Why do things stay so new?



It’s a common experience that the “newness” of a thing will wear off after a few months or years.  A new car or a new house – a new job, even a marriage – eventually settles into a routine and is no longer exciting.  For me, there has been an exception to this.  Six years ago, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church after a lifetime of Christianity in another fellowship.  The newness of Catholicism has not worn off.  If anything, it’s more exciting than ever.  How can that be?

This has relevance to anyone who is considering conversion.  Many people have questions about whether a Christian conversion will wear off over time, will become old and sort of worn before it is discarded for the next new thing.  Maybe my experience will be encouraging.

Here are some things I’m pretty sure do not explain it

I’m not still excited about my Catholic faith because it’s a new experience to be a Christian.  I have served Jesus as well as I knew how for almost my entire adult life.  Ups and downs happened like most other things.  At one point, I betrayed the Lord big time, but with his help and the help of a wonderful brother in Christ, I recovered.

It’s not my personality.  I’m one of those people who get tired of a thing fairly quickly.  So my Catholic faith doesn’t continue to be new simply because that’s the sort of person I am.

It’s not because I have found some wonderful new ministry within the Church that excites and challenges me.  In my old fellowship I taught Bible classes constantly, preached every once in a while, conducted weddings and funerals.  In some contexts, I had influence and respect.  By contrast, as a Catholic layman I have not been able to do what I once did.  My personal ministry has even sometimes seemed insignificant compared to what I once did.  So that’s not it.

Nor is it the richness of Catholic fellowship.  To be sure, I have made wonderful friends in the Catholic Church, including clergy and religious.  Yet, the person-to-person involvement, the combined faith and social fellowship I loved in my old church is something I wish I could see more of in my parish.

Nor is it because my six years as a Catholic have just been one joyful high after another.  The Cleveland Diocese where I serve has seen its share of trouble in the last few years.  50 parishes have been closed.  I was an active member of the lay group selected to make difficult recommendations regarding five parishes in our area.  Our recommendations were not taken initially – we appealed to the Bishop and he changed his mind after tons of work and angst.  So I have been part of the hard side of a diocese in a Rust Belt city, and I don’t have illusions of Catholicism as butterflies and chubby cherubs and sweet little statues of Mary in a flowerbed.

It’s just a guess, but here’s what I suspect keeps my Catholic faith new

I suspect it is because of the Catholic Church herself.  Not simply what she proposes for belief, nor the beauty of her liturgy, but rather the Church itself.  If my suspicion is correct, then two traits of the Church keep things new.

The Church has power.  The authority Jesus gave first to Peter, then later to the apostles, continues to subsist in the successors to these men.  The initial and explicit instances of granting power are the ability to forgive sins and the power to bind and loose — the so-called power of the keys.

So I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.     Matthew 16:18,19

 

[Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”      John 20:21-23

Very quickly, as the Church matured and came to an understanding of her role as the Body of Christ, other powers were exercised.  It is given to the Church to receive and proclaim and protect God’s truth with divine assistance and without error.  (John 16: 8-15, esp. verse 13   also I Timothy 3:15 )  This power guarantees the Church can assist me to grow authentically into the fullness of Christ.  This power allows me to rely on her to give me guidance and relieves me of the danger of every-man-for-himself determination of what the Bible means, of what the will of God is.

The Church has power to survive.  When Jesus gave Peter the power to forgive and bind and loose in Matthew 16, he also spoke of founding the Church and said the gates of the netherworld would not prevail against her.  Now I know a bit about the history of the Catholic Church, a history that is often inspiring, but sometimes is shameful and anything but godly.  Yet, God has stood by this promise to the Church that she will survive.  No institution in history has lived as long as the Church.  No other has survived what would have killed a merely human institution as has the Catholic Church.  No other has combined the preservation of what is unchangeable with the sort of growth and development which prove she is alive.

And that brings up my second suspicion as to why my Catholic faith remains new.

The Church has life and gives life.  This came as a shock to me.  I think it took a couple of years to realize that, yes, the Church is all the individual Christians taken as a group (which is all I had previously believed the church to be), but at the same time she is also more than that.  She really is the mystical Body of Christ, possessed of the life of Christ and able to give that life to me.  She is a living organic whole possessing and dispensing life as the Church.

In a way, this possession of life and giving of life explains the familiar description of the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the life of the Church.  In John 6, Jesus says unless a person eats his body and drinks his blood, that person does not have life in him.  It’s in verse 53 here.      This life belongs to the Church as the Body of Christ.  By virtue of her priesthood and her inheritance in the apostles and her intimate, lively relation to her Head, the Church offers me life.  The source of everything good, everything lively in the Church, is this nourishment in the Eucharist rooted in Jesus that literally continues without end across the world and across time.  And the summit of all the power and life of the Church is this same communion in the body and blood and Jesus.

I receive this life at Mass.  It never gets old or loses its power to energize and quicken.  It never fails to amaze me, and puzzle me, for that matter – it seems too good to possibly be true, yet there it is.  The 2,000-year history of the Church and her teaching assure me I eat the Body of Christ in the Sacrament.  I am assured the life I receive is linked to the liturgy in heaven, is precisely the gift that Jesus said he gave for the life of the world, and is precisely the sacrifice of Calvary given in a new way.

Never has the Savior been so immediate, so available and intimate, as he is now.  The life received in the Eucharist spills over into prayer that draws me, into liturgy that transcends my ordinary circumstances and then seems almost to haunt my mind between the times at Mass.  This life seems even to chip away at my weakness and sin, gradually and gently coaxing me more fully to obey God, like medicine for what separates me from God and man.

And it all stays new.

 So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.        II Corinthians 5:17

The man who hugged a pew



A few days ago, I saw a man hug a pew in a small chapel where I pray.  Seemed pretty strange at first, but it ended up as one of those “life lessons” that sometimes come unexpectedly.  Here’s how it happened. 

I get to pray in an adoration chapel attached to a monastery of cloistered Poor Clare nuns. (Here’s something about cloistered life.)  I pray in the late afternoon when the place is usually empty.  What a fellowship, what a joy, to pray with the Lord and the unseen nuns.  The picture is the monstery here in Cleveland.

A few days ago, there was a frail little man in the front pew on one side praying.  I had not seen him before.  He was bent over where he sat in that way that lets you know this fellow simply cannot sit or stand straight.  At one point, he took off a light jacket and I’m not exaggerating – it took three minutes just to get his arms out of the jacket and the jacket out from behind him.  I wasn’t “watching” him or anything like that, but when there are just two of you, it’s hard not to notice things. 

