Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Catholic Carnival #141 Is Up!

Matthew at "Be the Dad" has posted the latest Catholic Carnival here. Be sure to check it out!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Summer in Senegal

The heat of the day was still steaming in waves off the sand as the plane descended, touching down upon the Senegalese countryside. I was barely twenty, and was about to begin a year of internship at a mission school. By day I taught ESL and helped as I could around the school. Nights and weekends I studied French, explored the city, and became active at the mission church, Mission Uni Mondial (United World Mission).

The leadership of the small cement-block chapel had within the past few years transitioned from mission to national control. Pastor Jose and his wife Frans-Lise, along with the associate Pastor Timothy, had been asking God to send them someone who could play the electronic keyboard for worship services. It seemed that I was to be the answer to that prayer.

And in a funny way, they were the answer to mine as well. Six college students -- two women from Nigeria, plus four men from Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, and Camaroon -- made up the rest of the band, and together we traveled out in the bush from time to time for evangelistic concerts. (I couldn't say much, but managed to keep up with the driving percussion section.) The songs themselves were French translations of the hymns I knew by heart ... though they sounded nothing like the reverent vespers I sang as a child. A full percussion section drove the strings and bass, with vocalists swaying and carrying the tune with a high-pitched falsetto that initially grated on my ears ... and I'm sure would have assaulted the sensibilities of the original composers. But it was the sound of Africa, plain and simple.


That year was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Later, I majored in international studies and communications, and came to understand some of the sociological nuances of cross-cultural relations. I learned first-hand how deeply held convictions can be shaken to the core when confronted with those who do not share the same assumptions. Even more significant, I learned how cultural biases color religious sensibilities. While Jesus came to save the whole world, each culture tends to interpret that message through the lens of their collective experience.

For example, shortly after I made friends with these college students it came to my attention that each of them were able to attend the University of Dakar because their respective countries had fronted the money for their education with the understanding that they would return and work off their debt in service -- those who had received a medical degree would work for a government clinic, those who had studied foreign languages in the diplomatic corp, and so on. I also saw that, at least in Senegal, manual labor was considered demeaning, and so it was often the women who were forced to support their families through domestic service. This inequity bothered me. Weren't the men ashamed to force their wives to tie their children to their backs and scrub floors on hands and knees, while they lounged at home?

I was commenting on this to my new friends, who happened to be at my home one evening for dinner (I introduced them to the wonders of spaghetti). "Tell me, Rene," I said to the one who was usually most amiable and patient with my linguistic faux pas. "What is it that motivates you to study so hard and try to better your situation, when you will be forced to support a large number of idle relatives, many of whom are perfectly capable of working but refuse?"

He looked at me sharply, and hesitated. I could see he was trying to give me the benefit of the doubt ... but could not find the basis for it. Finally, he sputtered, "How can you call yourself a Christian and be unwilling to take care of your own family? I've never heard of such a thing!"

How I wished at that moment I could slurp my words back into my mouth as readily as those noodles. I was grateful when someone else turned the conversation, leaving me to ponder what I had just learned.

L'Estranger... Encore!

Fast forward a decade or so, and I found myself on the edge of bridging yet another cultural divide -- this one even more complex than what I had experienced in Senegal because it involved changing not just cultures but allegiances. Intellectually I was confident that I was making the right choice; emotionally, I was back on the plane, looking out the window at the unfamiliar landscape as I prepared to walk away from everything that was familiar and safe. It was the right thing to do ... still, I lingered at the edge of my seat, a lump in my throat. And in the stillness, I remembered the haunting little melody based on Psalm 23 that had become especially dear to me while tinkling the ivories out in the African bush.

L’Eternel est mon Berger ! De rien je ne manque;

L'Eternel est mon Berger, de rien je ne manquerai....

(The Eternal One is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need.

The Eternal One is my Shepherd, there is nothing more I want.)

And so, today when I came across this rendition of the "Our Father," sung by Father HoLung and the Missionaries of Charity, I understood that the images of the exuberant singing, and of the joyful procession all the way up to the altar would be disturbing to some.

But when I read of this priest's work among the poor and marginalized, I couldn't help it. I just had to sing along. (For those who are interested, here is more about the Missionaries to the Poor. Here is also a link from EWTN on a related story.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lambs Among Wolves

“I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;and greet no one along the way.Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him;but if not, it will return to you….”

From today’s Gospel reading: Luke 10:1-9

In both readings today, we are reminded that those who teach the faith will experience resistance … and that this resistance may come from an unexpected corner: from those who already profess belief. In the first reading (from 2 Timothy 4:10-16), we read that “Alexander the coppersmith” resisted the teaching of the Apostle Paul with such eloquence that he lured others away from the faith as well. In the words of St. Paul, the coppersmith “did me great harm.”

