Labelling and love

good samaritanWalter Brueegemann, one of the most influential contemporary theologians put his finger on a key issue for Christians — labelling others. “To beat each other up with labels like capitalism or communism or socialism is simply a waste of time.”  [I’d add LGBTQ, atheistic humanism and all political labels to that list!] Labels get in the way of what Jesus was trying to get across to us — what Brueegemann calls “neighbourliness.” He wrote “The discussion needs to start with what it means to be made in the image of God. The confession of the Christian faith is that all of God’s human creatures are made in the image of God. That means they are to be treated with dignity, offered maintenance and security, as is necessary. . . The only thing that will change people’s minds about this is getting to know people who are (different than you are).”

 But what if  (the labelled group) is out to subvert my way of life and harm my children and family?

Labelling, which flows out of fear is incompatible with being a neighbour. Suspending your use of labels and taking risks is what it means to love one’s neighbour. That is the essence of Jesus’s parable about the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, an outsider and not an accepted religious practitioner, took the risk to rescue and care for the man who had been beaten by robbers even though he didn’t know the man. St Paul summarized the importance of this parable for Christians: “Love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.” (Romans 13: 9-10)

There is an epidemic of labelling in the media and on the Internet, which flows into our conversations and even our beliefs. We need to guard against being infected by this. Labelling has no place in the Christian community!

“Making sense of it all” Part 3

In her book, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders Today — a task I completely support — Avril Henry uses a quote to set the stage. “Unhappy is a people that has run out of words to describe what is going on.” (Thurman Arnold) I think that describes the underlying theme of life in the 21st Century. We are struggling to find ways to describe and understand the world we have created up to now — and all our ideas, programs and solutions seem to fall short. The sheer complexity and interrelatedness of everything makes past formulas for living a “good life,” even the Christian ideals, now seem somehow inadequate. The enormous difference in scale between what confronts us and what we can understand and control,  is what we need to make sense of in this era.

Hints of the way forward

I like to look for an author’s way forward in transforming the world’s situation. Their summary generally comes near the end of the book. I have selected a few brief passages from books written by authors I admire, because I think they provide hints about the task we face in the 21st century in making sense of the world.

  • Avril Henry’s final word in her book is about acceptance: “I invite you to join me on a journey of awareness, understanding, tolerance and ultimately acceptance of difference, which will enable each of us to create a better future and world for many generations to come.”
  • Margot Cairnes, in Approaching the Corporate Heart, sees the way forward in individuals accepting an invitation to make the hero’s quest: “May you rise to the call next time you hear, see or smell it, laying aside your timid, self-effacing, dry self-limitations and daring to see who you are in your truest and brightest light.”
  • Elizabeth Dreyer, in Manifestations of Grace, sees the way forward as being, ultimately, dependent on community: “Grace is above all a community affair. In grace we see ourselves as peers, not only with all peoples, but with the earth itself.”
  • Thomas Berry, in The Great Work, sees the power and love we need as already emerging: “As we enter the Twenty-first Century we are experiencing a moment of grace. . . A new vision and a new energy are coming into being.”

Metaphors to guide us

We can only see what we don’t know in terms of what we already know, so these hints use metaphors to point toward something new emerging in the Twenty-first  Century. By unpacking them, we can begin to make sense of what is going on.

  • “Journey of awareness” [Avril Henry]
  • “Hero’s Quest” [Margot Cairnes]
  • “Community of grace” [Elizabeth Dreyer]
  • “Vision and energy coming into being.” [Thomas Berry]

You can use your own intuition to make sense of these hints. You may want to find others too; there are plenty around today.

Making Sense of the Twenty-first Century

My own sense is that these metaphors tell us something about ourselves indiividually, about our local communities and about the human race as a whole. I find the following “both/and” statements helpful in making sense of both the great uncertainty in which I find myself and the great traditions and wisdom of the past that have shaped me thus far, which are both relevant and yet inadequate.

  • Dynamic and unchanging: A journey is about movement, from something toward something. In my life I have been, and still am on a journey, and the entire human race has been and always will be on a journey. That is what it means to be human. We are becoming more conscious of our ever-changing yet unchanging journey in this Century, so we are becoming more responsible for guiding ourselves and the world in its movements.
  • Individual and together: My life is in my hands yet my life cannot be lived alone. Who I am becoming is inextricably connected to who my family, my church, my company, my country and the entire human race is becoming. In this Century the concept of the ‘rugged individual’ is disappearing, to be replaced by some new, commonly held view of what it means to be human in community. I am responsible for being part of conversations that are shaping that view.
  • Inner meaning and external actions: What I will become is being shaped in my core (my soul) and by my actions shaping the world around me. In the Twenty-first century, things can only make sense if we understand ther meaning in a much larger context then we did in the Twentieth Century. The future will no longer be measured by how well we as individuals, companies or countries competed,  found security, and achieved near-term outcomes. That just isn’t adequate. I am responsible for conversations and actions that help this new model for “success” emerge.

