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

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

All or Nothing Faith

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).

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, religious scholars such as the Pharisees and scribes were appointed by God Himself 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 faith. Little wonder, then, that Jesus angered so many of the Jewish teachers and doctrinal specialists when – according to their understanding 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 understanding 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 also practiced for decades. Unless people worshiped Christ like I worshiped Him, or interpreted Scripture as I did, or attended the same denominational church as I – their Christian faith was suspect.

I should have paid more attention to the Lord’s response to St. John in that next verse: 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” (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). 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).

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sharing the Tragedy

"In the twenty-fifth year of our exile . . . " (Ezekiel 40:1)

I don't know how many times I've read the prophet Ezekiel. Forty? Fifty? Yet this time, I noticed an important message nearly hidden in this verse, something I'd never before recognized nor contemplated.

God's prophet was not exempt from the devastation that brought Judah to its knees and into captivity. He shared in their tragedy.

Though I know better, I’ve always liked to believe God’s children will escape the judgment He sends to the ungodly. But Scripture – and human experience – teach differently. Wars take the lives of believers and non-believers alike. Natural disasters destroy churches as well as strip-clubs. Tragedy usually doesn't discriminate between sinners and saints.

Ezekiel went into exile with his godly and ungodly neighbors. But his pain was not without purpose. During those twenty-five years, the prophet lived his life of faith before others. And in so doing could also speak comfort and hope to his neighbors who desperately needed a word of comfort and hope.

But isn’t that what God calls you and me to do – especially when we suffer tragedies alongside our neighbors? After all, it’s easier to share hope with those with whom we share heartache, than it is to offer solace while we remain untouched by life’s pain.

It is as St. Paul wrote to the people in the church at Corinth:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dirty Barns and Feeding Troughs

I wrote this twelve years ago. The message, though, is the same.
---------------

I will never forget Christmas 1997.

A week before Christmas we were on our way from Texas to San Diego – orders of the US Navy. Nancy and I, along with our three teens, crammed into the minivan and made our way westward, sandwiched among luggage, bags of dirty laundry and an assortment of on-the-road lunches. The rhythmic thump-thump-thump of tires slapping across asphalt, and the monotonous engine hum, stretched six hours a day into what seemed a dozen. We thought the journey would never end until, with frayed nerves, we pulled into San Diego.

Under different circumstances, San Diego is a nice place to pull into. However, two days before Christmas, a city of more than a million strangers was not my idea of a great place to spend the holiday. It’s a good thing none of us knew things were about to take a turn for the worse.

I awakened the next morning with a deep, wall-rattling cough. By noon my temperature hit 101. It hovered at 103 on Christmas day. Bundled under blankets, alternately shivering and perspiring, I did not at all feel “joyful, joyful.” Instead, I felt guilty for not acting “spiritual” and thanking God for all things -- even the flu. But I was too sore and too tired to mumble much more than a woeful, “why me, Lord?”

As I lay in bed, lamenting my fate and listening to Nancy read St. Luke’s account of the Christmas story, I noticed a similarity between my Christmas and the one of two thousand years ago.

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been difficult enough under the best of conditions. First century travelers didn’t enjoy asphalt highways, restaurants every few exits and cell phones in their donkeys’ saddlebags. And for Joseph and Mary, that trip undoubtedly was not at the top of their list of fun things to do.

Their baby was due anytime and, like most parents, they expected to give birth surrounded by friends and family. But a governmental order changed everyone’s plans. Joseph and Mary had little choice but to load the donkey with luggage and food for the trip.

Under different circumstances, Bethlehem might have been a nice town to ride into. At this time, however, it was swollen with thousands of strangers. All the four star motels were full. Even the one-stars overflowed with visitors.

And, to make a bad situation worse, Mary went into labor.

Some Christmas cards picture Joseph and Mary sitting on clean straw in a scrubbed barn, gazing serenely at their baby lying in a manger.

I doubt that’s how it happened. They were both bone-tired from the grueling journey. They longed to find a place to bathe away their grime and sweat, and they longed for a warm bed on which they could let their weariness give way to refreshing sleep.

Instead, they arrived in a city of strangers and Joseph searched in vain from motel to motel, not finding so much as a cot for his wife to sleep on. And so, alone, they settled for the night in a darkened corner of a barn, to the smell of manure and rotting straw.

