Monday, June 28, 2010

Finding Heaven

“What is heaven?” the little girl asked, big blue eyes staring at the Sunday school teacher with curious wonder.

“It is paradise.” The teacher answered.

The little girl pondered her answer while twirling the lace on her shoe. She looked up again with the same curious look, “What is paradise?”

“It is a place where everyone is happy and has everything they ever wanted.” The teacher seemed pleased with her answer as a smile started to spread across the little girl’s face.

The girl’s eyes began to dance as she imagined the dolls, doll houses, and endless doll playthings. “What a wonderful God we have!” thought the little girl. She couldn’t wait to get to heaven.

As I grew older, I learned that heaven is where God is, and when we get there, we will spend eternity worshipping Him. The little girl in me couldn’t help but be disappointed that there would be no time for dolls. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the idea that just worshipping God would be paradise. I loved God. I wanted to meet God. I wanted to live forever in heaven. But really, spending forever worshipping Him? Was that my destiny? Was that paradise?

In the Baptist Church where I was raised, there was a lot of preachin’ about heaven and hell. My Daddy likes to call them “fire-and-brimstone” sermons. At the end of these sermons, we were pretty much scared to death of hell or anything we could do to earn a place there. Those of us who were saved were inspired to evangelize to those who had not yet committed their lives to Christ and were in danger of spending eternity in hell. If you were not saved, then after listening to these sermons, you were inspired to sprint to the altar in order to avoid a “fire-and-brimstone” destiny. So, growing up, I had a fear of hell and thus desired heaven as a way to avoid it. I knew that heaven would be great, but I just didn’t have any idea what it would be like. Worshipping God forever wasn’t a concept I was mature enough to grasp.

But now that I’m older, and somewhat more mature, the concept of heaven seems quite different to me. It has helped because I have walked a little farther along in my journey with the Lord. I’ve had experiences with Him I can’t quite explain. I have had moments with Him I don’t quite understand. But they have all been wrapped up with this overwhelming Divine Love that I am completely unworthy of feeling. With each new step I take, I fall completely head-over-heels in love with Jesus all over again. Now that I have been nourished by the waters of life, I can’t seem to leave the river. I just want to live on the river bank and bathe in the Divine Love that holds me together. I imagine that heaven is where I will experience this divine love with all my senses, completely adore its beautiful source and wholly give myself over to Him forever.

So, now I think I get it. The desire for heaven is the Father’s goal for our lives. He doesn’t want us to desire it because it is better than hell, or because it is paradise. He wants us to desire it because it is where He is. To desire heaven is to desire the presence of God. Our purpose in life is not to get to heaven, but to grow in love for God so that heaven, or being in the presence of God, is the desire of every fiber in our being. He longs for us to grow in His divine love so that we willingly give up our lives to Him just as he gave up His life for us. And when we let go of ourselves and replace the empty space with His love, mercy, and will, we will find ourselves in that place where our hearts beat for Him and our soul’s deepest, overwhelming desire is to bask in the glory of God forever.

And who knows, when I finally get to heaven, maybe Jesus will play dolls with me after all.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Driving From Distraction

A jack hammer is the best description I can find for the sound that roused me awake. I glanced at the clock- 5:30. Why would they be jack hammering the alley outside my bedroom window at 5:30 in the morning? Then I got that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I stumbled out of bed and turned off the air conditioner. The hammering stopped along with my heart. I fell back on the bed. As I lay there wondering what in the world could be wrong with the condenser, the promise I made the night before came floating to the front of my mind- I wasn’t going to let anything distract me from doing my prayers and quiet time this morning. Lately, I have been surrendering to distraction and skipping this vital beginning to my day. Little did I know the challenge I would face on this particular morning.

My distracted nature drives me crazy. My mind is in constant motion. While I am working on one task, my brain is busy planning its assault on the next task. I am always concerned about managing what little time I have in the best way possible. I usually cannot watch TV or sit through movies because the lists in my mind of what I could be doing haunt me until I get up to do them. And, since it is my nature as a woman, I tend to put what I need to do for myself at the end of the list. When I am finally alone and ready to be quiet or prayerful or even asleep, relaxing my mind takes effort. Once my eyes close, the events of the day play over and over like a broken record. And before I know it, my mind is miles away from where it should be usually robbing me of prayer or sleep. Needless to say, not only can my distracted nature be a stumbling block to my spiritual growth but it also threatens to rob me of the joy of life in general.

