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VIA DE CRISTO KEYNOTE ADDRESS

REV. ALLAN SAGER

NLS Annual Meeting - 1991
New Braunfels, Texas

Thank you, Wayne. I so enjoy hearing a North Carolinian make introductions. I was beginning to enjoy the subject of his introduction so much that I rather hate to change the subject!

The Texan in me appreciates being "back home" in the Lone Star State. Did you see that notice in the paper this morning? The Texas Highway Commission voted yesterday to add the phrase "The Lone Star State" to Texas' license plates.

Something else you may see soon on the Texas highways. I read this in a national magazine, though I haven't verified it yet since coming back to Texas. The article was entitled "Pay Now, Speed Later." It reads: "Texans, with their big cars and money-conquers-all attitude, have long had contempt for the 55 mph urban-highway speed limit. It's no surprise, then, that the Statehouse passed a bill that would make speeding tickets less of a nuisance. Habitual speedlaw breakers could buy books of $5 speeding coupons and, if caught traveling over the limit, but under 70 mph, hand a cop a coupon and take off. The stated purpose of the bill is to save time for motorists and cops; violations would not show up on records. The bill could also raise $100 million a year for the state." The article goes on to say that, for some reason, the Texas Department of Public Safety opposes the plan.

I guess it never got enacted. Too bad! The thought of selling highway indulgences in Texas might have prompted the rise of a new Luther of the Lone Star State.

Most Texans, I want to believe, do the right thing and don't have all that much problem with matters of morality and ethics. I do, however, recall one old Texan who said that the only thing he knew about ethics was that it was what Lawrence Welk says after "uh-five".

Now, as I switch to matters more substantive, I worry a bit about being able to embrace the interests of such a diverse group. On the one hand, I am tempted to do an insider's talk to my delegate brothers and sisters in Via de Cristo - those who make up this movement. On the other hand, courtesy requires recognition of our guests who may be looking for something that might lift or spark their lives some bit quite apart from its having some kind of an insider's, Via de Cristo party-line emphasis.

Perplexed though I be by that apparent dilemma for awhile, I nonetheless take heart from a statistic from a quite extraneous field. Do you know what percentage of the insecticide used in the United States each year actually reaches a targeted insect? - .003. Now I say that I take encouragement from that. So I'll just spray a bit verbally this evening remaining ever hopeful and expectant that perhaps three thousandths of what I say might prove helpful to someone here this evening.

I use as my focusing theme the question: "What kind of learning changes lives?" What kind of learning changes lives?

To begin with, think with me for a moment of a learning experience that had a transforming effect on your life -- Be that recent, some schooling event, some church gathering, whatever. Think of some learning experience that had a transformative effect on your life.

Then, second, try to answer this question: "What was there about that experience that gave it such life-changing quality?"

Now, if we took the time to put all our answers together, I'm confident we would discover a kaleidoscope of moments and meanings. Studies generally reveal that people learn in a wide variety of ways; each personality type and temperament responds best to a different set of teaching methods. So, in the face of such human diversity, let it first be said that nobody can define or perfectly prescribe life-changing learning for everyone!

A second preliminary word of caution is this: if and when lives are transformed, it is, finally not we who do the transforming. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot renew ourselves. We cannot transform ourselves. Don't we regularly pray, "Send forth Your Spirit, Lord, and we shall be created. We shall be renewed. You, Lord, shall renew the face of the earth."

Well, with those caveats in mind, however, I believe it is possible to say some useful things about how we might think about transformative learning and what we might do as persons interested in providing life-changing learning moments for others. For me, transformational learning happens when the depths of my life -- my fears and failures, my yearnings, my shaky places, my deepest joys -- somehow connect with the symbols and stories of the Christian faith. So I'll proceed to describe four qualities of the learning that has changed my life.

Four things I can say about the learning that has changed my life:

1) First, it is a process. A process, not a product.

(I'll be developing each one of these in a moment.) 2) Secondly, it is experiential.

