Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The foundation of effective and loving evangelization

Acts 17:15, 22—18:1

In today’s reading Paul is in Athens.  Athens is an interesting city with a fascinating history, and would have been considered that even in Paul’s time.  It was founded 900 BC and to date is the oldest named city in the world, clocking its’ life (today) to the count of 5,000 settled years.  It is a city that is considered the foundation of civilization.  Which, even in the classical times, boasted more rights and democracy than the rest of the civilized world.    In Paul’s time, it was one of the most influential centers of politics, religion, education, and philosophy.  You might say, Paul was preaching in the big house.  Athenians, in general, had a good life and had more opportunity than the rest of the world for education and quality of life.  In other words, it may have been an intimidating place to speak. 

Paul isn’t a slouch though.  We have seen, in previous chapters, Paul reference Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.  (If you don’t know what those are, it’s ok, just know they were popular modes of thought and life style of the time.)  Which means, Paul had a good earthly education as well.  What fascinates me about the way Paul witnesses is his approach, not just here, but consistently through the scripture.  I want to deconstruct it here a little so we might be able to apply it to our own needs as witnesses. 

One of the first thing Paul does is meet his audience where they are and show them that he knows/has interest in them as a people:

 Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said:

"You Athenians, I see that in every respect

you are very religious.

For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines,

Now, let’s look at that.  First of all, the Areopagus (Rock of Ares) in ancient times was an important place where the highest court/counsel in the land met.  (Think the Supreme Court, or Capitol Hill.)  The place he is would contain the aristocratic, the educated, and the cultured people.  Then he speaks.  The first thing he says connects him to them in such a way that they are more prone to listen.  He shows that he knows something about them.  He is showing that he has taken an interest in them as a people.  At this point he could have instantly condemned their idolatry, but he doesn’t.  He opens it up by acknowledging something that, by all rights, they were probably very proud of being.   

The second thing he does is really fascinating:

I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.'

He points out something that is possibly dear to the Athenians, and is at the very least a known factor in their lives.  Think of it as a preacher/teacher mentioning or pointing out some well-known attraction in your home town. Later in the Chapter he also says:

For 'In him we live and move and have our being,'
as even some of your poets have said,

Again, connecting their culture to his message. 

In his physical placement, and then in the first few sentences, Paul has met them where they were, mind, body, and soul.  For the ancient Athenians that had to be attention grabbing.  He was laying a foundation of communication by seeking to speak to them on a level they could understand, because that was where they were.  That was important.  Had he started it off in some other way like, “Listen up, you idolatrizing-false god deceived-gentiles!  You are all about to burn in hell if you don’t pay attention here!”  Likely, his audience would have stopped listening-at best-and at worst they would have become combatant. 

In Paul’s opening example, he is able to establish a dialogue. In the end of the reading we see that, even if people weren’t convinced they were willing to hear more.  Some did follow and believe, but those who didn’t had seeds planted that might have grown into real faith at some point because of the way he presented the information.  What Paul did was loving, patient, kind, and full of faith.  He established a relationship by establishing a non-combative dialogue that contained the truth.  He connects his truth with where they are, what they know, and their culture.

Not only has Paul laid a foundation for them, but he has-if we are paying attention-laid a foundation for us.  His example shows us how we can effectively and lovingly carry the truth to the people around us.  It takes work.  We have to have an interest.  We have to be patient.  If our goal is to reach people though, this is a much better model than condemnation.  Hitting people with the condemnation hammer may feel more powerful to us than meeting people where they are, but it is far less effective and ultimately only satisfies our desire to be “correct” and does not our role of being Christ’s love in the world.

Just some food for thought and prayer.

Here I am, Lord, send me. 


