Monday, October 3, 2011

Conspicuous Christians

The following is the full presentation for a workshop I was asked to give at the Brothers and Sisters of Charity General Gathering at Little Portion Hermitage in Berryville, Arkansas.  Time constraints caused me to do a large edit, so I offer it here especially for Community members who asked for it.  (Thanks for your support and encouragement!)
Conspicuous Christians: Being Different for Jesus’ Sake (Peter n’ Paul Style)
Dr David L. Hall, BSCD & General Minister, Heart for God, Ltd.
When I was a child I grew up in an ecclesial community that focused on holiness (my nurturing context could have been far worse!).  There were many good things planted in my heart and mind from those years –– especially the sin of pride and our deep-seated tendency to be selfish, so that everything revolves around our own convenience and comfort. I was taught early on that these these things are odious to God and deadly to spiritual life.  It was a pleasant surprise when I found the fullness of this emphasis in the Catholic Church, plus a focused quest of godliness within the BSC).  There was one thing in general, though, that was an obstacle in my childhood church.  It was an obstacle for those in our church because it was hard.  It was an obstacle for those on the outside looking on because it often looked ridiculous and sent the wrong message.  It was based on the old KJV reading of 1Pet 2:9 –– But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light...  That word “peculiar” implanted the idea that we should seek ways to be weird and embrace them, and this would contribute to our holiness. The “life” (lifestyle) was often reduced to moralism, and it was reinforced by legalism.
Now it’s not that there is no truth there at all. I know Catholics and Christians from other traditions who have been seared with what they understand as legalism. One of the criticisms “the world” makes against the Church is self-righteousness. This is because facets of morality are inherent in holiness, and there are some legitimate do’s and don’ts –– and this does often appear weird in the eyes of the world-spirit.  Christians are, indeed, to live distinctive lives in this world (that’s a good, practical way to understand personal holiness). Paul told the Corinthians that the natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is spiritually judged (1Cor 2:14).  There may be many things we do as Christians seeking to be holy that make no sense to unbelievers, but if the details –– dare I say, our eccentricities –– are the primary focus of our witness, then spiritually hungry people may not see Jesus in us. This is certainly a problem when we desire to be part of the New Evangelization promoted by Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.  In this context I want to offer a way to think about the primary focus of our witness.
We should remember that everyone is spiritually hungry.  The business man working long hours to get to the “top”.... the sports fan who doesn’t miss a game.... the couple making huge sacrifices to get their “perfect” house.... the young man or woman trying to achieve the “perfect” body.... the wounded soul seeking solace through substance abuse.... the lecherous old goat leering at young women (live or using porn).... even the dedicated worker going far beyond what is required, hoping to receive a few strokes of affirmation....  People like these, and far more, are spiritually hungry.  They want something to fill up the empty space inside.  They’re seeking a reason to hope for another day.  They want to experience something that says “life is worth living.”  Most do not understand this is spiritual hunger, and many would deny it if they were told in some straightforward “fusillade” of truth.  We need to be more discreet.  One spiritual writer who has been significant to my formation uses the image of being subversive.
Instead of badgering people with our religion (which is how so many in our culture see it if we go on any offensive endeavor to share our Faith  –– the meaning of “offensive” gets changed!), we need to work at having people come to us with real questions.  This is surely what St Peter has in mind when he writes:  Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope... (1Pet 3:15).
How are others to discern that we have “hope” in any distinctive way?  One way I can illustrate this is by a negative: if Christians are anxious and greedy and angry and obsessed with trivial things just like those who make no profession of faith, then how can there be any distinctive witness of Christian hope?  We are called to be holy –– different for Jesus’ sake.
