Category Archives: Theology

God Is Everywhere. So, Why Go To Church On Sunday?

Since God is everywhere, why can’t I worship him anywhere?  I can.  I can worship God anywhere, anytime.  I can pray to God whenever I want to.  I can even be with God, as one Facebooker said, “At Wal-Mart.”  However, there’s more than one kind of worship and there’s more than one kind of prayer.

For non Catholic Christians, the primary purpose of going to church is generally to hear preaching and to fellowship with each other.  Indeed, scripture does tell Christians to ” not forsake the gathering of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10: 25).  Nevertheless, going to church for many Christians is considered highly recommended but not obligatory.  If the preaching is boring and nobody feels inspired then there is a sense that they didn’t really “have church.” If the sermon or the singing is inspiring, then people may leave the service feeling as though they ” really had church.” In any case, communing with each other while hearing preaching and singing together is the bottom line.  So, while it is true that God is everywhere, one can only worship communally where the community is.  Hence, one good reason for going to church on Sunday.  It’s not about where God is located, it’s about where you are located.  Are you with the community of believers or are you off being an individualistic Christian?  There is worship and then there is communal worship.  For 2000 years the community of believers has met for communal worship on the first day of the week, Sunday.

Catholic Christians (the 2000 year old Church) also meet on Sunday to hear scripture and preaching and singing and prayer and to fellowship with each other.  However, although Catholics acknowledge that God is everywhere, they also recognize that Jesus is present in a unique way during the Catholic Mass.  During the Catholic Mass Jesus is present physically, not just spiritually.  Consequently, Catholic Christians are communing with each other and with God in a unique way as they receive into themselves the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.  This they do as Christ instructed at the Last Supper and in the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John chapter six.  There is no higher form of worship or prayer than this as it is a partaking of the supreme sacrifice of Christ himself.  Therein lies the second good reason for going to church on Sunday.  The Mass happens at church.  If the preaching or the music is lackluster ” church” has still taken place because Jesus has been physically and spiritually present regardless of how anyone feels about it.  His presence is an objective reality not a subjective experience of the believer.  There is a certain grace that is only accessible in this Eucharistic banquet.

Having said all of this, isn’t the fact that God wants us to worship together on Sunday enough of a reason to go to church?  I have not been able to find anything in scripture to suggest that any Christian should be content with a ” Jesus and me” Christianity.  Christianity is about community.  Having a personal relationship with Christ and being saved is a starting point.  A Christian is born again into a family of believers.  Family meal time happens at specific times and in specific places.  A Christian who says, ” I don’t have to eat with my family” is like the adolescent that is only interested in ” doing my own thing.” The parents have to say, ” You are part of the family.  Eat with us.” This is akin to the Catholic Church declaring a Sunday obligation for attending Mass (except for valid reasons for missing).  It is also the reason many preachers can be heard to say, ” There’s no such thing as a lone ranger Christian.”

So, if you’re a Christian, don’t miss church on Sunday without a valid reason.  Not because I said so, but because Jesus himself invited you.  Why turn down such an invitation?  You can go with me if you want to!

Woe, There! This Is Not Bigotry Or Hatred

There are certain behaviors that are contrary to natural and moral law.  It is beyond the scope of this post to address each and every immoral behavior.  The general principle applies that the immorality of any given behavior is not rooted in the intent of the person doing the behavior, but the behavior itself.  Immorality is not to be confused with culpability.  It is possible to perform an immoral act without culpability (blame) when there is lack of sufficient knowledge regarding the immorality of the act.  In other words, if a person has been taught that an immoral act is “fine” to do and sincerely believes it is not wrong, there is less blame to be placed on that person for the act.  Yet, the act itself remains an immoral one.  Just as gravity is gravity because it is gravity, an immoral act is immoral because it is immoral, not because people deem it immoral.

