Saturday, January 06, 2007

"They don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."

Once again I find myself feeding off Father Jake's posts, but this one strikes me at a deep level.

The church I am ordained in was, at one point, the E&R church, the "E" standing for "Evangelical." That word has a particular connotation today, at least in American culture, and it usually means someone rather obnoxiously asking whether or not you've been "saved". At least, it did when I was growing up in East Texas. My usuall smart-aleck answer (had the word not belonged solely to Lewis Carroll then, I'd have said "snarky") was to answer: "Well, I certainly hope so." This appalled my interrogators no end, because while I patiently explained that I could not possibly hold God to any promise about my future in the hereafter, they insisted I would know now that my afterlife was secure. I was young, in other words, when I started thinking theologically, and my first such thoughts were around the subject of soteriology. Needless to say, I wasn't a fan of "evangelism" as I grew up with it.

But neither were the good people of the E&R church, people I never encountered until I started attending the UCC. They were still evangelical then, but in the sense of messengers of the good news, not seekers of lost souls they felt compelled to redeem (it's a theological position, actually, as I learned much later. The short explanation is the Great Commission of Matthew is their polestar and lodestone, and resting heavily on John 3:16, their theology teaches that only faith in Christ will save one from damnation, and the Great Commission puts a positive burden on believers to save as many souls as possible, because Christ will ask second who did you feed, and first, who did you save? As John also says: fear the one who can harm the soul, not the one who can harm the body. Needless to say, many of these people were quite sympathetic to the poor, but also quite convinced, in a good (i.e., bad) Calvinistic perversion (of Calvin, that is) that such people were being punished in this life for their sinfulness. But I digress....)

The people of the E&R practiced their evangelism by action, not words. The Evangelical church came here from Prussia in the 19th century, and in rather short order established a hospital, an orphanage, a mental asylum, all of which still exist in the St. Louis area, to help immigrants from what we now call Germany, and to help church members, people who were, in effect, strangers to them. They also set up a mission in Biloxi, at the other end of the river from St. Louis, to offer aid to workers on the boats that plied the Mississippi. That mission still functions today, too. This, in short, was their idea of evangelism. Not doctrine, not correctness of belief, not an undue concern with who you were or whether you were worthy: but caring for those who needed care, because in them they helped the Christ; because in Christ, we are all sisters and brothers.

Which is not to disparage the relief offered by the Southern Baptist Convention (who coordinated the volunteer efforts in Houston for those who were removed from New Orleans); but it is to underscore two different visions of "evangelism."

I have a book, somewhere, that discusses "Celtic Evangelism," based on the idea that Patrick went around the Emerald Isle and worked with the people he met: he offered them help, medical aid, whatever he had to offer. My scant knowledge of the Irish open monasteries set up across Europe as the Roman Empire receded from its edges in slow collapse, is that they were places of welcome and hospitality first, places of doctrine and teaching second, and then only to those who sought that out. They nor Patrick insisted on a sermon before the soup; it was their spirit of caring and hospitality that led people to ask: "Why are you doing this?", and only then would Patrick, or the monks after him, start to explain. It wasn't, in other words, a matter of salvation; it was a matter of care.

I knew a man who was the kindest, gentlest, and most generous person I've ever met. He respected living creatures so much he wouldn't kill spiders which nested in his house. He often joked the animals and insects didn't have welfare or hospitals, so who was he to increase their troubles? He did work on my house, on the houses of other neighbors, often without even being asked. He would show up with something he'd made for you, as he was retired, and working on small projects was his great joy. He was the ideal of a Christian, and he was a committed atheist. What doctrine could I offer to him, what argument, that would convert him? I could learn a great deal from him, in fact, and the best I could do would be to show him that a Christian could be as good as he was.

1. How would you tell the great truths of our faith without using overtly theological language?

2. How would you tell a new neighbor that God loves him or her without measure, and invite him or her to learn more?
St. Francis supposedly said: "Preach the gospel ceaselessly. Use words, if necessary." I've always thought that was a very good starting place; and it's always a queestion of what our actions should be first, not our words.

After all, it is words which are dividing the TEC and the Anglican Communion right now; and it has always been our actions, first, which joined us. What does that say to the world? What does it say from us, to each other?

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