Priorities and a Life Filled with Meaning

This is the second half of a talk I gave to the Catholic Business Leaders Breakfast at Sacred Heart Parish on October 9th , 2009.  The first part of the talk was on my conversion into the Catholic Church in 2006 with my wife and sons after I spent 23 years in the “spiritual wilderness”—a period when I had no faith in my life after leaving the Baptist Church as a teenager.

As I was thinking over the last few weeks about the message for my talk, I wanted to find a way to share how I lead my life since my conversion into the Church.  

It took me almost 40 years to make my way into the Church that Christ founded and I feel a burning desire to make up for lost time….and to make the most of the second chance I have received.  To that end, I would like to discuss my Top 3 Life Priorities and how they keep me focused on living a Christ-centered life, filled with meaning. I will suggest to you that we tend to make things more complicated than they really are. 

When it comes to priorities, many of us have a check list of some kind that includes everything from going to the grocery store for milk to making sure our children get a great education.  We confuse mundane tasks with what is truly important in life.  If everything is important, than nothing is important.  When it comes to living a fuller, richer life filled with meaning, what are your priorities? Since my conversion into the Catholic Church, I have thought and prayed a great deal about what is truly important and what Christ wants me to do. 

I tend to have a clear and unambiguous view of life and the more I try to discern the Lord’s plan, the more apparent it is becoming that I have just 3 simple priorities: I will serve Christ and love Him with all my heart. My family is my primary vocation. My workplace is also my ministry. Seem like obvious choices?  Perhaps.  But, in my professional life and through the ministries I am involved in I meet hundreds of people every year who have no priority list, desperately want a list and don’t know where to start or have the list I referred to earlier that only includes trips to the grocery store. 

Let’s “unpack” each of these priorities and examine some of the specific actions we can take to help these priorities become reality for each of us in our pursuit of meaningful lives.

1st Priority—”I will serve Christ and love Him with all my heart”

What does this mean?  How do we serve the Lord?  If we love Him with all our heart, is there room for anything else?  These are questions which are probably running through your minds.  I would suggest to you that we serve and love Him by being humble, obedient, serving and loving others, being good stewards and surrendering to His will.  

Please consider these actions:

Daily surrender and ongoing conversion is necessary.      

I learned early on in my faith journey that my surrender to God’s will and subsequent conversion was not a one time event.  We must always put His will before our own and experience a “dying of self” in order for Christ to be in charge of our lives.  I often reflect on this quote from St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.”

Prayer is the key.    

Would we give our family at least an hour of our time a day?  Of course!  Why can’t we give the Lord an hour a day?   It’s not as difficult as we might think.  Start the day with prayer.  Before we check email or read the morning paper, offer the day and our burdens up to God, thank Him and ask for His forgiveness, help and blessing.  Try praying the Rosary in the car on the way to work and seek the intercession of our Blessed Mother. Go to Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament and pray the Jesuit Daily Examen throughout the day. Think of prayer as any moment we turn our thoughts away from ourselves and towards God.

Become passionate about the Eucharist.     

Want to fully experience Christ and be closer to Him?  Seek out the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in daily Mass when possible and spend quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic Adoration every week.  St. Francis de Sales once said: “When you have received Him, stir up your heart to do Him homage; speak to Him about your spiritual life, gazing upon Him in your soul where He is present for your happiness; welcome Him as warmly as possible, and behave outwardly in such a way that your actions may give proof to all of His Presence.”

Pursue Joy, not Happiness.     

Father Luke Ballman, Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, gave a wonderful talk to the St. Peter Chanel Business Association in January in which he described the pursuit of happiness as the “pursuit of the things of this world.”  We think we are seeking happiness in the bigger house, nicer car, better job, bigger paycheck, but do these things really bring happiness?  His point was that all happiness must be preceded by joy and that all joy is Christ-inspired!  Seek out and surrender your heart to Christ to find joy…and you will also find happiness.

Practice Detachment.   

Let’s ask ourselves if we really need “it”, what ever “it” is.  Let go of the material things that are in the way of our prayer lives, church attendance, charitable giving, volunteering and certainly our relationships with Christ.  The Catechism (2556) says, “Detachment from riches is necessary for entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”  

2nd Priority—”My family is my primary vocation”

I made reference in the first part of my talk to my workaholic tendencies in the early part of my career.  When my first son was 2, I began my career with Bell Oaks in the pursuit of a more balanced life.  But, it wasn’t until my wife and I entered the Catholic Church that we truly understood our family is our #1 vocation.  Sounds great, but what does that mean?  Isn’t our career our “vocation”?  How do we accomplish this lofty goal?  Here are a few practical steps we are focusing on to make this a reality:

Teach our children about the Faith and to love God. Our children will love God and have strong faith only if we do.  They will only pray…if we do.  They will only be joyful about attending church…if we are.  My wife and I try hard to be devout Catholics and for us, the greatest vocation is our family and raising our children to love and serve Christ and follow our Faith. 