3) Thirdly, it both affirms and challenges me.

4) Finally, it happens within a community context.

I believe those four primary characteristics of transformative learning need to be unpacked and elaborated upon, illustrated and enlivened.

I. Making sense out of my life is a process, not a product.

One of the courses I teach periodically at Trinity Lutheran Seminary is called "Integrative Journaling." On occasion, I'll go back in my journal and review entries from an earlier recording. Have you ever done that? I am often dismayed to discover that three-month-old entries have all the energy of flat balloons from which every bit of air has escaped. Yesterday's "Aha!" is today's "so what?" New occasions do teach new duties and my past discoveries get old so very fast. I certainly can't hand my bright discoveries of yestermonth over to somebody else with the expectation that they will revel in its meaning - making power they once had for me. That is simply to say I cannot assume that others will find the same sort of inner lift and joyous transformation in what has been for me tremendously meaningful. I can, however, give people opportunities to enter more fulsomely into our faith story, reflect on their own faith pilgrimage, notice the connections, and discover their own meaning.

I think of the classic definition of evangelism: one beggar telling another where s/he found food. What I liked especially about the recent article by Pastor Jay Tryggestad (I think you have a copy in your packet) is this. (The article's entitled, "Real Men Don't Carry Carnations." It first appeared in the June issue of Lutheran Women Today.) What I like about it is that the pastor simply told what he had experienced at a Via de Cristo weekend more than eight years ago and how the process-character of that experience, kept alive through regular reunion gatherings, had continued to bless him in his life and in his ministry.

We who lead in Via de Cristo are tempted, I believe, (and maybe I'm just projecting my own experience here again) to be too full of ourselves and of our own past edifying experiences -- and hence to tout our own conclusions as all-purpose products sure to bless everyone. I suspect that the reason why much of our exuberant interest to have Via de Cristo widely acclaimed as the best renewal movement since Pentecost goes for naught is that 'though we need to be bold in declaring how and where we have been fed with meaning, we are perhaps not modest and cautious enough about presuming or claiming that others are sure to find similar values in the cause and purpose we are championing.

The Church and Via de Cristo calls us to leadership that is at best a self-emptying process. He must increase; we must decrease. We must decrease even in heralding our own precious life-transforming learning experiences. We must tell our stories -- make no mistake about that -- and do our leading, but then get out of the Spirit's way to use our witness in any way the Spirit chooses to do so.

I remember well the effectual witnesses which several seminary students made to me back in the mid-seventies. I would not be standing here this evening had it not been for them. Let me tell you about them. They didn't say to me that I needed to make a Cursillo. There was no hint or implication that they had something which I obviously did not have. They simply said, in response to my question as to why they had left promising careers to take up theological education at Trinity (and they were well along in their 30's and 40's), that among the several influences and factors, Cursillo had been the primary vehicle through which they had come to realize God's vocational call. The call had unfolded as a process for them.

Now when you hear that a few times -- a few times over -- the non-promotional character of their witness has its own effectual power. It does its own effectual motivating, so that I was prompted in the summer of 1975 to go to Atlanta to "see and experience this thing that was changing lives." We're talking about life-changing learning.

In the Episcopal library of Cursillo materials, there is a pamphlet entitled "The Fourth Day First." In that pamphlet I read that putting the fourth day first has some practical implications. First it reorients our understanding of Cursillo. Cursillo is no longer seen as a renewal movement, if by that is meant an instrument for pepping up dragging Christians or propping up sagging parishes. Furthermore, Cursillo is not seen as a means for converting the non-Christian or convincing the marginal Christian to a vital faith. Cursillo is not designed to be a vehicle for replacing catechatical instruction for the new Christian or confirmation for the maturing Christian. What Cursillo is -- and you've heard it earlier today -- is the tool for equipping the saints for the work of ministry. I like that - it's Biblical! A tool for equipping the saints for the work of ministry -- that is, for taking active, though nominal Christian men and women who desire to serve their Lord, in a more intentional and effective way and showing them how. And that showing process is process. It happens over time. It happens over time. We're talking about life-changing learning. My first point is that making sense out of my life is process, not a product, and that while we need to respect the unique character of each person's sanctifying process of coming to maturity in Christ, I believe Via de Cristo can effectually contribute to that process. That's a major part of my witness here this evening.

