Awkward Catholic

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


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Where Was God?!

Abandoned-Andrew_Amistad

Photo by Andrew Amistad

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.

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Photo by Meta Zahren

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.

New Creation_Pablo_Heimplatz

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz


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Hands in the Air Vulnerability

What is the first thing most people do when being held up by robbers?Surrender Pic Stick their hands in the air. When a criminal is surrounded what does he typically do to give up the fight? Stick his hands in the air. When you’ve been working on something with all you have and you just can’t figure it out and you give up, what do you do? Throw your hands in the air. Why is that? I believe because putting your hands above your head places you in the most vulnerable position you could possibly be in. Our hands, and by extension our arms, are the first and last defense. We stick our hands out to feel our way in the dark, we cover our face to protect it from incoming danger, we brace ourselves with our hands as we fall. Our hands protect and defend us; to move them as far away from our bodies, to place them in a position of uselessness is an act of vulnerability.

To be vulnerable is to risk that the other will hurt you, and to, in a certain sense, say, “I give you permission to do whatever you will.” Like it or not, it’s something we all experience in our lives. In fact, most of us spend the greater part of our childhoods being vulnerable and learning that to live life that way hurts… a lot. And so we learn to close ourselves off, to protect ourselves. Hence, we have the wonderful song by Simon and Garfunkel, I am a Rock.

VulnerableIn almost every human interaction we consciously or subconsciously judge how vulnerable we are going to be with the other person; “How much am I willing to share?” “Can I trust this person?” “Can I be myself right now?” and countless other questions we ask ourselves. Each of them lead back to that core question, “How vulnerable am I willing to be towards this person?” Now, we can’t just go around willy-dilly lettin’ the crazy out on everyone we meet. But there are some people I believe it is necessary to risk that vulnerability with, to risk being hurt by. Those are the ones to whom we say, “I love you.” (And yes, this includes God.)

In order to love we have to be vulnerable, don’t we? On Good Friday I was meditating on the Way of the Cross and was struck with a new insight concerning the 10th Station “Jesus is Stripped of his Clothes.” This is quite possibly the most vulnerable moment in all history: the God-Man, the most powerful, infinite, good and loving being making himself weak and helpless with love. He was completely exposed, completely vulnerable! Vulnerable to what? To us, to our hate and judgment, our scorn and mockery, to the weight of our sin crushing him as he leaned upon the rock of his love.

Jesus is Stripped

Our modern sensibilities have glossed over the reality of this moment and made it difficult for us to realize its gravity. Out of a sense of decency we have placed a cloth over Christ’s loins. We protect the image so as not to reveal too much. And who can blame us? But it wasn’t really that way. The Romans didn’t suddenly find pity in their hearts for the man they were in the midst of torturing and decide, “Let’s leave him a little decency.” They stripped him of everything and nailed his hands above his head to the cross… the most vulnerable position to be in for anyone, least of all God.

Of course, in this Easter season I can hear the objections now, “But Mike, it’s Easter! Why are you talking about the Cross now?! Where’s the upbeat, happy, alleluia message?”

It’s right here, hidden beneath the nakedness of God. You see, it is precisely because he allowed himself to be stripped and utterly exposed that we have the joy of Easter. This is what love is after all, being open to the other, being vulnerable giving yourself completely to another, whether or not they give anything back. That’s why Adam and Eve covered themselves after the Fall, to protect themselves from each other, and from God. And that’s why Christ, the new Adam, ended up naked on a mountain before all the world, to untie the knot of Adam’s sin.

“But Mike, I can’t go around in naught but my skin. I’d get arrested and possibly sunburned!” Yeah, that’s probably not a good idea. You can however have a heart naked and open like the saints, who in imitation of Christ, loved without fear, pretension or ulterior motive. Yes, it’s risky and it’s going to hurt but so did the Cross. And didn’t Jesus demand of his followers that they pick up their cross and follow him? Did you ever ponder that? He doesn’t just want us to suffer like him. He wants us to love like him, to be vulnerable like him, to risk rejection like him.

