Saturday, May 28, 2011


Doomsday predictions misuse scripture

Doomsday predictions come and go.

Once again, Harold Camping has predicted the end of the world.  When May 21, 2011 came and went, it did not take long for Camping and his Family Radio to revise their prediction. A new date has been uncovered.

Camping bases his predictions on his idea of a Biblical mathematical formula, and on his interpretation of contemporary events in light of selected Biblical passages. Natural disasters, violence, and most especially, sexual immorality are predictors of the end.

Camping attracts international attention. He and his followers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an ad campaign. Doomsday believers even quit their jobs and cash in their savings to spread the word. They sincerely believe in the imminence of something called the Rapture.

The Rapture - in brief
The Rapture is a highly controversial and relatively new belief that some fundamentalists adhere to. The Rapture is the first of a series of events that signal the end of the world. It is when Jesus returns on the clouds and “raptures” or whisks the saints into heaven with him. Everyone else remains behind to suffer while the world implodes. Then Jesus reigns for 1000 years, after which he returns in judgment and recreates the world. 

Reading apocalyptic literature
The notion of doomsday or apocalypse is as old as history. There are examples of apocalyptic literature in ancient texts. The most famous Christian apocalyptic text is found in the Bible in the Book of Revelation.

The Book of Revelation describes a terrifying vision of destruction and punishment. It is the stuff of nightmares and horror flicks guaranteed to inflame the imagination and strike fear into the heart of those who take it literally.

A literal reading interprets the book as a roadmap that describes the events that will bring the world to an end. Looking at contemporary events, this type of interpretation attempts to use scripture as a tool for predicting the end of time.

Biblical criticism offers a more informed approach to the apocalyptic literature in the Bible. The literature must be understood within both its literary and social- historical context. Apocalyptic literature of the Bible uses intensely symbolic language to address a problem familiar to its audience.

The Book of Revelation was a response to the Roman Empire’s brutal persecution of the early Christian community. It reassured the community of God’s faithfulness towards those who hold fast to Jesus in times of trial and tribulation; those who do evil will perish. It is meant to be a message of hope in God’s love.

As with the sacred scriptures of any religious tradition, there are truths to be learned from an informed reading of the Book of Revelation. Truth in scripture can be obfuscated when extremists of any faith use selected passages to promote a skewed religious message. The misuse of Biblical texts to predict the end of time when God will vindicate the just and punish the evil creates a religion that is exclusive and based on fear. Even believers become afraid because they view themselves as unworthy.

A theology of fear, a distortion of faith
The theology of fear sets up an “us” and “them” mentality. Only a small number of people will be “raptured.” Camping sets this number at 2% of the earth’s population.

This type of Christianity becomes overly focused on the personal salvation of the saints, those who belong to the group. The saints are separate from the sinners, those who do not believe or belong. The saints long to be set apart and rescued from a world they consider full of evil.

Christianity is a religion of inclusiveness and goodness. Jesus hung around with sinners; he did not come for saints. He saw creation as good and talked about God’s lavish care for the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air. How much more, he asked, does your heavenly father care for you, you sinners?

Christianity is concerned with the salvation of all humanity and creation. The Christian vocation is to be lived and acted upon in the world so that the world may better reflect God’s love.

"The love of God... so rich and pure" by J. T. Lowrey
 The core message is love, not fear.

Jesus revealed a God of mercy and compassion who is intimately familiar and engaged with human suffering. This is not a God of vengeance who waits to demolish an evil material world, “rapture” some, and torture others. This is a God who calls all people to love as God loves. This is a God to be loved, not feared. There is nothing frightful about love.

Predictions of divine destruction are a foolish waste of time. They are nothing more than religious fear mongering, and a distortion of faith.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hospice Palliative Care

Improving the quality of dying
On Thursday, May 12, health care facilities across the country celebrated Canada Health Day. It was a day to promote healthy lifestyles, to share experiences and to celebrate the successes of public health.

An announcement in my church’s bulletin drew Canada Health Day to my attention. The announcement was a reminder to celebrate and pray for the gift of health in all its aspects - physical, emotional, social and spiritual.

The spiritual aspect of health is often ignored. The public conversation on health tends to focus on the economics of health care, access to services, prevention, and treatment. Ethics are also part of the discourse as technologies raise questions regarding the appropriateness of extending or prolonging an individual’s life.

