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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Glimpse of Purgatory

The Catholic Church teaches (in part) about Purgatory this way:
The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned . . . . The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:  . . . before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come. (Paragraph 1031)

To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. . . . (Paragraph 1472)

To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood (Revelation 1:5)

I think I know what purgatory is. I caught a glimpse of it one morning in October 2011 when I attended a men's meeting at my parish. More than two years later it remains fresh in my memory.

I didn’t think too long about that morning’s topic of abortion. Why should I? Although I’d driven my girlfriend to an abortion clinic some 45 years earlier, I confessed and repented of that sin decades ago. And I believed Scripture’s promise that He had wiped my sin spotless in Christ’s precious blood.
So I walked into the meeting only mildly curious about the video and the discussion that would follow.

But ten minutes into the program I received a gut-wrenching epiphany. For the first time in more than four decades my eyes opened to the depth of my abortion sin, an immeasurable depth I’d never known existed. White-hot shame seared into my bowels. Waves of unrelenting guilt swept over me like a tsunami, sucking away my breath, only to return churning ravaged memories through my mind.

I could not watch the video any longer. I grabbed my coat and stumbled from the room into the cold October morning. It was all I could do to get into my car before irrepressible sobs convulsed through my body.
“What are you doing to me!” I screamed at heaven, horrified, confused, angry. “Why did you show that to me! Oh, God! What have I done! What have I done!”

“I don’t . . . I don’t deserve even to live!”
I could not comprehend why God, who buried my crime in the sea of Christ’s blood four decades earlier, why He brought me to my knees like this. Why slash open my soul? Why lay me in the ashes of my past?

It was not until hours later, after processing what God had done to me, I caught a glimpse of understanding. 
My abortion is only one of countless sins I’ve committed in my life, sins I’ve confessed, sins that have been forgiven, sins that have been immersed in the blood of Christ. The young women I turned into whores. The fledgling faith in Christ of others that I’d shattered. The families I destroyed as I seduced wives into adultery. The litany of my wickedness and the destruction I left in my wake seem to me, even now, near endless.

Yes, I remain confident of God’s forgiveness for each one of those terrible acts; But my experience that October morning taught me – and reminds me even to this day – I have not fully comprehended the depth and breadth of all those sins. Further, I know I can never fully comprehend them unless God reveals them to me.

And He will reveal them to me.
Purgatory, I believe, will be that revelation. Perhaps it will unfold something like this:

I am dead. My guardian angel ushers me to my Father’s presence. I see Him seated on His throne. Jesus is beside Him. And like the difference between absolute darkness and blinding light, I am suddenly self-aware, more self-aware than I could ever have been in life.
My Father reaches from His throne and lifts me to His chest. He lays His chin on my head. He wraps His arms around me. I snuggle down into His warmth. I feel Him breathe. I hear His heart beat. And then, one by one, He shows me the fullest measure of each of my sins.

Each of my sins.
He reveals to me their hideousness. The death each wrought. The sadness each gave birth to. The relentless ripples of despair each caused in so many lives.

So many lives. 
They are all there before me. One after the other. An endless lament. And as I watch each scene play out before my eyes, that same sword of shame sears again into my gut. Excruciating, unrelenting guilt swells over me like a tsunami. I convulse with unremitting horror at what I’ve done.

If my purgation in heaven is anything like what happened to me after watching the abortion video, the only reason my spirit will survive is because I will be snuggled in my Father’s lap. His arms will enfold me. His warmth will comfort me. His breath will soothe me. His heart, beating with the gentlest of rhythms, will calm me. With His hand He will wipe every tear from my eyes, “and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain . . .” (Revelation 21:4).
Such will be the only reason I will survive my purgatory.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

What if there is a God? The Back-Story

 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace  which He lavished on us (Ephesians 1:7-8).

My life-changing event of December 24, 1972 (see this link) did not occur in a vacuum. And as with all stories, mine has a back-story; this one, an important one for you to know.
I discovered the existence of a Being called ‘God’ when I was five or six. My mother had wrapped herself in a shawl, lit a candle, waved her hands above the flame and then covered her eyes. I’d never witnessed such a thing in my young life – at least not to my recollection.

