Working On the Wrong Bread

Today’s Gospel reading ends with a convicting line from Jesus: the work of God is believing in His Son (Jn 6:29). If I’m to do the work of God (and I want to in my life, right?) it’s not cleaning the house, writing emails, or organizing files–it’s believing “in the one he sent.”

To understand it more fully, let’s put it in context. This whole series of related events starts when a large crowd is follows Jesus because of the physical healings they’d seen him perform–signs of his true identity. Jesus then asks one of the Twelve disciples, Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Philip bluntly responds that there’s no way they’d possibly have enough money to buy food for that many people (Jn 6:7).

This provides the occasion for another sign from Jesus. Instead of buying food, Jesus multiplies five loaves and two fish such that over five thousand people were fed.

The next day the crowds catch back up with Jesus and he explains to them, “I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”

They’re thinking too concretely. Too concerned with the earthly details. Seeing the trees but not the forest. Perceiving that being around Jesus is working out okay for them, right now, but not interested in the broader implications. We can develop a similar outlook. It’s not a bad thing to recognize and be fed by the tangible blessings God provides for us. But, if we start to view God as some kind of cosmic-Easter-bunny who sprinkles tasty treats in our life, then we’re missing the fullness of who God is and His plan for all humanity.

See, God doesn’t want us as His consumers. We’re not in some kind of contractual relationship with God where we do good, and God gives us good things–material blessings, health, etc. We don’t seek God merely hoping for more loaves and fishes. Through Jesus, God’s Son, we receive the Holy Spirit and are supernaturally empowered to be co-workers with God, co-heirs, beloved children–members of a Body, in genuine, intimate relationship with God.

This is how belief and work come together. When we believe, we see what Jesus’ signs point to. When we believe, we share in God’s work, rather than laboring on our own. We might be doing the same activity as before–but now our activity is joined to God, we share in Jesus’ priestly, prophetic, and kingly identities in the world, and if we’re open, God’s love overflows through us, through our work.

Today is also the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, reminding us that the Church affirms the dignity and co-creativity we engage in with God through our human labors. Let us pray that all of our work flow more and more from ardent belief in the Son of God, so that we might behold, more and more, the fullness of God’s mission we partake in. As today’s Office of Readings, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker (cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 33-34) notes:

“By his labor and abilities man/woman has always striven to improve the quality of his/her life…In the face of this vast enterprise now engaging the whole human race, men/women are asking themselves a series of questions. What is the meaning and value of all this activity? How should these benefits be used? Where are the efforts of individuals and communities finally leading us?..Where men and women, in the course of gaining a livelihood for themselves and their families, offer appropriate service to society, they can be confident that their personal efforts promote the work of the Creator, confer benefit on their fellowmen, and help to realize God’s plan in history.”

Amen.

Belief–>Work.

And when in doubt, the work is to believe, to be attentive to Son’s signs, and let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest!

The Necessary Discomfort

The intersection of organizational health and redemptive suffering is an uncomfortable one.

We need healthy parishes, “The parish is where the Church lives” (USCCB, Communities of Salt and Light, p. 1). The concrete community where Jesus comes in Word and Sacrament is the embodied local center of a growing, evangelistic Church, not an appendage to be merely tolerated while movements and apostolates substitute in the “real” evangelization. Being a healthy organization as a parish takes leaders dedicated to people, more than programs, buildings, a new technology, or the latest “silver bullet” solution. As Patrick Lencioni, a leading proponent of the value of organizational health and co-founder of Amazing Parish explains:

the biggest reason that organizational health remains untapped is that it requires courage.  Leaders must be willing to confront themselves, their peers, and the dysfunction within their organization with an uncommon level of honesty and persistence.  They must be prepared to walk straight into uncomfortable situations and address issues that prevent them from realizing the potential that eludes them (“The Last Competitive Advantage”).

The core of a healthy ministry starts at the top. If leaders aren’t functioning in a healthy way, then the newest members of the parish won’t be functioning in an organizationally healthy way either (though the signs would be less obvious, as the parishioner can simply disengage from the parish as an organization with a mission, a relate to it simply as a place for private liturgical matters). Healthy ministerial leadership means not relying on authoritarian, restrictive, command-and-control leadership, but instead earning and attracting courageous, disciplined, entrepreneurial, proactive followers through our clear message of the Gospel, lived out here and now.

