The theological significance of the Ascension is so rich that it can become easy to miss the radical invitation at the heart of this solemnity: What Jesus is by nature, he invites us to become by offering us His life!
From time to time I will republish classic posts from previous blogs that I have owned. This post originally appeared four years ago on my Ablaze blog. I have updated it to include the latest resources available.
Ever since the birth of my daughter and my entrance into diaconal formation, my available free time has been squeezed into twenty-minute blocks. By the time I return home each evening, I am exhausted and seek solace in a book, a movie, or blowing things up in my favorite Massively Multiplayer Online Game. But first, there is dinner that has to be made, cleaning that needs finishing, and the rare opportunity to spend some time with the love of my life. I give little thought to going for a walk, or working out.
And it’s started to show–not just in my weight, which has increased steadily, but also in my stamina, my energy level, and my blood pressure. The other day, I realized that I couldn’t keep up with my daughter, Siena, after only 5 minutes of playing around.
So, this past week, I started to do something about it. I strapped on my old running shoes and headed to the gym.
The reality is that coming out of a sedentary lifestyle is harder than it looks. Even though I’ve been careful not to start too intensely, I essentially look and sound like a beached whale trying to roll itself back to the sea! Not only that, but I’ve discovered that I still make countless diet and activity choices that favor the sedentary, overeating lifestyle over healthier alternatives.
In fact, coming out of a sedentary lifestyle takes a great deal of discipline–a change not only in actions, but in thought processes–including how you interpret data about your body. What was once considered “bad” and to be avoided, must now be embraced. The experience of running when your “wind is blown” and your legs are tired doesn’t signal the end of the journey, but the beginning of real transformation. Entering in to that experience, rather than immediately slamming on the brakes, takes courage and trust in the process.
In short, leaving the deeply sedentary lifestyle requires a worldview shift–one that would not be possible without the support of family and friends, and without an intentional plan of attack.
Perhaps you see where I’m going with this?
Honestly, looking at the far side of my journey into health is daunting. Even though I once worked out regularly and ran 6-8 miles every 3 days, it seems crazy and impossible.
For most people, the spiritual journey toward Christ can feel exactly like that. Instead of shedding pounds, they have to shed the burden of a negative self-image, or an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, or shame. They may have to re-evaluate their self-worth in Christ. Even more basic, some must struggle to shift their pattern of thinking–their entire personal philosophy–to embrace the reality of a universe with a Creator. And then, they must deal with the shocking reality that this Creator actually created them for love.
While God’s grace will lead them and carry them forward–we can not just assume that people will figure things out, accept reality, and open their hearts to Christ on their own. Our current situation in the Catholic Church should be proof enough.
No, we must embrace the fact that we are called to be channels of that very grace which God pours out on others. In our willingness to walk with people through this journey, we incarnate the love of God, becoming (in a certain sense) a kind of sacrament for them. This is the very model Jesus gave us–replication! He spent three years replicating Himself in 12 men, and they spent the rest of their live replicating Jesus in those they meet.
But how do we live this out in a parish? .
Just like the transition from sedentary, overweight, and out of shape to healthy and fit takes some intentionaliy and support, helping others move through the pre-discipleship thresolds and change worldview takes a planned approach.
One of the most efficient ways to move into wellness from a lifestyle of sloth is to find a really good trainer or dietitian–someone who has deep and experiential knowledge. The same is true of the process of discipling others. We must begin to cultivate a cadre of missionary disciple-friends–spiritual companions who can help others travel through the thresholds.
It may be that you have enough intentional disciples within your parish already to start forming a group of disciplers (even if you have disciples in your parish, many Catholics do not feel comfortable leading others to Christ), here’s how you could form them, depending upon their level of experience:
In the course of journeying with others, it often becomes necessary to walk with them through an area of woundedness and fear. If you are committed as a parish to the process of making disciples, it would be good to have your pastoral team ready to provide whatever pastoral care might be necessary. It would also be exceptionally fruitful to have trained healing prayer teams that include those with charisms of intercessory prayer, healing, and encouragement.
To help in this endeavor, M3 Ministries is in the process of creating the M3 Missionary Leadership Academy, designed to provide practical proven formation for the equipping of missionary leaders and offer a focused community that will support them as they seek to change the culture of their parish and make disciples. If you want to learn more about the Academy, receive inside information and early access to resources, and priority registration when we launch, just click here and sign up for the M3 Academy Waitlist.
This whole process takes time, energy, and planning. Think of it like training for a marathon–a ton of work, but the results are worth it. Instead of helping people come out of a sedentary lifestyle, we are walking with them as they come out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of God!
So, today I want to kickoff the TELL ME NO LIES SHOUT OUT!
Here’s how it works:
If you have ordered or purchased a copy, simply take a picture of yourself with the book when it arrives and post the pic to your social media networks (FB, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) with a short comment about what you are hoping to get out of it, along with the following hashtag: #TellMeNoLies.
