Things Are Often Not as They Seem – A Lesson from the Life of Moses

moses-0715We are currently reading the story of Moses in daily Mass. The story reminds us that not all things are as they appear, and that God’s ways are not our ways.

Moses’ early years are marked with clear signs that he is gifted and chosen. Drawn from the water by Pharaoh’s own daughter, Moses’ very own mother is chosen to be his caretaker and is paid for that privilege by getting to live in Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh pays for Moses’ diapers, his food, and his education. And he is unwittingly preparing and equipping his nemesis. God can be very sly!

But at age forty, Moses gets ahead of God (never a good idea). He grows angry at an Egyptian who is oppressing a Hebrew and ends up killing the Egyptian. Moses has to flee.

Now why has God let this happen? From our perspective, Moses was in the prime of his life. At forty, he has experience but has not lost his youth. He is educated, gifted, and has access to power and lots of connections in Pharaoh’s own palace. Moses is in a perfect position to lead the people out of slavery! Or so we think. Except for one problem: God doesn’t think so.

But why not? In a word, pride. Moses, in getting out ahead of God and trying to take things in his own hands, is exhibiting pride. God says, in effect, “You’re too proud. I can’t use you in this condition. It’s time for some lessons in humility.”

And so Moses learns humility. He is forced to flee (humiliating). He must live out in the desert (humbling). And he marries and has children (quite humbling indeed! J).

Ok, so a few years’ worth of humility lessons and then Moses gets started. No, not a few, forty years’ worth!

Now Moses is eighty. He’s feeble, leaning on a staff, and he stutters when he talks. And God comes and tells Moses that it’s time to lead the people out. Moses says, in effect, “Are you crazy? I’m old, I can’t speak, I’m feeble … I can’t do it.” And that’s just the attitude that God needs from Moses: that he can’t do it. And he couldn’t do it at forty, either; he just didn’t know it. God has to do it and Moses will be His instrument. But now this instrument will be docile in the hands of the artist, now Moses can be useful to God.

This is not the way we think. We equate ability and leadership with vigor, power, money, access, talent, etc. For us, the prime of life is in our thirties, forties, and fifties. But God’s ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts. Moses at eighty is what God needs. Moses at forty was not of use.

What are some conclusions we can draw?

First, be careful how you assess your own life. In typical earthly fashion most of us consider our prime as being those years when we were most in command of our gifts, when we were working, “making a difference,” earning an income. We measure human life in its prime in terms of money, power, access, physical strength, stamina, etc.

But has it occurred to us that our most powerful moments might be on our deathbed? For there we have many sufferings to offer and our prayers will pierce the clouds as never before. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the suffering, and the repentant.

I often counsel the bedridden, and the dying in this way: I tell them that we are depending on their prayers as never before because their prayers are more important than ever before. And even if they have a hard time, because of age and discomfort, formulating prayers, just one word on our behalf, “Help!” may change the history of the world. St. Augustine said, More is accomplished in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words (Letter to Proba).

Yes, be very careful how you assess your life’s worth. Our math is not God’s math; our thoughts are not His. God sizes us up quite differently.

Second, be careful how you assess the lives of others. Here, too, we tend to value those people who are powerful, have money, strength, beauty, talents, and “obvious” gifts. But the Lord warns us in many places that we should esteem the poor, the disabled, and the suffering. He says, Many who are last shall be first (Matt 19:30).

God also counsels that we ought to make friends among the needy and poor by our use of worldly wealth, so that when worldly wealth fails us (and it will), the poor and needy, those who benefitted from our generosity, will welcome us to eternal dwellings (See Lk 16:9).

Yes, befriend the needy, the disabled, and the poor. In this world they need us, but in the next world, we are going to need them! Those who have suffered and those who were poor due to injustice, if they have been faithful, are going to be in high places in Heaven. We’re going to have to get an appointment to see them! Things are not always as they appear. The poor, the disabled, and the suffering are quite often among the real powerhouses of this world.

So pay attention to what the story of Moses tells us. Not as man sees does God see (1 Sam 16:7). We are vainglorious and we look to worldly power and its categories. God is not impressed with our sandcastles, our big brains, and our bulging muscles. He bids us in stories like these to say, with St. Paul, Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:10).

Things are often not as they appear to us. Put on your “God glasses” and by God’s grace see more as He sees.

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. 
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.

On the Paradoxical Connection Between Love, Law and Joy – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

In the Sunday Gospel, Jesus cuts right through the modern Western tendency to place love in opposition with law, and law in opposition with joy. Jesus joins all three concepts and summons us to a new attitude.