If I recognize the immorality of a certain behavior, it is my responsibility not to condone such behavior as moral.  If someone asks me, “Do you think such-and-such behavior is acceptable?” my answer must be, “No, I do not.”  If asked to support such behavior within the realm of legality and legislation, my response must be, “I cannot in good conscience support that behavior with my vote.”  The fact that multitudes of people fail to recognize the immorality of the behavior may reduce their culpability, but it does not make the immoral behavior moral.  The fact that multitudes of people believe the immoral behavior to be an inalienable human right does not make the behavior moral.  The fact that multitudes of people may have an inborn tendency towards performing the behavior does not make the behavior moral.  The fact that “most” members of my Faith supposedly do it does not make the immoral behavior moral.

Keep in mind that I am referring to behaviors.  This concerns what people do, not who or what people are.  Morality is about the choices we make.  Often we must make choices that are moral despite our desires and feelings that lead us toward immorality.  Feelings and desires do not alter the morality of a behavior.  All of us have feelings and desires that can pull us into immoral behaviors.  This is called sin, and we all have it somewhere in our lives in varying forms and degrees.  We all have to make the choice to either rationalize and justify our sins or repent of our sins.

If I recognize the immorality of a behavior, I do not necessarily have to place blame or culpability on the person performing the behavior.  I do not need to judge the person, the person’s soul or the person’s intentions in order to judge the fundamental behavior.  This is the problem with the “Judge not lest you be judged” argument people use to justify immoral behavior.  They rip that scripture verse from the Bible, divorce it from its context, and use it as a weapon against anyone that recognizes the immorality of their behavior.  All of us need to judge behaviors on a daily basis.  That is called knowing right from wrong.  Only God can judge the person the soul and the intentions.

Disagreeing with a behavior does not constitute bigotry.  Again, behaviors are choices we make, unlike skin color, gender, age, physical handicap, sexual attraction, etc.  If I recognize the immorality of a behavior and refuse to call it moral, that does not make me a bigot.  It does not make me a “hater.”  In fact, pointing out the immorality of a behavior can be one of the most loving things a person can do as a spiritual act of mercy.  If I condone the behavior and pretend it is moral, I could be helping to jeopardize that person’s soul.

If I disagree with a behavior, it does not mean I necessarily fear the person that performs the behavior.  (There might be some fear of displeasing God if I condone the behavior, however.)  Recognizing an immoral behavior does not make me “phobic.”  It does not mean I fear the person, hate the person or desire to restrict the rights of the person.  It simply means I recognize the behavior as immoral, and refuse to call it something other than what it is in order to placate the feelings of someone or give in to political correctness.  It does not mean I am cruel or without compassion.  It means I am doing my best to be honest, and that I can see no good for anyone in pretending that the immoral is moral.

“Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”  (Isaiah 5:20)

Captain Jack Sparrow’s Compass

When training to be a pilot, I was taught that there is more than one navigational “north.”  Magnetic north is oriented to the magnetic field of the earth.  True north is oriented to the pole on which the earth rotates.  Magnetic north and true north do not line up with each other.  The closer one navigates to the North Pole, the more “off” the magnetic compass will be.  In other words, if you want to get to the North Pole, don’t follow your compass unless you have taken into account the difference between magnetic north and true north.  One must also consider other forces that can influence the accuracy of a magnetic compass such as metallic structures of the aircraft and other electronic equipment.

The ability to distinguish right from wrong is often referred to as a moral compass.  A person with an accurate moral compass is better able to navigate through a world of complex moral decisions.  A moral compass might be likened to one’s conscience.  To follow one’s conscience, then, is to follow one’s moral compass.  Like a magnetic compass, a moral compass can lead in the wrong direction if not properly calibrated.  As there is only one true north based on an unmovable, fixed axis, there is only one true, fixed morality.  The accuracy of a moral compass can be influenced by many factors.  To “follow your conscience” may or may not lead to a truly moral decision.

