Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Comparisons = Trouble

If you’re a Bluffton Packet alert reader and caught last weeks “Pastor’s Corner”, you already know about my unpleasant encounter with the Georgia Highway Patrol that resulted in a “fast driving award” Thanksgiving weekend. I conceded that while no one likes to get a speeding ticket, the State Trooper had a point and the consequences for my dangerous behavior would help me to be safer in the future. It reminded me that as Christmas approaches, it’s good for us to take stock of our lives and see where we need to grow more. It’s not about a guilt trip, it’s about preparing our souls for heaven since much like speeding endangers our lives, sin endangers our souls.

A big mistake we make as we examine our lives is to simply compare ourselves to others. The teens in my youth group do this often. I hear, “Miss Alison, I’m in good shape. I go to church way more than my friends do and I’m like, a lot nicer than them too”. We all do this. How many people out there are patting themselves on the back saying, “I’m not trying too hard to be a good husband or wife, but at least I can beat Tiger Woods at something!” (Not to hate on Tiger, he’s just an easy example right now). There’s a plethora of celebrities and friends that if we were to look to them and compare our lives, we think we’re a-ok.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes from the perspective of a Demon teaching how to ensnare souls and drag them to hell. He reminds his charge to “work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman” when he compares himself to others and finds them less than perfect. Anyone who’s gone to Church has at one point or another looked at the way others are living and decided that compared to them, they’re saints, so the can rest easy for a while. This is dangerous because our goal isn’t to be better than everyone else, our goal is to be like Christ.

Allow me to provide an example. This morning, while the ink was still drying on the paper that told of the lessons I had learned, I approached the Cross Island Parkway in a cluster of about a dozen other cars, all going the same speed. It was a leisurely morning, I wasn’t running late, had been able to consume two cups of coffee and unlike the day before, no one cut me off pulling out from Point Comfort Road so I wasn’t tempted to careen past anyone to prove a point (that was Monday. And my apologies to the driver of the Navy Lexus, you just caught me at a bad time). Like I said, I wasn’t driving any differently from anyone else and I assumed we were all good.

You can imagine my surprise when I once again saw the blue lights flashing in my rearview. I figured the good officer was rushing to catch someone who, like me a few weeks ago, had been endangering the lives of others with reckless driving. I pulled over, pitying the fool that would undergo the same fate I had. But wait, what’s this? He was getting out! I wracked my brain, thinking that maybe my taillight was out or my tags had expired? Surely, it couldn’t be… “Ma’m, do you know why I pulled you over?” I had a sinking feeling it wasn’t because I was having a good hair day. “No…?” I smiled. “Ma’m, I clocked you at….” Well, I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. Let’s just say it was déjà vu all over again.

The error of my ways was my assumption that everyone around me was going the speed limit. We all know that’s the danger of speed traps-- you get caught up in the flow of traffic. Slowing down would be inconvenient. Everyone else is doing it, how bad can it be? We just don’t notice how fast we’re going.

I have a very real fear that frogs will eat me, so I’ve never tested this, but I’ve been told that if you place a frog in boiling water, it will jump right out. However, if you place a frog in regular water and then gradually turn up the temperature the frog will die before it realizes it’s boiling to death. Sin is like that. No one wakes up in the morning and plans to disobey God, just like I don’t wake up in the morning planning to rack up speeding tickets. But we get caught up in the flow of the day and before we know it we’re gossiping, lying, cheating or maybe driving to fast because we’re just not paying attention.

The Gospel of Mark warns us that we need to always be ready for Christ’s return. “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:36-37). As we examine our lives in preparation for when we will meet Christ face to face, we need to remember that “everyone else was doing it” is not a valid. This Christmas, remember that God has gave us the perfect model to follow when he condescended to come to earth as a baby in Bethlehem. Pay attention to what matters.

Speeding, Glee and Georgia

I’ve given my friends and family strict instructions: if I ever say, “oh yeah, I’ll drive to Atlanta for Thanksgiving and then just drive home the Sunday afterwards”, they’re to hit me. Hard. And take away my car keys.

Most of my college friends have ended up in Atlanta since the high concentration of Catholic High Schools there affords more opportunities for us Theology Majors to be employed as professional Catholics. This thanksgiving we gathered to catch up, eat, and engage in the perpetual pastime of girls in their 20’s—try on bridesmaid dresses. But that’s another story.

It was all fun and games until I hit the road at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, naively thinking I had left plenty of time to get back to Hilton Head for a 4:00 p.m. commitment. Maybe I would’ve, if I had opted to walk ride a vespa. However, 2:00 p.m. came and I had crawled about 30 miles in 2 hours. Epic Fail. I finally exited I-75 and may have gotten carried away singing along to my ”Glee” soundtrack as I was finally able to accelerate to the speed limit allowed… and some. My little Honda Civic bounded over a hill and right into the path of two state troopers, radar guns aimed and engines revved. It was a classic, “oh, fudge” moment. They both pulled out onto the road and proceeded to pull over me and another car.

I really am quite good at following rules. As a professional Catholic, I wear my seatbelt, stop at stop signs and even went back to the Hilton Head Airport to pay my parking fees in cash when the attendant was off duty and the “honor system” bucket didn’t allow me to use a credit card. However, I do sometimes drive a little fast. When I have kids in the car I’m overly cautious-- the phone goes unanswered, I stop at yellow lights, only make protected left-hand turns and drive 3.5 miles under the speed limit. However, when I drive alone I will use the time to apply lip gloss, text at red lights and crochet. (Ok, maybe just the first two.) I will also sometimes lose track of the speed limit and drive a bit fast. So, when those blue lights flashed in my rearview I knew that while this was not a happy moment, it was one that was a long time coming.

The state trooper was quite nice, I feel as though if we had met under other circumstances we would’ve had a lovely chat. He explained, apologetically, that he was out there to keep the crowded roads safe and my careening around several miles over the speed limit was problematic. I really couldn’t offer any excuses besides, “Sir, I’ve just been in a lot of traffic. I got impatient and carried away by the emotion of Glee’s rendition of ‘Defying Gravity’. I was going too fast. I’m sorry”. And, now, Bryan County will be richer thanks to my carelessness.

I’m still thoroughly annoyed, but my mother hopes that this officer gave me a necessary wake-up call that I was putting myself and others in danger. She’s definitely right in that way that mothers tend to be. Just yesterday I caught myself slowing down on the cross island as I remembered that I could not afford to make any more donations to the State Patrol. Being chastised caused me to regulate dangerous behavior.

I once spoke with a woman who, when she found out I was a youth minister, said, “Oh, Religion. It just makes people feel so guilty”. My response to her was, “Well, sometimes people need to feel guilty”. To clarify, I wasn’t speaking in judgment of her alone, but of humanity as a whole. In the Gospel of Mark, Christ says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17). God became man so that we could have a perfect example of how to live. The Ten Commandments (the law) are a list of what we should not do, and in Christ we have the fulfillment of this law—a model of how to both avoid evil and do good. When we break the Ten Commandments and do things like lie, steal and cheat, we hurt others and put our souls in danger.

As unpleasant as a speeding ticket is, the state trooper had every right to point out I was breaking the law because I was putting myself and others in danger. In pointing out that I had done wrong (and giving me unpleasant consequences), it’s helping me change for the better. As Christmas approaches and we reflect on the coming of Christ, it would serve us and our communities if we allowed ourselves to be brutally honest with ourselves and look at what parts of our lives are in need of change. Reading the Bible, attending Church and allowing ourselves to be challenged by others shouldn’t be seen as a guilt trip but a chance to prepare our souls for heaven.

