Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Deepest Desire of Our Heart Is Holy

October 18, 2015 –– 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Conversion Series
The Deepest Desire of Our Heart Is Holy

For these weeks preceding Advent we are doing a sermon series to highlight the importance of being totally committed to Jesus Christ. Think about it: If Christianity is not true, then as St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “let’s just try to make life one big party” (that’s a paraphrase translation of 1 Cor 15:32). On the other hand, if it is indeed true that God came into our world as a Man, gave his life in order to absorb the evil in us and all the world, and then rose from the dead to give us eternal life, there is nothing greater nor more important.

Every week we confess the Creed and say we believe it. Over the past weeks we have reviewed some basic implications. Why are there pain and suffering in this world? Because the world is broken! Yet there is something within us that cries out for a more perfect world. In our hearts we know that there is more, and the deepest Truth is that God is searching for us. Our sins are no obstacle to God. We do not deserve God’s love, but we have it anyway––not because of who we are, but because of who God is. The God who created me wants more for my life, just as I do. We all have a deep and insatiable hunger for what is right and good and true.

I often think about my deepest desires. I think about the kind of life, if it were in my power, that I would give my children and grandchildren. My first concern is not for material wealth. And while I would prefer it, my greatest desire would not be for their health and comfort. My deepest desire is that my children know the God who made them, and that they will seek to have the character of Jesus formed into their own lives. It is people like that who have an observable beauty that others notice.

Think of the things that so easily and quickly move the human heart––a baby or a small child…. a person who is observably handicapped, yet accomplishing a task seemingly beyond his ability…. a radiant young woman whose beauty does not need the manipulation of immodesty…. a husband and wife of well-advanced years enjoying life, obviously still in love. We can also be stirred by stories of courage and sacrifice. The glories of nature give us spontaneous thrills––a panoramic sunset…. a majestic mountain overlook….

Think too of the qualities we so naturally admire in the saints. Think of the purity of St Agnes and St. Maria Goretti. Think of the simple love of Therese of Lisieux. Think of the joy that exudes from Pope Francis. Those things pull at us like a magnet.

We notice these things. Something deep within us recognizes truth and beauty. That same “something" hungers for what is right and good. We may even think about them––their significance and why such things are important to us. Yet how often do see a connection to holiness?

The devil twists the image we have of holiness. We too easily see it as unattainable. We think holiness will limit our happiness; we assume that being holy puts us under too many restrictions. Holiness is simply entering into the fullness of life as God created it to be. Holiness is believing that whatever is not holy is not truly good.

So much of what we spend our time, energy, and money on in order to find meaning and happiness leaves us unsatisfied and searching for “more”. St Paul exhorts the Philippians to direct their thoughts to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise (4:8). St Augustine reflected:

Show me one who is full of longing, one who is hungry, one who is a pilgrim and suffering from thirst in the desert of this world…. and he knows what I mean.
….What does the soul desire more than truth? Why then does the soul have hungry jaws, a spiritual palate as it were, sensitive enough to judge the truth, if not in order to eat and drink wisdom, justice, truth, eternal life?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… (St Augustine)

We need to learn to listen to our deepest hungers. Perhaps the most basic principle of the spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola is that of “discerning spirits”. There are “spirits”––thoughts and feelings––that can move us toward God or pull us away from God. Sometimes a feeling can seem initially good but then prove to lead to a bad place. Likewise, something can seem unpleasant at first, but actually lead to deep satisfaction.

Every day we face a most important question. Is Christian Faith really true? If we say “yes” then we can expect two things to happen. We can expect God to be at work in our lives, calling us to know him, to trust him, to obey him. We can also expect to fight a spiritual war. There are other voices that want to distract us. We live in a broken world that can discourage us. There are spirits that want to destroy us. Each day we have a fresh decision to make: What voice will I listen to?

The deepest desires of our heart are true holiness––for a life marked by God’s truth and beauty and love. St Augustine captured it: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. Our hunger for God is a hunger to be holy. If we can recognize that we may stumble, but our direction will be set.