When he was ready to leave, this dear old man gathered himself and stood up.  Then it was like he sort of fell and grabbed the end of the pew and hung on.  He hugged the pew.  My reaction was that he was in trouble.  I almost stood up to go help him.  Then I realized what he was doing. 

The Church asks us to make a gesture of respect any time we come into or leave the exposed Blessed Sacrament.  Most people double genuflect.  Those who cannot manage getting down on both knees, and then up again, will make a profound bow from the waist.  Well, this little man couldn’t do either of those.  Balancing while he walked gave him trouble.  So instead, he hugged the pew and sort of slumped over it.  He bowed the best he could. 

This obviously is not a prescribed gesture of respect.  You won’t find hugging the pew in any of those pamphlets that tell you what to do in an adoration chapel.  Yet, I’m sure I have never seen a more moving or beautiful or eloquent posture in my life.

 He did what he could

Just before Jesus was killed, he was anointed by Lazarus’ sister Mary with perfume that cost a year’s wage for a working man.  It’s in the first part of Mark 14.  Everybody who was there were angered at such extravagance.  Except Jesus.  Part of what Jesus said in Mary’s defense was “she has done what she could”.

 That is exactly what that sweet, slumped over man did when he hugged the pew.  He did what he could.  I don’t doubt he would have preferred to be able to genuflect or give a profound bow.  But he could not do that, so he did what he could.  It may have occurred to him that what he did must look pretty odd, but that didn’t stop him.  He did what he could.

 It brought tears to me then and it still does today.  It was a grace to know this Christian had struggled just to get to the chapel (there are stairs), yet there he was.  It was a privileged moment to see a man give what he could, give everything he could, in a sign of respect for Jesus present in the Sacrament.  It was faith and love and hope that hugged that pew. 

 I reflect on how little it costs me to give Jesus what I give, then I think of the man who hugged a pew, and I am thankful for a God so good that he draws such devotion and love.  I am simultaneously humbled and encouraged and made to know that I am surrounded by saints.  And I resolve to do what I can, not merely what is convenient or cheap.

 For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.  II Corinthians 8:12

Peace and joy and endurance



During Easter each year, we read the Gospel of John.  Several times, we hear Jesus say that he gives us peace and joy.  He makes these promises before he dies and again after he is resurrected.  Does Jesus promise peace and joy so that we can sit at home and watch TV without worrying?  How should I approach times in my life when peace and joy seem to be exactly what I do not have?  Is this an empty promise?

This is the fourth post in a series about God’s promises.  Look here , and here , and here and here to read the other posts.

Do I get peace and joy so I can sit back and take things easy?

Some preachers today proclaim a “gospel of prosperity” – serve God and you get money and success, maybe even ease.  But let me give you two absolutely iron-tight reasons this simply cannot be the message of the Gospel.

First, you cannot find a single hero of the faith in the Bible or in the Church’s saints who lived that way.  Who you gonna name?  The apostles?  Nope, they all died as martyrs, except John, and he was exiled on an island.  King David?  He had trouble almost every day of his life.  Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other Old Testament prophet you want to name?  Nope, nope, and nope.  Some of them suffered horribly, others were discouraged and ignored.  Abraham or Isaac or Jacob?  Are you kidding?  Go read and you see their life was full of challenge, even suffering.

The same goes for the Saints and Doctors of the Church.  They did not receive peace and joy in order that they could just take it easy.  The overwhelming majority of them led lives of difficulty.

Second, even though Jesus says we receive peace and joy, he specifically says it won’t be easy.  Look at two passages from Mark’s Gospel.

And these are the ones sown on rocky ground who, when they hear the word, receive it at once with joy.  But they have no root; they last only for a time. Then when tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.    Mark 4:16,17

Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.     Mark 10:29,30

Jesus doesn’t say “if” persecutions come – the Lord says “when”.

So is the promise of peace and joy an empty promise?

No, it isn’t empty – it’s deeply significant in a Christian’s life when properly understood.

The main thing in responding to Jesus’ promise of peace and joy is to distinguish what these things are and are not. “Peace and joy” is not the same thing as having plenty of money and good health and children who never give you trouble and the admiration of the people around you and good bone structure and great hair.

Peace and joy is the abiding conviction that you are doing God’s will, which is precisely the confidence that all is well with you.  You are in agreement with God, who is the great Ground of all there is and can be.  The focus of your being lifts from current conditions and a short-term future, onto a horizon linked to eternity.  God is your friend.

Let me offer an example from Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism dvd series.  (By the way, the dvd series is a triumph.  You can learn more here.

Here is Father Barron’s example.  In the Beatitudes, Jesus speaks of the happy person as one who does not look for happiness in economic wealth or in power or in experience.  The happy person hungers for God and for the qualities that belong to God.  Jesus even says  in the final Beatitude “Blessed are you when men… persecute you… on account of me.”  Father Barron then goes to Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim altar depiction of the Crucifixion and says this painting of Jesus nailed to the cross is a picture of a happy man.  Why?  Because this is a man who does the will of God and knows it, a man who is motivated by what motivates God.  Thus, this is a man who is at peace and one who has joy, despite his suffering.

St. Paul speaks of much the same thing.

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.  Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus…  I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.  I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.     Philippians 4:6,7,12,13

Paul’s peace did not depend on whether he was hungry or well-fed.  His peace was not a function of whether he was in abundance or in need.  He lived by the strength of Jesus.  His peace came from Jesus.

The oddly logical link between joy and peace and suffering

God in his wisdom and forbearance has allowed our world to continue, even though so much of this world is controlled by people who are evil.  Somehow, it is the will of God that hurtful people nevertheless retain the freedom to exercise their hurtfulness.  It is his will that even natural forces have power to cause physical suffering for his children.

He gives peace and joy to you and me who serve him – he does this in order that we may endure suffering in this world, yet remain bound to Father and Son and holy Spirit.  It is odd, isn’t it?  For now, it is necessary that there be pain and hunger and persecution and all the rest.  So God holds me close, he “guards my heart and mind in Christ Jesus” so that when I suffer I am not in danger of separation from him.  Romans 8:28-39  is another passage that describes this process.

Far from being an empty promise, God’s peace and joy are what make it possible for me to imitate Jesus in his suffering, even Jesus on the cross, “who for the sake of the joy that lay before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God”.   Hebrews 12:2

Suffering and persecution are inevitable for God’s people.

To endure suffering, God gives his people peace and joy.

When the suffering is ended and we are in the presence of God, part of our perfection will have come from the suffering we endured with God’s help.