I’m afraid this easily gets skewed among too many people professing Christian Faith in our congregations. The little sectarian community that first nurtured me does not have exclusive rights to moralism and legalism.  It is easy for people who go to church to be smug about it (since so many others today do not attend church regularly).  Most regular church attenders are likely to see themselves holding a higher standard of morality than non-attenders.  Many who go to church are very concerned with “churchy” things; there can be a nasty territorialism about who gets to do what, and even which pew is “mine.”  Church can get reduced to a repetitious form, and then something insidious and deadly happens: people start comparing their own perceived goodness alongside others they see both in the church and in general culture.  Then they conclude that they are pretty good –– at least better than average. St Paul warned the Corinthians: When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise (2Cor 10:12, NIV)  It is easy to look at others and rationalize in a way that can make ourselves look pretty good.  That is not the standard for Christians.
What is the standard?  It is expressed in different ways in the New Testament.  St Paul told the Philippians (2:5ff), Your attitude must be that of Christ ....and then he goes on to exalt Jesus’ example of not clinging to being God, but humbling himself to the point of becoming human and dying on the cross.  The preceding verses of that passage (2:1–4) are bathed in language of selflessness, humility and servanthood. Those are terms found often in our BSC literature, and it seems to take a dedicated community for that emphasis to be normative (which is one reason to be part of the Community; we need to be challenged and held accountable beyond what is normative in the average parish).
Of course, all Christians are called to be like Jesus because we have been incorporated into Jesus by the Spirit through the Church. And to round out the Trinitarian context, it is all the Father’s plan.  The dynamic of love that has existed eternally in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is made available to us.  So the mark of the Christian is love. It is right that we are the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. Our name is our calling, and that too is right, because unless our focus and direction are set properly we cannot be the people God has called us to be.  St Paul’s words should be our own:  I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession [of perfect maturity in Christ]. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus (Phlp 3:13,14).
Now, the subject here is our witness, and our primary focus.  We have been called by the Church to a New Evangelization, and our Community embraces this. Actually it is simply a refreshing of what all Christians are called to “merely” by being in Christ Jesus, but our weak humanity needs freshening times.  As people affected by culture, we need to think strategically what it means to witness to Jesus in our own time and place.
Some things are relative. Cultures change, and as they change people see and hear in different ways.  A simple illustration would be that one might not begin talking about Jesus using the Lamb of God image in a culture where they have never seen sheep.
We also have intellectual cultural issues. Western culture has been affected by the hyper rationalism of Modernism, yet moved beyond that to a Post-Modernism that has despaired of knowing Truth in anything but the analytical sciences –– things that can be measured and repeated.  This means things like relationships, morals and even beauty are up for grabs.  Religion has been abandoned to the realm of the subjective (to the degree that religion is considered seriously at all; it’s permissible only if it helps you personally as a strictly inner-individual experience.  Organized religion is supposedly on the way out.  Liturgy is valuable only as it helps someone have a “nice personal experience.”  [We even need to be careful with Protestant Evangelical language of “a personal relationship with Jesus”; while it expresses a great truth, it can also play into the thought-patterns of what Benedict XVI has called “the dictatorship of relativism” by emphasizing “personal” in such a way that truth in religion is reduced merely to what is individually “meaningful.” ]
This calls for great carefulness. The church cannot live totally separated from the world and still do its job.  Thus we have the practice of accommodation –– going to the world on its own turf, so to speak –– willing to identify with the world in any way that does not involve moral or spiritual compromise.  There is a word for that in modern missiology; it is called contextualization.  Contextualization means we recognize that the gospel is always shared and, we hope, accepted in a certain cultural situation, and those situations should always be considered in evangelism.
While there is this positive, contextual side of accommodation, there is also a negative side: syncretism.  That means losing sight of the conflict and becoming one with whatever is around you. It is an accommodation that embraces compromise and, in the context Christian Faith, causes witness and message to be lost. This a huge part of our battle in the “Christian West.”  It is the siren call of seduction. It is a dumbing down and blending what is called “faith” to a common denominator that is little more than a pool of the best (or maybe the worst) of human “wisdom.”
There are indicators of this at work in the Church.  A recent (Sept 25, 2011) OSV report gave statistics on how the USCCB guidelines on political issues has been received.  Catholics who have heard of it came in at 16% while 3% of the faithful had actually read it.  A whopping 71% said it would have made no difference to them even if they had heard of it.  The New Evangelization needs to reach those who call themselves Catholic.
