Tag Archives: Salvation

Are You Saved? Are You Certain?

It’s a bit like being stranded on a roof during a flood. You see the helicopter coming and shout, “I’m saved!” Well, you’re not in the chopper yet, and the chopper hasn’t landed yet, so, as old Treebeard would say, “Let’s not be hasty.”

Good essay here about how a Catholic can respond to the question, “Are You Saved?

Conversion: A Work In Progress

Humans are spiritual creatures.  It is written into our DNA to look beyond ourselves to spiritual truths.  History demonstrates our desire for spiritual connection.  Although many these days claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” we all have religious tendencies.  Left to our own devices, we will find something to worship.  We will create our own, individual belief systems by assembling our opinions, our values and our principles into “little religions.”  Therefore, none of us are really “spiritual but not religious.”  Either we follow God’s religion or we follow our own.

I put together a list that illustrates my own journey of awareness about God’s revelation to humanity.  It’s sort of what I perceive to be a “growth chart” of spiritual awakening.  There was a time when I considered myself to be “spiritual but not religious.”  That changed around number 11 or 12 on the list when I realized that religious people behaving badly did not make “religion” a bad word.  I realized it was not only possible but desirable to be both religious and spiritual.  It is a both/and proposition, not an either/or one.

I believe lots of people get stuck somewhere on this list.  For example, agnostics might be around number one to six.  Lots of Christians stop around number eleven.  Some may be at number thirteen without knowing they need number 11.  Really, we can get stuck anywhere on the list.  I’m not claiming to have personally reached the ultimate place in a journey of faith.  We’re all works in progress.  This list is just a sketch of where I have been and what I’m striving for by God’s grace.  It’s not perfectly chronological in order.  I’m far from where I need to be.  The point is, as soon as we think we’ve “arrived,” we haven’t.  Conversion is a lifelong process, not a single event.

Here is the process:

1)      Look around at creation and realize it couldn’t have “just happened” without an intelligent designer and call that designer “God.”

2)      Realize that God transcends us.

3)      Understand that we are eternal beings, but imperfect beings (sinners).

4)      Realize that we can’t fix our own imperfection and become like God.

5)      Wonder if such a God cares about what happens to us and the rest of creation.

6)      Wonder if God knows how it feels to be human, or if God is aloof.

7)      Realize that Jesus is God in human flesh.

8)      Realize that God does know how it feels to be human because God became human.

9)      Realize that through Jesus, God came to seek us out.  We didn’t need to climb up to God.

10)  Realize that the perfect life, suffering and death of Jesus is the answer to humanity’s imperfection (sin).

11)  Realize that Jesus (God) desires us to trust him with our eternal souls and lives, not our own efforts.

12)  Understand and accept that, because he loves us, Jesus did not want to leave us to our own devices, so he made sure there would be an antidote to conflicting opinions.

13)  Realize and accept that Jesus called his antidote “the Church” and gave its hierarchy his own authority.  Accepting Jesus includes accepting the Church, because they are the same authority.  The Holy Spirit guards and controls the hierarchy’s teachings and also preserves the written Word.  To accept Christ and reject the Church is contradictory.

14)  Realize that Jesus did not want to leave us orphaned and promised to be with us.

15)  Understand that, in order for Jesus to actually “be with us” he has to be completely with us, not partially with us “in spirit” as if he were on the telephone or a video conference.  Jesus still has a physical body and still wants to literally “be with us.”  His love for us is that profound.

16)  Understand and accept that the way Jesus chooses to keep his promise to “be with us” is by humbling himself in the form of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist.  The power of the Holy Spirit accomplishes this.

17)  Realize that the religion of Catholicism is actually about being with and loving Christ and each other.  God is love, and Catholicism is the fullness of God’s religion when lived out in holiness and love as Jesus intended (not as a set of rules to earn Heaven apart from God’s grace).

Catholic Show And Tell

When someone says, “Evangelization,” most people probably imagine some combination of preaching, door knocking, handing out Bibles and tracts, and asking people if they have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  Or, if one is less inclined to boldly approach people with questions about their inner spiritual life, there is always “lifestyle evangelization” which allows one to quietly go about living without all the awkward, confrontational aspects of talking to others about Jesus.  The hope is that someone will be inspired to turn to Jesus by observing a pious Christian life.  How do Catholics evangelize?

Saint Francis of Assisi is usually credited with having said, “Preach always.  Use words when necessary.”  We are to evangelize with a combination of lifestyle and words.  If we are not living a life of genuine, Christian love, then our words lose credibility.  We also need words to describe why we live as we do.  We need to be able to articulate Catholic Christian ideas.  We need to show and tell the world why it is important to be a Catholic Christian.  Anyone can be nice.  Atheists and Agnostics can be nice.  Why be a Christian?  Why be a Catholic Christian?  Now more than ever, it is necessary to use words.

