Thursday, February 28, 2008

How Far Will We Go?

It never ceases to amaze me to what depths we are willing to plunge for the cause of a little entertainment. I do not watch much TV. I like entertainment as much as anyone, but most of what is on television anymore is an insult to intelligence and an assault on virtue. But today I was listening to radio commentary about a new reality TV show in which people are submitted to lie detector tests. The point is to revel in the strange and perverse. Although I suspect that it attempts to portray itself as a bastion of truth. I've never seen the show, nor do I intend to. In the small portion I heard of the show, a woman was found to be an adulteress to the chagrin of her husband who was obviously in agony over the revelation.

I began to think about things I had read in the Fathers of the Church. In their day a popular form of entertainment was to go to the arena and watch condemned criminals fight for their lives against other men or even animals. The theater was also popular in their day and the moral standard seems to have been similar to our own. The plays dwelt on the themes of fornication, adultery, and various other perversions with some profanity thrown in for good measure. In both cases Christians were urged to refrain from such forms of entertainment because they vicariously enlisted one in the same sins being portrayed before them. It seems to me a similar call is in order in our own day.

Do we really need to watch Jerry Springer, or even Dr. Phil? Is it our business to revel in the pain and perversion of others? Obviously not! Rather we are called to a much higher standard. St. Paul writes, "Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things," (Phil. 4:8). Although he wasn't directing his comments to entertainment, these words form a good criteria for what should be considered such by the Christian. Perhaps it would be good for some of us to copy this verse in large letters and paste it near our TV. Then we would have before our eyes the standard of God. I'll bet the end result would be a dramatic change in what we allow into our homes and into our hearts via this medium.

I am reminded of what St. James wrote in his short, but powerful letter: "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God," (Jms. 4:4). There is our choice. We can indulge in the latest round of decadence, or we can have the friendship of God. It really is that simple.

Oh God, forgive me for the many times when I have gone along with the crowd to satisfy my banal lusts. Grant me mercy for my sins and the Grace to overcome them and to live on the higher plane of holiness. Grant this same Grace to my brothers and sisters who struggle along with me. Amen!

Monday, February 18, 2008

For Those Who Love Money

I spent some time this past weekend meditating on the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Jesus told this story because He was addressing some Pharisees who were lovers of money (v. 14). In the story both the rich man and Lazarus died. Lazarus had been poor and sick and begged for scraps at the door of the rich man. When they died, Jesus said the rich man was in torment, but Lazarus was in paradise. Now the thing that caught my attention is that this is a pretty graphic story, and one in which Jesus gives us a rare, behind the scenes, view of what takes place after death. For all that is revealed in this story, there is no mention of faith, or receiveing Christ, or any number of things that often are touted as the way of ensuring that we will inherit eternal life. Instead, the whole issue boils down to money and what was done, or not done, with it.

The rich man went to hell, not because he was an evil man, or even because he didn't believe in God, but because he ignored the poor and used all his wealth for himself. Lazarus was blessed, not because he had a marvelous conversion experience, but because he was poor. Let me inject here that I think I am on safe ground by assuming that poor in body is synonymous with poor in spirit in the worldview of Luke. So I am not trying to say that people can go to heaven merely because they are poor. However, what catches my attention more is what caused the rich man to go to hell.

In spite of whatever religion he may have had, the rich man's religion did not reach the practical level of helping his fellow brothers of the human race. If we truly love God, we cannot help but love our neighbor. In fact, the only way we can truly show God how much we love Him is by loving our neighbor. Prayer, attending church, reading the Bible, and a host of other religious activities do not demonstrate how much we love God as much as our attitude toward the poor. Even though the others are important, this is where the true state of our hearts, and our religion, is revealed.

Think for a moment about all the places in the Bible that refer to the poor. Jesus said He was anointed to preach the gospel to the poor (Lu. 4:18). Paul said the apostles of Jerusalem were most concerned that he remember the poor, which was also of utmost concern to him (Gal. 2:10). John emphasizes that ministry to the poor is how we practically demonstrate our love of God (1 Jn. 3:17). James uses our ministry to the poor to demonstrate that faith without works is dead (Jms. 2:14-17), and reminds us that pure religion involves helping widows and orphans (Jms. 1:27). That's just a brief summary of some of the New Testament writers. If we examined Moses we would find numerous laws to help the poor. In addition we could hear the voices of the prophets calling for justice for the poor.

