Clinging to Faith for Dear Life

When things are going well, and the problems in our lives seem like nothing more than little bumps on the road, our faith can feel something like a warm blanket. In the evening, nestled next to a fire, we ponder, with effortlessness, how blessed we are. God loves us. God is watching over us. God has a wonderful plan for our lives. And this is obvious because, by any measure, our lives look like they’ve been blessed.
But when suffering comes, when our idyllic life comes crashing down on us, and all the good things we mistakenly thought were gifts from God turn out to actually be idols that He violently and, without mercy, strips from our lives, we have a choice. We can cling as best we can to our idea of the “good life” or the “good family” or the “good job” or the “good marriage”, even while they are being ripped away from us, or we can cling to our faith, and all those beautiful promises God gives us about how He loves us and cares about us, with greater tenacity and vigor. We can let go of our faith, or cling to it like a mountain climber holding on to the cliff for dear life.
Because that, in all honesty, is what our faith transforms into when trials hit us. God’s promises stop being the warm blanket that anesthetized us and lulled us into a quiet, peaceful sleep, and they start becoming more like armor we wear in the midst of the battle of life – the shield we hold up on our darkest days to keep back the depression, hopelessness, and guilt that try to tear at us, bit by bit, and sink us into a kind of Hell on earth.
I know I’m speaking in somewhat vague terms, but I think anybody who’s had their dreams or hopes ripped out from their hands knows exactly what I mean: a mother who loses her child, dealing with a chronic mental or physical illness, the death of your dearest friend…. all those things that radically change your life forever and that you never really completely heal from.
I haven’t gotten to the point of turning my back on God because of suffering. I’ve gotten angry. I’ve lost hope at times. I’ve gotten burnt out, that’s for sure. I’ve had quite a few arguments with God. But I’ve also had those promises. I’ve had that faith that’s been like a protective shield around me – that has helped me see beyond my own pain and has, I think perhaps, even saved my life. And these particular promises – just three of them – are what I want to share in this post:

1. Nothing God asks of us is too much to ask.
Ok, so not so much a promise as a simple fact. This is for those days when I want to wallow in self-pity. It’s not a pick-me-up like, “Hey, just look on the bright side of life!” or “Count your blessings!” It’s more like a shock to the system: “Remember, kid, you have no clue what suffering really means.” I look up at the Crucifix each Sunday and see Jesus depicted there, having been brutally whipped, punched, and nailed to two pieces of wood so that I could spend eternity with God in Heaven. And when I am tempted to get frustrated with how my life is, it’s as though He looks down from there and asks, “Have you suffered this much for me yet, Jonathan?” And my answer is always a sheepish “no.”
We tend to think that because God is God, He is so far above the fray and so in control that nothing bothers Him and He couldn’t possibly understand the anxiety and fear we have in life. But I think it’s the opposite. I think because He is God, He knows the unpredictability of life only too well. He knows it will all be ok in the end just like we do if we have faith, but He sees and feels all the suffering we are all going to have to go through to get there – let alone all that Christ has gone through already for us on the Cross. And if this is how far He has come – even to death – for us, is there really too much He could ask us to bear for His sake?

2. Everything God asks of us is for our good.
In the Catholic way of seeing things, our suffering is doing an indispensable work – not just in our lives, but in the world as well. There’s this catch-phrase in Catholic culture we use when we see a friend dealing with suffering. We say “offer it up.” And what we mean by that is one of the most beautiful and profound truths of the faith: when we unite our suffering with Christ, when we give it to Him, He uses it to make us and the world a better place. It may be an easing of time in purgatory for us or someone else. It may be for the healing of a person either physically or emotionally or spiritually. Sometimes, when I fast (as every Catholic is called to do at different times during the year), I do it united with prayer for my children. I offer up the fast for them. Our suffering, in whatever form, whether it be publicly taking a bullet for a fellow soldier or living out the twilight of our lives, struggling with sickness and old age in a nursing home, when lifted up and united with Christ, is used by God to make the world, and ourselves, fit for Heaven. The tears we shed are the seeds of the richest spiritual fruit.

