Thursday, November 12, 2015

Keep It Simple, Stupid

I used to think that being intelligent meant being complicated.

It just seemed like the more complex, convoluted, and intricately byzantine a person could be, the smarter they appeared. When our culture places so much emphasis on cerebral intelligence (think of the value we place on IQ and ACT scores), it is no wonder that so many of us chase this distorted professorial image – the esoteric thinker, stroking his Rasputinian beard, waxing eloquently about something so mind-blowing and magnificent that none of us simpletons could possibly understand it.

We sit back in awe of such people, with a wonderment that approaches worship, and imagine all the good they’re doing in the world (while consequently feeling inconsequential about our own mundane contributions). “They are so smart,” we mumble, which often merely translates: “I have no idea what he/she just said.”

It seems this phenomenon can infect the Christian ranks as well. We often equate the verbose with the very smart, the opaque with the omniscient. If you really want the good stuff, we intuit, you gotta read the heavy-hitters - Aquinas and Augustine, Bonaventure and Barth, Schweitzer and Schleiermacher (no knock on any of these, by the way). When the Rahnarian run-on sentences become so long that we forget what day it is before reaching the fifth semi-colon, we rest assured that we’re really onto something sophisticated and fresh (though we haven't a clue what that is). 

It is perhaps not surprising that Soren Kierkegaard, nineteenth century Danish philosopher (and no dunce himself) suggested:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obligated to act accordingly.[1]

Well, I don’t exactly share Kierkegaard’s conspiracy theory about theological reflection. I don’t think of Christians as scheming swindlers (well, at least not all of them).  But I do think he’s touching on something important.  It has to do with the relationship between simplicity and power:

Simple truths transform us.

This perennial axiom is nowhere more important than in our presentation of the gospel. It’s what Pope Francis was getting at when he said, “The message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing.”[2] We should not be “obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines,” he urges. “Do not be preachers of complex doctrines, but rather be announcers of Christ.”[3]

So the question becomes, “What is the core, the essential, the most beautiful, the heart of the Christian message?” Try a few of these on for size, taken from Pope Francis’ exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel:

·      “In [its] basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead.”[4]
·      “Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us.”[5]
·       “The joyful, patient and persistent preaching of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be your absolute priority.”[6]
·      “The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift.”[7]
·      “What is essential is that the [Christian] be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love has always the last word.”[8]

What Pope Francis is getting at here is of supreme importance. It’s a message that we’ve heard proclaimed and prescribed by every pontiff before him in the modern era. “The essence of Christianity is Christ,” Pope Benedict XVI said, “not a doctrine, but a person.” Pope John Paul II declared, “We shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person.”[9] “Nothing,” Pope Francis reminds us, “nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than the initial proclamation.”[10]

The point is that the most essential thing, the heart of the Christian message, the essential core of the Gospel is not complicated. It is not complex. It is not a doctrine even. It is a living, breathing reality. It is the simple presence of God among us. It has a gentle face and tender flesh. “Christian doctrine,” Pope Francis pronounces, “is called Jesus Christ.”[11]

The unparalleled brilliance of the mind of God shines forth in the humility of the stable, in the selflessness of a servant, in the scandal of the Cross. It is the simplicity of the Savior, not the complexity, which makes all the difference in the world. For Protestants and Catholics alike, our primary mission is the same – to announce, in word and deed, to each and every human being, the Person of Jesus Christ. There is nothing more important (and more intelligent).

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, ed. Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA: Plough, 2002), 201.
[2] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 35.
[3] Pope Francis, Address to the National Ecclesial Congress of Italy (Nov 10, 2015).
[4] Evangelii Gaudium, 36.
[5] Ibid, 39.
[6] Ibid, 110.
[7] Ibid, 112.
[8] Ibid, 151.
[9] Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 29.
[10] Evangelii Gaudium, 165.
[11] Pope Francis, Address to the National Ecclesial Congress of Italy (Nov 10, 2015).