The parents here today might find it interesting to note that the white paper Religious Involvement and Children’s Well-Being by Lisa Bridges and Kristin Moore ( reports that young people who frequently attend religious services and say their faith is important to them exhibit higher levels of altruism and much lower levels of drug and alcohol use and sexual activity than those of little or no faith.

Time — Our children need our time.  Put down the Blackberry, turn off the television, cancel the golf outing and let’s spend more time with our kids!  Quality time is the key-actively engaged in talking or doing something with them is what they need…not reading a magazine while they watch Sponge Bob.  Also, dinner time should be sacred.  There is tremendous value in coming together for a family meal at least once a day.

Teach them Responsibility — Helping our children learn responsibility at a young age and teaching them to have a good work ethic is a great foundation for them to build upon as adults.  Teaching them to serve and give back will help them be better human beings.  This isn’t classroom stuff-they will only learn from our example.  Here is a helpful tip I will pass on from the Hain household: For the last 3 years we have asked our boys to each donate 10 of their undamaged toys a few days before their birthdays and Christmas.  We take them to North Fulton Community Charities and have them bring the toys inside for donation.  They have learned that they must give…before they receive.  It also keeps the house a little cleaner!

Love, love, love!   Showing your children we love them and more importantly telling them we love them is incredibly important.  We hug our kids and tell them every chance we get.  But, love is also caring enough to be tough, candid and providing limits.  It is also about loving each other.  Want to give the kids a good example to follow?  Show your spouse affection in words and deeds as often as possible.  Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said: “Smile at each other, smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other — it doesn’t matter who it is — and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other.”

The Catechism #2223 says, “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.”31 Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them.

3rd Priority-“My workplace is also my ministry” Most of us spend the majority of our adult lives at work. The workplace today is a challenging environment to be open about our Christian beliefs.  Political sensitivity and rigid company policies have led many of us to compartmentalize our faith in an unhealthy and unnatural way. I often hear people say “I just leave my faith at the door when I get to work.”  But, how can we possibly separate our spiritual selves from our physical being? 

In Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council weighed in with this declaration: “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives…  The Christian who shirks his temporal duties shirks his duties towards his neighbor, neglects God himself, and endangers his eternal salvation.  Let Christians follow the example of Christ who worked as a craftsman; let them be proud of the opportunity to carry out their earthly activity in such a way as to integrate human, domestic, professional, scientific and technical enterprises with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are ordered to the glory of God.” Here are some ideas and thoughts on how to practically carry your faith with you to work:

Be a Light for Christ. 

What does being a light for Christ mean?  How can it be manifested in us?  Author Francis Fernandez shares this observation from In Conversation With God, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘You are the light of the world’.  The light of the disciple is the light of the Master himself.  In the absence of this light of Christ, society becomes engulfed in the most impenetrable darkness.  Christians are to illuminate the environment in which they live and work.  A follower of Christ necessarily gives light.  The very witness of a Christian life, and good works done in a supernatural spirit, are effective in drawing men to the faith and to God. 

Let us ask ourselves today about our effect on those who live side by side with us, those who have dealings with us for professional or social reasons.  Do they see this light which illuminates the way that leads to God? Do these same people feel themselves moved, by their contact with us, to lead better lives?”  It rarely occurs to us to think about our own faith journey, the example we set for others and the Christ inspired joy we radiate as the most effective ways to share our faith.  Letting others see Jesus Christ in us is a powerful form of witness that will draw others to us who want what we have in their lives.

Share our Joy. The first Christians had the good fortune to be the first to share the Good News.  Imagine the joy they felt in sharing Christ’s message of love to everyone.  They stood out as happy in a suffering world, just as Christians have an opportunity to do so today.  Jesus promised them (and us) this joy at the Last Supper when he said in John 16:22: “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”   Do we reflect joy at home, at work, with friends?  We have so much to be truly thankful for in our relationship with Christ, His divine grace, our families and countless other wonderful things.  But, being joyful must lead to sharing that joy and the ability to express the truths of our faith in a way that shows the depth of our belief and love. 

As we read in 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.”

Let Love Drive our Actions. Agape, the Greek word for selfless love, is the magic elixir that should drive our daily work activities.  It is by acting in a selfless and charitable way towards others and putting their needs before our own that people will truly begin to see Jesus in us.  It is so easy to focus on our own desires and needs, but take up the challenge to make today about serving others.  Even the little acts of selfless kindness will have a dramatic impact on others.  Chris Lowney, author of Heroic Leadership, wrote: “Love enables any company to welcome every sort of talent, irrespective of religion, race, social position or credentials. Love is the joy of seeing team members succeed.  Leaders motivated by love start from the premise that people will give their best when they work for those who provide genuine support and affection.”

