Community is Everything

Disclaimer: I love the Catholic Church. I love being Catholic – and hold a deep love and reverence for the entire Christian community, despite painful divisions that still exist. What follows are simply jumbled thoughts on a matter very dear to me. A matter that we Christians ought be be honest about, own our mistakes, and work together on a new way forward.

Giving undue influence to others’ opinions, joining gangs, joining cults, leaving the Church, joining the Church, tolerating toxic friendships, adopting certain views and beliefs, abusing drugs – both illegal and pharmaceutical, abusing alcohol, engaging in random and illicit sexual behavior, going down certain career paths, pursuing/abandoning certain goals… the list goes on of what people will do to satisfy their longing for authentic community. Many, in their current state, feel undeserving of the love and friendship found within authentic community, but their thirst for it is so strong, that they are open to compromise in the name of acceptance. Please understand that I am not referring to the presence of sin in one’s life – which does indeed cut us off from our fellowman – rather, I am referring to the innate human desire to belong and the lengths – even sinful lengths – people will go to in the name of being a part of a community. Community is everything. I think – to the extent that the local Church has failed in cultivating community as one of its main priorities – it neglects its primary vehicle for transmitting the Gospel. Without the pursuance of real and lasting community among its adherents, the Church nullifies her salvific mission. Too often people enter the doors of the Church looking for community and are subsequently blessed when they end up finding God in the process. We must think then, because of the way in which community within the Church is too often found wanting how many people actually miss out on God. Where community is stagnant, or ill-quenched by pre-formatted, follow along, mass-produced 6-,10-,12-week programs and social events that never move its attendees past the point of casual acquaintance, people will turn elsewhere. You can’t buy community from a publisher. It doesn’t have a finite end-date from the beginning. Community is messy, it is vulnerable, it demands the giving of oneself – the very thing most of us seek to protect. We tolerate this neat, sanitary, pseudo-community that demands nothing of us apart from our attendance and lackluster engagement. Even then, we can only tolerate it for so long before “life just gets in the way”. Let me assure you, people never abandon authentic community because life, or other priorities, have taken precedent because real community seeks to transform our lives and our priorities. Saint Paul likened this community of the faithful to the Body of Christ. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that the first followers lived in common with one another, owing to the community the very context of their lives. Christianity apart from community doesn’t make sense. Have we lost sight of this truth? Have we forgotten that community is everything?

But I Won’t Do That!

There’s a lyric to an old Meatloaf song that sings, “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” This one line is often plucked from the larger context of the song to fit just about any commercial, film, or television situation where its meaning and application become practically universal. In the spirit of adopting a new meaning for the lyric, I want to share with you the reason that same line popped into my head after reading yesterday’s Gospel from John chapter 14.

In the Gospel, it read:

“Jesus answered and said to him, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words…” – John 14:23-24a

 

Living and acting in accord with God’s word, as it has been revealed to us, is the litmus test of our love for Christ. Ideally, this living and acting would be borne of one’s interior life – their lived relationship with God. Proceeding from a fervent love for Christ and His Church, the way we live takes on a greater significance and sense of mission to the extent that we adhere to God’s word in everything.

When we begin to examine our conscience and take a self-inventory, of sorts, for the day it is plain to see where we have fallen short – in what we have done, and what we have failed to do. But often times there might be one sin in particular that we bring with us to the Sacrament of Confession on a consistent basis – one habitual sin that we tend to grapple in our walk with Jesus.

Thinking about that one habitual sin, it is important to examine the circumstances that surround that act – the near occasion of that particular sin. Do you struggle with gluttony? Lust? Greed? Sloth? What sin of these, or the other deadly sins, seems to creep into each trip to the confessional? These habitual sins are rooted in an inordinate attachment to some temporal good. More importantly, they begin with a comfort with that inordinate attachment.

Comfort within our interior life leads to stagnation, and stagnation leads to the sin that separates us from communion with God. Recognizing this comfort which has led us to sin is but the first step in a long, arduous, uphill battle. Rarely do we realize how ‘normal’ a certain sin has become in our lives until we try to eradicate it. Sometimes, what we took for a harmless vice, without realizing it, has become an addiction.