So, how are we who desire to be faithful to give witness to what Jude’s letter calls the Faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3)? How can we embrace the calling of our Lord to be “fishers of men”?  How do we respond to the call for a New Evangelization? How do we live “in the world, but not of it?”  What does it mean to be distinctive so that some hungry soul will ask us the reason for our hope?
I think the answer is simple (though not so simply done).  We do not become good witnesses by focusing on our witness!  Witness is a by-product.  The New Evangelization is actually the “old time religion” of Peter and Paul in the New Testament texts (there’s an old bluegrass gospel song, Gimme that old time religion.... it was good for Paul and Silas, and it’s good enough for me...)  The heart of the BSC will take us there if we follow our Rule.
Here are a few Scriptures to point us in the right direction:  First we have Jesus saying,  A new commandment I give you:  Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another (Jn 13:34,35).  How is this new? The Old Testament said to love your neighbor as your self; Jesus says his disciples are to “love as I have loved you.” The command to love is new with Jesus in the sense that only in Jesus do we fully see what love really is. Jesus makes love a new thing. Until we see Jesus, we cannot comprehend love. John says it succinctly in his first letter: This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1Jn 4:10).
Jesus did not give his disciples a badge to wear to show their loyalty.  There is no uniform you can put on that will, in so doing, automatically place you among the faithful.  A heart-tau and and tunic will not, by themselves, make us like Jesus. Remember the words of our Lord, All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another (Jn 13:35).  That is what marked Jesus off from the world.
So, how is the world going to see God's kind of love now that Jesus has gone to sit at the right hand of the Father? Isn’t that the issue of evangelization? There is a logical progression here. Jesus says, As I have loved you, so you must love one another. Actually there is more than that here. We lose something in the translation. Jesus is telling his disciples that he has loved them in order that they can love one another. Jesus is not merely giving a command here; love is greater than a commandment. A commandment cannot by itself contain love. Jesus is making possible a gift. As love personified, Jesus is giving himself –– the gift of love. As his disciples take Jesus into their lives, as they receive him as Love and they too are enabled to love.
As I give this, it is the Memorial to St Theresa of the Child Jesus (Thérèse of Lisieux). Today’s Office of Readings from the Proper of Saints gives an excerpt from her autobiography and I find the following to be so pertinent:
Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.
Can we be like Jesus? No! –– not if we try to do so only in response to a bunch of commands. Can we be like Jesus? Yes! –– if we live in response to him being inside us as we give ourselves to him. This is what we see modeled so well in St Paul. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me..... May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world..... For me, to live is Christ.... 
When Paul admonishes Christians no longer to conform to the pattern of the world he is not just adding laws on top of laws.  He calls believers to a renewing of [the] mind (Rom 12:2), but the way that happens is for us to become like Jesus –– and not through self effort!  We are called to embrace the spiritual metamorphosis described to the Corinthians: we.... are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2Cor 3:18). We are to go into the world with our way of thinking changed to be like that of our loving Lord as we nurture his life within us.  Then, in our values, our relationships, our personal integrity and our moral chastity, we will bear witness to our Lord and his kind of love.
It will also mean being Christian is the very ways the world around is least like Jesus!  That heightens the spiritual warfare. The Spirit of Jesus who indwells us –– the Holy Spirit of God –– desires to reveal the beauty of our Lord: love instead of hate or vengeance.... joy instead of circumstantial happiness.... peace instead of worry and retaliation.... patience instead of thinking I should always be first (or at least not have to wait long).... kindness apart from a person “deserving” it.... goodness as a basic character trait, with no fears that it is a mere facade.... faithfulness in a world where it seems nothing is any longer stable or permanent.... gentleness in a way that we become places of personal refuge to those who are hurting.... and self-control instead of grabbing and possessing. Nor are these things only for our own benefit –– we are not filled with the Spirit just to be trophies on a shelf; they equip us to serve from the heart. Or course, these things are the fruits of the Spirit –– the very things we can expect to be worked into us as we invite Jesus to live in us.  Today’s selection in the Office of Reading from the Ordinary (Saturday, Week Twenty-Six) was by St Gregory of Nyssa.  The whole reading is wonderful and applicable here, but for now I quote only the last sentence: “If you try to outdo one another in showing respect, your life on earth will be like that of the angels.”
