…it is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God, to see Him and to love Him is the one thing that matters. If you have desired to know Him and love Him, you have already done what was expected of you, and it is much better to desire God without being able to think clearly of Him, than to have marvelous thoughts about Him without desiring to enter into union with His will.
— Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
I wish that with a stroke of my “pen” (keyboard), I could cut out of people’s lives all the gangrene that they have accumulated by going to church all of their lives. As a pastor I am certainly not against going to church, but the longer I do this job, the more convinced I am that the church probably stands as frequently as a barrier between people and God as it stands as a beacon, pointing the way to life.
Religion, with all its insistence that it knows the way, often does not know anything at all. Knowledge itself is not inherently good or evil. Knowledge can be used to light the paths of those who stumble, or to bludgeon those who disagree with us, and is used far more often for the second than for the first.
Wherever you may stand on your spiritual quest, this quote from Merton is for you.
It is for the one living under a dark cloud of guilt, or shame, who feels too flawed to be in church.
It is for the one who grew up in the church learning about love but experienced only judgment and condemnation.
It is for the one who has lost someone they loved and doesn’t know if God cares or exists, and if so, whether they can ever trust him again.
It is for those who have felt snubbed and left out by churches, who have had their deepest pains brought out into the open and experienced derision at the hands of those who claim to worship the Lord of Love.
It is for those who are fed up and sick of the whole religious enterprise.
It is for secular people who sense some kind of desire for God, or something transcendent, and don’t know where to go to find it.
And it is for people like me who seek to make the church a better place — not through protesting and politics and anger (okay — I have to confess to sometimes still carrying some anger), but by embarking on the long journey of transformation.
Only when the church is full of transformed human beings will the church be a transformed place.
In the meantime, the church can either be the community that gathers together all who are on the journey to transformation, or the place that heaps condemnation upon us for not having already found it. As long as it is up to me, my church will be the former. Jesus said,
Matthew 23:13-15 (NIV)
13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
14-15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
Jesus also said,
Matthew 21:28-32 (MSG)
28 “Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, ‘Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.’
29 “The son answered, ‘I don’t want to.’ Later on he thought better of it and went.
30 “The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, ‘Sure, glad to.’ But he never went.
31 “Which of the two sons did what the father asked?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom.
32 John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.
I’ll have what the crooks and whores are having.