Putting an end to any habitual sin, apart from God’s grace, is impossible. We, however, are called to cooperate with God’s sufficient grace to overcome our sinfulness. Our pursuit of holiness – the battle we wage for the good of our soul – begins with prayer. A consistent, disciplined life of prayer becomes our means of victory. Beyond prayer, we must drive a wedge between ourselves and the near occasion of sin. This might mean cancelling our cable subscription, putting a web filter on all of our devices, changing the way we spend, save, or obtain our money, the company we keep, or even an intentional searching out of new ways to detach from anything that redirects our affections which are due to God alone.

This might sound simple enough, but what we come to discover sooner, rather than later, is the actual depth of our love for God. Since our sin has reached the level of habit, redirecting that reflex will prove to be most uncomfortable – even painful at times. Habitual sin has become our crutch; our coping mechanism. Like most sin, the ones we deal with most frequently are the ways in which we have become Lord of our own lives – at least in those certain areas. When we lean on a sinful habit to fill any void, or just to get by, we cease in our leaning on God.

This is why we cannot hope to move forward from our sin apart from prayer and God’s grace, because we need that grace so that we might have real faith and trust that – if we let this go – God will be totally sufficient for us. I would dare to say that we fall into habitual sin because of our lack of faith and trust in God. For these reasons we must be vigilant in our self-examination, and relentless in our pursuit of God’s mercy and forgiveness. By these measures we come to know ourselves; we come to know what we would actually do, and not do, for love.

Taking a Break

In high school, I was given the opportunity to serve as a peer leader in my youth group. This meant that while I was still a ‘youth’ myself, I was given various responsibilities within the scope of the rather large youth group to which I belonged that would help me to develop valuable leadership qualities. Looking back, ever since I was a child, I had a knack for ministry. Pastors would pray and prophesy over me, even when I was in elementary school, and countless adults told me I was going to be a pastor someday. ‘Working for the Lord’, as it were, became ingrained into who I was; into my very identity.

As I went into college, experienced a great crisis of faith (more on that later… not in this post, but later), and was introduced to the riches of the Catholic Church, I was plunged right back into ministry after having only skipped a beat or two. While going through RCIA on Wednesdays, I was leading a Confirmation small group on Sundays. A few months after being received into the Catholic Church, I was offered the role of youth minister in a rural parish nearby. Six years later, I’m still actively serving in youth ministry.

And I’ve got to tell you: I’m totally burnt out.

Those are the buzzwords that no lay person in ministry would ever dare to say out loud. To be ‘burnt out’ can often feel like an admission of defeat. In reality, I’ve been burning the candlewick at both ends for quite some time. Being in full-time ministry takes its toll on a family, and if you aren’t taking time to reinvest in yourself, ministry can do great harm to your family. I recently heard an itinerant ministry worker open up about a “cat’s in the cradle” moment they experienced when their, teenaged-turned-young adult, child hit some milestone in life. I can’t quite recall the specifics at this time, but I imagine this is a common experience among lay ministry workers. To spend so much time away ministering at retreats, conferences, camps, etc. is taxing.

I’ve gotten tired of telling my kids, “Daddy has to go to work, be back in a week.”
This ministry thing is, however, a double edged sword. While taking its toll on your family life, unless you’ve hit that jackpot where you get to do ministry with your family, ministry is probably one of the most rewarding ways to make ends meet this side of heaven. Playing some small, often forgettable, albeit vital role in bring Jesus to someone is its own treasure. Ministry, God willing, is what I’ll probably spend the rest of my life doing.

The key is to strike a balance. A person’s primary vocation must be just that: primary. If you are married with one or more kids, they are your primary ministry. Expecting a kid? Your ministry is about to grow. And this isn’t just some symbolic adage, or well-meaning sentiment. I am literally communicating to you that if you are spending more time ministering to others than to your own family, or whomever God has entrusted to your care, something is out of balance.

Wait… I seem to have stepped onto a soap box. Let me just push that aside. My apologies…

Okay. What I am trying to say here is that I am stepping away from youth ministry. For the foreseeable future, I will not be employed by a parish or diocese. A week ago, I turned in my two weeks’ notice. Friday is my last day.

This decision has been in the works for quite some time. The leading cause for this particular, planned career break is economically motivated above all else. And yes, I am leaving on great terms with my current employer. Rachel, my wife for those of you who don’t know, will actually be diving headfirst into full-time teaching at an early childhood center in connection with a local parochial school. As for me? I will be trying out the ‘stay-at-home dad’ role for a while as I move into my final semester of graduate school. Wrapping up this degree, which has been three years in the making, will be no joke as I plan to give an account for all that I’ve learned up to this point. Prayerfully, this December you may begin referring to me as Master Robert.

