Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Embracing Hope in the New Year

Illustration copyright 2014 by Leighton Drake
Sugar coat it all you want, there is no denying that much of the news this past year has been tough to follow without sliding into a pit of desolation.

Horrific acts of barbarism, rampant terrorism, intense Christian persecution, government control and manipulation, the twisting of the meaning of marriage, plane crashes, celebrity suicide, beloved entertainment icons falling from grace--- much of the news has been dismal at best.

Add to these personal tragedies and trials, and family struggles, and we find the recipe for despair. (Of course, the media perpetuates this because there is so much coverage of the bad news stories as they draw our attention and stir our emotions.)

What does one hold onto in the face of such distressing news?

I am no psychologist (I can barely spell the word). But I know that to despair means to lose hope. And I know how important hope is.

I received the theological virtue of hope at my baptism twenty years ago. Along with faith and love.

Growing these virtues in myself is not a passive affair.

This new year, I am resolved to more closely hold onto this wise counsel from the Letter to the Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb 12:1-3, RSV. Note: It is beneficial to read on to chapter thirteen.)
The thing is, Jesus is our hope. And Jesus showed us how to live by walking, by moving forward. His whole life was a journeying to the holy city, Jerusalem, the home of the Temple.

Sometimes I am tempted to think this is my permanent home, that I am supposed to drop anchor here in this turbulent sea.

We are reminded in the Salve Regina that we journey, in this life, through a "valley of tears."

But the psalmist reminds us that we are to fear no evil as we walk through the valley that is darkened by the shadows of death (cf. Ps 23).

Where do we turn?

I read somewhere a quote by Abraham Lincoln: "I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go."

This should be our daily reality. Don't we--- if we are honest with ourselves--- struggle with fear every day of our lives, to some degree?

I am personally challenged by the words of Blessed Charles de Foucauld:
Complete freedom from fear is one of those things we owe wholly to our Lord.
Fear debilitates us and prevents us from serving Him and others in joyful response to His love.

To fear the evils of this world is to forget that goodness prevails over evil, that the light has overcome the darkness (cf. John 1:5), that life is more powerful than death, that ultimately love wins. We must remember that "perfect love casts out all fear" (cf. 1 Jn 4:18). The more we abide in God, the more we are formed in love, the less fear will dominate us.

"Jesus, I trust in You," is a most apt prayer in face of the temptation to fear.

And we have to face it: We Christians have a responsibility, a duty, to be joyful witnesses to the Resurrection. If we don't do it, who will? "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" ask the angels at the tomb (cf. Lk 24:5). We cannot afford to give in to despair.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, a most beautiful witness by her life to the Resurrection, counseled,
Don't give in to discouragement... if you are discouraged it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own powers. Never bother about people's opinions. Be obedient to truth. For with humble obedience, you will never be disturbed.
This life is a travail. There is no getting around that. But we know the truth. We know the truth personally. We know Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6).

May God grant that we travel the road led by faith and hope, ever driven by the power of love.

Then one day we may borrow words from Tolkien, put into the mouth of a tired and true Bilbo Baggins, and speak them to our progeny:
The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King)

Jesus, I trust in You. Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

For your FREE Christmas Gift, Click here!

Illustration copyright 2014 by Leighton Drake
Some years ago on an early Fall Saturday, my wife dubiously entrusted me with the task of taking my five year old daughter to a birthday party. Our first job was to go by the store to pick up a gift on the way. Typically, I was running late. I frantically searched the shelves of the toy department, trying in vain to find a suitable gift for a five year old girl I barely knew while staying within our usual ten dollar birthday gift budget.

I asked my distracted daughter to give me a hand ("Some help here would be appreciated, Honey!"), so she began perusing the shelves down the aisle a bit. From the corner of my eye, I caught her doing something interesting: she would look at a toy, make the sign of the cross, mumble something with great earnestness, and then make the sign of the cross again. She performed this little ritual with several different toys.

I finally asked her, "What are you doing?"

She replied with wonderful solemnity, "I am praying for my Christmas gifts."

