Monday, December 29, 2008

A Life Worthy of the Lord

"Lead a life worthy of the Lord," Colossians 1:10

This phrase actually occurs in the midst of Paul listing some of the things he is praying for the Colossian Church. But it catches my attention. How do we live a life worthy of the Lord? Paul goes on:
fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. We live worthy of the Lord when we are bearing the fruit of good works and increasing in the knowledge of God. What does that look like practically?

Good works are primarily concerned with how we help the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, etc. Too many Christians do not give much, if any, of their attention to these things the Church has come to call the corporal works of mercy. Jesus outlines them for us in Matthew 25:
"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me," (Mt. 25:35-40).

Now I must confess that I am weak in this area. I've done these things before, but not with a regularity with which I want to face the judgment. The fact is that there have been too many times when I've turned away from such needs for all kinds of reasons intended to disguise my selfishness and apathy. God have mercy on me! I hope, then, that in the future I will be more quick to respond in the way our Lord calls us.

It's so easy to become jaded and think it's someone else's problem. But God has called us to represent Him. We live a life worthy of Him when we do the kinds of things He would do. And this is no mystery. He has told us what to do so we know what kinds of things He would do.

Our true spiritual condition is measured by the way we treat the person(s) we like the least. If the poor, the sick, or foreigners make us feel uncomfortable, then these are the people God will bring our way to test our true love and devotion to Him. We cannot love God whom we don't see when we are not loving the brother or sister whom we can see.

Secondly, we are living a life worthy of the Lord when we are increasing in the knowledge of God. This refers to prayer, meditation, study, and practice. First we must pray. We must sincerely ask God to help us get to know Him better. Then we must spend some time with Sacred Scripture. This is, after all, His word. He reveals Himself to us through holy writ. What is He saying? This is what we must explore. We must read it and meditate upon it. We must let it sink down deep into our souls. Then, once we have spiritually digested it, we must live it out.

In addition, we must go to Mass. All Catholics are required to attend Mass at least every Lord's Day and Holy Day of Obligation. But a lover of God- someone who is consumed with increasing in the knowledge of God, will go as often as possible, striving for daily attendance. Circumstances prevent that sometimes, but, again, the issue is as much as possilble. Furthermore, we can spend time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Here we are given the privilege of beholding Jesus face to face in the Holy Eucharist. How many things will He reveal to us about Himself?

In short, what we have before us in this brief verse is a challenge to build up both the outer life and the inner life of our spirituality in Christ. As we are strengthened through an increase in the knowledge of God, we are equipped for bearing fruit in every good work. As we pursue good works, we find we are also increasing in the knowledge of God. Both go together. One without the other will eventually leave us dry and burned out.

Too often I hear people complain that religion does nothing for them. Perhaps it is more true that they have left true religion largely untried. St. Paul speaks to us today to leave our excuses behind and begin today to live a life worthy of our Lord!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Light and Darkness

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.
1 John 1:5

Today is the third day of Christmas and also the feast day for St. John the Evangelist. The line above from St. John's first epistle catches my attention. John summarized the message of Christ by referring to Him as the light. In fact, He is light in so much as there is no darkness in Him at all.

We are not so. Before Christ enters our lives we are darkness and there is no light at all. But what happens when Christ comes in? "
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it," (Jn. 1:5). Light drives out darkness. Does this mean that in a moment we are completely like Christ- with all light and no darkness? Not exactly.

The fact is that darkness still finds little nooks and crannies in our hearts in which to hide. We determine how much light permeates our lives. John continues in his first epistle to tell us something about the true state of our lives. "If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin," (1 Jn. 1:6,7).

We think we are all right as long as we give God His due. That means that we go to church occasionally, pray once in a while, and generally try to live good lives. But that's not really how it works. While we continue to live for our pleasures and pride, ignoring the plight of the poor, and wasting our time and money on that which does not profit, we do not really know God. We still walk in darkness. It is only when we walk in the light as He is in the light that we are truly transformed and set free.

Does this mean we must be perfect to be Christians? No. But it does mean that we are honestly and earnestly striving for that. It means we are following Jesus to the best of our ability today and that we are trusting Him to enable us to do better tomorrow. It means that we will not tolerate for another minute our forays into darkness. We declare war on sin, and we strive to live virtuously through the strength provided by our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the part that trips up many. They want Christ for the majority of their lives; for the parts that people see; for the parts that will make their lives feel better. But in the inner recesses of their hearts they do not always want to surrender all. They like the light, but they still want to cling to a little of their darkness. It' s familiar. It's comfortable. It's even desirable. But it's still darkness and they are allowing it to shut out the light.

