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

Cleaning Up.

confession

This rainy Friday morning I will be making the trek down to the ol’ Cathedral for confession. I’ve made it a point in my life to partake in this sacrament a bit more frequently. It’s gotten to a point that when I fall short (in what I have done or failed to do) I feel like I am living in a dirty home. Reconciliation is the remedy, it cleans out the home and keeps me from becoming buried alive (hoarders pun, sorry). So the question is… Why is a ‘clean home’ so important in terms of our soul?

1. A dirty home isn’t hospitable for guests.
I remember, growing up, the number one reason that I needed to clean my room or pick up my toys around the house was due to the imminent arrival of guests. People were about to join us, not just regular people but, family or close friends. When we let our souls become overrun with the junk that comes with our sinful nature, we are essentially removing the possibility of an edifying communal experience with others. Reconciliation fixes that.

2. A dirty home left unattended, will become uninhabitable.
This reminds me of passages from both the Second Letter to the Corinthians and the Letter to the Ephesians when Paul reminds us that we are not to fellowship with what is ungodly (pagan in Ephesians). Reconciliation not only reunites our souls into full communion with the Church it also reunites us into full communion with Christ in the Eucharist. Scripture makes it clear that partaking of the Eucharist is the source and summit of our salvation! It is by that very union that we have life! Like a dirty house that hasn’t been cleaned, we will eventually become uninhabitable for Christ. Reconciliation fixes that.

3. Putting off this necessary ‘cleaning’ will often result in MORE shame, MORE guilt, and MORE seclusion.
I can’t tell you how often my pride has kept me from seeking out reconciliation. Mind you, I was raised on “go directly to God” so brushing it under the rug was a skill of mine. Week after week many Catholics attend mass and do not join their family at the table of the Lord. In many cases, shame alone will keep them from even going forward for a blessing. Pretty soon parishioners are missing Mass and eventually leaving the Church altogether. Reconciliation fixes that.

So here I go, even in the flash flood, I will seek out God’s forgiveness. Talk about humbling, I currently have hundreds of reasons going through my mind as to why I should wait, put it off, or not go at all. None of those reasons are good enough. Even though my human nature would keep me occupied with other menial tasks, Christ is calling me. We are all broken. Reconciliation fixes that.

#2popesaints

via Catholic Memes
via Catholic Memes

Just a few days ago, on Divine Mercy Sunday (04/27/14), as the world watched and millions gathered (or attempted to) into St. Peter’s, Pope Francis canonized two of his predecessors. During the ceremonies, Pope Francis even concelebrated mass with his immediate predecessor, Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI. I think it goes without saying that this was quite a historic day in all of Christianity.

While Pope Saint John Paul II may appear to be more ‘famous’ than Pope Saint John XXIII, it can assured that this is more or less a generational perception. You see, Pope Saint John Paul II reintroduced the world to what it truly means to be human in his teachings on ‘Theology of the Body’ which immediately followed his influential writings on ‘Love and Responsibility’.  As a convert, I knew nothing of Catholicism under JP2, but he was a Church figure that I would quickly become acquainted with upon my journey into full communion. Add to his theological contributions, the heroic virtue in which he lived out his daily life, and we are certain that even in time on earth he was a saint among us. I mean, this is a guy who lost most of his immediate family, lived under the oppression of the Nazi regime, went to seminary ILLEGALLY (according to Nazi rule), AND was an avid outdoorsman… COME ON!

All the while, we forget poor ol’ Angelo, the man who would become Pope John XXIII and eventually a saint. Now the ‘we’ is obviously referring to the millennials and possibly some of their parents. Most, if not all, of the emerging young Church belong to the JP2/Benedict XVI generation. So maybe on this subject you should talk to your grandparents or any Catholic who was within the age of accountability during the early 60’s about Pope Saint John XXIII. St. J23 (as he will be referred to hereafter) was instrumental in the opening and presiding of the Vatican II Council. Let me preface this by saying that this particular council was HUGE for the Church and her approach to the liturgy and evangelization. Most notably, it allowed the liturgies you experience to happen in your own vernacular. Many more changes came down the line as a result of this historic council BUT St. J23 wasn’t able to see the end results of it. You see he was only our shepherd for four and a half years before succumbing to stomach cancer. In his short span of time as our Pope, much was accomplished in the name of spreading the gospel to all people. These among many reasons are why St. J23 was beloved by many for his contributions to the Catholic faith.

During his earlier years in ministry, St. J23 was busy helping the Jewish refugees during the harsh times of WWII while young Karol was secretly studying for the priesthood. It is not a far cry to say that these two saints are cut from the same cloth, their ministry, papacies, and eventual sainthoods will forever be united in a love for people and a love for the Church. As we move forward and celebrate their feast days, ask them for their intercessions, and remember the Holy examples they were during their earthly lives let us be united to the cause of Christ a bit more intimately and strive together to love God, love his Church, and to live holy lives.

In the face of uncertainty, A Good Friday reflection…

Following Jesus and truly having faith in His Church is undoubtedly the hardest thing that anyone in this life could undertake. On this Good Friday, I often reflect on the role of the disciples during the arrest, trial, scourging, and eventual crucifixion. These men were in the inner circle, they fellowshipped with the Christ on a perpetual basis. Yet at the first sign of dissention, these great men of faith scattered. More importantly, Jesus knew they would do just that.

What more, does this day about our own faith? Us, Christians, we are the flock of the successors of the men who fled and even denied Christ in His final hours. In times of uncertainty we immediately turn our trust in on our own devices. So often, if God’s plan isn’t what we had pictured, we take up matters in our own hands. Each and every time we find that when we put our full reliance in ourselves that we are left unfulfilled and often in a worse position than when times were seemingly uncertain.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
-John 19:26-27

Fortunately, we are not alone in this journey. We have the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, in communion with all the saints and this community will not fail us. Even Christ’s mother, our Blessed Mother, was left in the care of the His disciples, the foundation of our Church. It is only when we orient our trust inward that our situation begins to deteriorate. Christ promised us there would be suffering, because he suffered. Like the disciples, we become cynical when the suffering begins. It is only when we cling to the faith we have in the Catholic Church and embrace the grace in the sacraments that we will be able to face uncertainty without hesitation.

On this Good Friday, when we travel into the hours leading towards the cross, let us be reminded that we too are called to carry a cross. When trials befall us, let us consider that our only recourse is to believe. Let us keep the faith and if we don’t quit, we win.

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.

“If you believe…

“If you believe what you like in the gospels and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” -St Augustine