It is ironic that after beginning to reflect on forgiveness and modes of reconciliation I should be in need from you, my dear reader, for forgiveness. I am disappointed with my self that I was unable to meet my deadline for publishing a post last week. I have my excuses! I am set to fly to Portugal in a week or so and to take some time out of public ministry takes an equal amount of time to prepare. I’m off for two weeks and so the last fortnight has been almost none stop; every moment available to work has been filled and, I’m sorry to say, one of my rest time has been taken over too. I’m also trying to think of the time I can carve out to write the next two weeks reflections in lieu of me going away. Maybe I should leave it until I get back…
Anyway please forgive my tardiness and lack of writing. I hope you understand.
For minor faults a brother should be kept from eating at the common table
Why are we not afraid of excommunication?
I have been reflecting on the nature of excommunication and why it is not used all that much anymore. The banishment of a member from a community is not all that big a deal in our society. We excommunicate ourselves so often that to banished by someone else is a familiar experience. In our highly individualistic culture many of us are already starved of meaningful relationships and community that to be told not to participate is of no great significance. In fact maybe our equivalent is to be forced to stay in community as penance!
It was Billy Ocean who once wrote,
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
I’ve never fully understood that lyric but I’m inclined to disagree. When the going gets tough, the tough dig in It takes boldness and strength to stay even when relationships are sour and there is a breakdown of communication. It is path of suffering and heartache to walk that way and no one will walk it without ending up with scars but we walk it because God chose to walk it and it is in his shadow that we journey.
In olden times when we were more aware and appreciative of the worth and value of community, families and our social aspect to be cut off from other humans, to experience the complete lack of connection with an other would be a shocking and terrible thing. Today, when loneliness is so rife, this experience is not a punishment but almost an accepted reality. To be self-sufficient, self-reliant is an expectation and to be dependent on another is weakness of the highest order. This lie is a sickness that needs a drastic healing.
Excommunication, being refused a place at a common table, is in no way a punishment or a fear in our age; it is an expectation and assumption of millions of people. Mother Teresa famously said,
The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God. (Mother Teresa quoted in REACH, col.27, no.4 (Grand Rapids: Christian Reformed Home Mission, 2001)
I’ve been reading Ian Mobsby’s and Mark Berry’s excellent book, ‘The New Monastic Handbook: from vision to practice’ and reached a chapter on practicing healthy communities. When talking about trust and belonging in new monastic communities they write,
The formalised virtues and spiritual practices become the bedrock for developing trusting and accepting relationships in the ecclesial community. Some new monastic communities encourage people who have to work hard at maintaining a healthy relationship, meeting regularly to ensure that communication difficulties or problems do not occur or escalate over time.
When a breakdown of relationship happens the punishment is not excommunication anymore but super-communication because loneliness is now a default not relationship. It pains me to write or acknowledge that but it is so true.
The challenge today when living in community is not about how to get people to come, it’s about how to get them to stay! Everyone wants to be in community. There is an ideal community they hold to and the reality soon strips that romantic vision away. When the reality of living with others’ brokenness hurts (and it will hurt) staying feels like a punishment; it is no longer easy or expected.
Relationships of love, however, require a choice, to stay or to leave. This choice must be present at all times and must be genuine. To keep people in community is no longer loving but you hope that each member will find the strength to stay and bear the fruit from trust and belonging. The healing of our individualistic culture will come from people living the life of committed relationships of love. This is how we, as Christians, reveal the reality of God, to live in the supernatural strength of His love, grace and forgiveness and allow Him to shape us, as His body, into His likeness, God in community.
Holy God, Three in One, how beautiful is your love and fellowship! We desire to know and participate in the Triune strength of community. We need your strength to help and hold us at those times when our weakness breaks others and divides us. Save us from our selfish ambitions and vain conceits.
Come, Lord Jesus