The song “Shallow” from the A Star Is Born movie has been in my head for three weeks. If you don't believe me, ask my family. I am driving them crazy.
When I told my friend I hadn't seen the movie, her response was absolute horror. You would have thought I told her that I was leaving the Catholic Church. Or growing out my facial hair. After the Academy Awards, she kept at me, “You have to see how they performed the song! Bradley rested his head on her shoulder while they sang! They looked so in love!” I had to see what she was so taken by. And so I googled, “Academy Awards Shallow Song.”
And now, a moment of silence...because, Oh. My. Word.
When it is time for me to go home to the Lord, if His gaze on me is anything like the way Bradley Cooper looks at Lady Gaga, then take me home now, sweet Jesus! Let's just say I am a little bit obsessed with this movie, or to be more specific, with this on-screen connection. Full disclosure, I could have done without the language, but that aside, this story touched me deeply. I felt like I was right there with Gaga and Cooper, sitting in the parking lot, listening in on a personal conversation. And when the movie ended, I missed their relationship - as co-dependent and tragic as it was - because deep down, I ached for a similar connection of my own.
Who doesn't yearn for deep connection?
I watched an interview with Lady Gaga. She said she originally wrote the song as a solo, but when Cooper heard it, in a stroke of brilliance, he added his voice. “It is a conversation about a man and woman and he actually listens to her,” she said. “Women today want to be heard.”
My husband and I can be pretty poor listeners, because we both work from home, and one of us always seems to have a phone in-hand, and by one of us, I mean my husband. I find I have to repeat what I say because after I wait for his reply, he looks up blankly and apologetically says, “I am sorry. Can you say that again? I wasn't listening.” And sure. I can easily throw him under the bus, but how often do I do the same exact thing? How many times has one of my children carried on with a story that I am half-interested in, only to give a, “that's great!” when I notice they have stopped talking. Or what about that woman you run into at the grocery store who stops to talk and all you can think about is the laundry at home and the appointment you have to get to and how badly you wish she picked up on social cues and closed her mouth? Listening takes time and well, our time is valuable. We don't like to waste it on things like...people.
And if that last line sounds bad, that's because it is.
Let's just admit it. We are losing our listening skills and our relationships are suffering as a result. We want to be heard, but rarely do we have the patience to listen. It is something I am working on this Lent. Looking people in the eye and listening to what they have to say without forming an escape route, or planning in my head what I will say back while they are still speaking.
And we wonder why so many of our relationships feel disconnected.
Or maybe we don't. Some people think we are connected just fine and there is no problem. After all, with technology today, we are communicating with people at an unprecedented rate. But connection beyond screens is different and not just different but vital. In Opening Your Heart, author Lisa Brenninkmeyer writes,
The truth is, we are growing increasingly socially isolated while online social networks are exploding. We are seeking connection, but so many of our connections aren't satisfying. Too many of our relationships feel superficial, artificial, one step removed from the real thing. This isolation can be soul deadening.1
Why are we so in love with the song “Shallow?” Because in this performance we see everything we long for -- deep connection, face-to-face communion; someone who gazes back at us, hears what we are saying, and offers us a safe place to land. Two people who so beautifully identify and call out what the other yearns for and the exhaustion that comes from filling the void with superficial things. And sure, doesn't hurt that Bradley Cooper is just so darn easy on the eyes, and Lady Gaga's vocal talent is flat out off the charts insane. But don't be fooled into thinking that's all there is on the big screen that tugs at the heart. The hook is not the talent, it is the intimacy they invite us into; the power of deep connection, the moment when you realize that you are not invisible, your voice is heard, and you are finally seen for who you are.
You know, the shallow end of a pool is just three feet deep. How many of us are swimming in the shallow when it comes to our relationships? With our spouses? Our children? Our neighbors? Our friends? Our Church? Our God? How many of us can sing, “I'm off the deep end, watch as I dive in, I'll never meet the ground…?” This Lent, I invite you into the deep end of faith. How? Run to Adoration, grab someone's hand and bring them to Mass, sit across from a friend who simply needs her voice to be heard, really listen to the women at your table in Bible study instead of needing to be the one who is constantly speaking. Put your phone down and look into the eyes of the person you are sharing a room with. Because that intimacy we ache for in a Hollywood story...it is available to us, right here, right now. Truth is, we were made for more than the shallow.
Your Heavenly Father is waiting in the deep end...it is time to dive in.
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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.