Has your moral compass been calibrated?  To what fix was it calibrated?  Who calibrated it?  What is it really pointing to?  The moral compass of human nature tends to be like the compass of Captain Jack Sparrow.  It points to what is most desired.  Morality becomes rationalized and subject to desires rather than to truth.  Society is relativistic.  In a world where “all things are relative” a moral compass becomes obsolete since there is no moral “North Pole.”  There is no standard, unmovable, absolute truth in a relativistic society.  There is no point on the map, no North Star, no fixed morality upon which to get one’s bearings.  Anything goes.  Go wherever you want to go, do whatever you want to do, and please, don’t judge the behaviors of anyone else.  They are all just following their own compasses, after all.  Who are you to judge?  Don’t be a hater!

The only quasi-standard that seems to remain is the mantra, “As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.”  This view presumes to know the future consequences of every action.  Furthermore, there are some moral actions that do hurt people.  Whether or not “someone gets hurt” is a flimsy point on which to fix an entire system of morality.  It is really just another gimmick in the rationalization bag of tricks.  “Well, I guess it is fine for me to do this as long as no one gets hurt.”  This is the response many parents receive from a disobedient adolescent caught throwing a wild, destructive party.  “What’s the big deal?  No one got hurt!”

A properly calibrated moral compass can also be called a rightly formed conscience.  There are many influences competing for the formation of conscience such as Hollywood, the music industry, politics, religion, feminism, communism, socialism, hedonism, capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, conservationism, etc.  Where is the moral “North Pole?”

Many will respond, “The Bible is the standard of morality!”  Yet, people interpret the Bible in many different ways, usually to support their own desires, beliefs and agendas (hence, the problem of “Sola Scriptura” or “The Bible Alone” as a standard of authority).  Whose interpretation of the Bible is the standard?  Furthermore, how many people actually check their behavior against the standard of the Bible?  When faced with a moral issue, how many people even know where to look in a Bible for the answer?  Ultimately, people tend to lean on what their particular church or pastor teaches about the Bible rather than the Bible itself.  In other words, they are not using the Bible as the standard for morality, but a particular interpretation of the Bible as the moral standard.

Some say, “Just follow Jesus!  Do what Jesus would do!”  Again, as with Scripture interpretation, there are differing opinions on who Jesus is and what Jesus would do.

Some may say, “Love!  Love is the standard for morality!  All you need is love!”  But, what kind of love are they talking about?  Is morality based on brotherly love (philia), erotic love (eros) or godly, selfless love (agape)?  Seldom are those who cry, “Love!” willing to pay the sacrificial price required for a true expression of godly love when it comes to making moral decisions.  Often, doing that which is moral requires great personal sacrifice.  If one’s moral compass is calibrated so as to navigate around and avoid great, personal sacrifice, then it is not calibrated according to love.

There are teachings of Catholicism that I find difficult to accept.  Yet, my difficulty in accepting them does not make them untrue.  In fact, when placed against the wisdom of 2000 years of global experience, my own life experience pales by comparison.  Even the short, collective experience of the great nation I live in pales by comparison.  The Catholic Church and her teachings have outlived every empire.  As the world ebbs and flows and shifts on shaky sand, the Church remains rock solid in her official teachings on morality.

When choosing a fix by which to calibrate a moral compass, the Catholic Church has the right stuff.  The Church has the biblical interpretation and traditions handed down from the apostles.  Throughout history, the Church’s teachings on morality have reflected and demonstrated sacrificial, agape love (even if some of her members have not).  Jesus is in the Church spiritually and physically.  By following the Church I am following Jesus.  God is love.  Jesus is God.  The Church is the Body of Christ, authorized by Christ himself.  Who am I to set my moral compass to any other point of reference?  Who am I to relocate the North Pole?

Growing Younger

When I was young
It seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical
And all the birds in the trees
Well they’d be singing so happily
Joyfully, playfully watching me

But then they send me away
To teach me how to be sensible
Logical, responsible, practical
And then they showed me a world
Where I could be so dependable
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

I can identify with these lyrics of The Logical Song by Supertramp.  I’ve always tried to retain a sense of awe and wonder about life and avoid a cynical attitude.  It’s hard to do sometimes.  The responsibilities of adulthood can become rather tedious and frustrating to the youthful boy inside me.  I’ll admit that I give in to my melancholy side on occasion, until I realize I’m just pouting.  Then I look for something wonderful and awe inspiring to pull me out of my funk.

