A Slave to Love

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There are many ways that we, as Roman Catholics, stand alone in the Christian community. Our beliefs, our traditions, and our behaviors hold us out as unique amongst the daily evolving landscape of what we could call the American Protestant community. It is, of course, more important that we Christian believers focus more on our commonalities in our commitment to being followers of Jesus Christ as this is far more important than any differences we may have. Having said that however, it is as – if not more, important that we understand why we follow Jesus Christ and therefore why we define our relationship with him the way we do. Simply, as particular in our practice as we are – we should understand our faith. Furthermore, we Catholics also seem to have a monopoly on absolutes, and for all these  reasons we might therefore take the time to understand what makes us unique amongst other Christians. Continue reading “A Slave to Love”

The Gift of Friendship

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Every family has traditions, especially around the holidays. One of our annual family traditions at Christmas time is to head down to the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and see their annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. My wife and I are season ticket holders and this year marked my rotation off of serving on the Rep’s Board of Directors.

My wife and I have always loved the theater. For me it’s the storytelling and the artful expression of the written word. For my wife it is much more special. She was, for many years when I met her, an amateur stage actress herself, and staying connected to that experience is central to her person. Continue reading “The Gift of Friendship”

Rite of Welcoming

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At the beginning of Advent at the Saturday Evening Mass our Parish performed the Rite of Welcoming for the RCIA Candidates and Catechumens. The Rite is formally known as the (combined) Celebration of the Rite of Election of Catechumens and the Call to Continuing Conversion of Candidates who are preparing for Confirmation and / or reception into the full Communion of the Catholic Church.

Simply, this is a consolidated Rite of the baptized and unbaptized participating in RCIA. RCIA being the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or the pathway to membership for adults into the Catholic Church. As we like to remind participants regularly, RCIA is a process; not a program. The weekend’s celebration marks the end of an inquiry / discovery period of the RCIA process and begins the intentional acts of the participant in joint the Church. It also marks the Church’s formal acceptance of those participants as future Church members, and marks our acknowledgement as parishioners to participate in the formation of these participants as they move forward.

This year marks my fifth trek in helping to shepherd the future of our Church down this path to Christ’s cross (I like to joke with folks that maybe this year I will finally pass this class). However, it truly is a joy and a calling, and I would encourage anyone reading this to volunteer to be an RCIA sponsor. If you want to come to terms with your own Catholic faith and your reasons for belief, take the time to give of this journey to another who likely will have questions sometimes greater and deeper than your own.   But of note here is that in coming back to this journey time and again you start to notice some trends.

One such trend is the irony that when we get to this point in the process, there is usually at least one participant who connects this Rite of Welcoming with the idea of Catholicism as a “Club,” and their personal experiences and feelings (usually not good) associated with being an outsider to this club. Of even further irony this year was that it was my candidate who brought this up to the group.   Accordingly then I got to share with him my own similar experiences and feelings as a “Club” outsider when I participated in my journey into the Catholic Church, and then helped him with the “why” and “what” this is all about and the drivers of this misperception.

Regardless of it being a misperception however, the fact that this idea continues to progress in the world means that it continues to be a challenge to Church growth.  Because in many cases, as it was with my candidate, it means that has kept some back from coming into the Church for years.  Sadly, this means that understanding this misperception better is an opportunity for those both in and out of the Church.

So lets start with the question, are you a club member? Are you perpetuating the myth of Catholicism as a “Club?” Is this what Christ envisioned? Should we open our eyes and embrace change?

 

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

This wildly successful Independent film released in 2002, written by Nia Vardalos and directed by Joel Zwick is a Godsend of reference material in an RCIA program. Haven’t seen it? You should. The film explains so much of the differences of a faith experience coming from the world of Protestantism and moving into the world of Catholicism that I give prayers for it every time I participate. Now if you are reading this and have seen the film, can’t make the connection, and have an eyebrow raised in curious disbelief; I would like to invite you to come through the RCIA journey some time.

This film’s best use in RCIA is as an excellent analogy in understanding Saints and the Catholic Church’s use and love of Saints compared to protestant faiths. Saints are always – always – the first big theological river crossing in RCIA. In helping a participant understand why we don’t just pray to Jesus versus asking a Saint to pray to Jesus for us I bring up this film.

For understanding, we Catholics are like the big Greek family. Many Protestants come from backgrounds similar in nature to that of the small family, are marrying into the madness of the big family, and can get overwhelmed and confused in the immensity.

So Saints. The idea of the Communion of Saints sounds good and makes sense to people until you get to the part where we communicate with them. Then, they start to get that confused look on their face.  See, most participants coming from a protestant background in the RCIA process are quiet comfortable with their relationship with God or Jesus. These people have spent their lives perfecting their understanding of this sacred relationship. Accordingly, outside of their marriage / parents / kids, this is one of the most intimate and important relationships in their life. Participants generally struggle then with the idea of adding an outsider to this very personal relationship, and the need for outsiders in general.  And Saints, respectfully, as they have never existed in the Protestant experience are seen as outsiders.

So we start with that – their personal (sometimes called “individual” in protestant circles) relationship with Jesus Christ. I remind them that as a protestant this has been a primary focus point of their faith, and has been what their religious experiences – regularly supported by their prior church – have been centered around:  An individual relationship with Jesus Christ. I let them know that this is great and that this also is a priority Catholic’s have as well.  I then explain that what is different then with Catholicism is the idea and prioritization we put on the Body of Christ and our role as member of that Body.

