Sunday, June 29, 2008

In The Footsteps of St. Paul

Today is the Feast Day of Sts. Peter and Paul. It coincides this year with the jubilee celebration of the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul. Thus, Pope Benedict XVI has declared this the year of St. Paul. In contemplating his life, I realize that I share some similarities with him.

St. Paul began as Saul of Tarsus. He was a very zealous man for his faith and made great progress over many of his contemporaries. Saul had a superior theological education and was a prominent pharisee when we meet him in the book of Acts as a witness to the martyrdom of Stephen. But once he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he had to start all over. The Church did not care how theologically educated he was, or about any of the rest of his accomplishments. They wanted to know if he was truly a Christian. They wanted to see how it changed his life. Needless to say, there was ample evidence of that. Still, it took St. Paul some 10 years to return to a place of public ministry within the early Church.

I find myself in a similar situation. I do not share St. Paul's theological education, nor his accomplishments, but I do share the fact that I find myself starting over now that I have come into the Catholic Church. It is helpful to remember that if someone of the caliber of St. Paul needed time in formation, then it should come as no surprise that I need it as well.

I find another similarity that I wish were not present. The more I ponder the depths of the Gospel, I realize just how much I was a pharisee, just like St. Paul. I was rooted in the letter of the law. Though I did not intend it, I think I often ministered condemnation rather than grace. I find that I now must un-learn many things in order to more fully learn the depths and the truths of my new faith.

It is my prayer, this day and always, that, like St. Paul, I may become an instrument in the hands of God to reach those lost in sin with His most precious Gospel. As I ponder his life in this upcoming year, I hope that I will find many more ways to imitate him... as he imitated Christ.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More Thoughts On The Desert

Yesterday, I considered the life of St. John the Baptist. It was a life primarily lived in the solitude of the desert. I continue to ponder the fact that it is the normative practice of God to prepare people for a long period of time in order to use them for a relatively short period of time.

Take the life of our Lord for an example. Here is the very Son of God who is perfect and sinless. What does He need to learn? Yet, it is the will of the Father that He be hidden for 30 years and then minister for only 3. We see a similar pattern in St. Paul. He has been highly educated, a philosophical and theological marvel. Yet, God hides him for a period of time before setting him loose to set the world ablaze with the Gospel.

In my own circumstances, I am finding myself in the waiting process. I don't know that I will ever make a grand impact in any capacity. But I know I hope to fulfill what I believe is the call of God in my heart. Yet, I am waiting. I am not in the place or circumstance that I desire. I am not doing the thing that I feel called to do. But this is where God has me now. What will I do with that?

To this point, I have spent a good deal of time grumbling and complaining. The remainder of the time I am dreaming and planning for what might be in the future. But that's really quite foolish. I don't know what God will do with me in the future. But I do know what He wants now. He wants me to learn to patiently and consistently carry a cross. He wants me to be a man of prayer. He wants me to be a husband and a father. He wants me to settle down and fully live in the now rather than be caught up in the dreams of the future.

I hope that as I continue to reflect on John, Paul, and our Lord, that I will be content to let God be God and simply follow in obedience rather than try to coerce God into letting me write the script. I find myself in a desert place right now. And that's a really good place to be!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In The Desert

"The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel."
Luke 1:80

Today is the feast day of the birth of St. John the Baptist. This man always amazes me because he had such a short time in the public eye, but made such a deep impact during that time. It's interesting to note the passage above. John grew up in the desert. He was there hidden away for many years before he became a household name. One wonders what those silent years were like. How was he trained and formed for the vital mission planned for him?

