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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Making the Sign of the Cross?

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory . . . (Psalm 115:1)

My earliest recollection of seeing anyone make the sign of the cross was when I watched Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Of course, as a Jew, I never thought much about the practice. I figured it was a “Catholic” thing. And besides, Jews prayed differently. So when as a young adult I discovered my Messiah Jesus, I prayed to Him in the only way I knew to pray: close my eyes and talk to Him.

But when I became a Catholic thirty-three years later, I started my prayers with the sign of the cross because, well, that’s what Catholics do.

In those days as a new Catholic, as I traced the cross over my chest, I did it slowly. Thoughtfully. Reverently. I focused on each Person of the Trinity as I said, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I knew during that short introductory prayer I was entering into the presence of Almighty God – the One who created me, who nurtured me, who protected me, and who sent His Son to die on a cross that I might live with Him forever.

But like with many rituals, in time I fell into a pattern of thoughtlessness. I became comfortable with the movement of my right hand from my forehead to my abdomen, to my left shoulder, then to my right. Without realizing it, I began mouthing the Names of the Persons within the Holy Trinity without actually thinking of Him. I made the sign without reverence. Or purpose.

The prayer became perfunctory.

Of course, ‘perfunctory’ is not really that surprising an outcome when we do things over and over. It is a danger everyone faces, regardless of the church they attend. But while the danger of ‘routine’ is an important topic for all Christians, it is not the point of this essay.

Christians have been prayerfully making the sign of the cross for two thousand years. Tertullian, a 2nd century theologian and apologist, wrote: "In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross." In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote similarly of the sign: "Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest."

Clearly, tracing the cross over ourselves as a mark of reverence for God has two thousand years of historical precedent. So why did I, for more than thirty years as a Christian, avoid making that sign during my prayers? For two reasons: First, I did not know its long and precious history. And second – and most troubling to me – I did not make the sign because it was too “Catholic.”

Too Catholic? 

What kind of a reason is that? To follow that line of logic, I should have also avoided prayer altogether, or memorizing Scripture, or attending church, or singing hymns because all of those things were also done by Catholics. For me to do likewise would make me – what?  Catholic?

Worse things could happen.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Christian history should know it was the Catholic Church that defined and preserved for us the canon of Scriptures. It was the early Catholic Church councils that defined and defended essential doctrinal truths such as the trinity, the deity of the Lord Jesus, and the deity of the Holy Spirit. Christianity would be unrecognizable today were it not for the various Catholic Church Councils’ protection and preservation of Biblical doctrine.

I am sometimes overwhelmed when I think of how my prejudice against Catholics and Catholic rituals robbed me of something that has now become precious to my relationship with Christ.

Oh, Lord! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, continue to open my eyes – to open our eyes – to your eternal truth.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

God's Two Gifts

Tomorrow is Christmas, the day we celebrate the gift of God’s Son into the world for our redemption. But unless God had first given the world the gift of the Scriptures, we would never be able to know of His Son.  I wrote this essay some time ago. I thought it appropriate to repost it again, especially for this day. 

In his classic “Confessions” – the conversion story of one of Christendom’s greatest Saints – Augustine centers his attention on the one incident that set his course from a life running from God to one running toward Him.

As he stood in a garden struggling with the inner call of God, Augustine heard the Holy Spirit as clearly as one hears a child call: “Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it.”

He walked back to the place where he’d been reading his Bible, picked it up and read the first text that caught his eye. It was from the thirteenth chapter of Romans: Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.

Those words captured his heart and his conversion occurred on the spot. How much poorer the Church would be today if the man we call St. Augustine had not obeyed the Holy Spirit and read the Scriptures?

What was absolutely vital to St. Augustine’s conversion is no less vital for anyone’s fundamental and ongoing conversion today. Thus it is no wonder the Holy Spirit continues to call His disciples – you and me – to do as St. Augustine did: Pick it up and read it.
It’s been well said, “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible

Speaking to Catholics through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Holy Spirit declares: "Access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful (paragraph 131).  And the Holy Spirit forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (paragraph 133).

"Study of the sacred texts," God the Holy Spirit again tells us, "should be the very soul of sacred theology, through which our souls are healthily nourished . . .  through the Word of Scripture" (paragraph 132).

