Made for Community: An Afternoon with Alpha

 

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Life was never intended to be lived alone; community with God and one another was always the plan. The desire for community is built into our DNA. – Dan Blythe

 

Let’s talk Alpha folks.

No doubt you’ve seen the billboards around town about it. Or maybe you’ve heard about it from a friend or co-worker. Or maybe you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. In any case, let me tell you about my short but very fruitful encounter with Alpha this past weekend.

My first encounter with Alpha took place last fall at a friends’ house. I was sent an invitation to it via email and was told there would be food (let’s be real here, I had said “YES” before I even read the rest of the invitation) as well as a short video followed by a discussion in a small group.  All we who were invited were told was that we would be learning about the basics of Christianity and that all would be welcome, no matter where we were on our faith journey.

In a nutshell this is what Alpha is: An informal and casual environment for people of all walks of faith and all backgrounds to engage with other people about what it means to be a Christian.

Looking back, it was an incredible experience. The food was delicious, the videos were inspiring and easy to understand, and the conversations we had were thought-provoking, not superficial or mundane. I LIVE for conversations like this! These are the kinds of discussions I WISH I had with my family and friends!

The weeks flew by and I was legit bummed when it was over, but I had gained SO much insight and perspective about Christianity that I had never bothered previously to explore or consider. And did I mention the food???

More than just a random visit

Fast forward to a year later (just about a month ago) and I’m in the midst of emailing a woman named Kathy, who works at a parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit called Our Lady of Good Counsel. I told her I had felt compelled to visit OLGC since this summer and would it be okay to go to the Church for mass one day over the weekend, pretty please?

Before I tell you her response, you may be wondering why *this parish? It’s actually a long story but I will say most TOB-addicted peeps such as myself have most likely heard of the pastor, Fr John Riccardo. I would encourage you to visit their website or their YouTube page and just explore. Guaranteed you’ll find something that makes you think, “Whoa. What did he just say? That’s different.”

Back to my email convo with Kathy…

Can I visit? Well the answer was of course affirmative. But the noteworthy part was this: There was an Alpha retreat taking place that Saturday and she invited me to join.

I replied back with a resounding “YES! Sign me up!” Clearly, God wanted me there for a reason.  But for what reason exactly, I wasn’t so sure.


Community, Connection and Christ at the Center

There’s not nearly enough space to discuss how the Holy Spirit was moving within me the entire weekend. But let me just say, it was palpable. Much of it was felt at the retreat but assuredly the entire weekend was full of God-incidences.

The retreat itself was less than 8 hours but even in this short period of time, I felt an immediate connection with the people there. While I didn’t have a solid outline of the schedule, I had a general idea of what to expect given the typical Alpha schedule. But I also knew we would conclude with the opportunity to have people pray over us individually, which is such a unique and powerful experience.

In fact, my first real experience of someone praying over me occurred at a retreat just a few months ago. The gentleman who did it? An OLGC employee. Hence, one of the many connections I felt to visit this place.

After introducing myself as the “Clevelander just visiting,” I immediately felt welcomed by a table of 7 other folks. Normally, I’m pretty outgoing and can be quite chatty, but I felt a sense to just observe and quiet myself. I did talk, but only when I felt the Spirit calling me to. I mostly heard the Spirit say, Just listen and allow these people to teach YOU something. You are here for a reason. Let me reveal it to you.

When the Holy Spirit talks, you listen.

Just as my first experience with Alpha went, the conversations were profound and insightful. Just a few things of what I heard:

  • The significant growth individually and collectively in just the 7 weeks this particular group had been meeting
  • Their struggles with having faith and raising a family in our current culture
  • The difficult of having friends and family members who don’t agree with their particular views
  • The suffering and sickness of family members and children and how they were able to get through it
  • The balance of marriage and career and as well as being an example of the faith to their children
  • How to pray to the Holy Spirit for wisdom, for knowledge and for the right words to speak and the right actions to take in order to lead others closer to Christ

One word kept coming back to me as I listened: Community. Here in front of me I had the privilege of observing community in action. I’m not sure if they realized it, but they were essentially evangelizing to each other by sharing all of these stories. And this was just one afternoon!  I think they’re on the verge of calling each other friends rather than just acquaintances. And isn’t that what forms a community? People who may be on different parts of a spiritual journey but have a common goal of sanctification and living in eternity with God?

