Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Right Question

I spend my life answering questions.  Always have.  People come to me for answers, right, wrong or indifferent, every day in my line of work. 

One of the first things I have learned is that answering the right question—which is not necessarily the one asked--is critical.  Our Lord was a master of that, directing conversation, thoughts, hearts away from the wrong question to the right one.  Those of us in His Church, maybe not so much.

Think of all the times someone asked Jesus a question and He refused to answer, posing a better question instead.  The Pharisees, concerned about healing of the withered hand of a man in Temple on the Sabbath asked Jesus whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath.  He didn’t answer; He posed His own question: Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil?

I was put in mind of Our Lord’s strategy this week when I found myself ruminating—in sequence--on the perpetually divisive question of whether there are souls in hell; a column by a favorite blogger in which a person at the scene of an accident attempted a baptism with diluted coke when no water was available and the injured man was in danger of immediate death (and, presumably, unconscious or nearly so); and when I sat in the back of Church on Saturday evening and watched the usual cadre of folks receive communion and walk right out the back door without taking time to make an act of thanksgiving or to wait for the final dismissal.

It seems to me, these all share a common root in someone, somewhere feeling compelled to answer the wrong question, the one posed, the one that may not need answering at all, the one that leads astray.

Apropos the population of Hell:  Our Lord’s words on the subject of Hell, though many, are not exactly crystal clear when you put them all together—lots of hope, lots of caution.  Most importantly, the Church has made no definitive declaration concerning the population of Hell and it is not a matter of obligation to hold one opinion concerning the inhabitants thereof over the other—though universalism, the belief that all will (not may) eventually be saved is a heresy. 

Those who vociferously argue both sides do great damage, depending on the audience.  Too much emphasis on mercy ignores the reality of sin and separation for God and its devastating effects.  Too much emphasis on sin and judgment has turned many a soul from the Church out of fear.  My family manifests both: my daughter has yet to overcome a hell-fire and brimstone Sunday School teacher who told her that if she didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus (something that seemed rather elusive to a fourth-grader) she’d better get one fast or she was going to hell (and this in an orthodox, Anglo-Catholic church).  An in-law, exposed only to the mercy school of thought, sees nothing in Christianity to commend it over any other path, including his own mixture of Eastern spirituality laced with some New Age belief and lately, a little Native American thought thrown in for good measure. 

And really, the question—is anyone in hell—is rather beside the point.  The better question—the one I’d ask back—is this: Why is this of concern to you?

Because Hell is real and people need to know that sin is real and separation from God is serious and can lead to eternal suffering.  True enough—go spread the word!  You don’t need the example of anyone in hell to prove your point.

Because Christ came to redeem the whole world—and it is critical people know then can return to His mercy without being frightened away.  Hell is a teaching, but it’s not the only teaching.  Lead with Mercy.  We may still hope for the salvation of all, and pray to that end.  Great, good point.  Go spread the word, pray long and hard.  But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everyone automatically gets to Heaven.

Because I want to know which group I am in.  Sorry. The Church teaches that we cannot know the state of any living human soul, not even our own....so learn to live in the paradox, and have faith in Jesus, who redeems you.

The discussion about the baptism was a little different.  The combox got heated and detailed, rather than lofty and theological, with all manner of discussion on form and matter and desire and infants and adults…..  My question to the person who wrote in, who did the best he could under terrible circumstances would be this:  Why do you want to know whether the baptism was valid or not?  Is this perhaps the better question: Did you respond to a fellow human being in love in the best way you knew under the circumstances?  Is it not better to leave the rest to God? 

In Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom  recounts a story of a pilgrim who visits a farmer; they begin to discuss God.  The farmer allows that he knows little about God, but  he does know that He likes milk.  The farmer is confident in his knowledge because the farmer puts a bowl of milk out for God every night with his prayers and in the morning the milk is gone.  The pilgrim, knowing better,  makes the farmer stay awake to watch and the farmer sees a fox drinking the milk.  He is shattered.  That night, God tell the pilgrim: He was praying in the only way he knew how, and besides, the fox likes the milk.

It seems to me the discussion about emergency baptism was more an exercise in “being right” rather than in paying attention to the relationships between people.  Those who have been present at a gruesome accident can attest: there is little time to think and less to second guess.  Regardless of what one person did in extreme circumstances, there is very little danger of the faithful suddenly taking it upon themselves to baptize folk with soda willy-nilly; less still that in the usual course of things that a priest would do the same.  

In an emergency, with a fellow human at death’s door, a child of God did the only thing he could think of in the best way he could with what was at hand, which, sadly, did not include water.  Validity  of the sacrament seems to be something of a moot point—and in God’s hand’s. More to the point, the discussion fostered unnecessary division and distress in the Body of Christ, most particularly, I would think for the poor soul who asked the question in the first place. Comments soon turned to “how he could have done it better” by just praying a Divine Mercy Chaplet, or "should have waited for the EMTs to provide some water when they arrived," or “should not have done it at all because the injured man had not requested baptism.”   Had I been asked, I might have responded to the initial question with a simple: Why ask?  Why burden yourself with the worry about whether the baptism was valid or not?  You did the best you could—and you spent time praying with and for a dying man.  In this world, that counts for an awful lot.  Celebrate that grace.  Let God worry about the rest.

Which brings me to the early departures from mass.  Ask any of them and they’ll tell you the “rules” about how much of mass you have to attend to satisfy your Sunday obligation.  But that, of course, is a result of answering the wrong question.

How late can I get to mass and how early can I leave and still not commit mortal sin? puts the whole world in the wrong perspective.  Answering the question in agonizing detail, chapter and verse, just seems to have made things worse by encouraging minimalism.  If there are rules about the minimum, then the minimum must be just fine.  And so much easier, so much less demanding.

Perhaps the question back is: You are spending time with the Creator of the Universe, the Redeemer of your soul.  What’s your hurry?  Do you count the time spent with the Love of your Life, anxious to escape?  And if Jesus isn’t that love, isn't that worth some thought?

Isn't it?

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