Choosing Christ: A Decision or Denial
Not too long ago, I was asked to contribute to a Clergy Only page on social media but another priest, also on the list, shared a letter from one of his high school seniors. The priest had asked him to share how he had struggled with his faith at some time and then eventually came back to faith. The young man returned with a very different response however. Listen to this: he said, “As a child who was never quite certain of anything, I naturally felt alienated in an environment in which nobody seems willing to challenge long-held beliefs. Religious teachings are presented in Sunday School as truths, rather than as chosen positions on debated issues. I eventually reached a realization that in my childhood nobody had given me a reason to believe their religion, probably due to a lack of knowledge on the topic.”
As a priest, as someone who truly loves not only the faith but also wants to share it with others, hearing this cuts into my heart like nothing else. To think that we would have this beautiful and true expression of God’s love and life and, instead of sharing it, that we would hoard it or, worse yet, misrepresent it to others, is not only a shame but a sin. Sharing God’s life and love is the first and only commandment that Christ ever gave to us: love Me and love others, He said. Everything else that we do – liturgically, in prayer, in study, and in service – is complementary, it supports love and supports our ability to convey love to others.
What is missing from this young man, however, is an understanding of what the Church has said and still says. Everything we have and believe came about as a result of conflict, debate, questions, and consensus. Nothing came easy and no priest today in America, having been asked a question about the faith, is going to answer, “It is what it is; just accept it and don’t ask questions.” We love questions because, at some point, we had our own. Actually, my experience has been just the opposite. Priests love to tell you why we believe what we believe, how the belief came to be, and where it is in the Scriptures. For someone who is truly curious about the faith of our Church, there is such an abundance of resources available to read that it would literally take you months to go through it all. The key is to question and seek more than to doubt.
In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about the conflict that often arises between those who believe and those who don’t believe. Those conflicts that He Himself predicted have always existed and, unfortunately, will always exist. Jesus didn’t try to sugar-coat this at all. He said that there will be disagreements even within households, between parents and children and every form of in-law. But Jesus’ point was this: follow Him not simply with words but with a cross. This is central to the message of the faith: Jesus understands that it is the struggle that will produce the proper character in His followers. The struggle that we so avoid today for ourselves, the last thing that we want for our kids – to feel any degree of pain, anxiety, or stress – is actually the most important thing that we can experience.
This reminds me of an article I saw this past week about good hygiene. The article was saying how, as a society, we have become so fearful of germs and bacteria that some are washing their hands several times a day with anti-bacterial lotions. According to this story, this is the worst thing that we can do to our immune system because germs build up our immune system and make us far stronger in the end, able to fight off many of the infections that threaten us.
So it is with the struggle for faith. We shouldn’t avoid it. A Christian commitment may separate friends and family at times. I’ve seen this before. Jesus is not encouraging disobedience and conflict but He is showing that His presence demands a decision on our part, a decision that, at times, will lead to relationships being broken. As we take up our cross and follow him, our different values, morals, and goals will set us apart from others. Over the years, I’ve seen so many people abandon their faith and, almost inevitably, everything else starts to crumble around them and they cannot figure out why. Sometimes an addiction that was once held at bay takes over their lives. Most commonly, the family that pulls away from the church will either sink into complete isolation and loneliness or they will find another group that believes in living hedonistically, excessive and selfish in almost everything they do. Either way, a life lived outside of the Church and the faith will be a life that ultimately is found to be very unfulfilling. But, you have to know that when a prayer becomes your habit, miracles become your lifestyle. To the young man that I quoted earlier, I would say, “Young man, you don’t need to accept everything we say as gospel truth but you do have to go beyond skepticism to actual study. Unlike science that shows itself so obviously in experiments and nature, the Christian life and Christ Himself can only be understood and appreciated by one who lives the faith, truly seeks answers, and one who is humble enough to allow the virtues to reign in the heart. So, it’s not about understanding intellectually as much as it is experiencing God. That’s what we emphasize. It’s in that experience of God now and through the centuries that we find God acting, revealing His Truth, and showing us a better way. In celebrating All Saints today, we remember and celebrate those who have lived that type of life: living for, with, and by God’s holy grace, experiencing the power, the love and wisdom of God. Through their prayers, may God bless us all with the inner strength to seek Him at all times.