Awkward Catholic

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


Leave a comment

Heart of the Father

Tonight we (my family) sat at the dinner table, eating, joking and having a good time. I told a bad joke, everyone rolled their eyes, and it was good. I’d cooked BBQ chicken tenders, potatoes au gratin and garlic/butter smothered green beans. It was delicious! Near the end of the meal Maria hushed the children and asked each one to share something they loved about their daddy (me, just in case there was any confusion). My wife and children then proceeded to go around the table, one after the other, naming things they loved about me. It was inspiring and humbling. I’m not a perfect dad, not even close. Yet, for some reason my wife and children love me. My three year old princess summed it up simply by saying “I love loving Daddy!” WOW! From the mouth of babes! I can’t really describe what this does to me, what it teaches me… but I’ll try.

She has a heart for her father, that little angel. And her father has a heart for her! She is my precious angel, my prima ballerina, my sweet girl. I love her with a passionate and tender love that I can’t possibly find the words to describe, and I’m a wordsmith. My heart expands each time I look at her. It doesn’t matter if she’s giving me a “bear hug” with her arms thrown around my neck or if she’s throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. I may be angry and impatient but my heart nonetheless grows three times larger, like the Grinch, with each gaze upon that precious little girl. This, I imagine, is what happens to the Father each time he gazes upon his beloved children.

It bears repeating that every breath we take is an unmistakable sign of the love of the Father. The Father’s heart beats with and for his love for us. And every breath we take is the Father saying, “I love you!” If, for one beat of His heart he ceased thinking of us we would cease to exist. Each breath you take and every beat of your heart, therefor is proof of His love! Your heart beats therefor, not with mere blood but with the very love of the Father! And with each beat of His heart, it expands three sizes bigger with love for you. Think about that. Heaven is an eternity of the ever expanding love of the Father for you, his precious child! That’s a difficult thought to contemplate, to be sure. But then again, anything dealing with eternity is difficult to really conceive. I think it’s natural to imagine a balloon being filled with water. Eventually it’s ever expanding shell will burst. That’s how our brains conceive eternity. But the reality is beyond us to fully conceive… a balloon that never bursts, that cannot burst.

Here’s what I’ve learned the last eighteen years of being a father (my oldest son is eight years old, but as a youth minister of eighteen years, I have countless sons and daughters). There’s nothing I wouldn’t do, nothing I wouldn’t give for any one of my kids (all 1000+). I have kids who are my “pride and joy” and others who break my heart with each post on Facebook or Instagram. But they are each one of my kids and I love them with each beat of my heart. Every single one of them has let me down and every single one of them has brought me great joy and hope. And I want nothing but the best for them… to each have a truly noble vocation, to respond with joy and faith to the vocation God has called them to, to become the person they were each created to be. That is my great hope and joy… to see my kids reach their fullest purpose, to become saints! And I have a few on their way, that’s to be sure.

Back now to the dinner table tonight. “I love loving Daddy!” Therese cries out. Wow! Why? Why does she love me? Why would she love loving me? What exactly is she trying to say? Well, in her three year old mind and vocabulary, she loves the snuggles and the hugs and kisses and joy she receives from her father. And it’s clear (I hope) that her father finds true joy in all this as well. That’s a lovely thing, certainly. But I think it’s much deeper than that. She literally has a piece of my heart, in that half of her DNA comes from her father. And furthermore, half her upbringing comes from her father. So, in a certain sense, her very heart is the heart of her father and mother. So, it seems to me that her heart naturally reaches out for its home, for the source.

And do not each of us long for the same, not just for our earthly fathers and mothers, but for our heavenly Father as well? He is the source of all life and love. His heart is the heart of every heart. As my favorite marriage prep course says, “It takes three to get married.” When I stood upon the altar with my soon-to-be-bride, we were not alone there but the Holy Spirit, the outpouring of the love of God, filled our space and actually united us together. This great, overflowing love of the Father draws us to Himself and every breath we take is our response to this overflowing love of the Father.

