Friday, November 9, 2012

Crazy Lovin'

So, I have to admit that I am not the same woman I was in my twenties.  When I was in my twenties, I remember looking at the older adults and thinking, “I’m not going to be like them.  I’m always going to be hip, stylish and fun!”  Well, I was wrong.  The other day, I shockingly realized that I am one of them. In fact, I could be there fearless leader.  When did I grow up and how could I have been such a silly and na├»ve twenty-something?

Do you remember those reality make over shows?  I felt bad for the women who when on those makeover shows.  I mean, really.  How embarrassing!  Her friends and family think her personal style and upkeep is in need of such dire help that they call a reality TV show.  And then the show “surprises” her by telling her on national TV how bad her problem is.  Of course the payoff is the make over and shopping spree.  When I was younger, I always felt sorry for that poor woman.  But now, 12 years, one husband, two kids and a career later, I am hoping someone calls one of those shows for me.  It would be so nice for someone to tell me what to buy and then give me the money to buy it.  I remember when I loved to go shopping.  I loved trying on clothes.  I loved finding a good deal and wearing the latest styles.  Now, all I want to do is get in, and get out with something that fits and is as cheap as possible.  And if it takes me longer than 10 minutes, I am instantly irritated.  How did this happen?  When did I morph into the lady I always felt sorry for?

My taste in TV has also changed.  I used to watch network TV, religiously.  I was always hooked to the most popular TV show and could carry on a decent conversation about TV around the water cooler.  Now, in a rare moment when I actually watch TV, I enjoy Swamp People, Duck Dynasty, and anything on the History channel.  I haven’t a clue what they show on ABC or CBS.  Oh, and movies?  Forget it.  Somehow, my attention span has been drastically reduced.  There is rarely a movie that I can sit through without going stir crazy or falling asleep.   I sometimes wonder if an adult can develop ADD.

So what has changed over the past 12 years?  Well, I think I can easily blame this on my kids.  Yep, it is definitely their fault.  It has been 12 years since I have been in a dressing room all by myself or even to the bathroom by myself.  It has been 12 years since I have been able to watch anything on TV without interruptions.  It has been 12 years since I have been able to walk leisurely through a department store or a mall.  It’s been 12 years since my husband and I have really, truly slept a good, solid, peaceful 8 hours in a row.  These kids definitely move you from a serene place where you feel like you have control over your surroundings to a place where your world is turned on its head at least 387 times a day.  That’s got to do something to a person’s sanity.

Yep, crazy is a good word to describe what these kids do to you.  They eat the food off your plate, paint your walls with sharpie markers, turn your last pair of black pumps into matching battle ships in the wading pool, teach you the value of having the poison control number glued to the phone, test the structural integrity of all your furniture, and are sure to teach you a lesson about “borrowing” your Mother-in-law’s Lexus without her knowledge.  So, I guess it is rather remarkable that I am not completely bonkers.  Well, I’m not sure I can say that with conviction.  Let’s just say that I haven’t been institutionalized…yet. 

And, without a doubt, I would do this “kid thing” all over again.  You see, that my friends, is proof of God’s existence.  Because even though they have turned my life upside down and inside out, I love the little boogers more than I can express in words.  It’s love when you see the beauty in the picture your toddler drew on the wall with your set of colored sharpies.  It’s love when you see the ingenuity in your little son’s little mind when he figured out the black pumps would make the best boats because they didn’t have holes like the pink ones.  It’s love when you walk into the living room and are truly enamored with the complexity of the fort your son created with all the clean and previously folded laundry.  Yes, my friends, that kind of love has to come from something greater than me.  That kind of love is divine. 

God gives us the gift of children to reveal to us the nature of who he is.  Many times over, the bible calls humanity the “children of God.”  And if we really think about it, in our experiences with our children, we see that God is showing us how much he loves.  We love our children without hesitation, through tough moments, unconditionally, and forever.  And so it is with God.  St. Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Now that I am a Mother, I get that.  In fact, I get it more and more each day, every day, and all the live-long day.

So, yes, I am older.  I need a makeover.  I need sleep.  I could use a few dollars in the bank and I probably need more time for myself.  But, I am not in want of love.  And I thank God each day for this great opportunity to know what true love is, how to love and how to be loved- like crazy.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Turning the Tide

Today, I had an interesting conversation with a high school theology teacher.  We talked about teens’ tendency to distance themselves from the Church and how difficult it is to sell them on the idea of organized religion.  Our conversation gravitated towards the viral YouTube video posted last year “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.”  With almost 23 million views, it is easy to conclude that this video resonates with younger generations.  In Lisa Hendey’s session at the University of Dallas Ministry Conference titled “Saints for Slackers, Seekers and Sinners,” she gave some interesting statistics about the state of religion and Catholic Church in our country.  Only 23% of Catholics go to Mass every week.  One-third of adults who are raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic.  According to the Pew Research center, 33% of American adults under 30 describe themselves as having no religious affiliation what so ever.  Of these religiously unaffiliated adults, 68% say they believe in God and 37% consider themselves “spiritual.”  An overwhelming majority say they are not seeking to be affiliated with a religion because “religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”  I don’t know about you, but I find these statistics to be sad and overwhelming.

I’m not a cradle Catholic and I don’t have the experience of growing up in the Catholic Church.  I grew up in a church where a relationship with Jesus was at the heart of everything that was taught and preached.  This environment encouraged me to seek out this relationship and eventually led me to fall head-over-heals in love with the Lord.  My relationship with the Lord filled the God sized hole in my soul and the inner desire for something greater than this world was wholly met in my personal encounters with Jesus.  When I went searching for Jesus outside of the church where I was raised, I landed in the Catholic Church and discovered His presence in the Eucharist.  For me, the Eucharist was the cheese to my macaroni.  Finally, I found Jesus truly present to me in a physical way and he was inviting me to receive his body into mine.  He and I were finally one in body and soul.  This experience is the greatest of my human existence. 

As I have embraced the Catholic faith and community, I realize that I am not normal.  I do not have a normal path into the Church and that provides me with a unique perspective.  I find comfort in the Catholic Church’s history, longevity and endurance.  The Catholic Church is the church founded on the rock of Peter.  This is the church that has endured for 2000 years.  This is the church that has and continues to be the largest distributor of charity in the world.  From the Catholic Church, we have the bible and well-developed Christian theology along with other countless treasures.  And, obviously, the Church’s greatest treasure is Jesus present in the Eucharist.  Therefore, it is hard for me to understand why people choose to step away from it.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I know the people who run the church are not perfect.  In fact, some have erred GREATLY in their personal and professional lives and have hurt others in ways I can’t imagine.  And although that is really terrible and hard to forgive, it doesn't take away from the Lord’s presence in the Church- His presence in the Eucharist.  How can one walk away from the Lord Himself?

