Awkward Catholic

Living my faith as the awkward man of God that I am.


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The Great Adventure: A message to teens

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.

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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.Worship

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.”

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The Man in the Mirror

That awkward moment when you realize you left a teen behind for the confirmation retreat and you have to call his mother.

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I’ve been doing youth ministry for 15 years and I’ve never yet lost a teen on a trip. I’ve wanted to at times, but it’s never happened yet, thank God. Well, a few weeks ago 100 teens and chaperones gathered at our church for the fish fry and then to carpool 70 miles up to the confirmation retreat center. Getting everyone signed in and assigned to a car was like herding butterflies with a stick. Loaded and leaving 45 minutes late for the campground I decided to call Bob’s1 mom on the road. He hadn’t signed in or been seen at the church and so I assumed he decided not to attend.

When I’m finally able to call Bob’s mom we have a pleasant conversation about how Bob had apparently been dropped off at the church and should be with us. As it turns out, discovered about one hour after that unexpectedly calm conversation, Bob had indeed been dropped off at the church, had proceeded to eat at the fish fry without checking in, felt sick and sat in the bathroom for about 30 minutes only to come out and realize everyone had left. Needless to say, Bob was none to thrilled to attend the retreat in the first place. His very understanding parents subsequently dropped Bob off at the retreat center and he remained distant and aloof the entire weekend.

As I said earlier, I’ve never lost a kid on a trip but I’ve watched too many of them walk away on their own: too proud, stubborn, angry or apathetic to let the transforming power of God break in. It breaks my heart every time. I want to grab a hold of the kids like Bob and shake them to wake them up, to shout at them, “Can’t you see what you’re missing?! How could you walk away from Him?! Why would you give him up?!”

But later on, as I look inward and examine my own life I realize I do the very same thing a hundred times a day. When I judge someone in my heart, look at a woman impurely, speak ill of someone, ignore the thoughts to visit with Christ in adoration and on and on. I imagine what St. Therese or St. Francis would say to me; are they looking down wanting to shake me awake? The reality is, I’m much spiritually closer to Bob’s choice than to St. Therese.

I pray St. Therese does what I do for Bob and all his friends, call my Mother and ask her to get me to where I need to be; because I can’t do it on my own. I’m stuck in the bathroom, sitting on the pot too tired… too lazy… too weak to get there myself. But even if Mary does the work for me, even if when she somehow gets me to her Son, it still hinges on my choice.

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Whom do I love most: my Savior or myself?

When my wife justifiably expresses her frustration with me I have a choice. When a teen does something stupid or rejects me I have a choice. When I feel the call to prayer I have a choice. When I’m tempted to lust, or to judge, or to anger, pride or sloth, I have a choice. The grace of God is already in me. The power to move the mountain of my heart is already within me. All is grace… each and every breath. “In him I move and breathe and have my being.”2 His grace is sufficient and made perfect in my weakness.3

Please Lord, wake me up inside, that I may choose life. Then, maybe, through your grace I may help Bob and all his friends wake up too.

1.  Name changed.

2.  Acts 17:28

3.  2 Cor 12:9