Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mending in Marysville

Jeff met Tyler at a lunchroom table at the local high school just north of Seattle. Jeff was simply doing what every Young Life leader does – meeting kids where they’re at, loving them unconditionally, and earning the right to be heard. He would have no idea how significant that encounter, and that lunchroom table, would be.

Twelve years later, a young and desperate teenager would walk into that cafeteria and shoot five of his classmates before turning the gun on himself. The shooting occurred last Friday at Marysville-Pilchuck High, one of Washington's largest schools, a place where Young Life has served kids since 2002. The shooting occurred in the very same cafeteria where Jeff met Tyler twelve years earlier. At the same table.

Jeff is now the area director for West Snohomish County Young Life, a neighboring area to Marysville. Tyler is the volunteer team leader of the Young Life ministry in Marysville, reeling in the tragic events of last week. And now they’re there together, at ground zero, in the midst of all the pain and confusion, offering prayer, presence, and compassion.

Dr. Elizabeth Marshall is a local physician, practicing Catholic, and Young Life leader. She attends the same Catholic parish as Gia Soriano, one of the victims in Friday's shooting. Last night, she and her husband Tim, a local psychologist, gathered a group of youth leaders to walk through the grief, the suffering, and the needs of kids who are grasping to deal with the unthinkable. “Walking alongside these kids is the most important thing we can do,” she said. “We have no solutions. We cannot fix the suffering. Suffering must be accompanied.”

The gathering was attended by youth leaders across the board - Protestants and Catholics, Young Life leaders and pastors. A beautiful ecumenical spirit filled the room, uniting these Christian disciples in solidarity and in a commitment to serve the lost and hurting. Dr. Marshall reflected,

God was there. God was in the cafeteria, weeping. Jesus wept. Jesus knows every suffering. Not only does Jesus know, he suffers with us. With each kid, with each leader, with each doctor, with each nurse, with each and every person saddened by this event. Jesus didn’t come to take away our suffering, he came to fill it with His presence.

Marysville-Pilchuck Young Life will launch club on Monday, proclaiming the nearness of Christ to every kid, claiming the ultimate victory of God for every soul left hurt and confused by this calamity. Pray for kids. Pray for leaders. Pray for Catholics. Pray for Protestants. Pray for every kid.

And if you want to support Tyler and the effort to reach every kid, a fund has been created through the local Young Life area. All proceeds will support a special camp to serve all those affected by the Marysville shooting. Checks can be made out to Young Life with #PrayforMarysville in the memo. Please send contributions to:

Young Life North Snohomish County
PO Box 3487
Everett, WA 98213
*or give online to WA401 at:

I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. ~ Romans 8:38-39

Monday, October 20, 2014

Living and Dying with Ebola

I felt compelled this morning to share with you an update from a dear friend and Young Life colleague who is struggling to maintain hope amidst the desperation and despair caused by Ebola. Steve Larmey, who nearly became a Catholic priest many years ago, now serves as Vice President of Young Life Africa. Please pray for Steve and for the many leaders and staff in Africa whose lives bear valiant witness to Christ’s hope and victory every day.

Our Young Life friends in Sierra Leone and Liberia are closing in on four months now of life/death with Ebola. They keep praying, going and hoping, but visibly they see a battle being lost. The numbers of infections and deaths are increasing -- the World Health Organization says that in two months there will be 10,000 new infections each day if some significant intervention does not happen. The death rate has risen from a low of 52 percent to over 70 percent now.

The Liberian government has run out of money to pay health workers who are threatening to strike if their $500/month danger pay is not increased to $700/month. President Johnson of Liberia literally begged the workers’ union to continue working, explaining to them the government has no money. In what has been called by some a surrender, the government of Sierra Leone is now just giving families rubber gloves and some hydration salts and medicine and is telling people to treat Ebola victims at home because they lack space at Ebola treatment centers.

Here are some updates from our Young Life family in Liberia and Sierra Leone:

  Our teacher staff in Freetown, Sahr Kamasie, lost his wife, Victoria, two nights ago. She was 29 years old, fell sick and died a few days later. She has left behind a 2-year-old son, John, and a 3-month-old baby, Matilda, with Sahr. Sahr has been alone in his house with her body waiting for Ebola test results on her body to come back. The babies are at their grandmother’s house where they sent them as soon as Victoria was sick. Please pray for Sahr and the Sierra Leone team. The results will come back Thursday. If it was not Ebola (thousands of people are dying of many things other than Ebola every day because the healthcare system can only handle Ebola cases) they will bury her body with just a few friends. If it is a positive test, Sahr and the children will be under quarantine. 
  Andrew Quimeh, one of our top volunteer leaders in Kakata, Liberia, died of Ebola yesterday. He was on the Leadership Tree of Area Director Yancy Dixon. A Campaigners kid from the same area – Greature Worr – was released Ebola-free from a treatment center after weeks of treatment, but she lost her father and her sister. Pray for Andrew's family, for Greature and for Yancy and his team.
  Jeraline Johnson has two weeks left of her second 21-day quarantine. She is the only one left in the house as both her sister and brother-in-law have died of Ebola and her niece – 2 year-old Blessings – and Blessings’ aunt were both diagnosed with Ebola and taken to a treatment center eight days ago. I asked her what she does all day as she sits alone: "I pray and I read my Bible. I pray Psalm 91 constantly. I sing and praise and thank God."  Then she broke down in tears and sobbed with me on the phone for about five minutes and said, "Steve, I am so, so scared." There was good news today as Blessings' aunt was released after eight days of treatment from the Ebola center. At the end of the call she composed herself and said, "My hope is in Jesus alone. And He is faithful." We prayed Psalm 91 together.
  Our area director from Robertsport and DGL graduate, Baccus Roberts, and two other leaders from Monrovia, Abraham and Gbeme, are all currently sick. We are praying that this is not Ebola. Pray for healing for them. 

James Davis, our regional director for Liberia and Sierra Leone, texted today, "Steve, I have to admit, I feel like giving up the fight, but if I do, who will help lead kids and leaders? We have no peace or freedom. Our people are dying every hour. Our hope is in Jesus, but we fear we may be the next Ebola victims. I can't bear this – Jesus we need you more."  He later texted back to the whole team of Senior African leaders who are here now in Colorado, "I promise I will NOT give up – the Band of Brothers do not give up. … I know that we are not in this alone – the Lord is with us. And so are you."

Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. 
Lord Jesus, come in glory.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Reforming Together: What We've Learned in 500 Years

What does October 25th, the year 2017, a completely unnoticed document released in 2013, and a trip to a local junior high school have in common? Certainly more than meets the eye.

On October 25th, just ten days from today, many churches around the world will be observing “Reformation Sunday,” a day commemorating ninety-five theses nailed to a church door in Germany, a day also considered by many to be the birthplace of Protestantism.[1] At the center of the fracas? One Catholic priest and Augustinian monk known as Martin Luther.

The year 2017, just three years from today, will commemorate the 500th anniversary of this fateful event and the ensuing matrix of forces we commonly call the Protestant Reformation which has dramatically altered the course of Western Christianity ever since. What is interesting about this anniversary is that the Reformation story will be told, perhaps for the first time in history, by both Protestants and Catholics together.

That’s where the unheralded 2013 document comes in. “Today,” notes the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, “we are able to tell the story of the Lutheran Reformation together.”[2] Inspired by and building upon the landmark ecumenical advances of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), Protestants and Catholics recently released a new document, “From Conflict to Communion,” which champions even more ecumenical progress.

In 2017, on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics will come together to tell a story that has two sides: what binds us together and what still separates us. “The first is reason for gratitude and joy,” notes the documents signatories, “the second is reason for pain and lament.”[3] Both parties acknowledge their hand in the mess, “We must confess openly that we have been guilty before Christ of damaging the unity of the church.”[4]

In a beautiful note of perspective, the document’s Lutherans profess:

In 2017, when Lutheran Christians celebrate the anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, they are not thereby celebrating the division of the Western church. No one who is theologically responsible can celebrate the division of Christians from one another.[5]

The document outlines four major themes at the center of the conflict (justification, eucharist, ministry, and Scripture and tradition), and the remarkable consensus that has been established, by humble and attentive dialogue, in this ecumenical age. Fascinating stuff, all of it, but what caught my attention today was the way the document ended. The document concludes by offering 5 fundamental imperatives for Protestants and Catholics moving forward:

1.  Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.

2. Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.

3. Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.

4. Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.

5. Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

And then it hit me. These imperatives strike a curious chord with a laminated poster I observed earlier today in the office of a friend and local junior high administrator[6]:

1.      Respect for Others
2.     Humility and Self Discipline
3.     Daily Effort and Commitment to Healthy Relationships
4.     Personal Responsibility and
5.     Overcoming Fear with Courage

It seems that everything we have learned in the 500 years of Reformation history boils down to the same basic skills we teach adolescents. Maybe the future is not lost after all?

“Lutherans and Catholics share the goal of confessing Christ in all things, who alone is to be trusted above all things as the one Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5f) through whom God in the Holy Spirit gives himself and pours out his renewing gifts”[7]

[1] Interestingly, most scholars agree that the iconic posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses at Castle church was less a defiant and doctrinaire line drawn in the sand of late Medieval theocracy, and more an informational announcement of an upcoming scholarly examination of church action. In all likelihood, it was not even posted by Luther himself but a student at the University of Wittenberg where Luther was on faculty. Mark Noll, a Protestant scholar and Reformation expert notes, “The Ninety-Five Theses played virtually no role in early Protestant historical consciousness. . . Only in 1817 did the image of the Ninety-Five Theses being posted on the Castle church door in Wittenberg go viral, as we might say today.” See Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll, “The Reformation at Five Hundred,” First Things (November 2014), 44-45.
[2] Joint publication of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017,” 2013; accessed October 15, 2014 at:
[3] “From Conflict to Communion,” 223.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 224.
[6] Special thanks to good friend and fellow disciple, Ben Driscoll, Associate Principal of Smart Junior High School, who gave me a gracious inside look at his life and work today.
[7] Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 18.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Latino Catholicism: Something About Mary

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Latino Catholicism is a growing phenomenon that both Young Life and the Catholic Church cannot ignore.  But what are the unique features of Latino Catholicism that are critical for us to know if we are to reach this burgeoning demographic with the gospel? Moreover, how do we navigate these cultural and religious waters with sensitivity while keeping the focus on Christ?

Professor Hosffman Ospino of Boston College, a nationally recognized expert in Latino Catholicism, asserts that nothing impacts the daily lives of Hispanic Catholics more than what is called “popular Catholicism” – those diverse cultural expressions of faith, born of specific regions and communities that uniquely inform what it means for these people to be human in relationship to God.[1] These expressions of faith come alive in family gatherings, public processions, personal devotions, Marian celebrations and the veneration of particular saints.[2]

Now wait a minute.

Haven’t I just pinpointed the very problem that most non-Catholics have with Latino Catholicism? Don’t all these things – Mary, the saints, processions, rituals – divert our attention away from Jesus, away from the very centerpiece of our shared faith, away from the only One who can save us all – Protestants, Catholics and the like?

In my research of Latino Catholicism, there arose a number of distinctive features that are likely to trigger my Protestant brothers and sisters who are concerned that they take something away from the unmitigated sovereignty and unique centrality of Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation. Understandable. Evangelical Christianity has often undersold the sacramental, devotional, popular and Marian dimensions of the faith. Yet these features don’t have to take anything away from God. Matter of fact, they are ways to magnify the Lord even more and we all need to restrain our quick judgment.[3] Though excesses and deviations exists, we must not automatically conclude that Latino Catholics are somehow lacking in authentic Christian faith, a faith which is predicated on God’s saving work in Christ alone.

