As Francis said, let us begin again

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Amalgamations have a way of reminding us that the church is shrinking. The presence that the Christian church had at one time in society and within our neighbourhoods is slowly disappearing.

This month we will be reading about the beginning of the new parish of St Francis. While new beginnings are always exciting, this new beginning represents an amalgamation of two parishes. Amalgamations have a way of reminding us that the church is shrinking. The presence that the Christian church had at one time in society and within our neighbourhoods is slowly disappearing. Those of us who remain in the church find ourselves increasingly experiencing a sense that we remaining Christians are a small minority, and may be considered a bit quaint in our old-fashioned ideals.

This current period in history contains as much poverty, injustice, broken relationships and broken psyches as any other age. Yet increasingly, we find ourselves without answers or left with answers that don’t satisfy the craving in our hearts for that which is transcendent. We long to feel embraced by something, or Someone, that will help us to know what to do with our pain.

Richard Rohr, in his book Hope Against Darkness says that every age has had its pain but spirituality is what we do with our pain. In a culture with no Transcendent Center, Rohr explains, there is no one to hand pain over to; in a culture with no cross/resurrection image, there is no meaning to our suffering.

Rohr suggests that there are two common avoidances of spiritual transformation: fight or flight. The way of fight is the way of the cultural liberal. These folks want to change, fix, control and reform other people and events – always looking for the bad person over there. Those who engage in the way of flight, the cultural conservatives, deny the pain altogether and refuse to carry the shadow side of anything within themselves or their chosen group. But the “flight” people are subject to hypocrisy, projection or illusion, a kind of “We are right and you are wrong” mentality. Rohr asks of this group: “How can I know, work through the anger and still be a life-giving presence?” Rohr reminds us: when you don’t transform your own pain, you will always transmit it.

Within our Christian churches, we have the opportunity to transform our own pain and begin to find answers for the poverty and brokenness of our world.

Within our Christian churches, we have the opportunity to transform our own pain and begin to find answers for the poverty and brokenness of our world.

The message of the cross is how to work for the answer without becoming part of the problem itself. Most revolutions merely rearrange the furniture on the deck of the Titanic, Rohr explains, but Jesus built a new boat. Rohr quotes St Bonaventure in suggesting that the cross is an image that you can hold on to and draw life from – a visual metaphor for the paradoxical nature of all things. St Bonaventure points out that Jesus was killed on the collision of cross-purposes, conflicting interests and half-truths that all of life is. The cross was the price that Jesus paid for agreeing to live in a mixed world that was both human and divine, bad and good, simultaneously broken and utterly whole.

Rohr says that experiencing the cruciform pattern always feels like two steps forward and three backward. For those of us who remain faithfully carrying out our roles in the church, as priest, deacon, lay reader, congregant, we may feel as though we’re in a period of moving three steps backward – a feeling of dying. But Rohr exhorts that people who live the contradictions are, in fact, the saviours of the world – the agents of all true transformation, reconciliation and newness.

St Francis can be for us a role model to shape our response to the world. Rohr reminds us that Francis’ starting place was utter truth. His prayer was often “Who are you, O God? And who am I?” Francis knew that he was radically unfinished and always would be. His life, Rohr says, was an enacted parable, an audiovisual aid to gospel freedom. Francis was a person who chose weakness instead of strength, vulnerability instead of righteousness, truth instead of practicality, honesty instead of influence. He was a reconciler and preacher of forgiveness. St Francis was a rebuilder. Toward the end of his life, he told his friars, “Let us begin again, for up to now we have done nothing”.

The new beginning of the Parish of St Francis reminds us that we can begin again, that we have something of value to offer society.

The new beginning of the Parish of St Francis reminds us that we can begin again, that we have something of value to offer society. The coming together of two parishes offers us an image of how we can stand at the collision of cross purposes of the world and the church and offer a way of viewing the world that is transformative. We can model a topsy-turvy way of living as St Francis revealed to us, that allows us to come to terms with our own pain and that prepares us to become a transformative presence in the midst of our suffering world.

Let us challenge this new parish beginning in our midst to model for all of us a way of being present to the suffering all around us. Parish of St Francis, let us begin again…