Practice Active Stewardship. Do you and your company give back to the community?  1 Peter 4:10 says: “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”  It is the right thing to do and is ultimately good for business to be viewed as someone  who genuinely cares about the community.  Get involved, make a difference and contribute; perhaps if we lead, our company will follow.  Look for opportunities to reach out to the “Lazarus” in our lives today (from the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus).  Lazarus may be a depressed or troubled co-worker, a client who is dealing with personal tragedy or the homeless and hungry outside the walls of your office building.  Consider 1 John 3:17: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” and Hebrews 13:16: “Do not forget to do good and to impart; for by such sacrifices God’s favor is obtained.”

Show Humility.  C.S. Lewis wrote that the greatest sin is pride and the virtue that opposes pride is humility.  1 Peter 5:5  says: “Likewise, you younger members, be subject to the presbyters. And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for: ‘God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.”   Humility is a vitally important characteristic for Christians in the workplace.  Humility is reflecting on our motivations for our actions and letting go of the outcome, meaning that we can enjoy the experience of life, and not be obsessed with expectations others have of us or that we have of ourselves. 

Humility is trusting the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is recognizing and being able to articulate our deepest desires for ourselves. When we are self aware, we can find ways for self-expression…and know when to alter our behavior and actions to be more appreciative of our friends and co-workers.  Luke 14:11 says:  “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” My intent in sharing these priorities this morning is to show how simply we can alter our lives in a way that assimilates faith, family and work and puts us on the path to a Christ-centered life, filled with meaning. 

I try every day to do the actions I have shared, and I assure you that I struggle like anyone else.  The challenge is to practice them not as a bunch of new “to-dos,” but as part of a broader, unifying approach to a balanced and meaningful life that places Christ FIRST in all areas of our lives. We are faced with a choice between a compartmentalized life or an integrated life where faith, family and work are unified and centered in Christ.  We are asked to “change our hearts”, let go of our attachments to material things and place Him first in our lives. We are challenged to know our moral non-negotiables and not cross ethical boundaries.  We are asked to let others see Jesus within us and to share our joy with others.  Our humble and virtuous example to others throughout the day will positively influence their behavior and individual faith journeys.  An active prayer life-one which turns our day into a conversation with God and firmly places His desires before our own, will open us up to receive boundless grace.

Christians are meant to stand out, not blend in. 

Blending in speaks to conforming and making concessions so our faith becomes part of the mainstream…and we need to fight it!  We live in difficult, trying times.  Families are under attack, our children are at risk, many people are blind to the need to respect and value all life and atheists are one of the fastest growing groups in the world.  We have an opportunity, especially in the workplace, to be beacons of light and good examples of Christ’s redeeming love.  We will be judged one day on the fruits of our apostolate and hope to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” My hope is for everyone to undergo a true “conversion of the soul” and lead an integrated, balanced and meaningful life.  It isn’t easy, but worth the journey. 

I encourage you to begin tomorrow with a firm disposition to do good, practice virtue and emulate Christ. Thank God and praise His name.  Say a prayer to our Lord on your way to work asking for guidance and grace throughout the day.  Be kind to people you meet and offer assistance freely without an expectation of return. Pray for Jesus to show you that the challenges which present themselves each day are opportunities to grow in holiness and virtue. I would like to end with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Francis Fernandez and his wonderful series of books, In Conversation With God, “We have to show everyone that Christ is still alive by living heroically the events of our daily lives. 

The apostolic vocation which we all received at Baptism means giving witness in word and deed to the life and teaching of Christ.  People said of the early Christians, See how they love one another!  The pagans were really edified by this behavior and those who conducted themselves in this way had favor with all the people, as the Acts of the Apostles tell us. Normally Our Lord asks us to give a Christian witness through our ordinary lives, engaged in the same ways of earning a living, tackling the same concerns as other folk.  We have to act in such a way that others will be able to say, when they meet us:  ‘This man is a Christian, because he does not hate, because he is ready to understand, because he is not a fanatic, because he is willing to make sacrifices, because he shows that he is a man of peace, because he knows how to love.’

We make our Lord known through the example of our life, looking for occasions to speak out, not missing a single opportunity.  Our task consists to a large extent in making the way to Christ cheerful and attractive.  If we behave like that, many will be encouraged to follow it and to bring the joy and peace of the Lord to other men and women.” Friends, I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  But, I sincerely hope that somewhere in the thoughts and ideas I have shared today, you will find comfort, encouragement and possibly inspiration to make a new priority list and commit to a Christ-centered life filled with meaning. Thank you and may God bless you.