instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Perception can be reality

In all the time I've known Sherry Weddell -- call it eleven years -- she's been defending her work against charges of Protestantization. She says things that Catholics don't say but evangelical Protestants do, so she sounds like a Protestant. Her defense is that Catholics -- or at least popes and ecumenical councils -- do say the things she says, and the reason she keeps saying them is to make it normal for Catholics to say them, since the things -- things like discipleship and personal relationships with Jesus and talking to others about your relationship with Him -- are things Catholics ought to be saying, ought perhaps even to be incapable of not saying.

Sherry tried to inoculate the mission she just gave at my parish from these charges by, on the first night, quoting Popes Benedict and St. John Paul II on the centrality of a personal encounter with Christ to the Christian life. And the matter only came up briefly, and relatively mildly, on Saturday morning.

Sherry was going over what the Forming Intentional Disciples program calls "threshold conversations," which are intended to help you figure out what threshold the person you're conversing with is at. (She also calls it an evangelism of listening, which sounds like it has a more general application.) All it takes is the right moment, some guts, and a level of trust consistent with the situation -- the person sitting next to you on the plane needs to trust that you aren't going to make the rest of the flight weird and uncomfortable, your co-worker at lunch needs to trust that you aren't going to make the rest of your time together at that company weird and uncomfortable, your family members needs to trust that you aren't going to make the rest of their lives weird and uncomfortable.

A threshold conversation involves asking two questions, then really listening to the answers (and following up with questions to clarify the answers, not to challenge, correct, or instruct). The two questions are:
  1. Can you describe your relationship with God to this point in your life?
  2. If you could ask God one question that you knew He would answer right away, what would it be?
Sherry had been talking about the first question for a few minutes when a woman in the audience raised her hand. It may have been the only time during the whole three days when someone raised a hand when sherry hadn't asked for questions or comments.

The woman said she had worked with returning Catholics for fifteen(?) years, and she had a problem, not with the intent, but with the phrasing of the question. A "personal relationship with God," she said, is "Protestant language," and she thought it would work a lot better when talking with Catholics to say something like Sherry herself said she once asked someone on a plane who was telling her about his experience fighting cancer: "And where was God in all this?"

Sherry replied with a brief defense of "personal relationship" as "Catholic language," and said, "You'd be surprised" at how people respond when asked. (It's a powerful question for at least three reasons: most people have never been asked; some people have never considered the possibility of a personal lived relationship with God; some people will find themselves unsatisfied with their answer, and continue to think about the question long after the conversation is over.)

I think there was a certain amount of talking past each other. Sherry isn't (I don't think) hard up over the words "personal," "lived," and "relationship" being in the question (only the last was included in the question as it appears in the handout), as long as the other person is talking about their relationship with God. The woman in the audience isn't (I don't think) hard up over the term "personal relationship with God" actually being Protestant rather than Catholic, her concern is that it's regarded as Protestant.

And I do think she has a point. There's no need to make things harder than they need to be. If a returning Catholic isn't returning from an environment in which talking about God is natural and normal,  don't add to the stress of talking about God by making them do it in unnatural or abnormal terms. I haven't worked with anyone, so what do I know, but if I had to, I'd probably ask something like, "So... how are you getting along with God?"