Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Because We Are

This essay appeared in my second book, "Lessons Along the Journey" available in print and on Kindle.


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It is a glorious thing to know that your Father God makes no mistakes in directing or permitting that which crosses the path of your life. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter. It is our glory to trust him, no matter what. – Joni Eareckson Tada

 

"If you really are a child of God . . . ."

           
Has that nagging question ever hovered in your thoughts? If you’re like me, it has. Lots of times. But the accusation shouldn’t surprise us. We’re not the first ones to ever hear it. During the wilderness temptation, Satan challenged the Lord Jesus three times, "If You are the Son of God . . .” (Matthew 4, Luke 4).


I’ve always thought that an odd challenge. The devil knew perfectly well who Jesus was. The angelic visits to Elizabeth and Zechariah, to the Virgin, and the shepherds did not escape the Tempter's notice. Satan knew Jesus was the Son of God. That's why he incited Herod to kill Him.

Some theologians argue that the devil hoped to trick Jesus into using His divine powers to benefit Himself, instead of entrusting Himself to the Father. They say using those powers would have short-circuited the great plan of redemption.

          
Perhaps that is true. But I wonder if Satan had another plan. If he could have caused Jesus to doubt who He was and to whom He belonged, would that have sidetracked the Father's plan?

          
It’s a rhetorical question. No one knows for sure, but it raises a sobering spiritual application for all of us who seek to serve Christ.

          
Scripture could not be clearer about the Christian’s relationship with the Father. All of heaven and hell know we are children of God through our baptismal faith (see 1 Peter 3:21; Catechism 189, 537, 1226). However – and this is crucial – if Satan can seduce us into doubting that relationship, he will lead us down the path of despair and destruction, effectively removing us from fruitful service to the King.

          
"If you are . . . .”

          
How should we respond to that accusation? Read the Temptation text and you’ll discover at each turn, Jesus responded with God’s Word.

          
And so should we.

           
When doubts about our relationship with the Father trouble us, we can anchor to God’s promises such as: "See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God” (1 John 3:1), or, "As many as received [Christ], He gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in His name" (John 1:12). When we hear whispered in our ear, “God doesn’t even know your name,” we can shout God’s answer: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name; your walls are ever before me” (Isaiah 49:15, 16).

          
Satan's accusations smolder from the depths of hell, but our faith in God’s promises will form an impenetrable seal against hell’s noxious fumes. We are children of God. He will never leave us. He will always forgive those who seek His mercy.

          
We have God’s promise about that.

 

Whom will we believe? The Liar – or God?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Sign of the Cross


Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory . . . (Psalm 115:1)

My earliest recollection of seeing anyone make the sign of the cross was when I watched Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Of course, as a Jew, I never thought much about the practice. I figured it was a “Catholic” thing. And besides, Jews prayed differently. So when as a young adult I discovered my Messiah, Jesus, I prayed to Him in the only way I knew to pray: eyes closed, and just talk to Him.

But when I became a Catholic thirty-three years later, I started my prayers with the sign of the cross because, well, that’s what Catholics do.

In those days as a new Catholic, I traced the cross over my chest. I did it slowly. Thoughtfully. Reverently. I focused on each Person of the Trinity as I prayed, “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I knew during that short introductory prayer I was entering into the presence of Almighty God – the One who created me, who nurtured me, who protected me, and who sent His Son to die on a cross that I might live with Him forever.

But like with many rituals, in time I fell into a pattern of thoughtlessness. I became comfortable with the movement of my right hand from my forehead to my abdomen, to my left shoulder, then to my right. Without realizing it, I began mouthing the Names of the Persons within the Holy Trinity without thinking about Whose I was and to Whom I belonged. I made the sign without reverence. Or purpose.

The prayer became perfunctory.

Of course, ‘perfunctory’ is not really that surprising an outcome when we do things over and over. It is a danger everyone faces, regardless of the church they attend. But while the danger of ‘routine’ is an important topic for all Christians, it is not the point of this essay.

Christians have been prayerfully making the sign of the cross for two thousand years. Tertullian, a 2nd century theologian and apologist, wrote: "In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross." In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote similarly of the sign: "Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest."