A Comittment of Your Lives

A few months ago a friend of mine asked if I could help chaperone his youth group at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC). He had five girls going and needed a female adult to tag along and deal with feminine mysteries like chocolate cravings and crying for no reason. Luckily for him, I said “yes” and gave him my name for plane tickets before realizing that it put me out of town for the midnight showing of the new Twilight movie. This caused an existential crisis-- which comes first, God or fictional vampire heartthrobs?

God won, which is how I found myself in a crowd of 21,000 of Team Catholic’s high school and college aged members this past weekend. As we like to say, “there ain’t no party like a Catholic party cause a Catholic party don’t stop”, and NCYC was no exception. As our group of about sixty from South Carolina joined thousands of others to enter the Sprint Center in Kansas City for the first night, beachballs were tossed from Californians, glowsticks were waved by New Yorkers and beads were thrown by the crowd from New Orleans. Kids were chugging red bull, facebooking pictures and chanting the Jesus Camp traditional, “we love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how ‘bout you?” while adding a Catholic spin of, “hold up, wait a minute, put a little Mary in it”.

It was, honestly, one of the craziest crowds I’ve been in. And I’ve seen Dave Matthews at an outdoor venue where bags were not checked thoroughly, if you know what I mean.

What was different about this crowd is that these kiddos were out-of-their minds excited to be with other Catholic teens, worshiping God together. For teens in South Carolina which boasts a population that is a whopping 4.37 3% Catholic, it was an incredible opportunity to see just how many share their beliefs. And, for some, learn how to use a crosswalk in a city for the first time… but that’s another story. For kids that often feel very alone in their faith, it was a reminder that they are part of a universal Church.

In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II spoke of the Church and youth, saying, “Jesus wants to enter into dialogue with them and, through his body which is the Church, to propose the possibility of a choice which will require a commitment of their lives… the Church must become today the traveling companion of young people”. I’m not naive enough to think that just because these kids all showed up for a conference, they’re going to be perfect Christians. However, seeing these teens reminded me how much they’re thirsting for a chance to make the “commitment of their lives” that Pope John Paul II described.

The climax of this was a holy hour and procession held the next morning. Catholics believe that Jesus is present body, blood, soul and divinity in the communion we receive at Mass (we don’t mess around when we read John 6:56, but again, that’s a lesson for another column). Therefore, when we worship we often take time to reflect on this and be in this very real presence of God. When this time of worship began, 21,000 teens simultaneously dropped to their knees (which is not as easy as it sounds in stadium style-seating) and total silent adoration ensued. The teens I was with shared that they left that time feeling touched by God and challenged to take their faith more seriously.

The rest of the weekend included more time of prayer and worship as well as talks on improving ones relationship with God, service to others and making moral choices. Amidst all the craziness that ensues when that many teens gather, the overall message was a challenge to recognize that Christ reigns in their lives, and sometimes that means making decisions that are not easy or popular. And, while it’s always cool to be in a crowd of 21,000 that share your beliefs, it’s what you do when you’re alone or surrounded by those who don’t share your faith and only God is watching that really matters.

When Christ encountered the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) he walked with them, listened and then explained the scriptures to them. They were overjoyed at this encounter and ran to Jerusalem, explaining that Christ “was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). Just like the teens at NCYC, we all need the opportunity to encounter Christ, to be given the opportunity to commit our lives to the one who is greater than ourselves. This commitment won’t solve all your problems, but it does give you a companion in Christ and the Church.

Mirror, Mirror

A few weeks ago I had a chance to visit with a priest I had become friends with while I was in Belize as a missionary. (In light of the last column I about the poker playing priest, I feel compelled to say that I have many friends who are not priests, but this is the Pastor’s Corner and not being a pastor myself, I feel like I have to throw in some anecdotes to keep the status quo.) Father Mark was in Florida to raise some funds for the missions. I met up with him in Jacksonville before he flew back to Central America. I wanted to go to confession before he left, so at the airport he checked in his bags and then we looked for a good place for me to spill my sins to God through one of His human representatives (questions about confession? Another article for another week).

Although many people pray in an airport it’s not easy to find a good place to pray out loud without seeming weird, so after vetoing Starbucks and those little shoe-shine stands, a security guard asked us if we were looking for a chapel. Maybe Father Mark’s collar gave it away, I don’t know. The guard pointed us to the “meditation room” which had a little praying stick figure on the sign outside. So far so good. We walked in and saw some chairs, a few bibles and in the center of the room was a sort of altar. It seemed normal enough, with flowers and a cloth but where there would normally be a cross instead there was a mirror. As someone used to saying mass at an altar with a cross above it, Father Mark looked at the set-up and said, “wow… God is… my image?”

Indeed. Such a large mirror made for a great place to check your hair, but as far as “meditation”, looking at ones reflection did not seem like the best way to ascend to union with the Divine. I’m not criticizing Jacksonville International Airport—(please take no offense since you already seem to have it in for me, making me throw away my hair product bottles that exceed carry-on regulations) – The “meditation room” was probably just something to do with the an old smoker’s lounge. The mirror just gave me a lot to think about.

When we pray, we are first striving for union with God but we also are seeking to know ourselves better. Sometimes looking at ourselves is not the best way to do this. I know that when I’m having a really good hair day, I don’t even notice if my socks don’t match til my friend is laughing at me (I wish I was pulling this example out of the air, but it’s happened). We can be so taken with how great we appear in some ways we don’t notice our faults. This can happen in the opposite way too—we get overwhelmed by our faults and can’t see what we do well -- but this seems less frequent in our self-esteem generation. In prayer, we need to see ourselves as we as God sees us. He doesn’t want us to leave Church with warm fuzzies if there’s things that we really need to change. In other words, he wants you to know if your socks don’t match.

St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic, warned against “imaginary virtue” explaining “the wiles of the devil are terrible; he will run a thousand times round hell if by doing so he can make us believe we have a single virtue which we have not”. We need to constantly examine our lives and especially our actions to see what virtues we lack and where we need to practice and improve. Now, let me clarify that I’m not advocating guilt—just an honest examination of how God is calling us to grow. This comes from looking not at a mirror but at Christ himself. St. Paul had caught on to this when he wrote to the Romans, saying, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death? God, thanks be to Him, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:24-25).

Next time you think a mirror tells it all, look instead at Christ on the cross. Pull up “Passion of the Christ” on Google images and just stare at what the love of God looks like. He denied us nothing-- not even his only Son. Hebrews 12:4 reminds us, “in your struggle with sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”. Don’t compare yourself with who you were a few years ago before you started your awesome bible study or with your neighbor who sleeps in instead of Church two out of four Sunday mornings. Look only to Christ’s example, rejoice in how He’s helped and continue to model your life after Him.

The Poker Playing Priest

Ok. I have to brag. The “Poker playing priest” is a friend of mine. Seriously. He actually taught me how to play Texas Hold’em. What? You haven’t heard? Well, crawl out from under the rock and allow me to fill you in. A few weeks ago I got a call from Fr. Andrew Trapp, a priest who was ordained (made a priest) two years ago and spent his first year in ministry at St. Gregory the Great, here in Bluffton. When Team Catholic’s priests and youth ministers were not out leading young people on mission trips, retreats and lock-ins we’d sometimes gather and play poker (we didn’t have money, but we’d wager things like, “winner gets a free pass at nap time on the next mission trip”). Fr. Andrew’s a meticulous poker player. Before, when I’d occasionally play with friends I’d fake it by just looking for matching colors and shapes in my hand. However, Fr. Andrew would have none of that, he insisted on making sure we understood the lingo and now I know a full house beats a straight.

