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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God’s Great Rescue, Urgency, and You

“I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.” (Psalm 30:2a)

Today on the 4th Monday of Lent we respond to God’s Word with in the words of the Psalmist David, I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me (Psalm 30, in context or within Mass).

This response begs the question–from what, precisely, has God rescued you?

To be rescued implies that each of us, personally, was in need of rescue. God didn’t just pluck us from being “basically a nice person,” “pretty good,” or “okay” and raise us to something else. No–God rescues. God does something that none of us could ever do for ourselves. God offers a power beyond our attempts at self-improvement or “self-rescue.”

The Gospel of Salvation in Jesus Christ is indeed Good News (this is what the Greek word we translate as Gospel, euvangelion, literally means). Good News (like rescue) implies, however, that the status quo was not good. The status quo was the opposite of Good News.

For decades, change leadership theorist John Kotter has asserted that establishing a sense of urgency is a critical first step to effectively changing organizational behavior. I wonder, if the challenges and hesitations that organizations (large and small) and even individuals have when it comes to intentionally evangelizing flow from (among other things) a lack of urgency.

For example, if I don’t really feel like I’ve been “rescued” by the Lord–you know, I kind of feel like…hey, life was pretty good and being in relationship with God is just some bonus icing on the cake–then why would I be motivated to lead others to the Lord? If being a part of a local church is a nice lifestyle choice, but not something that flows from a necessary “rescue”–then why should I go out and invite others in?

So, consider again today’s Psalm response: “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.” (Psalm 30:2a)

What is it the Lord rescued you from? When you made the “fundamental decision” of your life to be a Christian after encountering Jesus Christ, what was the life you left behind as you turned to your “new horizon” with a “decisive direction”? (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1) Being able to name, to put into words the unique rescue God did in your life is a critical piece of testimony. In fact, if you struggle with sharing personal testimony, then just simply describing your own personal rescue can be a great start. This is a powerful testimony in and of itself–not further story required!

As I pondered in prayer, Lord, what did you rescue me from when as a teenager, I made that fundamental decision? The need for a rescue became quite clear! God rescued me from single-minded pursuit of prestige and academic success, from striving for worldly success, from placing my own needs above those of others, from preferring to avoid relationships (like parenting) that stretch one’s virtues, from being uncertain about the possibility of eternal salvation, from tacitly assuming that as a pretty-good-person-not-an-axe-murderer, heaven was pretty much automatic on my own merits, from doubt in the free grace of salvation, from fear of sacrifices or zealousness in faith. Quite the rescue 🙂

Name your rescue story. Share it. And, let your experience of God rescuing you become fuel for a renewed urgency of evangelization for all those around you!

Lies in Catechesis (aka On the Authenticity of Evangelizers)

How authentic are you as an evangelizer? When people ask you questions, are your responses what you experience? Or a idealistic, textbook answer?

Pope Francis writes, “people prefer to listen to witnesses: they ‘thirst for authenticity’ and ‘call for evangelizers to speak of a God whom they themselves know and are familiar with, as if they were seeing him’” (Evangelii Gaudium §150). He’s expanding upon Pope Paul VI’s observation, “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi §41). Paul VI went on to explain that authenticity exudes truth and honesty–the inauthentic smacks of artificiality (§76).

Over at Christianity Today, Tony Kriz points to places in conversations where Christians often aren’t fully authentic (Seven Lies Christians Tell | Leadership Journal). Now, it’s not what we’d usually think of as “lying” with the intent to malign or deceive (CCC §2484). Instead, it’s avoiding an authentic answer by substituting something easy. Something that avoids further questions. Something that hides our real lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Too many Christians are substituting a lower level of integrity–limiting our ability to be the authentic witnesses the world thirsts for–all under the impression that we’re furthering the Gospel or being faithful Catholics. .

Are we prone to some of the falsehoods Kriz identifies when it comes to evangelization, catechesis, discipleship, and even basic parish community? At times, yes.

For example, as Kriz writes:

  • We lie when we claim we are more confident than we really are. The culture of pretending within Christianity seems almost at an epidemic level. Many of us feel the need to hide our doubts and questions. We feel compelled to act like our faith life is totally satisfying, when in fact it often feels limited, dry, cold or numb. I think we also believe that our “witness” will be less powerful if we reveal a less than “perfect” religious experience. The funny thing is that the opposite is often true. Non-Christians are often drawn to stories of an authentic and even struggling faith.
  • We lie when we claim that unexplainable things are in fact explainable. God is transcendent and beyond even the shadowy wisps of imagination in our finite minds. The Trinity, for instance, is not as simple as a metaphor of water (ice, water, steam) or an egg (shell, white, yoke). Sometimes I think we would be better off if we just said, “These ideas are so beyond me that if God did reveal them to me, I am pretty sure my brain would explode.”
  • We lie when we don’t acknowledge our doubts within the drama of faith. This is similar to number one above but just on a more detailed level. When another person challenges us with a difficult theological/philosophical issue, sometimes it is best to just admit that those questions are very challenging and even emotionally taxing on the soul (I think people like to know that our faith is so important to us that it does impact our soul-state in both encouraging and difficult ways.)