Peter, our first Pope, said, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:” (1Peter 3:15).  We don’t have to be out in the town square with speakers and a microphone, but we need to be ready to use words.  We need to know the Catholic Faith well enough to provide more than a blank stare or evasive maneuvers when someone asks us what we believe.  We need to know what we believe, why we believe it, and what difference it makes.

During my Evangelical Protestant phase things were a bit different.  All I needed to do was summon up enough courage to invite someone to church (not always easy for an introvert like me).  The preacher would generally take it from there.  The service was primarily focused on the sermon.  Most sermons contained at least some reference to the human need for salvation through Christ and, at the end, an invitation to pray “the sinner’s prayer” or come forward and “accept Christ into your heart” (like at a Billy Graham crusade).  The preacher did all the heavy lifting.  All I had to do was get a person to go to the service with me.

The Catholic Mass is not an Evangelical service.  Although the Bible is read and a sermon is preached, the focus of the Mass is the Eucharist.  Christ instituted Christian worship at the Last Supper.  The Last Supper was the first Mass.  Mass is the 2000 year old celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for believers to participate in, not an evangelical service designed to recruit nonbelievers.  Unless a Catholic is able and willing to explain the Mass to a visitor, that visitor is likely to be rather confused by the experience.  If more Catholics became adept at explaining the Mass, it would be more effective to invite people to church.  This, of course, necessitates Catholics themselves understanding the Mass.  Many simply do not understand.

Catholics need to get serious about living out the Faith.  As Pope Francis recently said, it does no good to simply wear Christianity as a label.  Catholics need to learn the Faith before we can live it out and effectively share it with others.  We are not ready to “give answers” if we don’t know the answers.  We can’t expect the clergy to do all the heavy lifting.  The Second Vatican Council was focused on getting the laity involved in spreading the Gospel, not just doing readings or distributing Communion or being ushers.  Catholics need to read the Bible and the Catholic Catechism.  We need to study our Faith either at home or in classes.  There are countless resources available to us in the form of books, DVDs, Bible studies and the internet.  We have no excuse for ignorance of our Faith.

We need caring and sharing.  We have to genuinely care about people and care about the Faith in order to share the Faith.  When we care about a person, we desire to know more about that person.  If we care about Jesus, we will seek to know Him more.  The best way to know Jesus is to know the Church.  As Saint Joan of Arc said about Jesus and the Church, “They are simply the same thing.”  Know the Catholic Church, know Jesus.

The best way for Catholics to evangelize is to begin by knowing what Catholics believe, why we believe it, and what difference it makes.  We can invite people to Mass, but first we must prepare to explain the experience.  If we have children, we must teach them what the Mass is about.  The best way to learn something is to teach it.  We don’t need to be theologians or clergy to evangelize others.  But we at least need to know the basics of what we are doing and why we are doing it.  Understanding the Mass is a good starting point.  By evangelizing others, we might find ourselves converted.

At the end of every Mass we are told to “go.”  Let’s go and make disciples.  Let’s do Catholic show and tell.

Why A Crucifix? Why Not An Empty Cross?

I have often heard complaints about the Catholic use of the crucifix.  The typical remark is something similar to, “Jesus rose from the dead and is alive.  Why do you keep Him on the cross?  We use an empty cross because Jesus is alive!”  There are also people who think that the crucifix demonstrates that Catholics believe in “re-killing” Jesus at every Mass, which is a misunderstanding of the Mass.

Catholics know very well that Jesus is alive, and we do not “re-kill” Him in the Mass.  In fact, for the six weeks of Easter, the crucifix in my parish church is replaced by an image of the risen Christ.  Throughout the year, every weekend is a “little Easter” as we are expected to acknowledge the soberness of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter Sunday.  Catholics do not minimize Christ’s resurrection.  After all, it is His resurrected, glorified body we partake of at every Mass.

The Romans put crucified people on display to frighten the population into submission.  Catholics put the crucified Christ on display to say, “We’re not afraid of death or of you.”  In his Catholicism television series, Fr. Baron points out that holding up the crucifix is actually a kind of “taunt.”  It’s an “in your face” way of saying, “Christ has conquered death.  Do your worst to us and we will still overcome because Christ has overcome.”

We can also point to the Apostle Paul’s statement that “we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1Cor 1:23).  The crucifix is a visual aid for preaching the Gospel.  It stands in stark contrast to worldly expectations of what power and leadership are about.  But, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1Cor 1:25).  The Romans crucified thousands of people, but only Jesus conquered death.  Only Jesus was crucified willingly and for our sake.  His “foolishness” and “weakness” show God’s true power and leadership.  Catholics are showing the world, not just any cross, but the cross of Jesus.  That’s the one cross that changes everything.  Like Paul, Catholics “preach Christ crucified.”

When we look upon the crucifix, we also see more than the cross of Jesus.  We are also reminded that we are not yet finished with our own crosses.  Jesus has risen, but we still have a cross to bear in this life.  The servant is not above the Master.  The servant follows the Master.  The crucifix is a daily reminder that Jesus does not remove all of our suffering in this life.  In this life, we are called to embrace whatever suffering comes our way for His sake.  The crucifix indicates that Christians are still called to follow His lead to the cross.  The empty cross is a bit too sanitized and easy to look upon.  Christ calls us to life as it is here and now.  Life is messy.

