Words Matter

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What sort of books do you read? Do you ever think about how they affect your thoughts and your actions? Listen to the stories of four people whose lives were forever changed by what they read. The first one is a soldier, a real “man’s man” who came from a wealthy family with lots of political contacts. Their influence could have kept him behind the front lines, but he loved being in the heat of battle and so he fought. He was seriously wounded in one of those fights and was forced to spend many months recovering from his injuries. Bored and restless as the weeks went by, he asked for something to read to help pass the time. He was given a copy of “The Life of Christ” by Ludolph of Saxony, a German priest. In reading it, he found himself transformed and lead to read the Gospels with a new and deepened understanding. When he was back on his feet, he didn’t return to the life of a soldier, but instead devoted himself to a life of prayer and service. Later, he was called to religious life and he founded the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits. St. Ignatius of Loyola heard Christ calling to him through reading His life story.

As a child, she loved reading stories about missionaries who spread the good news of Christ in far-off lands. She went on to become a nun and a schoolteacher, teaching the daughters of wealthy families in exotic India. One day, while taking a train trip she experienced God’s call to serve the poorest of the poor in the streets of Calcutta. She founded a new order of sisters called the Missionaries of Charity and today they work in slums and inner city neighborhoods around the world. Her selfless love of the poor earned her the Nobel Peace Prize. We know her as St Teresa of Calcutta, “Mother Teresa.”

His father was a city bureaucrat who never went to church. As he grew up, his mom never stopped praying for him, but he liked drinking and staying out late with his friends. Still, he was a good student and he got a job teaching at a prestigious private school. He lived with a woman for many years and they had a son together. After reading the life story of St. Anthony of the Desert, he had a conversion experience and was called to the priesthood. He later became a bishop and Doctor of the Church. St. Augustine’s best-known work is his life story, his “Confessions.”

She was born into a Jewish family but had become an avowed atheist in her teenaged years. On a vacation one summer, she read the biography of St. Teresa of Avila and was called by Christ to a life of faith. A few years later she became a Carmelite nun, like St. Teresa. The Nazis came to power in her native Germany and in order to protect her from them, her order sent her to a convent in the Netherlands. When the Nazis invaded there, she was taken to the death camp at Auschwitz where she was murdered in the gas chambers for being born a Jew. Edith Stein, who had become Sister Teresa Benedicta was martyred in 1942 and made a Saint of the Church in 1998.

Words have power. What we read can affect us in deep and powerful ways, even if we might not be aware of it at the time. Feed your mind with words that nourish and sanctify you. But be careful what you read—you might just become a saint.

 

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The Army

It’s been said that in order to win any war, you have to know three things: that you ARE at war, who your enemies are, and what weapons or strategies can defeat them. If you’re a Christian, then you’re at war. St. Paul wrote a lot about the war we’re in: the war of faith. Personally, each of us is called to “fight the good fight of the faith” (I Timothy 6:12). It’s our daily struggle to live our life in submission to the will of God. We struggle against the inclinations of our own natures which were broken by original sin. We also fight against sinister spiritual forces whose purpose is our downfall (Ephesians 6:12). And on a larger scale, we are members of the Church Militant, the members of God’s own family struggling to reach our heavenly home.

But some of us aren’t being very good soldiers. The old joke tells of the pastor standing at the church doors, shaking hands with the people as they leave after Mass. As Joe tries to pass by, the priest grabs him by the hand and pulls him aside. “Joe,” says the pastor, “you need to join the army of God!” Joe replies, “I’m already in the army of God, Father.” “Then how come I only see you here at Christmas and Easter?,” the priest asks. And Joe whispers back, “Sssshhhh….I’m in the Secret Service.”

Unfortunately for Joe, the fight we are in doesn’t have light duty or rear guard positions. We’re all on the front lines every day. If you aren’t fully prepared and personally engaged in the battle, you’re headed for defeat. So how do we “fight the good fight?” We submit ourselves to the will of God. We obey His commandments–all ten of them–and we cultivate our relationship with God and our neighbor. St. Paul tells Timothy (and us) to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (I Timothy 6:11). By keeping the “new” commandment of loving God and our neighbor, we wage war against our selfish natures, the lure of the world, and the workings of Satan.

