Today two ideas collided. It didn’t hurt so much, but it did shake things up. Shaking up can be a very good thing. I remember a quote on our fridge from youth: “Sometimes God knocks us off balance so we’ll take a step forward.” So true. Socrates, Copernicus, St. Francis, Einstein, John Paul II… all examples of good shaking up leading to a step forward.
Let me set the stage for my latest round. After 21 years of “God-study” (theology), I’ve been moved to join St. Francis and stand on my head, so to speak, and see God not just from a different angle, but wanting to see Him truly, for who He really is (as much as we are able). There’s an analogy here from childhood. Remember your first crush as a kid? Invariably it was someone you knew very little about, but your imagination filled in all the missing pieces. Eventually, as you got to really know them, this portrait was corrected, making it possible to have a relationship not simply with your idea, but with the real person.
Similarly, I think the portrait many of us have of Jesus is derived more from our desires and (mis)conceptions than from who He revealed Himself to be. The fact that Jesus is a real, particular person who can be known as such may even be a shocker to some believers. Our post-modern culture puts such a high premium on personal feelings and experience (at the expense of objective truth) that we run the great risk of being in a relationship with our emotions in the name of God.
Beyond imagination, beyond emotions, beyond agenda… who is Jesus Christ?
This is quite important if we believe that Jesus Christ is God’s revelation of man to Himself (Fides et ratio, n. 13), the one in and through whom we have hope of salvation (1 Tim. 2:3ff; 1 Thes. 5:8; Rom. 8:24). If we don’t know who Jesus really is, to that extent our relationship with Him is deficient, as is our hope for salvation.
I’ve been deeply moved to more fully understand Jesus Christ, not just my idea of Him, but Him. “Lord, show me the way….” So I needed a good tour guide and ordered Pope Benedict XVI’s “Jesus of Nazareth.” In this tour Pope Benedict is so much more than the erudite and untouchable “supreme pontiff,” but a prayerful, humble, scholarly man who really knows and loves Jesus Christ. He invites us to look past the many fashions modern man has placed upon Jesus Christ (“[these scriptural portraits] are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold”, xii). He invites us to see Jesus as He really is in Holy Scripture.
So the two ideas. The first came a few weeks ago. Intentional-Christian parent-friends were sharing their frustration with the prodigality of their children. The second came while leading worship for a number of younger kids before school. These collided and presented the consideration: How can this vibrant faith in younger years become all the more so in older years? I’ll take you to the destination so emphasized by Pope Benedict, and reserve the majority of this article for how I got there: the heart of our faith is a living, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The hard question: Are we living and leading our children in the real-deal faith, or merely some fashion?
Back to the prodigality. What can we say. Let’s admit that as parents we could do everything right and still have wayward children. Let’s put it in perspective: our perfect God was the father of Adam and Eve! Prodigality is the reality of original sin, our capacity to choose, and living in an orchard of way too many (bad) “apple” trees that are way too attractive. Let’s keep it real. The bad fruit looks good. And what’s more, God designed us to be attracted to it, and He gave us appetites at least for what they represent. Looking at this situation, one has to wonder if God didn’t set it all up for us to fall!
If we want Truth, we need to honestly ask the questions. If God could have created a world without the bad fruit, why didn’t He? Why did He make it so appetizing? If He could have created every human being perfectly disposed to Him (Blessed Mother Mary, “full of grace”, Luke 1:28), why didn’t He?
Let’s take it further. Which of us with the power to easily deliver someone from suffering and hunger would deny it? Yet history and experience reveal a different modus operandi for God. On one hand He delivered the Jews from captivity in Egypt; on the other He allowed millions to perish at the hands of the Nazis. On one hand we are promised prosperity for those who trust in God (Psalms); on the other there are people far more faithful than I who have suffered far greater than I could imagine. What does this say? Is there a greater good, beyond our human standards? Beyond our apprehension?
Somewhere in this inquiry we can either be arrogant, and presume the correctness of our human analysis, or we can presume the correctness of God’s analysis… who has our greatest, ultimate good in mind. At the heart we are pressed to either have “faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm), or we can cling to the modern antithesis of “understanding seeking faith.” Clearly, God (and an ultimate, eternal good He is) is much bigger than our limited, human conceptions.
