Monday, June 1, 2015

Gospel Distinctives

There are lots of interesting differences among the four Gospels. Here is an interesting one to contemplate. Click on the image for a readable version.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Clamoring to Concede Freedom of Religion

By clamoring for financial concessions and support (from federal, state, and local governments), thereby transferring our responsibilities to others, we people of faith have slowly given up freedom of religion in the United States of America. It started innocently enough when we were overwhelmingly, at least nominally, Christian and when we almost all agreed that Churches were important to the general welfare and the common good and that every marriage of a man and a woman resulting in children who would be raised and cared for by a full time mom and a wage-earning, grocery-buying, mortgage-paying dad was a key building block of our society. We all pitched in to make those things happen by granting financial concessions to churches and their pastors with tax exemptions, housing allowances, etc., to married couples by allowing them to pay lower taxes with joint tax returns and lots of exemptions, and to all citizens by letting those who wished to do so take tax deductions for gifts to their churches.

The so-called establishment clause in the US Constitution, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." was not violated, but Congress made many laws encouraging the establishment of religion and rewarding the free exercise thereof. And that worked fairly well so long as we were overwhelmingly religious and Christian and of pretty much one mind about what was good for the USA. And the unfairness inherent in the facts that singles, couples without children, and folks who didn’t give money to their churches had to pay higher taxes to make up for the rest of us was not a major problem.  

But then we became “diverse” and “multicultural,” and the definition of “church” was broadened to include some things the old-fashioned Christian church considered just plain wrong, and the concept of “non-profits,” even profitable ones, getting tax advantages similar to those of churches became popular. And people began to believe that it is unfair for only some “family” configurations to get tax advantages. A fundamental truth is that when concessions are offered by government, the citizens will clamor to receive them. (Government governs best when focused on doing its job rather than on devising concessions-for-votes programs.)

Even Christian charities, hospitals especially, began to clamor for government grants and government insurance payments, all of which came with strings attached, some of those strings requiring that some Christians deny or abandon core beliefs or lose funding.

So, here is my suggestion. Let’s render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s and pay our own way without asking others to shoulder the burden for us. Let’s pay property taxes on our property and fair and flat income taxes on our incomes. Let’s fund our own charities with no government involvement. Let’s eliminate financial motivation for following the commandments of Christ and leave only the Holy Spirit as the prime mover. By so doing, we can begin to regain the freedom of religion that we have lost. I believe such a change would lead to bigger and more powerful Churches taking up space in the world, proclaiming freely the Gospel, speaking freely on public issues, paying their fair share for government provided services, asking for nothing and giving everything, inspiring and attracting believers, and a lot fewer storefront churches doing little other than paying utility bills, making mortgage payments, and supporting founding pastors and their families.

We would have true separation of Church and State, most IRS employees would take early retirement, politicians would quit spending their time granting concessions for votes, freedom and faith would take giant steps forward, and the clamoring would cease.

(Revised slightly May 10th, 2015)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Richard John Neuhaus: Liberal Lutheran to Conservative Catholic

A new biography, Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square by Randy Boyagoda, does quadruple duty.  It provides a well-researched and documented critical look at the life and work of Neuhaus, in the context of  US history, including sociological trends, from the 1960’s through the early 2000’s, societal pressures on and changes in the role of the Church, or religion in general, in public life, and the continuing struggle over unresolved Reformation issues among and within Catholic and Protestant bodies. It is a great read.

Neuhaus (1936-2009) was raised the son of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor in Canada, received the Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, and served as pastor of Brooklyn’s low income, mostly minority, St. John the Evangelist Lutheran Church in the 1960’s. He preached and spoke in favor of social justice and civil rights and against the Vietnam War, and became well known as a liberal activist. As his liberal friends and associates moved leftward and more secular in the 1970’s, Neuhaus moved right and became a strong spokesman for conservative Judeo-Christian ethics and positions on public issues.

One of a diminishing minority of Lutherans who saw Lutheranism as a reform movement within the universal Catholic Church, Neuhaus gave up on Lutheran reform, was received into the Catholic Church in September, 1990, and was ordained a Catholic Priest a year later. Included in the biography are his eloquent explanations of the reasons for this change and for his shift to conservatism.

