Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Sometimes when I meditate on the crucifix suspended on the wall opposite my chair, my mind transports me to the place and time of my Lord's last hours.
It happened again this morning as I fingered a Rosary bead and thought about what Catholics call a "mystery of the Rosary" -- the flogging of Jesus.
As I let the image form in my mind of Christ standing at the whipping post, His hands tied above His head, I suddenly found myself standing at that very post. Only now it was my hands tied above my head. It was my back laid bare. It was my life that was about to end.
I turned my head and saw the Roman soldier standing a few feet away -- although I knew in the depths of my spirit it was Satan in the form of the soldier. He held a Roman whip -- strands of leather tied at the handle, each studded with chips of bone and rock. And he was readying himself to strike my back, to tear at me without mercy for the many deep and dark sins I committed in my life.
I turned away and winced in anticipation of the blow.
But it never came.
Instead, I sensed a presence move between me and the whip. The lash tore into flesh. A visceral groan spread into the dust-filled air.
And then Satan growled, "Get away from him. His sins have made him my property. He belongs to me!"
The voice behind me said quietly, but with palpable authority, "No, he doesn't. He belongs to me. I purchase him with my blood."
"Get away," the soldier hissed. A moment later the lash fell again, striking with a fury that terrified me. But the Presence moved closer, so close I felt the warmth of his body. He wrapped his arms around me, to protect me even more from the whip that fell again and again.
I heard each fall. I felt his body shudder with each blow. His blood splattered across the back of my neck. Some dripped from his shoulder onto mine.
Still tied to the post, I turned to see who it was protecting me. And when I saw Him, I could do nothing else but ask, "Lord, why are you doing this for me?"
He looked into my eyes and whispered, "Do you have to ask?"
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Fifty loops were made along the edge of the end sheet in one set, and fifty loops along the edge of the corresponding sheet in the other set. Fifty bronze clasps were made with which the tent was joined so that it formed one whole . . . . Boards of acacia wood were made as walls for the Dwelling [Tabernacle]. The length of each board was ten cubits, and the width one and a half cubits. Each board had two arms, fastening them in line . . . (Exodus 36:17-23).
It doesn’t take long for my eyes to glaze over when I read sections of Scripture like this. Does anyone really care how many clasps, loops, boards, and sheets were used to construct the Tabernacle of God in the wilderness? Does anyone care if each board was ten by one and a half cubits?
And what’s a cubit, anyway?
It would be easy to forever skip chapters like this, believing they have little to teach the 21st century reader. But we would be wrong.
Exodus chapters 36-40 are only a few of many sections in the Books of Moses that describe in wearyingly exhaustive detail the construction of the Tabernacle, the place God’s Spirit would reside. Each board had its place, each ring a role, each thread a value, each cubit a purpose. To the minutest detail, God left nothing out of order.
And that is exciting.
The New Testament Scriptures tell us God is building His followers into a Holy Dwelling called the Church. “Do you not know,” wrote St. Paul to the Christians at Corinth, “you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).
As God orchestrated the construction of his desert Dwelling with such meticulous precision, so too, He orchestrates with equal precision today the construction of His Dwelling – the Body of Christ. Just as each board and clasp and loop held an important place, each member of Christ’s universal Church holds a necessary role and function. Leader and laity, blue-collar and white, professionals and paraprofessionals, rich and poor, healthy and not-so-healthy, across cultures and backgrounds . . . the Master Carpenter knows who we are, where we fit in His Dwelling --and he sets us there with meticulous precision in the right place . . .
And for the right reason.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality). . . (Galatians 2:6).
I don't know. Maybe I'm reading more into this passage than is really there. But as I reflected on what I know of St. Paul, I caught a glimpse of what seems to be the apostle's attitude problem.
An attitude which is, for me, understandable.
After all, before his Damascus Road experience, Paul was a Pharisee. And not just a run-of-the-proverbial-mill Pharisee, but a Pharisee of Pharisees. He tells us earlier in Galatians that he was advancing in his Judaism way beyond his colleagues.
And to the Philippians he wrote: If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless (Philippians 3:4-7).
And then there was that attitude-related incident in Acts in which Paul got so angry with Barnabas over St. Mark, that the two separated and went in opposite directions. You can read about it in Acts 15:36-39.
I might be wrong, but I think St. Paul -- at least in the early years after his conversion -- was an "in-your-face" kinda guy. He probably never heard the expression that I've used for years (especially growing up in a Jewish neighborhood) -- Two Jews, Three Opinions -- but I suspect the apostle to the Gentiles had a mind of his own, and he didn't hesitate to speak his mind.