One would be wrong to read in this any leniency in our biblical mandate to labor for good, with all we have, any way we can, without ceasing. Rather, it’s an invitation to more deeply understand that God’s plan for us is not (the human conception of) “the good life,” but rather, the “God” life. This consideration should shake us.
Consider what is meant when a friend or family member says, “We’ve been blessed!” What does it mean to be truly blessed? Is it having health, wealth and opportunity? Without diminishing these evident gifts from God, we need to consider the “suffering Servant” (Is. 53), who said that all who follow Him must take up their crosses, indeed, lose their lives for Him (Luke 16:24-25). It’s even more instructive that this followed Jesus’ harsh rebuke of Peter, even calling him “satan”, for suggesting a way without the cross. We should be instructed by the Beatitudes, which pronounce an entirely different vision of “blessedness”: those who suffer, are poor, persecuted, hated, reviled (Matt. 5).
Human history and experience pronounce that often it’s only in the privation of good things that we really encounter God. Clearly, suffering paves the way for our deeper intimacy with God and His people. St. Rose of Lima’s vision spoke to this point eloquently:
Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: ‘Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.’
All of this should compel us to consider if our relationship with God isn’t based more upon our own, socio-political values, our false idea of Him, versus Him. Let’s have the humility to be shaken. Let’s pray for the grace to see as God sees. For some insight, let’s consider the “happy fault of Adam” we profess at the Easter Vigil. Let’s look at the good news of sin, properly understood, as a way of more fully understanding the intimate link between ourselves, our children, and our role as parents.
For starters, here is a note from personal experience. After “losing it” on one of my kids, my wife reminded me that I was much more gentle, compassionate, and merciful following an episode of sin in my own life. Why? Sin has the power to break us. Sin can awaken us to the haughty prison of self. Sin can avail us to something beyond ourselves. Sin can remind us that we are in radical need of a Savior. Sin is the essential condition we share with every person on the planet.
Paul gives us insight into this good news of sin. He complained of the “thorn,” the angel of satan sent to beat him, that he might not get conceited (2 Cor. 4:7). Pride (conceit) is the Granddaddy of all sins. Many of us “believers” run the huge risk of being proud of being good. We forget that we are sinners, that even our “smallest” sin, or “separation,” puts us at an eternal distance from the perfect and almighty God.
There’s no biblical support for the notion that Christ merely “covers” our sin. Clearly, Christ came for us to be transformed (Rom. 12:1-2). Also, understanding Scripture as a whole, there’s no support for thinking that one’s decision in one moment can commandeer relationship with God in every subsequent moment. So long as we can choose, we can choose against God. If this were not the case, Peter would not have exhorted the faithful to be vigilant against Satan, the roaring lion, looking for souls to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). Satan is deceiving many of us believers into thinking of ourselves as having securely arrived. As such, our reliance upon Jesus Christ in each new moment is substantially diminished. We become puffed up. We think we’re pretty good, not so much because we are, but often relative to those we judge not to be so.
For these reasons, God chastises those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6). Paul begged God to rid him of his thorn, only to hear Him say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
It’s quite evident that Jesus Christ absolutely loved the “anawim,” the “poor in spirit”– those who knew they were sinners and came to Him. In fact, it should be very instructive that Christ spoke with greater affection, greater pronouncement of beatitude, for the repentant, pagan sinners than He did with any of the religious class! Even more instructively, he detested those who arrogated to themselves the Godlike standard, but whose hearts were far from God!
Pope Benedict points out this salvation-hungry disposition of heart revealed in the Psalms: “[I]n their deep devotion to God’s goodness, in the human goodness and humility that grew from it as men waited vigilantly for God’s saving love- here developed that generosity of heart that was to open the door for Christ.”
One can’t help but think in particular of Psalm 51. Many scholars believe Psalm 51 was King David’s broken, humble cry for God’s mercy, forgiveness and strength after committing adultery with Bathsheba and sending her husband to his death. I’ll remember Psalm 51 forever. We prayed it often as seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary (Emmitsburg, MD), but even more, there was one particular room there where a seminarian had written it in big words that covered the entire ceiling and wall. One wonders if David would have been so greatly favored if he had not so greatly fallen, the basis by which he came to rest in the infinite mercy of God. David’s sin bound him intimately to God, not as a slave, but as one who was saved.