I am reading a book called The Holy Longing by Ronald Rohlheiser (1999 by Double Day and Company, Inc.).  He makes a great point about choice.  He says every choice is a renunciation (p. 9).  When we choose something, we are turning our backs on all the other possibilities.  At times, that is why it is so hard for us to choose.  I see this in the teenagers I teach.  And truth be told, I even see it in myself.  I don’t like to make commitments, especially social commitments until the last moment because when I commit, then I am closing the door on all the choices I haven’t even seen yet.  I think this is true for a lot of people my age and younger.  We don’t want to choose because we don’t want to be tied down just in case something better comes along.  I sometimes wonder if our modern culture has perpetuated this behavior.  Because of the progress of technology in the past two centuries, we are connected in ways we haven’t been connected and the choices before us seem endless.  Has this mindset been a factor for the 33% of adults under 30 who do not affiliate with a religion?  Are the endless choices more attractive than choosing a life with Christ and sharing this life with a community?  Do they even know what they are losing by not choosing this life?

The key factor in my own experience with the Catholic faith is the personal relationship I have with Jesus.  I don’t think it would be fulfilling or even possible for me to practice the faith if I did not have this relationship.  I wonder if that is what people who walk away from the Church lack.  Maybe they never developed this relationship.  Maybe they always just “went through the motions” and never made a connection.  I can see how that could make faith meaningless.  What is the point of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist if you are not engaging him in a relationship?  If the Eucharist doesn't mean anything to you, then receiving it can seem rather pointless (although he is still present and bathing you in grace regardless of your lack of faith).   How sad that 77% of Catholics do not have a strong enough relationship with Jesus that they do not hunger for the Eucharist on a weekly basis.

So, what do we do about this?  Where do we begin?  We can view these statistics as a great tragedy or a great opportunity.  In general, I think people are looking for something greater than this world.  They believe in a loving God who offers peace and hope.  But they just don’t know where He is.  There are too many choices, and therefore, renunciations.  And it is hard to see the beauty of the Catholic faith through the lens of this modern culture.  It is a tragedy that so many are looking, but it is also an opportunity.  By living a joy-filled life in the faith, we become instruments of the Holy Spirit.  Christ can reach through our lives to touch other hearts.  The harvest is great and Christ is calling us to be his laborers in the field.  All we have to do is respond to the love He pours into our lives.

In my own ministry with youth, I emphasize two things- they are loved by God just the way they are and that God desires a personal relationship with them- so much so that he sacrificed his life for it- so much so that he continues to make that sacrifice at every Mass so that he can be physically present to them.  If a young person doesn't connect with these two basic truths, then they are more likely to become the 77% of Catholics who don’t go to church, or worse yet, the 33% of adults who do not affiliate with any religion.  Love and relationship with Christ are essential to passing on the faith and helping others find purpose, true joy and happiness.  So, let’s spread the fire by loving as Christ loves and living this joy-filled life in authentic and purposeful ways.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Freedom From Purses

Do you notice the women who come up to receive the Eucharist with their purse?  I have always wondered about that.  It seems to be common practice, but why?  I should probably throw out my disclaimer that I am not a cradle Catholic, so I wonder about weird stuff that normal Catholics probably don’t think twice about.  But, why do they bring their purse to communion?  Are they afraid it will get stolen if they leave in in their seat?  Are they planning to leave right after communion?  Are they just following a common unwritten practice all cradle Catholic women innately have?  I have always been puzzled by it but too afraid to ask one of these women.  It seems kind of rude.  It’s like asking, “Did you really mean to wear that dress to church today?”  Yep, rude.

So, let’s change the subject.  The Pope has declared that this is the year of faith.  As we enter this year, the Lord has really laid the Saints on my heart.  He has challenged me to read their stories and admire their beautiful faith.  And, of course, all this story reading has gotten me thinking about my own faith.  Do I have what it takes?  If I were Stephen, would I have the courage to be stoned to death because I love Jesus?  If I were St. Lawrence, would I have the courage to be cooked alive because I love Jesus?  If I were St. Thomas More, would I proclaim my love for Jesus all the way to the end when they cut off my head?  Do I love Jesus more than my own life?  Do I trust him enough to lay my life at his feet like these martyrs?
Sure, it is easy to say that I do.  I have spent many hours on my knees in surrender.  At every Mass, I lay down my life with the words of the Suscipe.  At the moment, I have given up my career in education for a much less lucrative career in youth ministry.  But I have never been tested like these martyrs were tested.  I do not have to fear for my life simply because I am a Christian.  I am blessed to live in a country where that fear is not a reality.  But what if it was?  What if the Christians in my town were rounded up by a crazy person and threatened with execution if they did not renounce Christ?  What would I do?  Truth be told, I don’t know what I would do.  I am a wife and a mother.  I am a daughter, a sister, an Aunt and a Godmother.  I have family and friends whom I love and people who count on me.  Could I trust them to Jesus and allow myself to be killed rather than renounce my faith and my love for Christ?  Do I trust the Lord that much?  I have ties to this world- strong ties. I have things that I love to do and places I love to go.  I have friends and family who make each day better than the next.   I am blessed beyond measure.  But with those blessings come ties.  Don’t get me wrong, these are good ties, but ties none the less.  

So, now that I work at my church, I have my own small space in the office.  And often, I leave my belongings in there before I go to Mass.  That way, I can be completely hands free and I am not concerned with leaving my stuff.  This experience has been great.  I didn’t realize how much I was distracted by keeping track of my stuff.  There is freedom in coming to Mass without my belongings.  As I have been experiencing Mass with this bit of freedom, I realize that this is what the Martyrs felt- freedom.  They had to.  In order to give their lives as they did, they had to be free from all ties. 

So, how do we get the freedom found in the spirit of a martyr?  We have to trust.  We have to be willing to not be in control of our own lives.  And we also have to be willing to not be in control of the lives of those we love- especially our children.  We have to trust Christ absolutely and completely with EVERYTHING.  There is freedom in that trust.  When we trust Christ like this, then we open ourselves up to His love in new and more profound ways.  This is where the faith of a martyr is found.

So in this year of faith, we need to approach the altar with love AND trust.  We need to trust the Lord as much as we profess to love Him.  When Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, he told them to take nothing for the journey (Matthew 10:5-15).  They didn’t have to worry about keeping track of possessions as they traveled because they left them behind.  They trusted the Lord with all they had and went about to do his will.  This is what we are called to as well- trust the Lord and do His will.  Before we can do His will, we have to let go of our ties and trust.  If we truly love the Lord, then we will.  We can only love the Lord as much as we let go and trust him.  The martyrs show us what it means to completely trust and thus, love.

So faithful Catholic women, let’s leave our purses behind.  (Seriously, leave them at home if you need to.)  Approach the altar with just the clothes on your back and the shoes on your feet.  You don’t need anything more for the journey than an open and trusting heart. Our ties to this world are strong and comfortable.  So, let’s get uncomfortable for the Lord.  In this year of faith, let’s experience the freedom found in absolute trust of the one who has already given us His life.
                “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life….” (Matthew 10:25)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Fear and Joy

The school year has started and so have the faith formation programs.  I coordinate the middle school program at my parish.  I recently took a class on prayer and sacraments for this job.  In this class, we did a lot of praying and sharing about our past prayer experiences.  And that got me thinking about how I got myself all wrapped up in this youth ministry thing.  Yep, it all started with a prayer and I have ended up in a place I never dreamt I would be.

