What’s Getting In Your Way?

It’s the longest dialogue Jesus has with anyone in any of the Gospels.  We’ve all heard the story many times, and for good reason—this lovely encounter between Christ and a sinner cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.  In the fourth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus comes to a well at noontime and there he meets a Samaritan woman who is about to fill her water jar.  The conversation they share at the well reveals how mercy and sin meet in the heart of the woman.  She is an outcast, a Samaritan, with whom no “respectable” Jewish man would speak.  Yet she and Jesus speak deeply together about social protocol, religious history, Jewish prophecy and, in a real stunner for the woman, her own broken marriages and sin.  She is transformed by her conversation with Jesus.  In the middle of this ordinary day, her life was totally changed.  She has met the Messiah at the well.  Since we know her shame and her sins, we know that her noonday trip to the well was something she’d planned.  It was no accident for her to be there when she was.  The other women of the town would have visited the well early in the morning.  So she’d avoided the stares and comments of these “respectable” women by timing her trip for the hottest time of the day, when no one else would be there.  Or so she thought.


But God had other plans for her life.  In the middle of an ordinary day, in the middle of her sinful life, the Creator of the universe asked her for a drink of water.  As they spoke together, Jesus revealed Who He was and gave her the promise of eternal life.  She was drawn to Him.  Jesus didn’t condemn her, which she was probably expecting.  Neither did He minimize her situation:  “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband (John 4:17-18).”  Jesus named her sin there in the light of the noonday sun.  And her eyes and heart were opened to see Him and hear Him.  He accepted her in her sin without condemnation or judgment.  His truthful words allowed her to imagine a new beginning.  His mercy was a healing balm for her broken and abused heart.  As she felt the impact of His acceptance and love grow within her, she did something remarkable—“…she left her water jar…”(John 4:28).  The very thing that was the reason she’d come to the well in the first place was now unimportant to her.  She left the jar to tell the people of the town about Jesus.  “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done”(Johne 4:29).  Perhaps the burden of that heavy clay water jar was like the other burdens she’d left at the well.  Her sinfulness, her emptiness, her shame and her guilt, these were gone, too.  She’d visited the well for ordinary water and found living water instead.  All her burdens were now laid at the feet of the Lord. 


We can see ourselves in her unfolding story.  What burdens, what sins, what shame are each of us being called to lay at Jesus’ feet?  What is it in my life that I keep in my own water jar?  And if we don’t give our sinfulness over to Him, how can we hope to be a witness to others of His life-giving water?  What am I carrying around that gets in the way of my sharing the good news of God’s mercy and love? 


“…whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst…”(John 4:14)

A Stubborn Old Heresy

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that our loving God would let any of His children suffer an eternity in hell. Just the idea of it seems to go against the merciful Creator Who healed the blind man and cured the leper. We remember how Jesus cried over the death of His friend and Whose love called Lazarus back to life and out of the grave. This God surely wouldn’t allow anyone, especially a “good person” to end up in hell. It’s hard for us to imagine that and so we don’t think about it very much. We surely don’t want to hear it preached to us on Sunday morning. On Sundays we want to hear music and sermons that make us feel good. We want to leave church in a good mood. Many churches go to great lengths to never speak about hell or the judgment of God. When someone dies, there is never any consideration of the state of their soul. You never hear hell mentioned at a funeral. Everyone goes to heaven, right?

But this is not what God has told us. The Bible is the story of how much God loves us and desires that we be saved from our sins. If we didn’t need to be saved, then the Lord would not have left heaven to become one of us, to suffer, and to die on a Cross. The entire story of Jesus would be reduced to a fairy tale about a nice guy. Yet many people who claim to be Christians believe that good people who are kind and merciful will enjoy God’s eternal presence. You may hear them say, “I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not religious.” Translated, this means, “I think I can get to heaven on my own. I don’t need the Church that Jesus founded.” This kind of thinking is especially attractive to us modern folk because concepts like independence and hard work are dear to us. We think we can do just about anything if we set our minds to it. I can save myself by being kind to others, by worshiping God in the beautiful outdoors, and by leading a “moral” life.”

