I feel like I just finish a marathon that was made up entirely of sprints. *Whew!* Thank you for patiently waiting for me to finish this latest NFP Newsletter. Please be in touch if you have any questions!
A few weeks ago, my middle school class talked about Prayer. One of my goals as a Youth Minister is to try to engage parents more, so I’ve been sending out session recap emails in the hopes that the conversations we start in class can continue at home. I use question/comment slips from the end of class to not only glean some insight into how the kids are responding to the material, but also to let the parents know what questions their kids come up with. I try to choose a good question that is fairly representative of the class as a whole. Here is the Q&A portion of the email I sent out to parents after that session on Prayer:
One very astute middle-schooler asked this week: “I learned that some people have trouble with praying. I want to know if Jesus had trouble with praying.”
We talked in class about Luke 11:1-13, where Jesus’ disciples ask Him to teach them to pray and He gives the example of the Our Father. Let’s take a look at some other Bible passages in the Gospel of Luke which talk about Jesus’ prayer life:
Luke 5:16– “[Jesus] would withdraw to deserted places and pray”
Luke 6:12– “[Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer with God.”
Luke 22:39– 46- “He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’”
From these passages we know that Jesus liked to pray. He was in the habit of going off to be by Himself in prayer, so the disciples were accustomed to having Jesus leave for a little while and then come back. Sometimes they were invited to go with Him, but this prayer on the Mount of Olives is really exceptional because it shows us how intense Jesus’ prayer life was: “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.”
Have you ever had that happen? Have you ever been so wrapped up in prayer that you began to sweat blood? Not I. So it seems that Jesus didn’t have difficulty praying in the sense that we, who are less than perfect, do. Jesus had a strong connection with the Father (He is the Son, after all) that made prayer come naturally to Him and made Him aware of times when He needed to pray. He *wanted* to pray a lot! But that doesn’t mean that prayer was a happy-go-lucky romp through the meadow. This prayer at the Mount of Olives is not an easy one. Jesus is really struggling, because He knows what must be done. He knows what is going to happen with his betrayal and His arrest and being put to death. He even asks the Father to take this suffering (this “cup”) away if there could be any other way to accomplish the goal of Salvation. But Jesus, since He is perfect in all things, is our perfect model in prayer because even though He is frightened and REALLY struggling, He says, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Jesus understood, and He teaches us to understand, that if we really truly believe that God is as good and great as we say He is, then doing His will is the best and greatest thing we can do. That doesn’t make it easy. That doesn’t make it easy for us to come to God in prayer and wrestle with these things, but it’s what we should aspire to.
So to answer this question: Yes and no. The struggles of an imperfect pray-er (like ME!) are very different from the struggles of a perfect pray-er (Jesus!). My struggles are more like: “How can I make time to pray? Why do I get frustrated feeling like God isn’t listening? How can I make prayer a habit? How can I be less selfish in my prayers?” Jesus had that stuff figured out because as a sinless human being who also happened to be the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son), He was a lot more advanced in prayer than I, but that doesn’t mean that His prayers were always easy. God doesn’t always ask us to do what is easy– so if we open ourselves to doing God’s will, we have to be prepared for the possibility that it will be difficult. But we learn from Jesus’ example: even when what we do and receive in prayer is difficult, we should still say “Yes, Lord, Thy will be done.”
Since I started work as a Youth Minister this past summer, I’ve been completely swamped with varied and sundry tasks, so my blog has been pretty neglected. I realized recently that it’s not that I haven’t been doing any writing: I just haven’t been posting it!
So I’m going to try posting some of the Q&A articles I send out to parents of my high school Confirmation Candidates. After each formation session, I ask the students to submit comments and questions to me, from which I select one or two to answer in my weekly parent emails. Here are the questions from this week, after our session on “What is the Mass?” Enjoy!
This week, I got a couple of interesting and related questions about Mass, primarily about why we go. One person asked: Why can’t we just pray at home? and another asked: Why are we supposed to go to Mass? We aren’t hurting anyone if we don’t.