Light Cross

After all, it’s only because of his vulnerable love that we have the joy of Easter. Love hurts, yes but as Lord Tennyson said, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” It’s better not because love is simply some noble cause, but because that is what we are made for! We exist to love, to know and be known. And you cannot be known if you are a rock! You cannot love if you are an island alone and unfeeling! And when we take this risk it will hurt because we are surrounded by people who would rather crucify God than embrace him (and that includes most of us some times). But the Good News is that when we do open ourselves to this vulnerable love, we become like Him; and who doesn’t want to become a little more God-like?

So what does it look like to be vulnerable?

For me, that means opening up to my wife about how I’m feeling. It means trusting others and not always keeping them at arms’ length with sarcasm and jokes. It’s about having real conversations with friends and not just talking about sports or boardgames; looking people in the eyes and smiling, even with strangers. It’s about seeing Christ in the other person–my friend, my enemy, the stranger, the beggar, the president–and being truly present to them in their need and circumstance. Most of all, it’s about spending time in prayer and opening my heart to my Savior, the greatest lover of all.

So won’t you join me this Easter season and throw your hands up in the air like you just don’t care? Surrender to Christ, become completely vulnerable to him and his loving will, as when He stretched his hands out on the cross in naked vulnerability to the will of the Father. Remember: God will not be out-done in generosity!

And, as a parting note, if you need any more encouragement to let yourself become vulnerable, just read the very end of the Bible, Rev 21-22. That’s what we have to look forward to.

Follow MeI’d like you to take a minute at the beginning of this blog and get a little bit self-reflective. Think about your personal faith life. Are you happy with your faith? Would you say that you have a strong faith? Is it a steady faith? It it alive, active? Are you comfortable with your faith?

If you answered yes to all the above questions except the last one, then kudos to you. But if you claimed to be comfortable with your faith, then prepare to be uncomfortable. Because our faith should never make us comfortable; comforting yes, comfortable, no. As Jesus said in Matthew 10:34, 38 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword…. whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” This sword of division is one meant to divide that which is good from that which is bad, including within our own selves. And believe me, this is not a comfortable experience.

Really though, simply pray over the Beatitudes (the most excellent summary of the Gospel) to see what I’m talking about. “Blessed are they who mourn for they will be comforted.” Our faith is fully alive, blessed, when we weep and mourn in compassionate communion with those who are mourning and weeping, when we give comfort and love to others. This is rarely a comfortable thing to do, to enter into another’s pain and suffer with them.

Being a peacemaker means placing yourself in the middle of conflict like the priests in the Ukraine and loving those on both sides, a particularly uncomfortable place to be. Being meek means to not claim your right to defend yourself against another’s calumny, but to trust in god to justify you. Being poor in spirit does not mean lacking faith but humility, to not claim anything as your own (except your brokenness) and to depend on God for all things, to give him the glory in all. These are particularly uncomfortable ways to live.
ukraine priest

To see this even more clearly, actually lived out, meditate on the Passion of our Lord: “Like a lamb led to the slaughter or the sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth,”(1) “Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross,”(2) “it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured… upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed,”(3) “making peace through the blood of his cross.”(4)

Are you uncomfortable yet? If you’re anything like me you are because I love being comfortable, of taking the path of least resistance. And lately I’ve been getting the nagging feeling that I’m happy and comfortable with where my faith is. It’s a good thing Lent is coming! This Lent I intend to get uncomfortable because I want to end up looking just like my Savior, my Beloved and I can’t do that from my armchair.

I’m going to fast because I hate fasting.

I’m going to exercise because I hate exercising.

I’m going to pray before I “relax” in the evenings because I hate missing out on my relaxation time.

I’m going to reach out to others in their suffering because I hate going out of my comfortable little bubble.

I’m going to do these things I hate because I desperately need to. I need this much more than I realize. What about you? What are you planning on doing for Lent to stretch your faith and make yourself uncomfortable? How are you going to pick up your cross and follow your Savior?

Father, I trust in you to give me the grace and strength I need to move out of my comfort zone and onto my rightful place, on my cross next to you. Amen.