This is a big paradigm shift for Protestants entering the Church: One vs. One of Many.  Again, you are used to a world where that “individual relationship” is highly stressed. So much so that if you don’t have one as a Protestant, you can even start to get some anxiety about it (I have seen that happen). We Catholics, on the other hand, emphasize the Body of Christ (and our place in it) with the same vigor (a group experience). Protestants do have the concept of the Body of Christ as part of their faith experience, but in a different way.  The Body to a Protestant is a conceptual issue regarding a collection of Churches, not a collection of people in one Church.  This difference is to the same degree by which they see the communion versus how we see the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

What drives this need for an individual relationship in the Protestant dynamic?  An individual relationship negates the need for an authoritative Church.  Insert your own views on the Reformation here.  Ironically in recent history, however, Catholics are starting to more emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus the way Protestants traditionally have.  This stems from the the New Evangelization.  Hence the success of such programs as CRHP.

Within the context of the film reference and Saints, I explain that in many ways growing up Protestant is like growing up as an only child. As such they are coming from a “small family.” Coming from a single child home they would see their relationship with their parent (Jesus) as everything and unique to them. Therefore this becomes their conduit relationship by which they learn to see and understand the world around them.  I then respectfully ask that they understand this also means, without knowing it, they are also positioning Jesus as being a single parent in their expectation of his behavior and his relationship with them.   Which is to say that they are expecting, like a single child would, Jesus to see his relationship with them as an individual relationship which he would need to be protective in it’s uniqueness over all others.  Which, if you read the Bible, isn’t exactly true.

Now as a member of the Body of Christ, we Catholics know that we are being raised in a large family household. We wake up every day with real brothers and sisters in Christ and are a family of believers.  So I ask them to humor me and for the first time see Jesus as their Lord knowing that they have 8 other siblings in their family.  Jesus still is that loving Father they have come to know, but they are no longer the only kid in the house. Dad loves us all equally. I challenge them with the idea that you wouldn’t look at the other 8 siblings and say, “I don’t need you in my life. I only need Mom and Dad.” I also, challenge them with the idea that maybe, on occasion, Dad might use some of the siblings to help raise the other kids? Not because he needs too, not because he wants less of a relationship with you or because somehow your relationship with him has become less than what it was, but rather simply because he can.  Furthermore, by incorporating your brothers and sisters into the relationship dynamic, Jesus helps us better understand ourselves in relationship to one another and our calling to live more like him to them.

So, as I see the light bulb come on, I then ask them to now change the 8 siblings to 1 Billion, and then welcome them to the global Catholic Church. We have a lot of brothers and sisters who share the same father, and we who become “our brother’s keeper” share in the responsibility of the family to help Dad take care of the family. So, not only am I encouraging you to learn about some of your older brothers and sisters (which we call Saints), but also I am asking you to be a brother or a sister to your siblings (and stop thinking about just yourself in this family – ha!).

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But now what about how this film relates to the Rite of Welcoming? Lets look at it by changing that question to be: As the Big Fat Greek Family, what is our responsibility to the new brothers and sisters in our family?

In explaining the Catholic “Club” I explain to participants that in reality, when you break this social concept down to be being more naturally inclusive, most cradle Catholics don’t know what they don’t know.   See, they have grown up in a world in which they have never seen things from the small family perspective.   Meaning, they have never related to the world from the perspective of an individualized parental relationship.  Nor is this true then when it comes to their faith.

Let me explain this by an example: Lets take our friend, brother and fellow parishioner Charlie Sharp.  Charlie comes from a family of 19 kids I think?  Charlie acknowledges that he never new a time growing up that his mother wasn’t pregnant. Think about that for a moment. Mom was always with a baby.  That would really affect your sense of expectation of your relationship with your Mother wouldn’t it?

So how would Charlie relate to a kid whose Mom had only one child and doted over him or her all the time if he grew up in a world in which his Mother naturally was always drawn in focus on the next kid coming into the family? “I love you dear, now can you move over please because we need more room.” Charlie then has never seen the world from the perspective of a spoiled kid, and arguably then nor could he recognize the anxieties in behavior demonstrated by someone coming into a new Church situation and not getting treated as they would have expected from their previously personalized experiences. Such as:  “Oh Hi, you must be new here, let me show you around and give you a tour.” Yeah, lets face it, Charlie sees more people coming into the Church and likely just starts moving to the middle of the pew.  (Love you Charlie – thank you!)

Now please don’t dismiss this expectation that many Protestants have coming into a new Church. Why? Because Protestants see the world from a small family perspective. If you walk into a small family as a stranger you are going to stand out. You get approached, challenged, greeted, and / or recognized as being the outsider.  Try walking into a protestant service sometime and count the number of times you get greeted and welcomed. My wife, a life long Catholic, always was disturbed by this when we attended protestant services. She just wanted to be left alone and go to her seat.  Good luck.

It is also very normal in protestant services to have guests stand and introduce themselves. Then everyone in the congregation welcomes them. Admittedly, this can be a Catholic thing too, if adopted.   I have been to Mass in both Columbia, MO and Lake of the Ozarks, MO and been asked to stand and introduce myself as a visitor.

Now, having defended the “club” in its perceptual ignorance, I then admit that ignorance isn’t bliss. That despite the fact that they don’t know what they don’t know, I let the participant know they are right. Folks in our Parish should be more welcoming to new members of the Church or even strangers they see at Mass for that matter. After all we are all, as believers in Christ, called to share the good news. Our responsibilities to the Body of Christ go beyond the walls of the Parish to any and all that seek Jesus. And just like the single child needs to be aware of the other siblings in the house, sometimes all the kids that have been sleeping in one bedroom need to be welcoming of a another child who moves into their room from down the hall as the family continues to grow.