Good questions, both of them. I’ll start with the second one first. Let’s think about it this way:
There are a lot of things we are supposed to do just because they are good for us, regardless of how they may or may not impact other people. If you go to the dentist, they will tell you that you “need” to brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss regularly. They say that you “need” to do this not because it will hurt someone else if you don’t, but because it will harm YOU. Your health will be at risk. Maybe you’ll get gingivitis. Maybe your teeth will get cavities. Maybe they will rot and fall out. A good dentist will tell you that you “need” to do these things because he/she is concerned for YOU.
So, you should brush and floss because it’s good for you. But just because you aren’t actively hurting someone by neglecting your oral hygiene doesn’t mean that no one is affected by it, either. If you don’t brush and floss, you will have stanky breath. And I bet a lot of people would want to stop hanging out with you as much. It would be unpleasant for them, so they might choose to stay away from you. Maybe your best friends will be able to overcome their revulsion, but the choice you make to stop brushing your teeth will make it very difficult for them on a regular basis. It will strain your relationship.
I hope you get the analogy here. Attending Mass is something we need to do because it is “healthy” for our soul. Think of it as spiritual hygiene. No one will get hurt if we don’t go to Mass, but if we avoid taking care of our spiritual health, eventually we are going to spiritually stink. If we choose to not put God in a prominent place in our lives, if we choose to neglect the gift of the Eucharist (which helps cleanse us and protect us from the inclination to sin), then we will gradually build up some spiritual plaque. We’ll get some spiritual gingivitis, which might lead to some spiritual cavities and maybe some spiritual teeth will fall out. The temptation to sin is always there, but it’s really easy to overlook. It’s really easy to say, “I don’t feel like going to Mass this Sunday. I’ll do it next Sunday.” It’s really easy to say, “I don’t feel like flossing tonight. I’ll do it tomorrow.” But next day turns to next day turns to next day and all of a sudden, you realize you haven’t been taking care of those basic hygiene needs for quite a while now.
So, you are supposed to go to Mass because IT IS GOOD FOR YOU.
But you are also supposed to go to Mass because ALL OF US are contractually obligated to do so through our baptism. Nowhere and at no time will the Church ever say that non-baptized people need to go to Mass. It’s not an obligation for you if you’re not part of the Church. But if you are, going to Mass on Sunday is a Precept of the Church. Weekly Sunday Mass attendance is the absolute minimum we “need” in order to grow in faith, holiness and communion with one another as fellow Christians.
Which leads to the second question, “Why can’t we just pray at home?”
I hope the assumption here is that OF COURSE you can (and should!) pray at home, but that’s not enough. None of us are allowed to fall into the trap of thinking that we have a completely private relationship with God. Through your baptism, you become part of God’s FAMILY. God adopts you as a son or daughter through the Church, so that you are joined with LOTS of other people! Like it or not, we’re all in this together.
St. Paul talks in his letters about how we are all united in baptism into the “Body of Christ.” He says “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” (1 Cor 12:12-13a) When we come together at Mass to meet our own bare minimum of individual spiritual health, we come as a member of the Body of Christ—the Church. Some ancient Christian communities took this membership so seriously, that you had to get special permission from your pastor to be away from Mass on Sunday. If you were traveling, you needed to clear it with your congregation first, because it meant that when your community gathered on Sunday they would somehow be INCOMPLETE… because you weren’t there. ALL the members are needed in order for the community to worship God AS A COMMUNITY of faith—as a family.
God doesn’t want us to have an isolated relationship with Him. He wants us to have a personal relationship with Him, but that personal relationship is always mediated within and supported by the larger community of the Church. He calls us to come together to worship Him. Like any good Father, He wants to have a good relationship with all of His children, but He also wants his children to love one another and get along. He wants them to have a relationship with one another, because that’s how we grow in holiness.
Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, one person strengthens another.” We become better sons and daughters of God when we take the time to worship our Father together. When we receive the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, we are not only more closely united to God (which keeps us spiritually healthy!), but we also strengthen our bonds with one another—with the other members of the Body of Christ.
