A Scriptural Guide for Living and Evangelizing in Troubled, Confused Times

There is a Christian hymn, written in the 1940s during World War II, that says, “In times like these, you need a Savior. In times like these, you need an anchor. Be very sure, be very sure, your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock.”

There are very few faithful Catholics who are not shocked and dismayed by the rapidity of decline into confusion (sexual and otherwise) of a culture once described as Judeo-Christian. Whatever our sectarian differences of the past (and they were significant and embarrassingly numerous), there was at least basic agreement on the fundamentals of biblical morality and the authority of the Word of God. Most of this is gone—and it has gone quickly. Consider some of the things going on in the world today:

Celebration of homosexual acts (exemplified by “Pride Month”), transgenderism, physician-assisted suicide/euthanasia, the decline of marriage and the family (due, among other things, to widespread promiscuity), the seeming impossibility of balancing generous welcome of immigrants with the need for order and respect for the rule of law.

Even within the Church, sexual abuse and sexual harassment have been too easily overlooked or not taken seriously.

The rapid acceptance in our culture of things that even ten years ago it would have seemed impossible to imagine gaining widespread approval feels like whiplash. Those of us who hold to tradition and believe that God’s teaching and five thousand years of recorded history should be respected have suddenly become out-of-touch—or even worse, hateful, bigoted, homophobic, and just plain mean! All this for failing to fall into step with the new “morality.”

Yes, in times like these we need a Savior!

The early Church experienced similar struggles. As the gospel left the relatively sane but religiously hostile world of Judaism, it encountered the pagan world, which, while not religiously hostile, was morally confused by corrupting sexual practices and entertainment marked by violence and the destruction and disposability of the human person. Sound familiar?

There is one difference, though, and it was noted by C.S. Lewis in his Latin Letters (1948-53): ancient Greece and Europe were like a virgin awaiting her husband while the modern West resembles an angry divorcée. This makes our task today even more difficult. We seek to re-propose the gospel to a cynical world that responds, been there, done that, divorced that, and am now demanding an annulment.

Nevertheless, we have much to learn from the early Church, which experienced similar decadence and confusion. Perhaps a survey of some texts that both describe the all-too-familiar situation and offer advice may be helpful.

These texts from God’s Word do not mince words. They are a tough assessment of a world at odds with God. We live in soft times and shy away from strong, clear descriptions; we prefer euphemisms and pleasantries. However, the world of the New Testament, especially Jesus Himself, spoke boldly, plainly, and without any hint of political correctness.

That said, these texts do not mean to say that everyone who opposes Church teaching has all of these qualities. They speak to the collective qualities of a fallen world governed by a fallen angel. Even we who strive to come out of the world and not be of it do so gradually and imperfectly.

The passages are addressed to both believers and non-believers, all of whom have fallen natures and need to be vividly reminded of this, summoned to courage, and called to speak the truth in love.

The scripture passages are presented in bold, black italics while my commentary appears in plain red text.

Let’s begin first with texts that describe the situation:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Gal 1:3-5).

The age then (and now) is described simply as an evil age, for this world is at odds with God and what He teaches. This has been more or less obvious over the centuries, but Jesus Himself warns that the most consistent experience of His followers will be persecution and hatred from the world (cf John 15).

And you were once dead in the trespasses and sins in which you walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph 2:1-3).

The unrepentant are described as following the prince of this world (Satan), being in disobedience, living in the passions of the flesh, and destined for wrath. These are tragic truths for many unless they repent, and for us if we turn away from the faith.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor 4:3-5).

The confused are described as being blinded and deceived by the “god” of this age and time. This is a prophetic description of the world in which we live. Do not excessively admire the wisdom or thoughts of this age. Science has accomplished much, but knowledge is not on par with wisdom, and wisdom is what this world lacks. Knowledge without wisdom is like a car without a key or a life without a known purpose.

For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:3-5).

Sound familiar? Adultery, premarital sex, cohabitation, promiscuity, homosexual acts, and the acceptance and even celebration of all these disordered actions. Add to this our modern struggles with addiction and all forms of excess. Yet let anyone, especially the Church, say that there should be limits on behavior and the pitchforks come out: Intolerant, bigoted, homophobic, uptight, hateful! Many don’t understand why we do not simply join in their celebration of all sorts of illicit sexual union, debauchery, and greed. But see what the text says: we do not owe them assent; it is the unrepentant disobedient who will have to render an account to Him who will be their Judge.

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh (Jude 1:17-23).

