Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Fear is a Liar

I’ve been praying and reflecting on the state of our world over the last 6 months. It seems that we are in the grasp of a demonic darkness rooted in fear. This darkness is suffocating, intensifying, and seeks to blot out any light. We are fearful for our health, our finances, and our safety. Fear is driving division and unrest to isolate us against each other. 

Fear is one of the primary results of sin, it’s right there with shame and death. Fear gripped Adam in the garden (Gen. 3:10), and we have been in its grasp ever since. At its most fundamental level fear is rooted in our separation from God, in our fallen nature. Cut off from God by sin we feel alone and abandoned, and we feel threatened and vulnerable---because we are. Fear causes us to act from a place of self-protection and self-preservation rather than how we were originally created to live through the gift of ourselves to other in free acts of love. 

COVID-19 has robbed us of the false sense of security that we had control over certain aspects of our lives. More than anything it reminded us of our mortality with the shock and awe of a slap to the face. The Enemy has used this virus to shake us to our core and fear for our physical wellbeing over and above the spiritual reality that physical death is not the worst thing that can happen to us (Matt. 10:28). Confined to our homes, shut off from friends and family, we have taken drastic measures to preserve physical life at the expense of actually living. If fear is rooted in our existential crisis of being cut off from our relationship with God, then our response to this pandemic has been to further isolate ourselves from each other. No wonder anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation have all been on the rise. 

Even the social unrest we are experiencing in our cities over the problems of racism and police brutality are rooted in fear. So many people of color have a lived experience of living in fear. This fear has given itself over to anger and it some cases anger to rage or violence. This cycle of fear, anger, rage, and violence is self-perpetuating. As a society we have rejected the truths of God’s revelation about our own nature. We reject the idea of original sin or our inherited brokenness believing that if we all work together we can eventually create a utopia, if we just get everyone to think the right way, say the right things, act the right way then we can eliminate racism or hate. But the root of these problems of racism and inequality are not in external actions or systems, the root is in our fallen nature. Judging others by the color of their skin or selfishly seeking to gain all I can at the expense of others is caused by fear—fear of others, fear of going without—and self-preservation that prevents us from living as loving, self-giving sons and daughters of God. 

There is a reason the bible tells us well over 100 times to not be afraid. We are a people who are given over to fear and distrust and it colors everything we do, our thoughts, our actions, and our relationships. Even as baptized children of God we are more often motivated and controlled by our fears than by living in trustful abandonment to our loving Father. It’s just in our fallen nature to be afraid, but God desires to set us free from our fears. The only hope we have in this fallen world consumed by fear is Jesus. Only he can set us free from these chains of fear that bind us. Only when we learn to live in the power of his presence can we experience this freedom because the only thing that can overcome fear is perfect love (1 John 4:18). When we know and experience God’s amazing, unconditional, free, and scandalous love for us then the power of fear is broken. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Worthy of the Gospel

Let’s file this under “things I never thought I’d have to write about.” Several months ago I noticed a lump on my left triceps. I brought it up to my doctor and after looking at it and feeling it, he said it was a lipoma, a benign fatty tumor, and nothing to be concerned about. He said he’d seen this in other patients and when he sent them for referrals to the surgery office the surgeons just tried talking the patients our of having an elective procedure. A few months passed and this lump wasn’t going away, in fact it had grown. I saw my doctor again and again he said it was a lipoma, but he would agree to give me a surgical referral if I really wanted one. Due to a busy schedule I let a couple months pass and then finally asked for that referral at the end of March.

After several tests, including a biopsy, I got the diagnosis last week that I had pleomorphic liposarcoma, a rare and usually aggressive form of soft tissue cancer. Talk about a lightning bolt out of the blue. I was given the biopsy results over the phone and immediately looked those words up on Google, then proceeded to go before the tabernacle to cry a little and pray a lot. About 1 in 2-million people are diagnosed with this each year, that’s roughly only 180 new cases in the U.S. Fortunately, I had a chest CT that showed that it had not spread to my lungs so it appears contained to my arm at this time. As I write this I am currently waiting to see an oncologist for a treatment plan that I’m told will most likely start with chemotherapy then surgery then either more chemo or radiation. I ask for your prayers and am confident in the healing power of God. 

