Category Archives: Theology

No Longer Afraid of Mary: Becoming A Momma’s Boy

I am now 12 days into a do-it-yourself, 33 day retreat called, 33 Days To Morning Glory.  The focus is on Mary’s unique spousal relationship with the Holy Spirit and how that relationship applies to and includes us.  Much of the retreat is presented through the perspectives of four Saints of the Church, St. Louis de Monfort, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed Mother Theresa and Blessed John Paul II.

My appreciation for Mary has been growing, even before beginning this retreat.  One resource I have found helpful is the phone app created by the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.  The app is good at explaining a balanced approach to Marian doctrine.  In my spiritual journey through various forms of Protestantism and Catholicism, I have experienced what the Marian Fathers call the two extremes of understanding Mary: Marian excess and Marian defect.  Marian excess is “to think of Mary as if she were God.  She is not God.  She is a creature, and to think otherwise is to fall into idolatry.”  I’ve noticed this approach in some Catholics.  Marian defect “means to think of Mary as being ‘just like the rest of us,’ having no particularly special significance.”  This is what I experienced in most Protestant circles where the regard Mary is given is perhaps a nod of affirmation during a Christmas play, if any.

My 20+ years in Protestantism made me skittish about having a relationship with Mary.  I now understand that Mary is all about a relationship with Jesus (as is the rest of Catholic doctrine).  Her singular goal is to bring souls to her son.  She was and is the perfect disciple.  She was the first person to accept Jesus into her heart and into her body.  Knowing Mary and becoming close to Mary is not an obstacle or a distraction from a relationship with Christ.  The opposite is true.  The role of every Christian disciple is to bring people to Christ, not just by preaching or teaching, but through relationship.  No one had a closer relationship to Jesus than His mother.  To really know Mary and have a relationship with her is to know Jesus.  (Incidentally, that’s what the Rosary is all about.  It is not just a series of vain, repetitious prayers or some kind of superstitious incantation.  It is a spiritual meditation on the life and ministry of Christ through the eyes of His mother).

Some folks will claim that Jesus was dismissive of His mother and actually put her down and/or minimized her.  Don’t let such doctrines fool you.  The Scriptures they use to support such ideas are easily shown to be misapplied.  Imagine the sinless Jesus Christ going against one of the Ten Commandments to “honor thy father and mother” and you can begin to see how misled such claims against Mary are.  Catholic doctrines reveal the true and perfect honor that Jesus Christ, the sinless, obedient God-man bestows on His mother and Father.

I’m not afraid of Mary anymore.  I’m not the least bit scared that God will be offended if I love her and embrace her.  God loves and embraces her.  She is the chosen daughter of the Father, the spouse of the Holy Spirit and the mother of Jesus Christ.  If the Holy Trinity honors and loves her so completely and perfectly, how can I go wrong by honoring and loving her, too?  It’s not idolatry, it’s being godly.  I’m looking forward to the rest of this retreat.  I love getting to know my mother and her Son, my Brother.  Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, “Real men love Jesus?”  I would add, “…and real men are momma’s boys.”

The Ultimate and Original “Cloud”

Before there was an iCloud to pull everything together, there was the “great cloud of witnesses” that Hebrews 12:1 says we are surrounded by.  The Feast of All Saints reminds us of this cloud and how all Christians, whether in this life or the next, are intimately connected in one Body with Christ as the Head.

One of my favorite things about being Catholic is that we do not view the Church as being just an earthly group of believers.  The Church on earth is called “The Church Militant” because we are waging a war against evil and spiritual wickedness.  Scripture calls Satan “the god of this world.”  As Christians, we are “in the world, but not of the world.”  It is a spiritual battle for souls here on earth and we Christians are spiritual warriors.