But one of the biggest hindrances to our ability to do this is what I call the problem of the Three-Cow-Catholics.

The what?

 

The Problem of Three-Cow Catholics

It has been my observation that there is a behavior in Catholic circles that I identify as people who are Three-Cow-Catholics. What I mean by this is that they are like three cows standing in a field. Their issue is communal in nature as there are three of them. Which also implies that it is an action issue and an action that takes place when they move into groups.

As simple and noble cows, they could be in the wrong pasture, they could even be on the wrong farm, but when it comes to their individual choice of location they see themselves as where they need to be as long as they are standing between the same two cows they have always been standing between. For some, this has been true nearly their entire lives. They look left, they look right; every body is where they should be: therefore they’re good and nothing else needs to be done.

So the first thing these parishoners do when they get to a Parish event, is drop their spouses and go stand between the same two cows they always stand between. Because that is where they have trained themselves over years and years to feel comfortable. Notice I didn’t say husbands. I didn’t say wives. I said spouses.

Rarely do Three-Cow Catholics take ownership of their individual responsibilities as a Christian to be an ambassador of the faith, let alone an ambassador of the Parish or even the Parish School. They do serve the body of Christ admirably, many times without thought and with Reverent joy.  But rarely do they venture far outside their comfort zone (the left cow and the right cow), and so they would rarely see those who may need their leadership and understanding in situations where faith leadership is needed.

Arguably now, and in their defense, these Catholics have never been lead to believe they are needed for this. They likely never saw their parents, or other parishioners model such evangelical behavior. The “New Evangelization” was not part of their Catholic School or SOR experience. And full Catechesis, sadly, well…..probably not.

Such social Catholics also have been raised in a world in which their faith experiences and lifestyle experiences overlapped significantly. Given this significant structural overlap, such situations regularly having many of the same people always in attendance.  Therefore there became little differentiation to them as what is about the body and what is about them.  It is, in concept, the opposite problem of expectation in the large family versus the small.  Where you make those group experiences all about you as an individual.

So in walks a stranger to the world of the Three Cow Catholic and what happens? Not what happens at a Protestant church. No big greeting or handshake or hug. No welcome. Many times not even a smile; but not always.   Arguably, at best, simple social courtesy and a respecting of others personal space. The arguably generous act of simply not bothering someone as you go about your day in your world.

And “The Club” is born.

 

My Church is Bigger than your Church

You may have noticed that the largest Church in the United States is the Catholic Church. You may have also heard that the second largest Church in the United States is former Catholics. That is quite a measure of size differential when you think about it. The Church next to us in size is simply all of us who got mad and left.

So you come from a small protestant Church and you are feeling called to the Catholic faith. As you enter for the first few times of any Parish the best information you may have of what to expect is from all the former Catholics at your old Church who still hate the Catholic Church. Personally I can share that when word of my interest in Catholicism reached the ears of these same people in my life, many wasted no time in either trying to “save me from Catholicism” or to quickly tell me what kind of an idiot I was being.   One might reasonably argue then that if we as a Parish community cared, as Christ calls us too, to love and welcome those curious and seeking the Cross; we might – if we do nothing else – go out of our way to insure that we don’t make all of those former Catholics right in their ascertains about the Church. We could, on the other hand, make the experience of the curious so wonderful, that they go back and bring home the angry and embittered former Catholics to the Sacraments we all so desperately need.

We also, as the Body, might recognize a behavioral and perceptual difference between being in a Church the size of the Catholic Church and coming from a protestant Church. It begins by recognizing that most Protestants, despite the attention they get in our minds, don’t attend big mega-churches.  In reality, most intentional Protestants attend small denominational Churches:  Churches of less than 100 active members. (Yes.  There are that many small Protestant Churches.)

So if you are one of those small church Protestants, your view of your faith and your ownership of the evangelical process take on greater responsibility. Think about it.  When through one person you can increase those in the faith by 1%. What you you have to do to increase the Catholic faith by 1%?  Think of the impact of adding a whole family.  So your expectations of how you will be treated when you consider attending a different church can be strongly influenced by how you would have treated some one coming into your former church.  Many times you would be glad to have them and be going out of your way to make them feel welcome.  My wife and I experienced this every time we moved to a new community and looked for a new Church.  At times it was almost heartbreaking if you tried out a new Church, didn’t like it, and saw those there throwing themselves out to you to come back.

Now, it hasn’t been that long ago that many in any Parish to consider being an ambassador of the faith and welcoming those new to the faith to be the Priest’s job.  If you still feel this way let me share with you now how wrong you are. It’s easy in a Church as massive as the Catholic Church to defer the responsibilities of most any duties to others. It’s easy to hide in numbers, believe others will do it, and let the mantle of responsibility pass you by. But as the program in our Parish is so eloquently called, “That man is you.”

 

The Calling of the Faith

In his Encyclical Letter Lumen Fidei Pope Francis writes: The fullness which Jesus brings to faith has another decisive aspect. In faith, Christ is not simply the one in whom we believe, the supreme manifestation of God’s love; he is also the one with whom we are united precisely in order to believe. Accordingly then, Pope Francis continues: Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes: it is a participation in his way of seeing.  So we, as the faithful, should see others (and those new to the faith) as Jesus sees them.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangeli Gaudium Pope Francis also reminds us: The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

He therefore challenges us all directly: In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples”.

Simply, we are all called to be a witness for Christ, especially to those who are seeking him.

