A School of Love

Pastoring a faith community is turning out to be a school of love for the pastor as well as its members. The other day I visited a young couple who were inquiring about baptism for their newborn baby. All kinds of unflattering assumptions eagerly clamoured to colour my impressions of them because I had never seen them in church. Then we met  and talked — for a long time.

Ever had the experience of swallowing hard and fast to move false prejudices out of the way before they come tumbling out through your lips? Well, that’s what happened to me. Not only did this couple express the desire to have their beloved baby baptized, but one of the parents expressed a desire to embrace Christian discipleship as the path to give meaning and purpose to her life. In other words, she desires baptism as well.

Meanwhile some six months ago a single woman struggling with personal challenges reached out by phone. We have been growing our relationship by fits and starts since that first day. For quite a while I was uncertain whether our connection was helpful. Now this child of God is awakening to her God-given identity, growing a desire to be baptized and to make Jesus her pattern for living within the community of the church.

As many times before, such encounters evoke surprise, awe and wonder.  The Holy Spirit  moves hearts despite us; we can’t even claim the credit. And I began to wonder: do our parish communities live up to what we profess so others can see and taste and hear and feel Jesus in our common life? Is our faith community as energized by the Holy Spirit as Jesus was himself? When others see us relate and interact, are they puzzled by the love that binds us? Are they attracted and wonder what moves us and and what power we draw on?

Living with Jesus at the center ought to be the norm for a Christian community, as a concrete expression of Christ loving through us: self-giving and generous, sacrificial and inclusive, joyfully and gratefully. Human love on its own is incapable of doing this. Human love calculates what’s in it for ourselves. We love in exclusive and possessive ways instead of inclusive and selfless ways. But the love drawn from God in Christ Jesus is other-centered. It is to be the animating force in every Christian family.

We can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our faith family (nor our blood family of course). In a Christian community God does the choosing, not us. To love Jesus is to love the community of faith, to love the Church, with all its odd members, needy characters and misfits. It is through the Church, flawed as it is, that we are called to live as a “new creation” in Christ (2 Col. 5:17). This summons has serious consequences for how we relate to God, to others and to the world. Why would anyone even be remotely interested in joining us if we do not look and act any different than the world — that is what it means to be in the world and not of it (john 14:18–19). In his book “Great Themes of Scripture” Richard Rohr writes: The Scriptural ideal is not to live in the world and go to church, but to live in the Church and go out into the world. (pg. 150)

Rohr goes on to say that to be “saved from the world” (John 16:33) involves being freed from anger and fear, bitterness and jealousy, possessiveness and power-seeking, and any other habits and behaviours, motives and attitudes that suffocate and destroy life. And so our parishes, our faith communities, are to become a school in loving. Anyone who has been part of a parish, however, will know from experience how often we fall short of this ideal. Yet the summons remains, because we are the only Body Christ has on earth.

The face of God in the person of Jesus Christ is God`s greatest gift to the world. We touch Christ both in his wounds and his risen glory in the fabric of our daily lives and in our interactions with others, especially those most in need. The universal call to holiness through Christ is not some spiritual veneer for experts and religious acrobats. This call, issued in baptism, is to be fostered throughout life in a practice of prayer in a “school of prayer and love.” Every community of Christians is Christ’s Body on earth, and thus called to be God’s sacrament in the world.

None of this comes naturally or is automatic — ask any Christian. Just because we’ve had the water poured doesn’t mean there is no more sin, no more obstacles, no more false gods, no more mixed motives and hurts. But instead of falling victim to our own worst qualities, we embrace with joy the holy vision of God, committing to growing into holiness our whole life long. Even if we fail and want to give up on ourselves, God clearly does not give up on us.

Jesus saves, he truly saves. Jesus saves us from our worst inclinations and from our deepest hurts. The Christian community is not so much a place for the already converted, but the place where true conversion and surrender to unconditional love becomes possible in order to grow us into a new creation in Christ Jesus. In Christ God revealed that the Body of his Son on earth, the Christian community,  is to be the vehicle for healing, reconciliation and unity in a broken world on the brink of despair.

Mentoring new Christians to the font of life is an awesome privilege, even though we will fall and fail often in loving. But God has faith in us despite our weaknesses. And so, here in our little prairie town in our little parish, we have begun the journey to the waters of life with our three candidates: a newborn baby, a middle-aged woman and a young mom. We will surround them with the love of our parish family, each according to their needs. In the process each of us, candidates, sponsors and catechists, will be mentored by God`s Spirit of Love — consoled and corrected, enlightened and guided, forgiven and healed. We want to be that school of love God is calling us to, and we pray for the grace to be faithful to this vision that has so captured our hearts.

Pray for us and Lord, have mercy.

Prairie Encounters

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