The world is a mess. The nation is a mess. The Church is a mess. You don’t need the details spelled out here. They are readily available on multiple news sites. It is possible to spend your life saying, “Ain’t it awful?” and never be wrong. Even worse, one person’s awful is another’s joy. The 70-year old Palestinian “nakba,” which means “catastrophe,” is the Israeli’s celebrated triumph, just as the Holocaust was regarded as a great achievement by the Nazis. “There is no health in us,” as the Prayerbook most accurately confesses.
What puzzles me about most people is that they want to stop right there. Some go into denial; it isn’t that bad; good things happen, too; bad things happen, but it won’t come nigh unto me; don’t bother me with it, I’m busy making money, raising a family, volunteering at our church, watching sports, whatever keeps me amused and focused. Some sign up for the evil, choosing sides in the contests for power and domination.
Last week’s post talked about obstacles to evangelism. Most times the term that is used currently will produce the mirror opposite of its meaning, which is “good news.” Most Christians, especially the kind in our end of the church spectrum, will rarely use the term at all. They will mostly be very good at keeping the good news secret, sometimes even from themselves and their family.
Yet the mandates from Jesus won’t let us alone; “love your neighbor,” “go into all the world, baptizing and making disciples,” commandments all the more compelling because he makes very few demands, his yoke is light.
Part of the “ain’t it awful” in the world is the obvious decline in the churches of Europe and North America. We are pushing “against the current,” to use Father John Garvey’s analogy. Indeed, many have circled the wagons and simply denounce the unwashed masses from inside the safety of the fort. Bishop Steven Scarlett notes that churches divide into those that are missions and those that are museums. The division has nothing to do with ethnicity, or which liturgy they use, high or low, contemporary or historic, or whether the church is rich or poor. It has to do entirely with attitude. A Gospel attitude is one which has been struck by the love of God, by the gift to us of the creation, the cross and the resurrection. It is an attitude that realizes the most important part of prayer is to listen to God. And when you do, the good news of love comes to you. And then, like all good love, it reflects through you, out to the rest of creation. “Ain’t it awful” is still an accurate description of the progress of the world around us. But the solution is also in our grasp. We will win, overcome the mess, through the triumph of God through the cross.
Knowing that, “how can I keep from singing?” as the song asks, after recounting the good news. In your spiritual formation, you have now arrived at the point where you can’t keep the secret any longer, the bones live, the museum preserving the artifacts of the Faith has burst alive and become mission.
Many people at this point are, however, confounded. They have the right attitude, but they feel they have no tools to share the love. We are shy. We don’t want to bring up subjects which could be controversial. We were taught; “Polite people never discuss politics or religion.” We don’t want to be like the blond kids strangely called “elders” who circle the neighborhood like spiritual vultures looking for a kill, or the somber, conservative-looking couples carrying their Bible, magazines and tracts seeking to persuade us in conversations we don’t want to have.
Surely the specialists at church headquarters have a program to make this work? Could we maybe just donate some money so someone (else) can do this? There are many programs in fact, most of them in fact needing donated money. Increasingly, they don’t work. Because they start from the wrong place.
The only right place to start is in your heart, a heart filled with the eucharistic joyful reflection of God’s love. God’s love is distinctive because it is sacrificial instead of selfish. It is a love that gives for others. So, there are no programs. They often detract and distract from the operation of love in your life. Thus, what is real evangelism in a time of church degeneration?
Martin Luther said: “Evangelism is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” Listen to the assumptions in that statement:
- The beggar knows where there is bread. In a context where many churches sound an uncertain trumpet sound, you know where the good news can be safely accessed.
- The beggar himself doesn’t make the bread. The church is not about the “good people” living righteously. It is about the good news that a gift is available for us beggars, all of whom are in the same boat.
- The beggar cares enough to reach outside himself to share the good news. He is not part of a program to do this. He just does it.
- The beggar doesn’t judge the other beggar, or be the authority to tell him to turn his life around, or require pre-conditions for receiving the bread. He just shares the good news.
Luther’s last words were, “We are beggars, it is true. But we are beggars before God.” The God who he understood, better than most, has loved us and given us the everlasting gift of his unmerited grace, as a beggar receives a free gift that comes from the heart of a caring person, has given us Eucharist to celebrate it with joy in the midst of the awful. You don’t need a program to share that. You simply need to be it, in your heart. “Preach the Gospel. Even use words if you need to.”
How indeed can I keep from singing?