God, Do You Care?

If you’ve said yes to that overwhelming, “love of God poured into [your] heart” (Romans 5:5) and have been following Jesus as His disciple for some time, you’re probably finding that you’re not as tempted by certain serious sins as you might once have been. You’re not thinking of rejecting God, of leaving the whole “Christianity” thing behind, as if it’s just an optional add on to one’s life. These types of “wins” are great progress, great encouragements and consolations from the Holy Spirit in your life!

But, when we’re seeking to love God and do His will, certain new temptations arise. Things that seem smaller and less noticeable, yet can still bring darkness and desolation to our relationship with Jesus.

One of these is feeling that God simply doesn’t care. Doesn’t care about your problem. Doesn’t care about your needs. Just wants you to be His follower–and that’s it. Period. A relationship where you give, and God doesn’t give back.

Feeling like God doesn’t care isn’t a sin, per se–but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a way that the Evil One, literally “the Accuser” as translated in the Bible, accuses each of us, to try and persuade us that we’re following Jesus alone, we’re ministering in His name, without His care for us.

A dramatic example of this comes when the disciples are transporting Jesus by boat, across a sea at night (Mark 4:35-41). They’re diligently following Jesus. Yet, when a storm arises at night they see Jesus sleeping and cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Shocking that in such a moment their words aren’t, “Stop the storm!” or “Wake up! Help!” And, it can be quite the same for us. We can feel that God doesn’t care. The sneaking feeling that God doesn’t care stops us from being truly honest and direct with God in prayer. It prevents us from saying what we really mean–in the case of the disciples, “we’re scare, please save us!”–and makes our relationship with God seem less like a real, personal relationship.

A more mundane example comes while Jesus is at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42). Martha, feels overly burdened by her service. We know from Jesus’ later response that it’s not that her acts of service are bad or need to stop, but that feeling burdened is what’s truly weighing her down. Her first words to Jesus in this moment of desolation and hurt? “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” Much like the disciples in the boat, her very first words question does God care? It’s only after that that she asks Jesus to solve the problem, “Tell her [Mary] to help me.” However, even this petition doesn’t necessarily address the issue, as Martha might still feel burdened, even if Mary were helping.

From both these examples, we see that as followers of Jesus we’re likely to hit moments in our life where we feel like God just doesn’t care. The Holy Spirit seems distant. Jesus seems impersonal. The “Accuser” tells us that God wouldn’t care about problems as “human” as ours. When these moments hit, have the courage to be bold, to be honest with the Lord. “Lord, I feel like you don’t care. Please help me know that you do.” God will never be taken aback or stunned by our honesty. God loves us in the same way a parent profoundly loves a child who is able to say what he or she is really thinking. If we’re in such a hurt, sad, scared, or burdened place that our entire prayer is followed by tears or silence–that’s okay. Tears, silence, and even language that seems beyond words are all genuine ways we share with God, and allow Him in, making ourselves open to experience His loving care, when we need it the most.

When we feel like God doesn’t care, we don’t need to beat our selves up, or think that we’re awful followers of Jesus, not even worthy of the name “disciple.” No. Not at all. We see that some of Jesus’ closest followers in the 1st century experienced just the same thing. Like them, when we turn to Jesus–he answers. He doesn’t condemn us. God comes and cares for us all the more, in ways we may not have even imagined. When it seems like God doesn’t care, tell Him.

a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

Father and daughter
Flickr: Kim Davies (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)
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Forgiveness: It’s Complicated. It’s a Process. It’s Okay.

What does the word “forgiveness” mean to you?

A burden? Something we are obliged (but never really want) to do? Letting someone off the hook? Pushing down hurt and anger? Dealing with lingering guilt? Figuring out how to move on in a relationship?

Or, the lightening of a load? Freedom? New peace of mind? Gratitude? Joy?

Let’s just say, it’s complicated for most of us. And this is very very human. It’s not something we as Christians need to beat ourselves up about, thinking that because forgiveness is truly a process, we’re somehow failing if it takes on-going effort or attention in our lives. How we experience forgiveness matters for evangelization, because forgiveness isn’t truly good news if it’s a burdensome obligation or something that doesn’t actually bring us new freedom, peace, and joy! Forgiveness matters when we experience bitterness or suffering in ministry, because without giving ourselves permission to have a process of forgiveness, we can feel as if we’re failing to truly follow our Lord Jesus, who gave the ultimate forgiving act and words from a cross of crucifixion.