I. Announcement of the Principle – Jesus says, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.

Note how the Lord joins the three concepts of love, law, and joy. This is precisely the opposite of what Western culture does. The best that Western culture will admit of law is that it is a necessary evil; more routinely it is viewed as an unloving imposition by the powerful on the weak, the hierarchy on the laity, the (evil, oppressive, pharisaical) Church on decent people.

Whereas the modern world disconnects law from love, Jesus links them. How do we both experience and show God’s love? Jesus says that we do so by keeping His commandments. He sets forth a vision whereby we, having experienced God’s love, desire and rejoice in His commands. 

Again, this is quite contrary to modern notions. According to the modern world, a “loving” God has few or no rules. He merely affirms, encourages, accepts, and includes—or so goes the thinking. If someone is confronted by a moral truth that displeases them, their retort may be as simplistic as “God is love.” It implies that God does mind what we do since he is loving and merciful. It also confuses love with mere kindness. Kindness is an aspect of Love, but so is rebuke and correction. No loving parents will simply affirm bad behavior in their children. They will correct them, and, if necessary punish them because they love them. 

Jesus too is  surely loving, especially of sinners. He encourages us, he includes the outcast, and so forth, but He also speaks of sin and rebukes it. He embraces the sinner but directs him to “Sin no more.” He sets forth a demanding moral vision even as He shows mercy. In this Gospel, Jesus joins love and the law, saying that the law brings joy. They are not opposed. It is not an either/or, but a both/and. Jesus was not just the “affirmer in chief” who went about saying nothing but pleasant things. He, and his apostles who spoke for him, also speaks against anger, greed, malice, neglect of the poor, divorce, fornication, adultery, impure thoughts, homosexual acts, lack of faith, revenge, dishonesty, the sin of human respect, false and worldly priorities, and countless other matters.

II. Application of the Principle – The two greatest Commandments that summarize the whole law are to Love God and to love our neighbor. Hence,  to further connect the Law and the Love of God,  we should consider that when we love the Lord, and his love remains in us, that we will love what he loves and who he loves. Hence, with the Lord’s love in us we will love justice, chastity, forgiveness, generosity, and so forth. We will also come to love others more deeply, even those that trouble us. So there comes to us a deep love of the Commandments when we truly love God. We can say, “God has been good to me and I love him. If God wants it, I want it too. If God doesn’t want it neither do I.”  Hence, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”

As for the love of neighbor, here too, the Commandments are essential. They foster a common moral vision that helps us to live together, protect the vulnerable (especially children) and live within accepted boundaries. Good fences make good neighbors and God’s commandments set proper limits and delineate expectations and rights for communal living. Accepting and living the Commandments brings blessings and averts a lot of trouble. We do not keep the Commandments merely for our own sake, but for our families, community, Church and nation. So, keeping the Commandments is a way of loving our neighbor.

Though some see the Commandments as prison walls, they are not. They are defending walls that keep the wolf and devourer, the devil, away.  This too is a way of showing love for our neighbor. What ever we can do to limit the devil’s influence is a blessing not only for us but for others.

III. The Animation of the PrincipleIn the today’s Gospel, not only does Jesus link love to the keeping of the commandments, but also says that the keeping of the commandments leads to joy: I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.

Of this, I am a witness. When I entered the Seminary nearly forty years ago I was poorly catechized (having been largely reared in the 1970s). I don’t think I could even have listed most of the the Ten Commandments. But as I entered I was amazed at the rich legacy of teaching, truth and wisdom that came from the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church I was studying. God’s truth and law made sense, it was practical, good, true and beautiful. I was animated, thrilled in my soul to learn of it and somewhat angry at how much was denied me in the crazy 1970s. In my life now, I rejoice to study God’s law and truth, to preach it and teach it to others. In it are contained saving truths, and truths that explain the purpose of our life. So many today live without real meaning, and they focus on passing things and fads. But God’s Law is tested and true. It has endured because it makes sense and works. I am mindful of the words of Baruch: Happy are we O Israel, for what pleases God is known to us! (Bar 4:4)

Indeed, O Lord, how I love your law! It is the joy and center of my life. It gives me understanding and purpose. It teaches me your wisdom and summons me to be the man you created me to be. Yes, Lord, it is my immense joy and privilege to proclaim your Law in the great assembly and joyfully announce your wisdom and your decrees. Keep me faithful Lord unto death. 

