Phrases to Ripen Conversations

conversation
Justin Chua (Flickr) CC BY ND NC 2.0

Spreading the love of God is inevitably a personal, relational experience. We know as Christians that–if we stay at this “evanglism” thing long enough, we’re going to have to talk to people. And this can seem like a burden for many of us. It can also seem fruitless. It’s possible to do a lot of talking, but continually miss the mark on creating a space where the person you’re talking to can feel safe enough to be open, to be a bit vulnerable. It’s this point of vulnerability where those unique relationships that carry us through life start to form, it’s where love is tangibly experienced.

While there’s no silver bullet to cultivating conversations like this, here are some key phrases (in no particular order) to keep at the ready:

  • Ask “How are you?” With meaning. And conviction. Give the patient listening space for an answer, and take whatever comes seriously and reverently. Follow ups like, “ah besides school, how’s the rest of life going?” can help keep this question going, allowing a person to slowly reveal what they choose.
  • “Sometime, I’d like to hear more about your spiritual journey…would you be up for that?” (h/t Cru “SomeTime,” Overview). This question “asks permission” for a future opportunity, an interval that allows a person to accept and prepare to share, without feeling imposed upon.
  • If someone’s already sharing a bit about their life, work, hobbies, passions, a deeper follow up could be, “…in all that, what are the things you really want to be true of in life [or in this season of life, the coming year, etc.]?” (h/t Cru, “New Years Conversations”).
  • “Can I pray for you about that?” or “Is there anything I can pray for you for?” For a person who is uncomfortable with religiosity, you could even phrase it, “Is there anything you’d like me to pray about or just keep in my mind for you? (while it sounds weird for us Christians, many people of no faith at all “like” the idea of prayer or others thinking about them.
  • “What was your religious background growing up?” in a relevant conversation, is a good gentle “on-ramp” to talking spirituality since it doesn’t force a person to speak about present beliefs–only about the past, and area where their may be shared humor, or silent/serious wounds to enter into.
  • Life Goals/Careers: “What do you like most about what you do? How about the least?” “What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in life?” “Tell me about your greatest success or greatest failure along the way?” “What’s the greatest piece of wisdom ever passed on to you?” “What three principles have benefited you the most thus far in your life journey?” “What’s your ultimate vocational dream?” “What did you see yourself doing career-wise when you were eighteen?” (h/t Doug Pollock, “99 Wondering Questions”)
  • “For [insert your own situation: i.e. someone just starting out, someone with young children, someone retiring, etc.] what advice would you give about what you think he purpose of life is”? (h/t Doug Pollock)
  • After someone has shared a bit of their biography in facts, “ah, in all that…what would you say some of the major turning points in your life have been?” (h/t Pollock)
  • Relationships: “How did you meet your husband/wife (or boyfriend/girlfriend)? What have you learned about yourself through marriage (or dating)? (h/t Pollock)
  • Influences: “Has there been one book/movie that has greatly influenced you?” “Besides your parents, is there any one person who stands out as having had a major influence in your life”? (h/t Pollock)
  • “What, if anything, causes you to be hopeful about the future?”
  • Personality: “As people get to know you, what do they enjoy most about you?” “As people get to know you, what do they enjoy least?” “As people get to know you, in what area do you feel most misunderstood?”
The point of these phrases isn’t to reach some specific conclusion, or even lead directly to an initial proclamation of the Gospel–the point is to create a space for a person to be heard, to be able to share a little deeper or more personally than our busy world typically allows (or even wants!) people to share. They allow a person to be known in ways they may be craving for–that inner loneliness we sometimes feel, even when surrounded by caring people. When we have listening conversations, we ourselves can be more vulnerable with others, building the trust that’s a bridge to the Gospel–a concept written about by Sherry Weddell in Forming Intentional Disciples and inherent in our Catholic conept of “pre-evangelization,” as moments that connect the values someone actually/inherently experiences to who we know God personally to be.
Do you have other great phrases to help “ripen” conversations? Feel free to share in the Comments.
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How Do You Feel About Having Your Sins Forgiven?

As today’s First Reading (1 John 1:8-10) reminds us:

If we say, “We are without sin,”
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just
and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.
If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar,
and his word is not in us.

We can intellectually accept Jesus’ forgiveness of one’s sins as true, a fact, a reality. But, how to you really feel about it, personally. That Jesus forgives your sins. 

During his earthly ministry, Jesus posed this question to Simon, a Pharisee, in the midst of a symposium-style dinner discussion:

“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker graciously canceled both debts. Which of the two men will love the banker more?” (Lk 7:41-42*)

What’s the answer? Obviously the man who owed the larger sum of money.

But in Jesus’ 1st century Palestine and our modern American culture, which man would typically be considered the “good” one?