Catholics absolutely rejoice in Christ’s resurrection and we await the day when we can join Him in that blessed hope.  Yet, we also realize that we must presently be about the business of carrying our crosses.  We, like our Master, must die to self before we can live with Him.  So, we look upon the crucifix now and place our future hope in the resurrection.  We’re not finished yet.  We’re still running the race and fighting the good fight.  The crucifix reminds us.

Visiting Where I Was Born Again.

This past weekend I was back in my hometown to celebrate a wedding and a birthday.  I needed to go to Church Sunday morning.  The default location was St. Ignatius, the Church I grew up in.  My parents still attend there, and it would be a chance to visit with them for a bit.  This time, however, I decided to do something different.  I was not baptized at St. Ignatius but at St. Clare, and my family attended there until I was in second grade.  Since I had not been there since I was a second grader, I thought it would be interesting to visit.

While approaching the church and school buildings, it struck me how small everything appeared.  Things are magnified to a child’s eyes, and my memory was a child’s memory.  Then I noticed the front steps.  I recalled an old photograph of my family standing on those steps with a baby.  The baby was me at my baptism.  I haven’t seen that photo in years, but I remember it.  And I remember the steps.

Upon entering the church a flood of memories hit me.  It all started to come back.  Except for the scale of things, I felt like I was looking through my six-year-old eyes.  The sights, the sounds and the aroma were familiar and welcoming.  It was like a reunion with a long lost relative.  As I took in the details it occurred to me that more than forty years had left so much unchanged.  The corner stone read “1914.”  The building was almost one hundred years old.  I was baptized there near its mid-century period.  I ran my hand along the railing that I could barely reach as a child.

Meanwhile, I was helping my wife juggle two-year-old twins and trying not to disrupt the Mass.  I had to carry my daughter to the back of the church to settle her down.  I paced back and forth while she gradually fell asleep.  Then I noticed the statue of St. Clare off to the side.  I gazed at her for a while and my eyes were drawn to the focal point of the monstrance she was holding.  When the priest lifted up the Holy Eucharist, it really hit me.  All those years that statue had been standing there holding that monstrance.  I had left, but she had not.  Yet, it was only a fraction of the time that Christ had been steadfastly present in the tabernacle of that church and in every Catholic Church for two thousand years.  He stayed with us, like He stayed with the travelers on the road to Emmaus, present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Jesus said to my heart, “You were baptized here, Thomas.  This is where you became my own.  When you left My Church, I awaited your return with open arms.  I have always been here for you, even when you didn’t care.  Though you may leave me, I will never leave you nor forsake you.  I love you, and I am happy you finally came home to Me.”  Then, I felt the warmth of my daughter asleep in my arms, and I knew the same promise was for her and her brother.  “I will not leave you orphans.  I am with you until the end of the age.”

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)

My Toddlers Remind Me…

If you are a parent, or have been around children, you have probably had the experience of stooping down to talk face-to-face with a little one.  The giant size of an adult can be intimidating to a child.  Even if not intimidated, the child’s neck might be less strained if the adult is at eye level.  When the adult stoops down, or lifts the child to eye level the message is, “I’m with you.  You have my attention.  I care.”  Consider how hard it is for small children to jump or climb to the adult’s eye level.

Have you ever gazed into the vastness of space on a clear, starlit night and wondered just how gigantic it is?  Personally, I feel very small when I do that.  It reminds me that I’ll never comprehend how big and powerful God is.  How could any of us ever jump that high or climb to the farthest reaches of a never-ending spaciousness?  The closest stars are beyond our reach.  We can’t reach an eternal God.  God knows this.  So, like a loving parent, God stoops down to us.

Children can’t understand everything an adult tells them.  Yet, even small children can sense when an adult stoops to their level.  We can’t intellectually understand everything Jesus taught us.  Much of it we have to take on faith, like children.  But, we can sense that Jesus is a loving God stooping to our level (i.e. becoming human) in order to meet us face-to-face.  He cared so much for us that he even endured the pain of our sins and transgressions and gave us a way out.  Jesus is more than a good teacher.  Jesus is God saying, “I’m with you.  You have my attention.  I care.”  Not only does God stoop down to us through Jesus, he ultimately lifts us up to himself.  We only need to let him have us, and not run away.

Next time you gaze at the vastness of the universe, the power of the oceans or any awe inspiring sight that makes God seem gigantic and unreachable, remember that Jesus is Immanuel (“God with us”).  Don’t let the unanswerable, intellectual questions about God deter you.  Become a child and realize that Jesus not only came to us 2000 years ago, he promised to remain with us until the end of time.  He is still here, reaching out to us through the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist and the Church.  He remains spiritually and physically present with us, and that is an encouraging thought.