The Law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The precepts of the LORD are right,
bringing joy to the heart;
the commandments of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the judgments of the LORD are true,
and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.

By them indeed Your servant is warned;
in keeping them is great reward.

Psalm 19: 6-11

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.”

 

Paradoxes of Evangelization

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; it works “we know not how.”

Perhaps with this and other things in mind, St. Paul further developed the paradox in today’s first reading (Friday of the 21st Week of the Year) of God’s ways of reaching the world. What we tend to think is good “marketing” does not seem to impress God. He delivers to the world a message that is not popular, but because it is of Him it 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).

Consider some of the paradoxical and countercultural ways in which St. Paul says that must we engage the world:

  • The cross, not comfort – Many people today say that we should speak more tenderly. We should be more positive, less demanding, and more merciful. We should strive to be known more for what we are for than what we are against. It is said that honey attracts more than vinegar, but clearly St. Paul and the Holy Spirit don’t agree, 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.
  • 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. However, we must not 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, and the uneducated. They won the ancient world not merely by learning, but also by joy, faith, courageous martyrdom, and simple virtue.
  • 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 it involves explaining and defending the faith, not making apologies for it. It is easy to make the mistake of trying to make the faith agreeable to others, watering down truths that challenge or forever delaying talking about the “hard” truths. Jesus started with the hard things. “Repent!” was His opening word. Whatever 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.
  • Pure more than palatable – “Marketing 101” principles would say that in order to sell our “product” we should try to make it palatable to our target audience. However, faith that is made too palatable is almost certainly not the faith at all. True evangelization 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 people demand that the faith be conformed to what the majority of people think. Remember, God has been at this 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 through various media, dynamic training opportunities, and trying to get 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 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 must 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 campaigns.

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 to be willing, like Peter, to cast them where you say even if it does not agree 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 wonder 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.

Paradoxes of Freedom (part 1 of 3): True Freedom Is Found in Obedience

As Independence Day approaches, we do well to ponder some of the characteristics of true freedom, which is to be distinguished from the false notion of freedom espoused by many today. Today’s post is the first in a series of three on this topic.

Let’s begin by noting that most people in modern times speak of freedom in a detached sense. To them, freedom  means the ability to do whatever they please with few if any limits. This libertine, often-licentious notion of freedom more often than not leads to addiction and oppression.

For many in the world, then, freedom is always from something, but for a Christian, freedom is always for something.

The Christian, biblical understanding of freedom is the capacity, the ability, to obey God. Pairing freedom and obedience seems paradoxical to many in the world!

Abusing our freedom by focusing it on sin leads to slavery and addiction to sin. Jesus said, Whoever sins is the slave of sin (Jn 8:34). Indeed, among the great struggles of this modern age is addiction. Freely indulging our desires to excess often leads to them becoming necessities that soon come to possess us.

Indulging sinful desires also facilitates a growing attitude that sin is inevitable and that the call to biblical morality is overly idealistic, even impossible. Yes, expecting people to moderate their passions and desires, to live soberly and chastely, and to uphold marriage vows or to live in perpetual continence if not married—all of which were a short time ago considered normal moral imperatives—is now seen as oppressive, triggering, bigoted, hateful, and sometimes even criminal.

This certainly doesn’t sound like freedom to me. Rather, these false notions put forth seem like they are coming from people who are trapped by their sinful drives. The language used bespeaks incapacity, sloth, and a kind of despair that demands that we define sin and deviancy down. In this way Jesus words are proved true: Whoever sins is a slave of sin (Jn 8:34).

St. Paul adds this:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Despairing and having lost all sense of shame, they have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity, with a craving for more. But this is not the way you came to know Christ … Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor (Eph 4:17-19, 25).

This is why the Christian notion of liberty and freedom is so important for us to get right: True freedom is the capacity, the ability, to obey God. In obeying God, we are truly free because each of us becomes the man or woman He created us to be. The very nature He gave us is perfected by the freeing obedience of faith.

What the world calls freedom is actually a licentiousness that approves many sins. It becomes a slavery that says, “I can’t, and I won’t.” It is a false liberty because it implicitly protests its inability to live out even the most ordinary moral norms and truths. It is a wolf in the sheep’s clothing of tolerance, diversity, acceptance, and false compassion. Liberty was not found in the fields of Woodstock or on the streets of Haight-Ashbury. The “Summer of Love” ushered in innumerable crosses: sexually transmitted diseases, single mothers/absent fathers, abortion, the hyper-sexualization of children, and recently the many cries of sexual abuse and harassment from the #MeToo movement. There’s no freedom here, just a lot of out-of-control behavior leading to sorrow, alienation, and even death through the horror of abortion.