Now, this really shouldn’t be that much of a stretch for us. For as we are called to be the heads of our domestic churches, we in turn represent those churches when we come to Mass. If the same person came to your home and asked you about Jesus Christ how would you respond? Would you witness your faith? Would you open yourself up with the same Christian heart you share with those in your household? Would you? The good news is they are coming to our collective home, the home we call the Parish.

So what do you say? Let’s welcome them in.

YBIC

 

 

 

 

God is Love

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John 15:12 This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.

John 13:34-35 I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another. This is how I will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

God’s love is extremely powerful. It is so powerful that it has become a component of the Trinity. The Catechism tells us that to understand the Trinity we should see that Jesus is God’s thought of himself within the human existence, and that God’s love for Jesus is what we know as the Holy Spirit. Father Robert Barron has defined the Trinity in a simpler explanation of the same thing, “This means that God must be, in his own life, an interplay of lover (the Father), beloved (the Son) and shared love (the Holy Spirit).” Think about that for a moment. In understanding the Holy Spirit: God’s love for a person is so robust that it became a person in and of itself that allows we, as humble creatures, to sustain spiritual life in Him.

That one may take a moment of reflection. Go ahead and take one.

So in these terms – in understanding love on this level – how do we now understand what it means to be a follower of Christ? St. John’s verse above tells us that Christ will know his disciples by their love for one another. As followers of Christ, this by definition means that our faith is experiential, not cerebral. It’s easy in today’s too-much-information-world to think of our faith in terms of a mental exercise of what makes sense to us. We get herded into processing our faith as a consumer.

However, we as Catholics know that our faith is not about personal consumption. To us; it’s about a response. In James 2:18: Indeed someone may say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you with my works. What does that mean on a personal level? It is in our response to Christ’s love that we are bound. It is in our response that we affect others. It is through love that we then have a relationship to Him. It is through love that we show we have a relationship to him.

So we as respondents, as Catholics, form what is known as the Christian Religion. Where does the word religion come from? Early 4th century Christian writer Lactantius tells us that religion comes from the Latin root religare, a verb meaning to fasten or to bind. As used to explain things placed into relationship with one another. St. Augustine espoused on this etymology message as well defining religion as; “re-eligere” or to “choose again,” whereby religion becomes the recovery of the link with God that sin has surrendered. Whereby we have become re-bound to Him.

Like God, Jesus, and the love between them (Spirit) binds them, and with the Holy Spirit being our gift Christ left with us at Pentecost; we then know that what binds us, or re-binds us in Augustine’s words is love. And as we are all one body, if we are bound to Christ in love we are bound to each other through Christ’s love as well.

So then how do we become re-bound if not through a consumerist choice? How is it that we, bound to Him, respond? In his book Love Unveiled (The Catholic Faith Explained), Edward Sri writes, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

That should not be hard to process. CRHP (and the faith at large) is littered with testimony upon testimony of those of us who became swallowed into the faith through an encounter or an event in our lives. Reading the lives of the saints tells many the same stories. The bible itself shares experience on experience of those meeting Christ – St. Paul one of the most notable.

Therefore we, as modern day Christians are blessed to read the New Testament, to have access in abundance to its analysis by theologians and its interpretations, and to read or hear in abundance the stories of grace poured forth into the hands of the lost, the prodigal sons, and sick. My heart sings when I read the Gospels and my soul comes alive in the word of God. But what about all of the stories and experiences of those people touched by Christ in his ministry then and now that have never been told? Is that something we should think about? Is that something we should factor in to the greatness that is God’s love?

Maybe we might just think about that for a moment.

Let’s start with the Lepers? The what? Yes, the Lepers. Leprosy takes a significant role in the Bible timeline. It’s a re-occurring theme in the Old and New Testament. And in the New Testament, Jesus specifically heals Lepers time and again. Why?

Matthew Chapter 8 opens with: When Jesus came down from the Mountain, great crowds followed him. And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” His leprosy was cleansed immediately. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”

Who are lepers and why think about them? Maybe it’s because we don’t think about them. Are they those in society we have written off? Those in whom we place little hope? Those in whom we accept their abject disparity as so great we struggle to even comprehend how helping them is even possible?

Mathew 25:40 And the king will say to them in reply, Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Why lepers? Because God loved the least of us – and continues to love the least of us. God loved the unlovable. God loved those with whom we struggle to comprehend even how to love.

How do you think they responded?

The man in Matthew’s Gospel. We have no reason to believe the Leper didn’t march right down to the priest and present the gift as Moses had prescribed. But then what happened? We aren’t told. But as Sri just told us being a Christian is an encounter with a person which gives life a new horizon and a new direction. We know that Saul was the single greatest threat to the faith that existed in the dawning of the Church. Saul met Jesus Christ on a roadside and in response to that experience became one of single greatest voices for Christ’s ministry as St. Paul in the history of the world.   Paul is the single greatest contributor to the New Testament by word volume alone. So what happened next in the life of the leper? Where did he go? Who did he love? How did his life change the world?

How many lepers are there out there? Why are lepers mentioned in the Bible? Because they, like us, are the untold story and the continuation of Christ’s ministry here on earth.

Are you a leper?

How have you responded to God’s love for you?

What being a Christian has taught me is that we so regularly underestimate the power of God’s love. Nor do we always understand where to find it. When I think about the leper in Matthew’s gospel I realize that Christ’s ministry here on earth was about affecting people, real everyday people, who become bound to him in love so they can affect more people. You can’t appreciate the love you receive until you love someone else. Because in loving another you understand what a gift love is to begin with. You experience what grace, forgiveness, charity, blessing, kindness, or whatever you want to call it when you exercise those same things for someone else. That is the power of God’s love. That is how the faith comes alive in all of us.

