Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Exposed to God

Such a great cry of the heart from St Augustine....

Whoever I may be, Lord, I lie exposed to your scrutiny

Lord, you know me. Let me know you. Let me come to know you even as I am known. You are the strength of my soul; enter it and make it a place suitable for your dwelling, a possession without spot or blemish. This is my hope and the reason I speak. In this hope I rejoice, when I rejoice rightly. As for the other things of this life, the less they deserve tears, the more likely will they be lamented; and the more they deserve tears, the less likely will men sorrow for them. For behold, you have loved the truth, because the one who does what is true enters into the light. I wish to do this truth before you alone by praising you, and before a multitude of witnesses by writing of you.

O Lord, the depths of a man’s conscience lie exposed before your eyes. Could anything remain hidden in me, even though I did not want to confess it to you? In that case I would only be hiding you from myself, not myself from you. But now my sighs are sufficient evidence that I am displeased with myself; that you are my light and the source of my joy; that you are loved and desired. I am thoroughly ashamed of myself; I have renounced myself and chosen you, recognizing that I can please neither you nor myself unless you enable me to do so.

Whoever I may be, Lord, I lie exposed to your scrutiny. I have already told of the profit I gain when I confess to you. And I do not make my confession with bodily words, bodily speech, but with the words of my soul and the cry of my mind which you hear and understand. When I am wicked, my confession to you is an expression of displeasure with myself. But when I do good, it consists in not attributing this goodness to myself. For you, O Lord, bless the just man, but first you justify the wicked. And so I make my confession before you in silence, and yet not in silence. My voice is silent but my heart cries out.

You, O Lord, are my judge. For though no one knows a man’s innermost self except the man’s own spirit within him, yet there is something in a man which even his own spirit does not know. But you know all of him, for you have made him. As for me, I despise myself in your sight, knowing that I am but dust and ashes; yet I know something of you that I do not know of myself.

True, we see now indistinctly as in a mirror, but not yet face to face. Therefore, so long as I am in exile from you, I am more present to myself than to you. Yet I do know that you cannot be overcome, while I am uncertain which temptations I can resist and which I cannot. Nevertheless, I have hope, because you are faithful and do not allow us to be tempted beyond our endurance, but along with the temptation you give us the means to withstand it.

I will confess, therefore, what I know of myself, and also what I do not know. The knowledge that I have of myself, I possess because you have enlightened me; while the knowledge of myself that I do not yet possess will not be mine until my darkness shall be made as the noonday sun before your face.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Gift of God

Sunday: May 26, 2013 –– Feast of the Most Holy Trinity
Proverbs 8:22–31 / Romans 5:1–5 / John 16:12–15
The Gift of God

Today is the one-year anniversary of my diaconate ordination. I had no idea fifteen years ago, when I recognized the need for more intimacy with God and then began to pray “Do with me what you will”, that I was embarking on a journey that would lead me to where I am today.

It is right, on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, to remember that we are pondering a mystery that cannot fit in our minds. God wants us to know him, and he gives himself to us as we open ourselves –– that’s the nature of love –– but we will never have God “figured out”.  All of life is to be a quest to know God more and more.

Who is God? God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit –– one God. Yet St Columban said, “If anyone wants to know what he should believe, let him not think that he will understand.... by words and arguments, but by perfect and right action.... by faith, which proceeds from purity and simplicity of heart.”  As I discovered, when we have open hearts we have no idea what God will do.

In last week’s homily, Monsignor noted that it’s easier for us to grasp the gifts of the Father and the gifts of the Son than the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, among other things, the agent of the Sacraments. Sacraments are graces –– gifts –– that God has chosen to give us through the Church. In establishing the Church, God is telling us that we cannot be good enough by ourselves, nor truly spiritual. There is a popular sentiment that says, “I am spiritual but I’m not religious –– I don’t need a church.” Catholic Faith teaches that this is not true. By ourselves we are not smart enough to be sure of who God is, and by ourselves we are not strong enough to be truly good. We need help. The Sacraments are a tangible way that God has chosen to help us. This means the Holy Spirit is a gift generating from the Father and Son to help us in our quest of goodness and true spirituality –– in other words, grace for salvation and eternal life.