I went on a retreat called Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP).  Great retreat!  If you every have such an opportunity, do not pass it up.  Anyhow, when you go to this retreat, you have the option of being on the team that gives the next CRHP retreat.  And that is where I was.  I was the CRHP weekend coordinator and therefore, I had one of the grave yard shifts for adoration.  But this isn’t probably where I should start.  You would benefit from a little back ground information.

I didn’t grow up in the Catholic Church.  I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church where I was very involved throughout my teenage years.  The church was my second home and my peers and youth ministers were my second family.  Then, my junior year rolled around.  I started asking questions and really challenging the theology of the Baptist church (which is a completely normal thing for a teen to do).  I asked a lot of questions and engaged the youth minister in a few heated debates.  That is when the distancing began and I started slowly walking away.  By the end of my senior year, the adults at the church were done with me as I was done with the Baptist church.  And when I finally left, they didn’t call me to make sure this is what I wanted.  I sent a letter asking to be removed from membership and that was it.  The girl who sang in the choir, sat on the youth council and even lead music in worship services was leaving the church and they didn’t see the need to talk me out of it.  I had to conclude they were happy to see the debater go.  They were tired of their theology being challenged on a weekly basis by a know-it-all teenager.  Imagine that.
So, I carried this hurt around for years.  I never really dealt with it because I concluded it was God’s plan.  God wanted me to experience the fullness of the Catholic faith and made sure all ties were cut from my childhood church.  But after many years of avoiding participation in a community beyond showing up for Mass every once in a while, I had to come face to face with it at CRHP.  If I was going to embrace a community at this retreat, something I desperately needed to do for my own sanity and spiritual growth, then I needed to face the fear of why I wanted to run away.  I had to look at my brokenness and find forgiveness in my heart for the adults who betrayed it.  I was in the middle of this process when I found myself alone with the Blessed Sacrament in the middle of the night.

I was praying for the next step.  I was asking God what he wanted me to do.  Where did he want me to serve?  I was at the end of the CRHP formation process and soon the weekend that my team was facilitating would be over.  Now that I was investing in the community once again, where should I serve and what should I do?  Youth ministry was always something I thought I would never do because of my past and the fact I wasn’t raised in the church.  Not only did I have a falling out with my youth minister that led me to leave my childhood church, but as a convert, I felt like I didn’t know enough about the Catholic faith to teach youth.   Nope, I was too broken and inexperienced for youth ministry and anyplace else seemed like a better fit.  But that is not what the Lord thought.

There I was before the Blessed Sacrament.  I had left my career as a middle school band director the year before and I felt like I was in the position to really lay down my life.  I wasn’t tied to anything professionally.  Serving the Lord was my greatest desire and I was filled with great joy to surrender myself so recklessly.  And that is where I was.  I was surrendering and experiencing this joy when the Lord hit me with a ton of bricks.  He said, “I want you to work in middle school youth ministry.”  All of a sudden, I couldn’t quite catch my breath and I started shaking.  “Really, Lord?  Seriously?”  And, like a paper doll under a ton of bricks, I crumbled.  I started in with the litany of why that wasn’t going to work and how I wasn’t fit for the job.  But He didn’t stop asking.  He wanted me to trust Him because He knew me better than I know myself.  He knew the wounds I carried around, wounds that left lasting scars, and yet he still wanted me to serve in this capacity. He could see something I couldn’t.  So, I surrendered.  And luckily, I pulled myself together just in time for the next holy hour shift to begin and in walks the middle school youth minister.  “Really, Lord?  Seriously?”

I spent the next two years as a volunteer on the core team for the middle school faith formation program.  During holy week of my second year on the team, I felt the Lord calling me again.  My youngest son was just one year away from Kindergarten which meant I needed to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.  Was I going back to teaching or was did I want to change careers?  By this time, I had some experience in youth ministry and I really enjoyed it.  Despite my past experience and my convert status, I fit in well with the youth.  It seemed like the perfect place for me to volunteer.  Actually getting a paying job in the field didn’t seem feasible since I didn’t have the correct degrees and let us not forget that I am not a cradle Catholic.  Anyhow, I remember it so clearly.  Our pastor was preaching on Easter morning and in his homily, he challenged us to participate in the resurrected life of Christ.  In order to do that, we needed to die to ourselves and surrender our lives as Christ did.  And that is when the Lord whispered to me that he wanted me to surrender once again and do the youth ministry thing for real.  Again, ton of bricks, but this time there was an unexplained joy behind them.  I trusted Him so recklessly the first time around and things turned out great.  So, why not?  If it was the Lord’s will, then I would get a job.  If not, then I would continue to volunteer.  It seemed like a win-win situation.

That week, I asked my friend, the middle school youth minister how one would go about seeking a job in youth ministry.  At this time, our youth ministry staff was undergoing some change and little did I know, the parish leadership was restructuring the program.  My friend, the middle school youth minister was discerning if she should step into the newly created Youth Director position.  If she did, who would step into her role?  Who would run the program she poured her heart and soul into for these past few years?  My name popped into her head and later that week, my email popped into her inbox.  Yes, my friends, that is the Holy Spirit at work.  Long story short, here I am in my second year filled with joy doing what the Lord has called me to do.  And in this service, a healing has taken place.  I’m more whole, more complete.  The lasting scars have faded.  Five years ago, if you had told me I would be working in youth ministry, I would have stepped outside to see the flying pigs.  Never did I imagine that this is where I would be.  Never did I imagine I would find such joy in serving the Lord in the one place I most feared.

So, be not afraid.  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” (Proverbs 3:5).  Because, “I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for your woe!  Plans to give you a future full of hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)  And when we trust and place our hope in the Lord, we “will soar as with eagles’ wings; [we] will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint.” (Isaiah 41:31)

All glory be to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Love of a Show

My little son hates Mass.  His 5 year old body and brain just cannot understand why we go to church to sit still and pray.  “Praying is soooooo boring!” he very audibly announces every time we walk in the church.  He is also master of the how-many-songs-are-left-before-it’s-over countdown.   He happily broadcasts it live during Mass every week just in case you care to catch it.  As you can imagine, this isn’t reflecting well on me, a youth minister at the church.  Trying to keep his dislike of Mass under wraps is like trying to hold back frenzied bargain shoppers on the day after Christmas sale.  My only solace is to find another family with loud kids and sit behind them. 

So, when the Feast of the Assumption rolled around, and we were going to attend Mass in the middle of the week (gasp!), I decided to give my youngest some warning to ease the blow as much as possible.  I explained to him that we were going to a very special Mass at church because we were going to celebrate Mary’s assumption into heaven.  Then, I explained that Mary was so special that she didn’t die like people normally do, but instead, God took her straight to heaven.  To my surprise, he seemed genuinely interested in this story.  For the rest of the day, he asked me at least once an hour when we were going to Mass.  He actually WANTED TO GO TO MASS.  I was floored.  This was a miracle, indeed.

When we arrived to church, he did not go through his usual litany of complaints.  He sat down without whining.  And he seemed really interested in watching what was happening on the altar.  I was beside myself.  Who was this child and what did he do with my son?  All this paying attention and not complaining lasted for about 30 minutes and then he announced he had to go to the bathroom.  So, we went.  When we were waiting to go back into the sanctuary, he looked up at me and said, “Mommy, when do we get to see Mary go to heaven?”  So, that was it.  He was here to see something miraculous.  Watching Mary go to heaven peaked his interest just enough for him to set aside his disdain for Mass and watch the show.