We are all seeking something.
"All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, buy grain and eat; come, buy grain without money, wine and milk without cost! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what does not satisfy? Only listen to me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare" (Is 55:1-2, NABRE).
Advent is a time in which we prepare for the greatest of gifts. Christmas is the time we celebrate that gift. Sometimes we get distracted by the little gifts and neglect to think about the Great Gift.

Pope Francis begins his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, with this  invitation to life:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 1).
What promise! What delight! What hope we experience when we consciously remember the gift of Jesus Christ!

In the midst of all the frantic scrambling for that “perfect gift” for spouse, parent, child, or friend, let’s not forget the greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s very self, given for us, so that we may experience eternal life. 

The first time I appreciated and embraced the true gift of Christmas I was a young man, a former, devout unbeliever who, by a remarkable chain of events, found himself journeying through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), happily preparing to receive the threefold sacraments of Christian Inititation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist.

I had grown up in a home in which my mother, and my mother alone, professed faith in Christ, and Christianity had little impact on forming or informing our family values and our choices. My father strenuously dismissed Christianity as a form of pious sentimentality; religion was for the weak. We didn't attend church or pray as a family. Christianity, if it was to be tolerated, vaguely meant that "God loves you," and "you should practice the Golden Rule," though I doubt any of us but my mother could articulate what that meant. I idolized my father, and took his beliefs as my own from an early age.

Perhaps my mother was the single, lovely and glittering ornament on an otherwise barren tree. Still, no doubt due to her influence, I do remember Christmas as a wholesome time in which we celebrated the gift of family and gift-giving. The only religious symbol I recall is our family nativity set, hand-painted by my mother, a delightful play-set for little hands. It had little spiritual meaning for me, but I treasured it. I suppose I vaguely perceived its meaning, that God loved us and sent his Son for us (whatever that meant). The TV version of The Little Drummer Boy probably represented (and formed) the depth of my understanding of the Incarnation.

Regrettably, during my adolescence, Jesus was the occasional subject of bad humor at the dinner table, though actually more often than not He was simply ignored, arrogantly dismissed as a pious legend. I cringe at how we treated Him, and how we teased my mother for her faith when she dared speak His name. We thought we were being playfully clever rather than blasphemously cruel. 

During the Advent and Christmas I journeyed through the RCIA I finally understood that Christmas is the time we celebrate the most astounding truth there is or could ever be: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16, NABRE). Having been ransomed from the dark slavery of agnosticism, I was in awe that God could love us so!

Communion with the God who loves us more than we can comprehend is the greatest of gifts, because communion with God is God’s gift of His very self to us. There is no greater gift than God. In receiving Him, we experience the real life that Jesus promised (cf. Jn 10:10). We share in the life of the Blessed Trinity: "...[T]his is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ" (Jn 17:3, NABRE).

This Christmas, may we rediscover the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s gift of Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ, who died for us so that we might live. This Christmas, especially with so many bleak and tragic stories trending in the news, it would be good to reflect on the sublime words of Saint John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. 
What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1: 1-5, 14, NABRE).
May we enjoy the freely given gift of God’s love! Recall the words of Jesus Christ as He began His public ministry: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15, NABRE)! 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pope... Fonzie?

These days, reading press coverage of Pope Francis is often a near occasion of hilarity. The lack of sagacity on display in press coverage of the pope is almost comical. Almost daily we see before our eyes a parade of unprecedented buffoonery as so-called journalists "write" Pope Francis to fit their various agendas. 

Illustration copyright 2014 by Leighton Drake
I believe this is less indicative of the kind of pope our Holy Father Francis is, and more a symptom of a hyper-saturated media market which escapes scrutiny just by virtue of its volume, and of a deepening impoverishment of journalistic integrity. Often, the story trumps the truth.

Reading some of the commentary on Pope Francis, one might come to the conclusion that the Holy Father is the most iconic rebel since the Fonz (for those of us old enough to remember the leather-jacketed motorcycle rider from Happy Days).

Strangely, to read the pope's own words portrays a different reality.