Starting Point: The Lord’s Prayer

Jesus’ exemplary words of prayer, often translated as, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” can sound conditional, as if our work of forgiveness is the cause of God’s mercy for us (Matthew 6:12). But, this reading is incorrect and misses true power of divine love. As Pope Benedict XVI explains, “the Lord is telling us that guilt can be overcome only by forgiveness, not by retaliation…but forgiveness can only penetrate and become effective in one how is himself forgiving” (Jesus of Nazareth Book 1, 157). “Whatever we have to forgive one another is trivial in comparison with the goodness of God, who forgives us” (158). We as humans cannot limit God’s forgiveness, but we can cut ourselves off from it, refusing to let God in and forgive us.

What to do when we struggle with forgiveness?

First, know that the struggle is okay. It’s often part of the process. The place to begin is not with our own difficulties, but putting ourselves in the position of being known and loved fully by God. Seeing ourselves, broken and torn up as we are, as God sees us. We will never have the power to forgive a wrong done to us, if we do not first allow our own debts, our own guilt to be forgiven by our Lord who is Love. After we have allowed ourselves to be bathed in God’s love, then we can ask God for more of the supernatural grace we need to be able to forgive someone else.

 

complicated
Image: “.sarahwynne.” CC BY-NC-2.0

 

Next, be affirmed that “forgiveness must be more than a matter of ignoring, of merely trying to forget” (158). Work through pain, hurt, and loss of trust. Honestly acknowledge to yourself the people and actions that have caused sadness or grief. Seek healing.

Then, comes the point of surrender–letting go of any desires to retaliate, to get even, to be proven “right.” We can decide to feel differently about a situation, even if it’s not yet our gut instinct to do so. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “when you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” We can decide to behave as if we feel positively (or at least non-retaliatory!) toward a person, even if we’re not fully there yet. This is a time for growing closer to Jesus, asking for more and more of his grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit to make this healing and transformation possible, to renew our inner selves and help us in living out, with resolve, our decision to see a person who wronged us, who was “enemy,” as one who is loved by God and us.

In doing this, we can know that we’ve done as God desires for us. We’ve forgiven. Even if the process of healing is on-going, forgiveness has happened. Even if the consequences of an evil act are still apparent, we’ve forgiven. God continues to be with each of us, even as we struggle day-to-day or are “ambushed” by evil spirits wanting to remind us of past guilt, to stir up feelings of anger or aggression.

This is forgiveness. It’s complicated. As humans, we’re powerless to fully forgive another, on our own. But, with supernatural help from God, we can forgive and know that we’ve forgiven another–even as we work through the process of healing. To be still in the process, doesn’t mean we’ve failed to forgive. It means we’re human. But when we open ourselves up to God’s grace, mercy, and love–anything is possible with God and in God’s time.

The Difference You Can Make Toward Being “Parent-Friendly”

Families run to raise awareness
Image Credit: SFC Jeff Troth (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Last month I painted a picture of what a parish designed for parents might look like, a truly parent-friendly experience. But, what can one person do–what can you do? what can I do? right now, to improve experiences for parents in my parish or ministry?

From Chris Wesley comes this great list of practical tips. Things we can take up on an individual level to personally encourage, empower, and share the fullness of life Jesus offers us more regularly and directly with parents.

For example:

  • Take time to invite a group of parents out for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. Talk to them about the programs but more importantly get to now them personally.
  • Host an open house where they are experiencing the program as a teenager. Here they get to see how you interact with their teens
  • Send out cards on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day

Read the rest here…

When Ministry Bitterness, Betrayal, and Pain Remain

How much personal suffering is okay, in pursuit of a greater good in ministry?

Following a Lenten season of reflecting on this “necessary discomfort,” I summarized:

…No parish organization should be content to dwell in suffering, or embrace suffering flowing from unhealthy organizational relationship as a spiritual discipline, as dutiful conformity to Christ. No, Christ’s suffering was redemptive. Our Savior lives–He did not remain in the grave. He did not remain on the Cross. Evidence of past suffering marks his Glorified Risen Body, yet the victory has come.

The suffering in a parish organization journeying to become truly healthy should be the suffering of confronting situations, exposing unhealthy relationships and assumptions, of mutual openness among leaders, of facing difficult situations head on. This suffering is not weakly accepting unhealthiness in the Body, but boldly, in the Spirit pursuing the ultimate good for the glory of God. Becoming a healthy parish organization means walking in the Spirit to distinguish the suffering of dysfunction and the suffering of transformation, so that we can flee the former and embrace the latter.

