On the Complaint that the Church Needs to Change…

While sitting in church last Sunday, a fellow parishioner turned to me and, after lamenting the low attendance at Mass, asked what’s going to happen here when we die? I responded, that others will replace us just as we replaced those who came before us…. And just like life triggered in us the need for God and a faith community, the same thing will happen to others and they will fill our seats.

The parishioner then responded, “I just simply think the church needs to change! I think the church needs to change if they’re going to get more people in here.” I whispered back, “…yes the church may need to make some changes and is changing, but I also think it’s the people who need to change too.”

Sitting there thinking about our brief exchange, I had to stop myself, as I began asking questions of this parishioner to myself like: Are you living the faith in a manner that invites others to what you have and experienced in the Church… or are you living a private faith that simply enjoys its treasury of blessings and then goes home to chill? When was the last time you invited someone to come to Mass? What is your active ministry in this Church, or are you like most too busy for an active ministry? Who in and what in this Church needs to change so bad? What have you done to bring more people into the church?

Prideful and feeling like a military person (which I am not) who was listening to civilian complain about America’s woes, but then glibbly slips in how they have never voted or served because of some easily forgettable reason, I had to humbly remind myself that no one knows the heart of another or how they are standing before and serving the Lord! Yes, thanks to the Spirit, I was able to give myself a severe self-check right there in church!! Aware of my bad attitude that accompanied these good questions, I refocused on praying the Mass and didn’t share them with the parishioner. However the questions did stay with me, especially the one about living out an evangelical faith.

The challenge of living the Gospel is always ongoing and difficult for all Christians. It’s easy to hold the faith as a personal spiritual treasury, a place for us to personally be restored and empowered… but it is hard to acknowledge the Gospel’s universal call and mandate (to us in the pews especially) to share and live it always and with all. Sharing the Gospel is not force-feeding it to others; it is simply living the Gospel in our speech and actions in an open and inviting manner.

It is so easy to believe the lie that spreading the Gospel is optional for us in the pews and that it is primarily the job of the clergy, religious and the institutional church. The rush to judge our clergy, religious and institutional church and the willingness to repeatedly gloss over our own gross sins – reflects the universality with which this lie is held by “the faithful.” Even the sweetest believer in the pews – if the right topic is brought up – can unmercifully straight crucify the clergy and/or church in a record time that will have Mr. Guinness knocking at their door about the new world record! [Hmmmm…. what is this topic for you?]

Sharing one’s faith with others – especially when our secular culture holds that it is a private manner and faith discussions are frowned upon in the public sphere – can be daunting. It takes courage, vulnerability and the willingness to be unpopular in doing so. Please believe me – there is a cost – at work and in public – for standing on the faith. I worked in Catholic high schools for over two decades and still found that people were afraid of being ridiculed or worse, when faith discussion surfaced in the teacher’s lounge. It often got very quiet as many were all ears but unwilling to enter into discussions, as they were STILL scared or CONDITIONED not to speak and share – even in a supposedly openly religious context where the open exchange of ideas was suppose to be welcome! Why? Because even today in many Christian institutions – there is still a cost of being too orthodox or not being politically correct on certain issues, etc.

Despite Christians being force fed secularism, consumerism and various other “-isms” 24/7, we Christians are scared to take the initiative and to simply share with another Christian, for fear of being charged with or being confronted by our brothers and sisters with proselytizing or over zealousness! Don’t believe me? When was the last time you said yes to that Jehovah Witness at your door?

Many are often so willing to talk about how the church should change – and yes this is true in many regards – but often these are the very same people who are hesitant to acknowledge that they/we are first and foremost the church, not its buildings and institutional structures! Yes the church has to change, and that change begins with me/us – the person in the mirror (Church) – to quote Michael Jackson.

Later, in the post-communion song the minister of music sung and proclaimed that “the fight is not ours, the fight is the Lord’s.” The priest gave an ending prayer reminding us “to be hopeful, to not be discouraged and to remain strong in the faith.” I nudged the parishioner and we both chuckled.

I agree whole-heartedly! It is the Lord’s fight, but we have to be His hands, feet and voice as we take up the battle in our daily lives. We do have to remain hopeful and seek not to become discouraged; we must also continue to pray for and not judge others if and when they momentarily succumb to it while on this pilgrimage. We must also pray for the Spirit to give us the self-awareness to self-check ourselves when we do!

May Spirit speak through and use each of us this week as we continue fighting the fight and running the race of faith. Amen.

Martyrdom, Anyone?

A famous quote attributed to Tertullian states that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”   This quote speaks to how the real life sacrifices and martyrdoms that are faithfully suffered by Christians, often breathes new life, hope and charity into the community of believers. It testifies to the transformative power of God’s grace and love to draw others into the faith after witnessing another’s faithful suffering unto death.

Regarding Christian missions and ministry, martyrdom is rarely if ever one’s first or the most popular choice! Martyrdom in the classical and literal sense, leads directly to one’s bodily death and is usually accompanied and associated with much torture and long-suffering. Even after decades of Christian service and sacrifice, who can confidently say they would choose martyrdom, especially if their executioners gave them an opportunity to continue living for simply publically denouncing/renouncing their Christian faith (this is called apostacy)?

As Catholic American, few if any of us will find ourselves confronted with literal martyrdom and the challenge of apostacy, as many of our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters often do today.   Even so, as an America Catholic the reality and call to martyrdom may still eventually find its way into our lives as we journey towards the Kingdom of God. In as much as sin, evil and death is an inescapable part of human life, the path of martyrdom – even if not a literal death – will almost always somehow find its way into our lives via some form or another. What are some of the ways that martyrdom can surface in our lives as Americans?

Supporting a holy and just social issue: People actively work for just and holy social issues may find themselves experiencing some form of martyrdom because of their work. It can materialize in the form of quietly discontinued friendships or as a limiting of professional or academic opportunities by those who misunderstand or are outright opposed to their chosen social cause or issue. Some may even find themselves digitally or legally targeted and in the cross hairs of their opponent’s hired guns…

Living with illness: Living with and caring for a loved one with a serious illness or struggling to live with an illness oneself can also result in an experience of martyrdom. Caring for the ill requires a very real time, economic and emotional investment. Some illnesses in themselves – like cancer, mental illness or AIDS – carry the additional burden of misunderstanding and stigmatization, and can result in a very real loss/death in many different ways.

Specific kinds of vocational/work: Specific work choices, especially those service vocations requiring an inordinate amount of time, sacrifice or danger and which can spill over into the personal and family lives of the participants may yield martyrdom – especially in one’s personal and family lives. Common examples include the police officers, firefighters and physicians – people choosing these service vocations often experience a very real martyrdom, often in their personal relationships.

Faithfully living out Christian family and marital lives: Any Christian marriage and family seeking to publically live out and proclaim their faith in our contemporary secular society will undoubtedly experience some form of martyrdom at the hand of those who eschew, misunderstand or feel threatened by the religious and spiritual aspects of life.

Consistent and dedicated work at growing spiritually: Finally, any person who seriously embarks on and consistently undertakes the spiritual journey, seeking to grow in holiness through daily prayer, meditation and service will almost always experience a real personal martyrdom of their ego, as the Holy Spirit works to transform them from simply being good people to eventually becoming holy (and yes there is a difference). Responding to God’s call to grow in holiness will necessarily bring us personally to the Cross, which few, even those on the journey – willingly embrace.

It is easy to see how each of these life choices can result in a very real social martyrdom, martyrdom in personal relationships and even a personal/private martyrdom in one’s person.

Unlike the often short but horrific reality of literal martyrdom, these forms of martyrdom are often experienced over a long period of time and can extend to almost our whole lives.

Yes, the Gospel’s call to love, serve and bear the Cross awaits us daily. Whether immediate or long term, this call and invitation more often results in the martyrdoms of those who are willing to accept it.

Yes, our common call to bear our Cross is a common call to martyrdom.

Martyrdom, Anyone?