Category: Catholicism

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 12

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

Chapter 11 of Forming Intentional Disciples is about two things: creating opportunities in parish life for people to encounter Christ in a real way, and how people can contribute to this by using their charisms.

This chapter comes home to in a big way, because I recently offered to help with our parish RCIA program. So far as I’m aware, our pastor has been leading the RCIA sessions, with some help from a retired priest in residence; but recent events mean that he’s likely to much busier than he was—as in, he welcomed my offer to help, but we still haven’t managed to meet to work out any of the details. (I am being in no way critical; some things cropped up during the last couple of weeks that he’s absolutely had to deal with.)

So RCIA has been on my mind, and in particular the kind of RCIA program that Weddell talks about in this chapter: one aimed at bringing people to an encounter with Christ, at teaching the kerygma, at bringing disciples into the parish. I want to see that happen, and since my pastor has been preaching about discipleship since the beginning of Advent I expect that he does too. I’m excited that I might be able to help make it happen.

On the other hand, I’ve been to the Catherine of Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted workship; and while I’m not entirely sure what my charisms are, there are some I’m sure I don’t have. Two key ones are Administration and Hospitality. The first is essential to bring the necessary people together to get the job done; the second is essential to make the inquirers feel welcome. I can sort of do both—I mean, I can try—but I don’t take naturally to either. I might have the charism of Teaching, which would certainly be helpful for RCIA.

So my take-away from this chapter is that I need to start praying really hard for the other folks we need to show up.

The Trinity

My latest for CatholicMom.com is entitled, “The Trinity.” Enjoy!

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 11

Update: There’s an interesting comment thread, which isn’t usually the case. Don’t miss them.

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

Chapter 10 of Forming Intentional Disciples is about the kerygma, which is to say the gospel, which is to say the whole reason why the Church exists in the first place. If we want to make disciples, they need to be disciples of Christ. And to be disciples of Christ, they have to know Christ, and to get to know Christ they have to find Christ interesting and intriguing, and for that they have to know the story.

And that means we have to tell the story.

There are many ways to tell the story, and many pieces to it. One most of us have probably heard at one time or another is that God created the world, and then Adam and Eve sinned and were thrown out of the Garden, and lots of trouble happened after that, but then Jesus came and died and rose again to save us from our sins, and if we’ll only accept him as our personal lord and savior we can spend eternity with him in heaven. If you’re patient, you’ve probably heard this on your doorstep any number of times.

Now, this is certainly true, so far as it goes. It leaves out some important details (who is this Jesus person anyway? And why did he have to die? And how did rising again help?) but it’s true so far as it goes.

The trouble is, as Sherry Weddell points out, is that lots of people in our culture have much of a sense of personal sin. They are accustomed to thinking about institutional sin (those evil corporations!) or systemic sin (evils that are due to how our society is set up) but not about personal sin. And if you begin by trying to persuade them how sinful they are, and how they fall short, well, you know. Flies. Honey. Vinegar. ’nuff said. So you have to go after them a different way.

The book lists some of the essential points of the story, with suggestions for how to talk about them to “post-modern” listeners like the Millenial generation. I’ve read this chapter a couple of times over the months since it was first published (and most recently yesterday), and I have to say that Sherry’s outline doesn’t stick with me. I can think of a couple of reasons for that; one is that I very rarely tell the story to others in person, and so I don’t have the experience for Sherry’s suggestions to truly hit home. But second, I think the gospel story is one that you have to assimilate over time. As you try to live in Christ, the gospel story takes up residence in you. You have your own way of experiencing it and understanding it, and I think you need to go with that.

Never fear—I’m not speaking of some personal, idiosyncratic, possibly quite peculiar and unorthodox version of me-and-Jesus. I’m speaking of the story as it is told in scripture and understood in Catholic theology. But if I’m going to tell it convincingly, I have to tell it from my heart. It has to be rooted in my relationship with Christ.

I’d like to give my version in a nutshell, but I’m not sure that I can. Let me try.

I start by thinking about oak trees. An oak tree grows from an acorn; it’s the nature of an acorn to sprout and grow, and given time and good conditions, to grow into a mature and mighty oak tree. All living things do this: grow into their mature forms over the course of time. And they don’t have any choice about it. An oak sapling will become an oak tree, unless external conditions prevent it. It can’t be a pine tree or a goldfish or an insurance salesman. A puppy will grow up to be a dog, but not a cat.

We humans are somewhat different. We are animals, like dogs and cats, and we do in fact grow up to be physically mature whether we like it or not. But we are also spiritual, and unlike everything else in the natural world, we have a choice. We can choose to grow to spiritual maturity, or not. All too often, we don’t.

The problem is, we mostly don’t know what spiritual maturity looks like. But it turns out that God created us for Himself. He, the infinite Godhead, the source and summit of all that is, is quite frankly the most fascinating and exciting thing there could ever possibly be. He created us to spend eternity receiving His love and to rejoice and delight in Him. And since everything good in creation is simply a pale reflection of the Glory of God, there’s a lot to rejoice and delight in there, an eternity’s worth of it.

