Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Tribute

Other than the decision of how to respond to Christ’s call to follow Him, no other decision in life is as important as the choice whether/who to marry. Those who choose to marry invite into their lives an effect and influence that is beyond description.

By God’s grace I married a woman who is, herself, grace personified. I know without a doubt that her presence in my life is a major contribution to my salvation. I would tell couples in pre-marital counseling that marriage is a crucible for sanctification; Libby has lovingly encouraged my sanctification as a spouse for, as of now, almost 39 years.

One significant reason this is true of my wife is found in her mother, Mary Nell. Today is Mary Nell’s 80th birthday, and I am blessed to be part of her legacy. Three particular things which Libby has modeled to me –– which come from her mother’s example and nurture –– come to mind. One is her inclination to happiness; she lives life with a smile (and the source is the joy of the Lord). A second is her consistent attitude of seeing the best in a person or situation (which comes from trusting the Lord); she is positive and encouraging instead of negative and demeaning. The third is a kindness –– an empathy –– that seeks another’s good even when it is personally inconvenient to her (a beautiful model that embracing the servanthood of Jesus means serving others).

There are more qualities.... but these three are so dominant and exemplary in today’s world of self-assertiveness and personal gratification that they shine like stars in a dark sky. How could I not be blessed being married to a woman who has constantly encouraged me in these ways? And how am I not doubly blessed for this to be the legacy given from our “Mamaw” Mary Nell? Her children (and spouses and grandchildren and “adopted” children from all over) rise up today and give her honor.

Happy Birthday, Mary Nell Lindsey Vess!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Heavenly Bread

One of my delights over several decades of biblical study has been discovering various themes which are developed throughout the Scriptures in a way that shows the unity of divine authorship and a progressively unfolding purpose (even though the Bible has numerous human authors spread over hundreds of years). Some of the most popular among Evangelicals are “lamb” or “blood” as well as “light” and “glory."

One that received some recognition is “bread.” I still remember a major class presentation by one of my grad schools profs on “the Bread of Life discourse” in John’s Gospel. Yet now, upon reflection, I am negatively impressed with what was not perceived in the unfolding biblical theme of “bread.”

This has been a dominant facet in my thoughts coming into this Christmas season because, for some reason, I’ve been moved by the ancient hymn cited in my previous post, especially the lines:

Lord of lords in human vesture in the body and the blood,

He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.

Also, I’ve recently been part of a small personal dialogue on the nature of Communion. This was a major catalyst in my decision to move beyond my previous ecclesial community into the fullness of the Church –– the Eucharist is so central in the life of the historical Church that I am compelled to give my personal honor and obedience.

Bread of Heaven is a worthy theme for an extended sermon. Certainly it would develop the implications of what God did for Israel in the desert with the manna. A significant part of this is the matter (physicality) and the miraculous (there’s a third point I’ll save for the intended sermon).

My point for now is that it seems quite obvious that what God did for Israel as such a significant expression of His presence and purpose would have an even greater fulfillment in the New Covenant. And isn’t that what we have in the Eucharist? There is still real “matter” with Christ taking bread and telling his disciples to “do this” (Christianity is incarnational through and through). And again, for years I wondered where the ongoing demonstration of the miraculous was in the Christian community (and yes, I do recognize the “miracle” of changed lives, but that is personal not cultic; for Christianity to be the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, there needs to be more than individualistic expression).

In every Catholic Church, whenever the priest effects the Epiclesis, a miracle happens: ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood –– the very physical Presence –– of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as the Israelites received the food that would sustain them in the desert, our Lord gives Himself as heavenly bread to sustain us in this wilderness of sin until He brings us into the Promised Land of His Kingdom.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What Are You Giving For Christmas?

Last night’s church service was truly Christ-Mass. I was especially impressed (although I’ve thought about before) with this phrase in the Eucharistic prayer: May he make us an everlasting gift to you.

As the early Fathers of the Church said, “He became like us so we could become like Him.”

Yes, Christmas is the celebration of the greatest Gift ever. But God gave us His Son so that we could give back to Him that which He intended –– that which He deserves as our Creator: ourselves, transformed by His Spirit into holy people (As He who called you is holy, so be holy yourselves.... 1Pet 1:15) This is the point of the phrase in the Eucharistic prayer..... May he make us an everlasting gift to you.

What are you giving God this Christmas?


After some problems with spam and inappropriateness I disabled comments. I have now enabled comments with some restriction (if I did it the way I intended – I am not very "techie").

On this Christmas Day, may each of my readers know the reality of the coming of the Son of God into our broken world so that we can be saved.

Friday, December 24, 2010

More Thoughts on Church Music

I’ve been thinking during Advent about the music that “contemporary Christianity” is missing. One ancient hymn most often on my mind is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. It seems that even the very title is antithetical to the typical approach in contemporary worship!

Because I fell in love with hymnody in my late teens and used their words (particularly Charles Wesley’s) in my spiritual formation, I used “old” music as an Evangelical pastor. In the closing decade of my pastoral ministry, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence would have been part of the standard repertoire going from Advent to Christmas. I must confess that for a number of years I sang some of those words with a veil over my mind:

King of kings yet born of Mary as of old on earth He stood;

Lord of lords in human vesture in the body and the blood,

He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.

In those words is the confession of the Church from the early centuries. Singing those words expands and deepens faith. Even though I didn’t “get it” until later, I look back at my early singing of this hymn as the Holy Spirit sowing seeds which would eventually bear the fruit of understanding.

