Words have meaning, power, and consequences. The words today are pouring in from friends and folks across the nation, via text and email, letting us know that we are in their prayers as Irma bears down on the region. Those words of prayer are powerful indeed.
I should especially mention one email we received from the pastor at Beau Sejour, our sister parish in Haiti – wishing us well and that the whole community there was praying for our safety.
It is time such as these when people’s faith and expressions of faith rise to the fore. Maybe it is the very public nature of the crisis that brings their faith to the public forum. For I am often curious about people’s attitude towards faith and religion. I will ask them if their faith is a personal matter – and almost always the answer is “yes, of course.” Then I will ask if their faith is a private matter… and you can see in the hesitation, you can see it in their eyes – “Didn’t he just ask me that?” Too easily we in the West equate the “personal” with those things that are private. But that is not Christianity. Christianity is a faith that is quite personal – “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son.” It is very personal, because it is about Jesus who loved us, each one of us, personally, individually, and held nothing back from us – not even his very life. It’s very personal. But it is hardly private – it communal, it is in the open, it is commanded to go the ends of the earth and “teach them all that I have commanded you.” To get face-to-face and share the good news.
The reasons I went on mission to Kenya was very personal. But the experience of life, society and faith in Kenya taught me that personal and communal are quite the norm. One of the things I was expected to do as a member of the local faith community (and larger society) was to correct child who were misbehaving. All I had to do was “flick” them on the ear, look appropriately stern, and earnestly say “wewe” – accented by the optional finger wag – and then admonish them to correct behavior and why it was important. I eventually, even if reluctantly, took my place in Kenyan society. It takes a village to raise a child. Each person to participate even if it means getting face-to-face and sharing the tough news… or an flick on the ear.
(Can you imagine being in Publix, Winn Dixie, or Target, encountering a child misbehaving and initiating the Kenya “ear flick” protocol? Every time I try to imagine it, I am face-to-face with “Tiger Mom,” a Swat team – or even worse – the child telling me to mind my own business. I am not sure which is the scarier imagining.)
What stops us from correctly a child publicly? “It’s not my child.” “It’s just not done.” “It’s a family matter?” Advice from the Miss Manner’s column…. Fear of “Tiger Mom?” All kinds of reasons, accepted reasons, but are they good reasons? Are they scriptural reasons? Are they Christian reasons?
And I am not even talking about sin yet! If the ordinary and everyday things leave us flummoxed, what about the issues writ large? What if we see someone – one of our faith community – sinning in a way that is poor Christian witness, causes scandal or even harm to themselves, others or the community? What causes us to so often be silent? A desire not to become involved? Our own sense of privacy? Maybe we will say to ourselves “I’ll pray for them.” And that is good – but is it adequate in the light of our gospel? Maybe it assuages our sense of responsibility. Maybe we think to ourselves, “I’ll talk to them later.” Sadly, “later” never comes. In the end, we avoid the face-to-face encounter with our sister or brother in Christ.
Bonheoffer (Life Together) wrote: “Nothing could be more cruel that the tenderness that consigns another to sin. Nothing could be more compassionate that the rebuke that calls a sister or brother from the path of sin.” Silence is not an option for one who professes to live out our Christian, communal faith.
What if we raise the stakes? And the sin is “against us.” Now it truly is personal. Some among us are so graced that they bypass the anger and the strong emotions and say to themselves or even aloud, “I’ll pray for them.” Most of us will begin to speak – (a) in anger to the person or (b) more likely to someone else about the person and what they have done to us. I suspect that generally they are not words the words of love that come out. It is then we do well to remind ourselves that St. Paul tells us there is only one thing we owe to the other. Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; … “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” How are we to love when a brother or sister sins against us?
When every societal norm, every instinct tells us to avoid the tough face-to-face encounter; the Gospel gives us this guideline to follow: (a) go to the person one-on-one and tell them. If that does not work (b) go back with two or three others. If necessary, take the person to the Church – the one that holds the moral and teaching authority, the one that looses and binds. We are reminded that: “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
That works well in Kenya where there is a very strong sense of the communal. If your one-on-one conversation goes badly, you can go to the elders – and they bring their wisdom and sense of persona and communal justice to the problem. Only rarely did it need to go to the church.
But here at home where we are steeped in the culture of the private, I have to tell you, I would suggest the reverse order of things. If someone sins (against you or no) – first remember that we only owe one thing: love. And maybe it is like the old days at a high school dance. During the slow dance when couples would draw closer – way closer – the good sisters would come around with a ruler. Indicating the minimum spacing while dancing and gently reminding us to leave room for the Holy Spirit.
Good advice – leave room for the Holy Spirit in order to find the word of love – the words with meaning, power, and consequence. For me, I often find it best to take it to prayer with two or three others rooted in the faith. Seek the wisdom of the Scripture, the Church, the and its teaching. Seek God’s grace and wisdom to know the words to say, because in the end it is personal – when you are face-to-face with that person.
Gather with that person in Jesus’ name, let Paul’s words (and the Holy Spirit) form and shape your words. Words that allows you to grit your teeth and act out of love, even if that love will only follow in its own good time. Let God lead you in your choice of the words you plan on saying to the person. Words that express compassion even as you have that tough conversation. Words that allow the Divine love and mercy to flow through us.
No one looks forward to such conversations. No one wants to speak the words, or hear the words. But this is what we owe to that person, to God and to ourselves. Words that are personal. Words that are communal, Words spoken face-to-face. Words spoken in love. Where there is love, then you have gathered in the name of Jesus. Invite Jesus into the tough conversations.