The Spreadsheet of Faith

  


Over the last week, a lot has been written about the recent Pew Research Center survey on religion in America.  The gist of the survey is that fewer Americans identify themselves as Christians and, of those who do, fewer are claiming membership in mainline protestant denominations and Catholicism.  The headlines have also focused on the increasing number of folks who say that they are atheists.  Some writers sound almost despairing in their review of the survey results.  It’s as if the end of Christianity is just around the next corner.  Others have analyzed the numbers in any way they can that will shore up their own particular beliefs and prejudices.  I’ve been reading the survey and many of the varied commentaries on it and have come to my own peculiar conclusions.


It’s not that I don’t think information like the Pew survey can be informative.  But for me, the responses to the survey are even more interesting than the survey itself.  To begin with, what do these survey results have to do with our faith?  Evidently, it’s enough to make many writers and chroniclers wring their hands in anxious worry.  But I think they’re wrong to worry, at least about this.  The Church is not a spreadsheet.  And we’re led by a Shepherd, not an accountant.  There’s a danger in looking at faith through corporate eyes.  We forget that the world’s rules don’t apply to followers of Jesus Christ.  If we allow them to, then we’ve truly lost our way.  Getting us lost is what the world is always trying to do to us.  And we can’t allow it.  

Christ never told us that the Church would enjoy the favor of history.  He told us just the opposite.  “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves”(Matthew 10:16).  “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet”(Matthew 10:14).  Since the earliest years of the Church, there have been those who have left and those who have rejected Christ outright.  Heresies come and go like the wind.  The faith of Christ isn’t easy.  Many find it too hard to bear.  We have to remember that the only measuring stick for the Church is that tree on Golgotha’s hill.

Jesus has promised to always be with His Church and that the Holy Spirit will always protect and guide His flock.  Did He promise that the Church would never see a decline in members?  No.  And we also have to remember that the United States, which is where the survey was conducted, isn’t the center of the world.  His Church is bearing fruit in great numbers in other countries.

The Church is only as healthy and strong as each one of us.  If folks are leaving the Church, we have to look at the example each one of us being for Christ.  The world will know us by the fruit we bear:  love, charity, kindness, joy and peace.  Are we so muddled and lukewarm in our own journey that we are no longer a light in the darkness?  If we are away from the Sacraments that Jesus gave us, how can we keep our eyes fixed on Christ?  If we aren’t on our knees before Him in Adoration, how can we be surprised when no one else is?  Our faith is not about surveys or spreadsheets—it’s about relationships: my relationship with Christ and with my neighbor.  We have to remember His words above all—“…apart from Me, you can do nothing”(John 15:5).

“So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s foolishness.”
            —I Corinthians 1:23

When You’re Angry At God

  

Most of us have been angry with God.  We can all recall circumstances in our lives when we’ve been overcome with emotion and directed our wrath to the Lord.  We lose a loved one and in our grief we lash out, demanding to know why God would do such a horrible thing to such a wonderful person.  We’re caught up in the emotion of our grief and we demand an explanation.  We have to find a logical or at least an understandable reason for why this happened.  Sometimes, when we’ve calmed down a bit, we look back at our anger with God and we’re shocked and ashamed.  We feel guilty for being angry with the Lord.  We see our anger as a sin.  But, is it really?


Anger is an emotion.  It flows out of our humanity and isn’t consciously willed.  You don’t get cut off in traffic and “decide” to get angry with that thoughtless driver—your anger is upon you without you thinking about it.  If you read some of the Psalms, you’ll soon realize that David was often angry at God.  Read Psalm 22.  David has an intimate relationship with the Lord and in intimate relationships, you don’t try to hide your feelings from the other person.  Honestly sharing your emotions is a key to the bond you share.  David couldn’t have hidden his feelings from God if he’d tried.  So David owned up to his feelings.  He cried out to God in his anger and despair.  You don’t encourage trust and intimacy by shrouding your heart.  But after David expressed his anger to God, the Psalm show that he didn’t just stay in that wrathful place.

After David genuinely rales at God, he gets it out of his system.  He moves on.  In Psalm 22, David moves through his anger, to praise.  He gets back to his right relationship with God.  And isn’t this what happens in our healthy relationships?  We get angry with our spouse, we express it, get over it, reconcile, and move on.  A friend wrongs us, we hash it out, we work through it, make up and go on with our friendship.  The relationship we enjoy with God is like this, too.  Sharing our genuine emotions with our Creator and Savior is a great gift and reveals our “family” relationship with Him.  Yes, our anger also reveals our own brokenness and it shows how little we truly understand His love for us.  But God knows our hearts and loves us anyway.

