Category Archives: personal

No Greater Love

ITALIAN MOTHER AMONG SIX TO BECOME SAINTS IN MAY

Today I held our first grandchild, a healthy baby boy, born May 2. Our daughter Natalie is still recovering from a long and difficult delivery. Despite the complications we are thankful to God for the outcome. Things could have turned out far worse.

Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962) was an Italian wife, mother, and pediatrician. She was also a devout Catholic and member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society who volunteered her time serving the poor and elderly. Gianna embraced motherhood and family life. In 1961, while she was pregnant with her fourth child, doctors found that she had a fibroma in her uterus, meaning she was carrying both an unborn baby and a life-threatening tumor. Her options were limited. She could abort the baby to save her life and preserve her ability to have more children. She could have a hysterectomy, saving her life but killing the baby and excluding the possibility of having more children. Finally, Gianna could have the tumor removed which would give the unborn baby a chance to live and preserve the possibility of future pregnancies but would present the greatest risk to her health. She chose life. On April 21, 1962 (Holy Saturday), Gianna gave birth to a baby girl named Gianna Emanuela, but the mother died a week later of septic peritonitis. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). In 2004, Pope St. John Paul II canonized Gianna Molla, declaring her a saint.

Love is self-sacrificing. It puts the needs of others ahead of one’s own needs. And not just in heroic actions like that of St. Gianna Molla. God calls us to “love one another” in ways both great and small.

O God, who out of a motive of pure love gave your only Son for my sake, teach me to give myself wholly to you in the service of others without counting the cost, knowing that love is its own reward. Amen.

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Born Again Catholic

Easter Vigil 2018 Moger Family with Father Escalante

“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” —Blessed John Henry Newman

After being a Baptist minister for over 25 years, I decided to join the Catholic Church. My decision came after a long period of study and discernment. I remain eternally grateful to the Presbyterian Church in which I was baptized and confirmed as well as to the Baptists, who educated and ordained me, and affirmed my call to the Christian ministry. In addition to serving as a pastor of four Baptist churches, I had the privilege of being a Navy Chaplain for 24 years, endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention, both on active duty and in the Navy Reserve. I am thankful for all these opportunities. Now, at age fifty, I am leaving a ministry I love to follow Christ whom I love more.

My decision to join the Catholic Church has been a long time coming. I wrote my doctoral dissertation about the Protestant Reformation as seen through the eyes of a traditional Catholic priest who remained faithful to Rome. An intensive study of the Bible and Christian history convinced me that the Catholic Church is the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” the ark of salvation founded on the rock of St. Peter and entrusted with the faith handed down by Christ and his apostles. I find her authority, doctrine, sacred liturgy, moral teachings, and prayer life in line with the teachings of the Bible and the historic Christian faith.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church—which is, of course, quite a different thing.” Those words resonate with my own experience. Once I began to study Catholicism in earnest, I discovered that much of what I had been taught was in error. For evangelical Protestants who desire to understand the Catholic faith, I recommend the book Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David B. Currie. A longtime friend who reconciled with the Catholic Church suggested it to me, and I found it helpful in my own spiritual journey. However, the best reference for understanding the Catholic faith is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

When I was serving on active duty at the Navy Chief of Chaplains Office and then at the U.S. Naval Academy, I spent many evenings researching and writing in the library of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. Every time I entered the building I would read the inscription next to the door: “Seek the Truth, Come Whence It May, Cost What It Will.” This has become the motto of my spiritual journey. I invite all seekers of the Truth to join me.

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Surprised by Joy

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My wife Amelia was reminiscing about a time when her father went to a water park. He was already retired by that time, yet his inner child came out to play. Having plunged 100 feet down a water slide, he emerged from the water with an ear-to-ear grin on his face. That made me think, When was the last time I experienced this kind of childlike joy? I couldn’t remember. Sure, there are things I’ve enjoyed doing but nothing that prompted a belly laugh, jumping up and down, or that I’m-going-to-Disneyland open-mouthed smile.

“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” This bit of wisdom is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. When someone quoted Honest Abe recently, it made me think maybe happiness isn’t something spontaneous that just happens. Perhaps it’s a choice we make. I spent the week trying to make up my mind to be happy. It worked. Sort of. Making a concerted effort to be happy improved my mental state, a little. But it didn’t evoke the kind of childlike glee I felt I was missing.