In this “rookie” year of my diaconate I’ve had a number of firsts. One was Confirmation. Monsignor and I met with each of the Confirmands, and I was faced with trying to make this particular gift of the Spirit meaningful to the young people who met with me. It was as daunting as trying to explain the Trinity (and rightly so, because Catholic Truth is seamless!)  So I used “gift” as key way to understand “grace”.  A true gift does not cost the recipient anything, but it does cost the giver. When God gives us a gift, we need to remember that Jesus paid for it with his life. He died on the cross in order to give us gifts of grace. What effect does a gift have on a person?  Well, it depends on what one does with it. Knowledge of God and his indwelling presence is a gift –– and what that means depends on what we choose to do with it.

When I was a child there was a TV program called The Millionaire, and each episode was about a person who was chosen by a very wealthy man to receive the anonymous gift of $1,000,000.  I presented the Confirmation kids with this scenario:  What if, when they came to be interviewed, I give them a check for $1,000,000?! In this fanciful situation a person can either think the whole thing is bogus –– the deacon is far too poor (which is the real truth!) or just crazy –– and not cash the check, or a person can cash the check, receive the gift and use it.

This is, I think, a great way to understand Confirmation (and all the gifts of the Spirit). When the Bishop extends his hands in blessing and, acting on behalf of Jesus Christ and his Church, gives the Sacrament of Confirmation, a great gift is given. This is the grace of our Lord extended through the corporate life of the tangible Body of Christ on earth. The personal issue then comes into focus: What will you do with this gift?  A person can treat Confirmation (and all the gifts) like a magnanimous check that is dismissed and left un-cashed. The gift has been given, but it is not being used.  Or, a person can “use” his Confirmation for both his good and the glory of God.

How does one know God? How does one “use” the gifts of the Spirit?  It starts with faith –– an attitude that chooses to act on the belief that something is real and worthwhile.  It can be a recognition that we cannot live unto God all by ourselves; we cannot make judgments according to our own understanding. When we choose to admit we need the care of our Father in heaven and we need to listen to Jesus through his Church, then we are “using” the gifts of the Spirit. When we embrace a humble attitude that remembers we are not strong enough to do right things by ourselves, we are “using” the gifts of the Spirit. When we ask God to help us choose right over wrong, and to choose the true good over lesser goods that are simply easier and more popular, we are “using” the gifts of the Spirit.

Every day we each have countless decisions to make. Some are small and seem relatively inconsequential; some are huge and we know our choice will affect us in a big way.  We will face such decisions as long as we live.  The issue of faith is this: will I believe that God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Will I open myself to the gifts he has given through the Church: the grace and power of the Holy Spirit bought by the shed blood of Jesus Christ?  Will I dare to live beyond myself and choose that which is right and good?  That is one way we know we are using the gifts we’ve been given, and learning to live in the life of the Most Holy Trinity.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In and Out With God (and Others)

Wednesday: 22 May, 2013 –– 7th Week in Ordinary Time
Sirach 4:11–19 / Mark 9:38–40
In and Out With God (and Others)

We cannot comprehend the wisdom of God.  We are invited to contemplate God’s wisdom, and Sirach reminds us that contemplation has an affect: we become wiser as we learn to love and hearken, to trust and obey.

I sometimes think of where my understanding of Christian practice was fifteen years ago.  I was a successful pastor. Many people told me how much they were growing in their Christian lives through my didactic sermons. The orientation of my life was turned toward Jesus. Yet, I was not to stay where I was.

None of us should have static spiritual lives (actually, we cannot –– if we are not progressing we are regressing!). We are not designed to plateau with God.  This means we are all a work in process.

We are being wise when we can recognize stages of spiritual life. Not every person is at the same place of contemplation and understanding. It is human nature to want to judge someone who does not appear as “advanced” as we are, and it’s human nature to shrink back if we think someone is far beyond us. In either case, it’s a trap. Our focus is to be where we each are in relation to God. It is good if we can look back at our own lives and see growth –– maturation and increasing fruitfulness. It is also good to keep a proper reverence for God, because that will keep us humble.

The disciples were looking at others and judging. Jesus gave them words that we need to hear again and again: For whoever is not against us is for us (Mk 9:40).