To read his words in official papal documents and transcripts of his homilies gives one the impression that he believes what the Church believes, and that he truly is, as he said in the beginning of his pontificate, a son of the Church.

Recently Pope Francis said (at least, reportedly so!) that people should read his actual words and stop relying on commentary on his words.

So with that, I will end this commentary...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What... ME Evangelize!?! Part Two

As Catholics we have the responsibility (and privilege) of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. The days of keeping one's faith to oneself, hiding it in the closet, must be over if we are to follow our Lord faithfully and fully. But if we are called to evangelize the world around us, we have to ask, as my friend wisely did recently, What does that look like, practically speaking? How do we share the Good News without coming off like an obnoxious used car salesman? 
Illustration copyright 2014, by Leighton Drake

Evangelization, the sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ, happens in many ways. But it is always--- if authentic and potentially effective--- grounded in humble prayer and a spirit of Christian charity. 

Evangelization should flow from our sincere desire to share something of supreme value with our brothers and sisters, something that, by the grace of God, we have discovered ourselves. 

I suggest the following practical considerations, though by no means is this a comprehensive and exhaustive listing. Maybe it is a beginning. 

Begin with prayer. “Take” the person you desire to share the Good News with to Mass and to the chapel with you in your heart. Remember them in your nightly prayers. Pray rosaries and Divine Mercy chaplets for them. Fast for them. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you.
Lead with love. Evangelization is not about winning arguments and convincing  others to believe what you believe. It is about loving others enough to share the Good, the True, and the Beautiful with them. Keep loving them no matter what. Never give up on the power of love. Don't compromise truth--- ever. Lead with love. 
Live it. Be fully Catholic. Believe and live what the Catholic Church professes. Those who live a "full throttle" Catholicism, meaning they are "all in" when it comes to living the Faith, point to Christ who was "all-in" for us when he gave His life on the Cross and rose from the dead. He held nothing of Himself back. We are called to follow His example. He was not a "pick-and-choose savior," and we shouldn't be "pick-and-choose Catholics" who treat Catholic doctrine like food choices on a cafeteria line. Our relativistically inclined culture is in need of authentic models of fully committed, humble obedience to truth. 
Be real. And when you stumble--- as we all will--- seek reconciliation through the sacrament of Reconciliation in order to begin anew. Be honest with yourself and with others that you are a "work in progress," a "saint-in-training," and acknowledge you have a long way to go. People are rightly turned off by phony piety. We are to proclaim the Lord, not ourselves. We are broken vessels, to borrow St. Paul's image. Don't pretend you are "there" yet out of some fear that if someone knows you struggle to be holy they will discount the Gospel. They will appreciate and respect your integrity when you admit you are a work in progress. Humility is knowing the truth about ourselves. Be real. 
Give good Catholic booksBooks have the potential to change lives. Books are safe and unthreatening to the seeker who may be checking the Church out, but not ready to engage in dialogue with someone they fear will "try to convert them." Books can provide for a profound encounter with Truth that leads to further inquiry. They can be read and re-read, thought about, and processed in a way that a conversation doesn't allow. Books can reach places of the heart that are defensively closed to others. Give good, solid, and trusted Catholic books.
Invite. Invite someone to join you for the Bible study, men's or women's program, or prayer group at your parish. Invite a neighbor or relative to Christmas Midnight Mass. Invite someone who’s going through a difficult time to join you for a Holy Hour in the Adoration chapel. Especially, and most importantly, invite Catholics who have drifted from the Church back to the sacraments, which will transform people’s lives more than anything else, because the sacraments are real encounters with the living Jesus Christ (example: "Hey, I go to the sacrament of Reconciliation on the first Saturday of the month, and you are always welcome to join me. Man, I don't know how I'd get by as a husband and dad without it.").
Offer to pray for someone. When someone shares a struggle or difficulty with you, promise them your prayers. Tell them you will take their intentions to Mass. That means a lot to people, even to those who don’t practice faith. How many times I have had a non-practicing friend or relative ask for prayers! Even those who don’t pray much seem to know deep down that prayer makes a difference. Be really bold and ask if you can say a prayer with them. If so, put a hand on their shoulder and say a brief prayer for them. 
