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> What Are You Asking? -April 2005

Tom Ehrich
Tom Ehrich


What are You asking?

Pastor, Author and Speaker Tom Ehrich responds to
your questions about God, faith and
living spiritually

Send us your questions


APRIL 2005

As a Catholic I was taught you should not use birth control, and if you truly follow the rules set by the church, you should not receive holy communion if you do take birth control. Is this true or not?

As an Episcopal priest, I am not in a position to state Roman Catholic policies on birth control or communion. I encourage you to speak to a Roman Catholic priest. I am sure he would be happy to answer your question.

I do know that American Catholics tend to have a more liberal attitude toward both matters – birth control and conditions for receiving communion – than their counterparts in other countries. At the same time, I read that even in the US, attitudes among many Catholics are growing more conservative.

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When someone dies, do they lie in their grave until the rapture, or do they go somewhere else? If you're saved, do you go to heaven, and if you're not saved, are you sent to the devil?

These are questions about which Christians disagree strongly. Some traditions make much of the Rapture, while others don’t consider it important. Some teach that eternal life is open only to the saved, while others teach that God loves everything he has made. If you belong to a faith community, I urge you to seek out your pastor for his or her interpretation.

In my opinion, God is a lover of souls. God is known in mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, open hands and a desire to draw all humanity closer. I don’t believe that our behavior makes God harsh or vengeful, or that our deaths change God’s nature. We don’t win God’s favor by living a good life or lose God’s favor by a bad life. We might disappoint God, and we might alienate ourselves from God, but God is love, and that love and grace are the ground of our hope, not the work of our hands.

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A question regarding the mass during Lent: Why do we refrain from saying and singing Alleluia during Lent? When did this practice start?

Lent is a penitential season, a time of repentance, self-examination, confession and study. For many, it is a time to prepare for Holy Baptism at Easter. The Church has traditionally marked Lent by various practices of self-denial, such as dressing the altar and clergy in a somber colors, not placing flowers on the altar, singing music with a penitential rather than exuberant tone, and ceasing the use of “Alleluia!” in the liturgy. Not only do such practices remind us of our own need for self-denial, but when we burst forth with white vestments, brilliant flowers, exuberant music and shouts of “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” on Easter Day, we celebrate the joy of Christian hope.

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Tom, I am very confused. I believe in Jesus, but I have had a hard time getting away from New Age Religion, (psychics, Tarot, prophecy). It seems to have followed me for years. My heart and soul belongs to Jesus, yet I feel there is more to it than that. I’ve got spiritual questions that I’m told are too DEEP. Why do all the New Age religious practices entice me? How can I get back to the TRUTH? That is all I really want: the truth. My ultimate goal is spiritual enlightenment. Is that too much to ask?

First, trust the confusion. Faith ought to be confusing, not because God is beyond reach, but because it is hard and confusing work to let go of old ways, to draw nearer to God, to commit to new ways of living, to enter more deeply into the life of a faith community, and to embrace values more deeply rooted in the Gospel than in popular culture. Remember the many times the people of God found themselves in clouds. Clarity will come.

Second, go easy on yourself. Unless you are addicted to a cult, I encourage you to explore boldly. (If a cult has you in its grip, call a trusted adult or the pastor of a healthy church right away.) If you allow common sense to be your guide, you will learn to avoid extremes and unhealthy practices. Safe and healthy Christian practices take many forms.

Third, listen to your hesitation and skepticism. Listen also to your yearnings and your questions. Faith isn’t a matter of rules or perfect practices. Faith is a journey of many stages, many companions, many questions, some blind alleys and, yes, probably some mistakes. The point is to keep moving toward God, with boldness and humility. A daily discipline of prayer and Bible reading (try reading a Psalm a day) will help you to remain on solid ground.

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Besides the death of Lazarus, at what other time did Jesus cry?

In addition to the time when Jesus wept outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11.1-44), Jesus “wept over” the city of Jerusalem on the day we call Palm Sunday (Luke 19.41-42). Four days later in the Garden of Gethsemane, in great “anguish” his “sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22.43-44). Not exactly weeping, but similar.

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What is a good answer to the question,
what is the difference between Christianity and religion?

Terms like “faith,” “religion,” “church” and “Christianity” are often used interchangeably. The nuance of difference, I think, is that faith describes a system of belief, whereas religion describes a set of structures and practices for acting out that system of belief. Christian faith, then, makes certain assertions about Jesus, his ministry, his death and resurrection, and the meaning of those events for humanity. That faith is called “Christianity.” Christian religion, by contrast, concerns structures like the Church and the ordained ministry, forms of worship and singing, and the holy books (Bible, prayer books, missal) used to nurture faith.

