If you are looking for my blog titled, The Contemplative Catholic Convert, you are at the right spot.

Monday, May 23, 2016

His Arm Around Our Shoulders



“Jesus wept.” That’s what St. John tells us in the 11th chapter of his gospel as Jesus stood beside the grave of Lazarus. Verse 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible, but I think it is among the most profound.

Live long enough and you will soon conclude life and suffering are nearly synonymous. And so for the Christian I think it fair to ask, “Where is God in all of it?”

I used to think He was in the shadows, always ready to come to us, to comfort us. But over the last decades I have slowly come to a different opinion.

Where is God in the loss, the rejection, the suffering? He is not in the shadows. He is there beside us, His arm around our shoulder, weeping as we weep. If nothing else, that is what John 11:35 demonstrates.

God beside us. As a Father.

I like what St. Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome. “ . . . But you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”  The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ . . .  And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. . . . (Romans 8:15-28).

Please read that last sentence again.  If you have not memorized it, perhaps you should. Until we believe the omnipotent God really does cause all things – all things – to work together for good to those who love Him, we will never know peace and assurance in the face of the most desperate – or even the simplest – of trials.

God is right there at your side, even as you read this. Scripture gives many examples of God-With-Us in our sorrows. Leah is only one. We find her story beginning in Genesis chapter 29.

When Jacob visited her family, Rachel's beauty captured him – so much so, he agreed to work her family's farm for seven years to marry her. But on the eve of the seventh anniversary, her family pulled a classic bait and switch. When the new groom awakened the next morning he found himself lying next to Leah, Rachel’s older sister. If Jacob wanted Rachel, he'd have to work another seven years.

He worked another seven years for his beloved Rachel, but it's not difficult to imagine how Leah felt – unloved, unattractive, unwanted, knowing her family had to trick Jacob into her marriage bed.

The story grows even more poignant. Scripture tells us: “When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb . . . and [she] gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, ‘It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now’" (Genesis 29:31-32).

But Jacob’s feelings toward her did not change.

Ever the optimist, Leah conceived again. And then, again. "Now at last my husband will become attached to me," she said, "because I have borne him three sons."

Yet even after six sons, Rachel remained the light in Jacob's eyes. Leah longed for her husband's embrace, his touch, and to know he loved her. Yet, Jacob was deaf to her heartache and blind to her sorrow.

But God was not.

Over the years I had read these chapters in Genesis dozens of times, but several years ago my eyes froze at the list of Leah's six sons – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.

Levi and Judah.

Although Rachel’s beauty captured everyone’s attention, Leah didn't know Almighty God would measure life and death through her offspring – not Rachel's.

Levi and Judah: ancestors of Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Ezra, Ezekiel, Zechariah . . . on and on the list would grow. All of Israel's religious and political leaders would spring from her womb.

Including Jesus the Messiah.

Leah’s story is only one of dozens revealing God-With-Us in our heartache. Let’s look at just one more.

There is probably not a person reading this who does not know of Job, the man who suffered nearly unimaginable loss – loss not too unlike some of you reading this have experienced in your own lives.

Scripture tells us Job had seven sons and three daughters, that he was exceedingly wealthy – and God considered Job uniquely blameless.

On a certain day Satan stood before God, and God said to him, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side?. . . . But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.”

Satan left the Lord’s presence and in rapid fire succession – happening so fast Job didn’t have time to catch his breath, disaster fell:

“A messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans attacked and took them. They also slew the servants . . . and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands and made a raid on the camels and took them and slew the servants . . . and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people and they died, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

If all this wasn’t enough, in the next chapter we learn of the terribly painful sores that suddenly broke out all over his body.

What did Job do? He “arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Despite and through it all, Job would not rail against God. I love what he said in the sixth chapter of that book (verse 10):  “But it is still my consolation, And I rejoice in unsparing pain, That I have not denied the words of the Holy One.”

Job’s suffering and his unrelenting anguish and confusion has for nearly 4,000 years provided children of God like you and me a measure of comfort when our own lives lay around our feet like ashes after a house fire. For 4,000 years men and women of faith living through their own bewilderment and loss and terrible suffering have found in Job consolation and hope and their reason to persevere through it all to the glory of God.

