Clinging to security

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People are starving, not just for food, but for being treated with dignity and for acknowledgment of their wounds. Earlier in #49, Pope Francis talks about preferring a Church bruised and hurting from being out there with people to one that is “unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” That description seems uncomfortably apt.

He also names a fear that I think drives a lot of religious people: the fear of “going astray,” which I interpret as the fear that if we go out into a sinful world, we’ll be corrupted by it. (We put our kids in bubbles for this reason, too.)

It occurs to me that if our faith is so weak it can’t survive the challenge of being around temptation, then the solution isn’t to hide from temptation, but to do some good work strengthening our faith.

I freely admit that I am no model for going out into the world and getting my feet dirty. In my case, it’s a result of an introvert’s paralyzing dread of interacting with strangers. But it’s something I’m thinking about a lot these days, and feeling called to address in that intersection of my own faith and the real world I inhabit.

A place for everyone

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Right now, the Church is doing a lot of soul searching about how to evangelize the “nones.” In my opinion, we’re driving the “nones” away by, among other things, insisting that in order to be welcome in our midst, they have to come all the way to meet us where we are, instead of us going out to meet them where they are.

Of course, we have a vision we want others to share. But we also have to recognize that conversion is a lifelong process, and we’re not done with it, either. Nobody’s saying we can’t belong, so why should we say that to others?

We need to accept the imperfections in others, because we’re all walking the same path, even if we’re in different places along it. Jesus didn’t get tax collectors to stop being dishonest by standing apart and wagging his finger at them. He went into their houses and made friends with them, and they realized he had something they wanted, which made them want to change. He didn’t go to them with a pre-existing condition: “I’ll come eat with you if, first, you promise to change.” No, he went to them with no guarantee that they’d step up to the plate. He made the effort, and that was what made the difference.

Notice also, he didn’t go into the house saying, “I’ll come eat with you and give you a witness talk to convert you.” How off-putting would that be? No, he just went, trusting the relationship to do the work of conversion. And it did.

So I think evangelization begins with evangelizing ourselves. We need to work at excising judgment and conditional love from our attitudes, and replacing them with a genuine, unconditional desire for the best for others. Not a desire to tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong, and how they should change for their own good. Not a great academic argument based on dozens of source documents.

Don’t get me wrong: I love that kind of stuff, and it’s good for our own growth in understanding. But if that’s how we start conversations with those outside the faith, we might as well not bother. No one listens to that kind of message. It’s a waste of time.

No, we need simply to wish the best for others, and model a life of joy and peace that will make others go, “Hey…I want that! How do I get some?”

Right Words, Wrong Message

I had to go back to the source myself on this one. There’s a lot to think about here, and Pope Francis doesn’t dig in and tell us exactly what he’s referring to. He just says sometimes we set up “false gods or a human ideal which is not really Christian.” He goes on to say that sometimes things we treasure, or which have been very helpful in the past, no longer are helpful because the culture, and thus the people we’re speaking to, have changed around them. I’d encourage you to read all of #41-43 (and beyond).

I see this dynamic play out when praiseworthy commitment to the teachings laid out by the Church leads us to judge and exclude people because they don’t measure up–even though none of us, in fact, measure up. I point back to the posts on imperfect practice of the faith and whether we view sin as a stumbling block on the way to something better, or a pit of mud we can’t escape.

As hard as we are on ourselves, most of us recognize that we can be loved by God despite our sins. But someone else’s sin, which takes a different form than ours, we often can’t or won’t overlook. We’re inconsistent about our approach to sexual sins, for one thing. And other sins–greed and dishonesty come to mind–we accept with a shrug…if we acknowledge them at all.

To me, this is an example of how we take a true message–what we are called to as Christians–and as we bring it down through the filter of our worldly biases, we corrupt it into something different. Something that achieves the opposite of what Jesus intended; namely, division and exclusion.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Falling Down or Tripping Up?

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I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, but I can’t seem to come up with a hooky opening. (Or title.) Maybe that means there isn’t one. Maybe I just have to write it and hope you’ll all read it, even without a hook.

During a discussion of Henri Nouwen’s “Life of the Beloved” a year or two ago, I had this moment in which God pried my brain open and I understood something so liberating, it was almost dizzying.

My whole life, I’ve looked at sin as falling down in a pit of muck.

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But in that moment, I had a vision of sin as tripping over rocks while hiking up a steep mountain with a glorious view at the end.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Most of the time, we talk about sin as a huge, inescapable reality: a systemic failure to which we’re inevitably and forever doomed as part of our humanity. We can fight it and fight it, but we’re always going to get dragged down into that muck again, because that’s who we are.

It had never before occurred to me to look at discipleship and the Christian life as a lifelong hike up a beautiful mountain whose pinnacle is Heaven. Of course you’re going to get tired along the way. Of course you’re going to slip and trip. Mountain climbing involves rocks and uneven ground.

The difference between these two perspectives is profound. In one, we view ourselves as mud dwellers. It’s our natural state of being.

In the other, we view ourselves as good people seeking to be better. Even when we trip and fall, we get up and keep going. Notice I didn’t say “get up and try again,” as if we’re running on a treadmill sunk in the mud and will never be anywhere other than in the mud.