Christians and famines



The Hunger Project reports that every 5 seconds a child (a child!) dies of hunger-related disease.  How may I reconcile so many deaths related to hunger versus the promise Jesus makes that a person who seeks the righteousness of God will receive food and clothing?  There are 6,000,000 million children who die every year of hunger-related disease – am I supposed to think that every one of them dies outside this promise?  Can I believe the reason these children die of hunger-related disease is that none of them come from God-fearing, God-seeking families who live in God’s grace?

This is serious.  If I cannot understand God’s promises, then how can I even know I’m saved?

This is the third of several posts about God’s promises.  Look at the first section here for a discussion of why anybody makes promises.  Read the part titled God makes promises for the same reason you make promises.

You may also want to read my post about God’s promise to feed and clothe us.

First, a “fact check” on that promise

It’s clear to an awful lot of people (including St. Peter!  II Peter 3:16) that Scripture includes some things that are hard to understand and can get us in trouble if we’re not careful.  The thing to do in those cases is to look at other passages in the Bible to help with the one that is difficult.

The promise Jesus makes is that if we give our lives first to God, then he will take care of our need for food and clothing.  To make his point, Jesus says we can look at the care God gives to birds and flowers.  Here is the whole passage:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?  Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?  Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin.  But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.  If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?  So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’  All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.   But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.  Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.  Sufficient for a day is its own evil.     Matthew 6:25-34

Here are Biblical reasons to conclude the promise does not mean a Christian will never be hungry, and furthermore does not rule out the possibility a Christian could even starve.

St. Paul speaks of famine as something we may have to endure.  In Romans 8:35, Paul lists several things that do not have power to separate us from the love of God.  He includes famine in the list.  Paul’s point is that these are things that could very well happen to a Christian, things we may be called on to endure, yet with God’s help they will not defeat us.

St. Paul himself suffered hunger.  In II Corinthians 11:27, Paul describes his own hunger in the course of his ministry for God.  You don’t seriously think Paul was not pursuing first the kingdom of God, do you?  No one ever pursued God’s kingdom with more vigor than Paul, yet he was hungry sometimes.  So hungry he includes the experience in a list that includes being whipped and shipwrecked and stoned.

Jesus talks about birds dying.  I hope you don’t think I’m being a smart aleck, but think about this.  Jesus’ promise compares God’s care for us to his care for birds, but that doesn’t mean a bird never died in a famine.  He talks about “birds falling to the ground” in Matthew 10:29.  How can I conclude that a bird never died (“fell to the ground”) of starvation?  There are droughts all the time.  Jesus knew that.  So it’s just about impossible that his promise to us of food, which he compares to God’s care of the birds, could possibly mean no hunger or starvation.

Jesus often uses this sort of statement to make a point.  For example, he tells us to forgive a person who sins against us “seventy times seven” times.  You don’t think he wants me to count to 490 and then stop forgiving, do you?  In another place, he says if I give up houses or land for his sake, I will receive a “hundredfold” return.  Should I get out a calculator and check his promise?  These are not statements of what will happen in terms of mathematics.  They are statements that use forceful, memorable language to persuade me to be forgiving and obedient.

Jesus himself suffered.  If I follow Jesus, I may very well suffer at the hands of evil or natural disaster.  In fact, he says I will be persecuted if I am his disciple.  Am I somehow to conclude from the promise about birds and food that this persecution will never involve hunger?  Of course not.  Am I to conclude that in droughts or the aftermath of great destruction, that I will somehow be provided with food that the non-God-seekers do not have?  Of course not.

Next, here are two possible ways to interpret the promise

There are at least two ways to understand the promise Jesus makes of food and clothing to God-seekers.  These two ways allow for what I have written above without in any way making the promise void of meaning.

One way.  We are simultaneously physical and spiritual creatures.  So we need two kinds of food , physical and spiritual.    In John 4 is the encounter of Jesus with a Samaritan woman at a water well.  It’s a long discussion that moves more than once between the idea of physical food and spiritual food.  When the disciples return to Jesus from a trip into town to get food, this exchange takes place:

The disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.”  But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”  So the disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?”  Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.  Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’? I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest.     John 4:31-35

Jesus speaks of spiritual food when the disciples urge him to eat physical food — to do the will of the Father is his meat.  Then he compares the souls of men and women ripe for the kingdom to physical wheat in the field.  Jesus is comfortable mixing his language between physical and spiritual, and expecting the disciples to understand.

Now this is by no means the only Bible passage where physical and spiritual food are compared or mixed, but it’s enough to make my point.  To understand the promise of Jesus that God will feed us like he does birds, it is entirely reasonable and scriptural to believe that there will be times when the feeding will be spiritual, rather than physical.  Times of physical hardship, even famine, when the food we receive from the hand of God will be spiritual food to give us the strength to endure physical hunger.  That’s how Paul is able to say in the Romans 8 passage I mention above that famine has no power to separate us from the love of God.  God will feed us spiritually, so we can endure the physical.

Another way (sort of a subset of the first one).  Perhaps the promise is contextual in the sense that Jesus means for it to apply in what we call “ordinary times”.  If this is so, then famine sweeping over a large portion of an entire continent (it’s happening right now in Africa) is not the context within which Jesus means this promise.  In ordinary times, the God-seeker receives physical food and clothing just like the promise says.  But in times of warfare or persecution or natural disaster, the promise reverts to spiritual support rather than physical.

There are other passages that we view this way.  For instance, the statement is made “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” in Proverbs 22.  Nobody thinks that this works 100% of the time.  We all know siblings who were raised by Godly parents and shown everything they need to become God’s man or woman – yet within the same family, some leave the faith and others retain it.  Does that mean the proverb is wrong?  No.  It means the proverb tells you what happens most of the time, what happens ordinarily.

Another example – no one believes the commands of God apply to mentally ill people, despite the fact that the commands are not specifically worded to exclude the mentally ill.  We just understand that when God tells me not to steal or tells me to treat other people with generosity, that the assumption is my mind is normal, not burdened with paranoia or schizophrenia.  The commands apply to people with healthy minds in ordinary circumstances.

Yet a third example is this: when the Nazi’s come to the door looking for Jews, I can lie to them in order to save a life and it is not a sin.  The times are not ordinary.

But there is a rock-solid truth beneath the promise to feed us

The promise means that God takes care of his people.  And the heart of the promise is its condition: seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Sure, it’s nice to have food.  Clothes are nice, too.  And in most circumstances, Jesus’ promise means exactly what it says.  God feeds us like the birds, he cares for us in the course of our seeking his kingdom.  But there is something far more wonderful he gives me and he does not give this more wonderful thing to me the way he feeds birds.  I am permitted to possess God as the foundation of my life – to know that I will one day be with him in heaven – to rest sure in the assurance my well-being is in the hands of the God who is love.  This is my food, this is the clothing that protects me and that shelters.

