The tragedy in Myanmar is stunning. 100,000 dead? I know those sorts of figures get thrown about in the early days when we don't have a firm grasp of the realities on the ground but it does give us a sense that the destruction is incredible.
It triggers memories for me of my family losing everything in a hurricane when I was a child - but even something like Katrina is a totally different experience than a disaster like this in a country where great poverty is the norm, resources and infrastructure are at a minimum and where a secretive military junta is keeping out desperately needed aid.
We, in the US, literally cannot imagine it.
Here is the World Vision page on Myanmar. World Vision has worked in Myanmar for 40 years and already have teams on the ground that have been given freedom by the government to begin relief efforts. (The problem is getting the government to allow new agencies in).
This lyrical piece by Ireland's Robin Mark says it all.
In the end, on that day, I will not be asked what style liturgy I attended or whether I was Catholic "enough" but "did I respond with my whole being to the grace I had been given, did I obey, did I love?
For those of us to whom the fullness of the faith has been given, much more is required.
In his post, he links to two old posts of mine that discuss what I was hearing from some Orthodox priest friends about discipleship within their communion.
I'd like to quote a snippet from one of the posts that Gashwin cites:
"As articulated by theologian Bradley Nassif in a hard hitting article: The Orthodox Christian Opportunity.
The most urgent need in world Orthodoxy at this time is the need to engage in an aggressive internal mission of spiritual renewal or outright conversion of our clergy and people to Jesus Christ. All of us—bishops, priests, and people—need to make the Gospel crystal clear and absolutely central in our lives and in our parishes. We must constantly recover the personal and relational aspects of God in every life-giving action of the Church.
Read the whole article. As Nassif puts it with considerable passion:
Still, an untold number of converts are coming through the Church like a revolving door: They enter with zeal, but quietly leave depressed and disappointed. Few take notice, and even fewer seek to retrieve them. In some cases, the converts are even blamed by Orthodox for not really knowing the Church or its ways. Good and godly Anglicans, evangelicals, charismatics, and mainline Protestants who could strengthen the Church end up being shunned by Orthodox fundamentalists within it. Legalism replaces love; mere church attendance gets counted as godliness; some priests control their parishioners through fear instead of leading them with a gentle spirit; and the pulpit disagrees with the altar by focusing on moral reform rather than spiritual healing. Now this is not true of all Orthodox parishes, to be sure. But it is true of too many of them not to say something about it.
Converts are leaving our Church in increasing numbers. Not because of a disagreement with Orthodox doctrine, but because of the distortions of Orthodox practice. They or their families are simply not being fed the Gospel, despite all the liturgical celebrations that go on. They are finding our Church to be more about Orthodoxy as a religion than about the life-changing power of Jesus Christ risen from the dead.
This past year I have received more letters acknowledging this problem than at any other time in my life—and I’ve been preaching about it for the past 35 years. Orthodox people throughout North America and abroad are asking me how they can help change the Church for the better. They ask, “What can we do to regain the central message of the Gospel in our churches? What needs to be done to make the faith relevant to our everyday lives?”
I don’t have easy answers, but I do know where the answers lie. The Scriptures give us the cure, and their message is not complicated. So I say this every chance I get:
The most urgent need in world Orthodoxy at this time is the need to engage in an aggressive internal mission of spiritual renewal or outright conversion of our clergy and people to Jesus Christ. All of us—bishops, priests, and people—need to make the Gospel crystal clear and absolutely central in our lives and in our parishes. We must constantly recover the personal and relational aspects of God in every life-giving action of the Church."
That gathering was the first time that Paul McCusker, of Focus on the Family and creator of the famous Odyssey radio program for children, had spoken about his entrance into the Church last August. He was a bit nervous and somewhat overwhelmed that there was that much interest in his journey.
They did misspell my name but I, the chronically challenged speller, can't really cast any stones here.
But they did catch a good bit of the spirit of my journey.
What won't be clear from the article is that I *was* reading all the same books as most evangelicals (Newman, etc.) but the primary reason I entered was not intellectual (although I have a strong intellectual streak) or historical (although I adore history, was a history major, etc.) or about issues of authority or as a refuge from the culture.
