Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The Church has lost control. The churches have lost control.
I grew up with the idea that it was the job of the Church to control people so they would not get hurt. The worst hurt, of course, was hell.
We of the Roman Catholic Church have lost control. We cannot keep our young people from straying off into what used to be forbidden pastures. Or from straying off into no pastures at all. The so-called "mainline" Protestant denominations are in the same situation. Some "evangelical" churches are growing, but their spirituality is not for me.
Why not for me?
The most fundamental thing we should be doing in religion is coaching people about God. Coaching ourselves and, as God calls us, other people.
I have thought a lot about coaching, ever since I reflected that I never had good coaching in the field of athletics. I didn't have it in several other areas of life either, but the term "coach" gets used mostly about athletic sports.
Now that I've seen good coaching, I have learned that coaching skill requires the coach to approach the "coachee" with empathy and encouragement. The coach's job is not to weed out the inferior players. It is to help the inferior players to get better, at least better enough to enjoy the game.
Now the first thing about God is that God is pretty mysterious, so mysterious that no human being has a lock on how to deal with God. At least, no human being besides Jesus Christ. I mention him because I am a Christian, and I believe that Jesus gave us our best approaches to God.
But there are people who do not see Jesus the way I do. Yet I believe they are trying to live out what they think is their best approach to God. Can I learn from them?
We Catholics are in a tradition that sees bishops and priests, and especially the pope, as being in control of how people should approach God. There was a time in my youth (the 1950s, for example) that it looked as though we were doing a pretty good job of it. Then we lost control.
Losing control was the best thing that ever happened to us.
It takes some boldness to suggest that almost two thousand years of Christian tradition were somewhat off track, but that is what I think has happened. Somewhere in those early centuries of Church tradition--some people blame Augustine--we took control of things. That has caused us all kinds of trouble.
The first troubles had to do with Church people trying to tell secular leaders what to do. That peaked somewhere around the year 1300, but then we gave up on it, mostly because we had no choice. The secular leaders quit paying attention to our orders.
The Second Vatican Council, whose ending 50 years ago we are celebrating these days, put the Church on record as saying that the Church does not have to control how people approach God. Having said that, they gave away the store.
Which was good, because we should not have had the store in the first place.
This line of thought came to me as I was reading someone describing Catholic religion in Latin America. Latin or "Hispanic" Catholics do not approach God quite the same way I do. My first reaction is to figure out a way to get them to do it right--my way. I must present my beliefs in such an attractive way that they will see the light.
Then I reflected. I am, at least for the time being, at peace with my ways of approaching God. I have two approaches. One is to sit in my rocking chair, look out the window, and pray a psalm aloud. As I do that I reflect on why people used the words in the psalm to approach God. I end every psalm with the prayer that begins "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit," which makes me remember the basic belief of my Christianity. My second way to approach God is to listen to the prophets God sends into my life, beginning with one very close friend.
Now I know that to try to get other people to pray psalms is a doomed enterprise. For one thing, I was once forced to endure six years of Latin and four years of Greek, which allows me to pray the psalms in Latin and Greek. There is no way that most people are going to endure that kind of language preparation before they can deal with God in their own way. My way is my way.
We can all use my second way of approaching God: listen to the prophets God sends us. But your prophets are not my prophets.
Therefore I need to appreciate your ways more. What I need to do is to learn from you how you approach God, really, every day, in good times and in bad. What do you do, physically? How do you use language, if you use language? Do you use music, or dance? Do you bow down toward Mecca with your face on the ground? How does praying the Qur'an help you approach God?
The first requirement for me to begin such a conversation with you is to get rid of any hope, or expectation, or dream, or long-term goal, of controlling how you approach God. I'm listening to you to learn, pure and simple.
Pope Francis has used two images that stick with me. One is that the Church is a field hospital for people wounded in battle. Field hospitals do not control much--they try to do good in the immediate present and let the long-term outcome up to someone else. The other image is that we shepherds should smell like our sheep. Both images, field hospital and smelling like sheep, do not go with controlling the situation.
So I reach the conclusion that our future as a Church lies in letting go of our tradition of trying to control people and spend our time listening to them and talking with them, and in the meantime, try to find out some good ways that we ourselves can approach God. But not with the goal of getting other people to do it the same way.
That idea causes me to breathe a great big sigh of relief. Somehow I think this is the way Jesus wants me to do it.