In other words, do not be dismayed. The times are unpleasant but not unexpected. For our part, we must not be fascinated by or enamored of what we see around us, nor should we be discouraged. Draw back from this confusion and see it for what it is: ungodly, worldly, and devoid of the Spirit. Have nothing to do with it.

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, … (1 Tim 4:1-2).

Take note: lies, deceit, demonic doctrines, and seared consciences.

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of great trouble. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power … so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith … But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:1-8; 14-15).

This is all too familiar. Let’s be clear that there are more problems today than just sex. Greed, consumerism, excess, the arrogance of scientism, the prideful belief that we know better than the ancients, the demand for comfort, and the insistence on flattering our massive egos are all common problems today. We who would believe and seek to come out of this world must examine our lives and repent of drives and actions like these.

The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust and defiling passion and despise authority. Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme … blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant … reveling in their deceptions … They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray … For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved (2 Peter, various verses).

The hatred of the truth, the blasphemy, and the contempt for sacred doctrine are nothing new, but they are now more arrogantly on display than ever before.

In these passages were many descriptions of what is only too familiar today. It has returned on our watch, and we need to take responsibility for the situation. As the Lord’s witnesses, we are supposed to be prophets to this world. If things have declined—and they have—it happened on our watch! As a Church, we have not been as clear as we should be; we have made compromises and been intimidated into silence. Parents, too, have been largely passive. We have collectively and too easily tolerated contraception, promiscuity, cohabitation, divorce, single motherhood (absent fatherhood), and all sorts of confusion about life, marriage, and family.

What then are we to do? Scripture speaks to witnessing to a dubious, resistant, and rebellious age. Consider some of these passages:

For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:19-21).

Preach with confidence, and when ridiculed, remember that the Wisdom of God is unfathomable to the world, but the thoughts of this age are foolishness to Him. Do not be impressed by or fearful of the foolishness that parades as enlightenment and tolerance. It will neither last nor emerge victorious. God and His wisdom will out!

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory (1 Cor 2:6-7).

Notice that the rulers of this world are passing away, but the word of the Lord remains forever. Do not lose heart!

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Eph 5:15-17).

Stay in conformity with God’s will no matter how much the world scoffs.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (Col 4:5-6).

Be gracious but clear. Give answers to doubters with kindness but also with clarity. Do not hide; do not fail to answer.

Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Never, never, never defile the faith through bad conduct or inconsistency. Allow the joy of the gospel to permeate your life such that people will notice and ask you for the reason. Not everyone in this world is so jaded that he will not respond to joy and the message of the truth.

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside (2 Tim 4:2-4).

Never give up. Preach and teach even if people laugh, ridicule, walk out, write to the bishop, or threaten. Preach, preach, preach, even if your own children scoff or manifest confusion and error. Many today will resist and quote so-called authorities to seek to refute you; just keep on preaching. Stay anchored in the Scriptures and the Catechism. Read the Fathers and do not succumb to trendy revisions of the Word of God.

Let this be advice for difficult days. In times like these we need a Savior; thankfully, the Lord Jesus is still here. He himself was scoffed at, ridiculed, called a threat, and finally crucified outside the city gates. Let us be willing to go out and die with Him if necessary, out of love for the many who have been deceived by this confused culture.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Scriptural Guide for Living and Evangelizing in Troubled, Confused Times

A Word of Encouragement for Discouraged Cultural Warriors

It is, on occasion, discouraging to live in times like these. This appears to be the end of an era, at least in the West. Our culture used to be called Christian or Judeo-Christian. It was not sin-free by any means—there was still greed and there were various forms of oppressive justice—but Christ and the Scriptures were the basis for a consensus on fundamental moral norms. It is hard to argue that our sense of justice enshrined in law over the centuries does not have Christianity in large part to thank for this. Further, our vision that God created the world and imbued it with logic and laws that reason could discern opened the way to the natural sciences and elevated philosophy, the arts, and literature. The establishment by the Catholic Church of the great monasteries and universities helped advance and institutionalize all of this.

Ancient Europe was like a young bride with her Husband, Christ. The Modern West is more like an angry divorcée with little memory of what her Groom has done for her and a raw contempt for His vision. Preferring the darkness, many see the light of the true Christ as harsh and intrusive.

Yes, these are difficult days, and true Christians are often discouraged. Just when it seems our culture cannot become more confused and rebellious, we seem to stoop to a new low.

