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.

 

 

Because We Know: A Christmas Kergyma

Because we know what has happened, definitively in history, we can start to act.

Start to bear fruit.

Between The Shadows… Your Singing Light…!!! :)))

Second, third, and fourth fruits…of the Firstfruit, Christ our Lord.

Blossom as signs of He who was born to restore our nature.

Why think less of ourselves?

Humility and blessedness go hand-in-hand. [Just ask Mary, cf. Lk 1:48]

As Peter Chrysologus explained:

The earth was adorned with flowers, groves and fruit; and the constant marvelous variety of lovely living things was created in the air, the fields, and the seas for you, lest sad solitude destroy the joy of God’s new creation.

And the Creator still works to devise things that can add to your glory.

He has made you in his image that you might in your person make the invisible Creator present on earth.

He has made you his legate, so that the vast empire of the world might have the Lord’s representative.

Let us to go to Him, from Him, in Him.

For He comes to us.

Today.

 

Image Credit: Denis Collette (via Flickr), CC BY-ND-ND 2.0

 

Abundant Life as Sheep

The comfort God gives to us by giving us Jesus his Son as our Shepherd isn’t just some poetic, feel-good pasture scene that goes over well in Vacation Bible School or children’s catechesis. No–it’s a reality with hard-hitting promises and assurances.

John the Evangelist gives us the most detailed look at the relationship between Jesus the Good Shepherd and His sheep in Chapter 10 of his Gospel. The setting and build-up to this moment is intense. The first half of John’s Gospel is devoted to revealing the signs of Jesus, and examining how specific people respond. And it’s been a mixed bag, for sure! Early on, some respond to Jesus with belief–or at least genuine curiosity.

But then, hostility grows to a near-breaking point between Jesus and those who do not believe, those who oppose Jesus and those who profess belief in Him! This comes to a head as Jesus comes to the Temple at Jerusalem for the Feasts of Tabernacles (aka Booths or Sukkot) and Dedication (aka Feast of Maccabees or Hanukkah) and makes clear through symbolic declarations that Jesus is Divine, he is the Son of God, he is with God the Father in the most profound, eternal sense.

What to think?

As many Christian apologists have noted, when someone stands in a public place, on a great religious feast, and declares that he is God, we’ve really only got three logical responses, the person is either a pathological liar, a lunatic, or correct–truly the Lord God.

If you believe that Jesus is indeed the Lord God, well then what?

As today’s Psalm 100 answers:

“We belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds” (vs. 3)

Being a sheep has serious consequences:

Sheep1. Jesus knows our name and calls us by name. We cannot remain anonymous to God. We cannot use our own sinfulness, anxiety, low self-esteem, or secret doubts about ourselves as an excuse as to why we are not “good enough” to be in relationship with God. It’s not about our goodness–we can know Jesus personally because he already knows our name and calls us by name (John 10:3-4).

2. “Whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9). If we remain in God through Jesus, “one can be confident of one’s present salvation” and “by looking at the course of one’s life in grace and the resolution of one’s heart to keep following God, one can also have an assurance of future salvation” (Catholic Answers). Do you have this confidence in your present and future salvation? What doubts are holding you back?

3. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Now, you might be thinking, “that sounds a bit like some ‘once saved, always saved’ falsehood.” And, the idea that a person’s salvation is guaranteed regardless of anything a person does, regardless of their free will in the future is indeed counter to Christian teaching (and even the most secular understanding of free well). Here’s the difference, though, in our Catholic teachings, confidence in God’s promises and acknowledgement of each individual’s free will coexist, as apologist Tim Staples writes, “our eternal life is contingent upon our choosing to abide in God.” No earthly powers, no other person, no harsh words or judgement from another can cause us to perish–only our free choice to leave Jesus’ flock. As the Church teaches:

There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (Catechism of the Catholic Church para 1864)

The only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…and what does this mean? As Pope Saint John Paul the Great explained, “it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross” (Dominum et Vivifcantem, para. 46). So that’s it–only our free, knowing, and intentional will to reject the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy is what can remove us from God’s hand of love.

4. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Does being a sheep bring you a deep joy and comfort? As one apologist noted:

Sometimes Fundamentalists portray Catholics as if they must every moment be in terror of losing their salvation since Catholics recognize that it is possible to lose salvation through mortal sin…But this portrayal is in error. Catholics do not live lives of mortal terror concerning salvation. True, salvation can be lost through mortal sin, but such sins are by nature grave ones, and not the kind that a person living the Christian life is going to slip into committing on the spur of the moment, without deliberate thought and consent. Neither does the Catholic Church teach that one cannot have an assurance of salvation. This is true both of present and future salvation.

