Tag Archives: Theology

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.”

Three To Get Married

In my training as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I was taught that married couples tend to do better when they share a cause that they perceive to be bigger than themselves.  Although this idea was presented as modern research, it is a godly principle that the Church has understood for centuries.  What Aristotle knew in his day simply reflects the fundamental human design to find fulfillment not in other humans, but in God.  In this video, Father Barron does a nice job of articulating this idea.

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)

Can’t Live Forever On Just Bread, Man

I was reflecting on how Jesus responded to Satan when the devil tempted him to slake his hunger by turning stones into bread.  Jesus said, “It is written, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  I used to hear those words and think, “Ok, Jesus wants me to read the Bible.  The Bible is the Word of God.  That’s where eternal life is found, not in the material food (bread) that I eat.”  My return to Catholicism has caused me to reflect more deeply on those words of Christ.

The Bible is indeed the Word of God, but only the written part.  It is easy to hear the words “The Word of God” and think “Bible.”  However, Jesus is the Word made flesh.  He is God’s ultimate Word.  Everything God has to say to us he said in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Word of God is Jesus.  So, when Jesus says we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word of God, he means himself.  Eternal life comes through Jesus.

Another important connection that once escaped me is the Eucharistic implications of Christ’s words.  Bread alone is not Christ.  Christ alone gives eternal life.  A reading of John 6 shows Christ making a distinction between manna (material bread that you eat but eventually die) and him (the Bread of Life that we eat and receive eternal life from).  John 6 also shows how adamant Christ is about his followers actually (not symbolically) eating the Bread of Life.  A symbolic piece of bread is bread alone.  It is not actually Christ, but only representing Christ.  Such bread does not give eternal life.  It is like the manna.  The flesh that Jesus gave for the life of the world was his real flesh (not symbolic flesh).  Believers need the real Jesus to have eternal life (not a symbolic Jesus).  It is this real flesh Jesus commands his followers to eat (“my flesh is real food, my blood is real drink”) in order to have eternal life.

So, man does not live by bread alone but by every word of God.  We need the Bible (The Word of God), and we need Christ (The Word of God made flesh).  Christ says he is The Bread of Life we must eat to have eternal life.  Eating symbolic bread is eating bread alone, not Christ, The Bread of Life.  Christians are not meant to live on bread alone.  That is why Jesus gave us the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  The Word of God made flesh spoke the words of God, “This is my body, this is my blood” and it became, not bread alone, but the reality of The Word of God for us to eat and have eternal life within us.  What Jesus speaks, happens.  He cannot lie or deceive.  He is The Word.

This is also why Catholics have daily Mass wherever possible.  “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Who doesn’t need Jesus every day?

“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.”

Today Is The Feast Of St. Thomas (My Namesake)

Today is the feast of St. Thomas, the Apostle, and the saint my parents named me after.  He is famous for being the doubter.  He was absent when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the rest of the Apostles, and he would not believe them when they told him they had seen Christ.  “I will not believe it until I put my hands in his wounds,” he said.  When Jesus appeared again, Thomas was there.  Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds and Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me.  Blessed are those who have not seen and believe!”

I’m thankful for Thomas.  He allows us to see that God is patient with our doubts.  In fact, Jesus used the doubt of Thomas to encourage you and me in our “unseeing” faith.  We can’t see Christ standing before us or touch his wounds, yet we can believe he lives.  We see only bread and wine, yet we can believe that it is actually the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ we receive in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.  We can’t see Heaven, but we can believe Jesus has prepared a place for us because he said so.  We can’t always see the good that comes from our obedience to the Faith, but we know God does.

People are often hard on Thomas for his doubt, but Jesus wasn’t.  Jesus takes our crooked ways and makes them strait if we let him.  The lesson from Thomas isn’t that we should demand visible evidence for our belief.  The lesson is that the doubt of Thomas was God’s tool to encourage us in our faith.  “We walk by faith, not by sight.”  My own name reminds me of this daily.

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.

The Little Rear View Mirror

I heard an analogy today that left an impression on me.  It launched a train of thought with many tracks.  “Your car has a big windshield, but a small rear view mirror.  That’s because you’re supposed to spend most of your time looking forward, and just a little time looking back.”  Maybe I’ve heard that before, but this time it stuck.  There are lots of ways to apply that analogy, but I’ll just focus on a few that came to mind.

Some people have lives that are wrecked because they spend too much time living in the past.  Maybe they enjoyed their past so much that they feel cheated or apathetic about the present or the future.  Perhaps they were deeply hurt in the past and their inability to forgive prevents them from enjoying life now.  Then there are people who live in the past because it is their familiar comfort zone.  They are afraid to grow.  Looking out the windshield is too scary, too intimidating.

Some Christians read the Bible and study Church teachings without really allowing what has been revealed in the past to impact their present and their future in a meaningful way.  It’s a bit like devouring books on carpentry without ever intending to build anything.  They like the reading and the studying, but the real-life application escapes them.  They are looking in the rear view mirror at revelation and doctrine, but failing to see how it applies to the road they are on.  They know all about Jesus, but they are not following him.  They are not seeing life and people through the eyes of Christ.

Some people use the rear view mirror primarily as a vanity mirror.  They are more focused on self than on the road or others around them.  When they finally do look out the windshield, it is out of concern for their own safety rather than everyone’s safety.  They care more about self than others, even others in the car with them.

When the rear view mirror becomes larger than the windshield, watch out.  Certainly there are times to embrace the memories of the past and reminisce with joy and gratitude.  There are times to examine the past for the purpose of healing and growth.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying the past or learning from the past.  That’s why we write things down and take photos and videos.  In order to really live abundantly, however, we can’t live in the past.  Nor can we live in the future.  We must have our eyes forward and our hands on the wheels of our vehicles.  Christ is in the pace car.  Follow him.  Where he will lead you is better than anything you’ll see in your rear view mirror.