What Does Rescue Look Like?
In my last post I asked what kind of encounter is needed for someone to go "all in" with God and came to the conclusion that the heart of such an encounter is the experience of rescue. It's easy to imagine what rescue may look like for the hardened sinner or the person who hits rock bottom, but what about for someone who's always played by the rules, who's always gone to church, always tried their best to do their Christian duty?
Once a month I'm privileged to have lunch with a handful of other Catholic youth ministers in the area. At our last meeting I asked one of them, "Do you have any teens in your program who are particularly hungry in their faith right now?" In response, he said, "Well, that's a funny thing. It's hard to say they're hungry because, well, they're all good kids, knowledgeable about their faith, who have pretty good lives. I'm not sure they know what it means to be hungry!"
Even for such as these the experience of rescue is essential, and understanding this point is crucial for capturing the spirit of the new evangelization. Pope John Paul II emphasized the distinction between traditional evangelization, as missionary efforts directed towards non-Christians, and a new evangelization which is needed specifically within the Church. He writes, "There is an intermediate situation, particularly in countries with ancient Christian roots...where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel. In this case what is needed is a 'new evangelization' or a 're-evangelization.'"
One of the most common errors I have observed in discussions about the new evangelization is the supposition that it is primarily aimed at inviting fallen-away Catholics back to church. But this is just one group addressed by JPII when he says, "or even those who no longer consider themselves members of the Church." In other words, a great segment of the mission field of the new evangelization are those who DO consider themselves members of the Church, but "have lost a living sense of the faith...and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel" (Redemptoris Missio 33).
These are the people still in the pews who need to be introduced to a "living sense of the faith," who need to be re-evangelized. I propose that one of the easiest ways to identify whether someone is in this category is to ask them how Jesus has rescued them. If they are unable to answer the question, chances are they have not experienced the profound and personal encounter with Jesus that God wants them to have.
DOES EVERYONE REALLY NEED TO BE RESCUED?
The teens my youth minister friend works with aren't getting in trouble. They're not doing drugs, they're not sleeping around, they're not rebelling against their parents. They attend Mass, say prayers daily, go to Confession regularly. Do they really need to be rescued?
St. John of the Cross provides this insightful image: "It makes little difference whether a bird is tied by a thin thread or by a cord. Even if it is tied by thread, the bird will be held bound just as surely as if it were tied by cord." To extend the analogy, imagine a bird tied down by a very short string and another tied down by a much longer string.
Comparing one to the other, we might say that the bird on the longer string enjoys a great deal of freedom. It is not inhibited from flying completely and it is able to enjoy a great deal of the space available to it, especially in contrast to the bird on the short string who is frustrated by the extreme limitations placed on it. But if, instead of comparing one to the other, we view both in light of the vastness of the sky and the endless possibility of an unrestricted life, it matters little whether the string is short or long - both are clearly seen as held captive and in need of rescue.
So what does rescue look like for those who have never traveled down the road of serious sin or found themselves at "rock bottom"? Here is a short list of just some of the possibilities.
- Rescued from Fatherlessness - Many people feel like orphans in the world, forced to figure life out as they go without any guidance. Coming to a vivid ownership of our Sonship/Daughterhood with our Heavenly Father rescues us from a sense of abandonment and isolation.
- Rescued from trying to earn salvation - This is the fundamental truth of our faith, that our righteousness is not a prize we earn through our own efforts but a gift that can only receive through Jesus Christ. Many people still center their faith lives around striving to earn God's approval through conformity and good deeds. What freedom is experienced in simply receiving the righteousness that comes through Christ!
- Rescued from emotionless, sterile religiosity - Let's face it, Catholics are pretty uncomfortable with emotion. We tend to be skeptical of Evangelical worship services that elicit an emotional response for fear of "emotionalism." But who among us would respond to being rescued from a burning building would turn to the firefighter and say, "Well that was very fitting and proper of you"? Just so, those who have authentically encountered Christ cannot help but feel joy and freedom as a result. This was the foundation of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium which begins with the observation that "the Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus."
- Rescued from self-condemnation and insecurity - This is perhaps a common trap for those seeking to embrace humility. This virtue is so easily misinterpreted as thinking poorly of oneself which can lead to habits of excessive self-criticism, self-condemnation, and crippling insecurity. Authentic Christian humility is instead predicated upon the knowledge that the Father delights in His children, that we are "the apple of His eye" (Psalm 17:8), that He "rejoices over you with gladness" and "sings joyfully because of you as one sings at festivals" (Zephaniah 3:17-18). Experiencing this loving acceptance from the Father rescues us from the prison of self-condemnation.
- Rescued from insignificance - Coming to a vivid understanding that God has placed a calling on each and every life can mean rescue from a life of insignificance. This doesn't always mean a change in circumstance, but may simply provide a sense of purpose and eternal significance to the seemingly mundane state of life one is in. I think this comes especially through recognizing the gift of the Holy Spirit who is able to bring anointing and power to any task we perform for the glory of God.
What other forms of rescue come to mind for you? Where have you experienced the Lord's rescue in your life?
This post is the sixth in a series on “Inviting the Act of Faith.” The full series can be accessed below:
- Part One: Inviting the Act of Faith: Introduction
- Part Two: Faith, the Pledge of Salvation
- Part Three: Once Saved, Always Saved?
- Part Four: Faith and Encounter
- Part Five: Going “All In” with God
- Part Six: What Does Rescue Look Like?
- Part Seven: A Major Lacuna in Catholic Ministry
- Part Eight: Practical Ways to Invite Faith