Wednesday, October 27, 2010

We interrupt this blog for this important message

I'm in my hometown this week, officiating at my niece's wedding. So my regular post will be delayed. But may I interest you in some insights into my and my family's Geek cred by directing you to my son's column this week? Go to

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Use is the Bible?

You may have heard the embarrassing results of a recent Pew Research Center survey about the religious knowledge of people in the U.S. 3412 Americans were given a quiz, which consisted of 32 questions covering the Bible, the beliefs of various religions and denominations and the law concerning church and state separation. The data revealed that atheists and agnostics knew more about religion than most believers. Mind you, they didn't do a great job. Nonbelievers got an average of 20.9 questions right or a score of 65%. That’s a failing grade for most tests. But believers did even worse: Jews came out best with 20.5 questions right, followed by Mormons with 20.3, white Evangelicals got 17.6, white Catholics 16.0, and liberal Protestants 15.8. The group that performed the worst were those who did not identify themselves as atheists or agnostics but as “nothing in particular,” presumably people who are “spiritual” but not affiliated with any denomination or religion. They only knew the correct answer to 15.2 of the questions.

These are averages which means some individuals did better.  In general, the higher one’s level of education, the better one did on the survey. Also, people who went to church once a week or more, who read the Bible and/or other religious books, and who visited educational websites had higher scores. While white Catholics in general got only half of the questions right, white Catholics who went to Mass weekly got 70% right, besting the atheists and agnostics. Mormons and white Evangelicals did the best on questions of the Bible and Christianity, again scoring better than the nonbelievers. In facts, it was atheists' knowledge of other religions that gave them the edge.

Still, the averages are appalling. People should know what they purportedly believe. So it is fortuitous that Sunday's lectionary reading (2nd Timothy 3:14-4:8) emphasizes the importance of the Scriptures and sound doctrine. I know it's not popular to stress the Bible these days. Some Christians seem to regard it as a dilemma to be dealt with rather than a solution to many of the problems we face. People confuse certain folks' misuse of the Bible with the Bible itself. Few of them can separate interpretations of the texts from what the texts actually say (or don't say.) And often critics of the Bible are just as literal in their approach to it as the folks they oppose.

The sad thing is we don't live in the Dark Ages anymore, when only the clergy could read and when Bibles were not available to the general populace . If you type the word “bible” into the search engine of you get 284,798 results! You can get the King James Version, the New King James, the New Living Bible, the English Standard Version, the New Revised Standard, the New International Version, and the Hip Hop Bible. There are Bibles aimed towards men, women, teens, kids, soldiers, first responders, Catholics, manga fans and other groups. There are study Bibles that feature apologetics, archeology or life applications. You can get the Bible on Kindle, CD, DVD, MP3, online and as downloadable software. There's even a waterproof Bible for those who wish to read God's Word while kayaking, scuba diving or taking a bubble bath.

My point is that there's no reason not to read the Bible. So why don’t more people do so and become better educated about their faith?

At the top I think we have to put laziness. People think reading the Bible is hard. But with all the modern translations and paraphrases like “The Message,” it’s not like you have to read 16th century English anymore. Maybe they think the Bible is full of abstruse theology that they won't understand. Actually, the  Bible has very few abstract passages. Most of it is story. Parts of it are poetry. There are lots of letters. You'll find tales of romance, heroism, tragedy, intrigue, miracles, family sagas, politics, war, and redemption. Yeah, there are some genealogies; skip them. There are instructions for building the tabernacle or making priestly vestments or diagnosing leprosy. Skip them. Most Bibles have headings for chapters and sections so you can tell what's coming up. In addition, a good study Bible will help you glean what's important as well as provide maps so you will know where the story is taking place and charts telling you when it happened and which king, tribe or empire is which. They give introductions, outlines and summaries of the books and have dictionaries in the back. Most have a concordance so you can find familiar verses. And you can always pick up one of those "Bible for Dummies" books.

Another reason why people don't read the Bible is they think they don't have the time. But as I said, you can get audio Bibles on CD or as an MP3 file that you can listen to in the car, while doing chores or at anytime. There are even Bible podcasts that will take you through a passage or chapter a day or the whole Bible in a year.

But I’ll bet a lot of people think the Bible is unnecessary or outdated. We know Jesus loves us and forgives us and we should follow the Golden Rule. What more do we need?

