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

 

If You Want to Stop Sinning, Stop Trying to Stop Sinning

Garden lettuce spiritual growth lessons

I used to plant the lettuce in my garden in long rows, thinning the sprouts according to the seed package’s specifications. Then I spent the rest of the summer pulling all of the weeds around my lettuce.

It’s likely that I pulled more weeds than harvested lettuce.

I liken weeding to mowing the lawn one blade of grass at a time. It’s my least favorite part of gardening, and since we garden organically, I had to come up with a better weed prevention strategy.

I thought I found my solution with a bale of straw. I could fill all of the gaps in our garden with straw and keep the weeds to a minimum. We saw a drop in weeds, but I still had to keep up with them. At the very least, I cut our weeding in half.

However, once we moved to Ohio where I built two raised beds in our small backyard, I discovered that straw wasn’t going to work. An army of slugs took refuge in our straw and used it as a highway to eat everything in our garden. We needed to find a way to prevent weeds without using chemicals and without covering the ground with fabric that would deplete the soil or straw that gave safe haven to slugs.

I found the solution in my in-law’s garden.

My in-laws have been gardening for as long as my wife can remember, and their lettuce patch replaces my orderly rows with a sprawling patch thick with lettuce. They spread their seeds in an area, thin the sprouts a bit, and let the heads of lettuce grow up right next to each other.

This was a huge “Aha!” moment for me.

We now grow a lot more lettuce and spend virtually no time weeding. As of this summer, I have yet to pull a single weed by our lettuce because our seeds were so evenly scattered.

Mind you, this is a bit of work at first. I had to spend a lot of time thinning the seeds I’d scattered. However, in the long run, I don’t have to do a thing most days. There are no weeds competing for garden space because I’ve invested time in creating so much life in our garden.

The key to defeating weeds is to invest in growing healthy plants that will take their space.

I was doomed to keep fighting weeds as long as I was focused on weed prevention rather than plant cultivation.

I have seen the same principle play out in my life when it comes to Christian living. If I want to leave sin behind, I have to stop fighting against sin. We can only leave sin behind when we pursue something (or someone) else in its stead.

When we talk about repentance, we often speak of an abrupt “about-face” or turning away from our plans to God’s plans. If you think about it, fighting sin or sin-prevention strategies prevent us from actually turning away from our sinful ways in order to pursue God.

We’re so busy looking at what we can’t have that we’re unable to see what God offers instead.

Fighting sin does nothing to cultivate the health of God in our lives. We’ll just keep moving from one “weed” to another, waiting for another weed to sprout in our lives since nothing else has been sown in its place.

While we can always take commonsense steps to avoid sin, the real victory over sin is won when we give God space in our lives and actively pursue God. Whether serving others or devoting time for prayer, these steps toward God keep us turned away from sin. Repentance is turning away from sin, but holiness happens in our daily interactions with God.

There is freedom in the pursuit of God that conquers sin. While there are moral standards of a sort for Christians, we leave certain paths behind because of Christ’s “yes” rather than our own “no” that strives for holiness.

We have been called. Christ has said, “Come!” to you and to me because we surely thirst for the redemption he offers.

He has better things for us, but we’ll never leave our own plans behind if we refuse to believe it.