Suicide is Contagious: Don’t Let it Spread by Supporting Assisted Suicide

The Maryland physician-assisted suicide bill has been passed by the House of Delegates and is now being considered by the state Senate.  The House bill is numbered HB 399, and the bill cross-filed in the Senate is SB 311. We have every reason to be very alarmed by these developments. Other states are considering similar legislation designed to advance, assist, legalize and normalize the suicide of those who no longer see a reason to live.  Meanwhile, a law legalizing assisted suicide in the District of Columbia took effect in 2017.

Be very careful, dear reader, before you allow a narrow and flawed notion of compassion to bypass a more serious moral reflection.  Suicide is almost never a purely private act. If some are killing themselves it is more likely that others will too because it is either an option they had not previously considered or it prompted those who were already thinking about it to actually do it, especially when it is glorified in the media or the appearance of social approval is given.  Sometimes, people feel obligated to commit suicide when others are doing it.  See Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Youth Suicide. Vol. 2: “Risk Factors for Youth Suicide,” (Davidson & Linnoila eds. 1991)(Dept. of Health and Human Services); Phillips, “The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide,” 39 Amer.Socio.Rev. 340 (1974).

Suicide rates increase dramatically when a famous person takes his or her own life.  And in places like Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1997, the overall suicide rate of healthy individuals is more than 40 percent higher than the national average.

Yes, suicide is contagious, especially if it is legalized. This is not only because is leads others to consider it, but also, because it leads many to begin expecting and requiring it of the sick and dying. We have already seen this in the terrible effects of legalized abortion. Infants with poor prenatal diagnoses are aborted at rates approaching 90 percent. Parents in such situations are often pressured both by doctors, family members, and their own desires for a “perfect” child, to abort.  To legalize killing is more than to simply permit it in rare circumstances, it is to unleash it; increase its numbers by widening expectations of when it can and “should” be used.

One person’s “right” to legally commit suicide, eventually becomes my duty to commit suicide. This is NOT a merely private decision. Yes, indeed, suicide is contagious. Every human person who is growing elderly or struggling with physical or mental disability, or diagnosed with progressive illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis, COPD, Alzheimer’s are going to be the first to come under threat.

No Catholic can or should ever support legislation that permits physician assisted suicide, or other form of suicide.  Let’s consider first what the Catechism teaches about euthanasia/assisted suicide, how it defines it and why it is wrong:

Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible. Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia [or assisted suicide] consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted (CCC 2277-2279).

Thus the Catechism defines euthanasia/assisted suicide as the intentional ending of a life, whether by direct means such as injection with deadly drugs, or indirectly through the refusal to provide food and/or water. The distinction between euthanasia and assisted suicide lies in who initiates the final act that actually causes death, the patient himself (assisted suicide) or a third party (euthanasia).

One cannot emphasize enough that simply refusing or withdrawing burdensome treatments, or allowing the dying process to proceed once it has naturally begun by not providing machines such as ventilators that are unlikely to be therapeutic, is not euthanasia/assisted suicide. Church teaching does not require that one pursue every treatment possible. The patient must discern carefully with information supplied by his medical team along with an assessment of his personal resources—spiritual, psychological, emotional, familial, and financial—whether or not a particular treatment is excessively burdensome. However, even for an imminently dying person, basic care (which usually includes nutrition and hydration, even if administered through a tube) must be provided.

Pain management for those with terminal illnesses, for those with degenerative diseases, and for the dying is allowed and encouraged, even if the medication has the unintended side effect of shortening life. Arguments that dying is too painful and therefore a patient should be euthanized or assisted in dying are not valid, because it is very rare today that pain cannot be managed reasonably through advancements in the growing specialty of palliative care.

Let’s consider some other reasons, both religious and natural, that we should oppose assisted suicide/euthanasia. I’ll begin with the natural reasons that should concern us all, including those of different faiths and those with no faith tradition. Then I’ll move to the religious reasons that should influence us who believe.

Legalized assisted suicide grants death-dealing authority to certain persons, i.e. medical professionals; this in turn results in irreparable damage to the doctor-patient relationship.  Introducing death as a medical treatment option that can be offered by health care professionals fundamentally transforms a trusted profession that has been solely dedicated to healing for millenniaIt is because of this dedication to healing that doctors have enjoyed such respect and trust from their patients and society as a whole. The idea that government can give death-dealing power to certain individuals means that they can also enforce and regulate it. With an already broken healthcare system plagued with a spending problem, it is not difficult to imagine that assisted suicide will be an easy “fix” to our spending problem and legitimate treatment options will be refused.”

