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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A Tomb With A View

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I know, it’s Lent. And I’m out of sync with the liturgical calendar. But I’ve been meditating on the Resurrection in my Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and something really struck me recently. It involved Peter, John and the tomb of Jesus, which Mary Magdalene had just reported she’d found empty. The two apostles ran like lightening to see it for themselves, and John, being faster, arrived first.

When he got there, the beloved disciple merely bent down apprehensively and peered into the dark grave. But then he stepped into the tomb, and he truly came to believe. Suddenly, John saw things from a completely new perspective, and he understood what it meant to rise from the dead (John 20:8-9).

How often have we peered into the tomb of our lives, standing on the edge of real or imagined “death,” looking in and fearing the worst? How many times have we gazed into the black hole of our dreads, afraid that we might fall into the darkness? I’ve done it a thousand times, and I’ve learned firsthand, it’s deadly.

Truth is, we cannot know the power of God to raise us from a thousand deaths until we step into the tomb and experience the power of the Resurrection. That shift in perspective is precisely what constitutes hope.

I’m watching hope unfold in living color in the life of my son, Christian, and, oh, how it makes my heart smile. I remember five short months ago when Christian came home from Communita Cenacolo, the place he had called home for four years. Leaving the safe confines of the cloistered community that saved his life and delivered him from addiction was a frightening prospect. He was anxious about how he would take care of himself, and had no idea where he was going or what the future held.

“How am I supposed to do this?” he asked, understandably scared about how he was going to make it on the outside. I had agreed to follow Community’s wise counsel of letting him find his own way, and of not rescuing him from his own life.

“You do it by doing it, Christian,” I assured him. “And with God’s help, you will learn that you can do it.”

God quickly opened a door for him to go to Wyoming—back to the youth ranch where he had lived for a year as a fourteen year-old boy. He was offered a job there earning minimal pay and working long hours running a house full of troubled teens; boys that I knew would provide a mirror image of him at that age. He took the job and packed his bags, leaving my house with a sack full of qualms and “what ifs” on his back. My heart ached as I watched him peer into the tomb of his life, and all I could do was pray and trust that God would take care of him.

Christian’s legs were wobbly when he first stepped in, just like when he learned to walk. But he moved into his fears with faith, and his legs grew stronger. With each step forward, his faith and strength grew, and the hope in his voice increased.

“I’m doing it, Mama,” he shared yesterday, as I told him how proud I am of him. “And it’s not as bad as I thought.”

Peering into the darkness can be terrifying, and we tend to imagine the worst. But stepping into the empty tomb and experiencing the power of the Resurrection convinces us that Jesus has, in fact, overcome death—both His own and every death we face. We may know this theoretically, and even believe it in good faith. But it is only in experiencing this reality personally that we can come to know the force of the Resurrection, a force that moves stones away and blows boulders out of our lives.

Empty Tomb By Kodi Tanner

God's Love Is The Best Beauty Treatment

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“Do you think it’s wrong to have a facelift?” a girlfriend asked as we sat on the beach house sofa in our pajamas, sipping coffee and looking out the window at the boats in the harbor. We were on retreat with a wonderful band of women, and as it frequently happens with women, the subject turned to beauty.

“I had the same conversation with my sister just last week,” I replied. “I’ll tell you what I told her. I don’t think it’s ‘wrong’ to have a facelift, but my desire is to be so full of God’s love that it shines through my face so I don’t NEED a facelift,” I continued.

Our culture’s preoccupation with physical beauty is but one sign that we’re living from the outside in, instead of from the inside out. But as Christians, we’re meant to live from the inside out, letting the love of Christ inhabit us so fully that it radiates within us and shows up on our faces as “glory.”

Think about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. She was not “beautiful” by the world’s standards. But she was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. Why? She was overflowing with the love of God and it showed on her face.   Such beauty is not exclusive to women.

I often think of Moses, who enjoyed such personal intimacy with God that he spoke with God “face to face” (Ex. 33:11). Moses’ face became so radiant when he conversed with the Lord that he had to veil his face to come into the presence of the Israelites. That manifestation of glory foreshadowed the glory of Christ, who is the very “imprint” of God’s being, and who reveals to us in flesh and blood the face of God (Hebrews 1:3-4). If we want to see God, we are to look at Christ. And if we want to look like God, we are to become like Christ. How? St. Augustine gave us the secret: we become what we contemplate.

We contemplate Christ by spending time with Him in prayer, and by meditating on His Word and His presence. We contemplate Christ by making Him our best friend and top priority in life, and by learning all we can about who He is. We contemplate Christ by serving others, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta demonstrated so wonderfully through her life’s work, wherein she saw the face of Christ in the “poorest of the poor.”

When we contemplate Christ, we become Christ-like, and we take on His beautiful countenance. Nowhere have I seen this truth manifested more evidently than on the faces of the recovering drug addicts of Communita Cenacolo, a lay Catholic Community that ministers to those in bondage to addiction. The residents of the Community usually arrive there looking beat up, strung out, and exhausted. And indeed they are. Their faces bear witness to the hell they’ve lived in the grip of drugs, which has become their main preoccupation.

I have pictures of my own son the day he arrived at Cenacolo, wearing black circles under his eyes and an almost palpable shadow of darkness on his face. His face looked markedly different when I saw him months later, not because he was being “rehabbed,” but because he was being “restored.” He was returning to the truth that he is a beloved child of God—a child in whom God delights—in large part by spending hours a day before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He was becoming what he meditated upon, and his face told the tale. Over the years, I’ve heard many parents echo the same amazement when they see their children’s faces for the first time after they enter the Community, because the change in their faces is nothing short of remarkable.

Do you want to be beautiful? Unveil your face and gaze upon the face of the Lord, that He may transform you from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:13). His love is a beauty treatment that’s not only free—it has lasting benefits.

Look to Him that you may be radiant with joy, and your faces may not blush with shame.   Psalm 34:6