A reminder of the resilience of truth comes to us in the Office of Readings during this 6th Week of Easter. Evil and error have their day, or even their era, but the Word of the Lord remains forever. In Tuesday’s Office we read this passage:

I have seen the wicked triumphant,
towering like a cedar of Lebanon.
I passed by again; he was gone.
I searched; he was nowhere to be found.

See the just man, mark the upright,
for the peaceful man a future lies in store,
but sinners shall all be destroyed.
No future lies in store for the wicked.

Then wait for the Lord; keep to his way.
It is he who will free you from the wicked,
raise you up to possess the land
and see the wicked destroyed
(Psalm 37:35-40).

This truth of the passing of error and the perdurance of truth is verified by history. In the age of the Church, empires and nations, fashions and fads, errors and heresies—all have come and gone—and yet here we are, still, preaching the gospel. The Church has outlasted all her enemies; we have read the funeral rites over many who swore they would destroy us. Psalm 37 says it plainly: “No future lies in store for the wicked.” We are told simply to “wait for the Lord; keep to his way.”

In the Book of Hebrews, we read,

When God subjected all things to Christ, He left nothing outside of his control. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him (Heb 2:8).

Even though we do not see it, the truth is that nothing is outside of the Lord’s control. How could it be? Even the darkest day of Christianity we call Good Friday. Why? Because even on that day of seeming disaster, when the assembled Church shrank to one apostle and four women, Jesus worked His greatest work. He made a way out of no way and in dying destroyed the power of death. He conquered pride by humility and disobedience by obedience. Satan fell right into the Lord’s trap; while he was running victory laps around the cross, Jesus entered his trophy room in Sheol and turned the place out.

Thus, although we do not always see all things subject to Christ, be assured that they are. He is Lord. Satan rages, but mostly because he knows his time is short. He is the “prince of this world,” but this world is passing away.

In the same Office of Readings for Tuesday of this week, we are admonished in this way:

Have no love for the world, nor the things that the world affords. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love has no place in him, for nothing that the world affords comes from the Father. Carnal allurements, enticements for the eye, the life of empty show—all these are from the world. And the world with its seductions is passing away, but the man who does God’s will endures forever (1 John 2:14-17).

That’s right, “trouble don’t last always.” We may not live to see the passing of these current evils, but they will. The truth will out. Neither be fearful of the world nor fawning over its passing powers and glory, for it is passing. Whoever does the will of the Lord endures forever.

The world and those enamored of its evils laugh at and scorn us now, but if they do not repent, they are going to be very surprised. We must pray and work for the conversion of all, including ourselves, but do not be discouraged. God’s Word is clear: evil and error are passing, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Word of Encouragement for Discouraged Cultural Warriors

America, I Gave My Best to You – A Reflection on the Virtue of Patriotism

Love of one’s country, patriotism, is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC #2239).

Much of this is reflected in a beautiful song written for the Ken Burns series “The War.” It is called “American Anthem.” The lyrics are touching and moving. The central themes are just what the Catechism teaches: gratitude and the serving of the common good. Let’s explore some of the themes of this song on this Memorial Day of 2019.

The song begins in this way:

All we’ve been given
By those who came before
The dream of a nation
Where freedom would endure
The work and prayers
Of centuries
Have brought us to this day

We begin with gratitude. The works and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day. Each day we wake up in a land of beauty and plenty. We live in freedom because others died to win it and protect it. We drive on roads that others paved, make use of an electrical grid that others created and built. We depend on technologies that others developed. The Constitution, our legal system, civil society, the Church and her time-tested teachings—all these things and many more we have received from the hard work and ingenuity of others. Every day I am blessed to be able to walk into a beautiful church built by others.

Those who came before us were not sinless, but they exhibited bravery, virtue, perseverance, and patience in carefully setting forth a nation and a commonwealth that we often carelessly take for granted. When I ponder these things, I am overcome with gratitude.

The song also speaks of the dream of a nation in which freedom would endure. Today, many interpret freedom as the license to do whatever one pleases, but true freedom is the ability to obey God, live virtuously, and benefit from the fruits of that behavior: freedom from excess and the slavery to sin. It is only in this freedom, a freedom from self-absorption, that one can leave the sort of legacy of which the song next speaks:

What shall be our legacy?
What will our children say?
Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

Remember that America is not merely a nation-state or a legal entity—it is our patria, our homeland, from which we get the word “patriotism.” There is both a fatherly and motherly image we can derive from our country, America. We are sprung from its loins and nurtured in its womb. We have shared in its freely bestowed resources, taken our meals from its rich soils, and learned from the best of its teachings and traditions.