It is said that when Christians sing they pray twice. Learn to pray well by singing the hymns which have been proven by the test of time.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some Thoughts on Church Music

Thinking about religion raises the subject of worship, and inherent in worship is the issue of music. The Music Director/Committee in the local church has been called euphemistically “the war department.” Probably in no other setting is it more true that “you can’t please all the people all the time.”

Certainly music has a legitimate affect on the worshipper. We are creatures of time, place, and sensory perception, and all of those combine in music to affect us in powerful ways. But this does not mean that individual taste, or even cultural tendencies, are the arbiters of what constitutes good church music; music in the church is offered to God, and it is not meant primarily for our entertainment. Selfish individualism and a hedonistic culture certainly tries to tell us that if something is not pleasurable we are not to be faulted to dismiss it, but such an attitude is antithetical to the essence of Christian Faith.

Inherent to Christian Faith is a confrontation to the world-spirit. To the degree that a given culture embraces things which are antithetical to the Spirit of Jesus (e.g., the kingdom values of the Sermon on the Mount), Christians need to learn to turn away from cultural expressions and give a counter-witness. All cultures fall short, yet some show more effect of gospel permeation than others. I am among those who believe that Western culture has embraced a post-Christian mentality with growing openness to paganism coupled with an acceptance of multi-culturalism that, in thinking all cultures are equally legitimate, denies the belief in the exclusiveness of Christian Faith that was foundational to the Western Civilization which formed the traditional American society we are quickly losing.

What does this have to do with music? Music is a key expression of culture and the pop-music of our culture reflects our post-Christian mind-set. Among other things, it feeds hedonism. So, when churches use the culture to offer people the alternative of kingdom values, how are those values to be perceived and how are people to know they need to change –– be converted –– if churches look and act mostly like the world? How does a Christian community teach the language of Zion if it does not “speak” it and model what conversion and transformation looks like? (How many Christians today understand the biblical allusion in the previous sentence?)

This is not to say that Christians (who, as I said above, are all creatures of time, place, and sensory perception) should not learn to use their own culture in the expression of Christian Faith (this has happened repeatedly through the history of the Church). I am saying, though, that Christians should not capitulate to the culture and so lose the wealth of what the Lord has worked into the Church through all the past years. Good music is not merely what pleases us; good music can both teach us in a way that contributes to our transformation and also offer to God something more than we could ever give Him when left to our own selves, time and place.

In all of this there needs to be a true Christian attitude. Two esteemed voices have spoken to this in a way that is worthy of repeated exposure. The first is C. S. Lewis and the second is Eugene Peterson

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (esthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste –– there, we may be sure, all both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost (C. S. Lewis, Christian Refections, 96–97).

You say that you have almost nothing in common with these people. But isn’t that just the point? You have nothing in common with them; but God does. This just happens to be the way that God goes about making a kingdom, pulling all sorts and conditions of people and then patiently, mercifully, and gracefully making something of them. What he obviously does not do is pre-select people who have an aptitude for getting along well and enjoying the same things. Of course you don’t have much in common with them. The church is God’s thing, not yours.

....The church is not a natural community composed of people with common interests; it is a super-natural community. And the super in that word does not mean that it exceeds your expectations; it is other than your expectations, and much of the other is invisible to you as yet.

I’m sorry if I am sounding a bit sharp-tongued on this, but I don’t want you getting off on the wrong foot in this church business. Trust me, there’s a lot more going on than you will ever have in common with anyone there....

No, you don’t have to like the hymns. And yes, you do need to sing them –– hopefully in approximate tune and rhythm with the rest. It’s an excellent exercise in humility (Eugene H. Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, 26–28).

Let’s be open to the music truly birthed by the Church. Let’s encourage our pastors and music directors to nurture us with music which expresses and teaches the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

That Loaded Word “Religion”

“Religion” seems to be a mostly pejorative word in our culture today. “Spirituality” is quite popular as it is far more conducive to an individualistic mind-set. I think this identifies the problem with religion. Religion by its nature is corporate. This implies common forms, which necessitates shared traditions. And who decides the shape of the forms and the source of the chosen tradition? The despised issue of authority begins to enter the discussion. Ah, yes, religion is a loaded topic.

Since spirituality is “personal” there is no need for an authority prescribing good ways to come to God and serve Him. This avoids the horror of any practice being “wrong” because getting rid of religion avoids any claim of –– heaven forbid (if you personally choose to believe in heaven) –– truth and right.

So I see ads for “churches” targeting people who are sick of religion –– people who want a church that is not church. In other words, come to Jesus (they are “Christian” ads) in a setting of your choice and offer to God whatever expression is most “meaningful” to you (since all that matters is the individualistic heart). Don’t get bogged down with a bunch of antiquated baggage. Find out how Jesus can give you “your best life now.”

These were some of the thoughts that came to me as I sat in a sanctuary a couple of weeks ago and looked at stately pillars upholding arches with painted images of our Lord, the Holy Family, the Apostles, and early Fathers of the Church. As I sat preparing for the service to begin, adding my prayers to the organ prelude, I was so aware of an “Other” –– so much greater than my little individual heart, yet drawing me into the greatness of what it means to belong to the People of God.

I want religion. I want to belong to something big that has a continuity with what God has been doing in redemptive history for thousands of years. I want a basis for believing that a particular expression is, indeed, true and right (Apostolic Tradition). I want a religion like that advocated by St James: pure and undefiled (1:27). I need a religion like that because I need to become pure and undefiled in order to see God (Mtt 5:8).

Give me that ol’ time religion....

Friday, December 17, 2010

Some Brief Thoughts

I have been "gone" too long, mostly from being distracted. Some of the distraction has been circumstantial, but true distraction is deeper than that. Distraction is, I think, mostly spiritual. It is allowing other things to crowd out "true center."

