Sunday, August 31, 2014

Transformed not Conformed! (22A)

A parishioner came to me recently with a sincere request.

“I want to know more about my faith. And I want to help my wife and children live a holy life. What do we need to do?”

I gave him some practical answers. Go to confession regularly was the first one. Come to the Alpha course with your wife was the second. And bring your kids to Lifeteen and youth ministry nights.

Nothing fancy there. I didn’t tell him to fast and pray and start coming to Mass every day. Just some very do-able things to help build a stronger Christian family.

Except they weren’t. They weren’t doable, at least at first glance. The Alpha course conflicts with one child’s swim practice. Sunday nights they can’t get back from Whistler on time. And the Great Adventure bible study conflicts with a work commitment.

Do you think I am feeling critical when I tell you this? Far from it—I understand perfectly. Going to the gym conflicts with my prayer time. Getting to bed messes up my spiritual reading. And emails and texts mess up everything.

Friends, we are all in this together. Most of us are, to some extent, conformed to the world, a phrase most of us missed in the second reading today.

Conformed to the world—what exactly does this mean? Certainly it’s something negative, because St. Paul says “Do not be conformed to the world.”

Now we aren’t mean to become oddballs who annoy others and violate legitimate social standards—St. Paul says later in this same chapter that Christians should “live peaceably with all.” (v. 18)

But there are social standards that we must not follow; there are patterns of behavior that we must reject.

Obviously, some of these are downright sinful. We don’t really need a sermon about them. If your group of friends drinks to excess every Friday night, you will need to make a different choice, whatever the cost.

But others are subtle. We are conformed to this world when we focus always on what we can see. Everything that really matters to us relates to “now” with little or no attention to the life to come.

The word St. Paul uses for this “world” can also be translated as this “age.” One fine scholar puts it bluntly: “If all our calculations, plans, and ambitions are determined by what falls within life here, then we are children of this age.”*

How can we escape conformity to the spirit of this age? How can place faith and its values in the center of our thoughts and actions?

St. Paul tells us in the same sentence: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Don’t be conformed by the world, be transformed by God.

Although conformity shows itself chiefly in what we say and do, it begins with what we think. We need to oppose it by “a deep-seated and permanent change” that comes from the renewal of our minds. A Christian with a mind that has been transformed and made new does not model his or her conduct on worldly ways.

So how do we know whether we are being conformed or transformed? One of the best ways is to ask how seriously we take the Scripture.

Once when I quoted St. Paul to my Dad, he said “Yes, but he wrote that after he fell off his horse.”

When Jesus says something startling, do we take him at his word or water his words down until they don’t make much difference?

When we read “love your enemies and pray for those who hate you,” do we hear a platitude or a true command which we want to obey?

In today’s Gospel, Peter says exactly what I would have said to Jesus. So you could say that I talk like a saint. Except that both Peter and I are talking like worldly men, not disciples.

Peter’s motives are good ones—he loves the Lord deeply and is ready to save him from the cross. My motives are good ones, too: I want to defend the Church and save it from persecution and slander. And to answer my email.

And the sincere parishioner’s motives for resisting disruption to his family schedule are also good—he wants his children to enjoy life, learn skills, and play sports.

Still, the fact is that we are conforming to the world whenever we think with the world and with the Lord.

Jesus says “pick up your cross.” The world says “let it go.”

Jesus says “deny yourself.” The world says “get all you can.”

There really isn’t much room for compromise here. “There is not a moment of life that the will of God does not command, no circumstance that it does not fill with meaning” if we respond to the fullness of the Word of God, as John Murray has said.

I’m glad the Gospel shows that even St. Peter, walking and talking with Jesus, didn’t “get it.” Because we all know that he got it in the end, that eventually he was transformed by the power of the Spirit. His mind was not renewed in a flash, but by a steady process of discipleship.

So it is with us. Learning how to put God first takes prayer and countless daily decisions, some of them right and some of them wrong. But if we trust in the goodness and the richness of God’s will for our lives, we will become more and more able to do not only what is good but what is best. In other words, our minds will be transformed, not conformed.

Best of all, we will move closer each day to finding the abundant life that Jesus has promised to all who pick up their cross and follow him.

*John Murray, “The Epistle to the Romans,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament, II, 113.

Friday, August 29, 2014

One Enchanted Evening: Bishop Gordon's Installation

It would take a much more talented writer than I to describe the liturgy last night at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Victoria.  The music was glorious and the preaching was... all I can say is "inspired."

 The new bishop delivered both a delightful homily and a missionary manifesto at the end of Mass. His timing would have given Fulton Sheen--or Jay Leno--cause for jealousy, while the content was enough to stir the most jaded Christian.

