I’m the Prodigal

Nothing feels as good as coming home.  Whether it’s at the end of an especially tiresome workday or coming home for the first time in many years — home is the place at the heart of our souls.  It’s where we are most ourselves.  It’s where we are energized and made whole again.  Home is so much more than a house.  While the walls and floors and furnishings may be the physical parts of a home, the soul of a home is the family within it.  Family gives us life and our beginning.  If we’re blessed with a loving and supportive family, home is where we long to be, no matter our age or circumstances.  Home grounds us, refreshes us and lets us rest and become our truest selves.  Home embraces us, revives us, and allows us to dream.  Home gives us permission to be loved.

Home is what the prodigal son had lost.  He’d left home with his share of his father’s estate and hit the road.  He’d lived the high life and spent all his attentions on himself. “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation” (Luke 15:13).  Finally he hit bottom.  Out of money and the friends money had bought for him, he found a job feeding scraps to a farmer’s pigs.  For a Jew, working with swine was the lowest job in the world.  Starving, he remembered his father and their home.  He thought to himself: “I shall get up and to to my father” (Luke 15:18).  The prodigal wants to go home.

Catholics hear this parable and we think of ourselves as the prodigal son or daughter.  God, our Father, has given us the gift of life and everything in it.  Our home with Him is one of joy and light and peace that surpasses understanding.  We are His beloved children and heirs.  And yet, this isn’t enough for us.  We want even more and we think we can find “more” away from His home, out in the world.  And so we leave.  We try our own way.  We leave our home behind.  We try to forget our Father’s ways.  We try new ways with new people.  We go from place to place and relationship to relationship, always looking for something, but never really knowing what.  We work.  We play.  But we’re starving inside.  Our heart longs for….home.  And the house and the love of our Father.

There’s a wonderful and very revealing verse in the parable of the prodigal son.  He’s on the journey home and “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20).  This tells us so much about our loving God.  He has made us as His beautiful children, loved by Him since the beginning of time.  He made the universe just for you and for me.  And from the moment of Adam’s sin, He put in place a people and a plan to draw us back to His heart and to our true home in heaven.  Yet we forsake our inheritance because we think we can find our own way in the world.  We believe we know what’s best for us.  We stop praying.  We stop reading His Word.  We stop going to Mass.  We invest our time and treasure in the things of the world.  And the world leaves us cold and alone and starving for the Truth.  In each of our lives there comes a moment, or a series of moments, when we realize there is no peace outside the Father’s home.  It’s this soul-satisfying peace that we so desperately long for and we find missing in our lives away from Him.  St. Augustine sums it up beautifully when he writes: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Something brings us to our knees—a broken relationship, an addiction, a financial loss, the death of a loved one—and our broken hearts long for the healing forgiveness and mercy of our Father.  Like the prodigal, we want to go home.

Jesus has always been looking for us to come back to Him. Every day, He has peered down the road of our lives, hoping to see us return to Him.  No matter how long we’ve been away from Him and His Church, He never forgets our face and our heart.  His longing has been to enfold us in His loving arms and welcome us home as His child and the heir to His Kingdom.  No sin can separate us from the love of Christ.  The story of the prodigal son teaches us how precious we are to Jesus and how much joy we give Him when we come back home to Him.  Jesus has never ceased to think of us and love us and want us back.  When we come to Him on our knees and admit sorrow for our sins, His mercy and love embraces us.  Like the prodigal’s father, He longs to give us a party with the finest food and drink.  And He does.  Christ gives us Himself in the Sacrifice and Celebration of the Holy Mass.  There, at His altar, we are truly home.  We find peace there, and our heart’s desire..  We, who once were dead, are now alive again.  We were lost, and now are found.

God is waiting for us, like the father in the parable, with open arms, even though we don’t deserve it.”
—St. Josemaria Escriva


Praying In The Desert

She went to Mass every day.  She listened to the Word of God proclaimed and heard the priest’s homily — words meant to enlighten and inspire.  She received the Eucharist in Holy Communion.  At home, she prayed.  Her family watched her go to work and watched her come home again.  She cooked and cleaned and cared for her children and her husband.  She was active in her ministry work at church and as a volunteer at the local hospital.  And always, she prayed.  On the outside, nothing had changed.  But on the inside, everything was darkness.  Her spiritual life, once the source of her joy and peace, was now a wasteland.  Prayer brought her no comfort.  Her pleas to God went unanswered.  She felt totally cut-off from Christ, from the sweet Savior Who had always felt so close to her.  She felt alone.  She felt lost.

