Wednesday, July 31, 2013

And the Youth Came!

Jesus Christ Overlooking Copacabana Beach
World Youth Day 2013 has come and gone.  World Youth Day is actually more like World Youth Week with many of the world's youths from across the globe travel large distances to attend a several day's long celebration of not only Catholicism, but of Christianity.

It is a time of great anticipation for those in attendance for most have come to be in the presence of the Holy Father even though a vast majority of those in attendance could see him only as a faint white dot in the distance.  Still, to be in his presence, in his immediate vicinity, is an electrifying experience. And, with the charismatic Pope Francis, the electricity must have been great indeed!

The youth came from every continent.  They came from Indonesia, from Australia, from Africa.  There were those from the United States, Canada, Great Britain and all of the countries in Europe.  They came by plane and boat.  Many, who are native to South America came by car.  Nearly every form of transportation known was used in moving the attendees from one part of the planet to Rio de Janeiro.  But why all the interest in traveling to Rio?

Certainly it couldn't have been the weather.  At this time of the year the southern hemisphere is in the middle of  winter.  Not that there were blizzards bombarding the coast of this party town of South America, but the weather was far from hospitable.  There was lots of rain and cold air moving inland from the Atlantic Ocean making things distinctly uncomfortable for the millions who gathered on Copacabana Beach to take in the events.

Was the reason for the long trek to this far away city the Pope?  Certainly, the prospect of seeing the Pope was a large drawing card for many.  And, because this Pope is brand new to the office, curiosity was running high.  Yet, as Francis will tell you, he couldn't have been the main reason.

Was it the prospect of day and night partying?  Probably not for the most part.  One can attend parties anywhere they happen to live.  It certainly is not necessary to travel, in some cases, half way around the world to go to a party.  Usually, young people can find a party in their own back yard without too much trouble, even though the numbers in attendance would be substantially less than those attending in Rio.

Then, why in the world did all those millions of young people save their hard earned money to travel to Rio in the winter time?  It really wasn't for some thing, it was for some one!  Jesus Christ!  Sure, all of the reasons that I have outlined above were factors in drawing so many young people to South America for this event. However, even when you put all the reasons together, the one unmistakable drawing card was the Savior Jesus Christ.  He was the reason for the great party that World Youth Day became.  He was the reason for the joyous celebration.  The faces of the countless young people in attendance reflect just that.  Their joy is in the Lord, not a human being.  Not a human institution.  But in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Youth of the World Celebrate Jesus Christ
And their behavior reflected not only the joy of the moment, but of the great reverence they have for the Son of God. In a gathering this large, it is easy to imagine that over the course of six days, dozens of fights would have broken out.  And while there were most certainly occasional arguments among the youth, there was very little trouble reported. And while I am sure that there was minimal drug use in the midst of the crowd, it was by no means a "South American Woodstock!"  No, the youth of the world gathered together for six days to immerse themselves in their faith.  They came to be with the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, to worship and celebrate with him the reality of the Savior of the World.  Their joy was not in anything man made or conceived.  Their joy was in the Lord!

To the youth of the world, those six days were an affirmation of the reality of the Risen Lord in our world. Satan could not have been pleased with this event.  The love of God for these gathered souls, shone through their joyous celebration of life and their determination to "go and make disciples of all nations."  (Mt 28: 19) Even more than that, the Spirit of the Lord came to dwell in each one of them as is reflected in their smiling faces and youthful enthusiasm for Jesus.  Their zeal for the Christ surely reflected the zeal that two disciples of long ago noted when they turned to each other after realizing that Jesus had just been with them on the road to Emmaus, and said, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us...?"  (Lk 24: 32)  Jesus spoke to the youth of the world through the words of Pope Francis, but more importantly, Jesus spoke to them through their love and compassion for one another.  Now, with their hearts ablaze, they return to the "real" world to spread the Good News of the reality of the Risen Lord at work in the world and their lives.  

