Jesus said to his disciples: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”
The Gospel according to St. Luke 6:36-38
The best advice I received as a parent of young children was this: “Say yes more than you say no.” It’s a lesson that stayed with me long after our children left home because it applies to all relationships. The child psychologist that wrote that advice was referring to the spirit of “no” that we must guard against in parenting children with rigidity and close-mindedness. We can soften by saying “yes” in the important task of raising children with love, acceptance, and forgiveness. I thought of this as I read the gospel reading today for Jesus; the Master Psychologist is the perfect example of saying yes more than no. His mercy is his yes to us!
The response of mercy is the prerequisite of living as God’s child, you could say it’s in our DNA as a beloved child of the Most High God; woefully dormant sometimes, but it is there. The heart of the good news of Jesus is this: “God so loved the world that he gave…” and the entirety of his giving to us is revealed in Jesus’ actions and teachings. We witness the if/then of saying yes to God as Jesus lived among us giving practical insight into how to say yes more than we say no to our neighbor, be it our child, spouse, sibling, friend, co-worker, or acquaintance.
Perhaps you grew up under the supposition of God as Judge rather than of God as Lover; that kind of thinking can entangle us in a briary patch that only the Lover of our Soul can rescue us. Do you feel me? I think what hinders us in saying yes with mercy and acceptance to others is that we’ve deluded ourselves by believing this of the LORD because sometimes we transfer this thinking to our reactions to others. We so easily default to judgment in our thoughts, words, and actions that others have a hard time seeing mercy and love in us; it’s as though the word “No” is flashing with neon lights from our countenance. The LORD desires to purge us of this sin.
The remedy is the confession of the judgmental spirit we excuse in ourselves. But then, we must allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in choosing to say yes to others as the LORD says yes to us! What makes me think that I can do otherwise? Remembering “For God so loved the world that he gave…..” is helping to remove the proverbial log in my eye as I live beside others in this life; this is how I have been praying that truth over my life, “For Lois so loves God that she gives…..” Wow! That stops me in my tracks when judgment and condemnation begin to poison my thought life. It’s hard work, but Christ is yoked with us as we plow through the weeds that entangle us!
Today’s gospel reading happens to be one of the many “Come-to-Jesus” readings that are helping me relearn the LORD as Lover by unlearning the attitudes and actions I can accumulate in saying “no” to others through my judgmental thoughts and words. I invite you to pray with me the Gospel according to St. Luke 6:36-38
“[Lois] Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Father, your forbearance and grace cannot be measured; it’s beyond my comprehension. Help me learn to extend my “yes” of love and acceptance of others. Holy Spirit, reveal all the thoughts I have that are contrary to love. Purge them from my mind.
“[Lois] Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.”
LORD Jesus, you rubbed shoulders with anyone and everyone, even those that we would avoid if left to our own devices. You love! No matter the creed or ethnicity or sexual identity or state of existence! Holy Spirit, expand mercy in me until I no longer see anyone as unequal to me. I love you so much that I choose to give acceptance to everyone. We are your children.
“[Lois] Forgive and you will be forgiven.“
Savior and Redeemer, you love me so much that you forgive me–my sins and failings, my raw edges, my pride, fear, and anger. I choose to love you so much that I desire to forgive others. I choose to love you so much that I extend grace rather than second-guessing judgment when I don’t understand another’s words or actions. I love you so much that I choose to look for you in another’s eyes; I choose to see your face looking back at me. I love you so much that I choose my countenance says yes to everyone, EVERYONE!
“[Lois]Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.”
Father of all Good Gifts, you overwhelm me with your grace and mercy, your joy and peace. Your love is endless! Forgive me for putting limits on my love for others. You did not create me this way; would you recreate generosity of spirit in me? I don’t want to give by counting what it will cost me because it already cost you everything to love me. I choose to love you so much that I freely give the gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, and faithfulness to others.
“[Lois]… the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”
Holy Spirit of God, I’m ashamed at how quickly I measure others by impossible standards! Forgive the stingy thoughts that creep into my unguarded mind. Train me to say yes to your love at the first hint of my withholding love from another.
I love you so much that I give my thoughts, words, deeds to you without any measure. I love you so much that I choose to love as you have loved me, laying my life down in favor of the love you desire to give through me.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
Two tourists boarded a ship and sailed to a foreign land. The two tourists disembarked from the ship and stood on the shoreline of the land they had never seen before. Their eyes took in the landscape that was so different from their homeland. They walked the streets of the port city and observed the unique architecture of the buildings. They observed what seemed like odd customs of the citizens. They watched as the citizens, dressed in unusual clothing, were feasting on unrecognizable food and speaking indecipherable words to one another. Before the day was half over one tourist quickly walked back to the ship and declared that the place was too strange to explore. He ridiculed the customs of the citizens, declaring them bizarre. He criticized the architecture saying it was impossible to build like they build in this country. He turned his nose up when he described how unappetizing the food smelled. And he determined that normal citizens do not dress like the people of this land. He mocked the language the citizens spoke passing it off as mumbo jumbo. “Take me back to my home, the polyglot of this place makes no sense!” he told the captain of the ship.
The second tourist strolled back to the ship just before sunset and called from the dock to the ship’s captain. “I will not be boarding the ship today, I have some things I want to learn about this place. The landscape is inviting and I need to find a guide that will navigate it with me. The architecture is complex, I must find an architect and learn more about their blueprints. I do not understand the language, I need to find a denizen of this place to interpret the vernacular for me. I am wondering about the customs and why they do things the way they do, I must find a historian to help me learn about their culture. And their feasts are so interesting, I’m going to seek out a chef so that I may learn about their cuisine in the feasts.”
How you respond to what I desire to tell you about the Catholic Church really depends on what kind of tourist you are. Your journey through the Catholic Church will be more like a day trip than a real journey because I am an apprentice guide; a neophyte in the Catholic tradition of the Faith. But what I lack in familiarity I make up for in passion. Let’s begin our excursion by answering a few questions my husband and I had to ask ourselves the longer we served in Protestant ministry.
Why do you go to Church?
Perhaps you’ve been a member of your church since you were born and perhaps much of your family is a member of your church, you might even say it’s your family’s church so that is why you go to it. Perhaps you have found a church that fits your personality or generational style, you feel comfortable there, of the people that go there look at life through a similar lens and so that is why you go to it. Perhaps you go to church because you have children who need to grow up going to church. Perhaps the area of the world or country you live in has a church that appeals to your own cultural background. There are many reasons for going to church.
What do you do at Church?