John is much more concrete. He does not allow himself, or his readers, to live with the ambiguities so familiar to most of us. We either walk in the light, or we walk in the dark. There is nothing in the middle. According to John, it's all or nothing. We either surrender all to Christ, or we do not surrender at all. Our Lord is not content with half-hearted obedience. He will not condescend to the numerous concessions we are demanding. He withheld nothing from us when He gave Himself for our sins, and He will not be content with any less of a commitment on our part.

The moment we recognize a bit of darkness in our lives, He is calling us to follow Him into the light. As we yield to Him, however imperfectly, He leads us in the path of discipleship; the path of eternal life. But if we choose to cling to our darkness while mocking Him with partial worship, we have stepped over into the road of darkness which leads to death.

Please do not be deceived. Things really are that concrete. It is we who make up all the variables along the way to justify our sin. Christ will have none of it.

St. John died in old age a very broken man in body, but very rich and strong in the Spirit. He was known as the beloved disciple. He was closer to Jesus than any other man on earth. He knows whereof he speaks and we would do well to heed his words to us today. I close with this, again from St. John:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,
(1 Jn. 1:8,9)

Friday, December 26, 2008

St. Stephen and Ecumenism

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit."
Acts 7:51

Today is the second day of Christmas. It is also the feast day for St. Stephen. St. Stephen was the first martyr. He was killed for his bold and uncompromising testimony before the Jews to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The quote above was part of his concluding statement. It's no wonder they stoned him. One wonders if St. Stephen would have survived this incident if he had been schooled in the modern ecumenical language.

Obviously to say something so inflammatory is going to result in a very negative response. How could he have hoped for something productive with language like that? Surely we have an example here of someone filled with zeal, but lacking in knowledge; or so the modern ecumenists would have us believe. Perhaps we should re-examine the issue. This is Scripture after all. What can we learn here?

Stephen was one of the first deacons selected to meet the growing issue of ministry to the poor. He is first presented to us as "
a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," (Acts 6:5). He is further described as "full of grace and power," (Acts 6:8), and it was said of his opponents that "they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke," (Acts 6:10). As he began this speech Luke tells us: "And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel," (Acts 6:15). As they were about to stone him, Luke says, "But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God," (Acts 7:55). Stephen died praying for his persecutors.

All of this is reminiscent of what Jesus said when He taught His disciples, "You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you," (Mt. 10:18-20). Luke is telling us that Stephen's testimony before the Jewish leaders was being directed by the Holy Spirit. If that's true, then what should we think of our modern ecumenical approach to religious dialog?

I will readily admit that this does not need to necessarily be an either/or choice. The Spirit may well lead in different ways in different circumstances. We have a number of instances in Scripture where the Spirit directed in entirely opposite directions based on the particular circumstances of the moment. Think about how the Israelites were instructed to utterly wipe out every man, woman, and child of their enemies, but how we were instructed to bear patiently and peacefully with the enemies of the Church. God is not restricted. He is not in a box. In His wisdom, He directs as He knows best.

Having said that, however, one wonders if we are seeing the whole picture, or hearing the Spirit as clearly as we say. It is one thing to seek areas of agreement and begin conversation based on our common ground. It is another thing to either implicitly, or explicitly, state that all religions are on an equal footing before God.

There are differences between Christians and Jews, or Christians and Muslims, or Christians and anyone else. Jesus is unique. He alone is the Son of God, and He alone is the way of salvation (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12). Denying or downplaying that fact is not an act of love. It is an act of cowardice, and it's result is the potential damnation of those who will never come to the full knowledge of truth because we have hidden it from them.

I am not advocating for the Church to forsake many of its ecumenical breakthroughs. I would not see us go backward in our efforts to reach our neighbors. But I am concerned that many who think they are advancing are actually becoming sidetracked into no longer representing the Gospel with which we were entrusted. Instead, let us take a look at St. Stephen.

St. Stephen was very clear in his proclamation of the Gospel. His opponents understood him well. His death was the seed of the growth of the Church. For we are told that in the crowd that day was a young rising star of Judaism by the name of Saul of Tarsus. This man would eventually have his own encounter with Christ and be forever after known as St. Paul.

With St. Stephen's example in mind, I would like to urge all those involved in inter-religious efforts to think first in terms of truth, the Gospel, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Let us not fear to anger or aggravate those who refuse our teachings. Only let us be clear as to what our teachings are. Through prayer and the Holy Spirit, I believe we will be much more effective than we are when we rely on our own wisdom and understanding.