Of course, Paul's letter to the Galatians is one of his earliest (written around 47 A.D.). And by the time he wrote what was likely his last (during Nero's reign), he seems to have mellowed -- maybe even had a transformation of his personality. Here is what he says to Timothy about St. Mark: Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service (2 Timothy 4:11).
So, he now considers Mark useful -- which was quite different from Paul's earlier position.
I tried to read again where I left off in Galatians, but couldn't get very far because something about Paul and his transformation encouraged me.
In some ways the apostle seems to me like the caricature of a New York Jew -- opinionated, no-nonsense, and quick-tempered. And some who know me might say that caricature sounds a lot like me.
It's clear in the Book of Acts that God used Paul in wonderful ways for His kingdom -- despite the apostle's "in-your-face" personality -- which (if what they say about me is true -- and it probably is) is a lot like mine. And because of my sometimes-aggressive personality, I sometimes wonder why God still bothers to hang out with me.
That He does hang out with me is not to say He doesn't care if I'm in other peoples' faces. He does care. And I'm sure He's not fond of the way I sometimes speak my mind. Yes, I believe He wants me to be firm, but He also wants me to be gentle; to stand for truth, yet do so with humility.
But Scriptures like the ones I've mentioned here also teach me -- and encourage me -- that God is not reluctant to use in-your-face "Paul's."
I wonder if sometimes that's all He has to use.
Yet the more I think about the apostle and God's relationship with him during his ministry years, the more I realize the reason God still hangs out with me is because -- well, it's because of what He calls His grace.
For which I am so very grateful.
Monday, September 21, 2009
I was five when my dad deserted us. I remember that day in 1955 as if it happened last week.
When I was eighteen I began to entertain thoughts of a long forgotten hope. Perhaps Mom’s explanations for why Dad abandoned us were a collage of faulty memories discolored by years. Perhaps Al really didn't want to leave me.
I convinced myself I needed to know the truth. So I asked Mom to arrange a meeting at my paternal grandparent's house.
My hands felt like ice as I shook the hand of the man I hadn't seen for more than a decade. I studied him. He was shorter than I expected. Heavier, too. He no longer wore a beard, and his dark brown hair receded toward the middle of his head. We chatted a few minutes about nothing. And then, after what seemed an appropriate time, I asked him, "Why did you leave me?"
I still remember how his expression changed before the last syllable left my lips. He thought only a moment before answering: "Because I wanted to."
Time froze as I stared at him, trying to absorb what I'd just heard. And when it had finished burning itself into my consciousness, I turned to Mom. It was time to leave. I'd heard enough to last a lifetime, and as best I could, I buried Al -- and his searing words -- in the recesses of my mind.
Four years later, I met an acquaintance who intrigued me when he called God his heavenly Father. And for some reason, hope suddenly surged to my conscious mind. I ached to know if God could also be my father, if God would also love me. After weeks of self-debate and doubt, I cast myself into what can only be described as "faith." I bowed my knees in prayer and asked God to make me His child.
I didn't feel any different when I stood up. But I plunged into my new faith with the fervor of a thirsty straggler coming upon an oasis. I devoured Scripture, reading the entire Bible twice the first year. Regular Sunday worship and Bible classes fueled my spiritual growth. I fasted, spent hours in prayer, and as my faith grew, I slowly grasped the wonderful truth that, unlike my earthly father, my heavenly Father will never leave me. His love will never falter.
Yesterday my wife and I stood in a classroom of 6th grade Faith Formation students (the Catholic equivalent to Sunday school). We opened the class by asking if anyone had prayer requests. One of the young girls asked for prayer for her uncle who'd recently been "abandoned" (that was her word) by his wife.
Within moments, tears welled in her eyes and traced down her cheeks. She wept periodically through the rest of the class.
Divorce and unfaithfulness is all around us -- so much so that it is likely you know of someone who understands the emptiness that echoes through the caverns of the heart after a divorce.
"Our Father who art in heaven."
Years ago I learned -- and I can only pray that our young student will learn -- "Our Father" is infinitely more than simple words prayed during Mass. They provide for us an intimate doorway to a relationship with One who will never, ever leave us.
