What do you love the most?
When you stand before God on the day of your death he will ask you, “Do you love me?” And He will then give you what you love the most. What do you love the most?
There is so much going on right now. Both personally and in the world around us. My boys are going to public school for the first time, my wife is due with baby #4 in two months, good friends are moving far away, the youth ministry is gearing back up for the school year, and many more things. It’s so difficult to find time to pray. Yet, I look at what’s coming at us and realize how desperately I need to… we need to.
Spending just a few minutes connected to the internet or listening to the news, it feels as if we’re being attacked on all sides. Not just from our own busyness but especially in what matters most… our faith. The culture seems hell-bent, literally, on destroying the Catholic Church and everything it stands for; and from every angle, we are besieged. But it’s not just the world around trying to tear us down.
Within the Church, forces seem to be trying to tear it apart from the inside: many priests and bishops have perpetrated or at least looked the other way while other clergy act heinously, or perhaps they’re just mediocre priests, when what we need are men who will stand in the breach, or rather, kneel in the breach and humbly lead their flock to heaven.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many good priests; in my immediate area alone, I can easily name 4 men whom I would trust to guide and lead my soul and family. But unfortunately, the ones who are mediocre at best and those worse, tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room, so to speak. And it can be disheartening and scandalous.
Now, before you call me a hypocrite (because I kind of am), I’ll call myself out and say that I too would lump myself in the class of mediocre Catholics. I try-ish to be holy, but the weight of my laziness and sinfulness… oof. And I don’t excuse this either. This war I speak of, of being attacked on all sides, includes our personal sinfulness as well. Sometimes, this is the most difficult part of the fight, the most discouraging. At Mass this morning, I sat in my pew as the priest prayed the Consecration and my mind fluttered over the countless failings in my life. It was as if the devil was trying to distract and discourage me by reminding me of how horribly I’ve sinned, of how unworthy I am to even be present to this most miraculous gift.
Fortunately for me, the grace of God is tremendous and He’s taught me that I am unworthy, for all have sinned, all fall short. And so I thanked the devil for the reminder of my failures so that I could then offer them to God and his abundant mercy.
Then I looked up and around at the numerous faithful Catholics kneeling around me and was overwhelmed with joy and hope! Despite all that is coming at us, these men and women remain faithful. The storms of the world, the corruption of bishops and cardinals, the attacks of the culture, their own sins and mistakes… and here they [the faithful] are, worshiping God and returning to Him who alone can satisfy! Praise the Lord!
I see these ordinary and faithful Catholics and imagine we are in the company of Elijah and a whole cloud of witnesses around us. We stand at the entrance of the cave as the storms and earthquakes rage all around and we are unafraid. We listen for that still, small voice calling out to us, “I am with you,” and we find faith, hope and love. And there is simply no place I’d rather be.
I’m currently spending the week at a Life Teen summer camp. It is a Catholic camp for high school students. There are almost 300 high school teens here this weekend in the North Georgia Mountains and the theme is “Relentless Father”. It’s an especially amazing theme and an especially blessed camp. God is so tremendous and relentless in his pursuit of each one of us, individually, uniquely and passionately. It’s precisely what I’ve been trying to teach the teens I minister to for the last several years. I’ve written about it a number of times on this blog. Ultimately, in my understanding of God, this is pretty much what it all boils down to. Everything else is simply a different spin, a unique aspect of his passionate pursuit of each of our souls, his thirst for our love, not for his own satisfaction but for ours.
In light of all this, I’ve been reflecting on what he’s been doing within me lately. I’ve been inundated by this very specific message of trust, for the last few months. And as I reflect on my life, I see this common thread weaving in and out through so many countless moments, both big and small; I’m not even sure where to begin or how to list them all; it would take many more blog posts than this one. I think most importantly I first learned this trust through my beautiful mother, Jackie. She taught me through her actions, if not her words, that God will always provide for me. I learned through my mom that he will never fail me.
Then, there is the story of his Sacred Heart. Again, through my mom, a devotion to his Sacred Heart pierced my own and has remained with me throughout my years, even those when I walked away from his love. And again, when I found myself drawn back into his love, yet struggled against it, he gave me his very own mother to continue guiding me home, providing for me spiritually and emotionally. Through Saint Therese the Little Flower I encountered the endless abyss of his merciful love and found a model of trustful surrender.