“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Praying to God,” she answered.

It was then I’d learned the concept of God and the idea of prayer. Mom must have explained more about Him because I remember praying many nights in my bed. A simple prayer. I still remember it: Oh, God. Please God. Don’t let anything happen to me, Andrea, Tommy (whom my mother was dating), or my mother. 

With virtually no further instruction from my mom – or anyone else, for that matter – my understanding of this Being we called God remained static for many years.  By the time I reached my early teen years, I stopped praying, and God became for me a childhood fantasy.

In 1969, when I was 19, I stopped at a traffic light on the corner of Mott Avenue and Beach Channel Drive in Far Rockaway, New York. And from nowhere the thought dropped into my mind, “What if there is a God?”

I let my thoughts speculate a moment on that idea, but then – the light was still red – I realized if there was a God, He did not approve of my sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll  lifestyle. If there was a God, I would have to change. But I didn’t want to change. I liked my life the way it was. So, when the light turned green I pushed the question from my mind.
Several months later as I walked toward my apartment I spotted an ant hill at my feet. I don’t know why I stooped to examine it, but the tiny creatures intrigued me as they scurried in and around the mound. Then I remembered my high school science teacher telling us ants are an important component of the ecosystem. Without them, and insects like them, the earth could not sustain plant life.

Such intricacies in life illustrated an ordered world. But an ordered world implied One who did the ordering. And I knew where that thought was leading, so I quickly pushed that idea from my mind and continued on my way.
Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. It marks the day when Jews around the world fast and pray for God’s forgiveness of their sins. It was on that day in 1972 that I sat alone in my navy barracks in San Diego. I’d become melancholy about my life. There’d been times within the past few years – infrequent though they might have been – that I wanted to be good, to obey the God I’d learned about as a child, to stop sinning so much and so badly. But I failed every time.

My worst failure had occurred a year earlier on Yom Kippur, 1971. I had tried to take advantage of that most holy day and turn over a proverbial new leaf. I determined to fast and pray, to promise God I would be better from then on.
And then my girlfriend rang the doorbell. I hadn’t expected to see her that day, but there she was. And one thing led to another, and before I knew it, we were in bed together. On Yom Kippur. The most holy day in our Jewish calendar. Committing sin.

I remembered that 1971 failure as I sat in my barracks room on Yom Kippur, 1972. Depression settled over me and I wrote in my journal:  Oh, God, please forgive my past sins and look with tolerance on my future ones.
I would not presume to promise God I’d stop sinning. I knew I was no more capable of living a holy life than I could jump off a building and fly like a bird. The best I could hope for was His mercy.

And that is the back-story to my Christmas Eve 1972 commitment to Christ. If you haven’t yet, you can read it at this link.
So, what’s the point of my telling this story? Why do I think it important for you, the reader, to know mine when your story is likely so different? Here’s why:

I’d made at least two conscious and deliberate decisions as a young adult to turn away from God.  I wanted my life of sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll without His interference. And it didn’t matter to me that I killed my baby in an abortion chamber, or I turned young women into whores, or destroyed the fledgling faith of some, or lied or cheated or stole to gain an advantage for myself. I didn’t care because I was all about myself.
And yet, through it all – my arrogant rebellion against a holy God, and the damage and death I brought to those around me – God did not give up on me. He did not turn me away as I had turned Him away. He continued through all those years to pursue me, to woo me, to love me.

Why is that important for you to know?  Because regardless of your own back-story, as dark or as light as it might be, that you have read this far is evidence you are seeking God – and just as important – He has not given up on you. He is pursuing you, wooing you, loving you to Himself.
And I believe He is waiting – hoping – for this to be the day you look to heaven and say, Lord God, forgive me for all of my sins, take me to Yourself, and help me live as Christ for the rest of my life.

