He Knows You! (Ps 139:1-16)

“you understand my thoughts from afar” –Psalm 139:2

The idea that God is omniscient (aka all-knowing) has existed throughout human history, across all different types of religious belief systems. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the real sticking question is this—what does an all-knowing God know about me?

God doesn’t simply know that we exist and then take off, only to be concerned about us again when our earthly life ends. Not at all. God knows us in the deepest, most profound sense. Better than we know ourselves at times! God is with us in every moment—from when we were unformed in the womb to this very day. God doesn’t just know our words and thoughts in a literal sense, but truly understands them. God understands the complexities and contradictions that each of us carries. God knows each of us at our best, and at our worst—and stays with us, regardless.

No matter what your current situation in life is, you can be certain that God knows you, understands you, and loves you enough to remain with you through anything life brings. The question is, what is your response? Do you share your real self with God? Or, do you try and hide the messy, confusing, troubling parts of your life?

Image: Sandor Weisz (Flickr) CC BY-NC 2.0

Turn to Him in prayer in today.

God already knows you and is ready to start a new relationship (or re-start an old one) with you, right now.


From Lazarus to Church

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.

Holy Week& Easter octave


Ten Mission-Focused Encouragements from the Decree of Ecumenism

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumentism (Unitatis Redintegratio) is in a plain sense, about ecumenism. But, it’s also filled with encouraging gems to inspire and enliven our participation in evangelization. It represents an outlook that is outwardly postured, mission-focused, not maintenance-focused. In no particular order, my ten favorites…

#1 Keeping It In Perspective

When the fastest growing local church in your area isn’t a Catholic one, it’s easy to start complaining about their “performance-like worship,” “shallow preaching,” and people who love their great coffee bar.

But this is a temptation to earthly competition, not mission. The Church writes that other Christians are to be “embrace[d] as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect” (para. 3). Running one’s mouth in complaint against a growing non-Catholic church doesn’t make us more mission-focused, (and it can become an unhealthy distraction).

#2 It’s Christ’s, Not “Ours”

The Church reflects:

“some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.” (para. 3)

We can’t own God.  When we see God’s gifts working outside the visible elements of the Catholic Church, we’re moved to a trust that in God’s time these gifts indeed do “lead back to Christ,” a unity of His, not our making.

#3 It’s all Connected

Separated Churches and Communities, “have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church” (para. 3).

Thanks be to God, even in our human sins of division, the “fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church” overflows and extends beyond the “visible” Catholic Church. This is why it’s true that there is “no salvation outside of the Church”–because the means of salvation which exist beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church are still connected to the one Church.

#4 Our First Duty

Speaking of Catholics, the Church says that our, “primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles.” When we fail to make this “honest appraisal” of ourselves, “the radiance of the Church’s image is less clear in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, at the growth of God’s kingdom is delayed” (para. 4).

This is no easy task. There are many customs, habits, and elements of Catholic life that are quite popular, yet do not make our witness to others clear. I recently had a lively conversation with a group of Catholic educators about saying, “I pray to St. so-and-so…” and how, objectively, to any outsider hearing this, it literally sounds as if we are treating a human saint as God. Might we be clearer in our language that we’re asking a particular Saint for intercessory prayers versus “praying to them.” It doesn’t change what we’re doing–it simply bears witness more clearly to what we believe.

#5 Let Us Live in Freedom and Charity

Advice on preferences made in legitimate Christian freedom, within the realm of orthodoxy:

“All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials. But let all, according to the gifts they have received enjoy a proper freedom, in their various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in their different liturgical rites, and even in their theological elaborations of revealed truth. In all things let charity prevail. If they are true to this course of action, they will be giving ever better expression to the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the Church.” (para. 5)

I think of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where he advises them that on many of the matters they are divided, there are multiple “right” choices a faithful believer could make (1 Cor 10:31). The same for us today–where the Church gives multiple options, who are we to criticize others for choosing the option that’s not our top preference?

#6 Be Prepared to be Enriched

An outlook that “we” probably have it better than “them,” and thus can’t/won’t/shouldn’t learn anything from our separated brothers and sisters is simply not Catholic. The Church teaches:

“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.” (para. 5)

#7 Words Matter

How we say what we believe impacts the way it is received. Changing the way we speak and communicate in order to better share the deposit of faith isn’t “watering things down,” it’s being mission-focused. As the Church explains:

Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated – to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself – these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.” (para. 6)

When we choose words that are not stumbling-blocks for our separated brothers and sisters, or even non-believers, we are communicating great and profound truths of the faith in a way that prepares for their acceptance, not rejection.

#8 Our Bond is Supernatural

As we think of the many who are baptized by not living a life of discipleship, we become more mission-focused when we recall that we are already joined, that Christ has already brought us together in a real way, “a sacramental bond of unity which links all who have been reborn by it” (para. 22).