Especially when you do it for someone that represents to you someone you have written off, someone in whom you place little hope, or those in who you accept their abject disparity as being so great you struggle to even comprehend how to love them.

Want to hear a story about a leper? I know one. His name is Michael Bonderer. I have had the pleasure of knowing Michael through his brother Dan who is a longtime friend of mine and fellow Catholic. Dan has attended daily Mass longer than I have been alive. Dan has spent many mornings praying for his brother Michael. Michael was an alcoholic, a failed parent, verbally abusive to his family, and in general a pretty miserable human being. And then one day, in a hospital room, Michael met Jesus Christ. And Jesus loved him – an undeserving love. And in response to Christ after being told he was terminally ill and would likely not live another few months, Michael sold everything he owned, moved to El Salvador, and started loving those more full of despair than he was.

The following was written about Michael on February 6th, 2012:

Colorful character leads the building of a thriving community in El Salvador

Post Date February 06, 2012

Author Chris Johnson

Michael Bonderer both shatters molds and sets the bar. He never holds back, whether it’s serving his fellow man or speaking his mind. With a mix of inspiration, perspiration and consternation, he has turned the El Salvadoran community of San Luis Talpa into a shining example of transformation.

“I think some don’t like me,” said Bonderer, The Fuller Center’s director of operations in El Salvador. “But some do. It’s a mixed bag.”

Perhaps. But when it comes to Michael Bonderer, those who’ve worked with him are in unanimous agreement about him on two fronts: He’s a character, and he’s a character who gets things done.

“He’s a character, but a character in a good way,” said Allen Slabaugh, the director of The Fuller Center’s Student Builders and Bicycle Adventure, who made his first trip outside the United States in January when he built homes on a church trip to San Luis Talpa. “He’ll tell you like it is, but he really wants the best for people. He really cares about that little community.”

Caring about the community means more than just building houses. Bonderer is the glue in El Salvador between The Fuller Center for Housing and its Homes from the Heart partner in El Salvador. Working with the groups and other partners, he has managed to build homes, set up a daycare, bring in utilities and help attract a project called Many Miracles that helps train women to sew for a living.

Yet, it’s doubtful that the women can sew a tapestry nearly as colorful as a few words from Bonderer.

‘ONE HECK OF A GUY’

Among those who know Bonderer very well is Lindsay Long. The 23-year-old graduated from the University of Cincinnati in June with a bachelor’s degree in biology. During her undergraduate years, she was heavily involved with Serve Beyond Cincinnati, a service group that has sent many college-aged volunteers The Fuller Center’s way.

Long, who served as president of the campus group last year, led a dozen students on a work trip to El Salvador a few years ago and has stayed in contact with Bonderer ever since. After graduation, she wanted to do something longer than a weeklong service trip, and Bonderer suggested she come intern with him. She did just that for the last five months of 2011. She will return to school soon to work on her master’s degree but treasures the time she took away from school to work with Bonderer.

“Michael is one heck of a guy,” Long said. “He has character — I will say that. He’s passionate about the mission, and I don’t think he ever loses sight of why he’s there. The whole point is to give people better housing. People who are in poverty don’t want to be there, and he’s there to help them. He never loses sight of that.”

“One of the things I really appreciate about what Mike has been doing there is he’s building houses, but he’s also addressing other community needs with the daycare, working so hard to get electrical power and helping provide jobs for people down there,” said Ryan Iafigliola, The Fuller Center’s Director of International Field Operations, who recently returned from a Central America swing, on which he visited San Luis Talpa for the first time. “He’s really looking at it as building a community, rather than a certain number of houses.

“He doesn’t mind who gets the credit,” Iafigliola added. “When I was down there, in his own words he said, ‘When I die, I hope people don’t say, “He built X number of houses.” I hope they say, “He left behind wonderful communities.” ‘ And that’s just his approach. He’s just down there plugging away and taking care of every aspect he can and trying to get other partners involved.”

BLAME GOOGLE

Bonderer once had no intention of becoming a builder of decent communities in Central America. Around the turn of the millennium, when he was in the elevator business in Kansas City, his life took a turn.

“I was sick,” the Marine Corps veteran said. “I had an illness, and I became a victim of Google. I kept looking up my condition, and it looked so bad that I figured I’d better do something good before I croaked.”

Thinking he didn’t have long before he “croaked,” he packed up his truck and tools (and his dog) and drove from Kansas City to Guatemala in 2001.

“The experience of trying to get a truck loaded with equipment into Mexico is a book in and of itself,” Bonderer said with a laugh.

“Fortunately, we knew a Catholic priest who knew who to bribe to get through to Mexico.”

While in Central America, something else happened to further change the course of his life.

“I met Millard Fuller,” Bonderer said of the founder of The Fuller Center for Housing. “He was totally different from me, but he was fascinating to me.”

Fuller would go on to describe Bonderer in much the same way as others: “He is quite the character.”

‘SAINT AND SINNER’

Others who find Bonderer “quite the character” include Ronnie McBrayer, an author, speaker and pastor who writes the nationally syndicated “Keeping the Faith” newspaper column. McBrayer wrote about Bonderer in his newspaper column in April of 2011:

I found Michael to be more than just a colorful character. He is the stunning paradox of saint and sinner. At once, he is a nicotine-addicted, four-letter-word-dropping, endless-coffee-drinking, recovering alcoholic; and he is a wise sage, a deeply committed follower of Jesus, a spiritual practitioner who lives to put roofs over the heads of the poor and forgotten.