As an example of how to begin to think, act and make sense of it all  in a Twenty-first century way as a Christian, read my post entitled Christians and Muslims; A way forward. Also read my book Dangerous Undertaking; The Search for Transformation.

At the beginning of the First Century, Jesus established the unchanging yet ever-changing way forward for Christians. I could quote many verses but these seem to me to state His way:

  • “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6] In the Twenty-first century Christians must learn to include non-Christians in Jesus’ way, in a loving concern and respect for them as brothers and sisters.
  • “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” [Ephesians 4:4] Creating unity among scattered Christians is our unchanging challenge, dealing with ever-changing forces of diversity.
  • “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” [Ephesians 5:1-2] The ultimate measure of our growth toward maturity is how well we imitate Christ and carry out our purpose as ‘dearly loved children of God.’ Love is the only way we can deal with the centripetal forces of hatred and greed threatening to divide humankind in the Twenty-first Century.


“What if I never encounter a special person?”

A good friend of mine went to a lecture by a well-known woman, who said that her life had been profoundly affected by a special person she had met long ago, her mentor. My friend wanted to ask her, but didn’t — “What if you hadn’t met that person? Would all the advice you’re giving us today have worked in your life?” It occurred to me that what my friend was really asking herself was “What if I never encounter someone that will change my life? Is everything up to me?” As a believer, this conversation made me wonder, Is it possible that God leaves some people completely alone, to fend for themselves? How does God work?

Who can confidently answer such “ultimate questions?”

The obvious answer is God can tell us how He works in our lives. Still, Christians believe that, until we are face to face with Him in the next world, we see “a poor reflection as in a mirror.” (Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 13:12) If uncertainty about God’s ways is the lot of believers, where does that leave someone who is still seeking God? I think it leaves all of us with the human processes of thinking and deciding — and the influence of grace. Do you see where I’m going with this? We only have human categories to decide what God will or will not do for us — Is He stingy or generous; merciful or judgmental, etc? The Bible has many examples of different actions of God that we believers interpret according to our human categories. The absolute truth about God is hidden in God; we can only depend on our limited human powers of  understanding to know Him in this life.

Grace tips the scales toward generosity and mercy

But there is another path we can follow, not solely depending on logic and reasoning — although these are usually good guides — but also depending on our personal experience of God, which comes to us through grace. Knowing God in addition to “knowing about” God. My personal confidence in God’s generosity and mercy is based on the “tsunami” of grace in my life, which has been pursuing me since my earliest days. I can see God’s generous actions in my life in retrospect, especially in my darkest days, when my need was greatest and my worthiness of His friendship the least. These experiences actually happened in my life! And they also happen in the lives of many believers, who have shared their experiences with me. The great hymn Amazing Grace beautifully describes the same experiences. I am part of a community of believers who enthusiastically  report the consistency and reliablity of grace — merciful, forgiving, generous, etc. So, when my friend asked her question, I could confidently say, “Keep asking questions. I am certain that you will encounter someone who will help you to find what you seek.” That is the Good News about grace!

Sometimes not thinking is better than thinking

Descartes said, famously, “I think therefore I am.” But 400 years later we make distinctions between thinking, feeling and experiencing. So, is thinking the quintessential human act? This is a very deep and perplexing philosophical question — and philosophers use thinking to analyze thinking, an obvious tautology.

I went on a retreat this weekend, led by Father Greg Homeming OCD, a Carmelite priest. He cast some new (and old) light on this perplexing question. In the 16th century a Spanish priest, John of the Cross, used a different approach to describe what it means to be human. He used appetites and desires to explain different human experiences, including thinking but also others. An appetite is just what it sounds like — for example, the capacity to recognise and respond to the desire for food. We have many appetites, which lead to different desires: The appetite of curiosity, which leads to the desire to know, and thus to thinking. The appetite to love others, which leads to the desire to care for someone. And so on.

All appetites are good because they are built into us as human beings. But the desires that arise from these natural appetites, says John of the Cross, can be ‘disordered.’ A good example is the desire for food, which can become obsessive, leading to various disorders like obesity and anorexia. The question is, how do we give ‘order’ to our desires? John’s view is that desires must be ordered to serve God’s purposes for us, as a human and as a unique person. In other words, John has a view of what a human being is — we are enfleshed spirits ‘made in the image and likeness of God.’ As such John sees God as establishing the principles we ought to follow in giving order to our desires.