Thus, patriotism is a beautiful virtue linked to the fourth commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Sadly, some people today dismiss the virtue of patriotism, calling it “nationalism” and portraying it as evidence of xenophobia. That some have exhibited extremes of patriotism does not remove the truth that patriotism is a virtue and is both commended to us and commanded of us. From it we derive a requirement to do our part to protect, preserve, and contribute to the common good. We are to leave a legacy that others will recognize, that we carried our share of the burden, that we did our very best for the land and people we are called to love.

Each generation from the plains
To distant shore
with the gifts they were given
Were determined
To leave more
Battles fought together
Acts of conscience fought alone
These are the seeds
From which America has grown

It is perhaps enough to simply do no harm or merely hand on what we received, but love is expansive. It leads us leave to our descendants more than we received. It is the American and human spirit to build on what is received, to bring things to greater perfection and beauty.

As the song mentions, we often do this by working together, but sometimes we must take up the lonely and often-despised role of the prophet summoning the nation to greater justice and holiness. Both traditions are needed. Many of us have had to raise our voices in protest at the straying of our land from its biblical roots, but this has been and is done out of love for our people and land, so that we attain to a greater and more perfect union.

For those who think
They have nothing to share
Who fear in their hearts
There is no hero there
Know each quiet act
Of dignity is
That which fortifies
The soul of a nation
That never die
s

Heroism is a highly visible virtue, but it is also the quiet, hidden acts of love and prayer that fortify the nation. Only if these daily acts are never dying can the soul of a nation hope to survive. It is the bigger and smaller things together that win the day: getting married and staying married, living virtuous lives, teaching our children well, working hard each day, contributing to the common good, forgiving yet also insisting, being patient yet also persistent. St. Augustine said, “A little thing is just a little thing, but to be faithful in a little thing is a great thing” (De Doctrina Christiana, IV,35).

On this Memorial Day, for us and all who love our Church and our land, may this be so:

Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

America
America
I gave my best to you.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: America, I Gave My Best to You – A Reflection on the Virtue of Patriotism

The Unique Hostility Directed Toward the Lord and the Church

The late columnist Joseph Sobran once pondered the special hatred of the world for Christ. He wrote,

Great as Shakespeare is, I never lose sleep over anything he said … By the same token nobody ever feels guilty about anything Plato or Aristotle said … We aren’t tempted to resist them as we are tempted to resist Christ (Joseph Sobran, Subtracting Christianity, pp. 1-2).

I have often contemplated this hostility toward and resistance to Christ and His Body, the Church; it is unparalleled. Few of the Protestant denominations experience this hatred. The Buddhists don’t seem to be subject to it. Even the Muslims are exempt despite the distinctly non-Western views that predominantly Muslim countries have on many social issues important to the American Left.

There is an almost visceral hatred for Jesus Christ and His Church that is so over the top, so irrational, that one has to marvel at it. The world doth protest too much. Why?

Is it fear? Perhaps, but the Church is not powerful enough to “force our views” on everyone, as some who hate us say that we do.

There is no rational explanation for the world’s intense fear of and hatred for Christ and Catholicism except to echo the words of Christ Himself:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without cause’ (Jn 15:18-25).

Yes, they hated Him without cause—at least any rational cause. There must be a cause, but it is so irrational that I surmise it must be that Satan himself is interacting with our flesh. Satan hates Christ in a way that he doesn’t hate Muhammad or Luther. Christ is a true threat, so Satan rages; the world and flesh draw from this rage and fear.

Think I’m exaggerating? It seems to be fine for excerpts from the Quran to be studied in public schools, but just try to put anything from one of the gospels into the curriculum and the outrage (closely followed by lawsuits) is nearly instantaneous. The annual “Christmas war” now targets not only nativity scenes and Santa Claus (a secular remake of St. Nicholas, by the way) but even the colors red and green!

Sobran said it well: Christ makes people lose sleep in ways that others do not. His words and teachings touch a core that others never do. That the world bristles is a compliment. Jesus Christ must be taken seriously. You may be mad, or sad, or glad, but no one goes away from Jesus Christ unchanged or merely “informed.” His words have an authority that demands a response. The world seems to know this and thus bristles. Some love Him and some hate Him, but few are neutral.

Why is this so? Could it be that Christ really is who He says He is: Lord and God? Could it be that it is His voice echoing in every conscience? This strange, irrational, excessive fear; this anger toward and even hatred of Christ attests to the truth of His claim to be the one whom we will either love or hate. One cannot serve two masters (cf Mat 6:24).