Michael is aged, fragile and weak, and yet after cancer, a heart attack, a quadruple-bypass surgery, a stroke and two packs a day, he’s still not dead. He doesn’t even feel bad! And in true enigmatic form, he says he has very little faith, sometimes not at all; yet the trajectory of his life says otherwise.

McBrayer used the colorful Bonderer to call people of faith into service. Though a gifted writer himself, McBrayer used Bonderer’s own words to hammer home his message.

After a week with him in Central America mixing concrete and building houses, I asked him what his work there needed, outside of money, to keep building homes. He flicked ashes into a coconut ashtray and passionately replied, “People in the church feel like they need permission to do anything good, or they feel they need to be experts.

But you don’t have to know anything about anything to change the world. The people who just show up are the game changers. That’s what we need: People ready and willing to serve, who will just show up.”

POPULAR DESTINATION FOR MANY REASONS

But Bonderer’s ability to get things done is not the only reason El Salvador is one of the most popular stops for Fuller Center volunteer teams. They also come for the exotic scenery, the beachside lodging, and exciting excursions such as zooming along zip-lines, hiking to the rim of a volcano and taking surfing lessons.

“It’s an easy trip to make, a short trip and a beautiful country to visit,” Iafigliola said. “You stay right on the beach in a beautiful beach house. It’s an affordable trip and just a fun country to be in.”

But it’s the people of El Salvador who not only drive Bonderer to keep working but also drive volunteers to return and encourage others to follow.

“You will be hard-pressed to find happier, more open-hearted people than those who live in the rural villages of El Salvador,” McBrayer said. “They welcome you in like an old friend.”

Long said the country truly became home during her internship there.

“The people were really receptive of me,” she said. “I wasn’t fluent in Spanish by any means, but people were very friendly, and I found it very easy to get along with everyone there. I felt like it was my community.”

The steady flow of volunteer teams has had an impact beyond helping Bonderer and his team near completion of the project in San Luis Talpa and begin to look for new opportunities to help families; it also has kept fresh ideas and perspective coming.

“We’ve had a lot of real positive experiences with Serve Beyond Cincinnati and the other groups,” Bonderer said. “It’s been a real boost to me and my family. Having those young kids is truly special. It kinda keeps me in tune with what’s going on. They’ve been exposed to a lot of new ideas and ways of doing things, and that’s good for us.”

That’s a transaction that works both ways, Long said.

“I learned a lot from him while I was there,” she said of Bonderer. “He has such a unique perspective on ways to handle things or ways to work with groups. I think it’s always refreshing to see a unique perspective and see how someone else thinks. And especially with Michael, it’s a side I haven’t seen before.”

Bonderer’s summation of working with the young intern was more succinct: “Lindsay’s a trip.”

Others view Bonderer as “a trip,” and Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell believes his unique personality helps the El Salvador operation thrive and remain a drawing card for volunteers.

“There is a common misconception that charitable volunteers are a bunch of goody-two-shoes types who might not fit in well at a really fun event,” said Fuller Center President David Snell. “A stop at any Fuller Center project will show how faulty this perception is, especially if that project is in El Salvador. Our man on the ground there, Michael Bonderer, is a study in contrasts. He wraps his deep spirituality and sense of mission in a very human package, making him not only an inspirational leader but also an approachable friend.”

SETTING THE BAR

When Iafigliola visited San Luis Talpa, he did so with a group that plans to start a second Fuller Center covenant partner in El Salvador’s westernmost city, Ahuachapan. There, the plan has been to do what is known as “in-fill housing,” where the covenant partner would build houses in various locations where needy families own their own land.

But when the group saw the community that Bonderer’s team, residents and Fuller Center volunteers have managed to build in San Luis Talpa, the plan became subject to change.

“It’s like their whole mind-set changed,” Iafigliola said. “They were inspired. They said, ‘This is what we need to do where we’re at!’ They’re still going to start with in-fill, but now they kind of have this new vision and goal for down there in their part of the country.”

San Luis Talpa is evidence that a community is much more than “X number of houses,” as Bonderer said. It takes the dedication of people like Bonderer and the steady stream of good-hearted volunteers.

“Anyone can join a mission team, get on a plane, spend a few American dollars or pour concrete,” McBrayer said. “Building a house is easy. But we don’t build houses. We build communities. And that is much more challenging work; it is work that requires an investment of time, heart and good will. But it is worth it.”

Bonderer sees his success in El Salvador in much simpler terms, through the eyes of a man who 11 years ago simply decided to do some good before he croaked.

“The bottom line is that I came down here and didn’t die,” he said.

_________________________________________________________________

Maybe we don’t hear about the Leper’s stories because they aren’t as polished and don’t preach as well as others. Maybe it’s because we are meant to discover such aspects of our faith through our own suffering and personal experiences. But after meeting Jesus I’ll bet my savings they went out and changed someone’s life. They were given the opportunity to understand what love is and how to use it. They stepped forth in a new direction and re-dedicated their lives to extending Christ’s ministry on this earth. They loved someone new.

My friend Michael Bonderer now lies in a hospital room at KU Med center continuing to defy the doctors and is living on under hospice care. The people of his village miss him, his El Salvadoran wife is beyond grief, and his soul needs your prayers.

My prayer is that in you reading this the scope of Michael’s response to Christ continues to grow even now, and that we all come to see God’s love for its purpose and the potential it has in our own lives.

