This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Monday, November 10, 2014

"Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit..."

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
(Matthew 5:3)

I am choosing this verse for a teaching because there is a lot to say about what is going on with it this week.  With the economy and an increase in people losing their jobs, homes, etc., it is imperative that we understand what this verse means.   There are many out there - including a lot of these "New Evangelical Emergents" - who are getting on this "social gospel" bandwagon, and there is a lot of talk in college classrooms and some churches about the plight of the poor.  However, are they really understanding what Scripture says?  That is what we want to examine here.

I want to begin this teaching with a story.  Last week, in Fort Lauderdale, a 90-year-old man and a honored war veteran by the name of Arnold Abbott was given a lot of flak by the mayor of the city, a career politician by the name of Jack Seiler,   Given that Fort Lauderdale has a long and very notorious history for being an epicenter of cocaine trafficking, the porn industry, and other illicit (and downright dangerous!) activities, I found it personally interesting that Seiler decided to pick on a 90-year-old man - so, what was his offense?  Abbott was giving a plate of food to a homeless person!  I became so incensed about this incident that I wrote Seiler myself and chewed him out, and what I got back from him in return (which, I will give the man credit - he is one of the few politicians that actually responds!) was a bunch of self-loving accolades about how he supports aiding the homeless, etc., and that he only wants to regulate where their fed.  What Seiler failed to mention though is what the cost of such regulation is to many charities, and can a 90-year-old on a pension afford all the permits and other nonsense involved just to feed someone a bowl of soup??  I would guess not, and let me just say this - if someone feels a calling to feed homeless people, they should be able to act on that calling without some idiot politician fining them, charging them for permits, and then even putting them under arrest for a bowl of soup.  So, it is safe to say that Seiler's logic just didn't make the grade, and if I were a professor and he was taking my class, I would flunk his butt so quick he would not know what happened.  Abbott is a good man, with a good heart, and if he wants to serve chicken soup to transients, for heaven's sake let him!  I mean, there are worse things going on in the world than a vagrant getting a blessing of a hot meal from a 90-something year old man.  Seiler would be more wise to invest the resources wasted (at Fort Lauderdale taxpayer's expense, let's add that!) in fighting the rampant crime that blights his city.  For one thing, Seiler should be attacking the porn industry, or maybe fighting some of those cocaine and human trafficking rings.  Anyway, enough said, as this now leads into my next section of this discussion.

90-year-old Arnold Abbott, the "most wanted man" in Fort Lauderdale for the heinous crime of giving a bowl of soup to a homeless person.


Let's see, we need to get back to the verse at hand.  Matthew 5:3 is part of a well-known passage of Scripture we are familiar with as the Beatitudes, and they were the central premise of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  The first part of these are things that are "blessed," and interesting enough, the "poor in spirit" are one of the first mentioned.  However, who are the "poor in spirit?"  Upon looking into it further, as well as having the able instruction of my Theology professors at Franciscan University, I came to realize that there is a huge hermeneutical error in the application of this verse as many traditionally understood it.  Many people - including a lot of advocacy groups for the poor, etc. - focus it seems solely on the word "poor" without including the "in spirit" component of the equation, and that is where some clarification is needed.  Cardinal Jean Danielou, in his classic 1965 text Prayer as a Political Problem (New York:  Sheed and Ward, 1965) notes that the word "poor" has several meanings, and material poverty is only one (p. 10).  The more important poverty to address, Danielou notes, is the poverty in spirit, and what that means is this - a poverty of spiritual renewal and growth, or as Danielou can be quoted, "Socialization and rationalization leave little room for a personal life.  Society is so disordered that large numbers have to live in a poverty which makes a personal life impossible. The result of the secularization of society is that God is no longer present in family, professional, or civic life.  A world has come into being in which everything serves to turn men away from their spiritual calling." (pp. 16-17)  What this means is quite simple - the one who is cut off from God, either intentionally or unintentionally, is truly the "poor in spirit."  The "poor in spirit" are to be reached out to, because they lack something integral to the human soul that only God can provide.  The "poor in spirit" can be a wealthy man - a recent example of this is the late actor Robin Williams, who recently committed suicide - or it can be a person who is also materially lacking.  However, they are still outcasts - to use author Flannery O'Connor's term, "freaks." - and are most in need of Christ's love.  With the Christmas season coming upon us soon as of this writing, I would urge you to read Charles Dickens' classic tale A Christmas Carol in that light - Dickens understood who the true poor character in his story was, and it was Ebenezer Scrooge, a freak and an outcast despite his great wealth.  This doesn't mean, of course, that the Church should discourage feeding the financially poor and homeless (as Arnold Abbott faithfully does), because that is vital too.  However, let us use the right Scripture to support it, and Matthew 5:3 doesn't.    However, maybe our approach to that can be different too.  Let me briefly address that.

