Words to Share: Heaven, Justice, Purgatory

As human beings, we seem hard wired toward sharing news when it’s great news. We enthusiastically communicate with others all the time when we have really good news to share. It doesn’t take any special training or programmatic preparation. So why isn’t talking about heaven something exciting and great to share?

A lot of Christians just aren’t sure about what eternal life includes. We believe in eternal life in the abstract sense, but deep inside, we’re not sure if a heaven that includes the worst sinners makes sense, we’re not sure if we want this eternal life if it’s just some manipulative reward for our own good behavior, we’re not sure if we want an endless continuity of a “better” earthly existence (i.e. a pop culture image of heaven as a place with endless luxury cars or something along those lines).

On this very day, nine years ago, Pope Benedict XVI opened the season of Advent by teaching on this ultimate hope in an encyclical letter called Spe Salvi [“in hope we were saved”]. Now, I wasn’t the type of person to be reading encyclicals when Spe Salvi first came out (truth be told, I think I was busy on a deployment in Iraq at the time)…however, since then I’ve come to love this encyclical. I find myself quoting it all the time to help offer language that resonates when it comes to talking about eternal life and the purification for those rooted in Christ that makes perfect communion with God possible!

So how does Pope Benedict describe eternal life with God? 

the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality…like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. (Spe Salvi, 12)

This way of thinking about heaven isn’t just about me as an individual. We believe that God’s final judgement “appears at the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers” (Spe Salvi, 14). Heaven “presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I'” (Spe Salvi, 14). We are not saved to be alone, but saved to be in perfect loving relationship.

As Pope Benedict goes on to explain:

Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life (Spe Salvi, 28).

But who can confidently look forward to eternal life knowing what Jesus teaches? i.e. we must be perfect as God the Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). The key is that what God calls us to is not a condition for eternal life with God; not a simple human quid pro quo. Yet it’s still the objective reality of who God is. Perfect. Complete. Love. Life. And logically, though we can be forgiven from any sin (except deliberately refusing to accept God’s mercy by repenting), we can’t be in perfect communion with the objective reality of God, if we ourselves can’t let go of all that holds us back, what’s not holy, our sinful tendencies. This is where purification, cleansing, or (as it’s commonly called) the process of purgatory comes in. As the Church believes, this spiritual purgation isn’t about cartoon skulls, bones, hard labor, and a time clock–but true salvation. 

Here’s Benedict summarizing a way we can speak about this:

The encounter with him [Christ] is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation.

His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God…At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his [Christ’s] love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.

It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. (Spe Salvi, 47)

If that’s not the most beautiful explanation of how encountering Christ in judgement isn’t a moment of terror, but instead a moment of hope, I don’t know what is!

 

Cleanse
get the impurities out!

 

How good is this news for those burdened with the idea that they need to earn salvation?

Or those living without the freedom of knowing how forgiveness and judgement can be possible?

It’s great news, that our earthly lives aren’t meaningless (and many people regardless of religious labels feel this, almost instinctively), that we can draw close to God now in preparation for eternity!

And, though as disciples of Jesus Christ we’re shouldn’t aspire to have lots of baggage that holds us back from perfect Love with God in eternity, it’s a blessing to know God is ready to make us “like Him” (1 Jn 3:2).

Finally, our belief in heaven does not exclude justice every human being yearns for. This is the comfort and hope of a final judgment, when all is revealed–the farthest consequences of all actions and in-actions (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1039). This great and final judgment does not reverse each of our individual judgments at the end of our earthly lives, but brings to completion God’s justice and grace. As Benedict observed, “a world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering” (Spe Salvi, 42). Eternal life includes this great and final judgment, where God’s power reveals all. In in this revealing, comes God’s justice–the suffering we cause or alleviate matters, not above or against God’s mercy, forgiveness, and purification, but within God’s ultimate plan to bring all things into perfect Divine Love and Life.

How’s that for a robust description of “heaven”? These Church teachings are great news. 

Ask people about spirituality beyond this world, about the afterlife, about cosmic judgement…you’ll be surprised how many people (regardless of labels like atheist, agnostic, non-practicing Catholic, etc.) have a sense of a supreme moment of satisfaction, of contact with perfect Love that impacts both themselves and relationships with others, of a supernatural justice. You’ll be surprised how many Christians have always believed in heaven, but never thought deeply about how Christ purifies them, or have a way to speak about how our actions matter, without resorting to a [false!] works-based salvation. 