Throughout this entire time of transition my family and I have enjoyed great peace. We have no second guesses about this move, and while it might not make a great deal of sense to everyone, it is the best move for us right now. We’re no stranger to making the appropriate financial sacrifices; in fact, we’ve got it down to a science at this point.

We’re happy, and if that is your concern for us upon hearing this news, please remember: we. are. happy.

For now, I plan to get involved in a few ministry initiatives happening at home in the Diocese of Lake Charles as a volunteer. I think volunteering in ministry will help to rediscover a love for ministry that I have let slip away in recent memory. Getting involved in my home parish and other opportunities for the love of it, and not because it is tied to any material compensation will serve to rejuvenate and revive, within me, a healthy relationship with ministry.

It is with great sadness that many of my coworkers in the vineyard, across the border in Texas, will not be a part of my daily life anymore. I must say those Texans are the salt of the earth (Texjoy-brand salt, to be more specific); they are some of the most humble, and holy people I’ve ever gotten to do ministry, and life, with, and I will certainly won’t be a stranger ‘round those parts.

And if you’re still reading… I plan to get back to another great love of mine: writing. If nothing else, you’ll be able to keep in touch with me and my ramblings through this blog and other great outlets in the very near future.

Pray for my family as we pray for all of you.

Exodus

When making any life-altering decisions, we’ve really got to question our motives. If our motivation for change isn’t really worthwhile then we are likely to fall off the wagon sooner rather than later.

Beginning about mid-February I had come upon another weight loss plateau. I didn’t have to look very far to see that this latest pause in progress was self-inflicted. I began to increase my carb intake ever so slightly. Going into this plateau I was about 20 lbs down from my starting weight. Two weeks later? I was still 20 lbs down. I began a struggle with my will power; it seemed as though I had lost my resolve to just stick to the program.

I began to realize that my weight loss “for my family” was a thinly-veiled disguise for my own vain ambitions of getting fit again. I didn’t just want to be healthier, I wanted to look good. I wanted to regain some semblance of self-confidence that I hadn’t felt in years. I’m not here to tell you that these are entirely bad motivations. In fact, they are quite reasonable for any man. Confidence is a good thing.

But I was doing it again; I was falling back into the same old mentality. I was living for myself.

In the latter part of last year, I had stumbled upon a blog post by Taylor Marshall, of the New Saint Thomas Institute, wherein he mentioned all of the benefits that had come from a ninety day program called Exodus 90. I remember thinking to myself, “I want that.”

So I slowly began to research the program and had come to the firm decision that I was to begin on March 1st. Ash Wednesday. This regimen which includes moderate ascetic practices, daily exercises, prayer and reflection, and weekly accountability meetings, was just what I needed. It was almost perfect timing that my decision to begin at the outset of Lent came on the heels of me slipping away from my new low-carb lifestyle.

Exodus 90 for me was not going to focus on how I looked in the mirror; it was going to be about who I am as a Husband, a Father, a Friend, and, most importantly, as a Catholic. Today (March 7th) is Day 7. Our fraternity, which includes me and three other guys, has already had our first meeting and we are off to a great start. The literature that accompanies this 90-day challenge warns us time and time again that while this program starts out “easy” that this Exodus will be anything but easy. I am not only part of a fraternity of four guys, but of a larger community of 1700+ men who have already gone through their own Exodus.

To give you a quick overview as to what my Exodus looks like, here’s a bulleted list of what I am giving up with brief explanations:

  • To combat my love of comfort: Cold/Lukewarm showers only, No snacks between meals, No sweetened beverages, No alcohol, Abstinence & Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, No desserts or sweets, regular and intense exercise
  • To combat my addictive tendencies: Computer/Mobile Devices for work/research purposes only (i.e. no social media, etc.), no television (this includes movies and Netflix), Only music that lifts the soul to God, no major material purchases (beyond toiletries)
  • For my wellbeing: Commitment to getting seven hours of sleep each night (harder than you might think), Weekly accountability meetings with your fraternity (small group), Make time for regular holy hour (aka the two hours I spend commuting each day, now without radio)

Why did I list everything?

Not to gloat. Not to prove anything, but to inspire.