Nothing brings this unease to the surface more than the subject of Mary. What if, in our ministry to Latino Catholics, we do sense an overemphasis of Mary to the neglect of Jesus? What are we to do when Mary and Jesus are unnaturally placed in competition with one another? It’s important for us to remember several things:
1)     In the Catholic hierarchy of truths, official Catholic teaching has never placed Marian doctrine on par with the doctrine of God. Mary is not God, nor “goddess,” and no specific belief in Mary is essential for salvation.[4]
2)    In an ancillary way, the basic gospel can be proclaimed without focusing on Mary. The fundamental axis of Christian faith is the Paschal Mystery celebrated at every Mass – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the kerygma, the essential message of the gospel.
3)    However, we should never consider that honor given to Mary, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, as somehow inimical to faith. After all, the Council of Ephesus in 431 (one of the first seven councils which organizations like Young Life uses to broadly frame Christian orthodoxy) solemnly declared Mary as Theotokos, “Mother of God” or “God-bearer.” This doesn’t mean that Mary gave birth to God as in the beginning of time. It doesn’t mean that Mary is the source of Jesus’ divinity. It honors the true humanity of Jesus as he was born of a truly human mother.
4)    Finally, and most importantly, we need to agree to “major in the majors” without getting caught in the intractable debates about the minors. Nobody said it better than Fr. Francis Martin, “Anyone who confuses the roles of Mary and Jesus does not have a problem with their ‘Mariology’; their problem is that they have never really met Jesus Christ.”[5] Continue to preach Christ crucified, introducing kids to the Lord in personal and incarnational ways.

And that’s precisely what Marian feasts, devotions and celebrations are supposed to be about. Mary is not in competition with Jesus. Jesus is the “source of all truth,” the “fullness of revelation,” the “Savior of the world,” and the “one mediator between God and man.”[6] When Latinos honor Mary, they are expressing their appreciation for her example of simplicity, humility and receptivity that forms the basis of Hispanic culture. They are honoring her as an example of discipleship, how our “yes” to the Holy Spirit gives birth to Christ in the world, both then and now.[7]

As we minister to those with special love for Mary, let us all imagine ourselves at the foot of the Cross with the “beloved disciple” to whom Jesus said, “Behold your mother”(Jn 19:27). If Jesus thought that his disciples could find a special place in their hearts for a relationship with his mother, if Christ himself gave Mary to all of us as mother, perhaps we too could find room for her tender and maternal care?

[1] See Hosffman Ospino (ed.), “Hispanic Ministry, Evangelization, and Faith Formation,” Hispanic Ministry in the 21st Century: Present and Future (Miami, FL: Convivium Press, 2010), 74. Ospino serves as Assistant Professor of Hispanic Ministry and Religious Education and Director of Graduate Programs in Hispanic Ministry at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry in Boston, Massachusettes.
[2] Las Posadas are nine-day celebrations popular in Mexico and the Southwestern United States, that re-enact Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging in Bethlehem prior to Jesus’ birth. Quinceaneras are coming of age rituals for 15-year-old girls celebrated throughout Latin America. Altarcitos are small shrines that almost universally adorn the homes of Latino Catholics, used as designated areas for prayer.
[3] Ospino notes, “Excesses or deviations must not become an excuse to ignore the potential of these practices to mediate pedagogies of faith.” Hosffman Ospino (ed.), “Hispanic Ministry, Evangelization, and Faith Formation,” Hispanic Ministry in the 21st Century: Present and Future (Miami, FL: Convivium Press, 2010), 74.
[4] See Lumen Gentium, 67: “This Synod earnestly exhorts theologians and preachers of the divine word that in treating the unique dignity of the Mother of God, they carefully and equally avoid the falsity of exaggeration on the one hand, and the excess of narrow-mindedness on the other. . . Pursuing the study of the sacred Scripture, the holy Fathers, the doctors and liturgies of the church, and under the guidance of the church’s teaching authority, let them rightly explain the offices and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which are always related to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity, and piety.
[5] Alan Schreck, Catholic and Christian: An Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2004), 202.
[6] Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), 67; Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), 2;
[7] In the eighth and final section of the Credo developed in the Third Encuentro process, Latino Catholics profess, “We believe in Mary, our Mother, who has taken our Hispanic culture under her protection, and who has accompanied us and will accompany us always in our journey as she works to carry the message of Jesus to the whole world. See Prophetic Voices: Document on the Process of the III Encuentro Nacional Hispano de Pastoral, USCC, Washington, D.C., 1986.