Legalized assisted suicide will likely lead to poorer healthcare and increased pressure on the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and the traumatically injured. Those who advocate for the physically and mentally disabled have good reason to fear that pressure will be applied to euthanize the disabled and those who have been in traumatic accidents. As the concept of “a life not worth living” grows, and as the idea gains traction that disability (even milder forms) is a fate worse than death, those who struggle with disability may well be easy targets for those who advise suicide. Some may feel pressured to no longer be a “burden.” Many will have the sense of their dignity being lessened. More can be read here: Disability and Euthanasia – History and Concerns.

As noted, granting individuals the right to end their life ultimately threatens us all because it implicitly denies the dignity of the dying. Failing to understand this dignity will lead to poorer care and will increase pressure on the elderly and dying to end their lives prematurely so that they are no longer a burden. In other words, the “right to die” too easily becomes the “duty to die.” What begins sociologically through pressure not to be a burden, soon enough becomes economically necessary because insurance benefits may vanish. And one can’t ignore the possibility of eventual legal pressure. The experience in the Netherlands is particularly sobering. More can be read on that here: Euthanasia Law in the Netherlands.

There are many more reasons to oppose euthanasia/assisted suicide purely on rational grounds. You can find more of these here at the archdiocese’s Transform Fear website.

Now I would like to move on to those reasons that originate from our faith in Jesus Christ.

One of my privileges as a priest is to have accompanied many people on their final journey toward death. I’ve also accompanied their family members. In making these journeys, I have discovered that some of God’s greatest and most necessary work takes place in and during the process of natural death.

Natural death is an important part of life that should be respected and accepted, not rejected. Some very important things happen on our deathbed that assist us spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally. These things happen not only to us but to our loved ones as well.

I have seen pride melt away; I have seen powerful contrition for past sins emerge. I have seen gratitude intensify, both in the one who is dying and in the loved ones who surround him or her. I have heard beautiful words like, “I love you,” “I am proud of you,” “I will miss you.” I have seen people let go and let God take over. I have seen forgiveness, tenderness, appreciation, and love being shared as never before. There is also the beautiful gift of listening and waiting, along with the learning of lessons that will never be forgotten.

I do not say that there is not grief and emotional pain; there is. But that is not all there is; there is beauty and love, too. And these are important and necessary. Perhaps some of the most necessary and profound things take place on our deathbed and at the deathbed of others.

Supporters of the legalization of assisted suicide and/or euthanasia might argue that these beautifully human and transformative moments also occur when one takes death into his own hands. I have no doubt that many tearful goodbyes are shared and some reconciliation among family members occurs as well. But there is a very different quality and a transparent authenticity within these moments when one has surrendered his/her life and control of it over to God.

The dying process helps us to receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, and God says this is necessary for us. As God directs Samuel, Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature … For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Even in the painful sight of once-strong individuals reduced to weakness, there is a kind of strange beauty and we must ask the Lord to give us the “eyes to see” (cf. Mt 13:16).

In the nursing homes of this land are people who once ran businesses, raised families, and led communities. Now many have returned to a kind of childhood, even infancy. Some cannot walk, some have to be fed, some can no longer talk, some clutch dolls, and some must wear diapers. All this seems so horrible to many, but important things are happening. These are not conditions that any of us would willingly choose or wish upon another. However, not one of these losses, even the significant loss of intellectual capacity in such diseases as Alzheimer’s, diminishes worth or dignity. I do not want to minimize the pain that accompanies these losses—and the pain is not limited to the patient alone. Often family members and caregivers undergo significant stress and experience the pain of our Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross. But again, something important is happening.

Are those in nursing homes really so different from you and me?  Maybe death and dying are the “place” where all worldly status, all privilege, all inequalities are leveled and we simply become who we are. Are we not all little children to God? Does He not have to provide for every one of us in our need? Does He not have to feed us, clothe us, and enable us to speak? Perhaps it is just that with the elderly and dying the illusion of self-sufficiency has been shed. The Lord says, Unless you change and become like little children you will not inherit the kingdom of God (Mat 18:3).

As Catholics, we can never affirm the world’s claim “My body is my own and I can do with it as I please.” For a believer, this is simply not true. Scripture says, You are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:19). We are the steward, not the owner, of our body; we belong to God. As disciples, we seek to imitate Christ as He surrendered to His own impending death and gave us His Body at the Last Supper: This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me (Lk 22:19).

