Reflection: The Spiritual Compass of the Church

"Love is affirming rather than condemning. Love is building people up rather than bringing people down." Photo: Shutterstock
By on October 24, 2011

Strangely enough, I find a lot of my inspiration as a priest from business authors! One of my favourites is Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One insight I have found especially helpful is the need for every organization, the church included, to have a compass to point us in the right direction-True North, as Covey calls it.

Your compass, Covey says, should be your mission statement, which is your “big picture” reason for being. It is your grand statement of purpose. It is your statement of where you’re headed, your destination. Your mission statement is your North Star.

Sometimes I wonder if all the problems in the church today are because we have lost sight of our mission. Just what is our grand purpose, our guiding North Star? As Christians, we look to Jesus for the answer to that question.

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When we read the gospels, we notice that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for getting sidetracked, for straining out the gnats and swallowing the camels, for focusing on the jots and tittles of the law but overlooking the big picture, for knowing the letter but not the spirit of the law, for becoming self-righteous and judgmental toward others, for lacking humility and compassion, for drawing the circle of God’s acceptance tightly around themselves alone.

Jesus looked at the book of Leviticus-a confusing tangle of ancient legal codes and taboos, mixing primitive superstitions together with enduring ethical insights-and what did he find there? He found laws in Leviticus forbidding a disabled person from being a priest, branding lepers as outcasts from the community, stigmatizing a woman as unclean during her menstrual period or after giving birth. Leviticus forbids same-sex relations, eating lobster, tattoos, wearing clothes made of two different kinds of fabric, and planting a field with two different kinds of seed.

Jesus looked at this tangle of moral freeways and back roads, and what did he lift out of Leviticus? One single verse: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18b).

Then Jesus looked at Deuteronomy, another legal codebook, and he drew out this verse: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Jesus put this verse together with the verse from Leviticus, and he gave the church the big-picture mission statement: love God with all your being and your neighbour as yourself. Stay on that road, Jesus says, and you won’t get lost.

If you want to know what God expects of us, here it is: love people-all people; love them for who they are and not for who you want them to be; love them in their doubts and struggles and burdens in life; love them regardless of gender or race or colour or nationality or sexual orientation; love them whether they think like you, believe like you or live like you. And also love God with all your heart, mind and strength.

Quite simply, love is the spiritual compass of the church.

Several years ago on radio, Bill Harley, a storyteller, told listeners about a children’s T-ball game and a young girl named Tracy. Tracy ran with a limp. She couldn’t hit the ball to save her life. But everyone cheered for her anyway.

 

During her team’s last game, Tracy did the unthinkable. She hit the ball.

 

Tracy’s coach began hollering for her to run the bases. She landed on first base, only to be told to keep running. She rounded second base, and the fans stood to their feet and cheered. With one voice, they urged Tracy to head home. But as she neared third base, Tracy noticed an old dog that had wandered onto the field. The dog was sitting near the baseline between third base and home plate. Moments away from her home run Tracy made a momentous decision. She knelt in the dirt and hugged the dog.

Tracy never made it to home plate. But the fans cheered wildly for her. She had made her priorities clear. Love was more important than winning.

 

And love is more important than being right. Love is more important than keeping all the rules. After all, the gospel is not about morality, church-going or rule-keeping.

The gospel is, “We fail miserably, but God loves us anyway.” God loves you and me-and the whole world and everyone in it-and there are no exceptions and no outcasts. We try to place limits on that love, but God never does.

Back in the 1960s, as Brennan Manning writes in The Furious Longing of God, Larry Malaney was a college student who, by society’s standards, would have been called ugly. He was short, obese, had a terrible case of acne, a bad lisp, and his hair was long and shaggy. He wore the uniform of his day: a T-shirt, jeans with a butterfly on the back, and sandals.

Larry Malaney had very low self-esteem. He confided to one of his teachers that when he looked in the mirror each morning, he spit at it. Of course, no campus girl would date him. No fraternity wanted him as a pledge.

Larry also happened to be an atheist-or at least an agnostic-he just didn’t know what to think about God.

At Christmas-time he usually went home to Providence, Rhode Island, where his parents lived. They were proper working-class Irish-decent, hardworking, well-mannered and reserved in showing affection. This particular Christmas, Larry and his parents had the usual number of quarrels and reconciliations.

 

After New Year’s, Larry told his dad he needed to return to school, which meant catching a 6 a.m. bus. “Well, I’ll ride the bus with you,” said his father.

 

The next morning, father and son rode the bus in silence. They got off the bus, as Larry had to catch a second one to the airport. Across the street six men, all of whom worked in the same textile factory as Larry’s father, were standing under an awning. They begin making loud and degrading remarks: “Oink, oink, look at that fat pig. I tell you, if that pig was my kid, I’d hide him in the basement. I’d be so embarrassed.” Another said, “If that slob was my kid, he’d be out the door so fast. Hey, pig! Give us an oink!”

The brutal remarks continued. And then something happened. For the first time in his life, Larry’s father reached out and embraced him, kissed him on the lips, and said, “Larry, if your mother and I live to be two hundred years old, that wouldn’t be long enough to thank God for the gift he gave to us in you. I am so proud that you’re my son!”

It would be hard to describe in words the transformation that took place in Larry Malaney because of what his father did that morning. He went back to school and cleaned up as best he could. He began dating. He became president of one of the fraternities. He was the first student in the school’s history to graduate with a 4.2 grade point average. Larry Malaney had a brilliant mind.

One day he went to a priest on campus and said, “Tell me about Jesus.”

 

And on June 14, 1974, Larry Malaney was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. For more than twenty years now, he has been a missionary in South America, a man totally sold out to Jesus. Do you know why?

It was because of a day long ago, during Christmas vacation, standing at a bus stop, when his proper Irish father had the guts to get out of the foxhole and choose the high road of blessing in the face of cursing. His father looked deeply into his son’s eyes, saw the good in Larry that Larry couldn’t see for himself, affirmed him with a furious love, and changed the whole direction of his son’s life.

That’s the power of love. The one thing, the only thing that will make Christians and Christianity credible in the world today is love.

Love is blessing rather than cursing. Love is affirming rather than condemning. Love is building people up rather than bringing people down. Love is counting people in rather than shutting people out. Love is always willing to expand its circle just a little bit more so that no one is ever excluded. Love is like Robert Frost’s definition of home: “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Yes, love is the spiritual compass of the church, our True North. Jesus says that true religion comes down to these two commandments: to love God and to love people-nothing more and nothing less.

 

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.

 

 

 

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