Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Discipleship and Basketball

No matter how much one dribbles and passes, no matter how many fancy cross-overs or flailing shots one might take, if the ball doesn’t go in the basket then the game of basketball is hard to win.  Drawing on this analogy, we might say the same thing about Christianity.  Surely, Christian faith is not a game, but bear with me.

Jesus taught that the whole idea of Christianity is to make disciples.[1]  This, of course, means a lot of things – the Great Commission alone explicitly lists baptizing, teaching, and obeying the commandments of Jesus – yet sometimes I get the funny feeling that we, like those in the cartoon, are missing the point.  Worse yet, it seems that our Christian traditions haven’t even made it clear to us what that point really is.

Catholics have a very strong tradition of catechesis, that is, teaching the faith.  The average Catholic, by the time they are confirmed, have endured a virtual fire-hose treatment of Catholic doctrine, history, morality, etc. (now let it be understood that I’m writing as one who loves this stuff).  Yet our Mass attendance alone (hovering around 23%) suggests that our strategy has not produced vibrant, life-long disciples.  We might say that many Catholics have been “catechized but not evangelized.”

Eastern Orthodox have a strong liturgical and sacramental tradition (the same could be said for Catholics).  Yet the Eastern Orthodox Church also faces widespread nominalism and a similar limp in church attendance.  Eastern Orthodox theologian, Brad Nassif, has noted that many Orthodox Christians have been “sacramentalized but not evangelized.”

Evangelicals might look at this and say, “Well of course, you’ve missed the whole point!  It is about making a personal decision to accept Christ as your Lord and Savior.”  And in one sense they are right.  Personal faith, for all Christians, is both essential and indispensible.   Christianity, one might say, is not a spectator sport.  Rather, faith is personal and revolutionary.  It changes one’s life in real and tangible ways.  Pope Francis recently exhorted an audience at the Vatican, “A Christian who is not a revolutionary today isn’t a Christian.”[2]  Christian faith gives people “a heart that loves, a heart that suffers, a heart that rejoices with others, a heart full of tenderness for those who bear the wounds of life and feel like they are on the periphery of society.”  We share this passion with our Evangelical brothers and sisters!

Yet many are surprised to hear that the Evangelical emphasis on getting people to “make decisions” may also be falling short of the gospel’s call of discipleship.  While close to 90% of Evangelical Christians have made personal commitments to Christ, only 20% continue to live a “revolutionary faith.”[3]  Evangelical theologian, Scot McKnight, makes this startling contention:

There is a minimal difference in correlation between evangelical children and teenagers who make a decision for Christ and who later become genuine disciples, and Roman Catholics who are baptized as infants and who as adults become faithful and devout Catholic disciples.[4]

What?!  Really?!

The emerging problem with the Evangelical tradition is not so much that it makes faith personal.  This is something that we all need to do.  Rather, the problem that is surfacing is that many Evangelicals have reduced the gospel to “a statement about Jesus’ death and its meaning, and a prayer with which people accept it.”[5]  Evangelical theologian, Dallas Willard, has called it “the gospel of sin management,” a view of salvation that takes away your sin and destines you for heaven but has no connection to discipleship and spiritual transformation.  The data suggests that this personal plan of salvation - when severed from revolutionary story of Jesus Christ, the announcement of his kingdom, and a life-long commitment to ongoing discipleship - is no more effective than the Catholic or Orthodox practices of merely sacramentalizing and catechizing.

So who exactly is the kid in the cartoon who is saying, “Why has this been kept from us?”  Looks like the answer is . . .  all of us.  When it comes to Christian discipleship, we all have a lot to learn about “getting the ball in the basket.”

            [1]  Mt 28:19.
            [2]  Cindy Wooden, “Pope calls for ‘revolutionaries’ to change hearts, share God’s love,” The Catholic Messenger, Vol. 131, No. 24 (June 20, 2013), 1.
            [3]  Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, 20.
            [4]  Ibid.
            [5]  N. T. Wright, in the foreward to Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel, 13.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Untying Knots

There was once a very holy man who lived as a hermit in the woods.[1]  Day in and day out, he sought the Lord in simplicity, solitude and prayer.  Yet as his reputation for wise counsel grew, he was often visited by those seeking guidance.

One day, the saintly hermit was stirred from contemplation by a knock on his door.  A young disciple of the Lord, who was very fond of the holy man, asked this question:
“How do I deal with opposition from the people?” the young man asked.  Nicholas tied a knot in his rope and asked the disciple to untie the knot.  He was able to do so with ease.             

“Now do the same with the problems you’re facing with the people,” Nicholas instructed.

But his young disciple protested, “But it is not as effortless as that.”

Nicholas responded, “I would not be able to untie this knot in the rope either if we both pulled on each end at the same time.  Yet that is always the way people try to resolve their problems.”[2]

Untying knots.  The wisdom of such a tale can apply to so many situations.  I wonder how many Protestants and Catholics find themselves in a never-ending tug-of-war, pulling on one end of the rope only to find the knot of tension growing larger between them?  Perhaps it was a wound suffered at the hands of “the other” that made you pick up the rope and start tugging from the beginning?  You might find yourself in a relationship today, perhaps a family member or co-worker, where tensions are high and reconciliation seems distant.

Have you ever thought of dropping the rope and moving, with tenderness and mercy, toward the other?  What might happen if we cooled our infatuation with being “right” and spent our energy on building right relationship?  Think about it for a second.  I’m sure you can come up with a person or group or situation that is tying knots in your stomach today. 

Jesus reminds us, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”[3]  Right relationship with God is intimately bound with right relationship with one another.  Throw yourself on the altar of humility.  Be reconciled with your brother or sister.  Drop your end of the rope and embrace the reconciliation that only God can bring.  God is untying knots already.

