There is an old story of a young African American girl preparing Sunday dinner with her mother. As the mother was preparing to bake the ham, the young girl asked,“ momma, why do you cut the ends of the ham off before placing it in the pan?” “I don’t know,” the mother replied,” it is something your grandmother always did, so I do it too.” So the mother decides to call the grandmother to ask the same questions. The grandmother did not know either; it was something she always watched her mother do and so continued the tradition as she understood it. So the Grandmother called her mother and asked her why she always cut the ends off the ham before baking. The old woman when hearing the questions just began to cackle with delight as she responded, “honey, because the pan I owned was so small the only way for the ham to fit was to cut off the ends.”
I wonder how many of us can find similar stories in our lives, of practical practices for one generation becoming misunderstood traditions for the next. In fact, many of our young people today and many of those who now sit outside the circle of Christianity, question the purpose and need for liturgy, for the traditions of the Church and even a need for the church in general. I am almost always surprised each time I teach confirmation how little knowledge our young people have of the sacraments. And this is coming from teens who have grown up as regular participants in the church. This sadly, is testimony to how poor Christian formation is for the early ages, and to how little we know about what and why we do what we do on Sunday morning.
Last year NPR ran an article on the decline of religion in general. The reporter ended with the following statement. “ The first generation was able to articulate and understood how to act as Christians. The second generation never learned to articulate what the actions of faith meant but new the actions. The third generation not knowing the need for the actions chose not to understand the faith, or to act accordingly.
If we, the baptized of the twenty-first century are to insure the future of the Church and the Body of Christ, then we need to live more fully into the third vow of baptism to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. This third vow of baptism reflects Christ’s command to proclaim the Good News to all the world.
At our inception, Christianity was a different sort of religion. Unlike many of the ancient faiths, Christianity was not ethnically, culturally,or politically bound. As Paul says so often in his letters, while the children of Israel may have a biological claim as the children of Yahweh, through baptism we are afforded the same rights and privileges as the adopted children of God. And this means that Christianity is a faith of conversion, not birth right.
I suspect, most of us, myself included, find this third vow, to proclaim the Good New, the most difficult vow of baptism. There is something so deeply personal, so wonderfully intimate about our faith that it is often hard to articulate what it is about our relationship with God through Christ that is both rational and meaningful at the same time.
Very recently I told someone that I felt St. Paul got it backwards when he wrote that an open mind leads to a transformed heart. I am beginning to realize that it is the heart, open to the word of God that leads to the transformed mind. Unfortunately, we live in a world that struggles with speaking the language of the heart, let alone the language of the spirit. We live in a world that is based in the head. Thus, if it is true, if it is real, it can be proven through rational and thoughtful observation. Our experiences of the risen and living Christ can rarely, if ever, be explained through words of a rational or logical thought process. Because faith is about belief, trust and an acceptance of what cannot be proven through empirical methodology and therefore leaves us searching for words very few can understand.
As part of my spiritual reading this Lent, I have been reading Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward. In this most recent book, Fr. Rohr argues that life is about the transition from the first half of life to the second. The first half of life is about defining ourselves and learning to navigate the world. It is the time in our lives when we are dependent on, absolutes and polarities in order to process the world around us.The first half of life functions in terms of either/or, black and white, right and wrong, in or out. The second half of life is about discovering and learning to live in the gaps of our polarities, it is not about either/or, but both/and, it is not about black and white, but something gray, and it is not either right or wrong, but found in the nuance of in between.
As I read Rohr’s argument, I had to ask myself if he was discussing an issue of maturation, or an issue of conversion, because one of the realities of conversion is we begin to see the world through the eyes of God. The symbolism of St. Paul’s blindness for three days after his experience on the road to Damascus is about Paul now seeing the world and God through a new lens, a new perspective. In Rohr’s discussion of the second half of life, those who make the transition now perceive the world and this life in new and more inclusive way, often leaving us at a loss for the language we now need to communicate the new understanding and new hope with those who have not experienced the divine in their lives.
For instance, one of the complaints I often hear from our young people and those outside the church is that the churches are filled with hypocrites. In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, “Christianity is a wonderful thing; I hope to meet one someday.” These observations are not far from the truth. Despite conversion, and the gathering of the baptized, we as individuals continue to journey through this world as broken and imperfect human beings. And even those whom we refer to and revere as the most holy of the church, were and are fallible human beings. But we live in a world that believes and expects perfection. We live in a world that struggles when our sports heroes and movie stars eventual stumble and prove to the world that they are as fallible as you and me. If we are to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, we cannot be about living into perfection, but the ability to live with imperfection.
This I believe truly is the Good News we are called to proclaim. Because as I look at the story of salvation, and the sacrifice of the cross; I know all of it is about a creator who has chosen to never give up on us. Who accepts us unconditionally, even knowing how broken and unrighteous we truly are. Being a follower of Christ is to know perfection does not come with baptism, because God is never finished with us. Because living the faith of Christ crucified is about learning to live with both the perfect and imperfect, the good and the bad of life, and accepting that most of life happens somewhere between black and white. Being faithful, is being able to look out into the world and accept, not just that God’s ways are not our ways, but they are, no matter how counter-intuitive they may feel, actually better. And the ability to accept that the gathering of the faithful, the church, is not a gathering of the perfect, but the imperfect seeking and stumbling along the way towards becoming the Kingdom of God.
The third vow of Baptism calls us to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. This is not a call to proclaim human perfection and harsh expectation from the divine. But a call to proclaim our own imperfection and brokenness made whole through the unconditional love of God and our desire to celebrate this love throughout the world.
Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? And together we say, “we will with God’s help.” Amen
My Question for the week, what keeps you from sharing your faith with others?