To Write

To Write

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”

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A Transforming Perspective

A Transforming Perspective

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.

He crushes me slowly, in a beautiful way.  Continue reading “A Transforming Perspective”

If We Understood the Mass

If We Understood the Mass

“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.

Students are prone to question why we have to go to Mass and adults are more prone to critique the Mass itself.   Continue reading “If We Understood the Mass”

Honey, I love you, but being married to you is a burden

Honey, I love you, but being married to you is a burden

“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.”
“Like what?”
“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.

But isn’t this sometimes what we do with God? Continue reading “Honey, I love you, but being married to you is a burden”

“Guys, remember, this prayer is about us.”

“Guys, remember, this prayer is about us.”

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.

One student said, “Guys, remember, this prayer is about us.”  And while I knew what the person meant, I replied, “Actually, the prayer is about God.” Continue reading ““Guys, remember, this prayer is about us.””

The Shack: A Catholic Critique

The Shack: A Catholic Critique

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”

A Little More Like Ananias

A Little More Like Ananias

I want to respond to the Lord like Ananias did.

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.

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(Image source)

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.

And that is what blows my mind. Continue reading “A Little More Like Ananias”

Maybe Friendship Could Change the World

Maybe Friendship Could Change the World

Not too long ago, I went out for supper with a friend.  There were couples and families out at the restaurant, but I was struck by the groups of women there.  One long table was filled with women who appeared to be out celebrating some event.  But there were at least two other booths of women and it made my heart glad to see them there.

Between bites of food and conversation, I would glance over at the booths of women.  They were already seated by the time we got there and, after we had a leisurely meal, they were still there when we left.  Perhaps it seems strange, but seeing these groups gave me encouragement.  What they were doing was simple: it was a handful of women out for food and drinks.  I never saw them photograph themselves or their food.  Instead, they were talking and listening to one another.  I couldn’t hear their conversation and I didn’t want to, yet it was obvious that it wasn’t superficial banter.  Different ladies would speak and the rest would listen intently.  It was obvious that they were drawn together by bonds of trust and friendship.

Did they speak about work successes or any difficulties involved?  Did they discuss dating relationships or family matters?  Were they discussing ideas or the state of world affairs?  I don’t know, but I am convinced they were discussing matters that they held close to their hearts.

I will never argue that I am the best at maintaining or building friendships, but I know that true, authentic friendships add a richness to life.  While I had friends in high school, I think my first experience of deep friendships happened at college.  I’m not one to have lots and lots of friends or share deeply with many people, but I found a great joy in entering into intimate friendship with people who pursued the same values I did. Continue reading “Maybe Friendship Could Change the World”

Pausing for Perspective

Pausing for Perspective

Walking out of the school building last week, I took in the afternoon weather.  It was overcast and wanted to rain.  Part of me was a little annoyed that it wasn’t a sunny winter afternoon.  Although it was warmer than a typical January day, it was a bit bleak.  Yet before I could be too down about it, I unexpectedly thought, “If I were in England, this would feel like a wonderful day.”

For a moment, I took in the cool air and imagined traipsing around London.  The cloudy sky seemed to fit perfectly for a stroll down the streets of London and seeing the sites.  If I were in London, I wouldn’t sit in a hotel room and be annoyed that it wasn’t sunny.  I would step out with an umbrella and soak in the delight of being able to explore a new town.  In fact, the cool air and the cloudy sky might even seem to add to the romance of the excursion.

It is incredible what a change in perspective can do.  On an afternoon in South Dakota, the weather seemed to be rather unremarkable, bothersome even.  Yet if I pictured myself somewhere else, be it the English countryside or a pub in Dublin, it suddenly seemed to add to the beauty of the situation.  I think there is something about the unfamiliar and the novel that makes us more prone to find it enjoyable.  The same thing in an everyday setting is easily overlooked or forgotten.

I’ve experienced this stark difference several times in my life.  The easiest examples are from when I’ve been traveling.  When I studied abroad in Austria, I had to walk a couple miles to the train station every time I wanted to explore Europe.  It is amazing how invigorating it felt to strap on a backpack and trudge through the snow, headed to someplace completely unexplored.  I’ve spent my whole life living in a state that experiences cold winters and sufficient snowfall, but there was something about an Austrian winter that was exhilarating.

