I came across a wonderful passage in the writing of Parker Palmer that speaks to work of the church. He writes:
The church lives under a relentless divine calling to engage in the work of reconciliation – to God, to one another, and to ourselves. There is nothing about which God is more persistent than the promise that the brokenness within us and between us can and will be healed. Healing comes as a result of God’s mercy and grace, not of our work. But mercy and grace are channeled as the church finds ways of more fully becoming the Body of Christ, whose touch heals.
(Parker Palmer, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life, Crossroad, N.Y., 1981. 26.)
I experienced the power of God’s grace and the healing touch of the church many years ago. I had been away from church for more than a dozen years when for one reason or another I began to sense that there was more depth and meaning to life than I had been experiencing. I became aware of a spiritual thirst that drew me toward worship and the faith I grew up with. It led me to the doors of a local Roman Catholic Church.
I decided I would go to confession. I figured if I was going to return to church I would do it with total honesty and transparency. I would hide no secrets. I would not pretend to be someone I was not. I had not done anything remarkably bad, but I was aware of the contradictions in my life, the broken and disappointing relationships, the ways that I either through clumsiness or immaturity had hurt others, etc. I would place it all before the church.
Those who are or who grew up Catholic are familiar with the process. I entered the confessional and began with words I had learned as a child: “Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It has been twelve years since my last confession, and these are my sins…” And I continued, and continued. I figured that for penance I would be saying hail Mary’s for a very long time.
All the priest said was “Welcome home.” He said “Welcome home, God rejoices that you are here!” For penance he asked me if I would be able to pray ten minutes a day for the next week.
When I left the church that day I felt as if the weight of years had been lifted off of me. I breathed deeply again. I had not even noticed that I had not been able to for so long. I felt as if chains had been broken, that I could stand tall. Burdens that I did not know I had been carrying were gone. Everything had changed.When I walked into the church, everything was normal. When I walked out everything resonated with the very presence of God: the sky, the trees, the sidewalk, the cars, the stone walls of the church, the flowers next to the church.
Something significant had happened. I had experienced the healing, forgiving, renewing grace of God. Not because I am particularly good or worthy, but because God is. And the vehicle through with I experienced this touch was the church. The vehicle was the teaching of my childhood, the worship and liturgy of the church, the compassionate gentleness of a good priest.
So I appreciate it when I read: “The church lives under a relentless divine calling to engage in the work of reconciliation – to God, to one another, and to ourselves. There is nothing about which God is more persistent than the promise that the brokenness within us and between us can and will be healed.”
Forgiveness and reconciliation are at the center of the Gospel. God deals with the world’s brokenness and violence, not by destroying it, but by opening up the power of grace and forgiveness. In this God opens up our future. We are not bound by are past, but by grace are given new life. Our work is to turn toward God, receive the gift, and then extend the same grace toward others. As we are forgiven, so we are to forgive others. Grace upon grace.
Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote a book about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa titled: “No Future Without Forgiveness.” In it he reminds us that without forgiveness we remain bound to the hurts and guilt of the past, personally, in our relationships, communally, politically. Forgiveness set us free.
It is the divine vocation of the church to be a community of grace, forgiveness, and healing. May the church live into its calling to be the Body of Christ, extending his healing touch into the world.
And the church is not the building or the organization: it is the people. Us.