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.