Saturday, April 28, 2012

For Grave-Leavers: “Now What?” — Easter Week Four, April 29 to May 5, 2012

What do you suppose Lazarus did when Jesus brought him back to life? Just pick up where he left off?
And Lazarus was not “risen” as we are when we die and rise with Christ in Baptism. He just rose to continue his human life. We rise to begin living the divine life of God. We have “become Christ,” who was God the Son, the “Word” made flesh as a human, with a human body, mind and will.
Jesus was God acting in and through a human body. That is what we are called to be. But we do it through partnership with Jesus. We do it by letting Jesus act with us, in us and through us in everything we do. We are divine because Jesus shares his divine life with us. We act as God through surrender to God acting in us.
Can we just “do this”? Can we live as God just by “doing what comes naturally?” Or do we have to learn it? Learn how. Be trained, formed to it. Do we need a “formation program” for living the divine life we received in Baptism?
Let’s be clear. “Formation” doesn’t just happen. Sure, we get some idea of how to live as Christ, and we grow into some likeness to him, just by doing the normal “Catholic” things: saying our prayers; participating consciously in Mass; receiving the sacraments with awareness of what we are doing; responding with a “Christian conscience” to the challenges of family and social life, business and politics. We all get some “religious instruction,” and some even read the Bible. This is all formative, but it isn’t formation. Formation has to be intentional. We have to intend to reach a goal. We have to know we are working toward something; know what we are doing and why.
For “formation” we need a plan. We have to know what the goal is, what the “first step” is, and what steps to take after that. We need a “map” to keep us on course. We need the encouragement that comes from knowing we are getting somewhere, making progress. We need to count milestones.
And we need a plan that is easy to begin with. We can’t just “leap off” into heroism. If we are told we have to be perfect from the beginning, we will never start.
We need a plan that shows us clear, concrete, simple steps to take. One that doesn’t focus on the whole goal to begin with, but on intermediate goals, “objectives” to aim at that we can achieve one at a time. Baseball is less about homeruns than about getting on base — one base at a time. Most plays in football are designed to make yardage, not touchdowns. Spiritual formation is the same: sometimes all we are hoping for is a first down.
We need a plan that will keep us moving down the field.
Stop. Do you know what the biggest problem is here? Do you know why no parish or diocese has a plan, a serious, systematic plan that aims at the spiritual formation of every person in the pews?
It is because no one is teaching the principle of forward motion. We don’t have a plan, because we don’t have a goal. We don’t ask for a map, because we don’t think we are going anywhere. Catholics don’t know that the only authentic Christian life is a life of growth. At least, not growth to “the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of love.” Spiritual progress means getting up to par, overcoming sin, “keeping in bounds.” Imagine a football team whose plays were all designed just to keep the runner in bounds. That is the way most Catholics play the game.
Take a minute. Make up one “play” that you think is giving, or will give you, “forward motion” toward total knowledge and love of God. Run it all week. Share the results with us through the COMMENTS link on the blog. Then see what the next blog suggests.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Price and Profit of the Risen Life: Easter Week Three, April 22 - 28, 2012

Let’s explain the Good News by presenting it first as bad news. Paul did: to live the risen life we have to be “crucified to this world.”

Jesus did:

Those who want to save their life will lose it.... None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.... carry the cross and follow me.... hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.

If we don’t appreciate how bad the “bad news” is, or how much it costs to buy the “pearl of great price” and the field that contains the “buried treasure,” we can’t appreciate how good the Good News is, or how much the pearl and the treasure are really worth.

In spirituality as well as in business, you only get what you pay for. Call that bad news if you wish.

But let’s look at how good the Good News is.

Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.... Those who lose their life for my sake will save it.... I came that they might have life and have it to the full — both here and hereafter. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.... As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love....

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives....

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.... You are the light of the world.... When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.... If you are truly my disciples, you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free....

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.... The Holy Spirit will teach you everything, and guide you into all the truth.... The Holy Spirit will teach you what you ought to say.... It is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.

The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.... I chose you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.

Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

Is this our experience of Christianity? Notice the italicized words. None of them makes sense except in a context of mystery. Nothing Jesus promises above is just the fruit, the result or consequence of living a “normal,” good human life. We are talking about the mystery of divine life here. Of life we can only have or understand as sharing in the divine life of Jesus himself. Living the risen life by letting Jesus live and act with us, in us and through us in everything we do.

So it is obvious Christians are not called just to live normal human lives. But what, in parish ministry, calls us to more than this? When are Catholics told they are expected to “be Christ” in everything they say and do? When are they told they are not disciples of Jesus Christ unless they are constantly poring over Scripture to learn the mind and heart of God? When are they urged to live up to their baptismal consecration as “prophet, priest and king”? When have these words even been explained to them?

Let’s be brutally honest. If not, we will be brutally disappointed. It is already happening: One third of Americans baptized Catholic no longer call themselves Catholic. Of those who have become Protestant, seventy-one percent say it is because “their spiritual needs were not being met” in their parishes. Why? What is missing? What should we do?