Maybe someone will end up reading this who is also in need of a change, just like me. I wanted to disclose the Exodus 90 system in this way to show you that it is no joke, and there will be countless reasons to quit or to not take the challenge at all.

“I just can’t give up social media. I need it for…”

“No hot showers? Are you kidding me?”

“But I’m not even Catholic! So why would I…”

There are endless reasons why someone should NOT do Exodus 90.

I’m doing it for my freedom, because an unhealthy attachment to worldly goods limits my capacity to give of myself and live for others. I’m doing it to get my life back, and to give God control over everything. I’m doing it for happiness and health. I’m doing it for my own salvation.

If these types of improvements don’t sound desirable, then Exodus is not for you.

I do, however, ask that you remember me in your prayers.

Progress Report: As of 3/7/2017, I have lost 24 lbs.

I Can’t Go Back

Do you ever find yourself thinking about simpler times? Perhaps when you were younger and the responsibilities of life hadn’t quite kicked in yet? When the daily stress of our life overwhelms us it is perfectly normal to become a bit nostalgic. To remember these memories acts as a kind of mental refuge; it offers us a temporary break from the issues right in front of us.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about some of my greatest motivations for eating better and getting my health back. I want to be more active with my kids. I want to feel better. I want to be a better, healthier version of myself. To a certain degree, and to the extent that I’ve let my health slip away from me with unhealthy habits, I feel as though I have lost myself or that I have morphed into someone else entirely. I remember when I was younger and in far better physical condition. I remember having more confidence in myself and my abilities. I remember some of the friendships I used to cherish then, when times were simpler. Sometimes I think to myself “I want the old me back!”

Getting back to an old weight is a worthy endeavor. Trying to get back into a former version of oneself, however, is not. No matter how much weight I lose, and no matter how much improvement I seem to aspire towards in other areas of my life; I will never be the old me.

Things have changed.

In the past seven years I graduated college, got married, became a father (three times over), became Catholic, failed at launching a business, parted ways with toxic friendships, and formed new, meaningful ones. Times are not simpler. They will likely never be ‘simple’ again. Through this realization, I’ve come to learn that nostalgia can become idolatrous; the drive to restore what has been lost can quickly become an unhealthy obsession.

We have to move forward.

I am where I am, and I am who I am, right now, for a reason. When I meet the goals I’ve set for my health it won’t be the bringing back of the “Old Bobby” but the next chapter. What’s important to remember is that everywhere I’ve come up short, made a mistake, or disappointed someone I deeply care about, these are pages in previous chapters. Fallen human nature tells me they’ll probably be pages in future chapters as well, but for now all that can be affected is the next page, the next line, the next word.

A big part of my journey thus far has been not just learning from my mistakes, but seeing how God has worked in hindsight. My family and I have gone through some pretty disparaging times, and through it all God has been there. We might not have seen his hand in the storms, but we know he was there in how we made it through. This is as cliché as it gets, but: Everything in my life has led me to this point.

The past is what made me, but what God is doing affects right now. My obedience affects the future. If I want to have even a shred of hope of living out my vocation as a faithful husband, father, and son, I can’t go back.

Progress Report: As of 2/5/2017, I have lost 20.5 lbs.

Fine Tuning

This past week has been a bit mundane when compared to other weeks in recent history. The spring semester started up and I can see the finish line coming up this December. This past week has been filled with tons of meetings at work, tons of reading at home, and only one pound of weight loss to report. I’ve plateaued. When it comes to my ketogenic regimen, I have effectively cut out most carbs and am staying consistently below the 20 carb daily limit. The culprit of this plateau has been that I have reduced myself to a mere carnivore. Steaks. Chicken. Bacon. Eggs. Repeat. When I first started this change in a bid to better my health, and to lose weight, I incorporated a bit more intake of vegetables and other low-carb options. As time went on and became more pressed, I had to resort to quicker, simpler options when it came to my meal preparations. And… I’ve plateaued.

What I learned recently is that too much protein can actually knock someone out of ketosis (click here to see where I explain ketosis). By going some days without actually consuming a single carb, I have sabotaged my process another way by not diversifying my meal choices. So currently, as I lose a half-pound here and lose nothing there, I am in the process of fine tuning the regimen to get back on track and move onward towards better health and chiseled abs.