In some ways, our anger reveals how much we love God.  After all, we reserve our strongest emotions for the ones we love the most.  But we can’t allow ourselves to remain in that anger.  Emotions like anger, are involuntary.  But allowing ourselves to continue in anger is a choice we make.  And choices can be wrong.  There comes a time when our anger at God does become sinful. David reveals a way for us to move beyond anger and that way is through repentance and gratitude.  

The moment we turn our thoughts to all the many blessings of God, our anger turns to sorrow and from sorrow, to praise.  Gratitude takes all the air out of our wrath.  For me, I move from anger, to tears, to praise.  My tears are the sorrow I feel for being mad at the One Who has given me everything.  I offer them to Him and He accepts them, over and over again.  We’ve been through this before and, sinner that I am, we’ll probably go through it again.  That’s how true love works.  Its’a journey that is so much deeper than fleeting emotions.  I know that God understands my anger and I know as well that He wants more for me than that.  Only His grace can heal me.  Your anger with God doesn’t surprise Him.  He knows you loved your friend who died unexpectedly.  He understands the anger you feel at your broken marriage.  Don’t feel guilty over that genuine anger.  But, like David, don’t make your home in it, either.  Let it out and move on.  Thank God for all the love you still have in your life and trust Him to give you even more.

“For He has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch.  He did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.  I will offer praise…”
      —Psalm 22:25-26

The Knights of Columbus

  

No one can debate the good works done by the folks at any of the 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children located throughout the United States.  They provide medical care for kids with a variety of conditions at no cost to their families.  No doubt this is a great charity and thousands have benefitted from their care over the decades.  Shriners do lots of charity work in their communities, but I’ll bet most of us known them for the hats they wear (it’s called a “fez”), their candy sales, their circuses, and those little cars they drive in parades.  Shriners are associated with Masonic lodges.  All Shriners are Masons, but not all Masons are Shriners, if that makes sense.  Masons also have several other groups under their umbrella, like the Order of the Eastern Star, the Order of DeMolay, and the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls.  All of these groups set their own membership requirements.  

Since 1738, the Catholic Church has forbidden her members from joining Freemasonry.  In 1983, the Vatican issued another declaration affirming that Catholicism and Freemasonry are “irreconcilable” and that any Catholic who enrolls in a Masonic association is “in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.”  The Church’s objections are based on the Masonic teachings of a naturalistic deistic religion which is at odds with Christianity.  Deism denies the Holy Trinity, the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, divine revelation and miracles. Some protestant denominations have also objected to Masonic teachings, but really only Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians forbid membership.   The Church makes rules like this to promote fraternity and charity in solidly Christian groups, like the Knights of Columbus.  

Founded in 1882 in New Haven, Connecticut, the Knights of Columbus is a fraternal charity of Catholic men whose principles are charity, unity and fraternity.  Their founder, Father Michael J. Mcgiviney, may soon be on the road to sainthood.  Almost 2 million Knights now serve in countries all over the world.  The Knights came into being at a time in America when Catholic immigrants were the victims of widespread discrimination and often were barred from joining labor unions or social welfare groups.  The Knights helped struggling Catholic families with financial aid for the unemployed and affordable life insurance.  They continue this mission today.  The Knights support Habitat for Humanity, the Special Olympics and disaster relief around the world, among other charities.  Some famous Knights include John F. Kennedy, Jeb Bush, Vince Lombardi, and Babe Ruth.  As important as their financial support of the needy, their donation of millions and millions of work hours given to charitable causes is just as impressive.  

The Masons and the Shriners also give tons of money and man-hours to charitable causes.  The Catholic Church in no way minimizes this good work.  The Church calls Catholic men to serve with one another, to share in fraternal fellowship with other Catholic men, building up the Body of Christ through the community of parish and Council life.  The work of the Knights of Columbus is and always has been, an overtly Christian organization.  Members are all Catholic men in good standing whose lives reflect the beliefs and teachings of the Church.  They are not Deists or secularists.  They are faithful Catholics.

If you’re in a parish that’s blessed to have an active Council of Knights, be sure to support them with your treasure and your prayers.  The Knights have long-enjoyed the patronage and support of the Popes.  Pope Francis has encouraged the Knights to continue their defense of the sanctity of marriage, the dignity of human life, the beauty and truth of human sexuality, and the rights of believers.  This group of men represents the best of our parish community life.  Lately, we’re heard and read a lot about the lack of men in the church pews and ministries.  The Knights of Columbus are the answer to the question: “Where are all the good Catholic men?”  They’re right here, serving God and their neighbors in charity and fraternity.  If you’re a Catholic man looking for a place for God to use your time and talents, contact your local Council of the Knights of Columbus.  They have a spot for you.


