Friday, May 31, 2013

Inconvenient Truths: The Light of the "Dark" Ages

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael's question was cynical perhaps, but nonetheless widespread (Jn 1:46).  For many, particularly if you were raised in the Protestant tradition, the same question might be asked of the church in the Middle Ages.  The scandal of three popes (formerly referred to as the Western Schism), the proliferation of religious wars, and the widespread corruption of the clergy cast an enormous shadow on the community which professed its allegiance to Jesus, the Light of the world.  Describing this period as the “Dark Ages,” in certain aspects, has its warrant.

Many see the scintillating scandals of the Middle Ages as proof enough for what they see as a wholesale abandonment of the gospel and a wanton neglect of the way of life modeled after Jesus Christ.  In this vein, it is easy to simply write off the Catholic Church and dismiss about one thousand years of church history as a spiritual/theological/ecclesial "wandering in the desert."

Yet history has a funny way of revealing beautiful and inconvenient truths that confound our overly simplistic meta-narratives.  Honest historical inquiry unveils not only the inherent fallenness of the church but also the enduring faithfulness and pastoral innovation that bear the authentic marks of the Savior.  A walk through church history reveals a strong and curious light, the promised presence of Christ that never left the people of God (Mt 28:20).

One might be surprised, for example, to learn that Jim Rayburn wasn’t the first to intuit the pastoral initiative to “meet them where they’re at” and “earn the right to be heard.”  As the 12th century experienced the rapid rise of urban centers across Europe, new modes of apostolic life emerged in the Catholic Church to respond to this seismic cultural shift.  Surely, silence and solitude remained critical to the spiritual life and monastic communities had their place, but many Catholic Christians began to ponder how their passion to follow in Christ’s footsteps might be played out in new and creative ways within the hustle and bustle of Europe’s bourgeoning cities.

Enter the Dominicans and Franciscans (and later the Carmelites and Augustinians).  These devoted followers of Christ saw the pressing needs of the common people and were inspired to bring the light of Christ into the grungy darkness of medieval cities.  Like the God of the Incarnation who they served, Franciscan friars and Dominican priests “moved into the neighborhood” and earned the right to be heard by living amongst the people in friendship and solidarity.[1]

Furthermore, the religious meetings of these new mendicant orders were often held outside the liturgical setting of Mass.  These dynamic and animated preachers attracted large numbers of people who had grown tired of the daily grind and who were hungry for a new word of hope.  It seems like these radical Christians had a penchant for proclaiming the gospel with a keen eye on culture.  This is all starting to sound strangely familiar.

By no means do I wish to present this as a race, with the Catholics “getting there first.”  There is not even a hint of triumphalism in this.  I do, however, wish to establish a longstanding continuity between the Catholic tradition and those spiritual-pastoral insights that we so highly value in Young Life.  Who knows, maybe Rayburn himself, in his study of church history, stumbled upon the 13th century mendicant orders and was inspired to inaugurate a similar movement amidst the equally swirling dynamics of adolescent youth culture today? 

What ever the case, we detect together, even amidst the shadowy eclipse of the Dark Ages, a ray of light which continues to inspire the whole people of God – Protestants and Catholics alike – to shine like a city on a hill (Mt 5:14) and proclaim the luminous message of Jesus Christ to all peoples. 

[1]  Leopold Clueckert, O. Carm., Desert Springs in the City, Darien, IL: Carmelite Media, 2012, pp.20-21.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Wary of Worry

It has been said that “anxiety is nothing but repeatedly re-experiencing failure in advance.”  Read that one a couple times and let it sink in.  Anxiety.  Worry. It is as commonplace as breathing and we live with it as unconsciously as our lungs exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.  It is so common as to occupy our thoughts, our ambitions, our attractions, our aversions, and we may be little aware of its presence in our lives much less its effects.

I was in my thirties before it dawned on me that I had a profound fear of failure.  Who knows why, I had never really experienced any significant failures.  But there it was nonetheless.  Of course this fear was cloaked by a series of successes that gave the illusion that my life was a gracefully unfolding narrative of ease, certainty, and inner freedom.  I had worked hard, studied hard, stayed focused, got lucky a few times, and was livin' the dream.  Or was I?

