A Life-Giving Intentionality

A Life-Giving Intentionality

In the first few weeks of school, I find myself swinging between this isn’t that bad and then suddenly falling into I’m not sure I can do this for an entire semester or an entire year. What I keep returning to is the knowledge that this year, perhaps more than ever, needs to be filled with intentional work-life balance and an abundance of good, life-giving things for me. It is always the desire and goal each year for those things to have a critical place and yet this year I think they need to be a desire turned into reality.

With everyone masked, I find myself trying to guess more and more what my students are thinking or how they are receiving the information presented. Not every student gives away their inner thoughts on their faces, but it certainly helps me know more about what is happening internally when I have an entire face to view and not simply a set of eyes.

I realize the same is true for them, too, when I re-watch videos of me teaching and I see how crucial the facial expressions were for the lesson. I don’t claim to have the most interesting face, friends, but the whole face is incredibly helpful when lecturing. Even though I was raised by a man who disciplined with his eyebrows, I cannot convey every emotion purely through raising or lowering my eyebrows. I attribute at least part of my excessive tiredness to this COVID-induced reality.

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Is the Good News Good?

Is the Good News Good?

St. Peter says to “be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15) but sometimes it seems the hope can get lost in a parade of rules. I asked my students what is the cause of our hope and after throwing out several answers, someone finally said the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the source of our hope.

“Do you feel like the Good News is good?”

They paused for a moment, almost seeming to sense there was a trick question they needed to skirt.

“Yes,” one student said.

“Why?”

This simple question seemed difficult for them. Someone replied, “Because it seemed like the right answer.” In fact, when I asked a later question (“Why does the Good News not seem good?”) they were able to respond with more answers.

When I go into the prison, so many of the men that come to the Catholic bible study or Mass are able to clearly point to their lives and say, “When I do my own will, I am not free.” It is a profound gift that the men in prison have that I think so many outside prison lack. The doctor, the teacher, the student, the politician, the bus driver, the plumber, the painter, the whatever can look like they have it together because they have some worldly success and their struggles might not be so apparent. The reality, however, is that we are all in great need of being saved. This crashes into the truth that the Good News is profoundly good, but it does require an acknowledgement that I cannot do it on my own.

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Break Our Hearts of Stone

Break Our Hearts of Stone

It seems keeping the heart one of flesh, instead of being one of stone, is the continual work of a lifetime. Softening, rather than hardening, requires a strength and intentionality that doesn’t come naturally to me. In the wake of my defensiveness and desire for self-preservation, I repeatedly need to engage in the work of letting my heart be real. The simple act of believing in the goodness of others (and living in that truth) is one that requires me to be soft-hearted over and over again.

As I’ve gone into the prison, I have grown in seeing the goodness in people who have made many mistakes. Many of the men I interact with are easy to find goodness in because they are seeking the Lord, too. Their zeal for the Lord or their desire to love Him or find Him invites me to see how God is moving in their hearts. Others are a little more difficult since they make me feel uncomfortable or continually lie to me. But as a whole, I am able to look at men who have raped, murdered, and committed all sorts of crimes and proclaim their inherent goodness.

For whatever reason, we often look up what crimes the men are in for and how long of a sentence they received. At times, it helps to understand their position: are they in for life or a few years or simply back after breaking parole? We decided to look up one man I’ve talked with several times and see his crime. It was surprising because the kindness and gentleness I’ve experienced from him ran contrary to the crime he was sentenced to serve. Yet, despite the surprise, it didn’t really change how I felt toward him. The goodness and kindness I’ve experienced are real and he is far more than the crimes of his past.

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"Quo Vadis" — A Call to Bearing Witness to Authentic Christian Living

I recently read Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz and was drawn deeply into the story.  It is set in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero and tells the tale of the beginnings of Christianity.  While I enjoy history, I am probably far more uninformed than I should be and thus it took me a bit by surprise to read of the moral depravity found in Rome.  Sienkiewicz accomplished the arduous task of transporting the reader into the time period and understanding the tradition of the times.  Prior to the revolution of Christianity, Rome was a burgeoning epicenter of vice and immorality.  The feasts held by Nero were consumed with gorging oneself on food, drink, praise, lust, and selfish whims.

Enter Christianity.

The Christians are portrayed as being something entirely different from the rest of the Romans.  They are set apart and act with never before seen goodness, honesty, and courage.  When faced with betrayal and anger, they freely bestow forgiveness.  The Christian life is not presented as easy by any means, but it is presented as filled with light and being something beyond human powers.  As I read this book I thought about how beautiful it was that the witness of Christians to the truth in word and deed was able to transform a sinful culture.

