That awkward moment when you come back from a retreat, having encountered the Living God for the first time in your life, and your friends and family expect you to be the same old person. But you’re not. And you don’t know what to say, how to act, or even how to describe what you’ve experienced. The retreat high slowly begins to slip away and you’re confronted with a choice.
I remember back in college when I attended my first Fall retreat with the Catholic Student Union. I had just given up on my faith the year before and had started partying and drinking like there was no tomorrow. But after that retreat, I wanted to change all that. I knew I needed to change; God had come to me, met with me, and whispered his love in the depths of my heart. The following weekend I went out with some friends and I told them that I wasn’t going to drink. They laughed, passed me a beer, and the next thing I knew I was drunk. I needed to change; I just didn’t know how.
I started going to the Catholic Student Union meetings, but “those people” were weird. They kept raising their hands and singing praise songs. And they were so friendly! Who’s that friendly, all the time?! It was unsettling.
Over the years I’ve seen many teens go through a similar experience. They have an unexpectedly amazing retreat (despite—or maybe because of—the fact that their phones were amputated from their bodies for the weekend!). They encounter the Living God for the first time in their lives and suddenly everything’s different. Like me, they know things have to change, they want things to change. They just don’t know how. And they may feel as if they are facing an army arrayed against them— friends, family, bad habits, school, sports, technology, themselves—all trying to pull them back to what they used to be. It’s a common experience, isn’t it?
The world around you expects you to be the same person you were before, but you’re not. You encountered the Living God and have been transformed; that kind of encounter tends to have this effect. But how do you make it stick? How do you stand in front of these forces trying to pull you back to where you used to be and hold your ground? How do you ensure that the seed of faith God has planted in your heart doesn’t wither and die, but takes root and produces fruit? And do you really need to become like those silly Christians raising their hands in the air and singing praise songs all day long?
Well, let me offer a little encouragement…
I think the first step is to realize that God wants to transform you, not change you. If you’re a jock, be a jock. If you’re a goofball, be a goofball. If you’re a bookworm, be a bookworm. But do it for the glory of God, not the glory of you. God doesn’t want a heaven full of identical replicas of saints. He wants an incalculable number of unique souls glorifying God in their own unique way. Be yourself for God’s glory.
Then you need a game plan. You need to pray for God’s help and guidance to give you the strength you need to make the changes you need and the wisdom to find friends that will help you. In the parable of the sower, Mark 4:1-9, the good soil that produces much fruit wasn’t just lucky to be good soil. And the bad soil wasn’t simply unlucky to be full of rocks. The good soil was prepared; the rocks and weeds were removed so that the seed of faith could thrive. In all my years working with teens and seeing this play out time and again, there are two things that teens who manage to remain faithful do differently. First, they pray. They make small changes in their lives to allow more room for God. Second, they find a community that supports them and encourages them and picks them back up, without judgment, when they fall. (Hint: the easiest way to do this is usually at youth group.)
Have you ever tried to weed a garden by yourself, in the sun? It’s not fun. But bring a friend with you and the work becomes tolerable, almost enjoyable. But just removing the rocks and weeds is only the beginning. You need to add water to help the seeds grow. Likewise, making small changes with the help of a trusted friend and slowly building your prayer life are fundamental to holding on to that transformative experience, to letting go of yourself and holding on to God’s love, of living as the new person you’ve become. And occasionally lifting your hands in prayer and worship. It’s not as silly as it first looks.
Ultimately, God’s grace is sufficient. He gives us the grace we need to become saints. He’s a generous God, not a stingy miser. But we must cooperate with his grace. God wills you to become a great saint, a glorious shining beacon of hope to a hurting world, a light in the darkness, a port in the storm, like Mary, Star of the Sea. Who you are, the summation of your personality, your strengths and weaknesses are yours on purpose. Nothing in you is by accident (not even my receding hairline). God has knit you together for a glorious purpose! As St. Augustine once said, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him, the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.”