Shakespeare’s words don’t make anyone lose sleep; neither do Plato’s or Aristotle’s. Why is that?

To every secularist and atheist, I direct these questions: Why do you protest Christ and His Church so much? Why do you exaggerate our power? If we really are irrelevant, if our “day is over” and we are laughably outdated, then why the fear, anger, and protest? Do our “myths” scare you? If they are mere myths, then why fear them? Why don’t you direct the same anger toward Buddha or Muhammad? Is it that still, small voice in your conscience?

What is it? Why your sleepless wrath?

Sobran observed the odd spectacle that there is greater intensity for Christ from His opponents than from His friends:

Sometimes I think the anti-Christian forces take Christ more seriously than most nominal Christians do … [Indeed] Such a strong and unique personality [as Christ had] could only meet strong and unique resistance. That is why Christians shouldn’t resent the resistance of those who refuse to celebrate his birth [and protest us doing so]. In their way, these people are his witnesses too (Joseph Sobran, Subtracting Christianity, pp. 7-8).

So, while it is irksome, take the special hatred of the world toward Christ and His Church as a compliment. Somehow, we are viewed as a unique threat. Despite all the scandals, despite the timidity of our clergy and laity, we apparently still pose a threat. It must be Christ shining through in spite of us. Shine, Jesus, shine!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Unique Hostility Directed Toward the Lord and the Church

Advice in Times of Trial and Discouragement

At daily Mass this week (7th week of the year) we are reading from the Book of Sirach. God inspired Jesus ben Sirach to pen advice so beautiful and wise that the early Church used it to instruct catechumens in their first year. Consider the following passage:

My son, when you come to serve the LORD, stand in justice and fear, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, incline your ear and receive the word of understanding, undisturbed in time of adversity. Wait on God, with patience, cling to him, forsake him not; thus will you be wise in all your ways.

Accept whatever befalls you, when sorrowful, be steadfast, and in crushing misfortune be patient; For in fire gold and silver are tested, and worthy people in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and God will help you; trust in him, and he will direct your way; keep his fear and grow old therein.

You who fear the LORD, wait for his mercy, turn not away lest you fall. You who fear the LORD, trust him, and your reward will not be lost. You who fear the LORD, hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy. You who fear the LORD, love him, and your hearts will be enlightened. Study the generations long past and understand; has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed? Has anyone persevered in his commandments and been forsaken? Has anyone called upon him and been rebuffed? Compassionate and merciful is the LORD; he forgives sins, he saves in time of trouble and he is a protector to all who seek him in truth (Sirach 2:1-11).

We can see in this text a prudent description of reality along with some remedies and rewards. Let’s ponder them.

The Reality

The text speaks plainly of the things that befall God’s people: trials, adversity, sorry, crushing misfortune, and humiliation. Therefore, we are not exempt from the cross but deeply associated with it. We have been crucified with Christ and to the world. There will be times of joy and victory to be sure, but this world is not our ultimate home. Satan is the prince of this world and God mysteriously allows him significant influence and power—for a time.

This world, then, is a place of trial and testing for us. It is a crucible, an exile, a valley of tears. Worldly victories are not promised, but heavenly ones are, provided we persevere to the end. Jesus said, In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage! I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). To the Church at Smyrna He said, Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Look, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison to test you, and you will suffer tribulation for ten days. Be faithful even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life (Rev 2:10).

This is our reality. The world has joys and God grants many blessings and consolation, but on the whole, this life is a time of testing and significant pain.

The Remedies

The text goes on to set forth certain requirements, admonitions, and remedies. Let’s look at some of them.