Paul understood this well, and wrote to one of his trusted leaders, Philemon, “although I have the full right  in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love” (Philemon 8-9). This is the essence of a healthy organization, when we in the local Body of Christ are not ordered, guilt-ed, or commanded, but are encouraged and respond out of love, because the Gospel of God and our actions in response have been put forth so compellingly that we begin to take the initiative, to move in and toward the Kingdom of God in an uncontrollable number of ways that, though diverse, tend toward the same goal, the same end because of the clarity of the Gospel message for our unique here for our unique now.

There’s a wonderful detail in Acts of the Apostles that shows the possibilities of empowered, proactive followers, we hear that it’s the vast number of ordinary believers, especially Greek-speaking Jews, scattered and pushed out of Jerusalem who first bring the Gospel of salvation to Judea and Samaria (8:1). It’s not the Apostles, who are able to safely remain in Jerusalem. This is a sign of organizational health, that clarity of communication from the Apostles, while all were in Jerusalem was such that these scattered, Greek-speaking Jews could run with it, and be running in the right direction, without the need for the Jerusalem leaders to dictate and carefully control every step of the plan.

Organizational health reflects how we’re called to relate in imitation of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. By knowing each other’s unique strengths and weaknesses, we acknowledge the beauty and dignity of being created so differently, yet each in the image of God. By committing to a new, relevant direction together and wholeheartedly supporting one another, we live out the reality that God shares his divine life and mission with us–that we are co-workers with a God who is Love, larger than our wildest human dreams. By manifesting the courage to confront another, to hold each other accountable, and engage in constructive conflict, we witness to the reality that sharing in God’s work matters–we are compelled in joy to strive for excellence, strive for the best, for the sake of the Gospel, in response to God who poured out salvation in His Son for us in a way we can’t repay in the slightest.

But what of redemptive suffering?

As Lencioni emphasizes, leadership to grow a healthy organization inspires us to, “walk straight into uncomfortable situations,” rather than letting them fester, rather than allowing suffering to simply take its course. This creates a theological tension as we labor in the vineyards of our local parishes.

For example, in the customary “Morning Offering,” we offer Jesus our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of the day. Our suffering means something, does something. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (1:24). An unhealthy organization of divisiveness, factions, and secrecy generally leads to low morale. Believers don’t find the local church to be a place where their unique spiritual gifts contribute to a mission bigger than themselves. In an unhealthy parish, parishioners aren’t inspired to take ownership, to walk toward a common vision of the Gospel here and now. This creates a suffering in the Body of Christ. In suffering in and with the Body we are uniquely conformed to Jesus our Lord, who–even in his resurrected glory–has wounds (John 20:27). Christ’s wounds are a substantial, undeniable, unchanging element of His glory. This is Jesus’ obedience, even unto death, that leads to the greatest exaltation possible, the “foolish” logic of the Cross (Phil 2:8-9, 1 Cor 1:18).

Is striving for organizational health ignoring this? Is taking the steps to be a healthy parish organization, where people don’t experience as much of this suffering in the Body of Christ, avoiding this part of our faith?

The answer is no–all because of that core Lencoin emphasis on people. A healthy organization builds up leaders, gifts, and responsibilities at every level–from the Pastor’s closest advisers to the newly registered members of the parish. Paul’s work in ministry reveals how striving for health requires the suffering that comes with sacrifice, with giving oneself.

In recalling his ministry in Thessaloniki, Paul portrays his work like that of a nursing mother, a father teaching his children, and a true sharing of his very self  (1 Thes 2:7, 8, 11). A nursing mother accepts some suffering–lack of nighttime sleep, physical discomfort, challenges in a baby’s “latch,” anxieties about insufficient weight gain–yet this is all on a trajectory, toward a specific purpose, the child’s growth and development to the point where nursing is no longer needed.

Suffering in parishes to become and remain healthy organizations is like Paul ministering as a nursing mother. It’s suffering that contributes to an end, the clear message of the Gospel taking hold and growing here and now–whatever your parish’s unique here and now is. Transformative change takes courage and commitment. No parish organization can undergo the transformative change to become a healthy organization without accepting, in Christ, the redemptive power of suffering. At the same 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.

