Friday, March 27, 2009

Come Home To The Catholic Church

I heard a startling new statistic recently: 30-million Americans call themselves “Ex-Catholics.” One in ten Americans have walked away from the faith. Many were likely baptized, experienced First Communion and even underwent Confirmation. Yet, something or someone drove them from the Church.

As a once fallen-away Catholic, I understand the wilderness journey we can all experience with faith. Being Catholic is not easy. There are rules to live by. Our society celebrates rule-breakers, mavericks, go-getters. Self-reliance is a powerful barrier between living Catholic and living a secular humanist existence. Our guilt can play an even bigger part in keeping us from facing up to God. Easier to stuff our sins deep inside our beings and go about life without a care as to our own salvation.

But in times of trouble, pain and suffering, even the most agnostic person experiences a need to heal a broken place. Stepping back into the light is “an about-turn into real humanity,” as Pope Benedict so eloquently put it. “One cannot become a Christian by birth, but only by rebirth.” In that rebirth, the broken place can be healed, but only by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.

I helped set up a house blessing with my spiritual director, a gifted Jesuit. A friend requested it. Her husband had committed suicide in the garage of their home just before the holidays. This woman was baptized Catholic, but had not practiced for years. When approached, I jumped at the chance to facilitate this special ceremony sensing God’s presence in the request. The ceremony was solemn and heart wrenching. Many tears were shed by the 20 people gathered to support this woman in her hour of need. Especially when Father burned incense in the thurible in the garage and uttered the healing prayers.

My spiritual director and I both agree these moments of bringing God back into the lives of former Catholics are a powerful way we can assist the Holy Spirit as she knocks at the door of the unfaithful in hopes of an “about-turn.”

Traditio, doctrine, dogma, the Magisterium, the infallibility of the Pope, the Blessed Virgin… All are big stumbling blocks for many ex-Catholics. After the house blessing, the woman’s mother came up and wanted to talk about the Catholic Church and her issues with some of its teachings. There’s the rub for most former Catholics. Many find our faith too rigid and inflexible. Or just don’t understand the tenets of the faith because of a flawed, unloving explanation. In the Gospel according to John, several disciples departed after hearing what it meant to become a true follower. As a priest friend puts it, “not everyone who hears the Good News is going to accept it.”

One day later I read about a media effort to urge Catholics to “Come Home” to the Church (click on post title to see the video). An estimated 92,000 inactive Catholics have returned to the Church in the last year due to this TV advertising campaign. The three TV spots highlight the rich history of the Catholic Church, the power of redemption to transform our lives and the reasons why some people leave the church and why so many feel the need to come home. Some parishes even conduct classes to better educate people on what it means to be an active Catholic. A great evangelizing opportunity awaits if we can only help ex-Catholics to see the Catholic Church as home.

But barriers must be overcome. In Monika Hellwig's book "Understanding Catholicism" she writes, the Catholic Church puzzles outsiders and embarrasses many insiders: “They express a tension that is not an accident of history that has happened to arise in our present cultural situation The tension is the necessary condition of being the Church in the unredeemed world.”

As a Catholic, we believe in practicing what was taught by Jesus to his apostles and by the apostles to all of us as part of the apostolic tradition. Our Catholic faith mission statement is in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” But as Pope Benedict points out, Jesus mingled with sinners to “show what true ‘holiness’ is: not separation, but union; not judgment, but redeeming love.” Jesus laid the foundation for the Catholic Church when he handed the keys to Peter and his successors. With humility, love and grace, the transformational power of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, which has consistently guided Catholics for 2,000 years, can open the hearts of many if we follow Christ’s example by applying not judgment but redeeming love as we work to bring all the lost sheep back into the fold.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Moment Of Surrender

Where do we find God in our lives? Where does God find us? Where do we find Christ in our lives? Where does Christ find us? I found God and Christ in my life again and He found me in the songs of the musical group U2, but it was actually through the power of the Word revealed.

It shocked me to find Him there. At the time, I didn’t even know I was looking for Him. But there He was… revealed in the lyrics of a song.

