Friday, May 20, 2016

Reflection on Penance


  1. voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong. atonement expiation self-punishment self-mortification self-abasement amends punishment penalty
  2. a Christian sacrament in which a member of the Church confesses sins to a priest and is given absolution.
    • a religious observance or other duty required of a person by a priest as part of this sacrament to indicate repentance.

As a Christian we believe that forgiveness is a free gift of god (Romans 6:23). Christ died for our sins and did this because of his love for us. The salvation is a gift He offers us, but it is a gift that must be accepted. This gift involves the forgiveness of sins. I find this easiest to understand if I compare it to  a debt. Just imagine having a large mortgage which requires you to make payments- month after month and year after year. Imagine that someone comes along and pays off that mortgage so suddenly your house is free and clear- no more payments. Salvation is like that except that instead of money we have a debt of sin. To be free from the debt of sin it is only necessary to ask for forgiveness. (1 John 1:9) This is clear and this is true.

But there is more…

Forgiveness requires that we first acknowledge that we have sinned. How can we ask to be forgiven if we don’t first admit we have done wrong and need forgiveness? Second it require sorrow. We must be sorry we sinned. Confessing a sin is like apologizing. When we wrong someone we apologize and say we are sorry. Last of all after a good confession what should follow is gratitude for what was given us. I think this area of gratitude is where penance may come in.

Sometimes there are sins that may be committed for which we may legitimately make up for. For example if we steal something of value, it could be returned or paid for. Perhaps the person from whom the item or money was stolen forgives you and does not ask the item to be returned, but a true spirit of gratitude would require you to do what you could to repay the person. This repayment would be a form of penance. This is restitution.

There are often sins for which no restitution is possible. The taking of a life- murder. This could be the result of malice or a simple careless act (such as a texting while driving). The person performing the act could be forgiven - by God or by a family member of the dead person, but what possible penance could be performed?   I don’t know what could be done.

It brings to mind an illustration taken from a recent movie- The Mission. Soldier and slave trader, Rodrigo Mendoza kills his younger brother in a duel after finding him in bed with his girlfriend. Mendoza is wrought with guilt and only after speaking with Jesuit priest,  Father Gabriel, decides to go on a mission trip to serve the natives living in the interior of . On the long and difficult trip to the village, Mendoza carries a burden weighing hundreds of pounds. The burden consists of his weapons and armor from his former life as a soldier. The burden he carries is his penance. As the story progresses we learn that this penance was not given by Father Gabriel. This was the penance Mendoza chose.
It seems that penance is not really punishment, but it is something that we need. God may forgive us and people we offend may forgive us, but often we have trouble forgiving ourselves. Penance helps us to work through our guilt.

I have noticed that when I go to confession that the penance given to me by the priest is something that seems rather small- perhaps say an “Our Father” or perhaps a “Hail Mary” or pray for something or someone. It is not really much- but it is significant. One of the lessons I learned about going to confession  is to do the penance required immediately. Don’t wait till tomorrow. Along with the forgiveness received is the penance which must be performed. It is a small sign of gratitude for the forgiveness received.

I had a recent insight into penance when a re-read the story of Jesus appearing to Peter after the resurrection. Jesus asks Peter three times- “do you love me?”  Many people have observed that the three times Jesus ask Peter, “do you love me?” correspond to  the three times Peter denied Jesus during the passion. I see Jesus confronting Peter with these questions as a form of penance. Of course Jesus forgave Peter for his denial, but having Peter profess his love three times was a form of penance. It was what Peter needed- not Jesus.

As a former Baptist I believed in forgiveness, but I was not taught the practice of penance. I know have come to see that God does not so much want or need our acts of penance, but it is something that we need. It allows us in a small way to express our gratitude for the forgiveness we have received.   

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Making it Real

I have previously written about truth, reality and perception. Reality is just what is out there. Perception is how we experience what is out there. Truth is that which corresponds to reality. An accurate perception of reality is truth. Sometimes we are mistaken about what we see or hear. We perceive something but we are mistaken about what we perceive and the result is we believe to be true which are not.

