Coming To Terms With the Death Penalty

The death penalty has been in the news again this week especially here in Georgia.  For many years of my adult life, I supported the idea of the death penalty for murder, rape, or other particularly heinous crimes.  I say “idea” of the death penalty because to me it was an intellectual position based on what I thought about justice.  To be honest, it wasn’t something that had ever touched my heart in a personal way.  As my Christian faith deepened, I became convicted of many sins against life, such as abortion.  Like most Catholics and evangelical Christians, I considered myself to be “pro-life.”  Making the call against abortion seemed so obvious:  a fetus is a baby.  Likewise, suicide or assisted-suicide (euthanasia) were actions against the gift of life and had to be wrong.  For me, being pro-life also meant taking stands against embryonic stem-cell research, in-vitro fertilization, and artificial birth control.  But somehow capital punishment seemed different.   After all, abortion and many other scientific “advances” were sins against an innocent new life.  The death penalty evoked images of purposeful violence and premeditated murder that a criminal committed without regard to life.  I believed the fifth commandment forbade murder but not capital punishment.  For me, taking the life of a duly-convicted criminal was justice, not murder.
My heart began to change on this issue one evening while talking with friends.  The discussion centered on who exactly is the one who kills the condemned person.  Of course the immediate agent of death is the executioner who flips the switch for the electric chair or the person who injects the deadly drug into the vein.  But the responsibility for the death of the criminal broadens to include the legal and judicial system, the parole boards and/or Governor, and finally to all of us who are members of a society which supports and upholds the use of the death penalty. 
And “all of us” means:  me.  Could I flip the switch or plunge the needle that takes a life?  Yet my tax dollars and my vote support someone else in doing it.  Thankfully, I’ve never lost anyone I’ve loved to violence.  Would that personal pain make it easier to take someone’s life from them?  I began to realize that I couldn’t support pro-life positions on the one hand while supporting the death penalty on the other.  Life is life.  Show me one Gospel verse that says otherwise.  If I believe, as my Catholic faith teaches me, that every person is made in the image and likeness of God, then how can I believe in the justice of the death penalty?  Of course, the murderer on death row isn’t the same as the innocent, unborn child in the womb.  But how could I go on defending life in one setting and condemn it in another?  The value of every human life comes from the One Who created it, not from me, and not from the Supreme Court.  In my heart, all the intellectual arguments on both sides of the issues were drowned out by the life and example of Jesus Christ.
He came to “give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  He came to call sinners to Himself (Matthew 9:13).  Jesus calls us to be reconciled with those who have injured us (Matthew 5:43-45) and to pray for the forgiveness of our sins “as we forgive those who have sinned against us” (Matthew 6:12).  We hear the loving words of the crucified Christ dying on the Cross as a victim of the Roman death penalty: “…Father, forgive them, for they do now know what they do” (Luke 23:34).  So lock up the criminals and throw away the key.  And let God continue to call out to their hearts just as the Lord did to the Good Thief as they both hung dying on Calvary’s hill.  I’ve come to believe that capital punishment is morally wrong and I pray for an end to the death penalty just as I pray for an end to abortion and other sins against the sacredness of human life.  He calls me to leave behind my desire for vengeance or retribution and instead to work for justice and peace.  His example of love and forgiveness is what transforms my heart each day. 