My daughter loves loving me because her very existence is nothing less than the manifestation of love itself! She is the outpouring of love between her father, mother and God! And love loves to be loved! Love loves to love!

This heart of the Father calls us forth and calls us out of our stupor and into the light, into the joy of eternity and the ever-expanding love of his heart, one that explodes with more love and greater joy. And this heart of the Father is tender, oh so tender; one that calls us forth that so gently leads us back into union with His love until our hearts beat as one because they are one. As God himself speaks to each one of us:

“I will live with them and move among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. Therefore, come forth from them and be separate,” says the Lord, “touch nothing unclean; then I will receive you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
2 Cor. 6:16-18

Is that not the most comforting words you’ve ever read?! We shall be His sons and daughters! We shall be like David, a child after His own heart! And He will live with us! Move among us! And you and I will be his son, his daughter, coddled upon his lap and Consumed in His tender love.


Leave a comment

The Third Brother

That awkward moment Pope Francis gives an impromptu interview, usually on an airplane; accompanied by an equally awkward moment when you realize that Jesus left out a really important part of the story of the Prodigal Son… he forgot to mention the third brother.

Head in Hands

It seems that every time Pope Francis gives an interview or speaks from the heart he gets in trouble. It’s become almost expected. He says something profoundly merciful and the faithful Catholics around the world give a massive face-palm to themselves while the news media and all those waiting for the Church to “catch up to the times” gives a momentary high-five. In the end both sides are disappointed. Most recently the Pope gave an interview about how he accompanied a number of homosexuals, some of whom found peace and healing.

 

The thing is each side is expecting Pope Francis to be like them, one of the two brothers from the story of the Prodigal Son. There are those who want the pope to bless them in their actions, to say, “go ahead and throw away your inheritance, I have plenty and whenever you want to squander more, you’re welcome back for a second helping. Go, have fun, enjoy your sin and never worry about suffering the consequences.

 

Then there’s the group of “faithful” Catholics who demand an accounting of the pope, who want him to stand up and say, “Stop your evil sinning now!” They want the pope to call all those sinners out on their sins and demand they return home and never sin again. And when he doesn’t, when he inevitably fails their expectations, they get angry and accuse him of doing exactly what the group of “younger brothers” want. At the end of the day both groups walk away shaking their head and angry that the pope has failed them yet again.

 

The problem is, none of us are called to be like either brother. Both sin in their own right. Both have gone astray, one through their actions and distance from the Father and the other in their heart full of judgment and self-righteousness. Rather, we are called to be like the third brother who loves his younger brother and rejoices with him when he returns home.

 

Oh wait, there isn’t a third brother! Have you ever wondered why that is? The two brothers give such a bad example; shouldn’t there be a third, good example? Well, looking down through history, when has there been a good example? I mean, right from the very beginning all we see is Cane and Able fighting and killing each other, brother against brother.

 

What we need apparently, isn’t the heart of apigsty brother but the heart of a father, one who loves his sons, who calls them back home to rejoice in the truth; a father who searches, not from afar, but is out there walking the distant roads to bring his sons home. The Father doesn’t just call us home but goes out to us and meets us where we’re at and challenges us to rise above our broken hearts, our pigsties and judgmental attitudes and come to the joyful feast! And that’s exactly what Pope Francis is doing each time he speaks from his heart, because he has the heart of a father, of the Father.

 

The heart of the Father is one of mercy, infinite, beautiful, incomprehensible mercy! And the word mercy means having a heart for the miserable. You can’t have a heart for the miserable and sit on your white washed throne (sepulcher) and judge them. You also can’t have a heart for the miserable and not try to help them out of their misery but instead condone all they do as good and healthy.

 

Any good therapist or counselor knows this truth, that when someone comes to you in misery the only proper response is one of mercy and compassion (to suffer with). The best therapist often times simply sits with the person in misery, feels their suffering and holds them close, letting the person know he’s not alone; in a word, accompaniment. What Pope Francis is calling us “faithful” Catholics to do is not have a heart of a brother but the heart of a father, one who accompanies the wayward brother along the road home, who goes out to him in his pigsty and sits with him there, in the mud and filth and loves him with a father’s heart.

compassion

Or another way of looking at it, I think he’s calling us to recognize that both brothers stand outside the Father’s house; that we need to find each other along the road and walk together, to approach the Father together and say, “Father, I have sinned against you but I have not abandoned my brother in our misery. Please have mercy on us.”