Why is God so concerned with the poor? I'm not sure I know the answer. I just know He is. I also know that more than anything else, this is how we will be judged. No more evidence for that is necessary than to look at the famous passage of final judgment found in Matthew 25. There we are plainly told that we will either inherit eternal life, or eternal damnation, based on whether or not we took care of the least of Jesus' brothers- the poor. I used to hear it said that judgment would be like a theological exam. God might ask us something like, "Why should I let you into heaven?" To this we were to reply that Jesus had purchased us at the price of His own blood, and we were counting on His merits alone. Now that is true, but that's not how God will judge us. Instead, He reveals in this passage of Scripture that we will be judged by our works, specifically our works done for the poor. These reveal the true state of our hearts before God.

Now I've done a number of things for the poor. I've given money, I've fed the hungry, I've donated clothing, I've visited the sick and the imprisoned. But I've also bypassed people in need more times than I can count and that scares me to death. It's not that I'm bound by some warped sense of working my way to heaven. It's because I understand that true faith demands obedience. It's because I'm seeing my heart revealed in ways that it never has been before, and I'm not entirely pleased with the picture. I can't offer my "scraps" of good works to God when He knows my heart is still selfish and in love with my stuff.

So if you're like me and beginning to realize that our attitude towards the poor says a lot more about our salvation than how much Scripture we've memorized, then I'd like to invite you to a challenge that I'm forming in my own heart. It's this: the next time some stranger asks for money, give it to him. Don't worry about what he's going to do with it. Don't try to figure out if he's conning you. Just give it away. In this instance, if you're like me, this has more to do with what God is doing in us than about whether or not we are being conned, or ripped off.

In addition, begin praying for how you can be actively involved in the ongoing effort to help the poor, both here at home and around the world. Look for something that allows you to get personally involved and give of yourself rather than just sending money (but do be sure to send money as well).

I hope that very soon, if you're like me, we will find ourselves finally being freed of our self-centered, materialistic prison. And lest this begins to sound like it's all about me (or you), it's not. It's about God and the people all around us who are made in His image. It's about Jesus and ministering to Him when He shows up in the poor who are with us every day.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Lord's Day

Please see this article for a wonderful treatment of the Lord's Day written by Maria von Trapp of the von Trapp family (famous from "The Sound of Music").

Many Blessings!

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Crucifix

Sometime in my long journey to the Catholic Faith I began to think about the significance of the crucifix. As an evangelical Protestant I had always detested a crucifix. I believed it showed Jesus as still crucified whereas He is risen from the dead. Instead I favored an empty cross. But somewhere along the line I began to rethink the whole issue. Yes, Jesus is risen. But does that mean we cannot portray Him as crucified?

A lot of people were crucified. But only Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. Paul says it was at the moment of His death when our Lord made a public spectacle of demon powers, routing all the forces of darkness (see Col. 2:15). That started me thinking. But then the more I pondered the crucifix, the more I discovered that all the essentials of the Faith are right there.

In the crucifix we see the love of God poured out for us. We also see the gravity of sin. We are sobered by the fact that the wages of sin is death. We learn about suffering and sacrifice. All of this and so much more are contained in the crucifix. The more we meditate upon it, the more we learn about the Faith.

Perhaps most important of all for me is that by meditating on the crucifix I see how it is that I am to imitate Christ, my Lord. I see laid before me the road of suffering and sacrifice. I understand that I am called to the patient endurance of whatever trials and temptations befall me. I see that I must give myself for others. I realize that I must humble myself to such obedience that, yes, I do become a doormat for others, and I am thankful to be so.

When does a servant stop serving? Where does he draw the line and say thus far and no further? Our Lord knew nothing of the kind. Is this too radical? Is it over the edge? No, I don't think so. It's just that so many of our modern notions (read traditions) get in the way of truly dealing with who Jesus is, what He did, and what He calls us to do in response.

The crucifix teaches us differently. We obediently follow our heavenly Father all the way to a cross, and to death. By living crucified we become heirs of the resurrection life our Lord died to give us.

This time of Lent is probably the most appropriate season to give these things consideration. Like Paul I must confess that I have not attained to this goal. But I press on in order that I may apprehend the One who has apprehended me and that laying my life down, I may find it again in the end.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Way of the Cross

Yesterday we began the holy season of Lent in the Church. For those who are not Catholic, or are not familiar with the Church calendar, it is often mistakenly assumed that we are "lending" something to God. This is not the case. Lent stems from an old English word which means "to lengthen", and refers to that time of the year when the days are beginning to get longer again. It is during this time that Catholics set aside forty days for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in obedience, and in imitation, of our Lord. In this way we are preparing for the great feast of the Resurrection.

Today's Gospel reading captures the heart of this time like few others. It is from Luke 9:22-25 and reads in part: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me." These words of our Lord give clear direction to all who would be His disciples as to the path of discipleship. It is the way of the cross.