I have taken some interest in recent months in this new phenomenon called the "Tiny House," and to be honest, there is something attractive and practical about those small homes.  What really was fascinating though is that God moved on the hearts of some people in various cities to provide those for homeless people, and I have to admit, it is a fantastic idea.   In cities such as Austin, TX, and Greensboro, NC, charitable organizations are banning together to innovate this idea, and by all indications it is working and starting to be considered in other areas of the country.  The first one of these I heard about was in Austin, TX, where an organization by the name of Community First Village is implementing these tiny homes in a designated area.  The property this Community First Village sits on is about 27 acres, and with the assistance of another organization, a Christian ministry called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, they have an 87% success rate over a 9-year period, and it also includes services to help residents get back on their feet with employment assistance, as well as teaching them how to farm, grow food, etc.  Please take a look at their webpage at http://mlf.org/pave-the-way-home/.  

Community First Village in Austin, TX.

It must be understood that although efforts like Arnold Abbott's are good, and he has my 100% support, at the same time there is more to dealing with the problem of the homeless than just soup kitchens and flophouses too.  Many homeless don't want to be homeless, and given to proper leg-up, they can rise above their situation and be restored to some level of dignity that they as human persons deserve.  The problem with a lot of so called "advocates for the poor," however, is that they seem to revel in the fact that homelessness exists, and while they bewail it a lot, they do little about it other than a lot of talking, a lot of supporting soup kitchens and flophouses, and also some pathetic attempts to "understand" the homeless by doing a weekend hangout by sleeping in a cardboard box or some other stupid activity.   The homeless don't need you setting up housekeeping in a cardboard box next to them, but rather need someone to offer them a way out, a hand-up.  How do I know this?  I grew up poor, and I know what poverty is - although the food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and other things are nice and meet a need, what the poor really want is to not be poor anymore!  And, provided the right opportunities are made available to them, this can happen.  However, many so-called "poverty advocates" are in reality influenced by socialism, and socialism doesn't want to improve anyone's life, but rather wants to suppress everyone else.  If socialists had their way, there would be no higher education, no success in business, and no individuality - an economy run on socialism wants to run its subjects' lives, and has no interest in their dignity as human beings.  And, that is why so many "programs" fail miserably - the poor are still as hopeless as ever, and they are being told that the answer is to bring everyone down to their level.  However, as the ultimate hypocrisy, I don't see many of these advocates for this socialist "utopia" suffering - many of them have six-figure incomes, kiss butt with government officials, and live in lavish homes.  Same is true of many Theology faculty these days, in particular those in some Evangelical schools who are influenced by this whole postmodern "Emerging Church" junk - that is a reason why you see some professors at these institutions (which are supposed to be theologically conservative) hanging out with the likes of notorious socialists such as Cornel West, or spouting rhetoric about proposing a new type of "Christian Marxism" and other such stuff.  Yet, they are doing oh so little to actually help the poor they soapbox so much about, and I have seen homeless people scoff at them because they know better too.  As a matter of fact, such people create more poverty, because if they really would put their money where their mouth is, they would come down on the tuition costs for the students they are instructing, as many of their students are at times stressed over where their next meal is coming from because the exhorbitant tuition being charged has left them without a means to eat.  It is a scandal that I have addressed before, but there it is again for your edification.  

So, to wrap all this up, here it is.  The "poor in spirit" may not be synonymous with the materially poor, but could mean the alienated in society; some are self-alienated, others are ostracized because they don't fit the ideal of the groups they have to deal with everyday.  Reaching out to some of these "poor in spirit" may even save lives, because there are some of these designated "freaks" of society that may be contemplating ending their lives because they are lonely, rejected, and are labeled "freaks."  That is one reason Jesus blesses such people, because He has a heart for them.  If some professors at certain institutions would have that sort of compassion for some of the students they deal with, I believe it would give them more credibility.  

