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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Three -- And Me


Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, 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 . . . . (Hebrews 12:1)


Much of 1 and 2 Chronicles retell the events in 1 and 2 Kings, but with a different focus on the various kings of Israel and Judah. What caught my eye this time around were the sobering stories of how three regents in particular – Solomon, Asa, and Jehoshaphat – started well with God, but finished poorly. I’ve read the chapters many times before, but this time their stories came into greater focus.

In his early days, Solomon had a unique and intimate relationship with God. Chronicles touches on the story, but you will find much more detail in 1 Kings  chapters 3 through 8. Not only did God call him Jedidiah – which means, “Beloved of God” – but He choose Solomon to build the great Temple and then gave him wisdom and wealth that surpassed that of every other king of his era. Nevertheless, within a few short chapters Solomon had married idolatrous women who seduced him from the One who’d so abundantly blessed him. You won’t read about his crash landing in 2 Chronicles, but you’ll find the terrible details in 1 Kings chapter 11.

Asa, another king of Judah, when meeting an overwhelming army in battle, prayed, “Lord, there is no one besides You to help in the battle between the powerful and those who have no strength; so help us, O Lord our God, for we trust in You, and in Your name have come against this multitude. O Lord, You are our God; let not man prevail against You” (2 Chronicles 14:11). And because of his humility and reliance on God alone, Asa and his small army shattered the invasion force of more than a million men and charioteers. You’d think such a miraculous victory would stay with the man for a lifetime.

It did not.

Years later, when Asa found himself threatened by another kingdom, he sought help from the Syrians instead of God. When God’s prophet rebuked him for his disloyalty, Asa put the prophet in prison. Even when he was sick with the illness that would ultimately take his life, Asa refused to seek God’s help. (2 Chronicles 16:12)

Jehoshaphat was the third Judean king who caught my attention. Early in his reign, Jehoshaphat “took great pride in the ways of the Lord,” and sent teachers throughout his realm who “taught in Judah, having the book of the law of the Lord with them” (2 Chronicles 17:6-9). But years later Jehoshaphat allied himself with the evil and idolatrous King Ahab. When he asked Jehoshaphat’s help in an impending war, Jehoshaphat replied, “I am as you are, and my people as your people, and we will be with you in the battle” (2 Chronicles 18:3). Not surprising was God’s response to the Judean king: “Shall you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord, so as to bring judgment upon yourself?” (2 Chronicles 19:2)

I closed the Bible and settled into an uneasy self-reflection. How could such great men start so well and end so poorly? And more important, if it could happen to them, could it happen to me? And if so, how do I prevent it?

Before the last question crossed my mind, the Holy Spirit dropped the answer into my heart. It was from a text I’d memorized some time ago about, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

I know myself well enough that I dare not presume I could never finish poorly, as those three kings. All too often the same conflict St. Paul groaned of in his letter to the Romans wages war within me as well: For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

How do I fix my eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith? The Holy Spirit answered my question just as quickly as I asked it: Regularly receive the Sacraments, and spend time each day in prayer and studying – not just reading –  studying the Scriptures.

It’s really that simple. And it’s also that difficult. Staying focused on Jesus requires perseverance. And vigilance. 

And above all, God’s grace.

While the many tasks and necessities of day to day living sometimes seamlessly entice my gaze from Christ, the choice ever remains – to finish as Solomon, Asa, and Jehoshaphat – or to finish as Saints Paul, Peter, Timothy, and so many others in Church history.

O Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner.



Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Child or Tool

The longer I live, the more I experience, the more the truths God has shown me in the past come around again and again. This Christmas season, as I think about family and friends, I remember once more an essay I wrote many years ago and then posted in 2012. It's about how we become either a child of God -- or a tool of God.  We have no other options available. None. We will be one or the other.

Really. I have seen this happen countless times over the years. 
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I am God, and there is no one like Me . . . My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure (Isaiah 46:9-10).


I can't help but think about Joe and Charles when I read passages like this one from Isaiah.


Forty years ago, Joe and I were best of friends. Although he was married, the father of two daughters, and six years my senior, we were almost inseparable. We worked the same shift at a local taxi company and shared the same interests: drugs, parties and women. After working all day, Joe and I often spent hours cruising the bar districts while his wife and children waited for him to come home.


