Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: Unbound

The stack of books I'm trying to read is much larger than what my calendar allows for. When I do actually finish a book though, I want to use the blog to tell you what I thought about it. I'm happy to lend this or any other book in my library if you live near me and don't look like a hooligan.

I was assigned to read Unbound: A Practical Guide to Deliverance in preparation for quarterly new priest meetings I attend. While we didn't actually discuss the book at the meetings, I'm glad I read it.

Unbound is a book about deliverance ministry, the first half is about being delivered from evil and oppressive spirits and the second half is about helping others to do the same. Neal Lozano is Catholic, but that doesn't figure hugely in the book, I assume because he wants to appeal to a wider audience.

The book was alright. Lozano rightly teaches that the spiritual world influences us and that we can influence the spiritual world. Through the trauma we experience in our lives or the choices we make, we open doorways for the devil to influence us in ways we may not notice for years. But as baptized Christians we really do have power in Jesus's name to ban Satan's influence from our lives.

I had three identifiable issues with the book. Firstly, Lozano hit on the importance of confession in ridding yourself of Satan's influence, but he wouldn't clarify what that meant, whether a sacrament or just telling someone else your sorry for your sins. If Lozano is Catholic, I would appreciate a recognition of the power of the Sacraments.

Secondly, a book that bills itself as a "practical guide" to dealing with supernatural and otherworldly phenomena can cause a person to see demonic influence around every corner. In reality, a lot of things that we might call demonic are psychological illnesses, or just plain old human weakness leading to sin. I heard a talk by a former exorcist several months ago. He told us that whenever he would investigate someone who might benefit from an exorcism, he would always have a psychologist with him who could help distinguish mental illness from true possession. That seems much more balanced than a do-it-yourself guide to deliverance.

And thirdly, I worry that a "practical guide" could discourage people from referring when they need to. True possession almost always requires the involvement of Christ's priests and the communion of saints, most preeminently the Blessed Virgin Mary and Michael the Archangel.

Overall, it was an ok book. The first several chapters, not quite the first half, were good, and then it became less helpful. We need to recognize that as baptized Christians we do indeed have influence in the spiritual realm, but always in humility. We don't want to think that a practical guide to deliverance will give us all the answers.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Internal Dispositions

Why are you here at church? That's mostly a rhetorical question, just think about it for a bit. Why are you here? Because today in the gospel Jesus has harsh words for those who practice religion only in an external manner and whose hearts don't correspond to their actions. So again, why are you here?

Today Jesus is getting ganged up on a little bit by the scribes and Pharisees, so let's understand the opponents. The scribes were the scholars, they were the kind of people who could quote Jewish law by chapter and verse. The Pharisees were a renewal movement within Israel, and they wanted to restore God's favor to Israel through strict observance of God's law. According to the Pharisees' way of thinking, Israel had lost God's favor by being disobedient to the law, and all Israel's problems could be explained this way, especially the occupation by the Romans. So, they thought, in order to regain God's favor they needed to be strictly observant to God's law. And just to be safe, they had started to go above and beyond God's law, just to make sure they'd covered all their bases. So, God's law had stipulated ritual cleansing for priests offering sacrifice at the temple, but the Pharisees' oral tradition had extended ritual cleansing to every Jew at every meal so that every meal had a sacrificial element, and just to make sure God was happy.

So the Pharisees notice Jesus's disciples not observing ritual cleansing and this upsets them, not just because they like everybody to do fancy ceremonies, but because they think that without ritual observance they can never be restored to God's good grace. Their intention is good, but their critical mistake is that they disconnected ritual purity from purity of the heart. They disconnected their external actions from their internal disposition, and they focused only on external action.

