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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

My Unbelief

In hope against hope [Abraham] believed, so that he might become a father of many nations . . . [and] without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead . . . (Romans 4:18-24. St. Paul is referencing the Old Testament story found in Genesis 15:1-6).

Sometimes I have difficulty trusting God to answer my prayers. Not the small ones that are of little consequence – like finding lost keys or quickly recovering from a cold. He’s answered those kinds of prayers numerous times for me during the past four decades. But I mean the ‘big’ prayers – like healing people of cancer or chronic illness, or my pleading for the salvation of those close to me.

Sometimes those prayers seem to fall on deaf ears. In a few cases, I’ve prayed for years. Even decades. And nothing has changed, except we’ve grown older, but no healthier or closer to Jesus. In some cases, people died before I could see the answer to my prayer.

Yet, at my age in Christ – I’ve been serving Him nearly 40 years – the smallness of my faith very much troubles me, especially when I read passages like the one in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans cited above. But I argue with myself that it was easy for Abraham to trust God’s promise because God actually spoke with him face to face. And so I tell myself if God made a face-to-face promise to me about the people for whom I pray, I could believe better, too.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Recently, as I contemplated this passage in Romans and told the Lord how disappointed I am that He has not yet answered some of my ‘big’ prayers, I sensed Him ask, “If you can’t trust Me to answer your big prayers, can you trust Me, nonetheless, to do what’s right – even if I don’t answer your prayers?”

I thought about that for a few moments, and as if to help settle the question, I remembered what Abraham said to the Lord before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah: “Shall not the Judge of all the world do right?” (Genesis 18:25).

It was a rhetorical question Abraham asked. He knew the answer. Of course God will do right. He can never do anything that is not right or just or pure or holy. Such virtues are part of His very nature, and to do otherwise would be uniquely impossible.

So the Holy Spirit’s question circled in my mind. If I can’t completely trust Him to grant me my ‘big’ requests, can I at least trust Him to do what is right?

I didn’t answer the question at the time. I still have not answered it.

The right answer requires a measure of faith – or trust, or confidence . . . whatever is the correct word I am not entirely sure even as I write this – the answer requires a measure of faith I am not sure I have. After all, if the people for whom I pray don’t get better – or even die, despite my prayers – with what can I comfort myself?

Or if those for whom I pray never accept Jesus as their Lord, if they do not serve Him in humility and obedience, I know they will enter an eternity of measureless emptiness and pain when they die. And I wonder how I would be able to reconcile myself with the knowledge that God is not willing that any perish, but those for whom I prayed did perish (2 Peter 3:9).

So, to glibly answer the Holy Spirit: “Yes, I believe You always do the right thing” is something I am, at the moment, unable to do because my answer would not be completely honest. And though I am embarrassed to admit my failure of faith, what good would it do to act as if my faith is greater than it is?

And so I keep circling.

And I plead with the Lord, “I believe. Help me in my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Love Him, or Like Him -- There's Work To Be Done

I've been contemplating faith lately. More specifically, my faith. What it means to me, where it wants to take me, and am I willing to go. I plan to share more of that later. But for the time being, during my faith meditations, I thought of an essay I published in my last book, Lessons Along the Journey. I modified it for this blogpost.

Although I’ve grappled with forgiveness, commitment, holiness, and a dozen other spiritual markers along my journey with Christ, I’ve often had to repeat those same steps. Even as I write this, the grappling continues.

Yet, as I reflect over the decades, I can clearly see one predominant thread woven through each lesson learned. It is this: God loves me. His love was there when my father left us. I was five. It was there during my teen years when I got lost in immorality and rebellion. It was there when I raised my fist and accused Him of not caring about me. It was there when . . . when . . . .

Truth is, it’s always been there.

But now I will share one more thought. It centers on a Scripture I read a few months before I completed this manuscript. The lesson summarizes the essence of the Father’s relationship with His children.

The New Testament writers used two words for “love” – phileo and agape. Phileo (fil-EH-oh) carries the idea of tender affection. Agape (ah-GAH-pay) is often used to describe God's unconditional, merciful, and enduring love – the kind of love He commands us to have for Him and for others.