What you do at church is heavily weighted by what kind of church you go to; therefore, there are thousands of practices and opinions on what you do at church. It is not necessary for you to list what you do at your church before we begin our tour of the Catholic Church, but it is helpful for you to be mindful of them as we enter the doors of the cathedral.
What is Church?
It may seem a bit prosaic to ask this question at the beginning of our tour of the Catholic Church, but it is one of the questions that preoccupied our own minds the longer we served in the Protestant movement. You really must have an answer if you are going to understand what we see, hear, and do when we enter the grand doors of our cathedral. Is your faith history rooted in a denominational church? Perhaps you attend a “Bible” church or a “Jesus only” church or non-denominational church with a sobriquet like, “Substance” or “Simple.” Is it a liberal church or a conservative church? Is it an Arminian church or a Calvinistic church? Is it a mainline church or a fundamental/evangelical church? How you answer these questions determines what you consider a church to be. Currently, there are thousands of Protestant denominations around the world so there are many thousands of ideas about what a church is.
What’s the difference? Church is Church, isn’t it?
Answering this question may take some time, but it is the most important question to answer before we enter the doors of the Catholic Church. There are voluminous writings on this very subject and they are written by scholarly theologians who have devoted their lives to studying Church history. It is prudent for me to remind you that I am a novice guide and you are on a day-trip so our pause here before entering through the doors will be brief. As you think of what the Church is, it will be helpful to think of the three things you need to build a brick house: bricks, mortar, and trowel. (We credit Mark Shea for this clear analogy of the Catholic Church.)
What is the Catholic Church?
Think of the Catholic Church as having a big enough pile of bricks to build a brick house. Catholic teaching says written Sacred Scripture is materially sufficient: all the bricks necessary to build its doctrines are there in Scripture. But there are also other necessary and no less important building materials besides Scripture that have been handed down from the apostles and the early Church Fathers. The other building material is stored in the unwritten (and eventually written) Sacred Tradition (this is the mortar that holds the bricks of the written Tradition together in the right order and position) and the Sacred Authority (Magisterium) or teaching authority of the Church (this is the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). Taken together, these three things are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God. You can build a Church that the gates of hell will not prevail against when you have all three materials to build with–bricks, mortar, trowel–Sacred Scriptures, Sacred Tradition, Sacred Authority.
There are libraries of documents and literary works dedicated to all or some of the three-building materials of the Catholic Church, I cannot do the subject justice. You can refer to my reading list for recommendations on historical and academic writings on the subject. The ancient Church, the Church established by Jesus Christ through the apostles, passed on the faith of the New Covenant with God. They passed it on through oral and written tradition with the authority Christ had established in them. This is the monumental difference in how the Catholic Church has been built as opposed to the Protestant movement.
What is the Protestant Church?
The Protestant movement began with a protest against the authority of the Catholic Church and gradually turned into a movement of protest and innovation. In other words, there was no way that the universal (Catholic) Church established by Christ through his apostles would simply start over because of some dissenting voices. Another point needs to be made. If you want to understand what Protestants think of as church, and faith in God, then you need to know what the movement was founded on. Sola scriptura–scripture alone (bricks only) is a term used to describe how Protestants build their understanding of Christianity. Protestantism insists that only Scripture is authoritative for Christian faith and life. It denies the Catholic teaching (and historical reality) that Scripture is actually a written portion of a much wider sacred and authoritative Tradition, which includes other elements passed down orally and by patterns of behavior known as ritual or tradition. When an understanding of the Faith is based on bricks alone without the mortar and trowel of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Authority, serious consideration needs to be addressed. If Scripture were the only legitimate source of Christian belief and practice, the early Christians who lived before the New Testament was written and circulated could not have lived the Faith. We’ll leave that consideration for you to ponder.
Sola Scriptura (bricks alone) explains one aspect of why there are so many Protestant denominations. If someone or a group of somebodies interpret Scripture by using some handpicked bricks to shape their theology, there are other bricks that are, by necessity, left in the collection of bricks we refer to as Holy Scripture. That is the nature of innovation. The various Protestant denominations (read innovations) have taken the bricks they find truthful, fascinating, satisfying, consoling, and invented a new form of the church using their own ideas, methods, equipment, technology to attract people to their innovation. The list is endless because innovation is constantly changing according to each generation.
Early in the Reformation history, the rebellion against authority lived up to its eventual moniker, Protestant Movement. The early reformers of the 16th century would not recognize the movement today, we dare say they would roll over in their graves if they knew what their rebellion put into motion. Within the first fifty years or so the Reform movement was indeed moving by fracturing into splinters that fit the notions of some influential voices–Luther, Calvin, and King Henry VIII. And the splintering accelerated as history unfolded. Think of the Reformation this way: A parent has exercised parental leadership through guidance and authority for 18 years of a child’s life. The child’s existence is integrated into the identity of the family name. The necessary boundaries of discipline expand as that child matures in wisdom and understanding about her identity within the family and in the world. Some children reach the age of 18 and continue to mature in fits and starts into what it means to be a balanced human being in the family and the culture. Other children (read Luke 15:11-32) take the money and run, giving way to every drive and self-centered attraction and distraction possible. The deeper the rebellious spirit, the farther the rebellion takes a son or daughter down the path of dis-integration from their identity. Some prodigals never return. Has the parent forgotten that child? Has the parent disowned that child? No. But that child has lost some of her identity, her familial integrity has been compromised through her own choices.
So, where did the path lead for this Reformation’s child known as the Protestant Church? If you look at the Protestant Movement’s history like one looks at an electrical grid, you can easily become confused by the flow of the energy of the movement that the early Reformers started so let’s just look at one of those many examples of this dis-integrating by surveying what is known as the “Holiness Movement.” We will work our way back in history as we consider this movement. Out of this Protestant Movement, there are extreme innovations of the holiness movement known as “Pentecostal Movements” and there are milder innovations of the holiness movement known just as “Holiness Movements.” And from those movements (still bricks only) there are a host of denominations that innovate their entire theology with certain bricks picked by their leader(s) interpretation of the Scriptures. To further complicate the bricks-only “Holiness Movement” you can travel a few decades further into the past. There you will find another pile of bricks known as “The Great Revival Movement”. Those bricks, used by some of the “Baptist Movement” (but, not all) and some of the “Methodist Movement” (but, not all) were piled together until protests arose within those Movements.