Only his grinchy attitude is condemned, not his movie
So because Jesus knows this well, that they've completely separated their actions from their disposition, he quotes Isaiah to explain this to them: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." Now, the Pharisees think they have the whole law and all of the prophets on their side, so they really don't like having Isaiah thrown in their face. But with that line, Jesus explains their fundamental error to them, but then he quotes another line: "in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts." Jesus uses the second line to explain how they've taken their own precepts, their own additions to the rules, and made them law for everyone. The whole thing is summarized in Jesus's explanation "You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition."

Now, sometimes this line is used against Catholics by Protestants who misunderstand the importance of Tradition rather than just focusing on Scripture or who don't like Catholic devotional practices like the Rosary. But I hope you can explain to them, and I hope you understand yourself, that Jesus condemns here merely human traditions, and even then only at the expense of God's commandments. So Jesus obviously doesn't condemn all human traditions, like my family's tradition of watching the Grinch (animated, not live action) every Christmas season, or eating peanuts and cracker jacks at a baseball game. Jesus doesn't condemn that. Nor does he condemn our adherence to papal authority or our love of the Rosary, because they aren't merely human traditions. They spring from Scripture, which itself came from Apostolic Tradition.

I'm fairly sure Jesus is a baseball fan
But when we think about the things that look like merely human tradition, like the importance of the Pope or our love of Mary, we have to think about why we do these things, and this brings us back to the original question: Why are you here? If you are here because this is what you always do, if you are at church because you were raised this way and you might as well keep doing it, then you might say you attend church because it's just a family tradition. Then you have neglected the first and greatest commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and you are clinging to human tradition.

If that's why you come to church, simply because that's what you've always done and your heart isn't really in it, God can work with that. God is generous. We want to get to a point where we're going to church out of a deep and meaningful love of God. Really, we don't want to be just going to church at all, because that's just an external action. We want to come and know that we are contributing our part to a meaningful relationship in our lives.

Ok, let me say that again. Just going to church is an external action, "this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." In everything we do, starting with the attitude with which we go to Church, we need to make sure that the disposition of our hearts honors God, not just the things we do externally.

This man: not offering sacrifice
So I've told you what to do, honor God with your heart by the way you attend Mass, but I've not told you how to do it. Here's how you do it: participate in Mass. And I don't mean by reading or singing or performing some other ministry, I mean by offering your heart to the sacrifice of the mass. The Mass is truly a sacrifice, where the sacrifice Jesus offered on the Cross is made present again. Each of us are part of the priesthood of the baptized, and each of us are called to offer sacrifice to God here at Mass. So don't come here expecting to be entertained, or expecting to get something out of it, that's not the point. Come here and offer all of your sufferings to God, offer up all those you know who are suffering, who need your prayer. Back when the priest used to face the same direction as the people (don't say the priest turned his back on the people, that wasn't it, rather the priest and the people faced God together), the idea that we were all moving towards God to offer sacrifice was much clearer than it is today. You are not here to be entertained, you are here to offer sacrifice, and the fact that you do receive something, the Body and Blood of Jesus, is due solely to his goodness.

So consider well why you come to Mass and why you bother with the life of faith at all. Don't just come because that's what you've always done. Come to unite your sacrifice and your sufferings to those of Jesus here on the altar. By doing that, you can unite your external action and your internal disposition. As our actions and our hearts become more in line with each other and with Christ, that prepares us for eternal life.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book Review: Love and Respect

The stack of books I'm trying to read is much larger than what my calendar allows for. When I do actually finish a book though, I want to use the blog to tell you what I thought about it. I'm happy to lend this or any other book in my library if you live near me and don't look like a hooligan.

Love & Respect is a book written by Dr. Eggerichs, a PhD level counselor and evangelical pastor who brings both backgrounds to bear on the relationships between men and women in the context of marriage. His primary thesis is that men and women simply talk past each other and don't realize they're doing it. A man's primary need is to feel respected, and a woman's primary need is to feel loved (not excluding the man's need to be loved and the woman's need to be respected). But when the man doesn't feel respected, he unwittingly acts unloving to his wife, and when a woman doesn't feel loved, she unwittingly acts disrespectful towards her husband. Either spouse can start this "crazy cycle," as Eggerichs calls it. Eggerichs then helps men to understand and react to the primary need of their wives to feel loved, and helps women to understand and react to the primary need of their husbands to feel respected, through what he calls the "energizing cycle": His love motivates her respect, her respect motivates his love.

