Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why Evangelization Is Falling Flat

“Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?” I was on a conference call when I happened to glance over at an opened copy of The Joy of the Gospel. This single question nearly jumped off the page. It began to gnaw at me. What does an outsider see when looking in at church people? What do non-Catholics see when gazing into the world of Catholicism?

The more I thought about it, the more it all came into focus. As the Church struggles to retain its aging population, much less to attract the younger generations, we routinely point to outside factors which, we argue, are making it nearly impossible to do the one thing that Christ sent us out to do (for those of you questioning what that is, I’m talking about evangelization!).

Yet I sometimes wonder if non-Christians (or non-Catholics) look at the Church, at the way we live, at the way we act, and say to themselves, “Why would I want to be a part of that?!” In the ninety-ninth paragraph of his evangelical reflection, Pope Francis wonders the same thing:

It always pains me greatly to discover how some Christians, and even consecrated persons, can tolerate different forms of enmity, division, calumny, defamation, vendetta, jealousy and the desire to impose certain ideas at all costs, even to persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts.[1]

In a litany of vice that reads more like a mob story, Pope Francis is talking about us! He’s talking about those who have been baptized and confirmed, those every Sunday church-goers that Jesus called “the light of the world.”[2] We are the motely crew that Jesus has chosen and appointed to bear fruit, the kind of kingdom fruit that will last for eternity.[3] Yet when the world looks at the way we act, is it any wonder that we’re finding a hard time convincing people to join our club?

John the Evangelist asserted, “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Christ did” (1 Jn 2:6). Now for those of us who almost unconsciously begin to wag our fingers at those other “so-called Christians” who clearly do not live up to the demands of the Gospel, the following verses are for us:

Anyone who says, “I am the light” but rejects another Christian is still in darkness. But anyone who loves other Christians is walking in the light and does not cause anyone to stumble. Those who reject other Christians are wandering in spiritual darkness and don’t know where they are going, for the darkness has made them blind.[4]

Our dis-unity in Christ (as Christena Cleveland puts it) is a sign of spiritual darkness that has already blinded us. Our enmity for one another throws water on the flame of God and renders us wandering in the cold ourselves, unable to inspire the hearts of others or lead them to the safe haven of the Church.

“Let everyone admire how you care for one another,” Pope Francis urges. “Let them admire how you encourage and accompany one another.” This is the pathway to evangelization, the Scriptures say. This is Jesus’ heartfelt prayer to the Father: “That they all be one . . . in us. . . so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). There is a direct relationship, according to the Word of God, between our unity in Christ and our ability to evangelize. So what are we waiting for? “We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port!” Pope Francis reminds us.  “Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all.”[5]

[1] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 99.
[2] Mt 5:14.
[3] Jn 15:16.
[4] 1 Jn 2:9-11.
[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 99.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Welcome to Your Barbecue

Sometimes our dreams have to die. Sometimes our plans have to fail and our strategies have to implode. There are times in life, though we don’t like to admit it, when the only proper course for our expectations is for them to be skewered, set over the fire, and burned. At least that’s how one artist described the human condition, “a long and windy road”, folding and unfolding in “subplots and sunburns and fake-out endings,” a place where we’re “free to dream whatever we want to but that doesn’t mean our dreams will come true.”[1]

We all want our plans to come together, that’s natural enough. “For God’s glory” we Christians tell ourselves, though truth be told, most of the time we’re battling our own illusions of grandeur. We all hope and dream and labor with sweat and blood - to succeed, to achieve, to get ahead, to make a contribution. Most of us (whether we’re in the church or the secular world, it often makes little difference) we’ve bought into the modernist promise of progress,control and self-determination.

But what if life is not so predictable? What if our careers, our ministries, our kids, our plans, and our dreams weren’t meant to unfold in such linear and prescribed trajectories? What if God’s plan is twisted into a more convoluted story, one where our little dreams come to die, one where our selfish hopes are exchanged for the unknown, one where the greater glory can only be realized after our smaller attachments have burned away? What if:

The road is long and windy
Full of twists and turns
But before you can rise from the ashes
You’ve got to burn baby burn

I think that’s what it means to follow God, to be true to ourselves, to live into the most authentic human story. For to be human is to dream, and to live is to chase those dreams, but sometimes (and this is the inconvenient truth) those dreams are merely the fanciful delusions and deceitful projections of the false self . There are times in life, and you all know what I’m talking about, when God screams through the torturous twists and terrifying turns, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”[2] The present pain signals a time of change (unless we want to stay miserable), and there's nothing comfortable about change.

Perhaps these are God’s gracious invitations to a deeper phase of discipleship. Perhaps these are the moments that define us as followers of Jesus. It may just be that these are the angelic coals of burning light that imprint on our very souls the pattern of the Paschal Mystery – living with Christ, dying to self, and trusting in the power of the resurrection.