Most of us would have to admit it’s the man with less debt. The one who merely owed 50 silver pieces. He might be able to pay that off. He’s more responsible. More self-reliant. He’s not too bad.

So why is he the example of being “wrong” in the story?

Jesus’ point must not be about personal finances, but about love and gratitude in our relationship with Him. Let’s enter back into the story of the banker and the two men in debt. Imagine you’re the man who owed 500 silver coins–and had it forgiven. How would you feel?

What’s the immediate human reaction to that kind of free, gracious generosity?

It’s a mix of emotions: “Wow.” “You didn’t have to!” Feeling unworthy of such a gift. Maybe even feeling worse that you could never repay this person. Maybe feeling ashamed that it came to this point.

And it’s the same way with Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness of our own sins. There’s no way we could “earn” our way out of the wrong we do as human beings. We can’t pay it off.

The question is, how do we relate to Jesus who gives us an enormous (worth more than any earthly sum of money!) free gift of forgiveness? Is our response that joyful, grateful love for someone who gives us an incomprehensible, amazing gift?

Or, is our response something else–thinking we owe Jesus back, imagining that Jesus dislikes us for having gotten into debt in the first place, assuming we can do it ourselves and pull ourselves up by our own “bootstraps” of personal piety, wondering if this forgiveness is “for real” and “for keeps,” or if there are hidden strings attached.

We’re not saved by our own good works. We are saved for good works. Those good works flow from the love and gratitude we feel toward Jesus in our relationship with Him. We joyfully desire to extend that love to every person around us. Not because we think we “have” to in order to make up that debt or prevent Jesus from having to be like the banker in the story and forgive our debts to begin with, but because it overflows–we can’t contain that joyful love.

And this is precisely the context in which Jesus gave this example. There was someone who couldn’t contain the love she knew because Jesus had freely forgiven her. This someone was a woman, a poor woman from the city whom everyone knew was a sinner, someone who certainly didn’t have any of the external acts of religious piety. She hadn’t been someone known for “good” behavior.

Yet at some point before this dinner, she encountered Jesus and received forgiveness from her sins (i.e. Lk 5:30-32). She is living in a state of forgiveness that overflows into love and gratitude that simply looks ridiculous to those who haven’t experienced it. Just imagine…a poor woman entering a banquet dinner-panel discussion of men of the religious elite. Instead of staying on the side, like she was supposed to, she starts to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, and even kisses his feet. This is overflowing, joyful love and gratitude! (to say the least!)

As Christians, we’re like that man with a debt of 500 silver coins. We’re like this woman bathing Jesus’ feet. We’ve received a forgiveness we could never earn and are now living in that forgiveness, that salvation that is and continues to bring peace (Lk 7:50).

But what if that’s not you? If you feel a bit awkward about it. Like a man who owed only 50 silver coins and maybe didn’t really need that banker to forgive his debt. Consider what’s holding you back. What’s the barrier?

It’s okay to be honest with Jesus. Open your heart to him. And when we think about this woman who loved so extravagantly, it might have taken some time. Her forgiveness could have come days, weeks, or even months before this dinner. What’s most important is that her open, free, honest love does come, and brings her closer to–not farther away–from Jesus.

 

Wipe our Debt
Image: Flickr “Image Money” CC SA 2.0

 

translation: The Message + my own translation edits

a version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

“An Invitation” on Christmas

Utilizing all means of communication matters. Back in 2006, I lived in southeastern North Carolina–not a place with a large Catholic population, universities, or obvious resources to grow more in one’s faith. But, I started searching online for podcasts of good Catholic preaching, and I stumbled upon the podcast of homilies given by Msgr. Charles Pope of Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. His preaching was perfect for an independent Baptist formed, Catholic believer, and has remained a fixture in my podcast feed ever since.

For years, I’ve wanted to attend Mass at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian and this Christmas, we happened to be near Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian for the Vigil Mass, hooray!

The worship aid/program for Mass included this excellent example of a kerygma-filled invitation:

On this feast of Christmas, we celebrate the fact that the eternal Son of God came forth in greatest love to save his people from their sins.

Our Lord Jesus Christ came not only to live among us, teach us, and to die on the cross but also to gather unto himself a people, who would love, support, and encourage one another in the ways of holiness.

He then sent his apostles forth to gather his people into the community of the Church by baptism and the proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel. This work continues today as it has down through the centuries.

Kerygma without the Church can be a problem–but this example incorporates that fullness in plain language, without context-less theological jargon.

The invitation goes on to address individuals–showing that it’s not simply that “we” have “stuff to teach you,” but that we are meant to be a bigger we in God’s plan.