I’ve been writing less this Lent as an opportunity to engage in different forms of prayer and almsgiving. In this “thick” space of tension today, with you all, awaiting Hope, living redemptive suffering, I pray that the eternal Spirit–at work in even the darkest of times–will lift each of us up, as we live the mystery of the Body of Christ in our here and now.

Image Credit: John Grantner (CC by NC ND 2.0)

Millennials in Ministry: Lencioni Thinking

Too often, people in church-world speak of “reaching” Millennials as if we’re some “foreign entity” (h/t Tim O’Malley) or a group solely in need of being reached/served/ministered to, in contrast to being baptized-believers whom God is already at work in and through–right now.

Patrick Lencioni, co-founder of Amazing Parish, offers these thoughts on Millennials:

As it turns out, there is a better way to think about hiring good people than focusing on a person’s generational stereotype. It comes down to looking for three simple, timeless and observable virtues that are reliable predictors of whether someone of any age will be a good team player. Thankfully, while generations change, the nature of teamwork does not.

I agree! A healthy organization is a healthy organization not because of the particular generational identities of its members, but because of their common commitment, the way the relate, and the way they make decisions together.

Millennials are largely missing from the teams of leaders in many church ministrieswhat holds us back? Maybe, a better appreciation of what makes a healthy organization and what cultivates effective teamwork is a missing piece. We don’t know how to “talk” about being an effective ministry organization because we lack the vocabulary, and so we default to stereotypes, thinking it’s because of a person’s age, marital status, regional identity, race, gender, etc. that “we can’t work well together” or “we always communicate poorly.”

As I’ve said before, I highly recommend Lencioni’s The Advantage for anyone in ministerial leadership. And 🙂 as a Millennial, I’m looking forward to reading Lencioni’s latest book, The Ideal Team Player, to see how it connects with each of our own baptismal vocations in ministry and some of the classic scholarship on “courageous followership.”

Have you read “The Advantage” or plan on reading “The Ideal Team Player” through a ministry lens? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Millennial Scrabble
Jeff Djevdet (Flickr), CC by 2.0

An Irrelevant Parish Isn’t Thriving

Would the community be impacted if your parish ceased to exist?
Would there be a decline in concrete acts of love?
Would fewer people experience transformed lives in the power of the Risen Lord?

There’s no such thing as a functional, yet irrelevant parish. It’s not okay to be a parish or church that’s extraordinary at providing “spiritual food” for insiders, yet is irrelevant to the world at large, to the mostly secular community around it.

How do any of our parishes or ministries become a place that’s an island without bridges to the world around us? In Good Faith, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons offer some insights relevant to all churches:

First, “irrelevance happens when your interests and someone else’s don’t overlap…the other person may admire your passion but cannot related to it” (p. 26). This is what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is like for most of our secular friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Christians (at best) come across as passionate in a way that can be admired, but it’s simply a compartmentalized passion others see–there’s no sense of overlap. This overlapping area is what in Catholic language we’d call pre-evangelizationintentionally following bridges of trust to connect a person’s lived experience and values with who God truly is. 

How important is pre-evangelization? Kinnaman and Lyons data analysis suggests that 30% of Americans are “practicing Christians,” meaning they attend church once a month, and this attendance overflows into their lives–it’s not just a cultural identifier. On the other hand, 75% of Americans are “legacy Christians,” meaning “Christianity is background noise” a “muscle memory” of practices that are now “just part of a landscape, not guiding priorities” (p. 27). For these “Legacy Christians,” genuine Christianity is experienced as irrelevant. 

I think for most of us in 21st century America, we should assume (unless overwhelming evidence to the contrary presents itself) that most of the people in our “mission fields,” our local communities find Christianity benignly irrelevant. This is a paradigm shift away from an “if we build it, they will come” mentality that expects people to become interested in Jesus and show up at our door, ready to speak our language and do what we suggest.

Where are you in this paradigm shift? A thriving parish that’s irrelevant, isn’t truly thriving. God offers us so much more. Jesus makes us His Body, his co-workers, and shares His mission of reconciliation, of healing, of teaching, and more–with the entire world. In what ways are you and your parish called to be more?  

