Many of you share my deep appreciation for Richard Rohr, the Franciscan friar and teacher. We love him for the simplicity of his writing, the expansiveness of his claims about God’s love, and the hope he gives us in our faith journeys, evidenced in quotes such as this one: Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change.
But there is another side to his message, honesty that is not always easy to hear. Just after the start of this year, he wrote: Another year has ended—a new year begins—in which suffering, fear, violence, injustice, greed and meaninglessness still abound. This is not even close to the reign of God that Jesus taught. And we must be frank: in their behavior and impact upon the world, Christians are not much different than other people. The majority of Christians are not highly transformed people, but tend to reflect their own culture more than they operate as any kind of leaven within it.
Ouch. Where is the lovable and deeply reassuring Richard I know? He is there, of course; but this time (and others) he dares to love himself and us enough to be honest: we are less transformed by the teachings of Jesus than we are by the inclinations of the culture. While it is true that God loves us whether we change or not, whether we are good or bad, or, as is most often the case, when we are both good and bad, the fact remains that Jesus came to show us a path of loving and living that is not business as usual.
It is not our piety that makes us different. It may demonstrate to those interested enough to be watching that we are religious and reverent; but it does not in itself reflect the deep, transformative power of God’s love. Religious people have no bragging rights about love. In fact, as we all know, there is no meanness like religious infighting. Rohr, I believe, is calling us to consider how our love of God and our particular experience of God through Christ makes us different in ways other than the manner in which we practice our religion.
The message about how to be different from the rest of the culture is found in simple words attributed to Jesus: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
Love, love, love. It is exhausting—not because it doesn’t stand up for what is right or just: love always stands firm for that, stands firm to death if necessary as it rarely is for us but clearly was for Jesus. It is exhausting because it requires that we do whatever we do, be it opposition or acclamation, with kindness. Even righteous indignation must be rendered with kindness and respect.
Frankly, just imagining all the ways we are called to love wears me out. It is so much easier and natural to be snippy and unpleasant. But here is the amazing news: God loves us enough that we can change. We can become more loving, kind, and gentle even if it takes a lifetime, as it almost certainly does. My life bears witness to the fact that it is a one step forward, two steps backward kind of process. Overall that seems like a pretty poor process, but from what I can see it is indeed our process. Walking together in a community that always calls the best from us is our best hope!
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