Ministry Troubles and Jonah

That feeling of dread, regret, or resignation. Not wanting to step into the office. Wishing you’d never taken that new diocesan position. Wanting this year of RCIA to be over because you don’t even want to see your volunteer team. What does it mean when ministry becomes the setting for feelings of desolation? Where is God leading me in times when problems seem overwhelming and suffering seems far from redemptive

Job often comes to mind as a Biblical portrait of suffering and persistence. Yet, Job’s situation is very different from most of ours in specific ministry settings. See, God puts Job through a trial of extreme crises in faith and life–questions of survival of everything  and everyone Job knows and loves. Job does nothing to bring this on himself. For many in ministry (whether paid, volunteer, ordained, or non-ordained) our particular way of living out the call to missionary discipleship is something we’ve discerned and chosen. Something we’ve stepped out to do.

This brings us to a different Old Testament character, Jonah. Jonah is a missionary prophet. He’s actively stepping out to do God’s work. While Jonah does face a crisis, it’s not one of basic human needs and longings, but of if he’s going to listen to God’s words for him and how Jonah should fulfill the call God has placed in his life.

When we think, maybe I’m just not where God called me to be, we’re in a place to enter into Jonah’s story more deeply, to see where we might persevere or change in order to serve God in the way He desires of us.

Diving into the Bible, we meet Jonah with the narrator’s declaration, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah” (Jonah 1:1). Notice the passiveness of Jonah. His patient, receptive posture. Jonah was listening. And we find out in verse 2, that he hears God’s communication clearly. Jonah’s not acting on divine silence, nor guessing in absence of communication or answered prayer.

Maybe when we experience desolation in our ministry, it’s because we never heard the word of the Lord as Jonah did. Maybe our good intentions were charitable, but not what God willed for us, personally. 

But Jonah, he’s not falling into that trap in his ministry. He hears God, yet he decides to resist. He “made ready” for a new, impromptu plan of “fleeing” away from the city and ministry God had called him to (1:3-4). Jonah is being reactive; there’s seemingly no purpose to his actions other than trying to be “away from the Lord.”

Jonah takes flight on a boat and a storm comes. In this dangerous situation, the boat’s captain comes to Jonah (1:6). Jonah’s qualities and calling in ministry can’t be ignored–even if he’s choosing to turn away from what God has equipped and called him to. Jonah is immediately aware of what he has done  (1:12). And this isn’t shocking–remember, Jonah heard God, Jonah knew what God wanted of him. Jonah acknowledges what he has done, how he fled from God’s true desire for him. Oh how we yearn for this clarity ourselves in problematic ministry situations! In times of desolation, we can say “yes, Lord–I’m ready to repent,” yet not have the slightest idea what God had wanted us to be doing in the first place.

How does God respond to Jonah?  He sends “a great fish to swallow Jonah” (2:1). This is active voice, God is acting directly in Jonah’s life, creating a space for temporary hardship, challenge, and (if Jonah’s anything like us moderns!) forced introspection (I mean, it’s not like there was reading material in the fish’s internal organs). Early allegorical interpretations of this passage suggested that this time of darkness and testing represented Israel’s exile. Later, Christian allegorical interpretations (spurred by the Gospels themselves, i.e.  Matt 12:38–42 and 16:1–4) offer Jesus’ three days in the tomb as a parallel. Yet, the original sense of the passage in and of itself–without any allegory–is very relevant to each of us when we experience problems in ministry. As Walter Brueggemann writes:

It is enough to see the ‘fish’ as a vehicle whereby Jonah is put deeply at risk to the power of chaos (the sea), and is rescued by the power of the Creator (who presides over chaos) through the creature, the fish. Thus the rescue of Jonah is also a demonstration of the power of the Creator who will not have the mission of the prophet thwarted (Introduction to the Old Testament, 231).

The second time God speaks to Jonah, he listens. He acts “in accord” with God, not fighting, going against the grain, or avoiding what he heard from the Lord (3:1). God’s will is done, God’s heart is full as His mercy is extended to the people of Ninevah who turn to the Lord. Jonah has had “success” in his ministry, but still he is not where God wants him to be in his heart and soul. We can find ourselves in these places too–doing the successful thing in ministry, even seeing fruit, yet not truly living the life God has called us to. There’s external fruit, yes–praise the Lord!–but still not the interior conversion God desires of us.