“The proof of love is in the works.  Where love exists, it works great things.  But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist.”
     —-St.  Gregory the Great
           (540 – 604 A.D.) 


The Love Bridge

  

In an ancient city full of old stone bridges, this particular bridge isn’t very remarkable.  Made of stone and brick, it has six arches which cross the Tiber River in Rome.  It was first constructed in  115 B.C. and has undergone several renovations over the many centuries that have followed.  The last major repair was accomplished by Pope Pius IX in 1850.  Today the bridge is a popular destination for couples in love.  They go to the bridge around sunset and lock a padlock onto one of its lampposts or columns, signifying the joining of their two hearts.  Then the key to the lock is thrown into the Tiber below them, locking their love for all time….at least that’s what they hope.

A bridge is a symbol of joining together since it connects two shores with its structure.  It allows us to go from where we are to where we want to be.  The Latin word for “bridge” is “pons” and from that root we get the word “pontifex” which means “bridge builder.”  Pontifex is one of the titles for the Pope because he is a bridge builder spanning the centuries back to the first Apostles, and between the Church and our Savior.  He also builds bridges between the faith and the world, between believers and non-believers, between rich and poor, etc. So what does this old stone bridge have to do with Christianity?  In a word—lots.  Something happened on that bridge that, quite literally, changed the world.

In the third century, the Roman Empire was large and hard to govern.  It stretched from France to northern Africa, across Europe to Turkey and the Middle East.  It was struggling with debt, war, and unrest.  Christians were a favorite object of blame and persecution in this pagan society.  Roman emperors demanded worship from their citizens, but Christians refused to deny Christ.  Thousands were tortured and killed as a result.  By the beginning of the fourth century, the Empire was ruled by a group of four men.  Two of them, Constantine and Maxentius, were opposed to one another with both men wanting to be top dog.  Their conflict eventually led to a decisive battle between their two armies on October 28, 312.  They were pretty evenly matched in terms of fighting strength and the battle looked to be horrific and bloody.  Who would win? And what would victory mean?

On the night before the battle, Constantine had a vision in his dreams.  He saw the Cross of Christ before him and heard God tell him to place the Cross on the shields of his soldiers. God said, “in hoc signo vinces” which means “through this sign, you will conquer.” The next morning, the battle played out there on the Tiber, at the Milvian Bridge.  Constantine won a decisive victory and entered the city of Rome the next day as the undisputed leader of the western half of the Roman Empire.  Constantine’s victory and the vision he had of the Cross led him to become a Christian.  The next year, the Edict of Milan was issued which made Christianity an officially recognized religion throughout the Empire.  

Knowing its history, the Milvian  Bridge looks a bit less ordinary.  This bridge was part of God’s plan for His Church.  He used a pagan Emperor to make the faith available to millions of people.  In the year 313 alone, history tells us that more than 12,000 people were baptized in Rome.  A few years later, Constantine called the Bishops of the Church together for the Council of Nicaea.  From this council we received the Nicene Creed which we Catholics still profess each Sunday.  That creed is another bridge, across countries and continents and centuries, joining the Body of Christ in holy alliance.

God’s love bridged heaven and earth in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Heaven came to earth in Bethlehem, and the doors to heaven opened for us on the Cross.  That same Cross that Constantine saw and marched behind to victory on the Milvian Bridge.  The grace of Christ in the sacraments is our bridge to eternity, giving us all that we need to follow Him home.  So if you’re in Rome, at the corner of Via Clodia and the Via Flamina, step onto that old stone bridge.  Look at the lovers and their padlocks.  Listen to the river Tiber flowing past under your feet.  And remember what happened here.  Feel the tug of that history pulling your heart, bridging your heart between earth and heaven.  Feel the tug of God calling to you.  By His sign, you will conquer.

“High up in the royal rafters where
The Savior rose from His grave,
Our king declared allegiance there
And Christianity was made.”
    —“The Battle of Milvian Bridge
               by Terrell Martin 

Faith in Bloom

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Springtime gives me hope. Every year as the earth blossoms into new life, I’m filled with gratitude for the beauty of creation. Spring affirms change and growth and renewal. It reminds me in a million different ways that I have been made “a new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). So many of the familiar flowers and shrubs in our home landscapes have long traditions as living reminders of our faith. I’m sure most of us have at least a couple of these examples in our gardens, but we might not know their histories.