I decided to follow the example of one of my favorite saints, St. Augustine, who obeyed the voice of a child and was converted. In my case, the child was my twenty-year-old daughter Maddy, hardly a little kid but someone who still knows how to have a good time. Her older sister Nadine and I visited her last weekend at Virginia Military Institute for Family Weekend. Several times Maddy said she wanted to go to the Safari Park in Natural Bridge, VA. Finally, on Sunday afternoon I gave in (when her sister agreed to pay the steep admission fee!). Driving through the park was fun and I enjoyed watching my two grown daughters delight in feeding the animals through the car windows, but it still wasn’t doing a whole lot for me. I’d been to a real safari park in Africa a little over a year ago.

At the end of our drive-through safari adventure, we parked and visited the walk-through zoo. It was hot and I was ready to leave. Then I saw the aviary filled with colorful little birds called budgies (aka common parakeets). We went in. That’s when it happened. I little blue bird landed on my arm and started gentle nibbling at my skin. Another landed on my shoulder and nibbled at my neck. A big grin came across my face. I think God was smiling too.   

Is happiness a choice or just something that happens to you? It’s both. One of the keys to happiness is spending time with people you care about. Another is experiencing new things. Telling yourself to be happy can help a little, but creating the conditions for happiness helps a lot.

Living a good life doesn’t mean laughing all the time. The Bible says, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh.” We’re surprised by both joy and sorrow. If you’re a glass-half-empty person like me, weeping comes more naturally. Laughing takes effort. But it’s worth it.

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Who Am I?

Who_Am_I_(1921)_-_4 (2)

For the past seven or eight months, I’ve been in therapy. Not because there’s anything wrong with me. I’m not schizophrenic, bipolar, neurotic, alcoholic, nor am I thinking of harming myself or others. So why did I start seeing a psychologist? As I approached the big five-oh (which I’m thankful to have behind me), I was struggling with issues of identity. Who am I? What do I want to be? While I’m still working on answers, wrestling with those questions has led me to a career change, which I discussed in my last post.

One of the benefits of no longer being a pastor is getting to hear other people preach. The sermon this morning concerned issues of identity. In the Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus quizzes Simon Peter, asking who people say he (Jesus) is, then asking Peter his opinion. Peter’s answer to the question earns him praise, not because he studied for the test and made an A, but because someone whispered the right answer in his ear: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (v. 17). Grace, not nature (“flesh and blood”), enlightened Peter’s understanding of Jesus’s identity. And that grace came from Peter’s relationship with God (“my Father in heaven”). The preacher made the point that to know Jesus the way Peter did we must be willing to follow Peter’s life and example. He ended his message with this: “How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to know Jesus the way Peter did?” Good question.

Peter followed the Lord closely but imperfectly. When Jesus was on trial for his life, Peter lied about knowing Jesus to save his own skin. St. John Chrysostom speculated that Peter “fell into sin so that, remembering his own fault and the Lord’s forgiveness, he also might forgive others out of love for them.” Acknowledging our own sins allows us to do the same. Confession and repentance not only build self-knowledge and humility, they also develop empathy and encourage us to show mercy.

Studying today’s Bible lesson inevitably leads us to turn the main question back on ourselves: Who am I? It’s a difficult question. As with the original question, the right answer doesn’t come from preparation but from grace. The phrase “know thyself” was inscribed on the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in ancient Delphi. The inscription implies that self-knowledge is an essential part of worship. That doesn’t mean religion is primarily self-focused. It isn’t about us. But as we grow in our knowledge and love of God and others, we also grow in our knowledge and love of ourselves.

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History Comes Full Circle

CMH

U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.

Sorting through boxes in our basement to downsize ahead of a move, I came across a research paper I wrote in high school on the Third Seminole Indian War. You’ve probably never heard of it. Most folks haven’t. Even those who grew up in Florida, as I did, know little, if anything, about the Seminole Wars which began two hundred years ago. Attending Osceola Middle School, named after a famous Seminole leader, made me curious to learn more. In the eighth grade I pulled a book off the display shelf in my school library and couldn’t put it down. Even when the bell rang I sat cross-legged on the library floor, engrossed in the book on my lap: History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842. My fascination with the Seminole Wars inspired a family trip to the Dade Battlefield in Bushnell and more visits to the library.

After high school, I kept my love of history but moved on from U.S. military history to other interests. Eventually I earned a PhD in history. My specialization was about as far from U.S. military history as possible: sixteenth-century German religious and cultural history. After five years of college teaching and not securing a coveted tenure-track job, I applied for and was offered a position at the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) in Washington, D.C. I turned it down but regretted my decision afterward. Five years later another career opportunity opened up at CMH. Again I was offered a job. This time I took it.