Then share your pic and comment to the Tell Me No Lies thread thread on the M3 Ministries Facebook Page. I’ll choose a random entry and that person will receive a free copy of my first book, Jesus: The Story You Thought You Knew, as well as a free CD or download (your choice) of one my talks.
If you’d like, you can include the following link for the book as well: https://amzn.to/2Imevsp
Share this post and spread the word. Let’s see if we can make just a little splash in this giant social media ocean!
Whether we are regular unpaid help at our parish, or if we have a full-time position on staff. At some point if we are not very careful, we will burn out. Like a gas grill whose tank is empty, our flame will flicker and sputter and, finally, disappear. I’m not talking about normal stress that comes with working among a group of people, with all the attendant politics and personal foibles that comes with it, nor the fatigue one might feel when one’s shoulders are set “to the wheel” for an extended period of time.
Rather, I’m talking about the out-of-control, downward spiral often accompanied by bitterness, frustration, and a defensive attitude that screams “I don’t care anymore” as loud as it can. Burnout can be ugly and, unfortunately, it can cause collateral damage–among our ministries and to our friends, families, co-workers, and fellow parishioners.
Burnout is often connected (as a cause, an effect, or both) with an experience of a collapsing prayer life, a struggle with a pattern of sinfulness (vice) or acedia–a state of spiritual listlessness or torpor. And just a quick aside–not every experience of dryness in prayer is a good thing. While desert experiences are normative for many disciples, part of the way that God forms and trains us to move to a deeper faith and trust in Him, sometimes our experience of dryness in prayer can be a result of an obstinancy, a pattern of sinfulness, or the experience of acedia. A well-trained and perceptive Spiritual Director can be invaluable in discerning the root of such experiences.
But what to do if you are suffering from burnout? Is rehab possible?
The good news is that our God is a God of restoration, renewal, mercy, and wholeness. There are very concrete things that we can do to navigate through this period and dispose ourselves to His renewing grace. Here are my suggestions in no particular order (assuming that you are a lay man or lay woman):
Hopefully, you’ve found a few things in this post helpful. These suggestions come from hard-won personal experience. What other suggestions might you have for helping someone reignite after burnout?
The devil is a liar.
Go ahead and read that sentence again. This time, notice the emphasis. The devil doesn’t just tell lies. He is not just a spreader of false news or someone who avoids telling the truth to spare himself (and others) pain and embarrassment. He doesn’t just lie as a part of a larger, overarching strategy of evil.
The devil lies because in his rebellion against God, his very nature has become corrupted. He has utterly and totally and fully rejected the One Who IS Truth. Truth is absent in him. In a certain sense, therefore, we can say that his very identity, his very nature is now a lie, and this nature is opposed to the nature of God. The Enemy despises God and the things of God—and particularly his children. He has set his thoughts, actions, and the power of his kingdom of lies against us, desiring most of all that, twisted and confused by the false testimony of darkness, we would abuse the gift of our free will and reject or close ourselves off to the Father’s invitation to restoration, renewal, freedom, and new life.
The apostle Paul spent time spreading awareness of, and equipping his people for, this battle between Satan and the Children of God. In his letter to the Church at Ephesus, Paul wrote: “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12) Paul understood that in our quest for holiness and justice in this life, we would face opposition not only from the natural order (e.g., from the temptations, obstacles, and wounds that come from living in a world that is imperfect and itself wounded by the Fall) but also from the supernatural realm. Principalities and powers in this passage refer to members of the hierarchy of fallen angels. Paul understands, therefore, that even though Jesus Christ has won the victory over Satan and his kingdom, the supernatural forces of that kingdom still array themselves against every believer and community hoping to frustrate, stave off, and block the manifestation of that victory in our lives.
If, indeed, we are in a battle, then it is in our best interest to understand the battlefield. On a tactical level, knowing the shape and geography of the landscape can provide a solid advantage. If we return to the Word of God, we will discover that Scripture is crystal clear about where this battle will be fought—in the heart.
Now, in our 21st century usage, the “heart” often signifies affections or emotions. The battle that we fight, however, is not primarily about feelings or emotionally charged opinions. It goes much deeper. Scripturally, the heart refers to the center of the human person, the foundation of physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral activity. We may only see the surface appearance of a thing, 1 Samuel 16 says, “but the Lord looks into the heart.” (7) In this worldview, the heart is the place of deep thought, understanding, and moral choice. That is why we are called to love the Lord with “all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37).
The Enemy has chosen the heart as the battlefield for just these reasons. If he can blind and deceive and trick the human heart, if he can bind it with all sorts of shame, self hatred, accusation, and condemnation, if he can warp our understanding of who God is and who we are—then we are more likely to bring forth the rotting fruits of the kingdom of darkness. In other words, we are more likely to sin and reject the mercy of God in our lives.