Fine tuning is important. It is how we avoid becoming stagnant in key areas of our life. Our bodies change over time, and there comes a day when we can no longer eat like we did as teenagers, and we must make the appropriate adjustments. I felt old typing that previous sentence, but I’m not even old. Granted, my body has been treated like some kind of amusement park in recent years, but I am not old. I am young. Why don’t I feel young? Anyways…

Fine tuning is also important when it comes to our spiritual lives as well. A few things we need to consider up front is that fine tuning does not equate to “changing it up” when we get bored, and it is not the enemy of consistency, or even a sensible routine when it comes to our faith and the way we live it out. Fine tuning means making the appropriate adjustments when they’re needed. Just like when my current meal regimen, as I was approaching it, ceased to be effective and necessitated an adjustment, so too our spiritual life ought to be adjusted when it no longer produces fruit.

Habits accompany virtue. Habits are good when it comes to our Christian faith. Getting into a habit or routine with our prayers, worship, reflection, and study wards off our tendency to base our entire Christian experience on what we’re feeling in that moment. Developing habits and routines cause us to worship and pray without ceasing simply because God is God who is all good and benevolent, and is always deserving of our praise even when we don’t feel like it. If I could be so blunt, consistency in our spiritual life is what breeds spontaneous and fruitful, Spirit-filled encounters. Praying when we “feel” called or led to do so breeds an appetite for the emotional highs of a relationship with God, but not the relationship itself.

One of the most discouraging events of a person’s journey towards better health is when their hard work bears no fruit. It is in those moments that the temptation to just say “screw it” and eat junk is at its highest. The principle is the same in our walk with God. When we pray, fast, and give alms, and get nowhere, the temptation to question the validity of it all comes to the fore.

In our consistency of worship, prayer, reflection, and study, we ought to avoid symptoms of comfort and complacency. If you are going to pray the Rosary every day or go to the perpetual adoration chapel every Thursday at 3pm, do it because it works, because it is good for you, and because you know God is real and present and hears your prayers. Don’t just do it because that’s what you’ve decided to do. We are Christians because all that has been revealed to us through Sacred Scripture and Tradition is real and it is life changing. No one is ever the same after having truly encountered God, but we can certainly fall into legalism and mindless practices if we become too comfortable.

You see, I don’t really care for too many vegetables. A few I enjoy but most I eat because I need to and they’re good for me. Our faith is the same way. Consistency is good and can work, but it takes some work. To the extent that we lose our sense of investment in these habits and practices, they might cease to be efficacious and worthy of our limited time. It is unlikely for anyone who prays the Rosary, ever, to say “this prayer doesn’t work” if they endeavored to do so with at least the slightest intent to be heard. If, however, someone prays the Rosary day in and day out because “that’s what good Catholics are supposed to do”, well it’s a good chance nothing at all is exactly what might happen.

I once heard a story about a husband who was always bringing his wife flowers. One day she finally asked him why he kept bringing her flowers and he plainly responded “that’s that husbands are supposed to do, right?” You can imagine how the rest of that conversation went. The thing is he wasn’t doing it for love. And I don’t mean love as an emotion, because love entails a great sense of duty and selflessness, but that’s another post for another day. What I mean is that in our faith and in our health, it is good to find what works and to keep doing it. We must never lose our fervor for doing what is good and true. When things in life begin to plateau or become stagnant, then it is time to reevaluate and figure out where and why things have simply stopped working. It isn’t always about changing it all up and changing course. Sometimes it is just about doing some fine tuning.

Lesson Learned

Leading into week two, and coinciding with my last update post, I decided to give myself a cheat day. The thought process was simple; I had lost a good amount of weight for the first week and I deserved a reward.

dwightmistake

My body had essentially gone through somewhat of a detox. I had come off of sugar, and was just starting to feel normal again. Better actually. Life without sugar and carbs has allowed me to think clearer, focus better, feel happier, and have more energy throughout the day. And then I decided to cheat. It wasn’t much, a trip to Subway for one meal and a pop-tart (two actually) later that day was enough to make me regret it.

I was doing so well, but when I cheated I ran back to the very thing I had been seeking to avoid. The problem with a “cheat day” mentality is that it holds up our vice, temptation, or near occasion of sin as the prize to be enjoyed. I’m not saying that sweets, or carb-laden food is a sin; it’s not. It is the unhealthy attachment to anything that causes that very thing to lead us away from God. Even an obsession with something very good such as exercise, to the extent that we use it to satisfy some longing beyond our basic health, wellness, and athletic needs, can come between us and God; it can become our idol.