Monday, October 26, 2015

Good Things Are Happening in the Badlands

Kathleen Norris, in her compelling book on the spiritual geography of the Dakotas, describes this rugged prairie landscape as a panorama of tensions and extremes – hospitality and insularity, contradiction and wholeness, change and inertia, bounty and emptiness, hope and despair, open hearts and closed hearts.[1] It’s the kind of place you have to wrestle with before it bestows a blessing, a kind of crucible where all our projections and fruitless desires are crushed in order to taste the sweet wine of reality. The Dakotas are a painful reminder of human limitation but they also, as Thoreau would put it, fill “our need to witness our limits transgressed.”

When Corey Harouff came to Rapid City over fifteen years ago, the religious landscape was as desolate as the geography. In this beautiful outpost wedged between the Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, and the historic “Old West” town of Deadwood, 94% of teenagers were not active in a local church. “It broke my heart,” Corey recalls. “That’s the thing that compelled me to start Young Life here. There’s a lot of kids that need to hear about Jesus.”

At the time Young Life was in every state in the union except one – South Dakota. No staff. No volunteers. Not one club. It was the perfect setting for God’s miraculous splendor to show up, akin to water springing from a rock, manna falling from the sky, or primordial light breaking through the darkness. And like the Rapid Creek flood of 1972, the overflow of God’s grace took this town by storm, transgressing the limits of human imagination.

Corey now oversees one of the largest and most successful Young Life areas in the country: 7 staff. 90 volunteer leaders. 350 kids at Young Life club. 400 kids at WyldLife club. Last year they took 350 kids to camp. YL College draws 50 on a regular basis. There are over 2,000 kids being intentionally pursued by leaders every week in Rapid City. Corey’s annual budget exceeds $700,000 – a miraculous providence for a relatively small town of 70,000 people. 

If we borrow fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa’s definition of sin as “the failure to grow,” it might be said that God has done some definitive work in these parts. “Every year we grow,” Corey says. “It’s truly the hand of God. God is working.” Clearly God is present. But as a true prairie laborer, Corey’s success is shot through with rugged pragmatism. “We’ve got great staff, great leaders. And we ASK! We ask people to get involved, to help, to lead, to give. Jesus said, ‘You have not because you ask not.’ We’re not afraid to ask. But we don’t ask off the cuff, we ask in the context of the relationship. We’ve created a community here.”

Earlier this month I joined Corey for a meeting with Bishop Robert Gruss and a select number of priests from the Diocese of Rapid City. Drawing on emerging models of Young Life-Catholic collaboration in other parts of the country, Corey sees this as an important step toward reaching every kid. “We’re wading into the waters of partnership here,” Corey noted. “We’re earning the right to be heard with the Catholic Church, and to cast a vision for reaching kids together for Christ.”

Corey has begun the process in true Young Life fashion. He has built relationships. It began with Sister Margaret, his spiritual director, who introduced him to Fr. Mark. After ten years of friendship with Fr. Mark, who serves as diocesan director of vocations and stewardship, Corey invited Fr. Mark to join the Young Life committee, a step overwhelmingly approved by the bishop and his advisors. He has plans to bring priests to camp, to provide training for Catholic leaders, and to get Catholic priests and laypeople involved in direct ministry to kids.

“It’s all very exciting for me. I have a heart for the Church and for kids getting connected to the Church where they can grow for a lifetime,” Corey explains. “If you have Catholics in your community, don’t give up. Keep knocking on the doors. Keep training your leaders to work with Catholics. Keep honoring our common faith. Keep majoring in the majors.” In the arid plains of South Dakota, the “Big Dream” of Jim Rayburn continues. Christians are stacking their hands on the ‘majors’ so that kids might know Jesus Christ and grow in their faith.

Indeed, good things are happening in the Badlands.

[1] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (NY: Mariner Books, 2001).

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

In Case You Missed It: Pope Francis In His Own Words

The following words were taken directly from Pope Francis during his recent visit to the United States.[1] They are a compilation of quotes woven together to tell the story of the servant of the servants of God in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” They are words for you and me, for our country, and for the entire people of God whose hearts long to be filled with the joy of the gospel.

It is not my intention to offer a plan or to devise a strategy. I have not come to judge you or to lecture you. I have no wish to tell you what to do, because we all know what it is that the Lord asks of us. I have come to testify to the immensity of God’s love.