Beneath that thin veneer, I'd have to admit that that manifest destiny of success was only a mirage.  Under the surface I was just as uncertain and anxious as the next guy. Driven less by inner freedom than a fear of failing, I continued on through life, doing the right things, collecting imaginary trophies along the way, wondering why each new achievement couldn't sustain my ego beyond the world's applause.  

And I suppose it has always been that way, even in Jesus’ time.  Jesus looked lovingly at Martha's busy preparations and said, "Martha, Martha you are worried and anxious about many things"(Lk 10:42).  Makes me wonder if Martha too had such a complex.  What failure was she constantly repeating in advance that made her so anxious?  Under the surface of so much productivity, what drove this perpetual motion, this unrelenting busyness?

Without discarding the value of hard work, Jesus kindly reminds us, "Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her"(Lk 10:42).  That "good portion," I believe, is the peace that "transcends understanding"(Ph 4:7), a peace that the world cannot give (Jn 14:27), a peace that is not to be attained through achievement but received by the meek as pure gift (Ps 37:11). 

Take a moment to examine your own heart.  What is weighing on you?  What worries are you unable to shake?  What are you anxious about? We really have nothing to fear.  God has won the victory.  So throw your anxieties to the wind, and repeatedly re-experience the glory of Christ that is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

 “Do not worry about anything . . .”
Philippians 4:6

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Young Life Summit on Ministering To and With Catholics

The inaugural Young Life Catholic Summit commenced this week with a prayer from St. Francis of Assisi, a heartfelt appeal that this humble saint presented to our Lord over six centuries ago:

Most High,
glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me
true faith,
certain hope,
and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge,
that I may carry out
Your holy and true command.[1]

This sacred plea represents the same simplicity, clarity and authenticity of a more contemporary prayer voiced by yet another determined visionary some 536 years later, a prayer which gave birth to a parallel movement to renew the heart of the church:

Oh that I could just let God
work out His life in me.[2]

This was the prayer of Jim Rayburn, offered in 1941, the year in which the mission of Young Life was founded.  Who would have thought that this winsome evangelist with Texas swagger would have anything to do with this venerated Catholic friar from Assisi?  Yet this spirit of humility, simplicity and evangelical (small ‘e’) zeal was powerfully present at the YL Catholic Summit held this week in Colorado Springs. 

Imagine a room full of Protestants and Catholics - all educated, men and women of passionate faith and mission-tested talent – coming together to discuss Young Life, the Catholic Church, and the vision of reaching the lost.  What comes to mind?  The word that immediately pops into my head is… friction! 

Yet there was none to be found.   These men and women of God came together with open hearts and loving kindness.  These brothers and sisters quickly came to understand that they were not strangers but fellow sojourners on the humble road of discipleship.  What happened in Colorado, in the shadows of Pikes Peak, was a profound step forward for the kingdom of God and a testament to the unitive power alive right now in Young Life.[3]

Their spirit has set into motion a movement which has the power to heal the painful wounds of division, harness the energy of collaborative mission, and change the future for both Young Life and the Catholic Church.  A national strategic plan of evangelization to/with Catholics, written endorsement at the highest levels, and a commitment to train every Young Life staff person to honor and celebrate the faith of our Catholic brothers and sisters while calling them to ever-deeper levels of conversion in Christ – these are things that I wasn’t even dreaming about when this work began 9 months ago. 

We have a long road ahead of us and, like Thomas Merton once noted, we “cannot know for certain where it will end,” but we can be sure that our desire to please the Lord, our commitment to carrying out God’s holy and true command, and our desire to let God work out His life in us, does in fact please Him.[4]
A view of the summit from the Summit.
(Pikes Peak, 14,114 ft.)

            [1]  Francis of Assisi, “Prayer before the Crucifix,” Cf. L3S 13, Barcelona’s Biblioteca Central, Codex 665, dated 1405/06.
            [2]  A journal entry of Jim Rayburn, Jr., written March 6, 1941.
[3] The summit was held in the shadows, not only of Pikes Peak, but a soaring rock formation in the Garden of the Gods, which, illuminated by the glow of the setting sun, presents the stunning profile of two camels kissing.  The property of our gracious hosts is located in the resort by the same name.   
[4] Thomas Merton, the great Trappist monk, contemplative activist and ecumenical luminary, once prayed, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end. . .  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. . .”

