Christian Unity: The Old, New Evangelization

Our opportunities to learn from the experiences of fellow Christians is certainly not limited to our present day and age. For me, some of the most inspiring testimony to the possibilities of evangelization that is new comes from the work of John and Charles Wesley in 18th c. England.

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John Wesley Preaching Outdoors

Charles and John Wesley were ordained in eighteenth century England, a time when the sacrament of Holy Communion was often regarded with indifference or neglect. Church historian John Bowmer remarks that the sacraments and Christian life were widely disparaged in this “new age of reason,” and most people in the Church of England aimed for the minimums of religious practice”receiving the Eucharist three times a year and treating it as an historic custom, rather than encounter with the living God.

Unsurprisingly, most in the Church of England were not looking outward to form disciples or share the Gospel. In fact, many clergy and laity in the Church of England believed that England’s growing urban masses were beyond influence and simply had “no taste” for Christian liturgy and sacraments. Christianity was on its way to becoming a fruitless cultural niche.

So what did the Wesley brothers do in their setting of indifference and perceived divisions? Read more here…

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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)

On Giving the Zebedee Family a Hard Time

By virtue of baptism, we are joined to Jesus Christ–and thus, supernaturally joined to all other baptized-believers. It’s a powerful reality! But, this truth can often be hard to see behind the human struggles we have when it comes to relating to each other and Jesus in our earthly existence.

Today’s Gospel passage (Mt 20:20-28) provides a poignant example of how easily we can go wrong in relating to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We hear in the Gospel of Matthew that the mother of James and John, sons of a man named Zebedee, comes to Jesus.

Now, if you’re already thinking negative, critical thoughts about the request she’s about to make (because you’ve heard the story before), well–stop. Because Matthew the Evangelist provides a striking detail. How does this mother approach Jesus? She comes to Jesus and “did him homage.” Homage. If that word sounds familiar to you in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, you’re correct! The magi (wise men) come and do Jesus homage at his birth. It reveals this woman’s great reverence, her knowledge of who Jesus is–she is not ashamed to bow down before him.

And then she makes her request. Not asking of her own needs, but asking something for her sons, that they sit at Jesus’ right and left in his Kingdom.

And what’s our instinct? For most of my life, it’s been to judge her. To look down on her. She doesn’t “get” Jesus’ model of servant hood. She’s arrogant about her family, maybe even selfish to ask such a thing. Do we sometimes think the same things of our brothers and sisters in Christ in our own day and age? Am I tempted to judge another’s striving to be close to Jesus so quickly?

Yet we see that Jesus’ response is not like ours. Jesus does not dismiss her. He does not rebuke her. And Jesus never dismisses us, either! Praise God 🙂 We can ask Jesus anything. Especially when we approach him as Lord, giving him homage. Jesus is ready for us. We need not hold back for fear of asking too much, for asking incredible things, or asking a “stupid” question.

Jesus states simply that she does “not know” what she’s asking, and then takes her deeper–presenting this mother and her sons with this probing question: Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? They all reply to Jesus in the affirmative–we can.

What an amazing statement of faith on the part of this mother and her sons! To trust in Jesus enough to say yes–even if their knowledge is imperfect (as we see in Jesus’ full response).

Even with their misunderstandings, Jesus accepts their response of faith. In this we see just how open Jesus is to our yes moments. Even when we say “yes” and don’t fully understand. Even when we say “yes” to him after asking a question that others look down upon. Jesus faithfully offers us more. Offers us more of Himself to say yes to. And we see the role that community played here. Without the mother’s initial question, neither James nor John would be in the position to say yes to Jesus. And so it is the great mystery of the Body of Christ for us too, that our brothers and sisters in Christ sometimes function as James and John’s mother–asking a question on behalf of a group, lunging closer to God and thus pulling others with us.

But what are the responses of Jesus’ other disciples? For me this is the most poignant, illustrative line of the Gospel passage: “When the ten heard this [conversation], they became indignant at the two brothers.”

Ouch.

An oh-so-human response.

I mean, wouldn’t it be more logical to get angry at James and John’s mother for starting the conversation to begin with? Or even turn in frustration toward Jesus for inviting and accepting their response of “we can” rather than rebuking them?

But no, the disciples get angry at their fellow believers for making such an audacious request out of faith. A request that–of course–revealed great misunderstanding. But, a request that also revealed genuine commitment and ardent desire to follow Jesus.

