The Paradoxical Source of Trust in the Lord

One of the Five Hard Truths that will set us free is this one: “You are not in control.” This unnerves us, even terrifies us at times. We like to be in control, but control is an illusion; things you think you control are resting on things you cannot control such as the next beat of your heart or even the continued existence of the cosmos! No, we are not in control.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil (James 4:13-16).

This is just another way of saying that we are not in control.

The paradox is that accepting this hard, even terrifying truth is what frees us from many fears and anxieties. Uncertainty is not the deepest source of our anxiety, rather it is our desperate clinging to control and our insistence on our own preferred outcomes. We don’t always (or even usually) know what is best for us. Abandoning ourselves to God’s wisdom and leadership is the only path to true peace. C.S. Lewis wrote,

What are we to make of Christ? … [Rather] it is entirely a question of what he intends to make of us …. Try to retain your own life and you will be inevitably ruined. Give yourself away and you will be saved …. Whatever is keeping you from God … whatever it is, throw it away …. And do not be afraid. I have overcome the whole universe (The Business of Heaven, p. 33).

The only solution is to trust God. Now trusting does not mean assuming God will eventually give what you want. No, trusting is believing that you will be just fine with whatever the Lord wants. Notice that trusting doesn’t necessarily mean jumping for joy at what God decides. What He decides may not turn out to align with our preferred outcome. Most of us prefer health to sickness, wealth to poverty. We want God to say yes to our requests, not no or later. Trusting means being serene and “OK” with what God decides. In this is our path to peace.

All of this is easy to say but hard to do. We need to accept our poverty, our inability to relinquish our illusion of control and trust God. We need to beg for greater trust. Say with the ancient disciple, “I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24). Say with the apostles, “Lord, increase our faith” (Lk 17:5).

Some Qualities of True Love in an Age of Distortion

We live in times in which love is presented in a distorted, even manipulative way. Some use a vague and all-encompassing notion of love to justify almost any behavior. They declare that if we do not approve of what they do, not only are we unloving, we are haters. In this way love is equated with kindness, affirmation, and approval.

This, of course, is an inaccurate, diminished understanding of love. Love wills the good, the best, for another. Love speaks the truth even if it is challenging or painful.

If my doctor lied to me about my health, hiding serious problems from me merely so that I would not be upset, he would be guilty of malpractice. Similarly, lying to someone by making light of sin is not love, it is “malpractice” for us who would be the Lord’s prophets and agents of saving love.

For those who have watered down love to mere kindness, “malpractice” is not only preferred it is often required. “Safe zones” and an ever-expanding definition of discrimination can demand a kind of lying. If you don’t go along you may be called a hater or even find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

But distorted love isn’t love at all. Those who insist on this distorted definition of love show their true colors when someone dares defy the demand for affirmation: suddenly vicious accusations fly and social isolation is imposed.

True love is a many-splendored thing. It is kind and encouraging to be sure, but it is also willing to correct—even rebuke and punish—for the sake of the beloved. There are certain paradoxes of love that must be rediscovered. Let’s examine some of these using Scripture as our guide.

Love perfects the law; it does not oppose it. Many today set love and the law in opposition to each other. They often assert that love, God’s love in particular, means that whatever I want to do is approved of by God. The premise is that love never sets limits; it merely approves of what the beloved wants to do. Scripture says,

If you love me, you will keep my commandments (Jn 14:15). Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me (Jn 14:21). If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love (Jn 15:10). For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. (1 Jn 5:3). And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments (2 John 1:6).

Love and God’s law go hand in hand. Love does not give blanket permission to do as one pleases.

Love makes demands. Love does not mean simply accepting the other as he is, not asking him to change or repent if necessary.

Jesus, who loves us, made many demands. Consider His encounter with the rich young man: And Jesus, having looked upon him, loved him and said to him, “One thing to you is lacking: Go, sell as much as you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mk 10:21).

St. Paul insisted on his apostolic authority and his capacity to preach the hard things of the cross, saying, As the truth of Christ is in me, this bold proclamation of mine will not be silenced …. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! (2 Cor 11:10-11)

Love requires making choices. A common refrain of many is this: “Jesus understands.” Or “God is love.” Weaknesses, sinful acts, and duplicity are brushed aside by a vague notion that God, who is love, doesn’t care about such things.

But the real Jesus of Scripture does care. Jesus says, If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26). Jesus says to Peter: Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? (i.e., the fish, and by extension, his career) (see Jn 21:15).

The love of God is exclusive and is superior to every other love. The Book of James makes this clear: You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4). Jesus says plainly, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24).