Here is a wonderful passage from Hebrews 13, the Amplified Version.  I have removed some of the technical punctuation used in this somewhat academic translation.  I take this passage to express substantially the same thing as Jesus’ promise of God’s care and his warning to avoid the love of money.

 Let your character or moral disposition be free from love of money, including greed, avarice, lust, and craving for earthly possessions, and be satisfied with your present circumstances and with what you have; for He [God]Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support.  I will not, I will not, I will not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down nor relax My hold on you!  Assuredly not!  So we take comfort and are encouraged and confidently and boldly say, The Lord is my Helper; I will not be seized with alarm. I will not fear or dread or be terrified. What can man do to me?     Hebrews 13:5,6   Amplified Version

It will all work out. Really.



In Romans 8, we are promised that all things work for good for those who love God.  Nice to know, isn’t it, especially when things are hard.  When life gets hard, it may be difficult to see just how God is keeping this promise, yet we trust God.   But why would God make such a sweet promise in the first place?

Note: this is the first of several posts about God’s promises.

God makes promises for the same reason you make promises

Here’s why you make promises: you want to get somebody else to do something.  Think about it.  You go into a bank and you promise the banker you will pay back a loan.  You do that because you want the banker to loan you some money.  Or maybe you promise to get a little child some new stickers after Mass.  You make the promise hoping the little angel will be quiet during church.  Here’s another – you promise a person you will love her until you die.  You promise it because you want her to marry you.

You make promises because you want the other person to do something like loan you money or be good in church.  You might also have a longer-term goal in mind.  If the banker sees you keep your promise on a small loan, you hope that will help your credit score, which in turn prompts other people to loan your money.  But the base motive is still the same.  You make promises to persuade somebody else to do something.

God makes promises to us because he wants us to do things, too.  He says exactly this in II Peter chapter 1:

[God] has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.  For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love.  If these are yours and increase in abundance, they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.   II Peter 1:4-8 

The goal of God’s promises to you is that you partake in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world.  That’s huge!!  And what is the change in your behavior that God intends these promises to produce?  He wants you to make your best effort to be faithful and virtuous and enduring and affectionate and loving.  God does not play for small change, does he?

The promises that God makes to us do, of course, comfort us and they inform us.  But those are secondary effects.  The main reason God makes promises is to change us, to assist in the process of our partaking in his nature.

Now, back to the Romans 8 promise

So think about the promise that all things will work together for good if we love God.  Here’s the whole passage:

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…  What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?  Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us.  Who will condemn? It is Christ [Jesus] who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.  What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?  As it is written: “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 8:28, 31-39

First, be very clear about what this promise “that all things work for good” does not mean.  It does not mean that we will escape all discomfort or suffering if we love God.  Immediately after wording the promise in Romans 8, Paul speaks of anguish and famine and persecution, so it’s still possible that these things could happen to us.  This is not a promise that we escape all unpleasantness.  Think about it – Peter and Paul sure loved Jesus and they suffered amazing things, then they were martyred in Rome.  So the promise cannot mean that you and I escape all pain as long as we love God.

 

The promise says that everything will work together for good if we love God.  So even if suffering and persecution do happen to me, they will be part of this “working together for good”.  God will look after what happens to me and he will do what it takes to make sure things turn out “good” for me.  And since I love him, “good” means whatever brings me closer to God, whatever makes me love him even more, whatever makes me a better imitator of Jesus, all these things are “good” even if they are painful.

When you get right down to it, this promise confronts me, it almost dares me

This promise is a powerful word for obedience.  There are some pretty stiff things that Jesus gives me as commands.  Not suggestions – commands.  He tells me to be generous with my money and time to other people, even people who are beggars and strangers (for instance, Luke 6:35 and 12:33).  He tells me to incur risk in order to help someone who is in great danger (the Good Samaritan parable ends with the statement “go and do the same”).  He tells me that when I encounter jerks who mistreat me and even abuse me, that non-violence is the only path I may take as his disciple (Matthew 5:38-48).

And this Romans 8 promise that things will work together in my life for good absolutely leaves me with no excuse for not obeying these difficult commands.

I can’t tell Jesus “I’m scared”.  I can’t tell Jesus that turning the other cheek is just too risky.  I can’t tell Jesus that if I do these hard things he commands it will get in the way of my bigger plans and mess them up (even if the plans are for him).   And the reason I cannot say these things is that Jesus promised me things will work together for good if I love him and he also said if I love him I will keep his commands.  To be sure, I may very well suffer because I obey Jesus, but I can be certain that everything will work together for good.

And this promise is a powerful word for conversion.  If a person is far enough along the road to conversion to Jesus that she has concluded God can be trusted, then hesitancy to convert can be done away with in this promise.  Convert to Jesus – begin the journey of loving Jesus with everything you have.  And things will fit together for good.

It is a powerful word when there’s a big decision to make.  Christians have to make big decisions, just like everybody else.  What school to go to, whether to accept some job, who to marry, how to raise a child, whether to retire.  We pray about these things and we consider the will of God carefully, but at the end of the day we have to make a decision.  This promise of things working together for good keeps me from being paralyzed when I must make a big decision.  Even if the decision I choose is unwise or uninformed and causes me trouble, nevertheless it will fit into a pattern for good if I keep on loving God.

This promise is a powerful word when plans get messed up.  Sometimes it seems like things “come out of nowhere” and the best plans, the best decisions get messed up.  Maybe I get sick.  Maybe the bottom falls out of the economy.  Maybe I’m doing research and I lose my funding or it turns out the person in charge of things disagrees with how I’m going and I lose a couple years of work.  Stuff happens.  But this promise means that even these unforeseen developments will somehow, eventually work together for good.

God promises me that things will work together for good if I love him.

The promise improves my ability to live like Jesus.

This promise enables me to trust God, to make plans and decisions, and to obey God without fear.

The great command



At its base, Christianity is about a relation to Jesus at a one-on-one level.  Yes, Christianity involves a set of moral and ethical standards that must be obeyed – and yes, it involves a set of truths about the nature of everything there is.  But those are not at the base of Christianity.  The base is whether I love Jesus, whether my relation with him defines everything else in my life and trumps anything that would compete with Jesus.

Three questions for St. Peter

At the close of John 21 after the Resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?”  Jesus will be with Peter on earth only a few more days and then he will leave Peter the unprecedented task to “feed my sheep” as Jesus puts it.  And the thing Jesus wants to know – the thing he wants Peter to know – is that Peter loves Jesus.

