Christian Unity: Can It Be Anything But Personal?

Closing out this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, I wanted to share this older reflection of mine from 2011. My gratitude only continues to grow. Let us join with Jesus’ prayer, Ut Unum Sint. 

Growing up in northern New Jersey, I had little contact with the Evangelical culture common in parts of “Bible Belt,” exurban, rural America. Prayer was not commonly uttered in the public sphere, there was no presumption of church attendance, and large, modern “mega-churches” did not dot the landscape. All of these things I would observe later in life, as service in the Army took me to other parts of our nation.

I was raised in the Catholic Church, faithfully attending weekly Mass with my family, preparing for sacraments, and even helping out in small ways as a church musician and altar server. Yet my outward “faith” was rather empty. I had had the initial conversion of baptism, but not the second conversion of heart of which the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks.

Then in high school, a friend invited me to her church ”an independent fundamentalist Baptist church, to be precise. This was an entirely new experience. Read more here…

Coming to Faith: 10 Years Later

As I hurried around the house last night gathering the “essentials” (water bottle, books, and a snack to take the place of an uneaten dinner) for helping our two tots remain content during our parish celebration of the Vigil Mass of the Immaculate Conception, my mind wandered back to this same liturgical celebration ten years prior, when in silent prayer after Mass, I believe in the Church, fully and freely.

This happened at St. Patrick Catholic Church, in Fayetteville, NC, in the “old” church (as I suppose it’s now called, as a building campaign kicked off as I was leaving the area). I was sitting on the left side, probably about 8 rows from the front. The sanctuary had a large baptismal font with circulating water on that left side, and in the quiet after Mass, one could hear the water trickling and bubbling. I’d likely come straight from work in military uniform (and one of the delightful things about living in a military town, is that that is normal–nobody looks at you oddly, makes awkward comments, etc.).

I don’t remember anything about the Mass. Nothing about the music. Nothing about the homily. It’s a total blank.

But, what I do remember so well, is that prayer time afterwards. Through the Holy Spirit, I was able to tell God, confidently and with great peace, I believe it is possible. I don’t know why it needs to be, but I believe it is possible. 

What was this “it”? In the moment, it was the doctrine of Mary existing without original sin. In retrospect, it was a lot more.

I’d been in a period of great spiritual upheaval for the middle two weeks of November. I’d become convicted (through the Holy Spirit, concretely through the question of a friend) that I needed to decide if what the Catholic Church believed was true. I’d had my initial life-changing conversion into relationship with Jesus Christ about eight years prior, and an experience of joyful consolation and expression of the Holy Spirit five years prior. All of that time, across four states, I’d always found a home in two churches–one a Catholic parish, and the other a Baptist congregation. I was Christian, but was I really Catholic? I didn’t know. And it didn’t bother me, until the Holy Spirit came knocking in force those two weeks.

Okay, so what I had done during those two weeks? Well, I did what any very logical, rational person would do if they suddenly needed to figure out if they were Catholic–I went to the nearest Barnes & Noble book store and picked up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and decided to read it in prayer, with a notebook in hand to record any objections. It turned out to be a page-turner. I couldn’t wait to get through it and “figure out” what I thought. So what happened? My plan failed (so to speak). Part 1 articulated Christian truth so fully, so in accord with what God had already given me the grace of faith to believe for most of my life as a Mass-going Catholic and intentional disciple since the teenage years, that my notebook of objections didn’t seem to hold weight.

But what to do wasn’t obvious. I experienced my own reality of Simon Peter’s reply to Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68). I knew in my heart there was nowhere else to go, but I couldn’t “go” because I had that list of objections (it wasn’t a long list, but the Immaculate Conception of Mary was on it). God had showed me my destiny, but how that would be a reality for me, spiritually–on the inside, was not clear.

That spontaneous prayer after Mass a few weeks later showed me the how. Through that graceful gift of faith, I could trust in the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit makes the Church. I wasn’t in the least bit rationally convinced that God protecting Mary from original sin needed to happen, but I believed that it was possible. And that it was possible that this should be believed. And that this possibility was certain.

Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal John Newman, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 157) explains it this way:

Faith is certain…To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.” “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

And this is what I experienced–albeit in a less formally articulated, Romans 8:26-kind of way. 🙂 It was a moment that I’m extremely grateful for.

