Of Skill Sets and Altar Rails 

At the beginning, we were ushered into a large auditorium. Rows and rows of blue-upholstered movie theater seats all facing an elevated stage filled with green plants and, at the rear, a wide theater screen. A mist rolled across the stage from an unseen fog machine. I took my seat just as a rock band jogged on stage in jeans and t-shirts. Without introduction, they erupted into song and the crowd immediately stood. Lyrics were projected onto the screen and lights flashed in time to the beat. “Draw me close to you, never let me go…You are my desire, no one else will do.” After fifteen minutes or so, everyone still standing and singing, the lights slowly faded and a young man in jeans and a faded western shirt walked towards a podium, adjusting his wireless microphone. “Amen!” he screamed, and the music stopped. For the next ninety minutes, he outlined (in talking points projected on the screen) how his church, this church we were in, had grown from 30 families to 1400 families in the last 3 years. He was the opening speaker at this conference on church stewardship and planning.

The notes I took were the words he used to explain the growth of his church. I won’t give the name of it here, but think of any of the “verb” church names you’ve seen: gathering, crossing, living, growing, etc. No mention of God or His Son or any of His saints. Just a verb with no object. I was to think back on that grammatical faux pas a bit as his presentation unfolded. He spoke to us of “professional worship” and how a successful preacher “prayed with authority” before his congregation. He stressed the importance of using “the right backline” for “performances” as well as lighting and projection and cellphone apps. He spoke of “worship teams” and the “skill sets” they needed to possess. Everything had to work together seamlessly for a “dynamic worship experience.” People had to feel “connected” and “plugged in.” “Small groups” met weekly to emphasize Sunday’s “talking points.” He showed us how he humbly prayed on stage, head down, palms open, whispering “Father God…” There was more, but I had stopped taking notes.  

I realized that what he and I imagined worship to be were very different things. His church model seemed to be built more like a business than a vineyard. It made me uncomfortable because this model is often upheld today. The vocabulary he used sometimes sneaks its way into parish council meetings. Sometimes we think we need to be more like the “verb” churches in order “to keep up with the times.” Stewardship can easily adopt the speech of data analysis and business planning. And I’ve been guilty of that, of seeing my parish as a franchise of some larger corporation.

But then I walk into my church. My beautiful church, filled with the smell of incense and beeswax. I see the statutes of the Saints, reminding me that ordinary people can, by His grace, walk with the angels. The sunlight falls in jewels through the stained glass above. There is an altar here, not a stage, and altar rails, not a fog machine. Above the altar, my Savior hangs on a Cross. Whenever I need to be reminded of what Church is, I look to Him there. On this altar, He becomes my holy food, nourishing me in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This sublime holiness is beyond any talking points. No amount of artificial fog or light shows can improve on this communion. God has no need of enhancement. Our words here are “adoration” and “transubstantiation.” We sing the Psalms and we reverence suffering and sacrifice. Hardly the skill sets that would attract great numbers. In our worship, we use water and oil and wine and unleavened bread. Ashes mark us all as the sinners we are. We fast. We fail. We go to confession and we try again. We mark each day as a feast of a Saint, to whom we look for inspiration. We embrace the mother of our Lord as our own mother, tender and loving, always pointing us to her Son. We witness a miracle at every Mass. We believe in miracles. We have to. Because we don’t have good sound systems and our hymns are too old and complicated to sound like Taylor Swift. We’re bad at talking points. So, it’s a miracle of God that the Catholic Church is still here after 2000 years. I don’t know what we’d do if we depended on a business model for our worship. I just know what Jesus said:

“And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

        —–Matthew 16:18 

The Wood of the Cross

Once again the holiest week in the history of the world is upon us. Once again, I’m not ready. How can I be ready for what is about to happen this week? No matter how I may have observed the season of Lent, despite knowing the story by heart, I’m not ready. This week is too shocking, too raw, too unbelievable to embrace. It’s easier to skip over the truth of this week and focus instead on the new dress, the chocolate bunny and the colored eggs. But as Christians, we’re called to walk the Way of the Cross with Jesus. We enter into His Passion. We call for His Crucifixion with the others in Jerusalem mob. We strike the blows the soldiers delivered as He was tied to the pillar. We see Him killed and we see Him rise again on the third day. It’s too much to imagine, too scandalous to endure. 

And without love, none of it makes any sense. Only through the eyes of love can we bear to watch it all unfold again. No other religion has a story to equal this one, or even compare to the truth of Holy Week. Our Creator died for us, sacrificing Himself for our sins. The One Who is without sin becomes sin so that we may live. It’s not logical, not rational, not pretty. And it’s not safe. Following Christ changes everything. Forever. That’s what Love does.  