Bear with me, travel back even further into the short history of Protestantism and you will discover John Wesley and Roger Williams among leaders of the aforementioned bricks-only movements. Those two leaders used bricks from the “Free Church Movement” that had discarded some of the bricks from the “Anglican Movement.” That movement was started in protest, by none other than the already noted King Henry the VIII, with a brick of his own making, against the Catholic Church. Was his innovation of the Catholic Church built with the mortar and the trowel of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Authority? No, he used his own authority (Sound familiar?). His Anglican Church (The Church of England) was cobbled together and rearranged because of rebellion against the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Authority of the Church. The Catholic Church would not grant him a divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. He had fallen in lust with Anne Boleyn but Anne Boleyn would not give into his lust while he was married to Queen Catherine of Aragon, who happened to be a woman of devout faith in God and loyal to the authority of the Catholic Church. Heads rolled because of his contempt for The Catholic Church (pun intended)!
We still just have bricks except in the innovation of the Anglican church which began with specially fashioned bricks by former Catholic, King Henry the VIII who used his own kingly authority to innovate a church that would fit his need. Have you been able to keep track of the scriptures/bricks each of these subsequent factions kept or threw away from the Anglican Movement? Can you trace your denominational authority and tradition by naming each brick that has been kept and each one that has been tossed to support your denomination’s theology? Can you identify any mortar (Sacred Tradition) or trowel (Sacred Authority) that may have been used at some point to build your denomination from your bricks? How old is your denomination? How old is the manufactured mortar and trowel, if there is any?
During our examination of our denomination’s tenets over the years of ministry, we could never go deeper into history than the late 1960s. Like most denominations, our Protestant history was not more than 500 years old, relatively short and theologically sparse when compared to the weight of the Faith present in The Catholic Church. We asked ourselves: What does our denomination build its theology on? How does it stay intact without the mortar and trowel? A common answer in the Evangelical tradition is that the denomination is like the New Testament Church. But we began wondering how we could know what the New Testament Church was like or what it taught about faith and worship. Often enough, the answer was, “The Bible.” But who taught us that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God? Who decided what books would be included in the Bible? We realized that Paul had no New Testament when he wrote to the Thessalonian Christians, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”So what was holding the vast enterprise of the gospel of Christ in place? Some would answer that it was the Holy Spirit. Indeed it was! The line of biblical authority was held because the Spirit of God equipped The Church to discern and govern the Church that Christ promised would stand united in time and eternity.
Counting the Council of Jerusalem referred to in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, The Catholic Church has convened 22 Church Councils over the 2,000 years of her history. The purpose of nearly every council was to keep the brick house intact by using the trowel of the Church of Christ to respond to heresies. The councils did that by keeping the mortar pure and the trowel sharp. We could spend days talking about the heresies and the Church’s action against them, but one point will suffice. Christianity is born from the saving action of the Triune God. But the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not laid out explicitly in Sacred Scripture. It was through controversies over how to best interpret difficult passages of scripture that the Catholic Church Councils formulated “how the mystery of the Blessed Trinity was revealed, how the Church articulates the doctrine of the Trinity, and how, by the divine missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit, God the Father fulfills the ‘plan of his loving goodness’ of creation, redemption, and sanctification.” (CCC No. 235). In other words, had Christ left us with a mandate to see scripture as the sole authority of the Christian life, we would have been lost from the beginning in controversy about the nature of the Lord himself.
As we began to understand that the Catholic Church is the Church of the early Christians, because it is the Church instituted at Christ’s New Covenant, our doubts transformed into secure belief. We were more and more attracted to The Roman Catholic Church’s worship. In observing the extreme difference between worship in the Catholic Church and the Protestant movement, we found the answers to the quandary about the ever-changing Protestant worship styles. It was time to reconcile how we had worshipped the LORD in the Protestant movement with what we now understood about worship in The Roman Catholic Church. To reconcile is to settle or resolve differences, and at least for us, we could no longer live with the incongruity in the Protestant movement’s methods of worship and biblically-ordered worship. Those were hard words to hear for our fellow Protestant Christians: hackles raised, words were weaponized, isolation and rejection came from expected and unexpected places in our relationships. And yet, we persevered!
I recently spent time in the desert Southwest where I admired the unique beauty of the desert landscape, not unlike the desert terrain that Jesus entered in the Judean wilderness in his 40-days of temptation from the enemy. Deserts can be harsh and unyielding to human control, yet when the season is right there is a certain beauty that grows out of those conditions. The truth of this caused me to pause as I embarked on this year’s Lenten journey. Could the dread we sometimes experience as we make our Lenten vows change into an eagerness to see the beauty the LORD has waiting for us as we make our way through the desert? Consider why Christ journeyed into the desert; his motivation was and always is love for us. Love led him to the desert, he didn’t need to prove his love by conquering the temptations common to us, but we do; and so he went to show us the way of love through the desert into the abundance of the love-life with him.
Our Catholic Faith refers to our growth in the beauty of holiness as the Purgative Way where we cast from our lives the bitter root of sin that our spirit accumulates when we do not guard our hearts. Much like a gardener tending his garden, our LORD desires to tend to our spirit so that the beauty of holiness can flourish in us. During the Lenten season, the Purgative Way is a journey of concentrated humbling. Humility, or humus, literally means “on the ground…earth” That is helpful to me as I consider that I get down and dirty with the LORD in this journey through the desert terrain of Lent so that his beauty can grow in me. The Sacred Scripture reveals God’s master plan for the landscape of our lives:
“Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.”
During the Lenten season, I envision the LORD kneeling down with me in the “humus” of my life as we tend to the weeds that I’ve allowed to grow through my willful lack of attention. We clear away malice and envy, resentment and bitterness, gluttony and avarice, it’s tough work to destroy roots that go deep into our soil, but here’s the thing, beneath the tangle and decay of sin, the LORD has beauty ready to grow, permeating us with his holiness! There beneath the refuse of death, springs forth the tender green shoots of love, grace, peace.
I offer to you a helpful litany that is guiding me as I get down and dirty with the LORD this Lenten season. The author is anonymous.
The Fast Life
Fast from judging others; Feast on Christ dwelling in them. Fast from fear of illness; Feast on the healing power of God. Fast from words that pollute; Feast on speech that purifies. Fast from discontent; Feast on gratitude. Fast from anger; Feast on patience. Fast from pessimism; Feast on hope. Fast from negatives; Feast on encouragement. Fast from bitterness; Feast on forgiveness. Fast from self-concern; Feast on compassion. Fast from suspicion; Feast on truth. Fast from gossip; Feast on purposeful silence. Fast from problems that overwhelm; Feast on prayer that sustains. Fast from anxiety; Feast on faith.