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I am doing a devotion on character for my Sunday School class of 15- to19-year-olds, and I was looking for some information. I know what "character" is, but how could I put it into terms for us to understand?
How can I present it so that the others will not only get it, but they will take it and use it?

Good question, and important. As I see it, people are born with certain attributes (tall or short, attractive or unattractive, coordinated or not coordinated) that are largely accidental. People use their natural gifts to develop certain skills (writing, singing, computing mathematical equations, golf). People use their skills to earn a living and to pursue rewarding activities.
For many people, that is as far as it goes. But there can be more. Relationships, for example, require something beside attributes (beauty carries a person only so far) and skills (listening ability). Healthy relationships require patience, affection, self-sacrifice and honesty. That is the realm of character. Those relational capacities come from within, from a reservoir of self-esteem, love, belief and other-orientation – which could be called “character.” Another enhancement is servanthood or mission, some form of giving life and wealth away for the good of other people, often in pursuit of justice. That, too, comes from within, from a place where our innate selfishness is mastered and goodness can blossom. That can be called “character.”

How does character form? Faith is a prime tutor. Another is the example seen in one’s parents or a good friend or mentor or public figure. Another teacher is experience, especially experiences like hardship and failure, in which one learns to dig deep, to value other people, and to form meaningful priorities.

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Can you please tell me if Satan knew God’s plan of having
Jesus die for our sins?

Even though Satan (or the devil) loomed large in the teachings of the Church, Scripture says surprisingly little about Satan, especially with regard to interactions with Jesus. Their main connecting occurred in the wilderness, where the Spirit of God led Jesus to be tested by Satan. In that incident (e.g. Luke 4.1-13), Satan knew Jesus as “Son of God.” We don’t know precisely what that meant to Satan. But in his tests, Satan understood Jesus as one who could perform miracles, who had a special relationship with God, who looked to God for authority. I don’t see any reference in the Gospels where Satan foresaw the death of Jesus on the cross. In his fascinating book, The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis speculated (fictionally) that Satan came to Jesus again when he hung on the cross and tested him one more time. By that speculation, Luke’s reference to Satan leaving Jesus in the wilderness after the initial tests and waiting for “an opportune time” referred to the fourth testing on the cross.

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I don't know if you have looked at a calendar closely for this year, but Passover this year comes after Easter. I thought Passover was for the death of Christ and Easter was for the resurrection of Christ. If this is true, how can he have died after his resurrection?

Passover is a Jewish holy day, observing the time when the Angel of the Lord brought death to the land of Pharaoh but “passed over” the houses of the Hebrew slaves, which had been marked with the blood of a lamb. It was this final plague that convinced Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. Thus began their “exodus” and eventual settlement in the Promised Land of Canaan. Jesus was arrested when he came to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Thus, his death was linked to the Passover in time. It was also linked in meaning, namely, that Jesus was perceived as the new “Passover lamb,” or “paschal lamb,” who would set people free by his blood. In most years, the Christian holiday of Easter comes after the Jewish Passover, but not always. The two traditions use different calendars. This year, Passover falls four weeks after Easter.

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How do you honor your parents when you have been abused, your parents weren’t present, they abandoned you and/or they have not been “saved”? The commandment says honor your parent.

All parents are imperfect. Some are more imperfect than others. Dealing with any imperfection in another person requires, first, that you acknowledge the imperfection in yourself; second, that you “forgive those who trespass against (you)”; and third, that you discern the difference between imperfection that annoys and imperfect that wounds. Not liking another person is different from feeling endangered by them. Please try to understand the fundamental truth about abuse of a child: You didn’t cause it or deserve it. You are more likely to forgive both yourself and your parents if you realize that whatever abuse you suffered at their hands was their choice, not yours, and a flaw in their character, not in yours. Finally, please don’t set yourself up as their judge. Their faith, or lack of faith, is their business, not yours. We don’t honor God or anyone by judging their righteousness. That is for God to do. In its original context, the commandment to “honor” one’s parents meant to obey them. In a nomadic and theocratic community, where danger always lurked and a patriarchal culture was assumed, obeying one’s parents was vital for the health and safety of the tribe. We live in a different world. It is important that you seek a fresh understanding of the commandment. “Honor” could mean “hold accountable,” or “respect,” or “accept as worthy.” I urge you to discuss this with your pastor and your faith community.

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I work with a gentleman who is a non-believer. He keeps saying, “Where’s the proof?” Unfortunately I can’t answer all his questions, and I don’t want to argue with him on this issue. He has no history of church attendance as an adult or child, although I do sense he is seeking something in his life. Can you tell me the best resource (book) that I might purchase as a gift for him that could show him some of the “scientific proof”that he is looking for? I understand that Christianity is a matter of faith. Am I asking for the wrong thing?