By the end of the weekend, I truly feel God called me there to be something that I have failed at for the past year:  A witness. A real live, public witness. I talk a good game, but in the end, do I really live this out? Do people look at me and talk to me and think, “That’s a witness. That’s a person unashamed of placing her trust in God.”

I hope I showed this in the small amount of time I was there. But I distinctly felt that this Alpha retreat was supposed to prompt me to engage with others in a more concrete way.

I think this was God’s way of saying: You’ve done a lot of work this past year growing in your faith, and acquiring “data,” as Fr. Riccardo would say, but now I need you to really move and to speak up and be that living example I have called you to be.


One last word about Alpha

Alpha is a program you need to experience for yourself. If you are lost, join. If you are seeking, join. If you are confused, join. If you are prideful like me and think you know it all, join. You can find one near you here.

There are a few people who have been on my heart that I believe would benefit from Alpha. Please pray for me to have the courage to be a witness and lead them to an Alpha course. 

As I was dropped off at the house I was staying at for the weekend I remarked to my new friend from OLGC, “You all are so unbelievably nice to me. But it’s more than being nice. I feel as if you truly CARE about what happens to me and you don’t even know me.”

He simply responded: “Well, we love you.”

Ahh, I thought. So that’s what being a witness looks like.

May we all strive to echo this same sentiment, love each other as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and be a living witness to everyone we encounter.

I can’t adequately describe how hospitable, generous, and kind every. single. person. at OLGC I met was to me. Granted, you don’t have to travel 3 hours out of state to find generous and kind people. But I’m going on record as saying some of the best people are in Michigan.  (Don’t hate me, Buckeyes!)  Thank you to the amazing people at OLGC parish for your hospitality and generosity:  Mary, Pete, Kathy, Jennifer, Chris, Fr. John, Deacon Dave, Dr. Steve, Mary, Kristi, Heidi, John, Susan, Brad, Lauren and Nicole – You are all in my prayers and I can’t wait until we meet again. 

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In the words of Mother Angelica…

From the book “Mother Angelica’s Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality:”

Called by God

You are called by God at this time in history to be so holy that this whole world will be sanctified. And you’re going to do that only by being yourself and changing that self into Jesus – cooperating with the Spirit to be transformed into the object of your love.

 

That last part is my favorite – transformed into the object of your love. YES!!!

How often I pray to be transformed. How often all of us should be praying this same thing. Imagine the possibilities if we all aimed for this. To change ourselves into Jesus. I don’t know how often we think in those terms but after reading Mother’s words, I think it might be time we start.

 

 

 

The Body is a Sign of the Divine Mystery

If you’re just joining us, be sure to read my last post to get “caught up.”

“You are made in the image and likeness of God.”

This statement was implanted firmly in my brain starting in Freshman Religion class. I remember thinking “I know this is true, but I’m still not quite sure what it means.”

I don’t think my 14 year old brain could process it. And this is probably true of a lot of teenagers.

I knew my life was a gift from God, but I also remember thinking, “But what does God have to do with my parents conceiving me?” In other words, what do Sex and God have in common? I literally had no idea the two were connected, as strange as that sounds to me 23 years later.

Now, after reading TOB, something finally clicked.

Human nature is both spiritual and physical. We aren’t spirits “trapped” in our bodies. The Church has always maintained that we are embodied spirits, or spiritualized bodies. Through the profound union of body and soul in each of us, our bodies reveal or “make visible” the invisible reality of our spirits. But it does even more. Because we are made in God’s image, our bodies also make visible something of God’s invisible mystery.  TOB For Beginners

God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange. CCC 221

And here’s where this all comes together –

God created us male and female so that we could image his love by becoming a sincere to gift to each other. This sincere giving establishes a “communion of persons” not only between the sexes but also-in the normal course of events- with a “third” who proceeds from them both. In this way, sexual love becomes an icon or earthly image in some sense of the inner life of the Trinity. TOB for Beginners

Whoa.

Have you ever heard anyone describe sex like this? Yeah. Pretty awesome right? It gets better.

As St. Paul says, quoting from Genesis, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32).

This passage from Ephesians 5 is a key text- perhaps the key text- for understanding the body and sexuality “theologically.” Christ is the one who was sent by his Father in heaven. He also left the home of his mother on earth. Why? To give up his body for his Bride (the Church) so that we might become “one flesh” with him. Where do we unite sacramentally with Christ? In a most profound way in the Eucharist. TOB for Beginners

Confused? Don’t be! It’s simple really.