A Godly-ordered perspective is not one that sees the world comprised of sinners and non-sinners, but comprised of sinners who are aware they are sinners, and sinners who are not. In this regard, awareness of our sin is the engine driving our human drama. Without awareness of our sin (and our tendency toward sin), we have no need of a Savior. Many saints throughout the ages have commented that holiness makes us more aware of our sin. Holiness awakens us to the various degrees and ways of our separation, and engenders a deep desire for greater intimacy and communion. Contrasted by many who haven’t been to confession in a long time because they “don’t know what to confess,” John Paul II went to confession weekly.
Back to the prodigals. I can remember a “conversation” on Facebook with a friend whom I have not connected with since high school. In high school she was admittedly a prodigal overachiever. Her life in the years that followed entailed divorce, alcohol abuse, and a good measure of brokenness. In the “conversation” she stated that she “went to a Catholic school, broke all the rules” and essentially “won’t be held by those rules.” I simply inquired: “Which of those rules have you broken that, in fact, have not broken you? What of that would you desire for your daughter right now?”
Teenagers need permission to pilot their own craft, to take off, to own things for themselves. Too often we’re crowding that space, and they can’t see faith beyond their dad’s and mom’s “thing.” At that age they’re very tuned into integrity issues. Their equation for life is often simple: only profess what you’re able to live. And with that, we often go in the wrong direction — trying to uphold a portrait of our rightness. That will fail. Our kids intuitively know we’re weak. They know we’re sinners. They intuitively know this faith thing has to be more than a rule, but a relationship.
Here’s the great twist. They’ll be more inclined to be open to faith in Jesus Christ if we pronounce our wrongness. That’s a common platform. That’s something they can connect with. That puts us on the same team. This is all the more compelling if they come to understand that faith in Jesus Christ has to do with our design, becoming the best versions of ourselves. What good is a sophisticated gadget if it’s just being used as a paper weight? There is a designer and manual that specifies the gadget’s identity and function. Similarly, we were purposefully designed, and given a manual to fulfill our purpose. As suggested above, we really can’t break the law of our design, we can only break ourselves against it. In a world that offers us a multiplicity of false manuals, the following of which leads to a broken humanity, we need to recognize Jesus Christ is God’s revelation of man to himself. He reveals who we are. We need to turn to Him if we are to fully understand who we are, from which flows what we are to do.
As Christians, our standard and aspiration is the perfect, holy love of God. Who isn’t a hypocrite? Let’s hold up high that this faith has more to do with what we desire, than it does in what we have acquired. Any good within us points to Jesus Christ. Good formation of our children compels us to be a John the Baptist. It’s not about us. We need to get out of the way to allow sufficient air for them to personally encounter the Truth. We need to say, “I am not the one” and point them toward Jesus Christ. We need to convey that it’s not about rules, but relationship (worth repeating again and again). It’s about the landscape of life… and a desire for their happiness.
My wife and I have our six children for such a short period of time, but these years will set the course for the rest of their lives. With Paul let me boast in my weakness. Let me confess this boldly: I am imperfect. I fail, and I have failed. May they see in this my need for Jesus Christ, in every moment. May my sin proclaim Jesus Christ! In the paradoxical way of ultimate, spiritual truth — where death is life, poverty is wealth, the least are the greatest — my failure has been an occasion for success. In short, in the paradoxical, shaken up shape of things, the best ways to help your children come to know and love Jesus Christ, to live for Him with their lives, to stop sinning, is for us be “good sinners.” Be genuinely humble, sincere and immediate in acknowledging your faults and failures. Invite them to pray for you. Invite them to join you on the journey.
In our human condition we need a hero. Not just in a moment, but every moment. We can’t do it ourselves. Sin makes possible an even more radical bond with our Savior. God wants us to love Him like any other hero who might have given his life for our own. Again, and again, and again. He wants us parents to enter into this relationship for ourselves, because it’s for our good, because it’s God’s desire for us… which will do far more in forming our children than will any amount of words and expectations that otherwise amount to fashion. God wants us to be aware of what He has done for us, and what He will do for us. He wants us to know that this is love. He is love. Let us continue to journey together in the great adventure of discovering and living in His love.