After feeling the effects of my near-sighted decision, I was eager to get back on track and keep moving forward. The downside is that my weight loss kind of stalled for a day or two because I had knocked my body out of ketosis. Ketosis is the state when your body no longer looks to sugar, but to its own fat reserves for energy. Ketosis is brought on by the release of ketones in the bloodstream which help to break down the fat. This meant I had the painstaking process of getting back into that state so I could resume my journey.

In those moments when I weighed myself and found no weight had been lost, it would have been easy to become discouraged. It was really only a minor setback, but even the minor mistakes can lead us into discouragement and despair. One of the hardest things to do after a setback, whether it be in our health, our marriage, our career, or wherever is to keep working towards the goal. The highest goal toward which man could aim is that of personal holiness. Holiness comes in the letting go of what is temporary in exchange for what is eternal. For me, it is in the slow shaking off of various addictive tendencies. This process, for me, is more than just weight loss; it is an act of great surrender. I don’t want look for satisfaction in what is passing; I want to find it in God alone.

I’m getting back on track now, and the journey is becoming easier. I don’t say this as a boast of my own strength, but as a testament to God’s providence. As I carve out time for prayer, spiritual reading, and meal planning, I do it all as an offering of myself, and my time, back to God. I know that unless I completely give myself over to this period of growth and self-improvement, I will never be the husband/father/son/brother/friend/ catechist/student that I need to be. So I ask you to pray for me as I continue this journey. I’ll return the favor.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Progress Report: As of 1/16/2017, I have lost 13 lbs.

On Not Giving Up

Week one down, a lifetime to go.

This week has been a test of my will; the daily struggle caused me to constantly evaluate the changes I was seeking to make in my life. Daily. Literally daily, I entertained the idea of quitting. To give you a better point of reference: I’ve cut all carbs and sugary junk food out of my life. Complimenting this abstinence has been my intention to pray more often and incorporate more physical activity as I am able. Fast and pray, right?

Well, you never really learn just how addicted you are to something until you decide to give it up. Looking back, I lived from one sugar high to the next; between seven dollar latte drinks, instant-microwavable food, and a steady attachment to desserts, I was killing myself. Leaving all of this behind was hell. Most of last week I was nauseated, unable to think straight, unable to stay awake during the day, and unable to go to sleep at night. I would actually take time to plot ways of finding a dessert that could pass as healthy or ‘low carb’ enough for me to be able to fit it into my regimen.

Throughout last week, throughout my sacrifices, I was steadily looking for the loopholes. I was looking for ways to feed the desires of my flesh while keeping the bear-minimum of my new healthy lifestyle. And this behavior of trying to see how I could continue to get by with doing less, at this point, could be the tagline for my autobiography. I’ve always done this. I’m lazy.

More than being lazy, I lack faith. By not ever going ‘all in’ or by seeking comfort in material things I have precluded myself from trusting God fully. Padre Pio once described the Christian life as a “perpetual struggle against self.” Among the innate tendencies we struggle against, I think comfort and safety are among them. We have little faith that God will solve our problems so we frantically try to solve them all ourselves. We do what we don’t think God will. The result is, more often than not, misery. When we try to take on in our lives the role that belongs properly to God, we quickly realize that we are not God. It is our lack of faith that prevents us from surrendering, and we pick ourselves up from disappointment and go racing towards our next disappointment.

Last week I had to face hunger, boredom, anger, and hopelessness with no other resolve, but prayer. All of the feelings and sensations that I could typically numb with unhealthy distractions were now left bare. I had no other recourse but God. It was uncomfortable. Taking control was well within reach, but I could not reach. I had to be vulnerable before God, and my family. Last week was hell. Enduring such an immense amount of discomfort, for me at least, was the beginning of healing. It was the beginning of being whole again.

On Saturday I was able to grab coffee (regular black coffee, with just a bit of half-and-half) with two of my best friends, Josh and Braylin. I’ve been friends with Josh for 10.5 years now, and Braylin for 9. These are friendships that began in high school and have managed to last throughout college and into early adulthood. As I departed from the few hours we had spent together, I reflected on the longevity of these friendships. Many opportunities have presented themselves for each of these friendships to cease; to continue no more. Josh, Braylin, and I have grown into three seemingly different directions in our lives. The only reason our fraternal bond has withstood these changes was the fervent intentionality with which we approached it. With all the disagreements and differences, the three of us have decided not to give up.

