Driving the Good News

A few weeks ago I pondered some images for what some of the distortions of the Good News look like for many adult Catholics–including those who are the special love of the New Evangelization, those who have lost a living sense of the faith.

For some, practicing religion is like pushing a sub-compact car around–yes, you can do it, but it’s all about your work, no help from the car. For others, it’s like driving a hideously ugly car around–it runs, but there’s nothing good about it to share with anyone. And for still others, being Catholic is like comfortably riding around in a sedan–it’s the best car around, but still not much to say about it–other than it’s a car, and if you like nondescript reliable cars, it’s a good one to ride in.

So if all of these images represent a distortion of the Christian faith, then what should the Good News of following Jesus be like for believers?

First off, the Gospel is a game-changer. The old game is over. Ended. The score’s been forgotten. A new reality with new parameters and a new destination has begun. Even if a person doesn’t acknowledge this new game, it’s still happened.

Our celebration of Christmas is a unique reminder of this. The chant of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ before Vigil masses emphasizes that God took on human flesh at a precise moment in history. It happened. It’s a different world–a new “game,” to use a common image.

800px-luminos_main_pictureAs followers of Jesus Christ, we’re not even driving combustion-engine automobiles as we know them. We’re not stuck with some car while we wait for the good and different things of heaven. God has already begun sharing with us a new way, a vehicle that’s radically different (think of the ubiquitous pop-culture futuristic vision of a flying car–that different). And this vehicle is transformative. Jesus is the first fruit of this transformation, and we in the car are transformed by Him.

But that’s not all, the reality of this new, radically different car moving about transforms the world around it. The future becomes now as we experience God’s power. Because we get to cooperate with God in this amazing car, we experience a sliver of God’s love, longings, and yearnings for the world–and we too start to yearn for the fullness of creation–when this amazing new car is no longer a sign, but normal.

This is what God gives us in the life of faith. Not a car we have to throw all of our own weight behind to push around, not an ugly whale of a car that turns people away, and not even the best reliable sedan on the road–but something utterly different. Something groundbreaking. Something that defies every one of our essentially (in our humanness) limited notions of what love and goodness are–by going further, by being Love.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. 

In these words of faith, we see the Good News: past, present, and future.

The Good News has happened. The Word, the Divine reason of all Creation, became human. The universe is different, as we now live in the power of the Risen Christ, being transformed and transforming. And, we know that we’re tasting the future. We sense the future enough to yearn for it. We’re not just riding around in a car hoping for the salvation of our own soul that removes us from God’s good creation, but instead cooperating with God, confident that in his Final Coming at the end of all human time, perfect justice and perfect grace meet–just as they did on the Cross (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 42, 44).

Why does this matter? Isn’t good enough for us Christians to just say, “believe and live like us so that we can escape from this world and be with God in heaven!” or “come drive this best, most reliable car with me!” I think no. It’s a start, but it’s still a distortion from the fullness of Revelation in Christ Jesus. And in a world where pre-evangelization matters, it keeps “religion” in a box. “Religion” ends up being about me, God, and the afterlife–period. We know that the world longs for something different. God has written on the hearts of humans a desire for both love and justice. Many today look around and know that something is wrong (and that’s always been the case!). The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God’s taken care of that something, and we can start experiencing God’s radical new, transformed and transforming, reality, right now.

 

 

Words to Share: Heaven, Justice, Purgatory

As human beings, we seem hard wired toward sharing news when it’s great news. We enthusiastically communicate with others all the time when we have really good news to share. It doesn’t take any special training or programmatic preparation. So why isn’t talking about heaven something exciting and great to share?

A lot of Christians just aren’t sure about what eternal life includes. We believe in eternal life in the abstract sense, but deep inside, we’re not sure if a heaven that includes the worst sinners makes sense, we’re not sure if we want this eternal life if it’s just some manipulative reward for our own good behavior, we’re not sure if we want an endless continuity of a “better” earthly existence (i.e. a pop culture image of heaven as a place with endless luxury cars or something along those lines).