How often do we do the same?  How often do we expect God to put on a show for our benefit?  How often do we find ourselves discouraged when the show we expect doesn’t materialize?  I know I’m guilty.

God desires our love like our bodies desire oxygen.  He desperately wants us to participate in the love of the trinity.  In order to fully participate, we have to choose it.  We have to desire Him as he desires us.  And, if you look back at salvation history and the passion of Christ, you see how desperately God desires us.  He knew from the beginning, before he created, that we would betray him.  He knew he would take on our humanity, enter into history as a vulnerable baby, teach us about his love and then show us how much he loves by giving us his life- his perfect, unstained humanity- so that we may be reunited with him and participate in the love of the trinity for eternity.  But we have to choose it.  We have to want to love God as he loves us.  And we have to choose it without tangible, obvious miracles that unequivocally prove the existence of God- miracles whose sole purpose is to prove the existence of God.  No, we have to choose to love God out of faith.  Then and only then, do we participate in the agape love found in the trinity.

Now, don’t get me wrong, miracles do come into play.  Once we are in that personal relationship with God and we desire His love and presence more than we desire our own lives, he opens our eyes to the miracles.  We begin to see God in the little things- in the beauty of a sunset or the complexity of the human body.  We see him working in the lives of those around us and moving in the difficult situations we face.  We feel his warmth and peace in the moments when stress threatens to overwhelm us.  You see, when we love God as he loves us, then our eyes are opened to His reality and our lives find meaning and purpose.

So, love God recklessly.  Don’t get caught up in the desire for a show.  We are not made for this world.  We are made to love and be loved for eternity.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fires, Valleys and Ministry

Well, I have survived my first year of working in ministry.  I wish I could tell you it was all hearts and rainbows, but no.  It has been tough.  Some of the challenges I expected, but there were others I did not expect.  And the toll the challenges have taken on my own spirituality have been greater than I was prepared to face.  But I got through it, and I learned a lot about myself, God and His infinite mercy.

Working in ministry is like fighting on the front lines.  People are not afraid to tell you exactly what they think- whether that be about the Catholic Church in general, or your own style of teaching, prayer or presentation.  People are not afraid to tell you how you should be spending your time or what you should be doing to nourish your own relationship with God.  It is like I have a bull’s-eye for all comments, criticisms, and suggestions on my forehead.  And although I welcome such interaction, it can be exhausting to say the least.  I miss that I can no longer just blend in the background.  Nope, I always have to be on the front line with a smile on my face.  Although I expected the front line was hard, I didn’t expect the toll it would take on me.  Had I not been surrounded by people who could help me filter out the good from the bad, who could help me figure out the useful criticism from the not so useful, I fear I would not have made it this far. 

Being on the front line has ushered me into a whole new level of humility.  You see, I am a performer.  I am a trained classical musician.  As a musician, I live in a world where I perform and then people tell me how great it is and then my teachers would tell me what I could do better.  I carried these expectations into my career as a Band Director where the world was very similar.  And, when I started in youth ministry, which is a lot like teaching, I subconsciously carried these expectations into the world of ministry.  These expectations do not work in this world.  Ministry is not about the instant gratification the stage naturally gives.  It’s more like gardening.  Instead of performing on a stage, I am the instrument by which the Holy Spirit plants seeds, waters the seeds, fertilizes the seeds, and makes sure they get enough sun.  And unlike the stage, I do not have complete control over the garden.  I don’t know what happens to the seeds from week to week.  I only know what I do with them on Wednesday night and I rarely see the seeds grow and bear fruit.  Both the losses of control and instant gratification made me very uneasy and I had a hard time figuring out why I was struggling.  But then one day I realized the true issue.  When I am on the stage, it is all about me.  When I am in the garden, it isn’t about me at all- it’s about Christ and the seeds. I didn’t realize how much self-worth I had wrapped up in the stage, how much of my identity was defined by the stage.  My brain knew that it wasn’t about me, but my ego didn’t come to realize it until much later in the game.  In order to stay on the front lines, I had to let go of who I thought I was and face who I really am.  And that was quite humbling.  In fact, it still is.

I often think that my relationship with God is like a moth to a flame.  He is a roaring bonfire and I am the tiniest insect drawn to the beautiful light from the depths of the dark forest.  For reasons I can’t explain, I am drawn to God and mesmerized by His presence.  Like many people, my relationship with God is marked by mountain tops and valleys.  On the mountain tops, I don’t care if the fire burns me.  I am happy to lose myself in the fire.  I am happy to let the fire consume me.  But in the valley, I am suddenly aware of the fire’s heat, and I feel like I just need to take a step back and gaze from a distance.  Even though I get cold and long to be close to the fire, I can’t go there.  The fire is too much for me to bear.  The dark forest is quite inviting.

In this humbling first year of ministry, I have spent a lot of time in the valley.  So much so, that I fear I will never find the mountains.  And the guilt I have in the valley is great.  In my humiliating moments, I should be running to God and seeking his comfort.  I should be practicing what I preach.  Instead, I have withdrawn and hidden myself.  I am ashamed of who I really am now that the stage is gone and I wonder if I am worthy enough or even qualified to be a gardener.  But here in the valley, God has shown me his infinite mercy.  Even though I do not desire the fire as I feel I should, he has shown me that the garden is exactly where he wants me to be.

This Sunday in Mass, after my usual litany of apologies for not being near the fire, I saw Jesus standing next to me in the valley.  With his arm around me, we gazed at the fire in the distance.  In all of his radiance, he looked down at my face, smiled and said, “It is normal for you to fear the fire will burn you.  But, you don’t need to fear it.  I have covered you with the living water.  I have made it so that you can be in the fire and experience its splendor.  You are covered with my blood.”  Although I haven’t made it all the way back up to the fire on the mountain, I no longer feel so alone.  The forest isn’t quite so inviting and the journey up the mountain isn’t quite so daunting.  But most of all, the fear of the fire is being replaced with desire as it pulls me into its glorious splendor all over again.  

Lessons from Ga-Ga

At this year’s middle school PHAT camp (meeting People, Hanging out, Adoring God, and Touring the metroplex), we built the most awesome thing ever: a ga-ga pit.  Ga-ga is a game played in an octagon shaped enclosure with a 3 foot wall.  This project was exciting because I was in on it from the beginning.  I saw the kids fall in love with the game on a retreat.  I saw the idea to build a pit at the church born in the imagination of a fellow youth minister.  I witnessed all the planning of the pit construction- from the miraculous donations of materials right down to the angel who showed up at the 11th hour with the expertise needed to actually build the structure.  I watched the youth dig out grass, haul wood, and hammer nails in 100+ degree weather.  Finally, at the end of the week, the pit was built and the game was on.  How could I not get in on the fun?