If it’s a good question then, it’s still a good question now.  How can I tell if I love Jesus?  If I’m just kidding myself and my love for Jesus is defective, can I somehow figure that out and do my part to make that love stronger?

For the most part, loving Jesus is like loving anyone else

Is Jesus is in your thoughts pretty much all the time?  Remember 9th grade and that first “real love”?  I do.  It was nothing short of fascination.  I couldn’t get my mind off my little puppy love crush, and more to the point I didn’t want to.  Everything somehow related to the existence of this relation that seemed to rival Romeo and Juliet.  Well, maybe you are fortunate enough to be in a real, true committed love right now, or to have had one before in your life.  You want your beloved in your mind all the time.  It’s even hard to say exactly where you end and your beloved starts.  You sort of meld in an odd way.

Loving Jesus is that way.  There is no aspect of life for which he does not have input.  There is no joy or grief or insecurity or hope in you that cannot find benefit in Jesus.  If you simply cannot get out of your mind this shocking twist that God became a human, because you know it changes everything.  If it seems like every time you turn around you’re thinking about Jesus, chances are you love him.

Does Jesus motivate you?  St. Paul says this to the Corinthians in I Cor.9:23: “I do all things for the sake of the gospel”.  That’s the same thing as doing it all for Jesus, the same thing as Jesus being the A-#1 motive in your life.  If what you do with your time and your money – if how you conduct your friendships and family and casual relations are all motivated by Jesus, then chances are you’re in love with him.

Do you depend on Jesus?  When you need encouragement, do you look for it from Jesus in some kind of prayer or devotion?  If you’re just busting out happy, do you think about him?  Is it in your mind how long it will be until the next time you receive him in Holy Communion?  If you hunger for the things Jesus gives, you probably love him.

A gorgeous analogy Jesus makes in John 15 is about this.  He says he is the vine and we are the branches.  Cut a branch off the vine and it dies.  The branch depends on the vine for everything.  If you’re that way, you’re probably in love with Jesus.

Do you obey him?  Maybe this one’s a little different than loving other people!  Yet, if you really love another person and she tells you to do something that is legitimate and within her purview, then you do it.  Jesus says in John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  The love precedes the obedience, in fact the love is the ground for the obedience.

It’s easy to see this in “regular” life.  If I love my wife, I’m not trying to sneak around looking to get away with stuff she hates.  I’m looking to do things that please her.  Same thing goes for loving Jesus.  If I’m looking for ways to please him, to obey him, then chances are I love him.

The bit about obedience brings up the next point:

Do you go to him when you sin?  That’s not easy, is it?  The tendency (at least for me) when I sin is to try to forget about it, sort of sweep it under the rug.  After a few hours or days, the sin is no longer in my mind and I can act like things are back to normal.  But that’s not what I’ll do when my love for Jesus is strong.  If I trust Jesus, if I believe him when he says he forgives, if I believe he is God who helps me and shepherds me, then when I mess up everything with sin, the first place I should come is to Jesus.  If I do that, it probably means I love him.

 Wait a minute!  I don’t do all that.  Who could?

Neither do I, at least not all the time.  I do my best to try to do my best (if you see what I mean), but it seems like every time I turn around, my inconstancy and plain-old sinfulness keep me from a pure love for Jesus.  On a scale of 1 to 10, one day might a “7” then the next might be a “3”.  But I don’t ever seem to hit a perfect “10” when it comes to loving Jesus.  And Jesus takes care of that in what he says himself is the great command.  In Matthew 22 Jesus says that the great command is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind.

That greatest command means give him 100%.  If I give Jesus all the love I have, then I am obeying the greatest command and I’m making the Son of God happy and I’m living my life as I should.  If I give him everything, he will give back to me whatever help I need to become more and more like him.  It probably won’t happen overnight, but that part is up to him, not me.

 

I can’t trick Jesus.  Jesus knows whether I really love him with everything I have.  There is no point trying to fool him.  My job is to give him everything and let him cause the growth in me that he desires.

To love Jesus completely is the great thing in life.

If I love Jesus with all I have, then I am equipped for my journey to God.

We are built for love.  Our purpose is to love.

Genuflection and prostitution



Almost alone among Christians, Catholics maintain a tight (even unitary) relation between what is physical and what is not.  We avoid any thought of material things being innately bad and immaterial things somehow being superior.  A good case can be made that this is the central disagreement between Catholicism and Protestantism, especially the Evangelical branch.

There’s an aspect of this which might seem minor, but it’s not.  Here is a quote from St. Thomas More (the fellow who stood up to Henry VIII in England and was beheaded for his stand).

A reverent attitude of the body, though it takes its origin and character from the soul, increases by a kind of reflex the soul’s own reverence and devotion to God.

What Thomas More is saying is that the motive for physical gesture and posture in worship or devotion starts out in the non-physical, in my soul and intellect and will.  This motive is expressed in my body as, for example, I bow or genuflect or kneel or make the sign of the cross.  Then there is sort of a rebound or reflex from my postured body that reinforces the motive that started things in the first place.  That’s actually pretty subtle and common sensible at the same time.  My posture or my gesture affects and even effects my spiritual person.

A couple of personal examples of what St. Thomas More is talking about

Before I was reconciled to the Catholic Church, the church I attended made no provision for gesture or posture in worship.  The only two postures we had were standing up or sitting down.  We stood up or sat down according to what the song leader told us to do.  One thing that meant is that walking into the church building (we called it the auditorium) was no different in gesture than walking into a grocery store.  You just walked in and looked for someone to talk to or a place to sit.  And that omission of any reverent posture or gesture upon entering the auditorium contributed in a subtle-yet-significant way to the attitude that the space was no different than any other.  Which at least for me resulted in a frame of mind and spirituality which was also not too much different than when I was at the library.

It’s quite different now that I’m Catholic.

As a Catholic, when I enter the church, a gesture immediately reminds me of my baptism and its significance in my life.  Because of baptism, I belong to Jesus, I am “in him” to use St. Paul’s remarkably intimate language.  I enter the church and I make the sign of the cross with blessed water on my hand.  And it changes things, it really does.  This gesture starts in my soul, moves to my hand, recollects me before God as I whisper his Trinitarian name – then it sort of boomerangs back to my mind and soul and helps prepare me to mingle my worship with other Christians and with angels in heaven.  It is a simple gesture that manages to relate me to the passion of Jesus, the fellowship of the church, and the communion of saints.  Big stuff!