I digress. So Fr. Andrew has since been moved to a parish in Myrtle Beach that is attempting to raise funds for a new building. Father called and explained that he had figured out a way to aid in the fundraising and proceeded to explain the elaborate process of qualifying for the Pokerstars.Net Million Dollar Challenge reality show. He had to finish in the top ten in an on-line tournament that 10,000 participate in. If by some chance you do that, you can post a youtube audition video and if they like it they’ll interview you and maybe pick you to be on the show for a chance to play in several rounds against various celebrities and pros. If you win that you win a spot at a table to play for a million dollars.

I was half-listening when he finished with, “and last night I finished fifth in the on-line tournament”. “What?!” I was not expecting him to have already finished baby step number one to a million dollars. To make a long story short, with the permission of the Bishop, he made a youtube video that had just the right combination of paintball and poker to pique the interest of the directors and after winning on the first show, the building fund is 100,000 dollars richer. (To see highlights from this epic journey, youtube “poker playing priest”). He returns to the show in December for a chance to win a million dollars.

What I find so cool about this story, besides a friend being on T.V., is how Father Andrew has shown that Christians—even spiritual leaders—are not confined to reading the Bible and praying all day. In fact, much can be accomplished when Christians seek to engage the world where the world least expects it. Father Andrew clearly explained on his website ( that he did not have to spend any money to win, nor did he use his church’s time (like other workers, priests get a certain amount of time off each year). What he also shared is that he had many interesting conversations with the cast and crew of the show. His goal was first to represent the priesthood well and then, hopefully, win some cash.

I see this as such a great example of “what would Jesus do?”. Looking at the life of Christ, he did not just hang out in the religious spots. He also hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes—he didn’t just chat with them on the street, he partied with them at their homes. While we have to share the Gospel in ways that we’re comfortable, we should be constantly evaluating our skills and talents to see what new places Christ is calling us to go. We can be quick to think that certain people or places are beyond the need for Christ— we think He came for our Sunday School class, but not those we play bunko or golf with. The reality is that we need to take the Gospel outside of Sundays and look for ways to bring Christ to the world… where they least expect it.

The Sea Turtle Massacre of '09

Heading home on the Cross Island Expressway was a breathtaking sight last night. It was one of those perfect nights when the road is empty and you can really appreciate the moon and its reflection on the water. Seeing the light shimmer off the Broad Creek I thought to myself, “I’m so glad to see an almost-full moon, knowing it lessens the likelihood of sea-turtle hatchlings dying as a result of attempts at romantic ambiance on the beach”. Yes. That’s seriously what I thought. After the community of Hilton Head watched in horror as dozens of sea turtles scrambled to their accidental death a few weeks ago, we’ve all probably come to a greater appreciation of how important the moonlight is.

In case you Bluffton folks missed the latest island news, a marriage proposal took a tragic turn when luminaries arranged to form a heart on the beach were left lit overnight. Dozens of baby sea turtles emerged from their nest and instinctively started scrambling in the direction of the light which they assumed to be reflecting off the water but were actually only candles stuck in the sand. None of them made it to the ocean and they died from exhaustion or at the hands—erm, claws—of snow crabs who emerged the clear winners in this story.

Regardless of how you feel about sea turtles, snow crabs, or any other aspect of the circle of life, one can imagine how pathetic it would have looked to see all those turtles scurrying away from the ocean. From our vantage, it’s obvious which is the moon and which is a paper bag, but from the turtle’s perspective it probably wasn’t so easy to tell the difference. Especially with all your newly hatched brothers and sisters also confused, it must have been easy to just go with the flow. The image got me thinking about how we often allow ourselves to be distracted in life.

The first commandment God gives the Israelites when He makes them His people is, “I the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other Gods besides me” (Exodus 20:1-2). Throughout the Old Testament, people stray from God and worship everything from power to money to a golden calf. They fear that God isn’t who He promised, and their neighbors seem to be better off from burning inscence before a pile of gold.

We can look at the Israelites and roll our eyes, wondering how dumb can you be to put your faith in a golden cow. I mean, it makes for a nice Sunday school coloring page but that doesn’t really apply to us in the present. We’re very enlightened; we know who we are and where we are headed. Or do we?

I think that to God, sometimes we look a lot like those baby turtles. God creates each one of us to be with Him forever in heaven. This world is not our home. Sooner or later we’re going to die and depending on the choices we’ve made, our soul will spend eternity in heaven or hell. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:13-15).

Just like the turtles mistook the lanterns for the moon, lost track of the ocean and died following the wrong path, we can become entranced by idols in our lives and stray form our path to heaven. And it’s not always the obvious golden calf. We can get distracted by subtle things. What starts as skipping Church one Sunday for little league turns into skipping for a month cause we’re just too tired to get everyone together in the morning which turns into only going on Christmas and Easter... which turns into finding God in “nature” and wondering why our kids have taken up shaking tambourines in togas at the airport.

Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but it’s true that once we allow our focus to stray from God, we risk never finding our way back. There are many things that compete to be gods in our lives, many things that are good and seem deserving of our attention. But we need to remember that ultimately, there is only one road that leads to heaven and one God to be followed.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Price is Faith

I have never understood money. I know it serves it’s purpose and I like it enough when I want a pair of shoes, but when it comes to understanding how much I have, how much I need and what the best thing is to do with it is, I am hopelessly confused. I was the kid in college who, when my parents called and asked if my checkbook was balanced, I’d say, “uh… I put my card in the ATM and money’s coming out, so… I guess…?” My first “job” out of college was a volunteer gig that paid $12 a week so the next two years didn’t afford much opportunity to practice (This weeks budget: a coke, two beers and a burrito. Done). Ever since then I’ve been in denial about money, spending less or more depending on how much I guessed I had. This sometimes works, but I’m finally admitting that this is not a very mature approach to life. I’m gradually coming to terms with the fact that just because I don’t understand money, find it incredibly boring and don’t see why I need to waste my time with it, it’s still very much a reality.

My roommate came home with a logical next step. Her church, Lowcountry Community, was beginning the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University. The website advertised skills in budgeting, investing and getting rid of debt. I could make a list of things I would rather be doing than thinking about these topics. It would begin with “getting a tooth filled” and end with “spend an afternoon at the DMV”, but that responsible voice in my head that gets ignored all to frequently won this argument, so Monday night found me sitting in a class while Dave Ramsey lectured me from a screen about investments and saving for retirement.

Hold up. Retirement? Good grief. I’m still paying off my college loans. I almost got up and left. I had begrudgingly signed up for this to learn to manage my money for now, not think forty years into the future. I can hardly get my act together enough to grocery shop for three days in advance. This was just too much.

However, when I finally stopped procrastinating and found myself sitting in my room with my bank statements, receipts and bills spread out around me on the floor, I had a reality check. It didn’t matter how I “felt” about money. It didn’t matter if I found it boring, if I’d rather be doing anything but think about it, if I’d rather plan my fall wardrobe than retirement. It was still there. (Or, as I’m realizing, not there.) And if I failed to learn how to manage it well, I would find myself at the age of retirement with a lot of problems that I could have avoided.

I’m sure most people are reading this thinking, “way to grow up, Al. Silly girl, it’s about time you started thinking about the reality of the future. You can’t just expect these things to work themselves out!”. I was foolish for many years and I’m finally being responsible. However, I would like to point out that my former approach to money is how many people approach their faith. They say that it’s boring, they don’t understand it, there’s a million things they’d rather be doing, that life is too busy to fit in things like praying and going to church. But the reality is, God is there whether we “understand” Him or not. If I don’t plan for the future, and even for retirement, I can’t expect it all to just work out.

We were all created with an eternal, immortal soul which will spend forever somewhere. Death, judgment, heaven and hell are a reality. Looking at savings spreadsheets, I’ve realized that I need to be investing in my future now because you can’t make it all up later. Similarly, you can’t expect Faith to appear by magic at the hour of your death. St. Augustine, a bishop who lived in the 400’s explained, “In order to see eventually, for the time being believe. Faith does the earning; sight is the reward. If you want to see before you believe, you’re demanding to be paid before the job.” That initial act of Faith, of believing in God and making Him a priority is an investment far more important than any account or 401k. St. Augustine explains, “What you want to see has it’s price. You want to see God; the price of such a tremendous good as that is faith.”