I jumped over the wall.  Immediately, I felt a twinge of a familiar pain in my lower back- my back hasn’t been quite right since the birth of my youngest.  Naturally, I ignored it.  I wanted to play.  The pain was just a twinge and I can certainly get over it.  So, I played.  In order to play, one must spend the majority of the game in a crouched over position protecting one’s feet and shins while in constant motion- probably a chiropractor’s worst nightmare.  It was fun although I was easy prey.  The kids relished getting the adults out quickly and, in my case, somewhat easily.  Anyhow, I played a few rounds.  When I stood up and straightened out my back after the final round, I realized how dumb I had been.  I was in serious pain.  I spent the next two days on the sofa or in a hot bath- two days to come to terms with the fact I am no longer a spring chicken.

This summer, I turn 35.  I can’t claim to be in my early thirties and that makes my twenties seem like ages ago.  In addition to my back issues, my eyes seem to be losing their youth (It’s either that or my arms are getting shorter).  And, after trying different kinds of make-up with no success, I am now seriously shopping for that magic cream to erase the lines around my eyes.  But the real stinger was when I realized the high school youth that out-played me at ga-ga were born the year I graduated from high school.  Yes, I am O.L.D.

My two boys are 7 years apart.  I had my oldest when I was 22 and my youngest when I was 29.  As a 22 year old mom, I was certain I was the youngest parent ever.  I felt as if I had no clue what I was doing.  The mommy wars scared me half to death and in an effort to over-accommodate, my poor son was sheltered from everything from T. V. to candy.  When I had my youngest, I was a 29 year-old seasoned parent and educator.  So, my youngest has gotten to play in the dirt, taste everything from chocolate to dog food and been educated thoroughly in the ways of Spongebob and his square pants.  So, I guess age has loosened me up a little but I’m not sure it has made me any wiser or better at parenting.

When I was younger, I thought that when I reached this point in my life, I will have had a few things figured out.  But the truth is, I don’t.  I know that my experiences have brought me maturity, but I still don’t know if what I’m doing with my children is the “right” thing.  Will my older son be wiser or make better decisions because I made so many of his decisions when he was younger?  Will my younger son be more of a risk taker or have more confidence because I let him explore things more independently?  I don’t know, only time will tell. 

In the meantime, I should probably stay out of the ga-ga pit.  A visit to the eye doctor would be wise.  And hopefully, I’ll find that eye cream soon. But, most importantly, I’ll keep hitting my knees and loving these two boys with all my heart.  That is the best thing this not-so-wise-35-year-old Mommy can do- love them and lead them to the source of love itself.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Desires of the Heart

So, let’s about sex (I apologize if that song is now stuck in your head- I couldn’t resist).  So, let’s see, sex is a topic my parents never really approached.  Sure, they explained the biology of it, and they told me not to do it-end of story.  So, I concluded that sex was bad.  The Baptist church where I grew up preached a lot about purity.  It was wrong to have sex outside of marriage, so don’t do it.  Naturally, I concluded that sex makes one impure.  Meanwhile, in health class, we learned about all STDs and how hard it is to remain in high school if you have a baby at 16.  And if you must have sex, then use a condom.  Therefore, I concluded that sex is dirty and leads to trouble.  At the lunch table, I learned that sex was something you did when you really, really loved someone(and I mean REALLY).  However, the girls that did it were immediately labeled as slutty and dirty, probably due to all the wonderful knowledge we gained in health class.    Through the media, I learned that sex was a healthy expression of one’s self and, if you are not having sex, then you are somehow not healthy or normal, especially if you were still a virgin in college.  Naturally, I concluded that the rules for sex change in college.  So, in my 20s, I spend a lot of time sorting out all this conflicting information.  By then, I was married, but I still didn’t understand sex.  I knew it was something more than what I was living out in my marriage, but I could not put my finger on it.  Imagine my delight when I finally stumbled upon John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  Oh, how I wish I had this information as a teen!  I wish I knew that the family was a reflection of the trinity.  I wish I knew that physical love is actually a shadow of heavenly love.  I wish I knew that sex was about giving, not getting.   I wish I knew because then maybe I would have made better choices and not wasted all that time in my 20s living a life I thought was right but oddly unfulfilling.

And that is why I am teaching a Theology of the Body course to the middle school youth in our parish.   When I first embraced this idea, I thought I was going to give them information about how God sees sex and what sex is in light of God’s love and plan for humanity.  But, I didn’t realize that Theology of the Body has other nuggets of wisdom beyond sex that are REALLY helpful to teens.  One in particular has left me awestruck all over again. 

We are all seeking three things in life: love, happiness and purpose. These innate desires are given to us by God.  Before the fall in the garden, Adam and Eve experienced life with these desires fully and completely fulfilled. They knew their purpose– to love and to be loved. By knowing their purpose and uniting their hearts to each other and God, they experienced perfect happiness and love. After they sinned, these desires remained but were impossible to fulfill. By disobeying God in the garden, they damaged their relationships with nature, with each other, with their souls, and, most importantly, with God. These damaged relationships are the inheritance passed onto humanity in original sin. We desire love, happiness and purpose but struggle to find them. We look to wealth, power and glory to meet these desires only to be left empty and lost. But when we turn to Christ, the one who defeated original sin, we find these desires fulfilled. They are met in the one who denied himself glory, wealth, and power when he won our salvation on the cross in a grand display of true love. 

When youth are in their teen years, they are discovering these innate desires and trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into this world. Unfortunately, we live in a very materialistic, “me” centered and goal-driven society. It is easy for our young people to conclude that wealth, power and glory will satisfy our most innate desires for happiness, purpose and love. Then, they go down a path that leads to an empty, lacking life.  We have to help them open their eyes to the beauty of God’s purpose for humanity.  God made humans for love and to love.  He imprinted that love on our bodies when he made us male and female.  Love is giving one’s self to another(marriage, charity, service etc..).  We need to help these teens figure out how God is asking them to live out their vocation to love.  The contrary message the world sends is loud and full of full false promises.  We need to show them what love is and how it’s our purpose and path to true happiness.

So, how do we get them on the path that leads to true happiness? First, we must constantly point them to God as they seek purpose and identity. They need to know that God loves them.  They are in that stage when they are skeptical of God and especially skeptical of his love.  This message cannot be delivered too many times.  Then, we must show them the love of Christ in how we treat them and others. We can talk until we are blue in the face, but what we model will speak so much louder than our words.  We must allow Christ to love them through us.  We need to show them Christ’s love in how we live our lives.  Finally and most importantly, we must model the true life of happiness, purpose and love by putting our relationships with God and our families above our careers and financial goals. The priorities and values we model will be the priorities and values we pass to our children. 

So, what does all this have to do with sex?  Well, if teens understand love, feel loved by God and their families, and find their purpose in living a life of love, then they are better equipped to understand God’s great plan for humanity.  They will be able to see what their purpose is here, on Earth in the year 2012.  They will be able to wrap their minds around the sacred nature of sex, the beautiful fruit it bears, and its awesome glimpse into the nature of God.  This life is a great adventure where God hopes we will find him.  He has given us many clues along the way.  The beauty of sex is one of them.  Let’s be sure our teens see sex in this light and give them greater hope for finding their heart’s desires of purpose, happiness and love.

