The house is brightly decorated: nutcrackers, wreaths, red ribbons, mistletoe, a goofy looking reindeer made from a sock, memories brought back to life by tree ornaments once made by child hands, and the glistening lights with the colorful ornaments bringing life to the tree. The gifts encircle it all. Cheery wrapping paper and gift bags brighten the floor around the Christmas tree.
And then, all that colorful wrapping ends up in the trash. And the decorations are all packed away, forgotten until next year. The gifts are soon absorbed into our everyday life and just become another possession. Or they are totally forgotten in the back of a drawer, or the top of a dusty shelf.
But there’s one piece of Christmas that lingers. There’s one bright and lively Christmas gift that remains, and is not forgotten.
When all else is packed away or is put on the curb in the trash can, the Spirit of Jesus can still fill the house, and your heart, with His life and love and joy.
I love all the gifts, the receiving, and the giving. I love the time with family, even though it’s often too brief. I love all the food and the drinks. But ever since I became Christian, I looked for something more in my Christmas. I looked for some special sense of Jesus’ presence. Sometimes I would find it during Christmas Eve service at church. Sometimes I would find the sense of closeness in the middle of a conversation, or a quiet time late at night. Sometimes I wouldn’t find it, but I always looked for that feeling of something different.
This year, I didn’t find a new or different sense of Jesus’ presence in my life. But that’s because I feel His presence all the time. Oh yes, I’m often not thinking about Jesus’ Spirit within me. But the sense of His close presence is just a thought away, and He’s always there, waiting for me to turn to Him. I turned to Him a lot this Christmas, and it felt the same as every other day. But that’s okay.
It’s a cliché, but for me, maybe every day is like Christmas day. And I’m so grateful.
I once wrote a blog post called “Weird Catholic Rules,” about an experience my father went through when he converted to the Catholic Church. That post has received more views and comments than any other on this site. I don’t think it was well written, but I do think it was the provocative title that brought readers in.
In looking through some of the comments, many people strongly defended the practices of the Catholic Church. This morning, while praying and waiting for the coffee to open my foggy mind, I thought about how some people passionately defend their church. Then I wondered: do they as strongly defend Jesus?
Oops… I was starting to feel that familiar judgmental self, striving to be heard. Who am I to judge, for I too pass up chances to defend the truth of Jesus?
My point today is this: many of us should carefully consider where we give our trust. Do we trust church rules and traditions, or the truth of Jesus Christ? For what you trust is what you will defend. Stand up for the truth of the love of Jesus.
I was twelve years old when my mom married my second stepfather. I still remember his mother telling him he was going to hell because he divorced his first wife. That was over 40 years ago and my stepfather, now in his 80’s, still carries around the guilt piled onto him by his devout Catholic mother. He is a prisoner of that guilt. He is a prisoner by holding onto falseness that he believes just might be true. Whether you call yourself Christian or not, you may be a prisoner of lies – for lies are like shackles on our hearts and minds, hindering us from truly experiencing life.
We are all prisoners of the lies we believe to be truth. The most dreadful prison is the one where you don’t realize you are a prisoner. Did you ever see the movie The Matrix? People were prisoners without knowing it. So it can be with us. We can only be free, free to make choices based on truth, when we know the truth.
As Paul warned, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
Sometimes I rant about the dealings of the Catholic Church. I truly apologize if I have offended anyone. But I have seen the effects of the shortcomings of the Catholic Church up close. I know many wounded Catholics, those who had belonged to the Catholic Church, maybe even since birth, yet left with bad experiences. My stepfather, stepbrother, and many close friends are among them.
Yet in the case of my stepfather, he didn’t leave by choice; he was kicked out because of the sin of his divorce from his first wife. It distresses me that though Jesus has forgiven my stepfather, the Catholic Church cannot.
My heart breaks for those wounded Catholics, like my stepfather, who are not able to find their way to another church. All his life my stepfather was told that the Catholic Church is the only one, true church. And when that church failed him, where can he go? He has gone nowhere, and remains lost.
If you are a “wounded” Catholic, having given up on the Catholic Church, please don’t give up on Jesus. He still loves you, and always will. God, as our ultimate and perfect Father, loves all His children, no matter what church they may go to.
“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.” (Catechism 82 of the Roman Catholic Church, emphasis added) The Catholic Church considers God’s word, as recorded in the Bible, and Catholic tradition, as equally valid and important.
Jesus might say in response, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7:8)
Moses might say, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)
And the apostle Paul might add, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
Catholic tradition verses the word of God – I’ll choose God.