As I struggled in my ministry, when I struggled in my marriage, when my mom passed from cancer, when my wife got sick, as we struggled on her road to recovery, and in so many countless different ways, His hand has been there guiding me, protecting me and providing for me. And his still small voice has been calling me to trust in him.
Lately, as I wrestled with deep father wounds, he has broken through in tremendous ways, in gentle and healing ways, in beautifully subtle and miraculous ways to heal my woundedness. It’s as if he’s currently shouting from the rooftops, “Trust in me!” In prayer, I have long prayed in desperation. In fact, I can remember long dark nights as a young teenager pleading and begging God for help, if he cared; if he wanted. And to this day I struggle with this, despite this intense school of trust he has led me through. I have a deep seated tendency to beg God in my prayers, like the desperate father in Mark 9 who cries out to Jesus, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us.” But God doesn’t want this untrusting faith. He desires and he thirsts for our faithful love, so to fill us with his love, to heal us and to transform us from glory unto glory!
At Mass yesterday we were praying the Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” At the first “Lord, have mercy,” I was distracted and was saying it carelessly. And recognizing this, I quickly focused my heart on the 2nd part. Praying “Christ, have mercy,” I pleaded for his mercy, as I always do. But something stirred in me that even this wasn’t right. And at the third part “Lord, have mercy,” I prayed with confidence, a confidence I did not have of my own. It was a confidence in his abundant and merciful love, as if it were already granted. And I found myself awash in his mercy! It was stupendous and ultimately indescribable except by a single word: JOY!!
And I think it’s a message meant not only for me, but for so many others. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve we have failed to trust in God’s love. And he has ever since called us back into his trust, giving us everything including his very own Son to accomplish this task, that we might place our trust in Him and allow his will to rule our lives. If only we would trust that his yoke is truly easy and his burden is truly light, then we would cast aside all of our silly distractions and heavy burdens and dive head first into his merciful heart!
It seems like such a mountain to climb though! I’m not like those great saints! It’s not so easy to cast myself into his merciful love and trust him in all things. I mean, I have a wife and four kids to care for! I have bills to pay, and hopes and dreams to achieve and wounds and hurts to nurse and numb. I’m too busy! I haven’t been given enough examples or experiences of his abundant love yet. If only he’d just prove his love and providence to me… again. Then maybe I could do it.
Yet, something has been whispering to me lately, there seems to be this sliver of understanding that in reality, this mountain is nothing more than a mole hill. And my heart suddenly yearns to leap! Lord, give me the strength! Lord, I do believe! Help my unbelief!*
* Mark 9:19-29
*I should note that I borrowed the title of this post from Fr. Michael Gaitley.
Then there’s that moment when you realize that you’re actually quite insane and that the vast majority of people around you are as well. It’s simple really. In basic parlance, a person said to be insane is someone who is out of their mind, someone who is mentally unhealthy on unstable, or that they’ve broken from reality. And if that’s the case, then I argue that the vast majority of the world is actually quite insane.
What I mean by this is that I so often go about my life as if God weren’t a part of it. I mean sure, I’m a youth minister and talk about God often; I spend time in prayer throughout my day (usually a brief couple of minutes or a passing thought); and I desire to make God the center of my life. But when I really look hard at my life I quickly see that the majority of my day is filled up with God as an after thought or a filler or a habit (there’s nothing wrong with making God a habit, but it should be an intentional habit, or better put, a virtuous habit).
Earlier this evening I was talking with the teens in my youth program about God’s mercy (his greatest attribute) and how every sin is rooted in a lack of trust in God, that if we truly trusted in God then we would make him central to every part of our lives. I mentioned to the teens that when I was dating in college and beyond I would spend time in prayer with the young women I was dated. It was an intentional way of including God in those relationships, and more than that, putting the relationships in his hands. It was an act of trust. So I asked them how many of them prayed on their dates and they all looked at me like deer in headlights. A few snickered.