And the beauty and fullness of joy is that this salvation is both present and future. We have eternal life that starts now, and stretches into eternity. And this life? It’s more abundantly “life” than anything a life without God’s friendship and Lordship offers.

We are God’s flock. You are (or can be) His Beloved Sheep full of joy and confidence in God’s eternal love and mercy. What’s holding you back? Wherever your heart is, pour it out to God, and ask Him for the blessing of knowing what it means to be a Sheep.

Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 via Flickr user Katriona McCarthy

a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

Turn Until You Know Jesus: The Feast of Mary Magdalene

From Lorraine Cuddeback via I Have Seen the Lord | Daily Theology, a Gospel message for today:

“Mary’s hopelessness is almost palatable.

The angels that appear — those who so helpfully explain the meaning of the empty tomb in Mark, Matthew, and Luke — cannot draw Mary’s attention in this narrative.

Her weeping overwhelms her sight, her senses, and she offers no reaction to the two men suddenly sitting where the head and feet of Jesus should have been. Instead, she only reiterates the problem: “I don’t know where they laid him.” Mary is lost in her grief until Jesus himself calls her name:

She turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. (Jn 20:14-16)

Read the passage carefully, and you’ll see that she turns twice — she turns towards Jesus when she first sees him, but does not know him. Then, despite supposedly looking at him to ask her question, she turns again when he calls her name.”

Turning.

Turning evokes another mightily important New Testament word, metanoia.

Though sometimes translated to English as “repentance,” metanoia is much more–it’s a full turning, conversion. And, conversion of one’s whole self. Heart. Mind. Soul. Body. Everything conversion.

This is why I love that Mary the Magdalene turns twice. Many of us raised in Christian settings “saw” Jesus from a young age. We learned of Him and objectively experienced Him in sacraments (even if our dispositions were lacking faith…). But, we may not have known Him. Personally. Sometimes it’s the second (or third! or fourth! etc.) turning that’s true metanoia, the conversion that allows us to exclaim from the depths of our hearts and souls, like Mary, Rabbouni–a personal term of relationship with Jesus.

Turn once. Turn twice. Turn thrice. The important thing, is to turn as metanoia. Experience, as Pope Emeritus Benedict encouraged, “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, para. 1). Turn.

Turn

Image: CC 2.0 via Ivan (Flickr)

Be Not Afraid: Getting to Know the Alpha Course

Resource Review: Alpha — Bottom Line? Be Not Afraid, Give it a Try!

The Alpha course is by no means a new resource. But, it is new for many Catholic parishes and dioceses. One of the realities recognized in the New Evangelization is that there are many baptized who are not responding to the grace of baptism or have never made the first and fundamental response to Jesus Christ’s invitation to relationship. And this brings us to a challenge–how can Catholics evangelize, when there are many self-identified Catholics who have not yet themselves experienced a personal relationship with Jesus?

Enter Alpha.

The Alpha course is a great way for a parish to start turning from maintenance to mission. To offer a space for personal testimony and clear initial proclamation of the Gospel kerygma. To establish a baseline “on ramp” or entry point for all on-going faith formation, to create a unifying experience that can help all ministry groups (you know…the Knights of Columbus, those ladies running the store, the young adult dinner and speaker ministry, etc.) align around a common understanding of the kerygma and conversion.

Many times, however, parish leaders, councils, and others shy away from Alpha because it is not specifically a “Catholic” program–and that’s a shame, as Alpha is a great resource.

If you’re trying to discern how to respond to the New Evangelization as a community or simply have no idea where to start, I encourage you to check out these two examples of Alpha in action in the Catholic context.

First, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, Michigan has been using Alpha as effectively and intentionally as I’ve ever seen (or even dreamed!) in a Catholic parish setting. This page tells the story, and reveals how Alpha has spurred on-going faith formation and evangelization. And, if you’re nervous about how Alpha might be received in your parish, check out this video from OLGC that the parish staff used to meet any concerns head on.

Second, a thoughtful reflection from British priest, Fr. James Bradley on how we can understand Alpha as helping us recover gifts and adopt new methods for re-evangelization.

 

Catechetical Sunday? Meh.

Tomorrow marks the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s annual celebration of Catechetical Sunday. I suppose doing this annually in September serves as an unofficial kick-off to parish catechesis, which generally follows the academic calendar. Blessing and commissioning of catechists at Sunday masses is great. Catechesis is an extremely important part of the Church’s cycle of evangelization, yet Catechetical Sunday just seems like a yawn. Different annual theme, but so what? I don’t see a lack of catechetical themes as hobbling evangelization in the United States. The most critical problem seems to be catechesis that forgets the kerygma, neglects the essentials of formation that foster personal conversion–the conditions that make it unexceptional for a child or adult to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord in a catechetical setting.

