Some years ago, I clipped a letter out of a magazine. A lady was explaining why she had trouble accepting the Christian faith.
She wrote: “Do not talk to me of God or come to my door with tracts or stop me in the street to ask if I am saved. Hell holds no threat more agonizing than the harsh reality of my life. I swear to you the fires of hell seem more inviting than this bone-deep cold of my existence.
Neither speak to me of church. What does the church know of my despair, the church barricaded behind its stained-glass windows against the likes of me? Once I heard your pleas for my repentance and sought a fellowship of faith within your walls.
There I saw your God reflected in your faces as you turned away….Forgiveness never came….The healing love I sought was carefully hoarded, reserved only for your kind.
Be gone from me and speak no more of God. I’ve seen your God made manifest in you: a God with no compassion. So long as your God withholds the warmth of human touch from me I shall remain an unbeliever.” (Marie Livingston Roy)
Wisdom lies in simplicity. This letter is powerful because it is simple. When we do not experience the warmth of human touch, we will, in the end, not believe the Gospel. This is so true that, ultimately, we cannot even honestly preach the Gospel when we cannot offer community to those to whom we are preaching.
I say we cannot preach it honestly, not because people might look at lack of community in our own lives and say, “You aren’t practicing what you are preaching,” but because, when we cannot offer community to people, we put them into a position where, by hearing the Gospel, they find themselves in an intolerable but hopeless situation. The Gospel challenges them to leave one life behind, but does not offer a concrete road to a new life.
When we preach and teach like that, and we are all prone to, we end up like the scribes and Pharisees of Scripture, laying all kinds of burdens upon people, with the word of God, and not being of any value in setting them free for new life.
Let me illustrate this with two examples:
When the rich young man asks Jesus, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus answers, “Sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me.” However, when Jesus says, “Come and follow me,” this expression, literally, means: “Come and move in with us…be part of our community.” Jesus challenged the young man to give up everything, but he offered him, immediately, an alternative, life within his community. Today, for most of us, when we preach, we cannot offer this kind of alternative. Hence our preaching can be dishonest.
For example, suppose that after a homily on social justice, a man approached me and said: “I am convinced, I will go, today, and sell everything, give the money to the poor, and follow Christ in a more radical way…. But, then, afterwards, what should I do? How should I then support my family?”
I would have no answer. I could not tell him, as Jesus did, “Come move in with us!” I could not, concretely, offer him a community that would absorb and support him and his family. Hence, my original homily on social justice contains an element of dishonesty. I am challenging but not offering a real alternative. I am making him feel guilty, but not offering a way out.
This holds true for a lot of our preaching: e.g., sexual ethics.
Recently I was talking with a lady in her late 30s. She is, in her own way, a sincere and committed Catholic. However because she is unmarried, lonely, and unable to find deep faith, emotional, and affective support, she is prone to sexual affairs. She, in no way, justifies these morally, but she does justify them emotionally. Simply put, she knows they are a compensation, something second best. But, as she puts it: “Right now, where I am at – lonely, single, frustrated sexually, envious of those who are happily married and have children – these kind of affairs are a compensation for all I don’t have. They are better than nothing!”
It is hard to challenge her on this….without being able to offer her, concretely, a community of persons who could provide for her something of the emotional, affective, and faith support that she needs to be strong enough not to fall into that kind of relationship. She, like the rich young man in Scripture, often walks away sad, both from her affairs and from a Christ she knows at a deeper and truer level inside of herself. However, her guilt is less than the rich young man’s. Nobody and no community which is truly representative of Christ has ever yet said to her: “Leave it all behind…and come, move in with us!”
Christianity will have power when we have vital communities which can, concretely, offer an alternative to the second best compensations that our world offers. When the touch of human warmth, genuine community, is withheld, we will always have a lot of unbelievers and a lot of struggling believers.