3. Whatever God asks of us, He will give us the grace to get through.
But I should be upfront about this: I don’t mean He’ll get us through alive or without permanent scars (either physical or emotional). Jesus didn’t get out of pain. He didn’t get out of what looked like a failed ministry by the time of the crucifixion. He didn’t get out of death. He wasn’t like Job who, after a time of intense trial, got everything he lost back to him in this life – and much more so. Mother Teresa herself confessed that she went through decades of what felt like spiritual deadness.
But at the same time, what God offers us is something far, far greater than even the whole world. He offers us Himself. He offers us Heaven. It’s so easy for me to forgot what the common Christian phrase “carry your cross” really means. It means hang on to the bloody end. When I say “He will give us grace to get through”, I mean that for however long you have to bear whatever suffering you’re going through, He’ll give you what you need to not through in the towel – to not grow hopeless and lost, to not abandon your faith. He will give you the grace to cling to these promises until the storm passes and you can see the light again.

Remember that the Christian life here is not meant to be Disneyland. It’s the Battle of Agincourt. And every day we wake up with our many fears and temptations trying to stare us down. But as Henry V says in Shakespeare’s famous speech before the fateful battle, when we stand before Christ we will hold our lives cheap if we don’t stand faithful here and now.
And if we do stand? We will, with beaming faces, and in the flowing cup of communion, look on our scars not as reminders of painful memories and our sense of abandonment, but as reminders of the great feats we accomplished and the battles we won.
Close your eyes and see in your mind Heaven opened up. See the saints waiting there for you to take your seat. See the freshly poured communion cup, passed around for everyone to drink. And see Christ, at the head of the table, seeing you and welcoming you to the party.

So you call yourself a Christian? Part 3 (part of the WPF series)

Service to the Poor

Helping the poor is one of those things that is so ubiquitous, even in non-religious circles, that it’s easy to gloss over. It’s wonderful that, in addition to Christians ministering to the needy, so many secular organizations and philanthropists do the same. But I know for me, seeing so many emaciated faces of African children on TV, so many drives to help some disaster-stricken part of the world, and so many commercials asking for money for some new cause puts me on auto-pilot. I flip the channel. Or I watch it, but immediately get distracted by the next show or, if it’s Facebook, just keep scrolling down.

The same thing happens when reading Scripture. One simply cannot read the Old or New Testament without the message ringing loud and clear that the poor need to be taken care of. It was written into the Law given to Israel. It was one of the primary rebukes the prophets gave to the nation when telling them to turn back to God. Jesus, Himself, gave incredible dignity to the poor – first by being born poor, but then also by teaching that the rich would have a hard time getting into the kingdom of heaven, while the poor would be blessed with it. The early church, after Jesus had left this earth, was described in Acts as a community where “they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” (Acts 2:44) But after years of reading these same passages over and over (or perhaps by years of having the “American Dream” shoved down my throat), I essentially ignore them.

Pope Francis, when talking about God’s command for Christians to care for the poor said, “This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (Art. 194, E. G.)

Growing up an Evangelical Protestant, it’s not that I didn’t care about the poor. I did. But caring about the poor was not front and center. It wasn’t an essential part of being a Christian. You believed in Jesus, and, for all intents and purposes, that was it. I tried to live a holy life, but what was meant by “holy life” could mean anything from making sure I didn’t sleep around to making sure I went to church most of the time to making sure I read my Bible regularly. Feeding the hungry may or may not have factored into it.

But delve into what it means to be “Catholic” – delve into the history of the saints or the documents of the Catholic Church – and you find that it’s as though being the ideal Catholic means being poor and caring for the poor. How many of our saints took a vow of poverty? How many of them are known for having worked with the poor? Those two characteristics are practically pre-qualifiers.

But it goes deeper than that. Pope Francis doesn’t just end with, “Help the poor and you’re doing all right.” He encourages us to really know the poor, learn from the poor, and basically be all about the poor.

“…I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us…. in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.” (Art. 198, E. G)

I’m wrestling right now in my life with what this means for me and my family. We are in between homes, paying off debts and getting our lives back together while living with family. But I’m looking to a year or two from now when we’ll have to decide what our lives are going to look like again. The question that keeps coming up is this: if being poor, living among the poor, and serving the poor gives so much advantage in the Christian life, wouldn’t it make sense to live that way?

