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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The Prodigal Leper


Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Healing a Leper (ca. 1650-1655), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The following parable was inspired by Mark 1:40-45.

There once were two lepers. One obeyed the Law of Moses, keeping far from other people. The other broke the Law of Moses by going up to a healer and begging to be healed. After the healer touched him and cured him of his leprosy, he sternly warned the man not to tell anyone about his healing. The healer told him to obey the Law, show himself to a priest, and offer an appropriate sacrifice for his healing. Again, the man disobeyed. Instead of going to the priest and offering a sacrifice, he blabbed to everyone about what the healer had done, even though the healer told him not to. As word spread of the leper’s healing, people flocked to the healer so much so that he had to stay in lonely places outside towns.

One day as the healer was wandering alone he saw in the distance the leper who obeyed the Law of Moses. Upon seeing the healer, the leper began to shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” The healer tried to approach the leper to heal him, but the man ran away.

The healer stood there dumbfounded. He was able to heal the sinful leper who broke the Law, but he couldn’t heal the righteous leper who kept the Law.

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Does Welfare Hurt the Poor?


“I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. . . . I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more.” —Alfred P. Doolittle, My Fair Lady

I received many positive responses to my last blog post. But one was negative. A dear old friend tried to set me straight. She stated categorically: “Welfare done by the government promotes dependency. A hand up not hand out.”

I replied with a single sentence: “How do you give a hand up to one who has no arms?”

The Bible-laden response I got was as heartless as it was racist. (My friend is white.) Welfare is destroying the black community. Blacks were poorer but better off before welfare. Blah, blah, blah. Even though she threw the word “love” into her email for good measure, I wasn’t feeling it. Sometimes tough love isn’t love. It’s just tough. My friend’s anti-government-welfare rant repeated the myth that social welfare promotes dependency, popularized by the racist stereotype of the Welfare Queen.

Welfare Queen Cartoon.jpg

The myth that social welfare causes dependency has been repeatedly debunked, as it was in this excellent Washington Post article (please read it before you respond):

The Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor

According to the former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, cutting social welfare is not only bad for the poor; it’s bad for the economy:

Why Hurting the Poor Will Hurt the Economy

It’s easy to criticize the poor if you have a roof over your head, food on the table, and money in the bank. But what if the shoe were on other foot? Or what if you had no shoes at all?


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My Brother’s Keeper?

mother with food stamp groceries

CNN Photo. A mother unloads groceries purchased with food stamps in 2013.

I got angry at a colleague last Saturday. I got angry simply because he expressed his opinions—opinions shared by many Americans. He said the poor would be better off if we did away with all social welfare programs. No Medicaid. No Section 8 housing. No food stamps. No welfare of any kind. The position is more extreme than Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment or Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.” It was so extreme, in fact, I should have laughed it off. I couldn’t, because a lack of empathy for the poor is no laughing matter.

My colleague went on to explain that anyone could get out of poverty simply by making right choices. He cited a 2013 Brookings Institution report that claims the surest way out of poverty and into the middle class is by doing three things: (1) finish high school, (2) get a full-time job, (3) wait until age 21 to get married and have children.  According to the report, “Of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning $55,000 or more per year).” I agree with the report, which does not advocate getting rid of all social welfare. It says clearly, “In addition to the thousands of local and national programs that aim to help young people avoid these life-altering problems, we should figure out more ways to convince young people that their decisions will greatly influence whether they avoid poverty and enter the middle class.” Thus, the report is more nuanced than what I heard my colleague say. It’s not a matter of either-or. It’s both-and. We can empower the victims of poverty without blaming them or taking away their benefits.

My colleague seemed unaware of the difficulty of making good lifestyle choices when one is growing up in neighborhoods with high crime rates, rampant drug use, corrupt leaders, and failing schools. Family dysfunction adds to the physical and psychological effects of poverty that make it harder for adolescents to decide to stay in school, secure full-time employment, and avoid teenage pregnancy, as the Brookings report rightly recommends.

What would happen to children growing up in poverty, especially those who aren’t at the point of making lifestyle choices recommended in the report, if we were to take away their housing, health care, food, and other basic needs? They would sink deeper into poverty, making it even harder for them to make good choices that could help them out of poverty.

Turn the Brookings report on its head. If you make bad lifestyle choices by the time you are an adult, you will likely stay in poverty and not make it into the middle class. What is our moral obligation as a society to these people? Do we blame them for their lifestyle choices and walk away? Many who drop out of school, can’t get a job, and get pregnant out of wedlock at a young age, were victims of abuse and neglect.

Consider the all-too-real case of the fictitious character Claireece Precious Jones in the 1996 novel Push (later made into the movie Precious). The main character is an obese and illiterate 16-year-old girl living in Harlem with an abusive mother. She is pregnant with her second child. Both children are the result of her being raped by her father. Clearly the likelihood of a girl like this getting out of poverty is very low, but her circumstances aren’t simply a factor of her bad choices. She is the victim of her poverty, not its cause. Doesn’t society have a moral obligation to help people like this rather than simply writing them off or blaming them for their poverty?

What would happen if we took away all social welfare programs as my colleague suggests? Poor people would not all immediately pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become successful. The widening gap between the rich and poor would become a chasm of Grand Canyon proportions. The US currently ranks 40 out of 150 on the CIA’s list of countries by income inequality, meaning we have high income inequality: the top third. (Lower numbers have higher income inequality; higher numbers have less.) We don’t have to speculate what our country would become without social welfare programs. Counties that spend the least on social welfare tend to be the poorest in the world. Countries with the highest spending on social welfare also tend to be the most prosperous in the world (the US ranks 21 on this list, after Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic). Without social welfare the United States would go backward, not forward.

If we took away all social welfare programs, the elderly poor would perhaps suffer the most. According to AARP, “about 65 percent of nursing home residents are supported primarily by Medicaid.” That’s almost a million of our American grandmas and grandpas who depend on Medicaid for lifesaving care. (Not to be confused with Medicare for seniors and the disabled, Medicaid provides healthcare for the poor.) In 1965, the year Medicare and Medicaid were established, life expectancy in the US was a biblical “three score and ten” or 70 years. Now it is 79 years primarily because of advancements in the quality and availability of health care.  Without government-funded healthcare, life expectancy would decline along with overall public health.

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, the late philosopher John Rawls suggested that a robust social welfare system was the only way to make unequal societies fair. He used a thought experiment called the “veil of ignorance” to make his point. Imagine you didn’t know whether you would be born black or white, rich or poor, healthy or handicapped, what kind of a society would you want to be born into? What would you deem most fair? Rawls suggested that most people would want to insure against the risk of being born disadvantaged; therefore, they would want to be born in a country with a healthy social safety net. It’s only the people who don’t need it and can’t empathize with those who do that rail against it.

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Franz Marc’s Blue Horses


The Large Blue Horses (1911), oil on canvas, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I step into the painting of the four blue horses. / I am not even surprised I can do this.

One of the horses walks toward me. / His blue noses noses me lightly. I put my arm / over his blue mane, not holding on, just / commingling. / He allows me my pleasure.

Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain. / I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses what war is. / They would either faint in horror, or simply find it impossible to believe. / I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.

Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually. / Maybe the desire to make something beautiful / is the piece of God that is inside each of us.

Now all four horses have come closer, are bending their faces toward me / as if they have secrets to tell. / I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t. / If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what / could they possibly say?

Mary Oliver, Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (New York, Penguin, 2017), p. 21.


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Surprised by Joy


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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