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

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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

Forgiveness & Freedom

Several years ago when I was going through a difficult period in my life, I let my heart be filled with bitterness and resentment. I had been hurt by people I had thought were my friends. I became consumed with feelings of betrayal and anger. I spent (wasted) my time nurturing those feelings. I was going nowhere, except into a hardened and sinful place. I was more concerned with holding onto my grievances than I was with allowing God to heal me of my pain. Until I was ready to forgive, how could Jesus forgive me? So one night I wrote down the names of all the people who had wronged me. I held the list in my hands and began to pray for each one of them by name. It was tough. At first I’ll admit that only a tiny piece of my heart was involved when I prayed. But as I continued with it day after day I felt myself letting go of the anger and hurt. I didn’t forget what had been done, but I was able to lay my hurts and resentments at the foot of the Cross. In return, God gave me His mercy and peace. For the first time in a long time, I was free.

Looking back, I can only wonder at the weeks and months I had invested in all that anger. I let it take over my life and rob me of my joy. I gave it permission to be in control, instead of welcoming Christ’s mercy into my heart. This is something nearly all of us deal with at one time or another. One famous family experienced the pain of separation and estrangement over a lack of forgiveness and the price they paid for it was enormous.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is one of the most well-known Victorian poets. Growing up in England, she was the oldest of twelve children. Elizabeth began writing poems in childhood and despite a lifelong battle with poor health, she continued to be a prolific poet. Her courtship with Robert Browning produced a multitude of letters famously detailing their love for one another. But Elizabeth’s father was completely opposed to their relationship. After they married, she was disinherited and her father never forgave her and never spoke with her again. The newlyweds moved to Italy and she never saw her dad again. Despite his hard feelings towards her, Elizabeth continued to faithfully write to him for many, many years. Towards the end of her life, she received a large box filled with the letters she’d written to her father—all of them unopened and unread. Because he couldn’t forgive her for loving Robert Browning, her father had missed out on knowing his daughter.

When you get right down to it, not forgiving someone who has wronged you is a sin of pride. You and your grudges become more important than anything else—family relationships included. You think you know best. You believe that your hurt feelings have priority over anything else. They almost take on a life of their own and you nourish and encourage them by remembering how you were wronged and treated unfairly. It’s all me, me, me. Your memories build a prison around your heart and that’s the definition of pride.

Who do you need to forgive today? Are you estranged from someone in your family? Forgiveness and reconciliation are a gift you can give to yourself. Even if the other person never admits how they hurt you. It’s not about them. It doesn’t mean that you weren’t hurt or betrayed, it just means that you no longer choose to hold onto that hurt anymore. Ask The Lord to help you do this. It might take a while, but that’s okay, too. Little by little you’ll feel a burden being lifted and grace will lead you through it. Don’t waste time losing out on love.

When you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”
—Mark 11:25

Trying To Make God Small

It’s a pretty common thing these days. Lots of people do it. Even some churches are into it, actually. So I though I’d put together some pointers for you, if you’re interested in trying it.

How To Domesticate God

1) Try to ignore Him, if you can. When He calls to your heart in that voice you know, don’t seek Him out. This approach worked pretty well for St. Augustine for many years.

2) Don’t read His book. It’s full of His promises and describes His plan of salvation. It has lots of small words like “love” and “faith” and “cross.” Pretty boring.

3) If you do come across some of what’s in His book, it can be fairly easy to ignore it. Especially things like the 10 Commandments and the parts of it where He describes Who He is (John Chapter 6), His Church (Matthew 16:18) and how to live (Matthew 16:24-26).

4) Forget about “sin.” So long as no one gets hurt, who are we to judge? While you’re at it, don’t believe in hell or the devil either. That’s so 14th century.

5) When someone dies, imagine them in a lovely, mist-filled landscape with no cares or worries. Or even better, imagine nothing at all. Like when a candle flame burns out. It’s over.

6) Think of Jesus as a really cool teacher who was everybody’s BFF and who never said anything that would offend anyone or bring anybody down.

7) If you do somehow find yourself thinking of God, imagine Him as your personal concierge. He’s on-call 24/7,always smiling and never makes any demands on you.

8) Be fearful and afraid. Of everything. Be afraid to fail, be afraid of rejection and disapproval. Be fearful of not being loved and of being alone. Let your fears be your guide.

