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Monday Merton: Is the Church Redemptive or Self-Serving?

The mission of the church can lead us to our true identities in Christ or it can become grossly distorted. Thomas Merton writes about both the high calling of the church and tragic distortion of this mission into a self-centered mechanism for proving who is in and who is out:

“The basic Christian faith is that he who renounces his delusive, individual autonomy in order to receive his true being and freedom in and by Christ is ‘justified’ by the mercy of God in the Cross of Christ. His ‘sins are forgiven’ in so far as the root of guilt is torn up in the surrender which faith makes to Christ. Instead of my own delusive autonomy I surrender to Christ all rights over me in the hope that by His Spirit, which is the Spirit and life of His Church, He will live and act in me, and, having become one with Him, having found my true identity in Him, I will act only as a member of His Body and a faithful citizen of His Kingdom…

 

But now, supposing that, instead of confessing the sins of the world which she has taken upon herself, the Church–or a group of Christians who arrogate to themselves the name of ‘Church’–becomes a social mechanism for self-justification? Supposing this ‘Church,’ which is in reality no church at all, takes to herself the function of declaring that everyone else is guilty and rationalizing the sins of her members as acts of virtue? Suppose that she becomes a perfect and faultless machine for declaring herself not guilty? Suppose that she provides men with a convenient method of deciding when they do or do not need to accuse themselves of anything before God? Supposing that, instead of conscience, she provides men with the support of unanimous group approval or disapproval?”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 111-112

 

Monday Merton: Why We Wish to Destroy Our Enemies

While some men may be more committed to deception than others, Merton rightly identifies the tendency to believe in the deception of others, while believing that we alone are committed to the truth. This word speaks quite directly to the present situation in America:

“We are living under a tyranny of untruth which confirms itself in power and establishes a more and more total control over men in proportion as they convince themselves they are resisting error.

 

Our submission to plausible and useful lies involves us in greater and more obvious contradictions, and to hide these from ourselves we need greater and ever less plausible lies. The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.

 

We then convince ourselves that we cannot preserve our purity of vision and our inner sincerity if we enter into dialogue with the enemy, for he will corrupt us with his error. We believe, finally, that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy – for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us and exactly the same basic policy by which he defends the “truth.” He has identified us with dishonesty, insincerity, and untruth. He believes that, if we are destroyed, nothing will be left but truth.”
― Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

 

Monday Merton: Love Is Never Silent Before Injustice

In the 1960’s, Thomas Merton wrote about the Christian response, or failure to respond, to segregation and racism. After addressing a situation in New Orleans where some of the congregation walked out because the priest applied “love of brother and sister” to racial injustice, Merton didn’t mince words:

“We are so concerned with ‘charity’ that we will find every possible excuse for men who have no respect for the law of love, who angrily and rudely separate themselves from the community of the faithful assembled for the Eucharistic feast of Christian charity, and who do so in defense of a society whose customs admit and palliate repeated acts of cruelty, of injustice, of inhumanity which gravely violate the Law of Christ, and crucify Christ in His members.

 

To excuse such men entirely would be to participate in their violation of charity. Their sin must be pointed out quite clearly for what it is. The pseudocharity that shrinks from this truth is responsible for an awful proliferation of injustice and untruth, under the guise of Christianity. The best that can be said of these poor men is ‘they know not what they do.'”

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 106

 

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Art of Seals

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Monday Merton: Paradise Is All Around Us

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Thomas Merton converted to the Christian faith because of the possibility to find God today, not just a promise of getting into heaven one day. Experiencing the full presence of God requires overcoming the many obstacles that often appear as necessary or unavoidable once the day gets going. As people who spend so much time in motion, simply stopping may be the hardest practice to learn. Merton writes:

“Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it: we are off ‘one to his farm and another to his merchandise.’Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static. ‘Wisdom,’ cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.”

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 128

Monday Merton: Freedom Needs Truth

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Thomas Merton writes that Democracy relies on the education of the population, getting a large majority of people more or less on the same page. If the people are able to see the issues of the time with clarity, political discourse about solutions becomes possible.

However, as propaganda and alternative partisan versions of reality take hold on certain news channels and in the American White House, Democracy may face one of its greatest challenges according to Merton’s criteria:

“Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them. The actions and statements of the citizen must not be mere automatic ‘reactions’–mere mechanical salutes, gesticulations signifying passive conformity with the dictates of those in power.

 

To be truthful, we will have to admit that one cannot expect this to be realized in all the citizens of a democracy. But if it is not realized in a significant proportion of them, democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word.”

 

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 96

 

 

 

Monday Merton: Unasked Questions Lead to Spiritual Anxiety

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Contemplative prayer has proven most beneficial for me because it addressed my reliance on having the right questions and finding the right answers to those questions. In God, we don’t always have an assurance that our questions will be answered to our satisfaction or that we’ll even find the right questions to ask.

In the quiet of silence before God, I’ve found deliverance from my uneasy answers as they are replaced by God’s loving presence:

“Now anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. It is the fruit of unanswered questions. But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked. And there is a far worse anxiety, a far worse insecurity, which comes from being afraid to ask the right questions— because they might turn out to have no answer. One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.”

– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

The Monday Merton: Unless We See, We Cannot Think

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At this moment in America, many of us are seeing the true benefits of committed journalism in the face of political corruption and the abuse of power. That protection of democracy doesn’t eliminate the negative impacts of mass media, politics, and entertainment on our mental and emotional health.

Merton lived at a time when the mass media was only a fraction of what it has become today. News serves as entertainment in many respects, prompting the rise of hyper-partisan networks that cater to the whims of their viewers for the sake of ratings. Merton’s words about the need to escape from noise and distractions for the sake of thinking clearly are all the more urgent, even if our need for dedicated journalism remains:

“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see cannot think.”

-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg 72

Today Is a Chance to Return to Your First Love

My friend Ray Hollenbach, an author and pastor to many, is sharing a guest post today for Ash Wednesday. I’m always encouraged by Ray’s writing, and I’m sure you will be as well. 

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

These words from Mark 2:17 demonstrate for us again the genius of Jesus and serve as an introduction to Ash Wednesday, a somewhat mysterious date on the Christian calendar which marks the beginning of Lent. It evokes the past, encourages us to focus on the present, and points us toward an inspiring future.

In some parts of the country you could go about your business all day and never encounter a reminder that this is Ash Wednesday. Or you could look up from your work to find someone near you wearing ashes on her forehead in a mark that looks something like a cross.

Ash Wednesday is about preparation, and the beginning of preparation at that. All of the Lenten season is focused upon preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is about how we can begin those preparations. It is “to make a right beginning of repentance,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. We are reminded of “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

Ash Wednesday is the day when the journey toward Easter begins. I would like to suggest that Ash Wednesday helps us begin our preparation for Easter in three ways: by teaching us to mourn the past, to examine the present, and to look forward toward an inspiring future.

Mourning the past

The ashes of Ash Wednesday come from the palm leaves that were burned after last year’s Palm Sunday. Throughout the Scripture, ashes speak of mourning and regret. To mark his sadness, Job covered himself in ashes.

Jesus reminds us that repentance (true regret) can include sackcloth and ashes. The ashes from last year’s palms remind us that although we may have received Christ enthusiastically at the beginning of our Christian walk, we have perhaps lost our first love.

What better call to return to our first love than to be marked with the ashes of our past enthusiasm? These ashes also remind us that the original celebration of Palm Sunday gave way to the crucifixion less than a week later. Psalm 51 is an excellent reading for Ash Wednesday. It is a Scriptural guide to repentance.

Examining our present

When Jesus challenged His listeners to consider the truth that those who are healthy do not need a doctor, He was asking each one of them to examine themselves. Only those who agree they are sick will submit to a doctor, and only when we acknowledge our sin can we receive His forgiveness.

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to examine our need afresh and to affirm that we will always need a Savior.

Do we agree with Jesus that we are still in need, or having received Him as Lord and Savior at one point in time, have we forgotten that our need is daily? Colossians 2:6 reminds us “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him.” Or as one pastor said, “The way in is the way on.”

Looking to the future

As Ash Wednesday begins our journey through Lent, we are also aware that our final destination is Easter Sunday. And Easter Sunday is more than a commemoration of the past. It is also about hope for the future. We have all seen what commemoration looks like when it has lost its spirit.

Some people celebrate Holy days (holidays) without ever encountering the meaning: Thanksgiving Day without the giving of thanks, Christmas day without a living Savior, and Easter Sunday without a risen Lord.

But the glorious message of Easter is that He is risen! We can prepare for Easter by reflecting on the promise of resurrection. I Corinthians 15: 20 reveals, “Christ has indeed risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

This wonderful verse assures us not only of Christ’s resurrection but also our ultimate destiny: that we too will be resurrected, and our loved ones in Christ. His resurrection is the promise of ours, complete with an eternal future of joy.

There are riches waiting in Ash Wednesday, especially for many of us who are unaccustomed to a formal church calendar. No matter how we mark the day, whether with ashes on our forehead or with reflection on the meaning of Easter, Jesus invites us journey on to Easter Sunday with Him.

About the Author

Visit Ray Hollenbach at his blog Students of Jesus

Follow him on Twitter: @Hollenbach

Ray Hollenbach is a husband, a father, a writer, a (former) pastor, a businessman, and a student of Jesus. Ray has written about faith and culture for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, ChurchLeaders.com, SermonCentral.com, Relevant Magazine, My Faith Radio, and Collide Magazine. He currently lives among the irenic hills of central Kentucky, which are filled with faith and culture.

Monday Merton: Love Is Complete Nonviolence

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More than any other reason, I have felt compelled to read Thomas Merton because I want to learn how to be constructive and even loving in my opposition to those who support injustice and violence. Nonviolence and the pursuit of justice can be pursued in destructive and counterproductive ways.

I have needed Merton’s challenge to see the good in others with compassion and empathy, seeking their best, not merely seeking to “win” something against them:

“The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation and defeat. A pretended nonviolence that seeks to defeat and humiliate the adversary by spiritual instead of physical attack is little more than a confession of weakness. True nonviolence is totally different from this, and much more difficult. It strives to operate without hatred, without hostility, and without resentment. I works without aggression, taking the side of the good that it is able to find already present in the adversary.”

 

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 82