Well, what will you say when someone tells you that the Bible wants us to arm ourselves for Armageddon? Or that women can't make a sound during worship? Or that God helps those help themselves? Or that if bad things happen to you it’s because you did something bad? Or that the God makes the people who really obey him rich? Or that we are required to stone gay people and even disobedient kids? Or that sex is evil? Or that the earth is flat? None of those things are true but if you don't know your Bible you won't be able to correct these misconceptions.

In his second letter to his protege, Timothy, Paul writes “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” That’s a good summary of the Christian approach to the Bible.

Notice that the qualities of Scripture that Paul lists are not aesthetic or philosophical but practical. The Bible is not full of riddles we are to meditate on or abstract concepts we are to speculate about but principles we are to put into practice. Paul lists 4 practical uses for the Word of God.

First up is teaching. When N.T. Wright was a chaplain at Cambridge, a lot of underclassmen would tell him they wouldn't be attending chapel because they didn't believe in God. “I see,” Wright would reply. “What kind of God is it you don't believe in?” Surprised, they would usually stammer something about a cosmic killjoy who loves sending people to Hell. And Wright would say, “That’s interesting. I don't believe in that kind of God either. I believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” It’s not enough to believe in God. You need to know what kind of God you believe in. And the Bible teaches us that he is creative, loving, just, forgiving, surprising, faithful, and protective of the underdog. The Bible is basically a compendium of encounters people have had with God and what they reveal about him. We, too, have our encounters with God and the Bible, with its forty-odd writers, gives us a framework for interpreting our experiences that nevertheless does justice to the different facets of God.
Next, Paul tells us Scripture is useful for reproof. Another translation might be “for refuting errors,” although I like the way Eugene Peterson renders it: “exposing our rebellion.” Because Paul isn’t encouraging us to proof-text subjects. Just last week we read from the previous chapter, where Paul says, “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” When Christians argue over non-essentials, it is about as instructive as Sherlockians arguing over how many wives Dr. Watson had or Trekkers quarreling over how to reconcile the old timeline with the new movies  or Whovians debating whether the comics in Doctor Who Magazine are as canonical as the TV episodes. And as trivial as that stuff sounds to you, imagine how it sounds to people outside the church when we argue vociferously over obscure points of Scripture (And, trust me, if it's truly obscure, it's unimportant. The Bible highlights things that are important.) That’s why I think Paul is really talking about refuting the errors of our lives, our rebellions against God’s ways. Jesus got mad at how the Pharisees would use sophistry to avoid our scripturally-mandated duties to the sick, the elderly, the persecuted and outcasts. Even today churches are more likely to devote lots of time talking about one or two hot button issues not or barely mentioned in the Bible than on things like helping the poor, which is literally the subject of thousands of verses. We need to get some Biblical balance.

Paul says that Scripture is useful for correction. Again he is thinking as much of correcting our lifestyles as our mental errors. Once our rebellion against God’s standards is exposed, we need to get back on track, to correct our course. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not just a collection of prohibitions. And, as C.S. Lewis’ wife, Joy Davidman, pointed out, the negative commandments leave us with a lot more freedom than positive ones do. Saying “thou shalt not” do something only closes off one specific form of behavior, as any child knows. Tell a kid to “stop poking your sister” and he will see how close his fingers can get to her and how much he can annoy her while still keeping the letter of the law. Whereas a positive command radically narrows your course of action. The Golden Rule appears in almost every religion and in all of them it is stated negatively: do not do to others that which you wouldn't want done to yourself. But while that rules out acting aggressively against someone, it does not negate neglect. Jesus stated the rule positively: treat others the way you would like to be treated.  That means no more sitting on the sidelines while your neighbor suffers. You have to get up and help him or her.

Finally Paul says Scripture is useful for “training in righteousness.” Again I like Peterson’s version: “training us to live God’s way.” We rarely use the word “righteous” these days without the prefix: “self-.”  But “righteousness” really means being right with God. So Paul is talking about the Bible training us to live in harmony with God. This doesn't mean just avoiding stepping on God’s toes, so to speak, any more than singing in harmony means just not clashing with the other singers. It means actually hitting the right notes and keeping the same beat so that what is sung resonates and is fuller and more beautiful. The fruit of the Spirit, says Paul in Galatians, is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." These are elements of character that promote harmony with God and with others. And the Bible encourages and gives examples of such behavior.  

