Sunday, September 27, 2015

The ACTS Retreat: A Personal Encounter with Christ

This week marks the anniversary of my ACTS Retreat. As the memories flood through me, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the retreat, this past year, and how God continues to work in my life.

The first time I heard about the ACTS Retreat was at the CNMC in 2009 when I met David and Valerie Calvillo who were inspired to create the group Real Men Pray the Rosary after attending ACTS. David’s whole face lit up with an inner glow when he spoke of the retreat. "If you ever have the opportunity," he told me, "you have to go."

Soon after that meeting, God started working in my life in several different ways – or maybe He’d always been working in my life; I just wasn't paying close enough attention – and a year or two later a nearby parish began ministering the ACTS retreat to our parish. The men went first. (The men always go first, so they can do the heavy lifting later.) Then the first women’s retreat was announced.

I couldn’t go. It was offered twice and I couldn’t go either time.  (To be fair, the second time I was nine months pregnant.)  All the ladies serving with me on Pastoral Council went and came back with that same eyes-on-fire-inner-glow that I’d witnessed in David C. in 2009.

Oh, I wanted to go.

As usual, God knows what He is doing. Within six months, I changed jobs, changed houses, changed parishes, changed lives, and these things changed me in ways I've considered were not necessarily for the better. I struggled. I struggled more than I ever imagined.  I was in a dark place.

When another new employee joined our office, I learned that in addition to being Catholic and a spiritual director, she not only attended ACTS, but also has led the retreat twice. She carried that same radiance in her face. I wanted that. I yearned for it.

When she heard of my interest in the ACTS retreat, she made it her mission to get me there. Every time her parish sponsored a retreat she would invite me, and every time I had a reason I couldn’t go. Looking back now I can see how in each of those moments it wasn’t my time.    
Last fall, once again, she brought me the registration form. I had my usual answer ready: I can’t go that weekend; it’s softball opening day, it’s family reunion weekend, it’s too expensive, I can’t miss work.  You know the mantra.

Within an hour of receiving the form, God stepped up and said, It’s Time. (I have tears in my eyes just remembering this moment.)
  •  My husband said Go.  I got the kids and the softball. You need to do this. Go.
  •  My mother said Go. You’ve helped at the reunion for the last few years.  Go.
  •  My new receptionist said Go. She does ACTS for her parish. You have to GO!
All three of these comments came independently within an hour, so I signed up.

I had lost control of my life.  You know the feeling, like you’re in a pinball game where you’re the pinball being hit in new directions without any control, knocked by the flippers, bouncing off the bumpers. That was before.

“There is nothing the devil fears so much or so much tries to hinder as prayer.”  
- St. Philip Neri

The weeks leading up the ACTS retreat were insane crazy. Stupid crazy. Looking back, if I hadn’t written it down in my journal I wouldn’t be able to re-imagine that day before retreat. It was physically impossible to do everything demanded of me that day. Two hours before retreat I was exhausted, near tears, running late, unpacked, beaten, battered, depressed, defeated.

Was something greater trying to prevent me from attending the retreat?  I left the office an hour late to head home and pack. This just isn't going to happen, I told myself.  Then my husband insisted on driving me to the host parish almost 45 minutes away even though all three kids were tired and cranky. Traffic mirrored the mood in the car.

Pulling into the church parking lot we were greeted by men in red ACTS shirts. Their warm welcoming smiles shamed me, considering the scowl on my face reflected my dark mood. As the last person to arrive, they rushed me through in a blur, took my picture (seriously? After the day I just had?), pushed me into a room where happy happy joyful people prayed over our uncertain group, and sent us to board the “stretch yellow limo” that would take us to the retreat site.

A motley crew boarded that bus, nervous, chatty, pensive, exhausted, moody, tentative, quiet.

So what happened over the next three days? You want all the details of what takes place in the ACTS retreat? Let me ask you this - when you get a new mystery book, do you read the last page for the big reveal? Do you sneak around at Christmas and peek at the presents, thereby ruining the surprise on Christmas morning?

