A few days ago, I attended my sixth high school graduation as a teacher. The following day, I attended the first funeral of a former student.
I had wondered before, briefly, at a few sporadic moments, what it would be like to go to the funeral of a former student. Of course, I hoped that it would be several more years before I would find out. At the graduation, I watched the students parade by, diplomas in hand, with an unknown future filled with a thousand moments they couldn’t expect. As a whole, they were excited, ready to leave the halls of their high school and venture into a bigger, bolder world. The next day, I stood before a woman who had crossed that same stage three years earlier, but, too quickly, now rested in a coffin.
My beautiful, wonderful, frustrating, and interesting students have a million possibilities in their lives. Some will go on to achieve great things, things that will cause them to be well-known and highly esteemed. Some will go on to achieve small things, things that will make them loved by a few and yet will impact the world in an authentic way.
And some won’t last very long at all. They get caught up in addiction or depression or violence. It was no secret at the funeral that we shouldn’t be there and that there should be a very different ending to the story that was before us. It was also no secret that drugs were responsible. As I watched her mother in a mournful embrace with her husband, I wanted a picture to show my students. I wanted to tell them, “This is how drugs impact your family. This is what you are doing to your parents.” Continue reading “A Million Possibilities and Infinite Desires”→
“If I could do the last thirty years over again, I would do it differently. I would try to make people fall in love with Jesus.”
A story was being told about a conversation with an elderly priest nearing death, but it pierced my heart and filled me with a great desire to do the same thing. In teaching Theology, I feel these seemingly conflicting pulls on my heart. I desire to teach them concrete information yet I want to show them how to fall in love with the Lord. These two desires aren’t mutually exclusive, but the balance is a difficult thing to ascertain.
While I wish we could have daily conversations about the matters closest to their hearts or the questions they really want answered, I also have a curriculum to follow. We need to take quizzes and tests. I am required to give them assignments and to grade their work. Yet, somehow, in the midst of the formal education, I am also supposed to provide an education of the heart.
How? I’m uncertain. I know it sometimes happens when their sincere questions spring from the topics at hand. Or during unplanned times of heart sharing and depth. The Holy Spirit will surprisingly show up and elevate my lesson to something far beyond what I could do on my own.
I want to answer all of their questions about the Catholic Church and Jesus Christ. Sometimes they don’t know how to phrase the questions or are uninterested in engaging in a conversation that may challenge their status quo. Despite my desires to help them encounter the Lord, I cannot manufacture an encounter in a 50-minute class period. I attempt to provide opportunities and share experiences I have had, yet with 25-30 students in a class, I am unable to personally reach each person as they need to be reached. Continue reading “To Make People Fall in Love with Jesus”→
It was cold and we were all bundled up, but I made a concentrated effort to not mention the coldness. I had only been outside for a few moments and this man had no home to seek refuge in against the frigid weather. My perspective of the cold was altered in the presence of a man who stood before me after successive days on the streets.
Tony was tall and kind. In situations where he easily could have been bitter, he chose to not be. I was with a group of pro-life university students and he never once made me feel privileged or self-indulged. One Saturday, a student bought Tony a coffee and I watched him graciously accept it, even as his cold hands shakily caused the coffee to spill on his fingers. My face was etched with the concern and sadness I felt as I watched the scene unfold, but Tony sought to comfort me in this situation. He told me to not be sad because even in his difficult situation he was still happy. That momentary exchange made such a significant impression on me.
In a couple of hours, I would return to my dorm room after a filling breakfast and Tony didn’t attempt to guilt me for the luxuries I had in life. Rather, he came to the cold streets of Pittsburgh to spend time with us. He accepted money or coffees when offered, but he said he didn’t like to look homeless. We wouldn’t see him pushing a cart around or laden down with luggage. Dressed in the warm clothes appropriate for the cold, he didn’t want to accept extra things that he would have to carry with him during the day.
Tony was the first human face I saw of homeless in a personal way. I heard him talk about how fearful he had been early one morning when the intense cold made it difficult for him to get out of the chair in an abandoned house that he had accidentally fallen asleep in. The reality of not being able to move for a couple of hours shook him as he faced the reality that he might die alone in the cold someday. Yet he was also very happy and enjoyed being around a bunch of young college students. He wasn’t near us because we always gave him things or because we were popular in the area. Tony enjoyed being with us and some of the students became his friends. Continue reading “What That Homeless Man Needs Is What I Need”→
I’ve wanted to write a book for years. When I was in first grade, I wrote a short story for a contest and I won. Several years ago, I went back and read the story, expecting it to be mildly phenomenal. Instead, I was surprised that it wasn’t that good at all. I basically wrote a story about a typical day in my life, some of it was true and some of it was embellished. In eighth grade, my English teacher really complimented my writing and encouraged me to start submitting articles for the town paper. Apparently, there was space to fill, since the next couple editors of the paper allowed me to submit articles periodically for the next few years.