Yet even where Christ’s victory prevails, where forgiveness between members of Christ’s body is possible, this suffering of dysfunction can create real hurts, personal hurts that don’t disappear instantly. Human pains like experiencing a break in trust, loneliness, fear of vulnerability, or bitterness–just to name a few.

What to do on a human level when these experiences come?

Some great advice from Jen Fitz:

Avoid the situations that fill you with bitterness, the pain of broken trust, etc. Sometimes we can’t, but if you can–do it. As Fitz notes, “Yes, it would be fantastic if you could somehow be so saintly that Fr. Backstab and Sr. Gutpunch didn’t bother you anymore. Maybe one day that will be you. Until then, give your weakness a little breathing room.” Yes. Breathing room.

Draw close to those who can help you through it. The type of person this is will vary. It might be a listener who can help you process the pain. It might be someone who creates that “breathing room” through healthy and joy-filled distraction (yes–we can and should have fun!). It’s not someone who merely reinforces the experience of personal pain or echoes back bitterness, isolation, etc. to you.

Discern the elements of your life that might open you up to greater spiritual healing and insight. For me, Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher’s Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits has been an invaluable tool for making myself more open to the Holy Spirit in reviewing and looking back over experiences to detect the causes of personal pain, conflict, and challenge in ministry.

Sunshine Path on a Windy Road   (free CC usage with credit link to LiveOnceLiveWild.com)
image: liveoncelivewild.com (CC BY 2.0)

 

Visual Illustrations for Teaching, Preaching, Presenting, and Beyond

Over at the ever-useful CMS website, Emily Carlton observes:

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus used parables and simple stories to explain complex concepts. It was a brilliant move—Jesus’ crowds contained mostly illiterate people who lived in a culture with a strong oral tradition. That meant the crowds knew how to listen and re-tell stories.

Visuals can help people receive the good news of Jesus.

Today’s culture differs. Oral traditions are minimal. We’re flooded with ads, marketing, content, and images on a daily basis, so much so that we tend to tune it all out. We usually aren’t great listeners, either. But we are incredibly literate when it comes to visuals. In fact, a study conducted by MIT neuroscientists in 2014 found the brain could recognize and identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

The MIT numbers might seem shocking, but other surveys and reports support the findings.

  • 65% of the population describes themselves as visual learners.
  • When information is presented verbally and visually, the retention rate after three days is six times greater than if it were presented only verbally.
  • Visual content is three times more likely to get shared on social media than any other type of content.

If you manage social media at your church or study the affects of sermon-related visuals on church attendees, you probably have qualitative proof to support the above numbers. If not, the numbers should still demonstrate just how important good visuals are to human learning, understanding, and recall. As church communicators, we can’t overlook that fact. Visuals can help people receive the good news of Jesus.

What Can the Church Do?

Fixing a church’s visual learning problem isn’t as easy as slapping some pictures on the screens. Studies show that visuals aren’t well received when they clearly employ stock photos, aren’t directly related to the content being shared, or are stretched or pixelated in some way

Carlton is spot on. We indeed live in a visual culture. And this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily–it’s an opportunity. We can ask, as teachers, preachers, and communicators interested in forming missionary disciples, how do we ensure our ways of communicating resonate in our visual culture? 

bible-basics2-240
Bergsma illustration via marccardaronella.com

Earlier this year, at the Notre Dame Preaching Conference: Alyce McKenzie offered this lecture on the topic. And, I think one of the finest modern examples, is John Bergsma‘s use of stick-figures to unpack the Bible…check it out here and here. Bergsma’s illustrations are memorable, simple, and impactful–I’ve used them with preschoolers, elementary school children, and adult seminary students–all with great results! 🙂

Do you have any great examples or best practices in visual illustration? Share in the Comments!

Beyond “Bad Communication”

Stuck
an approach to bad communication (Image: Epien, CC BY NC ND 2.0)


Quite a few ministries, organizations, and even large nonprofits or businesses would quickly say (with a sigh!), “ugh, our communication is bad…we need to communicate better around here.”

The problem is, that’s hard to take action to improve, because it’s so vague. Bad. Communication. That’s it. A short phrase that can become an apologetic substitute for improving organizational health and effectiveness.

Here’s a list (certainly not exhaustive, but a start!) to help us as ministry leaders think beyond “bad communication.”

How’s Your Communication?

Is there an abundance of two-way communication between leaders and their teams? Is this communication building two-way trust? If not, consider why. Is it the frequency? Content? Medium? Interpersonal relationships? Etc.