My interest in history has come full circle. Once hooked by U.S. Army history, I am now a U.S. Army historian. I get a kick out of the fact that I, a Navy Reserve Chaplain and non-combatant, am researching and writing about Army combat operations. God must have a sense of humor.

 

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Dying to Live for Others

Little Sisters

Today I visited a home for the impoverished elderly in DC run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. This trip, like a previous one to their home in Richmond, was the result of a promise I made last year to a spunky Irish nun named Sister Helen Creed, when I visited her order’s Nyumba Ya Wazee (Home for the Elderly) in Nairobi, Kenya.

While the humble facility in Africa can’t compare to the ones in our wealthy nation, the love for the elderly poor in both places is the same. What impressed me most today was watching three sisters caring for a woman who was dying, talking to her, stroking her, encouraging her to eat. The nun who led my tour of the facility explained that someone stays with the dying person around the clock “until they go to God.” I thought, “What secular nursing home would do that?”

When we care for the least privileged in society, we are caring for Jesus. That’s what the Lord explained in Matthew 25:31-46. Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, put it like this: “Be kind, especially with the infirm. Love them well. . . . Oh yes! Be kind. It is a great grace God is giving you. In serving the aged, it is he himself whom you are serving.” The nuns I met in Nairobi, Richmond, and DC not only minister to the poor, they are themselves poor. They’ve chosen a life of voluntarily poverty in order to preach the Gospel, not in words but in deeds. They die to self in order to live for others. If you were to ask me where I’ve seen God lately, I’d answer in the Little Sisters of the Poor and the people they care for.

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Scared to Death

lowering-a-casket-into-grave

I’m scared to death of dying. Not because I’m uncertain of where my soul will go but because I’m concerned about what will happen to my body. Funerals can be impersonal, expensive, and hard on the environment. With the professionalization of the funeral industry in America loved ones and churches have been largely removed from the preparation of the body and its burial.

Funeral homes are staffed by good people but aren’t charities. They’re in the business of making money. The national average for a full-service funeral is $7,000 – $10,000. Cremation lowers the cost to $2,000 – $4,000. For those who have the money and desire, a full-service funeral can show the family’s love and respect for the one who has died. But funerals don’t have to be expensive to be respectful and meaningful.

It seems crass to shop around for a deal on a funeral as if you were buying a car but it’s perfectly acceptable. Some areas of the country have funeral co-ops that will do the bargaining for you.  Members pay a small one-time fee to join a funeral co-op. At the time when the services are needed the co-op negotiates a discount with funeral homes. Typical savings range from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. Another approach has been nonprofit funeral homes, which keep costs down by removing the profit motive. For areas without a co-op or nonprofit there’s the Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org), “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” A quick perusal of their website led me to a helpful article titled, “What to Do When You Can’t Afford a Funeral.”

Another concern about full-service funerals is their impact on the environment. First, there’s the toxic embalming fluid pumped into bodies that poses a threat to the environment. (Embalming became popular in America after the Civil War when it was used to preserve the war dead until they could be shipped home, but it’s rarely practiced in Europe.) Second, each year millions of pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are made into caskets and vaults and put in the ground to shield bodies from their surroundings (ashes to ashes and dust to dust?). The caskets and vaults must be manufactured and transported, adding to the environmental impact. Finally, cemeteries must be mowed, watered, and sprayed with insecticides indefinitely. All of this adds up to a huge impact on the environment, since almost 2.5 million people die each year in the US alone. Natural burials or “green burials” have a low impact on the environment. Typically, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried in “natural cemetery” without a manicured lawn, often in a peaceful, wooded area.

My final concern about the funeral industry is the way it separates the dead from their loved ones and religious communities. When a person dies, the body is whisked away almost immediately and prepared for burial apart from the family by professionals. The entire process, except the religious service itself, is handled by funeral directors and their staffs. For centuries families prepared the bodies and churches buried them without the assistance of a funeral home. Thank you very much.

Home funerals, which were common until the mid-20th century, allow families to care for a loved one’s body without using the services of a funeral home. Home funerals are legal in all but eight states. Burials on private property outside a cemetery are also permissible but check with the county or town clerk and the health department to understand the applicable laws.

Joseph of Arimathea lovingly prepared Jesus’s body for burial and laid it in a tomb (Mark 15:42-46). We can follow his example by caring for our loved ones’ bodies after death. How we do so is a personal decision. My goal here has not been to tell anyone what to do but only to give some options to consider.

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