 

So instead of a collective face-palm or disdainful wag of the head perhaps we should rejoice in the reminder the Pope gives us of mercy and love that isn’t OK with the sin but loves the sinner, embraces the sinner and accompanies him back to the Father’s house. After all, all have gone astray, you, me, everyone and we all are in desperate need of the merciful love of the Father.


4 Comments

A Father’s Heart

Therese and DaddyThe other day I was resting on the couch and my beautiful 16 month old daughter fell asleep on my chest. It is one of those moments I will forever treasure; a moment of absolute peace and trust and love. I lay there thinking about my love for my family when the terrible reality of what’s happening in our world today crossed my mind. Would I be willing to risk everything, to leave home and country and risk my life for the sake of my family? In a heartbeat. Don’t mess with a father’s heart.

It is through this lens that I speak of everything else below. It is through my fatherly heart that I understand the tragedy of the refugee crisis in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. It is through my fatherly heart that I struggle to understand the immigration problems in the Americas. In reality, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the crisis in Europe and the one in America. Both revolve around families doing whatever they must to stay alive.

This, in large part, is why it astounds me that so many people, so many Christians have such a strong bias against immigrants; as if having to press a button on a phone for English is actually hurting you. Many will retort that they’re not against immigration, but against illegal immigration. They’re against people breaking the law. That’s fair, I guess. I mean I know I would never break the law, even if my child’s life was at stake, even if my entire family was at risk of starving to death or of being bombed out or gunned down if we stayed where we were. Even then I would never even think of trying to find somewhere else to live if it meant getting there illegally. I would stay put and fix things in my own country, even though I have no education, money, resources, political voice, etc. to actually make a difference.

But I digress. It’s funny how we claim the word Christian when it’s convenient, when we have time to go to the soup kitchen and get our hands dirty making sandwiches, when we give of our excess to St. Vincent de Paul, as long as the poor don’t come into my neighborhood, my county, my state or my country. But when those in need begin to impose demands upon us, we suddenly find every excuse in the world. We already have too many problems here, too many poor and not enough time.

The Christian faith is not one of convenience, it is of sacrifice, and it is an inconvenient truth that those who lose their lives save it. Judeo-Christianity puts the orphan, widow and alien first, not second. Not only if they are here legally, but if they simply have a need. Unfortunately, we too often let fear control us. We are afraid they will take our jobs, drain our resources, corrupt our culture, and turn into criminals, or worse, terrorists. But perfect love casts our fear. Fear is no way to live or to love. The majority are not criminals but some of the hardest working, most faithful people I know. They add to our culture, making it richer, more vibrant and more beautiful, and they do not take our jobs but most often take the jobs we don’t want to do, and in the process grow our economy and enrich our lives.

We lose nothing, absolutely nothing when we give of ourselves, when we care for and love the orphan, the widow and the alien, rather we gain everything else along with them. Who is my neighbor? That’s simple, everyone.

Does our Father in heaven care if we’re brown, black, yellow, white or green? Does he care if we’ve crossed some arbitrary border with or without permission? No! His heart is breaking for his children who are suffering and dying for lack of sympathy and fear. My fatherly heart is nothing else than an image of our Father’s heart. He is the image in which all fathers are made. The Good Samaritan is a prototype of this. The beaten man he encountered was a foreigner, his enemy and yet he cared and loved him as his own brother.

Lord, help us be less like the priest who crossed to the other side of the road and more like the Samaritan.Helping Hand


Leave a comment

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.

Refugee Boat

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


Leave a comment

The Father’s Love

From a DistanceWhere has God gone? I think it a pertinent question considering that lately we seem to be surrounded by so much death. Everywhere we look death seems to be the victor: suicides, overdoses, bullying, abortion, movies, Ebola, terrorism, gossip and on and on. How do we make sense of all this suffering and evil; how do we justify this tidal wave of evil that seems to be sweeping across our world? Where is God in all this mess?

