How I Define Myself

About two months ago at the Latin American Student Organization (LASO) general member meeting, we played a very interesting social game. The leader assigned different names to each part of the room: class, race, religion, sex, and gender. We were told to stand in the part of the room that we identify with the most. I really enjoyed the premise of the game, which really made me think, and I especially liked the opportunity to talk as a group about why we identify with one over the other.

Being LASO, the LATIN AMERICAN Student Organization, you can guess which part of the room was most populated… the race one. But I noticed a unique pattern for why people identified with class, race, sex, and gender: they usually identified themselves with the one that they were most discriminated against for. The people who came from the lower class talked about how they didn’t have the same opportunities as their peers from middle or upper class families. Women talked about how because of their sex they have been treated as objects and haven’t had the same respect as men. The story goes on similarly for race and gender.

Interestingly enough, I was the only one to stand at the “religion” section. I’m the white guy in the group, and a missionary on top of that, so yea… I stood out like a sore thumb as always. Because of the awkwardness of being the only one in my group, they didn’t ask me to share why I was standing there. But I think I’d like to share now, in case anyone is curious. It really made me think, that’s for sure.

I identify with religion more than the others not simply because I am a “normal” American. Middle class, white, male. So what. There’s plenty of reasons for me to be proud to be from a middle class family of immigrants that “made it.” The ancestors that I identify with the most is my mom’s side, German farmers who immigrated to America because of religious persecution in 1841. They founded the town that I was blessed to grow up in. (Big honking beautiful Catholic church right in the center. Take that, religious persecution.)

My home parish: St. John the Baptist

My home parish: St. John the Baptist

Note: I very much resonate with and respect the students who identify with their Hispanic heritage above all else. These students are mostly first or second generation Americans, faced with difficulties in their homelands and searching for a better life in America. I bet that many of their parents have trouble speaking English because of that and many other factors school has always been more of a personal struggle for them. I bet that most of their families have been through times of living paycheck to paycheck. I also resonate with and respect the students who identified most with sex, gender, and class. This post is not to bash those students at all in any way. My goal is just to point out that while those are great things to identify with, I believe that religion – properly understood – takes the cake hands down in this one.

I identify with my Catholic Christian religion the most because I do not define myself by what other people think of me, instead I define myself by God’s love for me. I was created out of love for love. People might make fun of me and tear me down, but I try not to be bothered too much by what they try to do or say to me, because no matter what, I know that God loves me exactly the way that I am. God loves each of us exactly the way that we are, no matter our background, skin color, sex, gender, religion, age, etc. This gives me hope at all times and is a relationship to cherish. God is my rock and my foundation, so the rest of my life is at least set on firm ground.

If I were to define myself according to what others think of me, wouldn’t that leave me vulnerable to being hurt by them? I absolutely love this line by Lecrae:

“If you live for their acceptance, you’ll die from their rejection.” – Lecrae

Our true hope in both good times and bad is God’s love for us. He has a great plan for us, even despite the struggles that we will surely go through, and He reminds the prophet Jeremiah:

“I know well the plans I have in mind for you, plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11

I think that most of the students identified with a certain thing because that’s a struggle that they have to deal with from their background. I’d say that that’s okay! We all have struggles, there is no shame in that. But I would encourage us all to turn what we identify with from a negative to a positive. Why dwell on your struggles if you could look forward to the future?

There are also those who identify with something because they genuinely like or treasure it, like their heritage for example. Even this pales in comparison to our relationship with God, our ultimate heritage. At the end of the day, though race, class (that you grew up from), sex, and gender are permanent things, they are just earthly things. The only thing that lasts through eternity is our relationship with Jesus.

“What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we are being slain all the day;

we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:35-39

Advertisements

Climbing Mountains

You don’t just get out of bed and climb a mountain. There are so many things that you have to plan for and have right in order to accomplish a crazy feat like that, otherwise you could be forced to turn around or even be putting your life in danger.

I had the opportunity to fulfill a dream of mine last week by being able to go to Colorado and climb some real mountains with my best friends. I’ve done some hiking before, but I knew that climbing a 14er (14,000 feet and up) would be a whole new challenge. First off, the altitude change is quite drastic for a guy from Illinois, arguably the flattest state in the country. Altitude sickness? Check. It was frustrating because all I wanted to do was climb mountains but my body literally wouldn’t let me that first day. The next major challenge was the lack of oxygen at that elevation. I was literally out of breath after taking a drink of water if I didn’t stop. The pace started fast and slowed down the higher that we went. I really appreciated the encouragement from my friends, because it was discouraging being out of breath so fast and also occasionally experiencing nausea. On top of it all, we were hiking for 6+ hours straight up 3000+ feet: exhausted. We had to be in pretty decent shape at least if we had any hope of summiting. It took a lot of perseverance to finally reach the peak of two 14ers by the end of the week, but man was it ever worth it! I’ll treasure those moments for the rest of my life as well as being able to experience that with my best friends.