Despite their deep disappointments, I don't think Joseph and Mary looked toward heaven and lamented: “Why me, Lord?” I like to think they instead rehearsed Scripture’s many promises of God’s unfailing presence – such as this one from the prophet Isaiah: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). Or this one later in Isaiah: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are Mine! (Isaiah 43:1).

“Immanuel” – the Hebrew means “God is with us” – surely they sensed “God with us” embrace them as they bedded down in the stable. Surely they knew God knew their names, and that He loved them . . . even as they snuggled their first-born into an animal feeding trough.

As my wife continued to read, the Holy Spirit reminded me again of God’s unchangeable nature. As He was with Joseph and Mary when they loaded their donkey for the journey, so too He was with us as we set out across country. As He was with them when they settled onto straw, so too He was with us as we collapsed onto our motel beds. And as He was with them while Mary labored in childbirth, so too He was with us when I awoke Christmas morning shivering with a 103 fever.

Christmas 1997 reminded me once again, God is with us even when there aren’t any friends and family nearby, brightly colored lights, or good smells from the kitchen. His entrance into our world through a dirty stable proves He is near -- not only during good times, but also in the midst of disappointments, illnesses, loneliness, heartache.

And as He met the needs of new parents in a dirty barn two thousand years ago, He will also meet our needs today, wherever we might find ourselves -- in a hospital, a house, a prison, or a motel room.

End

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Difference Between Today and Tomorrow

([Jesus] appointed the twelve:) Simon, whom he named Peter; James, son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder . . . (St. Mark 3:17).

I contemplated this passage for some time, mulling over the idea that Jesus chose such unlikely characters to become His disciples -- like John and James, the "sons of thunder."

And sons of thunder they were. For example, in St. Luke, chapter 9, Jesus and the Twelve were on their way to Jerusalem, so He sent His disciples ahead to prepare overnight lodging in Samaria, which was on the way. But the Samaritans refused them because Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem. Samaritans and Jews shared a long history of mutual distrust and enmity.

James and John were incensed that the Samaritans had rebuffed their Lord, so they said to Jesus, "Do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"

Nice guys, huh?

But I think one of the reasons the Lord Jesus selected His disciples was not because of what they were, but because of what they could be. And so, years later the same John who was known as Thunder became known as the disciple of Love. In his first epistle, John uses the word "love" more than 30 times. Here is one such verse: "If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).

And here is another: For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another (1 John 3:11).

But what does this all mean for you or me? I think it is this: Who you and I are now are not the same people Jesus knows we can be tomorrow.


And how does that happen? How does one change from what we don't want to be to what we should be? The disciple John kept close to the Lord's side, day by day, year after year, throughout the rest of his life. And in so doing became like Him.

Likewise it will be for us if we do the same.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tired of Forgetting

Every now and then I catch a glimpse of how little I understand God’s unconditional love. Like the other day. During my morning time with God, as I prayed the “Our Father,” I stopped at the phrase, “forgive us our sins.” Suddenly, my mind fast-reversed to the oh-so-many things I’d recently done, said and thought – things for which I am ashamed.

I don’t know how other Christians deal with repetitive sin in their lives, but I sure get tired of committing the same ones again and again. And I admit, sometimes I’m tempted to just give up. At my spiritual age in Christ, I should know where the fissures lie in the road, and be well adept at avoiding them.

As I replayed my recent falls, another text dropped into my mind: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

That's a concept worthy of a book-length discussion.

Do I look to disown my children when the offend me? Of course not. As angry or hurt as I might be, I would in a heartbeat die for them if necessary.

But what of God? Does our heavenly Father look to disown His children, even when they anger or offend Him? Of course not.

And Jesus did, in fact, die for us to prove that point.

Why did Jesus endure the cross? To demonstrate – forever demonstrate – the Father's ongoing, unconditional love for sinners who continue to fall into the same fissures.

Time after time.

Sinners like me – and you. Regardless of the number of times we stumble, His love never changes. Not one iota. And His promise remains ever true: If we confess our sins, even seventy times seven times, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (see 1 John 1:9).

