There is a dull thud as the softball hits the ground. The batter hasn’t hit it very far, but the crowd of parents and caregivers goes wild! The player drops the bat and smiles as he makes his way to first base, where he gets high-fived by a volunteer and waits for the next player to hit the ball before advancing to second. This is Challenger Baseball. It is a league for children and adults who have developmental disabilities. I have been volunteering there as a ‘buddy’ for five years, and I experience God every time I attend.
When I first started helping out, what struck me was how uncomfortable I felt interacting with people who have disabilities. Mother Teresa described her work with the poor as “Jesus in a distressing disguise”. Some of His disguises there were distressing to me. Some players were in wheelchairs, and their legs looked very thin and weak. Some had severe Down Syndrome. Some muttered to themselves and seemed to wander in their own world. One boy was blind, and I could not see his eyes, only blue sockets. I was ashamed that I was uncomfortable. I’ve always believed that people are people. So when I actually met others who had noticeable physical or mental differences from me and that belief was challenged, I did not know what to do. I did not know who to be, how to act, what to say, or how to say it. I didn’t want to be condescending, but sometimes I needed to give instructions. My job as a ‘buddy’ was to stand at one of the bases, wait for the batter to hit the ball, and then guide the player to the next base. Sometimes, I was also asked to play catch with the players in the outfield to help keep them occupied.
After I got used to being there, I didn’t really notice the players’ disabilities anymore. I began to notice something else. It was the parents. I saw how they cheered every player on after they hit the ball. I saw how they sometimes helped their own children around the bases. I saw how much love they had for their children and how beautiful the smiles were on their children’s faces when they got sincere support from the crowd. No one cared who won the game. What mattered was that the players were happy and active. There was something warm and sincere in the way the parents and caregivers cheered on each player. And most of all, in the players, there was never any hint of a lie. Each one was perfectly him or herself. The players weren’t like me. They weren’t worried about how they looked to other people. They weren’t concerned with being judged. They weren’t concerned about who to be, how to act, what to say, or how to say it. They just were. They just acted and spoke. They knew what they liked, they knew how to have fun, and there was straightforward, honest happiness in each of them.
As I kept participating, I stopped noticing the players’ disabilities. I slowly began to see each player’s different personality, and I would try to remember it. That way, I could adjust my energy level to match theirs. I learned how each player liked to be greeted and how they wanted to be high-fived. I knew which ones liked being goofy and which ones were more serious or slow-paced. Slowly, I realized I didn’t have to worry about who to be. I didn’t have to worry about being judged. I could just be.
“Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mark 10:15, NRSVCE). I didn’t really understand that passage until I worked at Challenger. Many of the players are childlike or at the learning levels of younger children. I struggle with trust in God most days. Usually, I get caught up in some worry for the day. “What should I do about this?” “What will my future look like?” “Is there even a solution to this problem?” Things like that. To put it in St. Mother Theodore Guerin’s view, I struggle to remember God’s providence, that God will take care of me in all of life’s circumstances. Worries like these never occurred to the players. They just simply lived. “Your heavenly Father knows all that you need” (NRSVCE, Mathew 6:8). Worry gets in the way of love. How could I dive into the game with the same enthusiasm the players had if I was worried about how I looked?
Similarly, how can I dive into God’s plans for my life with passion if I am worried that He will leave me alone? Working with these fantastic people, I saw how heavenly it is to simply be who God created you to be, and the rest will take care of itself. I saw how beautiful life can be when you love unconditionally, the way the parents and caregivers love the players, and how they love everyone they meet. It helps me to remember that God loves me unconditionally and individually. He knows my personality, my likes, and my dislikes. And He wants me to use everything I have to love Him back by being exactly who He made me be in every moment.
At the beginning of our journey together, my fiancé, Jake, began his journey into Christianity. We bonded over shared experiences, values, and goals. Cute stuff. We were friends in high school, and we both remember the first day we met each other. He had grown up atheist, while I grew up Catholic. The summer we came together was when we both were feeling lost. In the classic phase where everything and nothing make sense, we were stuck in a loop of "Huh? What is this life? What do I do? Where do I go and when?"