“In [God’s] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.”  –Job 12:10


Why You Aren’t Going to Confession

A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me why Catholics don’t go to confession anymore.  She’d been to Mass with family members who are Catholic and no one had gone to confession beforehand.  My friend had noticed what has come a sad and unfortunate trend in many Catholic parishes.  People just aren’t going to confession like they did a generation ago.  In fact, a 2008 study conducted by Georgetown University revealed that 30% of Catholic go to confession less than once a year and 45% don’t go at all.  This reluctance has given confession the nickname of the “lost Sacrament.” The lines for Communion are long, but there’s often no line at all for the confessional.  So what’s changed in the last 20 years?  Certainly not the teaching of the Church.  Catholics are still taught that grave or serious sin wounds our relationship with God and it must be confessed.  We have to feel sorry for our sin, promise not to commit it again and ask for God’s forgiveness.  If any of those three elements are missing, then our sin remains with us and we are separated from the grace of God in a way that can have eternal consequences.  Why do we believe this?  Because Christ gave His apostles the power and authority to forgive sins (John 20:23) and this same authority has been handed down through the bishops.  Church law asks every Catholic to make a thorough and complete confession at least once a year.  The Church asks us to do this because, like any good parent, it’s for our own good.  In confession, we encounter the love and mercy of Christ and we’re strengthened by God’s grace to resist sin and overcome our attachments to it.  Confession is a Sacrament of healing.  It heals and restores our relationship with God and our faith family.
Often, people stay away from confession because of unhealthy (and even sinful) pride.  They rationalize that whatever sins they’ve committed are trivial or unimportant to God and don’t rise to the level of serious sin.  We can be very very easy on ourselves.  And Jesus knew our human nature very well when He instituted the Sacrament of confession.  Speaking our sins aloud to a priest exercises our humility which is the foundation of all the other virtues.  Humbly asking God to forgive us in the presence of His priest puts Christ in the center of our hearts and not our own pridefulness.
Sometimes people avoid confession because they have forgotten what sin is.  They no longer look to the Ten Commandments or Church law to guide their behavior.  So long as they haven’t robbed a bank or murdered anyone, they think they’re okay.  They’ve adopted a “follow your own conscience” point of view.  If they don’t happen to believe that missing Mass on Sunday or using artificial birth control or lying in their business dealings is sinful, they why would they need to go to confession?  The problem with this kind of logic is that you can use it to justify almost any action.  This is the relativism that says you can do whatever you want so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.  Where exactly is THAT point of view in the Gospel?  You end up turning yourself into the ultimate moral guide and you take away God’s proper role in your life as King and Savior. 
Finally, people may avoid going to confession because they’re embarrassed to tell their sins to a priest.  Believe me when I tell you that priests have heard it all.  You couldn’t possibly confess a sin that they haven’t heard dozens or even hundreds of times before.  The priest isn’t going to condemn you or chastise you.  He’s there to listen to you and offer you the love and mercy of God in absolution.  Confession is for our own good  as members of the Body of Christ, which is His Church.  God is always waiting for us there, in the “forgotten” Sacrament of love.  He’s calling to us to come to Him and experience His mercy and forgiveness.  When we stay away, we not only hurt our own souls, but we hurt our Lord as well.

658 Souls

If it had happened on any other day, Howard Lutnick would be dead now.  But on that beautiful, clear September morning, he and his wife Allison were taking their son to his first day of kindergarten.  As they sat in toddler-sized chairs, both their cell phones rang, and then went dead.  Howard was called to the school lobby where he learned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  He ran back to Allison and told her the news.  She stayed with their son while Howard raced towards lower Manhattan.  He had to get to the World Trade Center because his office and his employees were there.
Howard’s father and mother had died within a year of each other when he was only 17.  He and his younger brother Gary and their sister Edie had remained close over the years.  Howard and Gary even worked together.  And Gary was at the office that morning.  The “office” was the brokerage firm of Cantor Fitzgerald and Howard Lutnick was the CEO.  Everyone working at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11 had been killed.  658 employees, including Howard’s brother, Gary were murdered in the terror attacks that day.  Almost one third of all the people killed were Howard’s employees.  And he wanted to do something to help them.  He saw the towers fall that morning and in the middle of the dust and debris and terrible loss, he was determined to do what he could to take care of the families left behind.  September 11 brought us courage in so many stories of the day.  From the firemen who ran into the burning buildings, to the courageous passengers of United Airlines Flight 93.  In so many ways, we were at our best that day and in the days and weeks that followed.  We seemed to watch out for one another, to care for one another.  Howard Lutnick founded the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund on September 14, 2001 with a personal donation of $1 million.  He and his surviving business partners underwrite 100% of the expenses of the fund.  Every penny given to the fund goes to help the children and families of his lost employees.  To date, they have raised and donated over $250 million.  Now, ten years later, Edie Lutnick oversees the fund.  Cantor Fitzgerald has survived and even prospered in the decade since 9/11.  And now they are hiring the children of their murdered employees.
We’re still trying to make sense of what happened that day, trying to understand it and to come to terms with the devastating loss of life.  What I know is this:  Terrible things happen to innocent people every day.  We’re put on this earth for a purpose.  God calls each one of us to love and to care for one another.  Out of life’s losses can come great grace.  In the end, it’s love that matters, it’s love that endures.  We remember all the souls lost that day, including the 658 working in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald.  And we give thanks for people like Howard Lutnick whose work and generosity have helped us all to heal.