However, what I remember most about Joe is what I thought of him in my rare reflective moments. His life was a disaster waiting to happen -- and more to the point, I realized unless I changed direction, my life would mirror his.


That realization eventually led me to the navy recruiter’s office. I thought if I learned a job skill in the military, I would avoid the life Joe modeled for me. But during my tour overseas I found something much more valuable in the navy than a job skill.


I found Christ.


When I left Japan three and a half years later, I enrolled in a Bible college. It was there I met Charles, a former missionary and pastor. He taught several of my classes at the college and made the Scriptures come alive for me. But what I remember most about him is not his gift of teaching, but his humility. Nearly four decades later I can still see him in my memory weeping at a church altar, pleading with God for wisdom to serve Him more fruitfully.


Charles never knew it, but he modeled for me a heart passionate to serve Christ.


I do not know if God used me Joe’s life during those years of our friendship, but God surely used him in mine. As I watched him manipulate and abuse even those closest to him, God gave me a glimpse of my own future if I persisted on that same path.


Nor do I know if God used me in Charles’ life. But God surely used him in mine. If not for my former teacher, my understanding of what it means to truly seek after God might be quite different today. And I might not have learned this important lesson: We have a choice how the almighty and omnipotent God will use each of us for His own purposes – as His tool or as His child, as a Joe or as a Charles.


I know how I want Him to use me.

Friday, December 13, 2013

In Our Most Desperate Need




I posted this back in March of 2013, I thought of its message recently after a conversation or two with some self-professed atheists/agnostics (frankly, I think their objections to faith is based more on moral grounds than intellectual, but that is besides the point, I suppose).

Anyway, the ideas than flowed through my keyboard in March are still timely. If you are relatively new to the blog, I hope you find this post engaging.
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Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me . . . so that you may live (Isaiah 55:1-3, RSV Catholic Edition).

Some forty-one years ago, I was stationed with the US Navy in Yokosuka, Japan and had just become a Christian. The people who influenced my early days as a new believer encouraged me to read the Bible every day because, they said, God speaks to us through its pages.

In those days I was completely ignorant of its content. I didn’t know Hezekiah from Timothy, Caleb from Philemon, 1 Chronicles from 1 Corinthians. But I took their advice and I read. Voraciously, I read.

And I was astounded by the things I was learning.

Meanwhile, another sailor from my unit lived a few doors down the hall from my barracks room. A confirmed atheist, he made no effort to hide his disgust for the Bible I was growing to love. At every opportunity he challenged my new faith, while I, undaunted, tried to persuade him to my side of the theological divide.

One afternoon as I walked by his room I noticed his door open. And there he sat at his desk, a Bible open before him, as he scribbled in a note book. I thought, maybe he’s beginning to search for God.

I knocked on the open door and smiled.“I see you’re studying the Bible.”
 
 He turned in his chair to face me.“Yeah. I’m studying it so I can prove it wrong.”

How silly of him. The Bible he was trying to disprove has sent some of the greatest scientific and philosophical minds in history to their knees in worship of the God of that Bible: Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, Justin Martyr, Sir Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Sir Isaac Newton, CK Chesterton, CS Lewis, William Buckley . . . .

The Bible he was trying to disprove has survived the contemptuous scorn and calumny of such world-renowned anti-God philosophers as Voltaire, Jean-Paul Sarte, and Friedrich Nietzsche. It has withstood the onslaught of the world’s worst political despots from Nero to Hitler to Stalin to Mao Zedong. And it remains an unshakeable mountain of granite while the bones of scientific geniuses as atheists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Carl Sagan, Ivan Pavlov and Linus Pauling are slowly turning to dust.

During the past two thousand years the Scriptures have been burned, denounced, spat upon, ripped apart, and covered with the blood of men and women who clutched it to their breasts as they died by sword, axes, clubs, and bullets.

I have learned over the last forty-one years many great truths from that book, and about that book. One of which is this: Sin will keep you from the Bible, or the Bible will keep you from sin.

I am now 63 years old. The last 41 years have passed in what seems like just a few weeks. Only God – and perhaps my wife of nearly 39 years – only they know how often during the last four decades of my life the Bible has given me comfort in my deepest despair, hope when I had none left, direction when I was desperately lost, light when I wandered in total darkness, courage when all of my courage had failed.

And in this I am not alone. For millennia the Scriptures have been meeting the most desperate needs and restless longing of men and women who are honest enough with themselves to admit to themselves one crucial truth:

They need God.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Taunt





I know your deeds and your toil and your perseverance . . . (Revelation 2:2)


Sacrifice.