Meanwhile, the frontal cortex is still in development and all that fun stuff. We were searching for a sense of home. When we came together, it felt like a step in the right direction. As you can imagine, there was a mega culture shock from coming from our diverse backgrounds and then trying to form a union. When I would I ask the Lord, "Am I on the right track here? Am I helping him get on the right track and closer to You?" All I got was, "Yeah, chillax, just stay the course, and everything will be okay."
Eventually, Jake got baptized through Chi Alpha, a Christian student organization at his school. It was interesting to hear about his experiences in a non-denominational church. I appreciated every moment he had during this time, for it was the beginning of a new life for both of us. Soon, he expressed that there was something he was searching for still, as "our hearts are restless until we rest in Him." The Lord may have been calling him to the Eucharist, so I brought him to mass with me. I was hopeful that he'd at least appreciate it since it was so different than anything he had experienced before. It turned out he resonated with that portion of the liturgy! Phew!
Weeks go by, and he calls me, saying, "I'm deciding that I want to become Catholic."
"Okay, cool :)" I thought it was pretty neat, to say the least. This decision opened the door to a world that was about to get a lot bigger for him. The anxiety of feeling like he had to "catch up" and make up for lost time started to creep upon him. He spent days trying to get everything right.
I had a reoccurring question while trying my best to guide him through the RCIA process: Will we ever know all there is to know about our faith? Will we ever get everything 100% right? Only God knows. He wants our love and for us to love His creation. So, as long as that is unwavering through the waves of life, He will take care of us and won't allow us to go astray. Like any other relationship, the closeness with Christ will feel like it ebbs and flows, but we must not let this discourage us. Don't get caught up in the shenanigans so much that you forget the point: to allow your love for God to grow in the ways He has planned for you and ultimately to say yes to Him. We know that love grows stronger through trying times. We must draw closer to our Lord and our loved ones during struggles that are simply new opportunities to fall in love in disguise.
Now back to the story...
There were Sundays where my fiancé, Jake, would yearn to receive the Eucharist so much that he'd get deeply emotional about it. This was amazing to witness - the sheer amount of love for Jesus present here woke me up in a whole new way. I began to feel a new love for Jesus, myself. As a cradle Catholic, it was hard for me to fully understand this feeling of urgency. It was inspiring for me because obviously, we all strive to be so on fire with the Holy Spirit. At this moment, I truly learned that because God made every individual with their unique beauty and talents, the way that the Holy Spirit works through us as instruments will be different. We shouldn't expect people to see, feel, and experience things exactly how we do and vice versa. Every unique thread in the tapestry is meant to come together to form the whole and be unified.
It hasn't all been peaches and cream; he and I worked through every struggle with the perspective that it is us together approaching the issue, not me vs. him. Our anxieties settled more as time went on, especially as he learned more about God's mercy and unconditional love. Learning how to offer our struggles to the Lord is one of the biggest things to learn in order to bring more peace into our lives. Trusting in Christ and the path he had laid for us was an area that we both are continuously growing. A lot of things that seemed obvious to me were incredibly eye-opening to him. (I am NOT calling him or his faith childish or immature, but differences in understanding are simply what happens when you grow up in one world and then discover something entirely new!) I learned a great deal about my faith that I would never have known if Jake wasn't on this journey toward Christ. He wasn't the only one going through faith formation. I had grown up in the faith, yet there were many things I took for granted that I didn't realize.
During the Easter Vigil of 2021, Jake received all the sacraments of initiation in the Catholic Church. This was a mark of the next chapter. Being his sponsor was the first time we stood at the altar together, and I can't fully describe how it felt to look into his eyes during that moment. It was indeed something otherworldly. We now have the privilege of discerning marriage as two initiated Catholics, and we got engaged on March 26th, 2021. The engagement has been a whirlwind, and having a solid foundation is a total game-changer. I'm thankful and deeply honored that God used me as one of the many instruments to help Jake on his journey and help him enter his Christian family. It is something that we hold dearly in our relationship. (I joke that I just showed up to shake up his life in every way possible. I can't help it, sorry, not sorry.)