On this very day, nine years ago, Pope Benedict XVI opened the season of Advent by teaching on this ultimate hope in an encyclical letter called Spe Salvi [“in hope we were saved”]. Now, I wasn’t the type of person to be reading encyclicals when Spe Salvi first came out (truth be told, I think I was busy on a deployment in Iraq at the time)…however, since then I’ve come to love this encyclical. I find myself quoting it all the time to help offer language that resonates when it comes to talking about eternal life and the purification for those rooted in Christ that makes perfect communion with God possible!

So how does Pope Benedict describe eternal life with God? 

the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality…like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. (Spe Salvi, 12)

This way of thinking about heaven isn’t just about me as an individual. We believe that God’s final judgement “appears at 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). Heaven “presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I'” (Spe Salvi, 14). We are not saved to be alone, but saved to be in perfect loving relationship.

As Pope Benedict goes on to explain:

Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life (Spe Salvi, 28).

But who can confidently look forward to eternal life knowing what Jesus teaches? i.e. we must be perfect as God the Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). The key is that what God calls us to is not a condition for eternal life with God; not a simple human quid pro quo. Yet it’s still the objective reality of who God is. Perfect. Complete. Love. Life. And logically, though we can be forgiven from any sin (except deliberately refusing to accept God’s mercy by repenting), we can’t be in perfect communion with the objective reality of God, if we ourselves can’t let go of all that holds us back, what’s not holy, our sinful tendencies. This is where purification, cleansing, or (as it’s commonly called) the process of purgatory comes in. As the Church believes, this spiritual purgation isn’t about cartoon skulls, bones, hard labor, and a time clock–but true salvation. 

Here’s Benedict summarizing a way we can speak about this:

The encounter with him [Christ] is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation.

His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God…At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his [Christ’s] love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.

It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. (Spe Salvi, 47)

If that’s not the most beautiful explanation of how encountering Christ in judgement isn’t a moment of terror, but instead a moment of hope, I don’t know what is!

 

Cleanse
get the impurities out!

 

How good is this news for those burdened with the idea that they need to earn salvation?

Or those living without the freedom of knowing how forgiveness and judgement can be possible?

It’s great news, that our earthly lives aren’t meaningless (and many people regardless of religious labels feel this, almost instinctively), that we can draw close to God now in preparation for eternity!

And, though as disciples of Jesus Christ we’re shouldn’t aspire to have lots of baggage that holds us back from perfect Love with God in eternity, it’s a blessing to know God is ready to make us “like Him” (1 Jn 3:2).

Finally, our belief in heaven does not exclude justice every human being yearns for. This is the comfort and hope of a final judgment, when all is revealed–the farthest consequences of all actions and in-actions (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1039). This great and final judgment does not reverse each of our individual judgments at the end of our earthly lives, but brings to completion God’s justice and grace. As Benedict observed, “a world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering” (Spe Salvi, 42). Eternal life includes this great and final judgment, where God’s power reveals all. In in this revealing, comes God’s justice–the suffering we cause or alleviate matters, not above or against God’s mercy, forgiveness, and purification, but within God’s ultimate plan to bring all things into perfect Divine Love and Life.

How’s that for a robust description of “heaven”? These Church teachings are great news. 

Ask people about spirituality beyond this world, about the afterlife, about cosmic judgement…you’ll be surprised how many people (regardless of labels like atheist, agnostic, non-practicing Catholic, etc.) have a sense of a supreme moment of satisfaction, of contact with perfect Love that impacts both themselves and relationships with others, of a supernatural justice. You’ll be surprised how many Christians have always believed in heaven, but never thought deeply about how Christ purifies them, or have a way to speak about how our actions matter, without resorting to a [false!] works-based salvation. 

We indeed have good news to share that can change a person’s life, bring them freedom from having their hopes constrained by the physical world we see each day, and open them up to the Truth that comes with this Love and Life.