I continued to press the point that we should include God in all the decisions and moments of our lives, not just the big ones but the daily little ones. I asked them how many included God in their decisions and how many brought him along when they went out with their friends? And a bunch of them laughed. So I just stopped and looked at them and said, “Why not?” And that’s when it dawned on me that we’re all actually insane.
You see, God is reality, He is fullness, He is joy, He is mercy, He is life, He Is. And yet we keep this Fullness of Reality locked away in a box and only take him out at family meals or on Sundays at Mass, thinking we’re giving God his due. And then we go on with our lives trying to be successful, to be happy, to have fun, to make money, to take care of our family, to be loved. And we think that if we include God in all these plans of ours he’s going to ruin them, or at least make them more boring. BUT THAT’S INSANE!! It is literally insane to think that the author of all these things would make them boring!
In reality the opposite is true, isn’t it? If you brought God into your workplace or school he would make it good and beautiful and meaningful; your work and education would have meaning and a purpose! If you brought God to the movies or to dinner with your friends, he would make it truly refreshing and fulfilling. If you brought God into your relationships, on your dates, while playing a board game, on a road trip or just a trip to the store, those moments would become extraordinary! When you bring God into your marriage, not just generically, but profoundly, deeply and intimately, into your sex life, your children, your home… this transforms the world. (Just look at Therese Martin’s family as proof of how this literally transforms the world.)
I want to take it a step further though, because even the above is actually off, or to follow the theme, insane. You see, if God is the author of reality, if he is reality itself, then the most real, the most sane we can get is to realize that when we do anything (such as those things listed above), then it is not we who take God with us, but it is God bringing us along with him! Do you see it? It is the great I Am who creates us, the Breath of Life that sustains us, breath by breath. It is Merciful Love that redeems us and calls us out of our insanity back into the fullness of reality! All of these moments of our lives are really his anyway.
To trust in God is to give him all of your life, every decision, every relationship, every breath and to live, to love with his life, with his love. It is this that the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen called “The Divine Invasion”. As he beautifully said, “It is not we who are on the quest for God, but God who is on the quest for us!”
Lest I think I can sum it up better than the Venerable Fulton Sheen, allow me to close with this quote of his taken from a talk he gave called “The Divine Invasion”. You should listen to it. Just do a search on Youtube. It’s breathtaking.
“If we wish to find the source of the life, and the truth, and the love that is in this world, then we must go out to a life that is not mingled with death, a truth that is not mingled with the shadow error, out to a love that is not mingled with the shadow hate or satiety. We must go out to pure life, pure truth, pure love; and that is the very definition of God! That’s what we were made for.”
Two weeks ago Gabriel Rodrigues took his own life.
One week ago I found out that my beautiful wife is pregnant with our fourth child.
Two days ago I received word that a number of parents are unhappy with what I am teaching the teens at Life Teen (high school youth ministry).
Each of these events are uniquely different and yet profoundly world shaking to me. Each, in its own right shatters my world.
Gabe is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of kid. He promised, after the Marines that he would come back and take my job as youth minister. He had potential to be amazing. He was amazing. But something… I can’t bring myself to even write more about it. My heart is shattered.
We weren’t expecting to have another child anytime soon. We both wanted another one, but because of our circumstances, we discerned that now wasn’t the best time to bring another child into the world. But God had other plans in mind. We weren’t fertile when we chose to renew our marital vows. Every time we engage in the marital embrace we pray for the Holy Spirit’s presence and work. And now our hearts are an explosion of unexpected joy and a flurry of other thoughts and emotions at His creative presence, like a person afraid of heights getting on an extreme roller coaster for the first time… trusting in the creator’s ability to build and guide the coaster’s course despite the wild ride.
The most important thing in my world is my wife and kids. Second only to that are my teens. The teens in my youth ministry… I love them, they are my kids. I’ve given my life and everything I am to them and their families. I’ve made mistakes with them, for sure. I’ve had teens and families walk away because of something I’ve said, done or taught. But each time it tears me to shreds. I know the surpassing love of God, the unfathomable joy of a life united to Christ, and to have a teen or a family walk away because of what I’ve said or done… shatters me.
In these moments I survive by leaning in deep. I look to my Savior and kneel before his broken, bruised, bloodied body on the Cross and lean in, pressing my lips to his bloodied and pierced feet… allowing the mercy of his spilled blood wash over me.