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Real Idolatry

Acts 14: 5-18

I was taking a priest friend of mine out to eat one evening when we happened to drive past a non-denominational church with a giant statue of Jesus in the front yard.  It caught both of our eyes because it was huge, blocky, and had its’ arms extended outward in kind of a ‘zombie’ motif.  After we passed it we were both silent for a few seconds before I said, in a very matter of fact way, “They should save the idolatry for us, we do it better.”  At which point, we both laughed harder than we should at the Catholic “in-joke”. 
The word idolatry gets thrown around in the Christian community willy-nilly.  In the secular world, the buzz word for people who don’t agree with you is “Nazi”.  Any person or political group that doesn’t fall in line with your views can be (and according to almost any social media comment should be) called a Nazi.  In the Christian community, the buzz word thrown around a lot is Idolatry-or Idolater.  It gets thrown at we Catholics a lot, because we like our art-or as I like to call it “religious bling”.  There are a couple problems with the over use of both Nazi and Idolatry though.  One is that the people hurling the insult often times don’t really understand the foundation of where those words/ideologies come from and because they don’t the words are slowly losing their real meaning/power.  Two, it’s a blanket judgement of a person or people that prevents any real conversation, learning, growth, understanding, and love.  (All of those things we are supposed to do for and with each other.)  Today’s reading reminded me that this is an important thing to understand.

Idolatry was the social norm of the time of Paul.  Monotheism was the minority.  The whole of the gentile world practiced some form of very obvious (to a Jewish person, like Paul) idolatry.  So, when he healed the sick in these verses the gentiles did/believed what was their religious tendency.  They attempted to make gods out of Paul and Barnabas. They attempted to make sacrifice to them.  Those parts are super important when we attempt to understand idolatry.   Paul and Barnabas have a beautifully Jewish and Christian reaction (they tear their garments, which is a Jewish sign of great grief) and try to put the light where it belongs, on the One True God. 

Let us look deeper at the idolatry part of these verses.  The crowd decides that Paul and Barnabas are gods, and even decide which gods they are.  They then decide to sacrifice to them. They want to follow them specifically.  That is classic and very obvious (to us) idolatry.  In fact, that is the process of all idolatry.  Step one: decide what/who your god is (what you love and adore). Step two: give that god your worship-with some sacrifice. Step three: follow that god.  So that, in a nutshell is all of idolatry, the definition of which has not changed from that time to this. 

As I said earlier, the lack of understanding of the word makes the word lose its’ power.  The insidious part of the lack of real understanding of this particular word is that it can both prevent you from real worship AND it can shake your faith.  If you don’t understand what idolatry really is then when some well-meaning but misinformed person tells you that because you have a statue in your church you are an evil idolater, that can cause spiritual crisis.  If you don’t understand what the real meaning of the word is then you might actually fall into the spiritual trap of idolatry. 

In our modern world, the danger is less likely to be a statue than it is to be a person, a state, or an item we use.  Let me be specific.  If you put your priest, pastor, TV personality, or other human before God, following him and not the Father and Jesus, that is idolatry.  If you put your faith in money, sacrificing time, relationships, and desire for it over God, that is idolatry.  If you replace worship of God with worship of self, self-image, beauty, then that is idolatry.  In other words, Idolatry isn’t having art it is making that art more important than God, Jesus, and keeping the commandments of Him.  It is following people, sacrificing to and for temporary things that take our focus from the truth.  Anything we put more importance over God is our modern idol. 

Are there Catholics that worship statues? Probably.  Just as there are probably Baptists that worship the television, Pentecostals who worship the gifts rather than the Giver, Anglicans who worship money, or fill in the blank kind of human that worships fill in the blank kind of person, place, thing.  It’s not a denominational problem, it’s a personal sin. 

We have the Good News to save us though!  Jesus says in John 14: 21-26 what real worship is:  Jesus said to his disciples:
"Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him."
Judas, not the Iscariot, said to him,
"Master, then what happened that you will reveal yourself to us
and not to the world?"
Jesus answered and said to him,
"Whoever loves me will keep my word,
and my Father will love him,
and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words;
yet the word you hear is not mine
but that of the Father who sent me.

"I have told you this while I am with you.
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit
whom the Father will send in my name—
he will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you."

So, who is your God today? 

Just some food for thought and prayer. 

Here I am, Lord, send me! 


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Authentic victory in suffering

I was giving an inspirational talk to a grief group one day and I asked them all this question: What is the worst pain in the world?  They all thought for a few moments, and then slowly, one by one they began raising their hands.  I knew their answers before they spoke.  Some said childbirth, some expressed that the pain of losing (whoever they were there mourning), and the answers continued until the group eventually fell silent.  I smiled, and then apologized because it was a bit of a trick question.  I went on to say that the worst pain in the world is yours because it is the only pain you feel and-humanly speaking-you must feel it all alone. 

Which brings me to today’s reading.  1 Peter 2: 20-25

If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good,
this is a grace before God.
For to this you have been called,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.