There are times in life when God seems very close to us.  The sun of His love shines brightly.  Our hearts exult in the joy of His presence.  Every Mass is a foretaste of heaven and Holy Communion is almost unbearable intimacy with Christ.  When we read Holy Scripture, He speaks to us directly and reveals His heart fully to us. Our prayer life is rich, satisfying and exciting.  We feel as if we are always in the presence of our Lord.  And then it seems, for no reason, we wake one day to find ourselves cast away from Him, no longer in His presence at all but in a kind of spiritual desert.  Anyone who follows Christ will someday experience this dryness and spiritual loneliness.  In the Catholic tradition, many great Saints have written of their own experiences of feeling isolated from Christ.  St. John of the Cross’ most famous work is The Dark Night of the Soul.  St. Therese of Lisieux wrote:  “For me it is always night; dark black night…but since my Beloved wishes to sleep, I shall not prevent Him.”  More recently, the private letters of St. Teresa of Calcutta have revealed that this loving and heroic woman lived for many years in the lonely darkness of a spiritual void.  And yet she persevered in her work with the poor.  To the outside world, her faith seemed as vibrant and alive as ever.

The truth is:  it was.  It’s a mistake for us to think that our “feelings” define our faith lives.  Faith is more than just warm and fuzzy feelings.  The gift of faith requires a conscious decision to follow Jesus Christ.  Feelings fade, but true faith persists in the desert.  It can even thrive there.  Remember in St. Matthew’s Gospel, that it wasn’t the devil that led Christ into the desert:  it was the Spirit of God.  Whether we like it or not, all of us will be led into that desert at one time or another.  In that blistering, lonely wilderness we can, like Christ, be cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose.  What did Christ do in the desert?  He fasted and prayed and waited on God.

This is what we also can do when our interior faith life becomes dry, dusty, and silent.  Pray, even when you don’t feel like it.  Go to Mass as often as you can.  Go to Confession every week.  Do something for someone else.  Fast. Read the Gospels every day.  Be quiet.  This last one may be the most difficult of all.  Spend some time each day quietly and prayerfully opening your heart to God’s presence.  This “desert time” can be a wonderful gift, because it is a time just for you and for God to be together.  In the wilderness, He teaches us to rely on Him more completely, to depend on Him for all our needs.  Alone with Him, we learn that He is using this desert to teach us how to love Him as He already loves us.  Completely.

I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the desert, through a land not sown.” 

                                                                                                            –Jeremiah 2:2

Building the Kingdom

At a construction site, three men were pouring a mixture of sand, water, and lime into a trough.  A passerby asked them what they were doing.  The first man said, “I’m making mortar.”  The second one said, “I’m laying bricks.”  But the third man said, “I’m building a cathedral.”  They were all doing the same work.  It was their attitudes that were different—and what a difference they made!  Each one of us can probably identify with this story in our own lives.  We all know people who take the short view of life.  They do just enough to get by, whether at their jobs or in their families or in their relationship with God.  They come to Mass at Christmas and Easter and drop their $5 in the collection basket when it comes by.  They bring their children to be baptized and bring their parents for a Catholic funeral.  They are the ones making mortar.

Surely, we know some of the second type as well.  These are the people we work with every day.  They show up, do a good job and take pride in being a good employee.  They love their families and their children.  They’re next to us in the pew at Mass every Sunday.  They know the words to most of the hymns and they usually give some of their treasure to help pay the bills.  They do all that’s asked of them.  They are the ones laying bricks.

If we’re blessed, we know a few of the last ones as well.  They are the people who do their jobs with joy and gladly help others to do their jobs, too.  They don’t ask for credit or recognition and just being around them makes you feel good.  They volunteer for the PTA and the carpool when they aren’t coaching Little League or teaching Sunday School.  They come to daily Mass.  They take Holy Communion to the nursing home and do what needs to be done around the church without even being asked.  They tithe ten percent of their income to the Church and are often those “anonymous donors” who contribute generously to keep the parish going when times are tough.  They are not only building a cathedral, they’re building the Body of Christ.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be one of these last people.  I want to serve God and His Church joyfully and gladly and I know that I can best serve Him by serving others.  “Just getting by” isn’t enough.  My faith is too important to me to spend my time on earth just making mortar.  I need God always at the center of my life and I need the strength and courage that He gives me in His Sacraments. I know that when I mess up (every day) that the Lord will forgive me and help me to do better. I know that He wants me to forgive others in just the same way. I need the love and support of my parish family.  This is what stewardship is all about—because the more we need, the more we need to give.  We need to offer serious time for prayer, Adoration, and Mass.  We need to give our time to help the poor and the needy.  We need to share our talents, whatever they may be.  We need to put ourselves at the service of the One Who gives us everything.  We understand that it takes a lot of money for the Church to function, so we give sacrificially so our parish can carry out its ministry work.  In helping to build the Body of Christ, I’m laying up treasure in heaven.  This is the joy of stewardship:  in knowing that my humble gifts laid at His altar for His purpose never belonged to me anyway.  They were always the mortar and the bricks in the Cathedral of His Kingdom.