When I was a boy, it was easier to find the wonder in life.  I suppose that’s just the state of innocence.  Some of my boyhood fascinations have lost their luster.  I’ve seen “the man behind the curtain.”  The glitter has rubbed off.  Other fascinations have endured.  For example, I can still stare at the moon with awe and wonder, or look at a space photo of the Earth and try to comprehend all the people that ever lived on it.  I can look at my own children and become lost in how amazing they are.  I also find more awe and wonder in my relationship with God as I grow older.

Recently, I have gained a greater appreciation for the union of the material and the spiritual.  There are many Christians that adopt a sort of dualism into their faith that can become rather cynical.  Life becomes all about getting out of this “bad” material world and into the next “good” spiritual world.  But that’s not really the goal of a Christian.  The goal is to be transformed in body and in soul so that we can live in the world as it is and as it will be.  In the resurrection we will get new bodies.  We will not be disembodied “ghosts.”  We will not be pure spirits like the angels.  We will continue to be the unique bridge between pure spirit and pure material, a hybrid of sorts (1Cor 15:51).  We will still be human, just changed humans.  There will be a new Earth for us to stand on.  That which is material will not be completely going away, but it will be renewed (Rom 8:22-23).

These days I look upon the future new Earth and my future new body with childlike awe and wonder.  It is a playground for the imagination that I will never grow out of.  In fact, the older I get, the more fascinating it becomes.  The great thing is that it is not just a fantasy I have to eventually wake up from, like a book or a movie, but the reality of life.  In fact, it is the essence and purpose of life.  It’s not that this present world no longer holds my interest.  It’s just that I have realized that the boy I used to be has not been shelved in a closet of memories.  My boyhood fascination with life was just an appetizer for the ultimate experience of living.  I will always and forever be a child of God.  I’m growing younger.

(Partly inspired by “The Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux, The Little Flower)

Can You Give And Accept An Apology?

One thing that often comes up when counseling couples is the issue of apologies.  I often ask spouses, “Do you apologize to each other,” or  “What is it like for you to apologize?”  A follow-up question is, “Are you able to accept apologies?”

A sincere apology requires humility because pride must be swallowed.  Some people have such an aversion to being wrong that it obstructs their empathy towards others.  They assume a defensive stance as they think only of self.  It’s hard to embrace someone through a suit of armor or a castle wall.  Apologies require vulnerability.  The armor must come off.  Knights wear armor for fear of swords and arrows.  When the armor comes off, vulnerability increases and so does the fear.  Apologizing can be difficult because one must drop the defenses.

Some folks apologize incessantly.  This is usually a sign of an insecure, passive type of person and/or an abusive relationship, not a healthy relationship.  There’s no reason for a genuine apology unless there has been a genuine offense.

Accepting an apology is another matter.  It’s even harder to drop the defenses and apologize to someone who can’t accept an apology graciously.  Some people use the apologies of others as opportunities to “twist the knife,” as in, “Darn right you shouldn’t have done that, you big jerk!”  A sincere apology is a gift.  The proper response to a sincere apology is, “Thank you, I accept your apology.”  The acceptance should then be followed up with genuine forgiveness.  One who holds a grudge, pouts or gives “the silent treatment” has not really accepted the apology.

I saw a quote once that said, “Marriage is an adventure in forgiveness.”  Peter asked Jesus if he should forgive someone seven times.  Jesus told him, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matt 18:22)  Of course, the point is not to forgive a person 490 times and then quit.  The point is to always be forgiving.  Forgiveness is not necessarily a onetime event.  Often we have to say, “Oh yeah, I forgave them for that yesterday, so I need to stick with it.”  Similarly, marriage is a choice we make every day, not just on our wedding day.