Merzouga, Morocco, 19:26
Flickr: Christiaan Tribert, CC-BY-NC-2.0


The Lord teaches Jonah this in the final chapter of the book. Here we find Jonah outside the city of Ninevah, sulking about how he knew all along of God’s merciful character, and it was that knowledge that drove him to flee, so that he’d avoid this “awful” predicament he’s in right now. The narrator hints that Jonah is still holding out some “hope” that the mercy extended by God to Ninevah might change, as Jonah builds a dwelling to “to see what would happen to the city” (4:5). As one might guess, it’s pretty hot and sunny out in the desert, so Jonah’s quite happy about a nice shady gourd plant that grows up by his new home (4:6). But then God takes the plant away, and Jonah finally gets it. It’s not about him. It’s not about us when it comes to ministry.

We need to discern and listen where is it God is calling us to, and what it is God wants us to do. We can grow attached to a certain vision of how, when, and where will will serve–but ultimately it’s all a gift from God. A particular ministry or belief isn’t ours to cling to any more than the gourd tree was Jonah’s “possession” when God shows us otherwise. God’s concern is far broader than ours! And, even if we don’t fully understand it in every moment, God’s gracious love for all includes each of us. Always. In every moment.

In the end, through Jonah we see that God’s will is not simply what’s convenient for us, or what we already happen to believe (or want to believe) about the mission field around it. God’s will for us might include people we’ve never thought of before. God’s will might be something more precise or focused than what we currently dream of. Each of us can only know when we begin as Jonah did: hearing the word of the Lord. 

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Conversations with Jesus: Example #2

 

How often do we have conversations in ministry and wonder, was I imitating Christ? 

Yes, it’s an impossible standard. But, by examining the way we converse with others through the lens of “customer service” can help us relate to others and communicate more like Jesus did during his earthly ministry. A mentor once suggested these questions:

  • What is it I’m trying to communicate?
  • What do I hope to get out of this interaction?
  • What would Jesus do in this conversation?
  • What’s His heart for the person?

Last month in Example #1 we looked at a public scene, Jesus’ first synagogue sermon. Today we’re looking at a more private example, Jesus’ one-on-one conversation with Peter in the presence of a few others, while fishing (Luke 5:1-11).

Jesus begins his conversation with Peter, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch” (5:4). The intention of Jesus’ words is to empower. To build. To encourage the experience of success. To encourage one who has been disappointed before at this task.

Now, how might this intention have come across to Peter? He replies, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets” (5:5). “Master,” a title for an authority figure one is obligated to recognize–not the phrase a follower or true-believer would use. It’s almost a bit begrudging. And before Peter gives his “yes” (where Peter reminds Jesus again that he’s only doing this to honor his “command”) he subtly reminds Jesus that he (who is actually a trained and experienced fisherman) has already attempted this.

But ultimately, Peter was open to the positive intention of Jesus’ heart. Peter assumed Jesus’ good will and gave him a chance. Peter chooses the path of taking upon himself Jesus’ yoke (Lk 7:36-50), which means he’s yielding control to Jesus, letting the ball stay in Jesus’ court for at least a moment–even if he hasn’t fully bought in to the direction this is headed.

We see here that Jesus continues to move forward. What Jesus wants to communicate is deeper than “winning” this first exchange with Peter. Jesus shows some tactical patience here, to let the situation develop further, rather than assuming his entire message needs to be heard and understood right away.

This works for Jesus because his actions then evoke trust. After the miraculous catch of so many fish their nets nearly break (5:6), Peter drops to his knees at the feet of Jesus and exclaims, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man” (5:8). Lord is a title of expectant trust. A “lord” provides and protects–quite a shift from Peter’s initial acknowledgement of Jesus as merely Master.

Trust is now present in the conversation. While we might hope for many things, many good intentions to come from our conversations with others–trust is a baseline. Trust makes those other hopes become realities. This example shows that while what Jesus aimed for in the communication has happened–it didn’t merely happen because of his words. He did a miracle, an obvious one (to Peter). Jesus earned trust, and because of that his message was heard and acted upon, as Peter (plus James and John) leave their belongings on the shoreline, and become Jesus’ followers. 

Jesus had a firm hope for Peter at the start, but he allowed the conversation to develop. Jesus didn’t push back on Peter’s initial response, but moved forward to earn greater trust. Jesus’ heart was for the potential in Peter from his first words of encouragement, through Peter’s rebuff, right through to Peter’s final acceptance and entry into a trusting relationship with his Lord.

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James Tissot, “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (La pêche miraculeuse)” (The Brooklyn Museum)

 

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!

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

Jesus in Your Story

Our eight-day countdown to Christmas begins today—in the fog of a rather long and obscure family tree.

But don’t be dismayed. Don’t skip today’s Gospel reading. The glorious mystery of Jesus’ identity begins to unfold in this genealogy. It starts with the summary in the very first line—Jesus Christ is “son of David, son of Abraham.” To name Jesus as the son of David is to declare that he is God’s own and nothing less than the true king of God’s chosen people, Israel.