Probably the most beloved flower of all is the rose. St. Ambrose tells us that the rose grew as the greatest and most beautiful of all the flowers in paradise. It flourished there without thorns until sin entered the world. The rose then grew thorns to remind man of his sins but it retained its beauty and fragrance to remind us of the splendor of heaven. A red rose is the symbol of martyrdom, of giving our life for our faith. A white rose symbolizes purity. Roses are often associated with the Virgin Mary. A rosary is a series of prayers which we present to Our Lady like a garland of these most beautiful flowers.

Most of us know the story of St. Patrick and the shamrock. As a missionary to the pagan people of Ireland, Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate how the three Persons of the Holy Trinity exist as One. Americans often confuse shamrocks with clover, but the shamrock is a lovely green plant that is much larger than the tiny clover and makes an excellent bedding plant.

Holly is a staple of most American home gardens. The waxy green leaves and bright red berries make it a favorite at Christmastime. Legend has it that the holly was used to make Christ’s Crown of Thorns and the bright berries reflect the drops of His Precious Blood which the painful Crown produced. Its evergreen beauty reminds us of the promise of eternal life in Christ and His promise to be with us in our darkest trials. The old poem, “The Holly and the Ivy” contrasts the two plants and their symbolism.

Laurel is another beautiful shrub that comes in many varieties. In ancient times, the winner of a race or other athletic competition was rewarded with a crown made of laurel leaves. It reminds me of having run the race of faith that St. Paul mentions. Laurel symbolizes triumph as well as chastity. Several orders of nuns wear wreaths of laurel on the day they make their final profession of vows and many sisters choose to be laid to rest wearing a laurel crown, as well.

One of my favorite flowers is the columbine. Brilliant blue, it’s a real show-stopper. Another name for columbine is “Our Lady’s Shoes” which comes from a legend about the origin of this flower. After the angel Gabriel had come to Mary at the Annunciation, she left to share this good news with her cousin, Elizabeth. As her feet touched the earth on her journey, columbines sprang up in bloom at each footstep. What a wonderful story! Columbines remind us of the joy that Mary felt knowing the Savior of the world was on His way.

Lilies are hardy perennials that multiply rapidly and bloom their hearts out. They have been seen as symbols of purity and chastity for centuries. You’ll frequently see lilies in paintings of Saints who died as virgins. St. Joseph, the husband of Our Lady, is often depicted holding a lily—both as a symbol of his own chastity and in his role as the protector of Mary’s virginity. The fleur-de-lis is a variety of lily that was adopted by King Clovis of France when he was baptized. This familiar 3-petaled bloom went on to become the symbol of French royalty and of France itself. An early bloomer, the fleur-de-lis is a sweet, fragrant addition to any garden.

So many flowers and shrubs have been linked to events in the life of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Do a little research for stories about daffodils, bleeding hearts, Passion flowers, and marigolds to find more about your “faith garden,” These are just a few of the many reminders of the love of Christ and the faith of His followers. Plant a corner of your garden with some flowers or shrubs that will pull you closer to our Creator. He made a Garden for us all, once. And the beauty of springtime is a reflection of that first, perfect garden.

The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden.”
—–St. Thomas More
(1478 – 1535)

A Good Death

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“A good death.” You hear that said in Catholic families who are facing the loss of someone they love. Non-Catholics usually have no idea what this means. This is because a) most folks could never imagine death or any of its trappings to be “good” and b) many non-Catholics believe that their salvation is assured beyond any doubt. As usual, we Catholics have a rather different understanding of both death and our salvation.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven at our baptism. We are initiated by those waters into the new life of Christ and His Church. We know as well that we will sin after our baptism. Jesus knew this too, which is why He instituted the sacrament of confession. While with His disciples, “[Jesus] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained ‘ “(John 20:22-23). From the beginning, the Apostles began baptizing and healing and forgiving sins. Confession has been a function of our priests since the very earliest years of the Church. So confession is something God wants us to make use of whenever we commit serious sin. In it, we encounter His mercy and forgiveness. We remain in God’s grace when confession is used regularly. Through it we receive His sanctifying grace which helps us to resist sin.

We confess because Jesus told us to and because He empowered His Apostles and their successors to share His forgiveness with us. Like St. Paul teaches, we know that our salvation is a gift which, through sin, we can abuse and lose. “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall” (I Corinthians 10:12). Our faith must take root and work in our lives or it is a gift that is lost.