9) Worry. Try to be strong and confident and do it all yourself. Read lots of self-help books. But in the end—just worry.

10) For goodness sake, don’t pray. Or if you do, let your prayers be quick and superficial. Maybe it’s best to wait until bedtime and limit your prayer life to telling God what you want and when you want it. Pray small.

11) Believe that any sins you have are so bad, so heinous, and so “special” that God could never forgive you. His mercy is no match for your sinfulness. You are a lost cause.

12) Don’t go near the confessional, naturally. Let your sins pile up and do everything you can to keep your heart guarded and far away from Him. Mercy and forgiveness can reveal His face to you and you don’t want that.

13) Believe that you are too old or too young, too busy or too uneducated, too shy or too (fill-in-the-blank) for God to use your for His purpose. A small god has even smaller children.

These are just a few starters for making sure you keep God small and tame. The most common way Christians domesticate God is by keeping Him in a box that they only open for an hour on Sunday mornings. Don’t invite Him to share in any other parts of your life. Keep it shallow, simple, and time-limited. Don’t allow Him to change you. Don’t believe in miracles like the saving grace of Baptism, the forgiveness of Confession, or the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Refuse God’s healing of your body, mind, and spirit. Belittle the promises of God at Fatima or Lourdes or through devotion to His Divine Mercy. And completely ignore His Blessed Mother. After all, no good Jewish son ever honors his mother, right? You never know what might happen if you give your whole heart to Jesus and abandon yourself completely to His Holy Will.

“…Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
—C.S. Lewis

Tenderhearted

I’m a weeper. I thought about using the word “crier” but that implies something rather dignified and demure. Picture a tight shot of a beautiful Ingrid Bergman as a perfect tear slides slowly down her flawless cheek. This does NOT describe me. I weep. I bawl. Great gasping gulps of air in between baleful bellows and bursts of waterworks. Imagine a Bigfoot howling underwater and you’ll have a pretty good idea. And I weep at lots of stuff. Sad songs, of course. The National Anthem, certainly. Puppies. Kittens. To be honest, almost anything, given the right mood. It’s been this way all my life and I blame it on my grandfather. He was what we in the South call “tender-hearted.” Every summer my family would make the long drive to Texas to spend a week or two with him and my grandmother. At the end of our time with them, we’d pile into the car for our drive back to Georgia as my grandfather stood weeping and waving to us in his driveway. He was my kindred spirit.

Someone with this personality trait, like me, has come by it naturally. It’s part of our makeup, of how we relate to the world. It’s probably part genetics and part how we were raised and the examples set for us by the people in our lives. Knowing that my grandfather and I were both teary types always made me feel closer to him. It also made me feel a little bit better about the waterworks. But there’s a different kind of tender-heartedness that’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. In this way, our hearts are conformed to the heart of Jesus.

Jesus was definitely tender-hearted. But not the merely weepy type like me and my grandfather. Jesus cried for his friend, Lazarus. And then He raised him from the dead. He wept over Jerusalem. And then He suffered and died for her salvation. He tenderly poured out His life in the Holy Eucharist the very night that the men with whom He’d shared it would abandon and betray Him. Yet “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Jesus’ tender heart is courageous and strong. Throughout His public ministry, both His heart and His mission proclaimed love, mercy, and holy purpose. “I have set my face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7). His tender heart led Him to the Cross.

To have a heart that is tender and open like Jesus’ Sacred Heart, is also to conform our will to His will. His tender love was a love that called a sin by its name and with the clarity of His light and justice. Jesus was tender to the sinner but never soft on sin. We’re called to follow Him. Our hearts must be just as eager to root out and name our own sins. A tender heart is one that is frequently tilled and weeded by our examination and repentance. Frequent confession is a great “tenderizer” as the Church knows and teaches. Tender hearts seek Jesus in prayer, which is our lifeline to a relationship with Him. We learn to deny ourselves so that we can become more like our Lord, who poured out His heart in love for us. And so we are also charged with service and giving of ourselves. Among the primary acts of our service is to forgive. Tender hearts reach out to those who have wronged us and offer them mercy, like our Lord does. We give our hearts away despite knowing that sometime they’ll be trod upon. We look at Christ’s courage in loving and trusting others and we imitate Him. Tender hearts don’t carry grudges. We are vulnerable to the pain caused by other people and we love them anyway. Even when we’re hurt, we remain sensitive to the pain of others. We comfort, we console. We mourn with those who grieve. Tears shed out of love for another’s pain are precious to Jesus. We shed them freely.