The Bible–Not Alongside, But Inspiring All Pastoral Work (aka Happy Nat’l Bible Week)

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has dubbed this week “National Bible Week” in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. I’m generally skeptical as to what positive outcomes actually result from attempting to raise awareness by declaring a themed day or week. And in this case, it seems almost a little sad. Like an admission as to how much we still need to renew ourselves and our ministries to live into Jesus’ mission for the Church.

In his reflections following the 2008 Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote:

The Synod called for a particular pastoral commitment to emphasizing the centrality of the word of God in the Church’s life, and recommended a greater “biblical apostolate,” not alongside other forms of pastoral work, but as a means of letting the Bible inspire all pastoral work.

This does not mean adding a meeting here or there in parishes or dioceses, but rather of examining the ordinary activities of Christian communities…to see if they are truly concerned with fostering a personal encounter with Christ…making the Bible the inspiration of every ordinary and extraordinary pastoral outreach. (Verbum Domini, §73).

What a challenge!

The Bible isn’t something we’re supposed to sprinkle on top of catechesis, sacramental formation, works of mercy, parish life, or evangelization, no–it’s supposed to inspire all of it.

As we build up programs and policies, it’s easy to view Scripture as just-another-category we need to deal with. Another “ingredient” in what it means to form Catholic disciples of Jesus Christ.

But, there’s a radical simplicity to Benedict’s call, a radical reliance on the Word of God not simply as a book, but as the dynamic, living, breathing creative force that it truly is. “The word of God precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture, nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word (cf. 2 Tim 3:16) ‘in an altogether singular way’” (Verbum Domini, §17).

Lives will be changed when people encounter the words of the Bible. History has shown this to be the case. The present examples of Christians across the world continue to show the mighty power of these sacred words.

Sometimes we can fall into the trap of viewing the Bible as a “handicap” to evangelization. Thinking, people don’t like the Bible. But this is not the case. In an ever more religiously illiterate world, the Bible is an intriguing mystery. Secular media companies offer programs claiming to unlock the Bible’s secrets. Thousands around the world take free Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from major universities to learn something about the Bible. There is a hunger for the transcendent. People want to experience the Word of God alive and changing-lives.

But here’s the catch–this can’t just be “theology.” While our faith teaches these wonderful, dynamic truths about the Word of God–truths that make it a powerful, life-changing force, truths that free us from Biblical fundamentalism or literalist interpretations–it makes no difference to a hungry world if we as Catholic Christians are afraid to experience it. Too uncertain to read the Bible. Too busy to take the Bible to prayer, so God can speak a new word to us. Too focused on finding the perfect programs, textbooks, or small group materials as substitute for actually encountering Christ through the divine word.

We can’t share what we haven’t experienced. So take up Benedict’s challenge: let the Bible inspire all your pastoral work. This can change our lives and change our witness, all for the evangelization of a world hungry to experience the truth of the divine word, this week and every week.

This post originally appeared at newevangelizers.com

Touching Suffering as Evangelization

Evangelization runs much deeper than just sharing the Gospel (though that’s an essential part, don’t get me wrong). Sometimes, it’s probing the depths of human experience that can be the most challenging to each of us personally as disciples of Christ.

For many of us, it’s easy to explain Scripture passages or comment on Church teaching, but to be deeply involved in someone’s life? That’s a tall order.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us:

“An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others” (§24).

Touching suffering. For many of us, that’s what makes getting deeply involved in the lives of others so hard.

Suffering is complex, especially in our relatively affluent western culture. Suffering is mental anguish, pains of family separation and discord, isolation, intense feelings of inadequacy, and more. It’s not always easy to detect.

Despite the ubiquitous communication of social media and more, many sense that there’s something wrong with suffering—it’s not to be shared at the root level—maybe just venting about the symptoms is okay. That’s all friends want to hear, right?

But, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI challenges us, “It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness” (Spe Salvi,§37).

Coming face-to-face with suffering, through friendships and authentic companionship is what starkly reminds us that we do not have the power to end suffering in this world, “only God is able to do this: only a God who personally enters history by making himself man and suffering within history. We know that this God exists, and hence that this power to “take away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29) is present in the world” (Spe Salvi, §36).