A prolific and powerful writer, Neuhaus is perhaps best known for The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, published in the mid 1980’s, and comprising a direct challenge to the emerging Political Correctness movement. Neuhaus later assured his own access to the Public Square through founding of First Things: America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life. The journal achieved a paid circulation of more than 30,000 and has continued after his passing.

The image of Neuhaus based on the biography and on his quotes therein is of a bigger-than-life, somewhat rude, impatient, and outspoken man who loved bourbon and cigars and didn't hesitate to consume even the cigars in a friend’s living room. However, watching him speak on one of the many YouTube videos available (example), he comes across as a loving pastor serving God and neighbor. Well, I suppose that too is a bigger-than-life image. You can download the book to your Kindle or iPad here

Published also on

Sunday, April 5, 2015

My New Favorite Bible Verse

Just as anybody running for political office needs to have a ready answer to the question, “What are you reading?” anybody spending time in Christian circles needs to be able to reveal, just in case, his or her favorite Bible verse. Being the energetic, works oriented, dirty hands kind of guy I am, I have recently responded to the question with Ephesians 2:10: For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

Never mind that there are 23,262 verses in the Old Testament, 4,084 verses in the deuterocanonical books, and 7,958 verses in the New Testament for a grand total of 35,304 verses in the Catholic Bible. And from that massive inventory, I should choose a favorite?

Never mind the problem that division of Sacred Scripture into chapters and verses, although a fairly recent development in the history of Christianity, only seven hundred or so years ago, was done prior to much advanced textual analysis which is of great value in discerning where the logical divisions, the divisions we show in modern English with sentences and paragraphs, most likely were intended and understood, by the ancient writers and their readers and listeners, to be.

Never mind the fact that my choice may reflect some personal bias just as selection of stories to report on the evening news may reflect biases of the news organizations. I've never heard anybody claim it as a favorite, but it has become common to hear Leviticus 20:13 quoted in support of a political position.  Exodus 31:14, which prescribes a similar punishment for a different offense (death for desecrating the Sabbath), just doesn't seem to carry the same level of importance. And I have already confessed that my selection of Ephesians 2:10 reflected a personal bias in favor of action.

Never mind that a lot of verses are considered out of bounds because they are difficult to understand. I had a pastor a few years ago who liked to say that there are no throwaway words in Sacred Scripture. I believe he is right, and, if that is true, there are certainly no throwaway verses in Sacred Scripture. Still, following the example of Mark Twain who said he wasn't bothered about scripture he didn't understand but just worried about the things he did understand, we tend to read right over those verses that are difficult to understand or to reconcile with our pre-conceived theologies. For example, I have often failed to recognize such as, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you,” “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword,” and “Otherwise, what will people accomplish by having themselves baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they having themselves baptized for them?” We will rarely hear any of these controversial words pulled from context and quoted as favorites! Even Jesus lost followers when He made the flesh and blood claim.

And never mind the fact that context is essential to understanding of the Bible and that picking individual verses out of context can easily result in misleading interpretations and understandings. One reason I am abandoning Ephesians 2:10 as a standalone favorite is that it ignores important context. Immediately preceding it are Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. That might be the favorite of a person whose personal theological bias favors the “saved by grace don’t have to do anything” position while my former choice seems to favor “works righteousness,” the idea that we can work our way to eternal salvation.  But these verses taken together, seem to destroy both extreme positions. Apparently, grace and works are opposite sides of the same coin. So, when I chose one as my favorite, I really should have preserved some context and kept the two together. Or I could have chosen James 2:17: So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Here is another context issue. A popular verse and good candidate for favoritism is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (KJV) Those words, yanked out of context, are so affirming that, in a popular culture that treasures affirmations, we may easily forget that they are the words of St. Paul, a man who, when guilty of persecuting the Body of Christ, had been struck blind on the road to Damascus, “caught up to the third heaven,” and assigned the task, by Jesus, of taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. He had followed that charge, suffering much along the way, even some unidentified “thorn in the flesh” which, in spite of Paul begging three times for relief, the Lord had not removed. I think it is safe to say that I ignore context if I stretch the meaning of that verse to support shooting par golf, picking a stock that becomes a “ten-bagger,” running an eight minute mile at age 72, or remembering the Hebrew and Greek I worked so hard for at the seminary. I clearly cannot do all things.  As for context in this particular case, St. Paul seems to have been thanking the Philippians for some support they had provided him and telling them not to worry because God was giving him the strength, not to eliminate, but to survive, even with suffering, whatever problems came his way. I should have such faith and patience!

