Friday, September 4, 2015

Ecumenism in Action and Contemplation

I met Lutheran minister Mary Finklea early in my Religious Unity Tour.  She attended both the social justice activism of Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD) as well as the denominational dialogues around unity at the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU). 

Rev. Finklea is intuitively aware that both of these efforts are like two sides of the same coin, and she would strongly urge other Christians to attend both.  Her words got me thinking:  Each one is a complete ministry in and of itself, but there is something in how they interplay together that offers a broader vision and fosters a more complete spiritual discipline for the participant. 

Together, they provide a model for how all Christians--from clergy members to the people in the pews--can work towards Christian unity.

Rev. Mary Finklea taking an offering for the poor.

The relationship happens "in the doing" at EAD--Christians work together for a common cause, such as prison reform, food insecurity or the environment.  John Lennon said, "life is what happens when you are busy making other plans."  In the case of EAD, Christian unity happens while we are living out the commandments.  Sometimes we just need to stop talking about our differences and get busy doing something together.

After working together for a while, we may look back and be surprised to realize that our relationship has improved on its own.  Perhaps differences have softened or simply seems less relevant.  Walls come down as we see into the hearts of each other and witness the gifts that God has given to other denominations.

However, I would tell my social justice colleagues not to stop there.

The pieces do not always automatically fall into place.  Our work together can be hampered by denominational wounds, misunderstandings and differences of opinion.  Hurt feelings can get swept under the rug if ignored.  It can help get the justice ball rolling to set some of this straight.  It may take years or even centuries to work out all of the differences, but what is helpful in the here and now is that we commit to the process of working it out. 
It is important to take the time to intentionally work on our relationship with each other.  We do just that at the NWCU--building on the positives and facing the differences.  For example, Catholics and Lutherans work on the specific problems between Catholics and Lutherans.  The same happens between Methodists, Episcopalians and so on. 
This sensitive work sometimes happens in windfalls and other times is painstakingly slow.  It can only go as fast as it can go.  Like a therapeutic relationship, all parties speak their truths and listen to the others.  If and when all parties are ready, forward movement can happen.

The shared experiences and relationships we build while working together for justice can provide the context and a cushion for a dialogue.  After all, refusing to join together until all differences are reconciled can be a catch-22:  You often have to be in motion to generate the raw material to work with for that reconciliation to even begin.  On the flip side, our missionary mandate call us to cross both the external frontiers in society as well as the internal ones, too.  Our social justice witness can be compromised if we propose a reconciliation in society that we as denominations are unable to achieve ourselves.
Together, they provide a model of interaction, deeply rooted in Scripture and the Christian tradition, of action and contemplation--in the doing we reflect, and in our reflection we are compelled to do. 
Thanks be to God, after all:  They will know we are Christians--and we ourselves will recognize each other as Christians--by our love. This includes the love we have to share with society through our charity and justice work, as well as the love we have for each other to truly listen to each other, hold each other's concerns in patience and empathy, heal wounds and work through conflicts.

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