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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A Prodigal Culture

The other day my morning prayer included, once again, the story in Luke’s Gospel on the Prodigal Son/Father (Luke 15:11-32). Aware that the sacred Scriptures are “living and active” I saw connections I had not seen before in quite the same way. The reason lie in the fact that just prior to my Scriptural pondering I had read two articles I was still in the process of digesting. One was an unsettling analysis entitled Breaking Faith, the other a cute yet poignant piece on the importance of belonging to a church when one claims to be a Christian. Mixing the messages of these articles with Luke 15:11-32 almost lead to a sleepless night; connections and new insights flew back and forth in my mind like neurons firing at full force.

Breaking Faith suggests the audacious claim that the growth in secularism away from religious adherence could well be contributing to dangerously high levels of isolation, social fragmentation and animosity in American society. Without denying that past, and in places still present, Christian practices have a mixed legacy that include rigidity and legalism as well as virtues and heroic witness, Paul Beinart speculates whether the lack of the social glue of religious belonging and of aspiring to higher values beyond oneself, could well be responsible for fostering silos of like-minded tribal-style subgroups that find themselves pitted one against the other:

Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

Enter the have-to-go-to-church piece: Christianity is a team sport, Paul Prather points out, where we learn to grow and serve after the example of Jesus our Saviour for the greater good of both ourselves and of our neighbours. Yes, we experience great frustration and irritation in church, alongside joy and compassion; yes, we shed tears of sorrow and anger in church but also tears of joy, of comfort and of mercy. All these experiences in community, the good and the bad ones, can grow us into noble and courageous human beings, grounded in a reality greater than ourselves with a vision fed by God’s own promise of salvation in Jesus. Once we disconnect from such a great Source of life we can find ourselves in a social and spiritual vacuum, adrift in an ocean of meaninglessness and purposelessness. Our young people in particular are manifesting this lost-ness as they are often without access to an alternative school for learning these important lessons in the process of becoming fully human. Thus adrift or trapped in a social and spiritual bubble of their own making, we can fall into more primal and irreconcilable ways (Beinart, Breaking Faith).

Against this backdrop I came to Luke 15. The son had the audacity to ask for his share of the inheritance, basically wishing his father dead. In shock I then realized: and the father GAVE IT TO HIM! He gave the son what he asked for, probably knowing full well this would not end well for the immature, arrogant boy. Why did the father grant this rude wish? He could have spared the boy and himself a lot of grief. But no, God allows whatever we come demanding as our right, however erroneous, ignorant and misleading.

And so, I was lead to consider whether the current unraveling of the social and religious fabric is God’s allowing because we as a society have asked for this as if it is our birthright to do so. While religion is so easily blamed for breeding bigotry in judgmental humans, Beinart’s article ventures to wonder whether the current exodus from organized religion is throwing the baby out with the bathwater:
How might religious nonattendance lead to intolerance? Although American churches are heavily segregated, it’s possible that the modest level of integration they provide promotes cross-racial bonds. In their book, “Religion and Politics in the United States,” Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown reference a different theory: that the most-committed members of a church are more likely than those who are casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.

In a subsequent critical assessment of the new movement Black Lives Matter and contrasting it with the Civil Rights’ Movement of the 1960’s, Beinart quotes Barbara Reynolds, a civil rights activist and former journalist: “Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as (Martin Luther) King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement.

The recipe for a sleepless night was complete when I realized that God is a fool for letting us stray to the brink of self-annihilation. It is as if our culture is acting uncannily like the arrogant younger son claiming his share of his father’s inheritance. And God allows us, knowing better than we do that this gamble will likely not end well. We as a western civilization are unraveling, because we believe our own illusion that we know better than our ancestors who “needed” church.

I weep at this thought. Not because I want everyone to join my church club, and not because I see the Christian community as the perfect family – far from it. I weep because I see the effects of the social and spiritual fragmentation, esp. in our young people, so many of whom are searching for an anchor of belonging and love and family. Against our better judgment, God allows and gives in to our demands to do it “our way” at enormous human cost.

Yet what choice does a God of love really have? What choice does God have if God bends over backwards to honour our freedom? God did not create robots, God is not interested in robots. And love is not love if forced. Love is only love when freely given and received. And so I weep and pray for all the lost children, both big and small …

Prairie Encounters

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