There exists a state of being between this life and Heaven where Christians may be purged of anything that cannot enter heaven, anything that is not pure and built upon Christ.  1Corinthians 3:11-15 describes this state of purging as a fire that burns away the wood, hay and stubble of our lives, yet leaves us saved with our good works of precious stones, gold and silver.  Since eternity is not limited by our time constraints, and God is outside of time, we cannot place any sense of time on this state of being.  Yet, few of us are perfect and ready to enter Heaven “right now” in this life.  We will be different in Heaven than we are “right now.” This means that a change takes place somewhere in between this life and Heaven.  Catholics call this state of being Purgatory, because it is a purging process.  Since the purging process is not a pleasant one (it is not easy to relinquish things our souls tend to cling to), the Christians in this state of purging are referred to as “The Church Suffering.”

Christians that are in Heaven are called “The Church Triumphant.”  This is the ultimate goal of Christianity, to triumph over Satan, sin, death and the evil in the world and in ourselves.  Heaven is where we are finally joined completely with Christ and “see Him as He is, for we shall be like Him.”  On the day of resurrection, even our physical bodies will be glorified and present with Christ.  No more sin or death.  Triumph!

All Christians are united in one body of Christ.  The Church Militant, The Church Suffering and The Church Triumphant are all the Body of Christ with Jesus as Head.  This is why the “cloud” that surrounds us is so awesome.  It is connected to us.  We in The Church Militant are not separated from Christians in The Church Triumphant.  Far from being dead, they are more alive than we are!  That is why we can call upon them to pray for us and intercede to God on our behalf.  In the same way that we ask other Christians here on earth to pray for us and with us, we can call upon the Saints in Heaven to do the same, for we are all one Body of Christ!  I am so glad to be able to call upon our mother, Mary, the Saints in Heaven, my earthly Christian brothers and sisters, and, most of all, Jesus, the One Mediator who makes it all possible by allowing us to share in His mediation through His One Body.  Thank God for “the cloud!”

Have a blessed Feast of All Saints!

Spiritual But Not Religious (No Longer)

Why do so many people say that they are “spiritual but not religious?”  Usually it has something to do with some degree of disenchantment with organized religion.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I know why I used to say it.  For me it was a way of avoiding the grunt-work of searching for truth.  It was a non-committal, relativistic place to sit on the fence and make no real decision.  It was almost an agnostic perspective.  Since I wasn’t sure what to decide, I would make no clear decision and just be “spiritual.”

I also believed it was a way for me to be non-judgmental of others.  Choosing any particular path would mean rejecting other paths.  I would have to admit that not all paths are equal.  Calling myself “spiritual but not religious” allowed me to be “broad” instead of “narrow.”  I would not have to confront the idea that, just maybe, someone was wrong.  That didn’t seem “nice” to me.  Who was I to say someone might be wrong about the path they were on?  I didn’t want to risk the arrogance of claiming to be correct.  “Religious” meant, “My path is the correct path” and “spiritual” meant, “All paths are correct.”  I wanted to be inclusive and avoid judging others.  I ran into problems, however.  For example, it simply is not possible for both monotheism and polytheism to be true.  But I had not yet allowed myself to confront such realities.  I had not come to realize that judging a path is not the same as judging the person on the path.

One principle I failed to grasp was invincible ignorance.  I was not considering that one could possibly be “wrong” about a religious path yet still gain eternal life.  Not until I returned to Catholicism did this principle hit home to me.  I had been steeped in a Fundamentalist Christian perspective that emphatically denied Heaven to people that had never even had an opportunity to hear about Jesus.  “Too bad,” they would say.  “No missionary reached them in time.”  Such thinking helped fuel my desire to distance myself from “religion” and just be “spiritual.”  In my own way, I was trying to give those poor, un-evangelized souls a fighting chance.  “Surely, they too are spiritual, whatever their religion might be,” I thought.  I didn’t realize that the Catholic religion I had been raised in and rejected was also giving them a chance.  This same principle (among others) would also help me when it came time to decide which brand of Christianity to commit to.  Again, I had to admit that not all Christians can be correct while teaching opposing doctrines.

