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

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.

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.

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.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Living Like We Say He Is

Several years ago I wrote and published my first book "We Believe: Forty Meditations on the Nicene Creed." I have been very slow in revising it to reflect the current Nicene Creed statement of faith. I've been slow because I've been lazy. I could have offered other excuses, but that's what they'd be. Excuses.  Life has taken me along different routes, and I just haven't taken the requisite time to update my first book.  But here is what will one day become part of the revised book.

[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 our faith: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echod.  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 English translation of the Creed in 2012 to better reflect its original “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 than 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 by the name of Antiochus determined to force the remaining Jews in his realm, under pain of death, to abandon their religion and practices. To expedite their apostasy, he profaned 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 unclean meat, Eleazar made unambiguous his choice to serve God rather than man. He refused to join the common culture of the day, 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.”

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 unambiguously answer the Lord’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”

We forever will say – and will forever live what we say: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Pope Francis and the Field Hospital

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored? (Jeremiah 8:22)

Is Pope Francis about to toss overboard two thousand years of the Church’s moral teaching? In the last several months the Pope has made what some might call provocative statements. The latest flap came over his remarks about abortion and homosexuality. In its September 19, 2013 online report, the New York Times (NYT) headlined: “Pope says Church is ‘obsessed’ with Gays, Abortion and Birth Control.” 

In fact, that is not really what the pope said, and the NYT reporter should have been more careful about lifting quotes out of context. But that’s for another discussion.

So what is Pope Francis really saying?  Let me tell you what I think.

  Those unfamiliar with Scripture and the historic teaching of the Catholic Church regarding what she calls ‘mortal sin’ might conclude Pope Francis has taken a left turn into some sort of liberal “God doesn’t care what you do” moral theology. But to read his entire interview (click this link) within the framework of an intimate familiarity with Scripture and historical Church teaching, one will quickly conclude Pope Francis has said nothing at all different than the Church – or Christ Himself – has ever said.

Here is an excerpt from his interview: “ . . . [T]he thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. . . . You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.  The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

In other words, “Bring them home into the Church. Let them experience God’s mercy and love. Then, once they’re in the arms of the Church, trust the Holy Spirit to guide their hearts as He teaches them of sin, righteousness and judgment (see John 16:8).  As St. Paul wrote a long time ago, “It is the mercy of God that leads you to repentance.” (Romans 2:4)

I have personal experience with the point Pope Francis is trying to make. I am not in the Church today because someone stuck his finger in my face and warned me of hell and God’s judgment. I am in the Church because I first learned of God’s mercy. My entry into Christ began in the fall of 1972, on the most holy day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. God first established the day in Leviticus 16 for His people to reflect on their lifestyles, repent of their sins, make appropriate sacrifice and turn back to God with renewed conviction to live holy lives thereafter.

No one needed to tell me in 1972 I was a sinner. Evil held me prisoner, and though I tried many times to change my life, to be a better person, to please God, each time I tried, I failed. And then, at the end of my proverbial rope, I asked Him for mercy. “Oh, God,” I prayed, “forgive me for my past sins and look with tolerance on my future sins.”

I did not – I would not – promise God I’d stop sinning. I knew I could never keep that promise. I could only, as the publican in Luke’s gospel (see 18:9-14) beg Him for mercy. Less than three months later, on Christmas Eve, God opened my eyes to the cross, and to my crucified Lord.

Pope Francis’ call for the Church to be a “field hospital” is a call many in the Church need to hear – and to follow. Let me give you another personal example, this one is more recent. In the last few months my wife and I have experienced several major changes in our lives. And though we have been able to slog through those changes, we’ve been bruised. And torn. And even as I write this, we are tired.

But with all the change, one thing remained the same – our faith in our God who loves us. The first Sunday in our new environment, we found a church we thought we could call home. The priest (whom we later discovered was a visiting pastor) spoke with great power and encouragement from the Scripture during his homily.  His words buoyed us. We looked forward to the next Sunday. And we were not disappointed. Once again the priest – probably in his fifties – brought the word of God to life for Nancy and me. Our wounds began to heal.