At Christmas, many people find their way to church who are not otherwise very connected to church. There are many reasons for this. Some have simply drifted away, others have experienced some hurt or disagreement related to the Church or her members. Still others have never been formally related to any church. Whatever the reason may be, know that you are wanted and needed in this community of faith. We need your experience, support, encouragement, and love. You also need these same things from the Church. We need each other. The doors of this church are open if you seek a spiritual home…We are grateful for your interest in our parish and are here to serve you in whatever way we can. May you have a blessed Christmas and joyous New Year.

IMG_3456
Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church 

What Fitness Centers Can Teach Us About Parish Life

Fitness Classes
Flickr: Nottingham Trent Univ., CC by-ND-NC 2.0

From YMCAs to PlanetFitness to the latest CrossFit outpost in your local strip mall, gyms and fitness centers are an ubiquitous part of most American communities. The rise and fall of certain models can give us insight into factors we ought to consider when designing parish life experiences that foster moments pre-evangelization and evangelization.

Let’s first think about a large, full-service fitness center–like a YMCA.

Why do people go? Because it’s available nearly all the time and has nearly everything they’d want. A one-stop shop for their family. With group classes for both adults and children offered at the same time, as well as drop-in individual opportunities for fun, it’s designed for families to use together. While you may simply come for the pool, the hope is that someday you’ll see that sign for a yoga class and give it a try–because it’s there, because it’s accessible.

What can we in parish life learn?

  • Appealing to and serving entire families is a win. Whether of strong faith in Jesus Christ or no faith at all, almost all American families today desire to spend more time together. Places where adults and children can flourish, together, are sought after.
  • A mix of both structured/scheduled events and generous time to simply be and be around one another is a powerful combination.
  • A church large enough to be open nearly all the time, as a place to seek the spiritual–both as individuals and in groups–can reach a large number of people. Think of the beckoning of the bells on a campus with a religious community, people don’t need to dive into the deepest spiritual practices right away, but by simply being around, they’ll hear those “bells” and someday try it out.

What about an upstart, like Orangetheory Fitness?

Orangetheory Fitness takes a different approach from a large, full-service fitness center, instead offering a specific type of workout–interval training. The entire gym is setup to support this one method of fitness training. Yet, it’s a method suitable for everyone, at any level. The emphasis is on progress and immediate feedback, “relative to each user’s fitness level, making it accessible to a broad audience” (Tanya Hall, Inc.).

What can we learn?

  • Positive feedback isn’t just fluff–it plays a vital role in motivating and encouraging people, regardless of their “level” of expertise/experience. This means that both new and mature members of a church community need to be valued and encouraged to keep moving forward and deeper in the spiritual life. Putting out the “prayer equipment” is no more of a genuine encouragement than putting out the “fitness equipment”– a personal connection for positive reinforcement matters.
  • Having a clear plan to cultivate the spiritual life matters. When people see the pathway and become aware that they can participate right alongside those who’ve been living it for decades, they become part of the community–not merely onlookers to those “real” or “serious” Christians.

And, that entrepreneurial fitness guru down the street…

Yes, even the independent personal trainer model of a “fitness center” provides insights for parish life. An independent trainer, well he or she likely has a collection of clients and meets with each one at whatever regular intervals (i.e. twice a week, twice a month, etc.) works best for that person. The personal trainer will sometimes go to a big gym with a client, and other times work with them one-on-one with just a few pieces of equipment, at their own studio, miles away from the “pressure” of a gym. The trainer can take on the role of a coach, a consultant, or sometimes an accountability-partner. (h/t Catherine Caimano, “What if the church was more like a gym?”).

What can we learn?

  • Discipling relationships are powerful in the life of a Christian. No matter how great the YMCA or Orangetheory Fitness center, on-going personal connection plays a unique role in spiritual growth and transformation.
  • A personal (or small group) fitness trainer takes a lot of commitment, so it’s not right for every stage and season of life–but to reach certain goals, learn a new skill, or build a habit that requires accountability, it’s often the only way (and indeed a very Biblical model).
  • Many will inherently assume they’re “not ready” or “not right” for a discipling relationship, but the reality is that we can all benefit from these authentic and loving relationships.

Which model is best?

None. It’s about your parish community and setting for mission. It’s about the resources, natural strengths, and stories present in your parish life. The point is to have a vision. Know what you’ve got inklings of, take it, and run with it. Grow it. Think about the different touch points within your community, what would attract an unchurched person to join in–and even flourish in your parish? While the missionary task before us is ultimately more important than what goes on in any fitness center 🙂 we can strive to learn lessons about what keeps people coming (and coming back) to this common fixture in American life.

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 🙂

Designed For (Not Merely Accommodating) Families

According to 2016 U.S. Census data, roughly 42% of American households include children age 18 or younger. Depending on where exactly you live, the number may be higher or lower, but even with variation, this is a significant proportion of the population that many local churches would love to serve and retain as growing members of a church community.