In this spiritual warfare, we are not defenseless. The Lord has provided us with everything we need to persevere and prevail against the devil. In The 10 Biggest Lies of the Enemy and How to Combat Them, these weapons are explained in detail. Each of the 10 Biggest Lies the Enemy tries to bind us with is exposed, and the reader will receive tools and strategies that release the grace and mercy of God for our freedom. Each of the chapters on the lies utilize the following format, highlighting the weapons given to us by the Lord for our freedom:
Speaking the Lie
Each chapter will be titled with the general version of a particular lie. However, these lies manifest in the lives of different people in a number of different ways. This section of the chapter will list out particular examples of the lie. Although these examples are not exhaustive, reading these particular manifestations of the lie prayerfully can help reveal whether or not your life has been bound or effected in some way by that lie.
Encountering the Truth
Ultimately, each chapter will focus on the Truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ. By exploring Scripture & Tradition, we encounter the fundamental Truth which each lie seeks to confuse, deny, block, or subvert. This is more than a catechetical teaching or a knowledge dump. What the bible and the teaching of the apostles reveals is none other than the Person of Jesus Christ. Combined with the rest of the chapter sections, we hope to facilitate an encounter with Jesus that leads to freedom.
Unsheathing The Sword of the Spirit
This section contains a short reading of God’s Word designed to penetrate and cut away anything related to the lie. There is considerable power available in the Word of God for those who wish to do more than memorize verses. You might find it helpful to pray for a few minutes before reading these scriptures and ask the Lord specifically for the grace to receive exactly the message he is trying to communicate to you at this time in your life. Then, read the specific passage slowly and prayerfully several times. Take note of any words or phrases that jump out at you. When you are finished reading the passage, ask the Lord to shed more light on the word(s) or passage that jumped out at you. Ask God to reveal to you what, specifically, that word or phrase might have to do with experiencing freedom in your life right now.
Prayer of Renunciation
This isn’t a magic formula or self-help “mantra.” This section of the chapter will have a sample prayer of renunciation that you can make, intentionally breaking the power of that particular lie or wound in the name of Jesus Christ. You are encouraged to make your own, spontaneous prayer of renunciation, but should feel free to use this whenever you need. You also may find this prayer helpful to recite whenever you are particularly conscious of the lie’s power manifesting in your life.
Invoking the Saints
Here you will find the name and (very) brief history of a particular saint whose journey reveals a victory over the power of that specific lie. As the Lord begins to reveal the nature of the wound or lie you are wrestling with, you can ask this saint for his or her prayers and companionship.
The 10 Biggest Lies of the Enemy and How to Combat Them is available now from Catholic bookstores and online retailers. You can order from Amazon by clicking here.
The time for freedom is now!
We all know that Joseph is a powerful saint and a tremendous example to husbands and fathers everywhere.
[Full Disclosure: Joseph is my confirmation name, and I picked St. Joseph as my saint for confirmation because I felt badly for him. Between Jesus and Mary, Joseph often looked to me like he was “forgotten.” Out of pity, I asked him to be my companion–and he has shown himself to be a powerful advocate and friend throughout my life.]
As I was saying, we generally view St. Joseph through the lens of fatherhood and familial love, but today on his solemnity, the Church offers us an opportunity to see within his life a fundamental principle of the Gospel. If we embrace this opportunity, we will “right-side” St. Joseph. In other words, instead of taking an image of St. Joseph and burying it upside down so that we can sell a home [can we STOP doing that, please?], with the right openness, we can allow the image of Joseph to turn our own lives (and the lives of our parishes) upside down with the power of the Gospel.
What do I mean? Let’s take a little dive into today’s readings!
In Chapter 4 of his Letter to the Romans the apostle Paul takes some time to reflect on the fruitfulness of Abraham’s life. In it, Paul writes: “It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.” (Romans 4:13) Paul understands that the new life promised to Abram by God in the Old Testament did not manifest simply because Abram carried out God’s commands. In other words, Abram became Abraham, the father of many nations, not because of Abraham’s actions, but because of something called righteousness.
Righteousness really means “right relationship” with God–a real and intimate union and integrity with the One who created us. Because of the Fall, this union with God has been ruptured beyond our human ability to repair it. Any restoration of this relationship must come from God, and St. Paul identifies this divine restorative action upon us as righteousness. Because righteousness originates entirely with God, it cannot simply be produced by our actions and activities. This is why Paul acknowledges that Abraham’s righteousness “comes from faith.” At some point, Abram entrusted himself to the Lord, and that intentional decision to make the Lord the center of His life allowed him to receive the righteousness of God.
