Dr. Terry Nelson Johnson is a profound theologian, one whom I admire so much. He is the resident theologian at Old St. Pat’s Church in Chicago and has spoken at many events at which I have been in attendance. His way of captivating the audience in a way that harnesses your soul to him is remarkable. Now, I try to attend any event where he is speaking.
The Theology on Tap summer series just kicked off this week all over the city; serving as an outreach mission for young adults to engage in theological discussion in an accessible atmosphere. When I heard the news that my beloved Dr. Terry Nelson Johnson (TNJ) would be speaking, there was NO way I was missing it. Kid in a candy store, I tell ya.
Though his talk was entitled “The Pope Francis Effect,” I knew that we were all in for so much more of a ride. Not to my surprise, he delivered a talk that made me smile, think, laugh (multiple times), and even tear up. Yet most importantly, he has a way of speaking the words that I really need to hear, and making me feel so incredibly close to God.
One point that he talked about throughout his presentation was the idea that we need to be conductors of the energy of God – to be so open that we just let the energy of God pass through us. The title of the post makes sense, as this is something he said. “Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell the story.” He wants all of us to do this, as he presented that it is the mission of God in the world to have humans pay attention, be astonished, and tell the story. TNJ is doing that, and now I am attempting to do so for you.
I think that the energy of God is a remarkable thing. To witness. To attempt to conduct. TNJ explained that in the first year of Pope Francis’ pontificate, the three words that he said the most were “mercy,” “joy,” and “encounter.” While the first two are expected, “encounter” presents more of a challenge. TNJ said (in a theatrical way, of course) that “You don’t just come home from an encounter with God and say ‘oh hey how was your day? good? good, me too. NO! An encounter shakes you up. It reaches straight into your chest cavity, shakes stuff up, and then says ‘Now how do you feel?!'”
I crave these encounters. I have always felt closest to our Almighty God in the small moments that become the big moments. The times where, as Pope Francis calls us to be, a church that lives outside the walls of the sanctuary. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he says “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security.”
We live in a society where it is SO easy to become our own galaxy. Our autonomy is overwhelming. Through the world of social media, citizen journalism, endless entertainment, and on-demand everything, we can create whatever kind of world we want; ignoring the need of humanity surrounding us. Pope Francis even goes on to say, “I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends up being caught in a web of obsessions and procedures.” Guess what? I do not want to be a PERSON concerned with being at the center, and then end up being caught in a web of self-obsession and routine! I don’t want to be governed by my daily “procedures” or value my “obsessions” more than the God who gives me breath! It’s exasperating to even think about!
Pope Francis assures you and I though. He added “More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures that give us a false sense of security, within rules that make us harsh judges, within habits that make us feel safe, while at our door, people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us ‘Give them something to eat.'”
Jesus is everywhere. In the hands of the one reaching out for spare change in the middle of your sidewalk. In the eyes of the man who feels like he has failed his wife. In the longing of a child to feel the love of a supportive family. In you. In me. Recognizing this, we are one step closer to doing what TNJ and Pope Francis have called us to do, and that is to take risks for God. Reach out and be open to those magnificent encounters. Psychologist Alfred Adler, quoted by TNJ, said “Perhaps our chief danger is that we take too many precautions.”
Not once have I taken a leap of faith for an encounter with God and regretted it. Not once have I “taken the gloves off” and loved unabashedly to someone who seemed “untouchable” and had one ounce of harm come my way. Not once. Why is that? Because God is present in those moments. Because God created, managed, orchestrated those moments — and he orchestrated my heart to enter right at the perfect note.
Where are you holding back? What encounters are you scared to open yourself to? Where do you need to 1) Pay attention? 2) Be Astonished? 3) Tell the Story? Perhaps you’ve paid attention and been astonished. Maybe you just haven’t told the story. Maybe in reading this, you’ve realized that you want to pay just a bit more attention, open those eyes a little wider. My prayer is that this has stirred something in you. Like I said before, I’m sharing with you because I was lucky to have witnessed TNJ’s talk, to have shared in those moments with him and the rest of the audience at Theology on Tap. I’m just paying it forward.
I’ll leave you with a quote that TNJ shared: “The fact that you’re not yet dead is not sufficient proof that you’re alive.” As for me, I’m going to work on building a strong case of evidence that I am indeed alive. Will you join me?