Then we can pray with the psalmist: Of you my heart has spoken: “Seek his face.” It is your face, O Lord, that I seek (Psa 27). And we trust the words of our Lord: Seek and you shall find (Matt 7:7). It is as easy as following the deepest desire of our heart.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

On Marriage and Ministry

Libby is speaking to the wives of the aspirant deacon class today. This is her “talk” and I thought I should add this just as I post my homilies. The Lord blessed me with an incredible wife (she’s been the prayerful powerhouse supporting me for over 40yrs).

My name is Libby Hall, and I’m happy to share a few thoughts on marriage and ministry with you this afternoon.  First of all, let me tell you how excited I am for each of you women.  God has good things ahead.  I could tell from the introductory remarks you made weeks ago that you’re coming into this “wife of a deacon” life with different reactions – most of you sounded thrilled, some were shocked, but all of you sounded open and ready and already saying “YES” to what God has ahead.  I left that Saturday session giving thanks that God had put His call on you to be deacon wives. 
There are a few key things that I want to tell you from my experience.  First of all,
God is writing a wonderful, unique story in YOUR life.
My story isn’t better than yours; it’s just different. I grew up mostly in Alabama as the oldest child in a Wesleyan (Protestant) pastor’s family (now you know why I talk funny), and knew deep within as a child that God wanted me to be a pastor’s wife.  In fact, my entire family tree is filled with Protestant pastors and church musicians – my grandfather, great uncles, dad, uncle, brothers-in-law, nephews...  David and I met in a conservative Bible college, and he was a Brethren in Christ pastor for over 33 years.
The blend of ministry into marriages and families is the only life I’ve ever known.  We didn’t begin to be perfect! but marriage and family and ministry were blended together in an integration that understood God came first.  I remember as a teenager praying and crying out to God to do whatever He wanted in my life, to please make sure I knew Him as much as possible and didn’t miss out on anything He wanted to do in and through me.  
I look back at 64 years now and see that He has faithfully, constantly ordered and led in ways that were never expected.  When we give ourselves to Him and say “do whatever You want” – He takes that seriously.
Stop for a minute and think about your family and life – all this time God has been preparing you to be a deacon’s wife.  He’s had His hand on you even when you didn’t realize it.  He’s all Love, knows what is best for His glory and our good, and we can trust Him for this phase and all that will come.  
More than anything, He wants to be first in your life and in your marriage.  He wants you to know Him in deeper, growing ways – this is a gift, and I wish I knew the details of each of your lives so I could rejoice with you that God has been working from the beginning and is helping you become like Him more and more.
God uses the not-so-pretty, hard things for His purposes.
The church that we were raised in was very strict and held high standards for how you dressed, and what you did and said, told you in detail what was “worldly” (which meant unholy), and even preached that God could change your attitudes so that you became selfless and loving like Jesus.  So David and I came into marriage with the advantage of faith formation that taught us it was sinful to put yourself above the other. Wanting the good of each other has kept us close when hard things hit – when our son was diagnosed with a learning disability and couldn’t excel academically as we had, when our adopted daughter took anti-malaria meds for a family mission trip to Africa and had neurological side effects that turned her life and ours upside down for the past 20 years....
Being in ministry together is priceless, but it can open your marriage and your family to a vulnerable place of attack from the devil who doesn’t WANT our husbands to serve God or for the focus of our lives to be God-first. It’s not that we live in fear for what pressures will hit next or what crisis is around the corner, but we know to expect that it won’t be easy.  The good news is that God is more powerful than ANY hard thing, and He’s promised to make a way.  He does that over and over.  
I’ve enjoyed some wonderful, glorious times, too, but it’s the hard struggles that have produced the character changes and taught me to fall before Jesus and cry out for His deliverance.  It’s the tough stuff (that I would have never chosen) that have bonded me to dependency and intimacy with the Lord.
God delights and honors our prayers.
My Christian church tradition taught us to pray hard and long.  We had family prayer together every night growing up, and during worship services (three services a week plus revival weeks and summer camp meetings) people got down on their knees and everybody prayed out loud at the same time.  “Storming the gates of heaven” took on literal meaning.  We didn’t use written prayers apart from memorizing the Lord’s prayer and saying it once a year or so, but we talked to Jesus from the heart.  