That Blessed Union...

This summer I’ve thought a lot about marriage. (Don’t worry, I only introduce myself that way in columns.). Anyways, there’s been a lot happening in the world to turn my thoughts in that direction. Some events have been positive-- the weddings and engagements of friends and family. Some have been negative— mock me if you want, but I’m taking Jon and Kate’s break up really hard, and I know none of us will ever think of the Appalachian Trail in the same way, if you know what I mean.

So marriage. “Marriage is what brings us together today… That blessed union, that dream within a dream” (props if you got the Princess Bride shout-out). But I think what we are learning is that for some, marriage isn’t necessarily the dream within a dream that the Disney princesses led us to believe. Many of the bridal shower and wedding reception conversations I’ve had with friends have drifted to all the negative press that marriage has been getting, leading us to wonder, “why are we, as a society, so bad at this? I mean, if Jon and Kate, with their organic meals and perfect hair couldn’t get it together for Aaden and his seven siblings, who stands a chance?”

I’d like to propose (no pun intended) that it’s because we’ve forgotten the point of marriage in the first place. Flipping through cards in the wedding section confirmed this suspicion as I opened to greetings that sounded more like they belonged on “get well” cards (No joke, I honestly read one that said “here’s hoping it all works out!”). Marriage seems to be in trouble. Not for want of self help books, because I think we get that men are from Mars and women are from Venus (and where does that leave us now that Pluto’s not a planet?). No, we’ve got astronomy down. To understand marriage, we need to understand God and His Church.

I can only speak for team Catholic, but marriage is a Sacrament. A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ that gives us grace. I think of Sacraments as God’s answer to our ADHD society, knowing that we need tangible signs to remind us of Him and the grace He gives us to live our lives. Team Catholic has seven such signs that can be found in Scipture and passed down in Tradition from the time of Christ. All seven infuse grace into the moments of life when we need to remember that God is here (for example, Baptism to celebrate new life, Confession when we sin… you get the idea). These signs don’t replace God, but remind us of his presence in significant moments.

Although it may seem like it, Marriage was not created by Hallmark or David’s Bridal. God instituted marriage when he looked at Adam in the garden, surrounded by animals, yet realized that, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). When he sees Eve, Adam realizes that “This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh…” (Genesis 2:23), Genesis then tells us that this is why a man leaves his father and mother and the two of them become “one body” (Genesis 2:24). The union of man and woman began with Adam and Eve and continues throughout history.

You’re probably thinking, awh, yeah, that’s so sweet. Adam and Eve were, as we’d say in text-lingo, MFEO (made for each other). But what does that have to do with the Church? As was mentioned, sacraments are signs and in the case of marriage, it’s the sign of the union of Christ and the Church. Think about what God did for us here. In Ephesians 5:25, Paul reminds “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loves the Church…”. Christ loved the Church by offering up his whole life on the cross and continues to love us, waiting for the day that we join Him in heaven. God intends that every marriage we see be a reminder of this. Marriage is more than a joint mortgage and a minivan. It’s signifying Christ’s eternal love for the Church. When a man and a woman make vows to each other for as long as they live, Christ intended that it be a reminder to us of His faithfulness to us for eternity. Just like Christ didn’t live to serve himself in his life and death, husbands and wives look to Christ to remember that it’s about serving one another and the children that eventually come from their union.

My friend recently got married and she made spreadsheets for the ceremony and reception to clarify to her attendants who was to be present and when. When it came time to exchange the vows the “participants” column listed “Christ” above her and her fiancé to remind them, from the beginning, Who this was all about. It was her day, but she was very aware that she was about to follow Christ in a new way through being a sign of His love for the Church. Maybe not what a Disney princess would do, but a pretty incredible vocation nonetheless. When we look around and wonder what’s gone wrong, our first step should be looking to Christ’s love for the Church as the model of Love.

Father Gus

Originally published August 13

I received a text message on my way to Church last weekend that read, “Hey everybody… Fr. Gus died this morning in his sleep… pray for the repose of his soul and pass on this prayer.”

That text, or the event that it reported, put a lot in perspective that morning. Unlike most South Carolinians who to attend USC, Clemson and occasionally College of Charleston, my senior year of high school I set my sights on the small liberal arts school, Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio (that’s Steu BEN ville. Not “stupid ville”. Hometown of Dean Martin and most densely polluted air you’ll encounter outside of Beijing). Yes, in a switch from the norm, I loaded up a blue minivan and went to Ohio. What led me to attend college out of state and 12 hours away was the fact that this college was run by the Franciscans, an order of Catholic priests who follow the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis of Assisi, born in the early 1100’s, is famous as being the made into the only figurine to feed more birds than that “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” statue, but he is worth getting to know at a deeper level for his decision to renounce the wealth of his family and radically live all that is taught in the Scriptures, especially to serve Christ in the poor. Many chose to follow his example in the years that followed, to this day the Franciscans are some of Team Catholic’s most valuable players. St. Francis taught a life of conversion, that we’re to grow in holiness through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This spirituality permeated my experience at college, The Franciscans taught us that following Christ, “the way, the truth and the life” meant pursuing both knowledge of God and of the world-- Faith and Reason-- to prepare us for the “real world”.

At an age where one makes decisions that affect the rest of their life (what should I do when I graduate? Should I get married? What do I actually believe? How would I look with a goatee?) Father Gus was a Franciscan on campus who lead us to focus on what was important, but with a loving example. He’d give students the coat off his back in the bitter Ohio winter, would never let a woman walk next to the road and spent hours each week in the dormitory chaplain’s office listening to students talk about anything and everything. He also had a mischievous sense of humor and would often tell everyone that no one remembered his birthday. When his fellow priests would ask why, he’s simply gesture knowingly to all the cakes that were being delivered to their house. He’d regularly put guys in headlocks and chase students down to try to trip them with his cane. He loved us and we knew it, which is why he could get away with calling us out on sin. He saw himself as our spiritual father, and knew that in the end, life was more than graduating and getting jobs and all the post college stuff we were preoccupied with. He was always reminding us that in the end, life was about getting to heaven.

When I received the text message about his death, I was overwhelmed that I now knew someone in heaven. It was like hearing that a friend had finally come home after a long trip. Everything in his life had been oriented towards this moment, when he’d leave earth and meet God face to face. I was not alone in this thought. Facebook statuses, twitters and texts shot around all afternoon from Franciscan graduates now spread out all over the U.S, saying things like, “Father Gus, put Jesus in a headlock ‘til I get there!” and “Pray for me until we meet again!”. The thought of the world minus Father Gus is sad, but as Church began that morning, all I could think was that I this was the mystery St. Paul described, “it is Christ in you, the hope for glory!” (Colossians 1:27). Fr. Gus’s life and death all reminded us what we hope for.

In college, I was encouraged to seek both faith and reason as I matured to adulthood. This is because we have all been created to be in Heaven. Forever. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutia of day to day living and forget that this isn’t all there is. The life and death of someone like Father Gus snapped me out of my daily routine of checking facebook, hanging out with friends and deciding between a blackberry and iphone and gave me a reality check. I was reminded of what St. Paul told the Hebrews—“we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us” (Hebrews 12:1). A cloud of witnesses is watching and waiting. Are you running to win?