Someday I'll not forget that.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Merry Myth-mas

I wrote this several years ago. Unfortunately, little has changed.
--------------------

At first, I didn't notice the difference. But that's not unusual. I miss a lot of
things right under my nose. Like the Christmas poinsettia my wife set in the
middle of our dining room table. It took two days before it finally caught my
eye.

So, when Nancy said, "have you noticed how rarely you see the words, "Merry Christmas" any more?" I shrugged and went back to my newspaper. I'd been too busy juggling responsibilities at work, at home and with my aging out-of-state parents to pay much attention to anything else. Even Christmas.

Two days later, a commentator on National Public Radio (NPR) voiced a similar observation; Then I read an essay by columnist Don Feder.

"Christmas," Feder observed, "is being rapidly replaced with a generic holiday that, by coincidence, comes around December 25. "Merry Christmas" has been generally discarded in favor of "happy holiday." Stores have holiday sales. Schools have a winter recess . . . The "C" word is conspicuous by its absence.

But it wasn't until an email dropped into my inbox from a cyberspace acquaintance that I began to stir. We belong to the same email community and she wanted us to know her son had come up with a great label for Christmas.

"Mythmas." Then she added, "I love it."

I might be slow to notice poinsettias on the dining room table, but I can recognize a spotlight when I see it. Why has the "C" word has fallen on hard times? Why do some people label December 25th as "winter-holiday" and prefer "Mythmas" to "Christmas"?

Perhaps it's the roots of Christmas.

Christmas is rooted in the miraculous. Six hundred years before Jesus' birth, the Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son" (Isaiah 7:14). Two chapters later he added, "and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). For those who don't believe in miracles and God-inspired prophecy, the virgin birth of Jesus is simply a
fairy tale.

Christmas is rooted in the record of Deity living among us and, through the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist, has remained uniquely with us ever since. When we lie down, He is there. When we stand, He is beside us. When we are lonely or troubled -- God is with us. For people who scoff at the idea that God became Man, Christmas must seem like nonsense. Maybe even blasphemy.

Christmas is rooted in God's inexplicable love for us. His Christmas gift, wrapped in strips of cloth in a Bethlehem stable, offered us eternal forgiveness because the Babe in the manger would, as an adult, take the punishment God required for our sins. And in so doing, God assured complete pardon for everyone who repents and calls on Christ as their savior. For people accustomed to earning love from a parent or spouse, belief that God loves them, despite their sins, is probably more like a child's fantasy than an adult reality.

Christmas is rooted in God's immeasurable grace. Many of us might not admit it out loud, but we think we deserve a pat on the back from God. We're good to our neighbors. We support charities, take care of the earth, protect whales, coyotes and other animals. And, if front-page headlines are any indication, we're a lot better than most people.

But God tells us we're not good enough. Nor could we ever be. He set the bar at absolute holiness, and we will never reach His standard on our own. Christmas reminds us God personally intervened in human affairs to bridge the unbridgeable gap between our weakness and His strength, our sins and His holiness. Those who believe they don't need help to gain God's favor might think Christmas is a story for the weak.

Long before the first Christmas, God said, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8,9).

Christmas will remain a myth, a day to call by any other name, for those who reject the Bethlehem story of God who became Man, of God who loves the unlovely, rescues the lost and walks with the penitent. But for those whose hearts look toward God, trusting Him for forgiveness and rescue from sin's penalty, Christmas is more than historical fact. It is nothing less than miraculous.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whose Kingdom?

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?. . . “Jesus replied, ‘I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?’ (Matthew 21:23-24)

The Lord always seems to ask the hard questions. Like this one.

"From heaven, or from men?"

And every now and again the same kind of question disquiets me. Even after all these years I still sometimes bristle against the tension that pulls me from what I want to do, when I know it’s not what He wants me to do.

You’ll never hear me say the Scriptures are simply good moral teachings and philosophies of men. No, for I am more than convinced they are the very word of God written by men moved by the Holy Spirit.

Every word.

Yet why do I sometimes live as if those words are human-contrived suggestions and not heaven-born commandments? Why, when it suits me -- regardless of its infrequency -- do I call my shadows, light, and rationalize my disobedience with an appeal to the slippery excuse of "I'm only human"?

Probably for the same reason the religious leaders in this text struggled with their response to Jesus – they wanted their kingdom, not God’s. Their will, not God’s. Their opinions. Not God’s.