But we have a choice, and the consequences of our choices are remarkably opaque to us. It’s very hard for us to choose to love God. And He won’t force us. He wants us to come to Him for love of Him. So He sent his son to teach us what love looks like.

And what does love look like? Then we get to the Cross, for greater love hath no man than this.

The Art of Blogging

Sam Rocha, he of A Primer on Philosophy and Education, has been doing a series of interviews with bloggers from the Patheos Catholic Channel on “The Art of Blogging”. The third in the series is with yours truly, rather to my bemusement. We talked about writing, the differences between technical writing, fiction, blogging, math, and programming, and how to acquire good taste. I enjoyed the heck out of the experience, and though the resulting interview is absurdly long I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 10

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

Chapter 9 of Forming Intentional Disciples is called “Break the Silence,” and it’s all about talking about Jesus in your parish and in your life. We Catholics tend to be willing to talk about the Church, and about doctrine, and about that nun in third grade, but we don’t generally like to talk about Jesus. And since discipleship is all about a vivid, life-giving relationship with Jesus, that’s a problem.

The chapter has a lot to say on the subject, but the core of it is the “Threshold Conversation”, which is a conversation you have with someone to find out where they are among the thresholds of discipleship. And the main thing, the most important thing, is that it’s all about listening. You might ask, formally, “What’s your lived relationship with God to date?” You might ask informally, “So where is God in all of this?” And then you have to listen. You might ask questions, just to encourage the person you’re talking to to keep talking, or to clarify a point, but other than that you listen.

There are a few rules, like “Never accept a label instead of a story.” If someone says, “Well, I’m an atheist,” or “We were very religious when I was a kid,” don’t take that as the final word: find out what they mean, because they might mean almost anything. Ask them.

And then, listen.

And then, listen.

This is not a time for apologetics, or argument, or teaching, or setting the record straight, or talking about your own experience. It’s a time for listening prayerfully in love.

This blew my mind when I first read it. When I was in college I was a member of Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, which is big on witnessing and leading people to Christ. It was about telling people how Jesus had saved me, and how wonderful it was, and encouraging them to try it. I tried to do it, but I was no good at it. Then, while I was Episcopalian my parish was big on evangelism and leading people to Christ. It was more sophisticated than what I’d learned at IVCF, but it was along the same lines. I spent a long time on it, and tried, but I’m not aware of ever having successfully “led someone to Christ”. I might have planted a few seeds here and there, but no more than that.

It was all about talking.

And here, Sherry Weddell says, “Listen.”

Have you noticed that God is very good at listening? You can tell Him anything, and take as long as you want at it, and He’ll go on listening. Part of a Threshold Conversation—ideally, part of any conversation—is loving the other person with God’s love.

You have to listen.

Lawn Chair Catechism: Session 9

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

Chapter 8 of Forming Intentional Disciples concerns the last two thresholds: seeking and discipleship. A seeker is one who actively seeking Christ, but isn’t yet actively following Him. The seeker becomes a disciple by “dropping his nets” as Peter and Andrew did, following Jesus where ever he may lead. Becoming a disciple is a scary thing: it means saying, with Mary, “Lord, let it be done to me according to your word,” and meaning it. It means being willing to pull up stakes, leaving home and family and security and heading off into the unknown

Or does it? It did for Peter and Andrew, certainly. But what about you and me? Is Jesus going to ask me to abandon my wife and children and scoot off to Africa with a staff in my hand and only one coat?

The answer, I think, is “maybe, but probably not”. I’m married, a marriage sanctified by Christ in the sacrament of marriage; in Jesus’ own words, we have become one flesh. It’s not unheard of in Christian history for a disciple to leave his wife and kids, but it seems much more likely that I’m called to stay and live up to my familial obligations in all Christian charity.

And there’s the rub: even if I’m not called to leave everything and everyone I know behind, I’m still called to bring Christ to everyone I know—to everyone who knows me and sees me on a daily basis. And even if I’m not called to leave my home, I’m called to leave everything behind that separates me from Christ, especially my sins and my inordinate desires. Spiritual journeys can’t be measured in miles, and the most arduous spiritual journey might take place within four walls.

Discipleship should scare us: Jesus tells us to count the cost. But we should be scared about the right things.

And then, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that grace perfects nature. If you become a disciple, God will use you in strange and unexpected ways: but you will find that the things you’re called to do build on your skills and talents and will come to be the most natural things in the world to you. They may be strange ways, but they will the right ways.

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 8

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

Actually, I didn’t participate this week—I was on vacation—but you can go read everybody else’s ideas. I particular liked Jennifer Fitz’s take: when folks are open, they are open to a lot of different things. Let’s not leave them there.

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 7

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

The second threshold of discipleship, per Chapter 6 of Forming Intentional Disciples, is a passive kind of curiosity. The individual, based on the bridge of trust he has formed, is interested to hear more. He’s not at the point to go out seeking that information, and he’s not yet open to changing his life, but he’s willing to listen, at least up to a point.

