We live with a lot of anger, polarization, and bitterness, both within the world and within the church. The very fabric of community is being torn apart by this. In all that anger, the sincere are alienated from the sincere, good people are finding themselves at odds with other good people, and everywhere there is an atmosphere of despondency.
What is sad, among many other things, in all of this is that almost all of us, on all sides of virtually every issue, are using truth and the gospel to make hard, non-compassionate judgements. In both civic and church circles there is little to be seen in the way of gentleness, softness, and forgiveness. The zeal for orthodoxy and the passion for justice, especially among the more enlightened and supposedly sensitive, are producing a lot more anger than compassion.
This is a cruel thing to say, but all this angry zeal and passion, no matter how high the cause which fuels it, is not a sign that truth and the gospel are breaking through. When truth and the gospel break through, the first mark is compassion, not anger.
The word of God first meets the world in compassion, not judgement. Irrespective of whether we attempt to speak our truth and prophecy from a liberal or a conservative pulpit, we want to remember that. We mediate the word of God correctly, speak for truth and justice, when, and only when, we are recognized for our gentleness, compassion, and forgiveness – towards everyone, and not just towards those in the same ideological camp as ourselves. Unfortunately, this is not easy to do.
Too often we take in the word of God, we let ourselves be consecrated by truth, and then very quickly turn towards others in anger and judgement. Allow me to illustrate this with some typical examples:
I take a good course in liturgy and learn how, ideally, a liturgy should happen. Then, what follows, like smoke follows from fire, is that very soon I am disgruntled and angry about the liturgy in my own parish. I sit in the pews and mutter to myself: “This is a liturgy? I can’t worship in this way!” Pretty soon, I am looking for a different parish or even a different church. Or, I become sensitive to the issues of social justice. All too soon, I am looking at the world and the church through very angry eyes: “All this injustice and everyone is asleep to it!” Or, if I am more conservative of temperament, I read the spiritual classics, with all their emphasis on private morality, and I begin to fill with a holy anger and judgement as I look at a world that is given mostly to ignoring these demands: “Our world is losing its soul! There is no morality left!”
It is so easy, all in the name of truth, morality, orthodoxy, justice, and genuine concern for others to become an angry, judgemental person. Likewise it is so tempting, in the name of all of the same things, to look at those we share community with and see them as backward, unenlightened, selfish, ignorant, and petty. That is the temptation. But when we succumb to it, our anger negates compassion.
What should be happening? The word of God, and all that it demands in the name of truth, justice, and love, must enter us. But it must not leave us as anger and judgement. It must leave us as compassion, wide understanding, gentle forgiveness. For it to do this, however, requires that we first hold it long enough inside of ourselves for it to gestate into compassion. We must nurture the word of God until it can finally flow out of us as did the incarnate word from Mary, as a gentle child. When it flows out in anger and judgement, we have given premature birth. A premature baby needs some further incubation before it can be a peace at the mother’s breast, or anywhere else. Small wonder many of us are so angry and judgemental within our communities.
Before the word of God flows out of us, we should first hear it saying inside of us: “You are my beloved child in whom I am well-pleased. You are blessed in my eyes.” Once we have heard those words, God’s central words to us, then we have a chance of looking out at our world and seeing it somewhat in the same way as God sees us, as blessed, as a source of delight.
I was once at a seminar given by Michael Meade. At its conclusion he said something to this effect: “If this has been meaningful to you, don’t be full of advice for everyone when you get home. Instead give someone a gift.” God asks the same regarding his word.