Not giving up. Not giving up in the face of an insurmountable struggle. That is what this first week has been about.

The degree to which I have spent years giving myself over to the base desires of my flesh has, in many ways, rendered me unrecognizable. Like an addict going through rehabilitation, there will be a period of withdrawal. There will be moments when I struggle in my relationship with God, with my vocation to my wife and children, to my family and friends, and in my commitment to good health. The point is that I cannot give up. I most keep moving forward. Most importantly, I must trust that God is my portion, my fulfillment, and that nowhere else can I find the satisfaction found in Him alone.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Progress Report: As of 1/8/2017, I have lost 9.5 lbs.

The Time is Now

All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal. A time to destroy, and a time to build. – Ecclesiastes 3:1-3

This post is likely one of a million (or more) being churned out at the beginning of this year detailing how the respective blogger plans to change their lives in the spirit of “new year, new me.” This post is different.

Are you convinced? Neither am I.

I, like many of you reading this, have vowed year after year to get in shape, achieve any and all immediate professional goals, and to finally get cracking on that book, screenplay, and/or “other big project” that we’ve repeatedly put off until later. I, like many of you reading this, have failed time and time again.

The problem is our motivation. Vain ambition is a flame that burns out quick; disappointing ourselves is easy. We’ll have that slice of greasy pizza, forgive ourselves, and try to forget we ever made that ‘unreasonable’ resolution to begin with… If we are our own motivation, meaning we are working towards these things with ourselves in mind, our accountability is lessened and we are more likely to fall off the wagon.

In many ways, these types of resolutions only serve to perpetuate a disordered self-love. This is not to say that having a healthy desire to take care of our overall wellbeing is bad, because it isn’t. Just that having big goals that are self-serving, to the extent that we are dedicated to these goals, keep us at the forefront of our minds. And no one else.

St Paul exhorts Christians to ‘die to themselves’ and to take up a more noble cause; the cause of Christ. If I were to take an inventory of my own life, I immediately see my family as my first priority. God has blessed me with the vocation of husband and father. These roles supersede all other roles in my life. Who I am to my family is more important than who I am to anyone else, by far. They are my primary ministry. And I am finding when I forsake prayer and regular observance of the sacraments, I am forsaking them. The grace and intimacy I am able to extend towards them proceeds from the grace and intimacy I’ve experienced in my walk with God. When I fall into sin, I close myself off to God and to others. Sin, for me, has become habitual. It’s second nature. It’s easy, and it feels as though sin has become deeply engrained into who I am.

Change brings stress and uncertainty. While in college I converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism, got married, and gained roughly sixty pounds. As the stress of life piled up, I panicked. I stopped thinking of God as my ever-present help, and turned to indulging my flesh as a means of coping. I became physically and spiritually marred by lust, gluttony, and sloth. In some of life’s most momentous occasions, I was fighting a quiet fight of self-loathing and depression. I would lash out, and would go on to destroy friendships, damage familial relationships, and become a sad excuse for a husband and father. As my world slowly became about me it began to fall apart.

In mid-late 2016, things began to shift.

I grew tired of who I was. Each day, the desire to change grew in its intensity. Like an act of God, I stumbled upon the Nazarite Challenge. Sponsored by Catholic Balm Co. and uCatholic, this challenge was set up for Catholic men to build community with one another, to be vulnerable together, and to engage in fasting and prayer. It wasn’t lent, but I couldn’t wait any longer so I jumped in head-first. I am so grateful for the brotherhood that has been birthed from that challenge; they continue to be a solid support system for me.

This 30-day alternative to “No Shave November” set me on an imperfect path towards total transformation. The fasting I took on was not geared towards me. It was about my family. It was the kick in the butt that I needed to stop being so damn selfish. Since completing this challenge I have been praying more, thinking of myself less (which has been a challenge), and taking up, once again, the mantle I took on when I said “I do” to my beautiful wife nearly six years ago.

The biggest transformation, however, will not be in what I do, but in who I am. This year will be a time for rediscovery of purpose. Through constant surrender, my hope is to shirk all self-centeredness, and to take on holiness. To live for others, and not for myself. To understand my good mental, physical and spiritual heath is not for me, but for my family and others to enjoy.

