My friend and colleague, Dick Dahl gave our community this fine homily last week in my absence–enjoy! and thank you Dick! –Pastor Kathy
I recently attended a film and discussion entitled “Going, Going, Gone” from the national research sponsored by Saint Mary’s Press of Winona about the dramatically high numbers of young people who are abandoning religion—not just the Roman Catholic Church, but other Christian churches, synagogues and religions.
Over 60 percent say that this disaffiliation took place in them between the ages of 10 and 13. What they experienced at church was not meaningful to them. Furthermore they sought connection and inner transformation. Instead they said they felt they were going to a club to which they felt they no longer belonged.
They did not want to be part of a church that seemed mainly judgmental, a church that seemed to separate and divide people rather than bring them together. They sought connection with a Higher Power but felt the truth had gotten lost over the centuries in interpretations that became a barrier rather than a window or a light. They sensed that there were different valid paths to the truth, to what is meaningful.
Being out of doors in Mother Nature was important to many of them. They sought to become better persons. Unconditional love and openness to others made sense to them. Social justice and the findings of science also made sense.
They did not usually leave the church in anger, rather often with some sadness. They sought connection with others through friendships, in dinner groups, in working out at the gym, in local commitments.
With these contemporary changes going on about us, especially in the younger generation, can we just go on as we always have? Or are we called to recognize and respond to ways in which the Spirit is acting? In what ways might the Spirit be calling us to be open to other ways of thinking, to the experiences of other people?
Although these causes of disillusion in many young people may be a far cry from what led Jesus into the desert, I’d like to suggest a possible connection. Isn’t it dramatic that after about thirty years, he was moved to change his way of life and begin to act publicly? He may have been prepared for this by change by contact with his cousin, John the Baptist, but it was the Spirit that then led him into the desert.
Also I have known that “forty” is a symbolic number in Scripture but I have learned recently that it usually referred to whatever length of time was necessary to achieve a goal or purpose. So the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, but not necessarily literally forty years. The Sinai is not that large an area! Jesus’ time of prayer and fasting for forty days in the desert was for as long as was necessary to prepare him for the change in his life that was about to occur.
When he emerged, he challenged “the system;” he challenged the way many of the traditions had enforced rules but had lost their inner meaning. I think the disaffiliated young people of today would have felt energized by Jesus as they have come to distrust institutions. Based on their stated resonance with social justice, they would have welcomed the way he reached out to the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast.
The reasons many young people give for leaving religion often describe a hunger for what religion, especially Christianity, should be offering. Religion should be open to what is true from any and all sources. It should be a force that brings people together, that overcomes divisions, that focuses on transforming love and mercy.
Eleven years ago Father Richard Rohr wrote a book about Scriptural Spirituality. He began by saying, “We need transformed people today, not people with answers.” He quoted Eugene Ionesco, the French-Romanian playwright who wrote, “Over-explanation separates us from astonishment.” Father Rohr says that for many people too many words have separated them from astonishment, as if the right words can substitute for inner experience. He asserts that the marvelous anthology of books and letters we call the Bible “is all for the sake of astonishment.” It’s for “divine transformation…not intellectual…coziness.”
Fr. Rohr says, “We have made the Bible into a bunch of ideas—about which we can be right or wrong—rather than an invitation to a new set of eyes. Biblical revelation invites us into a genuinely new experience.”
In his letter, “Joy and Gladness,” Pope Francis wrote, “…a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity.” To the extent we miss this, religion is failing to transform and enliven our spirit and our communities.
In today’s first reading Abram was astonished when the Lord promised him that he and his wife Sarai, who were in their eighties, would be the parents of offspring who would become as numerous as the stars in the sky. Then in the Gospel reading, having eight days earlier warned his disciples that it would not be easy to follow him, Jesus took Peter, James and John up a mountain where they were astonished by his Transfiguration before their eyes. They heard his Father’s voice, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
The transfiguration of Jesus prepared him for his “exodus”—his coming Passover through a horrible death to the transformation of his Resurrection. His Spirit is now leading us through this time of Lent, our time in the desert as it were, to be silent, to be astonished, to listen to the Son and be transformed.