God tells us through Jeremiah, by the way, another of Leah's descendants, "For I know the plans that I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11).

Hope.          

St. Paul tells us the things written in Scripture are for our benefit, and that through the encouragement of God's word we can have hope (Romans 15:4). That's what Leah's story and Job’s story are all about – great, inexpressible hope and confidence and perseverance. It’s about God beside us, about God who loves us, and who knows our deepest hurts.

Back to John 11:35.

When the Holy Spirit inspired St. John to include the story of how Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, God did so to ever remind His children He is very much aware of our suffering. And that His heart breaks with ours.

But He also reminds us – as He did through St. Paul’s letter to the Romans cited earlier – “God causes all things to work together for good, to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.”

That is why we can trust Him.

God is not in the shadows waiting for us to call Him to come close. He is already close – as close as our breath. He promised to never leave us in our loneliness or confusion or grief. And God never breaks His promises.

This 18th century hymn by Catharina von Schlegel said it well.

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end. . . .

Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last

Christian, be encouraged. God is beside you. He weeps with you. And His arm is around your shoulders even now as you read this.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sunday Sermon May 22: Around our Shoulder

Whatever the loss or sorrow, God’s arm is always laid across the shoulders of His sons and daughters bought with the blood of Jesus. You can find my Sunday message here: https://youtu.be/Yk2gTmsJ7s0


Friday, May 20, 2016

What Can Wash Away My Sin?



I published this essay in my book, Learning to Lean. I thought it good to repost it here.
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But if we walk in the Light as He is in the Light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of His Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

Several years ago I showed a woman a photo of a large crucifix – a cross with a figure of Jesus nailed to it. I don’t think I will ever forget her reaction. She physically shuddered, turned her head from the image, and told me to close the book.
           
"It's too gruesome,” she said.        
           
The blood seeping from his side and forehead disturbed her. She preferred the unadorned cross she’d grown accustomed to in the church she attended over the past few decades.
           
Many people don’t often think about it, but Christianity is a bloody, gruesome religion.  But it had to be bloody, for only blood – in this case, the blood of the Innocent One - could atone for, or wash away, the sins of the guilty.
           
And gruesome it was. Soldiers tied Jesus’ hands to the whipping post and stripped off his robe. Then one of them swung the rock-embedded whips against Jesus’ back, buttocks and legs. Again and again, slicing into His flesh until strips of skin hung from his body. Small capillaries and arteries oozed and spurted blood with each beat of His heart and tracked down His back, His thighs, His legs.

Spurt.
            Spurt.
                        Spurt.
           
The pavement at His feet was moist with dirt and congealed blood.

            Spurt.
                                                Spurt . . .

                        until the blood vessels clotted over.

It was a bloody, bloody scene. But it was a God-ordained and utterly necessary scene. Without the shed blood of Jesus, there could be no forgiveness of sins to the penitent.
           
My sins. Your sins. Your pastor’s sins. The Pope’s sins. Everyone’s sins. As the Holy Spirit warns: All humanity has gone astray. We have each turned to our own way. But God, being rich in mercy, laid all of our sin - and its judgment - on Jesus (see Isaiah 53:6).
 
Without the bloody death of the Messiah, there would be no hope for absolution in the confessional to the penitent. No hope ever for forgiveness. No hope for eternal life, but instead only a sure judgment and eternal damnation facing us in our grave.

But for the blood of Jesus. 

Which is why St. Paul wrote: In [Christ] we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace (Ephesians 1:7). And the Church explains, Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of [Jesus’] cross . . .  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 517). And again: The human heart is . . . . converted by looking upon [Christ] whom our sins have pierced: Let us fix our eyes on Christ's blood and understand how precious it is to his Father . . . (Catechism, 1432).

So knowing this, knowing the bloody, gruesome cost of our salvation, how then ought we live?
           