And shouldn't this be a lesson for those of us who have long since passed our youth?  Shouldn't we learn from the young people of the world that the Lord Jesus Christ is a reality in our world and in our lives.  He is not a myth.  He is not insignificant.  He is not some vague idea to make us somehow happy and hopeful.  He is as real as you and I.  He does live within all who believe.  Given this reality, I should think that all of us who profess a belief in the Son of God as the Messiah, would join in with the youth of the world and spread the joy of the Truth that we have come to know.  And if we were to join the youth, could we not make a big difference in the world?

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Prodigal Son(s): A Modern Story

Prodigal Sons

We are all familiar with the parable Jesus told in Luke 15 about the two sons of a wealthy man.  One son, the younger of the two, decided that he'd had enough of depending on his father for everything and demanded his portion of his father's inheritance. His father put up no resistance to the younger boy's wishes and graciously obliged. Delighted with his new-found independent and wealthy status, he immediately set out in pursuit of the "good life."

We can imagine for the first few months, the young man lived life to the fullest.  Parties, women as well as luxurious surroundings were, undoubtedly, all a part of his new lifestyle.  However, like all human experiences that guarantee happiness, his riches soon disappeared and he found himself penniless and homeless.  Soon, he found himself hungry, having to resort to begging for any scrap that someone may find their way to give to him.  After a while, he found that no one was even willing to give even a crumb, thus driving him to fight the pigs for their slop to stay alive.

Finally, nearly starving, he determined that starvation awaited him.  The alternative was to swallow his pride and return to his father.  He decided that returning to his former home and becoming the lowliest of servants of his father was preferable to the life of abject poverty he now led.  At least with his father, he would have a roof over his head and food on the table.  The young man set out for home.

Meanwhile, back home, the boy's older brother kept serving his father faithfully.  His father never lost hope that one day his youngest boy would come to his senses and return.  Daily, we can picture him scanning the horizon in hopes of catching sight of his wayward offspring.  After countless days, the father spotted a small figure of a man in the distance.  Instantly, the father recognized him as his absent son and, choosing not to wait for him to arrive, immediately ran out to greet him.

As the father drew near, what he saw must have shocked and saddened him deeply.  His youngest son surely was in tatters having spent the better time away from home living on the streets and finally in pig sties for his very existence.  He smelled of hog manure, desperately in need of a bath.  And how did his father greet him?  Did he reprimand him and belittle him because of his folly?  Did he tell him to turn back and never set foot on his land again?  Did he reject him outright, completely disowning him?  The answer to these questions was a firm and determined, "No!"

The rest of the story that Jesus told is as well known.  The father escorted his errant son back home and provided him with new, clean clothes, a bath and, to top it all off, a sumptuous banquet with all of his friends in attendance.  No repercussions.  No lectures.  No "laying down the law!"  Only acceptance and love.  The eldest son, however, did not understand any of this and took his father to task for accepting back the brother that broke his father's heart and took advantage of the father at every turn.  The father lovingly corrected his oldest son in telling him that the return of his brother was something to rejoice over because his brother "was lost, and is found."  (cf  Lk 15: 11-32)

This touching story has so much to offer us in this day and age and I am sure that each person who reads this will be able to relate to it in one way or another.  

I would like to share with you my discovery of the modern day version of this very powerful, touching story of restoration and reconciliation.  

A few months back I found myself, a lifelong Catholic, in a most unlikely place: a revival held in a Baptist Church!  One year ago had anyone suggested to me that I might be in attendance at such an event in such a place, I would have denied even the slightest of possibilities that this might happen.  But, as I have so often learned throughout my life, God often works in the most mysterious of ways.

I must admit that before the revival started, I had visions of people speaking in tongues, preachers shouting Hallelujah in the aisles, and people fainting from the excitement in the aisles.  It really wasn't something that I looked forward to very much at all.  However, because of my promise to a friend to accompany them to this foreign form of worship, I went.  

