Saturday, August 30, 2014

"In Suffering, You are Perfected"

I'm not sure why; but, as I was praying yesterday morning, St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh came to mind.” I tried to remember what Jesus said to Paul after the apostle’s prayers for relief went unanswered. The phrase that came to mind was, “In suffering, you are perfected.” It didn’t sound right, but…those words…there was something to them. Were they true? Was that the gist of what Jesus said to Paul? I was getting ready for work as I prayed, so it was another hour before I had a chance to check the Bible. Reading Paul’s account again, I am touched both by its richness and how much Paul’s experience resonates with me. Let’s look at it:
“[T]o keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

Isn’t it significant that Paul never disclosed the specifics of his thorn in the flesh? Many have speculated that it was an illness – others, a persecution. By leaving it undisclosed, however, the Holy Spirit allows us to more easily project our own sufferings and difficulties onto the thorn.

Like Paul, all of us have surely had the experience of praying for relief from some difficulty or suffering, only to have it continue on for an extended period. So what did Jesus say to Paul, and what does He wish to say to us? Is it akin to saying that God can perfect us through suffering?

Jesus’ actual words to Paul were, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I think we are justified in equating “weakness” with suffering, especially since Paul went on to link it with examples of suffering – hardships and calamities. Jesus spoke of “grace,” or “my power”, being perfected during Paul’s experience of suffering. Paul was forced to fall back upon the Lord – the very thing he and all of us need to do if we are to grow to maturity.  It is, after all, Christ’s life that we are called to live; and that flows not from ourselves, but from Him.

I have to wonder if Jesus’ message to Paul didn’t lie behind the apostle’s own message to the Philippians:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ...and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:8-11).
You see, when we suffer, when we endure the Cross in union with Jesus, we are taking on His image in the most profound of ways. When our petitions for deliverance are met with the same silence His were in Gethsemane, and we obediently continue on with faith in the Father’s love for us, this is when we are truly conformed to the Master. Our life’s goal is being realized; we are being perfectedin the midst of that suffering.

Paul went on to say one more mysterious thing in his account of the thorn, that I want to draw to your attention.  He wrote how he came to be content in his suffering, because it was “[f]or the sake of Christ.” Paul was the one being strengthened as he was infused with Christ’s grace, and yet it is somehow “for the sake of Christ.” I would suggest that this is linked to the mystery of redemptive suffering that Paul later wrote about in his epistle to the Colossians:
"Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).

There is much for us to meditate on here. I look forward to your comments.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Saved by Grace - Manifested in Both Faith AND Works

C.S. Lewis wrote how the question of what leads one to Heaven, works or faith, was like "asking which blade in a pair of scissors is [more] necessary." His words came back to me as I sat down to write about my recent meditation on Paul's words to the Ephesians:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8-10).
We enter into a saving relationship with God through God’s grace and the gift of faith.[1] It is a gift. Nothing we did beforehand could ever merit such a stupendous gift. That is the beginning of our salvation. But notice, we were created, and then recreated in Christ, “for good works.” They are an integral part of the Christian life. When some people point out how these works have been prepared by God “beforehand,” they speak as if we have no active part to play in the process. That isn’t what Paul wrote. God prepares us for these works by providing the grace to perform them; but it is up to you and me to “walk” in them. There is activity on our parts, and this activity has a part to play in our obtaining final salvation.

Paul fleshed this out in his Epistle to the Philippians. Allow me to quote at length, so as to provide you with a fuller context for Paul’s explanation:
"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain"  (Phil. 2:12-16).
Paul taught that if we did not actively cooperate with God in producing good works in our lives, then on the day of judgment, we will find that we began the Christian life, we received the gift of faith and justification, in vain! Paul was only teaching what the Lord Jesus had at the Last Supper:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit… As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me…[M]y Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples…If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:1-13).
We can bear fruit, can obey Christ's commands, can lay down our lives - but only because Christ is living in us! We obtain final salvation through both faith and works, but both are the result of Christ's grace...and our humble cooperation. That's Scripture, and that is the Faith of the Church.  Can I get an "Amen"?