Forgiveness is not the same as trust.  If someone whacks me with a stick when I walk past, I can forgive that person.  That doesn’t mean I have to trust that person to cease the stick-whacking.  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  If the person displays sincere remorse and proper behavior over time, however, trust may be reestablished.  One forgives in order to avoid carrying around a cancerous grudge, not in order to “let the person off the hook” of responsibility.  I can forgive someone for stealing my car, but the car still needs to be returned and/or jail time must be served.  This, by the way, relates to the Catholic understanding of penance, indulgences, Purgatory and the temporal punishment for sin that remains even after we have been forgiven of our sins.  Of course, Christ forgives our sins.  We are still responsible to make amends wherever we can.  That’s the fruit of true repentance.  Scripture tells us to avoid the altar until we have made amends.

So, if a marriage is rocky, each spouse can benefit from asking, “What am I not forgiving my spouse for?” and “What am I not apologizing for?”  Making amends is a sign of true friendship, spiritual humility and a happy marriage.

The Gospel: Simple, Easy Or Both?

Things that are simple are not always easy.  Eating your favorite ice cream is simple and easy.  Swallowing bitter medicine is simple but not easy.  It can be quite difficult to do some things that are not at all complicated.  In the Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade, there is a scene where Indian Jones has to step out onto a bridge that cannot be seen.  It is essentially a leap of faith.  It is an uncomplicated, simple act.  Just step off of the cliff.  But it is at the same time a very difficult act.  “Simple” does not automatically imply “easy.”

The Gospel is simple.  All one has to do is place faith in Christ.  Doing so has been called by some the simplest yet most difficult thing in the world.  The difficulty arises because in order to place trust in Christ we must let go of whatever else holds our trust (usually our own pride and personal opinions).  It’s really the letting go that causes the difficulty.  It’s like stepping off of the cliff when you can’t see the bridge.

The Bible tells us of the rich, young man that asked Jesus what he needed to do to be saved.  He had kept the law and told Jesus so.  “What else do I lack?” he asked.  “Sell everything you have, give it to the poor and come follow me,” Jesus told him.  The young man went away sad because he had many possessions.  Simple, but not easy.  There is always something to let go of.  That’s the hard part.

There are many folks that have left Catholicism in favor of a “simple Gospel.”  I used to be one of those folks.  It took me a while to realize that being Catholic isn’t complicated.  It’s really quite simple.  Just trust Jesus.  He said he would build his Church, so just trust him.  Follow his Church.  He put it there for a reason.  That doesn’t mean it will be “easy.”  There are some teachings of the Church that are not easy to submit to.  But that’s not a problem with the teaching, that’s a problem with me letting go of something (usually my own pride or control).

Lots of people leave Catholicism not because they have discovered a more “simple” Gospel, but because they want an easier Gospel that conforms to their own opinions and lifestyles.  Church teachings can be difficult to submit to.  The same can be said of Christ’s teachings.  Just ask the rich young man.  The problem was within him, not within Christ’s teaching.

Catholicism has 2000 years of depth and richness to explore.  In that sense it is complex and multifaceted.  But it is simultaneously simple.  St. Therese of Lesuix (The Little Flower) spoke of her “little way” of simple faith in Christ.  Yet, she was so deep and profound in her spirituality that she was declared one of only 30 “Doctors of the Church.”  That’s one thing I love about Catholicism.  It is so deep yet so simple.

Being non-Catholic was, in some ways, more complicated with all the differing doctrines and opinions on faith and morals.  It was like being set adrift with no one at the helm.  I found myself looking for a church that aligned with what I believed.  That made me the final authority, not Christ and his Church.  It can be easier to belong to a church that believes everything the way you do (or to belong to no church at all).  But that’s when you create God in your own image.  It’s easier to build a golden calf than to trust God and follow his lead.

The Gospel is very simple.  Just follow Christ and the Church he built for you.  Easy?  Not always.  Simple?  Yes.  Not complicated at all.  It’s a simple leap of faith.  When your feet hit the bridge, that’s when the “yoke is easy and the burden is light.”

