In about the time it takes to make a couple of cappuccinos, you are going to hear how Christ has called on you to change the world. Not simply, “Be a better person,” but how you can change the world.
On the surface this sounds like an impossible task: How can one person change the world? Start here: Since it is your God-given, assigned duty to do so, it must be possible, even though you may not think so.
Some ignore their calling to evangelize. I get that. When your image of Christian evangelization starts with a man or woman on a street corner with a bullhorn in one hand and a “Repent Now or You’re Going to Hell!” sign in the other, interest in evangelization tends to evaporate rather quickly.
But humor me for a moment: Suppose the “Bullhorn + You’re Going to Hell sign” formula of street corner evangelization is not the only way to evangelize. What other approach might be a better fit for you? Before you totally write-off the idea of evangelization, shouldn’t you at least take a look at what other options there might be?
To answer these questions, let’s start by looking for some inspiration. Let’s look at the life of prisoner #16770. The time is August, 1941. Nazi extermination camp; Auschwitz-Birkenau. After a successful escape attempt by a fellow prisoner, ten prisoners were randomly selected to be put to death. Prisoner #1-6-7-7-0 stepped forward and said, “I want to die in place of this prisoner”.
And so it was, that at age 47 Fr. Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to trade places with a young husband and father. Fr. Kolbe died by lethal injection, after two weeks of starvation failed to kill him.
How do you interpret Fr. Kolbe’s action? All things being equal, Fr. Kolbe already had his salvation. He was prayerful and holy his entire life, yet he felt called to further action. Note that his action could have been limited to silent prayer for the condemned. The question must be asked: Why didn’t he just keep his mouth shut, pray, and do nothing more?
Simple answer: Christ called him, just like Christ calls you, to make your environment more Christian. Sometimes prayer must be combined with action, to produce a more Christian environment.
Make no mistake, development of your interior spiritual life through prayer is paramount to a balanced existence. The fact is, if you fail to pray, you have no interior spiritual life, and sooner or later, no matter how much you help others, you will realize that you lack Jesus within you, and need daily prayer. But a key point of this talk is to understand that development of your interior spiritual life is only one aspect of what Christ has called you to do. Pray!, Pray!, Pray!, as the Blessed Mother likes to say. But understand you are called to not only develop a closer personal relationship with Christ through prayer, but at the same time, to change your environment so that all people, and not just you alone, have a closer personal relationship with Christ. Jesus Christ should be your personal Lord and savior, but Christianity was not meant to be the religion of a chosen few.
Fr. Kolbe stepped forward out of a desire to change his environment, and make it more Christian. It was not a question of him trading his life for one man - he wanted to change the overall environment. He did so with pre-meditated and deliberate action. When the door clanged shut on the condemned men, he took charge of them, and not just them, but the others who were dying of hunger in cells nearby. It is a fact that from the moment he came into their midst, those condemned people felt a protective presence. Suddenly their cells resounded with hymns and prayers. The SS guards themselves said, “We never saw anything like it before”, and what they meant by that, was how one man’s action could have such a tremendous effect on their environment. Imagine people singing and praying the rosary, in Auschwitz of all places, as they were starved to death. Then imagine what the guards must have felt, when they found the man they thought had escaped, had actually drowned in the latrine. From a Nazi mistake, a Saint was born that has become an example to us all.
At a time when so many people dump their faith in Christ, Fr. Kolbe leads by example. If you want the world to be a more Christian place, start on your knees in prayer, but ultimately, you must get on your feet to change your environment. Key words: Your environment. Nobody is suggesting that you take on something new. We’re talking about the transformation of environments you already belong to. Your family. Your work. Your friends. The message here is not, “Be like Fr. Kolbe and go die for someone.” The message is, “Bloom where you are planted.” It just so happens Fr. Kolbe found himself planted inside a Nazi death camp.
But in order to change an environment, you first have to recognize when you’re in one. What makes up an environment? Is it bricks and mortar? Is it climate? Is it decor? To a certain degree it is, but not entirely.
The environment we are speaking here is given life and personality by people, not things. To create an environment, think along the lines of a recipe. For any recipe, you need ingredients. There are three ingredients necessary to create a living environment:
Ingredient #1: Two or more people
Ingredient #2: The circumstances that exist when the people gather
Ingredient #3: The ideals people express when they are together
It has been said, “The eyes are the window to the soul”. In the same manner, Ingredient #3, the ideals people express when they are together, also form a window, through which you can view the soul of the environment. Whenever you are communicating with one or more people, ask yourself one question: Are the ideals being expressed here Christian ideals? If not, you have a choice: Do nothing, say nothing, write nothing, post nothing, or do something and help bring them from where they are, to where they ought to be.
But even though you may see an opportunity to make an environment more Christian, the next step is not to take action. Impulsive reactions, become tomorrow’s apologies. Instead of saying or doing something you might regret, formulate a reply in your mind.