Some of not posting has been the vanity of waiting for something "profound" to say. Yet we are the most profound when we live simply unto Jesus. How hard it is consistently to practice that simple reality!

A verse from this morning's Office of Readings resonated in my heart: let not those who seek you be dismayed through me.... It is an incredible thing to own the name of Jesus. My prayer is, through grace, to honor that Name in all I am and do.... the essence of being a Christian.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

To See God

Sorry for the long absence....

Good words from the Responsory from the Office of Readings in today's Liturgy of the Hours:

The unseen God lies hidden from you;
if you wish to see God, believe in him though you cannot yet see him.
–– Walk on in faith and you shall some day see his face.

If faith has not consoled you along the path of life,
you will never enjoy the blessed privilege of seeing him.
–– Walk on in faith and you shall some day see his face.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

An Unburdened Life

This time last week Libby and I were in North Myrtle Beach at a vacation resort promo. This was the “price” for an expense-paid three nights at a beach-front resort –– something Libby needed badly after months of audit stress, and this was a way for us to afford it.

We had, of course, intended to hear graciously the spiel, give a quick no and get out of there. What actually happened is that our “agent” was not a regular salesman, but was a member advocate working a Sunday in order to take a week-day off with his family (which means he was not working for a commission sale). On top of that, he was a believer who was impressed with our journey and what we are attempting to do in ministry. A “two-hour presentation” turned into a real exchange of questions and projections. The result was an offer that was unbelievable and seemingly feasible. We thought of being able to take our kids and grandkids to the beach for a week each year, and having something with stable value. We agreed to try it!

One thing such presentations do is give a couple almost no time to think and confer with one another. Libby and I were apprised of all the positives (and with several additions to our package which had to be approved by administration) there were many. Yet when we got back to our rooms at the resort, the reality of what we had entered began to hit. I re-read the contract again and began to project with Libby what this truly meant for us, both financially and in terms of staying on top of schedules, “points,” and all the other details of being an “owner” of a resort property.

Suddenly we began to feel smothered, as if “the world” was going to suffocate us. I knew there is a small window to cancel a property contract, and we knew this needed to be done first thing the next day. Libby hardly slept, and I only did by taking something to “help.”

Still, it seemed that the agent had, indeed, offered us something incredible. It was clear he wanted to make something nice possible for two people whose life is Christian ministry. Even as the next day began and I prepared to return to the promotion center, I felt as if we were ungratefully rejecting a gracious gift. What to do?

Guidance was in the little book of spiritual readings Libby and I use each day. Introducing the Scriptures were these words:

We are a pilgrim people, journeying through the varied landscapes of life, on our way to the heavenly Jerusalem. Let us travel light, unburdened by useless baggage –– material or spiritual –– and sing [a] pilgrim psalm to the God who has given us such a glorious goal in life.

And so it was clear: for us, we must stay “unburdened.”

It is hard to live this way in our American society. First, there is the reality of excess that marks our culture. We live so far “beyond” most of the rest of the world, but because we live in the midst of it and because the nature of the “flesh” is indulgence, it can be hard for us to see it. Beyond that, some Christians are called to model a level of commitment that, to a “normal” person, appears austere and ridiculous (but how else can the life of Jesus be modeled, who said to his disciples “Take up your cross and follow me.”).

I do not want to say that no Christian should own a vacation property. It can be a good and wonderful thing for Christians to be able to have periods of retreat (as long as we all remember that we are never to take a vacation from seeking God and walking in the Spirit).

How this applies –– and looks –– to each follower of Jesus will have individual variety. Libby and I are seeing more and more clearly the way it is to look in our life. We welcome times away, but the Lord needs to give us each one; we cannot take a step to “guarantee” those times and we cannot become more encumbered.

When I talked to the agent again the next day he was more than gracious in hearing of our decision (just as gracious as he had been in his presentation). He made a call to initiate the cancellation (and said the office was fine with it since they weren’t making any money off what he had offered us anyway –– a confirmation of the agent’s goodness toward us).

At least two things have resulted from this incident. First, Libby and I see more clearly the life to which the Lord is calling us. Second, we are staying in touch with the agent; it seems the Lord has given us a new friend in the Body.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bold and Balanced Truth

Charles Colson often speaks to issues in a way that resonates with my spirit. He is prophetic in an historic (orthodox) Christian context. His Breakpoint editorial today gives bold truth with a wonderful balance.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Fear of the Lord

In the two Psalms and the Canticle of Morning Prayer today (Wednesday of Week 1) there is the theme of "the fear of the Lord." This is a prominent theme in the OT, but not absent in the New (the Hebrews writer says it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and then later warns: our God is a consuming fire).

I do not hear this in contemporary Christian proclamation. Of course God is love, but "love" has its very definition in God. When we try to fit God's love into our self-centered and sentimental expectations we distort God and set ourselves up for disillusionment and denial.

Jesus shows us the love of God. Yes, out of love He died for our sins.... but at the same time His very death shows us how God responds to sin. And so, from today's readings:

Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart.
There is no fear of God before his eyes. (Psa 36)

For the Lord, the Most High, we must fear,
great king over the earth. (Psa 47)

But to those who fear you,
you are very merciful. (Judith 16)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Great Quote

My friend Russ Rentler over on Crossed the Tiber gave this great quote from G. K. Chesterton:

"I don't want to go to a church that changes with the culture. I want a Church that changes the culture."

Christians and (the right) Church

When I talk or write about my move to the Catholic Church, some non-Catholics think I'm saying they cannot be good Christians without being Catholic. Not so! But those who see fullness in Catholicism cannot act as if they do not. I came to faith and followed Jesus for almost 50 years in my former ecclesial context.

