Over the past several months, in particular, and over the course of my ministry more generally I have been thinking about the challenges and the shape of community. In these times when people across the nation seem so polarized and demoralized I have been trying to figure out what the place of the Church is in the midst of all of this. Two things come to mind. First, the Church can be an agent of deep dialogue. Second, the Church can offer a way of seeing oneself and the world that is rooted in an infinite love rather than finite differences.
Both of these are necessary for any real compassion to take root - and compassion is a necessity for the flourishing of a community. Compassion is, literally, sharing in suffering - it is the ability to dwell amidst the heartaches and heartbreaks that come with living life. We speak of the Passion of Christ (the Suffering of Christ) and "Compassion" is, essentially, the patient act of vigil at the foot of the cross. Each person will find themselves carrying crosses known and unknown because of things done or left undone. At the heart of all of this is the patient work of the Church - hearing and sharing the reminders of infinite love.
Two articles have just come out that seem to point toward the deep need for communities of compassion to emerge and shape our local and national conversations about who we are and how we live.
The first piece is from CityLab and is entitled, "The Unhappy States of America". It begins, "America these days is not a happy place. Even though the economy is up, polarization is at an all-time high, and a feeling of malaise, or worse, grips the nation." It is an important article that highlights the shattering of our shared sense of story and self and points toward the ways our fracturing and splintering are playing out at the psychological level across the nation. It was helpful to me in trying to understand the stresses and strains on our common civic life.
The second is related but very different. It is a blog post entitled, "Tether Yourself: The Enlightening Talk Parents Aren’t Having Can Keep Teens from a Damaging Drift". It is about the relationship between suicidal behavior in young people and its correlation with technology use. It is less about that though than it is really about how we define ourselves and how we connect with what is real, true, and beautiful in our lives - or as Saint Paul might say, "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable."
That blog post contains a lovely letter from a mother to her daughter after two of the daughter's former playmates, as teenagers, began to self-harm. It reads, in part, "Awareness … you see, awareness changes everything. Awareness is your weapon against the hidden influences and damaging behaviors. While you are online, your mind, your thoughts, your core values are drifting to wherever tech companies want you to go. The remedy is to limit the time you spend drifting in the online world and tether yourself to real life."
I am reminded of Neil Postman's book title, "Amusing Ourselves to Death."
Here is where both articles come together for me - what is true? What is true about our citizenship? What is true about us? What is true about the people around us? What is true about people with whom we disagree?
We are in a post-truth, post-fact environment that is being manipulated for the ends of corporations, people, and forces that absolutely and definitely do not have our full flourishing as a goal. In fact the goal is quite the opposite - in the rush to sell everything to everyone we have commodified not simply the tools of self-expression (clothes, make-up, gym memberships, &c) but our very self. So we become easier and easier to manipulate because we are losing the sense of who we are as individuals and as a nation. We don't know what is true anymore - about us or about the world around us. We have lost our "awareness."
This lack of knowledge leads to one inevitable place - fear. If truth is power then we are all in a remarkably powerless place where the only rational response seems to be self-harm for some and blind rage for others.
We are in a moment when the Church's role in proclaiming boldly the Good News is needed - and needed desperately. We are in need of communities that are intentionally committed to truth, dialogue, and engagement across the differences that seem so important one moment and vanish when people commit to go deeper together.
Most importantly the world needs to hear from one heart to the next that God is Love. That Love is not a Hallmark card type of love but one that takes the shape of the Cross, bursts from tombs, and shatters the illusions of empires showing us the way, the truth, and the life. I think we are in a monastic moment right now - a moment when small communities of intentional practice will feel more and more like lights shining in the gloom and shadows of an empire of distraction.
May we have no fear but that of wandering from God's love. May we never lack the courage to follow a wounded savior in the way of compassion. May we always fix our hearts on the truth of God's love for each one of us - which demands compassion that begins with knowing ourselves as lovingly made and loving others as the same. May we be tethered together in God's love and committed to an awareness that seeks whatever is true, whatever is beautiful, and even whatever is heartbreakingly real together.
Yours in Christ,