The power of the ACTS retreat comes from being led through the process. What takes place during ACTS isn’t some big huge secret. If I went into specific details, you might even roll your eyes and say “Is that all?” I could tell you what happens each night, but you aren’t going to know what that moment meant to me, what led me there, how the Holy Spirit spoke to me. If you know the schedule, instead of being focused on allowing the Holy Spirit to work in you, you’ll be looking ahead for what’s next, missing the power of where you are right then, and you might be underwhelmed by the experience. It's a blessing to not know before you go. You will not regret it. 

Trust me when I say that some things just have to be taken on faith.

I entered tentatively. I left opened.
I entered in a dark place. I left filled with light.
I entered broken. I left healed.
I entered cold. I am on fire for Christ.    
I was filled with love.

God spoke to me during this retreat and I heard him. Upon returning I started making small changes that helped me heal. That helped me be a different wife and mother. A year later, tears spill over just resting in the memory of the experience.

What Happens at an ACTS Retreat?
Weariness, Silence, Rest.
Tears. Forgiveness. Healing.
Emotion. Singing. Laughter.
Service. Sacrifice. Sisterhood.

If you are ever presented with the opportunity to attend ACTS retreat or start one for your parish, prayerfully open your heart to the call.  It is a call to change your life.  

“'The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."  Matthew 21:42

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Busted - Mom in Hiding

Hiding from my kidsOk moms.  Admit it. We’ve all had those days where you just want some peace and quiet.  When you’ve heard Mom, Mom, Mom…  coming from another room and you just want to hide.  

Well, I admit to doing it.   Hiding.

Even though my kids aren’t little bitties any more, I , on occasion, do hide from them.  Especially when they want to ask me really silly things, like if they can have something to drink...

But the best is when you are busted for hiding by your teenage daughter….  Yep.  Guilty….. 

We had a good laugh about this one.

So moms, if you need a place to hide, find a better place than I.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Luckiest Man on Earth: Happy Birthday Lisa!

We have a little birthday SURPRISE for Lisa this morning. She doesn't know it until JUST NOW, but her husband, Brian, planned a secret post for Of Sound Mind and Spirit to share with the world how much he loves her.  Dear readers, please welcome back Brian Jones: 

I am the luckiest man on earth. 

Yes, I said it, and I’ll say it again.…and there is not a day that goes by when I don’t wonder what I did to deserve it.  So, why am I so fortunate?  Is it my Job?  No.  Is it any accumulation of wealth?  No.  Is it my health?  Not really.  I’m lucky because Lisa picked me.  Despite all of my faults, all of my bad habits, all of my selfishness, she picked me… she said yes.    

From the personal collection of Brian Jones
Throughout the years people have asked, when did you know? What was the moment like when you knew she was the one?  It’s a rarely told story, but I remember vividly where I was when I decided to spend the rest of my life with Lisa Henley.  It started in the fall of 1992 when I was a young, na├»ve, fairly irresponsible college kid, free from most boundaries, who thought I knew it all. I met Lisa at a fraternity party and we officially started dating a short time thereafter, although, neither of us would admit to our friends that we were together. 

Looking back, those last few years of college together was an absolute blessing.  We would see each other between classes and meet every day at the Whataburger in the University Center to have lunch together.  Gone are the memories of exactly what we talked about; we were very young and we were building a foundation.  Spending some time with her during the day just made me happy.
When we graduated from college in the spring of 1995, Lisa went to Law School and I started working. For the first time in many years we spent time apart and I was miserable.  I would call her in the evenings from my apartment in San Francisco and we would talk for hours.  My roommate at the time made fun of me, but I honestly didn’t care.  After a few months, I flew home for her birthday weekend to some time with her.  Unfortunately, nothing went according to plan and we ended up spending her special day in the Emergency Room.  Eight stiches in my big toe later, we shared a delicious meal in a drive thru and I didn’t care, because we were together. 

The next night after I boarded my flight to the West Coast, I gazed out the window from my emergency row seat, and I knew.  That was the moment.  A few days later I resigned from my position and flew back to Texas to stay.  Our journey together was just beginning. 

For those of you who have had the pleasure of getting to know my wife, I don’t have to tell you that she is one of the kindest, loving, and most selfless people you will ever meet.  She is the person who will stop what she is doing to help someone without even thinking about how it affects her plans.  She is the person that strives every day to be better than she was the prior day.  She is the person who knows that a hug can mean more than any apology.  And most importantly, she is the person who makes other people around her feel better just by being close to her.  This is why I am the luckiest person on the earth.  She’s with me, and I get to wake up every day and experience it. 