II. Secondly, for me, life-changing learning is experiential.

Big fancy word! What do I mean by that word "experiential"? Well, look with me first into the Gospels.

"Come follow me," says Jesus. He didn't say, "I will pronounce some principles which you must believe." No - "Come, follow me." "Be a part of this movement. You'll soon catch on to what I'm about."

Or again, "The kingdom is in your midst." Not far away in some world of mystery or remote reasoning. In your midst -- in your experiential midst.

Parables, remember, were firmly planted in the listeners' everyday life-settings: farming, family relationships, sheep-herding, real estate deals, household incidents. We can identify with that stuff. That's the stuff of life.

Jesus' questions engage the life of the listener. "What about you? Where are you? How do you see it?" he would ask.

Experiential learning is like that -- it grips us -- it picks us up. It's holistic in its reaching out to us. Whatever else you might say about Via de Cristo, it is holistic in its effect and impact. Start with that three-day weekend, to say nothing about the whole fourth day. Remember how the whole experience stretches out to include so much more than words -- integrating the intellect on which we have been taught to lean so heavily with other dimensions of life: our stories, our relationships, our feelings, our bodies, the images that arise with power from the depths of our consciousness.

Think again about the rich array of experiential learning avenues which a weekend provides. Silence for reflection. Rollo sharings which provide a blend of catechatical review with witness components. Table fellowships so rich in its sharings which personalize and integrate what has been heard. Then you have the poster visualizations so your eyes can get newly involved. Regular review sessions at the end of each day. Much prayer and palanca support. Rich and varied worship experiences. Many, many taste treats. Lots of good humor and even an occasional good joke! Leadership which is really there to serve. Pastors who act like humans. (That in itself would make the whole weekend worthwhile!) An entire community of support which is so tangible and so persistent that one comes to feel literally bathed in an outpouring of love. In short, it is an experience of grace -- an experience of grace.

Many persons come to a Via de Cristo weekend having heard "grace talk" all of their adult lives. Why then on a weekend, when they hear about the same gospel of God's grace, is there often such a grand and surprising renewal that occurs? Is it not because Grace becomes experienced as a powerful, integrative, life-relating event? Jesus comes alive as brother and friend. God is as loving as is Jesus. The Holy Spirit breathes through the winds of those days and weaves of the tapestry a marvelously loving, yet strong, fabric. It's a strong experience.

Now I believe that the experience-based character of life-changing learning has important implications for what leaders and teachers do, also in relation to our movement. And here I have to be careful because I am going to be somewhat critical. Plus I don't have the time to say all this with enough careful qualification, so bear with me and be a little forgiving, if that becomes necessary.

I begin with my own experience. My Cursillo weekend, Men's #6 in Atlanta in 1975, was not without some major flaws. Personally, I was quite turned off by procedures in leadership which I felt to be much too rigid, autocratic, and bureaucratic.

Leaders presiding over experiential learning have to live in the tension between adherence to some grand design which couples

responsible planning and openness to the people and the moment. We need to have faith in our preparation (select team members with care, do responsible team building, follow the proven designs, etc.), but we also need to acknowledge that we don't have all the wisdom there is, and that the Holy Spirit, not us, is ultimately in charge. I'm saying the obvious: namely, that the Via de Cristo experience is both planned and unpredictable. Unpredictable! Otherwise, one would have to question whether it is in fact of God.

I believe the movement is in trouble when we leaders begin to think that we have an unimprovable product, the packaging of which needs to be safeguarded with vehemence and simply marketed with more unyielding enthusiasm. I say it kindly, but emphatically: those are the rigidities and misguided notions with are more apt to rob us of life than to insure stronger tomorrows.