Reverently, yes. Obedient to His Word. Of course. But we must not forget that the ability for reverence and obedience results from growing deeper in love with God. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, one time Superior General of the Society of Jesus, wrote:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that  is, falling in love [with Him] in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with seizes your  imagination; it will affect everything. It will decide what gets you out of bed in the morning, what you will do in the evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, what you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love [with God], stay in love, and it will decide everything."
           
And so, let us prayerfully implore the Holy Spirit each day to help us grow deeper in love with God, and that He train our hearts to reverence and obedience – and to ever internalize the answer to the question: What can wash away my sin?      
           
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Which Gate Will it Be?

I posted this a few years ago. It remains current -- and not at all politically correct.
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There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given. . . by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).   

Predictably routine. That’s what the passengers thought of a 1995 Northwest Airlines flight across the Atlantic from Detroit to Frankfurt. Many of the 241 passengers spent their time reading or watching the in-flight movie. Some walked along the aisles, stretching their legs. Some fidgeted in their seats trying to find a comfortable position to sleep or doze. Hours passed slowly. Another bag of pretzels. Another cup of coffee, until the long-awaited announcement broke over the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. Please return to your seats and secure your belongings . . ." the voice droned on.
 
That was when their predictably routine flight turned unpredictable. As the plane made its approach to the airport, an embarrassed captain clicked on his microphone and announced that they were landing at the wrong airport. In fact, they were landing in the wrong country.

Federal Aviation Administration officials immediately set out to learn the error occurred. Why had European air traffic control relayed incorrect course headings to the jumbo jet?  Why did the flight crew fail to cross-check their position on cockpit navigation instruments?
 
Whatever the reason for the mishap, investigators quickly determined that no one purposely led the plane astray. The whole thing was simply an embarrassing accident. A potentially serious one, but an accident nonetheless.
 
When I first read this story so many years ago, I wondered if there is a spiritual parallel between this story and the way many people travel through life. Now, 17 years later, I am convinced of it.
 
If we believe the polls, most people expect to arrive safely in heaven when their life is over. However, if we believe Scripture, many of these same people will be horrified to discover they have landed in the wrong place (see Matthew 7:21-23). Air traffic control accidentally misdirected the Northwest flight, but Satan purposely misdirects humanity, transmitting deceptive course headings to anyone naive enough to follow. How many people have followed his directions?
 
- All religions lead to the same place. 
- There is no absolute truth. 
- God is a creation of superstitious minds. 
- We are all gods - or can become gods. 
- Jesus Christ was a great teacher, but certainly not God. 
- Christ’s virgin birth and physical resurrection are myths.
 
Flight 52 innocently followed the wrong signals to the wrong airport. Likewise, those who navigate their lives according to Satan’s directions - whether in innocence or by design - are guaranteed an arrival far afield from the heavenly destination they seek.
 
Investigators also asked why the cockpit crew failed to follow standard operating procedure by regularly checking the plane’s position with cockpit navigational instruments. That simple check would have uncovered their error in time to change directions. Instead, the crew blindly trusted the information fed to them by others.
 
Similarly, many people seem content to travel through life blindly trusting their ultimate destination to friends, teachers, parents, Hollywood - instead of regularly cross-checking their position on the navigational instrument (the Bible, and, for Catholics, the teaching authority Christ gave the Church) to ensure safe passage to the heavenly kingdom.
 
 Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, warns the Lord Jesus, but inwardly are ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15). I am the way, and the truth, and the life, Christ declares. No one comes to the Father, but by Me (John 14:6). In speaking of Jesus, the apostle Peter adds, There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given. . . by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).    
      
Except for the inconvenience endured by the passengers, their friends and  families, no harm resulted from Flight 52's error. But the same will not be said for the final journey all humanity takes.
 
Where are we going? From whom are we taking our course headings? Are we making frequent life corrections according to the Book, or are we navigating according to the popular philosophies of the hour? These are much more than mere academic questions casually considered over a Cappuccino. One day each of us will roll to a stop at the final gate.  