So, getting back to last night. When we came home from Mass (in case you were wondering how the water bottle and books worked out–they didn’t prevent us from having to take the younger son out crying, numerous times) I was thinking–hmm, maybe I have some notes on the homily from that night ten years ago.

See, my Christian formation had included being immersed in a culture where people hung on God’s Word. And so taking notes during preaching was something I did at Baptist and Catholic churches alike. I still have my notebooks from most of those years, and so I pulled out the one dated “June 11, 2006 to March 25, 2007” and turned to the first week of December. To my disappointment, no notes from Mass on Dec 8th. But, on December 3rd, something very interesting–a Sunday School teaching (from my Baptist pastor) on a passage from Ecclesiastes. Here are some of my verbatim notes:

  • “If we want knowledge to work for us we need to seek it through God.”
  • “Why we know is more important than what we know–God gives us knowledge to know of eternity and serve Him accordingly.”
  • “Nothing that we can ever know will substitute for the power of God in our life.”
  • “What we do with what we know is more important than what we know–we don’t need to know everything about God before we take action on what we do know about God.”

What a discovery! Truly blessed to get a glimpse of how the Holy Spirit was preparing me for the grace and supernatural gift of faith later that week. As the proverbial saying goes, “God writes straight with/through crooked lines” 🙂

Happy Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception! As we pray, I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Church.

 

 

Leaders Cultivate Holy Humor

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas More, commonly known for his refusal to approve Henry VIII of England’s divorce and remarriage (and establishment of the Church of England).

St Thomas More

In Redeeming Administration, Ann Garrido connects his life, witness, and noted humor to the spirituality of administration.  Garrido asserts that for an administrative leader, humor is not merely a coincidental (or random!) personality trait, but cultivated in the process of leading and managing. How so? Well, to put it bluntly, it’s because leading places us in an “increased number of absurd situations” (123). 

I’ve found this to be quite true in my life. As an Army officer, early on in my career I noticed just how much the extreme scope and scale of seemingly-absurd situations created an environment where humor was a part of daily life.

But how should we as ministerial leaders view humor, is it virtuous? A temptation? Something else?

Garrido offers two guideposts for discerning how humor functions in our spirituality of work and administration.

First Cautionary Guidepost: Avoid Humor as a Defense Mechanism

For some ministerial leaders, humor is a defense. A way of avoiding acknowledging other feelings, and/or avoiding addressing situations that should be addressed (125). While we as leaders can be tempted to laugh somethings off as a quick morale-booster, this is a way of avoiding actual leadership. Of failing to “confront the brutal facts“–a necessary step in effectively leading any organization. 

Second Cautionary Guidepost: Avoid Humor as Scapegoating

Sometimes, laughter or joking indicates an “everyone minus one” mentality. A type of scapegoating process, whereby a group [seemingly ] “bonds” over the exclusion or marginalization of one (or a few) members of the organization or team. This can be an enticing temptation, I mean, who doesn’t think “teamwork” is a good thing? But, the reality is that a team with unity flowing from humorous scapegoating can only go so far. Vision. Mission. Clarity. These are the real elements of teamwork–not joking about “the problem” or scapegoating an individual, rather than working towards real solutions and changes. 

Instead, Growing Holy Humor

So, what sense of humor should administrators seek to grow? Jesus used humor, not to attack persons, but to call attention to circumstances or situations that were not being seen or understood correctly (127). Holy humor is “laughing with” rather than “laughing at”–calling attention to, not attacking (127). 

This humor that helps us grow in holiness as leaders resists cynicism. As Garrido explains:

Cynicism is the sign of too narrow a worldview, a constriction of vision that only notes the negative absurdities of life, whereas the most mature, holy administrators that I have known are people who have the capacity to also see and draw attention to the infinite positive absurdities of life. (128) 

Not only is cynicism too narrow, but it resists hope. Even when cloaked in humor, cynicism prevents us from leading with vision in ministry as administrators.

Ultimately, St. Thomas More faced a choice of  “mitigating bad effects or going along”; of “laugh[ing] it off or taking a stand” (133). As we remember him, let our laughter be holy–drawing attention to things that need changing, yet never providing an excuse for inaction or tolerance of what should not be tolerated. 

Note: This post is part of a year long series. To learn more about the saints who illuminate this spirituality of administration, of work–check out this free small group guide from Ave Maria Press. 

Image Credit: Fr. Lawrence Pew, O.P. via Flickr, CC BY NC ND 2.0

The Call, The Loss, and a Disciple’s Vocational Integration

Fr. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, on the essential relationship of connection between loss and response to a call, to any true vocation:

Grief and loss are inseparable from the call.