Love demands that we make a clear choice; it will not tolerate a half-committed heart or indulgence in sin. There are demands of discipleship. Love does not permit adulterous liaisons with the world, the flesh, or the devil.

Love punishes. The modern notion is that love is permissive, merciful, and kind at all times.

But Scripture says of God’s love, The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined … then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all (Heb 12:6-8). And Jesus says, Those I love, I rebuke and discipline. Therefore, be earnest and repent (Rev 3:19).

Love warns. Many set love-based arguments in opposition to fear-based arguments. It is true that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18), but most of us don’t have perfect love. That is why Jesus often used fear-based arguments, warning us of what awaits us if we do not repent.

No one loves us more than Jesus, yet no one warned us more of Hell and the coming judgment than He did. Most of the teaching on Hell and the Day of Judgment come right from His mouth. Twenty-one of the thirty-eight parables are about judgment and possible exclusion from Heaven. There are the sheep and the goats, those on the right and those on the left; the wise virgins and the foolish ones; those that enter the wedding feast and those who reject the invitation; those who hear, Come, blessed of my Father and those who hear, Depart from me you accursed, I know you not.

Jesus loved the people of Jerusalem, yet He warned of a coming destruction if they did not repent. Indeed, he wept over Jerusalem when he saw it for the last time: As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).

Jesus did not cease warning those whom he loved. Love warns that there are consequences to sin and infidelity.

Love is not always kind; sometimes it challenges and rebukes. Kindness is an aspect of love, but so are rebuke and punishment.

True love cannot bear that another carries sin or error. Love will at times exhibit anger and strong words to dissuade the beloved from sin and harm. Scripture says,

You shall not hate your brother in your heart: you shall instead rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17). If your brother sins against you, go and confront him privately. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over (Matt 18:15). Watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him (Lk 17:3). Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it (Ps 141:5).

The list could go on and on. Love is truly a many-splendored thing. It does exhibit kindness, tenderness, affection, and affirmation, but it wants what is truly best for the beloved, not what is apparently best or simply pleasant in the moment. True love wants salvation and perfection for the beloved, not merely their comfort and self-esteem. True love can say no. True love can insist upon even difficult and challenging things. True love has greater blessings in mind than passing pleasures and flattery.

Love is one of the most distorted, overused words in our culture. How about some true love?


On the Paradoxical Freedom of Poverty

There is a saying that you cannot steal from a man who has nothing and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose. Of Jesus, the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head (Matt 8:20), this was surely true. The world had no claim on Him, nothing with which to hook Him or claim His loyalty. Even His life could not be taken from Him, for He had already laid it down freely (cf Jn 10:18).

St. John Chrysostom spoke of it boldly in a sermon that paints well the paradoxical freedom of poverty and enslavement of riches and possessions. I’ll return to that in a moment.

First, consider that for most of us, the heart of the slavery comes from our attachments to this world. So easily do we sell our soul to its allurements; so easily does the world ensnare us with its empty promises and trinkets that so quickly become duties, distractions, and requirements. In our heart, we know that the things of the world weigh us down, but still our addiction to things draws us further into the endless cycle of ever-deepening desires and the increasing inability to live without many burdensome things.

It isn’t just things that entrap us. The world also hooks us with the mesmerizing promise of popularity, promotion, and even fame. In our desperate pursuit of popularity, we soon will do almost anything and make almost any compromise.

Jesus says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24).

Other relevant passages from Scripture include these:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15)

Adulterers! Do you not know that the love of this world is hatred toward God? Therefore, whoever chooses to be a friend of this world is an enemy of God (James 4:4).

In the end, most of our slavery and anxiety is rooted in our love for this world and our fear of losing its pleasures and its promises of power and popularity. It is without a doubt the greatest human struggle to escape from this world’s hooks and shackles and become utterly free—free to follow the Lord unreservedly and with no fear of what the world might do in retaliation.

In one of his sermons, St. John Chrysostom describes well the human being who is utterly free. It is a magnificent portrait, one he was able to exhibit not merely by his words but by his life.

Born in 344 at Antioch, he grew into a young man very much admired for his brilliance and oratorical skills. In 374 he fled to the mountains to live quietly and to break the hold that the world had on him. Following six years of “holy silence,” he worked quietly as a priest. In 398, however, he was summoned to be bishop of Constantinople. He was beloved for his powerful capacity to preach and received the name “Chrysostom” (Golden mouth). Yet not all appreciated the freedom with which he preached, a freedom that led him to denounce vice openly, no matter who was doing it. He was exiled twice (in 403 and 407) by powerful enemies, and though they tried to break his spirit and rob him of his joy, they could not prevail. Although he died on his way to his final exile (during a miserable journey in terrible weather), he died with joy, saying, “Glory be to God for all things. Amen.”

