.  Nevertheless they were in potentiality to supernatural good, which through the grace of God they were able to pursue.  Therefore the result is that the devil’s sin would not be in anything pertaining to the natural order, but to something supernatural.  So that Lucifer’s sin is that he did not raise himself to God as if desiring along with the holy angels the final perfection from God’s grace, but he willed to pursue it through the power of his own nature.  And because to have final happiness through the power of his own nature, and not from the grace of God, it is clear how much for this reason the devil sought equality with God and how much for this reason also he sought not to be subjected to God so that evidently he would not need his grace beyond the power of his own nature.  And this agrees with the premise that the fallen angel sinned, not by desiring something evil, rather something good, namely final happiness, without conferring God’s grace.

Happy Monday!