Awkward Catholic

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


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God’s School of Trust

Leap of Faith

I’m currently spending the week at a Life Teen summer camp. It is a Catholic camp for high school students. There are almost 300 high school teens here this weekend in the North Georgia Mountains and the theme is “Relentless Father”. It’s an especially amazing theme and an especially blessed camp. God is so tremendous and relentless in his pursuit of each one of us, individually, uniquely and passionately. It’s precisely what I’ve been trying to teach the teens I minister to for the last several years. I’ve written about it a number of times on this blog. Ultimately, in my understanding of God, this is pretty much what it all boils down to. Everything else is simply a different spin, a unique aspect of his passionate pursuit of each of our souls, his thirst for our love, not for his own satisfaction but for ours.

 

In light of all this, I’ve been reflecting on what he’s been doing within me lately. I’ve been inundated by this very specific message of trust, for the last few months. And as I reflect on my life, I see this common thread weaving in and out through so many countless moments, both big and small; I’m not even sure where to begin or how to list them all; it would take many more blog posts than this one. I think most importantly I first learned this trust through my beautiful mother, Jackie. She taught me through her actions, if not her words, that God will always provide for me. I learned through my mom that he will never fail me.

 

Then, there is the story of his Sacred Heart. Again, through my mom, a devotion to his Sacred Heart pierced my own and has remained with me throughout my years, even those when I walked away from his love. And again, when I found myself drawn back into his love, yet struggled against it, he gave me his very own mother to continue guiding me home, providing for me spiritually and emotionally. Through Saint Therese the Little Flower I encountered the endless abyss of his merciful love and found a model of trustful surrender.

 

As I struggled in my ministry, when I struggled in my marriage, when my mom passed from cancer, when my wife got sick, as we struggled on her road to recovery, and in so many countless different ways, His hand has been there guiding me, protecting me and providing for me. And his still small voice has been calling me to trust in him.

 

Lately, as I wrestled with deep father wounds, he has broken through in tremendous ways, in gentle and healing ways, in beautifully subtle and miraculous ways to heal my woundedness. It’s as if he’s currently shouting from the rooftops, “Trust in me!” In prayer, I have long prayed in desperation. In fact, I can remember long dark nights as a young teenager pleading and begging God for help, if he cared; if he wanted. And to this day I struggle with this, despite this intense school of trust he has led me through. I have a deep seated tendency to beg God in my prayers, like the desperate father in Mark 9 who cries out to Jesus, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us.” But God doesn’t want this untrusting faith. He desires and he thirsts for our faithful love, so to fill us with his love, to heal us and to transform us from glory unto glory!

 

At Mass yesterday we were praying the Kyrie: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” At the first “Lord, have mercy,” I was distracted and was saying it carelessly. And recognizing this, I quickly focused my heart on the 2nd part. Praying “Christ, have mercy,” I pleaded for his mercy, as I always do. But something stirred in me that even this wasn’t right. And at the third part “Lord, have mercy,” I prayed with confidence, a confidence I did not have of my own. It was a confidence in his abundant and merciful love, as if it were already granted. And I found myself awash in his mercy! It was stupendous and ultimately indescribable except by a single word: JOY!!

 

And I think it’s a message meant not only for me, but for so many others. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve we have failed to trust in God’s love. And he has ever since called us back into his trust, giving us everything including his very own Son to accomplish this task, that we might place our trust in Him and allow his will to rule our lives. If only we would trust that his yoke is truly easy and his burden is truly light, then we would cast aside all of our silly distractions and heavy burdens and dive head first into his merciful heart!

 

It seems like such a mountain to climb though! I’m not like those great saints! It’s not so easy to cast myself into his merciful love and trust him in all things. I mean, I have a wife and four kids to care for! I have bills to pay, and hopes and dreams to achieve and wounds and hurts to nurse and numb. I’m too busy! I haven’t been given enough examples or experiences of his abundant love yet. If only he’d just prove his love and providence to me… again. Then maybe I could do it.

 

Yet, something has been whispering to me lately, there seems to be this sliver of understanding that in reality, this mountain is nothing more than a mole hill. And my heart suddenly yearns to leap! Lord, give me the strength! Lord, I do believe! Help my unbelief!*

 

* Mark 9:19-29

*I should note that I borrowed the title of this post from Fr. Michael Gaitley. 


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A Touch of Insanity

Then there’s that moment when you realize that you’re actually quite insane and that the vast majority of people around you are as well. It’s simple really. In basic parlance, a person said to be insane is someone who is out of their mind, someone who is mentally unhealthy on unstable, or that they’ve broken from reality. And if that’s the case, then I argue that the vast majority of the world is actually quite insane. Evil Mask

What I mean by this is that I so often go about my life as if God weren’t a part of it. I mean sure, I’m a youth minister and talk about God often; I spend time in prayer throughout my day (usually a brief couple of minutes or a passing thought); and I desire to make God the center of my life. But when I really look hard at my life I quickly see that the majority of my day is filled up with God as an after thought or a filler or a habit (there’s nothing wrong with making God a habit, but it should be an intentional habit, or better put, a virtuous habit).