Over the years, I have wondered what the Lord desired to do with this desire of mine to write. This blog started mostly as a way for me to process the new world of teaching high school students. Now it is a place where I reflect and share on a number of different thoughts and feelings that come up. Yet, still, I find a longing to write a book.
When I was younger, I assumed it would be a fictional novel. Since I lived on a steady diet of novels, I figured my love for them would bring about writing one of them. As time has passed, I’ve found myself wanting to write something nonfiction, but unable to quite put my finger on what it is I want to write.
This indecision is something that is familiar in my life. I need only glance around my room to see partially finished books, half-made plans, and a to-do list that goes back months. My desire to leap forward is tempered by a desire to not fail, to do the right thing at the right moment always. Yet I read the books or blogs that other people have written and while I enjoy them, I cannot help but think, I could write something like that.Continue reading “To Write”→
If you think I am a perfect person, this must be the first blog post you have ever read. That concept, that idea of perfection will be quickly shattered. And it should be, because it isn’t true.
Not long ago, I found myself in a situation where I would need to work at something with someone I didn’t know well. A few minutes into the encounter, prideful me thought, “I think this person can really learn a lot from me.” God is probably amused and a bit horrified by my internal dialogue. I didn’t mean it in a bad way and I didn’t think I was their savior by any means. In the moment, I simply thought this person could learn something from me.
However, an hour or so later, I came to the realization that actually that person might have a lot to teach me. In light of that awakening, I found my initial perception incredibly smug and prideful. It was a lesson in humility, one where I was able to see some of my flaws and shortcomings without there being a great embarrassing display.
The Lord is generous to me. He is quite generous in showing me the areas of my life that aren’t what they should be. He is also gracious, because He often makes these revelations in small, simple ways. A few words, a brief encounter, or a fleeting thought garners deeper insight upon later reflection.
“I don’t think God would send someone who loves Him and follows Him to Hell.”
A conversation about exorcisms somehow veered into a free-for-all rapid fire of questions. As I’ve said before, though, if my students ask questions about the faith and they are interested, I have a difficult time telling them no.
“I don’t believe the Church teaches that,” I told the student.
“But if I don’t go to church on Sunday, the Church says that is a mortal sin. I don’t believe that if I love God and He loves me that He would send me to Hell for missing one Mass on Sunday.”
Understandably, this is a question I hear quite often. My students find it difficult to accept that missing Mass is a grave sin. They aren’t skipping it maliciously, I believe, and so I get where they are coming from with their confusion. Usually, it is out of laziness or boredom or busyness.
So I did what I generally do–I tried my best to explain why the Church teaches what she does.
“I think if we understood what the Mass was, then we wouldn’t ask this question. God is asking us to go to Mass to encounter Him and receive Him. He is offering His very self to us out of love. And if we love Him, I don’t think we would say that we aren’t able to come for one hour once a week. The bare minimum in having a relationship with the Lord is this one hour. We couldn’t say no to encountering the Lord and letting Him live in us if we truly loved Him.”
The answer seemed to touch a chord and we moved on to other questions.
“Honey, I love you, really, I do. But being married to you is a burden.”
My students were asked to imagine that a husband came home and said this to his wife. Already, there was a bit of disdain in their eyes for the husband.
“Oh, I am? How am I so burdensome?”
“Well, I love you, but sometimes I want to do things and I can’t because of you.”
“There are a lot of attractive and smart women I run into at work and I can’t date any of them. Sometimes I want to just catch a plane and fly to Florida for a week, but I would have to tell you first and you might want to come. You are interesting and wonderful and I love you, but sometimes marriage is restrictive.”
Each time I told this to my students, it worked. They did not think highly of the husband and were, rightfully so, annoyed with his list of burdens.
Wow, they gasp, he is the worst.
But aren’t these things true? I asked my students. He isn’t allowed to date other women, is he?
No, they reply.
Shouldn’t he talk to his wife about flying off to Florida for a week before he does it?
Yes, they say.
So what is wrong about what he is saying? Why shouldn’t he say these things when they are true?
After very little discussion, because it seems so obvious, they tell me that he has the wrong perspective. He isn’t focusing on his relationship with his wife, but simply all the things he cannot do because of his relationship with her.
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI
You are correct, I tell them, the husband focuses only on the restrictions of this relationship instead of the love he has for her.
For me, the first activity of every new school year involves helping facilitate a leadership day for seniors. They listen to a variety of talks, attend Mass, eat pizza, and write a senior prayer. Unlike previous years, this year I was responsible for guiding the twenty-five or so students in constructing this prayer.
At the beginning, we brainstormed how we wanted to address God. Then, we made a list of what would make up the bulk of our prayer: thanksgiving, petition, adoration, etc. Finally, the part that took the longest was organizing these ideas and deciding which ones were closest to their hearts.
When you are dealing with twenty-five individuals, it takes a while to figure out what is most important. During this time of discussion, they were attempting to narrow down what matters to them specifically as a class.
Then, this brief exchange happened and it struck me as pretty important.
Spoiler: If you haven’t read The Shack by Wm. Paul Young and don’t want to know anything about it that might take away from your initial experience, please be aware this post might not be for you. I discuss elements of the story, but I don’t give it all away.