– Author Unknown
LORD Jesus, may our love for you lead us through this Lenten desert.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
“Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.” He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved himand said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
The Gospel according to St. Mark 10:17-21
The gospel reading for today includes a phrase that was understood by the Israelites, but unfamiliar to us. Jesus remarks to the disciples, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” What exactly was Jesus getting at? There were actually narrow gates named Needles Eye in the formidable city wall that surrounded Jerusalem. They were used when the city’s main gates were closed at night or during an invasion. They were built as security measures since a person would have to unload his camel of the load it was carrying and then carefully lead his camel through the low and narrow gate. Not an easy feat when you consider the 5-6 foot height of a camel, as well as the 300-1,000 pound load in the panniers, slung on each side of the camel! Not only was the camel too tall for the gate, but its load made it too wide for the gate. It was a slow process to unload the camel and then force the camel to its knees to scootch through the gate. An impossible feat, indeed!
It’s pretty clear that the requisite in receiving the abundant life promised to us by Jesus is detachment from anything that would weigh us down or hinder our progress in salvation and transformation. In effect, when we cooperate with Jesus’ mandate to unload ourselves of what we think defines us to follow him in this earthly kingdom, he is preparing our souls for the final entrance into the divine life with our LORD forever in the heavenly Kingdom.
The young man’s eagerness to get the law of God right is revealed in how he approached Jesus–he ran! Jesus, knowing the young man’s sincerity, looks into his soul; the narrative reads,
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing...'”
That “one thing” is a depth of love that seeks to live and move and have our being in Christ alone! And that’s the tipping point, isn’t it? I find myself often running to Jesus wanting to do more out of my love for him while ignoring the load I’m trying to carry that will not fit through the proverbial eye of the needle. What’s in that load? Well, that’s as varied as humanity; the load contains an array of human endeavors unique to each of us. The young man carried the visible wealth of accumulation for that was his attachment. What’s in your load? I know what’s in mine!
Interestingly enough the The Church’s daily liturgy, prayers, and readings have included readings from the book of St. James and the Saints while we’ve been contemplating the gospel readings about following Christ. St. James and the Saints of The Church had to learn what we need to learn. What did they learn? As we lay down the load we’ve acquired from this earthy kingdom, he gives back the weight of his glory! And what makes up that weight? The eternal goods that Jesus speaks to when he said to his disciples, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” The one thing he asks of us is love of him first and foremost He desires to pour into our life the stable disposition of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance that lead us in the faith, hope, and love of God. Then he gives more of the weight of his joy, peace, and mercy. And then his Holy Spirit pours in wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, holiness, and reverence! The Father of all good and perfect gifts then gives the seeds of charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity that grow and flourish. And the thing is, we easily carry those through the Eye of the Needle into eternity. What’s not to love about that one thing Jesus asks of us!?!
LORD God, giver of all good gifts, helps us to unload from our lives the other things we replace you with.
We desire the gifts from weight of your glory upon our lives. We want to live in the fullness of the abundant life here and now, and in eternity.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be , world without end.
As Jesus came down from the mountain with Peter, James, John and approached the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes arguing with them. Immediately upon seeing him, the whole crowd was utterly amazed. They ran up to him and greeted him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit. Wherever it seizes him, it tears at him; he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and is withered up. I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so.” He said to them in reply, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me.” They brought the boy to him. And when he saw him, the spirit immediately threw the boy into convulsions. As he fell to the ground, he began to roll around and foam at the mouth. Then he questioned his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” He replied, “Since childhood. It has often thrown him into fire and water to kill him. But if you are able, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “‘If you able!’ All things are possible to one who has faith.” Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus, on seeing a crowd rapidly gathering, rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you: come out of him, and never again may you enter him!” Shouting and throwing the boy into convulsions, it came out. He became like a corpse, which caused many to say he had died. But Jesus took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up. When he entered the house, his disciples asked him in private, “Why could we not drive the spirit out?” He said to them, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”
The Gospel According to St. Mark 9:14-29
I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite gospel account of Jesus’ healings, but I know this one would be among my top choices. The interaction between the father and Jesus reveals guidance for my prayer life. The truth that “Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us,” is in full array in this encounter and we can receive the same graces through prayer with Jesus as the father and son received from his physical presence to them. Jesus’ life on this side of eternity was a prayer with our heavenly Father and he consistently invited the observers of his life into the same intimacy. His actions, healings, and teachings, his very flesh, was united with humanity to show us the way back to our created identity of intimacy with our Triune God, and that only comes through the communion of his body and flesh in The Eucharist and the communion of prayer with him.
The father was just another whobody to everyone else, but he was the very reason Jesus approached the folk surrounding him. Long before the father emerged from the crowd, Jesus knew him and how the father suffered for his son and how the son suffered because of an unclean spirit’s presence in his life. How life happened to them is not as important to Jesus; no need to connect dots in order to cast blame. It had happened to the father and the son, and now Jesus would happen to the father and the son. It is the same for you and me. We are like the father and the son sometimes aren’t we? We either suffer on behalf of someone or we are the one who suffers. Jesus sees us just as he saw the father and son long before that encounter. He knows what we silently carry in our hearts and soul.
Jesus comes to us without condemnation, and he sees into our heart, not our past. He doesn’t see how we may have fumbled, he doesn’t bring up what could have been or what should have been. No, he, the suffering servant of mankind absorbs our suffering as he did for the father and son, and then, healing transformation unfolds in us. He asks us the same question of us, “How long have you carried this, do you want to be made whole…what are you looking for?” He knew the father needed to pour out the pain he had carried before him. The act of speaking our pain before the LORD is a part of healing because it requires a humbleness to confess our need, doesn’t it? The psalmists often prayed, “Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!” (Psalm 30:10) And I can’t help but hear Jesus’ words echoing in the encounter with the father and son,“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (St. Matthew 11:28-29)
“..If you are able, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “‘If you able!’ All things are possible to one who has faith.” Then the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!”
The scene unfolds in what I imagine to be an intimate conversation between Jesus and the father. Do you feel the father’s guarded hope as he says to Jesus, “If you are able…” Ever doubted like that? I have. When you’ve tried your best but your best wasn’t good enough or when you are so attached to a hindrance that you can’t believe it is possible to be free from thinking about it! When you suffer for another who has been seized by a spiritual or emotional disease that has withered them up, tossing them to the ground over and over. Helplessness is too anemic of a word to describe that kind of parental anguish. Jesus replies to the father, what he whispers to us, “All things are possible to one who has faith.”
The narrative of the account closes with Jesus’ words to his disciples, “This kind can only come out through prayer.” Interesting conclusion. Something worth remembering when we carry our or another’s struggle to Jesus. We can choose to ignore our pride, fret in our fears, or wallow in our anger, or we can pray, “I believe, help my unbelief.”
“Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us!” to reveal the impossible to those who seek him! He exorcises the evil spirit from the boy and takes him by the hand to raise him to stand. Did Jesus lose any holiness by touching the boy? No, rather he infused wholeness into the boy so that he and the father and the onlookers could witness the holy compassion of God that saves and heals, restores, and resurrects! How does that come about? What does that mean for us in our life of prayer with Jesus? St. Theresa of Lisieux wrote, “…prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” What causes your heart to surge toward God? Joy, Hope, Faith or despair, doubt, and unbelief. It’s all the same to the LORD Jesus because in the surge, the upward glance, he stands ready to reveal himself to us in the embrace of intimate communion with him. How beautiful! How lovely! How mysterious the presence of God is to us, but as we incline toward Jesus, we are saved!
“The whole reason why we pray is to be united into the vision and contemplation of God to whom we pray.”
–Julian of Norwich
LORD Jesus, you took on flesh and dwelt among us to save us from the fear, pride, anger that cause us to doubt your love!
LORD Jesus, we are flesh of your flesh, restore us to wholeness of life in you!
LORD Jesus, open our eyes to recognize your presence before us!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
The Pharisees came out and began to debate with [Jesus], seeking from him a sign from heaven testing him. He groaned in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And leaving them, he again he got in the boat and went off to the other shore.
The Gospel of St. Mark 8:11-13
The daily gospel readings these early weeks of Ordinary Time can leave you breathless with the pace of St. Mark’s narrative, yet they have several reoccurring themes that are worth our meditation. One, in particular, is how Jesus responds to the ever-present Pharisees lurking at the edges of many of the beautiful actions of our Savior. The gospel reading for today follows the miracle of Jesus feeding the crowd of 4,000 plus hungry folk who had followed him.
The Pharisees, known to “strain at a gnat but swallow a camel,” floundered in their understanding and acceptance of Jesus. Jesus had just fed the large crowd, the word had spread, and now the Pharisees debated with Jesus’ ability to provide a sign from heaven. What?!? What seems so obvious to us illuded the Pharisees. Why? That is worth pondering because if we are not careful to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can become just as blinded by our pride. Have you ever been in conversation with someone who already had their mind made up about something and they were not interested in your perspective? They just wanted an opportunity to prove their point. In effect, they were saying, “My minds made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”
Is it any wonder that “Jesus groaned in his spirit?“ He knew the heart of man; he knew the Pharisee’s hardness of heart caused their spiritual blindness. We know he healed some of them of their hardened hearts, but most remained intractable. Jesus’ dismay over humanity’s spiritual blindness wasn’t reserved for the Pharisees, though. A few verses later in the narrative, Jesus has a conversation with the disciples. The scripture doesn’t say it, but I imagine that Jesus once again groaned in his spirit over their lack of understanding.
Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
The Gospel of St. Mark 8:14-21
The Greek transliteration of Jesus questions to the disciples reads,
“Do you not perceive, nor understand? Do you keep an obdurate heart in you? Having eyes, do you not look? And having ears do you not listen? And do you not remember?”
Yikes, even the disciples (that would be you and me) missed the boat sometimes (pun intended)! It just so happens that as I set out to write my thoughts down about this scripture reading, I had a moment where I was a bit obdurate myself. (There are many synonyms for obdurate: stiff-necked, unrelenting, adamant, pigheaded, etc.) I greeted the LORD as I awakened, thanking him for the day ahead. It was a day I had already planned for prayer, writing, and reading. I thrive on order and stability, but sometimes my eyes are so fixed on how I think a day should go that I suffer from the same sight and hearing problems the disciples had. And, yes, I have to admit that I can become pharisaical in my determination to get righteousness right! Does that sound as funny to you as it does to me?
My day started with a plan in mind, but in the LORD’s mind, he wanted to restore my sight about the limitations of my health that I regularly try to ignore. The matter of my health is beside the point in light of how the LORD got my attention. I sensed him saying to me, “Lois, you are zealous for me, but sometimes you struggle with balance. The sign I’ve given you is clear; your body needs to lay down and rest. You have a choice now. Are you going to ignore the sign I’ve given to you, or are you going to pig-headedly force this day to go according to your big fat ego!” No, kidding, that’s just how the day started. At least on this day, I answered the LORD by remembering that I am his beloved daughter and that he desires holiness as well as wholeness for me.
What would have happened to the stiff-necked Pharisees if they would hadn’t been so hell-bent on proving their points with Jesus? They would have received all the graces of salvation that Jesus desired for them because he loved them. We know that eventually, the disciples learned to see and hear what Jesus was giving to humanity through his flesh in miracles and teachings. The disciples transformed into the freedom of spirit that comes from the humble acceptance that we are not in control and that life is not about us.
“Hardness of the heart” is another description used for obdurance, and that hits too close to home when putting that way, does it not? Jesus comes to us offering his grace and mercy as he did to the Pharisees, the crowds that pursued him, and the disciples that followed him. I ask you what I ask the LORD.
LORD, am I so consumed by concern about what’s happening around me that I don’t leave room to be surprised by your grace? You answer me: I know what you need, be more concerned that my kingdom comes into you. I’ll take care of everything else.
LORD, in my determination to gain the upper hand in this relationship, am I losing sight of your desire for me to humble myself? Even before this person who is a burr under the saddle of my existence? You say to me: Don’t second guess her; that’s my job. Pull out that tangle of thorns under your saddle.
LORD, am I following your commandments and precepts to impress others or to love the others? You answer me: “…without love for Me and others; you can do nothing.”
But what about So and So, LORD? Does she seem to look for opportunities to make me feel insignificant? You answer me: No one can use their words to “revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you” without answering to me. Rejoice and take heart, I love you, and that is all that matters!
LORD Jesus, open our eyes and ears so that your kingdom may come into us!
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.
Come and see the works of God, tremendous his deeds among men.He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the river dry-shod…For you, O God, have tested us, you have tried us as silver is tried:you led us, God, into the snare; you laid a heavy burden on our backs….we went through fire and through waterbut then you brought us relief.
Tried and Found Wanting
Quietly, matter-of-factly, we started worshipping at Mass. As we assembled with worshipping believers every Sunday at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, the answers to our most urgent questions began flooding into our hearts and minds. Our nowhere was progressively turning into “now- here.” The Good Shepherd was leading and we were a path that would take us home to the ancient Church. The peace of mind that poured over us was so refreshing and life-restoring. There were men and a woman of God that were the vessels of grace placed in Salvation History for many reasons that will never be fully comprehended in this life, but we are certain that we are among the recipients of God’s divine favor and mercy flowing from their lives. The Spirit drew us deeper into consideration of the Catholic Church as we learned from our priests and observed their intellectual and theological integrity with which they served God. Worship embodied the integrity and the authenticity that we hungered for–every word, every action, every moment of the Mass bore the full solemnity of the Christian faith and that deeply impacted us.
