Sunday, June 26, 2016

Fact or Friction?

My duties as secretary of the local park and recreation board require me to handle shelterhouse reservations for picnics during the summer months.  For the past couple of nights, we have had unscheduled people camping in one of our shelters.  Since that shelter was reserved for a family reunion, I had to approach them last evening to ask them to leave today.  They understood, and we ended up having a nice conversation.

He was an evangelist, walking with his wife and 16 year-old son across America.  They were originally from California and began their trek in Delaware several years ago.  Along the way, they share the gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen.  They have a tent and carry their limited belongings on a couple of small carts they push down the road.  They were very pleasant folks and I admire the faith and love for Christ they must have to undertake such a mission.

Today, a few members of our parish, including our parish priest, participated in a public square Rosary Rally for marriage and family held near a busy intersection in our town.  The organizer posted a picture of the event on Facebook this evening, and I was pleased to see the Christian evangelist and his family praying with Catholics for a common cause.  Behind the group in the photo was a large banner that said, “God’s marriage = one man and one woman.”

I wondered if my fellow parishioners knew the story of the three guests praying with them, so I posted the question.  I was hoping they had conversed, perhaps being able to share our Catholic faith with them, something I was unable to do last evening.  As of right now, I have not received a response from a parishioner who attended the rally, but I did get a response from one who did not.

If you are one of the smart folks who is not familiar with Facebook, know that my posting that question allowed everyone on my Facebook friends list to see the photo.  The response I got (from someone I love dearly) called the banner “hateful” and “offensive”, and she seemed appalled that I would be a willing supporter of such an event.  I explained as best I could that as Catholics, we have an obligation to defend the natural conjugal relationship of marriage as based on natural law.  We do this out of love, not hate.  We do not hate anyone. 

Our texted conversation carried on for a while, and I think I was able to address her concerns to a limited degree.  It did get me to thinking, however.  Is the way we show support for God’s marriage sometimes counter productive?  How do we sway opposing beliefs without causing further division?  The Rosary may be a powerful prayer, but is praying it in the public square going to change someone’s mind or make them dig in even harder?

Passersby do not know you.  You may be the most kind loving Christian person in the world, but if you have not had the opportunity to first gain someone’s respect to the point where they will listen to your message, you are not likely to convince them.  They see the sign and assume you look down on gay people and want to impose your will upon them. 

We need to first lead good holy Christian lives to open the ears of others.  Perhaps it would be better to pray in public without the sign, or word the sign in a more charitable manner.   Maybe it should say, “we love everyone, regardless of your sexual orientation, but natural conjugal marriage requires one man and one woman.”

I recently listened to Trent Horn’s audio CD, How to talkabout Same Sex Marriage, available from Lighthouse Catholic Media.  It would be a good starting point for anyone needing help to understand some of the misconceptions held by many in our society today.  Pray for marriage and family, but also pray for yourself to be an effective instrument in spreading the love of God.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Know Regrets

The Coming Home Network has a video depiction of the particular judgment showing a man entering what appears to be a large hanger where he sits before a theater screen to watch a movie of his life.  At various times he smiles, but many other scenes make him very uncomfortable as he cringes at seeing his past behavior.   Many of us do not like to see ourselves in pictures or videos.  I know a few people who even refuse to allow their picture to be taken.  Imagine then what it would be like to watch a movie of everything you had ever done.

Worse yet, imagine everyone you ever knew watching your movie at the general judgment.  Think of all the things you ever said about another person with that person now listening to you say it in your presence.   We have all done things and said things we regretted later.  We have at times behaved in such a way to hurt others, either intentionally or through misunderstanding.  In some cases, we may not even realize we caused another pain. 

I can look back at my sixty-plus years and think of many times I regret what I did or did not do.  Unfortunately, there are no do-overs.  In some cases, I failed my friends because of my own personal problems that I was too embarrassed to share.  I chose to be a jerk rather than reveal my own weakness.  I regret the way I treated my mother at times when I was a cocky adolescent.  When the time comes for me to watch my life on the big screen, I will cower frequently I am sure. 

Our every movement seems to be recorded somewhere these days.  Between security cameras, phones, drones and even satellites, somebody is watching.  Our privacy is fleeting.  While this may be upsetting to some, consider the only big brother we really need to be concerned about is our brother in the Lord who knows everything we say, think and do.  One day, He will roll the tape and our lives will flash before us.  Whether this is a joyful or shameful experience depends on how we live our lives today.

Keeping this in mind can help us to temper our behavior in the future.  Be aware that we are being recorded every moment we are awake, and that someday, we will be forced to watch that video in the presence of friends and family. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Supernatural or Superstition?