Think about that: the witness of Christians in their words and deeds consistent with what they profess to believe was able to transform a culture of death and vice. 

Nero spread the lie that the Christians were responsible for the great fire in Rome but when the citizens saw the goodness that was at the root of the Christian life, they doubted the words of their emperor.  While the martyrdom of the early Christians seemed to provide a set-back for the Church, soon they were inundated with many people who wanted to be Christians.  The bloody deaths they endured do not seem to be good advertisement to prospective members, but they were drawn by their courage, love, and the manner in which they died.  The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.  By their faithful witness to Christ and His teachings, they were the compelling force that spoke to the basic dignity of the human person, the freedom found in forgiveness, and the willingness to die for that which one firmly believes. 

I found myself thinking that if it happened once, what is to stop it from happening again?  We are again facing a culture of death and a world riddled with vice.  Yet the Truth is still living and active.  What if we became the faithful Christians who lived what Our Lord taught and by this simple witness were able to spark another revolution?  To be a Christian is in essence to be a revolutionary.  In Quo Vadis the words on the lips of Vinicius, one of the central characters, struck me as something that perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to proclaim today.

“It’s not enough, you see, to honor Christ with rituals and worship. You have to live according to his teaching, and that’s like coming to the edge of an ocean and being told to go across on foot. It’s deeds, not words, that matter to these people….There’s no longer a difference between the conqueror and the conquered, the rich and the poor, the master and the slave. Christianity means the end of all authority, of government, of Caesar, of the laws, and of established order as we know it. Instead there is Christ. There is an instant sense of mercy never found anywhere before. What follows is such superhuman goodness that it overturns everything we know about mankind…I tell you frankly there’s nothing more at odds with my character than this Christian teaching, but I simply can’t tell who I am since I brushed against it. Is this love or magic? I don’t know…I feel as if they’ve changed my soul!”

Our very souls must be changed, must be transformed by the very life of Christ.  If we simply go to Mass each Sunday, we are not giving a faithful Christian witness.  Our lives must be filled to the brim with the Gospel, it needs to find it’s way into every aspect of our life.  We must be the people that others look at and are amazed at our goodness, forgiveness, and zeal.  Not because we desire the praise, but because we are witnessing to what a life rooted in Christ actually is.  When I think of the early Christian martyrs the last words to come to mind are: mediocrity, comfort, politically correct, and fashionable.  If we desire to be like the early Christians, then we must also abandon the hopes of being able to live a mediocre, comfortable, and easy life.  When I look within myself, I discover that I am very attached to all of those things.  I want to be great and be a saint, but I also don’t want the sacrifice that is necessary.

Sienkiewicz very clearly presents the seeming contradiction found in the truth that the more you surrender to Christ, the more happiness and freedom you gain.  Vinicius wonders how he could be happy giving up the life of Roman decadence he has always known, but the happiness he discovers is of a far grander and long-lasting sort.  From the witness of the early Christian martyrs to the modern men and women who dedicate their entire lives to Christ in the priesthood or religious life, we see that Christ asks to be Lord of everything.  He asks for much but He rewards generously.  We may not be popular or comfortable in this world, but He promises to prepare a place for us in Heaven.  We may experience ridicule and humiliation, but then we would be simply following in the footsteps of the King of Kings as He was nailed to a cross. 

The world will hate us because we are not of this world.  But we serve a King who is not of this world and who has already conquered it.  The battle has already been decided.  Truth prevails, Goodness wins, Love conquers all!  Which side will we find ourselves on? 

If Rome can be transformed from vice to virtue, can not our world once again become what it ought to be?  I do not know what the Lord will ask of me in the future in order to bring about His Kingdom, but I do desire to have the grace and courage to do as He asks.  After a radical encounter with Truth, we cannot remain as if we have not changed. 

Imagine what the Lord could do with a few souls that do only His will.

Will you be one?  Will you say yes to the grace that is trying to flood your soul and pierce every avenue of your life?  Will I say yes?

Pray for me, dear reader, and I will pray for you.  May the Lord give us the grace to endure whatever may come.  The grace to follow Him to Rome to be crucified, to the classroom to be mocked, to the office to be scourged, to the public forum to be humiliated, to our families to be dismissed, and to our world to be belittled.  And may the world be transformed by the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that we bear witness to through God’s grace.