I recently had a written exchange with a dear Christian from my former congregation who seems to be following Jesus with a whole heart (I say "seems" because we look at outward evidence, not a person's heart). I thought it might be helpful to share part of my response....

The Lord does not leave us where we are - ever, as long as we are in this world; we are always called to be growing into His fullness. I have come to believe that is only possible within the Catholic Church.

That is not to say I believe that Catholicism, as modeled, is perfect nor even always right. It is not to say that those outside the CC are not following Jesus with whole hearts (just not whole minds, which none of us have alone).

Sometimes I think: "What if all Christians "merely" lived up to what they know? (!!) It is not so much new/more teaching we need; we need passionate leaders who help us feel impoverished if we aren't giving the Lord EVERYTHING... EVERYDAY.

Seek to do that where you are, and let the Lord lead you to the next step.... always.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Transcendence and Worship

There have been three distinct places which, for me, have provided a sense of entering some kind of dimensional warp in which my familiar day-to-day world recedes and I enter, instead, into a realm that seems “beyond” –– almost like stepping into the Wardrobe that transports one into Narnia.

Two have been the properties and homes of friends. Both are accessed by driving a wooded lane to arrive at houses built in the late 1700s and which are so secluded from anything else that it seems, given the setting and architecture, I leave the pace and troubles of modernity. I’m not sure what it would be like actually to live in such a setting, but as an occasional visitor I find a magic that takes me “out of this world.” The third is also a property: a private cabin in the mountains also accessed by a long wooded lane. It does have electricity, but is too remote for a cell phone signal. I do not know if there is radio or TV reception as neither intruders are in the cabin. I can sit in a corner of the main room and look out on a rippling stream and look up at the ridge-top of the mountain that rises on the far side of a “run” which is fed by the little stream.

I have spent more time at the cabin (after all, the first two places are others’ homes), yet all give me a common feeling of transcendence; it is truly as if I have left this world behind. I look forward to those times. They feed something in my soul, and I need the renewal of spirit places like that offer me.

Several seemingly unconnected –– and quite mundane –– events in my life have converged recently that have brought these thoughts into focus. The first was a Facebook entry by one of my friends. He gave a short and general description of a church he had recently attended: its ministry focus was outdoor-hunter people. The gathering space was “decorated” with targets, and if I understood correctly, had an in-door archery range over to the side. Now remember, this is a “church.”

The next weekend my wife and I were at a beach resort and we visited the local Catholic parish. As we entered and took our seats there was much that was familiar (Catholic worship starts with remembering one’s baptism and reverence –– or it’s supposed to). At the same time I was acutely aware of how counter-cultural Catholic worship really is. Having spent the weekend on a beach and with the report of the congregation decorated with targets in my mind, it was clear to me that when I entered the sanctuary of that Catholic parish I had “left the world behind” –– a feeling somewhat like that of the wooded lanes, yet more so and different because the context is spiritual rather than merely physical.

Another event triggering my thoughts was Pope Benedict’s trip to Britain. In a Q&A session Benedict was asked, “Can anything be done to make the Church as an institution, more credible and attractive to everyone?” His answer is wonderful:

I would say that a Church that seeks to be particularly attractive is already on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for her own ends, she does not work to increase numbers and thus power. The Church is at the service of another: she serves, not for herself, not to be a strong body, rather she serves to make the proclamation of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths and great forces of love, reconciling love that appeared in this figure and that always comes from the presence of Jesus Christ. In this regard, the Church does not seek to be attractive in and of herself, but must be transparent for Jesus Christ and to the extent that she is not out for herself, as a strong and powerful body in the world, that wants power, but is simply the voice of another, she becomes truly transparent for the great figure of Christ and the great truth that he has brought to humanity. The power of love, in this moment one listens, one accepts. The Church should not consider herself, but help to consider the other and she herself must see and speak of the other.

He is so forthright: a Church that seeks to be particularly attractive is already on the wrong path and again, the Church is not out for herself, as a strong and powerful body in the world, that wants power.

When Christians try to attract the world on the basis of what appeals to the world –– power, wealth, entertainment, ease, convenience, comfort –– how does the message of the cross become relevant? [The (heretical) answer is that salvation is reduced to forgiveness; it is implied (or boldly stated) that Jesus suffered so we won’t have to.] When Paul went out to evangelize the unbelieving world he used “the foolishness of preaching” and his message was Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1Cor 1:23). The popular strategy today is to remove all stumbling blocks and appeal to a “wisdom” the world understands. Jesus said one thing would convince the world: ....that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples.... (Jn 13:34,35). But it’s too hard to love like Jesus; it means suffering. It means being rejected and hated by the world (see John 15:18–21). So we find easier ways to “witness” –– we distort the gospel to mean that grace is cheap (at least for the recipient), and on the basis of “anything goes” we turn worship into self indulgence.

I find it refreshing that historic Christian worship takes one “out of this world.” Worship is supposed to take us to heaven, even as we give ourselves again and again to the mystery that heaven comes to earth each time we celebrate the Eucharist.

One of the blogs I read rather regularly had this in a recent post:

If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates. My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world, as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church which is accused of being behind the times, as Our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned. Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior, as they sneered at Our Lord because He came from Nazareth. Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil, as Our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils. Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because he called Himself the Truth. Look for the Church which amid the confusion of conflicting opinions, its members love as they love Christ, and respect its voice as the very voice of its Founder, and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly, it is other-worldly. Since it is other-worldly, it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself.…”

I know there are things one can criticize in the Catholic Church –– people who do not model what the Church teaches. That is not true Catholicism. Catholic Faith is both rooted in this world (it is Incarnational) and it is other-worldly. There is a fullness of truth in Catholicism I have found nowhere else.

