From Slave To Friend of God: My Son's Story

I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.   John 15:14-15

No one knew better than Christ that the pain against which we so desperately try to numb ourselves, and all the world’s evil, seem to stem from our terrible fear that we are basically unlovable.     Heather King, Holy Desperation: Praying As If your Life Depends On it, 66

Few people I know have experienced the bondage of slavery like my beloved twenty-six year old son, Christian—who has struggled with a life-wrecking addiction for over ten years; an addiction mercilessly driven by a core belief that he is not loved.

But lately, something has changed. Something akin to a miracle has occurred.

Instead of using words like shame, rejection, fear and punishment, Christian is suddenly speaking the language of love. Specifically, he’s speaking about having encountered God’s personal, gentle, merciful love for him—an encounter that has changed, well—everything.

“My life has always been about failing, about suffering, about punishment,” Christian shared with me in a conversation two days ago. “But when I finally came to God in stillness, in quiet, with an open heart and mind, I heard him whisper in my heart—I love you.” As I listened in grateful awe, he continued: “Since I’ve allowed a little bit of that love to seep into the deepest places of my heart—into the darkest things I’ve ever known and done—I’ve seen that has always God loved me, that he only wanted to embrace me, and that he has always been there with me.”

This is precisely how we transform from slaves to friends of God.

 My son has a “new way of thinking,” as he referred to it, and it has everything to do with coming to believe that he is deeply loved by a merciful God, and that he’s called to live out of that reality.   This new way of understanding has convinced him that many people aren’t interested in God because they have the wrong idea about who God is, thinking of him as a punitive, exacting taskmaster instead of “as a gentle Father whose love and mercy hold the world together.”

Believe me, I know words can be cheap. But when you hear those words coming from the depth of a son’s heart—a son who’s been afflicted for so many years—you know something has radically changed. And you genuinely rejoice.

“Punishment is not who God is!” Christian stated emphatically. “He is love and what he wants is our hearts. People need to know that we are loved by a Father who wants to heal us, set us free, and bless us. And we can’t know that until we personally know who God is.”

Christian went on to say that he now recognizes that recovery—freedom from slavery to drugs—is not about shaming himself out of screwing up or beating himself over the head for falling. “Recovery is about healing the broken heart,” he concluded with conviction. “It’s about opening up, trusting, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to God and to others. What matters is that we are loved, and when we live our lives based on that fact, we become free.”

Indeed, I hear the sweet freedom of a friend of Christ in my son’s voice, a young man who has discovered at last that Christ’s “friends” are “those whom he loves.” I see the liberty of a child of God who has finally heard the voice of the Father whispering: You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.

Such is the cry of freedom of the children of God, freedom won only through love.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

The Healing Power, and Victory, of Embracing Change

butterfly There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every thing under the heavens. Ecclesiastes 3:1

It was an epiphany of sorts, coming forth as a season of change presents itself. In the midst of a series of painful life adjustments, I admitted for the first time that I don’t like change. During a moment of insight, I suddenly understood that I associate change with chaos, uncertainty and pain, and with having the rug pulled right out from under my feet.

How many of us experience change this way?

As it often happens when God opens up a theme for metanoia (which means to change one’s mind and heart about something), all of life’s conversations and events suddenly seemed to segue into one single exclamation point. This week’s lesson in change was no exception.

First, there was the butterfly that lay on the ground in front of the chapel: a gorgeous creature decorated with brilliant fall colors that appeared to be trying to flutter its wings. Spontaneously, I leaned over and picked it up, only to realize that its wing was broken and that ants were already eating its corpse. Putting the butterfly back in its place, I went into the chapel to pray. There, I opened my spiritual reading to a page that, of all unexpected things, was discussing the butterfly as a metaphor for the spiritual life.

That got my attention.

A butterfly is probably the quintessential image of change: a being whose existence comes about by a metamorphosis that literally transforms a creature into something new, and quite often, into something stunningly beautiful.  As I prayed with the image, it became quickly obvious that the broken-winged butterfly represented how I’ve tended to view change—not as something transformative and life giving, but as something traumatic, and even potentially deadly.

I could almost hear God whispering: Could it be time to embrace a new understanding of change?

My next stop was an Al-Anon meeting, where the topic of the day was…you guessed it: Change! It seems that a common theme among those adversely affected by the insanity of addiction is a strong resistance to change. Like me, many people healing from addiction’s fallout equate change with chaos and uncertainty—and with holding one’s breath to brace for what’s coming next. But the real insight of the meeting was that a person must be proactive about change in order to find healing. In fact, choosing to change is often absolutely necessary for new life to emerge.