 

What’s Your Acts 17? Inspiration from Bishop Barron

I love the account of Paul speaking at Mars Hill in Athens in Acts 17. While pre-evangelization includes witness without words, we’re often called to converse or speak in the midst of pre-evangelization, and Paul’s speech is verbal pre-evangelization at its finest:

  • identifying shared values
  • using evidence/examples from the audience’s [in this case secular] perspective (that’s right, so Paul, a trained Pharisee doesn’t even quote the Old Testament!)
  • avoiding stumbling blocks too early on in the relationship, i.e. while Paul talks about Jesus, he does not use terms that would cause pagan-defensiveness (like the name of Jesus)
  • inspiring curiosity, rather than giving answers

What does Acts 17 look like today, in our culture?

Check out this fantastic example from Bishop Robert Barron, as he heads over to the Rubin Report for an unscripted interview:

rubinreport-740x465

The reactions captured by Brandon Vogt highlight how much this is indeed an Acts 17 example in our modern world. Remember the aftermath of Paul’s speech:

When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.” And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (Acts 17:32-34)

Beyond Fans and Followers

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a popular sermon title

Are you a fan or a follower? Quite a few Christian preachers and teachers (including Catholic ones) have used these images as the basis for helping us move beyond merely liking Jesus, to actually following Him. And that’s a good thing. But one particular passage of Scripture gives us unique insight into precisely what kind of followers God desires us to be.

Coming back into Jewish territory after performing powerful deeds among the Gentiles, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd. So surrounded, he actually stays right by the sea, where he’d come across by boat (Mark 5:21). Jesus heads off to respond to the desperate pleas of Jairus, a synagogue official whose daughter is gravely ill. At this point, we see that this isn’t just a crowd of fans, they are followers (vs. 24). They follow Jesus and even press in upon him! Yet during this movement, a woman from within the band of followers makes her way up to Jesus–and touches his garment (vs. 27).

Just imagine the scene, how difficult it would have been for this one follower to push her way through an in-motion crowd of followers, to get to one person–Jesus–the person the entire group was following. Physically, it’d be tough to follow Jesus directly from among this moving crowd. But this woman also suffered from hemorrhaging bleeding. She wasn’t even physically well. On top of this, to the rest of the Jewish followers, she would have been considered ritually impure or unclean for having this medical condition. They would not want her near them at all, lest any of them be “infected” by her impurity. Imagine the disapproving looks, or even those who use their bags, cloaks, or walking sticks to keep her back. And yet, she makes it to Jesus!

None of us aims to be just a fan of Jesus. We want to be followers. But following is complex, why? Because we’re inevitably part of a crowd, part of a community–we have to interact with others, get close to them, and follow Jesus together. In church life, it’s possible to happily exist among the crowd of followers, but never make that decisive move to reach out to Jesus with the faith that He can heal, forgive, or transform whatever it is in our own life.

Why do we stay passive as followers? Maybe it’s our own pride, we struggle to admit that we can’t do it on our own, we can’t earn our way to heaven, we need Jesus to heal us personally. Or maybe it’s that we want to appear “normal”–not “too Christian” or “too holy” for a “regular parish” (whatever that is!). Maybe we’re comfortable as a follower, just moving along with the crowd, and don’t think Jesus would respond to us; we don’t want to “bother” Jesus by touching his cloak.

This woman is saved by her faith. She leaves in peace, cured, and called daughter by Jesus.

This is what awaits any one of us, any person who comes to Jesus in faith. God does not reject any one who comes to Him.

Don’t just follow. Be transformed by the power of Jesus.

a version of this post also appears at http://www.newevangelizers.com

10 Years Later. Still a Gem.

Musings on ordinary Catholic culture, from Sherry Weddell…10 years later, and this tongue-in-check writing from real-life mission work is still a gem:

When it comes to talking about eternal things. Jesus. Holiness. And more…we have:

Widespread discomfort with “conspicuous conversion”…Sometimes referred to as “enthusiasm” or “pietism” or “Protestant”.

A don’t ask, don’t tell [culture] because that’s what you do when we are all saved and we’ve all earned it–but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

Because, “we’re all saved and we’ve all earned it, but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.”

Here’s the full post (from the Catherine of Sienna Institute’s not-currently-available blog site): 

We Are All Saved and We Have All Earned It But None of Us Are Saints Because That Wouldn’t Be Humble.