In the 90s, as a newly minted lector, I was mostly going through the motions at Mass, trying to keep my wife happy by going to Church every week and wanting to model good stewardship for our two impressionable boys. They were in a Catholic school after all. I read the Word and tried to feel God’s message, but it wasn’t working for me. I felt like a fraud at the ambo.

Then in the late 90s, I heard the song “Beautiful Day” on the radio and heard the line, “See the bird with the leaf in her mouth… after the floods all the colors came out.” That sounds like the Noah’s Ark story, I thought. How odd? Curious, I bought the album and started to examine the words. U2 was one of my favorite groups when I was in college and a young adult. I liked their music and thought the messages of love, hope and charity, and especially their humanitarian actions, were noble, but didn’t think much else. Little did I know faith was a part of their message. I’ve since learned that lead singer and lyricist Bono is known by certain U2 followers (devout Christians hip to the hidden message) for lacing the Word in song. Most of U2’s songs have a suffering servant tone familiar in the words of Isaiah.

The new U2 album was released several weeks ago. My wife sent me a link to the online version and eagerly I opened it up and started streaming it one Monday morning while preparing my day at work. When the song “Moment Of Surrender” (click on post title to hear the song on YouTube) came on I was transfixed. I loved the lyric, “It’s not if I believe in love… but if love believes in me… oh believe in me.” But the most touching lyrics hit me hard, “I was speeding off the subway… through the Stations of the Cross… every eye looking every other way… counting down till the pain would stop. At the moment of surrender… I folded to my knees… I did not notice the passersby and they did not notice me.” As I heard these words, tears began to fall down my cheeks. Here I am at work listening to U2 and, through the power and presence of God and the Word, Christ’s sacrifice was once again “staring back at me” to use Bono’s words. I was weeping tears for Christ’s gift to me. I was weeping thanksgiving to God for finding me in such an usual way. Hard to believe such a beautiful Lenten message is found in the simple lyrics of a rock song!

What I first noticed about the song was felt by its creators. Noted producer Brian Eno says “it was the most magical experience I ever had in a studio.” The band only recorded the song once. Each band member came in and improvised his part in one take. He said, “Bono’s singing was like a knife to the heart. Heartbreakingly agonized and vulnerable.” The song was intuitively created. Inspired. Bono said immediately after they finished recording it and everyone was standing around in stunned silence, “I usually go into a studio to find music. In this instance the music found us.”

In the song, “White As Snow,” there’s the line, “Once I knew there was a love divine… then came a time I thought it knew me not. Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not? Only the lamb as white as snow.” As I read that line out loud, my youngest son said, “We were just studying that in school. That’s Isaiah.” The moment he said it, I opened the Liturgy Of The Hours Morning Prayer, and it was Isaiah talking about forgiveness of sins by becoming white as snow.

The power of God’s Word woke up my heart and changed my view of the world around me forever. It used to be that the Word I’d deliver in church felt old fashioned or antiquated. Until I heard the Word through a modern prism and my heart awoke. To quote a priest friend, “the language changes, but revelation does not.” I heard God calling me. Now, the power of God’s Word is leading me to places I never thought I’d go. It continues to amaze me as it lights my path. To use an old cliché, God works in mysterious ways. Or, as Bono describes the Holy Spirit, “She moves in ‘Mysterious Ways.’”

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rich Man – Poor Man

(Exodus 22:24-26)
“If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.”

My early faith formation was shaped through a flawed or distorted lens creating a warped view of reality. It has taken years to focus the lens to see a more realistic view of the world and its heartbreak, but also the power of God -- especially as spoken in Sacred Scripture.

Growing up in Bellevue, Washington, I experienced excess wealth and was clueless to true human struggle on the planet. As a Catholic kid living in one of the wealthiest areas of the wealthiest nation on earth, exposure to poverty was limited at best. My personal experience with wealth was non-existent. But so was my experience with abject poverty. My family was of limited means. My father sold restaurant equipment and tended bar sometimes working three jobs to feed a family of six. My mother was a stay at home mom. We were your typical 60’s-era lower-middle income family living in the U.S. The big difference was that we lived among the richest of the rich. The wealth I was exposed to distorted reality and affected how I experienced the world. While I did not come from money, the families of many of my friends did.