No one knows its claws,
how it can tear the soul,
like the one who gave up a dream,
a life, a purpose,
for decades.
Thirty.
Forty.
Years.
To walk a walk He charted,
only to find
at the end of the course
ashes.
Emptiness.
Loneliness.
Desolation.
Confusion.

The hope of something better,
the prayers for something precious,
the desire for something beautiful
disappear like wisps of smoke in the wind
and the voice on the shoulder taunts:
“What could have been
had you walked the road you gave up?”


But . . .

Like the child who gave his few fish to Jesus
and the Lord fed thousands;
Like the widow who gave her last pennies to God
and He enriched millions with her story,
nothing sacrificed to Jesus is useless.
No offering returns empty.
No life, or years,
no fish, or coin,

Nothing is a waste
when given to Christ.

He promised,
and still promises
through the Apostle:

Be steadfast.
Immovable.
Abounding always
in the work of the Lord,
because your labor,
your sacrifice,
your purpose,
and perseverance

is not now,
nor has been,
nor will ever be in vain
when done for,
and offered to,
the Lord.*


*see 1 Corinthians 15:58

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Once a Year



How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. . . . Your word have I treasured in my heart that I might not sin against You. (Psalm 119:9,11)

As I read the psalm, the Holy Spirit stopped me and altered the words of the first phrase in my mind – “How can an old man keep his way pure?”

The answer, of course, remains the same: By keeping it according to His word.

I am no longer a young man. I can start collecting social security checks at any time now. And over the years I’ve often wondered what comes over a man or woman who turns away from the faith they’d known, lived, loved and proclaimed to others. It never happened overnight. It has always occurred by degrees. Step by step, until the change was complete.

Solomon is a classic example. He tells his story in Ecclesiastes. It’s an easy read. Twelve short chapters. You can finish it in one sitting. At the beginning of Solomon’s reign, God promised him he’d be the wisest man to ever live (1 Kings 3:5-15) – which in and of itself is good reason to read the book.  What might this man of God have to say to anyone in the 21st century?

Quite a bit, actually. Especially when you know his background. You can read it in the early chapters of 1 Kings, especially chapters 3 and 8.  But by chapter 11, something dramatic has happened to the man who once enjoyed an intimate relationship with his Creator. By chapter 11 Solomon had married numerous wives who, we are told, “turned his heart away” from the faith he once loved. Astonishingly, this ‘wise’ king even permitted his wives to sacrifice to their gods – perhaps even human sacrifice, as was often done to Molech, the god of the Sidonians (1 Kings 11:4-8).


Many bible scholars tell us Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes toward the end of his life. They believe that the case especially because of what he writes in the first two chapters of the book. The king had it all. Wealth. Wisdom. Power. Possessions. And he had more women than any man could want (2:8; 1 Kings 11:3).

But not until the end of his life did he realize the true value of it all. A puff of air, he called it. Futility of futilities. Only at the end of the book – in chapter 12 – does he warn the reader of what he knew at the beginning of his reign but rejected in favor of the proverbial wine, women, and song: Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no delight in them” . . .  . [And] the conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 13-14).

How can an old man keep his way pure? I believe the Holy Spirit changed how I read that verse in Psalm 119 to nudge me, that I not forget Whose I am and to Whom I belong. I believe He nudged me to remain ever vigilant to treasure His word in my heart, that I might not sin against Him.

Fire safety experts recommend changing the batteries in home smoke detectors at least once a year. I think that is a good principle to follow for our spiritual safety. I recommend Christians read Ecclesiastes at least once a year. Maybe at the same time we change the smoke detector batteries. We need the periodic reminder how easy it is to slip into sin, to compromise our walk with the Savior, to lose our intimacy with our Creator. And we need the reminder that everything we have and everything we do – everything – if not done for Christ, will be on our last day nothing more than futility of futilities.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Because I . . . ?

 
 I posted this once before. I got to thinking about it again today:
 
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 “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me . . . .  (Isaiah 46:9)
 
 
 
Because I,
emphasis on I,
cannot conceive of Your limitless power
that simply speaks,
and galaxies suddenly appear
from utter nothingness,
therefore I am tempted to believe
You do not exist.

