Today is Lazarus Saturday, from which we enter into Holy Week, Triduum, and the Easter Octave. Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (Jn 12:32). It is this paschal mystery–which extends to the mystery that includes us, the very mystery of being Church–that we mark and celebrate through these annual seasons. And what a glorious mystery it is!
I’ll be away from blogging, Tweeting, and the like during these holy and joy-filled days. Wishing you (in advance) a blessed Holy Week and Easter Octave.
We’re nearing the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (aka the Octave of Christian Unity, signifying the eight days of prayer stretching from January 18 (Feast of the Confession of St Peter in older calendars) to January 25 (the enduring date for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul). A desire for greater and greater unity among Christians has been on my heart since my teenage years, and the very first time I submitted anything theological for publication, it drew from ecumenical experiences (“A Catholic’s Gratitude to Evangelicals”).
This all happened in the 2000s, and as Kimberly Belcher recently wrote:
Among ecumenical theologians, the years of the 1990’s and 2000’s (even to the present moment) have sometimes been called an “ecumenical winter.” It is funny to consider that all my experiences of ecumenism have occurred during this winter, but of course, when the seeds are germinating, you don’t see the growth above ground. There is no doubt that the Spirit continues to work with the churches.
Among millennials and younger Christians, I see both a stronger commitment to practices and beliefs that are particular to each tradition (Eucharistic Adoration, for example, which raised concerns for ecumenism in the 1980’s and before) and a stronger commitment to honor brothers and sisters in other traditions as Christians. In other words, ecumenists of my generation and those younger than us love our diversity and long for our unity. (Read more in “What Can Catholicism Still Draw From the Wells of Ecumenism?”)
As a Millennial, the 2000s have not been an “ecumenical winter,” but a time when the fruits of ecumenism have permeated my life and led to growth, knowing and understanding more and more the awesome mystery and power of our intimate, personal relationships with Jesus, experienced within the Body of Christ.
I do feel a sadness that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity seems lost amidst the busyness of our Christian lives in January. I cannot help but chuckle each January, when I’m reminded that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the USCCB’s Poverty Awareness Month, the 9 Days for Live all overlap. Not to mention some years, when National Catholic Schools Week (which starts the final Sunday in January) also overlaps. 🙂 My finite ability to enter into each one fully in prayer and spirit is simply not enough. I’m sure I’m not the only person without the focus to pray and act for all of these things well at the same time.
Yet as Cecilia Cicone reminds us via Twitter, division–the opposite of Christian Unity–impacts our ability to eliminate poverty, to understand what a truly Catholic education is, to demonstrate the intrinsic value of life in all forms, and more.
In this week as we talk about witnessing to the principles that matter to us, let us not forget that Christian witness is hurt by division. Let's join Jesus' prayer for #ChristianUnitypic.twitter.com/SInLGT1s5S
Just last week, a devout Christian shared with me how he perceives the Catholic Church as viewing him as unworthy as not a Christian. This can be shocking and heart-breaking to hear as a Millennial Catholic! As I’ve grown up in a Christian world where the clarity of baptism and the Body of Christ seem obvious (and this is a good thing, a blessing I’ve inherited).
As I shared with him the reality that I cannot dispute his perceptions, experiences, and opinions, I asked if he’d be willing to hear what the Catholic Church does say about him. He agreed, and I read him this:
Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.
Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church…
…Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.
Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church. (Decree on Ecumenism)
How blessed and thankful I am to be living in a time that, while some aspects may be as a “winter” season, it is nonetheless a winter filled with overflowing fruit as we await with joyful hope the true, eternal, and everlasting unity of Christ’s Body.
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.
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.
…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?
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.
That feeling of dread, regret, or resignation. Not wanting to step into the office. Wishing you’d never taken that new diocesan position. Wanting this year of RCIA to be over because you don’t even want to see your volunteer team. What does it mean when ministry becomes the setting for feelings of desolation?Where is God leading me in times when problems seem overwhelming and suffering seems far from redemptive?
