Friday, August 30, 2013

Bridges Over Kansas City

Earlier this week I spoke to about 50 Young Life staff from the Gateway Region (Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska) about the crucial relationship between Young Life and the Catholic Church.  Nearly every staff person in the region reported that Catholics represent a significant portion of the kids that they minister to every day. Saint Louis, as an example, stands as the second-most Catholic city in the country, per capita (Boston being the first), a place where tons of Catholic kids are deepening their faith in Christ through Young Life. None of us can neglect the importance of engaging these Catholics with respect, sensitivity and intentionality.

At the end of my presentation, I asked the staff, “Who among you wants to be a bridge-builder? Who among you wants to create an environment within Young Life that is safe for every kid? Who wants to help Catholic kids deepen their relationship with Christ and be the best Catholics they can be? Who among you is serious about building the bridges that will ensure young Catholics continue to grow and serve in their local Catholic parishes?” I think every hand in the room was raised. Young Life staffers are ready and they’re serious about collaborating with the Catholic Church to serve kids.

Yesterday morning I spoke at another gathering of 50+. Yet this room was filled with Catholic priests, youth ministers, diocesan officials and business people, all pulled together by a dynamic Catholic deacon from the Diocese of Kansas City, KS who is passionate about kids knowing Christ. Deacon Dana Nearmyer is an ardent fan of Young Life and believes that the incarnational model of our mission represents a critical component of Catholic success in the new evangelization. The gathering was absolutely electric – Catholics passionate about Christ and kids, meeting Young Life staff who want to do everything they can to connect Catholic kids to their local parishes where they can continue to grow.

After the meeting, local Young Life staff shared their sincere passion to connect Catholic kids (who had fallen away from the Church but were being re-engaged through Young Life) with local Catholic youth ministers who are equally passionate about continuing the relational investment in those young people. It was incredible. And just today I was copied on an email from Jon Schaffhausen, the Kansas City, MO diocesan director of youth ministry, inviting all local Young Life staff together to pray, to know one another, and to begin to strive together to reach kids for Christ.

The bridges are being built before my eyes.

Bridges of relationship.

Bridges of trust.

Bridges built by a common love for kids.

Bridges uniting our shared mission in Christ.

These are the bridges that will unite the body of Christ in the mission of reaching every kid, everywhere, for eternity. What about you? Are you a bridge-builder? Pray with me today that God might use you to bridge the tragic gap that separates us, bringing us together so that Jesus Christ can be known and magnified. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Letter to a Roman Catholic (A Response)

The following letter was submitted as a response to last week's post ("Letter to a Protestant").[1]  

Dearest friend in Christ,

First off, thank you for your letter.  I know how hard it can be to initiate a conversation between two parties who can be so entrenched in their preconceived understandings.  It took guts for you to write to me, and I respect you for that.

I, too, confess that I like you.  Everything that I have seen in you has been praiseworthy and beyond reproach.  You speak gently and with grace in humility.  I hope I can approach you in much the same manner.  But mostly, let it be known that I, too, consider you my brother in Christ.

It is funny that you should call me “Protestant” because it really isn’t a term that I claim for myself.  I know that you use it in a general sense to refer to me as being “non-Catholic,” but honestly I make no public “protest” of the Catholic Church.  I imagine most other Protestants would feel similarly.  They may think of themselves in specific terms as Lutheran or Methodist, or even in general terms as Charismatic or Evangelical.  (These categories may be wholly unfamiliar to some Catholics, and for that I apologize.  Perhaps we could discuss them at greater length another time.)

My point is that as a Protestant I believe myself to be a part of the body of Christ.  Thank you for reassuring me that you believe the same.  And I like that you referred to us as “family.”  To use a sociological term, what you describe is “fictive kinship” – a closeness shared between two or more members who are NOT related by blood.  I think it is a very poignant term to use for Christians because, even though “fictive” technically means “not real,” what could be more real than the relationship we share through Christ?  You see, in a very real sense we are related – through the BLOOD of Jesus Christ!

Because of this, it pains me to see the divisions that fracture the Church.  How can Christianity be attractive to the world when we are so divided against ourselves?  How can they “know we are Christians by our love” when more often than not we breed hate within our own family?  But your letter has given me hope.  Hope that, through our brokenness, we can be made whole again.  Hope that, though the Church may appear to be in ruins, God will make it glorious again.  I believe this is the collective hope of Easter that all Christians share.

I believe we share more in common than either many Protestants or Catholics realize.  Did you know that I believe that God is the creator of all things?  That Jesus Christ was his only Son, eternally begotten, very God of very God?  That in him was joined the human nature and the divine in one person?  That he suffered pains of body and soul, died, was buried, and rose again from the grave?  That the Holy Spirit is equal with the Father and the Son? 
Did you further know that I believe that Christ, through his Apostles, gathered unto himself a Church, and that this catholic Church is holy and shares fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  And that God forgives us of our sins, and will raise us up on the Last Day?

