How to Stop Getting Pulled in Different Directions

Author Greg McKeown tells the story of the day after his daughter was born.  His wife was exhausted yet radiant and happy.  Greg, however, was filled with tension: He was on the phone and checking e-mails regarding work, and was also invited to attend a meeting.  He felt pressure to go, but wanted to be with his family, so he said… “Yes.”  When he arrived at the meeting, even the clients couldn’t understand why he was there, and he was filled with regret (Greg McKeown, Essentialism, 9).

[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
[View Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]

According to our Facebook poll of 126 people, 81% of us agreed that we feel pulled in many directions by good things like health, finances, career/education, but mainly by work and family.  Being pulled in different directions is often a sign of a generous heart, but it’s detrimental when it leads to the neglect of God’s priorities.  This sense of stress is so great that our children are imitating it.  I can’t stand it when I ask eight-year-olds how they’re doing and they say, “Busy.”  This cannot go on, and eventually, there is going to be great pain that God doesn’t want.

The First Reading shows the pressure on the early Christian community to provide for their people and how the apostles responded.

The text begins, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1).  It’s the year 36 A.D. and we see two language groups in the Christian community, those who speak Greek, the Hellenists, and those who speak Aramaic, the Hebrews.  When it says that the Hellenists ‘complained,’ this is the same word used when the Hebrew people complained against God in the wilderness (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles in Sacra Pagina, 105), so they are angry, this is a big problem, and there is real pressure on the leaders to do something.

The response: “And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables… We… will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word’” (Acts 6:2,3).  This is the message for us today: The apostles knew that it wasn’t right for them to do something good!  Taking care of widows was a good thing commanded in the Old Testament (E.g. Dt 10:18; 14:29), but it wasn’t right for them as apostles to neglect what’s more important: prayer and preaching the Word of God.

Let’s ask ourselves: What good things in our lives should we not be doing?  Theologically, the question is: What good things does Jesus not want us to do because it means sacrificing His priorities?  The apostles’ words prove that He does not ask us to do everything that is good.  That’s impossible.  When He was in Capernaum, the people tried to have Him stay to help them, but He had a greater mission: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

Every saint did this: St. Mother Teresa would not run schools, because they had to focus on the poorest of the poor (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, 334).  St. John Paul II neglected the administrative part of the Church, called the Roman Curia, which caused problems in the future, in order to focus on the pastoral priorities of the Church (George Weigel, Witness to Hope, 249, 267); but he had to accept those future problems to reinvigorate the Church.  St. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded an organization to help widows with small children, but left it to take care of her sick husband (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Edition, January, 35).

Sometimes what God asks us to prioritize may not seem important.  Most would say that helping widows is more important than worshipping God and praying for people.  But, for the early Christians, if their leaders gave up focusing on God and discerning what the Holy Spirit was saying (Cf. William Kurz, SJ, Acts of the Apostles in Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 110), the whole community would fall apart, and no one would be left to care for the widows.

This focusing is why many married couples say their first vocation is to each other and then to their children.  They need date nights, intimacy, and conversation, so that they can love their children more, not less!  This isn’t to be used as an excuse to abandon children, but as a way to love them better.

Why do young people fall in love so easily?  Because they spend so much time together.  Why do married couples fall out of love so easily?  Because they spend such little time together (Matthew Kelly, 7 Levels of Intimacy, 127).  Focusing on the most important and on other needs is not an “either-or” question but a “both-and”.

The apostles then solve their problem by appointing certain people to take care of the widows: “Therefore, brothers, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task…” (Acts 6:3).  In other words, ask for help and delegate.  They don’t just appoint anyone, but look for the human and spiritual qualities.  The Scripture scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown, points out that these decisions are willed by the Holy Spirit (Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 330), meaning that we’re aiming today to prioritize what the Holy Spirit wants.

And there were wonderful results: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:6-7).  The best thing happens: The Church evangelizes!  She shares Jesus with people and helps them to love and follow Him, becoming His disciples, and that’s why we exist.

This weekend, we have our first adult Baptism of the year, Chrissy Kendrick, who, after years of journeying and growth, is entering God’s family and will also receive Holy Communion and Confirmation.  We are so happy for you, Chrissy!

Let’s go through three steps to identify where the Holy Spirit is moving us:

1) Holy Spirit, who’s in need in our lives?  Are our parents or children in need of more time and extra care?  Are we in need of more prayer, sleep, a job or better health?  And this is the question for the online chat today after Mass: “Lord, I need help ____.”  If it’s something too personal, just give a more general answer like, “Lord, I need help to love my family more.”  Once we admit to God that there’s something that should be taken care of but that we’re unable to do it, He’ll show us a way forward.  Just like the Hellenists, we need to tell Him and others that we can’t handle it—that’s humility.

2) What’s our primary mission?  What can we not give up?  What is our most important contribution to the Church and our family?  Never give up prayer.  If we lose our relationship with God, we will become more scattered, frustrated, have no strength or wisdom to choose good over evil and love those who need us.

3) Whom can we appoint to help us?  God will reveal it.  If we ask for help, in His timing, He will send someone: a friend, a family member, someone here at the parish.  You have to trust the Holy Spirit at this point.  That important need that we’re perceiving will be taken care of by Him if we do our part of doing His will.  Maybe some of us don’t feel pulled in every direction but actually feel called to help those that do.  If you’re in this favourable situation, listen for the Holy Spirit’s call to step up in action.

One thing I want to suggest is that we start appointing our children to certain tasks.  Give them certain responsibilities and duties around the house, including taking care of their younger siblings.  I’m a firm believer that when people turn 16 (at least in Canada), they should get their driver’s license so that they can start doing errands and help the family, but not to goof off or avoid taking the bus.  Appoint teenagers to necessary chores, to call grandparents, or to support those with developmental disabilities.  Ask your little ones to walk on your back and give you a massage.  And don’t just randomly appoint people (“You clean my toilet!”).  Like the early Church, we pray and look for certain qualities and then equip people to succeed.

Cynthia was 12-years old when she and her father began a special night out in San Francisco.  They had planned this night for months: She was to meet him at 4:30 p.m. at the end of his presentation then leave early before people greeted him, and then go to Chinatown for their favourite food.  They planned to buy a souvenir, walk a bit while seeing the lights, then go to a movie, make their way back to the hotel for a swim, and finish off with a sundae and a late show.

But as they were leaving the presentation, an old friend met her father and they were ecstatic to see each other again!  The friend invited him to dinner, to which he said, “Bob, it’s so great to see you.  Dinner at the wharf sounds great!”  Cynthia was devastated; she didn’t like seafood and dinner with a stranger would be boring.  Worst of all, the night to which she had been looking forward, for months, with the hero of her life was over.

Then her father continued, “But not tonight.  Cynthia and I have a special date planned, don’t we?”  He winked at her, grabbed her hand, walked out, and they had the night they had planned, the night they needed, and the night God wanted for them.  Later in life, Cynthia said her father’s decision that night “bonded him to me forever because I knew what mattered most to him was me!” (Essentialism, 133-134).  Her father was able to love Cynthia this way because he was attuned to God’s priorities.

If you’re a father or mother, remember the Holy Spirit’s primary mission for you.  On this Mother’s Day weekend, let’s bring joy and peace to our mothers.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t want us to do everything that’s good—that would be impossible.  He wants us to carry out His mission, that which is best, which only we can do.  Admit where there’s a need, focus on God’s priorities, and then ask for help.

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