People are living longer and, in many cases, healthier lives. Today’s 60 year old is compared to the 40 year old of decades ago. Successive generations may look and feel younger than the previous generation, but no one lives forever. Eventually, the body succumbs to the one sure reality in life – death.

The reality of death should make spiritual health an integral part of health care. End-of-life issues go beyond relieving physical pain and the ethics of prolonging life. Care for the dying and their families should encompass a holistic approach that takes into consideration the nature of the human person.

Religions derived from the Hebrew Bible (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), recognize that the human person is more than a complex combination of cells and physiological interactions. The human person is a mysterious living complexity of body and soul. 

Created in the image of God, the human person has an innate dignity and goodness, and deserves to be treated with respect at all stages of life. 

Spiritual health needs to enter the public health care conversation, particularly when speaking about the needs of those nearing death or those living with a terminal illness.  A more holistic view of health, one that includes spirituality, could improve the quality of our dying.

Hospice palliative care offers a holistic approach in caring for those with terminal illness, the dying and their families. Using an integrated team of health care professionals and trained volunteers, hospice palliative care addresses pain management, provides psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural and practical support for the dying and their families, and offers bereavement support.

This approach is successful in improving the quality of the life that remains, and in reducing the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual suffering that accompanies the process of dying.

Despite the benefits of hospice palliative care, very few provinces treat it as a core health service. Fifty percent of funding for hospice palliative care programs comes from charitable giving. Many families shoulder the financial cost of caring for a dying family member at home.

We are all going to die. There is no fountain of youth or elixir of immortality. A public discussion on health care must consider the importance of a quality death, as well as the quality of life.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Finding home

A resurrection story:
His name was Guerino and he was a man returned from the land of the dead.

My father, George Merlo, in the fields,
circa 1946
My father was about 16 years old when Guerino returned. He recalls the day clearly. They were working in the fields when they heard the news.

“E vero?” (“Is it true?”) “Sei sicuro”? (“Are you sure?”) Everyone was asking. No one could believe it.

“Si! Si!”

“Non sbagli?” (“You’re joking?”)

“No, no. E vero.”

And then, the church bells pealed joyfully. It was indeed true! Like a man resurrected, Guerino was back alive!

Within 30 minutes, the entire village of about 2000 had gathered in the yard to verify this unexpected miracle, this modern day resurrection from the dead.

It was 1948, five years since the Russians had captured Guerino and imprisoned him in a Siberian gulag. Of the 54,400 Italians imprisoned there, only 10,085 survived.
Guerino had managed to escape. For three years, he walked through the countryside of Russia and Soviet occupied Eastern Europe towards his home in Italy. He was the only one from his village to return.

Guerino’s story is a resurrection story. It is the experience of moving from death to new life. The story testifies to the power of human love, experienced as home. Home was imprinted on Guerino and felt deep within his heart.

Separated from home, from love and compassion, Guerino resided with suffering and deprivation. To escape was dangerous, but to remain was deadly.

Journeying towards home, Guerino may have become lost. The human longing for affection may have tempted him to linger indefinitely where he encountered kindness. Always, the memory of home made him restless and urged him onwards.

The spiritual journey:
Guerino’s journey has parallels with the spiritual journey. Home is the divine imprint on the soul, drawing us towards God.

We lose our way on the journey. We try to escape our current situation, relentlessly pursuing pleasure, fame and fortune. But once attained, these fail to satisfy our deepest longings.

We want to linger indefinitely in our comfort zones, but something propels us forward. We look for ways to transform our present realities.

For Guerino, a new phase of his journey began the moment he arrived home. Returned from the dead, Guerino had to learn to live. He had to integrate the past with his resurrected life.

Cover from The Confessions,
translated by Maria Boulding, OSB.
The spiritual journey teaches us how to live. It integrates the limitations of human existence with the limitlessness of divine love. The spiritual impetus that kindles restlessness urges us towards resurrection, the experience of new life.

Saint Augustine, who wrote one of the greatest accounts of a spiritual journey in the Christian tradition, describes restlessness in The Confessions. Speaking to God, he writes, “You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.” 

The heart that finds God finds new life; it has overcome separation and found home.

Note: Quotation from The Confessions, 1.1, translated by Maria Boulding, OSB, New City Press, 1997. I heartily recommend this translation.