We hear much talk about evangelization theses days.   Catholics have been so reluctant to actively share our faith with others.  In this year of Mercy, even more emphasis has been placed on our responsibility to promote and defend the Church. 

Our non-Catholic Christian friends often hold misconceptions about Catholics and our practices.  One in particular is the assumption that Catholics worship Mary and the saints as much as we worship God.  Of course, we worship only God, and no other.  The thought is rooted in their equating prayer with worship rather than petition.  Even when properly explained, praying to saints is seen as a violation of Christ as the one mediator between God and man.  This misunderstanding comes when one does not distinguish the difference between a mediator and an intercessor.  There can be one mediator but many intercessors.  The roles are distinctly different.  Asking for a saint’s intercession is similar to asking a friend to pray for you.  A saint’s intercession is just more effective.

Unfortunately, some well-meaning Catholics perpetuate these Catholic stereotypes by blurring the line between supernatural and superstition.  Every Wednesday, local residents receive an advertising flier in our mailboxes.  The paper includes an obituary page that also contains published intercessory prayers.  That in itself is not a bad thing, but these particular prayers usually contain provisions that appear superstitious.  Common to them is the stipulation that the prayer is “never known to fail” provided that it is repeated a certain number of times and that it must be published.

I am suspicious of intercessory prayers that have precise formulas attached for efficacy.  Some common Catholic devotions, especially those arising from apparitions approved by the Church, have prescribed conditions needed to gain an indulgence, and that I can understand.  The Rosary, the Chaplet, First Fridays, First Saturdays and others devotions have histories that can be traced back through the centuries.  Some of them come from private revelations that Catholics are not bound to acknowledge. That does not mean they are not worthy of belief, but saying that a prayer must occur in a precise form, number or media to be efficacious would not seem to be of Divine decree.  Saying only four decades of a Rosary would surely not render the entire prayer ineffective.

Turning prayer into a mechanical routine deemed necessary to gain a particular outcome is problematic.  Saying that Saint Jude will intercede for you if you say certain words nine times a day for eight days and promise to publish it in the newspaper reeks of superstition.  That is not to say Saint Jude won’t intercede if you do those things, but emphasizing the mechanics would seem to diminish the spiritual sincerity of the request.

No outcome can be guaranteed by following a particular prayer pattern.  Even the Memorare, which I pray daily, says that it was never known to leave us unaided.   Yet, I realize that my petitions added to the prayer will not always play out the way I would like.  We sometimes hear that all prayers are answered, but we don’t always get the answer we want.  Perhaps so, but publicly proclaiming that a certain prayer is “never known to fail” can lead to false hope and even spiritual despair when the answer is no.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Our Debt of Gratitude

On Palm Sunday, I was asked to lead our entire CCD student body in Stations of the Cross.   Many of the younger kids, and some of the older ones too, have never experienced Our Lord’s via dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows.  One of the teachers told me she tried to explain the Stations of the Cross to her first communicants, but they did not seem to get it.  So, I thought some explanation might be necessary before we began.  I also wanted to approach the subject in a way to emphasize the importance of attending Mass on Sundays.  This is what I said to the class:

What is a debt?  It is when you owe something to someone.  If you borrow money from your parents to buy a video game, you need to pay them back.  This is a debt that you owe.  If you break your neighbor’s window, you have to pay for the window.  It is a debt you owe your neighbor. 

Imagine having a debt you cannot pay.  Suppose it’s the Fourth of July and you are shooting off fireworks in your back yard at night.  You notice your neighbor’s bedroom window is open and you think it would be funny to shoot a bottle rocket into his bedroom while he is trying to sleep.  You do it and the rocket lands in a wastebasket and starts a fire.  The neighbor’s house burns down and you get in big trouble.  You end up in court and the judge orders you to make restitution.  You owe your neighbor a new house, right?  It might cost $100,000 or more.  You haven’t got that kind of money.  It’s a debt you cannot pay.  The judge could send you to jail.

Now suppose I say to you, “You cannot pay for your neighbor’s house that you damaged, and a judge can take away your freedom if you don’t pay.  I don’t want that to happen to you, so I will pay your debt for you.  All I ask in return is that you give me one hour of your time each week.”   Would you accept my offer?  It’s a pretty good deal, right?  Jail or visit me one hour every week to show your appreciation for what I have done for you.  It’s an easy choice to make.

When our first parents, Adam and Eve, sinned in the Garden of Eden, their sin offended an infinitely good, perfect God, and we inherited that sin from them.  Our sins also damage our relationship with that perfect God.   To repair the damage, we need a infinitely perfect offering to God.  That is something we cannot produce on our own.  All the money in the world could not make up for our sins, and before we can be allowed to enter the kingdom of heaven, that debt must be paid.   It is a debt we owe that we cannot pay.

