Thursday, August 28, 2014

Here, Daddy. I Love You


I published this in my second book, Lessons Along the Journey. I hope you find it useful.  Although many years have passed since I first wrote this essay, I still have Nathan's marble hanging prominently on a wall in my office.
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The world asks, “How much does he give?” Christ asks, “Why does he give?”– John Raleigh Mott


Visitors never seem to notice the small black marble on the shelf in our family room. They probably think it’s nothing more than a common piece of round glass, the kind you find in bags of fifty in toy stores. To me, though, it’s a treasure.

My son, Nathan, gave it to me when he was five. Until then he had kept it safe in a corner of his socks drawer. Whenever he left the house, he carried it in his front jeans pocket. One morning while I watched television, he marched into the living room clutching his treasure in his fist.

“Here, daddy.” He opened his hand.

“What’s this?”

“I love you,” he answered.

I switched off the television and stared at the marble. It wasn’t my birthday or any other special day, yet there he was, offering me his special treasure for no other reason than he loved me.

We’ve lived in eight different homes since that day, and in each one, I displayed the marble in a prominent place – not just because it is Nathan’s love-gift to me, but because the simple piece of glass reminds me of a great spiritual lesson: Sometimes I struggle with feelings of worthlessness, and I can’t help but wonder how often other Christians think of themselves in the same way. How many think they are just one of a million insignificant people scurrying to work, to school, to the supermarket? Outside of a small group of family, friends, and acquaintances, no one will ever know – or care – that we lived and died. What can anyone as unimportant as we, offer our Father in heaven?

There aren't any Biblical texts in which God says, "I will mount your love-offering on my shelf." But I am convinced our heavenly Father is greatly moved by our willingness to give Him ourselves, as I was when Nathan offered me his treasure. I believe God proudly displays to the angels our love-gifts of talents, time, finances, pleasures – the things some of us jealously hide in the corners of our drawers or carry close in our pockets.

And I do not doubt He is well pleased when we open our hands and say, "Here, daddy. I love you."

God is pleased with what we offer Him in love.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Don't Mess WithThe Mounds


I published this in my second book, Lessons Along the Journey
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Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. – The Prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 15:22-23)

 

            I know why they’re called fire ants. I’ve been stung more than a few times, and I can tell you it feels like . . . well, like fire. The first time it happened, I thought someone had jabbed a match into my foot.

            Fire ants are not native to Texas where I first encountered them. They’re from South America. No one knows how they got to the Lone Star State – or how to get rid of them, but their nests are easy enough to spot. Although the critters build underground, their telltale mounds at the surface can be as large as four feet around. That’s a lot of ants waiting for some careless person to get too close.

One day, curiosity got the better of my judgment. I poked a stick into a mound, stirred it up, and watched a bazillion frenzied ants scatter in all directions, back and forth into their nest, over and around in circles.  

Mesmerized, I studied them.

That was a big mistake. Before I realized what some of them were doing, they had raced up the stick. In moments, my fingers and palm felt like they were on fire. The welts lasted for days.

            That taught me to stay clear of fire ant mounds, but that experience also taught me a valuable spiritual lesson.

            The devil is not native to our planet. Some Bible scholars interpret Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 as describing Satan’s original habitation in heaven. When the devil rebelled, God cast him and other mutinous angels to earth (see also Luke 10:18, Revelation 12:9).

            Although Satan works “underground,” in the invisible realm of the spirit, his telltale signs are easy enough to spot. The dirt he brings to the surface – despair, disease, hopelessness, and death – is everywhere. And he waits patiently for some careless person to wander near, to stir the soil, test the limits, so he can move in for the kill.

            I assure you, his assault is not pleasant

            As a young Christian, I tested those limits and played the dangerous game of seeing how close I could get to temptation without being hurt. I stirred up old rebellions from the days before my conversion to Christ. A drug experience here, a small lie there, a flirtation with sexual immorality . . . .

            I thought I could get close to the fire and not be burned. Oh! How wrong I was. No one can stir Satan’s mounds without getting stung, and unlike fire ant welts, the devil’s wounds can last a lifetime. That is why I give wide berth to conversations and entertainment that might seduce me into believing it’s safe enough to play with fire. That is why I avoid associations and situations that can lull me into rationalizing why it’s okay to play near his mound. My spiritual wounds and scars are ever present reminders to me that the devil is much more dangerous than the fire ant.

            And he is not a creature to trifle with.


The devil’s snare does not catch you unless you are first caught by the devil’s bait.

– St. Ambrose

 

 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bible Study in 1 Peter on Youtube

It is easy to read Scripture texts that speak of serious, blood-curdling trials. The words fall across the tongue as if we are reading about the local weather report. 