Lessons for the New Evangelization:

1. Embrace of mystery and wonder is a beautiful characteristic of Catholicism. As Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Dogma is the guardian of mystery. The doctrines are spiritually significant in ways that we cannot fathom.”

But do we hold onto mystery and savor it? Or, do we feel an external, cultural pressure to have a “black and white” answer where one simply does not exist? Can we contemplatively wonder? Or do we view this as something to hide. Many of our Church’s teachings guard us from being too precise. Granted we might have personal opinions and speculative theology within the broad bounds of Catholic orthodoxy–but in the end the “answer” is the broad bounded mystery that is is our orthodox Catholic faith.

Whether we’re evangelizing those who do not know Christ, those active in our parishes, or the baptized who are removed from Christ, the embrace of mystery and encouragement to wonder can be refreshingly new (Redemptoris Missio §33). Sharing our own authentic witness to the beauty and struggle of mystery in our own lives of faith offers a counter-narrative to many cultural perceptions of “religion” or Catholic Christianity.

2. It’s not about false information, but about not sharing our true selves. We may be well formed, eager, and highly articulate in sharing what the Catechesim of the Catholic Church says–but when we’re not authentic witnesse,s our “teaching” often goes unheard. We believe in a life of on-going conversion. Can you witness to a personal struggle to believe or follow any Church teachings?

It’s great to share Church teaching by quoting the CCC. But, anyone with the internet can probe the CCC on their own, online. When you share your own story of on-going conversion and deeper formation in the faith, it builds a bridge of trust. That doubts are an okay–in fact, a likely part of most disciples’ journeys! Sharing how you were led by the Holy Spirit through those doubts can be a true gift to another person who may be in a place of turmoil, doubt, isolation, or confusion. Consider this a deeper calling to the spiritual work of mercy of counseling the doubtful.

The New Evangelization calls us to put our best foot forward. And our “best foot” is our authentic selves. As authentic witnesses we are evangelizers for a faith that is real, exciting, challenging, and personal. We proclaim a Savior who humbled himself, becoming authentically human–entering into our messy world. As evangelizers we can share truth with this same authenticity, offering witness in word and deed that is more than mere information.

A version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com.

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.

 

Cru Inspired Thinking

I recently had the privilege of getting to attend a Cru (formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ) vision dinner (also called a “fellowship dinner”–here’s an example of one from a different region and some tips that explain what these are all about). I left filled up with thoughts, ideas for evangelization, and a curiosity about the many legacies of Cru in my life. Here’s a few thoughts:

1. The dinner was filled with real life testimony. Call it telling “glory stories” or celebrating “wins,” but the idea is the same. There’s something powerful about affirming the presence of God and the blessings of the Holy Spirit in our ministries. Read more…

2. The quickness of “win, build, send.” Like FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) the mantra or process for discipleship is the simple, “win, build, send.” One of the students sharing her testimony had her adult re-conversion (aka the “fundamental decision” in the language of Pope Emeritus Benedict in Deus Caritas Est, §1) to Jesus Christ in the fall. By the next summer she was doing initial proclamation of the Gospel and relational evangelism overseas on a summer-length mission. FOCUS operates similarly. While it’s not explicitly rejected, it seems like in typical parishes, we don’t expect or support this in adults. Many adults have the sense that the amount of formation before one can be “send” to verbally share the Gospel is quite high–that it requires vast intellectual formation that would take years to acquire. While on-going formation is a lifelong Christian discipline, there is something important about encouraging and affirming people in their ability to authentically share the initial proclamation of the Gospel, the kerygma right away. Authenticity and realness of conversion goes a long way.

3. Spiritual surveys can bear real fruit. I was reminded how these are a mainstay of building a ministry for Cru. Spiritual surveying is about conversation first, collecting data second. They are easily adaptable as an evangelization technique in Catholic parishes. Crupressgreen.com has some great resources and how-to articles, just search for “survey” or check this list.

4. Indirect influence matters. As I listened to the various speakers talk, I thought about how, though I’d never gone to a Cru (then Campus Crusade) small group Bible study during my undergraduate years, I was indeed touched by their ministry. The last time I moved, I found a box of papers from college. In one folder was a collection of “Every Student” newspaper ads with apologetics and/or evangelistic messages. I’d cut these out in college. Because they spoke to me and gave me ways to defend my faith in a skeptical, indifferent, and sometimes even politely hostile college environment. I’m also pretty sure that Cru helped to sponsor some of the many auditorium-filling Christian speakers that came to our campus to speak about the rationality of our faith, the created order, and more.

