Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lenten Practices for Christian Unity

 

As we get ready to travel through Lent, there are ways that we can remember the unity of all Christians in our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. 

Whether you have built a life mission around reaching out to other Christians or have not given it much thought, hopefully, there is something in this message that can be helpful.  These ideas may seem deceptively simple at first, but they can be very powerful when lived out.

Prayer

Jesus himself hoped and prayed that all believers would be one (John 17:20-23). 50 years ago at Vatican II, the Catholic Church acknowledged its commitment to this effort.  We may not know what Christian unity could or should look like, but we are committed to working toward that goal as followers of Christ.  We can pray this prayer along with Jesus this Lenten season.

I heard another great prayer idea by Southern Baptist Pastor Dean Anderson from Trenton, KY.  He offers this advice:  "Pray by name for the other churches in town."  Here is an example of how he does this:  "I pray that the Father will bless them, use them and grow them to build His Kingdom."  This can be added to your individual and community prayer intentions.

Fasting

We often think of fasting as refraining from eating food.  That is a good practice.  However, Isaiah 58:6 shows us another way: 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

We can also fast from divisions, from suspicion, from anger and from hurt. 

Cardinal Walter Kasper, one of Pope Francis' favorite theologians, reminds us that the best way to work for Christian unity is to first acknowledge that every person and their respective church bears some responsibility for the divisions between Christians.  He says we must be constantly open to “penance and renewal.”  Lent is a good time to examine our conscience and move forward from this place of humility. 

Almsgiving

Almsgiving is a form of sacrificial giving.  What we sacrifice in our fasting we then pay forward through almsgiving.  If we fast from division, we can then give alms by doing something for inclusion.  Here are some suggestions:

Visit a church of another denomination; read a book or articles from another church; open a dialogue with people of a different tradition or donate to an effort of another church. 

You can prayerfully reflect on places where you may be harboring division or misunderstanding.  Find where you may be blocking the flow of the Holy Spirit and then do something to step out of that.  Do something just a little bit uncomfortable or different.

A Personal Example

I have a special fondness when the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not separate activities but are rather woven together into a single expression.  This is a very traditional way of observing Lent.

For example, here’s what I might do: 

This Lent, I may pray and mediate on the unity of all Christians.  In my prayer, I may discover places in my heart where I have walls against a specific church or denomination.  This may be a group that is difficult for me for some reason—perhaps I have a grudge, perhaps their style is off-putting to me or perhaps I disapprove of some of their practices. 

I may choose to visit this church in order to fast from these divisions.  While I am there, I may say nothing or I may gently let people know that I am there as part of my Lenten observance.  I am not there to debate or prove myself right—quite the contrary, I am there to recognize that the negativity I feel is my own and take ownership for that.  I let them know by my actions that in some way we are sisters and brothers and that it matters that we are in relationship, even if the relationship right now is only that we just acknowledge each other and spend time in each other’s presence.

For almsgiving, I may make a financial contribution to one of their outreach efforts that I learn about while visiting. I may join a Bible study or prayer group to understand their spirituality better, or I may celebrate their story in my conversations afterwards.

Jesus asks that all believers would love one another.  I like to look at 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 as a kind of checklist for that (see picture).  I ask myself—are there ways that I can grow in patience, kindness and trust toward this group of people?  Am I envious of their resources or membership?  Have I given up on some people?  The list is a tall order, so I may choose to focus on just one or two of these at a time.

In Closing

In the end, the gift we give may come back to us as we see the way God has shared unique gifts with another group that may end us enriching us:

The future of Christianity is going to be ecumenical.  The more I work, the more I see, every denominational tradition, every lineage, is holding a ‘pearl of great price’—sometimes two or three—and we would be at a tremendous loss not to recognize that, include that, honor that.
– Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Peace and blessings this Lenten season!

 

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