But the chief reason we need to, in the words of the collect, “hear…, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures is because they are “inspired by God” or more literally, “God-breathed.” The Bible is  not like a "thought of the day" calendar, where we can pick and choose the ones the ones we want to live by and discard those that don't please us. Everything is in there for a purpose. Not everything in Scripture is prescriptive, that is, something we should emulate; some of it is descriptive, simply telling us how things are or were. That’s why it's important in interpreting the Bible to understand the culture, the historical circumstances, the context and how what is said in one part of Scripture is refined and modified by other parts. Last Sunday's passage from Jeremiah (31:27-34) is correcting the impression that one might get from other passages, namely, God punishes children for the sins of their fathers. No, says the Lord, people are only responsible for their own sins.

And the rest of the passage shows us that the Law of God was not meant to be an external set of rules; it is meant to be a kind of internal programming or software. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” We are to commit the Scriptures to heart so they will become part of us, a second nature. God is guiding us to the point where we won't have to stop and check the rules all the time, when we just know the right thing to do the way a singing group will just know how to blend together even when singing a new song. A good song should flow. And good works should flow from a life spent studying the works of  the Master, so that eventually all our lives will sing forth his praise in perfect and thrilling harmony.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Question of Unanswered Prayer

If you haven't watched last week's “Glee” I’m about to spoil it for you. The show tackled religion, and along with the reviewer for the Onion’s A.V. Club, Todd Vanderwerff, I’d give it a B+. I agree that the song selections weren't the best but the range of viewpoints represented was fairly broad and for the most part, sincerely presented. If nothing else, it was a good starting place for a discussion.

The episode started off with a rather broad satire of the worst kind of religious fervor. Finn makes a grilled cheese sandwich which he burns. In one corner, the burn looks like Jesus. Finn sees this as some kind of sign and prays to “Grilled Cheesus.” Specifically, he asks that they win that week’s football game, especially for his handicapped friend, Artie, who is being used as a battering ram in order to win back his girlfriend. When they do win Finn asks that the Glee Club honor Jesus in its song assignments this week. This immediately splits the club. The Jewish students aren't happy. Nor is Kurt, who points out that most churches don't welcome gay people. And Sue Sylvester, Glee’s outrageous resident villain, reveals that she doesn't believe in God either, because her childhood prayers to heal her older sister of Down’s Syndrome went unanswered. Meanwhile Finn’s prayers to Grilled Cheesus seem to be answered beyond his wildest dreams. But he too has a crisis when his prayer to become quarterback again is fulfilled by way of having the new quarterback's shoulder dislocated. At the end of the episode, only Finn seems to have changed his position on belief, and since he sees a cheese sandwich as a magic genie, that’s an improvement.

(Parenthetically, there is one undeniable miracle in the episode. Rachel lights a candle in the hospital room of a man on oxygen and they aren't all blown to kingdom come.)

The episode does put its finger on a very real obstacle to belief in God: unanswered prayer. How can we trust God when he withholds healing? Didn’t Jesus say that if we ask anything in his name he will grant it? Why don’t we see that more often?

There is a saying that God answers all prayers with either a “Yes,” a “Not yet,” or an “I have a better idea.” To that I would add a “No.” God doesn't give us everything we want. And that's a good thing. Last week we blundered into a very unpleasant verse in Psalm 137. The psalmist is distraught by the exile of his people to Babylon and upset when their captors ask them to sing a song of Zion. He says to those who burned Jerusalem, “Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” While one can understand the rage of someone who had lost so much, that is not a prayer we would wish God to answer with anything but a “No.” And in today’s passage from Jeremiah, we have God’s answer. He tells the exiles to settle down and live in Babylon. And they are to pray “on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” That’s the opposite of destroying the babies of Babylon.

Yet there are those who believe that God is a cosmic concierge and prayer is a straightforward transaction. “God, if you give me victory, money, fame, sex, I will give you glory.” It is these “name it and claim it”churchgoers which are the obvious satirical target of Finn’s devotion to Grilled Cheesus. I imagine that the near-collapse of the world's economy has disabused a lot of these people, who felt they were theologically entitled to become wealthy. There is no Biblical basis for believing God will shower riches on all of his followers. 

What is interesting about the Glee episode is that it shows what would happen if the “Prosperity Gospel” did work. Finn gets everything he asks for. But he doesn't much like how he gets it. But how did he think he was going to become quarterback when someone else already had the role? There’s nothing wrong with praying for yourself when you need wisdom or healing or spiritual growth or to have your daily needs met. But when you ask God for a position that is not open or a possession that belongs to someone else, you‘re trying to make him an accomplice in taking it from that person. Who could fault God for denying such selfish prayers?