As strange as it may sound, desperation is a really good thing in the spiritual life.Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions,willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we are looking for.Desperate ones seek with an all-consuming intensity,for they know that their life depends on it.Like the cancer patient who travels to a foreign country in the questfor cures that can’t be found in familiar territory,spiritual seekers embark on a quest for that which cannot be foundwithin the borders of life as we know it.We embark on a search for healing that has not been foundin all the other cures we have tried.We have run all the way to the edges of our own answers;we have exhausted the possibilitiesand are now finally ready to admit our powerlessness in the face of the great unfixable of life.
—Ruth Haley Barton
Tired and Hungry
As the months passed and our perspective clarified as we worshipped in at Mass, the season of waiting gave way to understanding. We hadn’t fully comprehended how distorted our vision had become during our service to Protestant ministry. We knew there had to be more depth to the Christian faith than our own Protestant denomination’s churchiness. When we were still searching for a Protestant church to worship at after we departed from that denomination; one thing had become crystal clear to us; our denomination was not unique in its floundering. And we knew we were tired of all the man-centered maneuvering all done in “the name of God!”
Mary’s magnificent response to God’s grace and mercy on humanity recorded in Luke 1 prophetically describes the fallout of rebellion, “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts…” As pride has taken root, entangling every facet of life, humanity has scattered and diffused into all manner of imaginations. We had witnessed how tiring the Protestant movement had become with its preoccupation with what people wanted. We found it more and more tiring to be associated with all the innovations in the Protestant movement that had scattered over different “imaginations” about what it means to worship the Triune God and live as His Church in the world. We were tired of all the imaginative splitting of hairs. We were tired of motivations centered around attracting people through the consumerism familiar to the current generation rather than the true worship of God. We were tired of the topic-driven preaching, performer-driven music, soapbox-driven teaching, and entertainment-driven programming. We tired of all the church splits, division, and multiplication, not to mention all the “affiliations” or movements replacing denominations–new wine in old wineskins!
Our spirits wearied from the futility attachments to the benefits of serving God. We had looked through the neatly packaged boxes God had been put into by customized movements; and found them wanting. We had read the formulas and noted the steps laid out by well-meaning evangelical leaders, broadcasters, and writers that relegated faith to methodology; and found so many of them self-serving. We had dedicated our time and effort to doing and believing all the right things according to our own denomination’s perspective; we still had doubts about its continuity with the historic Church.
We were tired, and we were hungry. Our hunger manifested in what St. Anselm wrote thousands of years ago, “faith seeks understanding.” Our questions about God and faith had made us uneasy as they had led to new questions we could never have anticipated. Our questions were changing, and we found the answers we had previously accepted did not satisfy our desire for security, rest, and peace. We fed our spirits by reading from the early Church Fathers and Saints of the Church. In their devotion to Christ, in their desire to understand what they believed, we found satisfaction. We were more comfortable with transcendent Mystery (“to shut the mouth”) of the Triune God than with the domesticated certainties that had fossilized so much of the Protestant movement. We fed our spirits by seeking more understanding and discovered the Mystery of Faith that transcends humanity’s diminutive attempts at definitions of The Faith. The gravitas that accompanied these realizations had led us in the “long obedience in the same direction” toward the threshold of the Catholic Church. The hungering darkness of our past gave way to light!
The eternal Truth that “Christ took on flesh and dwelled among us” is revealed in how Jesus lived in his Creation alongside humanity. He entered into the joy of celebration and the ordinary, as well as the misery of disease and death, hunger and fear, in sum, all facets of the human condition, to unite his flesh with us so that we may unite our flesh with him and receive the fullness of his salvation. It’s a profound truth that inspires and encourages me as I live my faith in the LORD in my corner of the world! Today’s reading is yet another glimpse into this truth and it’s revealed in how Jesus breaks through the darker side of the human condition.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
The Gospel according to St. Mark 6:53-56
These healings follow a series of encounters where Jesus revealed the salvation contained in his flesh by healing the sick, feeding the 5,000, and walking on water. The earthiness of Jesus in the narrative is something to ponder; his flesh infuses into the encounters and saves body and soul!
Jesus offers the same touch to us as he did to the sick and lame upon their mats, the isolated outcasts hidden in crowds. He walks up to the unseen boundaries of our lives and touches us. In Gennesaret he didn’t see an anonymous body lying on a mat, he saw his own flesh! The salvation contained within his touch poured into the lives of those sick in body and reached into their souls. His perfect flesh united with diseased flesh and restored what sin and death had stolen from humanity. The instant salvation from disease opened the heart and mind for the fullness of his salvation. That’s amazing grace, isn’t it?
“And all who touched [him] were made whole.” God’s purpose of incarnating the flesh of humanity was to recreate us into the image of himself, to make us whole! Rampant diseases are somewhat controlled by modern medicine, but the human condition of the sick in soul is pandemic; humanity is reaching in all sorts of directions to remedy what can only be remedied through the incarnation of Christ’s salvation poured into our flesh. How does this actually work? We receive insight into the ways of our LORD in this very gospel reading.
We can observe a few details in the encounters at Gennesaret that are required for us in our own day. The narrative reads, “… they rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.“ The anonymous “they” reached for their diseased friends and relatives; therefore, they had to touch them in order to bring them into Jesus’ presence. You and I rub shoulders with the sick of soul in our corners of the world. The salvation we know is the salvation they need; it requires of us the use of our own senses to love and understand them, in other words, to pick up their mats and bring them to Jesus. Jesus touches through us, he listens through us and our lives become conduits of his healing to those around us.
What about the diseased lying on their mats? It may be that we are the one on the mat, sick of soul, helpless, and perhaps even in denial of our own need of the healing touch of our Savior. The morning of January 10 of this year I faced a startling realization about my life that I had successfully denied for 62 years! What brought me to that realization? The willingness to face a humiliating encounter with the LORD; in effect, I was laid out on a mat before him. He wasn’t the one humiliating me, he was the one whose touch reached deep into my mind and heart and revealed how my refusal to humble myself was infecting my soul. I felt the humiliation of the mat I had woven beneath me, even around me. And there were trusted individuals who offered the counsel of the Holy Spirit to me by carrying the mat of my existence to our loving and healing Savior through interceding for me in my low estate. A miracle did happen that day, at once I received the healing that could only come from the Incarnated Savior’s touch and I jumped off that mat for good, never to return. That’s the miracle! And like the sick who were healed, I heard Jesus say what he said to the woman who had struggled for 12 years with her disease (St. Mark 5:24-34), “[Lois], your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Friend, how is it with you today? Do you find yourself carrying the mat for someone or lying on the mat? Have you isolated yourself from hope? Perhaps you recognize you are sick of soul. Jesus sees the flesh of our hearts that is scarred by what has happened to us or by what we do to ourselves. Jesus took on that flesh and dwelled with us so that his perfect flesh would be absorbed and destroyed in his death. And through his resurrection from eternal disease, he offers his perfect flesh back to us so that he may give us wholeness and holiness.