When these trials beset me I run to my blessed Mother, hold her like my 3 year old runs and wraps her arms around my waist and presses herself against me. I lean in deep and allow her to wrap me in her mantle of grace.
Beyond my imagination, in reality, I am the beloved disciple leaning against the breast of my Lord, hearing that
one will betray him, knowing that I have done as much, hoping that others will not, asking if it is I.
Jesus I trust in you.
Jesus I trust in you.
Jesus I trust in you.
In all of this and more, I choose to lean in deep. Each moment I choose to lean in deep. I lean into the grief, the uncertainty, the sorrow. I lean in, knowing that I am not alone, that I am carried and redeemed, that I am on certain ground. The standard of the victor has been planted on a mountain for all to see and I am counted as his very own portion.
I don’t see a way forward.
I don’t understand.
There is One to whom I can go. There is One answer, One hope, One love. There is One God and I am His, you are His. All is His!
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”… it is here where we lean in deep; it is here when He leaned in deep. Have you ever read the entire Psalm 22? Christ was not crying out in despair! He was leaning in deep! In the greatest moment of his affliction, in the most horrible moment of all history, He leaned in deep. He gave himself over to the affliction and suffering, he took upon himself the weight of our sins and cried out to His Father for mercy! Not mercy for himself, but mercy for you and for me! He opened wide his arms and took in all those who are willing to lean in deep into his embrace.
Be washed, be cleansed, be healed, be, within His embrace. Lean in deep.
While driving my three children to school a few weeks ago (it’s a 30 minute drive), my eldest who turned 9 years old recently, asked me, “Daddy, how do we know our God is the real God?” and immediately followed that up with, “And how do we know everything our religion teaches is right? And how do we know Jesus was born from Mary?”
I mean, woah! These are the same questions the teens in my high school youth program ask on a regular basis and here’s my 9 year old asking them casually on the way to school one morning! How awesome! You see, I think we all ask these questions, and many others like them, throughout our lives. Seeking the truth isn’t just regulated to school aged children, but is one of the most deeply lived pursuits of every human life. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, the three deepest desires of the human heart are for truth, love and life. And as Christ once said, “I am the way (love), the truth and the life.”
Throughout my 18 years of leading teens closer to Christ (or trying to), I’ve been attempting to answer my son’s questions in ways that lead them to a deeper understanding and experience of Christ and of faith. It’s not easy. For one, we tend to hear what we want to hear and reject that which we don’t want to hear; or we dismiss it as nonsense because it doesn’t match up with our personal world view. Which, I think is why I was so delighted to hear my 9 year old ask these questions at such a young age; he’s less jaded and more open to truth.
On the other hand, I’ve also often watched as teens, and adults, hear and accept what I say only to walk away like the rich young man in the parable of Jesus, who walked away sad because he had many things. We don’t want to give up those things that bring us comfort and escape, or our grudges and addictions. Because if I become convicted of the reality of God and his love for me, that’s going to demand a change. And change is scary, uncomfortable and frightening.
But as Pope Benedict XVI said, “You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” And so, I answered my son as best I could in a car also carrying a 6 year old boy and a 3 year old girl. I’ll post some links for the answers to his questions, but this post isn’t meant to be an apologetic one. It’s meant to challenge you (and me).
As the new year rapidly approaches, I think it’s the right time to take a few moments / days and reflect on the reasons we respond the way we do when our world view is being challenged, whether you’re a saintly Catholic, mediocre Catholic (like me), fallen away Catholic, Protestant, atheist, Muslim, etc. When confronted with questions, or more to the point, when confronted with the Truth, why do you respond the way you do?
Over the Christmas holiday I had a conversation with a family member who’s a fallen away Catholic. He off-highhandedly comments to me that the Catholic faith is simply a rehashing of the Egyptian worship of the god Horus. I roll my eyes and begin trying to respond with answers only to be shouted down as he walked away. I truly believe this family member is yearning for truth, for meaning and hope in their life, but isn’t willing to listen to what Christ offers because it’ll mean making some seriously significant changes.