Of course, that’s counter-cultural, but it’s not such a radical idea even in this day and age. There are all sorts of Christians who have decided to live well below their means so as to be more open to what God might want to use them for. But living in a poorer neighborhood and well below our means means sending our children to schools that are below-average and living in what may be a more sleazy, run-down, and unsafe neighborhood. But at what point does “playing it safe” mean ignoring the best that God has not just for me, but for my family as well? How seriously am I going to take Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor”?

How seriously are you?

What Tolerance Needs to Mean (WPF series)

A couple of weeks ago, I stayed up till 1am talking to a man about religion. Fun times! I was staying over night at a hostel in northern California, and the man I ended up dorming with was into all sorts of religions. He had stayed at a Benedictine monastery for a time, studied under a yogi, taken martial arts with another spiritual mentor, and so on. It was completely fascinating hearing his stories and discussing our beliefs – dialoguing with someone who had the same kind of nerdy enthusiasm for spirituality that I had. I, of course, held to my conservative, orthodox Catholic beliefs. He, on the other hand, managed to piece together a spiritual outlook on life that pulled together something of everything. He had great respect for Jesus, but he thought the Eucharist had simply a placebo effect. He loved the mystical experiences of the monks, but the arguments of the church fathers on issues like Christ’s divinity and humanity left him cold. It was the experience of spirituality that mattered, not the inadequate descriptions of it that theologians write afterwards. He came across as being very tolerant of many religions – finding something good in all of them and feeling he had penetrated their core, gotten to the root of them.

But the next morning, as I ruminated on our conversation, it hit me that the man wasn’t tolerant at all. In fact, he probably showed the greatest disrespect I had ever experienced from one man towards the Christian faith. I don’t mean to say he meant to. And I would rather talk to a man like him than a militant atheist, for example, but still, in a way he showed greater disrespect for my faith than even a militant atheist.

How? Here’s how: instead of seeing Christ for who Christ really said He was in the Gospels and then either accepting Him or rejecting Him, my friend that night acted as though Jesus and Jesus’ experience of God were just partly true, and not really at all in the way Jesus intended it. He showed a kind of benign condescension towards Jesus and His teachings – and then towards the subsequent followers who went on to interpret Him to the rest of the world. It’s the kind of condescension we give children when they think Santa Claus is coming. We love the childlike faith. We adore the excitement and optimism. And we hope one day that they grow up and realize it’s all bull shit.

And my friend that night isn’t alone in his views. This is what “diversity”, “multiculturalism”, and “freedom of religion” mean today. It doesn’t mean that each religious tradition – whether it be Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or what have you – has it’s own say, plays by it’s own rules, and is respected for what it really is and really teaches; instead, it means that each religious tradition is looked down upon by the overarching religion of “secularism” and judged accordingly. Catholic institutions can have their buildings and liturgy, but are told that they must pay for free or cheap contraception when it goes completely against the moral fiber of the church. Muslim women in France can follow their religious beliefs all they want so long as they don’t follow their religious belief that says to keep one’s head-covering on.

And of course, what inevitably happens is “diversity” slowly begins to mean nothing. We don’t have strong men and women who hold to their convictions and discuss – even argue – them with vigor. Rather, one view takes hold and bullies all the rest into submission.

In answer to this, the Catholic way is the true way of religious tolerance. I know that sounds laughable, at best. I mean, we did conduct crusades and inquisitions. I haven’t forgotten. But every person looking from the outside at the Catholic Church ought to know that those events and many others served to make the church wiser. Here’s a quote from the Pope on this issue:

“The Synod Fathers spoke of the importance of respect for religious freedom, viewed as a fundamental human right. This includes ‘the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public.’ A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. The respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority or ignores the wealth of religious traditions.” -Article 255. in Evangelii Gaudium (italics added by me)

In other words, put those hijabs back on, throw on that faintly offensive bumper sticker about the rapture, and stop cowering. I can get behind that! But at the same time, it sounds pie-in-the-sky-ish, too, does it not? Everyone holding hands and singing “kumbaya” together as we celebrate our own violently differing beliefs? I’ll admit, it sounds that way to me. What happens when “manifesting one’s beliefs in public” amounts to flying a plane into a sky-scraper or blowing one’s self up in a marketplace? That’s a very valid question.