10 years of nearly continuous travel from parish to parish and thousands of personal interviews have given us a fairly good sense of typical ordinary-Catholic-in-the-pew’s worldview regarding intentional discipleship and our ultimate salvation — at leastKristin Thiel Embarassed among Anglo laity in the US.

(The worldview of the clergy is naturally very different but many clergy share in the assumptions described here in surprising ways. Priests are remarkably like human beings in this regard.)

The American church is huge and very complicated, so the culture I am about to describe would not include those groups of Catholics heavily influenced by evangelicalism (such as in the deep south), the charismatic renewal, traditionalism, lay movements or third orders, parishes that regularly do evangelism, groups with a strong social justice orientation or Catholics in “hotbed institutions” like Catholic universities or seminaries. Neither would this describe Hispanic Catholics, Vietnamese Catholics, etc.

The worldview I’m describing is common among ordinary-Anglo-cradle-Catholic-laypeople in ordinary parishes in the west coast, midwest, high plains, intermountain west and east coast.

Caveat: I am writing in a hurry and my tongue is rather firmly in my check. But I am also really describing attitudes what we have encountered over and over again in the field. There are remarkable exceptions everywhere but there is also, in our experience, a startling consistency across dioceses and regions.

The major premises could be summarized as follows:

We are all saved and we’ve all earned it but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

A fascinating, if unlikely, mixture of practical universalism, Pelagianism, and work-a-day Catholic humility seems to have been absorbed by Catholics across the country.This homespun version of universalism runs something like this: *Decent* people are automatically saved because of their decency, and almost everyone is essentially decent or at least means well, which is basically the same thing as being decent. God would never condemn a decent person. Salvation is pretty much yours to lose and you can only do so by intentionally doing something really, really, not decent like mass murder and then not saying you are sorry.

Pelagianism was an early 5th century heresy that held that original sin did not taint our human nature and that human beings are still capable of choosing good or evil without God’s grace. Pelagius taught that human beings could achieve the highest levels of virtue by the exercise of their own will.

The contemporary American version holds that human beings can attain acceptable levels of *decency* by their own efforts. We earn our salvation by not doing the really, really bad things we could do if we chose. In real life, it is pretty close to impossible for most people not to attain the minimum decency requirement. (See caveat above).

Since basic decency suffices for salvation, holiness is completely optional, and is the spiritual equivalent of extreme sports. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place. They do not pretend to be something they are not (see point #2 below).

Note: the role of Christ and his Paschal mystery in this view of salvation is extremely obscure.

There are two basic Catholic “tracks”:

a) The “ordinary Catholic track” which includes 99% of us. Your parents put you on this track by having you baptized as a baby. This track can be divided further into 1) “good” or practicing ordinary Catholics; 2) “bad” or non-practicing ordinary Catholics; and 3) pious ordinary Catholics.All ordinary Catholics, good, bad, or pious, are saved through their essential *decency* or meaning well and nor screwing up horribly. (see #1 above). God does give extra credit for visible devotion or piety.

b) The “extraordinary Catholic track”: priests, religious, and saints (.1%).

God plucks a few people out of Track “a” and places them on track “b”. That is what the Church means by having a vocation.

Priests and religious are also saved by being decent but the standard of decency is a bit more rigorous for them because they can’t have sex.

Sanctity is reserved for the uber-elite: When someone becomes a saint, it is the mysterious result of spiritual genius or an act of God and is not expected of or related to salvation for “ordinary” Catholics (see #1), because God decreed they should be on a different track. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place.

c) There is no “disciple on the way” track. When many Catholics hear the phrase “intentional disciple”, they immediately think of the only known alternative to the “ordinary Catholic” track in their lexicon, which is that of the saint and is supposed to be reserved for the uber-elite. They naturally presume that the aspirant to discipleship is pretending to have been plucked out of the ordinary track by God and is, therefore, an arrogant elitist (see #1 above).

Corollary A: Widespread discomfort with “conspicuous conversion” because it violates #1 and #2. Sometimes referred to as “enthusiasm” or “pietism” or “Protestant”.

Corollary B: don’t ask, don’t tell because that’s what you do when we are all saved and we’ve all earned it–but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.