Sometimes we can have preconceived notions or ideas which discolor our views of reality. We assume facts sometimes without any foundation for belief. We may have stereotyped views of people or things. These views may be based prior experience, but in fact they may not apply to the person or thing or event we are currently dealing with.  The overall point I am making is that often times for any number of reasons we have inaccurate- that is untrue- views of reality. Reality is that which is, but sometimes we just can not see that which is.

lars-crop.jpg I recently saw a movie which illustrates this point. The title of the movie is Lars and the Real Girl.  I found the story fascinating. The story centers around an extremely shy young man named Lars Lindstrom. Lars is a very shy, socially challenged young man. He hardly ever speaks to anyone; shies away from human touch and avoids human interaction unless absolutely necessary. Lars orders a life sized  doll- a sex doll. Lars creates a back-story for this doll whom he call Bianca. Lars tells his family that Bianca is paralyzed and unable to walk, thus he has a wheelchair for her. Even though Lars purchased Bianca, and received her through the mail, he sincerely believes her to be a real girl, with whom he has conversations. On the advice of the local doctor, his family and friends play along with Lars’ delusion. Over time the people in the town begin to accept and treat Bianca as a real live person.
(You may want to check out Roger Ebert’s review of the film at:

So… reality is that which is.
A doll is a doll - true.  
A girl is a girl - true.
A doll is a girl - false.
Yet Lars believes a doll is a girl. Even stranger is the people that surround Lars begin to treat Bianca as a  real girl (to humor Lars). As a result, she starts to become real in their minds. Now on a certain level they know that Bianca is not real. I suppose way deep down even Lars knows that Bianca is not real, but for Lars the delusion is very deep seated.

Lars and the Real Girl is in a way a re-telling of the classic children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit. In the story the Skin Horse tell Rabbit, “Real isn’t how you are made… “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you  become Real”, (Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real). As people begin to talk to Bianca and treat her as real, then so she becomes real to them. Their perception becomes clouded.

The recent Tom Hanks movie, Castaway, tells a very similar story. In this story FedEx employee, Chuck Noland (Hanks), is marooned on an island in the south pacific. Being all alone for months on end Noland draws a crude face on a volleyball (a Wilson, brand volleyball) and names the ball, Wilson. Wilson becomes real for Noland and becomes his friend and confidant.

We perceive reality through our five senses. But I think that one idea that is expressed through these stories is that whatever comes in through our senses is filtered through our emotions and psyche. Our psyche sometimes takes whatever comes in through our senses and turns it into something different.

Monday, March 24, 2014

More on Perception

It has been a while since I gave any attention to my blog of “Tim’s Theology”. My last entry had to do with perception. I made reference to the short story, The Country of the Blind by H.G. Wells. Perception is all about taking in information through the senses and coming to some understanding of it inside our brain. In the story the blind people did not know they were blind and were able to get by on just with four senses. It is thought that people who are deprived of one of their senses often make up for their loss by sharpening their remaining senses. This makes sense, but what of people who suddenly are able to regain their lost sense?

I read recently that the 17th century philosopher John Locke speculated that if a person who had been blind most or all of their life then were to somehow regain their sight, they would not be able to (at least at first) be able to “know” what is was they were seeing. He states that if they were shown objects in the shape of a cube or a sphere they would not know what they were seeing. If they were to touch the objects they would of course know, because they had previously known these objects by touch. But because they had not had the gift of sight they would be completely unaware of what they were “seeing”.  In modern times medical advancements have been able to restore sight to the blind and Locke was proved correct. It turns out that people who have regained their sight have had difficulty adjusting to their new sense. With time they have usually been able to adjust, but often with a difficult learning curve.

So what? I guess it just means that reality is out there and we all have to learn what it means as we are confronted with it. In our world, blind people are usually at a distinct disadvantage in many ways. They are often able to compensate for their lack of sight, but they are aware of their handicap and often times are able amaze sighted people with how well they cope. In the Country of the Blind, however, the sightless people are unaware that they are lacking a critical sense; they are perfectly comfortable living life with four senses and they can not be convinced that there is a reality  beyond what they are experiencing with their four senses.

What I pick up from this is as follows:
There may be a certain aspect of reality which if presented to us as new may be beyond our understanding. This does not mean it will be forever beyond our understanding, but at the time it is presented to us it just does not make sense. Just as a person blind all their life is cured of their blindness will not at first be able to identify a cube (from sight), but in time and with aid of their other senses they will come to fuller understanding of what a cube is.

I wonder what is out there beyond our senses. We have hints of something else being out there. One of the most fundamental ideas is that of God. We don’t see him- we can not experience him with any of our senses, but we believe in him. Of course everyone does not believe in God, but belief in God is certainly very widespread. This belief is arrived at by means other than direct contact through the senses. It may be by logical argument or faith or feeling, but not through the senses. What I wonder is there another sense (a 6th sense) that we are missing by which we experience the spiritual realm?

As a Christian, I believe in a life after death. I have had the opportunity to see a few dead people. It does not appear to me that they are experiencing much of anything. But yet I believe that for that dead person they are still experiencing something. Do they have senses that we do not have? Do they have more or less abilities to perceive reality? I don’t know. I do know what I believe- life goes on. I also believe life involves to some extent being able experience the reality that is around us. When I say that I experience reality “around me”, that means in physical proximity to my current location. One of the aspects of reality is location. For a dead person, we often hear is said, they have gone to a better place, but just where have they gone? I don’t know but it is a place not measured in conventional ways we measure distance- not a place that can be plotted on a map.
In the Nicene Creed it is stated…
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
Seeing is believing, but we believe in the unseen. That is best described as faith. I am going to wrap up this entry for now, but I will be pondering faith, the substance of things hoped for...