The world could not prevail over him. He did not fear it, for he owned nothing of it and owed nothing to it. It had no hold on him.

Thus speaking not only from Scripture but from experience, St. John Chrysostom said,

“The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence …

“Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!

“If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are roused against me, they are less to me than a spider’s web … For I always say: Lord, your will be done; not what this fellow or that would have me do, but what you want me to do. That is my strong tower, my immovable rock, my staff that never gives way. If God wants something, let it be done! If he wants me to stay here, I am grateful. But wherever he wants me to be, I am no less grateful …

“For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people” (Ante exsilium, nn. 1-3).

This is freedom. You cannot steal from a man who owns nothing and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose. You cannot deprive a man who has Jesus Christ.

Pray for this freedom.

Trademarks of the True Messiah – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

In Sunday’s Gospel the Lord firmly sets before us the need for the cross, not as an end in itself, but as the way to glory. Let’s consider the Gospel in three stages.

I.  The Pattern that is Announced – The text says, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

The Lord announces not only the Cross but also the Resurrection. In effect, He announces the pattern of the Christian life, which we have come to call the “Paschal Mystery.”

The expression “Paschal Mystery” refers to the suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus as a whole. The word “Paschal” is related to the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach.” Just as the shed blood of a lamb saved the people from the angel of death and signaled their deliverance, so does Jesus’ death, his Blood, save us from death and deliver us from slavery to sin.

So He is announcing a pattern: the Cross leads somewhere; it accomplishes something. It is not an end in itself; it has a purpose; it is part of a pattern.

St. Paul articulates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery in this way: We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Cor 4:10). It is like an upward spiral in which the cross brings blessings we enjoy. We often circle back to the crosses God permits, but then there come even greater blessings and higher capacities. Cross, growth, cross, growth—so the pattern continues until we reach the end, dying with Christ so as to live with Him.

This is the pattern of our life. We are dying to our old self, to this world, to our sins; but rising to new life, rising to the Kingdom of God and becoming victorious over sin. The cross brings life; it is a prelude to growth. We die in order to live more richly. An old spiritual says of this repeated pattern that “every round goes higher, higher.”

Do you see the pattern that Jesus announces? Neither the Lord not the Church announces the cross so as to burden us. No, the cross is part of a pattern that, if accepted with faith, brings blessing, new life, and greater strength.

II.  The Prevention that is Attempted – The text says, Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Notice Peter’s exact wording: “No such thing shall ever happen to you.” We ought to ask, “What such thing?” Peter, in precluding that Jesus suffer and die, also implicitly blocks the rising and glorification of Jesus, for Christ cannot rise unless He dies.

Peter, of course, is not thinking this all the way through—but neither do we when we seek to avoid crosses for ourselves or to hinder others improperly from accepting their crosses. The cross brings glory and growth; we run the risk of depriving ourselves and others of these if we rush to eliminate all the demands and difficulties of life. We may do this through enabling behaviors or perhaps by spoiling our children.

We also hinder our own growth by refusing to accept the crosses of self-discipline, hard work, obedience, suffering, consequences, limits, and resistance of temptation. In rejecting the cross we also reject its fruits.

All of this serves to explain Jesus’ severe reaction to Peter’s words. He even goes so far as to call Peter, “Satan,” for it pertains to Satan to pretend to befriend us in protesting our crosses while really just wanting to thwart our blessings. Peter may not know what he is doing, but Satan does—he seeks to become an obstacle to Jesus’ work.

Jesus’ severe reaction is rooted in protecting our blessings.

III. The Prescription that is Awarding – Jesus goes on to teach further on the wisdom of and the need for the cross. The text says, Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

The heart of Jesus’ teaching here is the deep paradox that in order to find our life we must lose it. More specifically, in order to gain Heaven, we must die to this world. That dying is a process more so than just an event at the end of our physical life here. Although we cling to life in this world, it is really not life at all. It is a mere spark compared to the fire of love that God offers; it is a single note compared to the great symphony God directs.

Jesus instructs us to be willing to exchange this tiny, dying life for that which is true life. The Lord says that whatever small blessings come from clinging to this life and this world are really no benefit at all.

