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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No Tears in Heaven (but there might be wings)

The other day in the car, I had a conversation with my five-year old son; he wanted to know if he could get angelWinged Victory wings in heaven. I told him that in heaven God would give him whatever he needed to be happy; if he needed angel wings to be happy then God would find a way to give him wings. (I have it on good authority that Redbull doesn’t exist in heaven so that’s not an option.) I then stressed to my boy who this is one of the most amazing things about heaven… it’s perfect happiness where nobody ever cries or gets hurt. He didn’t believe me.

First he inquired, “But what about when someone makes you cry?” I said that nobody makes you cry in heaven because everyone wants to share and be kind and love you. I quoted the sage Eric Clapton and told him there are no tears in heaven (I believe this is also found somewhere in that zany book of the Bible called “Revelations”)¹. He simply said in response, “I don’t believe you.”

I. Was. Stunned.

Dads are supposed to know everything for their little boys. There isn’t supposed to be doubt or disbelief! How could this be? Fortunately, I was stopped at a red light otherwise I may have driven off the road. In pondering this conversation the last few days I came to the realization that of all things for him to doubt, this doubt makes sense. He already knows well that this life filled with suffering, selfishness, tears and yellow jackets. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a happy boy and has loads of fun and is loved and knows he is loved, but by the age of five he’s discovered that tears are a part of life. We all know that, don’t we… only too well?

In this world most of us are taught to doubt anything we can’t see or touch or prove empirically. So heaven either can’t be real or, if it is, can’t be all it’s cracked up to be. After all, this world is pretty consistent in one thing… letting you down. After years of adulation you realize that your parents are fallible (apparently that only takes five years or so); everyone around you acts selfishly, especially yourself; the world is full of criminals; and so on. Simply spending a week as a high school student in a public or private school will suffice to teach this lesson. Everything we can see and touch and empirically prove tells us that “life is pain and anyone who says differently is selling something.”² Why should heaven be any different? Because God says so? Just look at him, this God of ours… hanging on a cross, dying the most horrific death possible. And so we say to him, “Whatever you say, Jesus.” But we think in the depths of our hearts, “I don’t believe you.”

Is it any wonder why it’s so difficult to lead teens (or anyone else) closer to Christ?! Everything in the world around them convinces them that heaven is a big sham. And that hypocritical youth minister over there telling me that God loves me and wants to be happy with me in heaven forever? Puh-leaz! I don’t believe him! Who wants eternal life when life is pain?

So how do we respond? Whether you’re a youth minister, a priest, a teen or a parent, what’s the antidote? Honestly, I don’t have one. There’s nothing I can say to absolutely prove that it’s all going to be worth it. I can provide no antidote to the pain of life.

But I don’t have to. It’s not up to me. It’s not up to you. I am nothing more than the sailor sitting next to his friends in a lifeboat trying to find his way to a safe harbor. Ultimately, it’s the Captain’s job to guide us home; he and he alone can do it and while he seems to have gone down with the ship, he somehow rose again from the depths and is with us.

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The only one who can prove the joy of heaven is Christ himself. He proved it to me many years ago while I was on retreat. He met with me, he encountered me and I have never been the same. I know in the depths of my heart that heaven exists and is more than I could possibly imagine. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has in store for those that love him.”³ This knowledge is a true knowledge. We believe that Saturn exists, not because we can see it but because we trust the astronomers who tell us. That is true knowledge. I believe that heaven is real and is more than a mere absence of suffering because the Word of Truth tells me so.

The only answer, the only antidote, the only proof that exists is Existence itself! The God who’s love is so great that he left the joy of heaven to suffer with his beloved loves you. He. loves. you! That love will not be outdone. His love will not be tainted by suffering, not in the slightest because he suffered for you. He took your sin and suffered in your place because he loves you. Perhaps you haven’t met him yet and don’t know. That’s OK. Call out to him. If your suffering is too great then cry out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”4 And he will meet with you. I know him personally (though I’m not the best friend he could ask for) and I tell you, he longs for you like a deer longs for the running stream.

There is nothing I can prove to you or my five-year old son. You can not prove it. It is beyond belief. The Truth of the joy of heaven resides in one place only, one person only (well three Persons if you want to be technical). My job as a dad, youth minister and Christian is to point… to lead others to a place of encounter. Your job is to do the same. Are you helping others encounter Christ? That is your job, your solemn duty, your privilege, your joy.

 

 

1.  Rev 7:17
2.  From the greatest movie ever made: The Princess Bride
3.  1 Cor. 2:9
4.  Matt 27:46


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Soul Gardening 101

Straw Bale 2Have you ever wondered why it seems almost everything in life can be made into an analogy of the spiritual life? Some things are more apropos than others, but pretty much every situation, event, and experience, every aspect of creation is somehow analogous to our relationship with God. Of course, the obvious answer is that it was all created by God and therefore must reflect his glory, “I tell you, if [the disciples/you] keep silent, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40) But I think it is also because God planned it this way; he wants us to know and love him and he will do anything to speak to us, to reach us, to reveal himself to us. So he ordered creation so that even the rocks cry out his glorious love for us.