Here’s another.  It’s a gesture of the priest, not me, yet his gesture has power for me.  I always sneak a peek when Father does this because of the effect it has on me.  At the end of some Masses, usually on “special” Sundays, he will tell us to bow our heads and pray for God’s blessing.  Then he raises his hands over the whole congregation and invokes a three-part blessing on us all, as we respond “amen” each time.  It is so priestly and pastoral and gentle and solemn.  God’s priest, the one authorized by Jesus to act on his behalf, lifts his hands in blessing over me and my brothers and sisters, speaking words we share with tens of thousands of Catholic parishes across the world that day.  I don’t know… the gesture reminds me of Moses and Jesus and Rome – I am blessed and sent on my way with an almost magnificent gesture – somehow this gesture simultaneously pulls my awareness into the congregation and into my own personal relation to God.  I don’t understand the power of this gesture, but I cannot deny it.

Here is more from a good article on these things from a good Catholic blog.

So it appears that Thomas More is correct.  My soul tells my body to assume a reverent, worshipful posture.  My body does as it is told, and this posture reinforces in a wonderful way what prompted it to happen in the first place.  What I am spiritually is influenced directly and within my own person by my body.

I just want to make what could seem a weird connection to chastity and to prostitution

If the sign of the cross can affect my entire outlook, both physical and spiritual, then just think about what St. Paul says about prostitution.  Please notice that Paul writes this to Christians, not to pagans:

 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?  Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them the members of a prostitute?  Of course not!  [Or] do you not know that anyone who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her?  For “the two,” it says, “will become one flesh.”  But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.  Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body.  Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you have been purchased at a price.  Therefore, glorify God in your body.  I Corinthians 6:16-20

To the Church of Christ in Corinth he addresses the problem of sexual sin and he urges chastity.  Does anyone doubt that in our own time, a time of what seems like unbridled sexual activity with an attitude of entitlement to “write my own rules”, does anyone doubt there are those who sin in this way within the Church today?

What Paul writes applies to all forms of sexual impurity.  What he writes also applies to the soul-body-soul cycle that Thomas More describes.  Whether it’s masturbation, or pornography, or sex outside marriage, the rule is the same.  The sinful motive that arises in your mind and then prompts the sin you do with your body, completes a cycle by reinforcing the very motive that started things in the first place.  Paul says this sort of sin is unlike any of the others – it is a sin against one’s own body.

If you are in a cycle like this even while you are a Christian, don’t kid yourself.  Break the cycle now.  Reinforce the righteous motives in your soul by using your body only for what is righteous.  Do you wonder what constitutes righteous behavior in matters of sex and chastity?  Do you need forgiveness and helpful advice?  Talk to your priest.  He won’t be shocked.  He loves you and knows how to help.  Would you rather start with the internet?  Here is the “chastity” section on Catholic Answers. Or if you deal with a same-sex attraction, here is another good website.

Reverent gestures dispose both mind and body toward God in a virtuous interaction.

Sexual immorality draws both mind and body away from God.

Use the things of this world to learn to love the things of heaven.

Is Jesus humble?



CS Lewis observed an odd thing about the reaction people have to Jesus.  Even people who do not have faith in Jesus almost always believe that Jesus is humble, yet Jesus says seemingly outrageous things like “he who loves mother or father more than me, is not worthy of me” and “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me”.  If a guy at the office said something like that, I sure would not jump to the conclusion he is humble! 

So what’s going on?  Is Jesus humble?

How can anyone who thinks he should be more important to me than my mother be humble? 

This post will list 11 characteristics that seem to me to answer that riddle.  I put them in the deadly-boring bullet point format just to keep the post from being a mile long.  Every point is directly from the Gospels.

  • Jesus was poor, despite the fact he had extraordinary powers.  He had everything it takes to have plenty of money.  How many brilliant, charismatic people who have the ability to perform miracles can you think of who choose to be poor?  I can think of only one.  One time, a fellow came to Jesus and offered to be his disciple.  Before accepting him as a disciple, Jesus told the man that he was himself homeless.  He said birds have nests and foxes have holes, but Jesus says he has nowhere to lay his head.  Luke 9:58
  • Jesus never retaliates.  Even though he knows he is the salvation of the world and that what he says is the standard by which souls will be judged, literally.  Yet when people oppose him, he does not strike out.  In Luke 9:51-56 two of his most prominent disciples ask him to destroy some people with fire because they rejected Jesus – instead, Jesus rebukes the disciples. 
  • He points people away from himself and toward the Father, even at the same time he claims to be the only access to the Father.  It’s odd.  He says things like “the Father and I are one” in John 10 (they try to kill him for saying this) and “no one comes to the Father except through me” in John 14, while at the same time he says other things like “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone” in Luke 18.  Somehow the overall impression is that Jesus directs seekers to God the Father, even as he calls them to be his disciple.
  • He is willing to suffer.  Obviously dying on a Roman cross is the ultimate example of this willingness, but it’s there in smaller things, too.  The authorities are trying to kill him (Matthew 12:14), people chase him out of town because he scares them (Luke 8:37), his own friends in his hometown tried to kill him (Luke 4:28-30), he fasts willingly for 40 days before he begins his preaching ministry.  There is suffering in these things, suffering accepted willingly for other people.
  • The demands Jesus puts on people never serve Jesus in a selfish way.  Jesus puts demands only on people who would find the Father, only on those who would enter the kingdom of God.  These demands are on people who first come to him, not on people he singles out himself.  Even the ones who eventually form the 12 apostles seem to be those who first sought him.  Look at John 1:35ff and at what I posted a few days ago.  The demands of Jesus lead to the Father. 
  • When he rebukes people (which he is quite willing to do when it’s called for), the rebuke is because of some offense given to the Father or to other people.  It’s not because of personal disrespect done to Jesus.  Matthew 23 opens with blistering rebukes to prominent Jewish figures, but not one of these rebukes is for something they did to Jesus.
  • When people reject him, it breaks his heart for their sake, not for his own.  In that same Matthew 23 passage, he tears into the hypocrites, then he expresses the great sorrow of his soul.  His regret is that those same people would not let him heal and comfort them.   “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.”  A proud man would rail.  Jesus mourns.
  • Jesus shows no sinful pride in dealing with friends.  Jesus has to jump Peter’s case several times and can get rough with him.  He even calls him “Satan” in Matthew 16:23 (whoa!), yet it isn’t personal.  He directs Peter’s attention to God and to the will of God.
  • Here’s one I can’t quite put my finger on, but I’m sure it’s right.  Jesus does all these miracles and yet I never get the impression he wants to call attention to himself.  Occasionally he instructs people not to tell anyone about the miracle, but even when he doesn’t do that, the distinct impression is that each miracle is for the sake of other people, not for the sake of Jesus himself.  He never comes off as a show-off.  For that matter, when Satan is tempting Jesus in the wilderness before he begins his public preaching, the first thing Satan tries to get Jesus to do is perform a miracle for his own personal appetite (to avoid starvation) and Jesus refuses.  The miracles are for other people, not Jesus, and that’s humble.
  • John 6 is another one I can’t quite figure out, but I still know it has humility all over it.  This is the passage where Jesus says outrageous things about eating his body and drinking his blood – says these things repeatedly and as the chapter goes on, he says them with increasing confrontation and even with graphic emphasis – he must have seemed insane to the people who heard him, since pretty much everybody abandoned him after this.  Yet… even in this strangest of passages so centered on physical aspects of Jesus, he is concerned only with the benefit of the people who are listening to him.  Even when he talks about himself, he is talking about the benefit of other people and that is remarkable.  He wants to provide these people (and us) with protection from our greatest enemy, death.
  • I end with a quote.  John 5:30.  I do not seek my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