[1] Baptism is the free gift whereby we receive salvation. It is where we profess our faith in Christ, are reborn, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The Lord Jesus taught, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5), and “[h]e who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16). Peter and Paul echoed the Lord: “Baptism…now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21); “he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Someone Broke Into Our Car

When the kids and I went out to the car this morning, we quickly realized that someone had been in it overnight.  (I forgot to lock it.)  I usually leave my wallet and cell phone in the compartment between the driver and passenger seats; but I had brought in the cell phone for an early morning call, and I had my wallet in my pocket when I came in from the store last night. Fortunately, I hadn't loaded my work laptop into the trunk either (here's to putting things off until morning!).

The thief had to be pretty bummed when all he could find to take was a small bag of change.

I have lived in my house for five years and never experienced something like this before. What really made me chuckle was the timing of the theft: Just an hour before going out to the car, I had been talking to Matt Swaim on EWTN's Son Rise Morning Show, and one of the things we discussed was Jesus' prayer, "Father, forgive them." Matt and I talked about the way Jesus taught us to pray the same way in the Our Father, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." You have to love it when the Lord gives you a chance to walk the talk. Had I not just spoken with Matt, my heart may have been in a different state.  Thanks to the preparation, however, the kids and I launched straight into our morning prayer:
"Lord, we ask you to forgive, to pardon, the person who was in our car last night.  Please make him truly sorry for what he did and cause him to turn to you, ask for forgiveness, and never do this again.  If he or his family needed that bit of change to buy some food, we ask that they receive what they need.  And Lord, we thank you that you made sure we brought everything of value into the house last night. You take such incredible care of us, Lord. I will stop leaving my phone and wallet in the car overnight, and I'll be sure to double-check that it is locked.  Thank you, Lord.  Our Father..."
I recognize that I didn't have much to forgive. It was a small lesson ... but even small lessons have their purpose. My mind went to words I reread last night in preparation for my talk with Matt:

"I know what you are thinking: when you imagine yourself on his cross, praying 'Father, forgive them' seems impossible. But baptism makes it possible! It unites my soul to his. I could never pray those words on my own, apart from the action of the Holy Spirit. But through the Spirit, through the action of grace upon my soul, Jesus can pray those words in me; and they can become mine! Each time I pray the Our Father and cooperate with his grace to forgive people their small wrongs against me, my soul grows toward forgiving those who would take my life." (Through, With, and In Him, p.76)

Thank the Lord for baby steps.

Friday, August 8, 2014

On the Wrong Side of History?

Several months back, a friend posted a meme on Facebook. It compared segregationists in the 1960's to people today who want to maintain the traditional definition of marriage. The point of the meme was how, in 40 years time, such a view will look just as ridiculous, just as morally reprehensible, as that of segregationists. In effect, anyone continuing to agree with 2500 years of natural law (running from Plato and Aristotle up through Kant and MLK) or 3500 years of Judaeo-Christian belief, will find themselves “on the wrong side of history.”

Because my friend is a fellow Catholic my initial reaction was one of sadness:  Doesn’t she know that Christ’s definition of marriage would never seek to demean anyone? It was Christianity’s cultural influence that moved society to recognize the existence of human “rights” to begin with. Didn’t anyone explain the Church’s beautiful, intricate understanding of the human person, sexuality, marriage, and children to her?

My reaction quickly turned from sadness to wanting to correct her point about how those holding Christianity's understanding of marriage will soon find themselves on the wrong side of history. The OT prophets announced, and Jesus and the apostles insisted, that God’s kingdom – God’s vision for human life and the ordering of our relationships – will ultimately be recognized by all. When Jesus returns, He will make it clear who has or hasn’t been on the wrong side of history.  But then I realized that my friend was…technically, absolutely correct. Scripture and Tradition agreed with her. All those who maintain that Christ and His Church have spoken the truth, not just about marriage, but a host of issues, will most assuredly find themselves on the wrong side of history.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church does a wonderful job of summarizing the teaching of Scripture on this point (italics added):
675   Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers (Lk. 18:8; Mt. 24:12). The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth (Lk. 21:12; Jn. 15:19-20) will unveil the "mystery of iniquity" in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh (2 Tess. 2:4-12; 1 Thess. 5:2-3; 2 Jn. 7; 1 Jn. 2:18-22). 