Because I,
emphasis on I,
cannot conceive of Your limitless love
that loves me
despite all I’ve done
that only I know I’ve done,
so I am tempted to believe
You do not really love me that much.

Because I,
emphasis on I,
cannot conceive of Your forgiveness
that reaches into the utter depths of my depravity
and washes me spotless,
therefore I am tempted to believe
You have not truly forgiven me
of all I’ve done.

Because I,
emphasis on I,
cannot conceive the infinite mind, heart and motive
of an infinite God,
I am tempted to believe
it is all a superstitious myth.

Can such arrogance be more profound?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

1 Corinthians 10:13 – Claptrap or Unchangeable Truth?

In the past week I read two essays in the blogosphere, (here and here) both saying essentially the same thing: To believe God will never give us more than we can handle is an erroneous interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:13. One author called it, “sentimental claptrap” (e.g. a pretentious but empty-meaning statement, nonsense, a sham). The other author called it ‘a lie.”

I do not doubt the authors of these two blog pieces were in the morass of despondency when they challenged the veracity of St. Paul’s statement – or rather, the veracity of the Holy Spirit’s statement to us through the apostle. I am sure the authors of these articles were hurting, and their confusion and heartache clouded their spiritual eyes of faith. But to suggest God's word in 1 Corinthians 10:13 is either a lie or claptrap is a serious charge and rife with several errors of judgment. Further, calling it a lie or claptrap turns our eyes inward, onto our suffering, and not upward to God who, as the Psalmist learned, “is a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)   

Let’s look at the passage in question. This is from the New American Standard Bible:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

This from the New International Version:

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

Those are only two of many versions which translate the Greek word πειρασμός (peirasmos) as ‘temptation,’ and πειράζω (peirazo) as ‘tempted.” But a word study (I used Blueletterbible.org, or the book Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance) demonstrates the word can be used to describe not only temptation to sin, but can also be translated as ‘proving’, “trial’, or ‘testing’. For example, Sirach (written in Greek) 27:5,7; Galatians 4:14; Hebrews 3:8; James 1:12; 1 Peter 4:12; Revelation 3:10.

That is why the New American Bible got it right when they translated the verse:


Further, the context of 1 Corinthians 10:13 guides us to the correct understanding of the word. The first 12 verses of this chapter talk about Israel’s 'testing' or 'trial' in the wilderness.

Even the secular world says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” So why is it incredible that God will sometimes test us to see what we’re made of (or rather, so that we will see what our mettle is like, since He already knows us from the beginning to end and all parts in between). To say, as these two authors say, that God gives us more than we can handle (and without the critically important follow on from Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”) is to make God either 1) a monster who willfully tries to destroy us, or 2) an impotent God who cannot affect our world or our circumstances, or 3) a God who is ignorant of what is happening in our lives.

None of those options describe the God of the Bible. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). And Love does not seek to destroy His beloved. And God is omnipotent and omniscient.

God's overriding purpose is to make us into the image of Christ. He says so in Romans 8:29. (It would be instructive to read the context of that verse, too – all the way through verse 39). And often suffering is part of  His plan to conform us into Christ’s image. For example, see 1 Peter 1:3-7 and Hebrews 5:7-9.

Suffering is part of life because we live in a fallen world. That is not, as some might call it, claptrap sentimentality and platitude. It is simply reality. But how we handle suffering is what determines our outlook both on life and, more importantly, how we view God – as either One who loves us and causes all things (even evil) to work together for good . . . or, as (as I said earlier) a monster.

Job is a great illustration of this point about suffering and about our choice how to handle suffering. I think most Christians have heard (or even memorized) his words in 13:15,  "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." The prophet Habakkuk, who lived through a horrible invasion of his land and subsequent torture and exile of his people, proclaimed something very similar in Habakkuk 3:17-19.

Life is full of trials (and, yes, even temptations to sin). Devastating trials. Heart-wrenching trials. Bloodcurdling trials. But in each case, in all cases, God never tests us beyond our ability to be victorious. To do so would make Him less than a loving Father whose purpose is to make us into the image of His Son.

How can we be sure of this? Because the Holy Spirit tells us so through the pages of Holy Scripture and through the lives of Christians – especially the Martyrs – throughout our history of faith.

God is good. In all situations and in all circumstances, God is good. He can never be anything less.