I know well the wisdom behind the folk-saying, "If it ain't broke, there is no need to fix it." And while I get mighty uneasy when neophyte leaders presume to want to change Via de Cristo before they have come to understand it, I am almost equally uneasy with persons who defend its every jot and tittle as if it were divinely inspired in every particular, and that anyone who presumes to challenge or change it in any way is guilty of high treason. I believe Jesus challenged precisely that sort of rigid Pharisaism when he said "You have heard it said ... but I say to you ..."

Now this deserves much more careful conversation than it can receive here at this time, and I do mean dialogic conversation rather than my monologic declarations.

What I have been trying to say is that experiential learning is more like a voyage of discovery than a trip with a clearly marked roadway and an unfailingly predictable outcome.

On a Via de Cristo weekend, we are asking people to look into the depths of their lives. What ideal gives focus to their dreams and energies? We're suggesting and we're witnessing that a life of grace lived in the company of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit is the Christian ideal which makes for abundant living. Is that not our story? But we can neither predict nor program the encounter in such a way as to guarantee a joyous, pain-free, embracing of that reality by others. And that keeps us depend upon the only one who can effect that marvelous transformation.

It's human nature to want to avoid pain. Most persons resist what makes them anxious, and they may get angry even at people who press them to examine the places where the ground for them may be shaky. It takes a heap of courage and it takes some spiritual discernment to preside responsibly at experiential learning where the stakes have to do with the spiritual stuff of life. That's why we need to support one another in prayer. That's why we need gatherings like this to build one another up -- to be fortified with that kind of courage in the Lord and maturity in the Lord which is of the Lord.

Perhaps that is why serving on a team continues to be so very special for me. I've already shared that my original weekend was just barely ok - nothing to crow about, and, if truth were told, more to complain about than to praise. It was not until I began serving on team some three-plus years later that I began to appreciate the great tool for renewal we have in Via de Cristo. It was as a team member that I got an insider's view of what we were contending with. In the language of the Apostle Paul, I sensed that we were up against principalities and powers far beyond any human capacity to deal with effectually in our own strength and reserves. Again, it was experiential learning of what it meant to lean on Jesus -- to lean on the power of His name and might. Repeatedly, I have seen miracles happen, and I've been close enough to them to know that neither I nor any other human instrumentation had caused them to happen. If that doesn't shut you up and sit you down and make you grateful to the center of your heart, I don't know what will. I think that the joyousness that often arises from people who are caught up in this movement has to do precisely with that. Joy -- in that suddenly this notion that He's got the world in His hands is true. He's got people's lives in His hands and it is wholly by the grace of God that we have been privileged to be the broken vessels through which the transcendent and resplendent love of God got communicated in life-transforming ways. What a privilege just to be close to that!

I must hurry on.

III. The third primary characteristic of life-transforming learning is this. Learning is more likely to transform my life when it both affirms and challenges me.

Affirms and challenges! I tell my students that for growth to happen, they need two things: strokes and pokes. Love, affirmation, commendation (no one of us gets too much of that) AND nudgings which remind me that God is not through with me yet. We need growth nudges, or gnudges, as I like to call them.

Perhaps you've heard the story about Noah loading the ark. As the animals were milling about prior to boarding, some noticed that there were four gnus who were vying to get into the boarding line. A little upset about the seeming unequal treatment, a few animals complained. Noah explained it to them this way: "Well, he said, we're loading four of them 'cause there's the good gnus and the bad gnus."

First the "good gnus" about the role of affirmation in experiential learning -- the role of affirmation and commendation in Via de Cristo.

I am affirmed when I am helped to recognize what I already know. People who come to Via de Cristo have already experienced a lot in their lives. They know a lot, and can benefit simply from the opportunity to put it together into some coherent articulation for themselves. I am affirmed when I am given chances to discover meaning for myself. Sometimes it happens in the table conversation as they are talking one with another. That path to affirmation needs to be affirmed and safeguarded in and through your leadership.

