A highlight for me this summer was the family reunion at Wasaga Beach. We had been unable to attend this annual reunion the last few years, so it was a while since I had last connected with many people on my spouse’s side of the family. And as is consistent with my personality style, I was worried about making a good impression.
God has a funny way of challenging us where we need to be challenged. Because at about the time we decided to attend (which was a last minute thing on account of our recent move), I woke up with a big, festering cold sore on my lip.
Now, I had not had a cold sore for the last several years. It had also been a while since I knew what a cold sore was all about: irritating, itchy, never letting you forget it’s there (for a fleeting moment I wondered whether family reunions and cold sores had something in common!).
The cold sore has about a ten-day cycle, from initial growth to its drying, scabby end. I was to hit the high point of visible grossness the day of reunion. Everyone with whom I would have a conversation would have to be blind not to see the bulbess thing hanging from my lip. What would they say to me? (“Aahh, Martin, wipe your mouth man! Too much salsa for lunch?”) How would I respond? (“Awwh shucks, it’s nothing, really”) What would my extended in-law family think of the man their wonderful daughter had married?
As it turned out, God also has a funny way of reminding us of what is true, what is good, and what speaks of God’s love for us all. You see, my obsessive preoccupation with how I looked turned my conciousness away from others and the whole meaning of the event. Martin Luther defined sin as “being turned in on oneself”. I guess I was sinning: I was preoccupied with myself.
And yet, by the end of the day and contrary to my initial expectations, I felt accepted, loved and part of a family. No one drew attention to the cold sore; it was a non-issue. They were just happy to see me and my famly there! “It’s been too long!” That was the main thing: being together at the reunion. I felt like the Psalmist who expressed: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young” (Psalm 84:3).
According to the Psalmist, it was the relatively insignificant, common, plain-looking, rather small sparrows who found a home among the rafters and ceiling crevaces in the tabernacle. It wasn’t the eagles, hawks, larger birds with colourful, attractive plumage.
What does this image suggest about who finds ‘home’ in God’s presence? The great? The mighty? The successful? The seemingly perfect? The beautiful?
By the end of the reunion day, I had almost forgotten about my cold sore because I was more focused on this collection of diverse people who found there way to Wasaga Beach on a sunny, August day: There were some fifteen youth and children under the age of twenty in addition to some twenty adults and seniors. And this collection of people spanned the whole socio-political spectrum and North American continent …. You get the picture.
Immersed in this blessed diversity I forgot about myself, because it wasn’t about me to begin with. This reunion was bigger than the sum of its individual parts. There was something more going on here.
The basis of our unity was not the visible aspects of our togetherness, otherwise we would all look the same! The basis of our unity was something we shared on the inside that was manifested on the outside. And what is true on the inside of our lives gets expressed on the outside by way of attitude, by way of our beliefs, by way of the nature of how we relate to one another.
“As it is on the inside, so shall it be on the outside,” as Michael Harvey explains (@Unlockingthegrowth). While mortals look on the outside, the Lord looks upon the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This notion from the Lord’s Prayer suggests that heaven (the invisible, interior reality) leads to a corresponding visible reality on earth. Like in the Holy Eucharist, Baptism — any Sacrament — an inner truth reflected exteriorly, in water, bread, cup, meal.
Over the past month we have heard scriptures from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John reflect on Jesus as the “bread of life”. We conclude today this teaching of Jesus from the synagogue in Capernaum. And the disciples, it is reported, had difficulty with it (John 6:56-69).
Admitedly, I think for us, too, it is much easier to deal with external, material reality: we can touch, taste, manage, something on the outside of us. It is easier to make judgement on a crooked picture frame hanging on your wall; but to reflect on why that particular picture is there in the first place and who painted it, for example, takes much more work that often, quite frankly, we’re not up for.
To approach the inner realm of our lives can be dumbfounding, intimidating, overwhelming a prospect. And so we avoid this work and get ourselves immersed in unreflected, unexamined action and busyness. Because that’s easier.
Yet Jesus emphasizes the truth of the inner life giving reason and substance to the outer life. In his words, “It is the spirit that gives life; [without the spirit] the flesh is useless.” (John 6:63). The beginning points of all meaningful and effective action are prayer, contemplation, reflection, engagement with our inner lives in relationship with God and others. The spirit gives life.
And this is how to understand that more famous text from Ephesians 6 about putting on the armour of God. We put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes proclaiming the gospel of peace, the shield of faith and helmet of salvation and sword of the spirit, NOT in an aggressive, confrontational, external stance against enemies of the flesh. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Again, the beginning point of faith is in the internal, invisible reality of our lives.
That is not to say that sometimes when we don’t feel inside any stirrings of the spirit, we ought not do anything. Sometimes the reverse is true: we need to engage in right action despite our feelings or what might or might not be going on interiorily; our external action, then, may affect positively what is going on inside us. After all, Jesus doesn’t exclude one or the other: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit AND life” — internal AND external are both vital, to hold in balance. Not either/or, but both/and.
As I said, the exterior reality that reflects the inner truth is that of attitude, and the quality of our relationships. And, more to the point, this attitude is pointed to the quality of our relationships with those whom we invite to church and those to whom we are strangers and happen to cross the threshold of our church.
These people, too, are part of God’s creation, loved and cherished. Every person on the planet can claim the passage from the Psalms: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). And therefore they are among us for a divine purpose.
More Christians are raising concern about equating the church with ‘family’ – presuming the analogy refers to a traditional father-mother-children unit. For being exclusively defined as such, I agree with their objections. Because the family of God is so much more.
It is not our job to judge their status in the family. It is our job to invite them. To be an invitational church. That family reunion at Wasaga Beach happened because an invitation to come went out. I am grateful for that invitation.
Because we are a church that belongs to Jesus Christ, there is a place for you and everyone else here. “You did not choose me,” Jesus says, “But I chose you …” (John 15:16).
Christ’s invitation is about joining in God’s mission. And this mission is not just the purvue of the rich, the famous, the successful, the educated, those who have unblemished bodies, those who have been a part of the church forever — but to all, including you and me. Because God made us, “wonderfully”, from the inside out.