Now, we might not be as forward about our anger or indignation as the other ten disciples were in this Gospel. But, pause and consider the last time you may have gotten indignant or angry at a fellow Christian for their prayer hopes, for their attempts to grow closer to Jesus, for their attempts to take risks for the Kingdom…

When we act indignant, and lessen our true bonds of charity with other believers, we’re losing focus on Jesus. As we saw in this Gospel, the ten others aren’t even paying attention to how Jesus acted or who Jesus is–no–they are simply angry at James and John for wanting to be close to Jesus, for saying “we can” to sacrificial holiness, to progress in discipleship. And this can happen to us too…instead of paying the Lord our own homage, we focus our energy on picking apart and judging the discipleship of others. Not wanting others to “get ahead” of us or grow beyond our preconceived notions of discipleship.

James, John, and their mother needed guidance, and Jesus was there to converse with them. Let us remember–as we live, play, pray, and work within the Body of Christ present to us in our daily lives–that Jesus is the center. We conform ourselves to Jesus’ lead and example.

Jesus does not push us away, but invites conversation with us in prayer–never judging us unfairly, but leading us into deeper truth. As brothers and sisters in Christ we should encourage each other, rather than compete or grow indignant with each other when it comes to seeking Jesus.

p.s. I find it quite interesting that Mark’s Gospel includes the same content about the other disciples’ indignation, even though Mark’s does not include the tidbit about Mama Zebedee asking the question to Jesus. In the collective memory of Jesus’ early followers, the reaction of others, rather than initial question/offense/inquiry, seems to be what “stuck” most clearly. Again–very convicting for us modern disciples! 🙂

A version of this post also appeared 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)

Witness to the Good Life as Pre-Evangelization

The desire to live better, to live more deeply. To live in a way that is satisfying beyond wealth or material goods. This is a longing that has always existed, yet in our current cultural setting, is being spoken aloud and taken seriously with increasing frequency.

Consider, for example:

  • A recent study revealed that the Millennial generation places family and personal interests well above career or technology as “central to who they are” (this is, notably, a shift from the Boomer generation, that placed career as most central to identity).
  • Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek–a book that challenges cultural assumptions about “work for work’s sake” and deferring the “good life” until retirement, and instead suggests living more and working less–has spent seven years on the New York Times bestseller list.
  • TED talk phenom, Brené Brown’s popular message to embrace research that points to “wholehearted living” by cultivating play and rest, and “letting go” of exhaustion as a status-symbol and productivity as self-worth.
  • The gap between the actual hours spent by Americans on “leisure” activities, and our pervasive sense of feeling as if we lack free time.
  • Acknowledgement in business circles that “work-life balance” isn’t the real goal; instead, work-life integration or effectiveness is what more of us actually desire.
  • The New York Times defending the need for people to take enough time to enter into “the space to be still”

Taken as a whole, modern-day Western society is interested–really interested–in the deeper meaning of life. In a meaning that goes beyond work-productivity and wealth at any cost. Our society wants to know, how to live well? How to live the “good life”?

This is a moment, an opportunity for pre-evangelization, our Christian witness and dialogue (General Directory for Catechesis,§47-48) that doesn’t explicitly proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, but reveals how our basic human longings to live well, to live somehow better than what the status quo seems to offer, actually connect to our desire for right relationship with each other and with God, a longing for the transcendent–for something more. Pre-evangelization highlights and awakens these needs which may lie dormant or unnamed among those we meet, and through this the unevangelized become curious, open, or at least mildly interested in the ways of God.

By cultivating our own witness as Christians in this area, we have plenty to offer.

But that’s the tough part. Witness often speaks louder than words in pre-evangelization. We can’t convincingly talk about living the more authentic life God invites us to, unless we’re actually doing it.

By witnessing to the good life–satisfied, full of the peace only God can give, and in touch with our deepest longings as human beings–we can pre-evangelize the world around us, attracting and interesting others in that “something” that sets us apart as Christians.

Now, when it comes to living “good,” many think of material possessions, wealth, status, prestigue, or something along those lines. But, if you really sat down and talked with most modern-day Americans you’d find that a longing for something deeper, better is already present. As discussed in Part 1, our culture longs for something beyond the material, an integrated, fruitful use (or non-use) of time. This is where the long history of Christian discipleship enters in. Though the desire to live in “right relationship with time,” as Ann Garrido puts it, is relevant to us today–it’s a question and pull felt by believers throughout all ages (Redeeming Administration, p. 188).

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia [aka Norcia], a man of the early 6th century who sought integration in his life–not merely a “balance” or “divide” between the spiritual life, labors of work, and relationships with others–but an effective and fruitful integration. Reinforcement, not contradiction, in one’s life.