But for some of us, even today, these words strike deep into our spirit, our souls, our lives. The testing of our faith is not an easy journey. It brims over with great sadness, grief, mourning, anger, even bitterness. This is one of the things I talk about in this week’s study through chapter one of Peter’s first epistle. 


You can view the 23 minute study here: http://youtu.be/oKSqIyds020

Monday, August 11, 2014

Chain-Link Fences

This essay originally appeared in my book, Lessons Along the Journey.
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For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
 
            I wondered why the gazelles remained penned behind the chain-link fence. With a good running start, even I could have leapt over it – and I’m no athlete. Then our tour guide explained the reason. The fence leans into the animals’ grazing area, creating a perception that the fence is taller than it really is. Although they could easily escape, they never try.

            We continued our walking tour of the zoo, but my mind stayed with the gazelles. What irony that those fleet-footed creatures graze only a few yards from freedom, confined by a barrier more psychological than physical.

            But gazelles are not the only creatures of God trapped by psychological barriers. Like He did the gazelle, God created me to be free – to love, hope, plan, and dream. Yet I’ve lost count how many times I’ve permitted myself to be penned in by barriers rooted in my mind.

            You’d think I’d know better. I’ve read the promises of Scripture for many years – texts like, “With You I can rush an armed band, with my God to help I can leap a wall” (Psalm 18:30), and “I can do all things through (Christ) who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). But the problem is, God’s assurances usually remain in my head when they should overflow my heart.

            Sometimes I think I am a lot like Naaman, the esteemed and well-respected commander of Aram’s army. You can read about him in 2 Kings, chapter 5.

            But respect and esteem could not free him from the prison of his leprosy and his story makes for a good object lesson in faith – and challenges even the 21st century reader. When Naaman learned the Jewish prophet Elisha could pray over him and heal his disease, he traveled to Israel expecting a miraculous cure. But instead of praying over the Aramean, Elisha told him to wash himself seven times in the Jordan, “and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean” (verse 10).

            Naaman grew furious. “I thought that he would surely come out and stand there to invoke the Lord his God, and would move his hand over the spot, and would cure the leprosy.” The commander of Aram’s military forces was not only locked into his disease, but he was also a prisoner of his expectations about how God should do things.

            The story ends well for Naaman, but only after he trusted the prophet – and got wet.

            But what of our story?

What kind of spiritual fences imprison us? Indecision? Scripture answers, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all” (James 1:5). Loneliness? God promises, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).  Fear or doubt? The Lord Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me” (John 14:1).

            Every now and again I lift my eyes toward the hills, yearning to graze in the lush fields beyond the fence. And sometimes, as I scan the horizon, I catch a glimpse of what Elisha knew, and Naaman had to learn: no fence can withstand the power of our Heavenly Father. He opens and no one can shut. He shuts, and no one can open. He holds the keys of death and of hell (see Revelation 1:18). Why do I doubt He can open less formidable prisons?

 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cell Phones and God

This appears in my second book, Lessons Along the Journey.


The choice of the time and duration of the prayer arises from a determined will . . . One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has the time: one makes time for the Lord. – Catechism of the Catholic Church (2710)

 
            I thought my wife was joking when she suggested I leave the cell phone in the car. Why would I want to leave my lifeline behind for two hours? What if someone wants to get hold of me?

            But I could tell by her look she wasn't kidding. So, I sighed and slid the phone into its car cradle. I didn't know it then, but God had been trying to get hold of me for quite some time, and all He'd been getting was a busy signal.

            The St. Edmund's Sunset Cruise and Evening of Reflection along the shores of Mystic, Connecticut, was not like any dinner cruise we’d experienced in the past. For example, when Nancy and I lived in San Diego, we took periodic tours around the harbor while we savored sumptuous three-course meals, listened to soft dinner music, and enjoyed colorful city lights along the shore. In contrast, the St. Edmund's Cruise provided a choice of ham, turkey or tuna sandwiches, a bag of chips and chocolate brownie. Acappella hymns replaced smooth-jazz dinner music. An orange-red sun melting behind clouds on the horizon took the place of city lights around the San Diego harbor.

            Thirty minutes into our cruise, the captain cut the engines and hoisted the sails. That's when Father Tom Hoar, Director of St Edmund's Retreat, stood at the bow of the schooner, read Scripture, and reminded us of our part in God's Creation. “Just as we can see God's beauty in nature before us,” he said, “we need to learn to see God's image and beauty in each other.”

            As he continued his instruction, I was glad I'd left the phone in the car. It's hard to hear from God when I'm waiting to hear from someone else.

            I met Father Tom a few days later over coffee. He said to me, "People sometimes arrive onboard with broken spirits. The cruise offers a time to discover, or to rediscover, the mercy and power of God in their lives.” The Evening of Reflection Cruise “offers people an opportunity to quiet down for a few hours. And besides," he added, "it's just a pleasant and emotionally aesthetic experience. So, if you can bring prayer into that, then you hope people will find other ordinary ways to bring God into their lives."