As Christians, we must once again reaffirm our acceptance of the cross. No one likes the cross—it is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:22)—but we have been taught by Christ that the cross is both necessary and saving. And we must insist, at least among our own number, upon the belief expressed by St. Paul: So we do not lose heart. Though our body is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).

Think carefully before you support assisted suicide/euthanasia through some notion of “compassion.” The truest compassion is to want for someone what he or she truly needs in order to be saved. Ultimately, only God can say what this is. We do not have dignity because we can control our own lives; we have dignity because our life is in God’s hands.

The archdiocese’s Department of Life Issues and the Maryland Catholic Conference have been working with coalitions such as Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide to warn people about how the bills threatens vulnerable populations, including those who are sick, elderly, disabled, or who lack adequate, affordable healthcare.

Suicide is Contagious! Don’t Let it spread. Please become informed and act against the legalization of assisted suicide/euthanasia.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Suicide is Contagious: Don’t Let it Spread by Supporting Assisted Suicide

The Masks Are Coming Off

An abortion bill, similar in many respects to the horrifying bill recently passed in New York, was recently tabled by the Virginia General Assembly. It would have eliminated many of the requirements already in state law for third-trimester abortions. That it was tabled is the only good news.

Most of you have already heard the exchange between Virginia state delegate Todd Gilbert and the bill’s sponsor, delegate Kathy Tran. He asked Tran if her bill would allow a woman who is in labor to request an abortion if a physician certified that the pregnancy would impair her mental health; Tran replied that it would.

About this truly shocking (but honest) admission, delegate Tran afterwards lamented, “I was caught off guard and probably wasn’t as artful in the moment as I could have been,”

“Artful”—In other words, she couldn’t wordsmith quickly enough to cloak the shocking truth that if this bill became law, a woman already in labor could legally have her child killed (with a physician’s approval).

And just in case you think things couldn’t get worse, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam sought to defend Delegate Tran and imagined the following scenario:

“So in this particular example, if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother” (*).

Words cannot describe just how awful this is, claims that we “critics” simply misunderstand the governor notwithstanding. No indeed, the message is loud and clear: a baby is set off to the side and “kept comfortable” while the caring doctors and the mother have a nice little discussion about whether the newborn should be allowed to live or killed—truly shocking. We might just as well be back in pagan Rome under the Pater Familias laws, under which the father decided whether to keep a certain baby or have it cast into the Tiber or exposed to die. Infanticide, like abortion, is a very ugly business.

There has been plenty of news analysis about this “controversy,” but I prefer to call the bill a calamity, the legalization of outright cruelty.

This much must also be clear: the masks are coming off and the fierce face of abortion on demand is on display. Upon Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signing of the “Reproductive Health Act” in New York, the open celebration, the applause, the lighting of the World Trade Center spire in pink were egregious and boldly fierce—“in your face,” if you will. (I have written more about that travesty here.) Now we have this shocking episode in Virginia.

For years, the pro-choice movement has cloaked itself in talk about keeping abortion safe, legal, and rare—but it was a cloak then and it is certainly one now. Today the cry is increasingly, “No limits! The right to abortion is an absolute, human right!” Why are the masks coming off? Scripture provides an answer, at least in terms of the satanic inspirations behind abortion:

But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short (Rev 12:12).

In past decades, the devil has seen fit to work largely in secret, but recently he seems to have changed strategies and is increasingly coming out of hiding. The dramatic increase in the need for exorcisms and deliverance ministry is indicative of this. I also see evidence of this as he inspires ever-more-radical abortion laws—edging right into infanticide; he further deceives many into calling this good and something to celebrate.

Satan rages because he knows his time is short. Science is on the pro-life side. It is undeniable that a unique human individual comes into being at conception. Fetal development is now widely documented with 3D ultrasounds and in utero cameras—something from which abortion advocates like to “shield” pregnant women. Although the age of viability is usually considered to be 24 weeks gestation, some infants born earlier now survive; neonatal units are fighting to save the lives of children that across town at the “clinic” could be legally aborted. Young people are increasingly pro-life, and most Americans now support increasing limits on abortion. Yes, Satan knows that his time is running short, and so he rages, inspiring blindness to obvious truths and callousness toward human life—even the most helpless.

Will the Church boldly engage in this ever-fiercer battle or will we be fearful and ineffective? Will our leaders and the laity have courage to counter the callousness that is settling in? Will we resist or just be resigned? Will you be outspoken and join the ranks of those who witness, act, and pray?