When I go to worship I do not want a mirror reflection of my culture; I want to be taken back to the Upper Room and the Cross; I want to look, with John the Revelator, into heaven and see the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world as a multitude sings “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

When I worship, I want my spirit to be transported into those transcendent and yet historical verities as I wait for the Day when I will be transformed into the full image of my Lord.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Church!

Here is how St Justin Martyr described Christian worship in 155 A.D – only a half century after the death of the Apostle John (and the Church did not fall from the truth in 50 years!)....

The Church?

I've been "out" for too long... I am working on a longer post, but I'll prime the pump by giving this link which pretty well describes what is happening in much of the evangelical-protestant world of "church" (at least on the popular scene).

How did Paul and the other apostles evangelize the Roman Empire without electric music, power point and a light show? What has happened to "the weakness of preaching?" What has happened to Christian worship leading up to and culminating in the Eucharist? As the "church" tries to win the world by being like the world, the world is corrupting what popularly passes for "the church."

More later.....

Friday, August 6, 2010

Feast of the Transfiguration

This is the date the Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration. I love this feast day. I love to reflect on the Transfiguration of our Lord. In my Evangelical days I was unaware (until I was well along on my Catholic journey) that there was even such a thing. Oh, I knew the gospel story.... but a "feast day"? The stereotypical view would have been: "more dead formalism..." But, ah, now I find myself drawn into the event, and that is the very reason it happened.

The following was the introduction for today in the Magnificat prayer guide:

Christ's Tabor radiance is a kind of mirror in which we glimpse the glory that God wills to give his friends. The resplendence of the Transfiguration reveals the fullness of life destined to be ours. The Transfiguration invites us to configuration. As we peer into the glory that pours out from every pore of the transfigured Christ, we cast off everything unworthy of our personal relationship with the Infinite, and we take on the luster of the Son of God. Jesus gazes back at us with a luminous look of love that makes us desire to live his transparent beauty – to be luminaries. Silently from Tabor's splendor, the Savior begs: "Become what you behold!"

Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!

The Social-Moral Battle

Note this article and get involved to bear witness to orthodox Christian truth.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Living in Two Worlds

Much of my recent focus has been on what it means to follow Jesus faithfully in this distracting and disconcerting world. From necessary temporal things to those which are mostly worthless (or even evil), there is an ongoing interference that would cloud our vision of God and cause us to treat Him as peripheral (even when in our mind we are thinking we are totally committed). This is the spiritual battle we all face, and the Scriptures identify and address it different ways.

Often we can best see this if we are discerning as we follow events and issues going on around us and in the news. As the world seems to unravel more and more, the contrasting choice –– and hope –– that God gives us in His Son becomes more and more astounding. As I age (I’ll hit another decade next year) and become more aware than ever that this life comes and goes all too quickly, I take heart in the good news that this world is not all there is. I remember a wall hanging that was prominent in my younger years: “Only one life –– T’will soon be past / Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Rock that Doesn't Move

Today's news included word of Anne Rice's rejection of organized Christianity (particularly the Catholic Church), saying among other things:

I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity.....
I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism....

I responded to a friend, saying: Ah, but how does one "know" Christ apart from the Church? She is left with her own creation of Christ, and thus turning to the "religion of Anne." We all acquiesce to something larger than ourselves. I'll still take the Church over Culture.

As if to emphasize the divide between the orthodox Christianity and the Spirit of the Age, today's news also reported that Cardinal Jorge Medina, Archbishop Emeritus of Valparaiso, has incurred the wrath of Chilean homosexuals for restating clearly the Catholic Church's teaching that homosexual tendencies constitute a disorder.

The Catholic Church has been the recurring object of scorn. From media digs to explicit oppression for faithful Catholic academics, there is little tolerance – and no evident understanding – of what it is Catholics (and all orthodox Christians) are called to embrace and model.

Similar frustration and bewilderment are voiced at the Church's inflexible position on abortion, all the more in the recent effort of U. S. Catholic bishops to support universal health care while insisting that no loophole exist to pay for abortions. Trying to peg and label the bishops seems beyond the scope of journalists.

“Conservative..... Liberal..... Democrat..... Republican....” are labels which are cast frequently and often with passion. Different issues jockey for premier status –– the economy.... the war.... the environment.... the definition of marriage.... the protection of innocent human life (and particularly abortion). Almost everyone accepts the arena of politics as the proper context for discussion and any possible solution, and so it is no surprise that political labels are embraced and castigated with passion.

It is also no surprise that most people seem to accept the assumed inherent conflict between “liberal” and “conservative” positions. The charge is made that people who are inflexibly opposed to all abortion are not concerned for the poor and oppressed. Popular opinion holds that people who want to give the poor a chance to escape poverty and people who want to give women the option to choose something other than being “barefoot and pregnant” understand that legal (and so-called “safe”) abortion must be available to women for whom an “unwanted” child is a grave injustice.

It is little wonder, then, that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) are often criticized by both political liberals and conservatives, because the bishops support universal health care (typically a “liberal” political platform) and yet will not budge on their insistence on absolute protection of innocent life, particularly abortion (a “conservative” political position). Are these bishops schizophrenic? How are we to understand this wide embrace of what is generally understood as mutually exclusive issues?

First, it is important to remember the paramount responsibility of the USCCB. As Catholic bishops have the Apostolic office in the Church to protect, defend and extend the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), those bishops who serve the Church in the United States have as their primary obligation the faithful expression of Christian doctrine and practice. For Christians, issues are not merely “political;” issues which affect human good and morality are first of all responses we make to God, and the role of the USCCB is to guide the Catholic faithful in the United States to an awareness of what is ultimately good and right.