Our choice, while we still have a choice, determines which gate it will be.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Walking with God -- part three, YouTube



Walking with God -- the walk will do us good. I just uploaded my last in this three-part series of Sunday messages I presented to the folks at the senior citizen complex. This one addresses what Jesus said in Matthew 11 about taking His yoke upon ourselves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7YJ7fpsMIg&feature=youtu.be

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Why Mary on Mother's Day?


Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and I sit here thinking of my own wonderful mother. I owe her so very much for all she has done for me and my sister in her nearly 89 years. And then I think of my wife who is mother of our three children. Nancy, too, has done so very much for our daughter and two sons.
My thoughts then turn to another mother, one whom I had neglected for my first 33 years as a Christian. I’m speaking of the mother of Jesus. I avoided thought and spiritual reflection about her because she was too Catholic for my theological comfort. I chose to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
In his February 2007 First Things article titled Evangelicals and the Mother of God, Southern Baptist minister and dean of the evangelical Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George, wrote: “It is time for evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the history of salvation- and to do so precisely as evangelicals.”
“The question, of course, is how to do that. Can the evangelical reengagement with the wider Christian tradition include a place for Mary? Can we, without forsaking any of the evangelical essentials . . . echo Elizabeth’s acclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42), or resonate with the Spirit-filled maid of the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:46-48)? 
I think Timothy George’s questions are fair ones to revisit on this Mother’s Day in 2016.
For 2000 years many God-fearing Christians have looked to Mary as a role model of holiness, obedience, and humility. Even Martin Luther – certainly no friend of Roman Catholicism – readily recognized Mary’s importance to Christian faith. During his Christmas sermon in 1529, he said: “Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us, even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees . . . If He is ours, we ought to be in His situation; there where He is, we ought also to be, and all that He has ought to be ours; and His mother is also our mother.
Because we can learn from God’s choices, I think Mother’s Day is a good day to ask ourselves what God saw in Mary that He chose her to nurture, comfort, and educate His Son.
Truth is we don’t really know why He chose her. Scripture is silent on that question. But from what Scripture does tell us we can infer at least three reasons why God chose the Virgin Mary to mother His Son.
First, Mary demonstrated humility before God. Would the Father have chosen her to bear His Son if she were not? And so it was in humility Mary said to Gabriel: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” The Greek word used here for ‘handmaid’ carries the idea of being a slave to God.

How different salvation history would have been if Eve, the Mother of humankind, had considered herself a slave to God regarding the forbidden tree!

Next, Mary demonstrated obedience to God despite what that obedience could cost her. In Israel’s first century culture, unwed pregnancy was a capital offense punishable by stoning. That’s why the adulterous woman in St. John’s gospel would have died had Jesus not intervened (John 8). Mary, knowing her pregnancy would cost her betrothal to Joseph, her reputation, and perhaps even her life, nevertheless laid herself at God’s feet and told the angel, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary would do God’s will, not her own. She’d bow to His plans, not hers. I like to think as she spoke she remembered Solomon’s conclusion in Ecclesiastes, “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Perhaps also she remembered the Proverb, “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).

Finally (if there is a final thing we can say about Jesus’ mother), Mary loved the Scriptures. They were for her a lamp to her feet and a light to her path. In an era when Israelite culture didn’t consider it a priority to teach girls the Scripture, it is clear Mary read and memorized God’s word. Her adoration of God (Luke 1:46-55) is an example. In those short ten verses of her Magnificat, Mary quoted or alluded to at least six Old Testament texts (1 Samuel 2:1-10, Psalm 34:2, Psalm 35:9, Psalm 98:1, Psalm 103:17, Psalm 107:9).

When Christians recite one of the earliest statements of Christian faith – the Nicene Creed – we affirm, “By the Holy Spirit [Jesus] was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. And in our recitation we ought to remember Mary as an example worthy of emulation and imitation of her obedience, humility, purity, and knowledge of God’s word. 

God chose the Virgin Mary to bring the Savior into the world. By imitating Mary we bring the Savior to our world. Mother’s Day would be a good time to remember what Martin Luther said: “Mary is the Mother of Jesus . . . . His mother is also our mother” – and for us to say, perhaps for the first time: “Happy Mother’s Day, Mary.”

I think Jesus would be pleased.