Are two-way communication and dialogue present during planning, preparation, implementation, and assessment? Some organizations have a temptation to only dialogue during planning, or wait until implementation for dialogue. The reality is that two-way communication should be present in all stages of running a program, process, event, etc.

Does dialogue with teams and subordinates actually help senior leaders increase their understanding of the situation/environment of ministry, resolve potential misunderstandings, or assess how things are going? If not, senior leaders need to change their questions and style of communication so that two-way communication isn’t a “box to check,” but actually impacts the organization.

Are leaders and team members learning from one another when they have two-way communication? [If not, what looks like a true dialogue is really still “one-way” communication where the leader imparts information to the subordinate.]

Does two-way communication create new solutions or ideas that are jointly developed by different members of an organization? Because that’s the point 😉 right? Not just talk, but talk that yields better solutions/ideas than would have existed without dialogue.

Is dialogue, collaboration, and two-way communication (vertically and horizontally) part of the culture? Is it something people sense and “breathe in” when they enter your organization? Is it rewarded and encouraged?

Does two-way communication lead to consensus and resolution of conflicts? If not, why?

Do communications lead to new understanding/awareness? Or, is it simply transmitting information.  

Do communications create shared ownership or issues and solutions? If not, why?

Do leaders themselves know the mission and broader messages? Do they share information that provides greater context, sense of purpose, and reasons behind decisions? Or, do leaders simply share the minimal details of what a team member “needs” to do their job at the moment?

Does increasing communication reduce anxiety and rumors within your organization? If not, why?

Is communication timely enough so that both leaders and team members can adapt to changing situations? Or, is it often shared too late to be of value or impact? 

Does two-way communication leave team members feeling more motivated to support the organization’s plans and mission? Appreciated for their input? Or, is it just “occupying time” in their day to go listen to “the boss.” 

Here’s a test: is the person in your organization who’d be your replacement communicated with enough that they’d be prepared to step in, if needed? Are they close? Or, are they so under-communicated with that it’s laughable that he/she could smoothly step in, in an emergency? 

Are leaders out and about, frequently, to listen, coach, and clarify–even beyond those they “formally” supervise? Do leaders share what they hear and see while “out and about” with other key leaders as a part of decisionmaking? Or, are leaders rarely seen/heard by ordinary members of the organization? 

Does communication within the organization lead to people feeling more cared for, on a daily or weekly basis? If not, why? 

Can team members share honest opinions with leaders, without fear of negative consequences? Or, do leaders hold grudges or subtly penalize those who provide feedback? 

Do leaders actively listen to all perspectives when seeking information on a topic or concern? Or, do they avoid “difficult” information that doesn’t fit the mold? 

Do leaders communicate the why, most important tasks of the organization, and the desired outcome of current efforts? Or, is everyone seemingly working on a different sense of priorities, without a shared understanding of purpose?

Do communications from leaders express not merely tasks, but the realm of what’s possible for a subordinate, how far a team member can/should take the initiative, in a way that still supports the central vision for the organization?

Do leaders check to make sure subordinates, team members, and everyone understands the mission, vision, and top priorities for the present? Or do they assume, “if I said it” or “if I communicated it once,” it’s been received and clearly understood by all?

Do leaders provide guidance and tasks to subordinates in a way that tells them the results to be achieved, but not how to do it–maximizing individual freedom and initiative? Or, do leaders micromanage in dictating exactly how a task should be approached.

Is the information and content communicated within an organization actually linked to decisions, and decisions then to actions? Or, is it just “talk.”

Is communication unconstrained and continuous? Or, do people feel as if there are only certain times, places, and occasions when two-way vertical or horizontal communication is relevant for the organization?

Where Next?

If you find yourself answering “no” to any of these prompts, then start probing deeper into how you can change that one, outcome based indicator of communication within your organization. And then 😉 come back and read the list to find another indicator to improve.

Living Virtues for Pre-Evangelization: Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity

Have you ever witnessed a sporting event where a tremendously skilled team or player makes an amazing play–but blundered on the “easy” part?

Think of a baseball player who hits a home run, and then misses tagging second base. Or, a basketball team that executes the perfect in-bounds play to sink an easy layup with one second left on the clock–only to discover that the player in-bounding the ball had her foot on the line. Or, a football team that returns a kickoff for a touchdown in overtime, and then has the big touchdown called off, because twelve players were on the field.

Touching second base. Keeping one’s foot behind the out-of-bounds line. Having the correct number of players on the field. These are the “easy” things, yet when taken up in the excitement and challenge of something much greater, we can fumble on the simple things.

