Peter and Paul: Conversion Models

Today we celebrate two great missionaries–Peter and Paul. Often when we talk about conversion in the Christian life, there can be almost a rivalry between the idea of our life-changing conversion as a particular moment (i.e. I remember  on such-and-such date, praying to Jesus with my whole heart and soul, for the first time, telling Him I was ready to be his disciple) or a process that happens over time in a way that we can’t really pinpoint a date or even month when it happened. A “this” or “that competition between moment and process, however, is plain ridiculous. But, it’s a temptation we Christians seem to be prone to!

The lives of Peter and Paul give us examples of both.

When the divine voice speaks to Paul in Acts Ch 9, Paul responds, “who are you?”

Now, Paul had never been on a “quest” for God. He may have been like many of us, raised up in a religious setting (for him the Pharisee revival within Judaism), always remembering praying, worshiping in Temple, etc. Yet, at this moment he hears God speak through his Son, and asks who are you? Paul knew the voice of God enough (from his life of prayer) to know this was God–and yet still had this new question, who are you?

Paul remembers this specific date and time. He speaks of it again and again to others. It’s a touch point for him. A concrete, real experience of conversion that gives his life a new and definitive trajectory that he doesn’t waver from. Paul gains a sense of his specific calling and mission, and an understanding of where God’s plan is headed, that God will be gathering the scattered of all the earth–even the Gentiles!–into one family.

Looking at Peter’s life, we see more of a process of conversion into God’s plan for us to be missionary disciples to all the world. Peter encounters Jesus, recognizes his own unworthiness, and follows Jesus as Lord early on (Lk 5:1-11). Later, Peter stands out among the Twelve, making a clear confession of Jesus as Messiah–the Savior sent of God (Mt 16:16). Yet, Peter falters from his discipleship, strays from following Jesus most profoundly in this three denials leading up to Jesus’ saving death on the cross. Peter repents and returns to Jesus’ love, however, and through this on-going process of conversion starts to grasp the breadth and depth of truly missionary discipleship. Of how far God’s love is meant to go. Of the Twelve, Peter is the one who hears God’s communication of how non-Jews are to become part of God’s family. While praying before lunch one day, Peter hears a divine voice say: “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (Acts 10:15).  And he doesn’t know what to make of it. But, as Peter continues to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead, it becomes clear. God’s plan is for a radically open discipleship that can even include the “unclean” Gentiles! Peter goes on to passionately advocate for this stance of missionary discipleship between the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). And yet, Peter pulls back from this missionary discipleship later on, as we hear from Paul that Peter “began to draw back and separate himself” from Gentiles (Gal 2:12). Nonetheless, Peter recovers. Again 🙂 and goes on to participate in God’s mission fully, even to the point of giving his own life. Peter offers us a vivid and authentic portrait of conversion as a process.

The important thing for Peter, for Paul, and for each of us, is that our conversion to becoming a disciple of Christ happen. And that once we follow Jesus as Lord, we become fully open to his Holy Spirit, leading us to be missionary disciples in the world around us. There’s no need to think our conversion more or less “real” than any other believer’s, so long as we know the love of God and know of our relationship with Him and the mission God empowers us for.

Petrus et Paulus
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., cc-by-nc-2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/4NBuEa

 

Scarcity in Ministry

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’”

scarcitychapimage-1640Brown 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.

Five-Year Tested* Plan for Promoting Liturgy of the Hours Among the Laity

How to promote the Liturgy of the Hours (LOTH) among Catholic laity? Here’s a collection of ideas I heard following a talk by Daria Spezzano at the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy‘s summer symposia:

  • use of bodily motions (i.e. bowing)
  • cathedral style celebrations with designated music ministers, responsorial style psalms, candlelight, incense, etc.
  • worship aids for introducing Liturgy of the Hours, but eventually prayer books
  • growing it in parish life by forming youth in the practice
  • digital apps [this seemed to have some critics]
  • singing(!)
  • combining it with Eucharistic Adoration
  • presence of a “seed” group of those who are familiar (versus an entire chapel of inexperienced LOTH-prayers)
  • slipping it into parish life, i.e. before Sunday Mass or during a particular liturgical season
  • praying along with recordings of sung/spoken LOTH
  • and from Spezzano, the idea of someone experienced (i.e. from a diocese staff) presenting in three sessions: history, spirituality, and then the “how to”

And my thoughts? Yes.

There’s simply not one way. No silver bullet. Ten people are going to have ten different stories. Listening to the discussion brought back memories of my own “discovery” of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Not sure if my experience was slower or had more touch points than typical, but I’m struck by how many of the ideas mentioned in the Liturgy Symposia were indeed present in my own life.

Here it is: a tested*, five-year plan for how a Millennial can discover Liturgy of the Hours

 Year 1: On a whim, go to parish’s Advent Sunday Vespers. Vespers are “cathedral style” with support from parish music groups. Get Psalm 110 antiphon tune stuck in head (I can still remember it today, twelve years later). Go back for the rest of Advent.