Give your witness. Share the things the Lord has done in your life when the occasion presents itself. Of course we want to avoid being preachy-- which is often a symptom of pride, and something I have been guilty of in my own clumsy evangelization efforts--- but we should not be afraid to tell the "glory stories" of God's love demonstrated in our lives. Others are inspired and encouraged to hear how the Lord actively demonstrates His concern for us because it reminds them that He is there for them, too, and is only a prayer away.
In the parish office we have discussed the idea of coming up with an “elevator witness.” In other words, how could you tell your story of conversion in the brief time you would be in an elevator?
Be prepared. My daughter, who served N.E.T. Ministries (an amazing Catholic apostolate that evangelizes Catholic teens at parishes and schools) for almost a year as a traveling evangelization team leader, was trained how to give a three minute witness talk. Her witness is brief but powerful.
Be assured, the Lord will provide the opportunities to be a witness. We just have to be ready to share the Good News (in season and out of season, according to St. Paul). 
A few years ago a friend invited me to a prescreening of the movie Seven Days in Utopia--- on the surface a movie about golf and life, but at a deeper level about God and His fatherly love. The audience members invited were golf enthusiasts, but not necessarily Christians.
Following the movie, a middle-aged man stood before the audience and gave a ten-minute witness talk about his conversion to Christ. His shaky voice revealed his nervousness. He shared that most of his life he had ignored God, but in his early forties he came to a realization that he was missing something essential, and admitted that his personal life had reflected that. Inspired by the witness of others, he gave his life to Christ and it changed everything. He spoke humbly and convincingly of God’s love. I was moved and inspired that he had the courage to get up in front of strangers to speak boldly for Christ.
Be a person of joy. Christian joy is not contingent on life’s circumstances. Christian joy comes from Christ. Joy is the delight of the soul in His presence. Father Robert Barron has said, “The most effective way to evangelize is to share the contagious joy of being a friend of Jesus Christ.” And as St. Teresa of Avila and Pope Francis have said, we have too many sour-faced “saints” in our midst! We need to lighten up and enjoy life! “Rejoicing in the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10, NABRE). People are attracted to authentic joy.
Illustration copyright 2014 by Leighton Drake
Be a gift of self. When we serve others (as Jesus modeled in the washing of the disciples’ feet), we “speak” volumes about God’s steadfast love. “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God… for God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8, RSV).  If you live transparently, and people know you are a person of faith, it won’t be difficult for them to connect the dots between your worship of God and your acts of charity.
Be who you are without apology. Let people see that being Catholic is the very center of who you are. For example, when you have someone over for dinner, don’t change your family faith tradition. Pray before the meal as always. Include in your prayer words of thanksgiving for the presence of your guests. That can be a conversional experience.
I will never forget: I was a young man, far from God but seeking, visiting a mission to the poor in Mexico. The Franciscan priest prayed aloud at our first meal in thanksgiving for my presence. That left a huge impression on me: “He’s praying to thank God for me, a non-believer!?!” 
The Lord will give you many opportunities to witness your faith in public without resorting to a phony piety. A couple of colleagues during my pre-Christian days used to go to a park near the art department office during the lunch hour to pray and study the Bible. They didn’t make a big deal of it, but I saw the worn Bibles they carried, and they consistently demonstrated a joy that eluded me. I couldn’t help but notice it and secretly admire their faith.
Start something! Start a lunch Bible study at work; or a Catholic book study with members of your faith community and invite a non-believing neighbor. Start a prayer group and invite people who wouldn’t normally be connected to that sort of thing. It can't hurt to ask. And it may just change a life. A young friend of mine started a Catholic ministry group at a secular college because there was little happening for the large Catholic population there. It began very small but grew quickly, and is still flourishing and feeding young Catholics who are trying to be true to their faith in the midst of a very secular world.
We who are baptized in Christ are called to evangelize. There is no getting around that. It is an essential element of the Christian life. But the Lord doesn’t ask us to be someone we are not. He calls us to evangelize within the reality of our personalities, gifts, and circumstances.
The time to begin is NOW!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

What... ME evangelize!?! Part One

The word “evangelization” conjures up all sorts of images: a man standing on a crate on the street corner, waving his worn Bible and shouting, “Repent;” two people in dress clothes going door to door with tracts; someone coming up to you and asking, “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” 

The concept of evangelization makes some Catholics feel--- well, frankly--- uncomfortable. So when it is said, “Catholics must evangelize,” the hairs on the back of the neck stand at full attention. 

