Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Circling Back to Catholicism: A Young Life Journey by Matthew Seifarth

I come from a Catholic family. My mom's mom was a devout Catholic, always praying for us grandkids and telling us that she loved us and Jesus loves us. My mom grew up Catholic, attending Catholic school through high school and even got married in the Catholic Church. Many might not know this (and I certainly don't remember this) but I was baptized Catholic. My mom’s family is from a small town in western PA, a mixing pot of many different cultures, but one church. Hagerstown, Maryland – I was born and raised here, and now I’m happy to serve this community on Young Life staff.

My parents left the Catholic Church when I was very young so most of my spiritual formation came from the Brethren tradition. I grew up going to a small little church - Longmeadow Church of the Brethren. I felt that going to Catholic Mass on Christmas and Easter was just part of the family tradition on my moms side. Most times while attending service on Easter or Christmas it was standing room only, so my last memory of having my whole mom’s side of the family together for a Sunday morning Mass was standing in the vestibule at Saint Ann’s. The only thing I found strange about a Catholic service was the length and not understanding all the parts of the Mass.

I heard Michael Havercamp speak at Area Director School in Colorado and I was fired up as he shared his journey and the many parallels between Young Life and the Catholic Church. I was excited about a staff person that was both Catholic and on staff with Young Life. I thought about all the kids and families that I knew or didn’t know that were raised in the Catholic Church. Now I felt like I had a resource to go to ask questions and begin to learn the new vocabulary to have dialogue with people that attended the local Catholic Church. 

Not too long after that I met Fr. Marty, the local Catholic priest, at a meeting of youth organizations. When he asked me what Young Life was, I tried to be winsome and relational, sharing with him the mission statement and how I went about forming intentional relationships with kids in the community. I was surprised when he expressed an interest in Young Life and humbly acknowledged a real need for renewal in the youth ministry at his parish. I liked Fr. Marty, he was a personable guy and I was excited to meet with him outside the group setting to get to know him and hear his story.

I’ll never forget when he told me he wasn't just about trying to get kids to come to Mass or youth group, he wanted kids to really engage in their faith through an encounter with Jesus. This struck a chord in my life, cuz I just want kids to know Jesus Christ and have a life long adventure while growing in his likeness. It seemed like me and Fr. Marty were on the same page from the beginning.

One coffee meeting led to another (interestingly, I learned that Fr. Marty never pays for his coffee, there's always a parishioner there that is pleased to cover the tab), and he and I really started to develop a friendship. I enjoyed our conversations and he came to value the insights I have in working with young people. Before I knew it I was being invited to attend a gathering of Catholics to discuss a recent interview given by Pope Francis. I was excited about this discussion, but knew I would have to read up on the interview and familiarize myself with anything I didn’t know or understand. I was glad to be part of the discussion but was a bit apprehensive because of my lack of knowledge on the Catholic faith/culture. (I wish I was more versed on Catholic vocabulary/terminology).

I arrived and was surprised to receive a warm welcome from a few parishioners who escorted me to the wine and cheese spread at the back of the room. Certainly not your typical church refreshments! At one point in the seminar, Fr. Marty, who was leading, took a moment to introduce me and I was humbled to get an applause. What? Really?

I even got a chance to share my own thoughts about the pope's interview. I love what Pope Francis says here, as it relates so much to the work I'm doing in Young Life:

The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.[1]

This relates to Young life in the most beautiful way. As a Young Life leader, or in fact anyone that loves the Lord and also professes to love others, we need to become masters at walking along side others, helping them with their physical, mental, and emotional needs as well as sharing the love of Christ with them. This is what we mean when we say that Young Life’s approach is “incarnational.” We don’t ask kids to come to us, we meet them where they’re at and let the love of Christ come alive right there.

As things ended, I was bombarded with people that wanted to speak with me. I couldn't believe it but I made so many wonderful connections that day. And everybody was thrilled to hear about what I was doing with kids through Young Life. It was great to see such a rich and intentional dialogue develop by showing up to just one meeting at the Catholic parish. I even got to take some photo opps with Pope Francis himself (well, a cardboard cut-out at least).

I have continued to meet with Father Marty and he has become a dear friend. Someone who I can call, text or email and many times have a meeting with him the same week. It’s been an honor to be a part of his life and to see how he loves the Lord and loves the community he is serving. I always look forward to our times together and the discussions we have. I've grown in my relationship with the Lord from the Scriptures I have read in preparation for my discussion with Father Marty, but also with even my prayer life with the Lord to ask for guidance and wisdom with how to approach different subject matters.

As far as how this has affected me in doing Young Life I have been far more sensitive to how I approach kids/parents that I know are Catholic. I think before I was meeting regularly with Father Marty, I would have been more timid about how I would talk with or about Catholics. I think now I am more than happy and even bold to talk with Catholic kids or parents because of my knowledge of what they believe as well as my relationship with a Catholic priest Father Marty. I do not take lightly my relationship with Father Marty and I try to learn as much as I can when I am with him. He enjoys studying to prepare for his homilies  and I feel that has inspired me to read more and even write this blog post when Michael asked me to share my story.

I have been encouraged, challenged and spurred on to grow in my walk with the Lord through my relationship with Father Marty and the Catholic Church. I am in awe of the reverence He has for the Lord and even how my approach to worshipping the Lord has changed with how I am postured. I have even gone to Catholic Mass and it wasn’t on Christmas or Easter! I have prayed the Rosary and read multiple prayers while in chapel. I am grateful for my relationship with Father Marty and look forward to see how the Lord uses it in our ministries.