Sound familiar? It should. All this “do it yourself” Christianity has been around since the 4th century. A medieval thinker named Pelagius started it all. He denied original sin. That is, Adam and Eve sinned against God, but the rest of us didn’t inherit that wound. We’re born good and we can stay in that good state so long as we are moral people. Pelagianism denies our need for God’s saving grace. That’s why the Catholic Church condemned it as a heresy around 1500 years ago. Catholicism teaches that the only path to heaven is by the unmerited grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ. We can do nothing to save ourselves. We’re born with original sin which is our natural state. The grace of God in Baptism cleanses us of this sin. Faith is a gift God freely gives us, but we can’t earn faith through good works. Without God’s grace, we are headed for hell. It’s that simple. And that gloriously beautiful.

Unfortunately, this old heresy is still with us today in varying degrees. Churches that believe that Baptism is a symbol of spiritual rebirth or that don’t believe Baptism is necessary for salvation are Pelagian. If your pastor isn’t teaching you about original sin, you’re in big trouble. If you believe that you can “self-help” your way to God, that you needn’t rely on God’s grace—you’re in big trouble. Faith isn’t a choice, it’s a gift. You can’t be a good ol’ self-reliant American when it comes to your salvation. That’s why this heresy is so rampant. It agrees with our politics. But grace isn’t political. God calls us, we don’t call Him. There are 613 rules under the Jewish law and obeying each one of them perfectly won’t get you one step closer to paradise. Just ask St. Paul. We don’t come to Christ unless we’re first called by Him. We don’t “make a decision for Christ.” Christ makes a decision for us. Love is beyond our choice or decision. We are “in Christ” just like we are in love—head over heels and beyond our control. So un-American. And so perfectly Catholic. Take that, Mr. Pelagius.

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”
—John 15:16

Be A Saint!

Friends are one of God’s great blessings to us.  They give us love, support, helpful advice and the dearest ones challenge us to become the best versions of ourselves.  It’s long been said that you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep.  For Catholics, our best friends can be the saints.  We believe that these heroic men and women lived lives full of Christ’s love and mercy and are great examples to us of virtue and perseverance.  Their lives and writings light the way for us, showing us how real people can fully live out the Gospel.


If your life’s goal is to love and serve God in this life and spend eternity with Him in the next one, then study the lives of the saints.  Becoming holy is the calling of every Christian believer because to become holy is to become like Jesus.  The path to holiness is well-known and well-traveled.  Contrary to Hollywood, it’s not a secret that only a few can know or understand.  The problem is that most people are looking in the wrong places.  If you want to follow Jesus, read the Gospels and the lives of His greatest followers.  The saints are no different from you and me in all things but one:  they never gave up.  Virtuous and sinful, faithful and doubting, they gave their lives to Christ, messed it up, and turned to Him again and again and again.  Sainthood doesn’t happen in an instantaneous thunderclap of holiness.  It’s a journey with Jesus and a path well-trodden by the saints who have gone before us.


Saints come from every walk of life, in every age and culture and every social class.  From noblemen and warriors to peasants, teachers, kings or little children…and everything in between.  The saints are our guides to heaven because they’ve already made the journey.  They’ve navigated the pitfalls of sin and doubt and we can learn from their successes and failures.  They’re practical examples of how your life can be transformed through a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Their stories challenge us to radically embrace our faith–not just to “slip by” doing the minimum.  Sometimes I think we subconsciously ask ourselves, “What’s the least I can do and still get to heaven?”  What a selfish response to the One Who gave everything to save me! The saints are demanding and many of us don’t like that.  When we look at their lives we become uncomfortable with our own.  And isn’t that the first step in a real conversion of the heart?  It’s when you realize your aren’t making it on your own and you need to change.  I’ll go a step further and say that if the lives of the saints make you uncomfortable, you’re probably just as uncomfortable with Jesus.  Because the holiness, the goodness and the virtue you’ll find in a saint’s life ALL belongs to Christ.  God doesn’t have favorites—He’s calling you to be a saint, too.  It’s what you were made for.  If you need a place to start, read about St. Francis of Assisi or St. Teresa of Calcutta.  Both these remarkable people are wonderful partners for our journey to heaven.  Put your hand in their hands and let them lead you to Jesus.