I recently finished reading The Shack and I found it to be, as a whole, a beautiful story of how God desires to enter into our most painful situations and transform them by His presence. The way Young depicts the interactions within the Trinity caused me to stop and consider more deeply the perfect communion found within God Himself. In fact, as soon as I finished The Shack, I picked up Fr. Michael Gaitley’s book The ‘One Thing’ is Three: How the Most Holy Trinity Explains Everything. After reading about the communion of the Trinity in intimate detail, I was filled with a desire to learn more about our Trinitarian God.
The general story line of The Shack is about a man named Mack who has experienced great suffering and loss. He receives a note from God asking him to come to an old shack to spend the weekend with Him. When Mack does this, he enters into an incredible encounter with the living God and grows in an understanding of each person of the Trinity.
The main aspects of Young’s story I found to be edifying. It was simply some of the side details or conversations that made me wonder if he was critiquing Christianity as a whole or specifically Catholicism. Or, at least, his perception of what the Catholic Church teaches or is. There are a handful of elements that struck me as a direct rebuke of Catholicism. The two I want to focus on are ritual and institution.
There is a beautiful section where God involves Mack in “devotions” after a shared meal. Rather than producing a Bible to read from, Mack is surprised when Jesus reaches across the table, takes the Father’s hands, and speaking honest, loving words of adoration. It reinforces the reality that devotion is entering into a loving relationship with God, not something that is merely rote or filled with words. After another meal, Mack expects the same thing to happen.
“What about devotion?” asked Mack.
“Nothing is a ritual, Mack,” said Papa…
What is so wrong with something being a ritual? There are a couple other places where ritual is portrayed as unsavory and in conflict with God’s desires. I could agree with this if ritual meant that something was insincere or done merely out of habit. However, that is not what a ritual has to be. Sometimes rituals are the best way to enter into something that is far above us. Like the Mass or marriage, we follow a religious ritual because we are connected to something bigger than just ourselves.
The Catholic Church is known for saying the same Mass over and over and over again. My students will sometimes question why they need to go to Mass each week when it is simply the same thing they heard the previous week. But if we understand the sacrifice of the Holy Mass as it actually is–the priest in persona Christi re-presenting the sacrifice of Jesus at the Last Supper and consummated on the cross at Calvary–then we would realize that nothing else would be a fitting memorial.
Yes, it is a ritual. But Jesus also said “Do this in remembrance of me.” Why reinvent the wheel every Sunday when Jesus has given us His very self and asks us to share in this sacrificial meal? More than new praise and worship songs (which I appreciate in a specific context), the Mass prayed throughout the ages unites us to the earliest followers of Jesus Christ. This isn’t a bad type of ritual, but rather a ritual that unites Christians across space and time.Continue reading “The Shack: A Catholic Critique”→
I know I have read this story before, but for some reason when I was reviewing this with my students, my heart got caught on a previously unnoticed section.
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying,and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem;and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.”But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 9: 10-17)
The Lord calls his name and he responds.
Ananias seems as though he is used to hearing the voice of the Lord.
I was struck by this response as I spoke to my students about how differently the Lord spoke to Saul and Ananias. Saul sees a light and falls to the ground, blinded. A voice from the heavens speaks, telling him to go to Damascus. Yet when Jesus speaks to Ananias, there seems to be nothing dramatic about it. Ananias hears his name being called and responds simply, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord tells him to go encounter Saul, and Ananias asks a question to be certain this is what the Lord wants. For the modern Christian, it might seem a bit humorous that Ananias is completely unfazed by the call to go lay his hands on someone so as to bring about their healing. That is nothing compared to encountering a man who has been persecuting his Christian brethren. Despite questions and concern, Ananias does as the Lord asks.
I want that ability to clearly hear the Lord’s voice and that willingness to do whatever He desires.
Do you see what the Lord does with this man’s “Yes”? Ananias is the one who lays his hands on Saul’s head, causing his sight to be restored. The Holy Spirit comes upon Saul and soon after he is baptized. In a matter of days, Saul has completely changed his direction and Ananias played a significant role in helping Saul encounter the Lord.
I find it interesting that Jesus does not speak to Saul again and heal him of blindness. Instead, He works through other people. People, hopefully, like you and me who are striving to hear His voice. Paul goes on to become one of the greatest missionaries and evangelizers in the early Church. Thousands of miles are traveled by foot and boat in order to proclaim the Gospel. Ananias laid his hands on this man and implored the Holy Spirit to come make His home in him. That is a significant role for someone who is referenced briefly in Scripture.
Never underestimate how the Lord can use you to bring about healing and conversion in other people. I challenged my students to encounter the Lord and then to let their lives be a living witness of that encounter. Because our encounter with the Lord changes other people. When my older sisters became more interested in their faith, it influenced the entire family. As I have interacted with people on fire for the Lord, it has caused a deeper desire to burn within me. The Lord seeks us out and encounters us personally, but He often does much of His work through other people.