Job often comes to mind as a Biblical portrait of suffering and persistence. Yet, Job’s situation is very different from most of ours in specific ministry settings. See, God puts Job through a trial of extreme crises in faith and life–questions of survival of everything and everyone Job knows and loves. Job does nothing to bring this on himself. For many in ministry (whether paid, volunteer, ordained, or non-ordained) our particular way of living out the call to missionary discipleship is something we’ve discerned and chosen. Something we’ve stepped out to do.
This brings us to a different Old Testament character, Jonah. Jonah is a missionary prophet. He’s actively stepping out to do God’s work. While Jonah does face a crisis, it’s not one of basic human needs and longings, but of if he’s going to listen to God’s words for him and how Jonah should fulfill the call God has placed in his life.
When we think, maybe I’m just not where God called me to be, we’re in a place to enter into Jonah’s story more deeply, to see where we might persevere or change in order to serve God in the way He desires of us.
Diving into the Bible, we meet Jonah with the narrator’s declaration, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah” (Jonah 1:1). Notice the passiveness of Jonah. His patient, receptive posture. Jonah was listening. And we find out in verse 2, that he hears God’s communication clearly. Jonah’s not acting on divine silence, nor guessing in absence of communication or answered prayer.
Maybe when we experience desolation in our ministry, it’s because we never heard the word of the Lord as Jonah did. Maybe our good intentions were charitable, but not what God willed for us, personally.
But Jonah, he’s not falling into that trap in his ministry. He hears God, yet he decides to resist. He “made ready” for a new, impromptu plan of “fleeing” away from the city and ministry God had called him to (1:3-4). Jonah is being reactive; there’s seemingly no purpose to his actions other than trying to be “away from the Lord.”
Jonah takes flight on a boat and a storm comes. In this dangerous situation, the boat’s captain comes to Jonah (1:6). Jonah’s qualities and calling in ministry can’t be ignored–even if he’s choosing to turn away from what God has equipped and called him to. Jonah is immediately aware of what he has done (1:12). And this isn’t shocking–remember, Jonah heard God, Jonah knew what God wanted of him. Jonah acknowledges what he has done, how he fled from God’s true desire for him. Oh how we yearn for this clarity ourselves in problematic ministry situations! In times of desolation, we can say “yes, Lord–I’m ready to repent,” yet not have the slightest idea what God had wanted us to be doing in the first place.
How does God respond to Jonah? He sends “a great fish to swallow Jonah” (2:1). This is active voice, God is acting directly in Jonah’s life, creating a space for temporary hardship, challenge, and (if Jonah’s anything like us moderns!) forced introspection (I mean, it’s not like there was reading material in the fish’s internal organs). Early allegorical interpretations of this passage suggested that this time of darkness and testing represented Israel’s exile. Later, Christian allegorical interpretations (spurred by the Gospels themselves, i.e. Matt 12:38–42 and 16:1–4) offer Jesus’ three days in the tomb as a parallel. Yet, the original sense of the passage in and of itself–without any allegory–is very relevant to each of us when we experience problems in ministry. As Walter Brueggemann writes:
It is enough to see the ‘fish’ as a vehicle whereby Jonah is put deeply at risk to the power of chaos (the sea), and is rescued by the power of the Creator (who presides over chaos) through the creature, the fish. Thus the rescue of Jonah is also a demonstration of the power of the Creator who will not have the mission of the prophet thwarted (Introduction to the Old Testament, 231).
The second time God speaks to Jonah, he listens. He acts “in accord” with God, not fighting, going against the grain, or avoiding what he heard from the Lord (3:1). God’s will is done, God’s heart is full as His mercy is extended to the people of Ninevah who turn to the Lord. Jonah has had “success” in his ministry, but still he is not where God wants him to be in his heart and soul. We can find ourselves in these places too–doing the successful thing in ministry, even seeing fruit, yet not truly living the life God has called us to. There’s external fruit, yes–praise the Lord!–but still not the interior conversion God desires of us.