Amen

Please join me in prayer:

Dear Lord,

Help me to spread Thy Fragrance everywhere I go.  Flood my soul with Thy spirit and life.  Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life only be a radiance of Thine.  Shine through me, and be in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Thy presence in my soul.  Let them look up and see no longer me but only Thee O Lord!  Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as Thou shines; so to shine as to be a light to others.  (John Henry Cardinal Newman)

St. Teresa of Calcutta pray for us.

Amen.

YBIC

 

Who Am

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This past Sunday’s readings at Mass began in Exodus recalling Moses experience facing God through the burning bush on Mount Horeb. Within this first reading is the discussion Mosses has with God as to His Name:

Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.”

This stands out to me as incredibly significant in ones understanding of faith. First of all, it is significant in that it is a direct quote from God Himself. As readers of the Old Testament we have few opportunities to hear the direct word of God. The bulk of the Old Testament is the story of God’s people in the Historical books, the Prophetic books, the Books of Wisdom, and the Biblical Novellas. It is only in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books) in which we hear God directly and in those books it is limited to his establishment of His Covenant.

But also more importantly for the understanding our faith, in Moses question, God does not respond authoritatively as one might expect in that situation and say – I am who I am (As if that is all that the Israelites need to know). Which, given the context of the situation would have been a very reasonable response. Instead God’s response to Moses is not only supportive to his request, but it is profoundly more relevant to what becomes our understanding of who God is thousands of years later: I am who am.

Who am? God is the God who is? He is I am? What? This small but simple statement becomes enlarged through even a basic understanding of grammar.   This response takes a simple sentence with a direct object and turns it on its head.  This statement of identity becomes then a restrictive relative clause (who) as is limits God’s identity to a state of being within the reference of the relative clause defining who “I” is (AM).  It likely is no accident that in conjoining two expressions in this non-traditional way that God connects two forms of sentence structure which otherwise would naturally be used to express separate ideas.  But through his response He connects those forms and ideas in a way in which we can, as humans, see God outside our own first person frame of reference.

Now also in hearing God declare his name in this way, my mind becomes drawn to the Gospel of John, Chapter 14 verse 6. There in response to Saint Thomas’ question of How can we know the way? Christ responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now it’s easy to look at John’s Gospel and simply read that statement as Christ being the doorway to the New Covenant relationship. That’s because Christ is the doorway of the New Covenant relationship. But in looking at those verses together you can connect the nature of that covenant relationship. You get a perspective on what that covenant relationship is – there is only one God, one truth, one purpose, one path, one way, one faith, one life, one choice, and one meaning to it all. One truth that is absolute; not subjective, not yours, not theirs, not convenient, not easy, not amendable, not bendable, not American, not European, not because, and not maybe. One who am.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it this way in paragraph 213: The revelation of the ineffable name “I Am who Am” contains then the truth that God alone IS. The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and following it the Church’s Tradition, understood the divine name in this sense: God is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end. All creatures receive all that they are and have from him; but he alone is his very being, and he is of himself everything that he is.

So now why is this reading our reading for the 3rd Sunday of Lent? And why in Lent?

Lent in so many ways is about our relationship with Christ. Ironically, for our relationship with Christ and the Father there is a unique parallel in the orbit of the planets.

So lets start by asking the question, “Does the Sun revolve around the Earth or does the Earth revolve around the Sun?” It would be simple to assume that the Sun revolves around the Earth, because that is how we experience the Sun. It rises in the morning, measures our day, heats the earth, feeds the plants, gives us vitamin D, and retreats at night to allow us to sleep and become restored. However, it is a basic scientific fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Sadly, in 2014 TIME Magazine published the results of a National Science Foundation Study that showed that 1 in 4 Americans and 1 in 3 Europeans think that the Sun revolves around the Earth. That is in 2014; not 1814 or 1514. But again, that is how we as creatures experience that relationship as uniquely created individuals. Those numbers reveal, that as people, we are self-centric in our understanding of the world.

Our faith can be like this too, and in the Lenten Season we can transpose this thought by asking it in the form of a similar question; “Does God revolve around us, or do we revolve around God?” It is very easy to become so wrapped up in your life that you begin to see God, and your relationship with Jesus Christ as revolving around you. But you are not at the center of your being. Because that is not how God works. God is I AM. God is the constant. Christ is the way the truth and the life. Christ is our doorway to God. We revolve around him.

The other readings Sunday in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and the Gospel of Luke describe situations of those who thought God revolved around them. In the Gospel reading Christ comes right out and warns people directly that unless you do not repent, you will perish as they did! Christ then goes on to tell them a parable:

“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’”

This is the blessing of Lent. Christ has come as the gardener to cultivate the soil and fertilize it.  To give us the opportunity to cultivate fruit.  Accordingly, Lent gives us the opportunity to answer the specific Question; does God revolve around me or do I revolve around him? So then if you don’t like the answer you give yourself, what will you do about it?

In hearing this challenge don’t forget you are not alone. Christ is with you.  Christ is the gardener.  To know that to be true, put this in relationship to the Eucharist.  We know that the Glory of the Eucharist is that we are bringing Christ’s physical presence inside of us.  But why do we do this?  More specifically, why do we fulfill Christ’s ministry on earth in this way?  Why did God choose this as the process of fulfillment to allow us to live within the New Covenant Relationship?  Could it be that it facilitates a complete oneness?  Could it be that it allows for a physical connection to the constant that is God?  The way and the truth and the life?