But then things changed. The visiting priest moved on, and for the next few Sundays we listened to one of the resident priests – a young man, probably in his early thirties. In our forty-one years of attending church services in a variety of fellowships – Baptist, Pentecostal, Nazarene, Anglican, and non-denominational, and (since 2005) Catholic – Nancy and I never felt as bullied as we felt sitting in our pews. If we hadn’t known our faith and our Lord as well as he do, we could have thought we were at the very precipice of hell, and if we breathed wrong, we’d fall in.

At first, I thought the senior priest would rein him in. But he didn’t. By the end of the second homily our wounds had reopened, were stinging, and raw.

My wife and I were in desperate need of a field hospital where a shepherd would pour across our hurting spirits the balm of Gilead. What we got instead was condemnation and a promise of eternal judgment. Although I’ve been a Christian for nearly forty one years, we felt so demoralized and discouraged I told myself we would not return to that church again – even if it meant not attending church anywhere.

When I calmed down several hours later, I realized the young priest knew nothing about the things he was making such reckless statements. I know my Bible well enough, and have spent a lifetime growing in my intimacy with God to know that priest has a lot to learn about the mercy of God. And he could learn a lot by reflecting on Pope Francis’ interview in which he calls on the Church to go out to the highways and byways to bring healing to those who, for whatever reason, will not darken the door of a church.  The Pope is calling the Church to do, for example, what the Lord Jesus Himself did with the woman caught in adultery (see John 8). You might remember the story. A crowd of men dragged the woman to Jesus and they challenged Him: What do you say we should do?

Before answering, the Lord bent down and wrote in the dirt with His finger. Then he stood and said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Without waiting for an answer, He bent down again and wrote a second time in the dirt.

One by one, the crowd dispersed, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus asked, “Where are your accusers? Does no one accuse you?”  She answered, “No, my lord, no one.”

Everyone, including Jesus, knew she’d sinned.  But no one expected the Great Physician to say what He said next: “Neither do I accuse you.”

First the Lord offered her the balm of Gilead. He offered her wounded spirit healing. And then, if you remember the story, He followed up His offer of mercy with something just as important, something just as life-giving.

He told her: “Go, and sin no more.”

It is likely the adulteress would have never heard those words of life if Jesus had nothing but words of condemnation for her in the first place.  So too, as Pope Francis knows, people today whose lives are just as darkened with sin may never hear the message of God’s grace and forgiveness – and of the power to change – if all they first hear from us are words of condemnation. Just as I contemplated – if only for a moment – leaving the Church after being bullied from the pulpit, how many today have been driven from the Church because some of God’s spokespeople have said things Christ never said?

The publican Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is another example of the Great Physician’s healing balm poured over a person trapped in sin. Publicans were outcasts from Jewish society, and for good reason. They collected taxes for the Roman government and usually amassed a small fortune charging exorbitant taxes from their fellow Jews, and siphoning off the excess. When the Lord met Zacchaeus He did not accuse the man of sin. He did not threaten him with hell. The first thing out of Christ’s mouth was, “Zacchaeus, we’re having dinner at your place tonight,” and Zacchaeus finished dinner a disciple of Christ. He’d been changed. Redeemed. Cleansed by the blood of the merciful Savior.

In Mark’s gospel (chapter 12) some religious lawyers challenge Jesus with a hypothetical case of a woman whose seven husbands died in succession without leaving her an heir. In the resurrection, they asked Him, whose wife will she be, since all seven had her as wife? 

The Lord’s response is something of which I believe Pope Francis is trying to remind the Church: “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures nor the power of God?” Jesus could have just as easily said they did not understand the mercy of God. Or the compassion of God. Or the forgiveness of God.