“Persevere in the exact fulfillment of the obligations of the moment. That work – humble, monotonous, small – is prayer expressed in action that prepares you to receive the grace of the other work – great and wide and deep – of which you dream.”

           –St. Jose Maria Escriva

Your Gift to God

A newborn baby.  Is there anything in the world more beautiful and more innocent?  In a tiny baby, we can see ourselves when we were new to the world.  In their little grasping fingers that reach out to touch and explore to their wide, seeking eyes that drink in the light and colors of the world around them—babies find everything worthy of their attention.  The world to them is a place of beauty, adventure and goodness.  We see in them the beauty, adventure and goodness of a soul created in love by God and made in His likeness.  We see the innocent purity of a freshly-minted soul, unstained by sinful thoughts or actions.  Before the age of reason, about seven years of age or so, only original sin mars the beauty of the soul in any way.  This inherited sin of Adam and Eve is washed clean at baptism.  After we receive this Sacrament, our newborn soul truly reflects our Maker’s love and divine goodness.  We are His sinless child.

The Lord made us to be like Him.  He created you and me “in His image” (Genesis 1:27).  It is in our souls that we mirror God, not in the flesh and bones of our mortal bodies, good as they are. Our spirit or soul is what makes us human and is a reflection of the living God.  Catholics believe that we are created by God at the moment of our conception, fully whole and fully human.  We aren’t just tissue that becomes a human at the time of birth.  No. From that first moment of life, we are a human being.  God’s greatest gift to each of us is the precious gift of our own lives, which He planned from the beginning of time.

In our journey through life, our choices affect the state of our souls.  When we sin against our neighbor, that sin wounds our relationship with God.  Sin also wounds our souls. This wound can be large and deep, or small and shallow, but there are consequences to every sin.  When we confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that wound is healed.  But a scar remains.  That scar is any attachment to the sin that remains within us.  Over a lifetime, the marks of our sinful choices leave a map on our eternal souls.  What will your map reveal at the end of your life?  Just as God gave you the gift of life and an eternal soul, the gift of your soul is what you’ll give back to Him upon your death.  Jesus shares with us the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) which illustrates what we are to do with the gifts He gives to us.  He calls us to be Christ to one another, to care for one another, to love one another and to offer ourselves to help Him build the Kingdom of God.  In short, we’re called to live like Jesus so that when we meet the Master, we can hear Him say to us:  “Well done my good and faithful servant….Come share your Master’s joy”(Matthew 25:21).

We’re entrusted at birth with an eternal soul.  At the end of our lives, we’ll present this soul back to the Lord.  Our offering to Him will be the summation of all the choices we’ve made in our lives and all the mercy and forgiveness we’ve begged of Him.  Jesus established a Church to shepherd and guide us through our earthly lives (Matthew 16:18).  He didn’t want us to try and figure things out on our own.  Through His Church we can receive the grace of His Sacraments and the mercy of His forgiveness.  He will make an accounting of our lives, like the Master evaluated the servants in the parable.  In our case, the riches God gave to us our are very souls.  Like the newborn, we were once pure and innocent of sin or scar.  Have we loved as He loved?  Have we shown mercy to those around us?  Have we forgiven others, not once or twice, but seventy times seven?  Have we given of our gifts and treasure without counting the cost?  Life is our journey to become more like Jesus so that at the end of our time on earth we can be with Him forever.  What will your gift to God be like?

Go forth, O Christian soul, out of this world in the name of God the Father Almighty Who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ Who suffered for you; in the name of the Holy Spirit Who sanctified you.”

—from the Catholic prayers for the dying

Your Mission

They knew one another well.  They had lived together, studied together, traveled together, and prayed together.  They knew each other’s families.  They read the same texts and they debated together over what they meant.  They passionately loved their God and they dedicated their lives to His glory and service.  They were a band of brothers who changed the world.  And they died for their beliefs.

Were these men the twelve Apostles of Christ? Or were they

the nineteen hijackers of 9/11?

What are you willing to die for?

