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

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Murderer and the Saint

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

Christians had good reason to fear. Saul rampaged through their towns, dragging men and women before hastily gathered courts. When the disciples refused to abandon their faith in Christ, Saul cast his vote for their execution and watched as mobs hurled rocks at their bloodied and dying bodies. But not satisfied with decimating only the Jerusalem church, he set out toward Damascus to extend his murderous rage against Christians.

Then God knocked him to the ground. And the rest is history.

God used Saul, better known as the apostle Paul, to bring the gospel message to Europe and Asia. He spent the remainder of his life championing the One whom he at first despised. Two thousand years later, Christians still read his letters to find hope, power, encouragement, challenge, and renewal in Christ.

Some think God chose Paul that day on the Damascus road. The apostle, however, saw it differently. He believed God had chosen him long before he mounted his horse for the journey. God's call reached back before he tossed Christians into dungeons, or watched the mob murder Stephen. Before he persecuted the church of Christ "beyond measure and tried to destroy it" (Galatians 1:13), God had already set His seal on him. God chose Paul before he had done anything wrong or right. He chose him before he was born (see Galatians 1:15).

But more important, God chose you before you were born, chose you before you did whatever it is you've done of which you are ashamed and broken . . . chose you still -- today -- to raise you up as a beloved son or daughter.

Oh, imagine that unimaginable privilege!

Have you ever noticed that God sometimes has to knock us to the ground to get our attention? I have bruises to prove it. But bruises can be a good thing, if we let them be so. The psalmist wrote: It is good for me that I was afflicted, because now I keep thy law. If I had not been afflicted, I would have perished in my iniquity. Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep thy law (paraphrased from Psalm 119:65-75,92).

Or as St. Paul would later write: For the one who sows to the flesh shall reap corruption, heartache, grief, sadness, but the one who sows to the spirit shall reap eternal life, peace, love, hope, joy (see Galatians 5).

Has God knocked you to the ground? I have a suggestion rooted in my experiences: Don't get up until you first get to your knees and apologize to God for what you know to be sin. And if He has not yet knocked you to the ground, please don't wait for it to happen. His love for you makes such discipline inevitable.

And friend, it can be a very long way to fall.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Because the Nicene Creed has undergone a recent retranslation by Rome to bring the English version closer to the original Greek, I will be revising my first book, We Believe: Forty Meditations on the Nicene Creed. The following is the first of a few changes I plan to make.

[Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).

Nicene Creed Statement: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth . . ..”

For the seven years I recited the Nicene Creed as a Catholic (I came into the Catholic Church in 2005), I liked saying “We believe.” As a Jewish Christian, I understand the value of the communal proclamation of faith. For thousands of years my people have made similar proclamation each Sabbath when they recite the cornerstone text of Judaism: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echod -- Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.  And for millennia, whether persecuted and ostracized to shtetls, or welcomed into towns or cities, Jews have anchored themselves to one another as much for protection as for self-identity.

Christianity, like its Jewish root, is a communal faith. The Lord Jesus said it first: “I will build my Church.” The Greek word used here – ekklessia – denotes those who are called out of the world and into God’s special community. Jesus did not establish a maverick faith wherein everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Israel’s history during the Period of the Judges understands how maverick faith leads to disastrous outcomes.

But long before the Church revised the Creed in 2012 to its original wording, “I believe,” I knew the communal ‘We’ in the Creed had potential to rob the community of the personal faith of ‘I’. Without individuals, there would be no community, and without individual faith, the community becomes little more than a religious shell.

The Lord Jesus went out of his way to teach the crowds about the one lost sheep, the one lost coin, the one lost son. He left the throng to find the one demoniac, the one leper, the one lame. He singled out Zaccheus in the sycamore tree, the woman at the well, the tax collector at the table. “My sheep hear My voice”, Jesus said, “and I call them by name.”  Yumiko, Ethan, Dakshi, Oksana, Jose, Deloris, Michael . . . .  God calls each of us by name to become part of the community of “those who are called out.”

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of the importance of individual faith can be found in the sixth chapter of 2 Maccabees. By the time of its writing, the Jewish people had been living under Greek domination for more three centuries. Many had already thrown away the ancient faith passed down from Moses for Greek philosophy, culture and lifestyle. Then, a little more than 160 years before Mary and Joseph laid their Baby in the manger, a Greek politician determined to force the remaining Jews in his realm, under pain of death, to abandon their religion and practices. To expedite their apostacy, he ordered the profaning of the Jewish Temple, “so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws” (2 Maccabees 6:5). He prohibited their celebrations of the Sabbath and their feasts. He made it a crime worthy of torture to even admit to being Jewish.

Enter Eleazar, the elderly Jewish scribe. When brought before the court and forced to eat pork, Eleazar made an unambiguous choice to serve God regardless of the consequences. He spit it out, preferring death than defilement.

But that’s not the end of the story of his personal faith.

Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king. Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them.

Eleazar, however, would have none of that charade. He answered, “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age."

