Saturday, September 6, 2014

Love, truth, and correcting each other

Our readings for this Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, prompt us to ask ourselves, "What do I owe and to whom to do I owe it?" In this day and age, at least in what we call advanced Western countries, most of us owe money. I know I do, more than I should, truth be told. As brothers and sisters in Christ, don't we owe each other the truth for love of God and one another? Even though this is one of those things that makes all of us a bit (maybe a lot) uneasy, it is important. So important that our Lord Himself addressed it in a very head-on way.

St Paul was not shy about issuing corrections when he saw they were needed. He viewed issuing such corrections as a necessary part of his apostolic and pastoral duties. It was a duty he exercised out of love for those receiving correction and out of love for Christ's Body. We need to clearly understand that our readings today pertain only to corrections among members of Christ's Body, the Church, who are our brothers and sisters by virtue of our common baptism and on-going communion with each other.

It is far too easy when we are having a problem with a priest, a deacon, a fellow parishioner, or a group within our community, to tell everyone else except the person, or group of people, with whom we are having the difficulty. Not only is this passive-aggressive, it often takes the form of rumor-mongering. Anyone who has been in the Church for awhile and who has been deeply involved in the Church's life has probably been both a perpetrator and a victim of these things. I know I have. Jesus' words today inform us that our first gambit when we feel the need to issue a correction is most assuredly not to fire off a letter to the bishop!

Far too often we think of pastoral ministry only in terms of comforting people. Of course, we should comfort people always and often, as often as hurting, grieving people need it. But sometimes a situation arises that requires us to challenge someone by means of a correction, by telling them the truth. These situations occur more often than we'd like to admit. How many of these do we just let pass, hoping it will magically disappear, or somehow fix itself?

In the vast majority of instances to effectively challenge someone, to lovingly correct another, first requires that we have the kind of relationship with that person that makes them open to receiving our correction. Stated simply, they must know that we love them before we seek to correct them.

Several years ago I had a situation arise that required me to remove someone from a position of leadership for many reasons, foremost among which were a sorely apparent lack of leadership and some fairly significant integrity issues. In reality, I should not have let the situation persist as long as I did. Without going into great detail, after his dismissal I was left feeling unsettled because it did not go down well. In fact, it made him very angry and he directed his anger towards me. In thinking about it and praying over it for several days afterwards I developed a threefold criteria to use in similar situations:

1) Am I doing the right thing?

Assuming it is the right thing to do,
2) Am I doing it for the right reason (How's my heart? Are there traces of pettiness, vindictiveness, etc.)?

If "Yes" is the answer to the previous two questions,
3) Did I do it in the right way (The "right way" being honestly and gently)?

My failure in the above situation was that I did it in the wrong way. It was the right thing. I was doing it for the right reasons. Because I was fearful about how he would receive the news, I did it in the way I believed would spare me his anger. Well, I blew it and it still didn't spare me what I feared. I was simply trying to avoid conflict in a scenario in which it was probably inevitable.

Once in awhile circumstances arise that call for immediate and unambiguous correction. For the priest, the deacon, the lay leader, we should be fostering the kind of relationships, living with the kind of integrity, and bringing things to the Lord in prayer so that it softens the blow for even these kinds of situations. As St Paul exhorted: "Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law... Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom 13:8.10)

A wise teacher, mentor, and friend once told me, "If you're too busy to pray, you're too busy." While this is true for life in general, the context for this statement was a discussion about pastoral ministry. Someone engaged in pastoral ministry simply must pray and pray often. If you don't, sooner rather than later you will be rendered practically useless. St Francis de Sales was a most practical pastor. Proof of his practicality is this advice: "Every one of us needs half an hour of prayer a day, except when we are busy-then we need an hour." Fairly frequent confession doesn't hurt either.

Truly loving another means to love his/her destiny. As Pope Benedict XVI used to note with some frequency, without truth there can be no love. Nonetheless, it is completely possible and often the case that we speak the truth without love. Not speaking the truth and speaking the truth without love are equally ineffective and inherently uncharitable.

Hopefully we see the huge challenge God's word sets before us. I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that ever since the situation I shared above that my conduct has been completely flawless. To cite just one example, a year or two after that I had to make a similar decision, but for very different reasons. Again, I blew it in the same way for the same petty reason. The difference? Once I realized I blew it, I met with the person one-on-one, told him that, while I was confident I made the correct decision, I handled it poorly and asked him to forgive me. He was most gracious and forgave me. We are friends to this day. It was also one more lesson for me on the dangers of underestimating the love of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

In the words of a Phil Keaggy song (it is a cover of a Van Morrison song) I cherish deeply, "When Will I Ever Learn?"

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