Thursday, June 28, 2007

Other Boats

June 28, 2007

On many occasions, Jesus departed from his busy ministry and the crowds that so frequently surrounded him. He himself set the example that times of reflection are vital for ministry. Sometimes he sought solitude, and sometimes he took his disciples with him to lonely places. Today we call such times “days off”, “vacations”, “retreats”, and “sabbaticals”. Each of these serves a different purpose, but all are intended in one way or another to be times apart from busyness for the purposes of reflection and renewal.

The first retreat I ever took was for seminary students, and took place in 1972. The conductor was an associate priest at St. James’ Anglican Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was at Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. Thirty years later I was back for another retreat at the same place. The abbey had been completely remodeled into one of the most beautiful modern church facilities I have ever seen.

Anyway, the conductor began the first address by quoting this Scriptural passage: “When evening had come, [Jesus] said to [his disciples], ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him” (Mark 4:35-36).

Then he remarked that the line he wanted to emphasize was, “other boats were with him”. He explained that no matter what effort one makes to set one’s personal concerns, stresses, and demands aside for a time of retreat, some distractions will always come along: whenever one tries to “go across to the other side”, “other boats” will always come along, and we just have to accept that.

Thirty-five years later that’s the only thing that I remember about his addresses. It’s a good lesson. One can not be completely free of distractions for long—not on a retreat, not in times of prayer, not in church, not in—well, anything. —And we probably shouldn’t be. “Other boats” are a constant reminder to us that in all aspects of our lives, including our striving for God, we have to live with imperfections. We are to go all-out always for what is best, but at the same time we must be content with the status of things at the moment. It is how we learn that we just absolutely must depend always upon the grace of God’s love and mercy and not our own efforts and achievements. Only God is perfect.

Monday, June 25, 2007

No Wrong Numbers With God

Apart from being a priest and a pastor, I am first of all a Christian man. When I am not “at work”, I still do my best to lead a Christian life just like everyone else, and that includes being a “personal evangelist”. I have learned over the years of my adult Christian life that there are generally two kinds of personal evangelism: the short-term opportunity you have with someone you may not know, and the long-term opportunity you have with people whom you may know very well, such as friends, neighbors, and family members.

The first kind is relatively easy. One day someone called the church and as soon as I answered, “Blessed Sacrament Church, this is Father David”, the caller said, “Oops, sorry. I called a wrong number.” I immediately responded, “Well, maybe not! Maybe this is God’s way of changing your life. Do you have a church family? You could give us a try.” The caller laughed and pleasantly declined the invitation. Once a deflated helium balloon that had been launched several miles away came down in the church yard with a card on it. I wrote to the address on the card, explained where the balloon had touched down, and invited the balloonist to church. (I don’t think the individual came.) At some point I will post on this blog my extremely rewarding encounter with a young lady on a bus.

The second kind of evangelism is much more difficult, and most opportunities are in this category. When there are other facets to a relationship, one must tread carefully so as not to exploit or misuse someone with whom there is an ongoing connection. In such a case, one’s life must bear the first light until a conversation about Jesus has a good chance of being fruitful. Offending someone in such a circumstance with inappropriate evangelism can do lasting harm.

In all cases, while setting a Christian example is critical to effective evangelism, it is not sufficient. Deeds must be accompanied by words; one must be able and willing to talk about faith in Jesus when the opportunity is given, and on occasion even to create an opportunity to do so. In his teaching mission at Blessed Sacrament in April 2000, Father Kevin Higgins talked about being “intentional” in evangelism—that is, making evangelism an active goal and purpose and not being content just hoping that people will notice that you are a Christian.

I have two long-time friends who are atheists. I have known “Mark” since our teenage days when we were neighbors. Our friendship has lasted more than forty years, though now our contact is rare. Mark was never raised in a church and never saw a need for God. He sees religious faith the way I see surfing or motorcycle riding. Plenty of people do it and I’m glad for them, but my interests lie elsewhere.

I have known “Fred” for a little more than ten years. He was badly abused as a child and was raised in fundamentalistic Mormon territory. We share interest in a couple of hobbies and I have visited him a couple of times. Mostly, however, we correspond or occasionally talk on the phone.

Both of these men are extremely principled. More than once I have been tremendously impressed by a courageous, moral, generous, costly, or humble action they have taken. I am trying to evangelize them. I do so by doing my best to be honorable to them and respectful of them and their beliefs. It is a long-term investment. I want to create a situation in which they will ask me what I believe and why. Every now and then, either in humor or genuine sharing, I raise the issue of Christian belief, profession, and practice. I want to pique their curiosity. If I push, I will lose them. If they become curious, I can talk freely. It has already happened more than once.

With such persons, I try to share what my faith means to me in the same natural way as I might share the news that I went on a vacation or any other aspect of my life. Such topics can arise naturally in conversation or correspondence. Sometimes an obvious need will arise; perhaps they face a crisis situation or are in need of sympathy or support.

God is the ultimate evangelist, and we are merely his instruments. It is God’s will that people come to know Christ. He doesn’t expect us to accomplish this while he watches disinterestedly. We must pray for people we know who are most in need of a Christian life, ask God for guidance and opportunity to do our part, and then talk with them as God provides the time and place.

In the end, good evangelism allows people the dignity of making their own decision, and recognizes that God has the responsibility for timing and results. Evangelism should never overstep someone else’s convictions, but neither should it ignore people when they are in need. The gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ and the peace of knowing and serving him now are the greatest gifts that one person can give another. Give it as you would give any other gift: thoughtfully, carefully, lovingly, hopefully, and patiently. I do not know how effective I have been as an evangelist, but I know that it cannot be an optional part of Christian life.