What interested me in this chapter was the discussion of what we as Christians can do to foster and encourage this kind of curiosity. Sherry Weddell emphasizes that it is specifically curiosity about Jesus Christ that matters; and that to awaken it and encourage it to grow, we have to be willing to talk explicitly about Jesus, Jesus himself: because the Christian life is first and foremost and essentially all about a living relationship with Jesus. And this seems to be tricky for us Catholics: we’re willing to talk about doctrine and about apologetics and about the Church, but to speak directly about the person of Jesus and our relationships with him is challenging.

It got me to thinking…how can I do that? How can I speak about Jesus to those I meet? My first conclusion was that simply introducing Jesus into a conversation that didn’t previously involve Him is going to be tough for an introvert like me: “Hey, you know, Jesus was telling me last night…” or “What’s up with you?” “It was so cool! I learned something new about Jesus! You shoulda been there!” But then, I’ve never been a dab hand at introducing faith into the conversation, even in more general terms.

So my second conclusion was that on those occasions when I’m already speaking of religion to someone else, I need to center my remarks on Christ rather than leaving him in the background. He is at the center of my life and my faith; I need to put him at the center of my speech. Just what would I say? That, I’m still pondering.

Bridges of Trust

Over the last couple of days I’ve seen a couple of posts on Facebook about Pope Francis. One was a link to a blog post written by an atheist who has been impressed with what he’s seen of Francis so far: his simplicity, his frugality, his sense of humor, his willingness to reach out and touch people. Another was from a Facebook friend who is distressed that the Pope in his quest for simplicity seems to be pulling the beauty out of everything. The three natural paths to God are Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and she is especially uplifted by the Beauty she sees the Pope as turning away from. (I sympathize with her, although I’d be more concerned if it seemed that the Pope was going to try to make his simple tastes universal in the Church.)

But back to the atheist. He is seeing something in the Pope that he did not expect, something that surprises him, something that he finds attractive. This Pope has done so many things no pope has ever done before, like washing a woman’s feet.

This is huge.

Yes, I know—the media delights in presenting Francis as something new, as though Benedict wasn’t simple and humble and had no concern for the poor. And many of the factual details that the atheist cites are not quite true, or not all true, or are true but misleading. But the core of it is that Francis is indeed humble and simple and frugal and loves the poor. And this man sees that, and is attracted to it.

And this, I say, is huge.

In Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell says that conversion to Christianity always begins with a bridge of trust: some person, some thing, some fact, that the individual finds trustworthy. It can be big or small, vital or trivial (at least, as seen from the outside), but it has to be there. And it doesn’t really matter whether the person understands the thing he trusts in, or sees it clearly, not yet. What matters is that there is a channel through which the person might begin to be able to begin to learn more without discounting it out of hand.

The Christian faith isn’t a set of propositions to be learned; the Christian faith is a Person to come to know. And it all begins with a bridge of trust.

God is infinite, and so infinitely surprising. This is a good thing, because we are all so bound and determined to see what we expect to see that it takes surprise to catch our notice, so that we can see what’s really there. Those who know the Church only from old movies expect pomp and circumstance and robes and lace and candles and baroque splendor. They do not expect care for the poor and simplicity and humility, even though these have always been part of the Church. And so Francis surprises them with what they do not expect. They think it is new, and unusual; in fact, it is the simply the Stone that the builders rejected. Let’s not tell them that, shall we?

Not until they are curious enough to ask….

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 6

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

According to Weddell (based on her own experience and extensive research by others) there are five thresholds a person must cross towards intentional discipleship during the process of evangelization. The first is “Initial Trust”: before a person can even begin to learn about the faith, they need to cross the “bridge of trust”. There needs to be some positive association with the faith. It might be a person, but it might not: Weddell mentions one fellow whose bridge of trust was Linus’ reading from the gospel during the annual Peanuts Christmas Special.

This week I’m going to dive right into the discussion questions.

How was the bridge of trust built for you? That’s a difficult question. I was raised Catholic, and though in high school I tried to persuade myself that there was nothing in it, that wasn’t due to any real doubts: I simply found God’s existence to be inconvenient. That phase didn’t last long, and though a number of people were involved in bringing it to a close, it was really all down to God. You might say that I really did believe that He was the Lord of creation, even though I didn’t like it much. Even when I didn’t trust in Him, I at least trusted Him to be Him. Since that time, with some ups and downs, I’ve always had at least the ghost of an intention to be a disciple.

Who are the people who helped you to come as far as you have in your personal journey? I’m tempted to say, “all of them” and leave it at that. There have been so many over the years. I’ve written about my reversion to Catholicism in the past; that was in 2007, and a number of Catholic bloggers unwittingly played major roles in making the Church attractive, including Mark Shea, Amy Welborn, and most especially Julie Davis.

Have you ever been that link of trust for another person? I don’t know. I’m a lay-member of the Order of Preachers, and I was first convinced of the importance of evangelization over twenty-five years ago; still, I’ve no evidence that I’m any good at. I can think of one person for whom I might have been a link of trust; and there might be many others, only I don’t know about them. Some people plant seeds, and some people get to harvest, and my suspicion (and hope) is that I’m one of the former, because I certainly don’t seem to be one of the latter.

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