If you wish, email me at richmaffeobooks@gmail.com if you would like to talk more.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Forty Years

With what shall I come to the Lord? (Micah 6:6)

Christmas Eve 1972. Forty years ago today. I remember the day as if it happened only a few weeks ago.
I still see myself kneeling at the side of my bunk in Barracks M, above the chow hall on the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. I’d recently finished Hal Lindsay’s, The Late Great Planet Earth. His references to Jesus the Messiah in my Jewish Bible amazed me. No, that is not the correct word. His references astounded me.

In all my life – I was 22 at the time – I never remembered opening a Bible, and certainly had never heard of the many prophecies in my Bible that referred to Jesus. Isaiah 7, Isaiah 53, Daniel 7, Zechariah 12, Psalm 22, Psalm 16, Jeremiah 31, Micah 5, Deuteronomy 18 are just a few that come immediately to mind. But there they were, pulsating on the pages as I read his book.
Still skeptical, I walked the two blocks to the base chapel and asked the Jewish chaplain if I could borrow a Bible. I took it back to my room to verify the texts Lindsay quoted were actually there, in my Jewish Bible.

They were.
The number forty occurs often in Scripture. Forty days of Jesus in the wilderness. Forty years Israel wandered in the desert. Forty days Moses stayed at the top of the mountain of God. Forty days and nights it rained after Noah and his family entered the Ark.

I never thought forty years ago my life would take the twists and turns it has taken, each twist and each turn leading me ultimately to this place and time on December 24, 2012 as I type these words. But it all began as I knelt by my bunk in Barracks M. The Holy Spirit, having shown me through my Jewish Bible the truth about sin and judgment, but also about mercy and forgiveness, I stared at the clouds beyond my window and said to God, “I believe Jesus is the Messiah.”
Six words, forty years ago. Unspoken in those six words, but resolute in my heart as I spoke them, was my promise to God of my commitment to Him. I didn’t know the prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola at the time:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more. Amen . . . 
But I meant every syllable in the six words I spoke. And to this day, forty years later, I have tried my best to live according to the unspoken intent of those six words.

Have I failed Him in those forty years? Many times. Has God forgiven me, reconciled me, redirected me? Every time I confessed my failure. Every time.

Forty years. Over and over and again and again I have fallen to my knees and re-committed myself to my God and Savior.
How long has it been since you said to God something similar to St. Ignatius’ prayer: Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more. Amen.

This is Christmas Eve. If you’ve never done it, why not do it now? If you’ve done it many times, why not do it again? What better gift this Christmas could you give to yourself, your family, your community . . .
And to God?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lord, Teach us to Pray

I published this in my second book, Lessons Along the Journey (available in print or as an e-book via Kindle and others). The message is so timely and useful, I thought to place it on the blog, along with a link to my 12 Prayer Strategies to help the reader learn better to pray
My secret is quite simple: I pray. – Mother Teresa

             I relish walking into a kitchen warm with the aroma of fresh-baked bread. I savor the fragrance of honeysuckle when it blossoms outside my window. I make a point to walk down the coffee aisle where the scent of roasted beans lingers near the decanters. But chocolate . . . there's nothing like stepping into a specialty shop where the fragrance of fudge, toffee and truffles saturate the air.

            Many fragrances attract us each day – and because God created us in His image, it shouldn’t surprise us that our Creator has His favorite fragrances, as well. One of them is prayer.

            The psalmist wrote, "O Lord, may my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141:2). Later, in the New Testament, the apostle John saw a vision of four living creatures and twenty‑four elders around God’s throne "holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" (Revelation 5:8).

            God loves the fragrance of our prayers, so why, when prayer or praise begins to flow from my lips, do I cut it short before God has a chance to catch even a whiff? Because I talk myself into believing I have other (more) important things to do.

            How sad is that?

            You might be familiar with the names of prayer giants in church history such as St. Augustine, St. Therese of Lisieux, Pope John Paul II, St. Padre Pio, St. Theresa of Avila, and Mother Teresa – men and women who knew what it meant to spend hours in prayer.

            Hours? What could anyone pray about for so long? My mind tended to wander after only a few minutes. I doubt my prayers during my first thirty-two years walking with Christ lasted ten minutes at a time. Most ran less than five. So, when I discovered how long some men and women in church history prayed, I was forced to ask myself, what did they have that I didn’t?