As I was hiking, I couldn’t help but notice how climbing mountains has so many connections to the rest of life. Getting to the peak was my goal for the moment, but what are my goals in life? Where’s the finish line?

I really can’t put my hopes in earthly things. What good is that? I know that one day I’ll die. Everything here is passing. Example! Babe Ruth hit a lot of home runs. But what good does that do him now? He’s dead, and it’s the eternal things that he has to worry about now. Sold? Ok, good.

Eternal goals. You know, like heaven. I promise that it’s where you want to be. We have such a great God in that He promises us eternal life with Him if we only carry our cross and follow Him. This is an active choice. We can’t just sit around our whole life doing nothing. It won’t work in climbing a mountain, and it sure as heck isn’t what Jesus had in mind. He calls us all to Himself, to follow Him as disciples who give up everything to follow Him. We can’t just assume that no matter how many times that we deny Him, we’ll still somehow be able to join Him in heaven. Jesus is our true treasure in life… forget popularity, success, cars, and all that! And like any other treasure, to reach Him we need to train ourselves and make sacrifices in order to gain Him.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus points this out very clearly:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” – Matthew 13:44

In order to climb a mountain, I needed support from my friends, training, and the right gear. It wasn’t a cakewalk. In a similar way, there is nothing that we should not be willing to give up in order to reach the kingdom of heaven and bring it forth in our everyday lives. Reaching the kingdom of God doesn’t simply make us “good people”, but it makes us who we were meant to be, fully human!

IMG_3672

Standing at the top of the mountain, I was able to look out for miles and miles in order to see how beautiful the world is. Can you imagine just how much more glorious God is compared to that and how worth it that will be one day?

Cases for the Catholic Church: Sacraments

Mass before the March for Life

About a month ago, I was talking with someone who remarked, “You know, the hardest part about living a relationship with God is that I can’t talk with or touch Him.” Obviously she’s got a ways to go in terms of developing a prayer life, the best way to communicate with our Lord (and the way that Jesus Himself talked with the Father!), but she makes a great point. Would God really just leave us all alone after Jesus ascended into Heaven?

Jesus promised that He would never leave us, saying “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Yet despite that, He ascended into Heaven, so how does this make any sense? First off, God is still with us always. Even the Father personally guided the Israelites personally in the Old Testament times, He is always loving us and desiring the best for us. In addition, the Father and Son gave the Holy Spirit to the Church at Pentecost (Acts 2).

But it makes sense that God would want to give us a tangible way of encountering Jesus through the Church. Jesus gave us the sacraments as signs of God’s love, ways to physically encounter God’s grace. Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to administer the sacraments themselves, and they have continued to carry on this ministry throughout the ages in the Church.

For those who aren’t familiar with the sacraments at all, I sometimes think of them as “power ups” in real life because of the grace that they give. Baptism is like an “extra” life that you get where it initiates you into the Church and is necessary for salvation*. Confirmation is a power up to grow in your faith which gives you more gifts from the Holy Spirit. Confession is how you get “full health again” and God forgives you of your sins. Eucharist is pretty much where you win the game and get to have a meal ZIP with the creator of the game. Marriage… um I guess that one’s pretty self explanatory, I hope, haha. Holy Orders gives men special powers to act in Jesus’ place in administering the sacraments, helping everyone else get their power ups. Finally, Anointing of the Sick is a way to instantly win the game despite being about ready to die.

Ok those comparisons were pretty hilarious for me… but they show the importance of taking advantage of all of the help that we can get in our lives! In video games we try to get the most power ups that we can so that we can do the best. In real life, we should do the same! God has given us help.. the Holy Spirit, the Church, the sacraments, the Bible, so that we wouldn’t have to live our faith all alone.

Instead of doing an in-depth scriptural and general apologetics study at the end to defend each of the 7 sacraments, feel free to check out this more thorough web site: Catholic Apologetics

Dr. Peter Kreeft also defends sacraments as a whole here.

Previous posts on the sacraments:
Baptism: Why Wait?
Confession
Mass: The Liturgy of the Eucharist
Why do Catholics have to go to Mass on Sundays?
Too Wise to Get Married?
Why Can Only Men be Catholic Priests?

