Stephen Ministry and the fruit of compassionate listening

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5th Sunday of Easter, Year B: May 6, 2012
Acts 9:26-31; Ps 22; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8

This passage that we hear in our Gospel reading today is one that I spoke of many times in RCIA this year—to those preparing for baptism or to become Catholic. For after they, or we, come to know Christ and we respond to him in faith and receive baptism and confirmation: then what?

And Christ himself tells us through this great imagery. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.” This is a picture of what our life in him is to be all about, day by day, month after month. On the one hand, we are to be rooted in him like a branch that grows out of a vine. Just like that branch, so too we are to open ourselves to receive his grace, his nourishment, in prayer and reflection each day. And then the very nourishment we receive is to produce great fruit in our lives. And we imagine the fruit that can be found on a vine: rich, abundant, beautiful, life-giving fruit.

And what is this fruit that Christ desires? The fruit of a self-giving love like his: love for God, in prayer and praise, faithfulness and obedience; and love for other people, as he loves them, in deeds of justice and goodness, of charity and mercy.

For Christ loves us so much. He wants us to receive that love; and to be his instruments in touching others with his love as well. And how profound it is when we receive the loving, generous actions of another and know that it is Christ’s love and their love—mediated through their eyes, their hands, for us right here and now.

During my years of seminary, I learned how very ordinary, yet profound, this love for others can be. Especially during one summer program I was in, we were helped to discover what a valuable gift it is to another when we give them the gift of listening to them. When we give them our time and attention; and hear every word they say, and also what lies beneath it. When we grasp and take in what they’re feeling; and we don’t run away, but we stay with them in it; to let them know that they’re not alone; and, no, they’re not crazy; and that we may not be able to solve the problems they’re facing, but we can love them with the love of Christ in the midst of them.

It is a simple gift of love, and yet one that is so valuable, so needed. It is some of that fruit that Christ wants to produce in our lives.

This year we have been preparing to start Stephen Ministry within our parish. You have probably heard it mentioned in the bulletin, or seen the posters or brochures in the vestibule. Last August, three of us went to be trained as Leaders. And, since January, about 12 of your fellow parishioners have been training here to become our first Stephen Ministers. They will complete their training and be commissioned in just two weeks, on May 20, so this is an exciting point in this.

What is a Stephen Minister? What are these 12 preparing to do? A Stephen Minister is basically a caring Christian friend—but with more structure: with training, with a specific commitment, and with supervision. They are not there to provide legal advice or financial advice; they are not there to drive you around town or help with the housework. Rather, they are there to listen and care, to support and encourage.

Indeed, they are somewhat like St. Barnabas, who we saw in today’s first reading—who we see living up to his nickname “Bar-Nabas,” “son of encouragement,” as again and again in the Book of Acts we see him coming alongside groups and individuals, to support and build them up. And one of those was St. Paul himself. Somewhat like St. Barnabas, a Stephen Minister will form a one-to-one confidential relationship with a care receiver—man to man, woman to woman—and they will meet with them usually once a week for about an hour for as long as they are needed, even months or years.

And who would benefit from the care of a Stephen Minister? A normal person who is able to live a normal life—but who has experienced some of those life difficulties that we all experience from time to time. Perhaps they recently lost a loved one, or a job. Perhaps they are in the hospital, or dealing with a serious illness. Perhaps they have experienced a divorce; or a birth, or graduation, or move; or other significant life transition. Perhaps they are the caregiver to a family member with serious needs. In all these and other situations, it could be that you, or someone you know within the parish, could benefit from the committed, confidential, Christian care of a Stephen Minister.

With our first Stephen Ministers being commissioned in just two weeks, we are actively looking for those in our parish who should receive their care. Is it you? If you would like to talk about receiving the care of a Stephen Minister, please talk to me or give me a call. Or, do you know someone in the parish who could use such care? If so, please get their permission first, and then contact me.

And it’s good to know that sometimes those who have received the care of a Stephen Minister during one season of their lives will become Stephen Ministers themselves, to give that same care to another during a different season. For isn’t that the way it works we remain in Christ and bear the fruit that he desires of us? If you would like to become a Stephen Minister or a Stephen Leader, please talk to me as well.

As St. Paul wrote, let us encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. (2 Cor 1:4) Like St. Stephen, like St. Barnabas, let us love one another just as he commanded us; let us love … in deed and truth. Jesus said, “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

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