This book was given to me several years ago by a couple who used it in their marriage prep and found it immeasurably helpful, and I've already started using it in the limited counseling that I do. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who works with married couples. But more importantly, I would recommend this book to anyone whose marriage has become lackluster, who really thought marriage was going to be more than the constant bickering that tears them down each day. Marriage doesn't come easily, but it's worth the fight. This book is no magic bullet to make marriage easier, but it's a tool to help in the fight to keep marriages together.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What Jesus Said

So if you want to run a marathon and you turn to Meb Keflezighi, world class marathoner, for advice and he tells you that you need to train long and hard to do it, what do you do? You train long and hard. Or say you want to climb Mt. Everest, so you take professional mountaineer Ed Viesturs with you since he's climbed it seven times, and at a particular junction he tells you to go left instead of right, what do you do? You go left, obviously. Third scenario: Say you want to have eternal life, and the guy who has lived eternally tells you to eat his flesh and drink his blood, what do you do? You do what he says!

We've been following this Bread of Life discourse for several weeks, Jesus has given some really tough teachings, and now the quarreling has started. But quarreling, debate, and clarification are helpful for us to know what Jesus is talking about, so we want to let Jesus's words in the gospel teach and instruct us.

The last words of last week's gospel were John 6:51, "I am the living bread come down from heaven: whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." That's the height of the teaching, and it's so important that it's worth repeating. So this week's gospel passage repeated the same verse, John 6:51, before continuing on with the explanation that follows.

With these words, Jesus challenged his audience, and he challenges us too. They asked, quite fairly, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Clearly, they understood that he wasn't using an analogy or metaphor. No one gets upset over a metaphor. When Jesus said, "I am the vine and you are the branches," no one got upset and said, "How can this man claim to be a vine when he is clearly a human?" When Jesus said, "I am the gate" or, "I am the light of the world," no one got upset and protested. So why did they get upset here? Clearly they understood that he wasn't using a metaphor.

They understood him to be speaking literally because of the words he was using. So now we need to dive into Greek words just briefly. The idea of consuming and digesting, sort of eating, God's law was a common enough image for the Jews. They could handle that sort of image. And throughout the rest of the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus is using the word phago, a word that means to consume or to eat. But in this section alone, four times, Jesus uses the word trogo, which has a more literal sense of eating, the word trogo involves chewing and swallowing. By way of comparison, you can phago a good book, but you don't trogo it. Trogo is what the cow does to the grass, or what you do to the cow.

So here alone, with the Jews already upset at him, Jesus starts using language that is even less acceptable to them and even borders on heresy, because the Levitical law clearly condemns the eating of human flesh. There is no need to upset this crowd further, unless he absolutely means what he says. There is no need to antagonize them further, unless the bread that he gives really is his flesh for the life of the world, unless you really do have to eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood in order to have life within you. If that really is the case, then he's going to have to upset people.

So now we need to do some catechesis. I recently read a survey (see it HERE) that found that 38% of Catholics don't believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 4% of those know Church teaching on this and still don't believe, but 34% of those Catholics surveyed don't even know what the Church teaches in this regard. So if you're among that 34%, listen up! In keeping with Jesus's own words here in the Bread of Life discourse and at the Last Supper, the Church has always taught the Eucharist really is Jesus, it is no mere symbol. We believe that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The Church has always taught this, in keeping with Jesus's own words, and it's what each of us has to believe in order to have eternal life.

And the reason Jesus did this, gave us his whole self in the Eucharist, was because he loves us. He wanted a way to stay with us, in every time and in every place that he knew the Church was going to be. He wanted a way to unite his followers in himself, and so he became a little piece of bread that each of us can freely choose to receive or to reject. He makes himself helpless out of love for us.