Someone told me that the mental/emotional side of a cancer diagnosis is just as difficult, if not more so, than the physical element. The day I got the news and throughout the weekend I found myself going back and forth from confident optimism to dwelling on the worst case scenarios. The hardest part for me is thinking about my wife and kids. Fortunately, from the beginning of this new chapter in my life I have turned to the Lord, and he has not let me down. 

Immediately several scripture passages came to mind I began to pray and meditate over them. 

Psalm 27 
The Lord is my light & my salvation, whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?
One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: 
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
and he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.
I remain confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Philippians 1: 18-27

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.  (emphasis added)

Paul was writing to the Philippians about suffering for the Gospel, but I have decided to follow his example as I suffer this disease in my body. I will conduct myself in a manner worthy of the Gospel. I will hope and not despair. I will trust and not worry. I will praise and not complain. I will keep an eternal perspective no matter what comes my way. 

I was praying after receiving Communion at Mass yesterday. I was laying my heart out before the Lord, as I have been since getting this diagnosis. I was telling him how I am placing my trust in him; that my life is in his hands; that I am counting on him to preserve my life and heal me. It was then that the Lord spoke to my heart and asked me if my life wasn’t already in his hands before I got this news, if I didn’t need to trust him or rely on him for my healing and protection. This news may have come as a surprise and a shock to me, but as my wife reminded me, God was not surprised by it. 

Ultimately nothing of eternal importance changes before and after the news of cancer. I was his beloved child before and I remain so today. I was utterly dependent upon God for everything in my life before, and I still am today. He was the one who held my life in his hands before, and he will continue to hold me now. He was my healer then, and my healer now. What I have received is a gift to put life in perspective, to reorient my priorities in light of eternity. I firmly believe that I will be healed of this cancer, either through the miraculous hand of God or by God working through doctors and medicine. What I am reminded of is that this life will end one day, but as the readings from the Mass yesterday proclaimed a day is coming, “He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain,for the old order has passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)

Not one of us is promised tomorrow. We are given the present moment and it is ours to use to bring glory to God or squander away. I have squandered too many moments in my life. I am filled with conviction to live each moment for God’s glory by sharing his love with others, by living a life worthy of the Gospel.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Keeping ALL His Commands

Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper, “If you love me, keep my commands.” (Jn. 14:15) As Christians we look to these words of Jesus as a kind of mission statement and a guiding principle in what we do and how we even define what it means to be a disciple. While some of Christ’s commands may seem easier than others, they are all challenging and all call us to move out of our comfort zones. 

We are commanded to repent (Mt. 4:17), to avoid anger (Mt. 5:21-22), to be forgiving towards others (Mt. 18:21-22), to pray for our enemies (Mt. 5:44), and to care for the disadvantaged and suffering (Mt. 25:31-48). These commands of Christ form the heart of Christian morality and social justice. Although difficult at times, no one doubts the seriousness of the call to obey these commands, just as no one doubts Christ’s intention that these apply to any and all who would call themselves disciples. 

When we read how Jesus said that the world would know we are his by our love (Jn. 13:35) we apply this standard to our lives, individually and collectively as a church. We recognize that love for each other is a hallmark of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Likewise, we take the words of Jesus to be light and salt (Mt. 5:13-15) to the world as a command to share our faith with others as a way of giving glory to the Father. 

Even the more challenging demands of Christ are not taken lightly. When he challenges us to cut off a limb or gouge out an eye rather than sin (Mt. 5:28-30) we understand our call to holiness is serious. As Catholics we accept his word that the bread and wine become his Body and Blood, and his command to “Do this” in and through the celebration of the Mass. 

But there are some commands of Jesus that we do not take seriously. There are certain commands that we actively ignore. We make excuses and develop elaborate theologies to explain these commands away. We say they don’t apply to us. They seem odd and outdated, something for a less modern world.

Which commands am I talking about? 

“‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way…Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (Lk. 10:2,8-9)

“And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mk. 16:15-18)

Jesus commands his followers to “heal the sick” and even says that miraculous signs will accompany “those who believe”—not just the apostles or super holy. Yet, so many Christians today, Catholic and Protestant, either doubt or outright deny the power of God to heal today. For many Catholics they may allow for such wonders, but only in the extraordinary lives of the saints or special places like Lourdes. The thought that an average believer could possibly pray for and see the sick healed is just too much to believe. It’s a little ironic that we can believe in transubstantiation, the forgiveness of sins, various apparitions or weeping statues, but have such a hard time believing the very plain words of Christ. 

Of course, to really believe and follow the command of Jesus to “heal the sick” requires a whole different kind of faith of us than loving others or caring for the poor. Nothing brings you out of your comfort zone like offering to pray for someone to be healed from their injury, disease, or suffering. It is completely out of our control, and totally dependent upon God. I can pray, but the Holy Spirit is the one who works the miracle, or not. On the other hand, there is something liberating about this also, whether or not someone is healed when I pray for them doesn’t depend on me. All that is required of me is faithfulness to Jesus’ command to pray and a little faith—the size of a mustard seed—that God is able to do work. The greatest risk to me is looking a little foolish if nothing happens, but the reward when someone does experience the healing presence of God is so much greater than the risk!

With the new year upon us and the need to come up with a new resolution, perhaps this year resolve to follow all of Jesus’ commands, including praying for the sick to be healed. This isn’t just intercessory prayer in our private prayer closets; it is laying our hands on the sick and praying for them in person. We are called to be faithful to the command and the more we are the greater our faith will grow and we will see God move to heal. With so many hurting people around us everyday the greatest gift we can give them is an encounter with the healing love and presence of Jesus.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

That's Not How It Works

I received a flyer in the mail from a local non-denominational church advertising their services for the holiday season. These mass mailings aren’t all that unique, many churches, Protestant and Catholic, send them out around Christmas and Easter as a way of reaching out to people who may be looking for a place to worship. But this flyer was a little different than others that I’ve seen and it got me thinking.

Here’s part of the text from the flyer (I changed the name of the church):
Go ahead. Sleep in on Sunday.

Whether you like the idea of sleeping in, want to free up some extra weekend time for that family gathering at the in-laws, or are just heading out of town on the weekends. Whatever the reason, find some extra peace from the holiday hustle with us on Thursdays at our Early Weekend Service. 
We’ll have the same great kids environments, same great coffee, same great music and teaching you’ve come to expect from Relevant Church…Now on Thursdays, too. 
Relevant Church. Where you’ll find friendly folks, great coffee, dim lights and easy exits if you change your mind.

Obviously this particular faith community is trying to make themselves accessible and non-threatening—they have “easy exits” after all. They’re trying to be sensitive to the fact that many people are incredibly busy between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the message they’re sending, which is basically you can have Jesus on your terms alone.


The Catholic Church celebrated the solemnity of Christ the King on Sunday. It’s a day to remember that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. A day to recall that he has invited me to enter into his Kingdom, the realm where his will is done “on earth as it is in heaven”. It is a time to reflect on the reality that I am a servant of the King and I serve Him on His terms, not mine. When Jesus called the disciples it was not at their convenience, but at the cost of their lives. They dropped their nets, walked away from their livelihoods and followed.

Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote about the idea of cheap grace versus costly grace. He said, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Cheap grace is God on my terms. It is safe and controllable. Non-threatening.

Of the alternative, costly grace, Bonheoffer wrote, “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

We are living in a time of great upheaval, confusion, and uncertainty. More and more people are abandoning faith in God than ever before. Scandals and scandalous behaviors dominate the headlines. I don’t think that good coffee and a hipster Jesus who won’t ask too much of us are the answers to these problems, and neither did St. John Paul II who said, “The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity.”

To quote John Paul II’s friend, Ronald Reagan, we need to raise “a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people.” The problem with trying so much to look like the world to attract the world is that you don’t stand out enough for the world to see you. We do not have the luxury of accepting Jesus on our terms. We are called to holiness, love, and sacrifice.