Which seems to be the very thing that that so enrages certain individuals who haunt my blogging steps and which strikes them as irreducibly foreign or smacking of the unspeakable "P" word. I didn't enter the Church for her own sake. The Church, by herself, did not loom largest in my consciousness or calculations. I did not fall in love with the Church.
(Please understand: I'm not dissing those who do enter for those reasons. Falling in love with the Church is truly a wonderful, blessed thing. I'm just saying that it wasn't my path. There are many wonderful, blessed paths into the fullness of the faith. The "I read my way into the Church" journey is only one albeit the one that has been lionized in our generation.)
I entered the Church to follow Jesus, because I believed Jesus desired it, indeed, commanded it. Because I wanted to be at the center of His Body and purposes on earth, to be where His central redemptive act, the central act of history, was the center of worship.
Entering the heart of the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ in order to follow Christ. I emphasized this in my talk because I wanted those who might hear of it in our very evangelical town to know it was more than possible.
How is it that so simple a thing should strike serious Catholics as contrary to "Catholic sensibilities"?
My sister told me about a website where you can increase your vocabulary and help feed hungry people at the same time. It's called freerice.com, and it works quite simply. You are given a word and four brief, often one word definitions. You simply click on the answer that best defines the word. If you get it right, you get a harder word. If wrong, you get an easier word. For each word you get right, 20 grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Program. You do not lose rice if you do not know the correct definition, and you are given the correct definition if you are wrong. You will be given the word you missed a few minutes later to see if you remember the correct definition. One cool feature is the ability to hear the word pronounced.
The rice is paid for by the advertisers whose names you see on the bottom of your vocabulary screen. This is regular advertising for these companies, but it is also something more. Through their advertising at FreeRice, these companies support both learning (free vocabulary for everyone) and reducing hunger (free rice for the hungry). The banner I had said, "This banner is being funded by a generous individual committed to reducing hunger."
FreeRice is not sitting on a pile of rice?you are earning it 20 grains at a time. Here is how it works. When you play the game, advertisements appear on the bottom of your screen. The money generated by these advertisements is then used to buy the rice. So by playing, you generate the money that pays for the rice donated to hungry people.
The rice is distributed by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). The World Food Program is the world’s largest food aid agency, working with over 1,000 other organizations in over 75 countries. In addition to providing food, the World Food Program helps hungry people to become self-reliant so that they escape hunger for good. Wherever possible, the World Food Program buys food locally to support local farmers and the local economy.
Free Rice does not make any money from operating the site. Check it out! I have to run to my sinecure.
For all of Lent and much of Easter season I was on the road giving parish missions across the country. I spoke about conversion, prayer, discipleship, and some of the struggles I have with each of those aspects of Christian life. In several places, I had people come up to me and ask for an appointment to talk about something that had happened in their life.
In each case, they told me about personal experiences of God's power that they had encountered, and how the experiences had changed their lives. In every case, they would preface their story with something like, "You'll probably think I'm crazy, but..." One young woman told me of having several experiences in which all of the surrounding noises, whether it was the sound of a crowd in the church vestibule or traffic noise simply stopped and she heard Jesus speak a few brief sentences of comfort or direction. Another fellow spoke of how God had made it possible for him to go on a mission trip to Jamaica with his wife, even though he really didn't want to go and had told her there were five conditions that had to be met before he'd accompany her there. God met all five conditions. Then, while giving a destitute man in a shelter a shave (while trying to stay as far away from the man as possible) he experienced the eyes of Christ looking at him with love, rather than the poor man's eyes. That completely changed his attitude towards the whole experience in Jamaica, and began a profound experience of conversion to Christ for him.
A friend of mine told me the other day that sometimes while he's praying and contemplating the events of his life the Holy Spirit shows him a connection between what he thought were random events and he is filled with joy and begins to laugh spontaneously and uncontrollably - and he loves it! I am convinced this same fellow has received infused knowledge from God; insights into the nature of God that I know from years of study that have been revealed to him in prayer.
These experiences are not unique. We read of similar experiences, as well as locutions, ecstasies, visions, etc. in the lives of the saints. But for some reason, we have come to believe they are rare and only for the select few - those destined to be saints.
