Jesus knew something that we tend to forget in our culture which prizes individualism. He knew that we human beings are wired to be connected to one another. We cannot thrive, we cannot become all that God intended us to be, alone. Why is this important? Because so many people think they don’t need to come to Church…or belong to a parish…that they can handle all of this “God stuff” alone. But it’s simply not true. We need each other. We journey with God and to God together. Let's begin this blog with A Prayer for Journeying Together."
God of Our Journey,
as we gather together
we lift up our voices
to give praise and thanksgiving to your name,
the God of encounter
who, by the power of the Holy Spirit,
makes us one in Christ, our Savior.
God of Our Journey, Dios de nuestra jornada [Spanish],
as we journey together with Christ, your Son,
who walks alongside of us day by day,
may we embrace your presence within us
and discover your presence in the people
whom we encounter along the way.
God of Our Journey, Diyos ng ating paglalakbay [Filipino],
as we journey together in the power of the Holy Spirit,
enlighten our minds and our hearts in our intercultural encounters,
with one another and with all cultural families,
so that we may become better listeners
and the bearers of your faithful Word.
God of Our Journey, Wakȟaŋtȟaŋka oomani awaŋuŋkičiyankapi kiŋ [Lakota: Native American],
as we journey together with all members of the Body of Christ,
instill in us the presence of your love and compassion,
so that we may persevere in faith,
trust in your goodness,
and place all our hope in you.
God of Our Journey, Dieu de notre voyage [French],
as we journey together as disciples of Christ,
set our missionary hearts ablaze
and transform our lives by your grace,
so that we may go forth into the world
to proclaim the Good News
and to build up the reign of your love
through our acts of justice, compassion, and mercy.
We ask this through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who, by the power of the Holy Spirit,
brings forth a world of harmony and peace,
One God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Did you know that research conducted by the University of South Florida-Manatee (disclosure, my daughter works for USF but in their health services division) revealed that religiously observant people coped better with the isolation caused by Covid19 restrictions because of their sense of belonging? (Emphasis mine) This is one of those good news moments where research bears out what Jesus has already revealed to us. (Personal commentary: I just love when that happens-when science affirms the truth faith has already revealed, don’t you?) It’s so hopeful! We ARE better together.
Why is this important? I think there are at least two important points to be made here:
Jesus is right.
Parishes can, if they so choose, organize themselves in such a way that belonging to the Body of Christ assembled in that location can make a significant impact on the well-being of its participants. Healing pathways are there, even when curing does not happen.
Jesus is right!
Jesus is right. And we have knowledge to support that assertion. We have faith-based knowledge: that we are made in God’s image, and God is a community of persons, a Trinity. As a result we are hard-wired for community…we are hard wired to belong. Our culture’s overemphasis on individuality actually goes against our very nature. So there’s very good news to share! Belonging to a parish is a deliberate counter-cultural choice that is GOOD FOR US! Why? Because through the parish, rightly organized, we will continue to nurture our relationship with Christ as we build loving relationships with one another. This will serve us well any time we have to be isolated: pandemic, other illness, old age, travel, or infirmity. And lest we be too naïve, the Center for Global Development has modeling that indicates the “next pandemic could be much sooner and more severe than we think.” Time to organize ourselves in hope…to journey together! Time to foster belonging, and connection...and participation. Jesus is right and we have increasing research knowledge to support our acting on this in faith.
The parish must choose to journey together
The challenge for all of us, parishioners and leaders, is to go about structuring our parishes so that all who join us are invited to belong. What do I mean by structures? I mean the way the parish is organized: to welcome and invite, to form and mentor, to connect and journey together, to love without judgment, to be a haven for sinners, a rest for the weary, a home for those who don’t belong anywhere else, a field hospital full of the wounded. And let’s be honest…too many parishes aren’t like this at all. They are more like religious country clubs where belonging takes a long time, and where some are never really welcomed.
Pope Francis says it this way: “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. ... And you have to start from the ground up. (From “A Big Heart Open to God,” America magazine Sept. 19, 2013.) Got a little extra time? Pause here and listen to "There is a Balm in Gilead" to remember just how important healing wounds is!
If this is true, it falls to everyone who is part of a parish to consider how to help people feel they belong. One caution here: so many people say, “Just get involved and you’ll find you belong.” That puts all the onus on the outsider to force themselves “in”, and friends, that’s hard for many people and VERY hard in parishes where, from the outside, there appear to be firmly established cliques within the parish. I challenge you to consider what the outsider looking in sees and feels. Is anyone hearing their suffering and responding? What might those who already“belong” undertake in order to open wide the doors to the wounded?
