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Exulting in Your Weird (Even Unwanted) Evangelical Gifts
There are things about you, some of them nice and some of them horrible, that make you the ideal person to evangelize exactly the people who need to hear from you. Amen and don't argue with me.
Today’s going to be variations-on-the-theme, starting with some random fun stuff, dropping into the book of Acts, and then devolving into navel-gazing (mine, but only metaphorically, stay calm) and a word for our sponsors (you).
All of it links, one way or another, to our pep-talk: You have these gifts you don’t even know are gifts, and they are what makes you an ideal evangelist.
First up: I got a present in the mail!
I have not made inquiries to find out whether it is a review copy or just (“just”) a gift from some kind soul, maybe both, but it’s my friend Margaret Rose Realy’s latest book, A Garden Catechism: 100 Plants in Christian Tradition and How to Grow Them. FYI Margaret reads here, so I will lift the paywall on today’s combox in case you have any questions about the book.
Margaret prompted today’s topic with this line from the first paragraph of her preface: “I wondered how I could evangelize when I was only a gardener and a supplicant.”
We often draw the lines around “evangelization” either too narrowly or too broadly.
Too narrow, and we cut ourselves out of the action. I’m not a priest, or I don’t have some huge ministry, or insert excuse here for some reason I’m not what I think an “evangelist” is, and so I either despair (not good) or I excuse myself from any effort at evangelizing (also not good, and I’m not going to rank which is worse — either disease is spiritually fatal).
When we go too broad, we’re tempted to answer this question by being all “Oh, everything is evangelization! You just carry on with your gardening, that’s all God expects of you. Okay, maybe try to smile sometimes.” But if Christians are compared to leaven in the dough, you have to remember that yeast is chemically active. It doesn’t just sit there minding its own business.
A Garden Catechism, as a work of evangelism, sits in that sweet spot for ordinary Catholics, where you are on fire for souls and you are going to bring the Good News, but you do it how God made you to do it.
In this case, the book is your basic gardener-bait, full-color illustrations of a bazillion (I guess 100?) plants that have traditional associations with the Gospel, with some notes on their uses and how to grow them, and then back-matter that is a combination of raw practical gardening stuff and ideas for how to create a prayer garden that works for you.
(Elizabeth Scalia’s review is here, if you want to see inside the book. I can personally attest that Margaret’s how-to’s on prayer-gardening were a game-changer for me in how I related to my yard, even though I don’t have what anyone would look at and say, “Oh that’s a prayer garden.” It’s a mindset first and foremost.)
Every plant’s entry includes the lore of how this plant became symbolic of some aspect of salvation history, and that persistent boldness in proclaiming Jesus Christ makes the book stand out for those of us who are asking: How do we know evangelization in its various guises?
But also, this isn’t necessarily a book that’s going to convert the hardened sinner straight up. You wouldn’t be like, “Oh, look, I’ll just leave a copy of this with my atheist botany professor, and next thing you know he’ll be repenting of his sins and heading off to the mission field.”
(I mean, okay, if you feel called to try that, I’m not saying you can’t or you shouldn’t. Pray, discern, act accordingly.)
What the book primarily does, in my opinion, is just enjoy being Catholic. There is no part of the created order that we can’t baptize into pure, unfettered fun with Catholic-ness. Why be just a plain old gladiolus when you could be using the sword-shaped leaves to honor St. Michael or St. Joan of Arc or any of your other Vacation Bible School favorites?
(If your parish doesn’t include foam swords in its VBS program, I don’t even want to know why. Quit wasting your life. And what do you mean “I don’t have swords”? Seriously? Sheesh.)
Enjoying your faith is necessary. It’s easy to fixate on problems in the Church, or problems with your own sorry soul, and forget that you can and should like being Catholic. At least like the good parts, and this is a good part.
More deeply, though, the book answers an ancient problem that has again again become pressing in our time: The worship of creation instead of the Creator. The fallen human impulse is to experience the immensity of the natural world and then, in one form or another, build our altars to it instead of God.
When someone says, “I feel closest to God when I’m in nature,” my answer is, “Yeah, I’m basically right there with you.” Other than the Eucharist, which blows ordinary prayer gardens out of the water, if I possibly can, my prayer happens outdoors. It’s difficult for me to pray indoors, other than at Mass or Adoration.
So here’s a book that’s all about: Yes, you’re not crazy. Christians have always felt the impulse to worship God with creation. You have to choose Who you’ll worship, but you don’t have to choose where you’ll worship. It’s a both-and, not an either-or.
But it’s a book that could only be written by “just a gardener” who happens to also live a life immersed in prayer and redemptive suffering.
Next gift. I’ve got a teen who is learning to bleach-paint, and she wanted to make me a t-shirt. I commissioned this:
It turned out a little more Goth than I’d anticipated (I didn’t provide a reference image, I just described the general concept I was going for), but here’s a quick essay from Mere Orthodoxy about why that’s okay, and also where to go in Rome for the full experience.
I don’t really know how it’s going to go over at the grocery store, but for my family, who lives with me and therefore gets to see the Grim Reaper reaching out his hand and beckoning, Memento Mori on his scythe reminding you the harvest is nearly at hand, this spiced-up version of my daily uniform (I wear jeans and a black t-shirt as my default, and this is an old tee I grabbed from the stash) is an assertion that our Catholic faith is not a set of quaint customs or soothing rituals, certainly not a cozy social club (they’ve already figured that out), it’s about the reality of death’s impending arrival and what comes after.