As we sat quietly in our seats before proceedings began, I saw several men in brightly colored T-shirts with some sort of logo emblazoned across their chests that I didn't recognize.  Many of them looked rather disheveled and their ages seemed to span the spectrum.  At first I thought they may be from some half way house nearby and this was a sort of field trip for them.  You know, something to break the monotony of their lives.

Then the revival started.  And before I knew it, this band of rather ragged looking men took to the stage of this church and in this moment, my life began to change in a significant way.  Before I knew it, one of the men stepped forward and began to share the story of his life, his journey into darkness and his subsequent emergence into the light of salvation.  His testimony was riveting.  His speech, while not polished, emanated from a heart that had clearly been touched by something different, something unworldly, something divine.

Soon, others came forward to relate their stories and, in between these amazing moments of self-revelation, some of the most stirring voices I have heard in a long time performed heart-felt hymns of praise and thanksgiving.  One of them was a man who once performed professionally as a jazz singer!

To what organization did these men belong?  It was a place called Renewal Ranch.  This Ranch, as I subsequently learned, is a place of serene beauty, tucked away in the rolling hills of central Arkansas nestled up against the meandering Arkansas River.  The organization, slightly over two years old, has become a haven for men who have been caught up in the sad and tragic world of addiction.  

They come from everywhere and from every walk of life.  They come with their moral fuel tanks on "E" searching for a way back to life. Many have been disowned by their families having betrayed all trust through their actions.  Many of them come as a result of criminal action related directly to their addictions.  For so many, this is a place of last resort.  They have, in the vernacular, "hit bottom."

The success rate of the Ranch is phenomenal when compared with other facilities that offer programs of rehabilitation.  What is the difference between these other programs and the Ranch?  One word: focus.

Unlike many other rehab facilities, the Renewal Ranch has as its focus, not a twelve step program, but a program whose focus is other than worldly.  No, the focus of recovery, the very key to success, is not a man made program, but, quite simply, Jesus Christ.

Many of the men who come to Renewal Ranch have had an active faith life.  Often, the Sundays of their pasts were spent in the confines of a church.  They were given religious instruction and, in many instances, came from families who fostered this kind of life.  Others have had little-if any-church at all.  However, whether they have had church or not, the fact is that religion, church, and Christ have come to have little or no place in their lives.  All of these things were likely seen as unnecessary restrictions on their freedoms, assaults on their lifestyles and, therefore, to be avoided at all costs.  In short, most have arrived with nothing but the shirts on their backs and spiritually as well as morally bankrupt.

I was intrigued by the spirit of these men who found themselves on the outer margins of society.  In most circles, men with these kinds of lifestyles and addictions would be totally and completely rejected.  No one would ever want anything to do with them.  Often, many, finding themselves in this predicament, turned to criminal action and violence to support their habit.  And, yet, here they were, standing before a church crowd, singing the praises of Jesus, smiling through their tears at the knowledge that Christ Himself was now a refuge and salvation for these who society had deemed useless and untrustworthy.  I wondered how these men could ever have found the courage to come before a crowd that seemingly would become yet another group of people who would quickly reject them, baring their wounds and transgressions without reservation.

During one of the sessions of the revival, a large, robust man took to the microphone to recount his story. Clearly, through his demeanor, he once was a creature of the streets, familiar with the dark underworld of addiction himself.  He began sharing the testimony of his rapid descent into addiction and the toll it took on his life.  A user for years and years, here was a man who intimately understood the battle these men fought on a daily basis.  I soon found out that this mountain of a man with a nightmare of a story was none other than the director of this intriguing facility. 

The heart and soul of the Renewal Ranch clearly resided in the heart and soul of this gentle giant and his heart and soul was Jesus.  For while his story was often harrowing, it was clear that he was filled with love for the men who came to his facility desperately seeking to find themselves and a new life without the scourge of addiction dogging them day and night.  