  • Stand in justice and fear. We must do what is right out of a holy reverence for and obedience to God; this will secure our inheritance in the heavenly kingdom. Without the holy fear of God, we will fear the world and its punishments. If you’re going to fear something, it might as well be the God who loves you! The world’s blows are only temporary; God’s promises are eternal. We must be actively engaged in doing and trumpeting what is right rather than passively sitting in resignation. Stand! Do your work, revere God, and prefer His favor to the trinkets this world offers.
  • Be steadfast. The world constantly bombards us with what is new, trendy, and flashy. Do not be mesmerized. Stand firm, stably rooted in the time-tested wisdom of God; it has lasted millennia for a reason. When difficulties come, remember that “troubles don’t last always.” You may weep for a night, but joy will come with the morning light. Stand firm; do not be easily moved.
  • Incline your ear to the Word. Be deeply rooted in the Word of God. Let it dwell within you richly. The Word of God is a prophetic declaration of reality. It tells us what is really going on and what shall ultimately be. Savor God’s word; let it become the very substance of your thoughts. Our minds are going to be polluted if we immerse ourselves in so much filth and error. The mind is like a sponge. If you put a sponge in dirty water, it is going to come out dirty. How do you clean a dirty sponge? By plunging it into clean water, wringing it out, putting it back into the clean water, and then wringing it out again. The Word of God is that clean water for us, for our mind. If we are going to make it through this world of error, confusion, and misplaced priorities, we need the steady, cleansing influence of God’s Word. Put on your gospel glasses and see the world through them!
  • Be undisturbed. Do not be drawn in to the turmoil of the world. If we are rooted in God’s Word and have our heart fixed on Him, then even if there are storms on the surface of our life, deep within is a serenity that the world did not give and thus cannot take away.
  • Be Patient. The word patience is rooted in the Latin word patior (I suffer). Thus, patience is the capacity or willingness to suffer in the moment for the sake of some greater good. Patience is rooted in the perspective that comes from faith. We may have to suffer for a time, but those sufferings will produce a harvest of virtue and many other good fruits.
  • Cling to the Lord. Run to the Lord. Hold to His unchanging hand. Pray every day and always keep Him on your mind. This is essential lest we lose our perspective.
  • Accept what befalls you. The word accept is rooted in the Latin word coeptare (to carry). To accept something is thus to pick it up and carry it for a time. Acceptance does not mean approval; neither does it mean resignation. It simply means being willing to carry what the Lord asks. We might rather that things be different. We might pray that the burden lessens or goes away, but for now, we must be willing to take up this or that cross and carry it for a while. Acceptance is a virtuous middle ground between delight and despair. To accept is to trust God and the truth that He asks this of me for now.
  • Turn not away. When the road gets difficult it is easy to become angry at God or to look for an easy way out. Doing what is easy today, however, often serves merely to postpone troubles to tomorrow. Do not turn aside from the Lord. He knows what is best; we do not. Trust Him. Keep following Him, and do not turn away.
  • Hope.  Hope is more than a vague wish that things get better; it is the confident expectation that God will provide me with the blessings necessary to get me home, that He will help me to attain eternal life. Therefore, hope points to and empowers fortitude and courage.
  • Love the Lord. Pray earnestly for the gift of a tender and deep love for God. Love lightens every load and disposes us to want what our beloved wants. A deep, tender, and grateful love for God helps us to endure and to run joyfully toward our goal of being happy with Him forever.

The Rewards

If we do these things, the Lord promises rewards, both here in this world and most perfectly in Heaven, where joys unspeakable and glories untold await us. The text from Sirach speaks of present and future rewards: thus will you be wise in all your ways. A worthy people are helped and directed by God through their trust in Him. Lasting joy and the fruits of mercy will be ours. Our hearts and minds will be enlightened. We will not be disappointed, but will be saved, protected, and always with the Lord.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Advice in Times of Trial and Discouragement

Stairway to Heaven: A Whimsical Look at a 1970s Song

In the Office of Readings for December 26th (Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr) there is a meditation by Saint Fulgentius of Respe describing love and forgiveness as the way by which the heavens were opened for St. Stephen. Saint Fulgentius commends the forgiving love of St. Stephen for his enemies and calls love a stairway to heaven:

My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together…. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end (St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, bishop, Sermo 3, 1-3, 5-6: CCL 91A, 905-909).

This is solid biblical advice, for God is love, and Heaven is union with God. Hence, we must walk in love and become God’s love to enjoy the perfect communion with God that is Heaven.

The 1971 Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” is among the most popular rock songs of all time. When asked about the lyrics, the author, Robert Plant, said that he thought that their popularity stemmed from the fact that they are an “abstraction.” He added, “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way — and I wrote the lyrics” [*].

Some of us back then wanted the almost mystical opening section of the song to have religious meaning. After all, it spoke of a stairway to heaven and of the “May queen.” If there really were a stairway to Heaven but a highway to hell, it would explain life well. However, there are many problems with the song’s lyrics. Its notion of that stairway to Heaven is ambiguous at best and antithetical to religious and biblical teaching at worst.

The lyrics of “Stairway to Heaven” are shown below in bold italics, while my commentary (much of it lighthearted) is presented in plain red text.