As we incline toward the LORD by receiving his body and blood, his touch reaches into our fear and anger and the pride that hinders our faith to believe and trust that he can heal the hidden disease of our heart; that he can recreate us into his image. It’s a humbling gesture to admit we will die without his flesh and blood, but that is how faith makes us whole!
LORD, Jesus, Savior, and Healer, we bow before you in humble adoration for dwelling with us, absorbing us, recreating us into your image.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
“Night and day among the tombs he was always crying out….“
Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the sea, to the territory of the Gerasenes. When he got out of the boat, at once a man from the tombs who had an unclean spirit met him. The man had been dwelling among the tombs, and no one could restrain him any longer, even with a chain. In fact, he had frequently been bound with shackles and chains, but the chains had been pulled apart by him and the shackles smashed, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the hillsides he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones. Catching sight of Jesus from a distance, he ran up and prostrated himself before him, crying out in a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me!” (He had been saying to him, “Unclean spirit, come out of the man!”) He asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “Legion is my name. There are many of us.” And he pleaded earnestly with him not to drive them away from that territory.
Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside. And they pleaded with him, “Send us into the swine. Let us enter them.” And he let them, and the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine. The herd of about two thousand rushed down a steep bank into the sea, where they were drowned…
“…Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.” Then the man went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.
St. Mark 5:1-13; 19b-20
The scripture points out straight away that Jesus and his disciples sailed to the other side of the sea to the city of Gerasa, one of the ten cities of the Decapolis east of the Jordan river (present-day Palestine or The East Bank). It was predominantly Gentile, who were considered unclean by a law-abiding Jew, but Jesus never let conventions stand in the way of his mission to bring the Light of the World to all people. On several occasions recorded in the Gospels, Jesus knowingly hangs out with “other” people: social-misfits; diseased; despised; unclean–the nobodies of lost causes.
An outcast demonic is the welcome party for Jesus and his disciples as they land on the shore of the Decapolis, and he did not waste any time for at once he came from the tombs where he lived. He was among the worst of the worst of all of society–an exemplar of Satan himself. Let’s take that in for a moment. Now, let’s reflect on why this exorcism is included in the Gospels. The Church teaches us that all of Sacred Scripture is written for the purpose of our salvation; with that in mind, I make a habit of placing myself in the sandals of my ancestors in The Faith to understand the depth of the salvation God grants us through Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son. Join me in reflecting.
LORD God, the malignant enemy of my soul, tries to drive me into a dystopia of death in my spirit. He lurks in all the temptations that lead me away from the abundant life you have given me. Sometimes, what attracts me appears shiny and enticing, but they are the enemy’s glittering shackles and chains lying in wait for me as soon as I act on the temptation. A manacle and chain wrench around me and I am dragged toward the tombs. Above the dark path, the gate that reads “Pride…Fear…Anger.” Just beyond, I see them there. I see engraved on tombs “Lust of the Eyes,” a stone’s throw away I see engraved on tombs “Lust of the Flesh,” and over there in the deep shadows, I see engraved on tombs “Boastful Pride of Life.” The further I’m dragged I start to forget who I am as your beloved daughter; I forget my name!
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him, there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
I John 2:7-17
I look back from where I came, and I see you coming toward the shore of this dreadful place: something within me starts to remember some truth about me so, I run to you despite these death chains. I fall before you, splayed out in my weariness. You see my bruises, you’ve heard my cries, with incredulity you whisper to me, “I died for you, I’ve already been to those tombs where I conquered death, hell, and the grave. Why did you go looking for your name there? You don’t belong there!” And you say to me, “What is your name?”.
What is my name? As soon as I can remember my name, I’ll be free! It takes a bit; longer than I’d like because I have a legion of voices in my head enticing me to run back to the tombs and climb into one of those graves. But then I dare to look into your eyes! Oh, Jesus, I remember you! You are the Son of the MOST HIGH GOD! I suddenly go limp; something has fallen from me. I look back to see what it could be and see what was once, the glimmering manacle and shiny chains now all rust and decay. They’re scattered into thousands of pieces fleeing back to the tombs!
You take my hand and lift my body, now light as a feather, to stand on the two feet that I’d forgotten how to use! And I gaze into your beautiful eyes to answer you, “I am Lois, your beloved daughter!”
Jesus, Son of the Most High God, help us to never forget our name!
I ask this in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, World without end!
Solitude eventually offers a quiet gift of grace, a gift that comes whenever we are able to face ourselves honestly: gifts of acceptance, of compassion, for who we are as we are. As we allow ourselves to be known in solitude, we discover that we are known by Love. Beyond the pain of self-discovery, there is a Love that does not condemn us but calls us to itself. This Love receives us as we are. –Parker Palmer
Swimming to Shore
During the “quiet gift of grace” we found in the solitude, where our vision cleared, we began a search for a church home. The painful discovery for us was that we could no longer abide by the Protestant notions of worship. What were those disturbing notions that had set the tide of our lives toward the Catholic Church? There is an unspoken, sometimes unintentional, motivation in the evangelical Protestant movement. Beneath the decision to start new churches, known as a church plant, a systemic infirmity pervades the Protestant movement, no matter what denominational affiliation. Authority is fluid. Older established churches are declining in numbers or reclining in entrenchment and apathy. It is a given fact that most established churches struggle with leadership succession. When a new generation desires change that will equal the allure of its age, the old guard more often than not fights to keep their authority over what they believe is suitable for their generation. Because church authority is local and based on a short history of the denominational organizations, many churches tend toward solving their perceived problems with man-centered solutions. Solutions that appear to be democratic but are often myopic. Solutions that may appear on the surface as prudent are simply another attempt at plugging the dike of a 500-year-old reservoir of the turbulent waters of rebellion. Rather than pastors and their superiors knocking their heads against the fixed positions of the biggest donors or the loudest detractors in the church, the solution often is to start another church. At other times, the solution is to find new pastoral leadership, someone who can either “lead” or placate the dissenting voices and imagine new ways and means to attract the culture. The decision to start a new church or find a new pastor may have started because of division in the church. Or the decision is made to prevent parishioners from leaving the local church. Either way, the undercurrent of protest is never treated; the leak in the dike is beyond repair.