As I pondered how this church flyer was trying to make it easier on people I was struck by the contrast to my Catholic faith which throws in a holy day of obligation, December 8th for the Immaculate Conception of Mary, right in the middle of this busy time of the year. The Advent season itself is a challenge to be different from the world. It is supposed to be like a little Lent, a time of penance and self-examination. A time to slow down and ponder in our hearts the mystery of the Incarnation and to look forward with expectation to Christ’s return. My God does not ask a lot of me, He asks for all of me. To be a disciple is to leave my nets—my desires, my plans, my will—and follow after Him.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Slow, and Sometimes Frustrating, Path of Discipleship

In the aftermath of the tragic events in Charlottesville there has been a wave of criticism towards some churches and pastoral leaders who did not promptly or explicitly express the “proper” public outrage and condemnation of the white supremacists. I know priests who received highly critical, if not outright nasty, emails from parishioners. Social media has been flooded with articles, blogs, and opinions from right and left about what should or shouldn’t be said or done. More often than not, the driving factor of this controversy has been substantially colored by one’s political leaning. It is great that the internet connects us and allows the spread of information to happen in near real time, but it also compels people to give an immediate response as well. Against the advice of St. James, we become quick to speak and slow to listen.

Ultimately the challenge before us is how should a disciple of Jesus Christ respond in the face of injustice, violence, hatred, and racism? If we believe that Jesus is the Way, then how is he leading us in these turbulent times?

Unfortunately, the path of discipleship does not meet our demands for a quick fix. The way of Jesus is the way of love and that is a slow and personal process. The way of Jesus is not easy or comfortable; it calls us to die to our own selves, our own desires, our own plans and expectations.

Let’s not forget that Jesus walked the earth in a time and place of inequality, oppression, and division. Pontius Pilate and Herod ruled the land with iron fists. Tax collectors took advantage of the poor. Even the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, exploited their positions of power. Zealots were rising up and engaging in armed resistance while the Essenes withdrew from society as the forerunners of the Benedict option. We are to be imitators of Christ, so what did Jesus say and what example did he give?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Let’s rephrase what Jesus said in terms that apply to us today.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You should punch a Nazi.’ But I say to you, love the racists, and pray for the skinheads, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not white supremacists do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not Antifa anarchists do the same?

Maybe instead of holding anti-protests filled with screaming and signs we should simply hand out bottled water to the racists, or offer to provide lunch for them? Does that sound too radical? Is it too much to ask? I have to confess that it’s not my idea, but St. Paul’s advice, “Rather, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” (Romans 12:20-21)

As I watched the news reports and videos of the protests and violence, and while I took in the Facebook commentaries, and as I shook my head at our President’s tweets I was convicted of one simple truth. The white nationalists and the Antifa radicals and the social commentators and our politicians were all acting out of a place of fear. Fear of losing control. Fear of the “other”. Fear of opinions and backlash. Fear of political ramifications. If you strip away the hate and anger and grandstanding, if you pull back the curtain, you find that the Great and Terrible Oz is really just a small person living in fear of what he or she cannot control.

This is why it is so important to combat hate with love. This is why Jesus pleads with us to love our enemies. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) It’s spiritual jujutsu, using the aggressor’s force against them. A fire can only burn if you continue to feed it fuel. Love sucks the oxygen out of fear, it strips it of its power. Hate can huff and puff, but it cannot bring down the brick house of love.

Once again, consider Jesus as our example. He was certainly not blind to the social issues and injustices of his time, but his primary concern was the individual conversion of heart of the people he encountered. Whether it was Nicodemus the Pharisee (John 3:1-21), the woman at the well (John 4:4-42), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), or the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), Christ’s method was maddeningly slow but deliberate. Christ resisted the temptation to segment people into groups—religious leaders, social outcasts, the “one-percenters”, the systemic oppressors. He knew that one life deeply impacted by love, could have a great impact on others.