Clearly, tracing the cross over ourselves as a mark of reverence for God has two millennia of historical precedent. So why did I, for more than thirty years as a Protestant, avoid making that sign during my prayers? For two reasons: First, I did not know its long and precious history. And second – and most troubling to me – I did not make the sign because it was too “Catholic.”

Too Catholic? 

What kind of a reason is that? To follow that line of logic, I should have also avoided prayer, or obeying Scripture, or attending church, or singing hymns because all of those things were also done by Catholics. For me to do likewise would make me – what?  Catholic?

Worse things could happen.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Christian history knows it was the Catholic Church that defined and preserved for us the canon of Scriptures. It was the early Catholic Church councils that defined and defended essential doctrinal truths such as the trinity, the deity of the Lord Jesus, and the deity of the Holy Spirit. Christianity would be unrecognizable today were it not for the various Catholic Church Councils’ protection and preservation of Biblical doctrine.

I am sometimes overwhelmed when I think of how my prejudice against Catholics and Catholic rituals robbed me of something that has now become precious to my relationship with Christ.

Oh, Lord! In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,  continue to open my eyes – to open our eyes – to your eternal truth.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

How Long Has It Been?


We hear a lot in homilies during each Mass about the love of God, and His compassion, and His mercy. And that is good, for I think too often we think God is rarely merciful, or compassionate, or in love with us.

 

But there is an element of God's Personality -- a side I've rarely heard about in the last couple of decades.

 

I thought about neglected and yet eternal truth as I listened to my audio Bible this morning. This is from Hebrews chapter 12:

 

"You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect .... [therefore] see to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? ..... for our “God is a consuming fire.”

 

The entire chapter, of course, is important to read for context, but as I listened to the chapter I wondered how long it has been, in all my hearing of God's mercy, love, and compassion, how long has it been since I also heard -- and been warned-- "our God is a consuming fire"?

 

Rarely have I heard in homilies God is not one to mess with. His patience is not without limit. His commandments are not open for debate. And though His judgment might be delayed, such delay does not mean He does not see.

 

It's been decades for me. How long has it been since you have been warned that our God is a consuming fire?

 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Gospel According to Me and My Church

I published this under the title "All or Nothing Faith" in 2009. Sadly, nothing has changed, except our continued descent.
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On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. . . . And Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?" After looking around at them all, He said to him, "Stretch out your hand!" And he did so; and his hand was restored. But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus (Luke 6:6-11, NASB).

            Each time I read this passage, I am bewildered by the Pharisees’ cold-heartedness. Why could it be wrong to heal someone – even on the Sabbath?

            Throughout the Old Testament, God appointed religious scholars such as the Pharisees and scribes to protect the integrity of Jewish faith. And next to circumcision, obedience to the Sabbath Day commandment was a central requirement to the proper performance of Jewish law. Little wonder, then, that Jesus angered so many of the Jewish teachers and doctrinal specialists when – according to their interpretation of Scripture – he broke the Sabbath by healing people.

            As I contemplated this vignette in Luke’s gospel, I focused on that phrase – according to their interpretation of Scripture. And then another vignette in St. Luke’s gospel flashed into my memory. In this one (chapter 9), the apostle John said to Jesus, We saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us (verse 49).

            It seems the Pharisees and other Doctors of the Law were not alone in the practice of their religion within the strict confines of their understanding of Scripture. Jesus’ disciples practiced the same kind of – what I call – “all or nothing” faith.

            “All or nothing” faith. It’s what I practiced for decades. Unless people worshiped Christ like I worshiped Him, or interpreted Scripture as I did, or attended the same kind of church as I – their Christian faith was suspect.

            I should have paid more attention to the Lord’s response to the apostle John in that next verse in Luke’s gospel: Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you (Luke 9:50).

            All or nothing faith. It’s hard to achieve the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed, when we accept from others nothing less than the “Gospel According to Me and My Church” (see St. John 17:20-23).

            Perhaps that’s why the Lord Jesus said to the Doctors of the Law: Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment (John 7:24, NASB). Or St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:4, NASB).