Consider the issue of abortion. It has been politicized to the extent that many are tired of it. Even many Christians who say they are “personally opposed” seem ready also to say “live and let live” and not try “to put my morality on someone else.” Especially since the “right” to legal abortion has been the law of the land for so long, it is argued that it is time for those opposed to withdraw and be quiet. But this idea that abortion has been legal for “so long” that it’s now a settled issue has a poor perspective on longevity. An honest look at history shows that the Church has decried the evil of abortion since its earliest days under the Roman Empire. Looking at more recent history, other ecclesial communities under the Christian umbrella had one voice with Catholic Faith about abortion until a slow but steady erosion began in the mid-Twentieth Century. There is a myopic way of seeing that allows the Spirit of the Age to cloud moral vision so that God’s people accommodate to attitudes and practices that grieve the Holy Spirit and quench the life of God. We should think beyond the immediacy of politics and popular opinion (on either side) and cultivate thankfulness that our Lord has given his Church the Apostolic Office to preserve and protect the truths that lead us to eternal salvation. The USCCB is right to allow no compromise on their position on abortion. The bishops’ concern is not what is popular or pragmatic, but what speaks the truth of God’s life into our world.

It is for that reason that the USCCB is supportive of a universal health care policy for the people of our country. I say it that way quite intentionally: “for the people of our country.” Again, this is not just a political issue. It is not about governmental policy (although that cannot be avoided on a practical level). It is about providing people with what is good.

Catholic social teaching –– which is Christian social teaching (which should go without saying) –– is rooted in love. God is love, says Scripture. Humanity was created in love in order to be a physical expression of God’s love in the created order. We are created to love God and to love one another, as Jesus expressed in his teaching on the greatest commandment.

Two key themes of social justice (out of seven) identified by the USCCB are the “life and dignity of the human person” and “solidarity.” Human life is sacred, and one way to model that is to care for each person at each stage of life from conception to natural death. Because we are one humanity, we each belong to the whole and every part of the whole deserves equitable opportunity. Out of this comes a principle of the common good in which each person should be allowed to reach his full human potential.

Because of sin there is a human tendency to care most (or only!) for one’s self and those with whom one is familiar –– family, social class, nation, faith, race, etc. It is the love of God as expressed in Christ that shows the full implications of solidarity. It is because we are “one” in the image of God that Christian Faith should be concerned with the welfare of each person who makes up “all” of us. It is for this reason that the USCCB is supportive of universal health care. This is a point of Christian love and witness.

Yet it should be obvious that “health care” does not mean killing children while in the womb. So, while the bishops are right to be in general support of the overall direction of the national health care law, they remain unable to give it the support expected from those espousing Catholic social teaching precisely because the law gives at least latent option for abortion, which Catholic social teaching cannot endorse and at the same time remain true to the tenets of Catholic Faith.

Thus the bishops oppose the bill because it appropriates billions of dollars in funding without prohibiting the use of these funds for abortion. Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Maryland announced on their web sites that plans utilizing “high-risk insurance pools” would include abortion. With any loophole, for which the bishops rightly give diligent analysis, there can be no USCCB support for the law, no matter how “generally” good it appears to be. The bishops are calling for “a legislative fix to close such loopholes once and for all.” Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the USCCB says, “Whether these or other billions of dollars in taxpayers’ funds are used to help kill unborn children is not a matter we should leave to shifting politics or to chance” (quotes from Zenit).

One of the benefits of being Catholic, and I say this having chosen to come into the Church after years of committed Christian life in an ecclesial community, is being a part of the Church that Jesus promised would be faithful to the end. This promise of faithfulness extends from Peter and the Apostles to those who succeed them. While the USCCB cannot avoid interface with “political” issues, we in the Church need to remember that this is, ultimately, not politics. Being faithful to Jesus and his kingdom is not a matter of “liberal” or “conservative.” Those who extend the life of the kingdom by witnessing to God’s truth will be misunderstood just as Jesus was. This is the high calling of our bishops. This is the witness they are to bear. This is the witness to which they call the Church and all her members. This is also the witness they bear to society at large and to the State, in the hope that Gospel seed will be sown so that the true life of Jesus can be extended throughout the world.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

God's Will & Human Freedom

In the early 80s I read Sheldon Vanauken’s personal story of faith entitled A Severe Mercy, how he came to surrender and commitment to Jesus through the death of his wife and the friendship of C. S. Lewis. A few years later Vanauken continued the story of his journey –– interspersed with other reflections –– in a work entitled Under the Mercy. A significant part of this later journey was his embrace of Catholicism; looking back, this was probably early seed being implanted in my own mind and heart.

I recently returned to this second volume to find the selection I’ve included below. The book is OP now, but available from used book dealers. I recommend it to you (despite a few strange excursions about the Confederacy; Vanauken was an “old-world” Southerner).


Reflections on the Problem of Pain

"I still can't get over it, Jane, losing my baby. Just before her second birthday. But it was God's will."—"God must be testing Sue by giving her cancer."—"He broke his back when the tractor turned over. It was God's will, of course."—"God took both our children."—"How can a good God let the Cambodians starve? I refuse to believe in a God like that."—"All three of his sons, such fine boys, died when the cruiser was torpedoed. It was God's will."—"How can God make me suffer so? I hate God!"

It was God's will. Or, as Allah wills it. Is this, in truth, the way of it? Does God indeed award a cancer here, a car wreck there, all according to His high and mysterious purpose? Does He punish Mr and Mrs Smith by willing the death of their child when the drunken youth rams their car? Does God will the earth to quake? Did He will the deaths of millions, Christians as well as Jews, in the Nazi death camps, or at the murderous hands of Stalin?