“If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.”  —St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

Farming My Soul

I grew up on a farm. We raised vegetables to sell and to eat and we had cows and pigs and chickens. The land provided for us, so long as my family provided the work. We had the food and money we needed to buy most everything else. My parents worked very hard for us and spent a lot of time planning for next year. Farmers do that. They live in the future: the next harvest, next year, the weather tomorrow and next week. I grew up learning about fertilizer and soil conversation and what made cows sick. I watched my dad repair broken tractors and hay balers. We’d get up at night to help birth a litter of piglets or a baby calf. I knew better than to make pets of any of them because in a few months they’d be on our dinner table, or sold to pay bills. The land was everything to us. We completely depended on it for our lives. As the writer Dr. Ferrol Sams said, “In the beginning was the land.” The Georgia soil and rains never failed us. As I learned a little history and my worldview widened, I realized how blessed we were. We didn’t have devastating droughts or hurricanes to deal with. Locusts and disease passed us by. We were never brought low by price collapses or natural disasters. We depended on our farm and it met all our needs. It never failed.  

We go through our lives looking for what we can depend on like my family depended on our farm. But we’re frequently disappointed in the things we find in this world. Relationships fall apart; we lose a job; our health fails. Even when we work hard and do all the “right” things, sometimes nothing seems to work out. It’s what we choose to do in those broken moments of our lives that reveals who we really are. Do we become bitter and blame others for our failings? Do we shake our fists at the sky, shouting at God? Do we turn to something like alcohol or pills to take away our pain? Or maybe we just give up, withdraw into ourselves and avoid giving our hearts away to anyone else or to any new pursuit or purpose. A spirit that is crushed by the world is a sad and hollow life. It becomes like barren earth that has been made lifeless through over use and lack of care and proper stewardship. Weeds have been allowed to creep in and deplete all the nutrients. Such a life bears little fruit. And a life like this rarely draws others into it.

Jesus often used images of farming and shepherding to describe the Christian life. He talks about pruning and being pruned, about tending the flock and feeding the sheep and heeding the voice of the Shepherd. Anyone has farmed the land or tended stock knows how important humility is. You’re not really in control of very much on a farm. You’re at the mercy of the weather and wind, of plague and flood. You can’t will a crop into existence or demand the birth of a healthy animal. You do your best and live in hope. In that way, you are the co-creator of your crops and your flocks. It makes you appreciate the goodness of the earth and the bounty of her fields. When bad years come, and they inevitably will, you regroup and look with hope to next year’s harvest. You learn not to give up, but to trust and to keep trying. You help out your neighbor when he needs it and you count on him to help you out when times are rough.  

I think back often on those years on our farm. The older I get, the more I value the lessons of living life close to the earth. We were poor, but we never lacked anything important. I witnessed the value of hard work and the rewards that come from it: a fresh tomato, a squirming pink piglet, the smell of fresh hay in the field and the long, slow evening spent reliving the day’s events. The rhythm of the farm is a lot like the rhythm of our spiritual walk. Times of harvest, followed by times of drought; planting seeds in the hope of bounty and quiet times of reflection and rest. It’s no wonder to me that the image of a perfect relationship with God is revealed to us as a beautiful Garden.  

My farm is not where I must soil

My hands in endless, dreary toil.  

But where, through seed and swelling pod

I’ve learned to walk and talk with God.” 

  —from a Novena to St. Isidore

      the patron Saint of farmers