Thanks be to God. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Food for Thought -- Revisited

I wrote this in 2001, and I struggled this evening with the decision to post it to the blog. I decided to publish it with the hope that the Lord might use my comments at the very end of this essay to help someone. Perhaps it will be you.
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Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29)

I should have known better than to pile all that food onto my plate.  I paid for it later that evening as I tossed and turned in bed, trying to find a comfortable position. But it was no use. My stomach groaned as if about to burst. I was too full to lie on my side, my back or my stomach.

I have a problem with food – especially the charbroiled, baked, fried, boiled, glazed, or creamed kind. And chocolate anything for dessert doesn’t make life easier. I wish I could say I’ve piled my plate too high only a few times in my life, but ever since I was a kid my eyes have often been bigger than my stomach.

Unfortunately, the “eyes vs. stomach” syndrome is not unique to my diet. It carries over to other important areas of life. My work schedule, church activities and responsibilities as a husband and a father at times get piled pretty high. When they do, I usually pay for it later with frustration, anxiety and sleeplessness.

You’d think by now I would have learned my lesson. Planet Earth does not revolve around yours truly and nothing I do is of such historic importance it can’t wait another few days while I catch up.
Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus, should provide me some instruction. You might remember the story in Luke 10. The ladies invited Jesus to their house for dinner and Martha busied herself around the kitchen like the proverbial chicken with its head – oh, you know the saying.
And then she noticed Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him speak. Martha was furious.

“Lord,” she blustered, “tell my sister to help me!”

I wonder if Jesus’ answer to Martha’s complaint is similar to what He might say to me as I scurry about trying to finish every responsibility on my plate: “Relax. Leave a few things for later. Come, sit at my feet and listen to what I have to say. There will always be work to do, but you will do it more efficiently if you take some time with Me.”

Like it or not, it’s time I faced reality. I am not as young as I used to be. Years ago I could pile the food on and head out the door running. Today, I pile it on and crawl over to the couch. But if I hope to keep my coronary arteries relatively healthy, I need to say, “No, thank you” when offered another helping of food.

In the same way, if I hope to protect myself from stress ulcers and other problems related to over commitment,  I need to say, “No, thank you” when offered another responsibility piled onto my already burgeoning work and social calendar. It’s difficult to relax at Jesus’ feet when I have so much to do.
If I don’t learn it now, I will learn it later: Seasons turn to decades too quickly and Solomon’s words remain forever true: “There is a time for every event under heaven . . . A time to plant . . .a time to be silent . . . a time to search . . .  a time for peace . . .  (Ecclesiastes 3).

I can’t prove it from the text, but I think Solomon might also have had in mind: there is a time to eat, a time to work – and a time to leave something on the plate.
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As I said earlier, I wrote this some twelve or thirteen years ago. As I reread it, it surprised me that nothing has changed in my life since I wrote this essay.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Actually, lots has changed, and not for the better. For the last four or five years I haven’t been able to sleep a night – not one night – without a sleeping pill. Then, about a year ago my physician told me I have an ulcer. I’ve been taking medication for it ever since. But there’s more. I cracked my tooth in the spring, having weakened it by grinding my teeth together. This past summer I thought I might be having a heart attack right there in the classroom. I frightened my students so badly two of them insisted on driving me home so I could go with my wife to the Emergency Department. It turned out to be an exacerbation of my ulcer.

I struggled with the decision to post this message to my blog because I do not like to admit my faults to the world. But that reluctance is wrong-headed and would help no one.

Although I have walked with the Lord for several decades, the Holy Spirit has only recently shown me – or probably more to the point, I have been only recently willing to listen to Him – He has shown me it is far easier to talk the life of faith, trust, and confidence in God than it is to live it. At least, that is how it has been for me. I used to have little patience with others who struggled with depression, with doubts, with worry, with fear – even with sins. I’d think to myself – not as pompously perhaps as the Pharisee in Luke 18, but think nonetheless “If they only had enough faith – like me – they wouldn’t need medications to get through the day.”

God has taught me a lot about myself in the last 12 months. I don’t like all that I’ve learned. And I have to wonder if, after all these years, if I will ever mature in my faith. Will I ever cut people some slack when they don't live their faith in the way I expect Christians to live their faith? And will I ever become as Mary, doing the better thing, sitting at the feet of Jesus and not busying myself with so many things that really can wait for later?

Life, I am learning from personal experience, really is fragile. And our bodies – and our spirits – can take just so much stress before things fall apart.