Flannery O'Connor said that at some point, before Christ extended His grace to us, we were all "freaks," and she is right - all of us have been condemned by original sin at some juncture in our lives, and had no hope, but then Someone provided a way, and that One is Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ died for the sins of the whole world, because He, and He alone, is the Agnus Dei, que tollis peccata mundi.  As the Agnus Dei, He was slain for each of our sins, regardless of what they are.  If anyone reading this feels like you are alienated, there is good news - Jesus Christ wants to embrace you and endow His promises to you, and He had you in mind those many years ago when He underwent a hideous torture and death on the Cross - His love for you knows no limits, and to Him you are not a mere "freak" but rather an image of God - when God created you, he did so with a unique purpose in the image He saw of you.  Therefore, you are known and special to Him.  That is why today, you need to make a decision - Christ accepts you, and wants to take you as His own, but a gift must be received in order to be effective as a gift,  And, that is what it is - a gift, and the most precious gift of all; eternal life in Him.  God gave you the free will to accept it, and it is always there for you - you just have to step up and take it.  Christ died for the whole world, that we all might have eternal life (John 3;16), and that includes you.  Also, you don't have to be on a certain level to be worthy of it - you can't be anyway, because Romans 3;23 says that all of us (and that includes you, me, and every other person on this earth) have sinned and fallen short, and as a result none of us are righteous in ourselves (Romans 3:10).  As a result of that sin, we all deserve death (Romans 6:23), but now here is the good news!  First, if any man sin (and we all do, believe me!) Jesus serves as our Advocate before the Father, and is the propitiation for that sin (I John 2;1-20.  Second, if any travail (and for that person who is contemplating suicide over hopelessness, this is you!) Jesus says, "Come unto me, all you who travail and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).  You can do that right now, and then you need to be assured that there is a group of people out there, the Remnant Church, who have been there, and they will be there for you.  However, also understand that the unpredicability and fragility of our own lives on this earth makes this urgent too, and if you are in such a state as to where you are contemplating something extreme, please stop and really think and consider what has been said to you today - Jesus wants so much better than that inner bondage you are feeling, and He loves you enough that He gave His own life for you, and therefore all He asks is that you seek Him with an open heart and a contrite spirit, and He will hear you.  That is the essence of the Gospel in a nutshell - Jesus Christ is the ultimate mercy, God Himself offered to save us from that which seeks to destroy us.  And, with that being said, my prayer for anyone now is that the Lord Himself will use these words to touch these people today, and if you are not one but know someone like this, please reach out to them - you may be that blessing to a particular "poor one in spirit" that Christ intended.  God bless until next time,


Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Judge Not..." What It Really Means

I was not actually planning on doing another article for 2014, but a recent incident forced me to take a look at an issue we hear a lot about these days.  It has become a sort of new "11th Commandment" in this increasingly secularized and post-modern culture to say that we are "not supposed to judge anybody," and often it is based on a Scripture in Matthew 7:1 - "Judge not lest you be judged."  No one, of course, wants to be "judged," but there are a couple of problems with that desire, so let's examine those first.

Judging has become a cardinal sin in this day and age, and to be labeled "judgmental" means that somehow you are some sort of prude, a snob, and (gasp!) a religious Pharisee or something.   However, here's the thing - whether we liked it or not, we all have already been judged twice if we are Christians.   We were judged guilty of original sin when Adam and Eve first sinned in the garden, and we inherited that curse of original sin when we entered this world.  Therefore, we need to give a little refresher course on that.