Cyrus the Great was the Emperor of Persia in the 5th century B.C. and was constantly at war with Cagular, a powerful tribal chieftain who lived along his southern border.  Finally exasperated after years of war, Cyrus sent his entire Persian army to capture Cagular and his family and to bring them to his palace for judgment.  Cyrus was impressed by their dignity and bearing under the circumstances.  Thoughtfully, the Emperor asked Cagular what he would do if his life was spared.  Cagular replied, “Your majesty, if you spared my life, I would return to my home and remain your obedient servant as long as I live.”  “What would you do if I spared the lives of your children?” asked Cyrus.  Cagular answered, “Your majesty, if you spared the lives of my children, I would gather them all under your banner and lead them to victory for you on every battlefield.”  Then Cyrus asked, “What would you do if I spared the life of your wife?”  Cagular answered, “Your majesty, if you spared the life of my wife, I would die for you.”  The Emperor was so moved by Cagular’s responses that he freed them all, returned them to their home and made Cagular the governor of that province.  When they were safely home and alone, Cagular reflected on the experience to his wife.  He had been awed by the marble of the palace, the rich tapestries, the Emperor’s golden throne.  His wife didn’t recall any of those things.  “Well,” Cagular said in surprise, “What did you see as we stood before the Emperor on the day of judgment?”  She replied, “I saw only the face of the man who said he would die for me.”

When you know what you’d be willing to die for, you’ve discovered what you should live for.  As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ loved us so much that He gave His life to save us from sin.  His love for us is our salvation.  And Christ calls us to be that same love for one another, as we are all members of His Body.  Throughout the history of His Church, God has raised up for us examples of holy men and women whose lives have mirrored the love of Christ.  From the twelve Apostles, to St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assissi, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Teresa of Avila, and so many others, we see the love of Christ in action.  In our own time, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II both opened their hearts to God and allowed the life, teachings, and person of Jesus Christ to transform their lives.

Each of our lives is the sum of the choices we make each day.  It’s as if every day is one tiny piece of mosaic we’re creating and the picture we’re working on can only be seen and recognized at the end, from the perspective of a life fully-lived, finally realized.  But God isn’t calling you to be another St. Francis or another Mother Teresa.  The Church doesn’t need another St. Benedict.  The Church needs you, with all your unique gifts and graces.  There’s certainly very little in common with Christ’s Apostles and the 9/11 hijackers.  And yet, it was their individual and shared choices that led both groups to their ultimate end.  The Apostles, living in Christ, spread the Good News of His Gospel to the world and were martyred for their faith.  The hijackers murdered thousands of innocent victims in order to further a political cause.

And so we return to our opening question: What are you willing to die for? And we reflect on these words of Venerable John Cardinal Newman (1801-1890): “God  has created me to do Him some definite service.  He has commited some work to me which He has not commited to another.  I have my mission.  I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the end.”

What (or Whom) are you willing to live for?

The Question

There’s a story in the Gospel that I seem to always come back to in my readings and study.  I wouldn’t exactly call it a favorite of mine because, in a way, it makes me a bit uncomfortable.  But over the years I’ve found that if something in Sacred Scripture makes you uncomfortable, you need to pay attention.  Sometimes those passages that trouble or confound us are exactly the ones that God most wants us to hear and understand.  In my case, one of these troublesome passages is the story of Bartimaeus which St. Mark describes in the tenth chapter of his Gospel.  We see Jesus and the Apostles on the journey to Jerusalem, with a large crowd following them.  Christ makes it clear that He is going there to be jailed and killed and that He will rise again on the third day.  James and John are intrigued and they ask Jesus to let them sit beside Him in heaven.  He explains to them that His will for them all is that they serve one another, rather than seek personal authority or power.  As they are leaving the city of Jericho, they pass by Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting at the side of the road.  When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is nearby, he cries out to Him: “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me” (Mark 10:42).  Many in the crowd rebuke him, telling him to be quiet, but he keeps calling to Jesus.  Christ tells the crowd to let Bartimaeus come to Him, which he does.  When he gets to Jesus, the Lord asks him: “What do you want Me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51).

And that’s the question from my Savior that never fails to astound me.  Because I know Jesus is asking me the same question.  “Judy, what do you want me to do for you?” The Creator of the universe is stopping by to see me, in the midst of all my sin to ask me if He can be my servant.  He wants to stop everything and listen to my pleading voice.  And what do I say to Him?  What do I want from Jesus? This is one of the most radical and countercultural truths of our Christian faith:  God wants us to tell Him what we want from Him.  On the way to His Passion, He wants us to ask even more of Him.  Within sight of His death on a Cross, for our sins, He stops to ask, “What do you want Me to do for you?” What love!  What absolute Love He has for us!  To be loved by Love Himself.  God comes to us to ask to be our servant and to offer Himself for our needs.  His love is all-consuming and is most ultimately consumated on His Holy Cross, where He gives everything for you and for me.