 These 11 points center in on the answer to CS Lewis’s point and my question

So how can people think Jesus is humble?  They believe Jesus is humble because everything he does, he does for other people, never for himself.  Read the list again and you’ll get the point.  Jesus knows he is the Son of God and the Savior of the world and the Lamb of God and the centerpiece of God’s entire history with humanity.  He knows this, he never denies this.  Yet what he says and does is not about him.  It is about the Father and about the people around him.  When he gets mad, it’s about the people who have been hurt or the Father who has been disrespected.  Miracles?  They are for mercy and faith-building in other people and to bring glory to the Father.  His sermons?  Even when they are about Jesus himself, his purpose is to serve other people.

 Jesus is the perfect embodiment of love for the Father and love for neighbor.  And that makes him humble at exactly the same time he is God.

 It awes me and moves me to understand that the being who created the universe is willing to humble himself, to humiliate himself, because he wants so much to benefit me.

 And humility is not limited only to what Jesus does.  Humility is part of the very nature of Jesus, it is part of his being, not just his behavior.

 I wish I were humble

I have spent the last two Lents and the last two Advents trying to understand what humility is.  I spent a lot of time trying to engender humility in myself.  I haven’t been casual about this.  I have to a considerable extent during these times set aside my regular prayer and study, all in an attempt to cure a serious fault in me and replace it with humility.  Maybe after two years, I’m making some progress.

 I think this eleven-item explanation of Lewis’s point about Jesus seeming humble, I think this has helped me understand what humility is.  Humility is doing (even existing) for the sake of other people and for God.  If deeds of humility draw attention to me (and sometimes they will), then I must use whatever virtue and strength I have to turn the attention to God or to the person I tried to benefit.  When a thought comes to me that (1) I could do this-or-that in order (2) that people will notice and think better of me, then I must shun that thought, must even undertake the good deed in secret as a discipline on my motives.  When I look for practical ways to live the Gospel, I must not look only at public ways.     When I thank God for the chance to do some corporal act of mercy or spiritual act of mercy, my thanks should be entirely for whatever glory was given to God or benefit received by my neighbor.

Jesus always tried to obey the Father and benefit other people.

Even when the attention was on him, it was because Jesus was obeying God or benefitting other people.

This is humility.  I can do it, too, I can live it with God’s help and my resolution.

Good grief, they’re only condoms



Most people believe that contraceptives are OK, a personal choice like antibacterial soap or seat belts – most of the time, they think it just makes sense to use a condom.  People have sex after all, and there’s no need to spread STD’s and unwanted babies.  Use a condom or a pill.  Then here comes the Pope and bishops flipping out about contraceptives and saying “no”.  Critics wonder why the Catholic Church doesn’t just stick to prayers and pretty clothes for the priests, and leave real life to people who live it.  Then they say if there is anybody that has no business preaching about sex, it’s the Catholic Church. 

As in many things, the Catholic response to contraception is based on the most fundamental principles of human life.  It is borne of 2,000 years contemplating God’s revelation, forming what Joseph Cardinal Bernardin called “a seamless garment” of truth concerning what it means to be human and to affirm life. 

Here are some talking points that are good to keep in mind if the subject of Catholics and contraception comes up. 

The rock-solid rock bottom of the Catholic opposition to contraceptives.  It might be tempting to open a paint can with a car key, but it isn’t a very good idea.  First, that’s not what a car key is made for and second, when the key breaks there are just terrible consequences.  It’s like that with contraceptives.  

Sex has purpose.  God gave us sex in order (1)to create human souls and (2)to unite husband and wife in an unparalleled way as they give themselves completely to each other.  Contraceptives by their very nature, by their very intent, by the methods they employ, oppose these two purposes.  A barrier is placed between the couple, a failure to give oneself wholly is encouraged, and new human souls are made nearly impossible. 

By using contraceptives, sex that is selfish (as opposed to self-giving) and sterile (as opposed to creating human souls) is encouraged.  Contraceptives encourage the explosion of casual sex we have seen in America since the mid-1960’s.  Sex is used for the wrong reasons and there are terrible consequences.  Sexual predation and addiction, pornography, multiple partners, broken marriages, prevented marriages, the living of life at a superficial level to find only personal gratification in physical pleasure.  Contraception encourages all of these and more because the two intended purposes of sex are violated.  Sex becomes just a recreational activity, something to do on Saturday night if you’re lucky.  

Even with married people, contraceptives oppose the two-fold purpose of sex.  

Condoms do not even prevent pregnancy and STD’s overall.  There’s no point denying that in a single sexual encounter, contraceptives greatly diminish pregnancies and STD’s.  That’s what they do.  But since the ready availability of contraceptives enabled the explosion of casual sex in the last 50 years, in the overall situation they increase the incidence of unwanted pregnancies and STD’s.  People are having way more sex and the end result is more unwanted pregnancies, more abortions, and more STD’s – because so many more sex acts occur. 

Contraceptives do not cause all of this just by themselves, but they do provide the necessary ground (the technology, if you will) for people to let sex be casual, repetitive and intended for no other purpose than pleasure. 

People keep saying they read that “98% of Catholic women use contraceptives sometime in their life.”      This has been all over the newspapers, despite the fact that figure is pure bull feathers.  Like a lot of statistics, this one has been thrown around in the last few weeks by folks who either don’t understand what they are citing or (this one’s my guess… Am I just paranoid?) by people who will grab at anything that has any chance of bashing the Catholic Church.  Here’s a lot of detail on this phony statistic.    

 Nothing like 98% of Catholic women use contraceptives at some point in their life.  To be sure, tragically the per cent of Catholic women who do is still way too high, but that does not alter the truth of the Church’s consistent opposition to contraception. 

