Monday, June 9, 2014

Come Holy Spirit

 “As Jesus turned water into wine, we have turned wine back into water, turned the intoxicating wine of the Gospel into a mushy grape jelly. He came to light a fire, and we have found a way to water it down… He came to spread his good infection, and we have found antidotes. The antidote for potent religion is pallid religion. The antidote for Christ is “Christian stuff.” The antidote for his noun is our adjective.” (Peter Kreeft, Jesus Shock)
“Why do people in churches seem like cheerless, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? ...Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of Power we so blandly invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hemlines to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and draw us out to where we cannot return.” (Annie Dillard, An Expedition to the Pole)
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Jesus, Acts 1:8)
Yesterday was Pentecost, one of my favorite feast days of the liturgical year. The mass I attended had some great Holy Spirit-themed music and a solid homily from our pastor. But, I must admit I was a little disappointed and saddened by something that happened, or more accurately didn’t happen, during the liturgy. The second reading at yesterday’s mass was 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13. Now, chapter 12 of First Corinthians is a good source for Pentecost, but verses 8-11 were edited out of the passage. Here’s what we didn’t hear at mass yesterday:
“To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.”
These are commonly referred to as the “charismatic gifts” in part to their association with the Charismatic Renewal. Others have referred to these as the “power gifts” because they demonstrate God’s power in very tangible ways: healing, miracles, prophecies, tongues. The Catholic Church maintains the validity of these gifts and their ongoing presence in the life of the Church today. The problem is most people don’t have any firsthand experience with seeing these gifts in action. Many assume that the exercise of these gifts is left only to the super-holy, to the rare saintly individuals.

I suspect the reason your average Catholic hasn’t encountered these gifts is because no one in the Church talks about them or expects to see them. Just look at how we conveniently edit them out of our reading of scripture. When candidates are preparing for confirmation we drill into them the “Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit”. Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord, are taken from Isaiah 11, a passage describing the attributes of the coming messiah. If you didn’t know any better or didn’t read the New Testament for yourself (and let’s face it, many average Catholics don’t) you would think that these are the ONLY gifts being handed out by the Holy Spirit. No wonder there is an energy crisis, a power outage, in so many of our Churches and in the lives of so many individual Catholics.

It wasn’t always this way. For the first few centuries of the Church the presence of the gifts described in 1 Cor. 12 was more normative and commonplace. I can’t go into all of the reasons for their decline here, but highly recommend Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit by Rev. Kilian O’Donnell, OSB and Rev. George Montague, SM.

Pentecost should be an annual reminder to the Church that the Holy Spirit comes in power, that we are filled and equipped with that power to bring the Good News of the presence of God into the world. The New Testament word translated as “power” is dunamis. It’s the same Greek root where we get the word dynamite, and it appears 116 times in the New Testament. We need to hear the words of St. Paul to Timothy as being addressed to each of us today, “For the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead, his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.” (2 Tim. 1:7)

As Catholics we believe that we have been “baptized into Christ” and that we have received the Holy Spirit (the presence of the Person, not just his gifts) through baptism and confirmation. More than that, we actually receive into our bodies the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus every time we partake in the Eucharist. Just think about all that power and presence that is being poured into us. What are we doing with it? There really should be a warning label for each time we gather together as a body. Jesus said his followers “will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these” (Jn 14:12) Is that your experience of church? What would it look like if we all took those words to heart, if we all started putting into use the grace and power we have been given?

I for one am tired living a “normal” life, I want to live a “power-filled” life. I can remember living that kind of life before. When I was in college I lived within a faith community that had an expectation that God was at work in our lives, that he was working through us, and that he was actively speaking to us. I’ve personally seen what can happen when we live this out. I’ve seen healings through prayer. I’ve seen people weep at hearing a timely and prophetic word spoken to them. I’m ready to see it again. How about you?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Confession is Good for the Soul

Porn kills.

I’m not talking about the many individuals within the porn industry who commit suicide, are murdered, or who die of AIDS, drug overdoses, or chronic alcohol abuse.

Porn kills those who watch it.

It snuffs out the ability to love, turning men & women inward on themselves. It compromises their ability to deal with real life by offering the lie of fantasy instead. It destroys empathy and normalizes the objectification of others.

It becomes a hindrance to relationship with others and with God.

I know because I’ve struggled with porn.

I was spending an anniversary weekend with my wife. She always talks about memories she has of spending time with her grandparents when she was young. We were at dinner and I thought I’d try to come up with some of my own childhood memories to share. I had loving grandparents on both sides of the family. My paternal grandparents would take me on summer vacations with them and I often slept over at their house on the weekends. My maternal grandparents owned a small mom & pop store and they would always let us raid the candy case every time we visited.