Still, in spite of all these issues that complicate favorite verse selection, I don’t want to come across as a Grinch, saying I just don’t have one, nor do I want to preach a crowd-clearing, sleep-inducing sermon such as in these preceding paragraphs. I believe I have a new choice that is consistent with Catholic teaching about Sacred Scripture, “All Sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ, because all divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ.” 

My new choice is a verse of worship and adoration of the Triune God who has demonstrated his grace and mercy and steadfast love (That’s a hint.) through Jesus Christ. It is all about God and does not contain any first person pronouns. Its key words are repeated several times in slightly different arrangements in Sacred Scripture, and it expresses a central theme that runs throughout. And the proof of it is affirmed in Jesus’s “True Vine” discourse:  John 15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

Psalm 145:8 seems to say it all: The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

That is my choice, and I’m sticking to it…at least until I learn more.

By the way, here are the other expressions of the same idea:
  • Exodus 34:6-7 The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." 
  • Numbers 14:18  The LORD is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.' 
  • Nehemiah 9:17  But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them. 
  • Psalm 86:5 for you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you. 
  • Psalm 86:15 but you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. 
  • Psalm 103:8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 
  • Psalm 145:8 The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 
  • Joel 2:13  Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 
  • Jonah 4:2 for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

And this from the Gospel of John about God’s demonstration of His grace, mercy, and love: John 15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Seeing More Clearly, Thankfully

I know the photo is poorly focused, but this is what I was looking at this morning, just four days after left eye cataract surgery, before the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Peter's Catholic Church: beautiful, century old works of art depicting the Birth, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus. I snuck my iPhone out and hurriedly snapped the picture after marveling at how different the windows looked using only the newly repaired eye rather than both eyes. I thought of doing a blog post.

Left eye covered, the windows were beautiful. But, with right eye covered, the colors were markedly brighter, the whites especially whiter, allowing so much more light to enter. (I can only imagine how much better they might look to someone who didn't get his maternal grandfather's color blindness gene, passed along to him by his mother.) I have about six more weeks now for making such comparisons before the scheduled April 1 surgery on the right eye. After that, I may tend to forget how much improvement resulted, so I am writing this blog post at least partly as a permanent reminder.

What a wonderfully simple miracle cataract surgery is, performed in my case by an ophthalmologist who, sensing my nervousness about having him cut into my eye, assured me that they have the process down to a fine art and that he has done thousands. I said, IV needle already in my arm, "I am in your hands," and he replied with a big smile, "I pray that God is going to bless you through me." I relaxed.

Of course cataract surgery is nothing new. It was first documented more than 400 years before that horrific crucifixion of Christ depicted in the center window above. It was primitive, of course. The "surgeon" would wait until the cataract was hard and completely opaque and brittle and then strike the eye with sufficient force to break up the cataract, the pieces of which would remain in the eyeball but allow some light to enter, providing very limited and unfocused vision. You can read about it here. I'm guessing cataract surgery was not widely practiced until the process used today was invented in 1967 by Dr. Charles Kelman, his incredible story and obituary here.

Now, to borrow some words of Hank Williams, Jr., it seems to me that all my rowdy friends are having cataract surgery. I'm guessing that otherwise we would all be slowly going blind and that, in Bible times, blindness of varying degrees was probably as common in old age as skin cancers and forgetfulness are today. Forms of the word show up 47 times in the Gospels, most often in the Gospel of John which proclaims Jesus to be "The Light of the World," an effective cure for spiritual blindness, and which gives us the wonderful story, in Chapter 9, of the healing of the man born blind and the frustrations the Pharisees experienced trying to figure out how that happened and how to convict Jesus of sin for healing on the Sabbath. One of the most well known Bible verses today is the response of the healed man when questioned by the Pharisees: "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." That single chapter could be developed into a major motion picture, which would probably be a shame.