It may be indeed that good men must sometimes suffer to learn that their only lasting joy—their only security—is in God. Some may be called upon individually to bear the weight of the cross for His sake, nor can we always see how their pain shall be to His glory. But in speaking of every disaster as God's will, we forget something essential to the Christian faith: the Fall and its consequences. The story in Genesis may be taken as literal truth or as myth; but myth implies an essential truth. Moreover, the Fall is not only affirmed by St Paul, it is affirmed by redemption itself—redemption in Christ—for redemption is from sin. The sin that entered the world with the Fall.

Let us consider what the Fall was and is. It is man, a created being—a creature—in rebellion against his Creator. It is man in his pride seeking independence—autonomy—by choosing something other than God. By choosing himself. Self. Self-centeredness. Selfishness. Self-expression. Self-realization. Self-fulfillment. Some of these sound quite innocent, don't they? But Christ's command was to die to self. We are not roused to enthusiasm by the idea.

A question arises: Why did God let the Fall happen? Why didn't He give Eve a frightful slap and say in a voice of thunder: "Stop that!"? Why did He let us become infected with sin? We are so addicted to self, so infected, that our self-love doesn't even shock us, we hardly notice. But God allows us choice. That is the answer to the question of why He didn't slap Eve. A simple answer—and utterly astonishing. He not only made living, moving creatures. He made creatures capable of saying "No" to Him, of defying Him. Unlike the trees, we have free will. God's great experiment was to create us free to choose to love Him (the only love worth having) or to reject Him. We love Him and serve Him, or we love our self and serve that self. We don't admit we're self-serving, but we're often proud to say we're self-sufficient, without need for God.

But if we are fallen—infected with sin and addicted to sin—what hope is there for us? Perhaps God, not caring, has abandoned us? —He cares so much that He allowed us to drive the nails through His hands. My God! He loves us that much! The phrase has become so boring as to lose meaning: Christ came to save sinners. Awesome meaning, in fact.

He came down from heaven—God Himself—and became man and died in agony as man, trusting forsaken (as He had to be to taste the whole of death). When we suffer, let us remember the Son trusting the Father—and the validation of the trust in the Resurrection. Christ was, precisely, God's action to save us from the Fall. On our own we cannot conquer our addiction to self, but with Christ in us we are not on our own.

When the Fall occurred, it was not only man that fell. All creation (at least on earth) somehow fell too. We cannot know how it was before—whether it was only with the Fall that the lion learned to bite man. And we don't know whether there is indeed a Prince of this World, an archangel, himself fallen after "dubious battle on the plains of heaven." But we may remember that that ominous figure, however much not "in" among Christians these days, was spoken of with authority by our Lord. What we cannot know is what that fallen creation—and that prince—may have to do with the cancer that tries our trust.

The finite mind of man cannot comprehend the infinite mind of God. We can know only what God has revealed to us in Christ. We know that we have choice, for He told us. And we know, even with our finite minds, that if men can choose evil, other men will suffer. Three-quarters of the suffering is clearly traceable to man's own cruelty and greed. And we know—it is much—that He loves us and that we can trust Him. We can hold to that.

It is the implications of free will that I wish to explore. That we were given choice is one of the things we know. But it was not Eve only making a choice, and choosing further to tempt Adam: consequently he was faced with his choice, and he made it. And we have been making choices ever since: the Nazis were men making choices, so is the fellow who snaps at his wife at breakfast.

But choice has consequences or it wouldn't be choice at all. If we pull the trigger, the bullet strikes, and our victim gasps and dies. If God gives us freedom, freedom to choose, He must allow us to have what we choose—the taste of the apple, the death of the man we shoot, or, if we insist, Hell—or it wouldn't be choice at all. He must allow the consequences. And the consequences of the consequences, going on endlessly, involving the innocent.

If a young man drinks too much (a choice) and pridefully decides to show his girl how fast he can drive (a choice), he may smash hideously into your car, killing his girl and leaving you paralyzed for life. Is this God's will (except in the sense of permitting the choosing)? It cannot be, for that would mean God forced the young man to choose evil (self). He chose; the consequences follow. The girl's family plunged in grief. You unable to send your son to college. The policeman who came to the wreck not being somewhere else to stop a crime.

But there may be good consequences, too—God will bring these about if possible. You and your wife may learn to trust God more deeply; the young man, haunted by grief, may become a Christian. But those would be bringing good out of evil, not bringing about the evil in hopes of the good. The evil was the consequences of a choice.

To say that because God is sovereign and all powerful He can simultaneously give us freedom to choose and compel our choice is not to say something profound about omnipotence but to speak nonsense. The glass is either transparent or opaque. The Holy Spirit urges us towards the good, not towards the evil. And, of course, our good choices—our prayer for strength to bear pain or for healing—also have consequences. The consequences of good acts also go on and on.

Millions of people choosing, millions upon millions of choices, choices at every second of the centuries. One choice is like a stone chucked into a still pond with the wave spreading out in all directions. But all the choices: imagine an ocean with a constant hail of stones plunging into it and a chaotic tumult of boiling waves in a patternless storm. Only God could comprehend it.

The murderer is making a choice. So is the monk praying in the night. The rapist is a monster of self-choosing, as is the woman who feeds on her children to bolster her ego. The man who rushes into a burning house to save a neighbor's child; the businessman who cuts his neighbor's financial throat; the child who tortures the cat. The choices are not in a vacuum: someone else is helped or harmed, including the cat.