Change in the Kingdom of God happens slowly. It doesn’t always move at the speed or direction that we want. It comes only at the expense of our very lives lived in a radical way of love.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Matter of Perspective

People often look at the four Gospels and wonder why there are slight differences between them. They all share the same essential message, that Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh who lived and died and rose from the dead. Yet each Gospel has it's own particular lens of looking at Jesus: to Matthew Jesus is the Messiah, to Mark he is the Lord, to Luke he is the Divine Healer, and for John the Son of God. Vatican II's document on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, tells us that scripture is "the words of God, expressed in the words of men" (DV 13). 
By way of analogy, this video does a great job of showing how different photographers, trying to emphasize a particular idea, produced different views of the same man. Again, like the Gospels, the essence of the man photographed is the same, the lighting, angle, and setting give different perspectives.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Reflecting on the Last Words of Christ (Part 3)

[Note: These reflections were originally posted for Lent 2011.]

"I thirst." (John 19:28)

It’s approaching three o’clock in the afternoon. For nearly 20 hours Jesus has endured torturous treatment at the hands of the chief priests and Romans. He’s been tried, beaten, scourged, dragged his cross through the city and finally nailed to it. Since noon he’s hung on the cross, the hot sun beating down on him. He called to mind Psalm 22 when he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” That Psalm goes on to describe his condition when it says, “My mouth is dried up like clay, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.”

But, Christ's thirst was for more than water, and his words call out to each of us today just as they did to those at the foot of the cross. Jesus thirsts for us. Stop and think about that for a moment. God longs for us. His desire for us isn't born out of necessity, as if there is something lacking in God, but springs from his love for us. He longs for us to know him because he knows that only then will we be fulfilled. The only thing that will bring us true joy and healing is relationship with him and he thirsts for us to enter into that peace.

At the same time we thirst for God whether we realize it or not. In the words of the Psalmist, "As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My being thirsts for God, the living God." (Ps 42) When Jesus called out from the cross those standing nearby offered him a sponge soaked in vinegar to drink. Have you ever tried to drink straight vinegar? It's not exactly a thirst quencher. Yet every day we choose the vinegar of sin to try to quench our thirst rather than come to Jesus who offers living water.

Jesus calls out from the cross to let us know that he longs for us who unknowingly thirst for him. This Lenten season may we choose to drink deeply of the living water Jesus offers through having a personal relationship with him.

"It is finished" (John 19:30)
"Father into your hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46)

When the Allied Forces successfully invaded France on D-Day it marked the beginning of the end of World War II. That victory all but assured the ultimate defeat of the Nazis. It was only a matter of time to finish the job. Certainly there were many more battles to fight, but once the Allies were able to establish their front lines there was no hope for a German victory.

Jesus came preaching, "The Kingdom of God is near!" Jesus spoke more about the establishment of God's Kingdom than anything else. All that he did was oriented towards this message. The miracles he performed were signs of the presence of the Kingdom. He cast out demons, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and forgave sins all to demonstrate that in the Kingdom of God there is no enemy, no disease, no blindness, and no sin. In short, Jesus came to establish a beachhead for the Kingdom of God to defeat the works of the devil and redeem our fallen world.

Hanging on the cross, Jesus was aware that he had accomplished his mission. By his death and coming resurrection he would guarantee God's victory over sin and death. He had withstood all that Satan and this world could throw at him. He wrestled with the weakness of human nature and triumphed through obedience. He took on our loneliness, fear, and pain. He endured insults, curses and temptation. He did it all, and when the last enemy, death itself, came to claim him he proclaimed, "It is finished" and entrusted himself to his Father. He gave his life; it was not taken from him.

Jesus' victory on the cross won our salvation and liberated us from sin and death, just like the people of Nazi occupied territories were freed by the Allies after D-Day. There are still many battles ahead and the way is not easy. The enemy stills claim victims and inflicts casualties while fighting a losing effort. But we can draw strength from knowing that while there are battles to fight the war has been won. If we endure we will win. This is what Paul means when he writes: 

"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:37-39)
As our Lenten journey draws to a close let us look forward with hope that we too can experience the power and presence of God's Kingdom in our lives as we wait for the day when the last battle is done and we can enter into the rest that Jesus has prepared for us.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Reflecting on the Last Words of Christ (Part 2)

[Note: These reflections were originally posted for Lent 2011.]

"Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother." (John 19:26-27)

Just a few weeks ago we celebrated the feast of the Annunciation. As we listen to the final words of Jesus before his death and resurrection we also call to mind the words of Mary to the angel, "Be it done unto me according to your will." How similar is Mary's abandonment to the will of God as her own son's prayer in the garden the night before he died, "Not my will but your will be done." Here at the cross the obedience of Mary and Jesus come together to free us from our slavery to sin so that we may use our will to say yes to God as well.

In these simple words Jesus entrusts his own mother to the Church, represented by the beloved disciple, and the Church to his mother. We can be confident that as we look to Mary she will always lead us to her son. She was there when he was conceived, there when he performed his first miracle, there when he sacrificed his life for us, and there when he poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Scripture tells us that along the way Mary pondered these things in heart. She is our model for living a contemplative life of reflecting on what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. 

May we follow the example of the beloved disciple and take Mary into our homes. May we learn from her humility and faith in God. She said yes when it wasn't convenient to do so. She trusted God even when she couldn't fully understand how he would fulfill his promise. She accepted the joys and sorrows equally because she ultimately knew that God was in control and could be trusted to "work all things together for the good of those who trust in him." May our  prayer be that Mary, our mother, will reveal her son to us in ways that are new and meaningful to transform our lives by the power of his cross and resurrection.

"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)

Where was God when terrorists attacked churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday? Where was he when women and children were gassed in Syria? Is he all powerful but uncaring, or is he all loving but impotent?  Where is God when over 1 million abortions take place each year in United States alone? Why did God allow the cancer to return? Where is God when life hurts?

“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Jesus cried out from the cross with the very questions that shake our faith. The great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar reflected on the depths of the suffering Jesus endured for us on the cross. In his homily, “The Scapegoat and the Trinity”, he said, 
“Jesus, the Crucified, endures our inner darkness and estrangement from God, and he does so in our place. It is all the more painful for him, the less he has merited it ... there is nothing familiar about it to him: It is utterly alien and full of horror. Indeed, he suffers more deeply than an ordinary man is capable of suffering, even were he condemned and rejected by God, because only the incarnate Son knows who the Father really is and what it means to be deprived of him, to have lost him (to all appearances) forever. It is meaningless to call this suffering ‘hell,’ for there is no hatred of God in Jesus, only a pain that is deeper and more timeless than the ordinary man could endure either in his lifetime or after his death.”
As Catholics we reject the notion that the Father could forsake the Son; that God could turn away from God. But Jesus was not merely God, he was the God-man and in his humanity, hanging on that cross it is not beyond reason to see that he felt abandoned and forsaken. In that moment, in the midst of suffering that goes beyond what we could imagine, in the fullness of his human nature Jesus experienced that dark night of the soul when it seems that even God has turned away. 

What does this have to do with answering questions about evil in the world? How does this apply to the problems of our pain and suffering? Because the Son of God passed through the way of suffering he was able to redeem our pain. It means that though this world is fallen and broken we must pass through the way of suffering, the way of the cross, if we want to experience the joy and glory of the resurrection. The good news is that we have a Savior that will go through it with us, or as Catholic author Melinda Selmys explains, “For Christ, in being forsaken on the cross, entered into this, the deepest of human sufferings, so that even in the greatest darkness we will never be alone.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reflecting on the Last Words of Christ (Part 1)

[Note: These reflections were originally posted for Lent 2011.]

"Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

Dr. Bernard Nathanson passed away on February 21, 2011. Dr. Nathanson was a leader of the pro-abortion movement and founding member of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL, now the National Abortion Rights Action League). He estimated that he had supervised or performed over 75,000 abortions including the abortion of his own child. He admitted that he and his associates purposely feed misinformation to the media and deliberately attacked the Catholic Church in order to change public opinion to support legalizing abortion in the late 1960’s. Then something happened. Dr. Nathanson started to question the pro-abortion claim that the unborn child was merely a collection of cells and not a human life.

