If you have been following the last several pastor’s columns, you might have thought “this seems to be a series!” And you would not be wrong. The series is not headed where I first thought, but such is the nature of creative writing. Two weeks ago, I wrote about “change.” There is perhaps nothing more intrinsic to Christian life than change. In spiritual circles we use the term metanoia, a Greek work taken directly into English: a transformative change of heart; especially a spiritual conversion (Merriam-Webster). If you think about the full Sermon on the Mount, there is a basic theme of change evident when Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” This is repeated several times as He explains that what you thought you knew about the 10 Commandments and the Law, is not what God intended. And then Jesus explains how God intended it to be. In that moment, Jesus offers a moment of metanoia, of change. Change can be challenging. But the Christian life is meant to be one of change, ever drawing closer to God in holiness, in wholeness, in teleois.
The Christian life is also meant to be one in which each one of us evangelizes others to share in the abundant life promised by Jesus. What is evangelization? Is it persuasion – the topic of last week’s column. It is, but it is one that is also part invitation and should be steeped in beauty. Persuasive in that it holds up an attractive endpoint. Inviting in that it is not an imposition, but a proposition offered in love. Beautiful because it touches our inner being, our soul with something that addresses an inner longing.
Most Fridays you can go in or around Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa. There you can find a man with an amplified megaphone preaching on the corner of Madison and Franklin. Have stopped to listen to his message. It is pretty straight forward American Evangelical and solidly Christian. In other words, it is the Word of God offered to the public. It may just be the words that someone passing by needs to hear, but… for me it is not beautiful, inviting, or persuasive. And so, it becomes a type of nagging that is imposed, unavoidable, and not in any way welcoming… for me. But as my dad used to say, just because that sport car’s bucket seat isn’t comfortable for you, does not mean it is not the perfect fit for someone else. But evangelizing is more that street-corner preaching. It is way of being Christian in the world and occurs in all times and places.
Several years ago, while sitting with a couple during a marriage preparation session, it came to light that one of them consistently used marijuana. He was not reticent in discussing his use, it was not a revelation to the fiancé, but I sensed it was clearly a source of tension in the relationship. The user spoke about his as a recreational use, legally aside, he saw it as moral equivalent of drinking beer to relax – just a different means to the same end. “I can quit whenever I want to, but…” The sentence trailed off. My intuition was that he had not yet found a compelling reason to stop using. All of this was well-known by the other fiancé. What was not well known by the user was the effect it had on her.
I simply created a space for her share her feelings with him. When he was high, she said, he was not himself, and she didn’t like being around him. When he was high, he was in a world apart and not a world she had any desire to be part of. It made her wonder what other parts of their future joint life would become separate and apart. The conversation opened up, but they seemed to be an impasse with no clear way forward.
Now put yourself in my position. Will the next thing you say be evangelizing? Will it persuasive or nagging? Will it be inviting? Will it be beautiful? Will it give them a glimpse of what leads to wholeness and holiness as individuals and as a couple. Will your words leave room for the Holy Spirit? What I said was particular to that moment of evangelization. How did it end? Two weeks later when they returned for another session of marriage preparation, he told me that he had quit because she was his path to holiness and wholeness and the love of his life.
It was a moment of grace. All the legal and health arguments in the world did not address his motivation. The quiet discussion between two people in love became all the motivation he needed to change.
Last week I ended with some thoughts about evangelization. “This all leaves me to think about evangelization. At its core you are asking someone to change, because you care for them, you want them to experience the great gift of faith, you want them to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, to share in the sacraments – we want to persuade them. How many of us end up nagging them? ‘You totally have to come to church!’ ‘You’ve got to be part of this ministry – hey! Let’s do it together!’ ‘You absolutely have to have that baby baptized.’”
You will have the same desire to help them change, but how can you make it persuasive, inviting and beautiful? Then you will be a true evangelist.