But the serious side of the episode involved people whose unselfish prayers were not answered. That’s happened to all of us. A friend, a sibling, a parent, or a spouse became ill or injured and we prayed our hearts out. We begged and bargained with God. We offered ourselves in the place of our loved one. But we didn’t get what we prayed for. And we wondered why? Why didn't God save our loved one? Why didn't he grant our prayer?

First, let’s dispense with the idea that God didn’t answer your prayer because of how you prayed. Prayer is not a magic incantation. No specific form of words is more effective than another. True, Jesus says we should ask in his name. But God won’t say "Yes" to a prayer to accomplish something evil just because we tack the words “in Jesus’ name” onto it. That’s because in Semitic thought, one’s name is one’s nature. So asking for something in Jesus’ name means asking in line with his nature. And Jesus’ nature is that of being loving, just and merciful. So asking God to harm others, or take from others, or to do anything immoral “in Jesus’ name” is a contradiction in terms. He will not answer such prayers in the affirmative.

If you are asking somebody to do something for you, it works better if you're in a good relationship with that person. And since prayer is communication with God, if you're asking him for something, it’s better to be in a good relationship with him. That means not doing things that alienate us from him. After all, if someone approached you with a request, while at the same time doing things to damage your relationship, you wouldn't be inclined to grant what they asked. Why should God do things for people otherwise acting against him?

Consider this: would you grant a request  from a person who didn't trust you to keep your word? Probably not. That's why faith in God is important. It’s difficult if not impossible to work with someone who doesn't trust you. People from Nazareth found it hard to believe that Jesus could be anything grander than the small town carpenter's son they knew. Consequently Jesus found it hard to heal as many people there as he had in other towns. When we pray, we need to trust God.

But let's say you do trust God and live a life free from the things that would damage your relationship with him. Does that mean your prayers would always be answered with a “Yes”? Not necessarily. The apostle Paul suffered from something he called "a thorn in the flesh." We don’t know what it was. It could be a physical problem or a moral failing. He kept praying that God would take it away. But God didn't.

More to the point, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus asked God to spare him the suffering to come. Obviously, God did not grant that prayer request, though it came from his son. What could be more important than keeping Jesus from harm? Evidently God’s plan to save the world from itself is.

And Jesus understood that. He ends his prayer with “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Jesus understands that God’s priorities are not always ours. And he trusts God to do the right thing, even though it might be painful for him. The good of the many, whose sins will be forgiven, are more important than his own needs.

We do not always know why God allows bad things to happen to us or why he does not always grant us what we pray for, even when we are doing so unselfishly. But we can trust that he is working for the long-term good of all, not just the short-term benefit of a few. That may not be comforting when we are talking about averting the death of someone we love. But death is not the end. It wasn't for Jesus. It won't be for those who love and trust him.

That was hard for Roger Depue to accept. While Chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, Dr. Depue got into the heads of some of the most evil criminals ever imprisoned. He profiled them so others could be caught. His refuge from the horrors he dealt with was his wife. Shortly after he retired, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. He devoted his considerable intellectual resources to researching the nature and treatment of her disease but he finally had to agree with her doctors that there was little hope for her recovery. When she died, Depue was devastated. He wept uncontrollably; he went into depression; he raged at God for letting a good woman die. Eventually, his desire to explore the question of good and evil led him to enter seminary and become a brother of the Society of Missionaries of the Holy Apostles. There he wrestled with the fact that God took the most evil act imaginable--the execution of his son, Jesus--and turned it into the greatest good: the redemption of the world. As part of their ministry, Depue counseled men in prisons. Talking with ordinary inmates, not merely serial killers, rapists and child molesters, gave him a different perspective on what made men go bad. These were not people who acted out dark fantasies but people who, often unthinking, made bad decisions. After 3 years, he left the order, determined to shift his emphasis from catching criminals to preventing kids from becoming criminals. He does this through his company, a private forensics consulting group, made up of retired FBI agents, which helps law enforcement agencies solve cold cases, families get closure, businesses prevent workplace violence and schools prevent incidents such as   Columbine, on which he consulted. Depue also does this through volunteering as a counselor to troubled youth. In addition, the former police chief, former FBI agent and former monk and a former nun/clinical psychologist, now his wife, write books on theology together. Depue did not learn why God allowed his wife to die but in the process of dealing with the problem, he found peace and discovered a new and positive  purpose in life. Out of the worst ordeal in his life, he has found tools to help many others. 

