A small group of parishioners and I have been working our way through this year's Lenten study titled "The Five Marks of Love." Like last year's it is designed and supported by the members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. The Cowley brothers take turns with short videos to reflect on their own lives in community but for the world. That is, they acknowledge and celebrate their monastic vocation but understand it as a prayerful effort for all that God has made not just those monastically secluded with them.
That sectioning away from the world can be done all kinds of ways. It can be an easy retreat, a hidden militant encampment, a sanctuary from danger, an elitist ivory tower, or an exclusive club.
There are even more ways for people to group themselves in distinction from the masses of everyday life. The ones the church has chosen throughout its history are always at risk. Even generous coffee shop fronted evangelistic mega-churches will quickly enforce "us and them" thinking. We all do it. No matter how we gather there is an outside to our inside, a there to our here, a whole to our sect(ion).
Maybe its because -- no matter what my Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher claimed -- none of us have eyes in the backs of our heads. We can only look at one side of things at a time. So I like it that the brothers have redefined the historic "5 Marks of Mission" to be a reality based on God's love of the world and not just a sect(ion) being well intended to project it's brand further into that world. By reframing the conversation so that we understand our efforts as a response to first being loved by God the brothers have undone much of that tendency.
Humbly we should admit that simply by gathering as a function of our lives at the Episcopal Church of the Advent we are already significantly branded. There is already an "us" at work. So instead of our focus being on some sort of institutional maintenance or brand loyalty it has been more about becoming aware of God's love and representing that love with God back into the world. We should understand our part as more like breathing than holding our breath or being "blowhards."
But it is marvelously confessional and cathartic when we talk about about how we struggle to practice the "5 Marks of Love" to Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure. Even as we hope to recognize God's starting with love we squirm at things like the e-word: evangelism. Even as we open to each other's sharing there is still a charming awkwardness that says something about how we are "in" a church community and "from" a world other than the church itself.
I love this study and I love that God's love is the starter for all this consideration and hope. I love it that a "bunch of monks" understand their place in the world so well and can call us "in God's love" to recreate that love in so many ways. Well at least 5 of them.