I don’t think you can ever “prove” the tenets of faith. You can recite the stories that have helped you to believe, such as stories from the Bible that have touched you, or stories from church life, or stories of other times when you felt close to God. You can demonstrate the love and mercy of God in your own life and name it as such. You can point to believers who live good and holy lives. You can invite your friend to join you in worship, where a tender hymn or solid preaching or the love of a healthy Christian congregation can soften the heart of unbelief. A person is loved into faith, not compelled by force or convinced by factual evidence.

What book could you give? The Bible, of course. A hymn book. A story of someone whose life was shaped by faith. In the end, however, your primary “witness” won’t be what you buy, but the heart with which you give it.

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I firmly believe that when one is brain dead, the most humane and loving decision is to let that person go. I know that decision is made every day by many agonized family members who do not have to be subjected to Congress and the ... national press. I would not want to exist in a persistent vegetative state...that's not living...it is just that: existing. But, if you find yourself in such a situation as the decision maker, do you shortchange your faith in God by, essentially, "pulling the plug"? I would appreciate your thoughts.

It seems a well-established practice for people to exercise their right to have a “living will,” which spells out their desires for end-of-life medical care. It is my understanding that physicians and hospitals routinely honor those documents. Some situations become ambiguous, when heroic measures are begun but then must be reevaluated. But the basic principle – that we have a right to die with dignity and, to the extent possible, according to our wishes – seems well-accepted and healthy.

Only God knows the full story of life, including that part which lies beyond human mortality, and God has urged us not to be afraid, but to accept death when its time comes. We might well disagree on whether death’s time has come--that decision can be wrenching for all concerned--but it is wrong to label one decision “faithful” and another “sinful.” Faith’s role is to help all parties to love as best they can, not to seek ideological victory.

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I need your help on this one! How can we say that God is a loving God, when so many times in the Old Testament He killed so many people? Especially in Exodus when He killed all the first-born in Egypt, including animals! The answer that He did it to set an example does not cover it. What person that is a loving person would do such a thing?

The books of the Bible were written over a period of some 1,200 years to describe a particular people’s relationship with God. Like all other tribes and nations in ancient times, they fought constantly against their neighbors. They believed God to be their partisan, their champion, their guarantor of victory. They wrote of occasions when, as they phrased it, God told them to seize a certain land or to slaughter certain enemies. Jesus offered somewhat different understandings about God. He spoke of peace, mercy, loving one’s enemy, forgiveness, and sacrificing for the other. In Exodus, the angel of the Lord caused mass death. In the Gospels, it was Herod who killed the first-born.

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I am doing a project in school, and the question for the project is, "How is religion changing the world?" If you could give me some of your views, I would appreciate your feedback.

Historically, and still today, religion has done enormous harm and enormous good. So-called “holy wars” have wiped out entire populations. Acting in the name of religion, people have resisted knowledge, prevented certain groups from advancing, justified slavery, aggrandized the wealthy at the expense of the poor, spread disease and misery, pillaged and plundered, and abused believers’ trust. Religion has also been a gracious presence. Most early universities were started by the religious, as were hospitals, centers of art and music, orphanages, and of course monasteries and convents. During the darkest times, when civilization almost collapsed, it was the religious who copied books and preserved knowledge. Faithful people have intervened to stop violence, to correct injustice, to stand up to tyrants, and to provide daily, often unseen, care to people on their life journeys. Some of the greatest art in Western civilization grew out of faith. We know the soul’s beautiful core because Bach, Mozart and Handel told us in music. Today, holy wars threaten our world, religious pride obstructs human progress, and yet choirs sing of God’s glory, faithful pastors sit with the dying, and every day a lost soul discovers the 23 rd Psalm and finds hope.

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Do you know or have you heard of the seven seasons of the Christian calendar? Please provide scriptural references if possible.

Early in its history, the Church divided the year into liturgical seasons based on the life and ministry of Jesus. Advent, starting four weeks before Christmas, tells of the coming (or advent) of Jesus. Christmas tells of his birth. Epiphany starts with the Manifestation to the Gentiles - when three wise men from the Orient came to see the baby Jesus - and proceeds through key moments in Jesus’s life. The forty days of Lent – calling to mind the Hebrews’ 40 years of wilderness wandering, and Jesus’s 40 days of testing in the wilderness – are a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for baptism. Lent leads up to Holy Week and the death of Jesus. Easter tells of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, his appearance to certain disciples, and his ascension to God. The season of Pentecost begins with the Day of Pentecost (concerning the gift of the Holy Spirit) and is basically a teaching season. Each liturgical season is grounded in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life. Old Testament readings and passages from the Epistles are read in worship, as well. In liturgical churches like the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal, each season has certain special days, special music and special ways of preparing the worship space.

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To learn more about Tom Ehrich’s writings, visit www.onajourney.org.

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