Paul, too, learned something from his unanswered prayer. He learned that God’s power could be manifested even in his own weakness. The scariest thing to happen to us is not being in control. But Paul discovered that  God was always in control, even when we aren't and that his strength is sufficient for us.

It’s tempting to turn one's back on God when he doesn't answer our most desperate prayers. It’s harder to continue to trust him. But just as strength is developed through resistance, so too our spiritual lives become stronger when we resist the easy solution of giving up on God and giving in to despair. When faith is difficult to hold onto, I recall the story of Jacob and the Angel of the Lord. Jacob was returning home with his 4 wives and 12 sons and all of the wealth he has earned working for his untrustworthy father-in-law Laban. Jacob was almost back home when he received word that his brother, whose birthright and blessing he stole, was coming to meet him with 400 men. In the dark night that follows, Jacob encountered a stranger in his camp and grappled with him. The stranger tells Jacob to let him go for day is coming. Jacob says he will not let the man go until he blesses him. So the man dislocates Jacob’s hip and renames him “Israel”--"he who wrestles with God." Afterward, Jacob and his brother are reconciled and Jacob's descendants become the nation of Israel.

Sometimes the life of faith involves wrestling with God. And it can be very painful. But the key is not to disengage. Keep saying, like Jacob, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And the blessing will come. It may not be the answer we are looking for but answers to prayer are often of an unexpected nature. And faith is not only trusting in what is unseen but also seeing what is before us in new and surprising ways and using those insights to take the pieces of our broken lives and build them into something stronger and better for all.     

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Care and Feeding of Brother Ass

When we commemorate a saint's feast day, we’re not celebrating their birthday but the anniversary of their death. Part of the reason is that, until relatively recently in history, nobody kept track of the day someone was born, especially if they weren't nobility. But when a person who had become important died, that was noted. And for Christian saints, the day of their death is regarded as the day they entered the presence of God and were rewarded for an earthly life of service and perhaps a martyr's death. That said, I’m not sure why we celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4, since every source I can find says he died on the 3rd. We’re on time; the church year is off.

St. Francis reminded himself of his interconnectedness with the rest of creation by referring to everything as a brother or a sister, as in his Canticle of Brother Sun, a version of which we sing as a hymn. As he awaited  Sister Death, he asked pardon of, among others, Brother Ass. This wasn't his favorite donkey at the monastery but the way he referred to his own body. Part of this had to do with how he viewed his body--as a beast of burden, a way to get him from here to there and to carry loads. But this lover of animals treated his body in a way he wouldn’t have approved of in someone who owned an actual donkey. He starved his body, gave it insufficient sleep and rest and disciplined it roughly to keep it in line. A lot of this was in line with the ways Christian ascetics acted for centuries. When Christianity was legalized after 300 years of existence, it was no longer likely that a Christian would die for his faith. So people who had been attracted by this form of extreme spirituality started going out into the desert and imposing various privations and mortifications on their flesh. Some merely took fasting to extremes. Others meditated or prayed for days in uncomfortable positions, like, say, at the top of an old pillar.They sought wisdom, visions or intimacy with God through, let's face it, abusing their bodies. At least one that I know of castrated himself, in the only literal compliance I’ve ever found of Jesus’ hyperbolic suggestion that if a member of one's body caused one to sin, one should cut it off.

While Francis didn't go that far, he did embrace that idea of holiness, not realizing, perhaps, that the word "holy" means "set apart for God's use," not “to go against common sense in one’s devotion to God.” But at the end of his life, Francis did realize that he had actually diminished his usefulness to God by treating his body as he had and asked his body for pardon. He was only 44 when he died.    

It would have been better had he treated his body as a pet or even a valued work-animal.. Then as now, smart farmers take good care of their animals. Abuse of one's body is not only stupid but not really Christian.

Many people think that being devoted to God means ignoring your body. But that is contrary to the main teachings of Scripture. The problem is that over the centuries Christianity took in a lot of ideas that it had originally fought, especially ideas from Gnosticism. The Gnostics  thought the body, and everything physical, was evil. Only the spirit was good. They saw us as spirits imprisoned in bodies. Gnostics therefore denied the true incarnation of Jesus, seeing his earthly form and life as an illusion. Obviously this affects how one sees the atonement on the cross and the resurrection. Thus the church condemned Gnosticism and Gnostic books like the apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas.”