When all the confusions are cleared and the distortions are untwisted, the deepest meaning of human sexuality – of our creation as male and female and our call to communion – is “eucharist.” John Paul II describes the Eucharist as “the sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride.” God created us male and female right from the beginning to live in a “holy communion” that foreshadows the Holy Communion of Christ and the Church. In turn, the gift of Christ’s body to his Bride (celebrated in the Eucharist) sheds definitive light on the meaning of man and woman’s communion.

The Spousal Analogy

The Bible begins with the marriage of the first man and woman and it ends in Revelation with another “marriage” – the marriage of Christ and the Church.

And here is what we learn from the Pope’s Theology of the Body: God wanted this eternal “marital plan” to be so plain to us – so obvious to us – that he impressed an image of it in our very being by creating us male and female and calling us to become “one flesh.” TOB For Beginners

So two things to take away from this:

1. God is a communion of love

2. We are destined to share in that exchange (God wants to “marry” us – Hosea 2:19)

There is so much more to be discussed here but it is my hope, my dear readers, that you now have an idea of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. I understand it’s a difficult idea to wrap your head around, and one that is never going to be understood completely due to our limited brain power, but that’s why it’s called the “mystery.”

Fitting in My Faith: I look at Eucharist differently now that I have read TOB. Now I understand why it’s a sacrament. Now I understand why marriage is a sacrament. Now I know why the Church takes it seriously, and now I appreciate it even more when I hear the words, “This is my body, given up for you.”

I also appreciate life, my own life and the lives of others, much more greatly. I don’t think of how we are created as just “sex between two people who love each other.” And 9 months later, life. It’s much more than that. It’s a sacred union. It’s not gross or disgusting or bad. It’s awesome and it’s miraculous and it’s a small, tiny, itty bitty taste of what heaven is going to be like. No, we won’t be having sex in heaven, 🙂 We’ll BE in heaven, we’ll be in UNION with God! We’ll be married to Him!

This is the purpose of sexual union in the divine plan: to prefigure in some way the glory, ecstasy, and bliss that awaits us in heaven TOB For Beginners

I don’t know about you, but understanding why we were created, makes me have greater faith of the heaven that awaits us all.

to be continued….

-Michelle

Selfless Desire

Selfless desire for the other’s true good is called benevolence in love. If love as desire says, “I long for you AS a good,” love as benevolence says “I long for YOUR good,” and “I long for that which is good for you.”

Love as desire is not itself a problem or a defect; it is merely incomplete. It must be balanced out with love as benevolence.

The person who truly loves longs not only for his or her own good, but for the other person’s good, and he does with no ulterior motive, no selfish consideration. The is the purest form of love, and it brings the greatest fulfillment.

-Christopher West, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and The Universal Longing

Fit In You Faith Today: Have you ever experienced benevolence in love? You have if you’ve ever loved someone so much, that you pray that they receive what is good for them, what is best for them, even if it doesn’t include YOU. It’s selfless desire. A good example is loving someone you wish to marry. But they don’t share the same feelings for you. You then desire that they end up with someone that will be good and healthy for them. As much as you would desire to be with them, you know in your heart they would be better served with someone (or some thing else). That’s selfless. That’s benevolence in action.

And the Spirit is Truth

1 John 5:1-6

Beloved:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ,
not by water alone, but by water and blood.
The Spirit is the one that testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.

I had the privilege of reading this passage from the first letter of Saint John yesterday at Divine Mercy Sunday mass. It stuck with me most of the day as I thought about these beautiful words. Each line is so important and so inspiring. You can reflect easily on just one sentence to take with you throughout your day.

One line in particular is interesting to me because I heard it spoken by Catholic Speaker Patty Schneier in her talk, “Prove it, God!…He did!” 

She laments over the line “And his commandments are not burdensome…” In fact, she did think that some of his commandments were burdensome and thus, struggled to find herself thinking otherwise. But after a few weeks of prayerful reflection every morning and encountering the book “Good News about Sex and Marriage” by Christopher West, she concluded that his commandments are not burdensome. (She was speaking specifically about the sin of contraception). She was just looking at them through a stubborn lens. After reading more about the Catholic Church and the Catechesis, she discovered a whole other world and changed her mind completely about particular commandments that she had found once to be “old fashioned” and “silly.” So when I read that line I pictured and heard Patty’s voice coming through and I was so glad she had changed her mind about this.

But the conclusion is also very poignant. “The Spirit is truth.”