A mere 1500 years later 😉 Pope St. John Paul the Great would reflect on this same question of right relationship with time, in his 1998 letter Dies Domini, asserting that the intersection between the spiritual life and time isn’t merely on Sunday (though this does have a singular place, too). Instead, he explained:

Time and space belong to him. He is not the God of one day alone, but the God of all the days of humanity…All human life, and therefore all human time, must become praise of the Creator and thanksgiving to him (para. 14-15).

Challenging words, indeed!

Where to start? How to begin living in a way that witnesses this truth to the world? Garrido suggests praying with your calendar. Really. Pray with your calendar.

Here’s the thing, as Thomas Merton wrote:

“The spiritual life is not so much about choosing between good and evil, but discerning which particular good is meant for me.”

Meant for me. Now. In this season of my life. See, even work for “good” can be in opposition to our longing to live in right relationship with time. In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper observed:

“We tend to overwork as a means of self-escape, as a way of trying to justify our existence…[and then] the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.”

We become busy. Yet, imagine if more Christian disciples lived un-busy lives. Un-busy lives that inspired interest, attraction, or at least curiosity from the world. Writing in 1981 (if you notice the trend, the question of time it not something new, not a temptation inaugurated by social media or e-mail) Rev. Eugene Patterson made this bold assertion with regards to Christian ministers:

The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.

The same is most likely true for us as Evangelizers!

As evangelists we are called to not be caught up in a “rat race”–be it for a secular job, children’s hobbies, household concerns, or even parish activities. Integration is our goal, a life that resonates with the peace of the Holy Spirit, the fruitfulness of the “good life,” and a satisfaction that is beautiful, appealing, and even mysterious to the world around us in a way that gently, yet profoundly, introduces the Gospel.

Let us humbly ask that the Holy Spirit would guide us and embolden us to, as the Entrance Antiphon for today’s Mass proclaims, seek out “the habit of holy living” for our settings, as St. Benedict did in his age.

A version of this post originally appeared as part of a two part series at NewEvangelizers.com.

Not Accepting Labels: Pharisees & Evangelization

How many of of us have a positive impression of Pharisees? Probably not too many. For most Bible readers, the Pharisees stand out, memorably as the best known opposition to Jesus and his followers.

230px-rubens-feast_of_simon_the_phariseeHowever, this Sunday’s Gospel reading for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Luke 7:36-8:3) reminds us of the absolute folly in settling for a label instead of a story in our relationships with others, even those we don’t yet know.

In the end we see that Sherry Weddell’s maxim, “never accept a label in place of a story” was as relevant to Jesus’ ministry as it should be for us.

As Luke the Evangelist so often reminds us, Jesus did a lot of eating. Jesus ends up at this particular dinner party because, “a Pharisee invited him to dine with him” (Lk 7:36). Did you catch that? Jesus, the Good News personified, doesn’t set up some intricate plan to attract the “unchurched” or “dechurched” of his age to come to him–a Pharisee invites Jesus. This tells us that Jesus operated outside the circle of his immediate followers. He wasn’t known only to disciples, he wasn’t so busy with his disciples that he made no impact, or impression on the outside world.

This can be tough for us today in our modern day settings. We want to be part of our local Christian fellowship in a parish, it’s good to be growing and living life with other disciples in parish life–yet, without keeping a balance, of cultivating authentic relationships outside of the parish walls, we’ll never experience what Jesus did. Without the perception of a possible “yet” to such an invitation, even from someone of different worldview or religious convictions, who would reasonably want to invite me to dine with them? While we don’t know the full intentions or motives of this Pharisee, we do see that he is taken at face value. Jesus accepts the invitation. And we can do the same, assuming good will and genuine intentions of every person we interact with, especially those “in opposition” to us in some way.

In the meal conversation, we begin to see beyond the label “Pharisee.” This man who was interested (for whatever reasons!) in having Jesus attend his dinner has ideas about Jesus’ identity. He thinks that Jesus might be a prophet (Lk 7:39). He already considers Jesus a teacher (Lk 7:40). In short, if we were to accept the label “Pharisee” as the full picture, we as time-travelling evangelists might write this man off. We might see him as one in opposition to the disciples and Jesus. We might assume his religious viewpoints are absolutely fixed and decided. We might take this man as a hypocrite because other Pharisees acted that way publicly. And if we did that–accepting the label instead of a story–we’d never know that he was toying with the idea that Jesus was a genuine prophet, and already convinced that Jesus was a wisdom-filled teacher.