His love for me is perfect and yet the love I return to Him is so small and measured, so flawed and weak and failing. That’s why this week is more than I can bear. In the face of His love, I must turn away. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll watch Him enter Jerusalem on a donkey. I’ll take a sideways glance at the Last Supper, my dull vision obscuring the Truth of the Sacrament. In the Garden, I’ll hide behind a tree before falling asleep with everyone else and when I wake up, they’ll all be gone. I’ll be there at the trial, in the crowd, unable to look at Him, but caught up in the frenzy still. As He struggles to carry the Cross to His death, I’ll hold back, afraid to see or be seen by the One Who made me. I’ll hear the nails being driving into His hands and feet, but I won’t go near the hill. Too hard. Too real. Too much my own fault. My most grievous fault.  

Each one of us experiences Holy Week in our own way. For me, there is a moment in the Liturgy of Good Friday when all my feeble efforts at holding it together come up short. We’ll see the Cross brought inside, the wooden Cross of Christ in our midst. And we will kneel and kiss the rough wood in veneration. That kiss always breaks my heart. With that kiss, I stop trying to be ready for it all and just let go. I’m Peter and Caiaphas and Mary Magdalene. I’m the soldier thrusting the spear into His side and I’m the Beloved Disciple resting my head on His shoulder. I’m the young rich man who walked away. And I’m Lazarus, stumbling out of the grave in my funeral wrappings. I’m the Good Thief and the proud Pharisee praying loudly in the Temple square.  

In the Cross, I lose myself and the Love of Christ floods in. Every year for me, that moment at the Cross is my new beginning The reality of His love and sacrifice is the truth revealed in Holy Week. Every year we experience it anew. I pray that you’ll find a new beginning this year and that some moment will open your heart to the mercy of our loving Father. This week is a treasure of our faith, given to us as our ladder to Heaven. Love opens the way for us.  

“For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

    —I Corinthians 1:18 

A Paint-By-Number Jesus

A truly great painting transports us to another place. We’re swept away by the colors, the light and shadows, the subject and the setting. Abstract art can do the same thing as we are pulled into the canvas through form and void, color and contrast. Beautiful things are beautiful because they reflect the beauty of God as their source. Even not-so-great art or music or poetry yearns toward the beautiful, as if it too hungers to reflect some small bit of God’s uncreated Beauty, however flawed. 

Which brings me to those paint-by-number kits which used to be popular many years ago. You can still find them sometimes at craft stores. They have a printed cardboard “canvas” with a sort of coloring book outline of a subject, along with a few numbered paints and a brush. Match the paints to their numbered spots on the canvas, and voila, you’ve just painted a kitten. Kind of. The art you make bears a resemblance to a real painting. If you squint your eyes. And if the lighting is poor.  

It makes me wonder about the folks who make these kits. Of course, today it’s probably all done with computer software and scanners. But back in their heyday, an artist would look at a “real” painting and translate it into the outlines you follow to paint-by-number. They saw the real thing, the beautiful thing, and then made a kind of approximation of something beautiful—that anyone could copy. What started out as “The Mona Lisa” would become a kind of shallow, muddy copy of a painting of a woman with a silly grin. It’s still recognizable if you’ve seen the original, but it’s not Leonardo’s vision of the mysterious Feminine. You might like the paint-by-number version you’ve created. You might even love it. And if you’ve never seen the original, you might even think yours is amazing. With nothing to compare it to, you look at your painting and it satisfies you. You show it to your friends. You’re happy with it.

And then, one day, you’re in Paris, at the Louvre. You walk around the corner and there on the wall is a smallish painting with a crowd of people in front of it. You can’t see what the painting is, but you’re curious to get a glimpse of it since so many other folks are interested in it. You wait and wonder. The crowd ahead of you thins and you finally see what’s on the wall. “The Mona Lisa”. La Gioconda. The Lady. Her smile beckons. The light from her eyes enchants you. She seems to look right into you, and she draws you in and captures your imagination. It points you to the Source of all beauty, which is what great art does. It’s transformative.  