So, on this day, her 42nd Birthday, I want her to have the most amazing day ever.  She is the love of my life and I am blessed to share her with all of you.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

How Volunteering for EDGE Changed My Life

Do you want to volunteer for EDGE? It will change your life!

As a new Sienna resident three years ago, my life was in a state of upheaval. Signing up to volunteer as a Core Team Member for Edge was an attempt to become involved, to get to know members of this new community and stay connected with my daughter’s faith development. 

I’d never attempted catechesis at the middle school level and worried that students would challenge my own limited faith knowledge and experience.  How could I teach middle school students in faith?

Turns out, they taught me.  And the experience changed my life.

Let Go and Let God Work through You
Being present for EDGE was a challenge at times.  The kids are loud.  They want to talk with each other. They constantly look at their phones.  They don’t always want to follow your instructions.

But they listen. They want to hear God’s word in a way that makes them think. They want to learn what it means to be “grown up.”  They are old enough to question God’s mysteries, but not yet cynical about “organized religion.”  This is the most important age to mortar that foundation laid during their elementary CCE years. They are hearing the anti-religious message in the world around them and these years are when we teach them to think for themselves, that it’s okay to be in the world and not necessarily of the world.  

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” - Romans 12:2

I learned that when you surround them with the message and set them free, you only need to observe (and occasionally guide back on topic) and they will fly and soar. One Wednesday night I arrived to EDGE from work frustrated and impatient. Even the music didn’t relax or soothe my worried spirit. Then the lesson called for my small group (all boys) to create and perform a skit based on a verse from Ephesians.  Stressing, I quickly scanned Ephesians, looking for something, anything that could be acted out, reading aloud passages here and there and then I gave up. As soon as I stopped trying to control the project, those 6th grade boys immediately latched onto Ephesians 6:10-18, organized their skit and totally rocked it.  Ephesians 6:10 became OUR scripture the rest of the year.

 Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.

Praise and Worship music.
Prior to EDGE my Christian music experience was limited to the tried and true Sunday morning songs, “And He will lift you up on Eagle’s wings…”  “All are Welcome… in this place.”  But EDGE started or ended each session with popular Christian Praise and Worship music such as Michael W. Smith “Mighty to Save” or Chris Tomlin “How Great is our God,” and a whole new world was revealed. No song moved me more than “Lord I Need You” by Matt Maher. When my world seemed to be falling apart, I embraced the words of this song, singing and praying from deep within my heart. As adult volunteers, we can allow ourselves to be swept up in the lyrics and sing heartily to be an example to those tweens. In the beginning of the year they’re all so hesitant about singing, but by the end of the year they’re singing with you!

EDGE introduced me (and my daughters) to Adoration.  I’d always heard about it, but never experienced it before and to be honest, I was a little afraid of it.  I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what it would be like. Isn’t it kind of weird?  But being “taught” about Adoration as part of Edge, I could witness my own reaction within my small group and be honest with them during discussions. I wasn’t just another “know it all teacher” (no offense meant) and exposing my own eagerness to learn encouraged them to participate in the lesson. And when the Blessed Sacrament came out, we marveled individually at our own personal connection to Christ.

Remember the reason I volunteered? To become involved and get to know my new community? EDGE introduced me to a variety of people who were all on their own faith journey. At a time when I knew no one (outside of my family) at my new church, volunteering gave me the opportunity to arrive for Mass, recognize another volunteer, smile and wave. It provided me a sense of belonging, of community, of friendship, of church.

Parents.  These tweens NEED YOU.  Don’t be afraid that you don’t know enough. The Youth Minister knows how to guide you. The EDGE program weekly lesson plan guides you. You will need to look at the lesson in advance of that night’s class, read through the plan, read the Catechism (we’ll teach you how if you don’t know how to use it), read the scripture, look up the songs.  

I promise you will never be sorry that you volunteered for EDGE (or Life Teen.) Never. You will gain such an appreciation and new love for your children and their peers during these confusing years.  You will give your child a firm faith foundation to face their challenging questioning years. You will help your child and others establish friendships based on faith.