If we accept the call but not the loss
we will live in a contradiction.

When people make a decision, for example to live in l’Arche,
but do not fully accept the consequences of their decision,
it is a cause of great distress.

They constantly feel sorry for themselves,
sorry that they do not have a  higher salary,
or more time for themselves,
shorter working hours, etc.

There is the call
and there is the loss.
But who wants loss?

When I left the navy more than fifty years ago,
I sold everything I had,
which wasn’t much, and gave it to the poor.

Today I do not have much to sell
and I doubt if anyone would want what I have!
But the call and loss continue.

Excerpts from Vanier’s Befriending the Stranger (2001), p. 20

Living this Paschal Mystery (h/t Joyce Donahue) is part of any healthy discernment of a call to a particular form of work, life, or oftentimes–both. As Vanier alludes to, if we as disciples seeking to follow Jesus in the Holy Spirit fail to integrate loss and call early on, the effects will linger. “Distress” will simmer beneath the surface, negatively impacting our relationships with God and others.

The degree to which this “distress” appears outwardly negative will vary by individual and situation. I know that I have been guilty of making decisions about following the call without fully accepting the consequences–and yes, this led to interior self-pity, to regret–even as my life was filled with genuine joy. It can be an odd mix sometimes.

But, a healthy, wholesome integrated life of discipleship avoids this temptation, as this temptation ultimately harms our relationship with God. We can be joyful for a time, but it is difficult to authentically sustain this joy from the Source if we have not fully accepted the consequences of our calls as disciples.

Theology Teacher Problems [as Gift]

This is why designing theology curricula and syllabi is hard. 🙂

When wading around in matters liturgical, one has in fact stepped into the headwaters of a river (lex orandi) which can be followed downstream into any number of channels (lex credendi). Liturgical theology involves ecclesiology, because the Church is the people that this ritual creates; and ecclesiology involves Christology since that is whose body the Church is; and this requires triadology for an ontological Christology and soteriology for a functional Christology; and redemption outlines a doctrine of sin, which assumes knowledge of what it means to stand aright, which is a doctrine of creation. (David Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism, “Century List” #27).

 

Happy evaluating and planning this summer and beyond!

Catechized While Catechizing: The True Shock of Crucifixion

The devotional prayer practice of Stations of the Cross (or the Way of the Cross) is ubiquitous during Lent in Catholic parishes around the U.S. Stations of the Cross emerged as a way of doing a “Jerusalem” pilgrimage for those who lived a ways away from Jerusalem, and simply couldn’t make it to that city for a “real” pilgrimage. As you may know, not every “station” or stop is directly attested to in Scripture–and, the Stations memorialize the last day of Jesus’ earthly life, an incomplete picture of the salvation and redemption he brings for each of us, for the world, through his ultimate victory over death in rising from the dead. Pope St. John Paul the Great helped us fill in these gaps by offering us some [awesome!] complementary practices.

First in 1991, he shared a Scriptural Way of the Cross based on the four Gospels. Then in 2001, he approved an updated list of popular devotions that included the “Stations of the Resurrection” or “Way of Light”–a step-by-step way of entering into the events of the Risen Jesus’ life on earth from the moment of resurrection to Pentecost.

Now you might be thinking–sigh, do we really need more types or different versions of the Stations of the Cross? Answer: maybe. See here’s the reality, for many of us the Stations of the Cross have become so routine that the utter shock of the events has been lost. Maybe a little romanticized, or just simply domesticated. As human beings, its natural that when we hear something that’s violent, shocking, scary, and painful over and over again, we turn away from those feelings or become numb to them.

I was reminded of this in a powerful way years ago, as a catechist leading my class of 3rd to 5th graders through the Stations of the Cross in our parish church. It was Lent, and my co-catechist and I had prepared the kids for this for a few weeks–that we were going to enter into Jesus’ journey to death, his sacrifice for us. We were going on our own “pilgrimage”–leaving our classroom and heading over to the church sanctuary, it would be more quiet than usual, leaving silence for the Holy Spirit to speak to each of us.