“Welcome to your barbeque,” the artist continues:

Where we roast all the dreams that never came true.
Welcome to your barbeque – pig out and dream anew.

So what are your barbecued dreams? Where have your expectations gone up in smoke? And what, if you have eyes to see, is the Phoenix that is rising from the ashes? Let the words of the liturgy comfort us as we "feel the burn":

Christ has died. 
Christ is risen. 
Christ will come again. 

[1] ALO, “Barbeque.”
[2] Is 55:8.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Getting Burned

“The Gospel,” as the saying goes, has an uncanny way of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” Given the time to reflect over the last year I have been comforted, without a doubt. God’s presence was abundantly clear to me in 2014. Yet I am afflicted by the uncomfortable truth that my comfort, simply stated, has gotten in the way of Jesus.

And it all came down to one thing. Prayer.

The lightening rod for this challenging, dare I say afflicting truth came from a reflection that I came across years ago, a collection of spiritual wisdom that I recently resurrected for a staff meeting. I will share here but I offer this warning. Be careful. You, too, might get burned.  

The Fire of Prayer

To pray is more dangerous than throwing a torch into a dry woodland.

In a burning forest you can run for cover, but if you begin to pray there is no escape, no place you can hide from the raging fire of God.

At least that’s what happened to the saints when they prayed.  All of them will testify that their encounter with God was like gold being tested in a furnace, seven times refined.

St. Teresa of Avila warns:  “authentic prayer changes us – unmasks us – strips us.”

What she means is that sitting in the presence of a passionate God purges away all the dross, all the impurities of selfishness, pride, falsehood, hypocrisy, meanness until only pure gold remains.

It’s no wonder, then, that many kneel just outside the furnace door – close enough to keep warm, far enough to keep from getting consumed – and call it prayer.  Certainly this is a comforting and consoling exercise, but it is not prayer.

The ancient desert elders said it this way:  “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said, ‘Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, all the little fasts, some prayer and meditation, remain quiet, and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean.  What else should I do?’  Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like torches of flame.  And he said, ‘if you wish, you can be turned into fire.’”

And there’s the crux:  Do you wish?  Do you wish to be turned into fire?

By praying this prayer, you have already stepped into the furnace.  But to melt into pure gold you must hold fast as the temperature inside continues to rise.

To be turned into fire, you must believe that if you knock, God will answer.

To be turned into fire, you must move toward a forgiving heart, working through any legitimate anger against those who have hurt or harmed you.

To be turned into fire, you must be patient and persistent, knowing that God will give you what God knows you need in God’s good time.

To be turned into fire, you must pray for daily bread.

To be turned into fire, you must spend time with God, getting to know and love what God fashioned in your mother’s womb 

To be turned into fire, you must give without counting the cost “good measure, pressed down and running over.”

To be turned into fire, you must act on what you pray, your life must be consistent with the word of God.  You cannot, in other words, pray for your enemies and support war; pray to be forgiven and harbor resentment; pray so that God’s reign may come on earth and not do all in your power to eradicate poverty, to stand against injustice, to protect human dignity 

How do you know if you’re becoming fire?  How do you know if you’re melting into pure gold?

Blessed are the pure ones, Jesus said, for they shall see God.  And saint Mechtild of Magdenburg said, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw all things in God and God in all things.”

Being turned into fire, being melted into pure gold, then, has something to do with seeing God in every man and woman, in all created things and being transformed into a person so transparent that others see the flame of God shining through you.

Picture the three young men from the Book of Daniel, dancing and praising God, unharmed, in the midst of the blazing furnace.  What the onlookers see when they look in is “a young man with the face of God.”

The hope of this prayer is that it may help each of us dance in the flames of love until we become burning love itself.[1]

It was one stanza that really burned me. Perhaps it afflicted you as well:

It’s no wonder, then, that many kneel just outside the furnace door – close enough to keep warm, far enough to keep from getting consumed – and call it prayer.  Certainly this is a comforting and consoling exercise, but it is not prayer.

That’s me. Kneeling just outside the furnace door – keeping warm but not getting too close – and calling it prayer. I have been saying prayers, but how often am I really praying? The question becomes, “Do you wish? Do you wish to be turned into fire?”

“I have come to set the world on fire,” Jesus said. “And I wish it were already burning” (Lk 12:49). Call it a resolution, a conviction, a discernment, whatever, but this year I want to be set on fire. I want to burn with the all-consuming love of Jesus. I want to hold nothing back. I want to jump in with both feet and not be afraid of the fire. I want to give Jesus the permission to change me, to form me, and to lead me where I may not want to go. I want to do the most dangerous thing on earth. I want to really pray.

[1] Adapted from The Fire of Peace, Pax Christi, 1992.