But even for those of us who have accepted Christ as Savior, what holds you back from responding more generously like Zacchaeus and less like the rich young man? Even those who are living a moderately religious life can walk away from Christ by rejecting his call onward and upward.
What is holding you back? What are you afraid of? What lies or sinful strongholds have you allowed into your heart?
Links to some of the above questions about faith:
Where was God last Sunday night in Las Vegas? Why didn’t he stop the bullets? Why didn’t he stop the gunman, give him a heart attack or stroke, or somehow alert the authorities? If God was so good, so loving and tender, where in the heck was he?! Doesn’t that prove that God doesn’t exist, or even worse, that he doesn’t care?
It’s natural to ask questions like these in the face of tragedy. And we could extend it even further, where was God when Hugh Hefner got Playboy started? Why didn’t he stop him from doing so much to destroy our culture and the countless lives of women, men and families? Where was God each time a baby is destroyed in its mother’s womb? Where was God when the hurricanes were destroying the Caribbean? If God so loved the world, then why in the heck does he allow such pain and suffering?! What kind of God does that?
These are impossibly difficult and painful questions to answer, but there is an answer, and no, it’s not a comfortable one either. Sure, there are the unhelpful answers that God gave us free will and loves us too much to take that free will away. Thanks, but not much comfort there. Well then, God was there because look at how some people are turning their hearts to him now. Again, nice thoughts and probably true but not a whole lot of comfort. Fine. Then how about God was there in the heroic choices people made to give their lives for others. Yeah, that’s great, tremendous and beautiful, but still, wouldn’t he be more loving to stop the bullets in the first place?
Well, no, because I believe that God calls each of us home when we are most likely to get into heaven. You see, God loves us so much and he knows that this earth is not our final destination but just the desert in our own personal exodus. Heaven is our home and he desires that all be saved! And so he’ll do whatever he needs, he call us home whenever we are most likely to make it. OK, that’s a little comforting, but still, it hurts too much to make sense!
I have one final answer for you then. Let me tell you a story about a young teen who had no friends, he was constantly mocked and ridiculed and laughed at, even by some of his own family. He was neglected and alone. His mom loved him certainly, but that was about it, and she worked so hard to support the family that she was hardly there. And so the only other being in existence he knew loved him was his dog, Max. He’d come home every day from school and rush to his dog and hug him thightly, and his dog would jump up and down and run around so happy to see his friend. But his dog got sick, he got arthritis and eventually couldn’t get up to go pee. He’d just lie there all day and when his best friend arrived home his tail would slap the floor with all the energy of a healthy dog and he’d pant with excitement; and the boy was loved.
But one day the boy arrived home and Max couldn’t be found anywhere. He was gone. “I’m sorry honey, we took Max to the vet. We put him to sleep.” This boy’s only friend in the world was gone, and he was alone. Have you ever hurt so deeply, mourned so deeply that it physically hurt? This boy began heaving, feeling like he was going to throw up. His heart literally hurt… betrayed, abandoned, alone. I ask you, where was God in that moment?! Let me tell you, it felt like there was no God, but in fact the God of the universe was right there, his heart aching with every torturous beat of that young man’s heart. He was there in the nights filled with tears, in the dark, in the loneliness and hopelessness. He was there as the young man wrote a letter saying goodbye to the world. He was there as he contemplated throwing everything away and ending the pain. He was there, weeping with his hands nailed to a tree, pouring out his abandoned, broken, and pierced heart.
That young man couldn’t see it, he couldn’t feel it, but he wasn’t alone. He was held in the hands of the Father. Caressed with the kisses of angels and his heart slowly healed and day by day he found peace and hope and light again; not through the passage of time. It wasn’t the simple fading memory of the pain that healed him. It was the love of the Father poured out through the pierced heart of the Son and given with the breath of God that healed his soul. And that my friends is the only real answer that can be given, the only answer that truly satisfies. It is the Face of Christ, the bloodied, bruised and broken Face of Christ in which we find peace and hope.
Where was God on Sunday night? He was there with his blood being poured out like a libation, just as he is in every abortion clinic and every school hallway and every lonely kids darkened room, pouring out his love, often unseen, but always and unfailingly there; transforming broken lives and broken hearts into gloriously new creations.