So, we’re praying through the Stations of the Cross and at the Tenth Station my co-catechist is leading, explaining the image on the wall, and talking about Jesus being stripped of his clothes. One of the kids tugged on my sleeve to get my attention, so I bent down to hear what he had to say. “Miss Colleen,” he asked with a very concerned look on his face, “did they rape Jesus after they stripped him?” I did a mental (maybe physical too!) gasp and whispered back to him, “no, but they did really want to hurt him.” He nodded approvingly as if this made sense, and we moved on…continuing our class pilgrimage through the Stations of the Cross.

I’ll never view the Tenth Station the same. Almost every time I encounter it, I remember my shock upon hearing my student’s question. There’s the painful reality of our fallen world–that this child knew what rape was (or at least knew the word and that there was a logical association with stripping of clothes).

And then there’s the shock of entering into the true depth of understanding in the child’s question. How many times had I passed through this Station, simply scratching the surface of the stripping of Jesus’ clothes as merely a practical preparation for final crucifixion? While my student was wrong in the sense that we have no historical or traditional evidence that Jesus was raped, my student was painfully, shockingly correct in being stunned and horrified by what was happening to Jesus. Without knowing words like “humilitation” or “domination,” he was genuinely angered and concerned about what would happen to Jesus. Unlike me, he was not numb to the true gravity of this moment of contemplation. He was not avoiding how truly fallen we as human beings are.

As we enter this final week of Lent, this Great and Holy Week, as it is often called, you may be praying the Stations of the Cross for the last time this year. If they’ve become routine, without arousing genuine emotion, without shocking you, then I encourage you to mix it up. Approach this holy pilgrimage in a new way, imagine watching live–as if you did not know how the story ends. Imagine hearing this for the first time and feel the weight and drama of it all. If needed, try the Scriptural Stations of the Cross and see if something new strikes you. Whatever you choose, make this devotion your own and personally experience what it meant for Jesus to take our sins to the cross and give us complete, joyful newness of life and the ultimate assurance of victory over death.

a version of this originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

God’s Great Rescue, Urgency, and You

“I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.” (Psalm 30:2a)

Today on the 4th Monday of Lent we respond to God’s Word with in the words of the Psalmist David, I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me (Psalm 30, in context or within Mass).

This response begs the question–from what, precisely, has God rescued you?

To be rescued implies that each of us, personally, was in need of rescue. God didn’t just pluck us from being “basically a nice person,” “pretty good,” or “okay” and raise us to something else. No–God rescues. God does something that none of us could ever do for ourselves. God offers a power beyond our attempts at self-improvement or “self-rescue.”

The Gospel of Salvation in Jesus Christ is indeed Good News (this is what the Greek word we translate as Gospel, euvangelion, literally means). Good News (like rescue) implies, however, that the status quo was not good. The status quo was the opposite of Good News.

For decades, change leadership theorist John Kotter has asserted that establishing a sense of urgency is a critical first step to effectively changing organizational behavior. I wonder, if the challenges and hesitations that organizations (large and small) and even individuals have when it comes to intentionally evangelizing flow from (among other things) a lack of urgency.

For example, if I don’t really feel like I’ve been “rescued” by the Lord–you know, I kind of feel like…hey, life was pretty good and being in relationship with God is just some bonus icing on the cake–then why would I be motivated to lead others to the Lord? If being a part of a local church is a nice lifestyle choice, but not something that flows from a necessary “rescue”–then why should I go out and invite others in?

So, consider again today’s Psalm response: “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.” (Psalm 30:2a)

What is it the Lord rescued you from? When you made the “fundamental decision” of your life to be a Christian after encountering Jesus Christ, what was the life you left behind as you turned to your “new horizon” with a “decisive direction”? (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1) Being able to name, to put into words the unique rescue God did in your life is a critical piece of testimony. In fact, if you struggle with sharing personal testimony, then just simply describing your own personal rescue can be a great start. This is a powerful testimony in and of itself–not further story required!

As I pondered in prayer, Lord, what did you rescue me from when as a teenager, I made that fundamental decision? The need for a rescue became quite clear! God rescued me from single-minded pursuit of prestige and academic success, from striving for worldly success, from placing my own needs above those of others, from preferring to avoid relationships (like parenting) that stretch one’s virtues, from being uncertain about the possibility of eternal salvation, from tacitly assuming that as a pretty-good-person-not-an-axe-murderer, heaven was pretty much automatic on my own merits, from doubt in the free grace of salvation, from fear of sacrifices or zealousness in faith. Quite the rescue 🙂

Name your rescue story. Share it. And, let your experience of God rescuing you become fuel for a renewed urgency of evangelization for all those around you!