Twitters from Workcamp

originally published July 15

I’m sure you’ve run into a few youth groups on trips this summer, at rest stops, MacDonalds… or hospitals… and you may have wondered what was going through the minds of the adults that are with them. I just spent a week at Catholic HEART workcamp (affectionately abbreviated to “CHWC”) with sixteen teens and two brave adult chaperones. We slept on the floor, ate cafeteria food and spent hours each day serving the community through various painting, repair and yardwork projects. We had a blast and of course I twittered the whole time since nowadays, texting people about how much fun you’re having is the only way to authenticate it. I thought I’d share the highlights for those of you who might not be up on micro-blogging and would like to see shapshots of the week, in 140 characters or less:

Saturday: prepping for CHWC camp which we jet-set off for in about 20 hours.... I'm so g-l-a-m-o-r-o-u-s.... the Fergie of youth ministry. You heard me. Fergie. I’m so 3008, you’re so 2000 and late.

Traded my civic for a minivan this week. I am a soccer mom poser. So much for being Fergie. She probably does not jet-set off in a minivan. However, Fergie does not drive 7 high school students, which I am doing. Are we there yet?

Sunday: After a week with middle schoolers... I have a middle school work group at CHWC... There's a lesson here. Patience. Lots of patience. Part of the process of this week is that they put everyone, including adult leaders, with people they don’t know. Our team is made up of sixth and seventh graders and one other adult. We’ve been assigned to an assisted living center to do yard work, painting and power washing. I have just spent a week with middle school students at Bible Camp and have witnessed first-hand their concentration abilities. I’m trying to stay optimistic about their ability to focus through landscaping two developments.

Monday: One of my teens forgot his toothbrush and asked if I would get “the cheapest guys toothbrush”. When did toothbrushes get gender specific? His friends were at the store with me. They picked out a Barbie toothbrush. He refused it. Not sure how this story ended, but he still had all his teeth by the end of the trip.

10:39 p.m. Whoever is chaperoning the boys in the next room better regulate their kid's noise levels or prepare to come to Jesus at breakfast... Come to find out they were playing dodgeball. At 10:39 p.m. The victims were lined up on the wall they shared with us. Where do youth get their energy?

Tuesday: It's taco Tuesday at CHWC which is up there with shark week when it comes to meaningless yet amazing holidays. Tacos are always served for dinner on Tuesday, it’s gone from being a menu item to an all-out holiday complete with sombreros and theme music. Never have tortillas with a spoonful of meat in them brought about such pomp and circumstance.

10:21 p.m. Two whole days into camp... And I'm only holding two confiscated phones. They’re learning. I am the ultimate fun-stealer, but I take away cell phones when the kids use them at times that they’re supposed to be paying attention to talks or programs. They act like they’re dying at first, but deep down, I think they’re finding communicating in person to be its own reward.

Wednesday: we've been at an assisted living home. Its putting life in perspective. Today, lets appreciate walking, eating and dressing independently. I stand corrected about the abilities of my team—they’ve been doing a great job power washing, painting and planting at the request of the residents. We’ve also had a chance to visit with the residents and talking to them is both inspirational and full of personal challenges. Many of them have told us some neat stories about their lives, their hobbies and the advantages of winning bingo (20 wins gets you $5). However, there have also been pieces of advice such as “use those legs while you still can… enjoy your food while you can still feed yourself… I was married to my best friend for 40 years. You kids find that too…” Being here has reminded me that we all have a terminal illness—it’s called life. How are you spending yours?
4:45 p.m. “I just used your hair dryer to dry my feet”... -one of my teens tells me as I walk into our room. I don’t know how to further elaborate. I’m not even sure why her feet were wet.

Thursday: Last day of work. You know what I've noticed? Middle schoolers wear lots of orthodontia. It makes them spit. Especially when they’re excited, which we are since it’s our last day of work! We landscaped, painted and visited but most importantly I watched kids who, despite their awkward orthodontia and initial discomfort at being in an unfamiliar place with new people, were able to be Christ’s hands and feet and love to the community they were sent to. I’m very proud of them.

Catholic HEART Workcamp is located in Jasper County this week so if you see a group of teens out doing servive projects in our community. If you see them, be sure to yell “Holy C.O.W.!” (Catholics Out Working!) and appreciate that these kids have given up a week of their summer to sleep on a floor, eat tacos and use Barbie tooth brushes… And know if the adult’s hair smells like feet… you know why.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What I learned this year at summer camp: God is love, and grits are good

in the Bluffton Packet, Wed. July 1:

"Guess what's in my mouth?"

This morning, instead of my normal routine of coffee in my living room while checking news and Facebook, I had the pleasure of dining with the future of the Church -- the high school counselors at summer camp. This involved me picking at my eggs and toast and trying to pry my eyelids open while the boy across from me turned to his friend and began a new game.

"Dude, guess what's in my mouth?"






Ooh, we had a winner. And the boy rewarded his friend with the proof, displayed in all its half-chewed glory on his stuck-out tongue.

We're only on day one here at camp, but it gets better. Another counselor has been sneaking up on people while wearing a gorilla suit, while others engage in soda-chugging contests. Also I ended the first night elbow-deep in a broken toilet, fixing an archaic flushing mechanism.

I've written about mission trips before, but summer Bible camps are another time-honored (if not more conventional) summer youth ministry staple. Sure, they've gotten bad press from documentaries like "Jesus Camp" and various "SNL" sketches, but in reality, minus the thrilling conclusion of the mouth-guessing game, there's something about spending a week away from home, eating too many carbs and sharing a toilet and shower with eight others that brings you closer to God.

Why? It's freeing to break away from our daily routine to be in a new and unfamiliar environment. As we told the campers at their first meeting, forget what you think you know about each other. This week, see as God sees. You're meeting people for the first time, and just because you don't like to hang out with people who shop at Hollister or listen to Linkin Park doesn't mean you can't be friends with the guy in your cabin who appears to do both.

The funny thing is, while I was giving this advice to the charges in front of me, at some point I began lecturing myself.This lesson that the campers were learning for the first time was one that I had been taught over and over, yet still fail to put into practice. How often do I meet someone and, based on a first impression, think I know everything about him or her? I may be older, but at that moment am I any more mature than the teenage girl in all black who dramatically tells me that she cannot be friends with a cheerleader in pink and gingham hair ribbons? Just like our middle school campers need to be reminded not to judge their peers, I need to be reminded that God doesn't look at my neighbor and judge him based on their age, race or education. It's become cliché, but if we are truly attempting to follow Christ, avoiding judgment based on first impressions is advice we cannot hear often enough.

The Gospel of Matthew reminds us "as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you" (Matthew 7:1-2). That's not saying that we need to tolerate everything, but that we need to remember that Christ didn't ask us for a list of our skills or accomplishments before he lovingly gave His life for us on the cross. Unconditional love is just that, and if that's the way we've been loved, it's what we're to pass along to others. The ways we love change as we get older, but the lessons we learn from summer camp stay the same-- don't judge by first impressions, but pray for the grace to see those around us as God does.

When Alison Griswold is not at summer camp she can be found as the Director of Youth Ministry at St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Preach the Gospel at All Times...

In the Bluffton Packet, Wed. June 17

You’re probably shocked to hear that despite being a full-time youth minister and very part-time pastor’s corner columnist, I still find myself in need of extra cash. The combination of an iTunes habit and having to replace my car last year after accidentally breaking it (note: when your engine overheats, stop driving. Immediately.) occasionally leaves me… financially challenged. Fortunately, I am multi-talented and when there are no more quarters to be found in the seat cushions, I call a generous local restaurant and beg for a few shifts. Waitressing is a profession I’ve held on the side since I was fourteen. As my father prophesied when I told him I wanted to major in Theology (right up there with art, music, and English in terms of earning potential), “Well, you can already wait tables. So you’ll never starve.”