Does this sound like freedom? Not to me!

Jesus counsels the remedy:

“If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (Jn 8:31-32, 35).

True freedom is found in the paradox of obedience to the Lord, who is Truth. Beware the false freedom that enslaves. Come to Him; obey Him through grace and find the true and glorious freedom of the children of God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Paradoxes of Freedom (part 1 of 3): True Freedom Is Found in Obedience

Less is More, as Seen in a Commercial

There is an old saying that sometimes “less is more.” In other words, at some point excess becomes burdensome and pointless.

In the commercial below, the upgrades to mowing equipment begin as helpful, but end as silly and even dangerous. Meanwhile, the poor wife struggles with an “upgraded” watering can that is downright burdensome.

One of the secrets of life is learning to enjoy things in moderation. A glass of wine brings joy; a full bottle brings inebriation and a hangover. A nice dinner is satisfying, but too much food brings obesity and even disease.

What in your life has become excessive? Where have you come to realize that less is in fact more?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Less is More, as Seen in a Commercial

Paradoxes of Christmas

j-and-m-and-jIn the ancient Church and up until rather recently, one genuflected at the two references to the Incarnation during the Mass: during the Creed and in the Last Gospel (John 1). Why was this done? It was explained to me that the mystery of the Incarnation is so deep, one can only fall in silent reverence.

There are many paradoxes and seeming impossibilities in the Incarnation. They cannot be fully solved, so they claim our reverence. We genuflected in the past, and today we bow at the mention of the Incarnation in the Creed, for it is a deep mystery.

As we continue to celebrate Christmas, I would like to list some of the paradoxes of Christmas. I want to say as little about them as possible—just enough to make the paradox clear. This paucity of words (not common with me) is in reverence for the mystery and also to invite your reflection.

  1. The Infinite One becomes an infant.
  2. An antiphon for the Christmas season says, How can we find words to praise your dignity O Virgin Mary, for he whom the very heavens cannot contain, you carried in your womb.
  3. An old Latin carol (in Dulci Jublio) says, Alpha et O, Matris in Gremio (Alpha and Omega, sitting in Mommy’s lap).
  4. He who looks down on all creation looks up to see His Mother. The most high looks up from a cradle. Of this moment, even the pagans wrote with longing and tenderness: Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem … ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores, occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni occidet (Begin, little boy, to recognize the face of your mother with a smile … for you, your own cradle will bear delightful flowers; the serpent will die and the plant that hides its venom) – Virgil 4th Eclogue.
  5. He who indwells all creation is born in homelessness, no place to dwell.
  6. He, to whom all things in Heaven and on earth belong, is born in poverty and neediness.
  7. He is the mighty Word through whom all things were made. He is the very utterance of God, the Voice which summons all creation into existence. Of this Word, this Utterance, this Voice, Scripture says, The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, upon many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful, the voice of the LORD is full of majesty … The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness … The voice of the LORD makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare; and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (Ps. 29) Yet this voice is now heard as the cooing and crying of an infant.
  8. His infant hand squeezes His mother’s finger. From that infant hand, the universe tumbled into existence. That same hand is steering the stars in their courses.
  9. He who holds all creation together in Himself (Col 1:17) is now held by His Mother.
  10. He who is the Bread of Life is born in Bethlehem (House of Bread) and lies in a feeding trough (manger).
  11. He who is our sustainer and our food is now hungry and fed by His Mother.
  12. Angels and Archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air! But only his mother in her maiden bliss, could worship the beloved with a kiss (Christina Rosetti “In the Bleak Midwinter”).

Each of these is meant to be a meditation on the great mystery of the Incarnation. Please chime in with your additions to this list!

A paradox is something that defies intuition or challenges the common way of thinking. It unsettles us or startles us into thinking more deeply. The word paradox comes from the Greek para (beside, off to the side, or above) and dokein (to think or to seem). Hence a paradox is something “off to the side” of the usual way of seeing or thinking about things. If you’re going to relate to God you’re going to deal with a lot of paradox, because God’s ways and His thinking often defy those of humans. God is not irrational but He often acts in ways that do not conform to worldly expectations.

This Christmas, consider these paradoxes and learn from them. Remember, though, that mysteries are to be lived more so than solved. Reverence is a more proper response to mystery than is excessive curiosity. More is learned in silence than by many words.