Some churches celebrate communion, the Lord’s Supper, every Sunday. Yet, most churches I’m familiar with celebrate only once a month. Was this what Jesus had in mind? What is the truth of His intention for what we call the “Lord’s Supper?”
I was reading about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians chapter 11 this morning. There, and in the account of the supper in Luke, Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In Paul’s account, Jesus says, “…do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:25)
Jesus wants us to remember him. He wants us to remember his body that was broken on our behalf. He wants us to remember his blood that was spilled as a penalty for the sins we have committed. But does he want us to remember only once a month? And does he want us to remember only when we go to church? And does he want us to remember only with the help of a duly ordained minister?
I choose to believe something other than what is commonly practiced in modern Christian churches. I choose to believe that Jesus wants us to remember him at every meal. That first “Lord’s Supper” was Jesus’ way of establishing a memory trigger for us. Jesus knew we would need help remembering what he went through for us. For me anyway, it’s easy to remember to pray and ask for help. But I don’t often focus my thoughts on Jesus’ sacrifice, and in doing so, offer prayers of thanks along with my prayers for help.
From now on, I choose to treat every meal as a “Lord’s Supper.” I choose to respond to the trigger I believe Jesus intended, and remember what Jesus did for you and me, at every meal. For the more often I remember, the more I will be grateful. And the more I am grateful, the stronger will be my love for Jesus. And the stronger my love, the better servant will I become.
Please share your thoughts on the Lord’s Supper. Am I way off base here? I want to learn the truth. Thank you.
I have often wondered about what kind of church Jesus had in mind, when He first set things in motion. I try to imagine how the church would look like today, if Jesus had physically stayed around to direct the growth of His church. I find myself looking back to the earliest churches, described in Acts. The church that I imagine looks something like this:
Small groups of people meet in houses. There is no paid staff and there are no church building mortgages or other expenses. Yet there is an offering. The offering from each small house-church goes into some kind of central pool. Whenever an attendee of the church has a financial need, their needs are provided for out of the church pool. And likewise, non-financial needs are also meet by the church, primarily the small group which is really an extension of the family.
I also envision no formal membership process; if you attend even once, you are considered part of the family. When the “house churches” meet, their purpose might simply be to worship God, study His word, and learn about and pray for the needs of each other. This would leave no room for “traditions” (I have a strong aversion to traditions, which tend to get in the way of having a true relationship with Jesus).
Imagine a church whose only purpose is to worship God and help each other. Imagine the magnetic power of a church that is publicly known for lovingly taking care of the needs of those who come to it, looking for help. All “members” of the church are cared for by the church. No condemnation, no guilt, just love. And the “church” would no longer be thought of as a gothic-looking building somewhere, but as a family of loving people. Jesus said that people would know we are His disciples by our love for each other, not by the opulence of the building we meet in.
It seems to me that a model like that would work. Sure there are all kinds of opportunities for unscrupulous people to take advantage of such a model. But that’s where faith comes in; with the faith that Jesus would honor and care for such a church.
In this time of economic turmoil when such a loving, self-supporting church is truly needed; I still imagine, and hope.
[Look, something brought you to this blog post. If it was a mistake—sorry. But if you’d like to see something that is probably more worth your time, please check out the blurb about my soon-to-be-published novel on my new website. It’s basically about seeing a different perspective of Jesus, through the eyes of some background characters in the Bible. New website: cjpenn.com]
A few years ago my father, who was never really a church-goer, decided to join the Catholic Church, the church of my step-mother. I was pleased my dad was showing signs of faith, but my pleasure turned to dismay after I got the call from my mom. As part of my fathers’ application process, or whatever you go through to join the Catholic Church, the church mailed a stack of forms to my mother for her to fill out and sign. What the forms boiled down to was the annulment of the marriage of my parents. Since this would have resulted in my sisters and me being effectively declared illegitimate, my mom respectfully declined and tossed the forms in the trash.
Fortunately for my dad (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the Catholic Church still allowed him to join, even without my moms signature – I guess my dads signature was enough to wipe from the record his divorce from my mom.
You see, that’s what the process was all about… the church had to first cleanse my father of his divorce record, before they would allow him to join. But the message goes beyond just divorce. The implication is that you cannot join the Catholic Church unless you have no visible sins attached to you. Since divorce is a sin, you have to void the divorce by voiding the marriage. I’m sure I’m over-generalizing, but you get my point.