I dare not speak for you, but are we not on at least this much agreed?  I know there is much that may be added either from Catholic tradition or any number of Protestant traditions. But leaving aside those opinions (whether they be doctrine or not), can we not from this foundation encourage one another to love and good works?  Even if we cannot think alike in all things, at least we may love alike.

And speaking of love, I must warn you – not all Protestants will approach you with the love that I share for you.  That doesn’t make me magnanimous in any way.  I’m just letting you know that some of us are so lost in our misunderstanding of the “other” that it may be very difficult to find an opening to genuine dialogue.  Some will tell you that you are not Christian, or that you are an idolater.  Please know that these people do not speak for all Protestants.  But I ask that you pray with me that their hearts may be turned towards us as ours are toward them.

But what am I saying?  Let us forget about anyone else for now.  Without waiting for others, let us be the first stitch in this torn tapestry (and what a beautiful tapestry it is – how much more beautiful it will be!).  You and I, if we are thus far agreed, will be the bridge.  You and I may be the example to which others can look.  Perhaps as we continue to strengthen our bridge, others will be encouraged and say, “Hey, I want to build a bridge too!”  I pray for more bridge-builders.  Thank you for laying the first brick of our own bridge.  Here’s one more.

Your fellow servant for Christ’s sake,


[1] Chris is a worship leader at Iglesia Nueva Vida in Cleveland, OH.  He holds a Master of Arts in Theology from Aquinas Institute.  His research interests include worship, ecumenism, and the relationship between science and religion.  He lives with his wife -- Vanilda, and two kids -- Emilia and Dominic.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Letter to a Protestant

Dear friend,

Okay, I’m a Catholic and you’re a Protestant. I figure I’d come right out and say it, not to draw some line in the sand (goodness no) but to put into words what we both might be thinking.  “Oh, you’re one of them.” Right? Well, maybe there are a few things that you might want to know before we move on:

First, let me just say I like you. I have a smile on my face as I write. I don’t have some sort of knee-jerk reaction to you being Protestant. You are a Christian. You are my brother or sister in Christ Jesus. You are my friend and Jesus told us that there is no greater love than to give up one’s life for a friend. So we can start off on a very positive note.

I am so happy that you have let Christ into your life, that you have found your greatest love and deepest identity in him. Me too. I love it that your ultimate horizon is not worldly fame, financial fortunes or earthly possessions, as tempting as those things are in the world. No matter how many trophies we might accumulate, nothing satisfies. Only Jesus. You know that because I see it in you. After all, you live your life in the imitation of the suffering Servant, the lowly One, the Christ, and I love that about you. I honor and respect that so much.

You see, when you say that you are a Protestant, I know that you and I are so very close already. We have a bond in Christ that goes so deep. It's like we're family, perhaps closer than our own flesh and blood. We are the body of Christ. Together, we operate as Christ’s hands and feet in the world today. When it comes right down to it, I need you. Perhaps you sense that you need me too. We both probably sense that if  the world is gonna know Jesus as Lord, we're gonna need to work together. I want that. I know you do too.

Isn’t it wonderful to love Jesus, by the way? Isn’t it liberating to place your trust, not in an ideology or even a set of doctrines, but in a Person?  Pope John Paul II once said, “We are not saved by a formula but by a Person.” Of course he's talking about Jesus. This has always made a great impression on me. Earlier in my faith journey I was very concerned with being right. I just thought that's what you do. But most of the time it only fed my pride and left me at odds with others. I’m sorry about that. Now don't get me wrong, I continue to be a rather insatiable student of history and theology, but I think about it more in terms of right relationship than anything else – being in loving relationship with God, with others, and with the world in which I live and move. Jesus is such a good model for this.

Speaking of popes, I love our current pope. But I wanted you to know that he isn’t Jesus. Now I know you know this but you might be a little unsure of where I'm coming from. Gosh, we Catholics have made this so confusing for you! I’m sorry about that too. Now I believe Pope Francis is a holy and humble man, but I never get that confused with the Savior. What I find so inspiring about Francis is that he is a man of the Word, he walks what he talks, and he lives what he preaches. Our local bishop recently put it this way as he was ordaining priests, and I thought it was worth sharing: “Believe what you read (in the Bible); preach what you believe; and practice what you preach.” Boy, if we could all do that we’d be in pretty good shape!

I’ve heard many of my Protestant friends say lately that they are inspired by the pope. Francis’ simplicity and commitment to the common people, especially the poor, is just so powerful. Personally, he is a great challenge to me.  He shows me I've got a long way to go to be like Jesus! But the pope isn’t God, let's be clear. I do not worship him or pray to him. I don’t believe (nor does the Catholic Church) that everything he says is gospel truth. He is a follower of Christ, in need of a Savior, indebted to God’s grace, just like you and me. I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you that.

