Religion = Relationship

Jesus assures us that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. St. Paul asserts in his writings that a freedom exists in the life of a Christian. Wouldn’t it make more sense that St. Paul was not inviting us to abandon a moral and holy lifestyle but to embrace love instead of legalism?

“God did not ask us to follow Him because He needed our help, but because He knew that loving Him would make us whole.”   -St. Irenaeus of Lyons

I think it’s important to consider that religion (adherence to a set of beliefs) and legalism (the position that obedience to the law is the pre-eminent principle of redemption) are not the same. Religion, for most Catholics and orthodox Christian traditions is very much rooted in love and devotion to a merciful God. Additionally, there are many cases when a believer proclaims “Relationship!” over their view of religion with an ulterior motive in mind. It is no secret that the downside to the common, misguided view of religion exists in all of the restrictive rules and regulations.

Love, in its purest form is the gift of self to another, a sacrificial lifestyle. When we choose to view all of the sacrifices required of us in Christianity as obligations and not as acts of devotion, our views take on a legalistic identity. Furthermore, throwing out all of the ‘rules’ for a more basic, free-form gospel is not the remedy for religion but a perpetuation of misinformed opinions. Maybe, if we gave up everything, took up our cross, and followed Christ we would experience true freedom? All because we did it out of devotion and not of duty? As we continue to walk with Christ, we will find that a life lived in Christ is much more demanding of us than a life lived in obligation. All Christians would do well to ecumenically say “it’s not legalism, it’s love” as opposed to “it’s not religion, it’s relationship”. As these two statements are not the same in any regard.

A brief reflection on failure and forgiveness.

Why do we sin? What causes us to turn away from an all loving, all merciful God?

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

– Psalm 51: 1-2

While waiting what felt like a length that would be suitable for a penance, I began to think about why we sin. One of the first thoughts I had was that of selfishness. Most (if not all) of the sins we commit originate when we turn our backs on sacrificial love and focus our efforts for happiness inward. Being selfish exposes itself in a variety of ways within our lives. When we are selfish, we do not trust primarily because in our self-seeking tendencies we begin to rely on ourselves for things like grace, justification and other divine gifts that we cannot give. A lack of trust can breed impatience, yet another way that selfishness appears. Becoming impatient is often the result of elevating our wants or needs to an impractical level. I choose the word impractical because Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are far above our ways and by definition, more complete and more practical. In our selfish, inward-oriented behavior we cry out for mercy. This is where love begins again for us. This is when we once again, turn our efforts towards another.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

– Psalm 51:3-5

The priest I met with for confession reminded me that in order to continually pursue sanctifying grace; we must be vigilant to keep our sins before us. Be mindful of our shortcomings and all of the ways in which he pierce the hands of God. When we are given absolution and a penance to fulfill, may we understand that the point of it all is to put to death our desires. The beauty of reconciliation is not only in the forgiveness but in the tools we are given to avoid the near occasion of sin. No matter how difficult, unusual, or even mundane our penitential assignment may be, it us just and blameless in its nature.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

– Psalm 51:10-12

When we leave the confessional, we are reminded of the goal for which this Sacrament is intended. As a Sacrament that heals us and causes a conversion within us, it is in fact, restoring a new and right spirit within us. Reconciliation is the key to restoring our relationship with God, the relationship that we broke in our selfishness. Our approach towards penance and the spiritual battle we are fighting is a just measure of our love for Christ. We will fall short, we will fail but as long as we return and keep fighting, the joy of salvation is ours.

Trust. The only option.

     Youth ministry, any ministry for that matter, is truly a calling. However, to write about the stacks of cash we don’t make or the nights and weekends we don’t have off would be cliché and quite honestly, redundant at this point. Yet when you go to ministry conventions, conferences, or seminars there they are… paid or volunteer, part time or full… Ministers. Laborers in the field.

     Too often there comes a point when a growing family and the viability of throwing yourself into ministry tend to collide. This is when the 15+ hour bus rides no longer pay the bills. This is where trust happens. Trusting in God can be particularly difficult when times are uncertain.

 

“May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith…”

― Teresa of Ávila

 

     May I trust God that I am exactly where he wants me to be? Can I even afford this? Will this trust feed my family or pay the mortgage? It has to. It is in the times when we can’t afford to trust that we really can’t afford to doubt. The fact is: God is our Father, our helper, our advocate, and the sacrifice that is more than enough. Moreover, Mary is our mother and she is not one that would neglect her children. When it feels like we are walking to Calvary, our parents are there and they are watching out for us.

      Therein lays the true beauty of being in ministry. When we make the sacrifice, step out on the water and move forward into the unknown what better place is there to be? Take heart in the physical encounter of the Eucharist, in Reconciliation when we doubt, and in the communion of saints when we desperately need intercession. The Church abounds in the grace afforded to us through Christ’s sacrifice. When we give ourselves completely to the work of the Church, to the provisions of Christ, we will not be forsaken.

An Opportunity to Minister

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus instructs his followers to go forth and make disciples. I, like many in ministry, tend to confuse this with “going forth and making programs.” What do I mean by program?
A program, in this sense, is when we take the words of Christ and attempt to employ methodical and quantifiable ways of application. Not every adult, teen, adolescent, or child will benefit from conferences, events, discussions, etc. While it is advised to look to our predecessors to learn about what has or hasn’t been effective in ministry, we must consider the individual in each and every case. The introvert, the kid with family issues, or victims of traumatic experiences… Too often, potential disciples fall into the cracks of our programs. Let us remember that nothing in ministry that can be patented can be continually effective. While our liturgies have been formed according to scripture and tradition, don’t forget that our heart for ministry must be one that is dynamic in nature.
As we go forth, as we make disciples, let us never be afraid to break away from the program if an opportunity to reach through the cracks and minister should arise.

Discuss in the comments section.