This means we can’t simply be a “maintenance-focused” ministry, inwardly concerned, and planning to “keep ourselves growing” to the neglect of those around us. We have a missionary call to the world, including those who have been baptized, who are filled with God’s life and Spirit, and yet are in need of accompaniment to start or continue their journey as disciples of Jesus.

#9 An Attitude of Gracious Thanksgiving

The Church teaches:

“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.” (para. 5)

This means we don’t need to be shocked or apologetic when we prudently adopt practical techniques for missionary renewal and evangelism from our separated brothers and sisters.

#10 Maintenance Isn’t an Okay Option

Sometimes in parishes or ministries we can think that only “extraordinary” groups are called to truly be mission-focused…the rest of us, well, um, we’re just treading water to maintain what we’ve got. But the Church makes the bold claim that “divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her” meaning that “the Church herself finds it more difficult to express in actual life her full catholicity in all her bearings” due to such divisions (para. 5). In practice, this tells us that being maintenance-focused when it comes to renewing our parishes as places of evangelical outreach, even to the baptized, isn’t an “okay” option. It’s a sad option in that it actually prevents the Church from attaining her full beauty. This is what inspires a missionary-parish, the profound realization that when we whom Jesus died for are together, the full “catholicity” of the Church is all the more beautiful for the world to behold.

Image via Flickr user “waferboard” (CC BY 2.0)

Mission Oriented Church Website Checklist

Seven out of ten potential church seekers will use your website as a determinative factor in deciding to make a visit (read more at “The Front Door Churches Often Forget”).

What Should Your Website Include?

  1. Address and worship times are easy to locate
  2. Only updated/relevant information [if you can’t update it, just delete it, it’s about quality, not quantity]
  3. Core beliefs
  4. Quality graphics–compelling, good resolution, no “clip art”
  5. Inviting ways to “Contact Us” (with an actual follow-up plan for inquiries)
  6. Appealing photos of pastors, staff, and other key leaders–this means current and focus on photos that are welcoming, this might mean more casual or photos of the person at work or at a hobby, think beyond typical “identification badge” style pictures to what might appeal most to those visiting your website
  7. Information about children’s/youth/student ministries.

Sometimes we can get lost in the quest for the “greatest” or “perfect” website. That’s a waste of time and effort. Before getting overwhelmed, start with these basics. Do the basics well, in an uncluttered, simple way. If your website helps get visitors in the door, then you can immerse them in the full richness and wealth of offerings, hospitality, and more that your church has to offer.

For Toy Sunday ~ Theme: Clean
Clean it up. 🙂 Image Credit: Hitty Evie via Flickr (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

When a Doctrinal Culture Meets Alpha Culture

Community Conversation Parks Budget
Not an Alpha Table. But it could be. #RunAlpha inspiration.
Most good Alpha training for future Table Hosts (think “facilitators”) covers how to adapt to challenging situations, i.e. a guest who dominates conversation, or guests who give off-topic responses to questions. But for many running Alpha in a Catholic Context, full of Catholic parishioners, there can be a challenge when a local culture one might describe as “intellectual,” “doctrinal,” or  “didactic” exists.
When that’s the local parish culture, coaching Alpha Hosts to say, “thanks for sharing, but this isn’t the place for theological discourse,” can seem tempting. But, if that’s the culture one is operating in, and trying to transform through the Alpha experience, then “closing down” that conversation doesn’t create space for that transformation to happen.
The keys to a great Alpha discussion are love, listen, and laugh. Catholics seeped in an overly intellectual/doctrinal/didactic culture are just as much in need of loving, listening, and laughter as everyone else (um, if not more!).

How to respond at an Alpha Table?

Here’s a helpful sample of reply ideas for when someone raises a theological/doctrinal/catechetical objection or intellectual comment to a point in the episode…
1) Hmm…what do you all think? [this gives the Table as a whole a free opportunity to serve as the “peer corrective”]
2) [If no responses, try and draw it out more.] Do you agree that “xyz” is not true? Or, do you believe it is true?
The emphasis on “true” here is deliberate; we don’t want the conversation to be on what’s “Catholic” or “not Catholic,” because what matters is if “xyz” is true. All things true are going to be part of the fullness of the faith anyway 😉 There’s nothing in Alpha we don’t want Catholics to believe, and so if some Catholics don’t find messages or key points in Alpha true based on their experience and formation, then that kind of shows us where we’re at and why we’re doing this
3) Does anyone have a sense of why “xyz” matters for you personally?
This gives the opportunity for those formed in an overly-intellectual/didactic Catholic culture to reflect personally, to see doctrine not as the “end” but as lights that guide us in our relationship with Jesus.
4) How do you feel about the idea that “xyz”?
This creates the space for those at the table to “disagree” or express discomfort without having to say it so bluntly–something that would be culturally foreign in an overly-intellectual/didactic culture.
The hope would be that through these questions the “xyz” doctrine in question would be fleshed out by the guests, and they’d have the opportunity to reflect on if they believe it and what it means to them. While Alpha is normatively designed and run among seekers and non-believers, when it’s used in a Catholic culture, we want Catholics to have that same experience of reflecting on beliefs and what those beliefs mean to them.