Year 2: While having one foot in a Baptist congregation and one foot in a Catholic parish, see a newly released edition of a 1559 Book of Common Prayer on the shelf at the local Barnes & Noble and think “ah ha! the perfect mix of King James Version texts and that Catholic prayer I liked.” Buy it. Start to pray it while falling asleep at night.

Year 3: Podcasts are growing. Notice a new Catholic resource, “ND Prayercast,” (from a Catholic university I’d never much thought of, but would eventually attend, years later). Start to listen to a Morning Prayer styled podcast with music. Singing (or at least humming) along with Invititory and Morning psalms and canticles has become a reality.

Year 4: Need some reading that will last through a 15-month deployment to Iraq. Buy the one-volume Christian Prayer (via this trendy “Amazon” thing–since it’s not like there are lots of Catholic bookstores in Fayetteville, NC). Start praying morning and evening prayer as an individual.

Year 5: In a new Army assignment with lots of travel. Wander into the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. (because I found some free, non-Catholic University of America-permit-required parking there!!) and see Vespers going on. Start to make finding communal celebrations of Liturgy of the Hours part of my work trips and experience the prayer with Holy Spirit Sisters in St. Louis, Jesuits in Missouri, Anglicans in London, and Visitation Sisters in D.C.

So that’s how it happened. How I went from having no clue about the Liturgy of the Hours, to being familiar with, drawn to, and even leading and pre-evangelizing through this liturgical action of the Church. There was no silver bullet. Many small and mundane things played a part along the way. Most importantly, God was at work. No five-year pastoral plan to promote LOTH can make more people pray the Liturgy of the Hours individually and communally. There’s no “recipe” that works for every parish, never mind every person. To sum up my experience in conversation with the Symposia-generated list of ideas, it comes down to this: do it & make it available. If LOTH is prayed communally, people will see it and hear it. Doing it (and seeing others pray this way) was a critical jump-start in my own story. And at the same time, communal celebrations of LOTH aren’t widely available in most locations. So, we can make it available and accessible for individual pray-ers through resources. Of course the books will always be sold, but audio recordings, video recordings, live-streams, apps, social media communities, etc. Almost anything could be the resource that encourages someone or sustains them when they’re ready and seeking to enter more deeply in to the Church’s daily prayer.

 

Do you pray the Liturgy of the Hours? How did it happen for you? What common threads do you see in your story and others’?

*and guaranteed to work on me, and probably only me 😉

Some other thoughts on preaching in the LOTH and parish celebrations of LOTH

 

Assessing Your Catechesis for Evangelization

Assessing (or “measuring”) how you’re doing when it comes to fostering initial and on-going conversion in a ministry is one of the toughest, yet most necessary, processes a leader must continually work through. It’s tough because it involves loving enough to speak the truth, being willing to change beloved techniques or programs that need to evolve, and it’s just plain hard to even develop good metrics or measures to use in assessment.

7-558-living-as-missionary-disciples-cover-150One of the hidden gems within the recently released Living as Missionary Disciples resource from the USCCB is this set of assessment worksheets  designed for use by individuals or small groups (they start around pg. 14 of the .pdf download, aka “pg. 1” of the internal numbering).

Unleashing all of these at once on a team of leaders would likely not be a good strategy. But the potential here is great! These tools could be used to assess existing programs or strategies over a multi-year period, coach and develop catechists, unite staff and key leaders around a vision, or design new initiatives.

They key is to actually use them as a tool, not an end. Assessment is a means to improve what you’re already doing, not an administrative burden that bears little fruit. Assessment without reflection, processing, personal coaching/development of leaders/catechists, and connection to implementation isn’t going to bear fruit. And, it might even be a waste of time. But 🙂 by making the commitment to leverage a great resource like this from the USCCB within your leadership development pipeline and continual planning processes? Now that’s a way to stay grounded and aligned to Jesus’ central mission for us, to go and make disciples (Mt 28:19).

 

Resource Review: “Living as Missionary Disciples”

Have you ever wanted a CliffNotes version of doing evangelization in parish life? Look no further. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recently released the leadership resource Living as Missionary Disciples, a rich, yet concise, guide to the theological foundations of evangelization that includes a practical framework for understanding the process and fundamental planning questions all of the baptized must ask if we are to participate in renewing the entire Church in North America, and turning from a maintenance to missionary way of life.

What is evangelization all about in our modern American setting?

“The New Evangelization is a call for all of us to have a deeper encounter with Christ, best expressed in a simple, confident, informed, and joyous witness to the faith, which attracts others and invites them to wonder what secret is motivating the Christian disciple” (p. 7).

The necessary first step is encounter. Our faith journeys take many forms and routes. Each of us proceeds at various “speeds” throughout our life–sometimes drifting or disinterested, sometimes feeling like we’re stalled, and other times on fire with zeal. But whatever our journey, a moment of personal encounter with Jesus as Lord and Savior must happen. And that encounter propels the rest, grounds us throughout all else that follows as a believer becomes a disciple, and a disciple becomes a missionary–one who is sent into the world.