            I pondered that question a long time before finally admitting to myself the truth – a truth I didn’t like: I left the prayer closet so quickly because I'd not fallen in love with Jesus as much as I liked to think I had. I left because I wanted to do something more interesting or enjoyable – like watching television, eating, or taking a nap.

            That's not at all easy to admit – to you or to myself. It’s as if, for thirty‑two years, I stood on a beach, holding a glass of water and believing I held everything I needed to experience a maturing love for Christ. Hadn’t I read the Bible dozens of times? I shared my faith, taught Sunday school, memorized long passages of Scripture, and had daily devotional times with the Lord. How much deeper into the faith could a person go?

            Then I felt water lap at my feet. When I turned, I saw an expanse of water as deep and wide as the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon.

            In his Catechism on Prayer, St. John Vianney wrote: “Prayer is nothing else than union with God . . . In this intimate union God and the soul are like two pieces of wax melted together; they cannot be separated. This union of God with His little creature is a most beautiful thing. It is a happiness that we cannot understand.”

            I'm sure St. John Vianney’s concept of “intimate union” involved more than five minutes on his knees before God.

            So what's the point? During my three-decade journey with Jesus, holding my glass of water, doing all the right things I'd been taught to do to "know" God – I forgot God is a person and my relationship with Him needs to be nurtured on more than rituals and how‑to's. For too long, God longed to catch a whiff of my prayers while I satisfied myself with tossing a few words in His direction.

            What is the solution to finding intimacy with God? I think it is simple. Until we tire of holding a stupid glass of sea water, until we weary of chasing elusive dreams, until we beg the Holy Spirit, "Stir within me a longing to come to Jesus," our minds will shut down after five minutes of, "Lord, bless me, mine and ours."

            Relationship‑nurturing prayer, entering into His presence with that fragrant aroma He savors, is not something we do by our own strength, will, or self‑imposed schedules. The Lord Jesus said those who would worship God must do so in spirit and truth. Aromatic prayer is a supernatural event, a sacred and mystical communion with the Almighty, enabled only by and through His grace. "Unless the Lord builds the house," the Psalmist recognized, "its builders labor in vain" (Psalm 127:1). Unless the Lord revives our hearts to love Him, to seek Him as a deer pants for water, we will content ourselves with ritual and form.

            That's why I am convinced it's so vitally important that I continue to ask, seek, and knock at heaven's gate until the Lord draws me deeper into those ocean waters. That kind of prayer – prayer to grow more in love Him every day, is my answer to a long history of self‑satisfaction with rote and form. It's my answer against choosing other things I often believe more important than to sit like Mary at the Master’s feet (see St. Luke 10:39-41).

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Safe on the Rock

This appears in my second book, Lessons Along the Journey. I repost it here because the message is so timely in our current culture.

Because she believes in God's universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary.  – Catechism of the Catholic Church (851)

            When I was four, my family lived near the Atlantic Ocean. "Close enough to enjoy the water," my mother used to say, "but far enough that we don't have sand in the house."

            One afternoon my father brought me to the beach to escape the blistering summer heat of our apartment. I still remember splashing in the water, squealing as the gentle waves surged and ebbed around me.

            I suppose he was only a short distance away when he turned his back for a moment. But during that moment, a wave knocked me off balance and plunged my face beneath the water. Frantic, I fought to regain my footing as each successive swell threw me under again and again. Panic grew into terror as the current swept me deeper beneath the waves.

            Then, from nowhere, strong arms suddenly pulled me free. Within moments, I found myself safely on the warm sand. The lifeguard had come to my rescue. 

            "Hey! What are you doing?" My father ran toward us, shouting angrily at the man who saved me. "I was watching him. He was okay." Then he looked at me. "You were okay, weren't you?"

            I remember it was more a command than a question. Embarrassed and confused, what could I say? I stared at my feet and whispered, "Uh‑huh."

            Vindicated, my father led me back to our beach blanket. I didn't feel like going into the water any more that day.

            Years passed, and I discovered different waters in which to revel. Swept along by swells of ideas and temptations, I drifted from one immoral or rebellious pleasure to another. Life ebbed and flowed gently around me.