Middle school is a great time to start talking to your kids about sex because, trust me, they are already talking about it amongst themselves.  Read up on Theology of the Body.  Arm yourself with some good resources like Theology of the Body for Teens published by Ascension Press.  But, most of all, be sure your kids know you love them.  Say it out loud.  Show them in all the little things you do.  Allow Christ to reach through you to touch their hearts.  A teen that experiences REAL love will be less likely to go searching for love in all the wrong places (Ha! Another song to get stuck in your head). 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Behold the Sacrifice

I close my eyes as I hear the sound of the consecrated host breaking.  The Priest holds up the broken Eucharist and calls us to behold Him.  Behold the one who takes away the sins of the world.  Behold the perfect sacrifice.  Behold the suffering servant.  Behold the mystery.  Behold our Lord. 

As I behold Him, I am swept to the foot of the cross.  Here I am watching pure love die.  Here I am watching my Lord struggle to breathe.  Here I am watching my Lord’s face wince as he pushes and pulls on the nails.  His wounds from the scourging are fresh, open and bleeding.  Blood from the thorns runs into his eyes.  Behold Him.  His pain is great, raw and deeper than I can begin to imagine.  It is more than just the physical pain that plagues him in these moments.  His heart is also breaking. As he hangs there dying, his most loyal are absent.  All that he has taught seems to be for nothing.  All that he has done- healings, walking on water, calming the storm, feeding the thousands- all of it has fallen on deaf ears and hard hearts.  They do not understand who he is.  Behold him.

Oh, Lord, why am I here?  Why are you showing your suffering to me?  My heart breaks to see your pain.  It is hard to understand this place.  It is hard to understand what is going on here.  Oh, Lord, your suffering is too much to behold.  You are my love, you are the meaning to my life, you are the air I breathe.  To behold you here, dying on the cross is excruciating.  To behold you here, suffering through the punishment I deserve is agonizing. 

Blinking back tears, I stand and take my place in line for communion.  For the past month, I have had the same experience at Mass.  I am to the point where I am not sure I even want to come anymore.  I do not want to see Jesus suffer like this.  Why is he showing this to me?  I receive our Lord in the Eucharist with all of this on my mind.  And as I resume my place at the kneeler, His voice rings through my heart, “My child, this is love.  My pain is great.  My suffering is more than a mortal man can bear.  My heart is breaking.  But, my love for you is greater than this pain.  If you don’t know the depths of my pain, then how can you know the depths of my love?”  Oh, my Lord, forgive me.  Give me the strength to behold your sacrifice and make me worthy to receive your love.

I recently had a teen ask me, “If God loves us, than why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?”  This is valid question that I am not going to pretend to know the answer to.  I think it is safe to assume that every human that ever lived has suffered.  Some have suffered more than others.  I don’t think there is a quick, blanket answer that would explain why people suffer.  But, I think it should speak volumes to us that the Lord came to this Earth to suffer.  He not only experienced suffering on the cross, but also in the desert when he was tempted and in the garden when he prayed with the Father before he was arrested.  He wept when he learned of Lazarus’ death.  He dealt with rejection and ridicule throughout his ministry.  And let us not forget his 30 years before his public ministry began.  Growing into manhood is not easy.  Yes, Jesus suffered.  Through his suffering, we see how suffering has purpose.  When we find the purpose to our suffering, then I think we also find hope and the true meaning of love.

To tell you the truth, until recently, I never really understood the concept of suffering.  I accepted the fact that I will suffer.  And I reasoned that the suffering the Lord wills for my life will help me die to my fallen nature so that I may rise with Christ.  But, beyond this broad concept, I really didn’t understand it.  I didn’t get what it meant to “offer up” my suffering. Then recently, I had a migraine a few hours before I was supposed to be on stage in front of 175 kids and adults at youth night.  I was trying to decide what I was going to do.  Should I accept the fact I may not be able to get on stage and come up with plan B?  Or, I should pray for a miracle and ask God to take the migraine away so that I may do his work with ease.  It was in that last idea that I realized my opportunity. The image of Christ dying on the cross flashed in my imagination.  In that moment, I prayed to God thanking him for the opportunity to be obedient despite my suffering.  I would be there on the stage in the midst of the migraine and with a smile on my face. The Lord showed me his love and now, I will show him mine.

Working in ministry is not an easy career path.  I’ve only got one foot on the path and I can see the sacrifices and challenges my family will face.  Since my husband is a teacher, we are already financially challenged.  Choosing to be on this path full time will not bring much financial hope to our horizon.  But I know this is what the Lord is asking me to do.  I used to think that if the Lord wanted me to choose this path, he would make it easy.  He would take away the financial challenges and, therefore, the path would be easy to choose.  But then I realized that the suffering I endure on this path has purpose.  This is my opportunity to choose God despite the suffering.  This is my opportunity to love God in the midst of financial pain and turmoil.  Sure, I could choose the easy path.  But, with this path into ministry, I choose to suffer and to love God in the midst of it- just as he loved me in the midst of his suffering on the cross.

Through the cross, Christ shows us that suffering and sacrifice go hand in hand. And that is why Christ asks us to be his hands and feet in this world of suffering.  He asks us to lessen the load of our neighbor out of love.  He asks us to love our neighbor without expectations.  When we love like he loves, then we can expect to suffer.  And when our neighbors see us suffer for their sake, then they know just how much we love them and, perhaps they come to know just how much Christ loves them. I have always understood this concept.  This concept is central to a life of service in ministry.  But, in the light of my recent prayer experiences, I have come to understand this concept in a new way.  When I suffer for the sake of another, in a small way, I suffer like Christ suffered.  He is sharing with me the depth of his pain.  And with that perspective, I can gain a new understanding of the depth of his amazing, intoxicating love.

"That shall be my life, to scatter flowers--to miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word, always doing the tiniest things right, and doing it for love." --Therese of Lisieux

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On Being Judas

Judas is a character we want to distance ourselves from.  He did a terrible thing.  He delivered our Lord into the hands of those who would kill him.  He set the story into motion.  He was the betrayer.  That is how history will remember him.  Surely, I would never do such a thing.  I would never betray my Lord in such a way.  I could never be Judas.  Yes, that seems comfortable.

But, really, what did Judas do?  He made a choice.  He chose his own selfish desires over his Lord.  Maybe he didn't really believe that Jesus was the Son of God.  Or maybe he was trying to make Jesus be someone he wasn't- a political leader who would fight his way to justice and become a great king for Israel.  Or maybe he just really wanted 30 pieces of silver.  We don't know his motivation, but one thing is clear.  He made a choice- he chose his selfish desires over his Lord.  And that choice put the story in motion.  That choice started Jesus' terrible journey to the cross on that night.  We all know that Jesus' sacrifice was God's will but to be the one who set the circumstances in motion is not a good thing.  The consequences of Judas' choice were dire and heart wrenching and when Judas looked at the blood on his hands, he ended his own life.