Was Pope Paul VI some kind of prophet?  Or does the Catholic Church just understand these things?  It seems impossible to deny that sexual objectification of women has exploded in the last 20 years.  Internet porn.  The almost universal use of sex to sell everything.  10-year-old girls dressing like sex objects.  Women subjecting themselves to eating disorders in order to conform to some standard of sexual desirability.  

Pope Paul VI wrote this in his almost infamous and definitely prophetic 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae:

It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.

 For the entire history of Christianity, there has been almost universal opposition to contraception.  What was once the universal opposition in all Christianity to contraception, is now maintained only by the Catholic Church.  Only we are left.  Here’s some history on that.  

 It is not as if the Catholic Church dreamed up the opposition to contraception so it could spoil the party.  The Church has always taught this.  It has nothing to do with a male hierarchy, nothing to do with celibate priests, and nothing to do with a reaction to modern life.  It has everything to do with the glory of human life and the exalted purpose of sex.

I wrote more about the subject last November. 

 

It matters what a thing is made for. 

Sex is made to create new human souls and to join man and woman in marriage.

The 2,000-year teaching of the Church opposes contraception and is prophetic.

So who does all the work?



If a person only looks at the surface, there seems to be this odd bit of schizophrenia in what you hear about Christianity.  On one hand, the bit about “let go and let God” might sound like we’re supposed to lie back in a hammock and keep a nice warm fuzzy for God so he will do all the work for us.  Then you turn around and somebody else is telling you to get on fire for Jesus and cover the fridge with sticky note reminders of all the work you need to do for him.

So which is it?  Does God do the work or do I?  Is there some way for both statements to be true?  This is relevant for anyone thinking to convert to Christianity since being a Christian means a relation with God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.  And part of any relation is who does what.

Let’s start with a couple of verses

St. Paul wrote this to a seriously dysfunctional group of Christians (I’m not making this up — they came to church drunk, they drew party lines of division inside the congregation, they approve people who had sex with relatives, they hauled fellow Christians into pagan courts, their liturgy was so crazy it was hard to make sense of it).  Paul said this to them:

Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.   II Corinthians 13:11

 

Here’s a second one from St. Paul.  He wrote this to a group of Christians so deeply in sync with the faith that his letter to them contains not a single word of criticism.

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.     Philippians 2:12,13

 

These two verses help explain who it is that is doing the work.  These verses mean we are in a partnership with God.  We are together with God in the living of our life.  It is not God or me – it is God and me.  The two verses I cite make this unmistakable.

Look at the first verse that says live in peace and the God of peace will be with you.  You want to have peace?  Well, God’s the one who has it for you.  At every Mass, we pray for God to give us peace.  And yet, and yet… part of receiving that peace of God is for me to do and be the things that it takes to live in peace with the people around me.  That’s something a Christian has to do herself.  Those Corinthians were living like pagans (literally), the way they lived had just about nothing to do with peace, so they were in no position even to receive God’s peace.  They needed to clean their act up in order to let the God of peace be with them.  So Paul tells them “live in peace”.  That is something for them to do.  God is the God of peace, yet these people need to live in peace to receive him.

The second passage is pretty much the same thing.  Paul recognizes that each of us have choice, we have freedom to determine much of what we do and what we are.   We are neither robots subject to fate, nor are we weaklings buffeted by forces outside our control.  We make decisions very much on our own.   These decisions have such consequences that we even tremble as we live our lives before God.  And yet, and yet… if we are his child, God is working in us to help us have both the will to choose his way and then also the ability to complete the deeds that will please him.  He’s not just sitting back like a judge on American Idol.  He wants us to win, he wants us to please him and to be good and to do good.  And he helps us do these things.  We co-operate with God.  It is both our will and God’s help.

We’re partners with God.  If that doesn’t make me fall to my knees in gratitude and amazement and, yes, with some “trembling” that I play my own part properly, then I haven’t thought about it right.

This partnership is part of the meaning of something odd in the Our Father

How many millions of times a day is the phrase prayed “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”?  That’s sort of an odd thing to pray when you think about it.

He’s God, right?  The only way anything can happen against his will is for him to tolerate the opposition.  He can cause anything he wants to cause, and he can stop anything he wants to stop.  So why does Jesus instruct us to pray “Thy will be done”?  Isn’t a prayer like that superfluous?

Of course, it is not superfluous.  The significance of the request involves our partnership with God in the work of our own life and in the work of the church.

One part of what this prayer means is personal.  I want God’s help as I order my own life on earth, as I decide what my actions will be and as I look for peace in my life.  As a Christian, I already know what God’s will is – his will is that I should be patient and gentle and humble and full of love, ready to help other people in practical ways, and always aware of God’s love for me.  But even though I know this, I can be really stupid at times and fail to exert myself in such things.  Or worse, I can even choose to violate these things – I can choose to sin.  So when I pray “Thy will be done” it’s in part a prayer for myself to choose God’s will, to obey him as unfailingly as those who are in heaven.  And isn’t this exactly what Paul is talking about in those two verses?  I should exert myself to live in peace with other people so that I can receive the God of peace.  I should be so serious about my responsibility before God that I even tremble.  And this is part of the disposition for me to become ground within which God can work “for his good pleasure”.  So I pray for me “Thy will be done.”

A second element of what this part of the prayer means is a longing that the perfection and bliss of heaven be made more present to all of us on earth.  And that, too, involves me in a working partnership with God.  There is no way to separate (a)what God does by his active, singular providence within the affairs of humans and (b)what God allows humans to do of their own volition.  This freedom he gives us means he is confronted with our sin.  It breaks his heart to see the rebellion and the pain that humans cause.  Read the book of the Old Testament prophet Hosea and you’ll hear God almost in agony over the sin of Israel.  Or think about the sorrow of Jesus near his crucifixion when he said:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks, and you were unwilling.   Matthew 23:37

So when I pray “Thy will be done” in the context of the partnership between me and God, I am praying an amazingly bold prayer, yet humble at the very same time.  (God has a way of combining opposites sometimes…)  I am praying to God that I may be part of how he accomplishes his will on earth.  I place myself at his service, to be used in whatever way pleases him.  In short, I imitate Isaiah in the 6th chapter of his book, when God wonders aloud who he will send on a mission to Israel, and Isaiah answers “Here am I.  Send me.”  We ask God to use us in his work, to include us in the great project of saving souls, and thus we become the instrument of his will on earth.

As a Christian, you are a partner with God.

You exercise your own will to trust and obey and pray, and at the same time God supports you.

You are part of how God accomplishes his will on earth.