 

But Jesus is always operating beyond a label. Jesus makes it personal. He addresses this Pharisee by name (Lk 7:40). “The Pharisee” has become Simon, a man who is wondering if Jesus is a prophet and interested in his teachings. And Jesus enters into Simon’s story.

See Simon was put off that Jesus had accepted the attention and affection of a sinner who had slipped into the dinner (Lk 7:38-39). Jesus does not give Simon the answer. He does not issue a direct correction. Jesus leads Simon to be able to see things differently, telling him a parable of two debtors, and asking him a question. It’s still Simon’s story. The difference is that Jesus is in it.

Now, sometimes we imagine that when it comes to evangelization, it’s all or nothing. But this isn’t the case. Jesus loves to save. Jesus loves to save so much that he’s willing to take a little openness and work with it.

Simon answers Jesus’ question about the parable correctly. Kind of. See Simon isn’t so sure. He couches his answer with an uncertain, “I suppose” (Lk 7:43). But Jesus does not call Simon out for hedging his bets on the answer. Jesus affirms the faith present. He gives a Teacher’s approval, telling Simon, “You have judged rightly.” You. This is all about Simon, not the religious beliefs, convictions, and practices of all the Pharisees Jesus has ever met or heard about.

And, just as Jesus heals the son of the father who can only muster this statement of faith, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24), or Paul takes as evangelistic success the response, “We should like to hear you on this some other time” (Acts 17:32), I suppose is an occasion for rejoicing. Jesus is in Simon’s story. We don’t (this side of eternity!) know the rest of Simon’s story. But, we do know this–there would have been no hope for Simon if Jesus had accepted the label, “Pharisee.”

Image credit: “Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee” (Rubens, c. 1618, via Wikipedia)

How long should Mass be?

 In Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, Fr. James Mallon offers these insights and reflections for figuring out what’s right for your parish community when it comes to Sunday Mass:

Worrying about Mass as a production is the wrong concern. He writes, “to the accusation that everything is a production, I am tempted to say, ‘Thank you, I’m so glad you noticed.'” While Mass isn’t a “production” in the literal sense of the term, it should be treated with the utmost planning and concern for quality and transformation of those present.

Remember the 80/20 rule. In most parishes, “the only time we see 80% of our people is on the weekend,” yet what proportion of time goes into preparing for this crucial weekly moment?

“The Church is, of course, not a mere business, it is mystery, but grace still builds on nature and there is an essential truth here. The priority of any parish, and any priest, ought to be about preparing for and celebrating the Sunday Eucharist to make it the best possible experience for the maximum number of people.”

Mass might need to be longer than you think. Or like. Or are comfortable with. Fr. Mallon observes, “The days of the 50-minute get-it-over-and-done-with Mass must end…if the weekend celebrations are to be a priority, then we must have sufficient time on Sunday mornings to gather, celebrate and connect afterwards…We need to honestly look at our Mass schedules, and ask what we truly value. Do we value meaningful and transformative celebrations of the Eucharist, or is our primary value convenient and static Mass times?”

In the end, it is not really a question of how long the Mass ought to be or could be, but whether this value leads us to health. I believe it does not. It contributes to a “get it over and done with” mentality that turns our Eucharistic celebrations into something to be endured rather than something that endures.

What values does your Mass schedule, length, and culture project? Fr. Mallon asserts:

Minimalism and convenience cannot be the primary values of a healthy church. Minimalism and convenience have no place in the life of the disciple who is called to save his or her life by losing it. Someone once said that Jesus doesn’t ask for much – he asks for everything. If our liturgies are to be meaningful and transformative “productions,” they need to be able to breathe and not be constrained by a rigid one-hour rule. Likewise, there needs to be enough time between Masses so that those who are hungry for God are able to linger with one another after Mass to encourage and support one another.

In summary, I think a key is moving from the question how long should Mass be? or how long should a homily be? to addressing the intended outcomes. What is Mass to do? What is the outcome of the homily? Then, work backwards to determine how much time this takes in your setting and context. At the same time, begin to consider how to assess if these desired outcomes, effects, and fruits are happening among those present to worship. Challenging, but worth it to unleash the full power and fruits of the Eucharist amid our worshiping assemblies! 😀

Want to read more? Check out these longer excerpts from Fr. Andrew Carrozza, read Divine Renovation yourself, or listen to Fr. James Mallon’s podcasts on topics related to this great ministry book!