But Bishop Gary was not the only one whose words touched the hearts of the overflowing congregation. Introductory words by our own Archbishop Miller, and the greeting of the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, were both deep and rich.

It's not easy to watch two hours worth of video, but making the effort (not sure if you can fast forward while streaming!) would be well worth it.  Salt+Light broadcasts the installation Mass here.

If last night's celebration is any indication, Bishop Gary Gordon is well on his way to accomplishing his motto--Communio, the communion that defines the Church--in his new diocese.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

On This Rock (21 A)

Since the Gospel today has a very serious message, I thought I would start with a joke.  But since nothing funny came to mind, I googled “homily and joke.” What came back was this: “Many thanks to all those who donated to the special collection for ‘Homily Appreciation.’”

What was really funny was that when I looked carefully at the website, it wasn’t a joke!  I’d like to meet that priest some day…

Speaking of jokes and homilies, I was at Star of the Sea parish on Tuesday when a packed church said farewell to my friend Father Stanley Galvon, their pastor for seventeen years. Father Galvon began his homily by saying “I am really grateful to see so many people gathered here to celebrate the … the second phase of Project Advance!”

With that kind of focus, I predict he will do great things in his new ministry as rector at the Cathedral.

But let’s get serious, since I started by saying the Gospel has a serious message.  In fact, it has at least two.

The first serious message concerns the Pope. The words that Jesus that we’ve just heard—“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. ... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” are written around the inside of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, in letters two meters high (that’s 6.6 feet for us older folks).

That might seem a flashy way to proclaim Scripture, but the Church was trying to celebrate something truly wonderful—a gift to her from Christ her founder.

The gift is a gift of confidence and hope.  Confidence that what her leaders teach is true; a firm hope that the Church will not go off the rails.

How many other institutions or grand visions have ended up in the dumpster of history? Yet despite the great flaws of some Popes, bishops and priests, the Catholic Church has kept the Gospel undiluted by error.

On matters of faith and morals, a Catholic can stand firm knowing that the Church will not reverse her teaching down the road—no small thing, in these changing and confusing times.

The second serious message concerns each one of us directly. Because Jesus asks question “who do you say that I am” not only to the disciples of two thousand years ago, but to every disciple today.

Who do we say that Jesus is? One controversial blogger has said he is pretty sure that most folks in the pews couldn’t formulate an answer that goes beyond a few memorized phrases like “Son of God,” “Savior of the World,” and “Second Person of the Trinity.”
“All true,” he wrote, “but as answers they beg the question:  what do they mean?”

To be clear: we’re not talking theology here. Jesus is not looking for a clever answer but for a personal expression of faith.

In her remarkable book Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Sherry Weddell tells the story of interviewing a woman, the leader of a large group in a Canadian parish, and asking “Could you briefly describe to me your lived relationship with God to this point in your life?”

After thinking carefully for a few moments, the woman “responded briskly, ‘I don’t have a relationship with God.’”

After probing for an hour, Sherry Weddell concluded that what the woman had said was exactly right: “While God had a relationship with her (or she would not exist!), she did not have a conscious relationship with God.”

Could some of us be in this position?  Today, it’s Jesus and not Ms. Weddell who interviews us. Who is Jesus to me? Because if he is not my Lord, my God, and my Saviour, I am not a disciple.

All of us know Catholics who have left the Church, especially young ones. To understand this phenomenon—and to do something about it—we should ask: Who was Jesus to them? Were they ever disciples? But we must ask ourselves first.

We do many good things at Christ the Redeemer Parish, but none of them is half so important as forming intentional disciples who know and follow Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
You can listen to Ralph Martin interview Sherry Weddell here.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Global Leadership Summit 2014

I spent last week listening to some remarkable people.  The best known to Catholics is Father Robert Barron, the creator of the "Catholicism" series and the prolific preacher whose homilies and talks are the basis of the Word on Fire media ministry.

Together with four leaders from Catholic Christian Outreach, I met Father Barron in his office in the tranquil setting of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, where he is rector.

Just a day later I sat in an auditorium with 7,000 other people--and many thousands more watching on large screens elsewhere--listening to the likes of General Electric's CEO, the crusading head of the tax department in Uganda, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, and a Pentecostal pastor from Calcutta.

And that's just a taste of what went on at the Global Leadership Summit sponsored by Willow Creek Community Church, one of the largest churches in the US, attended weekly by some 25,000 people.  We even heard Michael Jr., a successful comedian, who manages to be both hilarious and Christian in his work.

While I was at the Summit, a priest friend sent me an e-mail asking for a summary.  I can tell you that a summit summary would be the longest sermon ever preached, or the longest e-mail ever written.