The present cultural fascination with mega-entertainment churches that attract a consumer-driven society earns the evangelical church’s idiom, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The innovation seems to incline well to the culture, yet upon closer examination, it reveals that pastors have the incredible pressure to balance intriguing sermons and experiences that cater to the culture’s frantic want for distraction from the realities of their lives. Behind some of the motivation in ministry, programming is a desire to engage the congregation in following Christ in a relevant way within the culture. At first glance, this appears commendable. But there is another motivation that lurks around decisions that are made. A pastor and his staff know that the people they serve can find another place to attend on Sunday mornings if they are bored with the smorgasbord of choices their church serves up every Sunday. We have even heard pastors referred to as coaches by church leadership. When the coach and his team cease to have “wins” that meet the approval of the “fans” then it’s time for a new coaching team. A myriad of notions has filled the vacuum of the Protestant movement. Any pastor that pulls back from the busyness he is driven to pursue eventually recognizes he is just one more sincere little boy trying his best to keep the reservoir from giving way around him.
The environment of these rising star churches can best be described by what one young person told us about a church she had decided to attend. When we queried her why she had chosen that particular church, her answer echoed the culture. “I always have a good time and come away feeling good. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” Is it? Is worship of the Triune God about inclining to the wants of the culture to attract people to attend church to feel good? Is worship something we manage, or is it something we give? Is it something we experience? Or something we do? We knew that the evangelical Protestant answer is touted every Sunday in varying ways. Some are more unsettling than others.
Bagels and designer coffee are often available for purchase before entering the “worship center.” Some churches even have a breakfast bar at the back of the worship center so you can get up and help yourself during the “worship” hour. It is not unusual to observe people bringing a fast-food breakfast they had grabbed on the way to church. If the church has multiple venues for their Sunday morning worship experience, then the pastor’s 30-45 minute sermon is simulcast. Most often, at least in the “contemporary” services, the lights are low to set the mood for the performance on the stage. The dressed-down experience attracts the entertainment-driven culture, and it works! Full bands and sound and light shows are not uncommon, and the talent on the stage is most often polished and professional.
We had observed another unsettling normal in most of the up-and-coming Protestant churches. We shouldn’t have been surprised by it because it is a trend that has grown out of the “Church Growth” movement we had witnessed in the ’80s: the separation of generations and the very purposeful catering to children, or should we say the parents of children. When our own “church shopping” began, we realized the denomination we had served was no different in its wants and demands than other Protestant denominations. One glaring example is a conspicuous demonstration of how far the church has strayed from the biblical purpose of worship. A summer “sermon” series at a local church was advertised as a fantastic way to bring the generations together in “worship.” Each Sunday, popcorn, and soda, would be available while the congregation would watch a section from a popular movie series broadcast through the church’s multi-media system. The music and sermon would be developed around a theme in the movie that the church staff felt was relevant. It is no wonder that the younger generation has difficulty distinguishing Truth from fiction when it’s concluded that to be a “good Christian” is like being a heroic Jedi!
It wasn’t long into our search for a new church home before it was apparent that finding an evangelical Protestant church was not the problem. We had plenty of opt-out churches to choose from, plenty! But we quickly discovered we weren’t interested in shopping until we found an evangelical church that fit us, for we realized that we didn’t fit the evangelical Protestant movement anymore. We were not interested in finding a style of worship that suited our preferences. That understanding came with a sense of relief, yet we didn’t know where to turn. We knew that many were beginning to opt-out of church altogether, formulating their own “worship” of God to meet their needs. That was not an option for us; we still had a longing to find a solid ground of biblical and moral authority that held fast to tenets of The Faith. We still longed for worship that held fast to the Word of God. And so we perused the liturgical Protestant menu to see what we might try.
The liberal stream of the Protestant movement has erupted in a devolving of its own. But we held out hope there were still some denominations that had not wavered about the supremacy of the Scriptures and biblical moral standards. We located a mainline church where worship was somewhat liturgical, and the preaching seemed to be Christ-centered. We had been attending for a few months when our son encouraged us to take a closer look at the denomination’s theological statements. We were able to locate the most recent revisions the denomination had made to their constitution on the basic tenets of The Faith and biblical morality and found they were in direct contradiction to Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the historical Church. Though the local congregation seemed to hold to the authority of Scripture, the foundation the denomination stood on was crumbling beneath the weight of modernity. That denomination’s recent compromises added to the long list of concessions on the authority of the Scripture that other spiritually sterile mainline denominations had made. We could not be participants in the evisceration of The Faith that was emptying the mainline denominations of life. We were not surprised that we did not fit the mainline Protestantism, but the foray into that side of the Protestant movement did oblige us to continue to ask the hard questions about what we believed and why we believed it.
“Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation.”
“Shop ’til you drop” took on a new meaning. We came to a very abrupt decision that we weren’t going to shop for a church home anymore. We needed to answer some of the questions that had preoccupied our minds; the only way that would happen was through examination. We returned to one question again and again:Why does division in the Protestant movement still prevail after 500 years? And why does the Catholic Church remain intact after 2,000 years?
The very oldest Protestant denominations date back to the 16th century Reformation. Those denominations have fractured so many times in the 500 years since the Reformation. Many have ceased to have a strong identity with the founders of their denomination’s tenents. It became apparent that denominationalism continued to do to the Protestant movement what the Protestant Reformers tried to do to the Catholic Church. Understanding this helped explain the disrespect of pastoral leadership and even rebellion against biblical authority in the local churches of many denominations. Protest and division are in the genetic code of the Movement. Because there is no secure center of Authority or Tradition, the Movement is more like a mutant cell dividing at will. To date, there are some 33,000 Protestant denominations. Yet there is only one Church that has not given way to the culture of rebellion and division. There is still one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Our questions increased: What is the reason that billions of believers worldwide have remained faithful to the Catholic Church; What is the reason for the Catholic Church’s unaltered worship throughout history; What is the reason behind the Papacy and the Authority of the Church and how does The Church stand as a paragon of biblical authority.
We needed answers to the doubt about the condition of the Protestant church that had preoccupied our minds during the unfortunate experiences in our last pastorate and then in our church shopping; that was going to happen was through examination. We knew if we were going to be faithful to God, we must be loyal to His Bride–His Church. We hungered and thirsted for biblically-ordained worship and the stability of a Church that held firm the teachings of Christ and the Traditions of The Faith. Where would we find that integrity? We were now at the threshold of the Catholic Church, and it was time to consider it together.