Other Cases for the Catholic Church:
Authority
Universality

Cases for the Catholic Church: Authority

I’m starting a series of posts on why all Christians should be Catholic. I plan on writing a number of different posts covering different angles of this ecumenical issue. This first one is on authority.

Let’s not even take the idea of “church” for granted. Why should we join a Christian church in the first place? How do we decide which Christian church to follow? Don’t you think that Jesus would have helped us out a little bit more with this crucial decision?

Any bible believing Christian would notice that Jesus founded a church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

Let’s look deeper into that verse, highlighting significant points:

Point #1: JESUS founded the Church. God founded the Church. Not a human being. It wasn’t “made up” by people who wanted positions of power. Jesus founded the Church so that it would play a role in establishing God’s kingdom on earth, offering salvation to all of humanity and sharing the good news of the Gospel.

Point #2: Clearly, Jesus founds A Church. One Church. Not 30,000, but 1.

Point #3: We can also notice that Jesus founds His Church on a single person, Peter. Peter is the leader of the Apostles, charged by Jesus to “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep” (John 21:15,16), shepherding/leadership/servant roles to oversee the Church throughout the world. Peter of course went on to become the first Pope, the Bishop of Rome. This line of succession of the Popes continues today as they lead the Church.

Point #4: Jesus guarantees that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. So.. no matter what, the Church will stand. It will not be destroyed. It will not falter in the faith. God’s got this.

So there’s a bunch that we can get out of one verse, and it answered the basics of the our original questions. We can infer from scripture that Jesus founded a Church led by Peter, the first pope.

How about a few more questions on authority:

What gives someone the authority to start their own church? Since Jesus founded one Church, what need is there for any other churches? Jesus founded one Church with no divisions (1 Cor 1:10). He founded the Church as one body with one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God (Eph 4:4-5). He founded a Church that is one as the Eucharistic loaf is one (1 Cor 10:17). St. Paul warned against those who create dissensions against what he originally taught the Christians (Romans 16:17) and urged them to be in the same mind and thinking the same thing (Phil 2:2).

What gives someone the authority to determine doctrine? Obviously we can’t just change the doctrine of the Church to be whatever we want it to be, but have to make sure that it squares with God. How is this done? Well, we know that the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15). Jesus gave His authority to the Apostles to in Matthew 18:18, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” An example of this was during the first ecumenical council, the council of Jerusalem, in Acts 15:28-29, even highlighting that it is by the Holy Spirit (God!) that the decision was made, which the Church received at its “birthday,” Pentecost. The Church is even shown to represent God in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, where St. Peter says “You have lied not to human beings, but to God.” So in sum Jesus gave the Church an authoritative voice in the world representing God, and it can make decisions on doctrine at a council where all Apostles/Bishops are gathered together. (This is very basic, I’m sure I missed some points here.)

What gives someone the authority to interpret the bible? Can anyone do it? If so, how can we explain all of the different interpretations of scripture? Obviously, I’ve been quoting scripture to back up my claims so far. People might argue with my interpretation of scripture. But ultimately I do not interpret scripture myself but learn from how the Church interprets it. We see this in scripture itself in 2 Peter 1:20-21: “Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God.” This means that only by the Holy Spirit can scriptures be interpreted properly, and the Magesterium (teaching body of bishops) of the Church has helped us with this throughout history.

Other Cases for the Catholic Church:
Universality
Sacraments

The Moment it all Changed

I look up, my heart beating fast. I just couldn’t bring myself to read anymore right now, I had too much on my mind. Making the most of each breath and appreciating every moment, it became obvious that I couldn’t live the same way anymore. God had spoken to my heart and it had finally clicked. I responded in prayer.

“Lord, even though I’m scared of what this means, I’m yours.”

As I said in my testimony, God rapidly began to work in my life after I got confirmed. The last two years of high school for me pretty much turned how I lived upside down. Shy to downright boisterous. Alone to “popular.” Trying to not get bullied to befriending all the bullied people. Afraid to speak up for what I believed in to going out of my way to share what I’ve experienced. Afraid of new things to going out of my way to bring people together. Worried about what the “cool” kids thought of me to worried about what the “unpopular” kids thought of themselves and encouraging them through friendship.

I’d always believed in God. But it was more of the existence of God, rather than a personal God who cared about me. Who desired that I live with Him. Being relatively out of touch with what goes on inside my head (extrovert problems?), it took a long time for Him to break through to me. In addition, since most other people didn’t seem to care about me much, why would God, the creator of everything, care about me?