The first step is to deny ourselves. We all know what it means to deny something. It is to say "no". We must say no to our own desires if we will be a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is called repentance. It means to turn around. We were born in sin with our backs to God. We are summoned to turn around and face God. We are to cease our old life of sin and begin our new life in Christ.

Secondly, we must take up a cross. This means to bear with sufferings patiently. Whatever sufferings we may encounter, we have the opportunity to use it to imitate Jesus. Living in a world of sin brings many trials. Our own sinful nature is inclined to respond in a certain way. But Jesus calls us to bear these things patiently. In this way we are crucifying our old sinful nature.

Finally, we are told to follow Jesus. This means we are to imitate Him. The simplest definition of a Christian is one who imitates Jesus. We cannot necessarily imitate His miracles, and we often fall too far short of His wisdom. But we can imitate His humility, His love, His compassion, and His servanthood. As we do these things, we are following Jesus. As we ask ourselves how Jesus wants us to respond in the day to day activities of life, we are following Him.

Luke's Gospel adds something that is missing from the others. He notes that this command applies daily. In other words, it is not enough to have begun to walk this road sometime in the past. We must renew our committment each and every day. It is not the one who begins, but "he who endures to the end" who will be saved.

I wish I could say I've been doing this perfectly. It's not true. And that's another wonderful feature of Lent. It offers numerous opportunities to be reconciled to God. He knows that we are mererly dust. He is not shocked by our failures. He compels us to come to Him and freely confess our sins so that we may be forgiven. His love is boundless, and His Grace is greater than our sin.

The Christian knows he is called to this lifestyle at all times and not just at Lent. But this season offers a chance to renew committments and restore things that have been amiss. Thank God for His abundant Grace in providing such a time!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Church

I have been on a somewhat forced hiatus due to varying circumstances of late. But as I return to "blogland" I am thinking about something that commonly occupies my thoughts- the Church.

What is the Church? The Church is quite simply the body (bride) of Christ. Think about it for a moment: those two naturally go together. It was from Adam's body that a bride was formed for Him. So it is with the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ. From His side flowed water and blood, symbolic of the two primary Sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist. While I am not taking issue with the historicity of this event, I believe I am correct in seeing it in symbolic terms as well. So we see that the Church was formed from the side of Christ and the picture between the first and second creation is made complete.

Who are the people that comprise the Church? All baptized Christians. Here we come to a point of division amongst many Christians. The answer from the ranks of those with more Protestant evangelical leanings would be to say that it is comprised of all believers, regardless of whether or not they have been baptized. But the Tradition of the Church and the overall teaching of Sacred Scripture combine to show us clearly that it is by means of baptism that one becomes part of the Church. Faith is presupposed, but it is baptism that effects the transition. Thus our Lord stated emphatically the necessity of being born again of water and the Spirit (Jn. 3:5). St. Peter, when asked how one should respond to the truth of the Gospel, called for repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). Baptism is the means by which we die to the old order of fallen humanity and we are resurrected with Christ to the new order of the redeemed (see Ro. 6). This is the indelible mark which seals us as Christ's own forever.

Now some will contend with me on this point, saying that faith alone is all that is necessary. They arrive at their conclusions from a fundamental misunderstanding of both faith and the Sacred Scriptures. Faith cannot be merely intellectual. It needs action for life (see Jms. 2). If one believes, one acts. When one believes in Christ, he is baptized. Secondly, where the Scripture speaks of faith alone as the necessary ingredient for salvation, it understands faith in its historical context which always includes baptism. To see this borne out, look at all the instances of conversion in the book of Acts and they almost all include the mention of baptism. This was a fundamental understanding of the early Church.

Now, this is the tricky part. Even though we may rightly say that all baptized Christians are part of the Church, it remains an uncomfortable truth that many of them have separated themselves from the Church. They are family, but they are estranged. And their estrangement is self-imposed. They have chosen to practice their faith either independently, or as part of a group that has separated itself from the one historic Church, namely the Catholic Church. They are Christians, but they have cut themselves off from much that flows from their birthright. This is a very grievous situation.

The Church continues its relentless efforts to reach out to such through various ecumenical endeavors. But I think one thing must be clearly understood. They are indeed separated from that one, true Church founded by Christ. This should compel them to prayerful examination, and, hopefully, to a return to that Body which is their true home.

Having spent much of my life outside the Church, and having recently come in, it is my earnest hope for all Christians to do likewise. Our continued divisions only hurt the cause of Christ. It creates confusion and results in the loss of souls who otherwise would have been saved from their sins. We are indeed family. When can we look and act like one?

I bear no malice in my comments. I only hold a firm conviction backed by insurmountable evidence to those who will honestly and objectively investigate it. I know there is much more to be said on the issue, but perhaps this will provide a starting point for some who have yet to give it proper consideration.