Can we remember that?  Can we learn to apply that when others who own the name of Jesus are not where we are? This does not mean we compromise our commitment to the teachings of the Church, but it does affect our attitude and approach. We are called to live in a relationship with the Lord which puts the issue for each of us where it should be: Am I committed to Jesus and obeying him as best I know how?

Let’s seek to give an honest yes to that question, and leave to the Lord the implications of what he told the first disciples so long ago: whoever is not against us is for us. God is big enough to work it all out!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Faith––A Different Way of Seeing

Tuesday: 21 May, 2013 –– 7th Week in Ordinary Time
Sirach 2:1–11 / Mark9:30–37
Faith––A Different Way of Seeing

Again and again the Scriptures show us that faith is a different way of seeing. Faith gives a different perspective about everything in this world.

The disciples are a case study for developing faith. There is an honesty in the New Testament presentation. To have become the Apostolic foundation for the Christian Faith and the Church, they were not so impressive from the beginning. In today’s Gospel Jesus is telling his disciples about his coming death.... and they are arguing among themselves about which of them is the greatest!

That is an issue of faith.  It is a way of seeing. Non-faith says “Take care of Number One.” Non-faith says, “I-Me-Mine.” Non-faith says, “Me First.” Non-faith says, You toucha my truck, I breaka your face.

Jesus says, “If you want to be first, choose to be last.”  “Be a servant to everyone else.” “Live humbly and dependent like a child.”  It takes faith to do those things.

And who can be patient with hardships and trials? Much of pop-Christianity is presented as Jesus being the icing on the cake of the good life. One popular mega-church pastor has written a book called Your Best Life Now. Sirach says, Accept whatever befalls you; when sorrowful, be steadfast, and in crushing misfortune be patient. Why? For in fire gold and silver are tested, and worthy people in the crucible of humiliation. Christian Faith teaches that the fullness of God’s life –– eternal life ––  is beyond life in this world as we now know it.

The wisdom words of Sirach and the teachings of our Lord only make sense in a context of faith –– a different way of seeing.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Heaven, Prayer and Influences

May 12, 2013 –– 7th Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55–60 / Revelation 22:12–14, 16–7, 20 / John 17:20–26
Heaven, Prayer and Influences

The three readings for today all mention a common theme:
––Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven...
––Most of John’s Revelation is a vision as he looked to heaven.
––Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed....

As Christians, we are to keep [our] hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. We’ve just celebrated the Ascension, emphasizing this. How do we keep our eyes on heaven while we live among the distractions, both pleasurable and painful, of this world?

One way is to know that Jesus has prayed for us. The Gospel tells us he prayed for those who will believe in me. The night before Jesus went to the cross he was looking ahead and anticipating our faith as we gather here today in his name. St Paul tells the Romans that Christ Jesus, who died––more than that, who was raised to life––is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. The letter to the Hebrews says Jesus is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them (Heb 7:25).

But to be honest, this is rather abstract. The world’s distractions are tangible and close. What does it mean that Jesus is praying for us? What does it mean to keep our eyes on heaven? On this Mother’s Day I want to share with you one tangible way Jesus’ prayer has affected my life. (You see, we are surrounded with answers to Jesus’ prayer –– we just need to cultivate the faith to see them.)

One reason I am here proclaiming the Word of God is my mother. I learned to recognize words at age four and was able to read by age five because Mom read Bible stories to me every night from the time I was barely able to understand. As I grew older Mom would tell me she had prayed for me every day and given me to Jesus from the day she discovered her pregnancy. Each day I would see her kneeling by her bed with her Bible open as she spent 30-40 minutes in prayer. As I look back now, I realize that the true meaning of goodness was programmed into me by my mother’s day-to-day modeling. In the words of a Charles Wesley hymn, she had a sensibility to sin, a pain to feel it near. Jesus’ prayers were being fulfilled in my mother, and it was affecting me.

There was a time when I didn’t like that. I was 13... 14.... 15... and thought that church was something invented by old people to keep young people from having fun. Mom observed my rebellious spirit, and I know she prayed for me all the more. Before I turned 16 her prayers joined with those of Jesus and my wandering heart was captured by the grace of our Lord. I surrendered as fully as I knew how and soon had a call for vocational ministry.