Hey, Let’s Go To Church. Ok, Where Is It?

I’ve been pondering the word “church” today and considering the various ways it is used.  Here are a few examples:  a church building; a denomination; a personal adjective, as in “church lady;” the entire body of Christian believers; an assembly of believers; an event, as in the expression, “Let’s have church.”  The word “church” is used a bit like the word “love.”  So many meanings derived from one single word.  When Jesus said, “I will build my church” what did he mean?

People generally think Jesus meant that he would create a body of Christian believers.  That is true.  The Church is a body of believers.  This is where many folks stop, however.  Ask them to point to the Church that Jesus built and things begin to get murky.  They may respond that the Church built by Jesus can’t be pointed to because it is invisible.  Since only God can see the heart, only God knows who is saved and who is lost.  Therefore, it would be presumptuous to point to any person or any group and say, “There is the Church.”  Or, they may respond that all of the Christian denominations are the Church.  They simply disagree on non-essential issues.  They all believe in Jesus, so, they are all the Church that Christ founded.

I used to hold to an opinion that combined the two views.  I decided that no one knows who is lost or saved, and every church was a mixture of saved and lost people (the wheat and the tares).  There is some truth to that, but if someone were to ask me to point to the Church that Jesus Christ built I would essentially have to say, “Take your pick.”  Eventually, I ran into some problems with my perspective.

First of all, if the Church is completely invisible, how can anyone find it?  How can an invisible Church be a light for the world?  The “invisible Church” idea sounds more like a Church “hidden under a bushel.”  It is true that only God knows the heart, but it is also true that Jesus started a visible organization and placed men in specific offices within that organization.  The apostles were left in charge of the organization, and they passed their offices on to their successors (i.e. the bishops).  What Jesus started was an organized religion.

Furthermore, Jesus said he would always be with the Church and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it.  The Church would remain an organized religion with Jesus at the head and the successors of the apostles in charge until the end of time.  Modern day Christendom with its thousands of denominations and conflicting doctrines does not fit the model of what Jesus said he would build.  Jesus prayed for his believers, “That they all would be one as you and I, Father, are one.” (John 17:21)  Can Jesus and the Father have conflicting doctrines?  No.  The Church was to be a visible, organized religion with a hierarchy of leadership and unity of doctrine.

Another problem I ran into was the take-it-to-the-Church concept.  Believers are told that if there is a conflict that can’t be worked out in private, “…take it to the Church.”  If the offending party won’t listen even to the Church, then they are to be treated as a heathen (Matt 18:17).  This simply cannot operate in the modern, multi-denomination world we have today.  One can find YouTube videos galore of different denominations debating various essential topics of Christian doctrine.  For instance, when a Church of Christ believer says that baptism is necessary for salvation, and a non-denominational believer disagrees, how can they resolve their dispute?  Which “church” do they take it to?  All they can do is debate each other endlessly.  They have no final authority to call the shots.  They are both appealing to the Bible as the final authority, yet the Bible is telling them to take their dispute to the Church, something they cannot do.  In other words, the Bible points to the Church as the final authority and the “pillar of truth.” (1Tim 3:15)  But, which church?

Jesus built a Church that is a visible body of believers, has offices with a hierarchy of apostolic successors and functions as the final authority in disputes between believers.  There’s really only one Church that fits that model consistently since the time of Christ.  That’s one of the main reasons I went back to Catholicism.  Submission to the Church built by Christ is submission to Christ.  The two are inseparable.  The final authority for faith and morals is no longer my personal opinion or even my pastor’s opinion.  The authority rests squarely where Christ placed it 2000 years ago, even before there was a Bible.  Like it or not, the authority rests within the Catholic Church.  This is not arrogance.  It doesn’t mean all the people in the Church are perfect.  Far from it.  If not for the Holy Spirit, the Church would have imploded centuries ago.  It’s still here because it’s Christ’s Church.  He started it and he holds it together even when we try to tear it apart.