Why would Alexander – or anyone else, for that matter – be so presumptuous? Why didn’t he recognize and submit to St. Paul’s apostolic authority? Clearly, the man had his own “agenda,” his own sphere of influence he was determined to defend.

The human story is full of such political intrigue: alliances and power struggles, battles fought with words intended to wound or destroy not only the opponent’s argument, but his or her reputation as well. We get the sense that there were times when even the Apostle Paul experienced this kind of betrayal … “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me!”

How painful this must have been for Paul, to experience this kind of betrayal! Calling for his parchments (written documents) and papyrus scrolls, he set about conveying his teachings through a more lasting method: writing them down. By this response, the apostle teaches by example an important spiritual principle: Sometimes God leads His people by opening doors … other times, by allowing obstacles to be placed in the path so that we choose a different door.

Pathways of Charity

In the Gospel, the Lord warns that He sends His followers “like lambs among wolves.” Indirectly He also hints at “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” those who tear down and divide the flock from within. He offers away that His children can recognize like-minded souls: the mutual exchange of peace. Love lived out in humble service.

This has practical applications for us. In our efforts to “defend the faith,” do we couch our arguments hoping others will admire our well-polished intellect? Or do we harbor a shameful tendency to build up our own reputations at the expense of other believers – or, worse, those who are still searching for the fullness of the truth?

Do we practice humility, recognizing that when all is said and done we are primarily students, not teachers? Do we eagerly search for (and pick apart) minor flaws in another’s viewpoint, instead of trying to learn from another’s insights?

Is our highest priority being faithful to the task God has given us, or are we preoccupied with our reward—whether financial, emotional, or relational? (A fellow blogger reminded me of this recently, wisely advising me to focus on writing quality content, and trust God to get that word into the right hands.)

“Knowledge puffs up; love grows up.” Our first parents were separated from God because they chose to eat from the “tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Gen 2:17), choosing the desire to be like God over the desire to know God. And so, as St. Paul reminds us, the surest pathway to sanctity … is charity.

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:4-12

Friday, October 12, 2007

Healing Thoughts

One of my greatest pleasures as a parent has been teaching my children the little songs my mother taught me. She never did it by halves -- her songs always had energetic hand and body movements, and dramatic intonations. There was no mumbling into a hymnbook; we sang each word ... as if we meant it. (What a concept.)

One of my favorites was about a wise man and a foolish man, who each built a house. The wise man built his house on the rock ... whereas the foolish one built on sand. You may remember what happened next ...

The rains came down and the floods came up.
The rains came down and the floods came up.
The rains came down and the floods came up.
But the house on the rock stood FIRM! (the sandy one went SMASH!)

Poor foolish man. He started with a dreamy seaside retreat, and wound up with an expensive pile of tooth picks.

The song concluded, "Soooo... build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ... and the blessings will come down (as the prayers go up)."

It wasn't until many years later that I realized that the song always ended prematurely. We never sang about the house "built on the Lord Jesus Christ" being subjected to those pesky rains and floods. It was as if we couldn't bring ourselves to admit that, sooner or later, the rains and floods always come. Even for those who build their life "on the Lord Jesus Christ."

There was a time when I thought that being a Christian meant that I would always get the happy ending to every story, so long as I followed Christ. I'm not sure where that idea came from, since I had witnessed terrible suffering. One case in particular made a lasting impression.

My mother's dear friend, Aunt Rosemary, contracted ALS in her mid-thirties. This vivacious, gentle lady went from chasing butterflies with us to smiling from her wheelchair ... to lying in bed, painfully spelling out each word with blinks of her eye.

Once night my mother met my father at the door in tears. That morning in Bible study (which was held at Rosemary's house), one woman felt "led" to pray for healing for Rosemary. The group gathered around the woman in the wheelchair, and waited expectantly for her to leap up. When nothing happened, they all sat around and discussed what might be keeping God from answering their prayer.

Finally, someone got a "word from the Lord": The reason Rosemary wasn't healed was because she had unconfessed sin in her life. At this point in the story, mom started crying again as she told my father what had happened. "It was like a flock of chickens, picking at the weak one! All of them gathered around her, and started questioning her. What was she hiding? Was she angry with God? Was she harboring doubts about Him? I didn't know what to do. They made Rosemary cry ... but they never did find out what the sin was."

It wasn't long before women started dropping out of the study. It was too hard to reconcile their belief in a loving, benevolent, healing God ... with what was happening to their friend.

Years later, I took a graduate course on the sacraments, and asked the priest whether he had ever healed someone through the sacrament of anointing. "Physical healing? No ... I don't think so," Father admitted. This flabbergasted me, since I had witnessed (and one time actually experienced) faith healing, through the laying-on of hands in charismatic churches. Why didn't the anointing of the sick work the same way, if Christ intended it to be a sacrament of healing?