One morning, I read the twenty-first chapter of St. John’s gospel and paused at verses 15-17. The margin of my Bible includes the Greek words used for “love” in this passage. I include the words in parentheses below:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.” He said to him, "Feed my lambs.”

He then said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, "Do you love (phileo) me?” and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.” (Jesus) said to him, "Feed my sheep.”

As I meditated on the passage, I wondered why Peter responded to Christ’s agape with phileo. A modern version of the conversation might sound something like this:

“Peter, do you love me with all your heart?”

“Lord, I have great affection for you.”

“Feed My lambs.”

“Peter, do you really love me?”

“Lord, I think you are wonderful.”

“Tend My sheep.”

“Peter, do you have great affection for me?”

“Lord, you know I do.”

“Feed My sheep.”

Two things caught my attention in this exchange between the Lord and Peter. First, I believe Peter must have felt miserable about his thrice denial of his best friend and Lord. But then I noticed how the Savior tried to help Peter move beyond his guilt. When Peter wouldn't say – couldn’t say – he loved Jesus, the Lord came down to his level: “Okay, my friend. Do you have affection for me?”

How like Christ to be so gentle to our wounded spirits.

And second – and this is equally important – after each agape/phileo exchange the Lord’s charge to Peter was essentially the same: “Feed My sheep.”

In other words, “Peter, I know you feel guilty, but your repentance restored our relationship. Your sorrow and guilt are unnecessary. Don’t let them keep you from your task to tend My flock."

How like the merciful Christ to call us out of our sorrow. How like Him to renew our relationship – vessels of clay that we are – and set us about the work He’s given us to do.

I need that gentleness and mercy. And I imagine you can probably use a dose of it yourself.

When we feel unable to tell Him, “I love You,” the Savior tells us it’s okay if we just like Him a lot. And when our sorrow overwhelms us, the Shepherd comes alongside, puts His arm across our shoulders and tells us, "I agape you."

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33). The penitent's sins are forgiven. All of them, forgotten. All of them, washed in the Blood of the Lamb.

Now, let's get about doing His work.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Personal Savior

I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine . . . (Song of Songs 6:3)

I thought of this verse as I listened to a CD of a well-known Bible teacher who, though he had some keen insights into the New Testament scriptures, told his audience the idea that Jesus is a “personal savior” is foreign to the New Testament message. The man said Jesus came to save the “Church,” to establish a Christian community, and (in his opinion) community salvation – not personal salvation – is the pre-eminent focus of Scripture.

Unfortunately, he is not the only person I’ve heard to teach that erroneous concept. No wonder so many people in the pew feel distanced from their heavenly Father.

It is true Jesus took on human flesh to save the “church” (Ephesians 5:25-27) and to establish a people for Himself (Titus 2:14). But it is also true the Good Shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep safe in the fold and searched for the one gone astray (Luke 15:3-7). It is also true that Jesus left the crowds and went out of His way to minister to the lone Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). He sought for the blind man who was ostracized from his synagogue (John 9:1-38). He made a point to pass through Samaria to meet a women unwelcomed by her community (John 4:1-38).

Over and over, the New Testament writers make the point – Jesus longs for us to know Him as our personal savior. He longs for us to know Him in an intimate, warm and emotional relationship.

“What must I do to be saved?” The Philippian jailer pleaded with St. Paul. And the apostle answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 15:25-31). “Come to me” the Lord Jesus invited, “all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give [each of] you rest” (Matthew 11:28-30). [Jesus said] “I will never desert [any of] you nor will I ever forsake [any of] you” (Hebrews 13:5); And St. Paul, longing to grow in his relationship with Christ, wrote to the Church at Philippi, ‘[Oh] that I might know Him, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings . . .” (Philippians 3:10).

Yes, the Lord Jesus came to save the Church, but the Church is not an abstract entity. It is comprised of individuals – each of whom is critically valuable in God’s eyes. Without its individual members, the Church would not exist.