The Lord teaches Jonah this in the final chapter of the book. Here we find Jonah outside the city of Ninevah, sulking about how he knew all along of God’s merciful character, and it was that knowledge that drove him to flee, so that he’d avoid this “awful” predicament he’s in right now. The narrator hints that Jonah is still holding out some “hope” that the mercy extended by God to Ninevah might change, as Jonah builds a dwelling to “to see what would happen to the city” (4:5). As one might guess, it’s pretty hot and sunny out in the desert, so Jonah’s quite happy about a nice shady gourd plant that grows up by his new home (4:6). But then God takes the plant away, and Jonah finally gets it. It’s not about him. It’s not about us when it comes to ministry.
We need to discern and listen where is it God is calling us to, and what it is God wants us to do. We can grow attached to a certain vision of how, when, and where will will serve–but ultimately it’s all a gift from God. A particular ministry or belief isn’t ours to cling to any more than the gourd tree was Jonah’s “possession” when God shows us otherwise. God’s concern is far broader than ours! And, even if we don’t fully understand it in every moment, God’s gracious love for all includes each of us. Always. In every moment.
In the end, through Jonah we see that God’s will is not simply what’s convenient for us, or what we already happen to believe (or want to believe) about the mission field around it. God’s will for us might include people we’ve never thought of before. God’s will might be something more precise or focused than what we currently dream of. Each of us can only know when we begin as Jonah did: hearing the word of the Lord.
Does scarcity impact your planning and leadership in ministry?
As Brene Brown explains:
“Scarcity is the ‘never enough’ problem. The word scarce is from the Old Norman French scars, meaning ‘restricted in quantity’ (c. 1300). Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyper aware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking…Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison” (26).
Scarcity in ministry might look like:
Ignoring a mission Jesus shares with the Church (i.e. “go and make disciples”), or not engaging in it wholeheartedly, out of fear that “we won’t have enough” for our other ministries
Allowing key staff and volunteer ministry leaders to become worn down due to time-demands or structures (i.e. aversion to flex-work schedules, etc.) that create a busyness and stress surrounding time
Not dreaming a true vision because “we don’t have enough interested people”
Becoming stagnant or inward focused, thinking “we can’t do what we used to do–be meaningful in people’s lives, relevant to the community, etc., because of today’s ‘problems’”
Brown continues, “We get scarcity because we live it” (25).
This can and should convict us.
How do we contribute to a “hyper awareness” of lack?
An awareness that allows a “lack” in time, resources, or abilities to become a paralyzing excuse. Our attitudes certainly matter. During his earthly ministry, how often did Jesus operate out of scarcity–a “never enough” mentality? Not too often. And when the Twelve succumbed to the temptation (which happens to us all at times!) Jesus pulled them back. When the twelve disciples said, “dismiss them [the five thousand] so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat,” Jesus Led them away from scarcity to utter confidence and boldness in God’s power acting in their very moment, saying, “Give them some food yourselves” (Mk 6:36-37).
How do we avoid living scarcity?
A compelling clue comes at the very end of Acts of the Apostles. We see the words “boldly” (parresias) and “unhindered.” These are the Evangelist Luke’s final concluding words to us. Recall, this is the same Luke who in his Gospel, filled his early chapters with encouragements to not fear (i.e. Lk 1:75, 2:10). The boldness of the early believers demonstrated throughout the entire book of Acts flows from their trust in and relationship with God. This relationship is alive and possible because of their prayers in the Spirit.
They were led by the Spirit to closer communion with God, and the more I grow in my relationship with Jesus the Lord, the more trusting, confident, and ultimately bold, I will be. And, walking with Jesus, I can see the challenges, see the areas of objective scarcity, but not be “hyper aware,” not be frozen by it, not be dismayed. I can then move from operating out of scarcity, to leading, relating, planning, and ministering with trust and bold confidence in God’s abundance. That God who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens” desires to share “his own blessed life” with us (Eph 1:3; Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1). This powerful reality should not be hindered by my own temptation of seeing and living scarcity the present.