So as we’re at dinner and I pause to think of a funny or endearing memory to share I was shocked by what first came to mind. It was at my grandparents’ homes that I was first introduced to porn. Many times while sleeping over at my paternal grandparents they would let me watch TV in the basement--by myself. They had HBO and HBO had R-rated movies. It wasn’t anything hardcore and was probably mild by today’s standards for movies and even made for HBO series. But it was alluring and it was more than enough for a wide-eyed young teen. I saw my first Playboy when I was 14 and spending the night with my maternal grandparents. Among the various sundries for sale in their store were Playboy and Penthouse magazines. I would slip downstairs at night to sneak a peek. It was 1985.

The timing of this exposure was, in retrospect, interesting. It was about one year before I had an encounter with Jesus on a youth group retreat. I used to think that it was as if the enemy was doing his best to lay claim to my heart and build a stronghold there to resist the coming grace and life I would find. What it really was--and I’ve only recently come to see it like this--was the enemy marking me with a deep wound in my soul. It is a wound that would remain for years. At times it would appear to heal only to become infected and flare up again.

Since those early years of high school my spiritual journey would be marked by this struggle to seek after Jesus with all my heart while allowing my addiction to porn to act as an anchor holding me back. I would go through vicious cycles of falling/sinning followed by self-condemnation & guilt then experiencing forgiveness only to fall again. I was living a double life, publicly living as a faithful Catholic Christian, involved in ministries and deepening my study of the faith. I dated and married a faithful Catholic woman. I was (physically at least) a virgin until my wedding night. I say that I was physically a virgin because mentally & spiritually I had given myself over multiple times through lusting after pornographic images. Privately, I would give myself over to lustful fantasies and look for chances to seek out porn. Thank God the internet wasn’t around when I was in high school and college.

I got a job as a youth minister at a Catholic parish in Maryland fresh out of college and right after our wedding. Lisa got pregnant on our honeymoon and had a difficult pregnancy. I was too immature to handle the independence of adulthood. I was unprepared for the autonomy I had at work and the responsibilities of caring for a sick wife. I did what came as second nature to me when reality was too difficult to face. I turned inward and that included turning to porn as an escape. 

I didn’t seek help. I didn’t talk to my wife. Porn does that. Sexual temptation and sin throws jabs landing hit after hit, and then the knockout punch of shame puts you on the floor. Someone said that the devil tempts you to sin by convincing you that it’s not that bad and that everyone is doing it; then after you sin he makes you feel as if the sin is unforgivable and no one could possibly understand or accept you if you confess it.

If only I had the fortune of being an alcoholic, or gambler, or drug addict. Admit to one of those addictions and people feel bad for you. They understand that it’s an illness and to admit to being a recovering alcoholic sounds virtuous. Admit to struggling with porn and you’re just a pervert. This way of thinking had convinced me for many years that I needed to keep my struggles private and hidden. I lived in a quiet prison of shame. I wanted to break out. I wanted to be free. I had even convinced myself that I had screwed up too many times for God to forgive me. Surely he had had enough with my feeble attempts at living in purity.

Finally, one day I had had enough and decided that I would pour my heart out to God. I wrote a lengthy letter to God in my prayer journal. I was brutally honest with him. Then I let my wife read it.

Lisa was hurt, but she was forgiving. She didn’t understand why I felt a need to look at other women, especially like that. I didn’t know either. I loved her, but couldn’t control myself. Her willingness to forgive and to pray for me was the first time that I truly felt unconditional love. God was loving me through her. I had opened up the deepest, darkest, most wounded part of my being and my God and my wife didn’t shun me. They loved me. I didn’t think I was deserving of that love, nor did I think I would ever be loved like that.

That was a turning point. That was THE turning point for me. It wasn’t a miraculous or instantaneous healing. I wasn’t immediately delivered from the temptation of porn. But, that moment set me on a path of healing that I have been walking on now for many years. I have learned how important the healing power of confession is when combating temptation and for restoration when I fall.

There are two other factors that have helped change my heart. First of all there’s my kids. I have five daughters and I don’t want them exploited. I have a son and I don’t want him to inherit the sins of his father. The other factor has been learning the truth behind the fantasy of the porn industry. Reading about the broken lives and the sex trafficking. I remind myself that these are real people, made in the image and likeness of God, worthy of Jesus dying on the cross for them, girls with fathers and mothers.

If you have been suffering in silence with an addiction to porn I want you to know that you don’t have to go it alone. I want you to know that no matter how many times you fall Jesus stills loves you with an unending love. Tell someone. Sin and shame are like mold, they thrive in darkness. Let the light in and they become impotent. Go to confession. Turn to the Blessed Mother. If you fall, get back up. Porn will suck the very life out you. It will make your heart hard. But, remember the words of the Lord, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)

If you need help, here are a few resources: