Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hail Mary

Today is the feast of the Annunciation. Translation: This post is going to cause a reaction. Why? Well, have you heard the joke about the three issues that Protestants have with Roman Catholicism? Mary, Mary and Mary. Certainly not a joke, this feast day in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox liturgical calendar, otherwise known as the Solemnity of the Annunciation of our Lord, is all about Mary.[1] And therefore, it is all about Jesus. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Today we celebrate the coming of the angel Gabriel and his shocking announcement to Mary, a young, poor, Jewish woman who was still months away from proper marriage – “You will be with child and give birth to a son . . . the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”[2] On this day, more specifically, we celebrate Mary’s fiat, the courageous “may it be done to me,” not because it represents any merit outside of God’s grace but because Mary’s freely chosen “yes” was the chosen avenue for God’s very Incarnation and a model of Christian discipleship for us today.

If you are Protestant, you are probably squirming in your chair already. Like me (raised Presbyterian), you may have reacted so much to Mary as to push her out of your consciousness and spirituality altogether. As Evangelical scholar Scot McKnight put it, “Most of us know far more about what we don’t believe about Mary – that she wasn’t immaculately conceived, that she had other children and wasn’t perpetually virgin, etc. – than what we do believe about Mary.”[3]

That’s why McKnight chose to write a book about Mary, encouraging his Evangelical friends to desist from such “reaction formation” and begin to see Mary in a fresh and biblical light. “We are Protestants!” he says forcibly. “We believe in the Bible; Mary is in the Bible; we need to believe what the Bible says about Mary.”[4] Ultimately, he writes, and I use his own words, “Because the real Mary always leads us to Jesus.”[5]

This is what most Protestants miss regarding Marian devotion – the Rosary, Novenas, scapulars and pilgrimages to places like Lourdes or Madjugorje. It is all about Jesus. At least that’s the intended design. Our understanding of, our attention to, and yes, our relationship with Mary can and should point to, awaken our faith in, and strengthen our primary relationship with Jesus.

Yet I’d have to admit as a Catholic that at times Marian devotion can obscure its Christocentric focus. I often joke about Catholics giving the impression that Mary is the fourth person of the Trinity, but only half in jest. The way we talk about Mary, if it doesn’t lead us to Jesus, makes non-Catholics very uneasy. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t also make Mary herself uncomfortable.

Msgr. Peter Hocken, Catholic priest and noted ecumenist, cautions against such a consequential separation, suggesting that the Spirit will convict us if in honoring Mary we obscure the clear centrality of Jesus:

The Spirit will make Catholics uneasy, not about honouring Mary (Luke 1:48), but about all forms and expressions of Marian devotion that downplay or ignore the centrality of Jesus. Anything that obscures the uniqueness of Jesus’ role as mediator between God and the human race will be contested by the Spirit.[6]

And so it should. What we celebrate today has been celebrated for centuries because it marks the moment that God “became flesh and dwelt among us.”[7] It marks the moment when, “with the entrance of the eternal into time, time itself is redeemed.”[8] Mary is “full of grace,” because, in a quite literal sense, she is full of Jesus. On this day, I wonder if we, Catholics and Protestants alike, with our eyes fixed on the Lord, might together be able to join in the angelic chorus. . .

“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”
Luke 1:29

[1] Documented celebrations of the feast of the Annunciation date back to the fourth and fifth centuries.
[2] Lk 1:31, 35.
[3] Scot McKnight, The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007), 5.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 6.
[6] Peter Hocken, The Glory and the Shame: Reflections on the 20th Century Outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Guildford, UK: Eagle Publishing, 1987), 117; taken from Paul M Miller, Evangelical Mission in Co-operation with Catholics: A Study of Evangelical Missiological Tensions (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 138-139.
[7] Jn 1:14.
[8] Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater (The Mother of the Redeemer), 1.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Stories We Tell

God so loved stories that He created human beings.
Elie Wiesel

She had merely pronounced the title of her story and the tears started welling up in my eyes. I couldn’t control it. “How I Met My Birth-Mom.” Her story hadn’t even begun but those five words were pregnant with vulnerability, courage and self-disclosure. I was not expecting the emotional impact of the stories that were shared that day but I will not soon forget them – a mother’s excruciating struggle with a sick newborn fighting for life, a young college student leaving the security of home and the comfort of a boyfriend to follow the call of Christ, a young man (years later) meeting the nurse who’s tender care nurtured his delicate life as a preemie, a true “miracle” baby.

This was the first session of a series of ecumenical dialogues I gathered this week between Protestants and Catholics as part of my doctoral research. I invited this group of faithful men and women to probe their inner attitudes about “the other” and share their most sacred stories – how they have experienced the transformative presence of God. They were not there to prove their denominational positions or win theological arguments. They were simply asked to share stories about how they’ve experienced the living God. What I’m interested in is the effect that storytelling (not just any stories but the deep, sacred stories of our encounters with God) has on our perceptions of “the other”.

Narrative psychologists suggest that stories and storytelling are at the center of identity formation.  “We are storytellers, and we are the stories we tell,” noted Dan McAdams, professor and chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University.[1]  Human beings, by their very nature, are storytellers. Not only do we enjoy a good story, it seems that our brains are hardwired for it.  The need for narrative is the very “cornerstone of consciousness.”[2] We are the stories we tell.[3]

So the question becomes: What are the stories that we are living into and what are the stories our lives are telling? What are the stories that frame our understanding of ourselves and those who we consider “other”? When Protestants and Catholics think about one another do their minds jump straight to doctrinal differences? Do we rush through the list of reasons why we are “in” and they are “out”? Do we grope for memories that will reinforce and calcify our separateness and justify our bitterness?

Pursuing these questions can lead to startling realizations: Is my identity grounded in intellectual concepts and doctrinal prepositions, or do my stories and the stories of others reveal something deeper, more fundamental, more unifying, more human? The stories told this week lead me to believe that deep and abiding unity is not a pipedream but a gift waiting to be given. The real question is: Do we have the patience and humility to hear the sacred stories of others, listen with our whole being, and embrace the other as a part of ourselves?

A Vision of Embrace

In an embrace I open my arms to create space in myself for the other. Open arms are a sign that I do not want to be by myself only, an invitation for the other to come in and feel at home with me. In an embrace I also close my arms around the other. Closed arms are a sign that I want the other to become a part of me while I at the same time maintain my own identity. By becoming part of me, the other enriches me. In a mutual embrace, none remains the same because each enriches the other, yet both remain true to their genuine selves.[4]

            [1]  Dan P. McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson, and Amia Lieblich (editors), Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2006), 3.
            [2]  Peter Gruber, “The Inside Story,” Psychology Today (March 15, 2011) found at http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201103/the-inside-story, Accessed 1/15/13.
[3] So pervasive is this consensus that many scholars suggest that the brain is “first and foremost a vehicle for storytelling.” Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (New York: The Guilford Press, 1993), 28.  See also G.S. Howard, A Tale of Two Stories: Excursions into a Narrative Psychology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989); M. Landau, “Human Evolution as Narrative,” American Scientist, 72 (1984): 262-268; T.R. Sarbin (ed.), Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct (New York: Praeger, 1986).
[4] Miroslav Volf, “A Vision of Embrace: Theological Perspectives on Cultural Identity and Conflict,” The Ecumenical Review 48(2), April 1995, 203.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Right Christian/Wrong Christian

In her beautifully clever and brutally transparent book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, Christena Cleveland writes[1]:

[For some] Wrong Christian is an irreverent little twerp who wears baseball caps during church. . . Wrong Christian is a charismatic guy who speaks in tongues and worships weirdly. . . Wrong Christian attends a church that allows female leadership. Or maybe Wrong Christian attends a church that doesn’t allow female leadership. Maybe Wrong Christian went to a Christian college. Maybe Wrong Christian doesn’t speak English. . . Maybe Wrong Christian drives a Hummer. Maybe Wrong Christian promotes Reformed theology. . . Maybe Wrong Christian is just annoying.[2]