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Country of the Blind

In an earlier post I spoke of perception. Perception involves taking  sensory information and processing it in the brain. The end result are the thoughts and images which we experience every day.

I just finished a short story by H.G. Wells, The Country of the Blind. In this story a mountain climber is separated from his climbing party and falls- not to his death or serious injury, but instead into an isolated valley far from known civilization. The main character is a man by the name of Nuñez. Nuñez finds himself among a village of people who are entirely blind. (The link below will take you to the story if you would  like to read it on line)

This story is a study of perception. In this story Nuñez the protagonist is a mountain climber who is climbing somewhere in the Andes in South America. He falls an extremely long way and finds himself in a very isolated region previously unknown. The place he finds himself in is isolated from the outside world and for the most part inaccessible from the outside world. He discovers a village of people there who are all blind. As it happens, many generations back the people became isolated due to an earthquake which caused a massive landslide. Sometime after that a disease causes a number of the people to lose their sight and after successive generations they have become a village of blind people. The only thing is the people do not know they are blind. The valley they live in is very accommodating and they adapted to life without sight. Nuñez comes to live with them and he thinks himself superior to the people because he can see. As the story progresses he sees that he is mistaken. He is unable to explain to the inhabitants the concept of sight. The more he tries to explain “seeing” or “sight” the more the inhabitants are convinced he is crazy.

There is a lesson in there somewhere… We perceive reality by way of our senses, but there is more out there than can be perceived with our senses. Sometimes people believe in that which can’t be seen, heard or felt. Sometimes- often times- they really are nuts. I have known one such person. But other times we have a sense of something that is out there that we can’t see, hear, touch or taste. Perhaps we are crazy, but maybe not. Faith is not  extrasensory perception but it does acknowledge the existence of something (or someone) beyond our senses.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What's in your head...

I have been thinking and pondering lately about the definition of truth… that which corresponds to reality.  There is reality- that which is… or perhaps that which exists or maybe that which is real. The thing which corresponds to reality is an idea. It may exist on paper as a book, an essay or even just a note. It could be a movie or a song. It is something that refers to something outside itself. It is judged to be true if it accurately lines up with the reality that it describes or speaks of. A simple example would be the a book describing the earth as flat.. The earth is not flat- it is round. The flat earth book would be false. The round earth book would be true.  

But what about an idea or a thought?  Imagine that there is nothing written or recorded- there is just a thought.  The thought itself is real. It is a real thought. The thing which is thought, however, may or may not correspond to reality. It gets a bit confusing or at least it does to me. It is true that the thought is in your head, but the thought is your (or my) head may not be true.

Sometimes the thought in your head may be more accurately be described as an idea. It may not be true- that is it may not accurately describe reality, but perhaps it could… Think of an inventor. Many people imagined that people could fly. In Greek mythology, Icarus was said to have used wings created from feathers and wax made for him by his father which allowed him to  fly. Other unnamed people dreamed and thought of flying. In 1783 the first flight of man via a hot air balloon took place in France. Later in 1903 the Wright brothers took their idea of a flying machine and made it more than an idea in their heads.

So it seems that sometimes there are true thoughts or ideas which exist in your head, but are not yet manifested outside your head. Back to the definition of truth… that which corresponds to reality, sometimes our thoughts and ideas correspond to reality, but that reality has not yet manifested itself. Orville Wright said “If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.”  

So the truth and reality thing gets just a little messy. Truth corresponds to reality. Reality is that which is. But sometimes reality is out there to be discovered or invented.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Matrix

My last entry was about reality and how we perceive what is around us. We filter whatever is around us by way of our senses. Sometimes our senses may not work properly which may limit what we perceive. As for me, my eyes are not what they used to be. I have to wear glasses to see things at a distance and then I have to take them off to see things close up. I mentioned in my last entry that I ran across some deaf people. Their ears just don’t work, which means they don’t experience the vibrations in the air that we call sound.  And sometimes all the senses may work just fine, but something in the mind just does not work right- the signals get there and the person just can not properly interpret what comes through.

One of my favorite movies is The Matrix. This is a story which challenges to viewer to judge just what really is real. If you have not seen it, the setting is sometime in the future. Machines went to war with the humans. The machines won. The machines grow humans in pods which are stacked into great towers. The humans live their entire existence in these pods and are hooked by various cables in such a way to provide power for the machines. In order to keep the humans docile the brains of the humans are connected via a vast computer network (aka the Matrix) and fed sensory input. The humans don’t know where they are!  They assume they are living in a normal world living normal lives sometime around the end of the 20th century.