[1] Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America (September 30, 2013), at http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dogs & God

I’m a hopeless dog lover. My wife occasionally accuses me of giving more attention to the dog than her. I tell her that if she responded the way our dog does every time I walk through the door, things might be different. J

I grew up with dogs. Rebel, my first dog, was my same age. We grew up together. I would come home from school every day, ditch the lunch box (yes, I lived through the era of metal lunch boxes), grab the dog and head outside. We hiked the woods, braved the creek, chased squirrels, ya know, man stuff. We’d take naps together, he’d eat my table scraps under the table (even vegetables, except that one occasion with the cooked spinach which ended very, very badly for me). He boated with us in the summer and sled with us in the winter. He was such a good boy – gentle, adventurous, sensitive and loyal. I loved that dog.

My wife grew up with dogs, but she lived on a farm, and from what I gather from farm families and their dogs, there’s not much of a love connection there. These dogs were outside dogs, never allowed in the house, rarely pet, and never, and I repeat never, allowed to eat food from out of your mouth (Rebel used to love that).

So as Tasha and I were “courting” seriously, one of our first disagreements was whether we’d have a dog. “We have to have a dog,” I’d say. “A big dog, like Rebel!” She would give me one of those disgusted looks as if I had just allowed a dog to eat out of my mouth. “We are not getting a dog,” she’d insist. After many such showdowns, I figured I’d lost that battle. And I loved her so much that if marrying her meant I’d have to live without a dog, then so be it (translation: I knew I could wear her down and we’d get a dog anyway).

 Well low and behold, when our big day came, Tasha’s wedding gift to me was, you guessed it, a dog. The day we returned from our honeymoon, we picked up a little 7-week old yellow lab who we affectionately named Cooper. Coop is not yellow, he’s white as snow, making him look like a mini-polar bear and he is about the best dog you’ll ever meet. Totally chill from birth, some say he’s an “old soul” – calm, steadfast, loving and true. In other words, he’s a lot like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.

What does all this have to do with living the Gospel. I dunno, but a friend of mine recently quoted an age-old truism that I don’t think I’ll ever forget:

“Be the person your dog thinks you are.” 

No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done or how badly you’ve messed things up, a dog will love you with that insatiable love, overflowing with the kind of lavish joy as if you were the only person in the world, as if he’d been waiting his whole life for this moment of reunion. A dog only sees the very best in you.

Kinda like God.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. . . For this son of mine was lost and is now found.

Luke 15:20, 24

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Attracting Sinners, Smelling Like Sheep

One of my spiritual disciplines is reading the Bible everyday. Part of that practice is reading through the New Testament over the over throughout the year.[1] Each morning I’ll pick up where I left off, read the text prayerfully (in the spirit of lectio divina) until the Spirit prompts me to stop and reflect on a given passage, insight or idea. Sometimes I’ll read several chapters or pericopes, other times just a few verses.

This morning I was stopped dead in my tracks with a single verse:

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.[2]

I couldn’t read on. I wanted to but I couldn’t. I just hung there, suspended in time with this single idea. Notorious sinners often came to hear Jesus teach.

For some reason it hit me like a ton of bricks. The biggest sinners in town were drawn to Jesus. They were attracted to him. They couldn’t stay away from him. The very people who were shunned, shamed and ridiculed by the religious establishment, the people who were not welcomed in religious circles, those sinful people who didn’t “fit in” with the religious insiders – these were the people who couldn’t get enough of Jesus.

And Scripture paints a picture as clear as day, Jesus intentionally sought these people out. These were the folks he actually preferred to hang out with. We could even go so far as to say that these were exactly the type of people that he came for. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus said. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”[3]

Cyril of Alexandria, early church father who strongly influenced the Christological foundations of the faith in the 5th century asked, “Tell me, O Pharisee, why do you grumble because Christ did not scorn to be with publicans and sinners, but purposely provided for them this means of salvation?”[4] Jesus purposely sought the sinner, the lost, the reject, the rowdy, the unruly, the unchurched so that he could intentionally show them “the way.” This was his audience. These were his people. And they could sense it. That’s why they couldn’t resist him.

Can we say that about the Church today? Can we honestly say that about ourselves? Do we find ourselves surrounded by “sinners”[5] or are we enjoying the company of our little holy huddle? Do we wake up in the morning propelled out of bed by the idea of reaching out to help, to serve, to save the lost? Or are we happy maintaining the institution - building buildings, sitting on committees and keeping “our own” satisfied?

Pope Francis challenges us all in his recent exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel):

The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step. . . An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.[6]

Let this idea stop us all dead in our tracks.

Are we truly following Jesus? How do we even know? A simply answer is, we’ll be doing what Jesus did – loving the sinner, going after him, being with her, getting out of the comfortable confines of the “acceptable” and reaching out and touching the wounds of the reject, sharing in both the joys and the suffering of the lost. We’ll know that we’re following Jesus when we, to borrow Pope Francis’ words, “smell like the sheep,” and like Jesus, find the sheep willing to hear our voice.

[1] I typically delve into the Psalms everyday as well, in addition to daily readings in the New Testament and supplemental spiritual texts. And yes, of course, I read the rest of the Bible too but I’m just being transparent about my daily staples.
[2] Lk 15:1 (NLT).
[3] Lk 5:31.
[4] Cyril of Alexandria, “Commentarii in Lucam,” Opera Omnia, 72.
[5] Of course we all are sinners but you know what I mean.
[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 24.