Sometimes it is said about monstrous evils like the Nazi death camps that, if there were a God, He would stop them. Why doesn't God stop such human suffering? Let us, then, suppose He does. Let us imagine God looking down at the Nazi death camps: the squalid misery, the near starvation, the cold, the brutal guards, the firing squads, the skinny children herded into the gas chambers. God sees it all and hears the wailing and the prayers: "Help us, oh God! Let our cry come unto Thee!" — Suddenly the divine fist slams down upon the table, and thunder drowns out the guns below.

"By God!" He says. "It's too much. Eating an apple is one thing—but thisl I never dreamt that my men could be this wicked. I will it to stop."

Well, of course it stops. A Nazi guard turns a handle to start the gas flowing in upon the huddled victims behind the heavy glass. He yawns, he's done this so many times. No thrill left. Then he notices that the people in the chamber are not clawing their throats. Odd. He gives the handle another push, just as the walls of the gas chamber dissolve. He and the other guards snatch out pistols and fire. God catches the bullets in His hand. In time the prisoners shuffle away, finding that the perimeter fences have vanished.

God has acted. Elsewhere, booted feet ascend the stairs, and a door is kicked in. Storm troopers enter, guns leveled, and the man they've come to get cowers. But the blow and the kick do not land; and the storm troopers, bewildered, go away.

Now that God is acting, He will have to act the next time the Russians purge a few million people. In the meantime, there is the Hitler war. Hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers are over London, bombs whistling down. But God's hand is in the way. Londoners go back to bed. The roar of the guns on the Russian front is stilled. A submarine fires a spread of torpedoes. It appears that two at least will strike the cruiser, and 800 men will die, including one family's three fine sons. God reaches into the water and seizes the torpedoes. The proud cruiser steams on.

But agony is not to be measured quantitatively. The 50 people in a gas chamber—a quick death, after all—or one man being hideously tortured, hour after hour, day after day, by the Secret Police. God stops that: no line can be drawn. And the woman in a hospital, her body eaten up with cancer: she is suffering almost as much or perhaps more—who can measure? God, committed now to action, acts. The woman draws a long breath, flinching. It doesn't hurt. She sits up and asks for lunch.

A rapist is leering down at his terrified victim. Then he finds an invisible wall between him and her. In a few moments she pulls her torn frock round her and goes, possibly sticking her tongue out at the shrunken man. A woman watches her husband drink the coffee she has put strychnine in. She turns pale when he gives her a kiss and goes off to work. Another woman screaming at her tired husband, as she has done for years, is suddenly voiceless. A boy's cruel epithet flung at a high school girl who would be scarred by it is heard by no one. The child's hands torturing the cat go limp. The cat goes away, tail in air.

All this—it's right nice, isn't it? This is the God we want, we think. We are ready to re-elect God, God. But let us look further. When all this begins to happen, people will be astonished and unbelieving, victims and predators alike. Of course many of the victims are predators in their own ways: the man in the death camp may be, in what he thinks of as better times, a rapist. People will go on for a while trying to find pistols that will work and have fun again.

But finally it will dawn upon mankind that God has stopped all victimizing. You cannot shoot anybody, but also—since God can't draw lines—you cannot bark at your wife or cheat on your income tax. The fist cannot connect. The cruel word cannot be said. Free will has been repealed. No one now chooses to be good; he must be.

Newspapers shrink. No more wars or rumors of war, no more corruption in Washington, no more murder trials, no more juicy scandals. Lions lie down with lambs, and capitalists with workers. Almost every novel ever written will soon come to seem unreal, for they were about a world where good guys strove with bad ones, and courage meant something. And goodness.

The gift God gave to man was the freedom to choose. If God acts to prevent the consequences of choice, the gift is withdrawn. No one will choose to shoot if the bullet cannot strike. No one will accept cancer with fortitude and prayer if there is no cancer. No one will wound with a cruel word if it is unheard. For awhile people will wistfully yearn to hurt somebody, but new generations will have forgotten choice. No longer will it be salvation through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Indeed, the Passion itself will seem meaningless to a world that has never known suffering, a world where wickedness is unknown.

But, also, a world where goodness is not chosen and is, therefore, unknown. To finite man, what meaning can goodness have if there is no badness? Is this, after all, the world we should like? As it is now, we are moved by valour and goodness because they shine in an evil world as stars shine in darkness.

No stars, so to speak, in our new world. God's grand experiment of creating people free to love and trust Him or to hate Him will be all over. We, compelled to be good without choice, shall sink into apathy. Perhaps our minds will decay. We shall not have achieved autonomy. We shall have become automatons. More and more like vegetables, merely existing. We who were created for the stars.

After all, perhaps it is as well that God is running the universe, not us.

When God became one of us in Christ, He never promised us an easy time or said that Christians would be spared. In fact, the lions in Rome were already looking forward to their first taste of raw Christian. What Jesus said was: "Take up your cross and follow me."

We shall suffer because of evil loosed into the world, most of it men's choices. Despite a shudder for what may lie ahead for me, I say thank God—imagining a world without choice. Pain may seem an unmitigated evil—and, unless it draws us or others to deeper trust in God, it is. But would we escape it by rejecting God's grand gift of freedom? We must indeed use that freedom to lessen the suffering in the world: thus good comes from evil.

And if we must suffer, let us remember Jesus forsaken. And, like Him, trust in agony—remembering that God Himself in awesome compassion is suffering with us. In the end we shall have what we have chosen: we shall have Him: and in the light of His face all the suffering unto death—the bearing of our cross—will then have been less than a half-remembered dream.

Sheldon Vanauken, Under the Mercy, Thomas Nelson Pub, 1985

ppg 117–122

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