All these people haven't told many others, or in some cases any other people, because they don't hear others speaking of such experiences. They may be afraid that people will not just think they're crazy, but that they think they're special, and that they're making a claim to be "holier than thou." Yet when we read the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes all kinds of powerful spiritual experiences that lead many people to speak in tongues, to prophesy, to spontaneously and joyfully praise God. The Acts of the Apostles are filled with signs and wonders performed by the Holy Spirit through the apostles and others. These experiences of the Holy Spirit lead to the conversion of thousands of people in some cases. Often we can dismiss these stories as exaggerations, group hysteria, or events unique to the early Church and no longer to be expected.
Peter Herbeck, Vice President and Director of Missions of Renewal Ministries in Ann Arbor, MI, writes about our low expectations for these sorts of religious experiences and our reticence to trust them in his new book, "When the Spirit Comes in Power." He quotes Mary Healy, a contemporary scripture scholar and theologian, who writes, "generations of ordinary lay Catholics have imbibed the notion that the spiritual life is essentially one of moral striving and formulaic prayer, apart from any direct experiential contact with God and his saving deeds." Jesus promises his disciples in the Gospel of John's Last Supper discourse, ""If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you." John 14:15-18. Yet we live as though orphaned when we do not ask for guidance from that same Spirit of truth that guided the apostles, St. Paul and all the saints. We live as orphans when we do not believe Jesus who promises to abide in those who love their neighbor and keep his commands.
Of course, the Lord is present to us in a most intimate way in the Blessed Sacrament, his Body and Blood which we receive at Mass. He is also present in the Scriptures, especially when proclaimed at Mass. He is present in the presbyters and bishops who act in persona Christi, and in his body, the Church. The Holy Spirit touches our lives through the charisms God has given to others for our benefit, and we encounter his power, provision and healing through the manifold charisms distributed among the faithful. But there are other forms of religious experience that we can, and I believe, should expect if we are open to them.
Luke Timothy Johnson defines religious experience as "a response to that which is perceived as ultimate, involving the whole person, characterized by a peculiar intensity, and issues in action." Notice the experience is a response to an encounter with someone or something that is recognized as ultimate - and for Christian religious experience that is Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega. The Lord is the initiator. The experience is not generated by person him or herself. Nor is the focus on the emotional experience, as powerful as it might be. Herbeck writes, "All the spiritual writers in the Catholic mystical tradition warn against an excessive focus on religious experience and the need to apply solid discernment when we encounter spiritual phenomena...Yet, despite their constant warning, the mystical writers understand that religious experience is a normal part of the Christian life. In fact, their warnings assume it." These experiences are so powerful because they involve the whole person: intellect, will, emotions, memory, body and soul. It is an experience that in many cases leaves the individual fumbling for words to describe it. And, perhaps most importantly, it leads to action.
Sometimes the action may be a changed life with a new interest in reading the Bible and studying the Church's teaching. It may mean a long-held vice is abandoned. Sometimes it may lead to the pursuit of a particular calling in life, as in the case of Sr. Mary Teresa, a Loretto sister teaching in a school for the children of the elites of Calcutta, who was insistently called by Jesus to don a sari and minister to the poorest of the poor.
Perhaps part of our problem is fear. In his inaugural homily, the Holy Father spoke openly and eloquently about this fear....
Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?
We may be afraid of what Jesus might ask of us, or, like the people I spoke to, wonder if people will think we are "Jesus freaks," liars, simple-minded enthusiasts, or addicts who've switched drugs of choice.
But what if during this week prior to Pentecost, we asked for an outpouring of the Spirit into our hearts? What if we took a careful moral inventory and examined where we are still selfish, and looked at what sins - however seemingly small - we still commit and have grown accustomed to? Do we really believe the Lord's promise to send an Advocate to be with us always? If so, always includes today, in your town, in your heart and mine. Let's stop underestimating God, and pray that the gifts given us in Confirmation may begin to bear fruit in our lives. May we believe that it is really possible for Jesus to abide in us and we in Him through the action of the Holy Spirit.
Given that most Catholic parishes have static (i.e., seldom changing) websites - if they have one at all - and that we're slow to take advantage of podcasting and other forms of contemporary communication, this video is really challenging. Among other things, it points out that information is growing at an exponential rate, as are our abilities to calculate and communicate at greater speed. At the end of the video, the question, "What does it all mean?" is raised. The answer given is completely unsatisfactory: "Shift happens."