When he was insulted, he returned no insult;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross,
so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed.
For you had gone astray like sheep,
but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

I have spoken with and been in churches in various denominations who believe and teach that if we are followers of Christ we will not suffer, we will be redeemed in this flesh of all sickness all the time (if we are not active in sin),  that we will flourish financially (if we are not active in sin),  and that we will be wonderful-heart, mind, and body, all the time, always-in this world.  I call this “The gospel of prosperity doctrine.”  And it’s a very dangerous teaching, because it’s simply not true.   The belief in this causes a crisis in a faith that is destined to remain shallow and of this world.  Why?  Because we are a suffering people and this is a suffering world.  In fact, the more your heart awakens to the love of God and the redemptive power of Christ, the more your heart will suffer for a world lost in darkness.  And the worst pain in the world becomes your pain, the one you feel. 

I know that sounds pretty bleak, but we have been given instructions on how to handle all of it so all we ‘saints in training’ might claim the ultimate victory-a victory not of this world. 

We are instructed to pick up our crosses (Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23) and follow him.  Meaning, accept the trials and tribulations you must carry, and do so in the way Jesus did.  We are assured that we do not have to do this alone (Matthew 11: 28) when we look to Him and the Father.  And in today’s reading, we are given, in some detail exactly the path we need to walk with our personal crosses. 

We cannot over imitate Jesus, our Messiah.  In His example, we have the very key to ultimate victory, heaven, and peace in suffering.  We cannot out love Him or out feel the world’s pain.  He took on every sin that we might be forgiven and redeemed.  He did it, and felt it alone-the greatest pain in the world-so we would no longer have to, and so He could grant us great graces as we follow along his path.  That, is the true doctrine of true and great prosperity,not in this world but for eternity.  This is the path of a saint in training...

Some food for thought and prayer.

Here I am, Lord, send me, 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Asking God not to hold them accountable.

Today’s first reading is near and dear to my heart for many reasons.  Acts 7: 51-58 is about St. Stephen, first Martyr, and Deacon of the church.  This passage shows him being martyred and gives us his last words, so I find it very special indeed.  In fact, it is his last words that I want us to focus on today. 

Acts 7: 59-60: 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

St. Stephen’s last words are an echo of Jesus’s last words on the cross, “Forgive them father for they know not what they do.”  It shows a lot about Stephen’s heart and mind, I think.  We can keep a mask on through our lives saying one thing and in our hearts being another, but there is a time in everyone’s life when the mask drops, even the most clever among us can’t maintain it at this time.  What time is that you ask? Well, it’s the end of our lives. 

I have been with many people in their end life.  I have seen how that time strips people of their ability to ‘keep up appearances’.  Who they really are comes to the surface, and who they tried to pretend to be is shed.  It’s not a bad thing, it’s a beautiful and amazing thing.  They became more authentic to themselves.  People who were loving in general became more so because they shed the fear of hurt that kept them from fully expressing that love.  So, from that experience, I see St. Stephen’s words as a bright light to who and what he was as a person. 

In the previous verses, we see him as what we might view as a “fire and brimstone” preacher.  He isn’t holding back on truth.  In fact, I have seen this as him hitting everyone in the head with a truth hammer.  Then as now, people don’t like to have a mirror held up to their face.  The scripture says that they were infuriated and ground their teeth at him.  (Take a moment to consider that things we do not fear are true generally don’t anger us when we are accused of them.)  This outrage doesn’t prevent St. Stephen from speaking his truth though.  He continues on, in faith and spirit. 

The most beautiful and telling part of this story is how he ends the race.  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  How many of us can do that?  Before you answer (aka lie to yourself), what happened the last time someone cut you off in traffic, or took something you owned, or bad mouthed you, or…fill in the blank with how someone did you wrong?  Those things were much less than people standing over you throwing rocks hard enough to end your life, like the people surrounding St. Stephen.  Yet, through the love of God, the Messiah, and the Holy Spirit, we have a stronger testimony in his last words than all the words he spoke before then.  He was saying that not only did he forgive them, he didn’t want his blood on their hands (even though they were clearly guilty). 

Before you think this doesn’t/shouldn’t apply to you let us remember what Jesus said in Luke 6: 27-28 : 27  “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

May our hearts not be hardened to those who need grace even more than we.  May this truth change us, and in changing us allow us to change the world.

Food for thought and prayer.

Here I am, Lord, send me!