Some Christians believe that the battle was won when Christ conquered sin and death once and for all on the Cross. And He did win the victory, but the number of casualties is still to be determined. As long as so many of us believe there is no battle, that we’re guaranteed heaven no matter what we do, then the casualties will mount. Satan delights when the children of Christ deny his existence and allow him to gain a foothold in the body of Christ. If the battle was over, St. Paul wouldn’t tell us to “put on the armor of God”(Ephesians 6:11). You don’t need armor if you aren’t headed into battle. We must wear truth as our belt, justice as our breastplate, zeal for the Gospel as our shoes, faith as our shield, salvation as our helmet and the word of God as our sword. In other words, we must immerse ourselves in the Church that God gave to us as the pillar of truth (I Timothy 3:15). The Church gives us the Sacraments founded by Jesus as the source of His grace. In them, we are joined to Christ in baptism, strengthened in confirmation, forgiven in confession, and nourished by His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. Only by living each day as loving members of His Church can we encourage and support one another in the journey towards the battle’s final, forever victory.

Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather the sword!” — Luke 12:51

Serving Others

Our parish church is a beautiful and imposing structure. The current building was constructed in 1890 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For me, the most striking feature is the array of incredible stained glass windows flanking the nave and the rose window behind the choir loft. They were designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and and are truly breathtaking. Sitting in their multi-colored glow at morning Mass is a foretaste of heaven. Several years ago the windows were cleaned as part of a renovation project and protective coverings were put over them on the exterior. The coverings don’t affect the view from the inside of the church at all. They let in all the sunlight just like before. The coverings protect the priceless windows from harm. But seen from the exterior, the coverings completely obscure the beauty of the stained glass. If you’re on the outside of the church, the windows look like plain, gray glass. It’s as if the beauty of the glass was made only for the people inside.

Sometimes it’s easy for a parish to become too focused on its members and to forget the greater community. We may have lots of active ministries, but how many of them serve the folks outside our doors? Think of the proverbial church supper. Yes, there’s a need for fellowship and breaking bread with our faith family. It’s important. But do we fill our own stomachs while there are people in our neighborhood who don’t know where their next meal is coming from? Sometimes we cook our favorite dishes to impress one another and we forget to feed the hungry among us. Look at your church calendar for the past year. How many activities served the people in your pews? Look at your parish budget. What percentage of your funds go to serve the community, to spread the good news of the Gospel and to bring others to Christ? Do we encourage parishioners to serve others outside of our own parish ministries? Or are we protective of their volunteering, wanting all their time and talent for our own use? Do we invite community organizations to speak at any of those church suppers in order to gain support from our members?

If our parish exists only to serve ourselves, we’re doing it wrong. Christ calls us to be servants, not self-serving. Being a servant means being like Jesus, not only personally, but also as we live out our faith in our parish. Here are a few things to consider:

1) Servants forget themselves. They do what they do in order to give glory to God and not to gain attention or notice for themselves. We don’t seek applause for our efforts. We don’t clap for ourselves on Sunday morning. Jesus poured out His life for others. Our parish has to do the same.

2) We have to think and act like stewards and not like owners. We can’t get possessive about finances or ministries or programs or anything else. None of it—none of it, belongs to us.

3) Our children have to see that serving Christ means serving others. Kids can equate “church” with “going to Mass” and too often they stop going when they leave for college. Mass is crucial, yes. But “church” is a verb and it means serving others, helping those in need, and talking to others about Jesus. Our kids need to see us doing that.

4) Paying others to serve the poor in our place isn’t enough. Yes, giving to charity and in support of our parish is important and we’re called by God to do just that. But servants do more than write checks. They serve, and with their children at their sides.