Someone might ask, "What will this look like?" Consider what could happen if one Christian does not laugh at a cruel or crass joke. Could that not be the salt to season those standing around?  What could happen if one Christian practiced forgiveness in an office that is poisoned by intrigue and enmity? Could that become a catalyst for healing? What could happen if one Christian stood up for his faith where it is hard to do that?  Might there not be a hungry heart there ready to hear of something that is worth a commitment of personal risk?  Or what if some of us (this one would maybe need a special calling) are blissfully ignorant of who is doing what in the sports and entertainment world, so that when our ignorance surfaces we are asked, “Well what do you do (implied: for entertainment/fun)?  Then to try to find a catchy way to reply, “I enjoy praying.” Maybe truly radical Christian living is the way to witness (it hasn’t been tried a whole lot!).
What could happen if one Christian, maybe in a group that is shaken by fear as they worry about financial collapse or other terrors that might befall the world.... or maybe with people who have resigned themselves to a hopeless future.... what could happen if one Christian radiates the peace of God which is beyond the reason of the world, and thus communicates something of God's peace to others?  Could that not be the light of the world shining in the darkness of panic and terror?  And isn’t it plausible to think that some will ask, Why are you so.... different?  And what if many Christians give this kind of witness?! This is the New Evangelization.
I hope we catch a bit of the thrill of our calling, but it will mean conflict. Satan does not want our lives to give glory to our Lord.  I’ve always remembered a quote from Francis Schaeffer early in my ministry formation back in the early 70s:  “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little part which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.  Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”  I believe the war today is against those who believe in Special Revelation, that God has spoken. God speaking into our world shatters the myth of relativism, and we are among those who embrace the opening words of the writer to the Hebrews: In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.  So our witness is about Jesus, and this name is a cause of offense in our world today.  Almost anyone can generally talk about religion and spirituality, even meditation and prayer, and not get much flak, but Jesus will cause the offense of exclusivity to flare. This is not some small happenstance.
When Peter extends this scenario of being asked about our faith he prefaces it with a phrase that captures all I have tried to say here: But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.... (1Pet3:15a).  It’s all about Jesus. We are people who believe the greatest thing that has ever happened in this word happened in and through Jesus Christ. God shows himself to us in Jesus. God loves and sustains and saves us through Jesus.  Every hope for anything good in our world has its source in Jesus.  The reason we are Christians is Jesus.  The reason we gather as Brothers and Sisters of Charity is Jesus. The reason we pray and study and serve is Jesus. The focus of our witness is Jesus.... always Jesus.
Jesus himself gave the "formula" (if we can call it that) for life-changing witness through both his words and example. Can you think of a recorded instance where Jesus confronted the social injustices of his day head-on? He preached the standard of the kingdom of God (the contrast with the world of his day was obvious), and he boldly confronted the sinfulness of human hearts. He said it was from within the human spirit that such things as evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander break into our world (Matt. 15:19). The one antidote to that, he said, was for people to come to the Father God through him. He said, If I be lifted up, I will draw all people to myself. The message Jesus gave, both in his words and actions, was Himself  –– that with his coming, the kingdom of God had come to earth, and it was up to each person to seek that kingdom and live in it's ways.
It seems that so few people want to hear that. The "experts" today keep repeating the worn out prescriptions of classic liberalism –– that people are basically good, and if they have enough material goods and education they will be wonderful citizens. It is said the violence in our land stems from the frustration of poverty and ignorance. Have you ever wondered why there weren't riots and untold personal violence during the depression of the 1930's? That was poverty and hopelessness beyond anything today, but the culture at large back then still held enough inherent values based on the pervasiveness of God’s laws to hold the chaos under control. Today we try to enact gun control, put metal detectors in schools and call for a war on drugs, but little or nothing is being done to address what Jesus said about the cancer in the spirits of human beings.