It also took me a while to realize that, while most religions are about humanity’s search for God and/or eternal life, the Christian path is about God coming down to seek out humanity and offer eternal life.  This is a stark contrast.  It certainly does not place all religions on equal footing.  There were other choices to consider as well.  For example, if I decided on monotheism, would I become a slave to a harsh Master/Owner (Islam’s Allah) or a son to a loving Father (Christianity’s, Abba, “Daddy”)?

Being “spiritual but not religious” also turned me into the ultimate religious authority.  I could pick and choose which things seemed best and fashion my own eclectic “religion” out of all the parts.  I became the Pope, the priest, the minister and the congregation of my own little “church of Tom.”  It didn’t matter if I got any of it wrong or misinterpreted the Bible because I was being spiritual and, as far as I could tell, it worked for me.  So, Tom created God in his own image.  It was upside down.  I could pretend that it was all about love of humanity, tolerance and acceptance, but it was really about me and what I wanted (mostly comfort).  Ironically, I was just being religious in my own, private way while saying I was “not religious.”

The more I realized that I didn’t have to climb up to find God, but that God had condescended to find me, the more I fell in love with Christianity.  When I really delved into Catholic teachings I began to realize that abusive priests, atrocities of crusaders, inquisitions, etc. were about bad Catholics, not about Catholicism.  The more I learned about the Catholic blending of faith and reason, the beauty of the Catholic religion and the lives of the Saints, the more I wanted to be spiritual AND religious.  The more I understood about the history of Christianity and the different doctrines, the more I wanted to be a Catholic Christian.

Being “spiritual but not religious” was part of my journey, but not my destination.  My journey continues as a spiritual, religious Catholic Christian.  I’m still learning.  I don’t know everything.  No one does, except God.  I do know that I am not God, and neither are you.  We should all be glad about that!  The church of Tom has disbanded.  I have discovered that truth is not an idea but a person, Jesus Christ.  I have submitted to the obedience of faith, the religion of the God that is a loving Father, and the original Church founded by Jesus Christ.  I now call myself “spiritual and religious,” yet, I judge no one (that’s God’s job).

 

(A shout out to my buddy, Steve for partly inspiring this post)

Perfect Worship

I’ve been reflecting on different ways that Christians worship God.  Here are several that came to mind:

-Music

-Prayer

-Scripture reading

-Preaching

-Liturgy

-Giving and sacrificing of self (including money, material goods, time, gifts, talents, fasting, martyrdom, etc.)

Some of these things can be witnessed in any Christian church service.  Some of them are daily activities, such as the self-sacrifice godly parents give their children in service to God, or the work one does at a job with a godly attitude.  Some are more extreme than others.  All of them are good ways to worship God.  We offer all of them to God in worship.  All of them have one thing in common: they are blemished.  They are not perfectly spotless.

There is only one thing we can offer God that is perfectly spotless and without blemish: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  That’s why a worship service filled with musical praise and inspirational preaching is good, but not perfect.  All of those things involve our hearts and our bodies.  All of those things are both spiritually and physically lifted up to God.  But, even at their best, they are still imperfect.

In the Catholic Mass, Christians are provided the opportunity to join our hearts, our bodies and our imperfect efforts in lifting up to God the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, perfectly spotless and without blemish.  We are not only to lift him up “in Spirit” but also “in the flesh,” for it is his flesh that he gives for the life of the world.  He gave us the Spirit partly so that we could have his flesh transubstantiated into the form of bread and wine and available to offer to God as the perfect worship.

Think about it this way.  Before Christ, all we could spiritually or physically offer God was imperfection.  Now we have a choice: our own physical and spiritual imperfection or the spiritual and physical perfection of Jesus Christ.