Yes, the Spirit is the one that testifies, that speaks the truth. Jesus Christ is this truth. I think it’s easy to forget this in our secular life. We go searching for the truth when it’s been right in front of us all along. We might be stubborn, we might feel set in our ways, we might not want to know the truth. But there it is:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” John 14:6

Fit in Your Faith Today: What “truth” are you struggling to believe? What commandments do you find burdensome? How can you look at the commandments or seek the truth through a different “lens?”

Creating a Clean Heart and Pure Spirit

Psalm 51:5-10

“For I was born a sinner-

yes, from he moment my mother conceived me.

But you desire honesty from the womb,

teaching me wisdom even there.

Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean;

wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Oh, give me back my joy again;

you have broken me, 

now let me rejoice.

Don’t keep looking at my sins.

Remove the stain of my guilt.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. 

Renew a loyal spirit within me.”

It’s so easy to do things that please ourselves only, with no regard for others. How often do we do things to please God instead? Probably not as often as we would like.

It seems we are always searching for instant gratification for ourselves. We want that piece of cake, now. We want to watch our favorite tv show, now. We want to get on social media and post something, now. We want to make more money, now.

But doing things to please ourselves is only temporary, as we know. Nothing we do for ourselves lasts very long and before you know it, we want something ELSE, NOW.

When was the last time we did something to please God? For some of us, it’s been awhile. We might have to search our memory banks for the last time we did something self-less.

We are born sinners, as this Psalm tells us in verse 5. But there’s good news of course! We don’t have to live that sinful life that we were born into. The secular world might try and get us to stay sinful, but that’s not our destiny. No, we can live a holy life, and we don’t need to be a nun or priest to accomplish this. We pray for God to cleanse us from within, to purify us and fill our hearts and spirits with His love.

Fit In Your Faith Today: Reflect on the times that you felt your heart was pure and your spirit was filled with the Holy Spirit. What action were you taking? Chances are, you did something self-less. How did it make you feel? How long did that feeling last?

Now, reflect on the times when you didn’t feel so pure, so holy. Was it a struggle to be without sin? It’s not easy to be free of sin and pure of heart, is it? We can find many examples of how, throughout the course of any given day, we are not the best version of ourselves. Instead of dwelling on those instances, repent and move on. Try to fit in your faith today by LIVING IT. Ask God for a clean heart, a pure spirit within you the moment you wake up. Keep asking it throughout the rest of the day when you need it!

 

Seven times Seventy

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had him put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

From the New Life Study Bible: The rabbis taught that people should forgive those who offend them – but only three times. Peter, trying to be especially generous, asked Jesus if seven (the “perfect” number) was enough times to forgive someone. But Jesus answered, “Seventy times seven,” meaning that we shouldn’t even keep track of how many times we forgive someone. We should always forgive those who are truly repentant, no matter how many times they ask.

Fit In Your Faith Today: How quickly do you forgive someone who says they are sorry for hurting you? If they never say they are sorry, do you forgive them anyways? What if you know someone who is a repeat offender, someone who keeps wronging or hurting you. Do you forgive them or do you hold a grudge? It’s not easy to forgive others, especially when you think they aren’t even sorry. But holding a grudge and holding on to that pain will only make things worse. Do as Jesus has told us, and forgive them no matter what.

Bonus Material: 7×70 by Chris August – An awesome song by one of my favorite Christian singers.

Have You Received Your New Heart?

Ezekiel 11:19

Good News Translation

I will give them a new heart and a new mind. I will take away their stubborn heart of stone and will give them an obedient heart.

New Living Translation

And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart.

I included the New Living Translation in this scripture passage so we can see how the New Life Bible Study defines singleness of heart:” a unanimous singleness of purpose.”  The commentary goes on to say: “No longer will God’s people seek many gods; they will be content with God. Their stony, stubborn hearts of stone will be radically transplanted with tender, responsive hearts. This new life can only be the work of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s work, but we must recognize and turn from our sin. When we do, God will give us new motives, new guidelines, and new purpose.”

After reading this passage I immediately thought of the church hymn, “Here I Am Lord” by Dan Schutte that we often sung as children during mass growing up. I always get a little smile on my face when I see it listed as one of the hymns during mass these days because it brings back such great memories as a kid.

Here are the verses that came to my mind:

I, the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne my people’s pain.
I have wept for love of them, They turn away.
I will break their hearts of stone,
Give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak My word to them
Whom shall I send?

