Awkward Catholic

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


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.

Straw Bale 1

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.”