Whether you choose to believe it or not, we are faced with similar choices in our lives.  We must choose between God and money.  We must choose between God and popularity.  We must choose God's will over our own desires.  And when we fail, we are no better than Judas.  We are doing exactly what he did. We are taking the money in exchange for the life of God.  We are carrying out our own agenda by handing the Lord over to the wolves.  No, we are no better than Judas.  But we have something Judas didn't have.  Perspective. We have the benefit of knowing that the Lord died in order to forgive our sins.  He died so he can give us his life and gather us to himself for eternity.  He died because he knew we were all like Judas but he loved us anyway.  This perspective is a great gift.  Because instead of seeing the blood on our hands, Jesus washes it away.  All we have to do is ask him.  That great love is what Judas didn't understand.

As we embark on the last few days of Holy week, I invite you to reflect on the ways in which you have been Judas.  It is not easy to admit that we have sold out the Lord.  It is not easy to admit that we betrayed the one who gave us everything.  But, when we admit what we have done, and the priest says those words of absolution, we are forgiven.  We are made clean.  We are reconciled with the Lord.  And there is no greater joy than to be in the presence of the Lord with a clean heart.  Don't continue to be Judas and let the sin destroy your soul and rob you of the love of God.  There is still time to make the right choice.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Confessing Who I Really Am

My palms were already sweaty.  I had only been in line for 10 minutes.  All day I had agonized about this moment.  I prayed, searched, reflected and managed to make a meager list.  Surely, I had more sins than these.  What was I leaving out?  The line moved forward.  It is hard to look at the people leaving confession.  Why were they crying?  What was going on in that room?  My mouth was starting to get dry. 

Of all the things I love about the Catholic faith, confession is not one of them.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Theologically, the sacrament is beautiful.  It is amazing.  And I am fully aware that it is commanded of us by our Lord.  However, it is not easy.  It is somewhat messy. And it turns me into a nervous wreck.  In fact, I feared it so much that I stayed away from the sacrament for a number of years.  So, I know how un-confessed sin can eat away at one’s soul.  The brick walls I built between me and the Lord were thick and cold.  But all it took was one confession, and the bricks started to crumble.  I remember that feeling of freedom as the mercy and love of the Lord washed over me in that confessional.

So, why does getting in this line still create such waves of anxiety?  Why does the idea of saying my sins out loud to a priest send me straight for the Xanax?  I know the consequences of staying out of the line.  And I know the wonderful benefits of staying in the line.  But it doesn’t seem to help me choose the line. 

I could blame it on past experience.  I could blame it on the ministers that were happy to see me leave their church all those years ago.  Maybe that is why I don’t want to trust the Priest with who I really am.  But, I feel like I am past that.  I confronted those demons years ago.  I took those burdensome rocks out of my back pack and I have moved on.  I made peace with the fact that if they didn’t do what they did, I wouldn’t have found the Catholic faith.  My past seems to be my excuse rather than the true issue.  Besides, I now work in the Church.  I work alongside the priests, deacons and other ministry staff and I am perfectly comfortable in their presence.

The line inches forward again and I am now just three people away from the door. I look at my list.  It seems silly and laughable.  I don’t know why I am even here.  I am not good at this.  A child could come up with a better list.  I would like to get out of line and get some water, but there are at least 50 people behind me.  I know I wouldn’t get back in line.  

I didn’t grow up in the Catholic faith.  Maybe that is why this is so difficult for me.  I never had to do this in the Baptist church.  In fact, because we believed that your sins were forgiven when you invited Jesus to live in your heart, sin was never really talked about or focused on.  We never examined our lives for sin but rather tried to live the life of a good Christian.  We focused on making the right choices for that morally upstanding, charitable life and we did not focus on the mistakes we made.  Searching for sin in my soul is a foreign concept.  Even after 14 years of being a confirmed Catholic, I am still epically bad at it.  Why can’t I figure this out?

There is now only one person in front of me.  I feel my heart beating faster.  The adrenaline is reaching atomic levels.  Why do I get so worked up?  Why do I let the anxiety capture me is such a way?  What do I fear?

As I stand here thinking about the reason for the fear, an image of a mirror enters my mind.  Yep, that is what I fear.  I fear that mirror.  I don’t want to see who I really am.  I don’t want to see my soul the way Christ sees it.  In this world, I can hide my sins pretty well.  I can be the person others admire and look up to.  I can act the part eloquently.  But the picture I paint of who I am is not reflected in the mirror.  In order to examine my conscience, I have to take a long look at myself in that mirror. 

I am such a fallen human.  I would make the same choice as Eve.  I would throw the first stone at the adulterous woman.  I would be in the crowd calling for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Why do I know this?  Because I possess the same sin as this crowd- pride.  I don’t want to look in that mirror because of pride.  I am too proud to admit what I have done because it reflects who I really am.  Pride is the root of this anxiety.  Pride keeps me from the confessional.

It’s my turn.  I walk into the dimly lit room like a bull in a china shop.  I almost knock over the plant as I trip and pretty much fall into the chair across from the Priest.  He smiles.  He knows I get myself undone over this experience.  It is a little humorous that a confident woman who enjoys speaking to large groups of teens and adults about the love of Christ can get so undone in this small room with and audience of one. I smile back as we both find humor in the irony.  He knows me well, and the shared smile sets me at ease.
Recently, in prayer experience, I had a vision of myself wearing a black, ugly coat.  I looked horrid. The coat was heavy with dirt, ragged and torn.  I really hated the coat and I wanted to take it off.  I tried and I couldn’t figure it out.  I quickly gave up.  I looked up, and I saw Jesus in all of his splendor walking towards me.  He was radiant and beautiful.  As he got closer, I realized I was still wearing the coat.  I tried again to get it off.  I couldn’t do it.  I started to panic as Jesus approached me.  I wanted to hide, but there was nowhere to go.  Jesus was now standing in front of me.  He lifted me chin so that he could look in my eyes.  I was pulling at the coat, trying to get it off.  I apologized that he had to seem me this way.  I told him I couldn’t get it off and that I was sorry I had let my coat get so horrible.  He smiled and to my amazement, he took the coat off of me.  He threw it on the ground.  Then, he took off his white, spotless coat and put it over my shoulders.  I told him that I couldn’t accept it because I was going to get it dirty.  It was much too nice for me to wear.  He looked in my eyes and said, “If you get it dirty, just come back to me, and I’ll make it clean again.  I love you very much and I want you to look your best when I finally present you to my father.”

As I tell Father all about my pride once again, I can feel the coat coming off.  I can see the sins being washed away.  The coat is becoming beautiful as the day Jesus gave it to me.  Jesus puts it back over my shoulders and Father sends me on my way with a clean coat- a clean soul.  All the anxiety is worth this experience.  It is incredibly awesome to show Jesus who I really am and to hear him say, “It’s alright.  I love you anyway.  Keep trying.  I am making you a beautiful gift for my Father.”  Yep, that is much better than Xanax.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Great Coffee Fast

“Really, Lord?  Don’t you think the children would be safer if I could have coffee?”

This conversation begins each morning around 9am, the time the last little darling arrives at my home for child care.  By this time in the morning, I’ve usually changed eleventy million dirty diapers, read Dinosaur Roar at least 400 times and built, rebuilt and rebuilt the Island of Sodor because it’s just never quite right according to the 5-year-old train engineer.  Yep, by this point in the morning, my get up and go has gotten up and went far, far away to a distant land flowing with coffee and chocolate, and where dinosaurs and trains never existed.  By this time in the morning, my craving for coffee is profound.