The heart of being sent in this way is captured succinctly in our quote above–sending has been effective when others are attracted and wonder what that something is that makes the Christian believer tick. If what we think is encounter is parish life is not producing that authentically confident and joyful “witness to the faith” that does indeed “attract” and inspire curiosity, then we should wonder what’s going wrong. We should wonder God might be calling us to do, to participate in transforming our parishes from maintenance to mission.

catechetical-sunday-2017-clip-art-web-posterThe Good News is that Jesus is our Friend and Brother, always welcoming each of us when we choose to “come and see” (Jn 1:46). When we encounter Him we are empowered to follow (Mt 9:9), remain (Jn 15:4), and go on to make disciples of others (Mt 28:19).

What Living as Missionary Disciples succeeds in keeping at the forefront is that, “the goal of the New Evangelization…is always geared toward others” (p. 8). If there’s no outward flow, we should be concerned. The New Evangelization is not merely a spiritual reality–something interior that fails to impact the material world around us. No, our evangelized, transformed lives are meant to provoke curiosity and inspire desire for more in others.

If you’re not enthusiastically certain that your parish is setting the conditions for truly living as missionary disciples in our world, start the conversation this summer. Share Living as Missionary Disciples, and if you’re a leader in any way, shape, or form, check out these worksheets to spur discussion with key volunteers. The movement from maintenance to mission in your part of the world might begin with your parish.

To See as God Sees

I spent the second half of May in Accra, Ghana as part of United States Africa Command’s United Accord 2017 (and here’s the wrap up press release). Getting to our exercise location each day, I traveled the same route through the densely populated outskirts of Accra, Ghana, via charter bus, taxi, and once in a tro tro. Here’s a reflection I wrote during and after those trips:

There’s a tedium to this daily route, but it’s counter-intuitively captivating at the same time. Through the quiet of my window, I watch. Life is truly visible. So many people, of all ages, going about the business of daily life. Selling foods. Cleaning clothes. Taking children to school. Fixing vehicles.

This splendor of the ordinary brings to mind Fr. Thomas Merton’s recollection in  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968):

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people…that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun….If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.

But we can’t. At least not yet. See, these busy streets of Accra I travel are what the United Nations defines as a slum. Lack of toilets. Water shortages. Make-shift housing. Too many people crammed into small rooms.

Poverty in no way changes a person’s inherent dignity. No lack of resources makes a person any more or less made in God’s image. But poverty does obscure that image of God in the eyes of others. That “shining like the sun,” as Merton described it, that reveals our true origin and destiny can become obscured through our own sinful eyes.

18768196_10158765130560258_3481306697346054123_o
early morning photo of Nungua Beach

Our sins “give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness” and “pervert” our social climates (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1869, 1896). Our sins create a lens through which we struggle to be in communion with the poor, to experience love and joy together.

For Christians of the first millennium, sin was understood “as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division” (Spe Salvi, 14). Pope Benedict observed, “Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence ‘redemption’ appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers” (Spe Salvi, 14).

Begins to take shape. What powerful words! When we see the world as Merton did, redemption begins to take shape. God’s plan “to unite all things in Him” moves forward (CCC 772, cf. Ephesians 1:10).

Yet how can I–a resident of the United States with vastly greater material wealth and quality of life in terms of healthcare, education, security, etc.–be in union with people in the outskirt slums of a city in the developing world? I can’t answer for unjust practices of the past and present. I can’t answer for “social sin” (CCC 1869). And as Pope Benedict reflected, “No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering” (Spe Salvi 42). A unity, an undoing of Babel that was purely spiritual, purely in my mind or heart, simply would not be complete. “God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace” (Spe Salvi 44).

This sense of void or yearning for something more points us toward God. We experience that dissatisfaction human divisions, that yearning for perfect union with all because it’s what we’re made for. Each of us is made in God’s image. Created in the image of perfect love. Living in eternal life with God “presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I’” to freely love (Spe Salvi, 14). To see God “as he is” and to see one another the way God sees each of us (1 John 3:2).

Is Your “Church” the Same Age as Your “Parish”?

Torrance CA
What’s the average age of those attending your church?

Is it the same as the average age within your parish ? (Remember, a parish is generally a geographic area–it’s not simply those who attend, but all within a designated area. Think of it as your pre-defined mission field!)

If not, what do you make of this divergence between “registered” or “attending” parishioners and the rest of the parish? For example:

  • Is it good for church attendees to be demographically quite different from those in their surrounding neighborhoods?
  • Is the difference a cause for alarm?
  • Does it evoke a response of hopefulness and opportunity, or defensiveness and fait accompli?

Lee Kricher suggests some basic steps if your registered parishioners are aging way faster than the rest of your geographic parish (and, these would also be useful if, say, your Mass attendees are ethnically, racially, or linguistically different than your parish neighborhoods):

  • Take key staff or lay leaders on “field trips” to healthy churches that have every generation well represented
  • Regularly weave into weekend messages the importance of reaching the next generation
  • Proactively engage church members in one-on-one discussions and conversations in small groups about the importance of becoming agents of change instead of blockers of change
  • Make a commitment to develop young leaders [paraphrase]

What have you seen work (or not work) in terms of practices and spirituality as your church has adapted to and with the parish area surrounding it?