Design
Credit: Leonid Mamchenkov

Yet, in many churches, things aren’t designed with parents (single or married) in mind. We aim to accommodate families of all shapes and sizes–but even best accommodation can feel just like that, an exception or compromise that still doesn’t leave families with children feeling like this was really designed for them, that they belong here.

 

What might designing for parents look like?

Some visioning…

In a Parent-Friendly Church…

Preparation for Baptism of Infants

is an opportunity to connect parents, especially new parents, to a community for belonging. It’s not a one-time “instruction” of information for parents to passively listen to, with few intentional opportunities on-going connection to others.

Mass

is a privileged place of formation and encounter with the Lord for parents–something parents can be richly nourished from so that they can be the primary catechists and witnesses within their own families. Parents can choose to have children worship with them at Mass or be engaged in an age-appropriate way elsewhere. No parent should experience Mass with children as a burden that requires them to focus so much on keeping young toddlers quiet in the pew that they cannot first and foremost be taken up fully into the liturgy themselves. Mass is also not something that parents need to drag older children to or placate them about Mass being “boring” because homilies are designed for adults, not older children. Mass is a joy and refreshment for the entire family.

Places for Families During Worship

are inviting, child-friendly spaces–not “cry rooms” where visibility for young [=short] children is limited, seating is designed for adults, and the means for a child to be engaged are oftenfewer than in the pews.  

Scheduling

is designed to give families maximum time together, so that parents can be witnesses to a joyful Christian life and have the time to pray and engage in catechesis within their families. This means offering opportunities at a lower frequency, in ways that involve parents/family, on multiple days per week, and with intentional overlap of offerings for different ages to minimize disruption.

The Entire Parish (Not Just Parents) Serves Children

In this, parents feel the love of the Christian community surrounding them with support, rather feeling that they must be the VBS, catechesis, and childcare volunteers all the time (simply because they have children). 

Parents Have Real Ownership in Children’s Initiation

A parent’s discernment of a child’s readiness to receive a sacrament of initiation or participate in the sacrament of reconciliation has an ordinary place in parent life. This cultivates a perception of partnership and emphasizes the empowerment given uniquely to parents through the sacrament of marriage and the Holy Spirit.

Major Parish Events

are designed from the start with the outlook a large proportion of the target audience has children, and that these families want to attend. Design includes content, location, and scheduling.

Service Opportunities

are offered not only for adults, but for families–both internal and external to the parish.

Ongoing Discipleship Paths

are as obvious and convenient for adults with children as they are for others. Adult discipleship paths are designed to synchronize with the schedules and needs of parents with children.

Catechesis for Children

doesn’t feel like something parents have to force reluctant children to attend because it feels like another school classroom to them.

Locations Matter

Driving takes time. Families in many parts of the U.S. don’t all live near the parish. In a parent-friendly parish, off-campus locations near where families live are utilized to reduce transportation time/burden on families.

Okay, this is just the start of painting a vivid picture of designing for families, in contrast to merely “accommodating” families as an afterthought to our events, schedules, and parish systems. What would you add to the list? 

Pre-Evangelization Inklings: Tough Mudder

Why would anyone pay to go through messy, physically demanding obstacle courses and “comically extreme” challenges (Fast Company, Jun 2017)?

Indeed. Why?

From Tough Mudder CEO, Will Dean, it’s got something to do with ritual and community.  As he explains, Tough Mudder events,

“are the pilgrimage, the big, annual festivals, like Christmas and Easter, if you use Christianity as an example. But then we also have the gym, which becomes the local church, the community gathering hub. You have the media, which is a little like praying. Then there’s the apparel, which is a little like wearing your cross or your head scarf or any other form of religious apparel.”

Together, this creates a social experience with a profound “shared sense of purpose,” that many in our North American culture lack in our day-to-day lives. Coming together to achieve a common goal is essential. Many Tough Mudder obstacles simply cannot be completed without receiving help and/or helping others through.

This experience of common effort and shared victory is indeed counter-cultural. Will Dean recounts a triathlon where, “he needed help pulling down the back zipper of his wet suit as he transitioned from swimming to cycling” and “asked fellow racers for help and was stunned when no one offered any: They didn’t want to add precious seconds to their time.” This is what life, and even church life can seem like for many today. An inherent world of competition or self-interest, rather than a world that is gift, a world with others give selflessly, expecting nothing in return.

The success of the Tough Mudder company reveals that it’s quite possible to gather and attract people by offering shared experience of gift and giving, ritual rhythms of life, and community doing the difficult–together. These are longings our culture produces. The question for us is, how can our ministries and parishes connect these desires to the reality of Christian discipleship? Share your thoughts and experiences!

Tough Mudder
Image by zapmole756 via Flickr, CC-BY-NC-2.0