It was a hot day for April, but it wasn’t the weather that was killing me. I was laying on the infield beside the track after running a brutal workout—laying because my legs wouldn’t hold me up anymore. I was too destroyed to care how beet-red in the face I looked. This high school girl had given it all at track practice. My panting mouth was utterly dry. My tongue was swollen and thick. From the ground where I lay, I estimated how far it was to the locker room where I could get a drink from the water fountain. Weakly, I wondered if I could crawl that far for water. I had never thirsted like this.
As my breathing eased, I rolled over to my side and noticed some black, rolled-up mats associated with football practice. There, just two feet away, a small puddle of rainwater had collected. I ached with thirst. It would be okay, I thought, surely. Just a few drops is all I need. I dipped my hand into the puddle and wet my parched lips. Dipping into the puddle a second time, I spread the water on my swollen tongue, closing my eyes in silent gratification. “Hey, kiddo, you alright?” asked my coach walking by.
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. (Psalm 63:1)
This experience of thirst—from the days before toting water bottles became trendily ubiquitous—translates into a powerful metaphor. How often do I look for “living water” in a “puddle”? Do I have weary, shaking legs that make it seem impossible to reach anything better than a puddle? Are we too weary—or too ashamed of our weariness—to crawl toward the living water? Do I even realize that I’m looking for living water in a puddle? How many of the people I love are poisoning themselves by a kind of hypernatremia—so thirsty but drinking salt water—because everyone else on this shipwreck is doing it?
Thirst and Desire
So often my problem is not a matter of knowing better. The problem is that I desire so little. This woman—Charity—known for her vigorous ideas, demanding relationships, and passionate language lacks zeal? The same woman who is plagued by the idea that she is “really too much”?! Yes, the same woman. My desire can be as weak as those workout-fatigued legs. How often do I ask the Lord to change me, to change my attitude, to change my habits. I know the good to which He is calling me. But the problem of conversion is a problem of desire—my willingness to be changed.
It is evident in even a small, foolish thing: I love books and reading and the comfort of reading after the children are in bed. I don’t want to be addicted to late night reading—and yet, at 11:37 p.m. I find that I don’t want to go to bed; at the crucial moment, I frankly prefer staying awake, living according to my private agenda. Again. And again. “Oh, it is harmless; it is so small,” you might argue. If it were small, if this habit were really ‘nothing,’ it should be easy to give up. And yet, I cling to it like a thirsty child to a water bottle after a hike. I cling to this habit like I am the deer and my book is the flowing stream (Psalm 42:2).
Conversion and Desire
The conversion I need is to desire what He desires to give me. Can I be as brave as this? The prayer of conversion is the begging to have a greater desire, a greater thirst. Jesus promises that He is the true satisfaction of our endless seeking, whether we are seeking partial goods (puddles) or Living Water (Him). He doesn’t ask us to be satisfied with “less.” He calls the passionate ones—those who refused to be satisfied with “less”—blessed: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6 [emphasis added]).
Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:1-2)
He asks us to “Come!” as He opens His hands to us, promising us gratuitous satisfaction. Why don’t we respond? We are weary and weak. Some of us are weary because we’ve spent ourselves for the sake of the Lord. We are “poor in spirit,” out of breath, and waiting upon His saving presence. Some of us are weary because we are weakened from drinking saltwater. All of us are unable to reach Living Water on our own power, all of us fainting and too weary to crawl, unable to save ourselves. So the Living Water comes to us in our weaknesses, in our wastelands: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?...I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Isaiah 43:19, 20b, 21).
It is Jesus who comes to us in the beginning and at the end, and all along the way, to draw us to Himself and to make us capable of Himself, the Infinite: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life” (Revelation 21:6). He makes me able to come to Him because He has first come to me. His initiative is always first; His initiative makes my response possible. We see this dynamic of His grace described in 1 John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us.”
Let us meditate on the astonishing mystery that it is God who seeks you, God who thirsts for you. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this dynamic in its section on prayer: “‘If you knew the gift of God!’ The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.” When He says, “Come to the Water!” He makes me able. I pray that I experience His desire for me, springing up anew, arousing in me greater thirst and greater desire for Him. Satisfy me, Lord, with thirst for you.
 Catholic Church, “Prayer as God’s Gift,” Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995), 2560.
About the author:
Charity Hill lives in the Austin area with her husband and four children, but she really dwells with them at the intersections of theology, literature, and culture. She holds a MA from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, writes on children’s literature for Well-Read Mom, and coordinates a WWP parish program. Charity exercises “planned neglect” of the laundry to produce her children’s literature podcast Bright Wings: Children’s Books to Make the Heart Soar. If you’re looking for her, check the van or behind the microphone.