I get particularly upset with my distracted nature when I am at mass. Mass is a place where I go to meet Jesus. Our Eucharistic Lord becomes present among us and that thought makes my spirit soar. Mass should be a place where I can let go of all the stressors of life and just bask in the glory of God. Unfortunately, I am most distracted at mass. I am worried about the noise my children are making. I am worried about the world that is waiting for me after mass. I am worried about all the burdens I want to lay on the altar. And sometimes, I am so distracted that I forget to put them there. I feel particularly guilty when I receive the Eucharist in a distracted state of mind. I try to focus but there are some days when my child is throwing a fit all the way to the front of the line and I just need to get him out of there. And then the guilt I feel for not savoring the experience or not fully appreciating the sacrifice the Lord is making for me robs me of joy. During the times when I put the distractions away and am truly present at mass, it is a glorious experience. I wish that I could do it every time.

Receiving the Eucharist is the high light of my Christian experience. When I am completely present in the moment, my experience with the Lord is extraordinary. I can feel his blood coursing through my veins. I can feel the warmth of his life in me. At that moment, His presence in me is all that matters. Before I became Catholic, I felt a little left out that I couldn’t share in the Eucharist. After I was received into the church, I understood why they made me wait. I needed to fully understand and appreciate what was happening. This understanding is one of the things that makes the moment so powerful. When you are received into the church, you are forever committed to the Lord. You are part of the body of Christ. Christ lives in you and through you. The commitment a Catholic makes to the Lord is similar to a marriage commitment. And meeting Jesus at the table and sharing in the Eucharist is the culmination of that commitment. It is our communion with Him. It is how He touches us from Heaven.

I think there are many Catholics who are like me- distracted. Whether it is they are distracted by their own lives or things that are going on in the Church. Some are distracted by a past hurt or wrong doing. Others are distracted by temptations or burdens of this world. And just like my experience, these distractions rob them of their special moment with Jesus.

My brothers and sisters, we need to rise to the challenge. We need to set our distractions aside and be present with our Eucharistic Lord. We need to let Him fill us. We need to let Him touch us with His love. Distracted or not, He gives us His heart. It’s our choice to be present with Him and feel the life and love flowing from His heart. We should come to the table with eager anticipation. We should come to the table completely focused on His beautiful sacrifice to us. We should come to the table empty of ourselves so He can fill us to the brim with His divine joy and love. He is waiting and hoping we will come.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Living With Passion

I heard a wise father once say “If I can just instill passion in my children’s heart for their faith and their God, then the rest will come.” He is right. Facilitating the desire for God is our vocation as parents. And there is no better way to facilitate that desire than to model our passion for God to our children. Sharing our passion with our children shows them who we really are and what we really value. Our true hearts are reflected in our passion. Ultimately, our children will learn that passion is what people seek. Because discovery of our passion is where we find our true selves. Living with passion gives our lives purpose and our souls peace.

Catholics call Jesus’ last day on this earth His passion. And it’s because His willing death is a true reflection of His heart which burns with great divine love for mankind. Love is Jesus’ passion and He showed us the boundless depths of himself and of His passion by willingly giving up His unblemished life for love of our unworthy souls. Jesus models passion for us just as we should model it for our children.

I have thought that I have found my passion at different points in my life. First, it was music. Then it was teaching. Of course I am very passionate about my family. But this week I think I found my true burning passion. I have been trying to put my finger on it since I was a teenager with little success. I now know that my heart was still forming and you have to have heart before you can have passion. As I reflect on all the moments that led me to my God, and then to the Catholic Church and see them in the light of the events of this week, it all makes sense. Everything ties so perfectly together and has brought me to this moment of discovery.

I think I can safely say that I had a very different experience growing up in the Southern Baptist Church than many of my Catholic brothers and sisters. The focus of my spiritual upbringing was on a personal relationship with Jesus. It was discussed constantly. We were encouraged to talk to Jesus, to turn to him in our hour of need, to celebrate with him in our hour of triumph, and to love him with all of our being. I was taught a simple faith devoid of all the rich history and tradition. Our only focus was to discover the love the Lord had for us and then to love Him back. It was a great experience and a vital part of my spiritual journey. Although I am somewhat jealous of the knowledge “cradle Catholics” have of the church, I wouldn’t trade my upbringing in the Baptist Church for anything. It was in this church where Jesus found me, watched me grow, challenged me, loved me and called me to Himself.