So what is a “good death?” For Catholics, we pray and hope to die in the grace of God, sharing His friendship. To that end, we should go to confession whenever we’ve committed serious sin and frequently receive Holy Communion. If we are ill with physical or emotional disease we should receive the Anointing of the Sick which will strengthen us in our journey. If you are undergoing surgery, you should request this anointing. What used to be called “the last rites” includes anointing as well as confession and Holy Communion. If someone in your family is Catholic and is seriously ill, it’s important that these Sacraments be made available to them. Like many Catholics, I wear a medal that requests a priest to be called in case of an emergency. As we say, if I’m in an accident, call a priest first and then call the doctor. My soul needs healing, too.

Dying in the grace of God is a wonderful comfort to the patient and to all those dear to them. We Catholics also believe that our prayers should continue after the death of our loved one. God alone knows the fate of each soul, so it’s an act of charity to pray for the dead. We are all part of the Body of Christ and praying for one another is what families do.

Each of us should consider the state of our soul. Catholics call this “an examination of conscience.” It’s a good habit to acquire because it keeps your heart tender towards your sins. At the end of every day, think back on your actions and thoughts and words. Consider how your sins affect your soul and your relationship with God. We are all going to come face-to-face with The Lord at the end of our lives. Surely we’ll want to meet Him in a state of grace. We want to meet Him with no regrets, having lived a life pleasing to God and poured out in service to one another. Part of running “the race” (II Timothy 4:7) that St. Paul writes about is keeping close to God and allowing His grace to transform us. We live in the joy of Christ, so that when we meet Him, He’ll welcome us into His arms.

“Precious in the sight of The Lord is the death of His Saints.”
—Psalm 116:15

The Gospel of Pinterest

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There are pages and pages of beautiful things there. There are gardens and living rooms, fireplaces and baby cribs. You can see before and after pictures of salvaged furniture and upcycled old pallets and you can learn how to decorate cakes or paint ceilings or braid your hair. It’s full of sports trivia and inspirational quotes and Snoopy cartoons. It has…well…everything. Things you’ve seen before and other things you’ve never imagined. It’s like Disney-meets-Martha Stewart-meets-Wikipedia. It teases you and tempts you and sucks you in. You look at the clock and realize you’ve just spent two hours browsing nail polish hacks. You’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of Pinterest.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore Pinterest. I love learning how to do crafty things. Or maybe I should say I love thinking about doing crafty things. Mostly, I pin cute stuff that I know I’ll never really make, but feel bad if I don’t pin them. Since someday, I might actually want to make hummingbird feeders out of old wine bottles. Or make monogrammed Christmas stockings out of vintage dishtowels. But let’s be honest, I’m never gonna make those stockings or bake that cake or learn to quilt. That doesn’t make me enjoy browsing and pinning any less, though. I know women whose obsession with this website makes them feel bad. They see all those wonderful things and they know they’ll never make them. They feel somehow “less” than all the other women “out there” that they imagine live in perfect crafty houses with their perfect monogrammed families. Not me. First of all, I know those perfect women don’t exist. We’re all a bit of a mess. I don’t feel inferior because my own mess isn’t chalk-painted or upcycled. I just like looking at all the beautiful things Pinterest has to offer me.

And that’s why Pinterest is so incredibly popular. Because, in a small way, it reflects the beauty of God. Yes, I said that. Anything that is good or true or beautiful shows us a glimpse of the Creator, Who is all-good, all-true, and all-beautiful. Deep down, we know this is true. We were made in His image and likeness and when we see beauty, we recognize it like an old friend. It’s why, since our beginning, people have tried to create beauty. Music and art and architecture are some of our attempts to reflect God’s truth and beauty. We hunger for it in every breath and with every beat of our hearts. We may say that we don’t believe in God. We may protest that heaven is just a fairy tale. Yet we gasp at the sign of a Monet painting or a Michelangelo sculpture. Who among us hasn’t become teary-eyed when we stood up at the “Hallelujah Chorus?” Even the most committed unbeliever knows the glory of what is truly beautiful. We feel it resonate from within us. Why? Because we came from Beauty.

And through the mercy of God someday we’ll return to that immensely beautiful home. This Easter season reminds us that in Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, the doors of heaven are made open for us. Every pale beauty of our earthly existence reflects the true beauty of our heavenly home. It is and it will be absolutely incredible. We will be with God and in God and He will be with us and in us. We will be more alive there than we have ever been here on earth.

So embrace the beauty you see around you, every day, in every person. Be grateful for sunsets and sonnets and symphonies. Love those around you who reflect God in their bodies and their spirits. We’re on this journey together and we belong to one another. We come together at the altar of The Lord. And we come together as well in our families, our neighborhoods, our schools and our workplaces. And we come together on Pinterest,too. We’re drawn to the beauty we find there, aching for that greatest Beauty of all.

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from…”
—C.S. Lewis

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