Earlier this evening I was talking with the teens in my youth program about God’s mercy (his greatest attribute) and how every sin is rooted in a lack of trust in God, that if we truly trusted in God then we would make him central to every part of our lives. I mentioned to the teens that when I was dating in college and beyond I would spend time in prayer with the young women I was dated. It was an intentional way of including God in those relationships, and more than that, putting the relationships in his hands. It was an act of trust. So I asked them how many of them prayed on their dates and they all looked at me like deer in headlights. A few snickered.

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I continued to press the point that we should include God in all the decisions and moments of our lives, not just the big ones but the daily little ones. I asked them how many included God in their decisions and how many brought him along when they went out with their friends? And a bunch of them  laughed. So I just stopped and looked at them and said, “Why not?” And that’s when it dawned on me that we’re all actually insane.

You see, God is reality, He is fullness, He is joy, He is mercy, He is life, He Is. And yet we keep this Fullness of Reality locked away in a box and only take him out at family meals or on Sundays at Mass, thinking we’re giving God his due. And then we go on with our lives trying to be successful, to be happy, to have fun, to make money, to take care of our family, to be loved. And we think that if we include God in all these plans of ours he’s going to ruin them, or at least make them more boring. BUT THAT’S INSANE!! It is literally insane to think that the author of all these things would make them boring!

In reality the opposite is true, isn’t it? If you brought God into your workplace or school he would make it good and beautiful and meaningful; your work and education would have meaning and a purpose! If you brought God to the movies or to dinner with your friends, he would make it truly refreshing and fulfilling. If you brought God into your relationships, on your dates, while playing a board game, on a road trip or just a trip to the store, those moments would become extraordinary! When you bring God into your marriage, not just generically, but profoundly, deeply and intimately, into your sex life, your children, your home… this transforms the world. (Just look at Therese Martin’s family as proof of how this literally transforms the world.)

I want to take it a step further though, because even the above is actually off, or to follow the theme, insane. You see, if God is the author of reality, if he is reality itself, then the most real, the most sane we can get is to realize that when we do anything (such as those things listed above), then it is not we who take God with us, but it is God bringing us along with him! Do you see it? It is the great I Am who creates us, the Breath of Life that  sustains us, breath by breath. It is Merciful Love that redeems us and calls us out of our insanity back into the fullness of reality! All of these moments of our lives are really his anyway.

To trust in God is to give him all of your life, every decision, every relationship, every breath and to live, to love with his life, with his love. It is this that the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen called “The Divine Invasion”. As he beautifully said, “It is not we who are on the quest for God, but God who is on the quest for us!”

Lest I think I can sum it up better than the Venerable Fulton Sheen, allow me to close with this quote of his taken from a talk he gave called “The Divine Invasion”. You should listen to it. Just do a search on Youtube. It’s breathtaking.

“If we wish to find the source of the life, and the truth, and the love that is in this world, then we must go out to a life that is not mingled with death, a truth that is not mingled with the shadow error, out to a love that is not mingled with the shadow hate or satiety. We must go out to pure life, pure truth, pure love; and that is the very definition of God! That’s what we were made for.”

Divine Mercy


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Leaning In Deep

Our Lady of Fatima

Two weeks ago Gabriel Rodrigues took his own life.

One week ago I found out that my beautiful wife is pregnant with our fourth child.

Two days ago I received word that a number of parents are unhappy with what I am teaching the teens at Life Teen (high school youth ministry).

Each of these events are uniquely different and yet profoundly world shaking to me. Each, in its own right shatters my world.

Vulnerable

Gabe is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of kid. He promised, after the Marines that he would come back and take my job as youth minister. He had potential to be amazing. He was amazing. But something… I can’t bring myself to even write more about it. My heart is shattered.

We weren’t expecting to have another child anytime soon. We both wanted another one, but because of our circumstances, we discerned that now wasn’t the best time to bring another child into the world. But God had other plans in mind. We weren’t fertile when we chose to renew our marital vows. Every time we engage in the marital embrace we pray for the Holy Spirit’s presence and work. And now our hearts are an explosion of unexpected joy and a flurry of other thoughts and emotions at His creative presence, like a person afraid of heights getting on an extreme roller coaster for the first time… trusting in the creator’s ability to build and guide the coaster’s course despite the wild ride.