After getting involved in my first “youth group” ever in my senior year of high school, an inspiring talk by one of my friends opened my eyes to an idea I had shelved for a long time: reading the bible. I actually was praying at least before bed every day for years by then, but often it felt like a monologue. Seeing every single one of those prayers answered helped. But a critical way of deepening my relationship with God was allowing Him to speak to me through scripture. Nowadays I’d call this the Catholic practice of Leccio Divina, but it’s kind of amazing how I ended up doing this without any instruction whatsoever. It didn’t come easy, though. I began with Genesis and read a couple hundred pages of the Old Testament before getting pretty bored. By this time it was the summer between high school and college, and I decided to skip ahead to the “good stuff,” the New Testament, starting with Matthew.

Look, as a Catholic I heard a Gospel reading every Sunday at mass, and between CCD and homilies, I didn’t learn many new things by reading the Gospels. What really impacted me was reading about the life of Jesus as a story every night for a couple of months straight that summer. I began to think of Jesus not as a historical figure, but as a man that I could resonate with. Just as Harry Potter came alive to me through reading the books, Jesus became more alive than ever to me through reading the Gospels.

My brother and I in Ephraim, July 2009.

My brother and I in Ephraim, July 2009.

By the end of the summer, I was through Matthew, Mark, and on to Luke. My family was up in Ephraim, Wisconsin on a little vacation at the end of July. Every night I got in my scripture and prayer, after everyone had gone to bed in our cabin.

God had worked in my heart so much by this time. I had read pretty much the same story of Jesus back to back to back in Matthew, Mark, and now in Luke. Until that night, it all still felt somewhat academic.

I was reading my chapter for the night, and suddenly I was overwhelmed. It all had become real to me finally. Jesus had many of the same struggles as I had. He desired that everyone came to know of God’s love for them, and that they would honor God as He deserves. Jesus didn’t live a “safe” life, He lived a life of difficulty and reckless abandon for God. Despite all of the failings of His disciples, the threats against Him from the Pharisees, and the general misunderstandings of the people of Israel, He still persevered on with His mission. He followed through, showing God’s love for us in the most tangible way by dying for us.

It all registered for me at that moment, and I knew that I couldn’t live the same way again. I needed to put God first, like Jesus. That is the only way to true life for myself, and for all of my family and friends. Everything else passes away, but our relationship with God lasts forever.

I knew that I might have to make radical decisions in order to live for God. That scared the heck out of me. But in my head, it made sense. If God died for me, the least that I could do is die for Him. Hopefully I won’t have to actually die like a martyr, but in everyday decisions I had so many opportunities to put God first. I tried to stop complaining, to stop sinning, to love everyone- even my enemies, to serve those in need, to encourage the downcast, to share my faith out of love, to appreciate life and live joyfully, to always make time for prayer, to worship God especially at mass and adoration.

I’m not a finished product now. But this was the moment when I stepped out of the boat with both feet. Please pray for me as I continue to try to follow Jesus, God bless you in your journey as well!

Ask and It Will Be Given to You

I’ve got two amazing prayer stories to share with you from the past week so far!

First, one of my friends, Brenden, has had a nagging pain in his shoulder for the past 9 months from a wrestling injury. After his invitation, a group of three of us prayed over him that his shoulder would heal on Sunday night. On Monday afternoon, he came up to me saying that his shoulder has no pain at all! For the rest of the week (today is 4 days later), it’s been the same story, his shoulder is feeling great! Praise God for His mercy in showing us His power.

The other time was just today during bible study. There were only two guys in study today, and as great as these guys are, we need to do more outreach in getting other guys to join us. The following statement by Pope Francis came to my mind, “When the Church does not come out of itself to evangelize, it becomes self-referential and then gets sick.” I decided that the best way to do outreach is to encourage us all to invite more guys by listing out loud who we are interested in inviting and then we all would pray for everyone listed every day this week. We closed study by praying for those guys, and guess who we run into immediately afterwards but one of them! We were introduced by the guy who knew him and this guy told us that he was very interested in joining! I was able to get his number so that I can invite him next week!

Praise God for His goodness and mercy! Don’t be afraid to ask God for what you need, He love to provide for the faithful. Matthew 7:7. Remember, evangelization starts with prayer.

Salvation, Jesus, and Works

As I’ve been gearing up for my first year as a missionary this summer, I’ve had a unique revelation with regards to evangelization and the aspect that “works” play in salvation. I suppose a big part of this is from a Peter Kreeft (and Ronald Tacelli) book that I’m reading, Handbook of Catholic Apologetics.