I have several concerns about this whole episode. First of all, maybe my parents’ marriage didn’t happen in the eyes of the Catholic Church (after all the forms were filled out), but God witnessed that first marriage; a marriage that began with oaths to Him, and produced three children. The Catholic Church may choose to ignore the truth, but God certainly will not. My real concern is this: does the Catholic Church believe that God will close His eyes, just because they choose to?
Second, divorce is clearly a sin – Jesus said so. We all sin – Jesus said so. But the story of our sins is not twisted in a way that makes it look like there was no sin (as the Catholic Church has twisted the story of my parents’ marriage). With Jesus, acceptance is far simpler than that. With Jesus we are accepted into His church not because of some manipulated image of sinlessness, but because of our faith – Jesus said so.
Third, so we are accepted into Jesus’ church not by being sinless, but by having faith and being repentant of the sins we do have. Yet the Catholic Church appears to have a higher standard.
The fourth thing that bothers me is this concept of the Catholic Church cleansing my father of past sins. There is no action by man that can clean someone of their sins, or hide their sins, or pretend their sins never happened. Jesus is the only one who can do this, and he’s already done it, by dying for our sins on the cross. Yet the Catholic Church appears to believe that they are the ones who must clean us of our sins before we can be presented to Jesus.
And finally, all of my concerns boil down to this: the Catholic Church appears not to believe in the grace of God. They appear not to believe in Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. They appear not to believe that we are forgiven because of our faith, not by anything we may do.
The article in this morning’s newspaper, titled “Vatican issues bioethics statement”, included a picture of the Vatican officials at a news conference. The caption under the picture read, “From left… (the names of the five men in the picture)… attend a news conference on bioethics at the Vatican on Friday. At top is the Vatican’s coat of arms.”
I put down my cup of coffee and was on my way to the computer before I even started reading the article. It was the caption under the picture that stirred me to action. I never knew the Vatican had a “coat of arms.”
It didn’t surprise me, with the militant history of the Catholic Church. But it was the incongruity of having a symbol of military might, contrasted with the topic of the sanctity of life that caught my attention. The two just don’t go together.
But what bothers me the most is that there still exists a Vatican coat of arms. Why can’t the Vatican let go of their militant past and do away with the coat of arms?
It is just another way in which the Catholic Church is contrary to the ways of Jesus Christ. Would Jesus condone a coat of arms for His church?
One of my past posts solicited the following comment: “Since Mary is the immaculate mother of Jesus and he was unable to deny her wishes on Earth (see wedding feast of Cana) she is the ideal intercessor!” I don’t know if this one comment represents the view of the entire Catholic Church, but it sparks some issues I would like to talk about.
First I would like to discuss this idea of Jesus taking direction from His mother, supposedly being “unable to deny her wishes.” Then I will try to compare the Catholic view of Mary with the biblical view (they are not one and the same). My intention is not to demean Mary in any way, but I do plan to focus on the truth; not according to the Catholic Church, but according to God.
Was Jesus truly unable to deny the wishes of his mother? What does the following tell you about Jesus’ relationship with Mary?
“While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50)
Jesus puts all who obey on the same level as His mother. He himself does not elevate her above anyone else. So why does the Catholic Church?
However, do Jesus’ words in the bible indicate that He was inclined to follow the direction of His mother, or did His guidance come from elsewhere? Please consider His own words…
“I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” (John 8:28-29)
“For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” (John 12:49-50)
“The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:10)
“These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” (John 14:24)
“…the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:31)
Jesus follows His Father, not His mother.
Regarding the Catholic view of Mary, one of her attributes is that she is an object of Catholic prayer. One of the most familiar Catholic prayers is directed toward her; “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
Does Jesus call us to pray to His mother? No. Jesus tells us to go directly to God…
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:9-12)
“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
In addition to being an object of prayer, Mary appears to be an object of worship. For me, it’s difficult if not impossible to separate worship from prayer. After all, prayer is an expression of worship. Praying to Mary is worshiping her.
What does God have to say about our worshipping other than Him? From the 10 Commandments:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Exodus 20:4-5a)
From this point in Exodus to the end of Revelation, we are told to worship only God…
“I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (Revelation 22:8-9)
Even an angel is not to be worshipped, and neither is Mary. Worship God!
I do not write this in order to criticize the Catholic Church. I write this out of concern for the souls of all who follow the ways of the Catholic Church. Jesus is concerned too…
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Matthew 15:7-9)
A good friend of mine who is a Baptist pastor recently whined to me about the tendency of some people to dump their problems onto him. He explained that some in his congregation like to come to him for a type of confession (maybe these are ex-Catholics). The confession doesn’t bother my friend; what bothers him is the apparent lack of effect.