But to be sure, in America and probably in most developed countries around the world, that is not the problem. We more often than not sin in the other extreme. It’s disconcerting to hear people in the media speak of fundamentalist Christians with as much disdain and fear as Muslim terrorists – as though there were hardly any similarity. I’m not a fundamentalist Christian myself, but the two could never be lumped together in my mind as being the same kind of “threat to America.”  It’s also disconcerting to hear Christians speak of public schools as though they were dens of the devil and to make sweeping statements about how we need to “return to our Christian roots.” I always want to say, “Whether we were ever a Christian nation or not, we aren’t now, so get over it.”

The point being this: we must make room for everyone to the extent that we can. When someone is forced to sin against their conscience, no matter the issue, we ought to care – even if we think that conscience is ill-informed. Commanding the Catholic church to give free contraception against it’s moral teaching should bother everyone – Catholic or not – just as much as forcing an atheist to attend Mass ought to bother everyone – Catholic or not. Precisely because I am Catholic, I need to defend the right of even FACTS, an atheistic “church” group that meets in a nearby city, to have a fair say in the public sphere.

I feel weird just saying that, but maybe that’s why I’m not the Pope and Jorge Borgoglio is. And maybe it shows how far I still need to go before I become like Christ.

Still, I wonder, what do you think? Am I going too far? Am I not going far enough? Am I reading Pope Francis wrong?

 

So you call yourself a Christian? Part 2 (part of the WPF series)

A Missionary Heart

There are those who wish the church would be merely a charity or secular non-profit – who wish “religion” meant nothing more than “do nice things and be nice people.” It’s not that doing nice things or helping people isn’t part of what it means to live like Christ. But when people demand this of the church (or worse, when the Christian faith begins to mean nothing more than this to the average churchgoer) they miss the very meaning of the word “Christian.” It’s like the word “Christmas.” Say it enough times, and you begin to forget that what it literally means is “Christ Mass.” Pope Francis had this to say about this issue in his first homily as Pope:

“…we can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ.”*

That second sentence struck me the most when I read this homily for the first time. “We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the church.” We’ll mean great and wonderful things for the world, but nothing for God.

Pope Francis made this comment in reference to the proclamation of the Gospel: the message that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came into the world, became a man, died on a Roman cross, and rose back from the dead all to free us from our sins and the consequences of them. It’s so easy for us as Catholics to put forth our “best faces” – the ones everyone wants to see. The face of the nun helping the poor. The face of the priest walking hand in hand with African-Americans during the Civil Rights era. I’m so proud that this institution I’m a part of does these things, but we can never, ever, ever forget that in addition to bringing material aid to people and being a voice for the voiceless, the greatest gift the church has to offer is the Gospel – a relationship with Jesus. Nothing else we offer comes even close to it.

If you are a baptized Christian, do you find joy in your relationship with Christ? Have you had those moments in your life when you felt like all was lost, but you reached out to Him and found the comfort and encouragement you needed? When you didn’t know where to go or what to do and turned to Him for wisdom? Has Jesus been a Shepherd to you, leading you beside still waters and just as faithfully through the valley of the shadow of death? Then it’s not merely optional for you to tell others about Christ, it’s mandatory. Some of the last words Jesus spoke to us on this earth were, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel… teaching them to do everything I have commanded you.” Pope Francis puts it this way:

“All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients.”**

I know the feeling of being pushed into evangelization. My own father lamented the fact that I wasn’t into passing out tracts to random people and talking to waitresses about Jesus. But evangelization doesn’t have to mean speaking in front of crowds or delving into apologetics. It can mean something as simple as teaching your own children about the faith. It can mean teaching in a Catechesis class at your local parish. It can mean doing youtube videos.

Fill in the blank: “I am helping to profess Jesus to people around me by _________.” Pray about it, and find your niche.

 

So you call yourself a Christian? Part 1 (part of the WPF series)

A Relationship with Jesus

Peter Kreeft, a notable Catholic apologist, made the joke that some Christians would prefer to go to a lecture on Heaven than actually go to Heaven. His point was that a sort of academic understanding of the faith can slip in as a kind of pseudo-faith- a fake faith. We can begin to know so much about God that we begin to think we actually know Him personally.