But what's the big deal? Why all this focus on whether the Eucharist is really Jesus or whether it's just a symbol or metaphor? After all, Jesus just said to receive it, he didn't tell us to worry too much about what it actually is, so why can't each of us just hold our own beliefs about what this is, and just get along? The problem with each of us holding our own beliefs about who and what Jesus is or how he is present to us is that rather than worshiping God as he really is, I take my own ideas about God and I worship that. I turn my ideas into an idol and I practice idolatry by worshiping them instead of the one true God.

Rather than each of us deciding for ourselves what the Eucharist is, trust Christ teaching us through his Scripture and through his Church that the Eucharist really is him. Let this belief transform your attitude about everything about our lives and everything we do at Mass. Recognize that this gift requires a response. That response, if I'm in a state of mortal sin, is to say I'm sorry by going to Confession. If I'm in a state of grace, that gift involves recognizing that here at Mass we really do meet God himself, and because we actually meet and touch God, we can never be too devoted, we can never be too attentive, we can never love and thank him enough. We receive him with love, and we make our whole lives a response of love.

Just as you would believe the marathoner who told you how to run a marathon or you would believe a mountain climber who told you how to climb a mountain, so you want to believe the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father when he tells you how to receive eternal life. He is telling you the truth because he loves you. He offers himself to you because he loves you. Receive the Eucharist with full confidence that it is what he says it is. Receive the Eucharist and receive eternal life.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Finding a Meaningful Job

One positive characteristic of young people is that they are very idealistic. The noble desire of youth to improve on the world they were handed is generally a good thing. I can only speak to the youth of this era because I haven't lived in any other, but I suspect that idealism has always been a trait of the young. If we lose our idealism and our to desire to change the world as we grow, I suspect it's more because of laziness than any sort of reality.

With that in mind, I'd like to point the young men (parents, please share this with your sons) to a survey that Business Insider recently reported on about the most meaningful jobs in America. Not surprisingly, Clergy came in at number one on the last. 98% of those surveyed said it's a highly meaningful job, and 90% said it's a highly satisfying job. (Also notable: directors of religious activities and education came in at #4). I've heard of similar findings in the past, but it's nice to find a current survey bear witness to the same results. If you want to make a difference in the world, consider the priesthood. If you want to know that what you do every day matters, consider the priesthood. Surveys bear it out in print, but I can also testify from my own experience that I go to bed each night confident that my work has been important and humbled that I am not worthy of the gifts I have been given.

In a similar vein, Fr. Stephen Rossetti's book Why Priests are Happy, which I read several years ago, is the result of an in-depth and expansive survey about the state of priests today. He finds that, contrary to popular belief, priests are by and large very happy with their work and their lives. Do check out his book if you get a chance.

Young men, embrace the idealism that comes so naturally to you. Don't give up on it. Center all your ideals and goals on God, and let your ideals lead you to do great and heroic things for our world.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Raise Your Mind

So we're in the middle of the sixth chapter of John's gospel, and we often just call this John 6. John 6 contains strong, even undeniable, Eucharistic overtones, and it's actually much better to read John 6 as a whole, but reading it in parts like we are on these several Sundays right now allows us to focus on specific portions of the story. And in today's section, Jesus is working to get his audience to think about higher and loftier things so that they are prepared for what follows. So that's our job for today. We have to think about higher things.

And this whole discussion centers around bread-earthly bread and heavenly bread. So in the chronology of the story, Jesus has fed 5,000 people just the day before, and then over the night he walked on the water during the story. So twenty four hours, and Jesus is looking pretty awesome. I don't know if you or I have ever had a day that good. So walking on the water brought him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, but the people weren't going to let him escape that easily. So they got into their own boats and followed him, and our Gospel today picks up with the crowds finding Jesus and the conversation that follows.