Yes, information is being made available to more and more people, but without moral guidelines and without a belief that objective truth exists, how we use the information available becomes a frightening question. More information is not helpful without a moral framework from which to evaluate it. Information must be interpreted, and interpretations depend upon the interpreter and a whole host of variables: personal experience, philosophical worldview, vested interests, fears, desires, goals, vices, virtues, and faith (or the lack of it) all will determine how information is interpreted. The debate regarding global warming is just one issue in which we have lots of information, and very different interpretations of that information.
All the more reason why it is vital for Catholics to have a strong moral compass with which to evaluate all this information, and the fortitude to live according to that compass at work. But even that ability is contingent in many ways upon the life-changing personal encounter with the risen and ascended Lord. Because there will be more and more competing interpretations of the exponentially increasing information we have to deal with, mere "head knowledge" will very likely not be enough to do what is good, right and just in the absence of the personal conviction and supernatural graces that flow from a profound religious experience of the Holy Spirit.
I read an interesting article this morning by Mark Galli, an evangelical pastor who uses what sounds like an early 20th c. version of the Anglican liturgy - or perhaps he occasionally attends such a liturgy. His point in the article is that evangelicals are often focused on making their worship services "relevant," so much so that they simply mirror contemporary culture. Some evangelicals are discovering that the worship of God, who transcends time and space, might just rest upon a liturgy that in some significant ways transcends time and space. Good liturgy, according to Eugene Peterson, a Protestant theologian whom Galli quotes, 'takes God seriously and takes the worshippers seriously.' Galli even quotes the then Cardinal Ratzinger
"The grandeur of the liturgy does not rest upon the fact that it offers an interesting entertainment, but in rendering tangible the Totally Other, whom we are not capable of summoning. He comes because He wills."
Two ongoing challenges still face Catholics regarding the liturgy. One is to make sure that it, in fact, takes God seriously, so that everything we do is done well and beautifully. The liturgy really does deserve our best; from our best attempts at music, art, architecture, proclamation, preaching, and even our clothing. Different cultures and churches with different economic means will have different looking "bests." One of the most beautiful liturgies I ever attended was in a squatter camp in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1991. The singing was glorious, the people joyful and dressed in their best (I especially remember women wearing beautiful, bright scarves in their hair in such a way that they looked like birds ready to take wing. Must've been the starch...) The priest clearly loved his congregation, and led them in prayer that was clearly heartfelt. I still remember it because I was deeply moved by the faith of these people who had next to nothing in the way of material goods. Yet they had caught a glimpse that change was coming to their country (a few of the apartheid laws had been repealed), and they saw God's hand at work. Many of them had family and friends who had been imprisoned, tortured, and even killed by the government. Some of them bore the marks of vigorous "questioning" on their own bodies. Yet the liturgy was an expression of their hope in things unseen, and in a power and love that transcended the violence and racism they had suffered.
The other challenge we face as liturgical worshippers, however, is to not get so caught up in the necessarily transcendent nature of liturgy that we forget its many purposes: the worship of God, the participation in Christ's passion, death and resurrection, the renewal of our initiation into Christ, the exodus from a life of sin to a life of grace, and the living of that life in the secular world in such a way that it is changed by Christ's power at work through his Church, to name a few. Galli ends his article:
[Liturgy] has steadfastly refused to let the culture determine its shape or meaning. Liturgical churches know that as profound a reality as is the surrounding culture, there is an even more profound reality waiting to be discovered. The liturgy gently and calmly gets us to open our eyes to the new reality, showing us the "necessary separation" from the old. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, we find our gaze directed away from ourselves and toward God and his kingdom. When we return to our homes, we are never the same.
When I am simply caught up in the beauty of the liturgy and am not changed by it, have I truly worshipped well? Have I encountered the Living God? Or have I simply enjoyed an uplifting, beautiful (and culturally irrelevant) aesthetic experience in which my pleasure has once again become the focal point? Can liturgy be beautiful, transcendent, and deeply disturbing all at the same time? After all, we gather to remember and encounter once again Jesus, who was lifted up on a cross that he called "his cup," and invites us to drink from that same cup in the liturgy.