My father was a proud Democrat living in a land of wealthy Republicans. I can remember spirited debates about politics in the driveways of neighbors and friends growing up. The issues discussed were poverty and race. My father had strong opinions on everything. His working class mindset shaped by growing up the poorest of the poor during the Depression in Miles City, Montana, gave him a strong sense of social justice.

His death when I was fourteen changed my personal reality. My mother was left to raise three boys on her own. We were poor at a time when I was becoming aware of the wealth that surrounded me. It was about this time that my prodigal period began and I fell away from my faith.

I longed to be just like my Bellevue friends. As a young man, I became inspired by Reagan Republicanism and saw it as my way to get ahead in life. I focused on being a success and achieved beyond my wildest dreams. But in chasing the American Dream I never found personal happiness. In fact, I found quite the opposite. The wealthier I became, the unhappier I was.

The lyrics to a popular Bruce Hornsby song in the 1980s always haunted me from the first time I heard them: “Standing in line marking time, waiting for the welfare dime, 'cause they can't buy a job. The man in the silk suit hurries by. As he catches the poor old ladies' eye, just for fun he says ‘get a job.’” I remember thinking, “I’m that guy in the silk suit, but I’m not heartless.” I chalked up the line to liberal angst raging against conservative success. But the line ate at me every time I heard it. What was it that bothered me so? Did I hear some truth in the line that was ringing loud and clear? Was the material wealth I was striving for negatively impacting my grasp of reality? Was God trying to get my attention?

The above passage from Exodus begins a thought by God that is continued in the Gospels when Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, shares the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3-4) Or “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.” (Luke 6: 20-21).

God provides special protection for his privileged hearers of the Word. The lowly, marginalized and poor “get it.” After all, women were the first to recognize the resurrection. When I think of this revelation I finally "get it." The reason it took me so long for God to get through to me was because I never needed a savior. I lived a life of privilege. The privilege insulated me from God’s Word.

My wife was the one who urged me back to church. With a background as a radio news anchor, she signed me up to be a lector. I resisted at first, but wanting to raise our young boys in the Church, I hesitantly agreed. In college, I performed oral interpretation (Reader’s Theatre) and learned to be mindful of the author’s intent. From Shakespeare to O. Henry, I was able to nail it because I understood what the author was trying to convey and infused this into my reading. Little did I know at the time that God was shaping me to be his Voice someday. As a lector, I began to attend Mass regularly.

In Vatican II's Dei Verbum, it says, “the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them” in the sacred books. As I interpreted the Word and listened to others read the Word, I started to see my life differently and hear God’s call to true conversion. Over time, my eyes were opened to the Power of God as seen through the resurrection of the living Christ. I began to recognize the presence of Christ in His Word, “for it is He Himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7)

As I ponder the state of the Catholic faith and where it is thriving in the world today, it is in the poorest of nations. The power of Christ’s vision accurately predicted in the Beatitudes two thousand years ago is what is living out and thriving in the Catholic Church today. “Theirs is the kingdom of God.”

Our times are experiencing a cataclysmic shift. Wealth and greed that has driven the past nearly 30 years has run us off the cliff of prosperity. We all may experience being poor in our lifetimes. The 401K we were so proud of and the home equity we were so eager to tap are vanishing before our very eyes. Wealth was an illusion. The god of money worshipped for years by so many has become a lifeless, empty god.