In the last two weeks my parish community has lost four young people to various causes. Let me tell you, there is no grief like a parents grief. I know this because there is no love like a parent’s love. The mere thought of something awful happening to my own child… it’s enough to make the strongest man tremble. So where is God in all this? Where is the loving Father Almighty? So often it seems like Bette Midler had it right when she sang, “God is watching us from a distance.” But that’s the thing, he’s not watching us from a distance. He’s right here, right now, right always. My pain is his pain, my grief is his grief, my sorrow and joy and love and hopes and fears, he knows them and loves me through them.

A few weeks ago I came home for work around 7:30PM and found the house quiet except the TV. I walked over to the living room and found my two boys (5 & 3) sitting on the couch looking miserable. I went over to them and found their faces all puffed out like Will Smith’s in his movie “Hitch” after he ate the shell fish. It turns out that earlier that afternoon while playing in the side yard they stirred up a yellow jacket nest (they make their homes in the ground). They were instantly swarmed and came running into the house surrounded by dozens of yellow jackets. They each received almost 20 stings all over their little bodies. As I gently held them I felt their pain and my heart broke for them. I was with them in that moment and though they couldn’t imagine that I suffered with them, I did.

And therein lies the beauty of the Father Almighty. He is God with us. Now, I know we usually call Christ the Emmanuel (God with us), but do you realize that where Christ is, there is the Father?! As Christ said, “He who sees me sees the Father,” and again, “The Father and I are one.” Now, I’m not saying they are one in the same person, but the three persons of the Trinity are so intimately united that they are one God and while we distinguish between their persons and work, where one is, all three are. The Father doesn’t just sit on his golden throne watching his will being accomplished. He is in our midst, loving us, near us, in us and through us. He truly is God with us!

One of my favorite passages in the Bible (I have a lot) is 2 Corinthians 6:16, 18: “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live with them and move among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people… and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’ “The Father and Adam

Do you hear that? We are his temple. Make no mistake, a temple isn’t simply an empty building where people gather to pray. It is the footstool of God! It is the dwelling place of the Most High. He has pitched his tent among us. And you are that temple! You are his dwelling place; the creator of the universe is closer to you than you are to yourself! ALLELUIA! And more than that, you aren’t simply his dwelling (as if that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, but you are his son or daughter. He has claimed you as his own and he loves you!

As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “It is not man who is on the quest for God but God who is on the quest for man.” When I first heard that I was stunned. All this time I thought it was I searching for meaning and for hope when in reality it was God within me, calling me and running to me, searching for his little lost helpless, hapless sheep. Why? Because he loves me, because he loves you. Why did God create the universe? Because he loves you. Because he loves everyone? No. Because he loves you. The Father has had an image of you (singularly you) in his mind for all eternity, waiting for the moment that you would come into existence so that he could love you. Every single star in the universe exists so that God could love you. Every single star. Here’s a sliver of what I’m talking about:GalaxiesYeah, that’s all for you.

If you were the only person in the history of the world to exist, ever, he still would have done Every. Last. Thing. He’s. Ever. Done. All for you.

There’s no way he could remain passive on his golden throne while you were down here away from your home. He’s simply too madly in love with you.

Ultimately, I would say that making sense of why we suffer is easy… we are the cause of it. Our sin brings chaos and suffering into the world. But just understanding why it happens doesn’t really make it any easier, doesn’t give it any meaning. What makes the difference is understanding that we’re not alone in our suffering. That our sin, and the chaos it creates doesn’t have the last word. God does. God brought order out of chaos once when he created the world and he continues to do so each moment that he allows creation to persist. His plan, his will, his love will be accomplished… not in spite of our weakness but through it. His almighty power is made manifest in our weakness. He is God with us, he loves with us and suffers with us and redeems that suffering through the love of his Son. And that is what gives hope.