Satan once raged at the babies when God, through Moses, was about to liberate His people. He raged again when Christ entered the world to save us. When God is up to something big, Satan rages. Remember this:

  • The Midwives resisted Pharaoh’s evil law.
  • The parents of the holy innocents in Bethlehem fought to protect their children from Herod’s wrath and fear.
  • Joseph and Mary obeyed God’s command to carry Jesus off to protection in distant Egypt leaving behind all that was familiar.

If we want to usher in blessings and end Satan’s raging, we must resist evil laws, act to protect our children, and be willing to suffer as a result. What are you willing to do?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Masks Are Coming Off

Proverbs for Pro-Lifers

We who participate in the March for Life are always in need of the Lord’s strength and guidance, His grace and mercy, in order to see our goal of ending legalized abortion. To that end, I offer some lessons drawn from the 24th chapter of the Book of Proverbs:

OUR SUMMONS TO TESTIMONY If you remain indifferent in times of adversity, your strength will depart from you. Rescue those who are being dragged to death, and from those tottering to execution withdraw not. If you say, “I know not this man!” does not he who tests hearts perceive it? He who guards your life knows it, and he will repay each according to his deeds (Prov 24:10-12).

In this passage, we are being told that this is a battle in which we must engage; we must take a stance. We must stand up and be counted; we must witness for life. Either our silence will condemn us, or our witness will bring forth blessings.

Tens of millions of unborn babies have been and are being taken to their deaths, “tottering to execution” in abortion centers throughout the country. Too many Americans say, “I don’t know about this,” or “It’s not my issue,” or “It’s none of my business,” or (worst of all) “I’m personally opposed but don’t want to impose my view on others.”

God knows and sees through all of this. Each of us will have to render an account for what we have done or not done in the face of the scourge of abortion. This public slaughter cannot remain something that we are merely privately bothered by. This passage from Proverbs indicates that silence and inaction when the innocent are being dragged off to slaughter is tacit approval.

We are summoned to respond!

OUR STRENGTH IN TRUTH – A wise man is more powerful than a strong man, a man of knowledge than a man of might; for it is by wise guidance that you wage your war, and the victory is due to the wealth of counselors (Prov 24:5-6).

One thing is for sure: in this battle of the last 40+ years, our primary strength has not been in the law or in politics. Judges and princes (politicians) have done little to limit abortion on demand. At best, we have mildly limited access to unrestricted abortion. In general, the federal courts have resisted even the most reasonable and minor restrictions on abortion. There is also insufficient political resolve in the legislative branch to bring an end to abortion.

Our strength is in our wisdom and knowledge. The wisdom of God teaches us that God knew us before we were ever formed in our Mother’s womb (Jer 1:5) and that no life is an accident. It teaches us that God knit each of us together in our mother’s womb and fashioned us wonderfully and fearfully in the secret and sacred place of the womb (Ps 139). The wisdom of God is clear that to abort a child in the womb is to snatch the knitting from God’s hands and pridefully say, “This shall not be.” Scripture says, Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, “What are you making?” Does your work say, “The potter has no hands”? (Is 45:9)

In the end the truth will out. We are in a battle for hearts and minds. As medical evidence continues to mount, along with vivid 3-D imagery of babies in the womb, it is getting harder and harder for supporters of abortion to argue that abortion does not end the life of a human person who is, from the very early months, aware and able to feel pain. We must persistently and consistently persuade by assembling and presenting evidence.

Although some stubbornly resist the truth of what they do not wish to see, there are many others whose ambivalence can be eroded and who have not hardened their hearts. Pulling back the curtain further and further is slowly winning the day. The truth is on our side and facts will eventually prevail.

Deep down, people know the truth; they understand what they are doing but do not want to be faced with it. This explains a lot of the anger directed toward us.

Consider how the facts about cigarette smoking, once a commonplace habit that was even viewed as glamorous, have practically ended its acceptance. Consider, too, how the acceptance of slavery (rooted in many similar arguments and flawed logic) is now considered a disgrace in our nation’s history, along with the segregationist attitudes that followed. Harmful lies cannot persist forever.

Our strength must continue to be rooted in the wisdom of God and in the knowledge of medical facts about human life in the womb. People can and will be stubborn, but facts are stubborn things, too. We must boldly and confidently present those facts.

OUR SURETY IN TIME  Be not provoked with evildoers, nor envious of the wicked; For the evil man has no future, the lamp of the wicked will be put out. … For the just man falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble to ruin. Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and when he stumbles, let not your heart exult, lest the Lord see it and be displeased with you, and withdraw his wrath from your enemy (Proverbs 24:19-20,16-18).

