Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
I share with you a blog I wrote last year because this Epistle is a variation on that theme. You may want to check it either before or after reading the 34th Epistle. The blog says our project as the Church is to be in relationship with each other, and then together to be in relationship with the world outside on behalf of Christ. It also says that is a hard project indeed and we often fail chiefly because relationship costs us a piece of ourselves, and that’s a price we are not willing to pay. http://bishopdansblog.blogspot.com/2017/08/
If I seem a bit obsessed with our relationships, permit me to list the basic reasons:
1. 1. Our understanding of God as Trinity means God is love, that godliness is a matter of relationality. God is the source, the destiny, and the meaning of our lives so to miss God (love/relationality) is to miss the heart of everything. Because God is who God is, the only way to God is through relationship with each other.
2. 2. Whenever God acts to draw us into relationship with him (apologies for the male pronoun), God always – always – establishes a covenant to create a human community with himself in the middle of it. The Church is either a covenant community or we are a sham. It is in the covenant community that we support each other and challenge each other (sometimes by being flawed) to practice virtues and grow in grace.
3. 3. When asked “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus could not give just one. He had to give two because they are equal and inseparable: love of God and love of neighbor. (Mt 22: 36-40)
4. 4. The entire theology of St. Paul is an elaboration on finding our salvation, our wholeness, through being incorporated into the Body of Christ, an all too human community. (e.g., I Cor. 12)
5. 55. St. John says it is impossible to love God without loving each other. A purported spiritual bond to God absent a community of faith is, in John’s word, a “lie.” (1 Jn. 4: 20)
6. 6. The Catechism says the Church’s mission, our reason for being, the thing we get up for each morning, is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. (BCP 855)
7. 7. This literary genre of the Epistle is, of course, an homage to the New Testament Epistles, and they are overwhelmingly on a single theme: Be a covenant community!
Those are some of the reasons I feel compelled like Jeremiah (Jer. 20: 9) to speak of this. I do not mean to pressure you to connect with each other in a life giving, inspiring, rooted, meaningful way. It is my job to pry the door open but whether you choose to enter or not is up to you.
I write this Epistle to make two more points beyond what I said in the blog – the first, faintly implicit in the attached blog; the second, not mentioned but it is vitally important.
1. I. The Triumph of the Centrifugal Force.
Usually, we simply disconnect from each other. It is hard to draw people together in a parish, harder still to draw parishes together into a diocese. There are multiple practical pretexts for disconnection. But the underlying real reason is that connection involves a kind of loss of self. To connect, we have to set our thoughts and opinions aside to listen to each other, shelve our own agendas to care about each other, to risk being changed by the relationship. It is a real risk. The reason to do it is that we also discover ourselves in a whole new light in the context of relationship. He who seeks to save his life will lose it but he who loses his life will find it. (Lk. 17: 33).
The centrifugal force in our culture is strong these days. Maybe it is because institutions have a history of oppression and corruption. They are composed of people and we know how people are. Or maybe it is because the first 6 decades of the 20th Century grew stiflingly conformist. Or maybe it is just a surge the individualist isolationism that all the name brand religions see as an inherent problem in human life. There are no doubt reasons we disconnect, but the spiritual and emotional price we pay is high.
The new point I offer about disconnection in the Church is that the parishes that are most disconnected from the Diocese (their sister parishes and partners in mission) turn out to be the ones whose members are disconnected from each other. Sometimes a parish sets out to bond internally against the outside threat of the Diocese, but invariably internal discord either precedes or succeeds the isolation of the parish. Conversely, congregations with a healthy connection to the wider Church have healthy internal dynamics as well. I have no idea which comes first. It looks like chicken and egg. But the correlation of internal and external cooperation shows up over and over and over.
2. II. The Triumph of the False Centripetal.
On the other hand, we are hardwired to long for connection. We need some level of human interaction to live. In this time of radical individualism, we are lonelier and lonelier. So, we need to come together. But, we don’t want to lose ourselves in that coming together. We are ambivalent. So, we tend to come together on a shallow and oft-times pathological basis. The most common commonality is that we unite against someone or some other group. It is an us against them or, even better, an us against him. Systems psychologists call that a false bond or a bogus relationship. We are not appreciating each other, caring for each other, risking that essential loss of self in authentic relationship with each other. We are just getting together to talk trash about someone who is not our sort dear or against those people.
I see false bonding in the Church a lot – a whole lot – of the time. Our diocese has its outcasts who serve as our scapegoats. We find our unity in condemning them. I hear the clergy of one region of the diocese speaking contemptuously of our Church in another region. I hear the persistence of some in believing that no one cares about them even when others have labored long and spent resources to support them, but they are bonded with each other in the conviction that no one else cares.
The problem with false bonding is this: it inoculates us against authentic relationship. It is a mirage of community. It will not slake the real thirst of our souls.
3. III. Getting Past Both Alienations To Find Wholeness.
It is entirely ok to stay isolated. I want to say the only ones we are hurting are ourselves. That isn’t quite true. We are all essential members of the team. So, if we don’t show up, the team is diminished. But the Church team has been playing with 8 on the baseball field or 4 on the basketball court so long no one is apt to notice.
It is less ok to bond on a negative basis. That does hurt other people at the same time that it corrupts us. But the Church has become so optional in a secular society, people should not have too hard a time escaping us.
The real point is the missed opportunity not only for each of us individually but for each other and for the wider world. We are invited to lose our (little) selves in order to find our (larger) selves as the Body of Christ. Our mission is not to form a mutual support group. It is to be the Body of Christ in the world. The Catechism, remember, says our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The basis of our unity is all important. We take up our cross (on which our little selves are crucified) in order to be raised into the meaningful life of Jesus’ Kingdom Mission.
What does the Kingdom Mission look like? The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) speak of little else. Good news for the poor, broken hearts mended, release for the captive, liberty for the oppressed. (Lk 4: 18) God’s gracious will is done on earth as it is in Heaven. (Mt. 6: 10) We carry out the mission as we worship and pray, proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace, and love. (BCP 855) It’s a big, big mission. It is fulfilled only at the end of the age, but the Kingdom happens, it breaks in here and now all the time. It happens whenever we discern God’s will and do God’s will together.
That Mission is big enough to lift us up out of our lesser selves and are set free to become our true selves. This is how we become whole. If we “come to the garden alone when the dew is still on the roses,” and if Jesus shows up to walk with us and talk with us, either he’ll eventually invite us out of the garden into the mission field with our fellow Christians, or he’s an imposter.
The point is coming together for a higher purpose. We have reached important insights into human nature through research on PTSD among combat veterans. That condition among veterans these days is proving harder to eradicate than other trauma survivors. There are probably several contributing factors, but the main one is what matters to us. Combat trauma survivors relive their combat experience. The thing that keeps them stuck in the trauma is that they don’t want to give up the rest of the experience. Other trauma survivors are not so nostalgic. There is nothing positive for them to remember.
So, what’s so special about combat? Two things: First, for people in our self-focused society, it is the one time in their lives they were serving something more important than themselves, something they were willing to live or die for. Second, they were bonded to their comrades in that cause, ready to sacrifice themselves for each other’s good. That was their taste of real life. No wonder, they don’t want to let it go even if it is laced with terror. The point for us is that the reason combat PTSD is so stubborn is because in civilian life, in civic life, we are not connecting for something vastly larger than our own personal agendas.
Covenant community is a whole new way of being in the world. It would be boldly countercultural in the West today. You may call me a dreamer (ironic allusion), but I hope for some of us it is still possible.