In these troubled times, I find peace and joy in serving God. The power of God burns within me when living out the Gospel. And He reveals Himself to me in breathtaking ways. One of the groups I volunteer for is the Salvation Army. This past summer, I was bell ringing for school supplies for the low-income families in our area. On a hot July afternoon (99 degrees), a young man who was clearly a disabled Iraq War vet approached the kettle. With his right hand, he awkwardly pulled some cash from his pocket. The exercise was challenged by the fact that he had no left hand. A prosthetic hook was all he had for a left hand. Christ’s words rang out in my head, "But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matthew 5:3) “Their hearts can ‘burn within them’ as they pray and prayerfully study Scripture with the context of their own personal lives.” (Pontifical Biblical Commission)

I am awe-struck by a thought about the Greatest Commandments as shared by Christ as being vertical – “You shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) – and horizontal – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). As I envision these words the following thought comes to mind. The cross of Christ has one vertical line and one horizontal line. That is all. This simple icon of our faith and is clearly a reflection of Christ’s Greatest Commandments.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. God is too big a concept for my tiny mind to grasp. So is the universe for that matter. I stand in awe of both. If you have ever seen the pictures from the Hubble Telescope there are two I find most amazing. One is of the Cone Nebula. The other is of the “Perfect Storm” in the Swan Nebula. Whether or not it is real or imagined, I see the silhouette of Christ praying in one and the Virgin Mary in her traditional blue color in the other. Each seems to have a halo.

The beauty of the universe, just as the resurrection of the Living Christ, is a reflection of the Power of God that gives life to the dead and calls into existence that that does not exist, raising Jesus from the dead and changing the cosmos. The lens here is the Hubble Telescope. Enjoy the view!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I was blind. And now I see.

I read an interesting book recently that struck a chord in my soul. “The Shack” is a fictional story about a man whose young daughter is murdered by a child serial killer and his healing communication with God in Trinity form.

God reveals himself to the man in a letter and invites him to come to a shack in the northeast Oregon mountains. The shack is where his five-year-old daughter was violently raped and murdered. The man is unbelieving that God is communicating with him and thinks it might be the killer. Nonetheless, he drives to the shack one wintry night and walks in. After discovering the bloodstains on the floor where his daughter was murdered he cries himself to sleep, cursing God. When he awakes, the shack is changed. Sunshine and light are everywhere. Winter is gone. It’s summer. There he meets three people: God (a matronly black woman named Papa with a penchant for cooking delicious food), Christ (a Jewish handyman working around the shack) and the Holy Spirit (an ethereal Asian woman who spends the next few days revealing to the man what has happened to his soul from the trauma of losing his daughter). The three help him to heal and understand that life is a gift. But life is a temporary transition. Heaven is eternal.

This book moved me because for the first time my human mind could wrap around the concept of the Holy Trinity by giving human qualities to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I understand this is a simplistic exercise, but it took the abstract, and made it real, rewarding me with a clearer sense of what I’ve always believed. God is love.

We all have events in our lives that shape us. I’ve always lived by the motto, “That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.” I believe this is one of God’s greatest revelations of His existence in my life. When I was 14, my father committed suicide. It was a very painful period in my life, and as the oldest son and last person to see my dad alive, I blamed myself. But God’s healing touch over the years has allowed me to understand that I had nothing to do with my father’s death. God’s loving grace was immediately present in the actions of our parish priest who said, “We will bury your father in the church. His mental illness is no different than cancer or any other disease over which we have no control.” My brothers and I all were alter servers at his funeral.

God’s loving grace allowed me to finally forgive my father over a decade ago. But it was only through praying to God for understanding of what had happened in my life and coming back to the church that my true faith journey could begin anew. In forgiving my father, I forgave the Father for letting this happen. God provided healing, and in the healing of my soul I began to see my loving God more clearly.

In the words of U2’s Bono, “Love. It’s not the easy thing. The only baggage that you can bring. It’s all that you can’t leave behind.” I first heard these words in December of 1999. When I heard the opening words to the song, “Walk On” I started to cry. God revealed yet another universal truth to me through these lyrics: love is the only thing we get to take with us to heaven. No possessions. No status. No job titles. Only love.

When I think of God’s revelations in my life, it’s moments like these that provide clarity to God’s plan for me. Whether reading a book or hearing a song, God’s immanence is everywhere. I was blind. And now I see.