I am affirmed when I am helped to discover what I have to offer. Like the unfolding of a beautiful rose is the participants' discovery on a weekend of their own value -- of their giftedness --that they each are leaders. "A great, grand surprise for me; I never thought I was a leader ... in my own unique environment.

I am affirmed when I know I am accepted just as I am. We can all recall precious moments when we've watched someone's awareness dawning: "They -- this table group -- really think I'm Okay." "They believe something I've had trouble believing about myself and they say they do that with a love that is of Jesus." Often through tears they appropriate the joyous good news. Those are moments when people experience "You are my beloved son"; "You are my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased," and hear that as a great word of good news from the CEO of the universe, no less. That's getting right up there!

As leaders, we can help these experiences of affirmation to happen when we reflect back the wisdom of group members in a discussion lifting up a participant's important contributions. I'll say it at the risk of embarrassing him, but our chairman, Wayne, is so good at that as I have repeatedly marveled at his work with our executive team. Building one another up - it's good Biblical stuff. Build one another up - through affirmation and encouragement.

Affirmation has as its goal, of course, empowerment -- the message, "Yes, you can!" "You can go forth." Women, especially, so need to receive "you can" messages to counteract all the "you can't" or "you shouldn't" stuff still too frequent in our culture.

I like the way Patricia Holland put it in this poem:

God laughs at "can't,"

Throws back His heads and guffaws.

Moses demurred, "I can't talk to Pharaoh," he said.

God laughed, "Who do you think made your mouth?"

"I am" empowers you.

"You can - your brother Aaron's there. Go forth. You can."

To anyone's "I can't do that; I'm a woman."

God chuckles, "Woman, who do you think made you woman?"

"Your sister Miriam led my people singing across the Red Sea." "Your sister Mary dangled The Word incarnate on her knee."

"Another sister Mary -- the first to see the risen Christ and ran to tell the men."

"A woman -- bless your soul -- that's exactly who I intended you to be."

"Get up. Join your sisters and brothers. Go forth. You can."

God laughs at "can't." Throws back His head and guffaws.

"I made you woman. You can."

Jesus continually invites his disciples to share in His power. You feed them. You heal them. You can even walk on water if you don't lose your nerve.

Being a leader who empowers others doesn't mean mushy "group-think" or the relinquishment of initiative and passion. You can define yourself in ways that encourage others to define themselves if you say "Here's what I think" in a way that asks, "And how do you see it?" rather than "That's how you ought to see it."

Well, we've talked about the good "gnus" of affirmation. Now let's turn to challenge -- what some might regard as "bad gnus." Challenge!

One of my activities as spiritual director involved my writing all the bishops of the church. I've even heard back from some of them! A couple of bishops from this region wrote in their letters some things that will challenge us. I want you to hear that as well. One wrote, "I'm sorry to say that I've not attended a Cursillo. Shared some time with some in the Synod who play a leading role. Wasn't really that impressed with what they shared. Talked with some of the Episcopal priests and their experience was that those who had attended became a little group that felt it prayed better, hugged better, and all around merely tried to get others to go to a Cursillo weekend, which ended the same. Now I know that is not the intent, but as a result, I put it on a back burner." And though as a challenge to me, he added: "Know your leadership will turn this around."

Here's what another bishop from this region wrote: "I was present for Cursillo weekends sponsored by the North Texas Secretariat of Cursillo. While I understood its helpfulness for many individuals, I found elements in Cursillo that tended to be divisive as well. Leaders of the movement locally have been concerned about the very same issues, and I am pleased they are working to resolve them. I have been a part of a number of programs since my weekend and love the participants dearly. My support will be restrained, however, because of the concerns that I expressed."

I don't know how you hear that, but I hear that as a challenge to us. We've got some work to do yet: to make this beautiful tool of our Lord not one over which people stumble because of our stumbling, bumbling ways of serving up the tool. Oh, there are so many things that we can be challenged about -- even as Mission 90 in the ELCA calls us to see, grow, and serve. That parallels beautifully piety, study, and action. The parallels there are too obvious to miss.

