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Monday, November 4, 2013

Compassion, the Watch Word For Authority Figures in the Church: Good News from Christianity

When I started seminary in 2005, Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride was just being released. In it, the parish priest was voiced by the ever scary Christopher Lee. His character was stern, using his symbolic shepherd's staff not to remind himself to guide his flock like the Good Shepherd, but as a weapon to whack the main character, voiced by Johnny Depp, over the head when he forgot his wedding vows. The church was tall, dark, and grim, much like its leader. I knew then that as a pastor-to-be myself that I'd have my work cut out for me, since that quick representation seemed to sum up what most of American and much of the Western world sees when they think of ministers of any stripe.

We have so much work to do. Much of it is of our own making. When the far right of Christianity was kicking up a fuss, the rest of us remained silent. When the far left "new" atheists caricatured us all as far right conservatives, again we said nothing ... or little enough in any platform that reached people in numbers. Now, we have a huge hole to dig out of.

Here's where theologian Henri Nouwen states we may start, as written in his insightful devotional Bread for the Journey:
The Church often wounds us deeply. People with religious authority often wound us by their words, attitudes, and demands. Precisely because our religion brings us in touch with the questions of life and death, our religious sensibilities can get hurt most easily. Ministers and priests seldom fully realize how a critical remark, a gesture of rejection, or an act of impatience can be remembered for life by those to whom it is directed. 
There is such an enormous hunger for meaning in life, for comfort and consolation, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for restoration and healing, that anyone who has an authority in the Church should constantly be reminded that the best word to characterize religious authority is compassion. Let's keep looking at Jesus, whose authority was expressed in compassion.

Let's take compassion to the world. Let's ask for forgiveness from those whom have been hurt by any member of the Christian community, including leaders, whether it was deliberate or through a misplaced word or gesture at the end of a long and frustrating day. Let's listen to the complaints and fears of the community with compassion and respond with compassionate concern and care. Let's see how much of the stereotyping that has been forced upon us unwanted can be removed with Christ-like compassion.

Good luck.

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