            Considering how rapidly America and the free world are descending into darkness, when will Christians – Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox – finally put aside our “gospel-according-to-me-and-my-church” mentality, agree to disagree on things unrelated to eternal salvation, and work together to win the world for Christ?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Conclusion



It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart (Ecclesiastes 7:2)


My friend Robert, a retired pastor in one of the Protestant denominations, told me over coffee he preferred – especially in his later years -- to officiate at funerals than weddings. The reason for that, he said, is weddings “are all about the bride – how pretty she looks, and now nice a couple she and her husband make.” At funerals, however, it’s all about the family left behind – and how much a privilege it was for him to put his arm around a father’s shoulder at the coffin of his child, or hold a widow’s hand, or sit quietly with mourners and simply ‘be there’ for them.

As he spoke, I readily understood his preference. I have attended joyous weddings. And I have also sat in too many funeral homes and beside too many hospital deathbeds as family gathered to say their last goodbyes.

I know what it is like to be in the presence of death.

At sixty-four, my thoughts turn far more frequently to death than they ever did when I was thirty. (Thirty. It seems like only three weeks ago I was thirty). Please do not misunderstand my comment. I do not think of my eventual death in a morbid, gloomy way, but rather with a ‘matter of fact’ acceptance. Death is, after all, the destiny awaiting each of us – some sooner, some later, whether rich or poor, popular or unknown, powerful or weak, intelligent or slow, handsome or unattractive . . . .

That is why toward the end of his life, Solomon said what he did about houses of feasting and houses of mourning.  He discovered – as most of us who are older discover – that when we are young we don’t think much of our own mortality or of the relentless and unyielding passage of years. There is too much living to do, too many parties to attend.

But when we find ourselves in a funeral home or at the deathbed of someone we love – then the realities of life offer us the chance to “take things to heart.” It is during those times that popularity and wealth, fame and position, and all the things so many of us strive for – it is there that those things often fall into proper perspective.   

Perhaps one of the more well-known stories Jesus told is of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). If it has been a while since you’ve read it, I hope today you will take a few moments to do so.

From the perspective of those who knew him, the Rich Man had everything a person could hope for. But from God’s perspective – he was poor and naked and miserable and blind. The Rich Man had nothing. Even less than nothing.

Like so many we meet every day, the Rich Man missed a critically essential element of life’s meaning. Jesus warned about it when He said: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?  (Matthew 16:26)

The Lord always asked good questions. What you and I need are the right answers – because a house of mourning is in the future for every one of us.

That is why Solomon closed his book of Ecclesiastes this way:  The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.  For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

I Can Love You Like That



For Your love is better than wine!  -- Song of Solomon, 1:2

The longer I walk with Jesus, the more I learn to love Solomon’s Song. You will find it in the Old Testament just after Ecclesiastes. If you have time today, spend 15 or 20 minutes reading it. As you read, pay attention to what the Bride, the Groom, and the Chorus each say.

For two millennia theologians have viewed the Song of Solomon as a love song – not only between Solomon and his beloved, but also between Jesus and His Beloved – which is His Church, His Bride.

In other words, it is a love song from Jesus to those who love Him. It is a love song from Jesus to me. And to you.

During my recent time with the Lord, I thought of Solomon’s Song as I listened with my eyes closed to John Michael Montgomery’s, I Can Love You Like That. With very few modifications in the lyrics, it was easy to imagine Jesus singing the song to me because the lyrics so closely mirror Scripture’s repeated declaration of Jesus’ love for me.

And for you.

Here is the song on YouTube. Close your eyes as you listen, and imagine your beloved Jesus singing it to you – because He will be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xegmdki9krw

Monday, June 23, 2014

An Open Letter to Young Christians Leaving Home




Whether Catholic or non-Catholic Christian, these principles are critically important for young people to take to heart.
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So, you’ve graduated high school and are headed away from home for the first time. Whether your destination is college, the military, marriage – or anywhere else far from family, church, and friends, you will benefit from reading this article.

All humanity is engaged in a spiritual warfare. We have no choice in the matter. As St. Peter tells us:  Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Or St. Paul: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12).