When we got married, I thought our prayer lives would blend so that David and I prayed together each day.  But we were different – I was more emotive while he was more logical and “heady”.  So we prayed with the children but didn’t develop times of prayer as husband and wife for many years.  After David’s mother died in the late 90’s during the same time we were struggling daily with Katie’s emotional and mental needs, my husband began to realize some issues in his own life that were lacking.  As he was faced with the need to lay down his life for his daughter, God began to show him that things weren’t where they should be in his spiritual life. He was a “successful” senior pastor of a growing church and was a good husband and dad.  He could pray in public or with anyone in a given situation; he could preach and knew the Bible in detail, but he found it hard to be intimate with God, to pray from the heart instead of the head.
And he asked God to change his heart and teach him how to pray.  It’s an involved story, but God did that – someone recommended the Liturgy of the Hours for daily praying the Psalms, and David adopted the disciplines of readings and prayers throughout the day.  The writings of the Early Fathers opened his eyes to the beginnings of the Church in ways that several graduate degrees in Bible and theology had not.  He spent a sabbatical month at Little Portion Hermitage (the monastic community founded by John Michael Talbot) to pray the Liturgy in community, and more truths unfolded so that he saw the need for the centrality of the Eucharist in worship.  Attending Sat. evening Mass before preaching at our church twice the next morning took things even further.  
God began melting his heart through praying the Psalms, and I saw changes in him as a father and husband as he loved and gave himself in new depths of selflessness.  Remember my prayer as a teenager wanting everything God had for me?  While I didn’t understand what was happening in David through these new disciplines (that I didn’t even realize were “Catholic”), I was beyond thrilled – this was exactly what I wanted in marriage, for both of us to hunger passionately for Jesus together.  By the time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer (which surgery showed to be outside the gland), we were at a different place spiritually.  We began praying together every morning and night and asking the Lord to do what He wanted with us for as long as we had left.  We didn’t know if the cancer diagnosis meant the years of ministry were limited – did we have 10 years left or not?  
Powerful things began to happen as we prayed – there was a calmness and acceptance that no matter what, God was working.  By the time David told me he could no longer in good conscience pastor a Protestant church because he’d become too “Catholic” in understanding and desire, I said okay even though it meant he walked away from preaching (which he loved) and our entire identity as pastor and wife, not to mention 2/3rds of our income, our entire way of life.
Again, there are a lot more details, but let me just say that the last 8 years since we’ve come into the Catholic Church have been filled with wonderful joys.  That the Lord would open the way for David to be ordained a deacon and be again in full-time ministry is a gift for which we continually give thanks.  I may never be the best “Catholic” culturally – it’s a very large and unfamiliar world, but being fed regularly with Jesus’ Body and Blood, joining others in crying out for the Lamb of God to have mercy on us, being close to Jesus during Adoration, the list goes on and on... with priceless spiritual and tangible realities that enrich and strengthen our lives in ways we couldn’t imagine before.
So back to prayer – find your own ways to invite God into your lives together regularly.  If you’re not yet at that place where you freely say “do whatever You want no matter what, Jesus” – then ask God to help you at the place you are now, to take the next step to grow into His good plan.
He knows you.  He sees the desires of your heart.  He’s started you on this new phase of heading toward the diaconate, and your marriage will be enriched and your total life focus on God will enlarge as you follow in obedience.
God will teach you how to be a deacon’s wife.
Don’t feel like you have to make yourself become a certain way. There’s no one way or even a “right” way.  Keep remembering that this is God’s idea and plan, not yours.  And then ask Him to give you the gift of praying for your husband in a new way.  Ordination DOES change the man, but God can be freed to do more in him if you commit to covering your husband with constant prayer.  When he’s studying, pray.  When things are tough because of the extra demands these next years of formation, ask the Lord to make a way and to give you extra help and patience.  Once he’s ordained and begins to preach, sit and listen in the congregation and pray the whole time.  You will see God work in astounding ways, and you’ll enter with him into ministry in spirit and heart. 

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