Of course what the world’s cheap trinkets offer is immediate gratification and evasion of the cross. We may feel relief for a moment, but our growth is stunted and those cheap little trinkets slip through our fingers. We gain the world (cheap little trinket that it is) but lose our souls. It’s a total loss, or to use a modern expression, it’s a FAIL!

Jesus’ final words, however, remind us that the choice is ours. The day will come when He will respond to our choice. Either we accept true life and win or we choose the passing, dying life of this world and lose.

This song speaks of life as a kind of spiraling climb between cross and glory. As the spiritual says, “Every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the Cross.”


Hedonism – This is the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. It comes from the Greek word hēdonē, meaning “pleasure” and is akin to the Greek hēdys, meaning “sweet.”

Of course pleasure is to be desired and to some degree sought, but it is not the only good in life. Indeed, some of our greatest goods and accomplishments require sacrifice: years of study and preparation for a career; the blood, sweat, and tears of raising children.

Hedonism seeks to avoid sacrifice and suffering at all costs. It is directly opposed to the theology of the Cross. St. Paul spoke in his day of the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Php 3:18–19). He also taught that the cross was an absurdity to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).

Things have not changed, my friends. The world reacts with great indignation whenever the cross or suffering is even implied. So the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask incredulously of the Church, are you saying that a woman who was raped must carry the child to term and cannot abort? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a “gay” person must live celibately and may never “marry” his or her same-sex lover? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world and cannot be aborted and put out of his (more accurately our) “misery”? Yes, we are. Are you saying that a suffering person cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain? Yes, we are.

The shock expressed in these sorts of questions shows how deeply hedonism has infected the modern mind. The concept of the cross is not only absurd, it is downright “immoral” in the hedonist mentality, which sees pleasure as the only true human good. To the hedonist, a life without enough pleasure is a life not worth living, and anyone who would seek to set limits on the lawful (and sometime unlawful) pleasures of others is mean, hateful, absurd, obtuse, intolerant, and just plain evil.

When pleasure is life’s only goal or good, how dare you, or the Church, or anyone seek to set limits on it let alone suggest that the way of the cross is better or required! You must be banished, silenced, and destroyed.

Many faithful Catholics in the pews are deeply infected with the illusion of hedonism and thus take up the voice of bewilderment, anger, and scoffing whenever the Church points to the cross and insists on self-denial, sacrifice, and doing the right thing even when the cost is great. The head wagging in congregations is often visible if a priest dares to preach that abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and contraception are wrong regardless of the cost, or if he speaks about the reality of the cross. The faithful who swim in the waters of a hedonistic culture are often shocked at anything that might limit the pleasure that others want to pursue.

Hedonism makes the central Christian mysteries of the cross and redemptive suffering seem like something from a distant planet or a parallel and strange universe. The opening word from Jesus’ mouth, “Repent,” seems strange to the hedonistic world, which has even reconstructed Jesus Himself to be someone who just wants us to be happy and content. The cry goes up, even among the faithful, doesn’t God want me to be happy? On this basis, all kinds of sinful behavior is supposed to be tolerated because insisting on the opposite is “hard” and because it seems “mean” to speak of the cross or of self-discipline in a hedonistic culture.

Bringing people back to the real Jesus and to the real message of the Gospel, which features the cross as the way to glory, takes a lot of work and a long conversation. We must be prepared to engage in that extended conversation with people.

If You Truly Want to Have Something, Lose It – A Mediation on the Economics of the Kingdom

St. Lawrence Distributing Alms, Fra Angelico

The Feast of St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr, contains an important teaching on the economics of the Kingdom of God. As you might guess, they are quite paradoxical. The teachings come to us both through St. Lawrence’s life and the particular readings selected for his feast.

When a persecution broke out in Rome in 257 A.D. (under Valerian), the Prefect of Rome suspected that the Church had a great fortune hidden away. He ordered Lawrence to bring the Church’s treasure to him. Lawrence promised to do so in three days’ time. Then, going through the city, he gathered together all the poor and sick supported by the Church.

When the Prefect arrived, Lawrence presented them, saying, “This is the Church’s treasure.” In great anger, the Prefect condemned Lawrence to a cruel death: He was tied to an iron grill and gradually roasted over a slow fire. The Lord gave Lawrence so much strength that he is said to have quipped, “Turn me over; I’m done on this side.”

The first economics lesson comes from Lawrence’s response to the Prefect of Rome’s demand: In the Kingdom of God, the most important things aren’t things at all. People—especially the poor, afflicted, and needy—are precious to God. It is our awareness of our own poverty, neediness, and sickness that unlocks the mercy and grace of God.