I am deeply grateful to have someone to take on the world with. We help each other stay on track when things get shaken. We often shake each other up, but that's part of what makes life exciting and focused on Christ. (Who knew that we could drive each other crazy AND grow deeper in love. All in one day? I wouldn't change it for the world.)
Through these experiences, I feel a new appreciation for my relationship with God. I didn't fully realize until this journey came about just how much stability Christ's presence brings into my life. My life has always been jumping from one thing to the next, and the Lord has been my one consistency and center of my life. Everything other difficulty seems much easier to bear, and thanks to these experiences, I see the life of faith much clearer now. The best risk I ever took was saying yes to going on this journey with Jake. I was a wanderer, not sure where my life was going to go, with only a vague idea of what God had in store for me. This journey took me by the ear and changed me for good in the best way I never could've imagined. I could not have planned this journey myself. Together we found a home in Christ.
If you're experiencing a time in life that feels like wandering, remember that "not all who wander are lost." You will find a sense of home, wherever and whenever, in God's good timing. Each person we encounter in our lives plays various roles on our way to discovery and meaning. You never know when and where you'll be that catalyst for someone too! It's exciting. It truly amazes me how deeply connected God's creation truly is. So keep it going one day at a time, with your heart open to Christ, and everything will be okay.
Recently, my wife and I experienced a deeply personal loss. In a time where so much was going right in our lives, suddenly, there was deep despair. Unfortunately, it was a loss that we had experienced once before in our lives. The pain from that first loss was brought to the surface when we lost our second baby to miscarriage. For those that have never experienced it, the pain is very difficult to describe. Not only was the loss physically and emotionally challenging, but this stressful situation was compounded as it occurred smack dab in the middle of buying, selling, and moving into a new house.
In the days that followed the miscarriage, while I was driving down Hwy 41 past the Carmelite Monastery, I heard the words on the radio, “Don’t focus on the end, focus on the journey to get there.” I realized that I was focusing too much on the “end.” Most of us naturally worry an excessive amount of time - over the big things and the small. Then, when something good or bad happens in our lives, we almost instinctively begin to focus on what the future beyond this event will look like. The truth is, only God has that image. Still, we each try our best to come up with our own version. I don’t know about you, but my version of the future is rarely correct. When the version we envisioned doesn’t match God’s plan, we get discouraged, upset, and defeated.
Throughout my 20 years as a career firefighter, I have accompanied many families through the initial moments of loss. When we experience these hard and sudden losses, it puts our faith in God to the test. The obvious question is, “Why did this happen?” The cookie-cutter response is something along the lines of, “It’s all part of His plan” or “Only God knows.” Unfortunately, that response does little to settle our human emotions. Over the years, I have learned that listening is the key. Take the time to sit and listen to the person experiencing the loss - listen as they try to make sense of their grief. Their heart will guide the conversation. In today’s world, I feel that listening is becoming a lost art. We are turning into a digital society that communicates through text, absent of any emotion. More often than not, just being physically present with someone during a difficult time is the best medicine.
Even though we had this difficult loss, we still have many good things occurring in our lives, and we are still moving forward. It is essential to acknowledge these painful times, express your feelings and frustrations, but it is equally important to recognize that these hard times are just a part of our journey and that life exists beyond them. Life will begin to return to normal as time goes on. For us, our family gathered to support us through the loss. The goal was to lessen the pain of the loss when we needed it the most. In addition to our family, our community also played an important role. Those that were aware of the loss encircled us and made themselves available. Many just offered their support for anything we may have needed.
As I sit back and reflect on the events of the past week, I realize that while I initially thought the miscarriage occurred during the worst week possible, it may have happened during one of the best weeks. Although there are never ‘good’ times for losses, this loss offered us the opportunity to slow down and complete goals that had to be accomplished. Friends’ schedules opened to assist and accompany us, the family was already planning to visit us, and I was already scheduled for time off.
I was so focused on the “end” that I failed to realize all of the benefits available to us at the “now.” In retrospect, I see those. While life will forever be different, we recognize that it is all part of God’s plan. A plan that will not be finished until we meet Him. Our goal is to one day meet Him. So let’s not forget to focus on that journey and to marvel in the “now.”