Romans 3:23 states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and what that means in many cases is multiple times!   Why is that?  Because in ourselves, we have no righteousness - it is not something that is endowed upon us at birth (Romans 3:10).  And, thanks to our ancestor Adam, our judgement has already been sealed if we don't know the way of redemption, and that penalty is death (Romans 6:23).  This is where the Cross comes in - Jesus' shed blood on the cross is what provides a reversal of that judgement, because through His shed blood for us we are made righteous in the eyes of God.  However, it doesn't just mean we are covered-over with some kind of blanket.  Dr. Regis Martin, my professor at Franciscan University, once explained it this way in a Theology of the Church class - imagine that each of us is a dunghill, and as a dunghill the stench of sin is upon us strongly.  However, Jesus enters into that dunghill, breaking down and destroying the stench of sin, and in time we are transformed - from where the dunghill once sat, a rosebush arises.   Many of our Evangelical friends unfortunately miss this in that they think that our reception of Jesus is like a snowfall over the dunghill - all it does for them is that it covers the stink, but the sin is still there.  You must remember something - at the fount of baptism, all of our original sin is washed away and we become a new creation in Christ who transforms us.  We are not merely a stinky dunghill covered with snow, but we have become the rosebush.  Sure, on occasion even roses are prone to bugs and blight (this is the sin and imperfection of our own human nature) but repentance prunes off those bad leaves and heals us from that sin, provided we are aware enough to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit to repent in the first place.  Which now brings us back to the original discussion.

Many post-modern Evangelical Christians have this mentality of the covered dunghill - they feel as if they are covered but often think they remain a dunghill that has just been "destunk."   Therefore, if all we are is just covered dunghills, each of us must stink as much as the other, right?  So, we have no right to "judge" each other when some of that snow of redemption melts and the stink wafts back out, right?   Instead, the stink, according to these people, is sanctified and it is now OK to be a "stinky saint" mirroring the world because somehow we don't "judge" others that way then.  The logic behind this is flawed however, and here is why - often, those who are on this "do not judge" bandwagon often are possibly engaging in something that they should not be engaging in, and to judge someone else is to expose them for a similar thing.  However, as I shall explain momentarily, that type of thinking has gaps.  This is one reason why it is often interesting to hear these people saying "do not judge" all the time, for what they are really saying is this - "I don't want you to judge me for something I am doing that maybe doesn't fit 'your' view of Christian experience."  I will also get into that shortly as well, as this is a flawed understanding too, but I wanted to set up the background first before moving forward.

I want to tell you a little story to illustrate my first refutation of the above arguments.  Some time ago, a lady who was a devout Christian had a fall upon hard times and ended up out of work for a considerable amount of time.  She (rightly) trusted God, and soon her situation began to turn around.  However, some people in her family went through a similar situation, and although her family was equally faithful and devout, here is what she said to them - "Are you too proud to work at MacDonald's?"  Mind you, the person she was directing this at has a college degree, and has worked too hard to go to MacDonald's for a job, so yes, that was true.  But, the problem was did she have a right to make that judgment about her family members without knowing the full story?   This is what Matthew 1:8 is talking about - this is unjustified judgment, and it was totally inappropriate.  That lady should have remembered a little parable of Jesus about this that is found in Matthew 18:22-35.  In that story, if you recall, a man was indebted to the king for a huge debt of what would be millions of dollars in today's economy, and as the king was getting ready to pronounce judgment on this man for his inability to pay, the man gave a hearfelt plea for mercy, which the king was moved to grant.  However, like an idiot, what does this newly-liberated jerk do?  He goes out, chases down a guy who owes him about $5, and has him thrown in prison!    The king heard about that and was furious, and as a result that punishment was reinstated.  The lady in question should take heed to something like this, because in actuality she is a management-level professional who herself has been out of work for a considerable amount of time, and she is also thinking about selling her house because she may not be able to afford to keep it, yet she so eloquently dispenses this "advice" about MacDonald's on others - in her situation, if this is such an easy answer, she should maybe try that herself!  Of course, in reality, we all know that if MacDonald's is a career choice, something is very wrong (and degreed people don't normally aspire to flip burgers anyway), but that is beside the point.  The point is that this lady chose to judge the situation of another, due to a circumstance they couldn't help, and that is what Jesus spoke against.  That type of presupposed judgmentalism is uncalled for and doesn't do anyone any service.  However, is this the same as showing concern about some things that go on in God's name purposely in many churches?   Let's examine that now.