We like us some good church music, but Death, Judgement, and Heaven or Hell are what awaits, no matter how badly in denial you are at this time.
And thus my kid who likes to draw and had some free time to work on her craft got to use not only her obvious gift of artistic talent, but also her uncomfortable and heretofore underdeveloped gift for the macabre, to evangelize us. It’s good.
My reading this morning was Acts chapter 9, which is chock full of evangelists using their various gifts, both natural and supernatural. For your homework you should probably go read it and circle all the examples.
Scrolling backward from the end of the chapter only as far as the post-conversion Saul, I count: Hospitality, craftsmanship, raising from the dead, miraculous healing, implicit reference to some solid nursing skills, various types of more and less persuasive public speaking, smuggling, more craftsmanship, espionage, arguing . . . and having been a murderer.
There’s nothing small about being able to clothe the poor, manufacture the basket strong enough to hold the weight of a fully-grown man, keep someone (maybe yourself, we don’t know who) from getting fatal complications from pressure sores for eight years . . . all of which were essential parts of the works of evangelization described in the second half of the chapter.
Then there’s the murdering part. Saul-Paul’s zealotry was a natural gift, bloodily misused in his former life as a persecutor of the Christians. God does not desire evil, but He doesn’t waste it either. Like a cosmic judo move, if you won’t be good, He’ll use your sins instead.
Reminder, per the t-shirt above, those sins can have dire eternal consequences if you don’t shape up and fly right. But your past sins, and your present struggle against sin (which may be much heavier on repentance than decisive victory), are both useable by God. It would have been better if Saul had not devoted himself to the execution of innocent persons; but once that evil became undoable, God moved on to a spectacular back-up plan.
There’s a similarly magnificent back-up plan available in your life. Your natural and supernatural gifts are yours to use for the glory of God. But, likewise, the things that make you wretched are also things that make you evangelist-material. If you can be redeemed, heck, anyone can be. There are people in your situation who need to hear that.
I am sometimes genuinely surprised that I wrote The How-to Book of Evangelization. I’m just a regular person, not a superstar. I’ve done a lot of pertinent ministry, but only at the scale ordinary people do it in parishes all over the world. Some of it I’ve done pretty well, sometimes not so much.
And having written the thing, I didn’t go on to more and bigger and better; I absolutely love travel, speaking, teaching locally, building deep long term relationships, hanging out with homeless people . . . it would be normal for me, having written the book, to be energized and totally launched into something huge that was a natural follow-on. Instead, after the few-years reprieve during which the book happened, I returned to disease-life more intensely than ever. Not by choice, just lucky that way.
And it is lucky, foremost because it’s concentrated my attention on my primary vocation. But also because I can say with complete sincerity: You can evangelize. I can say it because if you’re reading this, your ability to do things is about equal to mine, or else better. You probably do different things, but those things, which can feel so insignificant and pointless at times, or which feel like you’re running completely backwards, losing ground and sinking fast . . . those things matter.
Those things can be used by you and by God to bring other people closer to Jesus Christ.
Okay, onto the personal notes.
I want to thank all of you who subscribe here. Every now and then, Substack generates some kind of “upgrade to paid” thing, and I’m not against you upgrading if you’ve got the cash, but I don’t expect it either. Be a good steward of the gifts which are yours alone to decide how to use.
However, if you read here for free, the only reason you are reading this today is because of the paid subscribers — but this isn’t a sales pitch. Not at all. Rather, it’s because I would have trailed off and given up otherwise. Honestly, I kinda panicked the first time I got a paying subscriber, because I was like, “Oh gosh. Now I have to write for a year.” But I mean, it’s fun. I wouldn’t be happy if I weren’t doing this. So I love that all you sponsors are out there keeping me going (and I don’t mind your taking the edge of the bills either). Thank you.
—> Since I owe you a fair value for your investment and it’s been a rough fall, if you are a paid subscriber I’m going to do another round of extending-the-subscriptions to make up for the light writing lately. One of the perks of financially supporting this effort is full combox privileges, and I will make sure you get those opportunities, even if it’s stretched out over a longer timeframe.
Today, though, as I said, we’re doing an open combox so that anyone who has questions for Margaret Rose Realy about her book can post them there. I am not committing her to answering, by the way. She is an actual hermit with a primary vocation of prayer, and thus has limits on her social media time. But if she is available to do so, she can, and also anyone else who has the book can answer questions related to what’s in the book, etc. I’m happy to look things up from my copy, for sure.
Hey, and as long as the combox is open to everyone, let’s do a round of prayer requests as well.
As always, if you are reading this on the web or from a forwarded e-mail, here’s the info on how to subscribe if you prefer to receive posts in your inbox or the Substack app. If you use Feedly (and I imagine other feed-readers, but that’s the one I use so I know it works), you can also just subscribe to the RSS there.
Finally, quick answer to the, “How’s it going, Jen?” for those who are wondering: Stable. Still sleeping a lot and energy-limited. Weird brain-related symptoms, none of them serious, just annoying. We’re living in the pre-diagnosis phase of (a) definitely a relapsing-and-remitting disorder that affects the nervous system and (b) probably a demyelinating disorder of some kind, but (c) need to see more action before we really know what it is. I continue to learn interesting science facts (hi, basal ganglia!) in response to is this really happening because it is sooo weird symptomology, and the answer keeps being that we have either an extremely rare disease or an atypical presentation of a pretty-common one. No difference in treatment course at this time for any of the likely contenders, so it’s chill.