Thanks to a great response from my last newsletter, I decided to make a Facebook group (oh no, not another one of those….?): The NFP Ambassadors Network
The purpose of this group is to share information and ideas, support one another, and get equipped to spread the word about NFP (any and all types!) in any way we can. We’ll be highlighting resources, current NFP news, asking questions and building up a repertoire of bulletin ads, conversation starters or other tools we might need in the quest to make NFP an available, accessible and achievable option for all couples who want it.
If you’d like to join, shoot me an email! Let me know about your NFP journey. We’d love to have you join the cause!
Every month our chapter gathers for a community meeting, where our Religious Assistant (a Dominican sister) usually gives a Gospel reflection. Today, Sister was not able to attend the meeting, so I offered this reflection for our chapter. I share it with you all tonight: may we all strive to be athletes of God!
I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory…
…They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD. – Is 66:18, 20
When I sat with the readings this week, I immediately started to picture these few verses from Isaiah, where we hear of the gathering of every nation and every language on earth in one large parade towards Jerusalem as none other than the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Over the past few weeks we who have been following the Games have seen Michael Phelps swim for his 23rd Gold Medal. Usain Bolt from Jamaica boasts a perfect 9 gold medals over three Olympic Games. Kenyans, Ethiopians, Japanese, Chinese, North Korean, South Korean, Brazilian, brown, black, white and every color in between—all of the best athletes from every nation, speaking every language, gathered in one place to challenge one another, test their skill and hopefully come out victorious. I love these fraternal gatherings because imperfect as they are, they give us a small glimpse of what Isaiah’s vision of that parade of nations could look like.
And this is the same imagery that carries over to the Gospel today, where Jesus says: “And people will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 13:29)
These are beautiful images, which call us to remember that God does not want to exclude a single person from this invitation to Heaven. Through Christ, He opens the path to eternal life with Him not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world. Yet the big question remains: If everyone receives this invitation, how are so many barred from entry at the door? It’s one thing to be invited: but how do you actually get in to the Master’s house? If it’s not enough to know the master, let alone eat and drink with him and listen to his teaching in the streets, what more must we do?
In a rare lectionary feat, it seems the second reading can shed some light on how to get into that house—and if you’ll continue to humor me, I’d like to approach it again through the lens of the Olympics. How does one get to the Olympics? Training. You discipline your body and sacrifice in many ways so that not only are you good enough to compete, you are good enough to win. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “Therefore, I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it a slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:26-27) At the end of his letters to Timothy he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) He uses the imagery of the athlete to describe the training he puts his body and his soul through in order to keep the faith and win the crown of heaven. This is actually picked up in various ways first by the Church Fathers, then the desert fathers: the type of athletic training an Olympian, a gladiator or a warrior would undergo was called “askesis” in the Greek, and it is where we get the term: asceticism. We hear of that training directly in the Letter to the Hebrews today as Paul talks about the Father who disciplines us—
“At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.” (Heb 12:11)
I am sure the Olympic athletes would agree.
And like a good coach, like a great Father, God doesn’t just train or discipline everyone in the same way. The marathoner requires very different discipline than the sprinter; though their activities look much alike—they are very different. Our Christian lives, our lives as children of God, may look very similar on the outside, but we know that they are very different. God calls to us and challenges us in unique ways, wanting us to be the very best version of ourselves—and therefore he trains us all in different ways.
He doesn’t want any repeat saints.
There’s already a St. Catherine of Siena. What God really wants next is a St. Catherine of Boston.
Yet in this singularity and uniqueness, God has also decided to put together some “teams.” Our families, our parish community, our friends. Sometimes we are called to train together; and certainly as Lay Dominicans we share some common training ground: prayer, study, community, apostolate- these are the ways in which God, through Dominic, has put together a good training regimen for our little team—our family. At times we may be very sympathetic to Paul in this reading today: some times our four pillars may seem a cause not for joy but for pain—we are rightly challenged by this way of life. If it were easy, there wouldn’t really be a point, would there?