We indeed have good news to share that can change a person’s life, bring them freedom from having their hopes constrained by the physical world we see each day, and open them up to the Truth that comes with this Love and Life.

Book Review: Divine Renovation Guidebook

My last book review covered a great “jump start” book, The Rebuilt Field Guide, one “that anyone can make it through, that any team can use to avoid becoming paralyzed by the myriad of (great!) ideas for evangelizing, and instead get to doing, learning, and adapting.” Today I’m looking at another new book for pastoral leaders: Fr. James Mallon’s Divine Renovation Guidebook: A Step-by-Step Manual for Transforming Your Parish (23rd Publications, 2016). At a quick glance, one might think, “oh, so this is the workbook version of that other book that same priest-guy wrote, right?” Wrong. The Guidebook is a book jam-packed with it’s own value, it’s the pastoral planning book for evangelizing parishes.

dr_guidebookPastoral planning has gotten a bad rap over the past few decades. Not outwardly, I mean, who can rationally oppose the idea of planning for the future? But, from the surge of materials encouraging pastoral plans that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s, what fruit have many parishes seen? It’s possible to write an exceptional pastoral plan to maintain exactly what you’ve got in your parish right now. It’s also possible to write an exceptional pastoral plan and simply leave it on the shelf. A check-the-box binder that maybe the bishop required of you.

What a newer crop of resources from the Divine Renovation, Rebuilt, Parish Catalyst, and Amazing Parish teams articulate more clearly is that strategic pastoral planning isn’t a silver bullet. An exceptional pastoral plan accomplishes nothing if there’s no operational leadership, no culture or systems that support and align with the plan. And this is where the Divine Renovation Guidebook shines. It’s a workbook for developing a legit longer-term pastoral plan to rival anything you’ve done before, while ensuring that your parish becomes more and more mission focused along the way. Operational effectiveness, strategy, and leadership are embedded–it’s not an option–you can’t simply write a plan and skip taking a hard look at your concrete processes and leadership culture.

The original Divine Renovation was a deep theological look at many of the assumptions and cultural patterns that contribute to the vast majority of Catholic parishes in North America existing as maintenance outposts, rather than centers of missional outreach. That book is a great read, that I’d highly recommend for anyone (in addition to the podcasts delving into more detail on sacramental preparation, catechesis, etc.). The Guidebook is less widely relevant in that it’s for parish leaders, but more practically impactful. This will enable you to not just understand the situation of modern parishes, but concretely change and plan so that the joyful, Good News of life eternal in Jesus Christ can be heard and experienced wherever you are. I highly recommend it for every senior leader, especially pastors, in a parish setting.

“Leading Up” in Ministry

Ministry settings aren’t usually know for having simplistic, clear-cut lines of “command” when it comes to bosses and supervisors. And that’s a good thing. The inherent messiness of a “team of teams” often creates the space for our unique gifts of the Holy Spirit and natural/developed talents to shine through.

But how do we lead when we have no single “boss”? When we answer to critical volunteers, councils, boards, diocesan staff, and commissions (just to name a few!)

Check out these 9 Tips for “Leading Up” at Your Church and remember, when you lead in ministry it’s not just about those who answer to you, or look to you for guidance–it’s about leading up, leading to your left and right, leading in whatever direction God sends you for the building up of the body of Christ (cf. Eph 4:12).

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Book Review: The Rebuilt Field Guide

Are you a parish that just can’t seem to get started on moving from maintenance to mission?

A place where money, staffing, your community (and more) have been viewed as insurmountable barriers to evangelizing?

A parish that gets (or has gotten) bogged down in long-term strategic planning or any attempt to do something “big”?

The Rebuilt Field Guide: Ten Steps for Getting Started (Ave Maria Press, 2016) fills a niche by providing one of the most concise and all-in-one starter tools available to help parishes become evangelizing environments. At less than 100 pages and less than $10, this is a book that anyone can make it through, that any team can use to avoid becoming paralyzed by the myriad of (great!) ideas for evangelizing, and instead get to doing, learning, and adapting in one’s own parish setting.