I agree with him; confessing our sins, either to God or a friend or a pastor, should show evidence of itself in a changed life. To confess yet go on sinning – that sounds rather hypocritical to me. Now I realize that some sins are very difficult to put completely in our past; I know from my own personal, anguished experience. But there should be some evidence we are at least making an effort. After all, that’s what repentance is; to acknowledge our sins and endeavor to sin no more. (emphasis on “endeavor”)
But the “dump and runners” are those who acknowledge their sins to someone else and then run off to sin again. Where’s the repentance in that?
The key question for the dump and runners is this: is there salvation in confession alone? Is confessing your sins enough? Is that all God expects of us?
The truth and the answer is this: we are not saved by confession, we are saved by faith. And not just any faith; we are saved by a faith that changes our lives.
Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3) What does “born again” mean, if not to be changed?
And James, the brother of Jesus, stated, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
Faith without change is dead. Faith without a changed life is not really faith. Look at it this way; if you REALLY believe in the love and teachings of God, you would probably love God back, with all your heart, soul and mind. And by the strength of your love for God, you would take action and change your life.
“The Vatican insisted that it is properly following Christian tradition by excluding females from the priesthood as it issued a new warning that women taking part in ordinations will be excommunicated.” I’ve quoted this statement before, from an article that appeared in my local newspaper (see “Ban on Women Priests“). Today I want to look at this idea of excommunication.
Does the Catholic Church consider their denomination exclusive? Break their roles and you’re out; is that it? Look, this is how I see it: the Grand Imperial Masters of the Catholic Club have little tolerance for those who break their rules. Break a rule, and you’re out of the country club.
But how I see it doesn’t matter, especially since I tend to be biased and sometimes un-graceful (I never said I was flawless, and please forgive me for any harsh sounding remarks). What matters is how does Jesus look at this issue of excommunication? What does He think about this practice of kicking people out who don’t follow the rules? What might He say to the Catholic Church?
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7) I’m not saying those who break the rules are always innocent, but I believe Jesus is telling us to be merciful.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13) Yes, to me many modern day churches resemble Pharisees, in that it sometimes seems their “traditions” are more important than God’s laws and His direction for our lives.
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17) How did Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners? And I wonder, does God consider it a sin if a woman becomes a priest?
Even Paul has something to say, “Take special note of those who do not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as fellow believers.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
And here is a message for anyone who finds themselves kicked out of the club:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” (Luke 12:4)
“The Vatican insisted that it is properly following Christian tradition by excluding females from the priesthood as it issued a new warning that women taking part in ordinations will be excommunicated.” So saith the opening paragraph of an Associated Press article appearing in the May 31st issue of my local newspaper.
A spokesman for the Vatican added, “The church does not feel authorized to change the will of its founder Jesus Christ.” This apparently refers to Jesus having chosen only men as His apostles.
Check out the first sentence above, where it refers to “Christian tradition.” If you’ve read some of my past posts, you probably know how I feel about traditions verses the will of God. As far as I’m concerned, traditions that are not backed up by God’s will – flush em down the toilet. But what I feel doesn’t matter. What matters is how Jesus might feel about this tradition that was inferred from who He chose as apostles.
Jesus might explain His position by first reminding us of what Peter said at Pentecost, when he stood up and declared to the gathered crowd…
“No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.'” (Acts 2:16-18)
What does it mean to prophesy? “Son of man, prophesy and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:…'” (Ezekiel 30:2) Throughout Ezekiel, to prophesy is to pass on the words of God – “this is what the Sovereign Lord says”.
Not only men, but women are called to preach the word of the Lord. So says Joel, and Luke. Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4) Preaching the word of God looks important; and both men and women are called to the task.
What else might Jesus have to say about this topic? What does He think about the rules and traditions around the organization of today’s Christian churches? What does He think about the hierarchy of responsibilities and the fact that some are privileged enough to have more powerful roles than others?
Read the gospels. Did Jesus ever talk about church structures, organizations and responsibilities within a church? Could it be that it is all a man-made hierarchy? My message today is not so much about “What would Jesus say”, but more about what He didn’t say. According to what is recorded in the gospels, Jesus did not provide instruction for church hierarchy. As far as I can tell, all the hierarchy stuff came from men, not God.
Today’s churches provide the foundation and mechanisms for achieving His purpose for our lives; for advancing the commission He assigned to His disciples. Or do they? What does Jesus think about this tool that has been constructed to achieve His ends? Stay tuned – more on this tomorrow.