The second lesson comes from the reading for the Feast of St. Lawrence: If you want to truly have something, give it away.

St. Paul writes,

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. … As it is written: “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” The one who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor. 9:6, 9-10).

Note the promise that if we are generous in sowing the seed of alms to the poor, we will have more, not less. In effect, the Lord teaches that if He can trust us with a small matter like money, He can trust us with larger ones such as the graces that lead to righteousness.

Further, the implied reasoning is that if God can count on us to use something like money well (in accordance with His call to generosity), then He will entrust us with even more money (often giving us more). If we give, God will multiply what we have so that we can give even more. This applies to both money and holiness.

This is also taught in both Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels:

  • Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. (Luke 6:38)
  • Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mat 6:20-21)

We may wonder how we can store treasure in Heaven. Do we send it up in a balloon or a rocket? Surely not. No, we put it in the hands of the poor! In this way, it is stored up in Heaven. Thus Jesus advises,

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).

Worldly wealth will fail us. When it does and our judgment day comes, the needy and poor whom we have assisted will welcome us and tell the Lord to be merciful in judging us. The Lord hears the cries, prayers, and recommendations of the poor. In this world, the poor need us, but in the next (especially on judgment day), we will need them. We are well advised to be generous to the poor, for God rewards us not merely with more money, but with righteousness, which is the only wealth that matters on judgment day.

The Lord also warns,

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:10-12)

Do you want to really have something? Give it away in love; if you are faithful unto the end, it will be yours for eternity. Indeed, it will multiply your fruitfulness. It is what we give away that we truly have. This is what Jesus means when He says, Whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken away from him (Lk 8:18).

How different and paradoxical all this is to our worldly thinking, which too easily thinks of wealth as a zero-sum game: if I give something away, I no longer have it. The Lord, however, refutes that. He says that if you give something away, then you truly have it. Doing so shows that He can trust us; He will respond by multiplying our life, perhaps with grater abundance, but surely with righteousness.

The third lesson comes from the Gospel for the Feast of St. Lawrence: What is true with our wealth is also true regarding our very life.

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life (Jn 12:24-25).

Here is another paradox. Do you really want your life? Is so, then lose it. Die to your present self so that you can become your true self. Stop clinging to your worldly notions about what your life should be about: wealth, power, beauty, popularity. Die to that and rise to something far greater than you could ever ask for or imagine yourself to be. Your greatness is in knowing God and inn being caught up in a deep union with Him.

To attain this, however, you must be as willing to fall to the earth like a seed and die to your current self; then you can rise to something far more glorious. Consider the tiny acorn: It can only become a mighty oak if it falls to the earth and dies to being a mere acorn. This is even more the case with us!

Each of us is a seed of glory, but for the glory to be unlocked we must lose and die to what is. This is not something that waits until the day we physically die. Rather, it refers to a spiritual dying, to self and the priorities of this world, that occurs throughout our life. Only in this way can the Kingdom of God begin bearing true and lasting fruit. Our physical death is only the end of a lifelong process. If we die to this world by detesting its mere trinkets, we attain to the treasure of eternal life. The word “eternal” refers not merely to the length of life, but to its fullness. Lose what is merely passing and partial and gain what is glorious and godly, better and beautiful.

These are the economics of the Kingdom of God. They are paradoxical to be sure, but true and glorious!

A 4th of July Meditation on the Paradox that Freedom Can Only Exist Within Limits

(credit: Rgoogin at Wikipedia)

All across the United States on the Fourth of July, we celebrate freedom. In particular, freedom from tyranny, from government that is not representative, from unchecked power, and from unaccountable sovereigns.

Yet as Christians, we cannot overlook that there are ways of understanding freedom today that are distorted, exaggerated, and detached from a proper biblical, Christian, or Natural Law context. Many modern concepts of freedom treat it as somewhat of an abstraction Yes, many speak of freedom in the abstract and have a hard time nailing down the details. Let’s talk about some of the details.

Most people like to think of freedom as absolute, as in, “No one is going to tell me what to do.” In the end, though, freedom is not absolute; it cannot be. As limited and contingent beings, we exercise our freedom only within limits and within a prescribed context. Pretending that our freedom is absolute leads to anarchy, which then leads to the collapse of freedom into chaos and the tyranny of individual wills locked in power struggles.