[1] This story is drawn from the life of Nicholas de Flüe, 15th century hermit and patron saint of Switzerland.  After distinguishing himself as a fearless soldier, de Flüe felt the call to leave his worldly life and devote himself to God through contemplation and the ascetic life.  His reputation for holiness was widespread throughout Europe and his wise counsel has been recognized by both Protestants and Catholics for contributing to the enduring national unity in Switzerland.
[2] This humble figure was brought to my attention by Melinda Prunty, friend and current Director of Youth Ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro, KY.  Melinda’s master’s thesis, a beautiful reflection entitled “Ecumenism Today: Untying Knots,” was inspired by this story which she discovered in the work of French Dominican, Yves Congar.  See Yves Congar O.P., After Nine Hundred Years: The Background of the Schism Between the Eastern and Western Churches (New York: Fordham University Press, 1959), 78-79.
[3] Mt 4:23.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Eucharist: A Sign of Unity and Division

The following post was written by my dear friend and theological interlocutor, Andre Lesperance[1]:

Early in the fall semester each year I ask my new crop of students what they would do if they knew they only had 24 hours to live.  This happens to be quite the effective icebreaker.  The question, if taken seriously, is a window into our most important values, desires, fears and hopes.

The question also sets up one of our first units of study.  Jesus so happens to be someone who knew his death was imminent.  What did he do in his last hours?  How did he choose to spend his time?

The answer, according to the four Gospels, is that he hosted a dinner with his closest friends.  Yet the goal of this dinner was not merely to cling to the past or relish their few remaining moments together.  Jesus was laying out a plan for the road ahead.  He “took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”[2]  After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the early Christian community would experience how the presence of the risen Christ “was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”[3] 

It is unfortunate that the very ritual given by Jesus in his last hours to foster unity and strength for mission among his followers has been the subject of countless debates and divisions.  This is not to deny the real and important theological issues at stake, of course. Such heated debates at least testify to the importance of Jesus’ words and actions, as his followers struggle to understand them as best they can.

Yet aren’t the times ripe for building bridges once again where reformation-era debates have left gaping holes and wounded hearts?

At a lived pastoral level, we could start bridge building by suspending our initial assumptions about the other’s theology of the bread and the wine. As a Catholic, I know that those in my own tradition can often be guilty of such presumption—as I have been at times.  Since Catholicism most boldly asserts the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, we can all too easily assume every other church’s belief to be merely a symbolic remembering of the past.

On the other hand, perhaps Protestants can all too easily dismiss the Catholic view of the Eucharist as superstitious, divorced from the fundamentals of a heart surrendered to God.  And yet, how many Catholics corroborate this impression by their silent anti-witness of a life untransformed by Jesus, while remaining faithful—even adamant—in their adherence to weekly communion?  Indeed, it would seem that for many of us Catholics, the words of Jesus to Philip would equally apply to ourselves: “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9).

While I stand in full communion with the Catholic Church and happily assent to all of its teachings on the Eucharist, I find it crucial to approach with reverence and often silence the various Protestant attitudes toward the bread and the wine.  As a starting point for doing so, as well as for navigating some of the tensions between liberals and conservatives within Catholicism, I find the following excerpt from Fr. Ronald Rolheiser immensely helpful.  It captures some of the magnitude of this beautiful mystery that we cannot reduce to exclusive territorial skirmishes. Rolheiser reflects,

There are lots of views on the Eucharist:

·      For some it is a meal, for others it is a sacrifice
·      For some it is a ritual act, sacred and set apart, for others it is a community gathering, the more mess and kids there the better.
·      For some it is a deep personal prayer, for others it is a communal worship for the world.
·      For some its very essence is a coming together, a communion, of those united in a single denominational faith, while for others part of its essence is its reaching out, its innate imperative to wash the feet of those who are different from ourselves.
·      For some it is a celebration of sorrow, a making present of Christ’s suffering and thus the place where we can break down, for others it is the place to celebrate joy and sing alleluia.
·      For some it is a ritual remembrance, a making present of the historical events of Jesus’ dying, rising, ascending, and sending the Holy Spirit, for others it is a celebration of God’s presence with us today.
·      For some it is a celebration of the Last Supper, something to be done less frequently, for others it is God’s daily feeding of his people with a new manna, Christ’s body, and is something to be done every day.
·      For some it is a celebration of reconciliation, a ritual that forgives and unites, for others unity and reconciliation are pre-conditions for its proper celebration…
·      For some it is understood to make present the real, physical body of Christ, for others it is understood to make Christ present in a real but spiritual way.
·      Some call it the Lord’s Supper, others call it the Eucharist, others call it the Mass.

Who’s right? In truth, the Eucharist is all of these things, and more. It is like a finely-cut diamond twirling in the sun, every turn giving off a different sparkle. It is multivalent, carrying different layers of meaning, some of them in paradoxical tension with others…

There is no adequate explanation of the Eucharist for the same reason that, in the end, there is no adequate explanation for love, for embrace, and for the reception of life and spirit through touch. Certain realities take us beyond language because that is their very purpose. They do what words cannot do. They also are beyond what we can neatly nail down in our understanding.

And that is true of the Eucharist. Any attempt to nail down its full meaning will forever come up short because it will always eventually get up and walk away with the nail![4]

What does the bread and the wine mean to you?

[1] Andre Lesperance teaches theology at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he lives with his wife, Jackie, and three beautiful children.
[2] 1 Cor 11:24
[3] Luke 24:35
[4] Ronald Rolheiser, “The Many Faces of the Eucharist,” accessed on June 10, 2013 at http://www.ronrolheiser.com/columnarchive/?id=410