So here’s my nomination for an annual “theme” for say, the next decade (we’ll re-evaluate in 9 years 😉 ) — personal conversion to Jesus Christ. This is what recent popes have been teaching in so many forms, from the General Directory for Catechesis, which reminds us that catechesis must have a style “of integral [meaning essential] formation rather than mere information; it must act in reality as a means of arousing true conversion” (§27) to St. John Paul’s wonderful statement, Catechesi Tradendae.

Conversion cuts to the heart. In the New Testament it’s called metanoia. And the true and radical conversion that is metanoia doesn’t happen when an individual merely hears, learns, or articulates certain facts. It’s life-change. All the information and planning for themes in catechesis is no substitute for this fundamental reality.

Some conversions are really big. Like the initial, fundamental conversion every Christian must have–when he or she encounters Jesus Christ as Lord and says “yes” with one’s life (Deus Caritas Est, §1). Other conversions as part of the life of faith and formation in catechesis are proportionately smaller–wrestling with God over a challenging teaching and as a result forming a deeper relationship with Him, turning from a particular sin, claiming a new promise of God for one’s own life (versus just hearing it as an informative doctrine of a catechetics class), and more.

I don’t think “Catechetical Sunday” is going away (and it doesn’t need to, as the blessing and commissioning of catechists is a great and important moment in every parish). But here’s what counts–no matter what the theme of “Catechetical Sunday,” no matter what series or curriculum you use, evangelization means we must ensure that catechesis is never “mere information,” but always becoming, ever more fully “a means of arousing true conversion.” Explicitly. Directly. Without a doubt. So that while a child or adult might not always choose to accept the invitation, no person walks away unaware of the kerygma or unaware that Jesus their loving Savior stands waiting for their personal yes.

Initial Proclamation of the Gospel: A Non-Negotiable

How do you share the Gospel with someone?

I’m not talking about context–like how or where you meet them, or what your relationship with them is like–but the words. The content. What do you say?

If someone was to ask, “I’ve been thinking about God a lot recently. You’re Catholic and go to church a lot, right? What do you believe?” Where would you start? How would other people from your parish begin to answer? What topics would come up?

When I ask this theoretical question to participants in classes or faith formation settings, I get a wide range of answers. A really wide range. Some people start with Jesus Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. Sacraments and God’s love rank high in initial answers. Living morally, and occasionally, even “belief in the Pope” (whatever that means) are mentioned too.

These answers reveal that generally speaking, as Catholics in the U.S., we need to heed Pope Francis’ warning in Evangelii Gaudium not to forget, neglect, or fail to emphasize the initial proclamation or first announcement of the Gospel–the keryma. He’s talking to us. We don’t make the first proclamation enough. We don’t proclaim it clearly, and instead bury it inside of all sorts of other (good!) catechetical teachings, but bury it nonetheless, in a way that those in need of hearing the first proclamation–young children, the unchurched, and many self-identified Catholics–miss it, even when we think we’re proclaiming it.

Pope Francis writes, “on the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over” (§164). This applies to all of the baptized, not just those in “formal” roles as catechists. When a co-worker or acquaintance asks us about our faith, Catholicism, Jesus, or God, this first proclamation must really come first. Before we move deeper into the riches of our faith and share solid catechesis, our first obligation is to proclaim the Gospel. I love Pope Francis’ “ring out over and over” ideal–yeah, it sounds a bit boring. But the Gospel proclamation is the most important thing, it’s so important that we can’t think by saying it once a year (say, at a kick-off meeting with Confirmation parents each September) we’re done–no, it must truly ring out. It must be impossible to miss in parish life.

Pope Francis offers a simple outline for initial proclamation, “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you’” (§164). In our setting, we often have to start with God’s relationship to Jesus Christ, since we can’t take belief in God for granted. But this doesn’t have to become overly complicated. Every Catholic can do it, and there are great resources out there to help you find the words.

St. Paul Street Evangelization has this great looking step-by-step presentation of initial proclamation and suggestions of how to respond. Every person in our parishes must hear this proclamation, and by hearing it over and over, be able to share it, to become an evangelist–since a person is not truly an evangelist if he or she cannot make the initial proclamation and simply prefers, out of habit or comfort, to talk about, say moral teachings or Mass (both good things, but not the initial proclamation).

If you’re a teacher, leader, or volunteer in a school, parish, or organization, I challenge you to stop and honestly assess–can most people in our community share the Gospel easily? Make a clear initial proclamation? If not, then stop what you’re doing and attend to this. No, some might think…we’re more advanced than that, we have lots of devout people….but listen to what Pope Francis says, he explains, “We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more ‘solid’ formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation” (§165). Words to ponder for each of us, in our ongoing individual and communal faith formation.

a version of this essay originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com