Oh Lord, help me to practice it, as often as I pray it: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Merry Chris . . .uh . . excuse me. "Happy Holiday"

Over the years I've published several Christmas articles in a variety of magazines. Since we are now in the Christmas season, I thought I would post them from time to time during the next few weeks. Here's the first:
--------------------

My wife placed the salad bowl on the table, sat down and looked at me.

“I’m starting a one-person campaign to revive Christmas.”

I paused for a moment and then reached for the rolls. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m tired of surrendering to the culture that’s changed Merry Christmas to ‘Happy Holidays’ and ‘Good Spirit.’ If it wasn’t for Jesus, no one would be saying anything.”

Except perhaps, ‘Bah Humbug’ I thought.

“From now on,” she continued, “I’m wishing people a Merry Christmas.”

I took a bite of the roll, but had already lost some of my appetite. That always happens when I feel guilty about something. Her words reminded me how often I succumb to political correctness and rarely use the “C” word. It’s easier to just say, “Happy Holiday” -- or say nothing at all.

Humbug.

She continued. “Today, when the UPS guy dropped off the package, I said, Merry Christmas as he walked back to his truck.” She stopped a moment, her eyes alive with excitement, and added, “He turned around and smiled and wished me a Merry Christmas, too. He seemed surprised someone said that to him. I think he really enjoyed hearing me say it.”

Nancy then told me of two other people to whom she’d said those two words -- words that raise PC hackles and cause ACLU lawyers to rush to their casebooks. "They also were glad I said it."

Merry Christmas. Why would the best story the world has ever known raise the blood pressure of so many people? Why would the eternally gracious and sacrificial gift of God make so many people Christmas-phobic?

I think it’s because God insists forgiveness of sins is wrapped neatly in His gift package marked: Only For Those Who Love My Son, Jesus.

A lot of people think that’s too restrictive.

Well, they're right. It is.

Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” He also warned, “Unless you believe I am He, you will die in your sins.”

And then there’s the Scripture, “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow. . . and every tongue confess, that Jesus is Lord.” And again, “There is no name (but Jesus) under heaven” through which we can be saved.

Those who are familiar with the Bible can cite dozens of other passages that support the point that God established only one way to Him, exclusive of all other paths.

I suppose if I didn’t like being told what to accept and how to behave to gain eternal life, I’d hate Christmas, too. I’d hate being reminded of God's narrow doorway every December. I’d be a raving Christmas-phobe.

Maybe also a Christian-phobe.

My wife is on the right track. Without John 3:16 there wouldn't be a Christmas. Without Christmas there would be no hope – for you, me, our families, our neighbors. No one.

But there IS a Christmas. And I thank God for the holiday – the Holy Day. Each year Christmas reminds us just how much the Father paid for our gift of forgiveness and eternal life.

“Happy Holiday” is a humbug.

“Merry Christmas” is the beginning of an intimate relationship with Him.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Must It Be Like?

For I am convinced that 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).

What would it be like
to be so convinced
that nothing --
nothing --
can separate us
from God’s love in Christ?

What must it be like
to know
that you know
that He holds you
in the palm of His hands?
That He will never leave
or turn you away?

When storms thrash,
and our world falls apart,
how would our lives be
transformed
by the assurance
that God embraces us
in the midst of it all?

Satan whispers
we believe myths.
Our confidence is
misplaced.
There is no help for us in God.

God simply says, "Trust Me."

Who will we believe?

The right answer
reminds us --

the right answer
strengthens us --

to rest
in God's promise
that nothing --

neither death, nor life,
angels, or principalities,
present things, or future things,
powers, or height, or depth,
nothing
will separate us
from God's love
in Christ.

Nothing.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rest

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ . . . who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood . . . (1 Peter 1:1-2).

I think many think
God is
quick tempered,
impatient,
and intolerant
of failure.

I think they think
God stands with clenched fists
ready to strike those who turn aside
to the right
or to the left.


But what is the mission
and the message
of the most sacred heart of Jesus
if not to

demonstrate

the timeless promise

that God is
so slow
to anger;

that He overflows
with mercy –

and stands
with open hands,
ready to sprinkle
cleansing
and restorative
blood

from Christ’s wounds

on every prodigal who returns
from the right
or the left?

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).