1. Isaiah 53:7
2. Phil. 2:7, 8
3. Isaiah 53:4, 5
4. Col. 1:20


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Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

My mom’s cancer was, in a certain sense, one of the best things that ever happened to her. I know, that sounds horrible, but bear with me here. She suffered with cancer from 1993 – 2010. Prior to her struggle, she was a Sunday Catholic, attending Mass every week and raising her boys with a sense of the Catholic faith. But she wasn’t very spiritual. She didn’t strive to live by the teachings of the Church and she didn’t seem to have a deep prayer life, except for the occasional attempts to pray together as a family. She was a good woman, though, a woman who truly sacrificed every single moment of her life for her family. She taught me the meaning of love through her every action.

As she struggled with cancer, a particularly painful kind called osteosarcoma (bone cancer), she was slowly transformed from a Sunday Catholic into a saint.

J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “The world is one long, slow defeat, with only faint hints of future victory.” And it certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? A simple look back through history and we quickly realize that the world seems to sink further and further in sin and destruction. Rather than advance into utopian futures, we use our ingenuity and capacity to create to make more and more effective methods of waging war and death.

Looking into the history of the Church is not much different. Each time the Church seems to flourish and thrive, it is ultimately consumed with corruption or beaten down into triviality, just look at what has become of “Christian America”. And when we look into our own lives we see much the same thing. Time and again I seem to be making progress in my spiritual life only to slip and fall back twice as far, or if I’m lucky, back to where I started. And there are many reasons (excuses) for this: the busyness of life, fear of failure, exhaustion, sinful habits, laziness, pride, etc., etc., etc.

I know, I’m really encouraging you here, aren’t I? But this is important to point out, because it puts the hidden truth into greater clarity. This long, slow defeat we experience ultimately becomes a victory. As Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings, “There was never really very much hope. Only a fool’s hope.” So let us be fools for Christ. (1 Cor. 1:22-31)

As we peer through the wounds of Christ—his defeat—at the history of the world, of the Church, and of our own lives, we discover a tremendous victory and a trustworthy hope. We discover the grace of God—meek, humble, unassuming, and indomitable. All we need do is look at the Cross and the broken, beaten, bruised and bloodied body of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Read to the end of the next paragraph and then go spend time actually gazing upon a Crucifix (not an empty Cross, lest we forget exactly what our life has cost – Jar’s of Clay).

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Contemplate the contradictory images of defeat and victory found therein. Don’t come back to this article until you’ve spent at least five minutes contemplating this. Here are some Scripture passages to help you:
– Mark 15:31 “He saved others, he cannot save himself.”
– Luke 23:34 “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
– Mark 15:32 “Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.”
– Luke 23:34 “Amen, I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.”
– Mark 15:34 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
– Rev 21:5 “See, I make all things new.”

Why are you still reading? I’m not kidding. STOP, go, turn off your computer, find a Crucifix (you shouldn’t ever be more than an arm’s reach away from one) and stare at it. Ponder the contradiction of the Cross. I’M NOT KIDDING… GO!!

Welcome back, friend. What did God reveal to you in your time of prayer? For me, I found hope through letting go, victory through obedience, patient love in the face of injustice and indignity, and strength hidden in and revealed through suffering.

Winged VictoryAt the end of this post I want you to return to prayer and contemplate your own life: where you have been defeated, ground down, hopeless or broken. Where in these moments was God’s grace? Where are your victories? You see, there’s no such thing as victory without struggle because without struggle, success is just a hand out. Be careful here, though. I’m not asking you to go and pat yourself on the back. Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing except your sin is truly your own. As St. Augustine said, “All is grace.” But we should spend time noting in our lives where we’ve cooperated with God’s grace and found victory in the midst of our defeat!

In your prayer time, think about those moments you overcame adversity, persevered through suffering, and when you sacrificed your own desires and pleasure for the sake of another. And then thank God for those moments. Carry those moments with you throughout the rest of the day and through tomorrow. With a thankful heart raise your hands up to your Savior and rejoice in his victory on the Cross!! Because I guarantee that he will be thinking of and hoping for you.