We need only to open the door and walk in.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
If you remember, the king of Israel besieged Judah, and instead of seeking God's help, Asa sent a note -- and lots of money -- to a Syrian king to help him out of the jam. Within a short time, the king of Israel left Asa alone and the Judean king thought all was right again with his world.
He was wrong. God sent a prophet to confront Asa with his sin. But instead of repenting, Asa threw the prophet into prison. And once more, Asa's attitude and actions, are instructive.
Scripture tells us of many of God's people who first walked with God, then turned from Him, and eventually killed or imprisoned those who challenged them to repentance. Saul, the first king of Israel is an example. We find his tragic story recorded in 1 Samuel chapters 9-31. In bulletized format, here's what happened:
- God chose Saul to be king over Israel.
- Saul became prideful.
- Saul disobeyed God.
- Saul tried to kill David, whom he knew would one day succeed to the throne.
- Saul had God's priests murdered.
- Saul sought guidance from a witch.
- Saul committed suicide.
Joash, another king of Judah, is further example. When his grandmother set out to murder all her children and grandchildren so she could ascend the throne as queen, the priest Jehoida saved Joash's life. The young king lived for years in the safety of the priest's family. But despite the godly influence of Jehoida on Joash, the king turned his back on God and eventually murdered the Jehoida's son.
Then, of course, there is Judas in the New Testament. He walked with Christ for three years. He listened to Him teach, saw His miracles, watched His life. But Judas' heart grew cold. And we know the rest of that story.
When the Holy Spirit calls us to repentance we run serious risk of hardening our hearts against Him -- and eventually doing something terrible to God's people -- if we refuse to make confession and follow up with a change in our direction. It seems like that's a rock-solid spiritual principle.
But there is another spiritual principle we ought not overlook: "He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper," Solomon wrote. "But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion (Proverbs 28:13).
Asa, Saul, Joash and Judas teach us what NOT to do. Solomon is one of many witnesses in Scripture who tell us what to do, instead.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
What happens next is (for me, anyway) confusing -- and instructive.
But first -- some back story. In chapter 14, Asa ascended the throne of David in Judah. Ten years later a million-man army from Ethiopia attacked Judah. When Asa prayed for help (verse 11), [T]he Lord routed the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled.
Think of it. The entire Ethiopian army -- chariots, horsemen, soldiers -- the whole million-man army fled before Asa's army which was half the size.
But twenty-five years later, we are at chapter 16. This time Asa is besieged by another army, but instead of relying on God, he paid a foreign king to come to his aid.
I put the Bible down for a moment and wondered what happened in the intervening 25 years between the million-soldier rout and chapter 16. The Scripture is silent, so I can only make an assumption based on human nature -- and I know human nature pretty well. I've lived with myself for nearly 60 years.
I can guarantee Asa forgot Whose he was, and to Whom he belonged. Some time during those 25 years Asa stopped praying, stopped worshiping, stopped reading God's word. And his slow drift bore fruit when he faced a situation he could not handle alone.
His turn from God didn't happen overnight. It occurred by degrees, over the years. I can guarantee it happened that way because in my 37 years with Christ I've known many Christians who slowly lost touch with God. They stopped, by degrees, attending Church. They left their Bibles closed for a week. And then three. Then a few months which turned into years. Their prayer life slowed to a halt, and they exchanged Christian friends for non-believers. And, to no one's surprise, when difficult situations fell across their path they relied on anything else but God.
I can guarantee it happened that way because -- bound by human nature myself -- I remember the many times the spiritual desert loomed around me, and I nearly forgot Whose I am and to Whom I belong. The temptation to leave my Bible closed, or toss a quick and nearly mindless prayer toward heaven, or to sleep in on Sunday began to whisper its seductive arguments at me.
Yes, all of us are at risk to follow in Asa's footsteps.
And all of us can learn from his error.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Anyone who says it's easy to live the Christian life hasn't lived the Christian life very long. As Thomas a Kempis recognized, "No one undergoes a stronger struggle than the man who tries to subdue himself."
My experience at a traffic light some time ago illustrates my continuing struggle to subdue myself to Christ. When I delayed longer than the driver behind me thought necessary, he tapped his horn to catch my attention.
Well, he caught it. I still don't know why I did what I did, but in a heartbeat my blood pressure exploded through the sunroof of my Chevy. I glared into the rearview mirror, flailed my arms and growled a string of epithets I was later glad he didn't hear.
So much for reflecting Christ's life and controlling my spirit.