In practical terms this means discerning when one of our desires blocks our freedom to make good choices. When the desire for food becomes disordered we can no longer make good choices about eating. Worse, the compulsion to eat begins to interfere with the rest of our desires and all the choices we make in our life. We live to eat and everything else in our life begins to be dominated by this ‘addiction.’  This includes our higher spiritual appetites as well, like the desire to know God and follow His purposes for us. This is why John says that we need to do some work on our dis-ordered desires in order to be able to have more freedom to pursue the spiritual appetites and desires that are also in our hearts.

If you are still with me, you are probably saying, “OK. Makes sense. But how do I know if my desires are ‘disordered’ — I’m not an addict — and how do I change my desires if they are disordered?”  Father Greg said something pretty simple but also profound. “Just assume that you are like every other human being and that some of your appetites and desires are disordered and keeping you from being free to relate more closely to God.” That made a lot of sense to me. I have often thought that I’d like to relate to God more closely, and even started down some path of increased prayer and spiritual practices — only to find that my usual life kept interfering and ultimately snuffed out this higher desire. Something is obviously going wrong. As St Paul said, “Why do I do the things I don’t want to do, and not do the things I want?” The answer lies in these disordered desires that take away from my freedom to know and follow God!

So how can we change this? Again Father Greg had a simple yet powerful answer. “Be aware when you desire something. What you desire may be perfectly OK, like a cup of coffee. But, just to strenghten your general control over your desires, say no or defer that particular cup of coffee.”  Simple practices like this —  not doing things that you want, or doing things that you don’t want to do —  will begin to give you more freedom in all your choices, especially the freedom to relate to and follow God. That, of course is the age-old wisdom of self-denial, stated in down-to-earth, practical terms.

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [Mark 8:34] And Jesus also said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:30] The hope that Father Greg gave me was that, by simple, incremental steps of saying “no” to or deferring something I desire, I can increase my strength and freedom to follow Jesus.

I also recognized this weekend that one of my disordered desires is the desire to know — constantly feeding my appetite of curiosity, rather than actually experiencing the life that God is putting in front of me daily. God sends grace to us so that we can live more abundantly. But because I am living so much in my head, I am not  living abundantly, particularly when it comes to relating to and serving others.  I need to remember what the Zen Buddhist Master said, when asked by his pupil how to follow the right way, “Chop wood; carry water.” Do what is in front of me. Discipline my desires, especially my desire to know more and more. Be aware of God’s constant presence and pray.  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  [Psalm 46:10]
































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































As St Paul said,


Is church necessary at all?

This question is generally asked and answered in two ways:

  • “Is ‘going to church’ a necessary part of my life?” Individual Christians answer this question in a variety of ways and, increasingly, as evidenced by falling church attendance, say no.
  • “Is church a necessary component of Christianity?” Perhaps individual ‘spirituality’ and a relationship with God is sufficient. Regardless of how individuals might ‘vote with their feet,’ thoughtful people in various Christian churches are wondering about what church has become over time and whether  ‘church’ as we traditionally understand it is needed? Does church have to radically change?

I would like to explore the  question of whether church is necessary by introducing a different word to describe ‘church’ — Christian ‘community.’ My belief is that, to the extent that any local church is a genuine Christian community, and it is not always easy to discern this, that church is a necessary part of its members’ life. They cannot live a truly Christian life without it. Why do I believe this?

Bernard Cooke in Christian Community: Response to Reality, justifies the necessity for Christian community with these statements: “Men will be human to the degree they are free; to be free they must know and love; to know and love they must be taught and loved — and this is what Christ does in and through his body which is the Church. . . Experience shows that love among men can come into being and develop only if people have the opportunity to deal with one another, share experiences together, develop common concerns — in short to live together in some form of community. God’s action in both Old Testament Israel and Christianity has been one of forming such a community, so that true freedom might be achieved.”

Accepting Cooke’s reasoning, we can begin to see some attributes of a genuine Christian community. Using these attributes, we can begin to prayerfully discern whether and to what extent our local church is a genuine Christian community. My assertion is that, just because a local church is part of some larger religious denomination, that does not guarantee that it is a genuine Christian community. Belonging to a religious denomination may be a prerequisite for forming a Christian community (and not every denomination would say that this is so) but it is the responsbility of the local church members — clergy and lay together — to create, in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, a genuine Christian community.

What are the attributes of a genuine Christian community?

  1. A genuine Christian community loves all men and women (Inclusive)
  2. A genuine Christian community teaches all men and women how to know and love, so that they can be truly free. (Nurturing)
  3. A genuine Christian community designs ways for its members to live together and find opportunities to engage, share experiences and develop common concerns. (Creative)

These attributes are a starting point for a local church to assess whether and to what extent it is a genuine Christian community. Whether Bernard Cooke’s logic, or my analysis of his reasoning is the right context for the discussion is not the issue. The real issue is whether we (members of a local church) reflect about and assess the health of our church community. And then, are we willing to take responsibility for transforming our local church into a genuine Christian community?