Such an idea makes the Sacrament of Reconciliation also so much more profoundly important in our lives (and is why you hear it so emphasized during Lent). As we fall from that oneness, we have the opportunity to be reconciled back to Him. The Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Lenten season are the opportunities within the opportunity. We keep getting the opportunity to respond in fullness to Him. Christ continues to call us towards Him like Moses was called to the burning bush. Look around and see that we all are standing on Mount Horeb. We all are being summoned to come over, remove our sandals, and enter Holy ground. Can you hear it? Are you listening?  Do you know the name of your God?

Amen.

YBiC

The Gift of Lent – Thirsting Back

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It is true.

I stand at the door of your heart, day and night. Even when you are not listening, even when you doubt it could be Me, I am there. I await even the smallest sign of your response, even the least whispered invitation that will allow Me to enter. And I want you to know that whenever you invite Me, I do come – always, without fail.

Silent and unseen I come, but with infinite power and love, and bringing the many gifts of My Spirit. I come with My mercy, with My desire to forgive and heal you, and with a love for you beyond your comprehension – a love every bit as great as the love I have received from the Father [“As much as the Father has loved me, I have loved you…” (Jn. 15:10)]

I come – longing to console you and give you strength, to lift you up and bind all your wounds. I bring you My light, to dispel your darkness and all your doubts. I come with My power, that I might carry you and all your burdens; with My grace, to touch your heart and transform your life; and My peace I give to still your soul.

I know you through and through. I know everything about you. The very hairs of your head I have numbered. Nothing in your life is unimportant to Me. I have followed you through the years, and I have always loved you – even in your wanderings.

I know every one of your problems. I know your needs and your worries. And yes, I know all your sins. But I tell you again that I love you – not for what you have or haven’t done – I love you for you, for the beauty and dignity My Father gave you by creating you in His own image. It is a dignity you have often forgotten, a beauty you have tarnished by sin.

But I love you as you are, and I have shed My Blood to win you back. If you only ask Me with faith, My grace will touch all that needs changing in your life, and I will give you the strength to free yourself from sin and all its destructive power.

I know what is in your heart – I know your loneliness and all your hurts – the rejections, the judgments, the humiliations, I carried it all before you. And I carried it all for you, so you might share My strength and victory.

I know especially your need for love – how you are thirsting to be loved and cherished. But how often have you thirsted in vain, by seeking that love selfishly, striving to fill the emptiness inside you with passing pleasures – with the even greater emptiness of sin. Do you thirst for love? “Come to Me all you who thirst…” (Jn. 7: 37).

I will satisfy you and fill you. Do you thirst to be cherished? I cherish you more than you can imagine – to the point of dying on a cross for you. I Thirst for You.

Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe My love for you. I THIRST FOR YOU. I thirst to love you and to be loved by you – that is how precious you are to Me. I THIRST FOR YOU. Come to Me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds. I will make you a new creation, and give you peace, even in all your trials I THIRST FOR YOU.

You must never doubt My mercy, My acceptance of you, My desire to forgive, My longing to bless you and live My life in you. I THIRST FOR YOU. If you feel unimportant in the eyes of the world, that matters not at all. For Me, there is no one any more important in the entire world than you. I THIRST FOR YOU.

Open to Me, come to Me, thirst for Me, give me your life – and I will prove to you how important you are to My Heart. Don’t you realize that My Father already has a perfect plan to transform your life, beginning from this moment?

Trust in Me. Ask Me every day to enter and take charge of your life. – and I will. I promise you before My Father in heaven that I will work miracles in your life. Why would I do this? Because I THIRST FOR YOU.  All I ask of you is that you entrust yourself to Me completely. I will do all the rest. Even now I behold the place My Father has prepared for you in My Kingdom.

Remember that you are a pilgrim in this life, on a journey home. Sin can never satisfy you, or bring the peace you seek. All that you have sought outside of Me has only left you more empty, so do not cling to the things of this life. Above all, do not run from Me when you fall. Come to Me without delay. When you give Me your sins, you gave Me the joy of being your Savior. There is nothing I cannot forgive and heal; so come now, and unburden your soul. No matter how far you may wander, no matter how often you forget Me, no matter how many crosses you may bear in this life; there is one thing I want you to always remember, one thing that will never change. I THIRST FOR YOU – just as you are.

You don’t need to change to believe in My love, for it will be your belief in My love that will change you. You forget Me, and yet I am seeking you every moment of the day – standing at the door of your heart and knocking.

Do you find this hard to believe? Then look at the cross, look at My Heart that was pierced for you. Have you not understood My cross? Then listen again to the words I spoke there – for they tell you clearly why I endured all this for you: “I THIRST…”(Jn 19: 28). Yes, I thirst for you – as the rest of the psalm – verse I was praying says of Me: “I looked for love, and I found none…” (Ps. 69: 20).

All your life I have been looking for your love – I have never stopped seeking to love you and be loved by you. You have tried many other things in your search for happiness; why not try opening your heart to Me, right now, more than you ever have before.

Whenever you do open the door of your heart, whenever you come close enough, you will hear Me say to you again and again, not in mere human words but in spirit. “No matter what you have done, I love you for your own sake Come to Me with your misery and your sins, with your troubles and needs, and with all your longing to be loved. I stand at the door of your heart and knock. Open to Me, for I THIRST FOR YOU…”

“Jesus is God, therefore His love, His Thirst, is infinite. He the creator of the universe, asked for the love of His creatures. He thirst for our love… These words: ‘I Thirst’ – Do they echo in our souls?”

Mother Teresa Imprimatur Mons. G. Sergio De la Cerda Z. Vicar General Tijuana, B. C. México.

Have a blessed Lent,

YBIC