But knowing things about God is about as different from what it means to actually know God as knowing things about my wife is from actually knowing my wife. One of my favorite scenes from Goodwill Hunting is this one that encapsulates this whole difference (forgive the swear words):

Pope Francis made this statement about how we ought to explain the Catholic faith to people (and, by implication, illuminated what the core of the Catholic faith really is):

“…the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen, and free you.’ This first proclamation is called ‘first’ not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principle proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways… All Christian formation consists in entering more deeply into [that principle proclamation] …”***

And why must we hear it again and again? Because it addresses every part of our lives. So I lose my job and don’t know what is going to happen to me. The proclamation comes again, “Jesus Christ loves you; and now he is living at your side, so don’t be afraid.” So I experience the joy of having a child for the first time. Again, “Jesus Christ loves you, giving you the joy of having a family.” So I struggle through the ups and downs of parenting. “Jesus Christ loves you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten and strengthen you to be the parent you need to be.” So I’m tempted to watch a movie or something on TV that I know will pull my thoughts into the gutter. “Jesus Christ loves you and gave his life for you, so don’t repay him by giving into things that grieve him.”

At every point in life, this principle proclamation that Pope Francis calls the “kerygma”, draws me to my knees in prayer as I come over and over again to Jesus Christ who loves me. And as I pray, I get to know God, not in that academic way, nor even in a sort of ritualistic rule-keeping sort of way where I check off the “prayer box” and feel good about myself for being so spiritual, but as my loving father, as my dearest friend, as the love of my life. I begin to know him and his ways like I know the town I grew up in. I begin to experience life with him the way I’ve been experiencing life with my wife these last few years.

It’s hard for me to put into words what a “relationship with Jesus” is, but it begins and ends, as Pope Francis said, with at least this: your belief that God really loves you and wants to be there for you. And, in a way, that’s the hardest challenge of the entire Christian life – to trust that God loves us. And it’s something you don’t just “know”. It’s something you have to experience. Are you opening yourself up to that experience? Do you pray? Are you on your knees on a regular basis talking to God about anything and everything? When there is a problem in your life, do you come to him and ask him for help or do you try and trudge through it or solve it on your own? Talking to God doesn’t have to be fancy. A simple, “Hello God, here I am” is a great start. And there are so many prayers in the Catholic tradition – the Rosary, the prayers of St. Patrick and others (let alone the Psalms in the Bible which is the prayer book par excellence) that can help give you the words to speak when you don’t know what to say. All of us, to one extent or another, are still learning how to pray. Are you reading the Bible to give him an opportunity to speak to you?

Fill in the  blank: “I am pursuing a relationship with Christ on a regular basis by _______.”

 

So you call yourself a Christian? Intro (Part of the WPF series)

For someone like me who’s grown up in church culture, it’s easy to get caught up in the myriad causes, interests, and issues that Christians often get caught up in. “Seeker-friendly”, “worship wars”, and “the prayer of Jabez” may sound like nothing familiar to the average person, but anyone who grew up long enough in the typical conservative evangelical church probably knows these catchphrases well. They were/are descriptions of side-issues Christians have rallied to or against over the years. “Seeker-friendly” for example is a description we use for churches that have basically geared their services to look less like a traditional service and maybe more like an evening in a café or something more accessible so as to draw people in. “Worship wars” is a description of the tug of war that happens in churches where the older generation wants good old hymns sung by a choir with an organ vs. the younger generation that prefers a band and more modern music. I won’t even go into the “prayer of Jabez.” Feel free to google it….. no, on second thought, don’t.

But my point is that these issues, however interesting or important they may be, are not really at the core of what makes a Christian a Christian. And sometimes a person can get so lost in them that the foundation starts to erode underneath him. It’s like a married couple who have spent so much of their time and effort raising their children that, when the children leave the nest, they can’t remember why they got married in the first place. Christians forget what the core, the fundamental meaning of “Christian”, is. And what’s worse, when Christians forget, the world forgets. And before we know it, “Christian” becomes nothing more than a synonym for “anti-gay”, “anti-science”, or “pro-life.”

What Pope Francis seems to do, not just in his words, but in his actions, is bring back to the forefront the simple Gospel message: Christ died for me, now I live for Him. And it doesn’t mean he keeps from going into detail. That simple truth has vast implications. But it grounds our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Instead of hot-button issues becoming the sun around which everything else in our lives swirls, Jesus becomes the center around which all these issues can be put into perspective.
As I read Pope Francis’ writings, what I gather is that a Christian is someone who essentially has these three characteristics in his or her life: a relationship with Jesus, a missionary heart, and service for the poor.