If you ever doubt that then meditate on my all time favorite passage in the entire Bible… Romans 8:28-39, “We are being slain all the day long, we are as sheep to be slaughtered. Yet, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us [for not even death] will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

As long as we draw breath there is hope and when our last breath leaves our body, and it is finished, then our hope and our faith will be no more and only the light of the Love of God will remain. Every tear will be wiped away, every grief, even the loss of a child, will be turned into dancing for we will see God face to Face and we will know we are loved.Father and Son


2 Comments

From Bench-Warmer to Saint-Warrior

My boys never cease to amaze me. A few days ago Maria informed me that Gabriel, my five year old decided to forgo a frozen strawberry Popsicle (even while his younger brother enjoyed one) so that he could get a special treat after dinner instead (they’re only allowed one special treat a day because my wife does not suffer from the same problem I do). It seems my boy has more self-discipline than his dad. As for me, I hate suffering, and especially voluntary suffering. I’m the biggest wimp when it comes to self-sacrifice.

This of course explains why I can’t seem to make any progress on a number of issues in my life, such as why I haven’t made any real spiritual progress in years, why I seem stuck as a mediocre husband and father, a bench-warmer. It’s why I haven’t really pursued the jobs I want or the education I desire. I’m so addicted to comfort and indulgence that the mere thought of fasting makes me hungry. Each day I rush home to my family with all these great ideas and energy… I can’t wait to wrestle with my boys and to embrace my wife in a passionate kiss and help cook dinner. I’m going to get all the bills paid and fix that closet door; I’m going to engage my wife in meaningful conversation and we’re going to spend quality time in prayer.

But then I walk through the front door, put my bag down and hear the comfy couch calling my name. Suddenly all my grand schemes come crashing to the ground in a pile of charred wreckage. Perhaps it’s because I watched nine hours of TV each day during high school and so never really formed any sort of self-sacrificial discipline? Whatever the reasons and excuses, the fact of the matter is that I’m not very good a making those small sacrifices in my daily life, which if we’re being honest, are what make all the difference between a saintly life and a “could have been”.

What, pray tell, does all this have to do with being a good husband and father? Simply this, what could be more important than helping my wife and children become saints? Leon Bloy once said, “At the end of life there is only one great tragedy, not to have been a saint.” As a husband and father, my single most important responsibility is to help my wife and children avoid that tragedy.

So how do I do this? By being a saint myself and reflecting the light and love of Christ so as to illumine their lives and to teach them to do likewise; easy, right?

So, it’s my job to form them into saints (with the grace of God of course). Well, I can tell you this much, that the formation we’re talking about doesn’t take place in those “big”, “easy”, “obvious” moments in life where you’re called to give some gloriously obvious sacrifice. The big sacrifices are the easy ones. Real saintly formation takes place in those small loving sacrifices, those daily moments that take place a thousand times a day.  It’s in not watching “one more” YouTube video, or checking Face Book for the umpteenth time, or not complaining that the AC isn’t cold enough. It’s in waiting patiently behind a slow driver who doesn’t use her turn signal and giving the peace sign to the guy who is flicking me off while cutting me off. It’s in listening attentively to my little boy’s story that makes no sense, or my wife talk my ear off because she’s been listening intently to nonsense all day long.

BUT I DON’T WANT TO!! And that’s the problem. As I said earlier, I really stink at all this self-donating love stuff. Fortunately, with God’s grace, I’ve made that first really big step… I’ve stopped making excuses. I’m a grown man and I own (take responsibility for) my lazy, self-indulgent nature. Now I need to start praying for the grace to take the next step… to get off the bench and actually start making some of those small sacrifices that I loathe so much.

I know it’s going to be painful at first and I cringe at the thought of it. But I’m certain that one day in the future it won’t seem so bad. I might even begin to look forward to those sacrifices of love. Then, I’ll be able to say with St. Lawrence to the torturers who were flaying him alive, “You can turn me over, I’m done on this side.” Or better yet, I’ll be able to join my five year old son in not having a Popsicle because my wife asks us to only have one special treat a day.

Mary, my Mother, help me to imitate your Son by giving myself in love. Amen.