I’ve found myself more than once trying to evangelize in the wrong place, at the wrong time, because I failed to plan and just reacted in the moment. Environments are not necessarily changed when you want them to be; events unfold in God’s time. But even if you’re patient, the question remains: How do you know when to act? Should you wait for a better opportunity to come along? And when taking action, what should the plan be? Answer:
How should I know? How should you know? Don’t ask me, and don’t ask yourself-- ask God. In other words, pray. You have to pray before acting. You have to talk to God about man, before you talk to man about God.
After I made realized the above, my faith came alive and I became interested in changing my environments. Nevertheless, I had minimal prior experience with prayer. At the time, “self-made” was not only my motto, it was my license plate, and I was not in a habit of praying before acting; I just acted. But I was presented with a situation that challenged me to give prayer a try.
I was doing some volunteer work at the food distribution center in Orange, known as “Second Harvest.” Second Harvest is a giant food warehouse. Several hundred non-profit agencies go there to do their grocery shopping. I noticed that when people came to buy groceries, many of them would drive up to the loading dock in vehicles that were hardly more than running wrecks.
At the same time I was volunteering, Bank of America donated three used vans to Second Harvest. Thirty-four non-profit agencies submitted written requests for the three vans, but with only three vans to give away, that meant 31 agencies would get nothing.
I asked a friend of mine who worked full-time at Second Harvest to give me the applications from all the agencies that did not receive a van. He handed me a pile of paper, two inches thick. As I read the requests, it was obvious that all 31 agencies needed a van. How was I going to figure out who had the most need? Reflecting on the above, I came to realize that by myself, I was never going to figure out which agencies had the most need. So, I prayed. Out of that pile of 31 requests, I asked God to help me select the agency most in need. I was pointed to the request submitted by “Celebrate Freedom Outreach”, a half-way house in Orange for men getting out of prison.
Bob Roll was listed as the contact person, so I called him. Keep in mind we had never met or spoken to each other before. It was just before Christmas, and Bob was working at the Celebrate Freedom Christmas tree lot. I asked him questions about his organization, then I asked him about his request for a van. Even though he had already been told that he would not be receiving one of the vans donated by Bank of America, he was not depressed. Even more remarkable, the van they owned just died for good that very morning, and he still believed God would provide.
Just to make sure everything checked out, I drove to the Christmas tree lot where Bob was working. He gave me more background about Celebrate Freedom, and he explained specifically how they use the van to take the men living there to Church, to work, to visit their probation officer, and to visit their families on the weekend. Without transportation, all of this good would collapse. After speaking with Bob about his ministry, I had a decision to make: Do nothing, or help make an environment more Christian.
Bob and I left the tree lot and drove to MacPherson Ford, where I bought them a 12-passenger van. Now, don’t stop reading here because you can’t buy somebody a van. Keep going.
A few days later I met Bob at the men’s home in Orange, and he gave me a tour of the house. Just as I was about to leave, he brought me into the living room. Mounted on the wall was a glass case. On display inside the case was their newsletter and some other general information. Very prominent in the center of the glass case was a picture, placed inside the case one year before I ever met Bob or heard of Celebrate Freedom.
The van purchased? It was the same as the magazine cutout picture, down to the color.
Continuing further on the call to change our environment, I decided the men living at Celebrate Freedom would appreciate a show of love from other men. Once a month for two years my friends and I cook dinner for the men in the home. After dinner, I lead the group in some teaching about Christ. I’ll never forget the feelings of appreciation they show towards us, but more to the point, the environment in the home is becoming more Christian, a little bit at a time.
I tell you about my ongoing journey with Celebrate Freedom so you know prayer and planning are the prerequisites to changing any environment. I asked God to show me where He needed me, and He did.
When it’s all said and done; when you find yourself in an environment that you should make more Christian; when prayer has lead you believe it’s time to take action; what next? What is at the heart of any action you might take? In the face of sin, exactly how do you transform people so they freely elect to follow Christian ideals? Should your plan involve using logic, and reason? Psychology? The power of persuasion? Do you debate them? Should you infer Christians live a more happy life? Answer:
No. None of these tactics will work. Says who? Says St. Paul. In the face of sin, it was St. Paul who said in Chapter 13 of his letter to the Romans: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet;’ and whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this saying: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Translation: Joyful love of neighbor is how you make any environment more Christian. My friends and I unconditionally love our neighbors at Celebrate Freedom; that’s why their environment is becoming more Christian. It’s not a van, or a steak dinner; it’s our expression of Christ’s love.
The notion that you can love somebody into the body of Christ, is really quite beautiful, but not easy. That’s not because people reject love, so much as they see hatred everywhere they look. The hatred wears you down. You plant love; Satan comes along and rips it out, planting hate instead. Of all the evils to choose from in his arsenal, Satan chooses hatred to cancel out love, and in so doing he actually proves St. Paul correct: Love truly is the answer to creating more Christian environments. If this were not true love would not be so under attack as it is.