Before Jesus was born, people would try to pay for their sins by giving one of the best animals to God as a sin offering.  In the Jewish Passover supper that we will be remembering this Holy Thursday, an unblemished Lamb was offered, but even that animal was not sufficient to pay for our sins against a perfect God. 

So, think about this.  Each one of us owes a debt to God that we alone cannot possibly pay, and we cannot get to heaven unless the debt is paid because nothing unclean can enter heaven.  Sin against a perfect God requires a perfect sacrifice for atonement.  But Jesus comes, and He says, I will pay your debt for you, so that someday, you can get to heaven.   Why can Jesus pay the debt?  Because He is the perfect sacrifice.  He is God in human form.  He is the true Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice. 

Jesus allowed Himself to be sacrificed, tortured, beaten, nailed to a cross and killed, to pay your debt for you, so that you can someday get to heaven.  And, all you are asked to do in return is follow Jesus and give Him at least one hour of your time a week giving thanks.  You come to Mass on Sunday where HIs sacrifice is re-presented for you in an unbloody form, and He makes Himself available to you at that Mass in Holy Communion.  What a deal for all of us!  All we have to do is accept His sacrifice and participate in that same sacrifice when we go to Mass on Sunday.  We would be foolish to pass up a deal like that!

When I was about your age (a long, long time ago), there was a comedian on TV named Jack Benny.  And the running joke about Jack was that he was a miser, a cheapskate.  He wanted to keep every penny he ever earned.  He drove an old antique car called a Maxwell because he was too cheap to buy a new one.  So, one day on his TV show, Jack was walking down the street, and a robber jumped out of the alley, poked a gun in Jack’s ribs, and said, “Your money or your life.”  There was a long pause.  The robber said it again, “YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE!”  Jack said, “I’m thinking it over.”  The joke was that Jack had to think about what was more important to him, his life or the ten dollars in his wallet.

Jesus says, “I will give you eternal life by paying your debt for you.  All you have to do is giving me an hour of your time each week.  Would we really have to think about that decision?  Would you say, “Well, okay Jesus, but sometimes on Saturday nights, I like to stay up and play games on my Playstation until 3 o’clock in the morning, and I might be too tired to go to Mass on those Sundays.”  Or, “okay Jesus, I will show my appreciation for your wonderful gift of eternal life by coming to Mass on Sunday unless I have a football game or if it’s too cold outside.”

No.  We should say, “Yes, Jesus.  Thank you!  I will give you an hour each week, two hours, ten hours, my whole life is yours.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you for paying my debt.”  That is why the Church requires us to go to Mass on Sundays.  Is it because the Pope likes to make rules and be mean to us?  No.  It is because he wants to stress the importance for us to keep up our part of the bargain by remaining in God’s grace.

The problem is, we don’t always think about what Jesus had to go through to pay that debt.  We don’t realize the infinite value of the gift we have been given.  Which is more valuable to me, eternal life or my Playstation?  That is why the Stations of the Cross are displayed on the walls of every Catholic Church, to remind us of His suffering a death for us, so we remember the importance for us to do our part by leading a good Christian life and giving thanks at Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation.  Now let us go into the church and think about what Our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us as we walk His road of suffering.

Friday, February 19, 2016

JW Stalemate

Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, and the end of my dialog with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  What started with a typical JW doorway visit last August became a series of ninety-minute sessions that went on for twenty-three Wednesday mornings.  I came into this adventure thinking that any God-seeking person could not resist the truth of the Catholic Church once they heard it.  In the end, I am still Catholic and they are still Witnesses. 

I know what you are probably thinking.  Man, this guy must be a really lousy Catholic apologist.  Believe me, the experience was humbling.  I came in armed with plenty of Catholic ammunition, material from Jason Evert and Trent Horn, tracts from Catholic Answers, and more.  I knew what the Witnesses were going to say before they said it.  Yet, they were so convinced of their own interpretation of Scripture that no amount of Catholic logic seemed to sway them. 

Before you ask if I explained Apostolic Succession, teaching authority, the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, the Eucharist, the canon of Scripture, and the problems with their New World Translation?  The answer is yes.  We covered it all.  Many times!  They were not accepting any of it.  They were here to instruct us, not vice versa, even though they claimed otherwise.  How did it go on so long?  The discussions were interesting and lively.  I think both sides enjoyed the conversation.