It is easy to become battle-weary and discouraged. This has been a long fight and the death toll overwhelming to contemplate. Every now and then I encounter pro-life and other cultural warriors who have become grouchy; they struggle with anger, even directing it at fellow pro-lifers. We must remember that wicked philosophies and erroneous doctrines have their time, but they will not last. As this proverb reminds us, the lamp of the wicked will be put out; if they do not repent, the wicked will stumble to ruin.

Scripture says, For the Lord who avenges blood is mindful of the oppressed; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted (Ps 9:12). God will requite the blood of the innocent who cry out to Him (see Gen 4:10; Rev 6:10). He will do so in His time and in His way, but all will one day know and be ashamed of the horror that this nation has inflicted on our most innocent and defenseless members. The world will one day look back with deep shame upon this era, when the killing of infants in the womb was celebrated as a “right.” This period in history will deservedly be called the second “Dark Ages.” For now, we can only soldier on in our work of changing the hearts of others.

The passage also says that we should not let the wicked provoke us to vengeful anger or hatred. Unless they repent, they will be the saddest of people in the end; their lamps will go out and the darkness of what they have done will envelop them. Our only true and godly stance is to pray for their conversion.

Many who formerly supported legalized abortion have now joined our ranks. There are more than a few who left the abortion industry and now work tirelessly to save lives and to scatter the darkness and lies of abortion supporters/providers. Thank God that they escaped; thank God for their witness. We can only pray that more will have a change of heart and join with us. Keep praying and working for the conversion—not the destruction—of our opponents.

Indeed, we cannot become like our enemy, Satan, who hates human beings and loves to see their downfall. We cannot, as the proverb says, rejoice at the downfall or destruction of our opponent or of any human being. While we may rejoice when evil influences end, we should never delight in the destruction of any person because each of us was made in God’s image.

The worst deception of the Devil is to draw us into hate and vengeance (cloaked in righteousness) even as we work to preach the glory of life. Such behavior is a deception because no end, however good, can justify evil means or can excuse becoming like our enemy. If we become like Satan, he has us, no matter the cause. Leave final judgment to God because only He can see well enough to do so.

These are a few proverbs to which I piously believe God pointed me when I asked for guidance. Our battle is difficult and wearying, but we must recall that we are summoned to it regardless of how hard it is; silence is unacceptable. This is all the more reason to rest in the gifts of wisdom and knowledge, to insist that others look to the truth that is written on their hearts, to understand that we are on the right side of history and that the lie of abortion cannot forever stand.

If you find a good fight, get in it!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Proverbs for Pro-Lifers

A Survivor of a Once Dangerous World

In the video below, a comedy routine from Mad TV shows how many modern notions were non-existent even just fifty years ago. In the sketch, a pregnant mother drinks a martini and smokes a cigarette; children ride bikes without wearing helmets. Of course, like a lot of comedy, the topic is taken to excess for effect.

Nevertheless, most of us who are older grew up in a “dangerous” world and managed to survive. You’ve probably seen lists like this one:

I survived

  • drinking from a garden hose,
  • breathing second-hand smoke,
  • running in the misty cloud when the DDT spray truck went by,
  • playing with toy guns,
  • being spanked,
  • paddling in school,
  • praying in school,
  • lead paint,
  • not wearing a seatbelt,
  • not wearing a bike helmet,
  • playing in asphalt playgrounds with metal monkey bars and swings,
  • not every kid making the team,
  • not everyone receiving an award.

I can personally attest to the item about running in the cloud of spray behind the DDT truck. The cloud had a sweet, pungent order; we were told it wasn’t harmful and sure enough, none of us ever got sick from it. At left is a picture of mine to prove that I’m not lying! It was a little bit like the smell of newly mimeographed paper as the teacher handed it out—a strange but pleasant odor. DDT was banned in the 1970s and scientists still debate whether the lives lost (to mosquito-borne diseases) as a result of banning it outweighed the gains made by a purer environment. I leave that debate to them, but for the record, I am a survivor!

The spiritual point I would like to make is one of moderation. I am not recommending that pregnant women drink or smoke. I am not saying that children should stop wearing bike helmets or that seatbelts are unimportant. Rather, I caution against prioritizing safety concerns to the degree that we become too fearful. Life involves risks, and there is no such thing as complete safety.

I lived through many of the things on the list above and depicted in the sketch. In order to live we must take certain risks. A life too obsessed with dangers and too constrained by artificially imposed limits can smother and restrict. Some of the modern preoccupation with safety and for a life without any rebukes or challenges comes from a desire for excessive comfort and reassurance.