Now, the greatest analogy of God’s love is marriage, and it is the goal of marriage to prepare us for heaven… the eternal union with God. But today I want to reflect on another profound analogy of our relationship with God, a favorite of both mine and God’s… the garden. Gardening is on my mind right now since we’ve just started prepping ours for the seeds this Spring.

This year, my wife and I are trying something new: straw bale gardening! We’re very excited because there will be no weeding. Over the years, we’ve tried row gardening, square foot gardening, and trellis gardening and we’ve explored other options like raised bed gardening. All have their benefits and drawbacks, but in the process of these experiments I’ve learned something important: that no matter which type of gardening you do or gardener you are, there are a number of universal principles necessary to have a healthy and fruitful garden—and therein lies our first great analogy for gardening.

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Just as every single garden plot and garden style is unique, so too is every human soul, and so too is the manner in which each soul approaches God. Yet, despite our uniqueness, there are certain constants that each soul requires. Every garden needs light, water, nutrients, and tender care and every soul needs the same: light (faith), water (hope), nutrients (love) and tender care (a personal relationship with Christ).

 

But while every garden needs certain universal things, each absorbs and requires them differently; so too the soul. Each person encounters God uniquely and so it is profoundly important to understand how you personally encounter God.

Here’s a personal reflection for you to try: (what’s listed below are just examples, there are many more possibilities for each question)
In what manner do I encounter God? How is my soul primarily fed: through beauty, truth, goodness, or unity?

In what manner does God stretch me: through acts of service, suffering, or self-discipline?

Where do I hear God most clearly: through meditation, the Sacraments, guided meditations, the Rosary, Scripture, or holy conversations?

Now use the fruit of your reflection to continue to grow, stretch yourself and produce fruit a hundred-fold.

Weeping AngelSt MichaelWhat’s more, every garden needs constant pruning and care. If you’ve ever gardened, you know that to let your garden go  untended for more than a week is to court disaster. The fruit of the plants must be culled at the right time, the weeds will quickly overwhelm your garden in what seems like minutes, and the wild animals will ravage anything they can reach; so too with our souls. Make no mistake; the spiritual life is warfare (another analogy, I suppose). The demons (yes, they are as real as you and me) will stop at nothing to tear you away from God— they will nibble and gnaw, tear and chew anything that you leave exposed. Temptation will weed its way into your heart before you even notice it is there and you will find yourself overwhelmed and spiritually undernourished.

What about the culling of the fruit? This is something profoundly important but often overlooked in the spiritual life. So often we concern ourselves with rooting out sin (a very important task) that we forget to cull the fruit, we forget to harvest! Each sacrifice, every moment of suffering, every prayer, every single last grace that God pours out upon our lives bears fruit unseen. And so often we have our noses pressed into the mud trying to root out our sins that we forget that abundant fruit is being produced through us and around us!

Make no mistake, the weeds must never be forgotten. To drop your guard against temptation for an instant is to court disaster. But to ignore the good that God is doing in you and through you is to ignore hope and joy; because without hope of a resurrection the crucifixion is ludicrous. The deepest desire of the human heart is joy & happiness. Every single action, every single breath is taken in the hope of happiness. (NOTE about how the next time you think your spouse is nagging you remember that she/he only does so because he/she is seeking happiness and is hoping you will help him/her obtain it.) We need to acknowledge the good God is doing in our lives and most importantly we must share it. You do this by engaging in holy conversations about where God is working in your life, by noticing the good in others (especially those that most irritate you), by generously sharing the energizing spirit that you’ve gained from the good fruit with others, etc.

So, here we find ourselves, almost through Holy Week, a time of preparation, a time of tilling and sowing and readying the soil of our hearts to receive the seeds of eternal life within us. Whatever your Lent has been up to this point, take these last few days and prepare the soil of your heart for the bountiful goodness of God’s love. Root out the sin in your life. I know for certain that God reveals to us those places in our lives where sin has a strangle hold (such as anger or lust or laziness) and I know that you know what it is in your life. Five minutes of self-reflection is sufficient to reveal your biggest stumbling block. And for these next few days fight with everything you have, like William Wallace of “Brave Heart”, for the freedom that God offers you over this sin. And you will rejoice on the day of victory that God has given you the strength to overcome. Because there’s something pretty cool about our God that so many people take for granted… he will never be outdone in generosity. Let me repeat that… he will NEVER be outdone in generosity! See Matt 20:1-16 for proof.

So give yourself generously to these last days of Lent and God will begin a transformation in your life like you have never seen. Die to yourself. Die to yourself, for “Amen, amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies it produces much fruit.”