Note that a more Christian environment will not be born anywhere through peer pressure, mechanically going to church on Sunday, or through the barrel of a gun, or the dictatorship of parental authority, or any other method, except love. I didn’t say these other methods haven’t been tried; throughout the course of history they’ve all been tried. I just said they ultimately don’t work. If someone has done something so horrendous that you want to tell them that the action is despicable, go ahead. If you want to call someone a scoundrel, go ahead. I don't deny that there are times when that is a thoroughly appropriate response. What I do deny is that it is an effective strategy for changing your environment.
Even if what people are doing is wrong, even if errors of morality are involved, even if what people are doing is irrational, you do not lead people to virtue through contempt, pressure, and reciprocal hatred. You do not make people better by telling them they are despicable. It just doesn't work.
How do you make the connection between your love, and the environment you wish to change?
Two words: SELF-GIVING. Self-giving is the term used to describe our expression of love for people in any environment. Self-giving is not a concept; it is an action statement. Self-giving is not something you watch; it is something you do.
Ever since Cain killed Abel, what has always been missing in environments, are too few loving relationships. And it is only through self-giving that we produce these loving relationships. Loving relationships are the yeast that transforms environments. Without it, we cannot rise to Christ’s call to be fully Christian.
Note that the reference to Cain and Abel hits close to home. The environment most close to all of us, is our family. When we talk of the need to produce more “loving relationships” through self-giving, our own family is the ideal place to start. And the good news is, once you start leading people towards Christian behavior, they begin to help each other. You can also join your efforts with others who have the same Christian ideals.
However, none of this makes any difference, until you can explain in more detail exactly how you “self-give”. “Self-centered” requires no further explanation, but the term “self-giving” can sound vague, not to mention it is subject to interpretation. One man’s self-giving, may be another man’s vacation.
Let me clarify the action of Christian “self-giving” by first explaining what self-giving is not.
I have no brothers or sisters. I am not the product of a divorced family. My father died when I was 34 years old. He had 34 years to say to his only child, just one time, “I love you”.
He never did.
He had 34 years, just one time, to kiss me, to hug me, or just put his arm around me.
He never did. Not once.
My dad never missed a Dodger game, a Lakers game, or a Rams game on radio or TV. But do you think he ever attended any of my games? Do you think he ever cheered for me when I played baseball, basketball, or football?
Dad was a good provider in the material sense. The only thing missing, was a self-giving expression of Christian love.
I have three children. Determined not to repeat the mistakes of my father, I went to their games. I encouraged them. I tell them I love them. I hug and kiss them. Did I break the cycle my father learned from his father?
Yes, I broke the cycle of psychological abuse, but in the context we are discussing, that’s not what self-giving means. Christ called us to change our environments so they become more Christian, not more like Disneyland. I must report to you that at best, there is only a vague link between taking my family on a picnic, and increasing their Christian spirituality. So I tell my children I love them; is that uniquely Christian behavior? Like the famous line to sell hamburgers, “Where’s the beef?”, I say, “Where’s the Christianity?” Atheists love their children, too. Doctors who abort babies have family picnics, too. Family picnics and hugs are wonderful, but in and of themselves, they are not enough to make environments more Christian. It takes more.
I have three adult children, and as of today two have lost their faith, and it wasn’t because their father was not “self-giving” in a worldly way. He was just not self-giving enough in a Christian way. He was self-giving with money; I paid for their college education. He was self-giving with time; I went to their ball games and swim meets. He was self-giving with hugs and kisses; my children know I love them. But until my I attended a Christian retreat called “Cursillo” in 1996, I was not self-giving of Christian teaching and Christian example. I did not pray, and never did I lead my family in prayer. I did not read the Bible myself, much less with my family. Relatively, I did nothing to help those in need, nor did I lead others to do so. I did not celebrate Mass; I endured it. I did not frequent the Sacraments. I earned an “A” in worldly self-giving; but I got an “F”, in the Christian context.
Moving beyond changing your family environment, Christ teaches us that we are called to change environments everywhere we go, but how do you start? A group’s personality is the sum of all the individual personalities. Considering the diverse nature and number of personalities, things can get rather complex very quickly. Where do you begin building Christian ideals? Who do you love first within the group? The most popular? The most offensive? The smartest?
In any environment, three personalities exist. Identify and begin with the authentic Christian leader; they are the key to helping you change any environment.
The Followers lack strong convictions. They go with the flow, even if that flow may be wrong in Christian terms.
The Impulsive act according to what mood they’re in. They’re unreliable and unpredictable. They can not be enlisted to assist you in the creation of a new Christian environment.