Yes, one of the great paradoxes of freedom is that it really cannot be had unless it is limited. Absolute freedom leads to an anarchy under which no one is really free to act. Consider the following:

1. Without traffic laws we would not be free to drive. The ensuing chaos would make it quite impossible, not to mention dangerous. The freedom to drive, to come and go freely, depends on us limiting our freedom through obedience to agreed-upon norms. Only constrained by traffic laws and agreed-upon norms can we really experience the freedom to drive. (See photo at upper right.)
2. Grammar or goofy – Right now I am writing this post in English. I appreciate the freedom we have to communicate and debate. But my freedom to communicate with you is contingent upon my limiting myself within the rules we call grammar and syntax. Were there no rules, I would lose my freedom to communicate with you, and you would not be free to comprehend me. What if I were to say, “Without not calendar if said my you in existential mode or yet,” and you were to respond, “dasja gyuuwe reuwiojlfs”? We might be exercising our “freedom” to say what we please, but our insistence on that absolute freedom would effectively cancel the experience of freedom, for we would not really be communicating. When we demand absolute freedom from the limits of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, we are really no longer free to communicate at all. Anarchy leads not to freedom, but to chaos. (See the video below.)
3. Music or mumble – Once I finish writing this post, I am free to go over to the church and play the pipe organ (which I think I’ll do). But I am only free to do that because I once constrained myself with many years of practice under the direction of a teacher. I am also only free to play if I limit myself to interpreting the musical notation within a set of rules and norms. Within and because of these constraints and rules, I am free to play the organ. I may wish to refuse to follow the rule that one must first switch on the power, but I am not going to get very far or really be free to play unless I obey.

So the paradox of freedom is that we can only experience it by accepting constraints upon it. Without constraints and limits, our ability to act freely is actually hindered.

This is a very important first step in rescuing the concept of freedom from the abstract and experiencing it in the real world. Absolute freedom is not freedom at all. Because we are limited and contingent beings, we can only exercise and experience our freedom within limits.

This is also an important lesson to the modern world. Too many people today push the concept of freedom beyond reasonable bounds. They insist on their right to act, but without accepting the reasonable constraints that make true freedom possible. Many today demand acceptance of increasingly bad and disruptive behavior.

In rejecting proper boundaries, though, we usually see not an increase of freedom but a decrease of it for everyone. Our culture is becoming increasingly litigious as burdensome laws are passed by a “nanny-state” seeking to regulate every small aspect of our lives. Among the sources of the growing number of intrusive laws is people’s refusal to limit their bad behavior, to live up to their commitments, to exercise self-control, or to live within safe and proper norms. Many insist that the solution to protecting them from others who abuse their freedom is more laws. Many have been successful in getting increasingly restrictive laws passed.

Again, the lesson is clear: freedom is not possible without some limits. When reasonable limits are cast aside, the paradoxical result is not more freedom, but far less. Freedom is not absolute. Absolute freedom is not freedom at all; it is the tyranny of chaos and the eventual erosion of freedom.

Alexis De Tocqueville said, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” In America today, we are seeing the erosion of all three of these—in reverse order. Those who want to establish freedom in the abstract will only see that freedom erode.

Jesus and freedom – This leads us to understanding what Jesus meant when He said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

There are many people today who excoriate the Church and the Scriptures as a limit to their freedom. Sadly, quite a number of these are Catholics. To such as these, the Church is trying to “tell them what to do.” Christians are trying “to impose their values on the rest of us.” Now of course the Church cannot really force anyone to do much of anything.

Yes, many claim that the announcement of biblical truth threatens their freedom. Jesus said just the opposite: it is the truth that sets us free. Now the truth is a set of propositions that limits us to some extent. If “A” is true, then “not A” must be false. I must accept the truth and base my life on it in order to enjoy its freeing power. The paradoxical result is that the propositions of the truth of God’s teaching do not limit our freedom; they enhance it.

Image – As we have seen, absolute freedom is not really freedom at all. It is chaos wherein no one can really move. Every ancient city had walls, but they were not so much prison walls as they were defending walls. True, one had to limit oneself by staying within them to enjoy their protection, but within them there was great freedom because one was not constantly fighting off enemies or distracted with fearful vigilance. People were freed to engage in other pursuits, but only within the walls.

Those who claim that the truth of the Gospel limits their freedom might also consider that the world outside God’s truth shows itself to be far less free than it seems.

●  Addictions and compulsions abound in our society.
●  Neuroses and high levels of stress are major components of modern living.
●  A seeming inability to establish and honor lasting commitments has contributed to the breakdown of the family.
●  An apparent obsession with sex has led to widespread STDs, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood (absent fathers), and abortion.
●  Greed and addiction to wealth enslave many in a sort of financial bondage in which they try to maintain a lifestyle they cannot afford and yet are still unsatisfied.