He then added, “Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty. Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws” (2 Maccabees 6:21-28).

When we recite with those around us the words of the Nicene Creed, “I believe” we proclaim with Eleazar and with all the faithful martyrs who chose God over the culture: We will serve God and no one else. When we recite the creed together, we fearlessly answer the Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”

We forever say: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why Are You in Despair, O My Soul?

Why are you in despair, O my soul? (Psalm 42:5)

So what do you do when you’ve prayed for thirty years about a desperate need with eternal consequences, and your prayers seem to get no further than the ceiling?

Me? I struggle with depression over it. And finding lost car keys after a quick prayer just doesn’t help overcome the confusion, the frustration and other emotions I am not always able to articulate when God seems so silent about something of such eternal worth as that for which I have prayed for so long.

It was in that frame of mind that I recently began my morning with the Lord. I opened the Scriptures to the place I’d left off the day before and began reading Psalm 42: As the deer pants for the water, so my soul pants for you, O God.

My eyes glazed over. I’ve read that verse a hundred times or more, and this was just one more time on my way to completing my reading routine. I pushed through the next few of verses, forcing my mind to stay focused. And then I read verse five: Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?

Suddenly, now I’m focused. I reread the verse, as if I could hear the divine Author of the psalm whispering in my ear, Why are you despairing?

I read the next part of the text: “Hope in God.”

The Holy Spirit had captured my attention, and I went back to verse one. Then verse three beckoned: “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’”

Oh, where had I heard that before? So many times, I’ve lost count, my adversaries – Satan and his minions – have tossed their barbs at me, “What’s the use in prayer, or serving God? You keep praying, and He keeps ignoring you.”

I read further, sensing the Holy Spirit trying to speak with me. I got to verse ten. Again the psalmist laments, “As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me, while they say to me all day long, where is your God?’”

Twice in this short song the adversary suggests suspicion toward God. It’s a play from the same playbook he used with Eve in the Garden. It’s an end run that has worked with all too frequent success for millennia. Why would Satan change his strategy now?

The psalm ends at verse eleven with the same challenge, the same encouragement, as at the beginning of the psalm: Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him . . . .”

Hope in God. The Hebrew can just as well be translated, Wait for God. Or, in other words, Stop listening to the Adversary. God has heard your thirty-years-long prayer. Trust Him.

Trust Him!

My depression did not suddenly dissipate when I closed the Bible that morning. Trusting God without seeing an iota of His work in the situation for which I pray is not easy for me. But my gloom seemed a little lighter. And I found a modicum of comfort when the Holy Spirit reassured me that my prayers do get higher than the ceiling. And that God is working all things for good.

Richard, wait for God.

You who read this, wait for God.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

My Way or the Highway

I posted this a couple of years ago, but after a particularly disappointing exchange I've had over the last couple of days with some FaceBook 'friends' (whom I have since 'unfriended' as a result), I decided this essay would be appropriate to post once again.

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).

Lord, help us overcome impatience with patience, pride with humility, a deaf ear with an open mind. Teach us to judge not according to how things appear, but with righteous judgment. Amen.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

It Doesn't Get Any Simpler.

“. . . let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith . . . (Hebrews 12:1-2).

As soon as I opened the door I knew something was wrong.  Rotten, actually. But I was already late for work, so I grabbed my lunch from the refrigerator and darted out the front door. My wife was out of town visiting family, so I planned to take care of the rotted whatever-it-was when I returned later that night.

That was my first mistake.

My inbox at work grew inches with each passing hour. I didn’t leave the office until after dark and the thought of starting dinner when I arrived home left me weak-kneed. I decided to grab dinner at a nearby restaurant.

By the time I arrived home, cleaning the refrigerator was the last thing on my mind. I plopped in front of the television to unwind from the day. An hour later I headed for the shower and the bed. I’d take care of the fridge in the morning.

That was my second mistake.

The next morning when I opened the refrigerator door, the pungent stench of rotted cabbage filled every corner of the house. I slammed the door shut and glanced at my watch. I’d be late for work if I didn’t leave soon. I grabbed an apple and rushed out of the house. The fridge would have to wait.

When I returned from work ten hours later, the odor from the fridge had settled over the house. It left me no choice. I tossed the cabbage . . . and the lettuce, tomatoes and celery laying nearby. Then I scrubbed the fruit and vegetable bin with bleach.

Like slowly rotting cabbage, sin is never a private matter. If left alone, its stench will seep into and ruin every corner of our life, our families, communities, and our nation. And there is not one person reading this who does not know that to be true. They know it at a visceral level learned from experience – often from repeated experience.

We make a serious mistake to be casual about rooting sin from our lives. We make a serious -- deadly --  mistake when we tacitly ignore the commandment of God to be holy according to His standards, and not according to the standards of the culture.

Like the law of gravity, the law of sowing and reaping is inescapable: Whatever we sow, we reap. If we sow to the flesh, we reap corruption. If we sow to the spirit, we reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8).

It doesn’t get any simpler. Or clearer.

Or more difficult.