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

One can’t buy a stairway to Heaven with mere gold, and even if it were theoretically possible, we would never be able to accumulate enough. So maybe the lady should be less sure in her gold and more trusting in and dependent on God. Maybe she should concentrate on loving the light that makes her gold glitter rather than the glittering gold itself. There’s an old gospel song that says, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold.”

When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for

No, actually, she can’t. Only Jesus opens the door, and He will be our judge. No one forces the heavenly gates open. Of Jesus, Scripture says, What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open (Rev 3:7). The woman’s gold is no good in Heaven; all that matters is knowing the gatekeeper, Jesus.

Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

No, she isn’t. She can’t afford it.

There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
’Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving.

To some degree we love ambiguity because it allows us to avoid making decisions and being obedient to what is taught. However, sometimes words are very clear in their meaning and we must decide either to accept and live by them or to reject them and suffer any consequences. This is especially the case with God’s revealed word. As for our thoughts, we love to rationalize and make excuses, but deep down we hear the voice of God echoing; we know what we are doing and whether it is right or wrong.

Ooh, it makes me wonder.
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

Well, don’t wonder forever. Sooner, rather than later, we have to make some decisions. Do you want what God is offering or not? Do you want to be holy or not?

There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving

Don’t look to the west; Look to the east where you will see Christ come again in glory. The west is the land of sunset and darkness. The east is the land of sunrise and light, Jesus, the Light of World. Above all, make sure that when your spirit is leaving it leaves to the east, to the light! Do not yearn for the darkness.

And it’s whispered that soon,
If we all call the tune

Then the piper will lead us to reason

And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.

Yikes! Don’t ever think that if we call the tune we will be led to utopia. No, no, no! Let God call the dance; let Him set the tune and the path. Utopianism led to the horrifying killing fields of the 20th century. The forests are certainly not echoing with laughter; if anything, they are being consumed by the lustful blazes of a world insistent upon marching to its own tune rather than God’s.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just spring clean
for the May queen

Well, I suppose that alarming movements in our life can alert us to trouble and summon us to positive change. Let’s let this verse stand, but the May queen referred to here can’t be Mary because she doesn’t need spring cleaning.

Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on

It is true that there are just two paths; there is no third way given! Conversion is still possible if you’re on the wrong path. But be sure to switch paths only if you’re not walking with Jesus.

And it makes me wonder
Your head is humming and it won’t go

In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him

Danger, Will Robinson! We learned that the piper is a symbol for the world. Do not follow this piper. Ignore his tunes!

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show

Ah, here is Mary! See, I told you this is a religious song!

How everything still turns to gold

Oops, where did that come from? I guess this isn’t Mary—unless she’s into the prosperity gospel.

And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last

Now there’s that crazy piper again with his worldly tune, still trying to mesmerize me and give me an earworm of earthly tunes!

When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

No, sorry, only God can be all in all. We might all be one, but even together we could never be all. It’s great to be a steady rock, but that is only accomplished by building our house on the solid rock of Christ’s teachings.

And she’s buying the stairway to heaven

No, she isn’t. She can’t afford it—but she can ask Jesus!

Well, I guess we’re just going to have to accept that “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t the religious song we’d like it to be. Whatever “Heaven” is alluded to, it isn’t our heaven.

It’s better to listen to St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, who reminds us that the true stairway to Heaven is the way of love—and not mere human love, but divine love infused in the soul. It is God’s love that animates our actions and lifts us higher as we accept its movements in our heart. This love cannot be bought; it is offered freely.

It does “cost” us, however, as our favorite sins fall away, and our priorities and passions change for the better. As the fruit of love, these changes are accepted not because we must but because we want to.

Yes, love is the stairway to Heaven. An old song, older than this 1970s song says, “Love lifted me … When nothing else could help, love lifted me.” There is our stairway to Heaven, not purchased with gold but with the precious blood of Jesus.

True Thanksgiving Isn’t Just Something We Do; It’s Something That Happens to Us

thanksgiving-2016One of the dangers in presenting New Testament moral teaching is reducing the Gospel to a moralism, a rule to follow using the power of one’s own flesh. This is an incorrect notion because for a Christian, the moral life is not merely achieved; it is received. The moral life is not an imposition; it is a gift from God.

The Gospel chosen for Thanksgiving Day features the familiar story of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus, but only one of whom returns to thank Him. The ingratitude of the other nine prompts an irritable response from Jesus, who more than suggests that they also should have returned to give thanks. Reading this Gospel on the surface, it is easy to conclude that it is a moralism about being thankful to God and others. Well, that’s all well and good, but simply reminding people of a rule of polite society isn’t really the Gospel.