The most important thing in my world is my wife and kids. Second only to that are my teens. The teens in my youth ministry… I love them, they are my kids. I’ve given my life and everything I am to them and their families. I’ve made mistakes with them, for sure. I’ve had teens and families walk away because of something I’ve said, done or taught. But each time it tears me to shreds. I know the surpassing love of God, the unfathomable joy of a life united to Christ, and to have a teen or a family walk away because of what I’ve said or done… shatters me.

The grief…

The uncertainty…

The sorrow…

In these moments I survive by leaning in deep. I look to my Savior and kneel before his broken, bruised, bloodied body on the Cross and lean in, pressing my lips to his bloodied and pierced feet… allowing the mercy of his spilled blood wash over me.Wounds of Christ

When these trials beset me I run to my blessed Mother, hold her like my 3 year old runs and wraps her arms around my waist and presses herself against me. I lean in deep and allow her to wrap me in her mantle of grace.

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Beyond my imagination, in reality, I am the beloved disciple leaning against the breast of my Lord, hearing that

one will betray him, knowing that I have done as much, hoping that others will not, asking if it is I.

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Jesus I trust in you.

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Jesus I trust in you.

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Jesus I trust in you.

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Divine Mercy.jpg

In all of this and more, I choose to lean in deep. Each moment I choose to lean in deep. I lean into the grief, the uncertainty, the sorrow. I lean in, knowing that I am not alone, that I am carried and redeemed, that I am on certain ground. The standard of the victor has been planted on a mountain for all to see and I am counted as his very own portion.

I don’t see a way forward.

He does.

I don’t understand.

He does.

I doubt.

He doesn’t.

There is One to whom I can go. There is One answer, One hope, One love. There is One God and I am His, you are His. All is His!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”… it is here where we lean in deep; it is here when He leaned in deep. Have you ever read the entire Psalm 22? Christ was not crying out in despair! He was leaning in deep! In the greatest moment of his affliction, in the most horrible moment of all history, He leaned in deep. He gave himself over to the affliction and suffering, he took upon himself the weight of our sins and cried out to His Father for mercy! Not mercy for himself, but mercy for you and for me! He opened wide his arms and took in all those who are willing to lean in deep into his embrace.

Be washed, be cleansed, be healed, be, within His embrace. Lean in deep.

sacred-heart-of-jesus


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True Stories of Love & Lust

That awkward moment when you finally admit to yourself that you’re an addict and that more awkward moment when you admit to your loved ones that you’re an addict.Jail

By the grace of God I was fortunate enough to recognize from an early age that I was struggling with an addiction; I say fortunate because the recognition of the addiction enabled me to struggle against it and not simply indulge with abandon. From the first time I tried to resist the temptation to indulge in my “drug of choice” and failed I knew I was addicted. I tried for years to free myself from my addiction but failed miserably; I could no more stop myself from giving in than I could stop a bullet with my teeth. It was only by the grace of God and the prayerful love of a faithful woman that I’m able to manage my addiction. That’s the thing about addiction, the pull never really leaves you; it’s why alcoholics can’t have just one drink.

I was recently asked to review a new book called Restored: True Stories of Love and Trust After Porn by Matt and Cameron Fradd. It’s a beautiful book about the wondrous grace of God and the restoration of love and wholeness found by couples who suffered through a porn addiction. At times the profound suffering experienced by the ten couples who share their stories seems overwhelming, but the victories won, the grace, mercy, and restoration given by God is what captivates and makes reading through the suffering so powerfully fruitful! As Rachel shares of her story:

Am I restored? I can say with certainty that being restored is not a single event we mark on a calendar to which we point and say, “Yep, there it is, that’s the day he fixed me.” Renewal is a daily choice we make each morning when we open our eyes and ask Jesus to help us lead our best life possible. Somehow, that usually begins with a measure of forgiveness.

I was restored the day I was baptized into the Church and again on the day of my First Communion. I get restored every Sunday during Holy Communion and in the quiet of the night while in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament inside our adoration chapel. I feel restored when I see my girls playing with their Daddy in our living room, when I hear them laughing, and I smile, knowing our family journey is just beginning. I am restored when I pause during the craziness of my busy life to realize how my choice to stay and fight is the only thing that shields our little girls from the brokenness and pain of divorce. It is a choice I embrace. Thank you, Jesus, for restoring me again today.

And in case you’re tempted to run from this book because of the topic, it’s not a book about porn, it’s a book about hope, grace, and mercy. Recently one of my awesome teens said, “Mercy is what gives love direction.” And in the stories contained throughout Restored, the mercy of God seeps through the pages. In this beautiful Year of Mercy Pope Francis gifted us, the unfathomable mercy of God becomes palpable and real through the stories of real people, real wounds, and real mercy.