            Then a wave knocked me off balance.

            I fought to regain my footing, but each attempt met powerful and successive waves that pulled me deeper toward sin, desperation, and finally, despondency. I knew intuitively that my future promised little more than ever-increasing bondage to those very things I once thought gave me freedom. I knew I could no more stop doing what I knew to be wrong than I could prevent the ocean's currents. But oh, how I longed for forgiveness, cleansing – and rescue. In despair, I cried out to the One I had for so long ignored, and begged Him to deliver me from myself. 

            I still remember His rescue. The Holy Spirit led me to friends who told me of God’s promise of salvation and the power to change direction. All I needed to do was ask God for mercy.

            Suddenly, from nowhere, strong arms pulled me free from sin's grip. Overwhelming guilt and fear gave way to assurance and peace. I’d been rescued. Lifted onto the Rock. Oh, how glorious was the sense of freedom, to be redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.

            But within days, friends and family rushed to my side. "You were okay, weren't you? You weren't really in trouble . . . .”

            What could I say? What would I say?

            It’s not surprising when pressure from friends or parents prevent a child from choosing right over wrong. But how should an adult react in the face of truth? Despite my self-assured façade, I desperately needed help, and the Lord Jesus so graciously reached down to rescue me.

            What could I say? The choice could not have been clearer. It was time to put away childish things. It was time to shoulder my responsibility and admit that the gospel is the power of God to rescue from sin’s bondage everyone who turns to Christ (Romans 1:16).

Could I – could anyone – say less?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

He Held Me

Today's post is written by Cyndi McDaniel, a guest blogger.
Several months ago I posted a series of prayer strategies to help readers discover the wealth of intimacy possible between us and our God through prayer. You can find the entire list of 12 strategies here: www.prayerstrategies.blogspot.com.
One of those strategies has to do with ‘imaginative prayer.”  You can find that specific post here: http://thecontemplativecatholicconvert.blogspot.com/2011/10/strategies-for-prayer-seventh-in-series.html

Cyndi, a friend of mine, set her mind to try imaginative prayer. What follows is the result. I post her essay here to encourage you who read it to also try imaginative prayer. I believe it will deepen your relationship with Christ.

Mark 10:13-16   People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

I heard the crowd before I could see them, and wondered why so many would come to my small village.  It frightened me, and I considered going home, but knew I was safer here in town.  The friends I was playing with ran toward the crowd out of curiosity, but I stayed where I was.  No one would notice a small child standing alone on the side of the busy street.  At least that’s what I hoped. 

As they came into view, I could see and hear Jesus.  So here was the man everyone was talking about.  What was so special about him?  He looked like most of the men from my town- maybe worse.  Dirty clothes and hair from traveling dusty roads, face flushed from the heat.  Yet even from a distance, I could see there was something different about him, something that prevented me from running away.  Soon, I was swallowed up in the mob and could not escape even if I had tried.

To my surprise, he stopped not far from me and began to teach.  The crowd backed away to give him room and sat down wherever they stood- giving me a front row seat.  I didn’t really understand most of what he said, but there was something about the way he said it that held my attention.  He spoke with confidence and authority, yet without arrogance or condemnation.  It was as if he knew and was having a private conversation with each person. 

Parents began pushing their children ahead of them through the crowd, just so he could touch them.  What did they expect him to do?  I knew what he would do, and I waited for the angry outburst that must surely come at any minute.  The disciples must have anticipated it as well, for they rebuked the parents, telling them not to “bother the teacher”.

Jesus did get angry, but not at the children or parents.  He told his followers not to hinder the children from coming to him, something about the kingdom of God belonging to children.  It didn’t make any sense to me- his words or his actions. 

As he turned his attention to the kids, his eyes and face softened, and he even grinned!  He touched and blessed them, and I found myself once again wishing I could be one of them.  Wishing I could overcome the knot of fear in my gut and my constant sense of being unworthy of anything good.