The so-called “freedom” of the modern world (apart from the truth of the Gospel) is far from evident. This bondage also extends to the members of the Church to the extent that we do not seriously embrace the truth of the Gospel and base our lives upon it. The Catechism says rather plainly,

The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (CCC # 1733).

In the end, the paradox proves itself. Only limited freedom is true freedom. Demands for absolute freedom lead to hindered freedom and even outright slavery.

Ponder freedom on this 4th of July. Ponder its paradoxes and accept its limits. Freedom is glorious, but because we are limited and contingent beings, so must our freedom be limited. Finally, ponder this paradoxical truth: the highest freedom is the capacity to obey God.

The Paradoxes of Evangelization: Why Simply Imitating the Worldly Marketing Schemes May Not Be the Answer

J.F. Millet, The Sower

In the Church throughout the world today, we are more focused on evangelization — and rightly so. A huge conference is planned next week in Orlando on the topic. Yes, it is “job one,” and Jesus could not have been clearer: Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:18-20).

However, even as we become more serious and practical about effective evangelization, we must also remember the paradox and the mysteries that underlie the growth of the Kingdom. We can and should strive to learn “best practices,” what makes for dynamic parishes and effective outreach, but even when many of these things are in place (e.g., good liturgy, dynamic preaching, Eucharistic adoration, welcoming parish), growth does not always come; sometimes numbers may even continue to decrease. Conversely, even in parishes where the liturgy is perfunctory, preaching is weak, and devotions are hurried, there may be significant growth. I know parishes that should be growing, but are not; I also know parishes that are growing almost in spite of themselves.

There are mysterious aspects to the growth or decline of the Church. Jesus said,

This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mark 4:26-29).

Thus the Lord teaches that much of the growth in the Kingdom of God is mysterious and works “we know not how.”

Only one thing is clear: we must sow the seed. That’s “job one.” Indeed, we must work ardently to “scatter seed.” By extension, we should do our best to prepare the soil well, and after sowing the seed, cultivate. But much that is mysterious lies beyond our knowledge or control.

Perhaps with this and other things in mind, St. Paul further developed the paradox of God’s ways of reaching the world. What we tend to think is good or bad marketing does not seem to impress God. He delivers to the world a message that is not popular, but because it is of God, wins the day. Consider this passage:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher 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 know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:20ff).

Yes, this passage is certainly a paradox! Consider some of the paradoxical and countercultural ways in which St. Paul says we engage the world:

  1. The cross, not comfort – Many today say that we should speak more tenderly in this tender age. We should be more positive, less demanding, more merciful, more known for what we are for than what we are against. Sugar and honey attract more than do vinegar and gall. But St. Paul and the Holy Spirit didn’t get this memo, for we are exhorted to preach “Christ crucified,” even though this is an absurdity to the world. Let us not forget to manifest our joy, but even in doing so, let us not neglect to embrace the paradox of the cross.
  2. Fools more so than formally educated – Studying and learning have their place. Learn your faith well and be prepared to defend it with patience and love. Parishes need to do a better job of teaching the faith to those who would spread it. But in this, we must not simply equate learning with Godly Wisdom. As St. Paul notes, the early Church did not draw foremost from the educated classes, but rather from the humble, the poor, the ignoble, and the uneducated. They won the ancient world not merely by learning, but also by joy, faith, courageous martyrdom, and simple virtue.
  3. Apologetics but not apologies – Notice that St. Paul accepts that many in the world call us foolish. Apologetics has its place (so that we can reach the reasonable of this world by explaining and setting forth the reasonableness of faith), but as any good apologist knows, apologetics is explaining and defending the faith, not making apologies for it. We run the risk of trying to make the faith too agreeable to others. We can end up subtly watering down truths that challenge or forever delaying the “hard” truths. Jesus started with the hard things. “Repent!” was his opening word. Whatever prudential methods we choose, we cannot through endless prudence forever postpone proclaiming the whole counsel of God, in season and out of season. Some will scoff and say, “This is a hard saying who can endure it?” (John 6:60) A true apologist has not necessarily lost when someone scoffs; he has only lost when he fails to proclaim the whole faith. Scoffers may reconsider; those who reject the truth may repent; but truth unspoken, distorted, or watered down is a total victory for Satan.
  4. Pure more than palatable – Faith that is made too “palatable” is almost certainly not the faith at all. Now this may be in violation of “Marketing 101,” but God is not in receipt of the world’s memos. True evangelization is often paradoxical because it does not fit easily into the tidy categories of marketers and sociologists, who are often horrified at how “off-message” the faith can seem to the modern world. Even in the Church, many demand that the faith be conformed to what the majority of people think. Remember, God has been at this work just a little longer than marketers and publicity folks. His paradoxes have a way of winning the day when the ephemeral and fickle views of the world fade away.