IV. A fourth and final characteristic of transformational learning: trainsformational learning creates and is sustained by community. Transformational learning creates and is sustained by community.

Here let me say some things about what Cursillo is NOT. Sometimes we also need to say what we are not. The Via de Cristo is not a body of the spiritually elite. From the beginning, Via de Cristo has sought to be a kind of servant community within the church, bringing together people who are awake to the need to be active witnesses to Jesus Christ, and who actually carry their witness into the everyday environments where they find themselves. Via de Cristo is not a parachurch organization. Sometimes the fact that we brought language over from its Spanish beginnings into everyday parlance -- palanca, rollo, ultreya, group reunion, secretariat -- all these and more have tended to make Via de Cristo sound like a separate organizational entity within the church. But the basic drive of Via de Cristo is away from organizational structure towards simple Christian witness.

In essence, Via de Cristo functions with small groups of Christians who pray together regularly, and who support and encourage one another in apostolic action.

Via de Cristo is also not a human potential movement. Sometimes we have to say that. The purpose of Via de Cristo movement is not to explore the meaning of being a person, but the meaning of being a Christian. It's not meant to build self-esteem, but confidence in the living Lord, who empowers our life and witness. It's not meant to celebrate life, but to celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ over the power of sin and death -- to open the way for the celebration-goers to share that victory with themselves and others.

When during our three days with the Lord and in close community with one another we have told each other our stories and found that we are not alone or rejected in our humanity; when we have hung in with a brother or sister through all their tales of agony or behaviors of avoidance or angry resistance, as well as the joyful moments in which we discovered that our isolation was overcome -- we may then arrive at those moments when we are graced with a deep sense of belonging to a very caring community.

In closing, I have to 'fess up to the truth that one of the real reasons I was looking forward to coming to Texas this summer was to taste again some of that marvelous Blue Belle ice cream. I was interested to find that the "little creamery in Brenham" was featured in the August issue of "Texas Highways". Did you see it? That little creamery churns out 100,000 gallons a day this time of year, and that's the straight inside scoop! Even at that, supply can't keep up with demand. No less a source than Time magazine has proclaimed Blue Belle to be one of the finest ice creams in the country. As I asked, "What makes it so?" I discover, as best I can judge, three things:

#1 - They start with the freshest milk, the freshest cream, the best of all ingredients -- milk from 40,000 Texas cows arrives at Blue Belle each working day. Monday night's milking is at Blue Belle by Tuesday morning and on the way to market as ice cream by Wednesday. That's what they mean by fresh ingredients.

#2 - Then, secondly, there is the enthusiasm of the workers to do the job right. Blue Belle is made up by people who have names! I'm told they are people who do things well because that's the way they've always done them. I remember well Ed Kruse, Blue Belle's CEO who used to serve on TLC's Board of Regents with me, make that point clearly and repeatedly the enthusiasm and commitment of the workers to do things right.

#3 - Then, thirdly, Blue Belle has a certain mystique about it -- right? A homespun country image communicated in large part by the company's advertising. They say, for example, "We eat all we can, and sell the rest." And though Blue Belle is presently sold only in Texas, when George Bush was elected president, Blue Belle ran an ad picturing the White House with the caption, "The Only House in Washington That Can Get Blue Belle Ice Cream."

Now is there a clue in Blue Belle's success for the future of Via de Cristo -- to get very in-to-life for a minute? Fresh quality ingredients coupled with the enthusiasm of workers who are in the habit of doing things right and who've learned to do the right things, and finally the mystique mixed with nostalgia that calls us back to some old-time country faithfulness. Not bad! I offer it simply for your consideration.

Finally, let me report on what I picked up from a seminary intern while I was making a site visitation. She had it on a plaque on the wall. I liked it so that I wrote down these words:

HOPE is the ability to hear the music of the future.

FAITH is having the courage to dance to that music in the present.

Sisters and brothers, you hear the music. Dance on!

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