Comedy like that depicted in the video below is funny because while over the top, it also has many elements of truth.

Two Teachings on Discipleship from Jesus

In the Gospel for today (Monday of the 13thWeek of the Year) Jesus gives two teachings on discipleship. They are not easy, and they challenge us—especially those of us who live in the affluent West.

Poverty– The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is a critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us.Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God, or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse, the potential disciple of Jesus seems to have had power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he saw Jesus as a political messiah and wanted to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only do they not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that piles of wealth are seldom our lot. Why? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful shortcuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less comfortable place to lay their head. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Thus “poverty” is a discipline of discipleship.What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that is poor. However, it also means being free of the many obligations and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your possessions. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered. Yes, poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.

Promptness (readiness)The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple!”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because. There are always a few things resolved first.

It’s the familiar refrain: I’ll do tomorrow!

There is peril in procrastination. Too many people always look to tomorrow. But remember that tomorrow is not promised. In Scripture there is one word that jumps out repeatedly; it’s the word now. There are many references to the importance of now or today rather than tomorrow:

  • Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).
  • behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
  • Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).
  • Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There is an old preacher’s story about delay: There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man.The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there’s a Hell and most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there’s no Hell or that there’s no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “You’re the man! That’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a discipline of discipleship. It is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

Here are two disciplines of discipleship. They are not easy, but the Lord only commands what truly blesses. There is freedom in poverty and joy in quickly following the Lord!

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What Buzz Lightyear Taught Me About Life

I was interviewed on National Public Radio last year regarding a blog post I had written a few years previously about the movie “Toy Story.” The link to the interview is at the bottom of this post. You may wish to skip my written remarks below and just go to the interview instead, as it incorporates most of my reflections.

There was a movie some years ago that most of you have probably seen called Toy Story. It had a profound impact on me, for it came out at a critical time in my life.

It was my 33rd year of life and the 6th year of my priesthood. As I have related elsewhere, I had suffered a nervous breakdown that required a week in the hospital and a month off to recuperate. What drove me to that point was agreeing to take an assignment I really wasn’t ready for. I was asked to pastor a parish that was in serious financial trouble. The stress nearly finished me.

Invincible? I was a young priest at the time, still in my “invincible” stage, when I thought I could do anything. I guess it’s fairly common for young men to think they can handle anything. During those years, opinions are strong, dreams are still vivid, and hard experiences have not yet taught their tough lessons.

So, this young priest said “yes” to the assignment, even though I had reservations. Soon enough, the panic attacks came, followed by waves of depression. There were days when I could barely come out of my room. A week in the hospital for evaluation, a month off to recuperate, and years of good spiritual direction, psychotherapy, and the sacraments have been God’s way of restoring me to health.

Somewhere during the early stages of my recovery, I saw the movie Toy Story. Right away, I recognized myself in Buzz Lightyear. Buzz begins the movie as a brash, would-be hero and savior of the planet. Buzz Lightyear’s tagline is, “To infinity … and beyond!” The only problem is that he seems to have no idea that he is a toy. He thinks he has come from a distant planet to save Earth. Buzz often radios to the mother ship and, hearing nothing, concludes that she must be just out of range.

At a critical point in the movie, it begins to dawn on Buzz that he is just a toy and may not be able to save the day. He struggles with this realization and resists it. He tries to leap to the rescue, not knowing he can’t really fly, and falls from the second floor breaking off his arm. Suddenly, Buzz realizes he’s just a toy, that all his boasting was based on an illusion. Buzz then sinks into depression, his sense of self destroyed.

But God wasn’t done with Buzz Lightyear. In the end, Buzz does save the day, by simply being what he was made to be: a toy. One of the neighborhood kids, Sid, straps Buzz to a rocket, intending to launch him high in the air. In the end, that enables Buzz to “fly” and save the day at a critical moment. Although Sid meant Buzz’s launch to cause harm, God meant it for good. The humiliation Buzz suffered enabled him to conquer his pride; it made him able to save the day.

The lesson of the movie is a critical one and certainly the lesson I learned in my own personal crisis. The lesson is that our greatness does not come from our inflated notions of our self but from God. God does not need or want us to pretend to be something we are not. He wants us to be exactly what He made us to be. It is often through our weakness that He is able to do His greatest work.