My cataracts are being caught early before significant reduction in vision, but I certainly look forward to and am thankful for the opportunity to stop the deterioration and to see more clearly. Lest I forget the blessing, I will go back and read this post once in a while.


Here is a little better picture of the windows. St. Peter's has a process under way to publish a book of professional photos of the windows along with full descriptions and histories of each.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Bible Story vs. Bible Stories

Here is an update of a chart from an earlier post. It has not been simplified, and, to get a readable copy, it will be necessary to click on the chart. The reason for the update is preparation for a new Bible study group, and I always like to begin any subject with the view from 30,000 feet. This is an attempt to give a Christian view of Sacred Scripture, the Whole Bible Story, from maybe 50,000 feet...not much detail included. It is a demonstration of my commitment to the *Single Page Principle.

We will probably use this by just taking turns reading and discussing each of the verses, context included.

* My principle that all important ideas and concepts can, with enough work, be illustrated on a single page. It is an extension of Winston Churchill's position that if someone needed a long speech, he needed very little time to prepare but, if they wanted a short speech, he needed a lot of time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Jesus and the First Person Singular

In a Sunday morning class, we were watching a Fr. Robert Barron video in which he talked about the modern tendency to trivialize Jesus as a very smart and very nice guy with a good philosophy of life and lots of interesting stories. The fact is, he said, that Jesus was an unusual and disturbing person who challenged those around him and created a lot of discomfort.

He mentioned the question Jesus asked of his disciples, “Who do the people say I am?” and suggested that great teachers and spiritual leaders, Deepak Chopra, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, for example would explain a way of thinking and living but would not be concerned about who people thought they were. I could add Tony Robbins, Zig Ziegler, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dale Carnegie, and Norman Vincent Peale to his list of folks who wanted or want to show us a different way (some perhaps making a lot of money in the process) but don’t express concern about who people think they are and don’t use a lot of first person singular pronouns.

It made me think about the extensive use of the first person singular by Jesus. Here are some examples:

"Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." - Matthew 4:19

 But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."  - Matthew 8:22

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. - Matthew 9:9

"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” - Matthew 10:32  

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  - Matthew 10:37-40  

 “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” -Matthew 11:29

 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” - Matthew 12:30  

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” - Matthew 16:24
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” - Matthew 18:5 

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." - Matthew 18:20

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." - Matthew 19:21
 “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  - Mark 1:1

Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?"  Jesus said, "I am; and 'you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,' and 'coming with the clouds of heaven.'"  - Mark 14:61-62

Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” - Luke 13:32  

"I am he (Messiah), the one who is speaking to you." - John 4:26
"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” -  John 6:35
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." - John 8:12
He said to them, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” -  John 8:23
Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am." - John 8:58

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” -  John 10:9 

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” -  John 10:11
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” - John 10:27

"I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” - John 11:25
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” - John 14:6 

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” – John 14:15

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” – John 15:1  

Christians read the words “I am,” the most fundamental first person singular declaration, coming from Jesus, especially in John 8:58 above, as hearkening back to the words of God when Moses encountered him in the burning bush in Exodus 3 and, upon being challenged to step up and lead the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, asked God who he should say told him to do such a foolish thing. God replied, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

Jesus was certainly loving in his encounters with many people but doesn’t seem to have been a “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” as suggested by a once popular hymn (based probably on Matthew 11:29 minus the “yoke” issue) except perhaps in his dealings with children. With followers and potential followers, he was confident and direct with such imperatives as, “…sin no more,” “sell your possessions,” and “keep my commandments.” His teaching challenges us to focus our own use of the first person singular to statements such as, “I believe,” “I confess,” “I pray,” “I forgive,” “I love,” and “I will.”

We may be in danger of trivializing Jesus by asking a subjective question such as “What would Jesus do?” Often what he did was heal people, cast out demons, or perform other miracles, make outrageous claims or demands on his followers, or tell wise and provocative stories. Those are not things we do very well. It may be more helpful in our spiritual journeys to first ask, “What did Jesus say?” and “What did Jesus do?” Then we can focus on what we will say and do in response.