The priest didn't say anything at first. He closed his eyes and let his chin sag to his chest, and stood there for quite some time -- praying for inspiration, I think. Finally, he said,

"Physical healing is not the most important way God heals people. It is at best a temporary 'fix.' Those who were healed by Christ Himself ... even Lazarus, raised from the dead ... they died sooner or later. As Catholics we believe that suffering is not without purpose. No, the greatest healing is not physical, but spiritual.

"Those who receive the anointing of the sick are reconciled with God, and strengthened spiritually for whatever might lie ahead. For some, it is more suffering. For others, it is the cessation of all suffering -- through death. Jesus used physical healing as a sign, to draw the people to Him so they would hear what He wanted to teach them. The healing did not last -- but that life was changed forever by the transforming power of faith."
In today's Gospel, we read of an encounter between Jesus and the crowd, who claimed that the source of Jesus' power was devilish, evil. Jesus replied,

“Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste
and house will fall against house.
And if Satan is divided against himself,
how will his kingdom stand?....
But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons,
then the Kingdom of God has come upon you." Luke 11:15-26
It was never Jesus' ability to work miracles that was in question, but the source of His power. For us, the question is not "Does God heal people today?" Of course He does, often through people -- whether through doctors using conventional medicine, priests administering the sacraments, or even "faith healers."

No, the question is not, "Does God want to heal me?" but "How am I most in need of healing?"

Or perhaps more to the point, "What will do my soul the most good?" Our bodies will not last forever. It is the state of our souls that must concern us most. And so, we need to avail ourselves of every means God has provided in the sacraments of healing -- Eucharist, reconciliation, and anointing -- to keep that which will never die in good working order.

"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But only say the word, and I shall be healed."

Friday, October 05, 2007

"Amazing Grace" ... Is It Really?

Sarah was a little over two years old when we took her to the baptism of her cousin, whose family is Lutheran. We arrived late, and managed to find two seats in the back by crawling over the laps of two pinch-lipped elderly matrons, who clearly disapproved of our being there at all.

The sermon that day went a little long, and Sarah quickly grew bored. We passed her back and forth for a few minutes, feeding her Cheerios and turning pages of board-books. One of them contained a large picture of Jesus, and when we reached that page, Sarah found her voice.

“Ama-sing gwace, ah ee ah ah…” she began. I hushed her. She grew louder. “Ah wah ha ha, la dah, dah, dah…” As I hastily gathered our things to make a speedy retreat, Sarah got in her big finish. “Wah spine, hah how I-meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

I thought the old ladies’ eyes were going to pop out of their sockets. I was just glad to get my daily dose of humiliation out of the way so early in the day. (Hah.)

Amazing Grace … for Catholics

While some Catholics denounce the propriety of singing songs like “Amazing Grace” in a Catholic Mass, discounting them as “unsingable” or “Protestant,” there is another way of looking at this. In a nutshell, many of these songs -- Amazing Grace among them -- take on fresh meaning once the full light of faith shines upon them.

While this isn’t true for converts from all denominations, I grew up in a church in which hymn singing was a highly “formative” occupation, theologically speaking (that and “Bible drills” in Sunday school). As a result, these songs are an important part of my spiritual heritage. Indeed, these hymns frequently express truths about life and faith in God that can enrich Catholic communities as much as Protestant ones.

The question we need to ask ourselves is not whether a particular song is “Protestant,” but whether the ideas it expresses are true. We know that, by virtue of their baptism, all Christians are part of the Body of Christ (though some are united imperfectly). Even those who have not embraced the fullness of the faith are capable of capturing a glimpse of the spiritual life that Catholic Christians do well to consider for themselves. Because of their love for the Word of God, and their familiarity with it, Protestant hymns are saturated with themes and metaphors from the Bible. This is the source of power to transform the human soul.
Not "Is It Protestant," but "Is It TRUE?"

The greatest error of the Protestant Reformation -- the error that is at the root of all theological error -- was spiritual and intellectual pride. This pride prevented them from submitting to the authority of Rome and the teaching of the Fathers. For many converts, conversion takes place only after this kind of pride is systematically dismantled, returning us to a childlike state of acceptance and humility as we journey toward the Vigil.

Speaking only for myself, it was when I was in this childlike state that the hymns of the faith of my childhood took on new meaning.

“T'is grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace that fear relieved.”

As I progressed through RCIA, I came to understand that grace is not dependent on feelings, or even on our awareness of it being present. That is, the graces of baptism of the infant operate in that young soul (and continues to operate into adulthood) regardless of whether there appears to be any change.