We are oblivious to the obvious. The bishops at Vatican II said it is “evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of love.... Every Catholic must therefore aim at Christian perfection.” Is this really obvious? Neither the bishops nor the pastors are taking it seriously. Not one Catholic parish or diocese has a systematic plan of integral spiritual formation designed to engage every person in the pews. You don’t believe this? Name one.

We can’t reach the goal of perfection overnight. And if we don’t even accept it as a goal — personally, intentionally — we won’t reach it at all. But how many parishes preach, push or promote this goal? How many offer a practical means to achieve it? (And don’t say, “We offer word and sacrament.” That obviously isn’t working).

“To fail to plan is to plan to fail.” We are failing. The next blog will talk about planning.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Risen Life: Easter Week Two, April 15 - 21, 2012

We “dumb down” the mystery of our Baptism, and the mystery of Christianity itself, when we say we are called to live “a good life,” or even — with the meaning the words have for us — a “good Christian life.”

We are called to live the “risen life.”

Meaning what?

Meaning we can’t even begin to live an authentic Christian life, or even begin to understand what Christianity is, unless the way we live is mystifying, both to ourselves and others. A life that doesn’t make sense by normal human standards. A life that “normal” members of society would not accept for themselves, desire for their children, or be comfortable with in us. Does that sound ridiculous?

How about “life on the level of God”? The “life of Jesus himself”? A life we can only explain by saying what St. Paul said: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

Are you comfortable saying that? Is that your normal way of thinking about yourself? Of describing your daily life?

If I am authentically Christian, my life can only be understood or described as a risen life. A life that Jesus Christ himself, risen from the dead, is living in my body. Which is his body; his real body. Living with me, in me and through me. Speaking with me, in me and through me. In everything I do, Jesus acting with me, in me and through me.

A life in partnership. A life of two-in-one. A life I am never living alone, in which I am never acting by myself. St. Paul challenges each one of us: “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?”

“To me,” he says, “living is Christ.” Everything this world has to offer is so unimportant for Paul that he adds, “and dying is gain.”

Does this sound extreme? Radical? Far out? If it does, what more proof do you want that the Christianity we were taught was simply false? Its mystery “dumbed down.” Its demands watered down. Its differentness played down. Its rewards relegated to an unreal and remote “hereafter.” A “marked down” Christianity.

All we can hope to do right now is raise a question. A question that should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If Christianity is so undemanding, if Christianity is compatible with a “normal” life in this world, why did Paul say: "I have been crucified with Christ?” And that, for all of us, “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved?”

If we have not been “crucified” with Christ, how can we say we have “risen” with him? What are we talking about?

Can we just raise the question? Just think about it?

Paul said, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Do we think he was just talking about sex!

Yes, we are conditioned to think that way. But for Paul — and Jesus — the “flesh” was much more about the really serious sins — desire for riches, prestige and power, desires taken for granted in society and even in the Church — than about the weakness and immaturity of sexual gratification. Preoccupation with sexual sin is deceptive: it distracts us from looking at the sins that are most “deadly.” The lethal ones. Position, prestige, power.

Jesus described the life he offers as being of such value, that those who appreciate it will “sell all they have” to acquire it.

Have you done that? Are we doing that? Were we taught to do that?

Think about it. Can we be living the “risen life” if we have not died? Died to everything in this world?

Think about it. And tune in to "next week's thrilling episode" in the "New Evangelization."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Good News: Easter Week One, April 8 - 14, 2012

Jesus and John the Baptizer both began their preaching with the headline: “Change your mind about everything (the meaning of “Repent!”) — the reign of God is beginning.” Not so the Apostles. Their headline was, “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! And we have risen with him.” This is the headline news, the “big story” of the Good News. It is — it has to be — the key to the “New Evangelization” that is beginning in our day.

The Apostles just preached the resurrection of Jesus himself. Beginning with Peter on Pentecost, they spoke as eyewitnesses of its reality:

Listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth... you crucified and killed.... But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power....

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out [on us] this [gift of the Spirit] that you both see and hear (Acts 2:22-33).

Paul, as “theologian of mystery,” went further. He proclaimed the mystery of Baptism, that when Christ rose, we rose in him:

When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.... God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross....

And Paul drew the logical conclusion from this, which gives the key to the whole of Christian life on earth:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 2:12 – 3:3).

We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).

We haven’t preached this. We haven’t taught it. We haven’t explained it. We grew up thinking we were living like Christians if we just kept out of sin. No one told us that to be Christian means to become Christ. (Shocked? See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 795). Baptism means we let Jesus Christ rise from the dead in our bodies to continue his life and mission in us.

To “die with Christ” in Baptism and rise with him means we have nothing on this earth to live for except to let Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, live and speak and act in us. With us, in us and through us. That is all. To live for anything else is a denial and rejection of our Baptism. It is to refuse to live the new life we receive through union with Jesus Christ as his risen body.

We never heard this. And because we haven’t heard it, we are not living it. Because we are not living it, we are not evangelizing. No one sees the Good News made visible in us.

That is why four popes in a row have said we need to be “re-evangelized.” Catholic life today has to begin with hearing the Good News.

That is what these blogs are going to present. Stick with them if you have the courage for it.