Curious, I approached the director after the service and spoke to him for a few minutes.  Within seconds, I understood why he was the director.  His faith resided not in himself, but in Jesus Christ.  He knew that all that he does is not of himself but of the actions of Jesus and the Holy Spirit all giving glory and honor to God.

The men of the Ranch are, in so many ways, like his sons.  He knows each one of them intimately and cares for each one of them as a father would care for a biological son.  He invited me to come to the Ranch for a chapel service which is held every Saturday morning.  I decided to take him up on his invitation.

The next Saturday I headed for the Ranch. Traveling through rolling countryside, I wondered what I was about to witness.  Part of me was still skeptical. I still half way expected to see some sort of side show of religious fanatics speaking in the tongues that I expected to be exposed to at the revival.  

Upon arriving at the Ranch, I was surprised to see the number of people arriving and milling around. Huge bowls of food prepared by family members and friends of the residents were being carried into what was called the main bunkhouse, the apparent physical heart of the campus.  Many men were either seated or standing on the porch near the main entrance of the building.  All smiled and greeted me as though they had known me for years.

Once inside, I was directed to a large meeting room whose west wall was nothing but huge panes of glass overlooking a small lake.  The view through the window was like some some magnificent painting that constantly changed with the angle of  the sun.  A small stage stood at the front of the room.  Rows of chairs filled the rest of the hall, awaiting guests. As ten o'clock approached, the room quickly filled with family and friends of the residents. Precisely, as the clock struck the top of the hour, the service began.

One man whose hand I had shaken at the revival, spoke into the microphone, garnering the audience's attention.  A short prayer was offered and then several uplifting hymns electrified the place.  It was clear that the men of the Ranch were infused with the enthusiasm of the Holy Spirit.  They raised their hands in praise of God and His Son Jesus Christ.  Some shared their testimonies, stories filled with the tragedy and the grinding loneliness that accompanies addiction.  I was hooked and for the next several Saturdays made certain that I was present at the Ranch for these extraordinary times.  

As I have become more and more familiar with the men and staff of the Ranch, I can certainly see how each one of their stories is a modern version of Christ's ancient parable of the lost son now found through the mercy of a loving and forgiving father.  

The Ranch represents the father, a bastion of kindness and love.  It protects and nurtures all who enter its doors.  It is always on the lookout for the marginalized men of society who have given their lives over to the slavery of drug and alcohol addiction.  Each one of the men are sons who once brought delights to their families through the cheerful antics that make up childhood. Now, because of their addictions, they are as often as not, outcasts from these families.  Each one has used up their "inheritance"- the chance of a fulfilled life through the divorce of their families and adoption of their addictions.  

Like the father in Jesus' parable, the Ranch is a focal point of healing and reconciliation.  Through intense scriptural study and hours of community service work, the Ranch demonstrates to these men that turning their lives toward Christ and away from the culture of addiction, that reconciliation with their families is not only possible, but more than likely to happen.  Certainly, there is much work to be done to achieve this reconciliation, but because the Ranch's focus remains squarely on the saving actions of Jesus Christ, the reunification of even the most desperately splintered family is possible.

In the Renewal Ranch, men addicted to the substances of this world portending to offer all things good, delivering nothing but heartache, can find a new path that leads to a revived life in the Spirit and redeemed by the actions of the Son of God.  Here lives gain a second and, in some cases, a third chance.  Here, these men, blinded by the promises of a complicated, shallow world, can come to reclaim the salvation that has been won by Jesus Christ.  And here, we, in the modern world, can experience the parable of Jesus which teaches us of a loving, forgiving, and compassionate God.  We, as individual members of society, must learn to become "fathers" not only to the men of the Ranch, but to all who find themselves in the margins of daily life, either through their own actions or circumstances beyond their control, extending to them the compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness that all of us, as God's children, deserve.

Rembrandt's "The Prodigal Son"