If You Accept…

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If You Accept…

 Back in 1966, a TV series began with a man seemingly going out of his way to retrieve a tape-recorded message and package of photographs. Once retrieved, Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) assembled an eclectic group of players and listened to the tape and reviewed the photographs, as an “impossible mission” was laid before them. The taped message always ended with the warning of its self-destruction in so many seconds, and the caveat that: if they accepted the mission and should be captured, they were on their own, without any help or recognition by or from the government. Many people may recognize this TV show as Mission Impossible. The series lasted for seven seasons and each show involved elaborately contrived plots to trap villainous people without use of lethal force. A younger generation may confuse the TV show with the movie series Mission Impossible, staring Tom Cruz. (In the TV show, there was no blood, no gore, no killing. This is not the case with the movies.)

As we enter yet another season of graduation ceremonies for both high school and college, we begin another season of challenging young adults with a still greater undefined “impossible mission”; their future. Years ago, in the college of education at Wayne State University, I was told by a professor that the moral responsibility of education was to prepare the next generation for their future, not our past. Certainly, the teacher knew that no one could “know” what “their future” would look like, so our responsibility as educators was to help each succeeding generation learn the processes of “critical thinking”; making reasonable decisions based upon a set of facts. Our philosophy of education teacher tried very vigorously to convey that idea that moral education was teaching students “HOW” to think, not “WHAT” to think. At the very core, the most essential element to making good decisions, was knowing the “truth”. If a person does not have access to the truth, or cares little for it, there can be no morally correct decision, only brainwashing.

This concept is the foundation of moral education – to always demand the clearest vision of the truth! This principle applies to secular as well as faith-based education. Truth is an objective reality. Sometimes our human limitations prevent us from perceiving an “ultimate reality”, such as the “edge of the universe”. (I say this because if the universe is still expanding as some astrophysicists suggest, then it must have an edge and there has to be a space greater than the universe, regardless of our ability to accurately measure it.) Religion is much the same. The ultimate reality of God lies in the universal truth that there either is a God, or there is not a God. In the many fields of math and science, there is a multitude of proven facts. Still, in those same fields, there are ideas that remain “theory” – demonstrated to be likely, but existing outside the limits of absolute proof. It is more important that we understand and can defend with reason why we believe something to be true or false, than what we believe; either true or false. This is true for every belief we hold.

As many people know, I was not raised a Catholic. Those who are in my generation and were raised Catholic, might still remember their “Baltimore Catechism”. If they do not recall the exact words or phrases, they will undoubtably still remember the series of questions and corresponding answers they were forced to memorize. Growing up in a Protestant tradition, I did not have the Baltimore Catechism, I had “Bible verses” to memorize. Though some Protestants consider the Catholic Church lacking in Scripture knowledge, they should understand that every teaching proclaimed by the Catholic Church, is rooted in the Scriptures. That being said, there is a fundamental flaw in using the process of memorization as a sole teaching technique. Memorization is a primary step in the educational process, but never more than a step. Memorization helps the mind utilize accepted concepts to understand more complicated ideas. Knowing that 5+5+5+5+5+5+5+5=8x5 makes the solution of 549x47=25,803 easier without needing to add 549 to itself 47 times.

My first real encounter with the Catholic Church came when I was dating the woman who would become my wife. I thought I knew everything there was to know about how those Catholics worshiped statues, spoke meaningless recited “prayers”, needed to confess to a priest, etc., and how they were so misguided. I was better because I was SAVED! Thankfully, through the persistence and patience of our parish priest, the rationale and theology of the teachings of the Church were explained. The more I learned about why the Church taught, the more they made sense, and the more deeply I was drawn into the mystery of the Church. Eventually, in June of 1975, I was baptized a Catholic.

It is difficult for me to remember with exactness, when I first began to question my Protestant roots, I cannot remember an “aha…” moment, though I did question the idea of “once saved – always saved”. Somehow, within me, there was the idea that being a Christian meant more that “accepting Jesus as my Lord, and personal Savior”, of being “Saved”. A priest friend and mentor once gave an Easter homily on the Cross being an example not of how greatly humanity had sinned, but on how deeply God loved. YES!! We are called to love as deeply. I do remember though, the last time I went to a Baptist church. I was asked to “teach” a high school Sunday School class for my church. My assignment was to get the students to “memorize” Matthew 5:1-8, the Beatitudes. I was uncomfortable with the idea of strict memorization, and tried to lead the class into trying to understand what “blessed are the…” meant. I do not think I was able to generate much discussion, and after the class was over, the pastor called me into his office for a “discussion”. Once in his office, he told me that he was standing outside the classroom, listening to my attempts to generate some discussion. He then told me directly that my only job was to get the students to memorize the verses! It was his job to tell them what they meant! I never returned to that church.

I could not articulate then, why I was uncomfortable with memorizing a series of “Blessed are those who…” Bible verses. I just remember being uncomfortable. Now, thanks to years of study, spiritual direction, and wonderful mentors, I have a better feeling for, and understanding of the Scriptures, and an appreciation for the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are the opening remarks of a much longer “Sermon on the Mount”. In chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus explains just how the LAW is to be fulfilled in Him and conversely in the Church. On Mt. Saini, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, ten – “Thou shall not…” statements. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples a list of “Thou shall…”.

For centuries, being Catholic or Protestant, meant following a series of “though shall not…” commands; Catholics could not eat meat on Fridays, Baptists could not dance. Our whole understanding of living a Christian life was centered on “not sinning”. This was no less true for Baptists than it was for Catholics. Fortunately for Catholics and the world, Pope John XXIII decided the windows of the Church needed to be opened to re-fresh the Church. I think that one of the greatest ideas to come out of the Second Vatican Council was the idea that: a fuller and richer idea of Christianity, and our mission as disciples is to be discovered through being Christlike, not simply through abstinence. Pope John XXIII started the Church down a new path, Pope Paul VI gave it a title – Evangelization. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have each added depth of understanding concerning what and how to evangelize.

Real evangelization needs to go deeper than “encountering Christ”. Getting people to the “sacraments” is incomplete if the “sacraments” are the only goal. Every Christian, regardless of which altar one worships at, is called to accept a difficult, though not impossible, mission – to live like Christ; to love like Christ. The sacraments are not things that we simply “receive”, whether just once like baptism, and confirmation, sacraments are the “way-points” in life that we have available to pause and reflect on how our journey is progressing. The sacraments are a gift given to restore and strengthen us for the mission of faith, should we decide to accept. And, the Scriptures neve delf-destruct, and when we fail (which we all do) we are never abandoned nor denied!!!