The Lord goes in search of us; to all of us he stretches out a helping hand. He comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change. He helps us to journey along the paths of life and fulfillment. We know in faith that Jesus seeks us out. He wants to heal our wounds, to soothe our feet which hurt from travelling alone, to wash each of us clean of the dust from our journey. He doesn’t ask us where we have been, he doesn’t question us what about we have done. Jesus comes to meet us, so that he can restore our dignity as children of God.

Jesus keeps knocking on our doors, the doors of our lives. He doesn’t do this by magic, with special effects, with flashing lights and fireworks. Jesus keeps knocking on our door in the faces of our brothers and sisters, in the faces of our neighbors, in the faces of those at our side. Jesus still walks our streets. He is part of our lives.

Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ. A Christianity which “does” little in practice, while incessantly “explaining” its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced. We are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the God’s embrace. We must constantly relate to others. We are witnesses of God.

Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12). The brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Jesus’ Church is kept whole not by “consuming fire from heaven” (Lk 9:54), but by the secret warmth of the Spirit, who “heals what is wounded, bends what is rigid, straightens what is crooked”.

Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.

Jesus keeps telling his disciples to go, to go out. He urges us to go out and meet others where they really are, not where we think they should be. Go out, again and again, go out without fear, without hesitation. Go out and proclaim this joy which is for all the people. Go out to others and share the good news that God, our Father, walks at our side.

I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of the resurrection. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly. For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace. Our Father will not be outdone in generosity.

Love is shown by little things. Holiness is always tied to little gestures. These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family. The family is a factory of hope, of life, of resurrection. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day's work. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.

Jesus tells us not to hold back these little miracles.

So we might ask ourselves: How are we trying to live this way in our homes, in our societies? What kind of world do we want to leave to our children? Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions. All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful brings us to God. Because God is good, God is beautiful, God is the truth. May our children find in us men and women capable of joining others in bringing to full flower all the good seeds which the Father has sown!

[1] Quotes were taken from various addresses delivered by Pope Francis during his 2015 visit to the United States: Meeting with the US Bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Address to the Joint Session of Congress, Visit to the Homeless at the Charitable Center of St. Patrick Parish, Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Prayer at the Interreligious Meeting at Ground Zero Memorial, Mass at Madison Square Garden, Festival of Families, Address to Detainees at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, and Mass to Conclude World Meeting of Families.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cops, Catholics and Camp: Police Lieutenant Reflects on His First Experience of Young Life

This guest post was written by Jason Smith, Lieutenant of the Tactical Operations Bureau, and one of my closest friends. A lifelong Catholic, Jason was an adult guest this summer at Timber Wolf Lake,  a Young Life camp in Michigan.

Have you ever been moved in a way that changes how you look at or perceive something? Have you ever been in a place so amazing you can't actually describe it to others who ask? Have you ever been with a group of people, some you know, most you don't, that just ooze love and make you feel like you are the most important person in their life? Have you ever been in a place that was so infused with the Holy Spirit you could actually feel, hear, smell, taste, and see It? Have you ever been so moved you want to cry and smile at the same time? And have you ever seen 217 teenagers "stand up" and give their life to Christ before your very eyes?

I have. I experienced all of those things this summer as a thirty-nine year old "camper" at Timber Wolfe Lake. My family was lucky enough to have been invited by our friends to be a part of something way bigger than us.  As Adult Guests we were invited to watch God work in ways that I never dreamed possible. I literally saw God reach out and touch young people's hearts through the hands of others during a week at Timber Wolf Lake. Weeks later it's still difficult to find the words to describe what I witnessed at camp this summer.

Young Life's mission is simple. Bring the message of Christ to teenagers. Nothing more. Nothing less. You see, the staff and volunteers don't have to tell you their mission. They live it and everyone in their path feels it. Everything they do is a means to accomplish this goal. Yeah the buildings are majestic, the blob is fun, and the grounds are meticulous, but the real secret to Young life's mission? It's about relationships. They reach kids where they’re at. They bring the universal message to kids who have never heard the message of Christ. They tell the story of a redemptive God to kids who are struggling with real life problems at too young an age. They don't pass judgment. They just love em like Christ called us to do. This is something I can get behind. This is something all Christians, no matter your denomination, should get behind.

I am a cradle Catholic that, like many others, left my faith during my late teenage years only to return when I had a family of my own. I went to church every Sunday growing up and went to a Catholic grade school, high school, and even earned my degree from a Catholic university. Despite the Catholic upbringing, I didn't develop a personal relationship with Christ until I was 36 years old. That’s a lot of lost time.