Parish leaders, embrace the practice of spiritual listening, gather those who "belong" to the parish and listen. Find out from them their responses to the question: "How did you come to feel as if this parish is where you belong?" Get at several angles by using one or more of the following probing questions if necessary:
What steps did they have to take in order to connect to the parish? To a ministry? To other members of the parish?
How long did it take to make connections?
What happened that made them feel as if this is where they belong? Listen carefully for wounds healed, sins forgiven, gifts honored. What else do you hear?
Discern in common
Now for those in leadership, here are some helpful questions as you consider belonging and healing:
How does the parish let the wider community know who is welcome? And before you hide behind, “everybody’s welcome”, remember elements of our Church make it clear that divorced and remarried people are not fully welcome, those who have had abortions are less welcome, and those who belong to the LGBTQ+ population are even less welcome. Many parishes, especially in the Northeast and Midwest US, find it very hard to welcome the immigrant and people of color. And for what it’s worth, my daughter is married to a Christian who practices in another denomination. There’s no welcome for the two of them, and no help for her to raise our grandchildren in the faith and serve her music ministry. So who is really welcome? And how warm, accessible and even temporary are their places? Do they find the balm of "space" among you?
Once someone approaches the parish, for any kind of need/service, how are they treated? Is there an attempt to listen to their story and hear their needs? Any attempt to connect them to others in the parish who will walk with them? Are there parishioners even willing to undertake this work? Are simple needs met with kindness, expedience, and prayer? Is the wound of loneliness offered balm?
How is the community being formed to understand its commitment to work for the good of others, even to their own detriment? For example, does the community gather for funerals, even if they didn’t know the person? Step forward to be sponsors for initiation? Walk along with the grieving for as long as it takes? Make sure to meet people they do not know, every single time any part of the community gathers? Staff necessary ministries with skillful joy? Invite others to share in social events, music events, and worship? Is the healing balm of agape love being offered and experienced?
How easy or hard is it to join something in the parish? Are there agreed upon welcome periods? Clear processes for how to join and what it will entail? Constant invitations to join? Commitments of varying lengths? Work whose intention is very clear? Mentors? Exit strategies? Is the balm of respect offered?
Once you've honestly responded to these questions, enter into a discernment in common to determine what the Spirit is asking now. As you discern, remember what God has entrusted to each parish/diocese:
There’s Good News!
We have good news to share!
Belonging to a parish and engaging in its various actions serves as an effective antidote to the epidemic of loneliness we are currently experiencing.
Jesus told us we are made in God’s image and so are made for community. Jesus has also entrusted us with creating communities that expressly live out part of his command to love one another as he loved us: by healing loneliness with inclusivity, companionship, teaching, mission, healing, nourishment and worship. This is how we journey together…how we create beloved communities that sustain us throughout life. But it does not happen without deliberate intention.
So be intentional! Ask those questions above. Be honest with yourselves. Pray, asking the Spirit what those around you need. What wounds need healed? What doors and hearts need opened? What structures need created? And then ask the Spirit to animate the gifts you need. This is what it means to be synodal: to center the Holy Spirit's voice and then to respond. And this is how participation increases: by reaching out to heal wounds, to make connections, to walk together. The pathway is simple: comnection-healing-belonging-participation.
Remember the axiom from leadership gurus, "What got you here will not get you there." That means be open to change!
To be synodal means: journeying together, asking hard questions, creating beloved communities, being open to change, trusting the Holy Spirit is guiding the way! And being prepared to go!
Rest assured, you are not alone on this #synodjourney. The Pentecost Vigil Project Team is here to walk with you. Feel free to contact us at email@example.com and we’ll get together to center the Spirit's voice and listen, to discern in common and to plan for action.
“Study: Religious service participants faced less isolation- related anxiety during Covid19.” February 10, 2022. https://www.sarasotamanatee.usf.edu/news/2022/religious-service-participants-faced-less-isolation-related-anxiety-during-covid-19.aspx Accessed 5/23/22
Eleni Smitham and Amanda Glassman. “The Next Pandemic Could Come Soon and Be Deadlier.” Center for Global Development. August 25, 2021. https://www.cgdev.org/blog/the-next-pandemic-could-come-soon-and-be-deadlier Accessed 6-2-22.
Photo Unsplash/Alexander Gray