True thankfulness is receiving from God a deeply grateful heart so that we do not merely say thank you in a perfunctory way, but are deeply moved with gratitude. We are not merely being polite or justly rendering a debt of obligation; we actually are grateful from the heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift from God, which proceeds from a humble and transformed heart. We do not render thanks merely because it is polite or expected, but because it naturally flows from a profound experience of gratitude. This is the Gospel. It is not a moralism, but a truth of a transformed heart.

An anointing that we should seek from God is the powerful transformation of our intellect and heart such that we become deeply aware of the remarkable gift that is everything we have. As this awareness deepens so does our gratitude and joy at the “magnificent munificence” of our God. Everything—literally everything—is a gift from God.

Permit me a few thoughts on the basis for a deepening awareness of gratitude. Ultimately, gratitude is a grace, but having a deeper awareness of the intellectual basis for it can help to open us more fully to this gift.

  1. We are contingent beings who depend upon God for our very existence. He holds together every fiber of our being: every cell, every part of every cell, every molecule, every part of every molecule, every atom, every part of every atom. God facilitates every function of our body: every beat of our heart, every movement of our body. God sustains every detail of the universe: the perfectly designed orbit of Earth so that we do not overheat or freeze, the magnetic shield around Earth protecting us from the harmful aspects of solar radiation, and every process (visible and hidden) of everything on our planet, in our solar system, and in our galaxy. All of this, and us, are contingent; we are sustained by God and provided for by Him. The magnitude of what God does is simply astonishing—and He does it all free of charge! Pondering such goodness and providence helps us to be more grateful.
  2. Every good thing we do is a gift from God. St. Paul said, What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you glory as though you had achieved? (1 Cor 4:7) Elsewhere, he wrote, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:8-10). Hence even our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us. On judgment day we cannot say to God, “Look what I’ve done; you owe me Heaven.” All we can say on that day is “Thank you!”
  3. Gifts sometimes come in strange packages. There are some gifts of God that do not seem like gifts at all. There are sudden losses, tragedies, natural disasters, and the like. In such moments we can feel forsaken by God; gratitude is the last thing on our mind. But Scripture bids us to look again: And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We don’t always know how, but even in difficult moments God is making a way unto something good, something better. He is paving a path to glory—perhaps through the cross—but unto glory. We may have questions, but remember that Jesus said, But I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me (Jn 16:22-23). Yes, even in our difficulties we are more than conquerors (Rm 8:37) because the Lord can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way.
  4. Yes, all is gift. Absolutely everything is gift. Even our failures are gifts, provided we are in Christ and learn humility from them. For what shall we give thanks? Everything! There is an old saying, “Justice is when you get what you deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve. Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.” Like you, I am asked many times a day, “How are you doing?” I’ve trained myself to respond, “More blessed than I deserve.”
  5. The word “thanks” in English is unfortunately abstract. In Latin and the Romance languages, the words for thanks are more closely related to the concepts of grace and gift. In Latin, one says thank you by saying, “Gratias ago tibi,” or simply, “Gratias.” And although gratias is translated as “thanks,” it is really the same root word as that of “grace” and “gift,” which in Latin are rendered as “gratia.” Hence in saying this, one is exclaiming, “Grace!” or “Gifts!” It is the same in Spanish (Gracias) and Italian (Grazie). French has a slightly different approach: Merci comes from the Latin merces, which refers to something that has been paid for or given freely. So all of these languages recognize that the things for which we are grateful are really gifts. The English word “thanks” does not quite make the connection. About the closest we get in English are the words “gratitude” and “grateful.” All of these words (gratias, gracias, grazie, merci, gratitude) teach us that everything is gift!

Gratitude is a gift to be received from God and should be asked for humbly. One can dispose oneself to it by reflecting on some of the things described above, but ultimately gratitude comes from a humble, contrite, and transformed heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift that springs from a heart moved, astonished, and deeply aware of the fact that all is gift.

The Origin of Thanksgiving as a National Holiday

The Thanksgiving holiday that is upon us, while religious in theme, has a secular origin. Two presidents, Washington and Lincoln, are most responsible for its existence on our national calendar in late November. Here is President Washington’s proclamation:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and

Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness”:

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3rd day of October, A.D. 1789

George Washington, President

This is Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

Yes, there once was a time, in a galaxy far, far away, when presidents of the United States could make proclamations exhorting Americans to their religious duties without being accused of offenses against the “wall” that some think should separate faith and civic life.

Happy Thanksgiving! Remember God and thank Him!