For Christmas, my parents got us one of those new fancy coffee machines- the Keurig.  It makes GREAT coffee at the touch of a button.  It’s like magic.  You turn it on, put your k-cup in, put your mug underneath and press the button.  Then the most wonderful aroma fills the room as the hot, steamy, caffeinated liquid fills my cup of joy all the way to the brim.  I LOVE it.  I even find it a little sexy. 

And now we come to my Lenten fast.  Except for the year I gave up facebook for Lent, I usually give up three things: coffee, chocolate and alcohol.  I give up not one, but three things because I am an over achiever.  I have an A-type personality and my perfectionism is border line obsessive-compulsive.  Besides, I am an adult and an adult should be able to give up silly things like chocolate and wine.  Well, each year when I gave up these three things, I failed in an epic manner.  By the end of the first week, you could find me in the fetal position on the bathroom floor surrounded by candy wrappers or desperately hiding in the laundry room at 7 in the morning with my elicit cup of joy, I mean coffee.  “Maybe if my husband doesn’t catch me,” I rationalize, “then I haven’t really failed.”  Ha!  And it’s no wonder I fail, because let’s face it- this sleep deprived mama and wife with two jobs is attempting to give up three of the four major food groups. 

So, this year, I decided not to set myself up for failure.  This year, I decided to seek God’s will for my Lenten fast.  Surely, he would have a better idea than me.  I mean, he is God of the universe, omnipotent and all that fun stuff.  Anyhow, I made this decision while sitting at the kitchen table, and as soon as the thought entered my head to let God tell me what to give up, my eyes fell on the Keurig.  It was as if a ray of sunshine fell on it, giving the heavenly machine a divine glow while angels sang their hallelujah chorus marking the significant moment with awe and wonder.  My heart sank.  “Really?  Really, God?  Are you sure?  Because, I thought that when I prayed to figure out what your will was, I thought for sure you understood I was ABANDONING my ideas, I mean, my will, and therefore I could have coffee, chocolate and alcohol during this Lenten season!  I thought that was the plan!”  And then I heard the voice in my heart say, “but I am only asking for one- not all three.  Let’s focus on just one sacrifice.”

I felt like such a child.  In the back of my head, I thought that maybe God would give me a grown up task.  I read all these Lenten articles about what adults should do for lent in order to grow closer to God.  My ideas of giving up something like chocolate seemed childish.  And yet, I fail at it- EVERY YEAR!  So, here God was bringing me back to square one.  Here is he was showing me exactly what was best for me- 40 days with no coffee.  I wonder if he is absolutely sure that is what’s best for everyone around me. 

It’s been 17 days since I’ve had coffee.  Now, I take that back.  I did have coffee at a friend’s house last Saturday night, but my friend’s Dad, who happens to be a famous Catholic theologian, explained to me that since it was after sun down on Saturday, we weren’t technically in Lent and that I could have coffee.  Since he’s a famous Catholic theologian and I was at his house, I decided to go with it.  Anyhow, it’s been 17 mornings since I’ve had coffee.  And for someone who’s often up late working and then up early with kids, this is a true test of my will power and endurance.  Exhaustion has a whole new meaning.  In these 17 days, I’ve learned about myself and the benefits of fasting. 

The first lesson I’ve learned about is desire.  When we fast in this nature, we physically withhold something our bodies need and that creates a physical desire.  That physical desire mirrors the spiritual desire our souls have for God.  In this secular world, we can easily choose to ignore those spiritual longings- but physical longings are harder to ignore and they can remind us of how much our souls long for God.  My experience with this physical longing was most clearly played out on Ash Wednesday.  Not only did I give up coffee cold turkey, but the only thing I had to eat all day was bread.  I was determined not to eat a real meal until after I received Jesus in the Eucharist.  By the time 7:00 pm rolled around, I had a headache the size of Texas and I was beyond hunger.  When the Priest held up the host for consecration, my mouth was watering.  That was when I realized that this is what my soul experiences at every Mass.  My physical hunger was but a shadow of my spiritual hunger.  When I received Jesus in this physical state, it felt as if every cell in my body was nourished.  God used my body to show me what my soul experiences when I receive Jesus in the Eucharist.  Now, that was awesome.

The second lesson is all about waiting.  When we fast during Lent, we are waiting for the day when we can end the fast.  That is right, I have about 30 more days until I can fire up the Keurig!  Now, I realize that I could fire it up on Sundays, but remember, I’m an over achiever.  Combine that with the perfectionism and catholic guilt, and you have woman who cannot touch the Keurig until Easter morning.  So, I’m learning about waiting.  And I don’t know about you, but I HATE waiting.  I don’t like waiting in lines, sitting in traffic or even being on hold on the telephone.  When I’m waiting, I am thinking about all the other things I could be doing with my time and it drives me bananas. But when we are waiting, we are forced to be still and it’s in those still moments that God can seek us out.  In my professional life, I am in a place that requires me to wait.  I am not sure where I am supposed to go next but there is nothing I can do but wait it out.  I have been frustrated by this IMMENCELY.  I want to know what the future holds, but I can’t.  I must wait.  This fast has taught me that in order to get through the waiting, I must be still and listen for God.  I must seek Him instead of formulating all the possible scenarios of my professional future.  I must anticipate God’s presence in my life as much as I anticipate that steamy cup of caffeinated perfection on Easter morning.

Finally, this particular Lenten fast has taught me that it is important to take one thing at a time.  Instead of tackling the Lenten fast with multiple sacrifices that lead to fasting failure, God wants me to pick one thing and be successful.  This is enlightening because I am the queen of multitasking.  Now, don’t get me wrong, multitasking is essential to motherhood.  If I didn’t have this gift, my children would be running around with dirty underwear and only one good meal in their tummies.  But there are some things in life that deserve our full, undivided attention.  This year, my attention has been divided.  I have had a lot of irons in the fire.  I am realizing that some of these irons need more of my attention and the only way to make that happen is to take some of the irons out of the fire.  I can’t do it all.  I can’t work 12-15 hours a day and still be the mother and wife this family needs.  There doesn’t seem to be enough of me to stretch between the two jobs I love.  At this moment, I know I am right where God wants me.  However, I think He is preparing me for some tough choices in the future.  I must admit that giving my full and undivided attention to giving up coffee has felt a little good.  It is nice to only have one sacrifice to juggle instead of three.

So, what is the best way to go about fasting?  One day at a time.  Every morning I look at the Keurig and let the devil on my shoulder tell me how stupid this fast is.  I let him call me childish.  I let him try to convince me that giving up coffee is more trouble than it’s worth.  But my heart knows it is worth the trouble.  Although I thought I needed a 12 step program in the first week, I have been able to stick to it.  And after just 17 days, I have gained more understanding about fasting and myself than I ever thought I would.  The coffee will return at Easter.  On that day I will raise my beautiful cup of caffeinated perfection in celebration to the God who gave up more than coffee for me.  Maybe as this fast continues to progress, I can gain a little more understanding of that love- a love that drove the God of the universe to die a terrible death to gain the soul of this sinner.