And this dialogue is very important, so let's look closely and try to understand what's going on. They start by saying to him, "When did you get here," and they're kind of beating around the bush. The crowds are looking for Jesus because he can throw a good picnic on a tight budget, but they're missing the point that the healings and the feedings that Jesus does are just signs that point to who he is. They're not getting the point, so today Jesus is going to start teaching them. He starts by cutting through the crap and he basically says, "You're looking for me because you ate a miraculous meal yesterday."

Place yourself in the position of this crowd. Jesus is going to try to get them to elevate their minds to something higher, because they're just thinking about the physical. They're thinking they had a good meal yesterday, and they were full yesterday, but now they're hungry again. And Jesus is saying that's not the point. Food that perishes is not the point; it's a sign of something that will last forever. So he says, "Do not work for food that perishes but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." When Jesus says Son of Man, it's a reference to something divine, even the Jews know this, so then he tells them how to do the works of God: believing in the one that God sent.

Now they sense that he might be comparing himself to Moses, maybe even setting himself above Moses, so they say, "What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?" Basically, they're asking for his credentials. If Jesus is going to compare himself to Moses, they’re going to need more evidence. In their mind Moses was kind of the top dog, because as they understand it, Moses was the one who fed their ancestors with manna from heaven while they were wandering in the desert, and that's what we hear about in the first reading.

I love the Israelites in the first reading because they're just so human. God has sent plagues to Egypt to save them, he killed a whole generation of Egyptians to save them, he parted a sea and drowned an army to save them, and now that they're in the desert and a little hungry they think they've been led out here to die. But of course God loves them even when they act like whiny teenagers, and so God, not Moses, sends food to sustain them on their journey.

But as time goes one, the Jews got it backwards and started giving Moses credit for this bread from heaven, because they are prone to only consider the earthly and lowly. So now Jesus is here to teach them, because he needs them to understand that the manna they ate in the desert didn't actually come from Moses, it came from God the Father who was now offering them a better bread for a bigger journey. The manna in the desert was only earthly food, although it had a heavenly origin, and it could only sustain them on an earthly journey. Now, he wants to offer them a heavenly food that can sustain them on an eternal journey. This is why he needs them to lift their minds to higher things. This is why Jesus needs us to lift our minds to higher things, because we are on a journey that doesn't end with this earth.

So Jesus says to the Jews, and he says to us, "The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Bread that comes from heaven and can give life to the whole world is a pretty good deal, so naturally the crowd says, "Sir, give us this bread always." And that's when Jesus begins the big teaching. He has held their hand and guided them to it by pointing their minds to something higher than normal earthly bread, and now they are prepared to hear him say, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst."

This is the sort of thing that separates Jesus's true followers from those in the crowd who are just looking for another free meal. This separates those who follow him as God from those who just think he is a good teacher. This separates those who have a heavenly view of the world from those who can't look above the worldly. Because no good teacher ever says, "I am the bread of life; I am the source of every good thing and every holy longing in this world." No soup kitchen ever says, "If you eat my food you will never be hungry again." Only the Son of Man can say this.

My friends, we have to elevate our vision above the natural, above the earthly. We have to recognize that our time on this earth is not meaningless, that our existence is not random. Each of us has been willed into existence by God in order to be loved by God, both in this life and in the life to come. We are on a heavenly journey; we are on a journey towards heaven. And so, every decision we make should be in keeping with that goal, because it is possible to miss our intended goal of heaven. Hell is a real place. If we continually choose lowly and earthly paths that lead us away from our intended goal of heaven, thinking we'll focus on heaven sometime down the road, we can miss heaven altogether. And so every decision in our life, big and small, needs to keep heaven as our goal. We gather together every Sunday not so much to share in community, although that is indispensable, but to receive heavenly nourishment that we can't get anywhere else. Let every decision of your life, starting with where you spend your Sunday morning and then filtering down into every decision of your life, have heaven as its goal.