How do we answer Christ’s heart-stopping question?  For we know that in our answer we’ll reveal the truth of our relationship with Him.  Like John and James, do we desire honor and glory?  Do we want a bigger house, a better job, more influence, more recognition?  Do we desire forgiveness?  Like Bartimaeus, do we seek to be set free from darkness?  Or do we fear God so much that we can’t imagine asking Him for anything?  Will our answer to His question be to ask something for someone else?  Will we reveal love in our hearts in our unselfish plea?  What is our deepest desire, our most heartfelt yearning:?  A cure?  A vision?  A favor?

We can find an answer in Bartimaeus himself.  He casts himself on Christ’s great mercy and cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.”  He asks to be set free, “I want to see.”  Christ assures him that his faith has saved him.  And then we read, “Immediately he received his sight and followed Him on the way”(Mark 10:52).  Isn’t this what happens when we approach the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Confession?  We cast ourselves on Jesus’ mercy and ask Him to set us free from our sins, from our blindness.  And God never fails.  Our faith saves us, we get up, and we follow Him.  Like Bartimaeus, we’ve been set free by our Servant Savior.  Never doubt God’s great love for you and His desire to set you free from your sin, whatever it might be.  Get up and follow Him.

Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin, all hope consists in confession; in confession there is a chance for mercy.

                           St. Isidore of Seville

Thinking of Leaving Your Ministry?

You’ve been leading a ministry in your local Catholic (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian…) church for the last three (five, eight, two hundred…) years.  When people think of your ministry, they think of you and “all the good work” you do for the parish and community.  And lately, when you think of your ministry, that’s what comes to mind first—all the work.  You’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time for you to resign your leadership.  So how does a faithful worker in God’s vineyard know when it’s time to leave their ministry work and move on?

To begin with, you have to listen to the right voice.  Sometimes you might think you’re hearing the voice of God when in reality

it’s the voice of fatigue or frustration or disappointment that you’re listening to.  Think back to when you began your ministry leadership.  Probably your pastor approached you and asked you to pray about accepting the ministry.  And you did.  I’ll bet you can remember the moment you decided to say “yes.”  You heard God’s call in your heart and it was joyful and exciting.  You started imagining “all the good work” you could do in the ministry.  You knew deep down inside that God wanted you there because you belong to His flock and He shepherds you.  You hear His voice and know His voice.  So if you’re now considering leaving, listen for that voice again.  Really and truly pray about your decision to leave and be patient in waiting for His reply.  He wants us to know Him by spending time with Him.  If you aren’t confident that it’s God’s will that you leave just yet, trust in Him and stay put.

There are some things you can do as you wait on the Lord to make His will known to you.  First off, continue doing your best in whatever role you’re in.  You made a promise to your pastor and to God when you accepted this ministry.  Don’t let them down now.  Secondly, make sure you are mentoring others in your ministry so that they are growing in their vision and leadership skills.  A ministry needs good leadership just as a family does.  But don’t forget that the Lord’s work is one we’re called to share.  We are members of one another (Romans 12:4-5), joined together in Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16), made one in Holy Communion (Ephesians 4:4-5).  You’ll feel less burdened if you’ve surrounded yourself with coworkers who help you bear the load.  We’re all in this together.

Next, honestly examine your relationship with Christ.  Do you need to go to confession?  If you have serious sin in your life, your ministry work is sure to feel burdensome, thankless and insincere.  A clean heart can help to create that joy and peace that you knew when you entered into ministry.  Maybe that’s the source of your burnout.  Look at the fruits of your ministry work.  Is it making a difference in people’s lives?  Are you sharing the love of Christ with others?  If good fruits are there, then maybe God needs you where you were planted.  But if you’ve faithfully prayed for God’s guidance and patiently worked and waited for Him to show you His will, you may find that you ARE being led out of ministry.  If that’s true, then resign quickly and gracefully.  Don’t hang around with a bad attitude and a complaining spirit.  And don’t stay because you’re afraid the pastor can’t find someone to replace you.  God is in control and He put your pastor there to lead your parish.  Go graciously and thankfully, being grateful for the opportunity you were given to serve God and His Church.  Let your pastor and the members of your ministry know that you’ll continue to pray for them and support your parish.  Know that the Lord has begun a good work in you that He will carry on to completion in Christ (Phillipians 1:6).  In time, another door of service will open for you and your heart will once again accept His work with joy and thanksgiving.

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