I don’t know if you usually associate this with Catholics but I do pray. And I’m not even talking about Hail May’s and Our Father’s (as wonderful as those prayers are). When I pray I simply talk to God and God talks to me. Matter of fact, the more I pray the more I’m inclined to button my lip and just listen! Surely God has a lot more important things to say to me.

I’d have to say that after nearly 20 years of being an intentional disciple of the Lord, my personal relationship with God is most shaped by reading the Bible and praying every day. Just like you, I thank God and praise him when I pray. I ask God to purify me from sin and fill me with the Holy Spirit. I accept Christ’s lordship in my life and invite him to change me any way he wants. I ask God to make me an instrument of his grace, truth, forgiveness and justice. I beg God to fill me with his love so that I can love others the way Jesus loves us. And I ask God to use me to draw others into a loving, growing relationship with Christ. I ask God to help me to be a good husband to my wife, a good father to my kids, and a good neighbor to my, well neighbors. Just writing about prayer now reminds me how little it helps to talk about prayer and how important it is just to pray.  So I’m going to pray for you now. I hope you’ll pray for me.

There are many things that I was planning to write to you about – Mary, the saints, sacraments, salvation, the Trinity – but for some reason it just doesn’t feel right. Perhaps we’ll get to that stuff on down the road, but I guess the most important thing is to get to know each other first. It seems like the more I get to know people, even people who I think are very different from me, the more I find that we’re more alike than anything. I get the sense sometimes from God, ya know those times when you’re deep in prayer, that we’re all really united already, we just don’t know it. And if we don’t know we’re part of the same body, it’s hard to act like it. But I hope we can change that – one person, one heart (and perhaps one letter) at a time.

I would love it if you’d write me back. I am so interested in your faith, your life, and your story with Jesus. I have a lot to learn from you. And I have a feeling we could become good friends. Thank you, truly, and God bless you.

Yours faithfully in Christ,


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Nearness and Encounter

There are two things that define the people of God as we respond to the call of Jesus and assume the full mantle of the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations”: nearness and encounter.  That’s how Pope Francis sees it anyway.

Surely we can draw up strategic plans and organizational grids (many of us may be doing just that as we gear up for another year of ministry/life/work/parenthood). But it is not the efficiencies of Modernity that have broken through the busyness of our age and the distraction of our hearts. It is God’s intimacy, revealed in a humble babe. It is a lowly servant that has transformed us. “He is the ‘God who is near’ to his people,” Pope Francis proclaimed in a recent address to the South American episcopate, “a nearness which culminates in the Incarnation.  He is the God who goes forth to meet his people.”[1]

People aren’t reached by programs. Kids (and adults alike) are reached by people. It’s being there. It’s showing up. It’s a phone call in a sea of emails. It’s a hand-written note in a world of texts. It’s a hug when only a hug will do. It’s going out and taking risks. It’s being shot down a time or two. It’s offering your heart with all the vulnerability of Jesus on the Cross. It’s laying your life down for the sake of a friend.

All too often we exchange the mission for the institution of the Church today. No doubt, a natural process of institutionalization is necessary to make universally accessible the life-giving kernel of God’s transformative power. The institution preserves and magnifies the mission. Yet when maintenance overtakes mission as the sole priority of the Church, our message becomes stale and our witness empty. To borrow Francis’ words, the Church “stops being a bride and ends up being an administrator; from being a servant, she becomes an ‘inspector’.”[2] All the while, kids, oblivious to all of our plans and procedures, councils and commissions, stand at the fray waiting for someone to step in and be the body of Christ, to draw near as a sacramental embodiment of God, to sanctify their existence by actually saying “hello.”

It’s not a business plan, it's an abiding presence. We are not “keepers of the aquarium” but “fishers of men [and women].”[3] We are lights unto the world, icons of the living God. And when we draw near to others in tenderness, mercy and personal friendship, we not only imitate God but we participate in the tender, merciful and thoroughly personal being-in-action, being-in-relation, triune reality we call God. The Incarnation has brought a “revolution of tenderness,” Pope Francis reminds us, one that can reach the lonely and the neglected, the rebellious and the reticent, the broken and the proud.

It is this nearness, this personal encounter with our fellow brothers and sojourning sisters, that makes room for an encounter with God. It is often the tangible love of another human being that opens the door to the eternal love of God. That’s why relationships of nearness are so important in the Church today. We see it in the life of Pope Francis and know it to be true in our own lives. Isn’t it time we go out, draw near and reveal the God whose love draws all of us into nearness and encounter?

“We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”
1 Thessalonians 2:8

[1] Pope Francis, “Address to the Coordinating Committee of CELAM,” Sumare Study Center: Rio de Janiero, July 28, 2013.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mt 4:19.