Young people are leaving the church in droves.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, “Between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share [of the U.S. population] fell from 78.4% to 70.6%, driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics.”(1)
Moreover, according to this study, “The unaffiliated experienced the most growth, and the share of Americans who belong to non-Christian faiths also increased.”(2)
It is time to face the truth of this reality. And, it is time to ask why.
People don't just run away from loving, open, and hospitable communities. Yet, young people are sprinting in the opposite direction of traditional Christian denominations. Why is this?
Here is my proposition; young people are running away from the Catholic church (and other mainline Protestant traditions) because the beauty of tradition has the potential to fatally reduce relationship.
And this is problematic because relationship was far more important to Jesus than tradition.
Jesus' first encounters with people (aside from the Pharisees) were relational. He walked with people before He instructed them. He loved people before He challenged them.
Yet, all too often, when we think about Jesus, we equate Him with our religious traditions and guidelines forgetting that what He wants above all is a relationship with us.
And in our attempts to be like Jesus, we can fall into the same trap. Many think that to love people well is to promote religious traditions and guidelines. Thinking that our job is to lead the people in our lives to Christ through the framework which we cling to, we often forego relationships along the way.
Have you ever walked into a church and been greeted by no one? I have. I walked in and out of the same Catholic church (by myself) for over a year without a single person around me asking my name or greeting me. And I left that church in search of a loving community.
Tradition and ritual cannot be substitutes for relationship. Relationships must always come first. Rituals only enhance the tangible experience of being loved by God and by our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We tend to put Jesus in a box. We tend to see Jesus as someone who fits perfectly into our particular religious framework. And yet, even when Jesus walked the face of the earth, He failed to fit into any religious tradition.
Sometimes He was found “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Sometimes He was spotted breaking the sacredness of Sabbath while Pharisees responded to Him saying, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24).
Jesus was a devout Jew, yet He was frequently spotted deviating from traditional Jewish teaching. He taught in synagogues, but hung out with Samaritans. He was reportedly the “King of the Jews,” but He died for the salvation of all of humanity.
Why did he deviate so much? Why did he appear so comfortable in a multitude of religious traditions? Because Jesus was inclusive. He was relational. He saw God in everyone and loved people without necessarily forcing them to be exactly like Him.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta did this better than anyone I know.
She epitomized what it means to love people holistically . She walked with people and cared far more about relationship than conversion.
Mother Teresa cared for people in a predominantly Hindu community, and yet when asked about conversion she said, “Yes, I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic…And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.”(3)
When I left the church, I didn't leave Jesus. When I left the church, I clung to my relationship with Jesus.
I spent some time in a beautiful, grace-filled Methodist church. I also visited an Episcopal church, a Presbyterian church, a few non-denominational churches, and I surrounded myself with an incredible Protestant community of people.
And I was struck by the fact that this community didn't care where I went to church. This community only cared about my relationship with Jesus.
This response was strikingly opposite from that of my Catholic community. They cared way more about what ritual I was partaking in than about my relationship with Jesus.
So my challenge to you today is to focus on relationships over and above religion. Young people are leaving the church in droves because we have forgotten about the good news of relationship. What might change if we took our cues from people like Jesus and Mother Teresa? If we converted people to be better followers of Christ, not better church-goers?
We are not the Savior. It is not up to us to make sure that people are going to church in the “right” place. As Mother Teresa said, “after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.” Jesus is the only Savior. We are simply called to love one another.
Allow young people to explore their relationship with Christ. Recognize that truth and goodness exists in every Christian denomination.
The Catholic Church teaches that every baptized Christian who believes in Christ is, in a certain sense, in communion with the Catholic Church (CCC #838). So, let your young people discover Catholicism in new ways.
It was my leaving the Catholic Church that allowed me to love and appreciate the Eucharist in the way that I do today. Jesus knew that would happen when He sat next to me in every single Christian church that I tried out. But He also knew that my relationship would be forever transformed through an encounter with each of these denominations. And He knew that this transformation was necessary for me to do the work He had created me to do.
Jesus is the only Savior. He is the one walking in relationship with your wrestling young person. I pray that you would believe that today.
Grace and Peace,
P.S. Please join me on Instagram Live (Thursday at 10am EST)! I'll be talking about how it took stepping away from the Catholic Church for me to discover the unique beauty of the Eucharist. Feel free to send any questions or thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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