A longtime atheist, Nathanson still continued to support abortion rights despite his growing doubts until the mid-1980’s when he finally became convinced through advances in medical science that abortion was, in his words, "unjustifiable murder." He then helped to produce one of the most famous pro-life videos, The Silent Scream. Nathanson devoted the rest of his days to fighting legalized abortion. More significantly, he came to faith in God and was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1996.

At the moment of his baptism, every sin he had ever committed, every abortion, every lie, was forgiven. Think about that for a moment. The guilt of 75,000 murders was wiped away, cast as far as the east is from the west. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t he have to pay for all those innocent lives he claimed? Welcome to the scandal of the cross. 

When I think about it, really think about it, I want Bernard Nathanson to be completely washed clean. I don’t want him to have to pay for his sins because I know I can’t pay for mine. If God can forgive Dr. Nathanson then I know he can forgive me. The cross means there is nothing I can do that’s too big for God to forgive. This is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

Forgiveness is the meaning and purpose of the cross. Jesus focuses our attention on this fact by praying for the forgiveness of his executioners. Most victims of crucifixion shouted out curses at their executioners, Jesus cried out for mercy for them. Nowhere else is the scandal of the mercy and grace of God on display more than at the cross. Humanity’s greatest sin, killing God's Son, is met by God’s greatest display of love, the life of his Son given for us.

"I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)

Tradition tells us the name of the Good Thief was St. Dismas. We know nothing of his life other than the fact that he was sentenced to crucifixion for being a criminal. Many would say that his final act was to steal heaven on that Good Friday. After the first thief mocks and scorns Jesus, Dismas rebukes him and offers a simple request to be remembered by Jesus. Somehow he recognized in the beaten, bruised and broken body of Jesus what the crowds of Jerusalem could not or would not see. Somehow he was able to see Jesus as the King of Kings ready to enter into his kingdom. His simple act of faith was rewarded by Christ’s promise of salvation.

It’s easy to be skeptical of death row confessions. We hear how hardened criminals suddenly “find Jesus” when it seems most convenient for them and it’s difficult not to react with some level of incredulity. We often ask ourselves how God could be so gullible as to accept the last minute “conversion” of someone who appears only to be trying to avoid going to hell. It seems unfair that someone who devotes their life to serving and following God and someone who ignores God until their final days would both be welcomed into heaven together. 

In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who goes to town in the morning and hires men to work in his vineyard for a set wage. The man goes back to town near noon and again in the late afternoon each time hiring more workers for his vineyard. At the end of the day he pays all of the men the same amount. The men hired in the morning grumbled because they thought they should get more. He reminds them that they agreed to work for the price they were paid and tells them not to be envious of his generosity. 

Does this mean that we can put off conversion so we can do what we want? Certainly not, for no one knows when their life will be required of them. Jesus and the scriptures are clear that we must remain faithful and vigilant. The moral of the story is not that the wicked prosper by fooling God, but that God's mercy knows no bounds and is always available to us. Indeed, it is God who makes a fool of the devil by mercifully accepting those who call on him even with their last breath. 

Jesus’ words to the Good Thief should give us all hope. While we have breath, it is never too late for any of us to turn to Jesus. It's not too late for the friend or family member we love who has turned from God to come back to him.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Lord of Lunatics and Liars

This election cycle has seen its share of incivility, name-calling, insults, lies, and crudeness. It’s not a stretch to say that it’s brought out the worst in many people. Whether it’s the Wikileaks emails revealing corruption, bigotry, and arrogance from the Hillary camp, or the leaked video tapes (and outright public comments) from Trump displaying misogynistic, narcissistic, and immature behavior it is clear that the 2016 election has been better suited for a Jerry Springer episode than the selection process for the leader of the free world. A simple survey of Facebook posts and comments shows how deeply divided our nation is, and how winning political points is more important than the methods used to get there.