Still, I think it's important that I do my best to share this remarkable experience with you.

The Summit is the brainchild of Willow Creek's long-time pastor, Bill Hybels.  Twenty years ago he was inspired to create world-class leadership training to energize Christians around the world.  He invited an astonishing mix of speakers, including such diverse figures as President Bill Clinton and General Colin Powell, not to mention top executives like Jack Welch of GE and entertainers like Bono.

Other speakers have come from backgrounds in Christian ministry, social service, education, or the arts.  One of the most impressive speakers this year was an African American actor, playwright, and filmmaker named Tyler Perry.  I'd never heard of him, but since Wikipedia says he made $130 million last year, I'd say I'm in the minority.

Bill Hybels started the Summit with the conviction that business leaders can learn from pastors, and pastors from business leaders; that the young can learn from the old, and vice versa; and that religious people have much to learn from secular people, and secular people much to learn from them.

Why does this matter to you--if you're a reader of my blog, or a parishioner listening in church?  I'm not writing this because I thought you'd enjoy a little talk on "how I spent my summer vacation."  For one thing, an experience like this is no vacation.  It was an intense, even life-changing, time for me.  I expect to be living the lessons I've just learned for a very long time.

But the big reason why I hope you will click on some of these links, and take me at my word about the importance of the Global Leadership Summit, is that the whole thing will be offered on video very close to home--and around the world, if you're one of my few international readers--in October.

Here in British Columbia, the GLS will take place in Surrey and in Kelowna on October 23rd and 24th.  This link will give you location details as well as dates for other cities.

If you're taking me up on the challenge to investigate attending, your first question might be "Isn't this just for leaders?  Why me?"  If there was one thing that was clear at the Summit it was this: we are all leaders.  Some of us lead congregations, others companies, still others families.  But in one way or another, we are all leading.

The second question could be "Why do I need this?"  That was certainly one of mine.  The answer I received was blunt:  Do you want to develop, or not?  Do you want your life to be different, or not?

Leadership is a choice, not just a calling.  Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, told us "Leaders have the joy of unlocking other people's potential as they unlock their own."

In the words of Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric since 2001, "Leadership is an intense journey into yourself."  This was precisely how I felt at the Summit. It was sometimes painful.

The skeptical reader, especially one who knows me as a man of enthusiasms, might be wondering how this approach squares with Pope Francis's exhortation that "the people of God want pastors, not bureaucrats, or clergy acting like government officials." Yet in the same breath, the Pope calls on us to try "to be a Church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent." The conference, I thought, offered a new road that could appeal to many outside of the Christian flock; indeed, much of the content and many of the speakers seemed to have been chosen with that in mind.*

And what of Pope Francis's  wonderful image of the Church as a field hospital after battle?  Does the Summit's approach to leadership run the danger of treating the Church like a business? Does it help heal wounds?

Personally, I sure hope to find a highly-trained and skillful surgeon if I arrive wounded at a field hospital.

Something that happened on my way home from the conference might help to show the broad application of the wisdom that was shared with us.  On the plane, I found myself seated beside an old friend whom I hadn't seen for some years.  Naturally enough I sang the praises of the GLS and he listened politely.

Later in the flight, though, we talked about how our lives were going.  He shared a very complex and painful problem in his family, one that required some immediate action to avoid long-term hurt.  I recognized right away that principles--and even practices--that I'd learned six hours earlier held a key to resolution and reconciliation.

This is precisely the genius of the Global Leadership Summit.  It looks like a big-business, big-ticket conference on management, the kind of thing you can find at Harvard Business School for a few thousand bucks anytime you've got a week to spare.  But thanks to the genius of Bill Hybels and his team, what you see is not what you get.  The Gospel is the organizing principle of the Summit and might be called the operating system that is its backbone.

Years ago I read a book called "Jesus, CEO," which argued that Christian principles could be the foundation of successful business leadership.  Days ago I became convinced that Christian principles--humility chief among them--must be the foundation of all leadership.

Equally, I hope I have learned that leadership skills are essential in every parish.  Certainly, the pastor must learn and follow them: Bill Hybels stressed that the culture of a community will only be as healthy as its leader wants it to be.  But I've also learned that there are many leaders in the parish, both volunteers and staff, who can advance the Gospel vision by living and learning these principles and methods.

Some of the speakers held us spellbound for an hour.  I thought it might be fun to try that in this week's homily, but I think it's probably a good idea to curb my enthusiasm.  But you'll be hearing more about this from me in the weeks and months ahead.

* My Door Is Always Open, Pope Francis, with Antonio Spadaro, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2014; ISBN 9781472909763