It’s a wonderful song but I would get so sad when I would sing it sometimes because it’s almost like a love letter from God to the His people that won’t listen to Him! The people are turning away and worshiping false idols and pagan gods and they won’t listen to the prophets. But finally, God is telling them that indeed, He will take all of this away and they will be content to worshiping just Him. He’s going to give them new motivation. A new heart.

Have you ever hit rock bottom? What does everyone say when you’re at the end of your rope, at the bottom of the pit? “Well, there’s no where else to go but up!” Right? I almost feel like this is similar – We hit the bottom, we have reached our limit and there’s nowhere else to go. We can’t get any more low than we are at this moment. And then…God turns our stubborn hearts into loving ones. We get out of this rut. We turn the page. A new heart, a new life, a new purpose!

The time between hitting that bottom and getting a new heart is probably a lot longer than we care to admit. But it can happen. The Holy Spirit is working inside us constantly to change and form us into the people that God wants us to be. And our hearts are being transformed too!

Fit In You Faith Today: What comes to mind when you hear that God will take your stubborn heart and turn it into a tender and loving one? Do you feel renewed with a greater purpose? Spend some time with this passage and perhaps with the hymn I referenced (or another one!) and study the lyrics and words. Is God trying to get you to turn away from a sin that’s hardening your heart?

Does Your Faith Grow?

Romans 15:13

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Good News Translation:

May God, the source of hope, fill you with all joy and peace by means of your faith in him, so that your hope will continue to grow by the power of the Holy Spirit.

How does one grow in faith? It’s probably easier to dismiss our faith sometimes, especially when we lose hope.

This verse from the book of Romans tells us God is our source of hope. Not only a source but THE source. The earlier translation says he is the God OF hope. But trusting that God will bring us the hope we are looking for isn’t all that’s good about this verse. We are also told that with the power of the Holy Spirit, our hope will overflow and continue to grow.

It’s not enough to just hope that things will turn out okay. It’s easy to say, “Oh I hope so!” or “I hope this all works out.” We need to add to that by exclaiming and saying, “My hope is in God and I have faith through the Holy Spirit that this will work for me!”

See, if you just place your trust (and that’s a big word right there, don’t skim over it) your trust in the Lord that HE is the one providing you with and giving you the hope that is inside of you. The Holy Spirit is working in you to bring that hope outward and show it to others. Prove to everyone that you do not despair. You do not wallow and worry that you whatever you are going through is going to fall apart. You don’t waiver in your faith because you have hope…God provides it. God gives it to you and the Holy Spirit lets it pour out of you, helping others, not just yourself.

Fit In Your Faith Today: Do you find yourself waivering in your faith sometimes? If you need a reminder that God is the source, the one who gives us hope, re-read this verse today and write it down for yourself. Your faith can only grow if you trust in God. Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today with these words in your heart.

Who do you love?

1 John 4:7

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

From The New Life Study Bible:

Everyone believes that love is important, but love is usually thought of as a feeling. In reality, love is a choice and an action as 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 shows. God is the source of our love. He loved us enough to sacrifice his Son for us. Jesus is our example of what it means to love; everything he did in life and death was supremely loving. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to love; he lives in our heart and makes us more and more like Christ. God’s love always involves a choice and an action, and our love should be like his. How well do you display your love for God in the choices you make and the actions you take?

What stood out for me in this particular passage was just the overall theme of love of course. Especially with the latest news of terrorist attacks in Paris and the civil unrest that seems to be happening everywhere in the world and just overall bad and terrible news everywhere you turn. It can really make you ask the question: “Where is the love?”

The last line – Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. I automatically consider the opposite of love which is hate obviously. People are full of hate. Full of evil. These extremists or terrorists or whatever category you want to put them in – their heart isn’t full of love. At least, not the kind of love that God represents. I’m not sure what or who they love, but I imagine it’s not our God. I believe it’s their choice to choose hate instead of love, for reasons I don’t begin to understand.

But perhaps the focus should be on ourselves when we reflect on passages like this one. So what can I do or how do I relate to this passage personally? I find it comforting. I find it to be absolutely spot on. I used to think of love as just a feeling. But it’s a relationship. It’s an action. But is it an action that I display every day?

Fit In Your Faith Today: Take the question the Study Bible asks – How well do you display our love for God in the choices and actions you make each day? Are you displaying a loving side of yourself to others or an angry, or disappointed, or prideful side? How can you change these actions and choices to be loving instead?