To be a faithful Catholic is to be obedient to the Holy Spirit who, speaking through the Church, tells us over and over pick it up and read the Scriptures. And so, wouldn’t this Advent-Christmas season be a perfect time to devote ourselves to reading the Holy Scriptures every day? I’ve followed this Bible reading method for more than 40 years:

If you read two chapters of the Old Testament each day (it takes about 15 minutes or so), and two chapters of the New Testament each day (another 15 minutes or so), you will read the Old Testament once each year and the New Testament three times each year (thus: 2+2=1+3).

In five years, you will read the OT five times and the NT 15 times. In ten years, well, you can do the math.

Jesus is God’s gift to humanity for the cleansing of our sins. The Scriptures are God’s gift to humanity to lead us to Christ, and then for our maturation in faith.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent. And Reprehensible Nonsense

Every now and again I hear people of Christian faith opine that the idea of Jesus as a “personal savior” is foreign to the New Testament message. They say Jesus came to save the “Church,” to establish a Christian community. The pre-eminent focus of Scripture, they say, is community salvation – not personal salvation.

But such a philosophy is not only reprehensible nonsense; it is destructive to Christian faith.

The New Testament repeatedly tells us Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – individual sinners (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:15). To this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2091) adds: The first commandment is  . . .concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption: By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins (emphasis mine).

The first advent of Messiah was nothing less than God’s personal intervention into history so He could offer individuals like you and me a personal relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. That joyous truth is engraved in the Biblical text from cover to cover, from Genesis through Revelation.

Yes, Immanuel took on human flesh to save the “church” (Ephesians 5:25-27) and to establish a people for Himself (Titus 2:14). But let us never forget or overlook the truth that the Good Shepherd left the ninety-nine safe in the fold to search for the one who was lost (Luke 15:3-7). Jesus left the crowds and went out of His way to minister to the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). He sought the blind man ostracized from his synagogue (John 9:1-38). He made a point to pass through Samaria to meet a lone woman unwelcomed by her community (John 4:1-38). He stopped by a tax collector’s table and said, “Follow Me” (Matthew 9:9).  Surrounded by crowds, Jesus paused by a sycamore tree and told one man, “Let’s have dinner tonight” (Luke 19:5)

The New Testament writers repeatedly told their audiences how much Jesus longed for each of them to know Him as their personal savior. And yes, He longs for you and me to know Him in an intimate, warm, and personal relationship, too.

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

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

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

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

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

THAT is what the first Advent is all about. Oh! Thanks be to God for that indescribable gift!

Monday, December 21, 2015

What Then?

I recently preached a message at a senior citizen apartment complex. The message pricked at me during the preceding week as I prepared my remarks. It continues even now to press me.

All Christians at some point make an adult decision to give our heart to Jesus. And as we continue our faith journey we continue to offer Him our heart.

So, we gave our heart to Jesus. But what about the hopes we have for ourselves or our family? What about our dreams? Our deepest longings and expectations?

Did we give – and do we continue give – those to Him as well? What do we do when life takes a turn and our hopes are irretrievably lost?  We gave our heart to Jesus, but what happens when our dreams are irreversibly shattered and our expectations scatter to the wind like charred ashes after a house fire?

What then?

Why do we serve God? If you haven’t yet asked yourself that question, the time will come when you will have to ask. That is why I urge you to prepare now for your answer. Everything in your life from that moment on will depend on your response.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Message of the Manger

Children’s eyes grow wide with wonder to hear it, but adult eyes rarely do the same. We’ve heard of the Baby in the manger so often, many of us have forgotten the message in the story.

But that manger is much more than what many relegate to children’s picture books. It’s much more than the silent night, the holy night when shepherd’s quaked at the sight.

The message of the manger and that first advent is about me. And it’s about you.

It’s the message of God’s personal intervention into history to rescue us from the eternal danger we faced because of our sins. It’s about Golgotha’s cross looming above the manger where the little Lord Jesus lay asleep on the hay.

The cross.

I love that old cross, where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.

Some time ago I showed an elderly woman a painting of a crucifix – a cross with Jesus nailed to it. She physically shuddered and turned her head. It was too bloody. Too gruesome. She told me she prefers the empty cross. I interpreted that to mean she prefers a pretty cross – as many prefer the sterile barn, the clean hay, and cattle peacefully lowing in the background.

We don’t like to confront the ominous cloud that overshadowed that manger. And yet, it was precisely for Golgotha Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Now My soul has become troubled,” He would say shortly before His crucifixion. “And what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour” (John 12:27).