Reality is fed to them. They think they are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and feeling. They are doing none of this. They are being fed signals through a cable stuck in the back of their skull while they lie dormant in a vat of fluid and provide power to their captors.  

It is only a story, but it is a story which challenges our view of reality and what is real. We assume that our senses are sending us good info. We assume that our brain is able to properly deal with what our five senses send it.  I don’t think I’m in a pod providing kilowatts to my machine overlords. I think I’m setting at a table drinking coffee and typing on my computer and pondering what is real. I suppose I could be mistaken…. I hope not.

The point is that which we take as real sometimes isn’t. The Matrix is a recent attempt to challenge us to judge reality more critically, but there have been others. A few thousand years earlier Plato recorded Socrates’ story of prisoners in a cave which also challenges our views of reality.

In Plato’s version of the Matrix Socrates describes a group of people- actually prisoners- who are chained in a cave. They are positioned in such a way that they can only look forward. There is a fire behind them which causes shadows to be cast on the wall in front of them. They will see shadows of people going by and see shadows of the things that they carry go by. All they see is shadows. And I almost forgot to mention- they have been chained here in the cave their entire lives. Thus in their mind the shadows of what they see is for them reality. In the story a single prisoner escapes. He is able to leave the cave and see the real world. He sees actual people and trees and animals. He is amazed at how different the real world is from the shadow world he once took as reality. This prisoner makes his way back to the cave and tries to tell the other prisoners about the real world. It turns out to be a hard sell for the other prisoners. They just can not conceive of what is being told to them.  To quote Morpheus  from the Matrix, “Unfortunately one can not be told of the matrix, one has to see it for himself.”

The point of Plato’s allegory of the cave is that there is something more real than that which we see with our eyes. Reality is what it is. Its what’s out there and it seems that our five senses limit us and do not allow us to fully know all that there is. More on this in a later entry...

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


In previous entries I said truth is that which corresponds to reality. There is more that can be said of that, but for now I want to look at what is reality. What is reality? Reality is that which is. In Exodus 3 God speaks to Moses. Moses asks God what is his name. God replies, “I Am”. He is. Reality is that which is. This is really not hard to understand or even confusing. It is just when asking the question, “what is reality?”, it seems like the answer should be more complicated. The concept of reality is not complicated, but how we figure out “that which is” sometime is. The complicated part is sometimes we have trouble figuring out what is real.

Perception is the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the environment.All perception involves signals in the nervous system, which in turn result from physical stimulation of the sense organs. (

The environment around us is filtered through our senses. I look out the window and I see a maple tree. The tree is real. It is a part of the vast landscape of reality we call the universe. The tree is real, however, the existence of the tree is separate from my perception of the tree. If there were no window for me to look out of the tree would still be there. The degree to which my senses are able to perceive determine how that I can experience reality. For example, I am setting in a McDonalds as I write this. Just a little earlier I  noticed two people a few tables over from me who were deaf. At least it is my perception that they were deaf. I am led to believe that because they appeared to be speaking to each other by way of sign language. There was a lot going on in McDonalds which they were not able to experience or be aware of. Now as I set here there are very few people in the dining room, but there is a lot of drive up business. There is a constant beeping behind the counter and there is the chatter of the employees behind the counter and there is the traffic noise outside. At this particular time they are not missing much at all, but the point is the real things in our world which cause the air to  vibrate which thus causes our ear drums to vibrate which then sends a signal to our brain which we interpret as sound is a particular slice of reality that a deaf person does not experience. Of course the deaf person compensates for lack of hearing in other ways, but the point is there is something out there which they are missing.

Reality is what it is, but a proper interpretation of reality is necessary in order to make sense what we experience. I say this because we often misunderstand. Here is a simple example. I  have lots of books at home. They live on shelves. I was visiting a rather interesting man a few years ago who I used to live down the street from. I noticed he had a lot of books on shelves as well. However, after looking just a little closer I noticed that he actually had no books at all. He had painted books on his wall to appear to be books. That was not all.. he had also painted what appeared to be windows over looking a beautiful beach. At first glance it looked real. He was rather elderly and had painted his walls years ago. It was just a little faded, but I expect that when it was new it looked even more real.

What’s the point? His painting fooled me. I thought he had a wall full of books, but it  was actually only paint on the wall. There was reality- painted books and there is what I perceived- real books. Reality and perception did not match up. My mis-understanding of the books did not last long. The illusion was only good enough to last a few seconds- a close look revealed the deception. Sometimes, however, we may  misunderstand what is real for a long time- maybe our entire life.

That’s all I have time for now. More on this a little later...