I’d rather be playing dodgeball or leading a Bible study, but when necessary I’ve always enjoyed waitressing as another outlet for my obnoxious extrovert tendencies. And, although giving directions to Harbor Town and assuring people that alligators, as a rule, do not eat people (unless you’re from Cincinnati) can get old, Hilton Head affords a lot of neat interaction while re-filling sweet tea and delivering burgers. Plus, I went to college in Ohio, so I can usually connect geographically on some level with my guests (“Yay Buckeyes! I agree, this is the year The Browns are gonna make it…”) Serving food is far from glamorous, but it’s fun. However, there’s one aspect that drives me crazy, even more than the usual server annoyances like kids running around under your tray full of hot coffee or scraping gum off the bottom of a table. It’s the fact that every few days when I go to collect the bill or tip off a table, tucked
anonymously in the check holder is a little religious tract, explaining the steps to accepting Christ as my savior and attaining salvation.

You may be surprised to hear this coming from a professional Christian who spends most of her days (as well as many lock-in-filled nights and weekends) trying to convince teens that life’s questions can be answered in Christ. In no way am I saying that sharing the Gospel is a waste of time and high-gloss paper. However, some ways of sharing are more effective than others.

I’d like to know what tract-droppers imagine happens as they pile back into their SUV’s with their doggie bags. Do they fall asleep at night feeling that they’ve successfully followed Christ’s commandment to “Go and make disciples of all nations”? “Yes” they think to themselves. “That brochure we left for that server will mean one more soul saved from eternal damnation!” Do they imagine that I run into the kitchen, tract in hand, exclaiming “Everybody! We’re on a twenty- minute wait, running out of mashed potatoes, expecting an inspection from DHEC any minute and a guest just said we’re out of toilet paper, but I just got a piece of paper that says someone named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago loves me and died for my sins. Let’s all stop and say this prayer together!”. We then all break into a round of “Kumbaya,” hug, and bring Bibles to the Triangle after work that night. This is just not how it works.

In reality, servers take these tracts and either throw them away or shove them into the pockets that contain the Amway and MaryKay promotional materials they’re given as well. This is occasionally accompanied by a few expletives, asking if being a Christian means tipping 8%. As a Christian, this grieves me because my prayer for my co-workers is that they know that Christ is more than a product to be sold like Amway or MaryKay; He is a person madly in love and seeking a relationship with us all.

I realize that the lack of four-color printers at the time of Christ leaves us to wonder whether He would’ve saved time and effort by using tracts, but I think that despite technological differences, we can look at how Christ lived and see that He shared his message through relationships, sitting with tax collectors and prostitutes and conversing with them. Through this people came to understand that truth is more than an idea, it’s a person. Sociologist Rodney Stark set out to investigate how Christianity spread and discovered that it was primarily through personal contact. In The Rise of Christianity, Stark’s extensive research claims that “the primary means of its [Christianity’s] growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the 'good news’.”

Does that mean you can’t share Christ with the person serving you coffee or chicken finger basket? Of course not! But research and the example of Christ himself shows us that this is done best through a relationship-- asking someone’s name, if they have kids, personally inviting them to a program or service at your church. The encounter with your joy will speak much louder than any nameless tract ever will.

Alison Griswold can be left a tract at St. Francis by the Sea where she is the Director of Youth Ministry, or at a Hilton Head Island restaurant.

It May Take A Village, But Only Two Are Permant Residents

originally published in the bluffton packet:

The more parents I meet, the more convinced I am that parenting is the most challenging and unappreciated job in the world. If there are any teens reading this, stop rolling your eyes or they’re going to get stuck that way. Mark my words, someday you’ll thank mom and dad not just for keeping you fed and clothed but also for the rules and the “no’s” and the lectures about “life lessons”. But note that I said you will thank them someday, not now. Only very precocious teens realize what’s best for them now. The rest of you are not going to like what follows so save your angst for your micro-blogging and skip this; it’s a pep-talk for mom and dad.

“Parents: the anti-drug.” There’s a reason that millions of dollars are being invested in this advertising campaign. Studies have shown that teachers, coaches, friends, and even, ahem, youth ministers having a really good hair day are not as influential as are parents in the lives of their teenagers. A speaker I heard said it best when she reminded youth ministers that “Parents are the heroes… you are just a tool in their tool belt.” The best classes, programs, and ministries in the world cannot replace parents in the lives of teens. In the end, parents spend the most time with their kids, set the rules, and enforce consequences. It may take a village, but only two people have established residency. The rest of us are tourists that provide some seasonal support and will eventually move on. Like good tourists, we should do all we can to ensure that the locals are receiving their proper due.

I don’t know when the media began their vendetta against parents, but it’s clearly present and affecting us all. Consider this: as a child, my favorite thing to watch was “The Cosby Show.” Remember how Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable were portrayed as involved parents who dealt with real-world issues but always had the respect of their kids and the final say? They were pretty cool. I would’ve loved to have been BFF’s with Rudy for a chance to hang out with her mom and dad. Contrast this with the popular T.V. show “Family Guy” which portrays parents Peter and Lois as inattentive, self-absorbed, and often modeling immoral and illegal activities. This is a glaring example but not the only one. Network television, MTV, advertisers and even Nickelodeon and Disney are on a mission to make mom and dad look really lame and completely undeserving of honor. This parody, coupled with disrespect from their kids must make parents wonder if all this
grief is really worth it.

As the season of proms, graduations, summer camps and teen nights approach, I encourage parents who know that the aforementioned activities mean not just fun for their children but also a lot of heated conversations about curfews, rules, and standards. I took an informal poll of my peers and we all agreed that we gave our parents the most grief for rules that kept us happy, healthy, and holy. As teenagers, we were mortified when our parents called to check if our friends’ parents would be home when we spent the night, dropped us off at youth group and came in to meet the adults in charge, and made us change when we tried to leave the house wearing a skirt only slightly longer than the belt holding it up (and then the skirt would mysteriously get lost at the dry cleaners… what was up with that?). We all can remember the tearful accusations of, “I can’t believe you don’t trust me to make good choices when I’m out, alone, with a boy four
years older than me who likes me for my mind and wants to show me what a full moon looks like on a deserted beach.” Ten years later we look back and are so grateful that our parents were parents when we needed them to be, despite our declarations that we hated them for ruining our lives.

So as this season of warmer weather, later nights and teens pushing the limits comes round, remember that even Jesus gave Mary and Joseph a few sleepless nights. When Christ reached the age of twelve He disappeared for three days, causing Mary to exclaim, “Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety!” (Luke 2:48)- surely words that all moms and dads can relate to. Know that Christ “grew in wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Luke 2:52) and while it might not always seem that poetic, it’s parenting, and someday, you will be thanked. It will be later than and never as much as you deserve, but you will be thanked.

Going Makes All the Difference

Originally published in the Bluffton Packet:

It’s that time of year again. It’s getting warmer, school’s almost out and it looks as though the fifth season of the “The Office” will keep me in suspense about whether Jim and Pam will ever tie the knot. But I digress.

Like graduations and white pants, another telltale sign of summer is news of youth groups and individuals taking domestic and international mission trips. You probably know at least one teen or young adult who is packing her Bible, unbreakable water bottle, malaria pills, and wrinkle-resistant knee-length skirts in a backpack and heading to a little-known corner of some foreign country to build a church, dig a well, or lead bilingual sing-alongs for children at a Bible camp.

I used to hear about such trips and think, “Gee, that’s great. Spend hundreds of dollars to travel to another part of the world because no one in your hometown needs help? Why don’t you people do something good locally? There’s plenty of need right here in your own backyard.”

Then I went.