In the historic teaching of the Church, there are two types of practices and teachings.  One type are called primary teachings, and they are essential to the Church's testimony and are not up for debate or change.  By "teachings" I also am referring to common traditions and practices which have been part of the Church from the beginning.  A good example of something primary is the celebration of the Eucharist - it is always to be celebrated with only wheat, the "fruit of the vine" (grapes), and water, and is only to be administered to the baptized.  So, Dorito's and Pepsi-Cola are not acceptable as Communion species!   Also, for anointing, only olive oil can be used - you do not crismate people with lard or Pennzoil, sorry!   Another practice that is a primary is marriage - it is only between one man and one woman, and should always be viewed by the Christian as a sacramental union.  Therefore, it is not consistent with Church teaching to support things such as "gay marriage," polygamy, or any other deviation of the marriage covenant.  And, another hot one is music - Church music should always be compatible with Church teaching, and aid in the worship of the Church, and thus is set apart for that purpose.  For this reason, "Christian rock" isn't a proper genre for the worship setting.  Whether or not people listen to "Christian rock" in an informal setting is their business, as the Church doesn't really address that specifically except to say that we need to be careful to not encourage sinful lifestyles and behavior (which rock music in general tends to do).  All of these are examples of primaries that should not be messed with in the life of the Church.

There are other things, however, which are called secondary teachings, and on these there is some leeway.  For instance, the mode of administering baptism is a secondary - as long as it is done with water, it is acceptable. Also, as a secondary, new hymnody (so long as it is consistent with Church teaching) is not only allowable, but is also a real thing - gifted people of all generations are inspired by God to write new sacred music all the time, and that is part of the inherent creative ability God gave us, and to use such a gift to glorify his kingdom is not only good, but also commendable.  Other things as well - charismatic gifts, using a keyboard instead of a pipe organ, the office of deaconness, etc. - are all secondaries and are perfectly fine in that they don't compromise essential Church teaching.   But, even with secondaries, they have their time and place.  Some secondaries, for instance, have been in practice before, later dropped, and then revived - the office of deaconness is one such thing - and that is acceptable as well.  It largely depends on the need for them in that particular time for the Church.   That being said, let's talk about "judging" in this context.

There are many people who are part of these contemporary worship services who feel that they should not be "judged" for what they do, yet what they are doing, based on the above discussion, is tampering with primary aspects of the Church's life and teaching they shouldn't mess with.  Yet, if you call such people on that, they will bristle and instantly accuse you of "judging," but is that really the case?   First, if it is a legitimate concern, it is probably so because the Church has ruled on it, and the person expressing the concern is not making the judgment, but rather the Church is - the verse in Matthew 1:8 says nothing about the Church making a judgment of what is or is not a valid practice, and indeed, Christ gives a lot of leeway to His Church to guide and direct its members in that regard. For instance, let's read in Matthew 19:19 about this.   Depending on which Christian denominational tradition you are part of, this could mean a couple of different things.   If you are a Pentecostal, you may have an understanding of this verse as meaning that believers have the right to bind evil spirits and release blessings, but that is not the story or context.  If you are a Roman Catholic, this means to you the authority of Apostolic Succession, specifically the office of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope).  A little closer, but not quite.  The real meaning of this verse is that Jesus imparted a teaching and regulating authority to the Church which endows her with the power to enforce teaching on primary issues (binding) and to allow leeway on secondaries (loosing).  And, it is that context I am addressing this.  So, yes, the Church has the office and power to judge, bestowed by Christ Himself, and in having that authority, those of us who are part of her should be educated enough in the teachings of the Church to uphold what she says and educate others as part of our own individual Christian witness - if we fail, then we are accountable.  Therefore, for the CCM crowd, the Emergents, and others who are making huge efforts to redefine things, let me say this to you - I have the authority to discern that what you may be doing is wrong, but you don't have the authority to change that.  And, this is not my judgment - if you have an issue, familiarize yourself with actual Church teaching and examine it for yourselves.  I personally don't have that authority to judge, and you give me more credit than I deserve - it is the Church you are to take those matters up with.  That, therefore, should dispense all this "do not judge" misunderstanding.

This has been a brief but intense teaching, but let me summarize as follows - it is time that people understand the context of some verses in Scripture before trying to use them to justify their own behavior, and it is important that such Scripture passages be understood in the light of how the Church has traditionally taught.  Matthew 1:8 is one such verse, and hopefully today I have done my own small part to correct misinterpretations.  God bless until next time.