5. Cru’s Catholic legacy. For anyone familiar with Cru and FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), it’s pretty obvious that FOCUS is a “grandchild” of Cru [with FOCUS founder Curtis Martin as the first generation fruit of Cru, so to speak]. As I left the dinner, I was thinking about how amazed Cru founder Bill Bright might have been, back in the 1950s or 1960s, if someone had told him that in just a few decades there was going to be a Catholic version of Cru on campuses across America. Oh how the Holy Spirit can work, well beyond the limitations of our vision or imagination!

This made me a bit curious about Bill Bright, and so I found a library copy of Bill Bright & Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America and gave it a read. Interesting to hear about the struggles Bright had with seminary education in contrast to his evangelistic ministries, his belief that denominational churches weren’t really ready to disciple and continue to form the “converts” made by Campus Crusade, his various initiatives that were not specifically focused on the relational evangelism that I’ve always identified with Cru, and more. It seems that he started out a bit anti-Catholic (thinking that the election of JFK would be the last free election in America, due to JFK’s relationship with the Vatican), but really evolved throughout his life–becoming open to Catholicism through the charismatic renewal, receiving support for the 1979 Jesus film through Catholic channels, and eventually signing onto the Evangelicals and Catholics Together ecumenical statement in 1994.

The relationship between Cru and FOCUS reminds me of some of the glorious truths in the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), §3-4:

  • the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them [separated brethren] as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church
  • Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren
  • Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church.

In that spirit, as a Catholic in a parish blessed to be hosting FOCUS missionaries who minister at our neighboring university, I’m thankful for how God used Bill Bright in a way that is indirectly producing spiritual fruit in my very own parish.

Catholic Personal Testimony, continued…

Last week I shared some thoughts over at NewEvangelizers.com on the importance of making an effort to share personal testimony as a more ordinary part of Catholic parish life, faith formation, etc.

Since then I’ve come across some links to dig further into the subject:

From the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., Msgr. Charles Pope does a nice job analyzing how Kirsten Powers’ story functions as testimony.

From Canadian Catholic, a great 3-step lesson in sharing testimony and an encouragement as to why this is so vitally important.

I’ve also been thinking about where personal testimony fits into the bigger picture…

  • Wondering about discipleship? And if those in your parish and/or ministry are intentional disciples (to use Sherry Weddell’s phrase)? Ability to share personal testimony would certainly seem to be an important fruit of discipleship.
  • Preaching — personal testimony is an important part of preaching, especially evangelistic preaching or discipleship preaching. Crafting a personal narrative might even help someone discern the charism to preach generally, or even a vocation to the specific Eucharistic preaching unique to ordained priests.
  • Conversion is central to Christianity. Conversion is also something that separates authentic, lived, and believed faith from a cultural habit or historical vestige. Personal testimony highlights the centrality of conversion.
  • Sharing one’s own testimony can actually be a great conversation starter that gives someone else an opportunity to open up about his/her questions about God, past experiences of religion, etc. Instead of our just asking questions, by telling a story we can invite them. (Though, asking thoughtful questions is also good…I’m in no way putting down that important practice!)

The Power of Seeing

I’m back from summer classes! 🙂

One small, but notable lesson from the summer was the power of seeing.

One professor in particular immediately stood out to myself and many of my classmates. Why? Because she looked like many of us. She was a woman in her 30s and had the speech, mannerisms, style of dress, etc. to match. And this stood out…because most business professors are not of that mold.

This has a direct application to ministry. When we’re trying to welcome, evangelize, or teach, personal connection with the one providing witness matters. And, being able to see oneself in the messenger counts. Now, this is in no way about simple tokenism. No, instead it’s about putting some intentionality behind often overlooked aspects of our ministries.

For example…

  • What do our ushers, greeters, and hospitality volunteers look like? Are they representative of the parish? If not, some intentional, targeted recruitment might be in order. It’s often comforting or reassuring for a visitor to encounter someone similar to them upon entering a parish for the first time.
  • How about those who lead adult faith formation groups or speak in a parish over the course of a year? Is there diversity in age, gender, life state, etc.?
  • Or, thinking of those who volunteer with youth? Is there gender diversity? (Since we want our young men/boys and young women/girls to see like-role models int he faith)

One of the challenges that all ministerial leaders face is striking a balance between being simply happy to have any volunteer (yes, I’ve been there). And, doing some targeted recruitment when volunteers in one area of parish life have become unrepresentative of the parish as a whole or the surrounding population.

Bottom line, if the “first line” volunteers in our parishes aren’t representative of the parish as a whole or aren’t diverse enough to resonate with those who might happen to visit, we have to address the situation and work for positive change, so that the power of seeing a Christian witness who looks, talks, and acts like oneself can be a reality for every non-evangelized person who visits a ministry site.