            He sipped his decaf and added, "You see all this stuff on TV, or go to bookstores and you see all this pop spirituality, and a lot of it is self-help claptrap. And really, the message is very simple: God created us. God loves us. He loves us so much that He gave Christ to redeem us. And God is available to each of us."

            I mused over that thought for a while: God loves us, and He is available to each of us. And while musing, I yearned for a quiet place of my own, a place where I could reflect on God’s goodness and meditate on His love.

            I found that place at home a little later. It was by the window in a small corner of our guest room. I converted the space into a type of prayer closet, sectioned off from the rest of the area with a screen. I hung a crucifix on the wall opposite my rocker to remind my of my Savior’s sacrifice. It is there that I quiet myself with my Lord an hour earlier than I would otherwise awaken. It’s where I meet Him again in the evening before I go to sleep.

            I’m glad I listened to Nancy and left the cell phone in the car that summer evening. Doing so taught me the value of leaving distractions behind so I might enter quietly, meditatively, into God’s presence.

            It is only there, in His presence, can anyone find rest.

 
God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.  – Mother Teresa

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Because We Are

This essay appeared in my second book, "Lessons Along the Journey" available in print and on Kindle.


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It is a glorious thing to know that your Father God makes no mistakes in directing or permitting that which crosses the path of your life. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter. It is our glory to trust him, no matter what. – Joni Eareckson Tada

 

"If you really are a child of God . . . ."

           
Has that nagging question ever hovered in your thoughts? If you’re like me, it has. Lots of times. But the accusation shouldn’t surprise us. We’re not the first ones to ever hear it. During the wilderness temptation, Satan challenged the Lord Jesus three times, "If You are the Son of God . . .” (Matthew 4, Luke 4).


I’ve always thought that an odd challenge. The devil knew perfectly well who Jesus was. The angelic visits to Elizabeth and Zechariah, to the Virgin, and the shepherds did not escape the Tempter's notice. Satan knew Jesus was the Son of God. That's why he incited Herod to kill Him.

Some theologians argue that the devil hoped to trick Jesus into using His divine powers to benefit Himself, instead of entrusting Himself to the Father. They say using those powers would have short-circuited the great plan of redemption.

          
Perhaps that is true. But I wonder if Satan had another plan. If he could have caused Jesus to doubt who He was and to whom He belonged, would that have sidetracked the Father's plan?

          
It’s a rhetorical question. No one knows for sure, but it raises a sobering spiritual application for all of us who seek to serve Christ.

          
Scripture could not be clearer about the Christian’s relationship with the Father. All of heaven and hell know we are children of God through our baptismal faith (see 1 Peter 3:21; Catechism 189, 537, 1226). However – and this is crucial – if Satan can seduce us into doubting that relationship, he will lead us down the path of despair and destruction, effectively removing us from fruitful service to the King.

          
"If you are . . . .”

          
How should we respond to that accusation? Read the Temptation text and you’ll discover at each turn, Jesus responded with God’s Word.

          
And so should we.

           
When doubts about our relationship with the Father trouble us, we can anchor to God’s promises such as: "See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God” (1 John 3:1), or, "As many as received [Christ], He gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in His name" (John 1:12). When we hear whispered in our ear, “God doesn’t even know your name,” we can shout God’s answer: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name; your walls are ever before me” (Isaiah 49:15, 16).

          
Satan's accusations smolder from the depths of hell, but our faith in God’s promises will form an impenetrable seal against hell’s noxious fumes. We are children of God. He will never leave us. He will always forgive those who seek His mercy.

          
We have God’s promise about that.

 

Whom will we believe? The Liar – or God?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Sign of the Cross


Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory . . . (Psalm 115:1)

My earliest recollection of seeing anyone make the sign of the cross was when I watched Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Of course, as a Jew, I never thought much about the practice. I figured it was a “Catholic” thing. And besides, Jews prayed differently. So when as a young adult I discovered my Messiah, Jesus, I prayed to Him in the only way I knew to pray: eyes closed, and just talk to Him.

But when I became a Catholic thirty-three years later, I started my prayers with the sign of the cross because, well, that’s what Catholics do.

In those days as a new Catholic, I traced the cross over my chest. I did it slowly. Thoughtfully. Reverently. I focused on each Person of the Trinity as I prayed, “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I knew during that short introductory prayer I was entering into the presence of Almighty God – the One who created me, who nurtured me, who protected me, and who sent His Son to die on a cross that I might live with Him forever.

But like with many rituals, in time I fell into a pattern of thoughtlessness. I became comfortable with the movement of my right hand from my forehead to my abdomen, to my left shoulder, then to my right. Without realizing it, I began mouthing the Names of the Persons within the Holy Trinity without thinking about Whose I was and to Whom I belonged. I made the sign without reverence. Or purpose.