So today I’d like to take a few minutes for us to reflect in the quiet of our hearts on the ways in which God disciplines us. Take to heart this image of you as God’s athlete—God’s champion—like the martyrs of Rome whom Eusebius called the “athletes of religion”, we are part of that great parade of nations called to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Set your goal on that narrow gate, which is, in fact, the person of Jesus Christ and with that single goal in mind, think about:
What training regimen has God uniquely set before me in order to achieve that goal?
What challenges has He thrown my way, in big ways and in small ways?
Where are my victories?
Where are my failures?
What little acts of discipline does God ask of me in order to strengthen me?
To make me more myself? And will I accept them?
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus said, to which Paul coaches us: “strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet!” (Heb 12:12-13)
+LORD, as we continue along this path of training, make us strong. Do not let us grow weary in the face of hardship or challenge—show us the narrow gate and give us the fortitude to strive for it, no matter what. Make us your champions, make us your athletes, so that we may join your children from every corner of the world in the great parade of saints. Amen.+
Head on over to the newsletter archives and check out the latest issue of “NFP and Me.”
As a follow-up, email me if you are interested in learning more about becoming an NFP Ambassador for your parish! You don’t need to be a teacher to support others: even just knowing that someone else is out there can make all the difference for a couple wishing to learn more!
If your church follows the Catholic (or Revised Common) Lectionary, last week you heard a parable from Luke about the servants waiting for their master to come home from a wedding. Then at the tail end of that parable, a funny little saying:
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into.
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come. — Lk 12:39-40
Our Youth Group gathered last Sunday for pizza and fellowship and we talked about this Gospel passage. The kids (mostly middle school age) were able to identify that the master in the first parable (who stood for God/Jesus) is NOT the same master in the second saying. Rather, the master in this proverb is every one of us– those who are waiting for the Son of Man to come. The gist of the whole reading is simply this: STAY ALERT. Because you never know when Christ is coming back. Got it.
But this little phrase has always struck me as a bit odd. Why can’t the master just lock his house all the time? He doesn’t need to know when a thief is coming, just that there is a possibility of a thief coming. So he can prepare, install a good alarm system, and sleep soundly. That’s what we do isn’t it?
And it’s not like ancient civilizations didn’t use locks. The Romans used them. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians had them. It has even been proposed that Mesopotamia was the birthplace of locks. So why not just lock the darn door?
Well the answer is: the master probably did. He probably had adequate locks on any windows and doors to take care of his estate; but even a well-to-do master cannot prevent a stealthy thief from digging into the sun-dried brick homes that most people had back then. A patient thief could literally dig his way into your house without much noise at all, then sneak off quietly through the same entry-point before anyone awoke. No locks or bar systems could detect that. So the only way to be 100% sure that your house wasn’t robbed was… to stay awake. That’s a sad truth for the poor master, who needs his sleep and isn’t omniscient.
But far from being a cool factoid, this image of the silently digging thief has stuck with me this week. It strikes me that this proverb is not only an exhortation to be alert for the End Times; it is a perfect visual description of how sin ever-so-quietly enters our lives.
For those of us concerned about such things, we may be aware of temptations and vices that would rob us “by the front door,” as it were. These are things that are obvious, things in our life that we know we are doing, things we know are wrong, and yet we get frustrated because we do them anyway. So in order to change, we “cut it off and throw it away” (as in Matthew 5:30). If we are struggling with addiction, we don’t even let ourselves go near alcohol or cigarettes. If we struggle with lust, we don’t hang out with those friends who are constantly watching porn. We lock the door.
But the more pernicious and deadly sins are those that we don’t even realize we’re committing, those sins which sneak in little by little as we sleep securely, thinking that we’ve got it all under control. It may start out as a harsh word said to someone out of anger and before you know it, your soul is so mired by anger that you say: “How could this happen?”
We must remain vigilant. We must remain awake. It’s very important to lock those doors. It’s crucial to the safety of our soul that we do not allow thieves to enter the easy way. But it’s also important that we don’t rest on our laurels, congratulating ourselves for that fancy new security system we just bought to protect ourselves from the thief with the giant sword, only to wake and find that we’d been completely robbed by the thief with a tiny spoon.