Just as Buzz comes to realize that he is just a toy, I have come to realize that I am but a man. I have certain gifts and lack others. Some doors are open to me and others are not. When I accept that and come to depend on God to fashion me and use me according to His will, great things are possible. If we go on living in sinful illusion, we miss our true calling and our proper place in God’s kingdom. Ultimately, each of us must come to discover the man or woman that God created us to be. That is our true greatness. It is often through our weaknesses and humiliations that we learn this best.

All this from a children’s movie!

 

Here also is the link to the 20-minute interview, with a transcript:
https://onbeing.org/programs/toy-story/

A Biblical Meditation on Aging

Last week in the Office of Readings we concluded the Book of Ecclesiastes. One of the more beautiful passages in the Old Testament is the 12th Chapter of Ecclesiastes. It is a melancholy but soulful meditation on old age. Its poetic imagery is masterful, as it draws from the increasingly difficult effects of old age such as hearing loss, fading eyesight, difficulty walking, digestive issues, and even gray hair.

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come And the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them; Before the sun is darkened. and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain; When the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, And the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind; When the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed; And one fears heights, and perils in the street; When the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect, Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets; Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well, And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity! (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)

And now some commentary on each verse (my comments appear in red).

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come And the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them;

We are advised to give thanks to God for the vigor of youth because “evil” days will come. Here evil does not mean sinfully evil. Rather, it refers to days that are difficult, days that bring challenge and pain.

We might want to be thankful for living in modern times because the burdens of old age are far less than they were long ago. Consider all the things that make aging less difficult today: pain medication alleviates arthritis; calcium supplements help with osteoporosis; blood pressure medication aids in preventing strokes; motorized scooters increase mobility; eyeglasses and hearing aids improve the ability to interact. In the ancient world, age brought such increasing and cumulative burdens that our author said, regarding these days, “I have no pleasure in them.”

Before the sun is darkened. and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain;

This is a poignantly poetic description of failing eyesight. The light darkens, the moon and stars are less visible (perhaps they are blurry), and the clouds of cataracts begin to hamper vision.

When the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, And the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind;

The “guardians of the house” are the arms. They begin to tremble with the tremors common to old age, even without Parkinson’s disease.

The “strong men” are the legs. They are bent, less able to carry the weight of the body. Bent also describes the legs when we are seated, unable to walk.

The “grinders” are the teeth and they are few! We have far better dental care available to us today. In ancient times, it was common for the elderly to have lost many if not most of their teeth. This made it difficult to eat and required food to be mashed.

The image of an elderly person sitting by a window looking out, but able to see less and less, is surely sad, but also vivid. I remember my grandmother in her last years. She could no longer read much because her eyesight was so poor, and her mind could not concentrate on the text; and so she sat for hours and just looked out the window.

When the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed;

The “doors to the street” are the tightly compressed lips common to the very elderly, especially when teeth are missing. It also depicts how many of the elderly stop talking much. Their mouths seem shut tight.

The sound of the mill may be another reference to chewing. Many of the elderly lose their appetite. One the psalms says, regarding the elderly, “I moan like a dove and forget to eat my bread” (Psalm 102:4).

Waiting for the chirp of the birds may be a reference to the silence of the elderly, but it may also be a reference to deafness, as many can no longer hear the singing and chirping, something the young often take for granted.

And one fears heights, and perils in the street; When the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect,

Walking is difficult, sometimes treacherous, and requires great effort for many of the elderly. Whereas the young may not think twice about climbing a flight of stairs, the elderly may see them as an insurmountable obstacle.

Perils in the street like loose or upturned stones cause fear because falls for the elderly can be catastrophic. They may also not be able to get up if they fall.

The blooming almond tree, with its white blossoms, is a symbol for gray hair.

The caper berry had several uses in the ancient world. It was an appetite stimulant, an aphrodisiac, and was also used to treat rheumatism!  In old age, however, it would seem that its desired effects were hard to come by.

Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets; Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well, And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it.

Finally, death comes, as symbolized by the mourners in the street. The silver cord and the golden bowl—symbols of life—are now snapped and broken.

The broken pitcher symbolizes that the body no longer contains the soul.

The pulley, a device used to lift, is now broken, indicating that the body will no longer rise from its place but rather fall into the well of the grave.

Then we return to the dust and the soul goes to God.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity!

In the end, all things pass. Nothing remains. Because all things are to pass, they are vain (empty). The physical world is less real than the spiritual world, because the physical passes while the spiritual remains. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Col 1:3).