I hung my head in shame as tears welled up in my eyes. It was then I sensed someone watching me.  When I raised my head, I was surprised to find Jesus moving in my direction, looking straight at me! His eyes seemed to be asking permission to come closer.  My heart was racing and I felt that familiar need to run, but there was nowhere to go with the crowd pressing around me.

The people stepped aside as Jesus continued toward me, never taking his eyes off mine. His eyes; soft, gentle, even twinkling!  He was smiling now, and was close enough that I could see the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes.  What else could I do but smile in return?  This made him laugh.  

He sat beside me on a small rock and without a word, gently pulled me into his lap.  I didn’t resist.  As his arms encircled me protectively, I snuggled into his shoulder and felt his beard tickle my forehead.  Somehow, though we had never met, I knew this Jesus saw through my broken life into my soul, and he loved me.  It was if he was claiming me- not as a possession, but as part of his family. 

He continued to speak to the crowd, but I don’t know what he said.  I was listening to his heart beat...strong, consistent, dependable.  When he was done, he gave me one last gentle embrace and set me on my feet again.  We looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.  He kissed my forehead and smoothed the hair back from my face.  Then he stood and moved on with the crowd.

We never said a word to each other, but our exchange could not be described in words.  He saw me.  He came to me and met me where I was in my brokenness.  He held me in his arms and loved me.  I will never be the same.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

No Lonely Stares

I published this some time ago. Its message remains current.
Your eyes will see the King in His beauty; They will behold a far-distant land. (Isaiah 33:17)

I don’t know why he started talking with me. My wife and I had arrived early at the ship terminal for the Valentine’s Day harbor-cruise around San Diego.  At first I hadn’t noticed him sitting across from us at another table. Only when he began flicking his lighter did I turn and see him staring at the crowd milling around us. He must have sensed me looking in his direction.

“Did you make reservations?” he asked, turning in his seat to face me.

“For the cruise?”

He nodded, and as I prepared to answer, I quickly studied him. His thinning white hair was combed front to back across his head. His face sported a day-old stubble, his gray sweater and trousers were threadbare, but clean. He looked out-of-place among the men and women in evening attire and I wondered if he was homeless. He took another sip of cola from a paper cup and looked at us from soft blue eyes.

“Yeah,” I said. “You have to make reservations to get on the cruise.” I looked around and noticed how crowded the terminal had become.

“Last time I was on a ship,” he started, “I was in the navy. Stationed at Long Beach. I was 17.”

Not sure where the conversation was headed, I waited for him to continue. He then told me he had enlisted between the end of the Korean war and the beginning of Viet Nam. 

“It was a peace-time navy,” he said.  “Me and my buddies were excited about going to Hong Kong.”  He shifted in his seat and tried to smile at me. “I couldn’t drink because I was too young, but my friends bought some beer and we brought it back to the barracks.  First time I ever drank.  Got pretty drunk that night too.”  His eyes locked with mine, as if waiting for approval or disapproval. I simply nodded again, wondering why he was telling me his story.

“In time, I became an alcoholic,” he said after a while and his candor surprised me. “Ruined my life.” His eyes glazed for a moment as he looked again at the crowd around us.  “Lost my wife. My kids. My job. . .”  his voice trailed off.

“How long were you married?”

“Nine years.  Got three kids. All living up north in Orange County.”

I fingered my cola can and waited.          

"I been to AA,” he added.  “They helped for a while.  But then I went to Tijuana. Got some real bad liquor there.  Real bad. Had to go to the VA for medication.  Still taking it.”

“Do you ever hear from your wife?”

“Oh, no.  Not for years.  Kids neither. I was such a drunk, even my father took me to court to force me to pay child support when the kids were small.”

He told me his name. William. He turned 64 a few months earlier and slept in a flop house down town. Cost ninety-five dollars a month.  It’s a clean place, he assured me, but if not for his social security checks, he didn’t know how he’d survive.

“Drinking ruined my life.” His eyes drifted from the crowd to the street outside the terminal windows.  “No good for you. I been dry now for five months.  Gonna stay dry this time, too.”

For decades I had heard stories of men and women like William.  But that evening they all came into focus as I studied his eyes and the nearly imperceptible slump of his shoulders. He had been seventeen when it all started. Now, decades later, all William had was a ton of regrets and a history of wrong choices that had beat him into the ground.       