During my senior year of college I took a mission trip to Belize, Central America. A typical Hilton Head girl, my idea of adventure was a Black-Friday shoe sale, not overcrowded, un-air-conditioned classrooms and spiders scurrying across my pillow at night. However, I was graduating and wanted something to mention at job interviews; and though I was broke, a stranger generously donated the trip. Plus, I was living in Ohio and it was March. I was starting to forget what sun looked like. This was a no-brainer.

Packed five across in the back seat of a minivan, Bibles under my feet and three guitars across my lap, careening through villages that had yet to catch up with technology, I felt the direction of my life coming to a screeching halt. Suddenly, all that had been very important to me—friends and family, getting a good job, and sales at The Gap—was overshadowed by the revelation that there were people in the world who didn’t have enough to eat, kids who didn’t have shoes, and schools that could not afford to pay teachers. I had always known this on an intellectual level, but seeing it first hand forced me either to ignore reality or do something about it.

I had been interviewing for teaching jobs in the U.S., weighing different benefits and locations. The principal of the local high school in Belize offered me twelve dollars a week and a bed in a house with a cement floor to teach at a school for students whose behavior or grades were so bad they couldn’t get in anywhere else. I served as a missionary in Belize for two formative years that changed the way I viewed not only developing countries but the U.S. as well. I learned that when you serve others and share Christ with them, what is gained—a greater understanding of oneself and one’s beliefs-- is greater than what is received.

Therefore, service and mission trips are a priority for the teens I work with at my church. This summer we’ll take our third domestic trip to a city where they’ll work with children, paint and do minor repairs for those in need. These are certainly projects that can be done on Hilton Head, but removing teens from the hometown distractions and allowing them to see another part of the U.S. (or world, for ambitious youth ministers) opens the kid’s eyes. Last year, our group worked at a homeless shelter in Tampa, Florida where the teens learned to care for people who can’t afford a place to live or food to eat. Not only did they spend a week in service, they also acquired an interest in serving their own community and have since painted houses, organized food pantries and cared for children locally. The lessons they learned in Tampa have benefited Hilton Head.

2 Kings 5 tells the story of King Naaman, a leper who traveled to Samaria to be healed by the prophet Elisha. Elisha instructed him to bathe in the Jordan River, at which point the King became slightly annoyed and asked why he would travel so far when he had rivers in his hometown which were just as good. God is not limited by geography, but He chose to have Naaman make this journey in order to receive healing. Does one have to go on a mission trip to be a good Christian? Of course not. But we grow when we remove distractions and allow ourselves to learn from a new place, because God uses these long-distance experiences to open our eyes to what has been right here all along.

How'd the Lowcountry Sisters Get Their Habit?

Originally Published in the Bluffton Packet

Imagine twenty teenagers on retreat at Running W Ranch on Route 46 which features, among other fun-makers, pool tables. Sunday morning the teens were finishing breakfast when the morning’s speakers arrived. They bustled in from the torrential downpour outside, gracefully arranging their black veils and brushing the rain off their white habits. Our youth are used to seeing the Sisters at church, so their dress was no surprise. What did shock the teens was to see the sisters pick up the cue sticks and skillfully begin shooting pool like pros. Sister Mary Dominic turned to one astounded teen and kindly said, “Well, we weren’t born sisters.”

They were not. But how did Sister Mary Dominic evolve from pool shark to Consecrated sister? The Lowcountry is blessed to have about a dozen sisters from various orders in our schools and churches, so chances are you’ve seen them had a few questions: What’s with the outfit? How did this happen? Let’s start with the basics. First, I say “sister” instead of “nun” because a nun is a sister who is cloistered (think walls, “Sound of Music” style). They do exist, but you won’t be seeing them in Bluffton or Hilton Head.

How does one decide to be a sister? Last search, it wasn’t coming up on The call to be a sister is actually much deeper than a career. It’s what the Catholic Church calls a “vocation.” God calls us all to be holy through living love by practicing poverty, chastity, and obedience. You might think, “What? Being a Christian means I have to be poor, never have sex and obey? I don’t remember that from vacation Bible school!” For most of us, living poverty, chastity, and obedience means to live simply, practice self-control when it comes to our sexuality and be obedient to God. This is simply phrasing the Ten Commandments in three positive acts instead of ten “thou shall not’s.” The gifts and talents we have enable us to live these three acts in one of three ways: married, single or religious. (Yes, even married people are called to chastity. How? Chastity is not about not having sex, it’s about
following God’s plan for our sexuality. But that’s for another column…). Since everyone is familiar with the single life and most with marriage, let’s skip to religious life.

In the earliest days of the Church there is evidence that many remained unmarried. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that “an unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord… an unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs; Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit…. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32, 34, 37). Throughout history, different religious communities have been established to respond to the needs of the church and to provide an environment for those who seek to live in “undivided devotion.” For example, St. Dominic established the Dominicans in 1170 for those who felt called to serve the church as teachers. Centuries later, the Dominicans are still teaching, four of them right here in the Lowcountry.

Many close friends have entered religious life and I’ve learned from watching them discern God’s call. They had been in healthy dating relationships (a few had even been engaged), but felt called to follow God in a deeper way. Pope John Paul II explained that grace “never casts nature aside or cancels it out, but rather perfects and enobles it.” My friends saw that based on their nature, talents, and desires God was calling them to live poverty, chastity, and obedience in a more radical way. They chose to remove themselves from the cares of the world that St. Paul mentioned to the Corinthians. They chose not to have a family, to discard their possessions (much of my CD collection consists of convent entry cast-offs), and to be obedient to God through the directions of their community so they can focus solely on the Lord’s affairs. In doing this, they remind us who are still concerned with the world’s affairs that eventually it will
pass away. Their choosing to embrace poverty, chastity, and obedience in this world is a foretaste of heaven where we will not own anything, not “marry nor be given away in marriage” (Matthew 22:30) and will be in perfect obedience to God. The outfits, or habits, a witness to the world that the sisters are focused on heaven, remind us to do the same.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Church can be like Broccoli

Originally published in The Bluffton Packet on Jan 10, 2007

Many local seniors have received their college acceptance letters in the mail. Seeing their excitement at the next stage of life takes me back to my freshman year.

What stands out in my mind isn't the thrill of the knowledge that I acquired (maybe it'll sink in when I finally finish paying for it), but the freedom that came with being away from home for the first time. It's when you realize that no one's going to tell you to turn off your light and go to bed, do your homework on time, or wash the dirty laundry that's in your closet.

I'm sure everyone has their tales of staying up three days in a row eating only Papa John's pizza and drinking Mountain Dew, sliding papers under a professor's door seconds before a deadline, or days when going to Wal-Mart to buy new underwear just seemed easier than that long walk to the Laundromat. My tale of freedom is about broccoli.

As a kid I was the drama-queen vegetable choker. There's at least one in every family -- while some kids are happy to eat their green beans and broccoli quietly, there's always one child who believes his parents are killing him with this plot they call "a nutritious diet." Eating vegetables involves taking a miniscule bite ... gag ... inhaling half a glass of milk ... shudder ... and by the time he's finished, everyone else at the table would swear they've witnessed an exorcism.

Bless my mother who put up with this charade for years, never giving in to my pleas of sudden allergies to green beans or my insistence on new studies linking the consumption of broccoli to cancer. I don't know if I ever told her this, but mom's patience did pay off when I was amazed to find myself scooping broccoli onto my plate in the college cafeteria. "But you hate broccoli!" I told myself. And yet I knew deep down that this was the first of many things that I would do not because I particularly wanted, but because I knew it was best for me.

The funny thing is that the more I saw the link between eating healthy and being healthy, the more enthusiastic I became for the salad bar. But what does my newfound love of broccoli have to do with Sunday mornings?