When you leave home your spiritual mettle will be tested many, many times. How you handle those tests will determine the memories you will have to deal with thirty, forty years (and longer) from today. I know what I am talking about. In the forty-two years I have been walking with Jesus, I have seen spiritual compromise and disaster happen over and over to young men and women who left home. Even years after high school, when I was 23, it happened to me. 


1. Don’t succumb to pride which whispers in your ear, “It won’t happen to me.” It can happen to you. You are subject to the same enticements of sin to which everyone else is subject – regardless how long you have been a Christian. Solomon warned, “Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).  St. Paul picked up that same theme in his letter to the Corinthians, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” 
(1 Corinthians 10:12). Be on guard against pride.

2. Make up your mind ahead of time to avoid situations and places where you can be tempted to sin. Be doubly vigilant to avoid being alone in a house or dorm room with someone of the opposite sex – even if he or she is a Christian. Such a situation is a recipe for bad decisions.  Remember what St. Paul said to Timothy: “So shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22). Memorize this maxim: Sin will take you farther than you want to go. It will keep you longer than you want to stay. And it will cost you more than you want to pay.

3. Avoid hanging with people who do not share your faith in Jesus. Again, King Solomon advised: “Make no friends with those given to anger, and do not associate with hotheads, or you may learn their ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25). One can easily substitute “drunkard,” or “an immoral person,” or “liar,” or “cheat,” or any other ungodly characteristic into this text, and the principle remains constant. As St. Paul wrote: Bad company ruins good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33).



4. Alcohol, and any other ‘recreational’ drug, will cloud your judgment and make you much more willing to do things for which you will be very sorry afterward. The evidence for this is indisputable. And if your friends poke fun at you because of your abstinence, find other friends.  
 
5. Pray each morning for God’s protection. Each evening, review your day and thank God for specific situations in which you made the right decisions. However, if you did fall into sin, do not wallow in guilt. Be quick to confess, repent – and determine with God’s help to avoid doing the same thing again. The Holy Spirit’s promise through St. John has always proven a comfort for me when I sin: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

6. Establish a habit of daily prayer and reading Scripture. Be consistent with this. It is no surprise the psalmist wrote: How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word . . . . I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you. (Psalm 119:9, 11). Do you remember Jesus’ experience in the wilderness during Satan’s three-fold temptation? At each test, Jesus responded with Scripture (Matthew 4:1-11).

For decades I have practiced what I call the 2+2 = 1+3 Scripture Reading Method. If you read two chapters of the Old Testament every morning and two of the New Testament every evening (or vice versa), by the end of the year you will have read the Old Testament once and the New Testament three times (2+2=1+3). On average it takes less than 10 minutes to read two chapters of Scripture. In five years you will have read the Old Testament five times and the New Testament fifteen times. In ten years – well, you can do the math. With so much of God’s word sown year after year in your heart, think how the Holy Spirit will mature you more quickly into the image of Christ.

7. Establish a habit of weekly attendance at Mass and frequent reception of the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation. Prayer, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments are supernatural gifts the Holy Spirit gives to empower believers on their faith journey. Fighting spiritual battles without those spiritual “weapons” is nothing less than a guarantee for disaster. 

8. Christian faith nurtured in your home laid the foundation for what must now become a mature, adult faith. Part of that maturing process will occur as you interact with people who will not share your understanding of God, of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. You will meet many who are actively antagonistic toward your Catholic faith. But your situation will be no different than what the faithful have faced for millennia. The ancient worship of Baal is a type of 21st century compromise with the anti-Christ philosophies permeating our society. Yet what the Holy Spirit said to Israel through Elijah, He says to us today: ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him’ (1 Kings 18:21). In other words, decide today – and every day hereafter – that you will follow Jesus and obey the Church regarding faith and morals. This is a choice you must consciously make, day after day. And it is a choice you must every day ask God to help you maintain.
These strategies have proven effective for me over the last 42 years of my walk with Christ. And they will also help you avoid many of the spiritual traps that lay ahead of you. Satan is a cruel and merciless liar, thief, and murderer. We must not be ignorant of his schemes (see John 8:44 and 2 Corinthians 2:11).

As you prepare to leave home for the first time, please apply these strategies to your life. You will not be sorry you did so – even 42 years from now.