There’s been a lot of talk in my parish about evangelization. This reflects the reality of the universal Church, which is very focused on the work of evangelization in the modern world. 

The popes of recent decades won’t let up on the topic, reminding us constantly that it is part and parcel of the Christian life. 
Why can’t I just have my religion as a private affair and leave it at that?
Jesus didn’t leave us that option. 

Jesus said explicitly, “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a).
So what is evangelization, really?
Evangelization simply means to share the the good news of Jesus Christ. The word’s very root meaning is “good news,” or "glad tidings," in fact. 

My favorite definition, though, has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (though I don’t know if he really said it): “Evangelization is one beggar showing another beggar where the bread is.” I have found something that nourishes and sustains me and gives me life, and I have a responsibility to share it.
The Good News of His love is meant to be shared. People are, frankly, starving for the bread of God’s love (if you doubt it, look at current statistics on divorce, addiction, suicide, emotional and physical abuse, gang and street violence, broken homes, etc.). 

As Catholics we recognize that Jesus comes to us as the Bread of Heaven, the Eucharist. This is good news, indeed!
The Good News can be summed up in the well-known passage from the Gospel of John: “…God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). And further, from Jesus’ prayer to the Father: “… this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). The Good News has the power to transform individual hearts and culture.
The U. S. bishops’ document, Go and Make Disciples, states:
Bishops should take every occasion to speak out on the need and duty of every Catholic to be an evangelizer. Because we need everyone's help to implement this plan, we ask our brother and sister Catholics to support us in the following ways:
 1.     Each individual Catholic is to look at his or her everyday life from the viewpoint of evangelization. Take note of the many opportunities to support another's faith, to share faith, and to help build up Jesus' kingdom in our homes and workplaces, among our neighbors and friends. Catholics should participate in renewal programs and receive training in evangelization.
 2.     Families must find ways to highlight the faith that is part of their daily life, until each family unit knows itself as a "domestic church" living and sharing faith. If each household lived a vibrant faith, the members would more naturally reach out to their friends and neighbors, introducing them by their lives to the faith of Christ Jesus. Households are invited to see the dynamics of welcoming, sharing, caring, and nourishing as dynamics of evangelization. Families, individually or together, should read this plan with a view to helping them both appreciate and revitalize the practice of faith in the family and in the neighborhood. 
 (Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States, no. 136)
While evangelization may very well involve going door to door at times (some parishes have made this an apostolate), it is so much more, and involves a whole mindset and way of life, as the Go and Make Disciples passage above indicates. 
True evangelization is always grounded in prayer. Our mission as evangelizers flows from our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God the Father, which is realized through our relationship with Christ. 
We are moved to evangelize not only because our Lord commanded it (cf. Matt 28:19-20), but also because we know that a relationship with Jesus Christ--- lived in communion with the Church He founded--- changes everything in a person’s life. We desire to share the life of Jesus Christ with others because we have come to know it leads to the fullest life there is, because Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6), and because to share His life is the most loving thing we can do.

In the twenty years I have been Catholic, I have seen many lives transformed (including my own) by the Gospel--- hearts that have been changed, lives that have been re-formed.
Recently a friend made an immensely practical observation: “We keep talking about evangelization, but people don’t know how to evangelize. What does that really look like?” 

So how do we “do” this work of evangelization? What does it look like in the nitty-gritty of everyday life? 

Next time we will look at my friend's question and explore some practical ways to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a weary world without making a mess of things in our efforts.