Our meetings were always friendly over donuts and coffee.  Oh, there were occasional spikes in blood pressure, but voices were never raised.  Despite prayers to the Holy Spirit for guidance, I never found the right words to open their eyes.  I came to realize my shortcomings as an apologist for our faith.  There were many times I wished a Trent Horn or Jason Evert would suddenly appear at my door to speak with them. 

Some of the biggest stumbling blocks involved their distorted view of church history and the just war theory.  The fact that Catholics are willing to take a life in war is proof to them that we are not following Christ’s command to love thy neighbor.  The Witnesses insisted on picking out certain scripture verses and applying their own interpretation while explaining away any other verses that might run counter to their beliefs. 

In the end, we reached an impasse.  While I was willing to go on indefinitely, the Witnesses claimed they had to return to their door-to-door ministry.  Did I fail?  Yes, I failed.  At best, perhaps a seed was planted that will take root someday.  Now it is up to the Holy Spirit.  Did I learn anything?  Not only did I learn how another faith justifies their misguided beliefs, I learned much about my Catholic faith during preparation for their weekly visits.  I also made some new friends, and will likely see them again in the future.

I learned something else too.  While we Catholics have great confidence in our Church that Christ Himself established, there are non-Catholics who are also confident in their faith, skewed as it may be.  In fact, many of them live the Christian life to a greater extent than some Catholics do.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses are out there, going door-to-door, sharing their faith despite rude rejection many times.  That takes guts.  I admire that.  We should be so courageous.  They are doing what they perceive to be the will of Jehovah.  Their ultimate destiny may not be exactly as they foresee it, but I believe a merciful God will reward them.  If they are surprised someday to find themselves seeing the beatific vision in heaven, I pray they put in a good word for me. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Still Witnessing!

My weekly discussions with the two Jehovah Witnesses have been going on for about four months now.  We took a break between Christmas and the New Year, which gave me time to reflect on our progress.  My Catholic friends sometimes ask me how the sessions are going, and I am never sure how to answer.  Has there been progress?  I think so, but I am not sure.

Obviously the Jehovah’s have been trained for these encounters, and although I have some experience in apologetics, I find myself inadequately prepared for discussion with someone so removed from what we would consider typical Protestantism.  I had never previously needed to defend the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity or God’s kingdom.  Common ground that we would normally inhabit with most non-Catholic Christians is sparse here. 

The Witnesses keep coming back to the importance of the name of God, which they pronounce Jehovah.  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “hallowed be thy Name” and they take it very literally.  Because Catholics do not commonly say the name Jehovah, they believe we are not doing what Jesus commanded.   They take biblical references to God’s name so literally that their New World Translation inserts Jehovah into the New Testament whenever the original author’s use of Lord refers to the Father.

Furthermore, they are quick to bring up the 2008 Vatican directive that Yahweh, the more common rendering of God’s name, should not be used during the Catholic liturgy.  In the Hebrew tradition, which the early Christians adopted, the faithful avoided pronouncing the Name of God. The Vatican directive explains "as an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable.”  In the eyes of the Witnesses, this is evidence the Catholic Church is rejecting what Jesus commanded us to do. 

They also say that Catholics in times of war have killed other Christians with Church approval under the Just War theory, thereby disobeying what Jesus said in Matthew 5.

Matthew 5: 38-45   38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 

The Witnesses cite John 13:35.  “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”   The fact that Catholics willfully join the military and participate in worldly conflict is a huge stumbling block for them.  They view Christ’s complete submission to his persecutors as a precept for total pacifism, not even willing to resist Nazi genocide in World War II.  Because the Church does not forbid Catholics from participating in a just war, the Church is not following the teaching of Jesus, evidence of apostasy in JW reasoning.  Since the Witnesses are conscientious objectors, they believe they are the true disciples, and we are not. 

While I do my best to defend the Catholic position, I can never be certain how much they are accepting.  Quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not very effective since they believe it runs counter to scripture.  Obviously, they are resistant to letting me know whether I am getting through to them.  Nevertheless, they do keep coming back even though I am quite sure by now they know any attempts to convert me will be futile. 

We just met for the twentieth time yesterday when the topic turned to the Divinity of Jesus.  For perhaps the first time, I feel like we began to make some Catholic progress.  I was able to use their own New World Translation to show many common attributes shared by the Son and the Father.  Other verses were even more explicit where Jesus expresses His Divine nature.  The Witnesses tried to offer alternative interpretations, but their arguments seemed weak, even to them I think. 

At the end of the session, one of the Witnesses who had been a recent addition to the group announced that he would not be back next week.  I do not necessarily take that as a bad sign.  Perhaps for the first time, a Catholic put a crack in his shell.  I noticed he picked up the handouts I had provided and took them with him.  In the meantime, we will keep meeting as long as they are willing.