This all reached a new low on the eve of the election when Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life posted two videos (one on Facebook, one on YouTube) in which he displayed the body of a child killed during a second trimester saline abortion on an altar while delivering a political speech urging people to vote for Trump and the Republicans. (I’m not going to post a link to either video as it is too disturbing.)

After a wave of negative reactions Fr. Pavone has essentially doubled down on his position by deflecting blame to abortionists and Democrats while attacking or belittling his critics. For Fr. Pavone, the atrocity of abortion is so great, and the need for political victory so desperate, that his action is completely justified. In his view, crudely displaying a child’s naked body on an altar dedicated for sacred use to deliver a political speech pales in comparison to the evil of abortion. In other words, the ends justify the means.

This kind of thinking and acting is never morally acceptable.  Suppose a fictional Priest Against Porn ministry wanted to drive home the importance of standing against pornography. They reason that perhaps many are ambivalent about porn because they haven’t seen it or been exposed to how graphically disordered it can be, so they decide to post a video of their leader speaking against pornography while in the foreground a naked woman gyrates provocatively. Would this be okay? What if they were taking a stand against sexual violence so they displayed a woman who had just been raped, still weeping and shaking. Would the seriousness of standing against rape justify the exhibition of a victim?

Abortion is a great moral evil, a sin that cries out from our blood soaked land for justice. It is a legal, state-sponsored holocaust that has claimed the lives of millions of children. Abortion is, as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “the greatest destroyer of love and peace” in the world. But, abortion is not our nation’s greatest sin, nor is it our greatest spiritual struggle. It is only a symptom, a natural consequence of a much deeper, much graver depravity.

We are guilty of and in bondage to idolatry.

I am not just speaking of our secular, hedonistic culture. I’m talking about those who claim the name of Christian. Survey after survey often shows little difference in the moral behavior of believers vs. non-believers. Our national religion is the adoration of the Self. Pride was the original sin and it continues to plague us today, individually and communally.

We have turned from God and towards ourselves. We seek only that which brings pleasure, confirms our biases, and keeps us comfortable. College campuses today promote “safe spaces” free of offensive words, thoughts, or actions; and they are often mocked and criticized for it. In reality, we have all created our own safe spaces in which we insulate ourselves from the call of Christ to “be transformed” rather than conformed to this age.

Jesus stands and calls us to follow, and that implies that we must leave our lives, or dreams, our desires behind. He calls us out of our selves, in fact, he calls us to die to our selves. As Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This death to the self brings ultimate freedom and joy. It liberates us not only from our self-centered desires, but also from our fears through abandonment to Christ. He calls us out from the world around us into a new order, a new Kingdom.

This political season has been a challenging one for those called by Christ to follow him. In truth, the Christian life does not easily fit within any earthly political system, and never has. The choice presented to us, what one 60 Minutes focus group called a choice between “the liar and the lunatic”, has caused many well-intentioned Christians to say and do some very out of character things. Those opposed to Clinton’s rapid pro-abortion position have found themselves in the unenviable position of supporting and defending Trump just because he claims to be “pro-life”.

This brings me back to the morally repugnant stunt that Fr. Pavone is trying to justify. I believe Fr. Pavone is motivated out of a true desire to see an end to the holocaust of abortion. I believe that he really believes that what he’s doing is necessary, right and effective. However, I wonder if this isn’t a fearful act of idolatry, of placing hope and trust in a man (Trump), or a party (Republicans), or a system (politics) rather than trusting in God. Is this just playing down to the level of your adversary? Is it morally compromising in hopes of gaining a political win? What does it profit a man (or a country) to win an election but loose his soul?

I saw a meme that said, “The problem with the election is that one of them is going to win.” So true. Today we will elect the most unpopular presidential candidate ever. Tomorrow half the nation is going to feel defeated, cheated, confused, and scared. Regardless of who wins, our nation is going to be confronted with serious issues from terrorism to the economy to the treat of war to moral and religious social challenges. As Christians we must remember that Christ is our King and heaven our homeland. We need to earnestly pray for the blessing and conversion of whoever wins the election. I close with the advice of St. Paul to St. Timothy (remember who the political leaders were when this was written): 
“First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2:1-4