The prayer became perfunctory.

Of course, ‘perfunctory’ is not really that surprising an outcome when we do things over and over. It is a danger everyone faces, regardless of the church they attend. But while the danger of ‘routine’ is an important topic for all Christians, it is not the point of this essay.

Christians have been prayerfully making the sign of the cross for two thousand years. Tertullian, a 2nd century theologian and apologist, wrote: "In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross." In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote similarly of the sign: "Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest."

Clearly, tracing the cross over ourselves as a mark of reverence for God has two millennia of historical precedent. So why did I, for more than thirty years as a Protestant, avoid making that sign during my prayers? For two reasons: First, I did not know its long and precious history. And second – and most troubling to me – I did not make the sign because it was too “Catholic.”

Too Catholic? 

What kind of a reason is that? To follow that line of logic, I should have also avoided prayer, or obeying Scripture, or attending church, or singing hymns because all of those things were also done by Catholics. For me to do likewise would make me – what?  Catholic?

Worse things could happen.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Christian history knows it was the Catholic Church that defined and preserved for us the canon of Scriptures. It was the early Catholic Church councils that defined and defended essential doctrinal truths such as the trinity, the deity of the Lord Jesus, and the deity of the Holy Spirit. Christianity would be unrecognizable today were it not for the various Catholic Church Councils’ protection and preservation of Biblical doctrine.

I am sometimes overwhelmed when I think of how my prejudice against Catholics and Catholic rituals robbed me of something that has now become precious to my relationship with Christ.

Oh, Lord! In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,  continue to open my eyes – to open our eyes – to your eternal truth.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

How Long Has It Been?


We hear a lot in homilies during each Mass about the love of God, and His compassion, and His mercy. And that is good, for I think too often we think God is rarely merciful, or compassionate, or in love with us.

 

But there is an element of God's Personality -- a side I've rarely heard about in the last couple of decades.

 

I thought about neglected and yet eternal truth as I listened to my audio Bible this morning. This is from Hebrews chapter 12:

 

"You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect .... [therefore] see to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? ..... for our “God is a consuming fire.”

 

The entire chapter, of course, is important to read for context, but as I listened to the chapter I wondered how long it has been, in all my hearing of God's mercy, love, and compassion, how long has it been since I also heard -- and been warned-- "our God is a consuming fire"?

 

Rarely have I heard in homilies God is not one to mess with. His patience is not without limit. His commandments are not open for debate. And though His judgment might be delayed, such delay does not mean He does not see.

 

It's been decades for me. How long has it been since you have been warned that our God is a consuming fire?

 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Gospel According to Me and My Church

I published this under the title "All or Nothing Faith" in 2009. Sadly, nothing has changed, except our continued descent.
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On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. . . . And Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?" After looking around at them all, He said to him, "Stretch out your hand!" And he did so; and his hand was restored. But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus (Luke 6:6-11, NASB).

            Each time I read this passage, I am bewildered by the Pharisees’ cold-heartedness. Why could it be wrong to heal someone – even on the Sabbath?

            Throughout the Old Testament, God appointed religious scholars such as the Pharisees and scribes to protect the integrity of Jewish faith. And next to circumcision, obedience to the Sabbath Day commandment was a central requirement to the proper performance of Jewish law. Little wonder, then, that Jesus angered so many of the Jewish teachers and doctrinal specialists when – according to their interpretation of Scripture – he broke the Sabbath by healing people.

            As I contemplated this vignette in Luke’s gospel, I focused on that phrase – according to their interpretation of Scripture. And then another vignette in St. Luke’s gospel flashed into my memory. In this one (chapter 9), the apostle John said to Jesus, We saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us (verse 49).

            It seems the Pharisees and other Doctors of the Law were not alone in the practice of their religion within the strict confines of their understanding of Scripture. Jesus’ disciples practiced the same kind of – what I call – “all or nothing” faith.

            “All or nothing” faith. It’s what I practiced for decades. Unless people worshiped Christ like I worshiped Him, or interpreted Scripture as I did, or attended the same kind of church as I – their Christian faith was suspect.

            I should have paid more attention to the Lord’s response to the apostle John in that next verse in Luke’s gospel: Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you (Luke 9:50).

            All or nothing faith. It’s hard to achieve the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed, when we accept from others nothing less than the “Gospel According to Me and My Church” (see St. John 17:20-23).

            Perhaps that’s why the Lord Jesus said to the Doctors of the Law: Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment (John 7:24, NASB). Or St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:4, NASB).

            Considering how rapidly America and the free world are descending into darkness, when will Christians – Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox – finally put aside our “gospel-according-to-me-and-my-church” mentality, agree to disagree on things unrelated to eternal salvation, and work together to win the world for Christ?