One person who changed the course of history is certainly the Apostle Paul. How did he do that? He knew and exalted Jesus. Writing to the Corinthian church he reminded them I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1Cor 2:2). Paul's message was Jesus. It wasn't how to be successful.... it wasn't how to be happy in adversity.... it wasn't how to have good family life.... it wasn't how to create a new social order.... it wasn't how to win friends and influence people.... it wasn't twelve steps to stop addiction.... it wasn't ten basic steps to church growth. Paul's message was Jesus Christ, and in that he helped lay the foundation for what has come to be known as Western Civilization for nearly the past two thousand years.
Now do not misunderstand. It is not that Paul would not have cared about any of the things I just mentioned. Of course he was concerned that Christians have joy even in adversity. Of course he wanted families to live in a way that honored God. Of course he wanted the power of addiction to be broken in people's lives. Of course he wanted church growth. But Paul knew it came through Jesus.
As the world around us asks for change, and as politicians promise it, Christians today need to remember the difference between cause and effect. The change most people focus on is good effects. Good effects do not happen without an appropriate reason. Christians know that the only reason to expect good things in this world is through the grace and mercy that comes from Jesus Christ. Before we can hope for good effects –– before we can even work for good effects –– we must get our cause in right priority. Christians are people who know, and are committed to, one cause. Jesus Christ is our reason for existence.
That means we do not work for justice apart from a justice understood and proclaimed as coming from Jesus. We do not merely try to save the unborn from abortion; we proclaim Jesus as the one who gives meaning to life, both for mother and child. Violence is not an issue which stands alone. Neither are family values, educational goals and economic issues. Those are things Christians can speak to only as they first of all direct attention to the King whose kingdom can make a difference.  There are many facets to Christian faith, but there is one basic ministry. Writing to the Corinthians a second time St. Paul said, All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.
When we stand against violence, against abortion, against sexual immorality, against economic oppression, against racism and all the other things which war against us in our world, we must remember we are not against those things nearly as much as we are for our Lord Jesus enabling people to be reconciled with God and one another. Jesus gives an inner motivation not to be violent, not to be immoral, not to be selfish and prejudiced. That is how true change can happen, not because any politician has a personal agenda of societal change. I want to affirm today the common belief that the world does need to be changed. I also want to call us to the one kind of change that can work. If you have your favorite issue, go for it; but go in the Name and power of Jesus.
One way to change the world is to start with a person the Lord has brought into your life –– a neighbor, a co-worker, a long-time friend who may not understand why you've changed. Most people are as troubled and anxious about the way things are going in the world as we are, and if they're not in the church they have little to trust in and no reason for hope. Jesus is the only one who can give that.  What would happen in our country if every Christian led one other person to Christ this year? Well, one thing that would happen would be that the number of Christians would double. Another thing that would happen would be a slow but steady change in the values and practices of people in our society. Our world would change just a bit for the better.
The one thing we have to offer is Jesus Christ. Paul knew that –– and he practiced it. Hear what he told the Colossians through the translation of J.B. Phillips:
So naturally, we proclaim Christ. We warn everyone we meet, and we teach everyone we can, all that we know about him, so that, if possible, we may bring every [person] up to full maturity in Christ Jesus. This is what I am working at all the time, with all the strength that God gives me.
  ....How I long for you to grow more certain in your knowledge and more sure in your grasp of God himself. May your spiritual experience become richer as you see more and more fully God's great secret, Christ himself! For it is in him, and in him alone, that [people] will find all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Do you hear this call to the New Evangelization?  Do you want to change the world? God has already done it. He has made all things new through his Son. All it takes to unleash it is for people to believe it. Do you believe it? Are you ready to let Jesus be the ultimate passion of your life? It’s the only way to change the world.

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