This chapter from Ecclesiastes is a sad but powerfully beautiful description of old age. I have often shared it with the very elderly and those who are suffering from the ill effects of old age. I remember reading it slowly to my father as he lay dying in his hospital room. He could no longer talk much, but as I read it to him I saw him nod and raise his hands as if to say “Amen!” It was almost as if he meant to say, “Somebody understands; God understands.” Perhaps you also know an elderly person who could benefit from this passage. I know that it is sad and that not everyone is in a condition that they can hear such a stark and sad description, but some are in a frame of mind such that they can derive peace from it, as God, through His word, tells them that He understands exactly what they are going through.

“Just a Little While Longer…” – A Meditation on the Brevity and Urgency of Life.

There is a passage in John 16 that is unusual for its repetition. This past Sunday it was the assigned Gospel in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The expression “in a little while” is repeated seven times in the brief passage. Its repetition is almost to the point of being annoying, such that the reader is tempted to say, “All right, already. I get it!” Obviously, John, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit want to drill this point into us.

Let’s look at the whole passage:

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.” Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy (John 16:16-22).

Do you get it? A little while! This text is a perfect illustration of the old expression repetitio mater studiorum (repetition is the mother of studies). We’re supposed to lay hold of this because it clearly was significant to the Lord.

The Greek word translated here as “a little while” is even more evocative of brevity. It is μικρὸν (mikron) which, at least in its English connotation, speaks of something very little.

Contextually, the Lord seems to be referring to the brief time between His death and His resurrection. Indeed, that time was brief. He was trying to prepare His disciples (in the hope?) that they might not lose faith and would be able to endure His passion. However, it seems that these and other words promising His resurrection “in a little while” (on the third day) had no real impact on them. All but John fled in fear, and all of them were astonished and incredulous at the resurrection when it first broke in to their reality.

In a more extended and pastoral context, the words of Jesus are also intended for us. He wants us to grasp that “in a little while” we will see Him.

This is a very important perspective for us to gain: life is short! This truth is both consoling and challenging.

It is consoling because whatever pain we are going through, we are going through it; if we are faithful, it is not our destination. Whatever the current difficulties, they will be over “in a little while.” An old African-American spiritual says, “Hold on just a little longer, everything’s gonna be all right.” Another says, “Trouble don’t last always.” As most of us who are a bit older know, life passes quickly—so very quickly. Whatever our troubles, they will be over in a little while. If we have been faithful, eternity dawns with far great glories than the trouble we have endured for just “a little while.”

We ought to expect that life here will be a little uncomfortable. We live in a paradise lost. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. We who are baptized now live in this world as strangers and aliens. We’re just passing through a world with strange customs and a strange language. We’re living out of a suitcase and have all the discomforts of travel. In a little while, though, we get to go home—if we but hold on to God’s unchanging hand.

Scripture speaks often of this aspect.

  • In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:6-7).
  • Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).

We ought to be consoled by this perspective that whatever difficulties we’re currently going through will be over in a little while if we stay faithful. Meanwhile it is producing and storing up glory for you.

It is also challenging to consider the “little while” of this life. Simply put, you are going to die, and you don’t get to say when. You are not promised even the next beat of your heart. Tomorrow is not promised, so you’d better choose the Lord today. Do not delay your conversion to the Lord.

Life passes so very swiftly. I’ve been a priest for nearly 30 years now. Wow, how did that happen? I feel like I just got out of high school! Scripture says,

  • Our life is over like a sigh. Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain. They pass swiftly, and we are gone (Ps 90:9-11).
  • But as for man, he is like the grass, of the flower of the field. The wind blows, and he is gone and his place never sees him again (Ps 103:15-16).
  • Remember your Creator—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Eccles 12: finis).

Yes, life passes quickly. For most of us, the memory of our existence will linger but a generation here on earth.

Here comes the challenge: Life is short—prepare for judgment. Scripture says,

  •  It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment (Heb 9:27).
  • For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).
  • Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).

Jesus also warns,

  • Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. “Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping! What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:33-37)
  • I am coming SOON; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown…. Behold, I am coming SOON, bringing my recompense, to repay everyone for what he has done (Rev 3:11; 22:12).

Yes, life is short, and in a little while we must report to the judgment seat of Christ for a very honest conversation. Prepare confidently, with faith but not presumption—which is a denial of the faith. The Lord has said that we must be sober, awake, and ready. In just a little while the moment will come. You will die, and you don’t get to say when. Get ready.

There it is, perspective. The consolation is that the troubles of this life pass in “a little while.” The challenge is to be ready, for in just a little while our time here is up and the question is called.

In a little while!

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming SOON.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)