No matter how good the music is, no matter how inspiring or convicting the preaching is, no matter how good or blessed a worship service makes you “feel,” the worship is physically and spiritually blemished unless Jesus Christ himself is spiritually and physically (i.e. completely) lifted up to God.  That’s why Jesus instituted the Mass.  He gave us the Mass so that we could worship perfectly with our whole self joined physically and spiritually to him.  The Mass is the height of Christian worship.  “This is my body, this is my blood.”

Is The Bread Of Life’s Flesh Of No Avail?

Today’s Gospel reading is from John chapter 6:51-58.  It was great to hear our priest give a homily that affirmed the physical reality of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Many claim that Jesus was being metaphorical in saying that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life.  They use verse 64 to support the idea that Jesus was talking symbolically since he says, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is of no avail.  My words are spirit and life.”

Yet, Jesus did not say, “MY flesh is of no avail” but he said “THE flesh is of no avail.”  This was to contrast Spiritual truth with human inability to understand intellectually.  Certainly, the flesh of Jesus avails much because it is his flesh that he gives on the cross for the life of the world.  However, the flesh is our human frailty and lack of understanding, as in “The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” or “You judge according to the flesh and not after God.”  The flesh indeed profits nothing!  Our human weakness cannot match the power of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, the word “Spirit” never means “symbolic” anywhere in Scripture.  The Spirit is very real and does not “symbolize” anything.  The Spirit is the power by which God makes calm weather out of storms, water into wine, life out of dust, creation out of nothingness, blind people see, deaf people hear and bread and wine into Christ’s own body and blood.  As God said, “Let there be light” and there was light (God’s words being Spirit and life), Jesus said, “Take and eat.  This is my body, this is my blood.”  That is Spirit and life in Jesus’ words, not metaphor!

If you are a Christian, when have you actually eaten Jesus’ flesh and drank his blood, thereby receiving the power and life of the Spirit the way Jesus prescribes?  Have you been partaking of a mere symbol?  We are called to believe the Spirit of Truth, by faith, not to understand with our fleshy brains.

(For even more on this topic, read this and this)

“If You Love Me”…A Knight’s Tale

One of my favorite movies is A Knight’s Tale with Heath Ledger.  There is a part of the story where the knight’s love interest asks him to prove his love for her by intentionally losing the jousting tournament, a tournament he desperately wants to win.  He begrudgingly acquiesces to her request.  Just as he is about to lose the tournament she changes her request and demands that he win to prove his love, which he does.  When the knight’s sidekick remarks on the things one does for love the knight says, “Yes, but now I hate her!”

Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  I used to think of his words as being like the knight’s love interest.  In other words, I had to make a concerted effort through my behaviors to “prove” to Jesus and to everyone else that I love him, in some cases, begrudgingly.  It is true that love is an act of the will that is not always “easy.”  Yet, if loving Christ results in a begrudging attitude, something is amiss.  Resentment and love don’t go well together.  For example, Jesus tells us to love our enemies.  He does not mean that we approach our enemies like school children being forced to begrudgingly apologize to each other after a fight on the playground.  He means love them the way he loves them, as souls that he died for.

Eventually, I learned to hear the words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” in a different way.  At first, it was, “You will do certain things and say certain things to demonstrate that your love for me is genuine.”  Now I hear the words of Jesus saying to me, “A genuine love for me will transform you into a new creature that naturally desires to keep my commandments.”  An analogy might be, “If you are a woodpecker, you will peck wood.”  “If you are a fish, you will swim in and breathe water.”  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” because doing so will be a natural result of who you have become.

Christians do not always love Jesus.  That is what sin is all about.  Concupiscence is that part of us that does not completely go away with the new birth.  It is the tendency to revert back to our non-transformed state of being and refuse to keep Christ’s commandments.  That’s what sin is.  It is non-love for Christ, others and self.  But, when we love Christ, we are not sinning, we are keeping his commandments.  Repentance and conversion do not happen in one moment.  They happen over a lifetime and only reach completeness when we are in Heaven with God who is love.  We need the Sacraments to sustain us and restore us.  We need the Holy Scriptures and the teaching authority of the Church to guide us by the Holy Spirit.