Catholic Tradition and Mental Models in Ministry

Misunderstanding the Catholic meaning of “Tradition” can stifle inklings of innovation, creativity, and new design in our mental models as we minister. Let’s start from the beginning…

What is Tradition in Catholicism?

Three powerful points on the meaning of “capital-T” Tradition in the Catholic faith:

Para. 78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition…Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”
Para. 79 The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church – and through her in the world – leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.”

Para. 83 Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed.

Insights from David Fagerberg

Through the lens of liturgy, Catholic theologian David Fagerberg offers insights with application to decision-making and planning in a ministry or parish. Three key points:

  1. Tradition is Something More than History.
  2. The love of tradition in Roman Catholicism came to be identified, as was natural, with conservatism, but conservatism proves itself to be inadequate.
  3. Tradition is a capacity, a faculty.

Fagerberg’s synopsis of Church teaching is, “The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the truth in the light which belongs to it and not according to the light of human reason” (Fagerberg, “The Cost of Understanding Schmemann in the West”).

Pondering Church teaching, he emphasizes that Tradition would therefore seem to be both how something is delivered, and what is delivered. By an action called tradition (a verb), a content called tradition (a noun) is delivered. A thin sense of tradition is merely precedence. By this definition anything can become traditional if given enough time. Do it more than once and it becomes a tradition. In this thin sense, everything was “untraditional” the first time it was done (Fagerberg, “Two Centuries”). 

Fagerberg continues:

Under a more complete grammar, the thick meaning for which I am searching, something could be said to be Traditional the first time it was done. A sacramentary in Latin, the iconostasis, Gothic architecture, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the term homoousios—all these were Traditional the first time they appeared.

Patristic theologian, Jarislov Pelican, captures this contrast between a Tradition alive in the Holy Spirit, and tradition as “dead,” unmoving custom or convention, writing:

Tradition is the living faith of the dead;
traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

On Common Mental Errors in Ministerial Leadership

As leaders in ministry, how does this apply to us? Mistaking traditions for Tradition limits our openness to God’s spirit and curtails brainstorming before it even begins.

Pope Francis reflects:

 I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. (Evangelii Gaudium27)

Without an accurate and deep appreciation for Tradition, we can find it difficult to imagine, dream, or renew–difficult to brainstorm about “transforming everything” when it comes to customs, schedules, structures, etc. for the sake of the Church’s preeminent evangelizing mission.

Phrases That Hint at Our Self-Imposed Limits

When our minds (or mouths!) say…

  • Tradition is something we stick to…
  • Tradition ignores changes in culture…
  • Tradition prevents us from ______________…

Or, when we generally scapegoat our own strategic choices or decisions on “Tradition”–in all of these cases we’re turning the Great Tradition into a dead traditionalism. When others hear us do this or see it in our actions, to put it bluntly, we are reflecting poorly on the beauty and fullness of what the Church proclaims Tradition to be, we’re not making the fullness of our Catholic faith seem very appealing. 

Typical versus Normal

In our modern use of English, “typical” and “normal” are often used as synonyms. But, when we examine them with more precision, they have different meanings.

Typical is what is characteristically most common. What’s usual. Happens the most. Normal, on the other hand, is what conforms to a particular, pre-determined standard. The baseline for deriving or assessing other related things.

For us in ministry and in the Church, what’s typical in our current, cultural/historical setting is not necessarily what’s normal in the richness of Church teaching. For example, in parts of the United States, it’s much more typical for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) to be used with baptized Christians seeking full communion with the Church. However, this is not normal based on what the RCIA tells us, the “standard” from which various Appendixes are derived for the baptized, is the un-baptized.

In the Church, what’s normal per Tradition as seen in liturgical rites, Church teaching documents, etc. may not be what’s the most popular, commonly done, or typical in one’s ministry setting.

Tradition Matters

Praying for wisdom in the Spirit and a deepening appreciation for the richness and living vitality of Tradition can prevent us from short-circuiting our mental models in ministry, stopping good ideas before we even begin to discern them. As ministry leaders, Tradition is never a scapegoat, but a Spirit-inspired richness that renews in and through us.

“Depths” by Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

It’s About Relationships. Not Programs.

Margaret Spicer, Generational Ministries Pastor, Crossway Church

For anyone interested in Children’s and Family Ministry, check out this inspiring Podcast Interview by Carey Nieuwhof with Margaret Spicer.

The heart of the discussion focuses on two big ideas:

  1. the importance of a team approach between everyone who ministers to and with youth–from nursery, right on up to teen/student ministries
  2. an essential focus on truly serving the needs of families, a partnership, in contrast with the idea of simply “filling up” kids with all they need to grow as disciples at church at the expense of parents/caregivers as partners

How do these ideas resonate with your ministry experience?