Reflecting on her early life as a follower of Christ, Cleveland equated her spiritual “growth” with increasingly stronger opinions about the “right” way to follow Jesus. Her conclusion? Well, there were Right Christians (those who thought, felt, looked, voted, read, recreated and dressed like her) and Wrong Christians (everyone else). And what did she do with the Wrong Christians? “I managed to avoid them in my life by locating them, categorizing them and gracefully shunning them, all the while appearing to be both spiritual and community-oriented.”[3]

Later she would uncover the startling truth that our love for God is to be matched by our love for other Christians. Matter of fact, the single greatest missionary force in the world is not our love for Christ but our love for the Church.[4] Reformed biblical scholar Dale Bruner says it this way (referring to Jn 13:35):

Now Jesus does not say here that the world will know we are Christians by our love for God or for his Christ; rather, and a little surprisingly, they will know we are Christians by our loyal and affectionate churchmanship – by our heart for the Church.[5]

Now neither Cleveland nor Bruner are saying that the differences within the body of Christ – theological, historical, moral, philosophical, ideological – are trivial. They are substantive and important. But the centrality of Jesus’ command to love one another cannot and should not be overlooked[6]. Our mutually lived-out love for “the other,” even though we might believe them to be in error, is, according to Jesus, the centerpiece for world missions. My “right” and your “wrong” are leveled on the playing field of God’s love for us, stretched out on the Cross, inviting us into self-giving intimacy with the other.

I ask, Father, . . .
 that they [my disciples] may all be one . . .
that they may become completely one
so that the world may know that you have sent me
and know that you have loved them as much as you loved me.
John 17:20-21; 23

[1] Christena Cleveland (PhD, University of California, Santa Barbara) is a social psychologist, researcher and professor at St. Catherine University.
[2] Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013), 14-15.
[3] Ibid, 12.
[4] Admittedly, our love for the Church and the world is properly derived from God’s love revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ.
[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 797.
[6] See the Greatest Commandment (Mt 22:35-40, Mk 12:28-34, Lk 10:25-28).

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Defined by the Center

“Young Life has always defined itself by its center and not by its boundaries.” The words registered in my mind but their full impact would continue to unfold for days. “Defined by the center, not the boundaries.” These words came up in a recent conversation I had with a friend and senior Young Life staff member concerning the intricate relationship between Young Life (an interdenominational Christian mission to adolescents) and the Catholic Church.

I’ve encountered some in the Catholic Church that would define Catholicism according to everything that Protestantism is not – Mary, the saints, confession, Mary, the papacy, Eucharistic adoration, Mary (did I mention Mary?) – but this position is hardly tenable. As Thomas Merton once quipped (painting in admittedly broader, interreligious strokes):

If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.[1]

As Thomas Groome reminds us, “the foundation of what makes us Catholic is the shared faith of the whole Body of Christ; it is certainly not unique to Catholicism.”[2] What makes us most Christian (both Protestant and Catholic varieties) is what we share, the overwhelming majority of faith that grounds our common religious heritage:
·      One God, triune in being, united in an eternal relationship of self-gift
·      One Lord, Jesus Christ, who revealed the fullness of God’s love, whose life, death and resurrection offer salvation, truth and life
·      One baptism by which we are initiated into the family of God
·      One universal call to holiness
·      One mission to proclaim the reign of Christ to all
·      One body with which to accomplish that mission

Pope Francis began his recent apostolic exhortation by asserting, “The JOY OF THE GOSPEL fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”[3] Not just Catholics or Protestants but ALL who encounter Christ. The pope goes on to say:

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines. . . the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.[4]

So what is the essential, the most beautiful, most grand, most appealing, most essential? In other words, what is the “center” by which both Young Life and the Catholic Church are defined? I think Cardinal Timothy Dolan says it beautifully:

We are all about a person.
We are all about a relationship of faith, hope and love with a person,
Who happens to be the greatest person who ever lived,
Who also happens to be my best friend,
Who knows me and calls me by name,
Who looks me in the eyes and invites me to spend eternity with him,
and that person is JESUS![5]

[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (NY: DoubleDay, 1965/66), 141.
[2] Thomas Groome, What Makes Us Catholic (NY: HarperCollins, 2002), 31.
[3] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 1.
[4] Ibid, 35.
[5] Cardinal Timothy Dolan, taken from an address given at the Evangelical Catholic Institute, Madison, WI, 2006.