Now, after gazing on the original, you can never again look at your paint-by-number version in the same way. Now you see all its shortcomings. What once seemed “enough” just isn’t anymore. The colors seem flat. There’s no depth; no sense of a living woman inviting your contemplation. Her mysterious smile looks more like a grimace. No, once you’ve seen the original, nothing less can capture your heart. And who could blame you? Millions of people over hundreds of years have encountered the original and been just as captivated and changed as you find yourself now. When it’s real and true and beautiful, you’re drawn to it. You know it. You recognize it as the real thing. And there’s no going back to a copy of the original, no matter how you might have once looked upon it with love.

This was my journey to the Catholic Church. Growing up as a Baptist, I loved our little church. I loved the music and Sunday School and all my friends there. I learned to love Scripture in that church. I treasure those years. But the Catholic Church offers so much more and, indeed, something unique—the Holy Eucharist. The Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our living Savior. Like Saul, “something like scales” (Acts 9:18) fell from my eyes and I was transformed by His grace. How could I go “back” to anything else once He revealed Himself to me in the Eucharist? How could I ever be satisfied with less than the fullness of my Lord and my God in the Most Blessed Sacrament? There are many reasons I cling to my Catholic faith, but it was and is, the Eucharist that saves me. The Holy Eucharist isn’t a symbol or a memory or a paint-by-number version of the Last Supper. The Eucharist is He, the Living Christ.

“God dwells in our midst in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.”

             —-St. Maximilian Kolbe 

And the verdict is…FORGIVEN!¬†

There’s a moment of high drama played out at the end of every criminal trial in America. After all the evidence has been presented and all the arguing has been done, the jury presents their findings to the court. The defendant stands to hear the verdict read. The courtroom is silent. And the verdict is pronounced. Will it be guilty or not guilty? How many of our favorite books and movies have hinged on that breathless moment of judgement? From Perry Mason to Atticus Finch to the real-life drama of the O.J. Simpson trial, those dramatic revelations are part of our cultural experience. Of course, if you happen to be the defendant on trial, all this high drama wouldn’t be nearly so entertaining. Imagine being in a situation where your life is on the line for something you’re accused of doing. Where you’ll spend the rest of your days depends on the verdict that’s about to be read. And there’s nothing you can do to change it. It’s out of your hands.  

I wonder if many people envision a similar scene when God judges us. A celestial courtroom with God as THE JUDGE. He looks at us and we can’t return His gaze. All the sins of our lives are the evidence against us. We tremble and quake. Despite our faith, we stand in fear of His righteous judgement. We know that God’s love for us sent Jesus to live as one of us and to die on the Cross to save us from our sins. We know that we are His prodigal children, loved and forgiven. And yet, we sometimes are afraid to approach Him for the mercy and love that He longs to give us. We imagine a courtroom scene even though we’ve been shown the embrace of our merciful Savior on the Cross.  

When we sin, we can fall into a few misunderstandings about God’s mercy. We can believe, falsely, that God isn’t offended by our sin and so we don’t need the Sacrament of Confession. Or we can believe, also falsely, that our sin is so dark and horrible that God would never forgive us, so why go to Confession at all? In the first case, we’re rejecting what Christ teaches us about Confession. (John 20: 21-23; James 5: 14-17; Matthew 16:19). And when we believe our sins to be greater than God’s mercy, we put ourselves above Him, judging Him instead to be less than all-merciful. He reminds us often in Scripture that His love and mercy will always be available to us (Isaiah 43:25; Psalm 103:2-3; I John 1:9; Acts 3:19). When we recognize our sin (which is a grace given by God) and we repent and go to Confession, His mercy is abundant, every single time.

Jesus created Confession because He knew that we need to speak our sins aloud to another human being It’s part of the healing aspect of the Sacrament. And yet, it is Christ Himself Whom we meet in the confessional and it is His Mercy which forgives our sins. Unlike in a human “courtroom,” the confessional is never a place of condemnation or shame. It is the fount of life itself. We are always found “forgiven” and, through God’s grace, our sins are forgotten. Many may believe that Confession isn’t necessary if we ask God’s forgiveness “in our hearts.” But this isn’t what the Bible teaches us about forgiveness. As a former Baptist, I can assure you that Confession is a treasure of God’s grace. If you’ve been away from Confession, this season of Lent is a wonderful time to come back. Pray that God will make you aware of your sins and then go to Confession. The priest won’t judge you, nor will he be shocked by any of your sins—he’s heard everything. You’ll experience God’s love and forgiveness in his words of absolution. I can tell you that Confession is one of the greatest gifts of Christ to His Church—don’t go another day without it.  

“Forgiveness is not something we can give ourselves. One asks forgiveness, one asks it of another person, and in Confession, we ask forgiveness from Jesus.”

                 —Pope Francis