Then there are the leaders. In any environment, a few people always exert more influence than the rest. When it comes to where you start your self-giving, if possible, start with the leaders. Evangelizing the leader simplifies the complexities of group personality. Note that “leader” does not always mean “Boss”. We’ve all known bosses who did not have the respect of their employees.
The influence of leaders in our society can not be underestimated. Every day people follow charismatic leaders to moral destruction. And have you ever considered the ripple effect on environments created by immoral and corrupt leaders?
But what if a Christian reached the leader first? When I went to an Angel’s baseball game recently, I saw the father of two small children wearing a hat that proudly proclaimed, “Porn Star”. How many people were touched by the immoral ripple of his hat that day? As for me, rather than on the spot, I prayed too late about what to do. When the thought came to me to offer the man $20 for his hat, I was already at home and in the shower. But make no mistake; the idea to buy his “Porn Star” crown came from answered prayer. Had I thought to turn to prayer sooner, that hat would be where it belongs right now; in with the rest of my garbage, instead of rippling through the crowd at the next Angel game.
Perhaps you’re thinking this call to action, this call to change your environments, is outside your comfort zone. Let’s talk about comfort zone for a moment: given the choice between waving a magic wand to make Auschwitz a more Christian place, or dying of starvation and lethal injection, which do you think Fr. Kolbe would choose?
Thankfully, there isn’t any magic wand in the real world, allowing us a chance to be the hands and feet of Christ today. Do not be put off by leaving your comfort zone; the discomfort you may feel is normal. God gave us the Saints, like St. Maximilian Kolbe, to show us the way to the Father.
Speaking of comfort zones, four days a week I volunteered at a non-profit organization called Taller San Jose, which is a Santa Ana based adult school and woodshop for former gang members. It was obvious that the environment in the woodshop could be more Christian: almost every employee was a convicted felon. I prayed for discernment on what to do. I was lead to approach Jose, the leader in the woodshop, and propose voluntary attendance for a lunchtime Bible study class. I would be the teacher. I knew if I convinced Jose to attend, the others would follow. And follow they did.
One day, after reading a scripture passage about the poor, I set a plastic bowl in the woodshop office with a paper sign taped to it. The sign read, “Donations For the Homeless”. Workers would drop their extra change into the bowl until we had enough money to buy a Whopper lunch for the woman who sleeps on a bench nearby.
Was I outside my comfort zone teaching felons and former gang members about Jesus? About scripture? About Christian behavior? About serving the poor?
Yes, I was outside my comfort zone.
But so was He.
In the end, maybe some of the guys stole the money for the poor. And maybe none of them remember a word I said in Bible study. On the other hand, maybe they didn’t steal the money. The point is, I acted. I refused to become cynical. By definition, if you are moved to action after prayer, you can not fail because it is Christ Himself that has called you. What is crucial is that you make no judgments about your efforts. Simply leave the results up to God. Results are not your problem.
When it is all said and done, there is great danger to you in both successfully changing an environment, or failing to do so. Satan lurks in both failure, and success. It is all too easy when we succeed in bringing people closer to Christ, to forget that we are mere channels for His redemptive work. We become prideful, and expect to be rewarded for our efforts. We remain interested in serving Jesus, just so long as we see immediate results. Conversely, if we fail to make progress after what we consider to be an adequate amount of time and effort, we quit. We leave the conversion of environments to others, even though when you look around, there are no “others”. Note that all of the apostles, except John, died violent deaths. I’m sure they wished for some “others” from time to time, but they were it. Furthermore, they were apparent failures at their assigned task of making their environments more Christian. Caesar appeared to have an iron grip over a world of pagan gods. The early Apostles rarely saw the fruit of their work. More often than not, they were run out of town just ahead of an angry mob. Yet here we are today, still talking about that guy named Jesus. If they answered Jesus’ call, why can’t you? If they never quit, why should you?
Let me close by saying that you have heard me mention several times, “we are called to make our environments more Christian”. The misleading part of that statement is in the inference that “we”, us mere creatures of God, are the ones that “make” things happen. Let me be clear to you about one thing: Without the blood of Christ, we can make NOTHING happen in the spiritual realm. Pity the man who believes it is his own efforts that produce an increase in faith, incites men to virtue, or puts an end to sin. Without question, it is through men, but not because of men, that we find our way to salvation and change our environments.
It is no coincidence that the patron Saint of Cursillo is St. Paul. After his conversion, he spent his life either in prayer, or working to make environments more Christian. What an honor it is that Christ calls on us to carry on the traditions originally set in motion by Paul, and the other Apostles. I am not so much overwhelmed that I know Christ and St. Paul, as that Christ and St. Paul know me.
But the central question poised by this writing, is not whether Jesus and St. Paul know me, or even whether they know you. The central question is this:
Will you help us make our environments more Christian?