Cultivating the compassion, tenderness, and audacity to actually care in a world that wants to turn away from suffering is what keeps us from becoming, “that kind of Christian who keeps the Lords’ wounds at arm’s length” (Evangelii Gaudium, §270).

Can we be joyfully proclaim the Gospel and still have the capacity to grow closer in love to those who suffer? Of course.

Living a more authentically Christian, evangelical life is rarely an either-or proposition.We encounter and grow in personal relationship with Jesus as we unite ourselves with those who suffer. We share the truth of the Gospel all the more earnestly because we’ve experienced Jesus Christ in the raw, complex, troubling, and heartbreaking moments of life when we can do nothing more than surrender to our Messiah, the one who truly knows human suffering.

So run out and find someone who’s suffering, right? No—probably not. There’s someone in your life already who is suffering. Pray that God will lead you to them and strengthen you to go toward, and not run from the suffering. In doing this, step-by-step, relationship-by-relationship, we become a truly evangelization community.

 

This post also appeared today at NewEvangelizers.com. 

Is evangelization about finding the “right” people?

Note: This post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

If elitism is considering a person (or group of people) superior to others, then our desire to follow Jesus’ command to evangelize demands that we abandon any elitist attitudes. The true evangelist believes that the Good News is, as the Venerable Pope Paul VI wrote in 1975,“meant for all people of all times” (Evangelii Nuntiandi§13).

If we are to be true evangelists, this forces us into uncomfortable and new places. It means that we must seek to spread the Gospel to all people—the rich and the poor, the passionate and the indifferent, our friends and our “enemies,” those of status and those whom society would deem worthless. And (this is where it gets even tougher!) we must cultivate “an ever-increasing love” for those who are being evangelized (EN, §75). To be an evangelist is see every person as God does—quite the opposite of an elitist viewpoint of others.

The work of evangelization also cuts against any “self-elitism” or spiritual arrogance. It’s all too easy, even for the committed evangelist, to sometimes slip towards the temptation of thinking,“I know the arguments to answer the skeptic. My presentation of the Gospel is spot-on. My tireless work for the poor makes people stop and think. I’m a disciple because I learned nearly everything there is to know about the Bible and Catechism.” In doing this, we might share the Gospel lovingly with all; yet still implicitly place ourselves on a pedestal as the evangelist.

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Preaching Technique: Question as Thesis, Thread, and Theme

I was back at Prince of Peace Parish and heard a good, simple example of how to incorporate evangelistic and discipleship preaching into a Eucharistic homily.

The priest began a Eucharistic homily on the Memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola with the straightforward question, “When you met God, what changed?” He proceeded to individualize it further, declaring, “for every single one of us here, meeting God should cause great change.”

Nothing complex, theologically or rhetorically. And it’s easy to see how this question united the first reading from Exodus, the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the Gospel passage from Matthew. This question represents a key aspect of the New Evangelization–that we are not to presume that those who self-identify as Catholic, are culturally Catholic, or are sacramentalized Catholics are without need for conversion, and even initial conversion. For those who may have never made a fundamental decision for Christ (as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI describes in the first paragraphs of Deus Caritas Est), the priest’s question could be a start of that “re-evangelization.” For those who can recall when they first met God and what changes ensued, the question can be the start of rich reflection, discernment of ways we have not lived out the call God placed in our lives, and ultimately, a thankful movement towards the Eucharistic table.

A Practical Pontiff — One of Many Things to Admire about Benedict XVI

BenedictTwitter

In a 2010 interview with Peter Seewald in Light of the World, Pope Benedict XVI shared the following thoughts on the idea of papal resignation:

“When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from the danger and say that someone else should do it.”

However, “if a Pope clearly recognizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has the right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

And today, pastoral theory that may have gone unnoticed by many, becomes pastoral reality. When I read the news this morning, I smiled, thinking of this Pontiff leading by example. Stepping outside of the ordinary to put a bold statement into actual pastoral practice.

I pray that in the relatively small things in my life, I too can find ways to not just speak or write about my theological musings–but also put them into practical, visible action.