This brought me back to the butterfly. Wanting to understand how metamorphosis occurs, I began to search the internet when I returned home. I was fascinated to learn that scientists often equate a caterpillar’s morphing into a butterfly with death and resurrection, a point that brought the whole lesson full circle. The greatest change that has ever happened in history—the greatest metamorphosis that’s ever taken place in the universe—was the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which happened only after Jesus willingly chose to embrace death, and all of its accompanying terrors, to change the corruptible into what is incorruptible, and death itself into victorious new life.

Personal change usually involves our willful acceptance of many deaths—the death of our ways, our wills, our wishes—for the promise of new life. And little by little, through a process of transfiguration that takes time and patience, we begin to find our interior hardware radically rearranged unto glory, that we might alight with new wings that bear his brilliance—wings that can only burst forth by the shedding of the old and the awakening to the new. In a word, through change.

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This article was previously published at Aleteia.

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The Painful Pruning of Our Diseased Hearts and the Glorious Mark of the Cross

FullSizeRender-1 They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display his glory.

Isaiah 61:3

They were at it again when I woke up this morning: amputating dead limbs from the majestic oak trees that line the brilliant white beaches of Pass Christian, Mississippi, which is perched like a pearl on edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Lying in bed at my sister Jojo’s tranquil beach house, I could hear the saws humming since practically the crack of dawn.

I’ve reflected a lot on the oaks in recent years, especially since they’re the only things that stayed standing when a massive tidal surge slammed these shores during Hurricane Katrina. That, thanks to deep roots grown over many long years, roots that held the trees in place when the “hundred year storm” swamped the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast. And though the oaks survived the hellacious storm, it’s been an ongoing project ever since to trim their dead branches, branches that require constant stripping in order for the trees to grow and prosper.

He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit (John 15:2). I thought of Jesus’ words as I took a long walk beside the beach later in the morning, observing how many dead oak branches still need to be cut off. Like the oaks, we must all encounter the necessary pain of pruning, as the Divine Grower mercifully strips away everything in us that hampers our growth in him. Paradoxically, when God wields the pruning shears it is not for our destruction, but that we might have life. I experienced this first hand the year my late husband Bernie died, a year when many of my diseased beliefs about God were cropped off as a Category 5 storm blasted our lives.

I’d been dreaming about Bernie when I woke to the sound of saws, probably because yesterday was his birthday. Hit by a massive heart attack seven years ago, Bernie was given the great grace of undergoing a near-death experience, of clearly seeing the condition of his soul, and of being sent back by God to undergo, as he put it, “necessary purification.” Over the course of three long months in the ICU, Bernie suffered profusely as his life was stripped away, all the while discovering inexplicable peace, joy and love as the pruning hand of God reordered the very depths of his soul. Previously a very driven man, Bernie found himself devoid of all power, possessions and productivity, laid bare before a merciful Father who wished to communicate only one thing his broken son, a mantra Bernie would repeat many times during his short time left on earth: You have no idea how much God loves you.

When Bernie got sick I, too, was in need of radical healing; healing of my trust in God’s unbounded goodness. A deep wound of mistrust in God had festered in me since childhood, keeping me in a defensive posture against a distorted image of an angry, exacting God I believed was out to get me. It wasn’t until an unexpected cyclone hit our lives that those distorted beliefs were cut away, when I personally experienced the miraculous love and goodness of a Father who demonstrated in no uncertain terms that he would not only hold me steady in the teeth of death and devastation, but would do so with unspeakable tenderness and love.

So much of our walk with God is about encountering the inevitable storms of life, and about what the tsunamis that hit us expose in our hearts. Do we trust the Lord with all of our hearts, believing that he’s not out to get us, but that he’s got us? Do we believe that God loves us, that he is good and that he works all things together for our good, even the things we may consider disastrous?

One thing I noticed about the oaks is that they each bear a telling mark of their stripping; a mark that often takes the shape of a cross. The cross that takes shape in their flesh is a sign not only of their struggle for survival but of their pruning, the very pruning that leads to transformation and new life.

This article previously appeared at Aleteia.

The Elephant In The Church

Dear Friends, The following reflection is not meant to be a judgment about anyone receiving communion. I am simply wondering what is lacking in our evangelization efforts, and how we can better communicate the love of Christ to Catholics. I would love to hear your views.

Blessings and Grace!

Judy

 

 

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We need to be humble and realistic, acknowledging that the way we present our Christian faith and treat other people has contributed to today’s problematic situation. We need a healthy dose of self-criticism.    Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitiae, par. 36

The entire time the discussion has ensued over divorced and remarried Catholics being admitted to Holy Communion, there have been two burning questions in my head that I’ve longed for someone to ask out loud: What percentage of all Catholics who present themselves for Communion are, objectively, in a state of grave sin? And why isn’t the Church’s leadership talking about this enormous problem, which is surely much more massive numerically than the amount of divorced and remarried people receiving Communion?