I learned more from them than I could have ever taught them. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

90 Minutes in Heaven: Hope Lives

Don Piper says it with a soft smile, “I’m just a guy who got run over by a truck.”

On a rainy January 25, 1989, paramedics responding to the head-on collision between Don’s red Ford Escort and a semi-tractor trailer assessed Don’s broken body and declared him dead. No efforts were made to resuscitate or remove him from the crushed and twisted metal.

Ninety minutes later, a minister crawled through the trunk, stretched out a hand and prayed over Don. He began singing to him. Everyone was shocked when Don Piper began singing in response.

The story of Don’s long road to recovery, one of despondency, a strong yearning to return to heaven, and the power of prayer that saved him, has been published in 46 languages, sold more than 7 million copies, and spent over five years on the New York Times bestseller list. On Friday, September 11, 2015, his story will be available on the big screen as a feature-length motion picture.

It’s an emotional story that Heaven Exists, Prayer Works, and Hope Lives.

Last month, Lisa and I were invited by Carmel Communications to preview the movie so we might tell you about it. Don Piper spoke to the audience after the movie.

The movie immediately captures your attention, with a smash you might say. After a few scenes that introduce a young (38 at the time of the accident) minister, his wife, and three children we’re led to the moment of the accident and death. Heaven isn’t really addressed at this point, as we maintain the point of view of the living. Emotions run high as Dick Onerecker prays over Don’s lifeless body and Don suddenly begins singing. Now begins the long journey of Don’s surprising lack of will to live, his wife’s lonely walk, and some particularly touching poignant moments. 

The movie is flat in places and personally, it’s irritating to watch a movie “set” in Houston that wasn’t filmed in Houston. Anyone who has ever been to Hermann Memorial or St. Luke’s hospital will roll their eyes at the hospital exterior scenes. Just take a deep breath and pretend you've never seen one of the largest medical centers in the nation.

One of my favorite movie moments is when Don refuses to see or accept help from anyone, distancing himself from those who would care for him. He doesn’t want to live; he wishes he would have died so he could stay in heaven, so he wouldn’t burden his family with his physical suffering.  The interim pastor from his church drops by for a visit, which turns into a moment of admonishment, and calls him out as a hypocrite. How could Don be called to minister to all those in need, and yet deny those who love him the opportunity to serve him by caring for him during his own suffering?

My favorite moment in the book didn’t translate as powerfully to the big screen as it did when I read the book, but is still emotional. Although we haven’t been told the reason for his despondency, Don wants to die, to return “home” to Heaven, and tells a friend and fellow minister, that he can’t – won’t – fight to live anymore. That’s okay, the friend says, you don’t have to. We will fight for you – we will pray you through this night. And they do.

When I read his book ten years ago, the power of Don’s words resonated with me. My mother-in-law died just a few years earlier and the idea of this beautiful heaven as told by one who actually experienced it kindled such a glorious feeling of Hope that it began to quench our sorrow.

Don Piper says over and over his message that “Hope Lives” is meant to help people get to heaven and have a better trip on the way.

He stresses that he is not a hero, he is just a survivor. His wife, Eva, is the hero for her Walk thru the Dark during his initial despondency and recovery.  When speaking about his life since the accident, he notes, “I tried to put it behind me and God kept putting it in front of me.”  Since his recovery, Don Piper continues to spread the Gospel through his testimony in ministry work that supports local, state, national, and international charity/faith-based organizations.

I won’t give the big reveal away, but when Don finally speaks about heaven, my thoughts went to my own loved ones waiting for me: my cousin, my beloved grandparents, my mother-in-law and her family, my godson, Nick, and tears flowed in anticipation of our own glorious reunion.

The story is powerful. See the movie. Bring your teenagers to the movie. Bring your Life Teen group to the movie. Read the book and bring your book club to the movie. We all need Hope and Hope Lives.

After meeting Don Piper that night, I can tell you...

Heaven is Real.

Don Piper experienced Heaven and we can too.

I will see Don Piper again – he will be standing with all the others in my life when I go to Heaven.

* All of Giving Films' profits for 90 Minutes in Heaven will be donated to charities in the U.S. and around the world.
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