As we grow older and deeper in faith, however, there are times when we are more cognizant of how that grace operates within us. It is this grace that enables us to mature in faith. It is grace that illuminates the intellect, and teaches us about God's power and his mercy (fearful heart vs. relieved heart). And in that transforming process, we realize what a gift God’s grace is.
“How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

Believe it or not, this is a line that I sang with even greater fervor after I became Catholic. It was God's grace -- nothing more, nothing less -- that enlightened my mind and heart to receive the fullness of the truth, and to believe that the Catholic Church was truly the Church founded by Christ. It took more than simple intellectual reflection. It required a paradigm shift of the will and the heart. It took a true leap of faith.

My friends, intellectual and spiritual pride that blinded me for so long ... even though I had followed God all my life, it took a supernatural work of grace to unstop my spiritual ears and remove the blinders.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, t'was blind but now I see.”

Unfortunately, this spiritual and intellectual pride afflicts Christians on both sides of the church divide. It is this kind of affliction that keeps some Catholics from experiencing all the joy and life God wants to give them. Joy (as opposed to "emotionalism") rooted in truth, and watered with humility and faith.

Thank God that in His wisdom, He provided the means to remove this pride at the root, in the sacrament of reconciliation.

So next time you hear the song, go ahead and sing about that Amazing Grace!

P.S. In one of my discussion groups, someone pointed out that the word "wretch" like me is a reference to the Calvinist belief in total depravity. Here was my reply:

"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." Believing this -- that we cannot save ourselves, and that we need the saving graces of the work of Christ (which we believe are imparted through the teachings and sacraments of the Church) -- does not make us Calvinists. It makes us Christian.

It is true that John Newton was a Calvinist, and it may be that Calvinists put a particular mental spin on it as they sing (with regard to total depravity). We don't share that theological perspective ... but for all the reasons I've already written, the song itself is a powerful testimony to God's goodness. It's sad that Newton didn't come to understand the full truth of God's amazing grace in his lifetime. But the song itself is not problematic.

In the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." Newton saw "darkly" and "partly" because he was detached from the fullness of the truth, entrusted to the Catholic Church.

For all the reasons I've already mentioned, I sing the song with greater fervor -- not less -- because I have experienced that grace in ways Newton never did. And when we all get to heaven ... oh, what a chorus THAT will be!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Lunch with Elisabeth Elliot: Reprised

I stumbled on this exchange on "The Kid Sister of Blessed Imelda" by chance tonight, and thought I should follow up a little more visible (e.g. on my own blog) regarding the article I wrote about my lunch with Elisabeth Elliot, many years ago now. Here's the link to the article (which also appeared on Catholic Exchange.)

Most people who make the journey to the Church in relative anonymity (myself included) experience a certain amount of pressure from family and friends who neither understand nor approve of the change. It is difficult enough handling this as a private citizen … how much more as such a public figure?

For many people (especially Protestants who cannot imagine such a thing), the temptation will be strong to simply discount what I wrote out of a sense of loyalty and respect for Elisabeth. Indeed, more than once now I have wondered if I showed her the respect I should have by revealing this exchange the way that I did — not because it was untrue, but because I now realize that her interest in “things Catholic” was apparently not as commonly known as I had thought it was. (For those who are interested in reading a different take on her beliefs, here's another article -- this one in a Baptist publication -- I recently encountered. Not nearly as flattering to her, but there it is.)

While I cannot deny that the exchange took place as I said it did, it would grieve me deeply if anyone perceived it as a smudge on this dear woman’s character. She is among the bravest and most devoted of Christian women. If I had it to do over again, I would have concealed her identity better — out of respect for her privacy. Of course, one cannot unring a bell.

I urge readers to consider that the spiritual journey God has prepared for each of us is oftentimes a hidden and intensely private one. Elisabeth is now in the twilight of her life, and has been walking with the Lord faithfully since her earliest years.
In the end, it is not about whether one side or the other can claim her for themselves. It is all about whether, before God, she was faithful to the light she was given. Not by our standards — but by His.

The Catholic Church has always taught that there are those outside the visible parameters of the Church who are united by virtue of baptism into the same Body of Christ. Whether or not Elisabeth ever enters into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, she is a true daughter of God. She is not a coward … nor is she the kind of woman to speak idle words she did not mean. (Several have asked me if she was “just being kind.” Anyone who knew Elisabeth even casually would know better.)

Someday in heaven, when denominational affiliations and petty arguments have long since ceased to matter, when we are all perfected and perfectly united as God intended from the beginning, I hope we can all sit down with Elisabeth and have a cup of tea with her, and ask her to recount the final chapter of her faith journey. I think we will all be amazed … and humbled … by what she has to say.

Myself included.

Catholic Carnival #139 Is Up!

Please stop by and visit "Just Another Day of Catholic Pondering." Sarah has just finished her usual excellent job of compiling the best and freshest of Catholic blogging into one highly readable and enjoyable e-zine.