From Genesis through Revelation – and the testimonies of the Saints, from St. Francis to St. Augustine to St. Catherine of Sienna to St. Therese of Lisieux to St. Padre Pio -- the Holy Spirit assures us if you or I were the only people who needed to be saved out of the 6 billion people on planet earth – Jesus would have died for us.

By our baptismal faith and ongoing devotion to Christ, you and I – singular, unique, special – you and I belong to Christ. God personally formed us in our mothers’ womb (Psalm 139:13). He is intimately involved with us (Psalm 139:3). He knows our name (John 10:3), how many hairs we have on our head (Luke 12:7), and not a word passes across our tongue that He does not already know (Psalm 139:4).

We belong to the community called the Church, but we must never lose sight of the wonderful truth: Jesus came to save each individual who makes up the Church.

That means you.

And He wants to be your personal savior, friend, confidant, and lover.

You are, truly, your beloved’s. And He is yours.

His banner over you is love.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Not an Easy Thing

I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (Jonah 4:2-3).

Sometimes I wonder what went through Jonah's mind when God told him to warn the Ninevites of impending judgment. The reluctant prophet had good reason to hate them. Their army had ravaged Israel, perhaps even killing his family and friends. As Jonah headed in the opposite direction, I imagine he thought what I would probably would have thought, "Let them die. All of them."

And sometimes I think if we are not careful we might be more like Jonah than we like to believe.

What do we think of radical Muslims, especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001? What do we think of them as we watch the continuing bloodbath at their hands since then?  Do we spit, “Let them die. All of them”?

But what should be our Christian response?

Intuitively, we know the answer. But intuition is not the same as doing.

As I've thought about this question from time to time since 9-11, I've wondered how many Sauls God would convert to Apostle Pauls -- if Christians prayed? How many disciples of hate would become missionaries of love -- if Christians prayed? And I still ask myself, if God loved the world so much that He gave, can we -- can I -- not do so little as pray, even for our enemies?

I confess, I have a very, very difficult time with this question, for though I know what should be my response, I find myself often unwilling to do so little as pray for them. Or when I do pray, I do it grudgingly, out of a sense of guilt for being like Jonah

And then I think of the Lord's warning: But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:15).

The longer I walk with the Lord, the more I realize living the life of Christ is not an easy thing.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Jesus Christ

While I am out of town this week, I thought I would post something from my first book, We Believe: Forty Meditations on the Nicene Creed. I hope you find it useful.

Creed Statement: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . .

Today’s focus: Jesus Christ

[Mary] turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" She thought it was the gardener . . . . (John 20:14-15).

I’m such a light sleeper, I need “white-noise” to get a good night’s rest. That’s why I’ve slept with a box fan at my side of the bed for years.

As I meditated on today’s focus – Jesus Christ – I wondered how often His Name becomes white-noise in my spiritual ears. I hear His Name so often, my subconscious mind sometimes reduces it to just another word in my vocabulary, like “the” or “and.”



The early Church recognized something extraordinary about that Name which many of us may have forgotten, or perhaps never learned: There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved (Acts 4); prayers find their answer in that Name (John 14); the sick find healing through that Name (James 5); demons tremble at the sound of that Name (James 2); at his Name every knee will bow and every tongue confess He is Lord (Philippians 2).

The New Testament uses dozens of synonyms to describe Him: Lamb of God, Son of God, Anointed One, Shepherd, Bread of Life, Alpha and Omega, King, Savior, Messiah, Prince of Peace . . . And that Name has inspired men and women for two thousand years to live – and if necessary, die – for love of His Name.

So, why do people use the holy Name of Jesus as the punch line of a joke, or to voice surprise or anger, or to use as a swear word?

I have a theory: Satan understands there is eternal life in no other than Jesus. He knows forgiveness of sin is available through no other than Jesus. There is deliverance from his infernal grasp through no other than Jesus.

If the devil can delude people to believe Jesus Christ is the stuff of jokes and swear words, they won’t be so quick to believe He is Son of God, Lamb of God, Great Shepherd, and Light from Light.

When we say Jesus’ name in the Creed, and in reverential conversation, we join our hearts with all those in that great Communion of Saints. And we, too, have the same privilege as they: to fall to our knees in homage to Him whose Name is above every name.