I believe John was first and foremost a holy man. This means he was a man of prayer. Time in the desert is time spent in prayer. God prepares many of His great men here. He did it for Moses, for Elijah, and even for our Lord. But John is especially characterized as being a man of the desert. When he begins his ministry, it would appear no one was around. John didn't go into nearby towns to promote his "preaching meetings". He simply appeared as "a voice in the wilderness." One imagines that he was first ignored, then ridiculed, and finally, they listened. This apparant crazy man in the desert was bringing people by the thousands to repentance. The Jordan was filled with the penitents as they sought him for baptism. After a short while his bright flame was extinguished. But the embers last for eternity. Today, we still hear him calling to us, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"

But the thing that catches my attention most right now is the time he spent in the desert. No one likes the desert. It's dry, hot, uncomfortable. The food is lousy, if there is any. And it's lonely. There's no TV, no internet, no cell phone, or ipod. It's just John and the desert. Oh, and then there's God, of course. And that's the point. It takes cutting ourselves off from all the other distractions to be able to hear the voice of the Lord and develop the firm conviction of preaching His word and no other.

John was a special man appointed for a special purpose- to prepare the way of our Lord Jesus. But we all have a similar purpose. We are here to call the world around us from its frolicking in sin to genuine repentance "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." To be effective in this endeavor, we, like John, must be trained in the wilderness. We need time alone with God. We must endure our sufferings. We must listen closely to the whisper of God amidst the barren wastes of the desert.

Jesus, the King, lives and reigns in our midst. The kingdom is here because the King is here. But one day soon He will return to judge the living and the dead. There will be no two-minute warning. He will simply appear and time will cease. Then each of us will given an account of our lives before Him. Our words and our actions will all be played out before Him. Then He, the just judge of all, will render a just judgment for all. In light of all this, the words of John echo loud and clear through the portals of time: "Repent!"

Do we hear him? Will we respond?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Samson Life

It always saddens me to read the story of Samson in the book of Judges. Here was a man that was chosen by God to do great things even before his birth. He is born to parents who were unable to conceive children up to that point. It hearkens to similar circumstances shared by Abraham and Sarah. It is also the case with the parents of Samuel and John the Baptist. In each case, the giving of a child by God pointed to a special and powerful purpose for his life. It appears the same was the intention for Samuel. But he didn't live up to his calling.

Samson was a Nazarite from birth. Nazarites were essentially precursors to the religious life. They took vows to abstain from wine and anything killed, and could not cut their hair. This pointed to a special consecration to God for His work. Even though Samson was raised this way, he wandered away quickly. He broke his vows. We find him to be a partying, reckless, womanizing man.

In the end, he betrays his last secret to his lover. The secret to his superior strength was in his long hair. Once it was cut, he was like any other man. Of course, hair does not give strength. But God gave him his strength as long as he maintained his vow to not cut his hair. It was a sign of God's faithfulness even in the midst of Samuel's rampant disobedience. But once the hair was cut, that was the point of transgression for which God said, "That's enough! Now you must pay the consequences."

He was captured by the Philistines and blinded. Then they used him for their entertainment. He finishes his days in captivity to the enemy he was called to conquer. Though he has one last moment of glory in literally bringing the house down on his enemies, it is still a far cry from what he was called to do in the beginning.

I think there's a lot we can learn from Samson. God calls each of us for good works in Christ (Eph. 2:10). He sets us apart for His special purposes through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He has big plans for us to conquer our enemies of sin (see yesterday's post), and to live in the joy and beauty of holiness with Him forever. But many times we sell out to our passions. We choose the immediate gratification of what's near at hand over the eternal reward originally offered to us. Like Samson, we find ourselves captive to our sins.

It doesn't have to end like that, but for too many, it does. They have lived a Samson life. They have betrayed their calling and purpose in life. Now, they have nothing but the ridicule of their enemies and the regret of their own memories.

Judas lived a Samson life. He squandered the unique privilege of being called as one of the twelve. He betrayed the Lord. In the end, he could have found forgiveness. But he didn't. He died in the clutches of sin and despair. He is known forevermore as the betrayer.

I should note that it is generally thought that Samson was repentant in the end as he begged for God's anointing one last time. We believe he found forgiveness in the end. However, how much better it would have been had he lived obedient to God all along!