The time for change has come. It will be painful, but it is more than necessary.

For the next year, I invite you to read along and follow me on this journey. I will be blogging about it regularly, including picture updates, tips I pick up along the way, and sharing what God is doing in and through me. This will not be a catechizing blog, as it has been in the past, but a look into my struggles, victories, thoughts, and prayers as I endeavor to die to self and follow Christ with all that I am.

The time is now, are you with me?

 

 

Image Credit: ThoseCatholicMen.com 

It is God that You Seek

Two of the most detrimental misunderstandings that can and will ruin the faith of any Christian are such that when Christ promises us happiness and fulfillment we interpret it as ‘getting to do whatever we want’; the other is understanding our ‘blessings’ to be of the material variety. Jesus never promised us material abundance, freedom from consequences, or a life without immense suffering. In fact, suffering and persecution are two guarantees that Christ does give us.

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. – John 15:18-20

Last night I had the opportunity to reflect on Paul’s speech in Athens that can be found in Acts 17. In his speech, Paul appeals to the religiosity of the Greek culture. Paul found the good, if you will, of their religious practices and related to them how this unknown god whom they seek is actually the God Paul came to proclaim. This encounter with the Greeks took place in the Areopagus which was the cultural, political, and intellectual epicenter of Athens. We need not go into great detail, but we can rest assured knowing what great intellectual and cultural gifts ancient Greece has given us. Paul was certainly dealing with the cream of the intellectual crop.

Reflecting on Paul’s apostolic endeavors it dawned on me that Paul couldn’t even dream of making any real progress with these people unless he believed with great conviction what he was to preach. Also, it would have been necessary for him to have some awareness of who his intended audience was. If we think for a moment as to why most Christian music and movies are boring, bland, and just plain terrible (sorry, not sorry) it can be plain to see that most of these artists are appealing to the ‘church crowd’. They are preaching to the choir and are speaking in idioms and dialects that the secular world doesn’t care to understand.

Bono (U2) recently spoke out citing the lack of conviction and honesty in Christian music. He’s right. Paul, as we discover in the Scriptures, was wildly successful in his apostolic ministry. Yes, he faced many hardships and ended up losing his life over it, but he was the foremost ambassador between Christ and the gentile world. You can bet that Paul didn’t walk into Greece or anywhere else with comforting phrases, blanket statements, and preconceived responses. Paul lived the Gospel; he experienced it and it was a part of who he was as a messenger of Christ. Just as important, he knew who he was speaking to and took into account the struggles, desires, and priorities of the Greeks when he considered how he might evangelize in the region.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. – Acts 17:22-27

So often, the honest atheist is closer to God than many self-professed Christians. It is he (or she) who seeks truth that explicitly, or implicitly, seeks after God. Many Christian communities, however, are not offering God to their congregation. If we can understand for a minute that all the pleasures we seek and the fulfillment we desire are actually implicit strivings for God then we would find ourselves turning away from material comforts and turning our hearts toward God alone. What happens, then, when a church tells us that God is the bridge that will lead us to material prosperity and a stress-free life? Such promises are actually leading us away from God.

Comfort, pleasure, and prosperity are not our ends. Our desire for happiness is ultimately oriented toward God who can offer us such fulfillment. These misdirected doctrines share a common denominator with bad Christian movies and music: the world neither believes in nor truly wants what they are selling. Paul never affirmed the idolatry of the Greeks; rather, he showed them how in their idolatrous pursuits it was actually God in whom they sought. Prosperity preachers, just like bland Christian artists, lack the conviction and authenticity needed to evangelize our broken world. Most secularists know full well that wealth and comfort will never be enough; they are also under the impression that Christianity can do nothing for them.

When we seek to evangelize we must first acknowledge that our innate desires are comparable (even identical) to those of the atheist or the pagan. They want what we want. We are them to a degree. We can take a page out of Paul’s book and use this nugget of wisdom to completely transform our evangelization efforts. Let us stop promising anything other than God to the world. Let us stop speaking in generalities. Let us stop pretending like suffering isn’t a fact of life. Let us even acknowledge that Christianity might open us up to more suffering. Let us be authentic in our pursuits so that the world might come to know it is God they seek when they seek happiness.

It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness: He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you. – Pope St. John Paul II