Hearing the words of Christ in a new way refreshed my Christian walk.  It helped me to focus less on my performance (a self-centered perspective) and more on loving Jesus (a Christ-centered and other-centered perspective).  I’m far from perfect at it, but I’m grateful for the new perspective.  I want to love Christ and to be naturally and continually transformed by him.  That’s what makes following his commandments an “easy yoke” and a “light burden.”

The Bible-Believing Church I Attend

If you ask most Christians how they know what to believe the usual response is, “The Bible, of course.  It’s the Word of God.”  Chances are, though, the Christian that gives that answer learned it from someone else.  At some point, someone taught that person that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.  In other words, it is a tradition handed on from one person to the next.  Few people spontaneously pick up a Bible and teach themselves that it is the Word of God.  Generally, other people tell them so.

So, the “handing on” of the Bible is a Christian tradition.  Christian writings have been passed on from the very beginning.  As soon as the Apostles wrote letters and Gospels they were passed on to other believers.  Yet, if we look at all the Christian writings, we notice that not all of them made it into the New Testament.  There are many other letters and even some gospel accounts that are not considered divinely inspired.  Therefore, they were not included in the Bible to be handed on to others.

Who decided which writings were divinely inspired?  Who decided what Christian writings belonged in the New Testament?  The Catholic Church made those decisions almost 400 years into Christianity.  The men that were the successors of the Apostles decided which writings belonged in the Bible and which ones did not.  But why should anyone trust them to do it?  Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth.  If a Christian is going to trust Jesus, then a Christian must believe that the Holy Spirit guided those men in the Catholic Church in deciding which writings belonged in the Bible.  Not because the men were perfect, but because the Holy Spirit is perfect.

If I believe the Bible, I have no other choice than to believe that the Church that assembled the Bible was Spirit-led.  So, I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God because I can trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth.  Now, if the Catholic Church got the New Testament writings put in the proper place, who am I to suggest that they are in error regarding other aspects of Christian truth?  I cannot logically say, “Oh, well, yeah, the Catholics got the New Testament writings correct, but they are wrong about this or that aspect of faith and morals.”  Either the Holy Spirit leads into all truth or he does not.  Jesus did not say, “I will send the Holy Spirit who will lead you only to assemble the Bible and then new churches will be started.”  Nor did Jesus say, “All of Christian truth will eventually be put into written form in the Bible.”  There is nothing anywhere to suggest that all Christian truth must be written down.  But, there is plenty to suggest that the Church is the “pillar and foundation of truth.” (1Tim 3:15 and Matt 18:17, for example)  The Bible points to the Church as the final authority, not to itself.  The Bible is “profitable” or “useful” (2Tim 3:16) but never claims to be entirely “sufficient” in leading the Church.  There must also be an interpreting authority.

Because the Catholic Church can trace an apostolic succession all the way back to Christ and his Apostles, I can therefore trust that the Bible is indeed the Word of God.  I know the Bible is right because the Catholic Church tells me so.  Nowhere does the Bible say, “The Table of Contents is accurate.  All these books belong here.”  The Church tells me that The Table of Contents is accurate because the Church assembled The Table of Contents.  It is the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church that is being handed on with each Bible.  Every time we say that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, we are validating the Christ-given authority of the Catholic Church.

So, that is why I attend the Catholic Church.  It is the original, Bible-believing Church.  Since they got that truth right, they must have other aspects of faith and morals right, too.  Otherwise, we’re all reading from Bibles that were put together by a Church that is only Spirit-led part of the time, a Church that is led into some truth but not all truth.  Or, the gates of Hell prevailed against the Church after it assembled the Bible and thousands of new denominations with different “truths” had to be started.  That’s not what Jesus promised.  I want the whole package promised by Jesus.  That’s why I’m a Bible-believing Catholic.  The Bible is, after all, a Catholic book.