No. I said we get up and keep going. We acknowledge that we fell down, but we brush ourselves off and keep heading for the heights.

This is a tremendously liberating thought. It takes away the hopelessness of sin. I still recognize my need for mercy—the fact that tripping on the way up the mountain doesn’t get me kicked off the mountain is a grace I can never fully comprehend. On Earth, after all, tripping up is routinely used as grounds for getting kicked out.

But because I belong to God and God is my end point, sin doesn’t have to define me. I can see myself as beloved. As worthy of receiving mercy. I can see hope for getting farther up the mountain, closer to God.

And if I see myself this way, I can learn to see others this way, too.

If I see myself and everyone else basically as mud dwellers, then Pope Francis’ quote makes no sense.

We Christians have a tendency to take an all-or-nothing view of things. When we see what we perceive to be weeds growing in the field, we filter out any fruit those people might be bearing. If the fruit is being produced by someone who doesn’t look like we think Godliness is supposed to look, we don’t want it, thank you very much.

But “weedy” people have gifts and wisdom and worth to offer, too. Thank God, nobody has to be perfect to have a place in God’s Church. And if we go around making a big list of things you have to do to be “good enough” to belong, then we’re driving away the people we’re supposed to bring to Christ.

And who’s to say that one of these days, that “weedy” person won’t be the one offering us the hand up on that steep, difficult climb toward God?

Imperfect, but Okay? Really?

†

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This quote first struck me because it doesn’t make sense. I have a garden. And a lawn I’ve recently reseeded. If I see a weed, I grumble a LOT. In fact, I’ve been going outside lately and pulling crabgrass out of my lawn, in a nod to complete futility. I do not see the swath of green, I see the weed. I see the imperfection.

In this one area, at least, we’re consistent in how we handle the physical and the spiritual world. We are not willing to tolerate imperfections in expressions of faith, either. It’s got to be all or nothing, and the problem is that the more we cling to that, the more people choose “nothing.”

A few years ago, someone asked me for advice on convincing a reluctant spouse to embrace Natural Family Planning. I, in turn, asked advice from a friend, who said, “Tell them to practice NFP. It’s about practicing. You do the best you can. You’re going to screw up. Just keep practicing.

This was a real brain-stretching thought for me. To me, NFP was an all or nothing prospect. You do it or you don’t. It had never before occurred to me that maybe something so challenging and outside the cultural norm is, by definition, going to be done badly (and here I don’t mean mistakes in applying the method, I mean spiritual choices) and with lots of spiritual mistakes on the way to doing it well. Like practicing the piano, or the violin. You’re bad before you’re good, but that doesn’t make the effort any less laudable or worth undertaking.

Why have we never thought about the spiritual life this way?

My brain is exploding with thoughts on this, but I’ll leave it there for today and take up the question again after the weekend.

Get Involved

“But I’m too busy…” It’s always about busy-ness, isn’t it? Which means, actually, it’s about my priorities. Am I so caught up in “things of the world” that I haven’t carved out time to serve God? God gave me these hands, these feet, this voice. How am I using them for him?

It’s a balancing act I know I’ll never get 100% right…but I have to keep working at it.

Are We Doing Our Job?

A few weeks ago, I read a biography of Dorothy Day. That book sparked a lot of thoughts, which I’ll go into at some point, but this quote made me think of it today, because Dorothy actually baptized her daughter before she became Catholic herself. Her struggle was the contradiction between the power of the Church’s teachings on social justice and the reality of Catholic communities whose focus was Bingo and card games. Community building is important, but so is going out and doing the work of the Kingdom, and that work is a lot more challenging and less fun.

Within the pastoral music community, periodically someone brings up a point that never fails to make me squirm: if your choir is just singing on Sundays, you’re not really doing your job. Is your music ministry reaching out? Working food banks and soup kitchens? Helping at crisis pregnancy centers? Joining in interfaith service events?

Once a year, after Christmas, my choir puts on a concert to benefit a charity. So we’ve done step one. But this Scripture is a pinprick to my conscience, reminding me that my community (whether that means my choir or my parish) is not supposed to be insular. What has been given to me is supposed to overflow to others.

The “unruly freedom of the word”

I find this quote really striking, because human nature, especially in this day and age when we face too much information at all times, is to try to boil everything down, put it in categories and boxes so we can process it and feel safe with it. And whenever something defies those artificial limitations, we feel really threatened. Threatened to the point where we reject it, even if it’s the movement of God, because it doesn’t fit where we think he’s supposed to be.

On the other hand, yesterday’s first reading, from 2 Corinthians, scolded us for how quickly we substitute artificial Jesuses for the real one. It made me squirm. Well, first it made me feel pretty righteous, because I was aiming it outward at others. (You know you all do it, too.) Then realized it could easily point at me as well. And I had a bit of disorientation, thinking about the specific instances I was considering in light of that Scripture. I wondered, “How do I tell which one is the real Jesus and which one is the artificial human one?”

I don’t have an answer for that one yet. What I am 100% convinced of is that the struggle–not the answer–is the point of the question. Life is complicated, and we want answers for everything, but when we oversimplify all the questions of the real world, we close out God when he’s inviting us to grow. This is the lesson I take from this quote.