As I followed that call over the following years, I always knew Mom was praying for me, my own family, and my ministry. I had been a pastor for twenty-two years when Mom was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. We all knew it was a matter of time.

This became another occasion for Mom to be the instrument of something deep in my spirit. I had preached the gospel for over two decades –– the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. Yet those things –– like Jesus praying for us –– can seem removed from “real” life when everything seems normal. Faced with the death of my mother, I knew in the core of my being that I truly believed those things I preached. I knew Mom would go to be with Jesus, and that someday I could see her again.

Something else happened. As soon as she died I thought, “I’ve lost the daily prayers of this godly woman who has been so powerful in my life.” It was only a nanosecond when I knew that was not true –– her prayers for me would now be more powerful than ever.  I also realized I had come into an inner understanding of the Communion of the Saints. That was not part the tradition which had formed me. I knew “about” it from my theological studies, but suddenly it was real.

It was only a short time after that when I began to hunger for a deeper prayer life for myself, and from that I was introduced to praying The Liturgy of the Hours. I had no idea at the time, but the Lord was setting me up for my journey into the Catholic Church.

A few months after coming into the Church I was on EWTN’s The Journey Home. Near the end of the program there is a time for people to call in with questions. I had told a bit about my Mom’s influence, and one listener asked what I thought my mother would think about my journey. I replied that the deeply-Southern, provincial woman my mother was in this life might not understand, but that the person she is now had helped pray me into spiritual renewal and a hunger for the fullness of the Church.

So I say again on this Mother’s Day something I said earlier: One reason I am here proclaiming the Word of God is my mother. And one reason Mom was such a powerful Christian influence in my life is that she responded –– as I have since tried to do –– to the prayer Jesus prayed on that night before he went to the cross: for those who will believe in me.... that they may be brought to perfection....

What influences has the Lord put in your life to make his prayer for you a reality? How are you responding to him so that you can be a godly influence for someone else?

Mother’s Day should cause us, as Christians, to think about who we are and what we model. Today’s texts show us we are called to be people who are looking to heaven. There are helpers all around us if we have the faith to see. This is part of Jesus’ prayer.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Full Salvation

Thursday: 9 May, 2013 –– Feast of the Ascension
Acts 1:1–11 / Ephesians 1:17–23 / Luke 24:46–53
A Full Salvation

Perhaps you have seen the bumper sticker: Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven. There is truth in that –– but, it is a partial truth and it distorts the fullness of Christian Faith.

The salvation we are offered in Jesus Christ is more than forgiveness. Reducing salvation to forgiveness cheapens what Jesus has done and it diverts us from what St Paul calls the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe (Eph 1:19).

The early Fathers of the Church understood the death of Christ –– his atonement –– as something called recapitulation. This means that Christ is the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did. Christ reverses the course of mankind from disobedience to obedience. Jesus is the Father's “summary statement” of what it means to be fully human. Salvation in and through Jesus Christ is following him into all that God intended with human creation.

This is why Jesus was born a baby just as we are. Jesus was baptized for us, identifying with our need for cleansing from sin. Jesus obeyed the Father and modeled “life in the Spirit” because that is how we are to live. Jesus went to the cross because that is the repercussion of sin in our lives. Jesus rose from the dead to establish triumph over death. Jesus ascended to the Father because this world is not our final home.

Salvation is following Jesus. If we are only forgiven –– if Jesus merely releases the doting “grandpa” character of God so that he says, “Oh, I know you’re a bunch of rascals, but don’t worry about it” –– then we have nothing to look forward to beyond what we’ve got right now. When we follow Jesus in every phase of his vicarious life, we have the promise of finishing where Jesus did.

When Jesus ascends to the Father, he takes us there with him. Right now it’s “positional” and we are there by faith. St Augustine said, “We too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.” This is what Paul means when he tells the Colossians, Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.... for your life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col 1:1,3a). This is why Jesus calls us to values and behaviors the world thinks is crazy.  This world is not our final home.