Today, we have the opportunity to decide how we will live. If we have lived a Samson life to this point, we can turn to God and be changed. It's not too late! Don't wait another minute. The past cannot be changed. But the future lies open before us. God grant us forgiveness and the grace to overcome our enemies at last!

Friday, June 20, 2008

What About All The Violence In The Bible?

I've been reading through portions of Joshua and Judges. You can't read those books without coming across some horrific war scenes. God's command to them was to utterly stamp out the pagan nations around them. They were to slaughter wholesale every man, woman, child, and sometimes, even animals. How do we reconcile this with the peace- loving Jesus of the New Testament?

I think it's important for us to remember that God's revelation is progressive. He gave covenants before the Law, and the Law before the Gospel. With our Lord is the fullness of the revelation of God. With Him, everything that is prophesied is fulfilled.

In Old Testament times, God chose to do justice through the military conquest of His people, Israel. Crimes were sometimes punishable by death. But with the coming of our Lord, these things are no longer necessary. Now God calls us to love. Part of that command is to walk in the way of nonviolence. We are told to not resist evil and to turn the other cheek. It is our consistent demonstration of love that demonstrates true justice in the world. Even though we will be persecuted, and even killed, for this testimony, it remains the way of the Lord, which makes it the path of the disciple as well.

So what are we to do with these violent passages from the Old Testament? I believe they demonstrate how ruthless we are to be with the enemies of our spiritual lives; that is, with sin. Too often, we play with sin. We treat it like a pet. But it's really an enemy. We need to utterly slaughter it in our lives. Sometimes it will seem as innocent as children, or as benign as animals, but it all has to go. When we see this command being faithfully carried out by Israel, they prospered. When we are faithful to uproot and demolish sin in our lives, we will prosper as well.

One more thing I should note. Israel conquered its enemies through the power of God. They did not have more people, better military training, or superior weapons. In fact, they were terribly outclassed in all of those things. But they relied on God and were obedient in faith. For that, they saw God's victory. We do the same as we follow their example. We are powerless against sin in our own strength. But through the power of God we are mighty. In His strength we are called to nothing less, and nothing else, than complete victory. Let us go forth, then, and conquer!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Virtue and Knowledge

"Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge."
2 Peter 1:5

In this passage, Peter tells us that God has given us everything that pertains to life and godliness in order that we can be partakers of His divine nature (vv. 3,4). This shows that in a sense, our salvation is all of Grace. It comes from God, and it is through His power that we are able to become like Him. However, the passage goes on to show us that we have a part in the process too. The verse above introduces that idea. We are to add to our faith various things. The first thing on the list is virtue, followed by knowledge.

This caught my attention. For it is exactly the opposite of how many of us do it. We seem to put a higher priority on knowledge. New converts, or inquirers, are quickly given doctrinal teachings to begin their formation. Virtue is left for much later when they are more mature. But according to Peter, it is virtue which should be taught first.

Virtue pertains to moral excellence. It refers to how we actually behave. Perhaps this is why knowledge is so much more popular. It doesn't necessarily have to mess with our current practices in life. But virtue upends our former life and calls us to holiness in deed.

The early Church was characterized much more by virtue than knowledge. That is not to say they were ignorant of their faith. But it means that much more emphasis was placed on how one lived. Christ had come to destroy our sins and restore His holiness in our lives. That would be seen the clearest through the demonstration of a changed life, not a theological education. Even those chosen as presbyters and bishops were chosen more for the virtue of their lives than for their intellectual aptitude.

I am not campaigning for ignorance. Ideally, both virtue and knowledge will be pursued. But I think the order, and the emphasis, are important. It must be virtue. The observance of virtue in the Church will make many more converts than that of knowledge. So let us add to our faith virtue, then knowledge, etc. A restoration of the apostolic order can be expected to produce apostolic results.