A few minutes later the loudspeaker broke into my thoughts, announcing our boarding. As Nancy and I stood, William held out his hand and I grasped it.  We left him alone at the table, staring again out the window.

Scripture often repeats the principle . . . . probably so we don’t miss it -- “Don’t be drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Why? Because God loves us.

Sometimes, when we read those words too quickly -- “God loves us” -- we miss the depth, the breadth of that truth. We miss the point that God knows precisely what it is our hearts yearn for, and He has a wonderful plan, filled with hope and purpose, for all who commit themselves to Him.  The testimonies of millions of those who have gone before us confirm God’s pledge -- obeying Christ never ends in regret. Keeping His commandments never leads to broken hearts, shattered relationships -- or lonely stares out of windows.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Right in our Own Eyes

For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction . . .  (Romans 15:4)

Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction . . . (1 Corinthians 10:11)

The story in Judges 19 about the priest’s concubine is one of the most grisly, bloody and repugnant stories in Scripture. If it’s been a while since you’ve read it, let me quickly summarize what happened.

The concubine got tired of living with the priest and she left to go back to her father in Bethlehem. The priest followed her and wooed her to return home with him. She agreed, and while they were on their way, night fell and they decided to lodge in the home of a hospitable fellow in a town belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. But during the evening some “worthless fellows surrounded the house” and demanded the homeowner give the priest to them for sex (19:22). Instead, the homeowner threw his own virgin daughter and the priest’s concubine out the door for the mob to gang-rape all night. Meanwhile, he and the priest continue eating and drinking in the safety of the home.

The next morning the priest found his concubine dead on the front door step. Wanting vengeance, he cut her body into twelve pieces and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel, inciting them to come and attack the Benjaminites.

As I said, it’s a grisly, gory story. One might wonder why it’s even in the pages of Scripture. But read a little longer and a little deeper, and the reason becomes – at least for me – much clearer.

The account that begins in chapter 19 concludes in chapter 21. You can read the narrative yourself, but the last verse of the last chapter provides the key to understanding this incident. Indeed, that last verse provides the key to understanding the entire book of Judges, as well as the entire length and breadth of Biblical and post-Biblical history itself.

“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). You’ll find the same refrain elsewhere in Judges – 17:6; 18:1 and 19:1.

Chapters 19-21 in Judges are a fear-provoking picture, a frightful warning of what happens to a nation, and to individuals, who do what is right in their own eyes; who hold to the form of religion, but deny God’s authority over their lives. St. Paul talks about this in the first chapter of his letter to the church at Rome (Romans 1:28-32). He also writes about it to his protégé, Timothy, in 2 Timothy 3:1-5.

God warned Israel – and by extension – humanity, including you and me – of the disastrous, grievous and bloody consequences that fall on nations and on individuals who adopt the behavior of those who turn from God.  You can read other graphic examples in places like Ezekiel 16, Psalm 106, and Deuteronomy 28. Child sacrifice. Unrestrained sexual sins. Ruthless murder. Hatred toward parents, spouses, children, neighbors, and others. Even King Solomon, despite his great wisdom and early close relationship with God, descended into the horrific practices of his godless pagan culture (1 Kings 11:1-13).

God called Israel from slavery in Egypt to be His special and prized possession. He gave them rules by which they should live and through which they would prosper. But the whole of old Testament history, including chapters 19 through 21 in Judges, demonstrates how even God’s chosen people can go very wrong when they turn from God. And of this, too, Scripture assures us: What happened to them will happen to any nation and to any individual “who does what is right in their own eyes.”

St. Paul wrote to the church at Galatia words we ought to take to heart: “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh, will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life”(Galatians 6:7-8).

If we ignore his warning, and the lesson of Judges 19, we do so to our destruction.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Why Do We Say It?