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Or there was the time that I went to Honduras for a mission trip.  There was something soul-satisfying about waking up in the early morning and stepping outside to hear the birds chirping.  In those moments, there was some indefinable joy and sensation.  To this day, on specific spring or summer mornings, I can go outside and there is something “Honduran” about the atmosphere.

These moments of travel and exploration are times where I have experienced what it means to be fully in the present.  It happens in ordinary life, too, though not nearly as often.   Continue reading “Pausing for Perspective”

The Best Defense is Encountering Love

The Best Defense is Encountering Love

You can, in the broadest terms, call it “Catholic culture.”  However it’s described, though, it’s not something you simply argue yourself into.  Rather, it’s something you experience aesthetically as well as intellectually, with the emotions as well as the mind, through friendships and worship and experiences-beyond-words as well as through arguments and syllogisms.

“Letters to a Young Catholic” by George Weigel

Something I am intent on drilling into my students this semester is that Christianity is necessarily a life of encounter.  It is the tremendous beauty of being able to experience an authentic and lived relationship with Christ while also delving into the rich intellectual tradition of the Church.  Catholicism is chock-full of the “both/and” that makes life so simple and yet so deep.

I teach high school Theology to sophomores and seniors, making it somewhat safe to assume that I am not an advocate of an anti-intellectual, touchy-feely Christianity.  Specifically, one of my courses is apologetics, which is teaching how to defend the faith against attacks.  And there are many, many attacks launched against the Church in every age, no less in this one.  Defending the faith, though, is not merely done through well-chosen words or precisely articulated statements.  These are helpful, but much of the battle is done through actions.  If my students do not love the Church, they will be far less inclined to defend or understand Her.

I am well aware that the love I have in my heart for the Catholic Church is not the norm.  My students need to encounter more than the beauty of truth to be convinced.  I read the Church’s teachings and my heart stirs with the acknowledgement that these are profound truths.  Often when my students hear the Church’s teachings, they hear how their freedoms are being minimized or that they are being told what not to do.  However, if they love the Church, they will see that She is a mother caring for and protecting Her children, even if they do not always understand.

This is where the necessity of encounter comes in.  Catholicism, in Our Lord’s great wisdom, is a faith filled with the tangible.  We hear the words of absolution at Confession, we feel (and smell) the oils at Baptism and Confirmation that claim us as members of the Church.  The incense, like our prayers, rises up to the Heavens as we adore Our Lord in the Eucharist.  On pilgrimage, we travel to the places where the bones of the Apostles and saints of the Church rest.  Oddly, we touch our rosaries and prayer cards to their tombs, praying that we will follow the Lord’s will as radically as they did.  We light candles before altars, hoping that our intentions will be continually presented to Our Lord’s throne.  As George Weigel says throughout Letters to a Young Catholic, there is a grittiness in Catholicism.  In this book, he also says the following:

Catholicism does not rest on a pious myth, a story that floats away from us the more we try to touch it.  Here, in the scavi [excavations under St. Peter’s], we’re in touch with the apostolic foundations of the Catholic Church.  And those foundations are not in our minds.  They exist, quite literally, in reality.  Real things happened to real people who made real, life-and-death decisions–and staked their lives–not on stories or fables but on what they had come to know as the truth.

To be Catholic, George Weigel argues and I concur, means to live in reality.  And as someone who so often feels that people think my ideals mean that I don’t live in reality, that is uplifting to hear.  Being Catholic means living in the greatest love story while also fighting the greatest battle of all time, primarily because it transcends time.  As a romantic with more than a touch of stubbornness, these intertwining elements make the Church my perfect home.  It is not merely a battle of the wits, arguing and defending a supernatural institution to a world rooted in earthly affairs.  It is also, and primarily, an encounter with Love, being transformed by Love, seeking to enter into Love.  If love is not at the heart, all is meaningless and in vain.   Continue reading “The Best Defense is Encountering Love”