Coauthors Tom Corcoran and Fr. Michael White pull together ten hands-on chapters, each a stand-alone exercise designed for a small (5-8 person) group of parish leaders. There’s a devotion and prayer prompt, excerpts from Rebuilt series books, discussion questions, space for your personalized parish reflections, and a final “rallying cry” to implement and preserve in single steps to move from maintenance to mission in the typical experience of parish life. Some exercises might take a week to complete, others months–the overarching point is to get moving. Start the engine. Begin driving, rather than merely watching the New Evangelization in whatever circumstances your parish may find itself.

How is this book different than the original “Rebuilt” or “Tools for Rebuilding”? At it’s core–this is much simpler. Very little back story on Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD (the authors’ parish), not a focus explaining the roots of our theology of evangelization, and no advanced steps that presume a level of staff capability and past progress. If you doubted that Rebuilt was relevant to your parish because Church of the Nativity just seemed so “different,” then this is the book for you, because it’s all about your parish, your community, your unique setting to live out Jesus’ instructions to go and make disciples (cf. Matt 28:19). This would be a boring book to read by yourself–because it’s all about the future of your parish.

The coauthors are spot-on as they explain:

It matters not at all what kind of parish you have: big or small, urban or rural, affluent or struggling. To undertake these exercises, you don’t need any particular resources, additional staff, or budget, and you won’t have to hire a consultant. You really only need one thing: a team. (viii)

And this matters. While there are more and more parishes implementing concrete changes to be evangelizing places for all who enter, sadly, the reality is that most Catholics are not in these parishes. The typical American Catholic experience is of maintenance, not mission. And in these churches there’s not a groundswell of action. Instead, there is often slow decay, sadness, hopelessness, or a sense of inevitability–that “religion” just isn’t a thing anymore, that the best that can be imagined is a well-managed decline.

The Rebuilt Field Guide offers the concrete basics to get moving. And moving counts, as Fr. White and Corcoran note, when “you apply or adapt what you think might work in your setting” the process itself teaches you “more about what actually does work for you.” Waiting to have a perfect grasp of Catholic theology of evangelization, dynamics of a healthy and learning organization, ministerial leadership, and more before starting will likely only keep you waiting. This book provides a path for learning by and while doing.

If you’re searching for a deeper theological understanding of the New Evangelization or comprehensive guide to parish renewal, leadership, and planning–this isn’t it. It’s something wholly different and uniquely suited to help parishes get moving. To take the first steps on a journey the world needs each and every parish to take.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. The opinions expressed are my own.

An Alpha Must: Pre-Evangelization

When something becomes popular, there’s a tendency to focus on the “brand” or the “name” rather than the essentials that make it what it is.

Last week, I was blessed to attend the Diocese of Lansing’s Called By Name Assembly. A theme uniting speakers and our table discussions was the importance of pre-evangelization, that initial proclamation of God’s saving plan doesn’t happen in some sterile vacuum. It happens between individuals, usually people who are acquainted with each other, and always people who trust each other enough to be a little bit vulnerable, be a little more open than our unfriendly culture encourages–and, just a little bit more loving.

belong

Of all the popular “on-ramps” into the Christian life or “processes that foster conditions for conversion” (as we might call these in a generic sense), I think Alpha embodies the heartiest dose of pre-evangelization principles. Pre-evangelization is a core part of Alpha. Cut out the pre-evangelization (because you don’t think you need it, don’t have the time, etc.) and turn it into a catechetical program, and you’re all good, right? Wrong.

If you’re a little bit uneasy, wondering if your Alpha (or plans for running an Alpha) are turning into straight up initial proclamation of the Gospel in a vacuum or catechesis, then I highly encourage you to listen to an absolutely fantastic 3-part podcast from St. Benedict’s Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia called “How to Kill Alpha in 10 Easy Steps” (it’s episodes 10, 11, and 12 here). The heart of the 10 steps all comes back to ignoring the importance of pre-evangelization, of belonging, of experiencing authentic human life and values as part of the “normal” life of the Body of Christ, as the vast ocean in which any and all proclamation of the Gospel must occur.

Abundant Life as Sheep

The comfort God gives to us by giving us Jesus his Son as our Shepherd isn’t just some poetic, feel-good pasture scene that goes over well in Vacation Bible School or children’s catechesis. No–it’s a reality with hard-hitting promises and assurances.

John the Evangelist gives us the most detailed look at the relationship between Jesus the Good Shepherd and His sheep in Chapter 10 of his Gospel. The setting and build-up to this moment is intense. The first half of John’s Gospel is devoted to revealing the signs of Jesus, and examining how specific people respond. And it’s been a mixed bag, for sure! Early on, some respond to Jesus with belief–or at least genuine curiosity.