I don't believe St. Stephen's death was a foolish, vain effort. Therefore I believe he has much to teach us about obedience to God and effective evangelism. A clear, conviction-filled message will go so much further than years of ecumenical efforts have. Let us return to the biblical model and trust the same Spirit who energised St. Stephen to do even greater things through His Church today.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sanctified Extravagance

For our nearly 13 years of parenthood, my wife and I have rarely splurged on something for either of our kids. This has largely been due to the fact that we simply couldn't afford it. But it's also because we sincerely seek to live a simple lifestyle. We don't want our life to be made up of things for a man's life does not consist of his possessions (Lu. 12:15). In addition, we want our children to learn the virtue of contentment and not get caught up in the covetous culture that abounds in our society. All of this made it quite a departure from our normal practice when we made the decision to get our children a big ticket item this Christmas.

I can't say exactly why I wanted to do it. I just did. My wife did too. We were both thinking the same thing when we finally talked about it. Finding the gift was a problem because they are in great demand and hard to find. But we finally did find one. Was it providence, the grace of God?

The surprise and joy of our kids upon opening this gift made it all worth it. And that is why we did it. We don't spoil our kids. I hope I'm right in saying that they understand the difference between receiving nice things as an act of love and expecting nice things because that's what will keep them happy. We did the former, not the latter.

Love doesn't need a reason to give. True love looks for opportunities to give, and to give extravagantly. Love gives even when it can't afford to; even when it "hurts". One can give without loving, but one cannot love without giving.

I began to realize that some of my efforts at frugality were really selfishness in disguise. Love could never stand to hoard mere money at the expense of the opportunity to tangibly express itself to the beloved. This is not to say we should be irresponsible spendthrifts, or to defend the repugnant materialism of our society. It is simply to say that love gives whenever it has opportunity.

I realize in all of this that it is exactly what we celebrate on this Day. Christmas is about sanctified extravagance. Because God loves us so much, He gave extravagantly. He gave all He could. He gave well beyond what He could afford. He was not cautious in His gift. He was extravagant. He gave it all. The gift of His Son tells us continually of the immensity of His love.

Christmas foreshadows Good Friday. Our Lord loved us so much that He gave all He had. He gave His own life so we could have life. There was no limit to His extravagance. Love cannot be contained.

Again, I am not promoting materialism. There are a lot of ways to give. Some of them involve money. To have the means of blessing those we love and to refuse to do so is simply to turn our backs on love. The real issue is that we love our money more than the people in our lives. When we don't have the means, we demonstrate extravagant love in other ways; by using our time and our talents to bless those whom we love. Either way, love continues to find its rightful expression in the extravagant giving.

This Christmas I am brought to see the great love of our God by re-discovering the natural expression of love in my own life. I have chosen to be extravagant in a particular manner to bless my children. The gift is not the blessing. The message of love it conveys is. However, as I look at God's gift, both gift and giver are the blessing.

I serve a God of sanctified extravagance and I want to imitate this action. May God bless us all with such sanctified extravagance this Christmas and always.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holy Advent

I haven't posted since Advent began. That has more to do with less access to a computer than anything else.

Not too long ago my wife and I decided that we really didn't need internet access in our home. We both are able to get on the internet from work. Furthermore, we have a public library where can go to surf the web. So why pay for it? More importantly, why spend the extra time? This has been one of the ways we are trying to simplify our lives. Another is that we got rid of our cable television. Now we still have videos and DVD's that we watch. But we don't have to put up with the undesirable elements of television, we don't have the incessant noise, and we don't have to pay for it.

This is part of what Advent is all about. It's about re-evaluating the things that are cluttering up our lives. It's a time to re-think what's really important. We are, after all, to be preparing for the coming of the Lord.

One word that has stood out to me this Advent season is the word "holy". To be holy is to be the person God created us to be. It is to be most fully human. It is to be like Jesus. Towards this end, I have been reading a book called "Rediscovering Catholicism" by Matthew Kelly. In the book, he refers to the idea of becoming the best version of yourself. That's holiness. He takes some time to talk about some of the saints who have left us great examples. How did they attain such holiness? Two things, as noted by Kelly. First, they had a clearly defined goal they wanted to attain. Second, they established good habits for accomplishing the goal.

So I want to be holy. How will I attain it? It's a process, but I think I am making some progress. At least I hope so. I am in the midst of re-evaluating what I do every day. What things am I doing that will help me attain this goal? What things are keeping me from it? What will help? What will hinder? With these questions in mind, I am able to develop better habits. With better habits, I hope to become more holy; more in keeping with what God has designed for me.

We are now on the precipice of Christmas. Excitement and anticipation fill the air. While I look forward to a lot of the things that most people do, I am also looking forward to the day when our Lord returns. Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We do this liturgically to prepare to celebrate Christmas. We do this practically to prepare for the coming of the Lord.

Come, Lord Jesus! Come!