But that’s not all. Jesus is also the “son of Abraham”—the heir to Abraham, who responded to God and was blessed to become the founding ancestor of God’s people, Israel. Jesus fulfills God’s covenant with Abraham—because of his obedience, “all the nations of the earth will find blessing.”

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Donald Jackson, Matthew Frontispiece: The Genealogy of Christ
We are being introduced to grand claims about this Jesus. But then Matthew brings it down to our level. The bulk of what follows is dedicated to recounting the human history of Jesus. And it’s not always so high and mighty, predictable and orderly, or even dignified. We hear of Tamar, who disguises herself as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law; Ruth, a non-Israelite woman who seizes her own destiny by boldly presenting herself to Boaz, a powerful Israelite; and others whose lives are rather messy and oh-so-human.

And this is why the birth of Jesus matters for each of us. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of everything promised to David and Abraham. Yet not merely in the abstract—he enters the human story in his very own family tree.

Has Jesus entered your story? As we near the culmination of our Advent watch, today is a good time to invite him in. Jesus is ready to take on your past, and remain with us, transforming us, today and always.

See the Gospel text and prayers at: FaithND (where this post originally appeared)

The Christian in Christian Leaders

“If, therefore, those called to office and leadership roles in the church remain content merely to organize and manage the internal affairs of the church, they are leaving a vacuum exactly where there ought to be vibrant, pulsating life.

Of course Christian leaders need to be trained and equipped for management, for running of the organization. The church will no thrive by performing in a bumbling, amateur fashion and hoping that piety and goodwill will make up for incompetence.

But how much more should a Christian minister be a serious professional when it comes to grappling with scripture and discovering how it enables him or her, in preaching, teaching, prayer, and pastoral work, to engage with the huge issues that confront us as a society and as individuals.”

–N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 138-139

When Jesus Saw You

Jesus calls the first disciples…

Come. Follow.  

Collectively as Christians, most of us recall  these words from Scripture well. A pivotal moment in the lives of the disciples in Galilee, and yet a moment that transcends history, extending to each and every one of us, who at some point encountered and then made a fundamental, life-changing decision that opened a new horizon in our lives (Deus Caritas Est, para. 1).

Mark the Evangelist offers us a brief description of Jesus’ actions before he calls his disciples, setting the scene this way:

“As he [Jesus] passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea.” (Mk 1:16)

While this sounds rather mundane, pause and really imagine the scene: Jesus is walking along the waterfront, moving at a normal pace. He sees Simon and Andrew from afar, and Jesus continues to watch them as he proceeds along, and gradually the two men come into closer view. Jesus saw them.

Now imagine when Jesus first called you. As Jesus the Risen Christ watched you–before even speaking to you, into your heart–what did Jesus see?

What was your life like as Christ watched you? Were there areas in need of healing? Did you have questions about the meaning of life, about God? Did you live based on values that would ultimately lead away from happiness? What did you look like, when Jesus saw you, as he did thousands of years ago, Simon and Andrew?

Most importantly, what does it mean that Jesus then called you (regardless of what Jesus saw at the time)?

What a miracle this moment of call was and is for each of us! Something beyond human comprehension or explanation. We often reflect on ways our churches can be more “seeker-sensitive” and oriented toward the outsider (and this is good); yet, “seeker” also applies to God. God is the ultimate Seeker.

Praying with Mark 1:16 to reflect on where you were in life when Jesus called you is a great way to start preparing your own personal testimony. As Josh Canning writes over at Canadian Catholic, the very first step of developing one’s testimony is recognizing and naming your back story. Canning writes:

So you made a decision at one point to turn away from a life driven by self-interest and follow Jesus with sincere faith and trust. What was going on before that decision? What was your life focused on? Why? Looking back, how/when did you realize that this was not completely satisfying?

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that your life when Jesus called you was full of debauchery, criminal behavior, etc. My life looked pretty good from the outside (and even to me! I was a happy kid!)–good grades, active in church, responsible high school student, etc.–but what was Jesus seeing in you, when he called you? For me, Jesus saw a successful, civic-minded, moral teenager who was alas uninterested and unaware of things eternal and focused on worldly achievement and service.

But Jesus looked at me. He saw me. And even after seeing me, Jesus called me. And this call of the Lord–this is a life-changing call. Thanks be to God 🙂

Where were you? What did Jesus see? Consider your own backstory as the first step to sharing your own testimony with joy and gratitude!

Bonus from the 3:15 Project: Check out Fr. John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, MI, as he explains why being ready to share our stories is so important.

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