I’m thankful for those early memories of my sweet grandfather who cried for me as I left him each summer. He showed me I wasn’t alone in being quick to cry out of love. When someone called me “tender-hearted” I felt close to him and it made me feel less different. My life is richer for it and my faith is nourished by my tears. You’ll know when you see me at Mass—I’m the one at the end of the pew, always looking for a tissue.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
—Ephesians 4:32

Her Face In The Pew

She’s sitting just in front of you at Sunday Mass.  You see her at church occasionally, but you don’t know anything about her, even her name.  When Mass is over, she quickly makes her way out and is gone.  Until the next time.  Maybe next week.  Maybe next month or even six months from now.  She drifts into your parish life and then evaporates out of it.  It’s really a miracle that she connects with the Catholic Church at all.  She comes, not because of your parish’s lukewarm hospitality to her or to hear your pastor’s seven-minute homilies.  Mass for her is both grace and torture.  She craves what the Mass offers and yet she feels a great barrier between her heart and the life of the Church.  My friends, that barrier is us.  You and me, with our own sins and secrets, our private judgments and hidden (and not-so-hidden) prejudices.  You’ve never said an unkind word to this woman.  You’ve probably warmly taken her hand at the Sign of Peace.  You’ve exchanged polite smiles and nods of greeting.  But there’s something that keeps her at a distance, something in her heart and something in your heart and in my heart.  And that something is abortion.

I’m thankful our Catholic faith supports life.  Standing up for the unborn marks us as stewards of God’s greatest gift.  For the most part, we do good corporate pro-life work in the public arena.  We have strong leadership in this from most of our bishops.  Many of our priests and pastors preach about life issues on Sunday.  Some of our parishes have pro-life ministries and a few offer retreats like Rachel’s Vineyard for women healing from the emotional and spiritual consequences of abortion.  At at the level of our hearts and our hands, we do a pretty poor job of offering the love and mercy of Christ to all the women, men and families wounded by abortion.

Imagine you’re that woman in the pew in front of you.  Hear what she hears us say about abortion and imagine what she might feel.  “It’s the greatest evil, the most horrific sin.  Killing an innocent baby.  Destroying God’s most precious gift.”  And what we say is true.  We must put an end to abortion.  We need to hold prayer vigils and marches for life.  We have to support candidates for political office who will help end abortion in America.  But for every condemnation of the sin of abortion, we have to remember that woman in the pew.  We have to be mercy and love for her.  Not as a theory.  Not as part of our parish mission statement.  But as the heart of Christ.  We have to imitate Him.  And how does Jesus love?  How does He offer mercy?

He meets people where they are.  At a well at noontime.  On their sickbed.  As they are about to be stoned.  As they are hung on their own cross.  As they lie dead in their tomb.  Or in their pew at Sunday Mass.  He meets them where they are in their pain and sin; in their despair and their need.  When they are with Him, He is there for them.  And we must be there for these hurting women.  The only Church they have is us.  They may feel accused and forgotten by us.  They may be ashamed and hate themselves for what they’ve done.  They may expect that we hate them too.  They may feel that their abortion is unforgivable.  Many of them may never set foot in a Church again.  But you can bet that at any given Mass there are several post-abortion women in the pews with you.  The statistics of abortion support this.

Every unknown face at Mass is a child of God drawn to His Church by hope and by the working of the Holy Spirit.  And every time we fail to welcome them, we fail Christ.  Every time we overlook the person behind that unknown face, we fail to do His will.  When that woman in the pew feels unwelcome, she may not come back.  When she feels that her sin, any of her sins, is too great or too dark for God’s mercy, we have failed her as His Church.  As we stand against abortion, we must also stand beside  and reach out in love to its many victims.  For every word she hears condemning the sin, she must hear seventy-times-seven words of His love and forgiveness.  And not just words, but our actions must reach out to her.  A few moments meeting her after Mass.  A conversation over coffee in the social hall.  It can start out so small, but our hospitality can lead to great healing for her, and also for us.  Don’t forget the old saying that each one of us is fighting a great battle here in this life.  As His Church we are called to take care of our own.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

—St. Teresa of Calcutta

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