Walking away from the Baptist church hurt. My faith was challenged on many levels. It was like leaving home knowing you are not welcome back. Even though I know if I walked back into a Baptist church today they would welcome me with open arms, I still feel like I can’t go back. I left because my faith was challenged and the church of my childhood could not provide answers. Jesus placed people in my life that could answer my questions and light the path to the Catholic Church. When I arrived in the Catholic Church, my faith was still challenged. The Catholic Church was very different from faith in which I was raised. For a long while, it felt like I had no home. I was that weird Catholic who prayed to Jesus in my own words. Jesus wasn’t distant to me like He was to many of my Catholic friends. Many of those friends disconnected their faith from their everyday life. I was confused by that and I missed sharing my faith journey with my brothers and sisters in Christ. For a number of years, my life in the Catholic Church was lonely. But I couldn’t leave it. Jesus was there. I was hungry for the Eucharist. I was lonely for community but filled with my Lord.

Then I went on the CRHP(Christ Renews His Parish) retreat in my community. And I found the people who wanted to know and did know the Lord like I did. I discovered that I was not alone in the Church. I found the other weird Catholics and I couldn’t have been happier. Once again, I could share my journey with my brothers and sisters in Christ. I could sing with them, worship with them, and learn with them. But what I was most excited for is that I could pray with them. And I could ask them to pray for me.

While I was praising God for this gift of Christian community, my heart ached for my catholic brothers and sisters who lacked this personal relationship with Jesus. I have been privy to several conversations recently where it was admitted that the Catholic Church has failed to instill this desire for passion in at least the past two to three generations. Although the Lord touches us through the Eucharist, Catholics have not been encouraged to seek Him out with their hearts. The effect of this lack of evangelization by the Church to its own family of believers is still evident in the faith of many Catholics today.

This week, I had the pleasure of being on a mission. I have been on a core team that brought a Redemptorist Priest and Lay missionary from the Sacred Heart Apostolate to our parish community. The purpose of the mission is to begin a new ministry where families will enthrone Jesus’ Sacred Heart in their homes and lives. Now here is the exciting part- by enthroning Jesus in your home, you are engaging him in a personal relationship. There it is. There is the answer to my aching heart. Jesus set this up so perfectly.

I was brought up in an environment where I cultivated a personal, heart to heart relationship with Jesus. That relationship was culminated when I was received into the Catholic Church- a choice I made through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. In the Catholic Church, I encountered many Catholics who did not have this personal relationship with Christ. I was lonely. I was sad for them. Little did I realize that Jesus was forming my heart during this time. When I was ready, he gave me the community I so desperately needed and desired. He ignited a burning love in my heart for Him and His community. In this small way, He made my heart like His heart.

And then He called me. I was kneeling in the fourth row. It was the second night of the mission- the night where everyone is invited to venerate the cross and then go to reconciliation. Because I was in the fourth row, I had no idea how many people were in the church. For a church of our size, 50-70 people usually turn out for special events and we were hoping for such a turn out. I was so blessed to see over 230 of my brothers and sisters in Christ walk down the aisle one at a time, kiss the cross and then happily stand in very long lines for confession. My heart expanded with joy. I felt as if I were in the middle of 230 celebrations of the prodigal son coming home. I felt as if I were seeing this spectacular event through the eyes of Jesus whose joy overtook every ounce of my being. The call was very clear. Promoting a personal heart to heart relationship with Jesus to my brothers and sisters in Christ is my passion. It is the burning desire of my heart- the heart the Lord has spent 32 years forming in me.

For now, my call is to my parish community. I am called to promote this ministry. I am called to evangelize my brothers and sisters and invite them to know the Lord with their hearts. I am called to outwardly model this heart to heart relationship in my everyday life. I am called to fervent prayer for my brothers and sisters. By living this call, I am finally living with passion. And the endless joy and love placed in my heart will be the fuel for the passionate fire that burns first for my Lord and then for my brothers and sisters in Christ whom the Lord loves more than human hearts can imagine.