Reading this book is a transformational experience, reading about the profound transformations and restoration of people who experienced profound trauma encourages and transforms my own spirit towards a more profound personal restoration. There’s a restoration and freedom that I’m still working towards, that God is leading me to; there’s a restoration that too many men in our culture desperately need and that this book holds out as possible. Through the grace and mercy of God “all things are possible” (Matt 19:26).Freedom

Whether you’re someone who struggles with porn addiction or have been affected by someone’s struggle, whether you’ve never struggled or may be married to one who struggles, this book is a moving and real depiction of the amazing grace that God offers through his mercy. We each have the chance to claim the very same mercy that the woman caught in adultery experienced, summarized perfectly by Paul in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “We know that all things work for good for those who love the Lord.” (Rom. 8:28)

 


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Every Star, Every Drop of Rain

Standing At MassHave you ever had that awkward moment when you’re at Mass and start drifting off into a daydream when suddenly you realize it’s time to stand up? You quickly rise to your feet only to realize everyone else is still kneeling except for the other daydreamers and some poor old man who’s painfully rising to his feet. You stand there awkwardly, unsure what to do; knowing that everyone’s now wondering why you stood up or secretly laughing/judging you. Full of shame, all you want to do is run and hide as you vow to never be the first one to stand again.

In that moment, it feels like the whole world revolves around you and everyone’s judging you. It’s a horrendous feeling, if we’re being honest. This is why I find it so interesting that so many of us do everything we can to make life all about us. We so often and easily get trapped in our own little worlds, wrapped up in petty arguments, perceived slights, jealousy, greed and selfishness. We fantasize about a beautiful woman or chiseled man adoring us and making our lives perfect and everyone else around us loving us and realizing the perfection that we are. And in our delusional desires of self-grandeur, we conveniently leave out the reality of vain-glory… all the awkward, painful, embarrassing moments that come with being in the spotlight.

In Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II made a point that shame is a gift from God that protects us from our lustful desires. In a sense, it also protects us from vain-glory. It can give us perspective on ourselves and our desires. There is a profound often-overlooked tension in Catholic theology that the experience of shame helps to illuminate. On the one hand, as followers of Christ we are called to self-forgetful love, to live for the other as if our lives were insignificant. Yet, we are also told that each of us has infinite value as a child of God; the entire universe, every single star in the sky exists so that God could love you, and you alone. And if you were the only person to have ever lived he still would have done every single last thing he’s ever done… including his death on the cross.

Galaxy

It’s fundamental for a healthy Christian faith to recognize this truth and receive it in your heart… that Jesus thirsts for you. Yet we are then called to live as if we are the least significant person and to give our lives for the other. This is a difficult tension to live out until you realize that the above is true not just of you but also of your 8 billion neighbors out there. And it’s especially true of your neighbor who’s judging, mocking, or wounding you.

I’ve recently learned the difficulty of living this out in real life. My whole being cries out for justice for a wrong done to me and yet I’m the one being forced to apologize. I want nothing more that to prove these persons wrong and call justice down upon them. But I can’t. Instead, I find myself struggling to pray for these persons, these blessed children of God, that they find peace and blessing.

As I write this it might sound like “holier-than-thou” bragging, but the reality is far from it. The not-so-nice thoughts that have run through my head, the judgment and indignation that pours out of my heart… ouch. Rather, I share this struggle in the hopes of encouraging you.

Every star, every drop of rain, every blade of grass exists for you—and you don’t deserve it. He loves you anyway. You’re a petty, broken sinner whose apparent beauty can’t compare to that of the universe. And He loves you anyway. Your neighbor is a judgmental hypocrite (just like you) and yet, He loves him or her anyway.

You are the very image of God and He loves you. You are not worthy to bear this glory, but because of his inexplicably generous love he has given it to you. The shame that protects us, that reminds us of our undeserved glory is a good thing. Likewise, the humiliating experience of being unjustifiably accused and slandered reminds us of the unjustifiable glory that He has bestowed on us.

You are beautiful. You are good. You are glorious! Whether you feel like it or not, whether you understand it or not, you are the Father’s beloved child and he would absolutely give up his life for you. And so, as his image, you too are called to do the same for your brothers and sisters.

Humility is the key to solving the paradox. Humility is always the key. Humility is the door by which we enter the life of faith. You cannot love God if you love only yourself. You cannot love others if you love yourself more. Those countless awkward or embarrassing moments serve to humble us… not humiliate us. Humiliation is for the proud. The humiliated person is the perfect person who has been embarrassed. The humble person recognizes their own imperfection, accepts it and trusts in God’s grace to see them through.

I make mistakes because I am imperfect. I feel ashamed for many of my actions and choices because I am an imperfect person… because I need God, I need the One who is righteous. There is no other. Only One is truly righteous. Only One is truly perfect. Even Mary, the Mother of God is utterly dependent upon her Son. All have fallen short. But there is One who redeems all others. His name, the one name that gives breathe to all others, that gives life to all others, that justifies all others is Jesus, the Christ. There is One: Jesus, the Christ.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus.


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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.