 Stated otherwise, how many Catholics who receive Communion are actively watching porn, practicing contraception, sleeping with and/or living with their boyfriends/girlfriends, having affairs, having abortions and living in a manner that is incompatible with the moral teachings of the Church? And why has so much attention been focused on the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics while the enormous elephant in the Church—the fact that statistics demonstrate that most Catholics do not follow the Church’s moral teachings—has been largely ignored? Furthermore, what’s at the root of this important problem?

I grew up Catholic in the 60’s and 70’s and was educated in Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. Like so many others of my generation, I learned little to nothing about Catholic teaching and ultimately graduated college as an agnostic—which, in retrospect, was slang for “a practicing pagan.” I had adopted the beliefs and lifestyle of the prevailing culture, much like we are seeing in the lives of so many Catholics today.

Indeed, there was a serious problem with catechesis, a problem that has undergone a major course correction thanks to the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. But the deeper issue was not that I’d failed to learn the teachings and rules of the Catholic Church. The real problem was that I had not met Jesus Christ and had no relationship with him. Personally encountering Christ was and is the crux of the Christian faith, and I believe this insight is what drives Pope Francis in his tireless summons for people to encounter the tender mercy and love of God.

It sounds sloganish, but how many Catholics have failed to embrace a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? How many Catholics have been sacramentalized without being evangelized, leaving them in a state of “cultural Catholicism” wherein they take comfort in the rituals and holidays of the Church without surrendering to the life-changing, soul-transforming power of the living God?

That was certainly my story, and it took being invited to an evangelical Christian church by an ex-Catholic for that to change. How grateful I remain for that blessed day when I was clearly challenged to welcome Jesus into my heart as the Lord of my life! My life has never been the same.

I wish my experience was unique, but I’ve seen this scenario play out in the lives of numerous baptized Catholics I’ve known, with a few, like me, eventually making our way back to the Catholic Church (usually due to a hunger for the Eucharist.) Many evangelical churches are filled with ex-Catholics who will tell you that they left the Catholic faith because they got “religion without relationship,” in other words, because they never came to an intimate, personal relationship with God as Catholics. This is nothing short of tragic.

I received a call not long ago from the head of the theology department at the Catholic college where I taught moral theology for seven years. “I asked some of the students which course they took at this school that changed their lives,” he shared. “A number of them said yours.” The reason? I introduced my students to the God of Jesus Christ; the God who loves us personally and passionately, the God reaches out to us with his great mercy, the God wants to have an intimate love relationship with each of us—the Lord who wishes to transform our very hearts and lives with his infinite, inestimable power.

In teaching the students about the moral life, I conveyed the message of St. John Paul II:

Following Christ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality…this is not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment. More radically, it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father.     Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, par. 19.

Holding fast to the very person of Jesus.  This is the essence of the Christian faith, the foundational truth that must be communicated to Catholics today if we are to see the Church healed of the many moral issues it faces--the tip of the iceberg which is divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion.

Note: This article was previously published on Aleteia.

Why Mercy Makes Us Uncomfortable

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In his second Encyclical, Dives in Misericordia…Saint John Paul II highlighted the fact that we had forgotten the theme of mercy in today’s cultural milieu: “The present day mentality, more perhaps than that of people in the past, seems opposed to a God of mercy, and in fact tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy. The word and the concept of ‘mercy’ seem to cause uneasiness in man, who, thanks to the enormous development of science and technology, never before known in history, has become the master of the earth and has subdued and dominated it.”

Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, para. 11

Something very strange happened on Tuesday. Thousands of people in Louisiana, including my sixteen-year-old son, Benjamin, and myself, were sequestered to closets and bathrooms under the immediate threat of a tornado in our area. Hurricanes we’re used to. Tornadoes no.

I sat on the ground in our small powder room with Benjamin’s lacrosse helmet on my head, clutching my rosary and praying for God’s mercy for all in the storm’s path. Our phone alarms had sounded moments earlier alerting us to an imminent threat in our vicinity, and multiple texts had arrived from family members telling us to take cover as they watched minute-by-minute news coverage of a twister aiming right at us.

From the bathroom floor, I pulled up the news on my laptop so I could see how close the tornado was to us. Suddenly, it occurred to me how unnervingly strange it is that the technology exists to give us a blow-by-blow report on a tornado that might be headed directly for our neighborhood—but that nothing could actually be done to protect us from its wrath. It reminded me that a direct confrontation with the power of nature serves up a sobering wake up call of just how vulnerable we human beings really are, as many of us have learned in recent years in the face of natural disasters.

Interestingly, I had been chewing on Pope Francis’ abovementioned quote by Saint John Paul II all day, trying to figure out why and how mercy makes us uneasy. But the answer didn’t hit me until I was huddled in the bathroom praying for mercy!