As a youth minister, I am constantly amazed that well-meaning parents will encourage their kids to get involved in baseball, swimming, gymnastics, golf, tennis, music, scouting and every other activity until their schedules are overflowing. However, when it comes to church, many parents hesitate. They're tired, too busy or they don't want to "force their religion on their kids."

Now, please, don't write me off as Grandma on the rocking chair lamenting the lack of religion among the young folk today. I want to suggest that God, broccoli, church on Sunday and your personal happiness are actually all connected. I want to suggest that amid our busy schedules and everyday dysfunction we're missing something. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his followers, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," Mark 2:27. Sunday worship isn't another activity that cuts breakfast short. That one hour spent at church helps bring the other hundred and sixty-seven hours of the week into focus.

Like eating broccoli, regularly attending church can take some getting used to. However, I challenge you that if you make attending church on Sunday your New Year's resolution, you'll find that even though you're adding an activity, life will get less complicated. Instead of focusing on the day-to-day drudgery, you'll be taking time to focus on the eternity waiting for you. And bring your kids! All of the sports, lessons and hobbies that they're involved in are certainly helping them become more educated. However, there's no lesson more important for a child than the fact that they are created and loved by God and meant to be with Him in heaven.

Habits children acquire at home will stay with them longer than they stay under their parents' roof. It's good if they're 19 and can play "The Entertainer" on the piano thanks to the lessons they had. It's even better if they're 19 and still going to church because they were encouraged to do so when they were younger.

Learning to eat green vegetables as a child will keep you healthy. Learning that God is in charge and has eternal paradise prepared for you when this life is over will make you happier! Now, if only learning to do laundry was that simple ...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! As thousands flock to Savannah to wear green and celebrate, your local Catholic has to, off course, pipe up with a little explanation of St. Patrick and saints and to clarify that much like Jesus’ Birthday, the way that this day is celebrated in the modern time is fun but not necessarily a reflection of who it was originally about, nor is our honoring saints about getting drunk and dying fountains green.

For a long time I thought that St. Patrick was a Leprechaun-like figure who found a shamrock and used it to teach people about rainbows and the Trinity. Then, I learned about him in school (and a really good PBS “Wishbone” episode) and realized what an incredible model of evangelism and holiness he was. St. Patrick wasn’t actually Irish, he was born in Gaul and kidnapped at the age of 16. He was sold as a slave to a chieftain and was held captive there for 6 years where he learned the Celtic culture and language. He escaped and upon his return to England studied for and was ordained a priest. He was well known for his ability to explain and defend his faith. However, a vision of the children from Ireland who said to him, “O holy youth, come back to Erin, and walk once more amongst us” led to him returning to Ireland to share Christ with those who had once enslaved him. The encounters he had there are pretty amazing, for more details check out In summary, St. Patrick was able to show that God was all-powerful over the superstitious practices that those in the country were engaged in, much more than just holding up a shamrock to show the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Through it all the people listened because he understood their culture and native language. A pretty amazing role model.

Now, why do we call him a “saint” and what’s the deal with saints anyways? Sometimes our practices of putting up pictures and statues of those who have gone before us are seen as superstitious or idolatrous. First of all, it’s important to know that we worship God alone. To worship anyone or anything besides God is idolatrous and wrong. However, we believe that the lives and examples of those who have followed God in a heroic way are worth looking to for inspiration and encouragement; furthermore we believe that they can intercede for us in heaven just like those who are still on earth can intercede for each other. John 15:1-5 tells us that Christ is the vine, we are the branches. We are the Body of Christ, if Christ is the vine than we are all connected not just to Him, but to one another and we know that death cannot separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35-39). We know that those in heaven pray (Revelation 5:8, Revelation 8:3-4), so why not for us? Just like we put up pictures of friends and family members we want to remember, we use pictures and statues of the saints to remember how those in our extended “Christian Family” followed Christ and to offer us encouragement when the Christian walk gets challenging. Obviously, Christ is the perfect role model for us, but just like St. Paul tells us to “imitate me as I imitate Christ”, looking to the way other Christians have followed Christ is a source of encouragement for us and gives us concrete ways to handle challenging situations.

Anyone in heaven is a saint, but there are certain “players on team Catholic” that the Church wants to uphold as especially good examples (think of it as our hall of fame). So, when you hear us refer to someone as Saint so-and-so, it means that the Church has declared them to be especially good role models for us, after careful investigation of their lives and writings. The Church does this through a process called “canonization”. When the Church canonizes saints, they often make them a patron of a certain cause, country or group. So, St. Patrick, because of his witness and work in Ireland, was declared the patron saint of Ireland.

Not sure how we went from a heroic example of evangelization to green beer and fountains, but that’s the story on saints! Cheers!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

why ashes?

Today, as you’re out and about, you may notice some of team Catholic, or maybe even a few catholic “light” (do Episcopalians do ashes… 367 points to the person who can tell me first) running around with dirt on their foreheads. I know what you’re thinking… “there go those crazy Catholics… candles… incense… now ashes? What’s with their obsession with fire related materials?”. I know, from the outside, we don’t always make sense. So if you’re curious, read on.

First, how do ashes end get there? It’s all very non-violent. We receive ashes in the middle of mass on Ash Wednesday-- it’s done by all of us lining up communion style and then a Priest or lay minister makes the mark of a cross on our foreheads with the ashes (which are, coincidentally, made from burned palms from Palm Sunday… full circle, eh?) and says, “remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Basically, this mark reminds us and all who see us that we belong totally to God—He created us from dust and in the end, we’re all going to die. At first glance, this does seem incredibly morbid. However, this kicks off a whole season (Lent) of focusing on our death because, as we all know, death isn’t the end but the beginning of eternity. So, when you run into Catholics sporting ashes today be sure to thank them for reminding you and everyone else that we’re all going to die. Throughout Scripture, ashes have been a sign of repentance, so this is also us getting real old-school in the way that we are showing sorrow for our sins.

So, this is the beginning forty days of Lent. (Not to be confused with the stuff on the carpet or in your little brother’s belly button, as the youth group learned last week). What’s the deal with that? Why do we “give stuff up” or not eat meat on Fridays? When we give stuff up, we train our will. Sin is, essentially, saying “yes” to ourselves and “no” to God. When we give stuff up, whether it be chocolate, coffee, the snooze button or Facebook, it’s us saying “no” to ourselves. The idea is that this is training our will so that today we’re saying “no” to ourselves when we want chocolate so that tomorrow, when we’re tempted to gossip, we can say “no” to ourselves then too. I love the analogy my Mom uses-- she describes these little deaths to ourselves as “pin-prick martyrdom”. Most of us won’t be called to give our whole mortal lives for our faith, but these moments of death to ourselves help to strengthen us in our walk with Christ cause let’s just be honest… It’s often very hard to say “no” to ourselves. We’re actually called to not just “give stuff up” during Lent but to step it up in 3 areas: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It’s neat, cause when we sin, we offend God, we hurt ourselves and, hurt our community. Prayer helps our relationship with God, fasting helps to train ourselves and almsgiving helps our community… not that this “undoes” our sin or in some way “fixes” it, but it gives God room to strengthen the areas we’ve allowed to weaken.

Lent is a time of conversion. It’s not about buying time in heaven or trying to out-do Christ’s death on the cross. Rather, Lent is about looking at where in our lives we’ve grown lazy and slack and re-focusing. It’s 40 days of us following Jesus into the desert and remembering that this world is not our final home—we’re created for eternity! We repeat Joel 2:13 over and over this season as we say, “rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment”. It’s not about “rending our garments” in an outward display, it’s about turning our hearts back to God.

I was woefully remiss in adding all the scriptural citations for ashes, so if you want to know more, check out:

And, in case you’re curious, the readings for Mass today are: Joel 2:12-18, Psalm 51, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 and Matthew 6:1-18.

Hope that helps!