There’s an old story of a chicken farmer who found an eagle’s egg. He put it with his chickens and soon the egg hatched. The young eagle grew up with all the other chickens and whatever they did, the eagle did too. He thought he was a chicken, just like them. He would peck and scavenge in the dirty barnyard. Since the chickens could only fly for a short distance, the eagle also learned to fly a short distance. He thought that was what he was supposed to do. That was all that he thought he could do, so that was all he was able to do.

One day the eagle saw a bird flying high above him. He was very impressed. “Who is that?” he asked the hens around him. “That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,” the hens told him. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth, we are just chickens.” So the eagle lived and died as a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.

That is the story of every person who does not understand that Jesus not only died and rose again, but also ascended to the Father to open a new way for us. Jesus has promised that if we follow him –– first in his death to sin and then in rising to new life –– we are not doomed to this world as we know it. Jesus has gone ahead of us in every way so we can escape our bondage as chickens scrounging in the barnyard and ascend like eagles to that for which we were created.

Charles Wesley put it this way in one of his great hymns:

Soar we now where Christ has led,
Following our exalted Head.
Made like Him, like Him we rise,
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

Jesus has ascended to the Father. He has gone to prepare a place for us. If we follow him faithfully, we too will one day ascend. That is Christian Faith. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Test for Truth

Wednesday: 8 May, 2013 –– 6th Week in Easter
Acts 17:15, 22–18:1 / John 16:12–15
A Test for Truth

Jesus said, when he comes, the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you to all truth.... He will glorify me....

Jesus did not tell his disciples everything. Some things need time for perspective and maturity. Jesus did promise that the Holy Spirit will guide you to all truth. For almost two thousand years the Church has held onto that promise.

One way we see this is with continuity. The Church understands truth on the basis of what has been believed and taught from the beginning. The Church, being led by the Holy Spirit, is not free to take doctrine or practice in a direction that is counter to what the Church has always believed and taught.

Yet there is guiding –– a growing –– into “fuller” truth. This is the idea of “development of doctrine” so clearly delineated by John Henry Newman. An acorn holds within it an oak tree, but oak trees inherently show the connection by bearing the fruit of more acorns.

What is a test for claiming further “truth” from the Holy Spirit? One is continuity.

There is another: truth originating in the Holy Spirit will honor Jesus Christ. Christian truth will never diminish the person and the work of Jesus Christ. Any teaching that does not give Jesus the honor of the full Incarnation cannot come from the Holy Spirit. Any teaching that discounts the saving death and literal resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot come from the Holy Spirit.

Listen to the voices clamoring for our attention today. If they are not consistent with the historical teachings of the Church, and if they do not give distinctive honor to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, they cannot come from the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said, when he comes, the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you to all truth.... He will glorify me....

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

We Need the Holy Spirit

Tuesday: 7 May, 2013 –– 6th Week in Easter
Acts 16:22–34 / John 16:5–11
We Need the Holy Spirit

Jesus said, It is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you....

The “Advocate” is, of course, the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation of Jesus limits his physical body to one given place. (More on that thought in a couple of days when we celebrate the Ascension.) Jesus knows we need his Presence with us all the time. We each need the life, wisdom, cleansing and power that is available to every Christian because Jesus went away and sent his Spirit.

The story of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail shows what it means for the Spirit of Jesus to be dominant in Christians’ lives. First, Paul and Silas wanted to tell the Good News of the Gospel –– and even in the face of persecution. We naturally talk about what is most important to us, and the life of the Spirit in Paul and Silas shows that their “Number One” was Jesus.

The world often hates the Christian message. After being beaten and put in jail, we find that Paul and Silas were singing hymns in the middle of the night. It takes the power of the Holy Spirit to override circumstances like that. We too easily grumble when things are mostly pleasant.

Then God causes an earthquake that opens the jail. The jailer assumes all the prisoners have escaped, and this will cause his own death. Yet Paul and Silas do not run away when they’re given the opportunity. Their witness of Jesus turns the jailer’s despair into desire –– he wants what makes Paul and Silas so different: Sirs, what must I do to be saved?

Answering that question was St Paul’s reason for living. The Spirit of Jesus possessed him, and everything else was secondary. 

That is why Jesus said It is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.... 

We need the Holy Spirit to fill our lives.

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