5) Our parish must be available to the community if we’re going to serve them. Our church doors and offices have to be open as much as possible. Strangers must feel welcome to come to us and share their needs. And we have to help them if we can.

6) A servant parish is a grateful parish. God blesses us to have a pastor, a building and group of believers with whom to gather around His altar. Gratitude is lived out in service to one another. Neither our hearts nor our parishes can have a “do not disturb” sign on them. When we’re truly grateful, we can’t focus inside our walls, and we don’t want to.

So while our beautiful stained glass windows can only been seen from the inside, the light of Christ must illuminate our parish neighborhood. Gratitude and service to others make us stewards of our great faith. The love of Christ is too great a treasure to be contained by a building, no matter how beautiful it may be.

“Love is not patronizing and charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same—with charity you give love, so don’t just give money but reach out your hand instead. —–Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

A Wonderful Little Book

People are hungry for good books on our Christian faith. Without hesitation, the first one I recommend (after the Bible, of course) is “The Great Divorce” by C.S.Lewis. It’s a small book, just a little over a hundred pages. You can easily read it all in an evening. And you couldn’t spend your time any better, in my opinion. Lewis takes us on a bus ride from hell to heaven and along the way, he explains our faith in words and images we can easily understand. This is good theology for us average folk. We hear the stories of the traveler’s lives and we see ourselves revealed in them. Lewis is one of us, he uses language and references we can understand. And he’s gifted in helping us grasp the great truths of our Christian faith in his “little” stories like this one.

“The Great Divorce” opens in a sad, dark city called “the grey town.” Our narrator encounters others who are there with him and he learns their stories as they travel together on a bus to — who knows where. As they travel, we come to understand more about what heaven is and what hell is. We learn the part that our own choices in life play on our journey to our final home. Much of the despairing imagery of the grey town comes from Lewis’ own experience of wartime London, as the book was published in 1945. I don’t want to give away too much of this story, because I hope you’ll want to experience it for yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll never think of heaven or hell in quite the same way again.

And here’s the thing: all of us are on that journey to our real life in eternity. We are all undergoing a spiritual transformation, as Lewis says: We are becoming either “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” That image stops me in my tracks. Created in God’s own likeness, I believe that I’m destined to live forever—the question is, where will that be? We are all given choices to make and these choices (or refusals to choose) shape our souls. When we choose Christ, He makes His home in us (Ephesians 3:16-17). When we deny Christ, we take a different path. But we are in the unfolding process of “becoming.” Lewis says, “There are no ordinary people—only those on their way to becoming devils or glorified creatures like the angels.” Of course, he doesn’t mean that we actually become either devils or angels. We are always human, but oh, the variety of light and dark, of virtue and of sin that we contain.

Our journey has two eventual destinations. Through Christ, we become more heavenly, more in harmony with God, our fellow humans, and ourselves. Or we choose another path and become more hellish—at war with God, our fellow humans, and ourselves. These “becomings” are at the heart of the story Lewis shares in “The Great Divorce.” In our glimpses into the lives of the characters, we’re also confronted with our ideas of both heaven and hell and what they might be like. Lewis’ vision doesn’t include harps and clouds, or lakes of fire. Heaven is a place of infinite realty, where all the beauty we have ever known is a pale imitation of God’s home for us. The closer we get to heaven, the more intense the beauty is and the more there is to experience ahead of us. Each moment is ecstasy. For those who choose a different path, reality becomes smaller, darker, duller, and more self-absorbed. It’s the saddest, most lifeless of realities you could imagine. Lewis is a master storyteller.

Our souls are being formed at every moment, and with every breath. You and I are, at this very instant, becoming either more heavenly or more hellish. We are becoming more and more like Jesus or we are walking down another path. Our ultimate destination isn’t something forced upon us, but is a place and a process we actively choose and embrace. Read this little book. Make your choice.

“While others plan your funeral, decide on a casket, a burial plot, and who the pallbearers shall be, you will be more alive than you’ve ever been.”
—-Erwin Lutzer