The heart of the Good News is freedom.
Do we have the courage to surrender ourselves to the Lord and begin to live in that freedom?
Do we have the courage to surrender ourselves to the Lord and begin to live in that freedom?
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!
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!
As the Church, in Her various dioceses and parishes has become more comfortable with the language of evangelization, more and more ink (and pixels) have been “spilled” talking about missionary discipleship. Pope Francis speaks about it frequently, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently created a resource entitled Living as Missionary Disciples! It seems like only a few years ago Sherry Weddell wrote her groundbreaking book, Forming Intentional Disciples, that helped shift the conversation around evangelization–particularly in the United States–and now we are wrestling with missionary discipleship.
The problem is that for many pastoral leaders, key volunteers, and Catholics in general missionary discipleship is a mystery. Because of the crisis of discipleship within our communities, our personal experiences of missionary discipleship are limited. Often leaders lack even an imaginative category for such an expression of discipleship. Therefore, It is hard to begin with the end in mind when that “end” is essentially a theory or, even worse, an unknown developmental stage. Even when we as parish and diocesan leaders understand that the developmental goal is missionary discipleship (which itself is rarer than you would think), how can we lay a solid foundation for the development of missionary disciples in our programs and processes of formation when we ourselves are unsure what we are building toward?
In order to help parishes have a clearer understanding of missionary discipleship, M3 Ministries has created a very basic overview of the characteristics of a missionary disciple. It is a useful resource to begin conversations about missionary discipleship at all levels of the parish, and we want to offer it to anyone who wants it. If you are interested in downloading a copy of this resource, simply click on the image below.
If you would like to use this resource in order to foster conversation in your organization, ministry, parish, or diocese be prepared to navigate a pretty substantial obstacle: Because of our lack of familiarity with missionary discipleship, we tend to reduce this multi-dimensional developmental stage of the spiritual journey only to its functions. In other words, we may have individuals in our parishes and dioceses who do or lead activities that fall under some of the characteristics of a missionary disciple, and therefore we (or they) may assume that they are missionary disciples. Missionary Discipleship, however, is more than simply a list of activities or functions. It is a fundamentally relational response to Christ that encompasses the whole of one’s life. A catechist who teaches his students about Christ within an RE program but never talks about Jesus in any other facet of his life may not have actually be a disciple who has, through the grace of God, taken a missionary approach to life.
Understanding this key reality will help you utilize this resource more effectively. May it truly be a help to the work of parish renewal and transformation!