Therefore Pilate  . . .  summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” (John 18:33-34)
Why do we believe Jesus is King? And Lord?
Because our parents told us it’s so?
Our teachers? Pastors?
Books we’ve read?
Homilies we’ve heard?
Or do we believe Jesus is King,
and Lord,
because we’ve met Him.
Because we know Him.
Because we speak with Him.
Believing in Jesus is not the same as
believing Jesus.
Trusting in Jesus is not the same as
trusting Jesus.
Which is why
what the Lord asked of Pilate
He asks also of you
and me:
“Do you call Me King,
and Lord,
on your own initiative?
Or because of what others have told you of Me?”


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rolling in the Dirt

But now in Christ Jesus you . . . have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  (Ephesians 2:13)

For 12 years, Odie was our family dog. Well, more accurately, Odie was my wife’s dog. I tolerated him only because Nancy loved him.

It’s not that our mixed Pug/Chihuahua was a bad dog. It’s just that he had no sense of hygiene. We could bathe him every day, but as soon as we let him out of the house, he’d find a spot where another dog had done its – uh – business, and roll around in it.

The thought of petting Odie after he’d been outside made me shudder. And when I had to touch him to attach his leash, I kept my hand at arm’s length until I found soap and hot water.

Nancy told me I was being silly.  “He’s a dog,” she said. “That’s what dogs do.” Well, that might be what dogs do, but that doesn’t mean I have to touch him after he’s done it.

Frankly, I’m glad I’m not a dog, rolling around in other dogs’ business. But every now and then, when I act like the Pharisee in Luke 18, thanking God I’m not like people I know who roll around in all kinds of dirt, the Holy Spirit reminds me how often I sniff the bushes. For example, when I give safe-harbor to resentment, anger, jealousy, frustration – and then let them fester, I’m sure I give off a stench as high as heaven’s throne. When I grouse at God because He doesn’t answer my prayers for family, health, finances, and an variety of other things, the answer to which I consider evidence of His love for me, I’m wallowing in mud. And though I don’t like to admit it, I need a spiritual bath more often than I take one.

God does not only call us to be good. God calls us to be holy (1 Peter 1:15,16). And the difference between being good and being holy – as I see it, anyway – is like the difference between the sun’s brilliance at noon and the most distant star’s glimmer at night.

For as long as Odie lived with us, he never changed. He rolled in the dirt every time I let him outside. But everyone born into God’s family through faith in Christ’s death for our sins and His resurrection for our justification, everyone is called to be different. That is why when the bushes whisper their temptation, the Holy Spirit empowers us to stay away.

But – and this was the most exciting part – even when we get caught in the bushes and pollute our hearts, Jesus never holds us at arm’s length. The Savior always calls us back into the house, clutches our dirty souls close to Himself and with deep love, grace and mercy, cleanses us with His blood.

On that we can count. Of that we can be sure. Oh! What a Master He is. What a Friend. What a Savior.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Unwilling to Offend

No man cometh unto the Father but by Me. (John 14:6)

In our pluralistic culture which insists
one religious view is equal to another,
where it is offensive –
in some cases, nearly criminal –
to say Christ is the only one in all creation,
the only one in heaven, on earth, or under the earth
 who can open heaven;
that Jesus is fundamentally and inherently superior
to any other religious faith
or secular, humanistic philosophy  . . .
The culture would have a legitimate point,
a compelling argument,
a  persuasive proposal,
were it not for the undeniable
bodily resurrection
of Jesus.
Raised from death
through His own power,
and lifted to the right hand of the Almighty’s Throne,
it is not Moses who will judge the living and the dead.
Nor Muhammad. Nor Buddha.
Nor any other revered religious leader
or author of some secular,
humanistic philosophy.
It is Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ,
Who will judge us from that Throne,
and from that Throne will return to earth;
this time not as a meek, humble servant,
but as an invincible, terrifying warrior
whose sword will be red
with the blood of His enemies.
It is not culturally savvy or genteel
to say otherwise,
but if we who should speak 
remain silent
in this culture,
countless souls will be lost to eternity
who might have been rescued
by those who knew how to save them,
but were unwilling to offend.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Which Gate Will it Be?

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
        in the form of a man.
- 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 Frappuchino. One day each of us will roll to a stop at the final gate.

Which gate will it be?