After my experience at camp I keep asking myself, "If I had this experience as a teenager would I have been away from the Church for 20 years? Would I have had developed a personal relationship with Christ as a teenager?" I don't know the answer to those questions and probably never will. I can say however, I very much would have liked to have had the opportunity. 

I want nothing more than to raise my two sons in the finest tradition of the Catholic Church and all it has to offer. But above all I want my sons to know and love Christ in a most personal way. There are so many Catholic teenagers who will take similar paths to mine. I pray both my son's and those teenagers choose a different path.

I think we as Catholics can learn a lot about how Young Life lives their mission, reaches people where they’re at, and shares Christ them. I also think Young Life could learn a lot about how we as Catholics live our faith as a sacramental people. This isn't a competition. This is about Christ!  This is about how we as witnesses bring His message to others and love one another as Christ has called us to do.
Jason and his beautiful family

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

God at the Crossroads: Young Life and the Catholic Church in the Rio Grande Valley

Virgilio Elizondo, the famous Mexican American priest and theologian widely renowned as the founder of U.S. Latino theology, once asked, “Do you want to see, understand, and appreciate Jesus today?” He continued, “Then enter into the lives of those who are living similar experiences and struggles, those living in the ‘Galilees’ of this world, those living in the margins and crossroads. ”[1] Last week I found myself in just such a place, and no doubt I saw the face of Jesus.

Last week marked the second great phase in the important missionary partnership between Young Life and the border territories of the Diocese of Brownsville, TX. I was there alongside local Young Life and diocesan staff, to extend Bishop Flores’ vision that every kid in the valley would know Christ personally and reconnect to their Catholic faith community. An invitation was made to every Catholic priest, youth minister, volunteer and parent: Come and see how we can reach a world of kids in the Valley together.

Flying down I wondered whether anyone would show. I tried to envision what it would feel like to present this YL-Catholic initiative to a group of five people, ten people, maybe fifteen. I wondered whether this message would be met with resistance or indifference. I wondered, after all this work and investment, if God was really with us.

I was not prepared for the response.

More than one hundred of the warmest, liveliest, most humble, most wholehearted people gathered to listen, with great earnest, to the vision of Young Life and the Catholic Church working hand-in-hand for the gospel. In this forgotten frontier, in this place that is more than 95% Catholic, God’s presence took on flesh with smiling faces and bright, receptive eyes. God had not forgotten us. God was revealing himself to us.

Elizondo’s greatest insight, one that he spent a lifetime exploring, was that God was making a point when he chose the forgotten crossroads of Galilee to reveal himself. It was not in the political powers of Rome. It was not in the intellectual centers of Alexandria. “When God became human, he became a marginal, Galilean Jew, a village craftsman living on the periphery of the political, intellectual, and religious powers of the world.”[2]

These border towns of southern Texas are modern-day Galilees, veritable crossroads of culture, where Christ’s body is coming together. In Elizondo’s words, “these diverse peoples encounter one another not to fight, humiliate, or exclude one another, but to form new friendships, new families, and new beginnings.”[3]

Each of those 100+ people were invited to enter into a joint YL-Catholic leader training program where they will learn to walk side-by-side into the world of lost kids. Together we will learn to proclaim the gospel in a way kids understand. Together we will love kids in a way that embodies our message. And together we will reveal this place for what it really is – a modern-day Galilee, a crossroads where God has shown his face.

This picture was taken in Harlingen, just one of our meeting locations in the Rio Grande Valley

[1] Virgilio Elizondo, A God of Incredible Surprises: Jesus of Galileee, Landham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
[2] Virgilio Elizondo, “Jesus the Galilean Jew in Mestizo Theology,” Theological Studies 70 (June 2009), 273. Virgilio Elizondo is a Mexican-American pastor and theologian widely renowned as the founder of U.S. Latino theology. He joined the faculty of the University of Notre Dame in 1999 where he continues to teach as the Notre Dame Professor of Pastoral and Hispanic Theology and Fellow of the Institute for Latino Studies. His primary residence is San Antonio where he serves as parochial vicar of St. Rose of Lima parish.
[3] Ibid.