But then, hostility grows to a near-breaking point between Jesus and those who do not believe, those who oppose Jesus and those who profess belief in Him! This comes to a head as Jesus comes to the Temple at Jerusalem for the Feasts of Tabernacles (aka Booths or Sukkot) and Dedication (aka Feast of Maccabees or Hanukkah) and makes clear through symbolic declarations that Jesus is Divine, he is the Son of God, he is with God the Father in the most profound, eternal sense.

What to think?

As many Christian apologists have noted, when someone stands in a public place, on a great religious feast, and declares that he is God, we’ve really only got three logical responses, the person is either a pathological liar, a lunatic, or correct–truly the Lord God.

If you believe that Jesus is indeed the Lord God, well then what?

As today’s Psalm 100 answers:

“We belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds” (vs. 3)

Being a sheep has serious consequences:

Sheep1. Jesus knows our name and calls us by name. We cannot remain anonymous to God. We cannot use our own sinfulness, anxiety, low self-esteem, or secret doubts about ourselves as an excuse as to why we are not “good enough” to be in relationship with God. It’s not about our goodness–we can know Jesus personally because he already knows our name and calls us by name (John 10:3-4).

2. “Whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9). If we remain in God through Jesus, “one can be confident of one’s present salvation” and “by looking at the course of one’s life in grace and the resolution of one’s heart to keep following God, one can also have an assurance of future salvation” (Catholic Answers). Do you have this confidence in your present and future salvation? What doubts are holding you back?

3. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Now, you might be thinking, “that sounds a bit like some ‘once saved, always saved’ falsehood.” And, the idea that a person’s salvation is guaranteed regardless of anything a person does, regardless of their free will in the future is indeed counter to Christian teaching (and even the most secular understanding of free well). Here’s the difference, though, in our Catholic teachings, confidence in God’s promises and acknowledgement of each individual’s free will coexist, as apologist Tim Staples writes, “our eternal life is contingent upon our choosing to abide in God.” No earthly powers, no other person, no harsh words or judgement from another can cause us to perish–only our free choice to leave Jesus’ flock. As the Church teaches:

There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (Catechism of the Catholic Church para 1864)

The only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…and what does this mean? As Pope Saint John Paul the Great explained, “it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross” (Dominum et Vivifcantem, para. 46). So that’s it–only our free, knowing, and intentional will to reject the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy is what can remove us from God’s hand of love.

4. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Does being a sheep bring you a deep joy and comfort? As one apologist noted:

Sometimes Fundamentalists portray Catholics as if they must every moment be in terror of losing their salvation since Catholics recognize that it is possible to lose salvation through mortal sin…But this portrayal is in error. Catholics do not live lives of mortal terror concerning salvation. True, salvation can be lost through mortal sin, but such sins are by nature grave ones, and not the kind that a person living the Christian life is going to slip into committing on the spur of the moment, without deliberate thought and consent. Neither does the Catholic Church teach that one cannot have an assurance of salvation. This is true both of present and future salvation.

And the beauty and fullness of joy is that this salvation is both present and future. We have eternal life that starts now, and stretches into eternity. And this life? It’s more abundantly “life” than anything a life without God’s friendship and Lordship offers.

We are God’s flock. You are (or can be) His Beloved Sheep full of joy and confidence in God’s eternal love and mercy. What’s holding you back? Wherever your heart is, pour it out to God, and ask Him for the blessing of knowing what it means to be a Sheep.

Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 via Flickr user Katriona McCarthy

a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

Can’t Imagine Parish Small Groups?

You know that connecting people to a group–a place to belong, a place that actually notices when you’re missing–is vitally important to the life of a Christian disciple.

Yet even though we know this, the reality of becoming a parish of small groups seems had to imagine. Just on the logistical and organizational levels alone.

For a dose of encouragement, check out some of the webpages from St. Anthony of Padua down in The Woodlands, TX that show how a parish can use technology to ease the logistical and organizational burdens of growing a network of groups:

  • Community Groups Landing Page with a short video trailer, longer message, and more
  • Recruiting and inviting group hosts
  • Custom search to find the right group options for you [seriously, I think this is my favorite part of the whole set-up]

So, time to share…how do you conquer the logistical challenges of boosting small/community group participation in your parish?

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