Long before Adam and Eve did what they did in Eden, Jesus knew what He’d have to do on Golgotha thirty years after Bethlehem.

"But He was pierced through for our transgressions,” Isaiah prophesied seven centuries earlier about Messiah. “He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” (53:4-6)

It’s nice to dress trees, wrap gifts, and receive picture-perfect Christmas cards for the holiday. The celebration of Messiah’s birth is God’s reminder to us year after year that He loved us – and still loves us – so much that He sent His Son into our world so that whoever believes in Him would have eternal life.

But unless we also remember the Man who hung on a cross as much as we focus on the Baby in a manger, we will never mature beyond a sterile picture-perfect faith. It is by the manger and the old rugged cross that God demonstrates the true message of Christmas.

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Do You Have to Ask?

I wrote this some time ago. I revised it here for Advent.


During Advent, many – even those without Christian faith – focus on the Baby in the manger. I understand why. In the midst of life’s too-frequent upheavals, I also like to let my heart turn to that silent night, that holy night, when all was calm and all was bright.

But rarely do I contemplate that idyllic scene when I do not also fast-forward to the other part of that first Advent: from the Bethlehem cradle to Golgotha’s cross. 

One morning as I followed that thought, I pictured Him in my mind’s eye at the whipping post. Soldiers had stripped Him of His clothes and tied His wrists above His head.

Then suddenly and without so much as a lingering warning, it was no longer Jesus tied to that post. They were my hands tied above my head. It was my back laid bare.

I looked over my shoulder at the Roman soldier a few feet away – although I knew intuitively it was Satan dressed as a soldier. He held a stone and bone-studded whip in his right hand. I watched as He readied himself to tear into my back, my arms, my buttocks, and my legs.

I quickly turned my head and winced in anticipation of the blow.

But it never came.

Instead, I sensed a Presence move between us. The lash sliced the air and a visceral groan echoed through the courtyard.  I heard Satan growl, "Get away from him. He belongs to me!"

The voice behind me responded quietly, but with palpable authority, "No, he doesn't. He belongs to me. I purchase him with my blood."

"Move away," the soldier hissed. A heartbeat later the lash fell again, striking with a fury that sent chills across my skin. But the Presence moved closer, so close I felt the warmth of his body against mine. He wrapped his arms around me, protecting me from the whip that slashed at him again and again.

And again.

I heard each whip fall. I felt his body shudder with each blow. His blood splattered across the back of my neck and dripped from his shoulder onto mine.

Still tied to the post, I turned to see who it was protecting me. And when I saw Him, I could do nothing else but ask, "Lord, why are you doing this for me?"

He looked into my eyes and whispered, "Do you have to ask?"

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mystery or Myth?

The first Advent of God’s Messiah is either a monstrous myth or a transcendent mystery. It is either a preposterous fable, or it is an inexplicable truth we accept as true because the inexplicable God says it’s true.

There are no other options. No other possibilities. No other explanations.

Here is some of what we know: An angel appeared out of nowhere to a young Jewish maiden to tell her she would conceive a son – not through human agency, but by the Holy Spirit.

We know Almighty God emptied Himself of His glory and took the form of a baby who grew to become a man who declared moral and social truths, who worked miracles, was murdered, and then returned to life three days later.

We know the angel who appeared to Mary also appeared to the priest Zechariah to tell him his wife Elizabeth would become pregnant, though she was far past her menopause.

We know other angels appeared among simple shepherds to announce Jesus’ birth, and Magi from the East followed a star to the child Jesus in Judea.

Of course, we know much more, but these few demonstrate the supernatural pattern surrounding the first advent.

As early as the third chapter in Genesis, God promised a savior to our world lost in sin’s darkness, a savior who, in the words of St. Paul, would give Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).  A savior of whom, as St. Peter declared: “All the prophets bear witness that . . . . everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43).

But as the prophet Isaiah asked 700 years before the first advent, “Who has believed our report?” (Isaiah 53:1), God not only asks you and me that question, but he also requires of us an answer.

Who believes it?

That’s the linchpin, the key, the crux of the entire matter of life and death – and where we will spend our eternity. St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned it this way: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

The first advent is either a monstrous myth – some today even call it a dangerous myth – or it holds for us life-changing truth.

It all depends on what we believe . . . .

And what we will do with that belief.