Any difficult task – like subduing myself, or holding my tongue, turning the other cheek or going the extra mile – requires practice before the doing becomes easier. But the alternative is to give others good reason to turn from Christ, scorn the Church and reject the message of reconciliation to God.
Practice is the much better option.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Nothing affects our relationship with Christ more than what we consider our treasures. The more we seek them, the less time and energy (or desire) we have for anything else. A modern paraphrase might be, “Tell me where you spend your time and money, and I’ll tell you what you love.”
But nestled within that description of our relationship with God is a subtle nugget describing God’s relationship with us.
Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God said, Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine (Isa. 43:1). And St. Peter reminds us: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of [God's] own possession (1 Peter 2:9).
Some imagine God is an aloof Creator who enters history from time to time. But Scripture describes Him very differently.
He is our Father. And He is intimately and emotionally involved in our lives. O Lord, You have searched me and known me, King David wrote. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar . . . and are intimately acquainted with all my ways (Psalm 139:1-3).
We are God's treasure . . . and where His treasure is, there also is His heart.
So what power can separate God from His heart? St. Paul shouted the answer: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
And that loves traces its way back to a hill called Golgotha. It was there that God gave His Son to suffer and die so we would not have to.
There was simply no better way God could show us what He loves -- and where is His heart.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Of all places, Nazareth should have been the town where people flocked around Jesus. After all, it was the place He'd grown up -- the place His mother and family still lived. Yet, the Lord couldn't perform miracles there because His former neighbors thought they knew Him too well. Jesus is simply a carpenter, the son of Mary who lives down the street.
Like Jesus' neighbors and childhood friends, perhaps a reason we rarely see God's power in our lives is because the Jesus we grew up with is too familiar. Many of us have known about Him ever since we were in the cradle. We know the stories and the things He taught. We know about His mother and father. We know about His friends and disciples.
So our knowledge of Jesus lulls us into familiarity. Familiarity dulls us into complacency. And complacency hardens us against His ability to miraculously live out His life within us.
Perhaps that is why Jesus said, The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13:45-46). The familiarity-complacency cycle can only be broken when we decide to seek the Pearl as if He is unreservedly the most important thing in our life.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
I do not believe God holds me accountable for my dreams, but they do serve to remind me that lurking somewhere below my conscious mind is a person I do not like. And during those times of recognition, I so well understand St. Paul's cry:
For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate . . . For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For . . . I practice the very evil that I do not want . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:15-24).
It was in this context, the morning after one of my despicable dreams, that I read a portion of St. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians: Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me--to keep me from exalting myself! (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Paul then tells us he asked the Lord three times to remove his thorn. And three times the Lord responded, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.
I'd always believed Paul's thorn was his poor eyesight, dating back to his Damascus road experience (Acts 9:8-9). His comment to the Galatians seems to also imply vision problems.
But now, after remembering my dreams, I think St. Paul's thorn was not an Acts 9 disability, but a Romans 7 problem. Because of the "surpassing greatness" of Paul's revelations of Christ, God permitted Satan to buffet the apostle with the memory, and the recognition, of the man lurking just below the surface of his consciousness -- to keep Paul from exalting himself, to prevent him from adopting a "holier-than-thou" attitude toward others.
I could be wrong, of course, about Paul's thorn. But of this, I am sure --my own "wretched man that I am" experiences help me place my so-called "maturity in Christ" in better perspective.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
I really did not expect it to end this way. May God forgive my lack of confidence in His mercy.
Despite the prayers of hundreds of Christians from all denominations across the world, despite the godly counsel the Mom and Dad had received, and even despite the many offers to adopt their child and pay their pregnancy-related medical bills -- I expected them to kill their baby today, instead -- and that I would have to let everyone know the parents had written their child's name in the same blood as the three thousand other babies who will die today in American abortion chambers.
And to the three thousand babies who will die tomorrow.
And the three thousand the next day.
Nearly 1.5 million innocents in the next twelve months in America.
But God . . . Oh, but God answered our prayers. The couple opted for adoption instead of abortion. And one more child was rescued from the dragon's mouth.
A friend from Canada wrote me shortly after he received my email with the good news. He said, "I’m amazed that I can still be amazed by God!" His words reminded me of something C. K. Chesterton once wrote: "The most astonishing thing about miracles is that they happen."
This couple still needs our prayers and whatever other support we can offer. We are not ignorant of Satan's trickery, and the battle surely is not over until the birth of the child. But we so much thank You, our Lord and our God, for Your mercy extended to this little one today.