Mercy makes us uncomfortable because it necessitates the admission of our powerlessness, and the acknowledgement that we are not, in fact, God. Mercy crashes our illusions that we are masters of the earth because of our technological prowess, calling us to confront the reality that we are not in control. Mercy demands that we have the humility to concede that we are creatures who are utterly dependent on God—creatures that would cease to exist if he turned his omnipotent glance away from us for one millisecond.

To seek the mercy of God is to experience what Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) referred to as a personal “Copernican revolution,” wherein we come to see that we are not the center of the universe, and that God is. As such, we must begin “to accept quite seriously that we are one of many among God’s creatures, all of which turn around God as their center.” (Joseph Ratzinger, What It Means to Be a Christian, 70-71)

Looking at the world around us, it is apparent that we don’t like to admit our own poverty and frailty, nor do we tolerate well the poverty and frailty of others. Asking for and extending mercy requires that we do both: recognize our human fragility and our profound need for help, while “return(ing) to the basics…to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters.” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, para. 10)

 Frankly, we’d rather not. And it shows in the way we live, the values we embrace and the leaders we elect. Which is precisely why Pope Francis, following the lead of St. John Paul II, unceasingly pushes for what he insists is an “urgent” need for the proclamation and witness of mercy in the world.

Note: This article was previously published on Aleteia.

Pope Francis' Mercifying Madness

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With our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity. Pope Francis, Miseracordiae Vultus, par. 8

 This pope just won’t stop talking about mercy. He’s even come up with a word I’ve never heard before: mercifying. “What in the world does that mean?” I asked when I saw the word in his new book. For while his namesake, St. Francis, was charged by God to “rebuild my Church,” it seems Pope Francis has been given the mandate of “mercifying” the Church.

In Pope Francis’ first book, The Name of God Is Mercy, he talks at length about mercy with veteran Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli. Francis clarifies the meaning of the Latin expression he chose for his episcopal motto, miserando atque eligendo, which he explains as meaning “mercifying and choosing.” (Translated elsewhere as “mercying and choosing.”)

According to the pope, mercifying describes the gaze of Jesus, who looks upon us with love, forgives our sins and chooses us. Mercifying happens when we experience ourselves as being seen by Christ, when we sense his penetrating eyes unveiling ours, and when we come to know that we are loved, embraced and chosen, calling us forth to repentance and new life.

Francis’ description of his own experience of being mercified in the confessional at age 17 prompted me to remember my own encounter with God’s transforming mercy at the age of 23, when my soul morphed from the black alienation of separation from God to being bathed in the light of Christ’s love in one split second.

Agnostic at the time in spite of being raised Catholic, I was carrying on like a complete pagan, indulging myself in anything and everything the world had to offer. After several years of vacuous living, I became aware of my own inner emptiness and began to cry out for God to show me if he was real. That small opening — to which Francis refers as conceding to God “the smallest glimmer of space” — was enough for God to move. In short order, God sent someone to my apartment unexpectedly who invited me to go to church with him that Sunday — the unforgettable day that I was mercified by encountering Jesus Christ.

“The medicine is there, the healing is there,” says the pope, “if we only take a small step toward God … or even desire to take that step” (Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, xviii).

What stands out in my mind as I think back on that life-changing experience is how miraculously, in one instant, I suddenly became utterly convinced that Jesus knew me personally, that he loved me and that he wanted to be in a relationship with me. Like the tax collector, Matthew, to whose calling Pope Francis repeatedly refers (Matt. 9:9), “I knew that I was seen, loved, chosen.”

My angst over my own hollow life — which I was not even able to call “sinful” yet — had led me to the point of questioning. But it was the infinite gaze of Christ’s love that turned me on a dime, that changed my mind about what could make me truly happy, that called me to leave a lost, lonely life behind to follow him. As grace moved, I quickly saw my own wretchedness and the need to amend my life. Necessary repentance came, but it was the look of merciful love that first called me forth from sin’s stupor.

This is the dynamic of encounter that Pope Francis refers to as mercifying, wherein we experience Christ seeing our inmost hearts and are touched by his desire to respond to our deepest need for forgiveness, healing and restoration. The world is flat, desperate for mercifying at such a time as this — the very reason Pope Francis speaks incessantly about it.

I believe it is a time for mercy. The Church is showing her maternal side, her motherly face, to a humanity that is wounded. She does not wait for the wounded to knock on her doors, she looks for them on the streets, she gathers them in, she embraces them, she takes care of them, she makes them feel loved. And so, as I said, and I am ever more convinced of it, this is a kairos, our era is a kairos of mercy, an opportune time.

Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy, 6

This article was first published on Aleteia.