I can already hear you thinking “But Deacon Keith, by your own words it is the activity of Abraham that produced righteousness. He did something (turning his life over to God) and then was transformed.” That might be true if Paul didn’t follow up his statements on Abraham’s faith with more reflection: “For this reason, it depends on faith, so that it may be a gift, and the promise may be guaranteed to all his descendants, not to those who only adhere to the law but to those who follow the faith of Abraham . . . .” (Romans 4:16)
Both Scripture and Tradition are clear that Faith does not originate in the human will, but rather it is a gift from God. Therefore, even our desire and ability to make this act of entrustment to the Lord comes from God, from the Divine Life he offers us (which we call grace). The action of God’s grace upon us before any engagement of our own will is called Prevenient Grace in our Tradition. This grace gives us the desire and openness to say yes to the Lord, and this desire is transformed into the theological virtue of Faith at our baptism. In God’s goodness, we can continue to cooperate with that virtue of Faith throughout our lives, and this cooperation will bring us closer to union with God.
Why is this such a big deal? Why am I even spending this much time on righteousness, grace, and activity? The truth is that many of our Catholic brothers and sisters, those we serve at the parish level, and those we know in our own lives, have fallen into the trap of “performance Catholicism.” In other words, they believe that Catholicism is primarily about following rules. As long as they do Catholic things, as long as they simply fulfill their obligations, they’ll be “safe.” This kind of faith becomes almost entirely transactional. I do “Catholic Thing A” so that I will get to heaven. I push this button by doing “Catholic Thing B,” and I pull this lever by doing “Catholic Thing C” and the gates of Heaven will open. But what Jesus Christ and my relationship with Him has to do with it is very, very unclear.
Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI had some powerful things to say about this kind of performance Catholicism:
We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. —Deus Caritas Est, 1
For Pope Benedict XVI, there is more to Christianity than just intellectual propositions, moral truths, and proscribed actions. Rather, the heart of Christianity is Jesus, who is the Father’s Love Incarnate. This Jesus invites us into relationship and no amount of “doing Catholic things” (even things like the Mass, devotions like the Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, or activities like scripture study, etc.) without intentionally entrusting ourselves to Jesus and living out this relationship will, ultimately, save us. The activity that flows from that relationship, our “works” are the manifestation of that saving faith in our lives.
But what does all of this have to do with St. Joseph? Well, today’s gospel reading from Matthew takes on new dimensions in light of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Through this epistle, we can see the remarkable parallels between Abraham, our Father in Faith, and St. Joseph. Like Abraham, to whom the Lord spoke and through whom He promised new life would flow, St. Joseph also hears from the Lord in a dream. Joseph, being a good Jew is troubled by Mary’s pregnancy, and since they were betrothed but not yet married, he planned to set her aside quietly, so as not to place shame upon her. But the Lord counsels Joseph not to “be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.” (Matthew 1:20-21) The Lord’s promise to Abraham is new life, the generation of a people, and the Lord’s promise to St. Joseph is that through the Holy Spirit, Mary will bear the one who will offer new life to the world–and it is through Joseph, that this messiah will receive a name (1:21).
Like Abraham, it isn’t simply the following of God’s commands that allows Joseph to bear this fruit, but the intentional decision to follow the Lord and place his trust in God as the central relationship in his life. Through grace, Abraham became our Father in Faith, and in a very real sense, through grace St. Joseph becomes the Father of our Faith in Jesus Christ. If we look to his image in scripture today, the invitation over our life becomes clear: God is speaking to each of us personally and calls us to make an intentional decision to surrender our hearts to him. This is the Gospel of Righteousness . . .that salvation comes not through our own goodness or efforts, but through our relationship with the one who left heaven in search of us and merited for us the new life of God’s Kingdom. We don’t earn it, and all we need to do is receive it and allow it to take more and more possession of our hearts.
Our journey through this earthly pilgrimage is not simply a solitary one, we are called and saved as a people (1Cor 12:27). As those committed to the transformation of our parishes how can we help change the very culture of our parishes so that they become places where our brothers and sisters regularly have the opportunity to be changed by the power of the Gospel? St. Paul is pretty clear later on in Romans when he proclaims that “faith comes through hearing.” (10:17) Therefore, a critical question we must ask ourselves as leaders and committed disciples of Jesus is “Where in our parish life together is the gospel message (The Great Story of Salvation) being proclaimed in such a way that people have the opportunity to respond to it?”
One way to answer this question is to do the following:
The reality is that we can never proclaim the Gospel message too many times. Often, it takes people 7 or 8 exposures to The Great Story of Salvation before people start to seriously wrestle with it. As we begin to shape our parish life together around proclamation of the Gospel, we will see the culture of our parish start to shift and change.
So today, let us “Right-Side” St. Joseph, and ask him to pray for us so that, like him, we might intentionally entrust our hearts to God and cooperate with the righteousness that is ours in Jesus Christ!