When You Want To Leave Your Ministry

You’ve been leading a ministry in your local Catholic (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian…) church for the last three (five, eight, two hundred…) years.  When people think of your ministry, they think of you and “all the good work” you do for the parish and community.  And lately, when you think of your ministry, that’s what comes to mind first—all the work.  You’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time for you to resign your leadership.  So how does a faithful worker in God’s vineyard know when it’s time to leave their ministry work and move on?
To begin with, you have to listen to the right voice.  Sometimes you might think you’re hearing the voice of God when in reality
it’s the voice of fatigue or frustration or disappointment that you’re listening to.  Think back to when you began your ministry leadership.  Probably your pastor approached you and asked you to pray about accepting the ministry.  And you did.  I’ll bet you can remember the moment you decided to say “yes.”  You heard God’s call in your heart and it was joyful and exciting.  You started imagining “all the good work” you could do in the ministry.  You knew deep down inside that God wanted you there because you belong to His flock and He shepherds you.  You hear His voice and know His voice.  So if you’re now considering leaving, listen for that voice again.  Really and truly pray about your decision to leave and be patient in waiting for His reply.  He wants us to know Him by spending time with Him.  If you aren’t confident that it’s God’s will that you leave just yet, trust in Him and stay put.
There are some things you can do as you wait on the Lord to make His will known to you.  First off, continue doing your best in whatever role you’re in.  You made a promise to your pastor and to God when you accepted this ministry.  Don’t let them down now.  Secondly, make sure you are mentoring others in your ministry so that they are growing in their vision and leadership skills.  A ministry needs good leadership just as a family does.  But don’t forget that the Lord’s work is one we’re called to share.  We are members of one another (Romans 12:4-5), joined together in Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16), made one in Holy Communion (Ephesians 4:4-5).  You’ll feel less burdened if you’ve surrounded yourself with coworkers who help you bear the load.  We’re all in this together. 
Next, honestly examine your relationship with Christ.  Do you need to go to confession?  If you have serious sin in your life, your ministry work is sure to feel burdensome, thankless and insincere.  A clean heart can help to create that joy and peace that you knew when you entered into ministry.  Maybe that’s the source of your burnout.  Look at the fruits of your ministry work.  Is it making a difference in people’s lives?  Are you sharing the love of Christ with others?  If good fruits are there, then maybe God needs you where you were planted.  But if you’ve faithfully prayed for God’s guidance and patiently worked and waited for Him to show you His will, you may find that you ARE being led out of ministry.  If that’s true, then resign quickly and gracefully.  Don’t hang around with a bad attitude and a complaining spirit.  And don’t stay because you’re afraid the pastor can’t find someone to replace you.  God is in control and He put your pastor there to lead your parish.  Go graciously and thankfully, being grateful for the opportunity you were given to serve God and His Church.  Let your pastor and the members of your ministry know that you’ll continue to pray for them and support your parish.  Know that the Lord has begun a good work in you that He will carry on to completion in Christ (Phillipians 1:6).  In time, another door of service will open for you and your heart will once again accept His work with joy and thanksgiving.