Evangelization can be the same way. In recent decades we’ve seen renewal only the Holy Spirit could work, as phrases like “intentional discipleship” and “relationship with Jesus” have become the typical talk of many ministry leaders. More and more Catholics in North America are experiencing Cursillos, Alphas, ChristLife, and other experiences that facilitate encounter with Jesus and encourage disciples to become missionary–sent to transform the world.

Yet, the simple things–like talking to others with a genuine interest in their lives, not merely in order to share our own interests–can become inadvertently overlooked. And it’s a reasonable mistake. My head can become so filled with all of the “big” things I need to do to evangelize, that I forget to live out those simpler attitudes or actions.

Fr. James Martin’s 2017 book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, offers an example of unpacking some of those seemingly “easy” habits of attitude. Fr. Martin’s focus comes specifically from the Church’s exhortation to accept those with “homosexual tendencies” “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2358). His reflections offer concrete examples applying these virtues to relationships between the “institutional” church (i.e. clergy and those in official positions) and LGBT communities.

Fr. Martin’s method of unpacking a short, catechetical exhortation to accept others “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” also has wider applications in our mission as evangelizers that can powerfully impact both our relationships with those we seek to evangelize and our fellow laborers in the vineyard.  For example:

Respect

Fr. Martin’s method is to go word-by-word, starting with respect. He asks what this word we so often toss around means, concretely–in practice. He reflects that respect includes recognizing, naming, and becoming aware of the gifts of others. More broadly, this is a reminder that in evangelization, it’s not about sitting around developing amazing pastoral plans or apologetic rhetoric while waiting for “them” to become suddenly interested in “us.” No. Just as God takes the initiative to know each of us, personally–we as evangelizers, Christ’s “ambassadors,” must take the initiative in showing respect to the “others” in our lives and communities (2 Cor 5:20). We are also called to prayerfully and respectfully listen to our bishops, especially when they challenge us to a blind spot, or elements of the Catholic faith we find to be less intuitively important or interesting. In the Disciple of Christ- Education in Virtue series developed by the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, our actions of respect flow from the Holy Spirit’s gift of piety as we cooperate to cultivate the human virtue of justice in our own lives.

Compassion

Compassion is another term it’s easy to toss around as we move on to more “advanced” evangelistic plans, but worthy of reflection to avoid hitting that home run but forgetting to step on second base. Compassion, as Fr. Martin highlights, is about experiencing with, even suffering with or standing with another in difficult times. Genuine listening, engagement with others, and asking questions are the concrete, ordinary ways others come to experience true compassion through relationships with us. Anna Keating’s elderly neighbor at the start of her recent essay, “The Perfect Family is an Idol,” models compassion (and sensitivity, more on that later). Compassion also means seeing church leaders “in the context of their complicated duties” as we work together to grow missionary disciples in our parishes and dioceses (p. 58). As the Education in Virtue series points out, compassion goes hand-in-hand with kindness.

Sensitivity

Sensitivity sometimes comes across as an abstract, intellectual outlook–to be “sensitive” to someone else’s thoughts. This misses the deeper, harder meaning–that sensitivity is about another person and their feelings, their very self. As Fr. Martin observes, “it is nearly impossible to know another person’s feelings at a distance” (p. 40). As evangelizers, this means living a virtuous life with basic affability, so that reasonable people would want to have us in their lives as friends, acquaintances, and co-workers, and experience comfort in sharing feelings with us. Sensitivity as evangelizers also means taking responsibility to consider who is speaking and how they are speaking in our relationships with those who labor in the same vineyard.

Friendship
Image: Kleinefotografie, CC BY 2.0

In conclusion, remember that respect, compassion, and sensitivity are certainly not the only simple things that are easy to forget when we’re (for good reasons!) enthusiastically caught up in the desire to be one with Jesus Christ, reaching out with his Gospel to the whole world. As individuals with unique gifts, we also have unique weaknesses, and some fruits and virtues might be harder for me to model than for you.

Though written with children in mind, the Education in Virtue series of reflections unpacking the human virtues is a rich resource for going further, asking how am I called to embody human virtues in a way most fruitful as an evangelizing missionary disciple.  Where am I called to grow? so that my stumbling in the little things does not hobble the good desires God has placed within me to be part of His larger vision of evangelization. How am I to live virtuously, so that when the Holy Spirit “hits a home run” that I cooperate with, I don’t forget to “tag second base” along the way 🙂