Should we continue to do everything we can to spread the faith in the usual manner using various media, training, and the widest possible exposure? Sure! Today at least, this is how we prepare the soil, sow the seed, and help to cultivate.

However, in humility and serenity, we must also accept that there are mysteries as to what works and what does not. Growth sometimes comes out of nowhere for no discernible reason. God often surprises us with sudden growth spurts that are hard to explain. Meanwhile, we work as best as we can and do what seems wisest.

How about a little humility that allows paradoxical things to work (paradoxical because they do not conform to the rules of the world)? How about a little humility that is willing to listen to God? We are always asking God to bless what we do. Why not (at least occasionally) find out what God is already blessing and do that?

Paradox and mystery may well have a lot more to do with effective evangelization than all our grand plans and glossy marketing.

Lord, we seek a miraculous catch of fish in our day and we are open to surprises. Keep us faithful to your teachings, which are “out of season” today. Help us to cast your nets faithfully and be willing, like Peter, to cast them where you say, often in tension with our own instincts. And, like Peter, may we experience the astonishing miracle of a great catch that will make us fall to our knees in wonderment and humility at the mystery and paradox of your work. Have mercy on us, Lord, and work, often in spite of us, to enrich your kingdom in ways “we know not how.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Is Jesus exhibiting good evangelization here? You decide.

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: Great and Yet Terrifying Blessings

blog10-22-2015Some of God’s gifts come in strange and terrifying packages. The book of Job says,

The earth, though out of it comes forth bread,
is in fiery upheaval underneath (Job 28:2).

It is a fact that we live just above a fiery cauldron separated from us by a thin membrane of earthly crust rife with cracks through which fire routinely flares in volcanoes in fissures, a crust that is always shifting and even shaking violently in earthquakes.

And yet were it not for this violent cauldron beneath us, it seems unlikely that we would have life here at all. Volcanoes and other tectonic activity keep our soil rich and recycled. In this fiery cauldron are brewed some of our most useful minerals and most beautiful gems. Whole island chains and land masses are formed by eruptions and geothermal energy is a resource we have only just begun to tap. Many scientists think that volcanoes had a profound influence on the formation of an atmosphere in the early Earth period and that the molten core of the earth has an important influence on the Van Allen belt, a magnetic field that keeps the harmful portion of the sun’s radiation away from the earth’s surface.

Yes, Job had it right, some of God’s gifts come strange packages. The earth’s capacity to bring forth bread is directly connected to the fact that it is on fire beneath. And yet what a strange and terrifying package this gift comes in! For volcanoes and other seismic activity have claimed an enormous number of lives and a huge amount of property.

Water, too, such a rich source of life and blessing, can also turn in a moment to utterly destroyed life in huge numbers. Floods and tsunamis can sweep away huge areas in a flash.

And yet who could ever deny that without water life would be impossible? Ah, water, nothing more life-giving and nothing more deadly. Yes, some of God’s gifts come in strange and terrifying packages.

I have often wondered why so many cities throughout the world are built on or near floodplains and along the “ring of fire,” with its volcanoes and fault lines. But of course the answer is plain enough: it is in these very areas that some of the richest soil and the greatest resources are to be found.

God’s and nature’s most life-giving gifts are but a few degrees separated from disaster and instant death. We live on the edge of an abyss because that is where life is found.

Such a thin line, really. Mors et vita duello, conflixere mirando! (Death and life compete in a stupendous conflict!)  To live is to cheat death.

All the basic elements and forces: earth, air, water, and fire are so death-dealing and yet so life-giving; somehow they are all part of the great cycle of living and dying that God intends.

Only God is existence itself; the rest of us are contingent beings and part of a cycle. Only in union with Christ, who said, I am the life, will we ever cheat death. As Fulton Sheen once said, “Christ gave the earth the only serious wound it ever received, the wound of an empty tomb.” And with Christ, and only with Christ, will we one day give the earth that same wound.

For now, we live above the cauldron upon a thin crust; beneath us burns a tremendous fire. But somehow, mysteriously, it is the source of our bread.

The earth, though out of it comes forth bread,
is in fiery upheaval underneath (Job 28:2).

Yes, some of God’s greatest gifts come in strange and terrifying packages.