I worry these days about the erosion of Christian witness. People say and do the most outlandish things, all the while claiming inspiration from their Christian faith. People line up on different sides of issues, stridently claiming that Scripture and tradition support their view. They prize certitude over faith and decibels over deliberation.
Sometimes it is difficult to discern who is a Christian. There are folk who throw around Bible verses for political gain, which prompt policies and actions that seem to conflict with the holistic redemption offered in Christ Jesus. There are folk who proclaim justice yet do nothing to support efforts to care for the suffering. It is no wonder that many denominations are imploding, churches are closing and thoughtful persons are seeking other sources of spiritual expression. The Christianity “brand” no longer holds purchase for many.
Thankfully, every epoch sifts its ideas, institutions and theological claims. Renewal movements erupt because God’s Spirit will not be quenched. Some form of church always continues, and faithful Christian witness engages culture with new perception. Invariably we return to Scripture, allowing it to draw us into its theological worldview and rhetorical landscape for our formation as Christian disciples.
The Epistle reading for July 15 describes the inheritance in Christ God has set forth. Paul employs many words to describe this bequest: adoption, redemption, forgiveness, an extravagance of grace, insight into God’s own mysterious purposes, the seal of the Holy Spirit and an enduring destiny of hope that is bound up with the life of Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14).
“It really is all about the next generation . . . Our best wisdom does not belong to us; it is a trust for those who come after us, and we offer it gently in word and deed.”
So, what does this inheritance look like in a mature Christian? Here are a few thoughts that emerge from my own theological framework and spiritual journey:
- A mature Christian is outwardly oriented, not curved in upon oneself. Rather than being only concerned about what affects their personal interests, they are receptive to the lives of others, creating space for them. I once rode about 30 miles with a well-known lecturer after we had concluded a joint event; I asked several questions of her. Amazingly, she did not ask one question. My life was of no interest to her.
- A mature Christian understands personal limitations. It is a seductive thought to believe we are essential at every turn or that we have unlimited energies for our work. A refusal to live within limits is an expression of our sin, according to Bonhoeffer. Parker Palmer says that our limitations can serve the purpose of helping us listen to our lives as we navigate vocational direction.
- A mature Christian is resilient after failure. This requires a sober self-assessment of our human frailty and need for forgiveness and a fresh beginning. Our nagging perfectionism displaces the role of Christ in our lives; we actually do need a savior! Thomas Merton once described life in the monastery as falling down and getting back up – repeatedly.
- A mature Christian looks after the interests of those less mature. It really is all about the next generation if we have attained a measure of stature in Christ. Our best wisdom does not belong to us; it is a trust for those who come after us, and we offer it gently in word and deed. When speaking of how to treat younger members of the community, The Rule of St. Benedict instructs: “Let their weakness be always taken into account . . . let a kind consideration be shown to them.”
- A mature Christian portrays the humility of Christ. It is the master virtue, according to the desert monastics, and it forms us after the likeness of Christ. Roberta Bondi reminds us that humility accepts our human vulnerability and is not overwhelmed by human weakness. Abba Anthony put it this way: “Do not put trust in your own righteousness.” We hear this on the lips of Jesus. “Who is good but God alone?” Humility requires giving up our heroic self-image, and when we lay that burden down, we move more lightly in the world.
- A mature Christian crafts a hopeful future story. Hope is intrinsic to Christian faith because the Spirit has been poured into our hearts, and we believe we will participate in Christ’s resurrection. Although we walk through hard places that are endemic to being a human, we can trust that God accompanies us and brings us to life everlasting. Kathleen Norris tells of visiting an old monk at the monastic infirmary. His delight at simply receiving a guest spoke of his trust in God’s faithfulness as he neared the end.
There are surely other marks of authentic Christian faith, but these offer a perspective on the life God beckons. Love of God and neighbor is the goal of the Christian life, and these practices empower a journey toward making Christian witness trustworthy.