First off, I’d like to share an awesome piece from that book on the importance of salvation:

“The Church also seems to be in the social service business, the counseling business, the fundraising business, the daycare business- dozens of the same worthy businesses the secular world is also in. Why? What justifies these things? The Church’s ultimate end for all these things is different from the world’s end; it is salvation. This is her distinctive “product.” Why put out a product that is just the same as other companies’ products already on the market? Why would anyone expect such a product to sell? That’s why modernist or liberal Christianity, charitable as its services are, is simply not selling. The only reason for the very existence of the Church at all, is exactly the same as the reason Jesus came to earth: to save poor and lost humanity. The Church, after all, is in the same business as her Head. When a body runs in a different direction from its head, it is like a chicken with its head cut off: it goes nowhere and quickly dies. Jesus did not come to be a philosopher or a doctor. If he did that, he failed. He didn’t solve most of the philosophers’ problems. He healed some people but left most of the world just as sick as before. He healed some bodies to show that he could heal all souls. Not only is salvation the reason for the Church’s existence; it is also the ultimate reason for your existence: your goal, point, purpose, hope, final cause, summum bonum, meaning. The difference between success and failure at life’s first task- becoming who you were meant to be- is not the difference between riches and poverty, fame and obscurity, health and sickness, pleasure and pain, even niceness and nastiness, but between salvation and damnation. Leon Bloy wrote, “There is only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.”

Salvation matters, a lot. So what does it take to be saved? When people with a Christian background talk a little about salvation, they often only mention whether or not you are a “good” person. This is nice, but is it enough? Is it enough to just be a good person to go to heaven?

The Catholic Church has a nice little clause that it seems like I’m always reminding people about (because the Church is so horrible and restricting! haha). This clause is that if someone by no fault of their own doesn’t hear the Gospel or know who Jesus is, they can still be saved by striving their very best during their life to live an upright, charitable, and selfless life, which is common sense whatever background you come from. God is merciful, much more than you and I.

Yes, that’s good and generous of God, isn’t it? The problem is that everyone who reads this blog obviously doesn’t live in a remote area and has had contact with Christians in some way, shape, or form. For people who have heard the Gospel, the nice clause of just being a good person isn’t enough to earn salvation, according to Jesus. Salvation is only possible through Jesus:

“There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” – Acts 4:12

Again, Jesus was clear Himself in this teaching:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6

In Lecrae’s song Truth, he gives a great analogy for why we need Jesus. In one of the verses (around 3 minutes in) he discusses the issue of why an all  powerful loving God would allow evil to happen. He points out that though God allows evil natural disasters to happen, He also allows people to have free will and murder. Well, we all agree that stuff like that is evil, but here’s the brilliant part: Lecrae asks if lying and cheating are evil too. They are. And things like that are evil even if we just think them. So he turned around the argument: why does God allow us to live, as we all sin? Thanks be to God that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us of our sin, otherwise we’d all be going straight to hell. Only God can forgive sin, that’s why Jesus and the incarnation are such a big deal! No one other than Jesus can forgive us, that’s what St. Peter was saying to the Sanhedrin in Acts 4:12!

Please note that there’s a very important sacramental side with regards to salvation, centering on baptism (1 Peter 3:21 and Mark 16:16), confession (John 20:23), and the Eucharist (John 6:52). Salvation requires faith and works. Gotta offer this life for Jesus and live it out. But for this post I’m staying high level.

With all this in mind, I figure that most Christians- and Catholics are especially susceptible (not by bad teachings but misunderstandings of the teachings)- don’t seek to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ as much as they can because they unfortunately don’t believe that Jesus Christ specifically is very important in the economy of salvation.

Most people seem to believe that it is most important to be a good person, and if you believe in Jesus that’s a cherry on top. Actually, we see something that is quite the opposite in terms of Dismas the good thief: he was a thief and pretty bad person all his life, but when the time came, he repented and turned to Jesus in faith. Jesus promised him salvation. Jesus Himself stressed that people believe in Him and repent. He wanted their hearts to be converted not to niceness but to Him.

So is being a good person important? Yes! We ought to follow Jesus who is the way and the truth and the life! We ought to love God and love our neighbors as our self. But good works explicitly without Jesus will do nothing with regards to the economy of salvation. Takeaway: we must be more courageous in actually sharing Jesus with others instead of just assuming that they believe and are faithful.