Monday, May 13, 2013

Tough Questions, Real Answers

Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, was fond of reminding staff to “major in the majors.”  What I think he meant was that in Young Life’s mission to teenagers, it should focus on the most essential aspects of the Christian message, teaching young people what it means to meet the person of Jesus Christ and follow him.  Surely the universal church concerns itself with many other issues, but Rayburn wanted Young Life to remain committed to the “heart” of the gospel.

Does the Catholic Church beat with the same heart? Is it majoring in the same majors?  Does it preach the same gospel?  Or is it teaching another religion altogether?  In this exclusive interview with Pope Francis, these critical questions are addressed head on.[1]  Is it about tradition?  Moral change?  What about merits or good works?  What really separates a true Christian from a nominal one? 

These are questions that many people are asking as this work to bridge the gap between Young Life and the Catholic Church continues.  These are questions I have asked myself.  As for the answers?  Take the next four minutes and hear it directly from the pope’s mouth (click on the video below).  This is one of the most incredible pieces I’ve ever seen:

            [1]  This interview by Alejandro Rodriguez, president of YWAM Argentina, was conducted before Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13, 2013.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sanctus in Seattle

What do you get when you take the Young Life model, tailor it for Catholics and plop it down in one of the most secularized parts of the country?[1]  In a word, Sanctus.  Last week I met with Catholic youth ministers, priests, parishioners and Young Life staff in Seattle, Washington.  What drew me there was a powerful movement of Catholics who have taken up the call to go where kids are, build authentic relationships, and “earn the right to be heard” about the greatest love story ever told. 

Sound familiar?  You bet.  The vision for Sanctus was inspired by the tried and true methods of incarnational evangelization honed by Young Life to reach “every kid, everywhere, for eternity.”  For over 70 years, Young Life leaders have cared enough about teenagers to show up in their world, engage them on their turf, and develop enduring relationships which convey the presence and compassion of Jesus.  Our founder, Jim Rayburn, was completely sold out for these labor-intensive methods because he was convinced that they are the only way to reach disinterested teens.

Amy Nash is equally convinced.  “What Young Life does in reaching teens for Christ is miraculous!  The young people of the Catholic Church are in dire need for relational evangelism.  There is such a great harvest, but the workers are too few!  We are training up college-aged students to be a living witness of Jesus to kids – especially those in the Catholic schooling system.”

Nash is the architect and director of Sanctus, an approach to reaching and retaining the more than 80% of Catholic teens who are leaving the Church every year.  As a committed Catholic, youth minister and mother of two, Amy isn’t satisfied with those statistics.  “I want this cycle of loosing kids to change before my kids are teens.  I need to know that someone – other than me – is going to come after them.  It’s so exciting how God’s Spirit is stirring in Seattle to reach the lost… we’re praying He brings others around this mission so it’ll spread across the nation.”  

Nash knows that spending time with young people and building real relationships is the centerpiece of evangelization, not simply because it was the way Jesus did it (if that wasn’t enough), but because she’s seen it work in the lives of thousands of teens.  Where?  Young Life.  Amy loves Young Life because she has experienced it first hand – as a Young Life kid, a Young Life leader, and a Young Life staff person.  And she believes those same methods can be effective in reanimating the core of Catholic faith in Seattle teens.  “Jesus is revealing his relentless heart for Catholic teens, and our teens are desperate for a personal and real encounter with Christ.  They need authentic, Christ-centered relationships.  They need to be pursued.”

And now, Nash is putting those methods to work in the heart of Seattle.  Drawing the collaboration of Catholic parishes, Catholic high schools, and local Young Life staff, Nash hopes to develop a culture of discipleship where young people are awakened in their faith, inspired by the love of Jesus and committed to serving their church and world.   In Catholic terms, it is about presenting anew the heart of the Catholic tradition and the foundation of the “new evangelization” exhorted by Pope John Paul II.  And what is that heart and foundation of Catholicism?  A dynamic and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Ministry models like Sanctus represent an important step in the relationship between Young Life and the Catholic Church. Youth workers like Nash are showing that partnership and collaboration create the best environment for kids to encounter Jesus Christ and grow in their faith.

If you’re inspired by Nash’s work and want to learn more about Sanctus, please feel free to contact her at:

     Amy Nash – Director of Sanctus Ministries

Amy Nash (center) investing in college students by hiking in the Cascades.
Both students, now graduated, are in full-time ministry.

            [1]  Seattle is the third least religious city in the United States, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.  And what city takes the “top” prize?  Portland, Oregon, the other major hub of the Pacific Northwest.