Prayer: Holy Spirit, You spoke through the prophets. Speak also to us. Help us recognize Jesus when He calls. Help us hear above the white noise the voice of Him who loves us so much that He took our sins to Calvary’s cross. Amen.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

From Each and Every One

Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.
(John 8:11)

Jesus knew she was guilty.
Everyone knew it.

Caught in the act
of adultery,
a sin so grievous,
so shameful,
the Law of Moses
she die.

Yet Jesus –
God from God,
Light from Light –
told her,
“Neither do I condemn you.
Go and sin no more.”

Sometimes I think we think
God stands at the edge of heaven
waiting for us
to do wrong
so He can “get” us,
so He can smack us to the ground.
Give us cancer.
Kill our child.
Take our home.
Teach us a lesson.
Show us who’s boss.

We expect Him to say,
with ominous warning in His voice,
“Go and sin no more.”
But who expects Him
to preface it with,
“I don’t condemn you”?

Christ’s comforting word
to a woman
worthy of death
reminds me
God does not watch
and wait
for a chance to
whip us.

He watches
without condemnation,
He waits,
without revenge,
hoping that we,
in humility,

As St. John promised,
if we confess our sins,
God will forgive our sins
and cleanse us
from each –
from every –

No matter how
or shameful
it is.

*1 John 1:9

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The God of the Second Chance

I published this essay in my second book, "Lessons Along the Journey." That essay came to my mind this morning as I spent time with the Lord. I post it here for readers to contemplate.

As the heavens tower over the earth, so God's love towers over the faithful. As far as the east is from the west, so far have our sins been removed from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on the faithful. For he knows how we are formed, remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:11-14).

If anyone had reason to count himself unforgivable, unredeemable, and useless to God’s community, it was St. Peter.

And it’s no wonder. The fisherman-turned-disciple had lived with Christ for three years. He enjoyed an intimacy with the Master known only to two others of the twelve disciples – James and John. Peter conversed for hours with the Lord. He ate with Him, watched Him walk on water, raise the dead, heal paralytics, and feed thousands with only a few fish and some bread.

Then things took a sharp turn. In Gethsemane, while the Lord agonized in prayer, Peter fell asleep. When soldiers dragged Christ before the civil and religious authorities, Peter cowered and swore – three times – “I don't know the man."

Had that been me, I don’t think I could have recovered from the memory of that night. My neglect and thrice-denial would echo in my mind like rocks bouncing against cavern walls on their way to a dark and unsearchable bottom.

Yet, the more I think about Peter's fall, the greater comfort I find – not because of his failure, but because of his reconciliation. Peter’s reconciliation holds the key for all of us who repeatedly stumble along our journey and wonder if we can get up again – or even if we should get up again.

What would the Church look like today if Peter, overwhelmed by his shame, returned the Kingdom’s keys to Jesus (Matthew 16:18-19) and slipped into the shadows of history? How much less would we understand God’s grace without Peter’s two epistles? How many are in heaven today because Peter discovered, as all of us – believer and non-believer – must discover: God is the God of Another Chance?

Scripture promises: “As the heavens tower over the earth, so God's love towers over the faithful. As far as the east is from the west, so far have our sins been removed from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on the faithful. For he knows how we are formed, remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:11-14).

Satan – the Lord Jesus called him the Father of Lies – wants us to believe there’s no pardon for repeat offenders. If the devil can convince us of that lie, we lose a crucial battle. We get sidelined, lost in the shadows, and unable to help set free other prisoners from spiritual bondage.

But Scripture repeatedly assures us, there is abundant pressed-down-and-running-over pardon in Christ. Each time we come to the Father in repentance, we find another chance to stand with our Savior. When all the theologies, philosophies, and ideologies are stripped away, God’s forgiveness and mercy are why we can get up and start again. His matchless and enduring love for us, despite our failures and sins, is the reason we should get up and start again.

"There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel's veins," an 18th century hymn written by William Cowper reminds us. "And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”

Why would anyone not approach the God of Another Chance and ask His forgiveness?