Unfortunately, this moral distinction between the physical and the spiritual was so attractive that it insinuated its way into the church anyway and distorted the interpretation of Scripture. The Hebrew way of looking at humanity was as a unity of body and spirit. We see this in the "close up" of the creation of Adam in Genesis, Chapter 2. God molds man from the dust of the earth and breathes "the breath of life" into him. (The Biblical words for "breath" can also mean "wind" or "spirit.") And the man "became a living soul." It doesn't say “possessed a soul” but  “became a living soul.” A soul is only separate from your body in the same way your organs are: theoretically but not naturally. Who you are is a combination of your physical self and your spiritual self, as anyone who's seen a loved one disappear into Alzheimer‘s disease knows.

As with all things he has created, our bodies are gifts from God. Just as you can use a dog you've received as a birthday gift to be a good companion or to fight for sport, you can use God’s gifts for good or, through their misuse, abuse or neglect, for evil. And like the gift of a pet, our bodies need to be well-maintained and trained. With that in mind, let’s see what St. Francis could have done to take better care of Brother Ass.

First and foremost you feed an animal properly, not too little nor too much. And you feed him healthy foods. Throughout most of history, the majority of people have had to worry about getting enough to eat. Today, in affluent countries, it’s easy to overeat, and to indulge in foods not found in nature. If you wouldn't feed your dog or cat a diet of soda, bacon cheeseburgers and Twinkies, neither should you allow yourself a steady diet of them. A good deal of the health problems I see as a nurse are caused or exacerbated by diets high in fatty, salty and sugary foods, with too few fruits, vegetables and grains. Like our animals, we need to give our bodies good nutrition for long, healthy lives.

If Francis overworked his body, we tend to under-work ours. Fully 64% of all Americans are overweight or obese. And while for the people of Francis’ time, the basic activities of daily life could keep you fit, today’s conveniences, from cars to computers, make it unnecessary to walk very far, to lift or carry heavy loads, or even go places to transact business or visit friends. If you’re like me, your favorite place to sit on the sofa is getting way too obvious even to the untrained eye. We make time to walk or exercise our pets. We should do the same for our bodies.

One thing that animals are better at than we are is making sure they get enough rest. We are the only animals who stay awake for 16 or more hours straight. Other animals have the sense to nap. And despite plenty of research that says napping is healthy, most workplaces north of the equator make no provision for napping.  In some southern and Mediterranean countries, most businesses close in the early afternoon for lunch with the family and siestas. The other animals would approve.            

We train our animals to do better some things they normally do, like run faster, or sniff out people buried in rubble. We also restrain them from doing things they would normally do, like eat their babies or mate with every other dog around. Just because something is natural behavior doesn't mean it is good. So, too, we ought to hone natural abilities that are good and helpful. These run the gamut from athletic prowess to intellectual ability to emotional perception to artistic talent and more. These are gifts we can enjoy and share.

And we must train ourselves to exercise control over natural and normal impulses that, unrestrained, can cause trouble for ourselves and others. Attraction, jealousy, heartbreak, frustration and anger are natural and normal reactions to certain situations. But that doesn't mean it is always right to express them or that every form of expressing our feelings is good. This last week in South Florida 10 people were killed, 4 of them children, in 3 murder-suicide incidents that ultimately were about love gone wrong. You can't help feeling bad when relationships go sour; you can keep from acting out violently. The ability to resist acting on our impulses, located in the frontal lobe of the brain, is a key difference between us and other animals. And as the rehabilitation of all but one of Michael Vick’s pit bulls shows, with the help of love, even animals can change their behavior.

Finally, animals show and receive affection physically. And studies show that people also respond to friendly touch. The more teammates high-five or hug each other, the better they play. Hand holding and hugging lower blood pressure and reduce stress, even in those taking a Math test! Oxytocin, the hormone which promotes trust and bonding, is released into the body when we are touched in a positive way. We are both physical and spiritual beings and what affects one side of us affects the other. The physical gives the spiritual form and the spiritual gives the physical meaning.

This theology of the body also applies to the Body of Christ. It is fed in the Eucharist. It must get out of the House of God regularly and act on its beliefs or it grows weak. It needs its Sabbaths to rest and renew itself. It must develop and share its gifts with others. It needs to resist certain impulses to act like any other organization. And it needs to show its love for God and other people in concrete ways that touch them.

And in that spirit, let me close with a quote that is often attributed to St. Francis but which really comes from St. Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body but yours.
No hands, no feet on Earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
[compassionately] on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
You are his body….
Christ has no body now on Earth but yours.”