Pope Francis seems to me to be reminding the Church of her heritage, a heritage rooted in the mercy of God who gave his only begotten son so that everyone – regardless of their sin and lifestyle – everyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). The Pope is reminding us that, though we all were – and are – sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Oh, how we need to hear it again and again how God saw us as sheep who had gone astray, who’d turned to our own way, and so He laid our iniquity on Christ (Isaiah 53) that we – the abortionist, the homosexual, the adulterer, the thief, the drug addict, the murderer, the blasphemer – that we each might become the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The Pope’s call for the Church to be a field hospital invites us to invite the wounded into our midst – to love the sinner while not accepting or compromising with the sin. He is asking us to welcome them into our hospital so that through our love the Holy Spirit can work His work of mercy in their lives until they will be able to hear with an open heart, “Go, and sin no more.”

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Growing Old With God

(Excerpted from my second book, Lessons Along the Journey)

I hadn’t slept well the night before, and weariness settled over me like a heavy rug. Nancy and I returned home from Mass, ate lunch, and were unwinding on the couch where she continued our conversation about her passion for art. But I couldn't keep my mind from drifting. As it did, my eyes focused on her face.

I’d noticed her changing features before, but somehow this time I saw her anew. Creases now feather her cheeks and forehead where her skin was once smooth and supple. Gone is her naturally dark auburn hair. She colors it blonde to mask the gray.

When I asked Nancy to marry me nearly four decades ago, I thought I knew her. I thought I loved her. Now, half-listening to her describe the colors she planned to use in her next project, I realized how little I really knew or loved her in 1975.

We’ve weathered many storms during our years together. Some of them were tsunamis. I don’t even like to dredge them up in my memory. Our son suffered through divorce. Nancy’s beloved stepfather died. Two years later, I lost mine. Financial crises and long periods of unemployment rocked our marriage from time to time. Friends turned their backs on us because of our commitment to Christ. And then there were a dozen military-related moves from one end of the country to the other, which forced us to leave family, friends, and familiar places.

Sometimes I wonder how we survived it all. God’s grace? Unquestionably. Intervening from the shadows, often without revealing His hand, our Father brought peace when turmoil overwhelmed us, and freedom when fear bound us. He quieted us when, in frustration, we lashed out at each other instead of going to our knees before our God.

God’s grace, certainly. But something else has proven vital to our relationship: our communication with each other.

I suppose better than eighty percent of our discussions over the years have been casual. You know the kind: what’s for dinner, what happened at work, the kids have colds . . . . But because of that casual eighty percent, she and I can also meet in intimate, deeply personal conversations. We are able to talk about our hopes, joys, fears and dreams because we have spent so much of our time learning about each other. That’s why I know her – and love her – so much more today than I did when we married.

Which brings me to the real point.

Thirty-nine years ago, I thought I knew Jesus. I thought I loved him. But, oh, how my knowledge of Him and my love for Him are so very different today than they were in 1972 when I first offered Him my heart.

Why? Unquestionably, because of God’s grace. But I am sure there is something else at work.

Early in my walk with Christ, I learned the importance of communing with Him in prayer, study of Scripture – and since 2005 when I entered the Catholic Church – in the Sacraments. Over the years, I’ve worn out three Bibles, memorized scores of Scripture texts, and can allude to a hundred more. I’ve spent time with Him in the morning, the evening, and throughout the day.

To be honest, most of my prayers – eighty percent? – are not what I would call passionate. You know the kind: Lord, I need a good evaluation at work. Mom needs guidance about moving from Florida. Gerry needs a job. Helen’s son is ill. But because of that eighty percent, because I communicate so often with Him, I know how to be intimate with Him when battles rage beyond my control.

In the first stanza of his poem, Rabbi Ben Ezra, Robert Browning wrote, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. The last of life, for which the first was made, our times are in His hand who said ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’”

As husbands and wives grow old together, they learn what love and intimacy with each other looks like. When men and women grow old with the King of Glory, they learn what love and intimacy with Him is like. When life’s storms rip at our foundations, when the hot breath of Satan prickles down our neck, our deeply personal knowledge of God will be our fortress. Our passionate love for Him, born through intimate communion, will be our strength. Surely, that is one reason the prophet urged: “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6).