676  The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism (Pope Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris). 

677  The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection (Rev. 19:19). The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven (Rev. 13:9; 20:7-10; 21:2-4). God's triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world (Rev. 20:12; 2 Pet. 3:12-13).

Now, I am certainly not claiming “this is it,” and Jesus will return at any moment. Rather, I am writing to remind myself and others that, in the end, everyone who remains in the Faith will find themselves on the wrong side of history. We will look like fools to everyone around us. Our convictions will be mocked, we will be persecuted, and eventually a great number will be martyred. There will be no rapture to whisk us away to safety. No - to share in Christ’s resurrection demands that we first share His cross.

History, for Christians, has always been a roller coaster. Periods of triumph (think King St. Louis IX) are followed by periods of darkness (think French Revolution). And at the end of our earthly journey stands the cross.  That should not shock us though; we are walking the path of Christ himself. While the apostles were still basking in the glory of Jesus' transfiguration and the expulsion of a demon, he told them squarely, “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Mt. 17:22).

Recall Peter's reaction to Jesus' prediction of the Passion. "God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you." No one wants to suffer; we don't want it for ourselves, and we certainly don't want it for those we love. Jesus' words are as jarring to us as they were to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt. 16:22-23).

Our salvation is to be caught up into the very life of Christ, his relationship with the Father. That also means that we share his relationship with the world:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it...For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mk. 8:34-38). 

In the end, it's about love. "If you love me, keep my commands" (Jn. 14:15). We don't follow Christianity's moral claims out of a blind sense of duty, but because we love Christ and are convinced that the Faith he entrusted to his apostles is meant to bring us, to bring all of humanity, to fullness of life. To reject Christ's teachings out of a sense of shame is to reject him; and that robs the soul of eternal life.

A quote from J.R.R. Tolkien has been making its rounds on the internet, and it summarizes my thoughts well, "I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains...some samples or glimpses of final victory" (Letters 255). 

So what are we to do, lock ourselves away in Catholic ghettos and await our inevitable defeat? Tolkien sure didn't think so. Neither did Jesus nor the millenia of saints who have preceded us. We are not meant to be paralyzed by the shadow of the cross. Instead we are to be a people animated by the deep joy of the world to come, a world already mysteriously present within us.  How is that possible? There is only one answer:  Communion - literally "union with" Christ Jesus.

Jesus' entire life was lived in the shadow of His cross, and yet that knowledge never impeded the joy He took in doing His Father's work, ministering to the people. Even when the cross was mere hours away it did not prevent him from realizing one of his most profound desires. "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer...This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me...This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (Lk. 22:17-20).  He achieved union, Eucharistic Communion, with those for whom He would offer His life on the cross. 

The NT tells us that because of the joy set before Him - you and I, sharing Jesus' life with the Father, for eternity - Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame (Heb. 12:2).  Even in the midst of His horrific suffering upon the Cross, in His praying of Psalms 22, 31, and 69, Jesus looked ahead to the moment when, in the Eucharist, He would both celebrate his Resurrection and renew His union with the disciples. 

The Eucharist is where the Lord Jesus shares His life, stronger than death, with us. "Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me" (Jn. 6:57). A life of prayer, with the sacraments - especially the Eucharist - at the center, is how we can continually move forward, even in the shadow of the cross. The grace Christ give us in the sacraments imparts a peace that defies human explanation: 
[The LORD] leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul...Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me...You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.You anoint my head with oil...and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps. 23:2-6).

Whether times are good or bad, whether enduring the cross or experience some small foretaste of the resurrection, we are called to love the Lord by obeying Him and witnessing to His Truth. C.S. Lewis provided a literary example that has always stuck with me:
In King Lear (III:VII) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely "First Servant." All the characters around him...have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master's breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted. (The Joyful Christian, 70-71).

Blessed will we be if Christ find us faithfully doing our work when He returns. Finding ourselves on the wrong side of history is one thing, but the wrong side of eternity quite another! I do not wish that upon Christianity's worst persecutors. Let us pray, offer our Eucharists, and work as hard as we can that they too will come to know the all-surpassing love of Christ.