Buenas tardes friends near and far, and thank you so much for joining us for this celebration of the 30th anniversary of the community of the beautiful that is FutureChurch.  

The title of our anniversary event is “Making Sense of 2020: Being Church Today” and many months ago, when the team asked me to prepare this keynote, well… the world was very different.  As events unfolded, I was reminded of when I was in 8th grade.  I had only arrived in the U.S. as a refugee the year before and was trying desperately to learn the language and make sense of a culture that confused me.  

One day in math class our teacher told us something I found puzzling.  I thought it was a traditional American saying, later I figured out it was just Mr. Fraker’s eccentric advice, which he repeated often when faced by a bunch of surly adolescents.  He would stand in front of the class, look us in the eye and say with a smile “Cheer up, things could get worse…” then he would pause and add, “sure enough, you cheered up, things got worse.”  

Perhaps that is how you feel today.  How we all feel.

Yet, I have held on to that quirky idea for the rest of my life, not because I am a pessimist, which I am not, but because it reminds me that everything in life is temporary and that control of reality is not something humans can actually do.  As I got older, it helped me see that “cheering up” will never be the answer to things going terribly wrong.  Something new could be on the horizon, which could knock us right back down.  So the only way to respond to when the worse shows itself is to face it, examine it and understanding its causes, work to change it.  

All we, you and I, have is the reality of now and our faith would be fatally fragile if it depended on things always going right.  Discouragement is something only the privileged can afford, the poor and vulnerable of the world know this only too well, we need to know it too.

Giving up is not an option, neither is it an option to sit around waiting for things to fix themselves, so our conversation today must look at our church as being in the world and for the world.  I am going to resist lamenting, even though we doneed to do that, and we should make space every day for necessary mourning and tears.  Teresa of Avila was right, that tears are a gift of a prayerful life.   So take time for the tears, but for now, because I am a theologian, I want to invite us to do some creative theologizing as we imagine expansively.

Imagining expansively

As you can tell, I am fond of the wisdom of teachers, and today I take my cue from the great theologian Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez  who says that “to do theology is to write a love letter to that God I believe in,  to that community I belong to, and to that Church of which I am a part.  A love that is no stranger to what is perplexing and even to what is bitter, but [a love] that is more than anything a source of profound joy.”[1]

So just how do we write a love letter to God, our community and our church, while we face what is perplexing and bitter? Fr. Gutierrez shows us that these are not opposites, rather, confronting what is perplexing and bitter in love, opens us up, leads us to more expansive views, and as we reach those and engage in doing the hard work of making the possible the real, we discover joy.

So let’s do some facing up.  I’ve spent many months teaching my students through this medium mediated by electricity and computer signals where you and I now meet, and in the sorrow of not sharing the same physical space, we have tried to use the fact that we have no actual classroom walls to also explode other kinds of walls that have been built around us and our faith.  What are the perplexing questions this moment is presenting us with and how do we, together, face them, glimpse new possibilities and work to transform them?

How do we reimagine Church today?  Let’s take down some walls.

What do we mean by Church?  (Image: social media profile for church) If Church had an online profile in this digital world of ours what would that profile say – “Church describes itself as one, holy, catholic and apostolic.”  A bunch of nice words, meaningless to many people today and for good reason.  Has this oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolic posture been their experience?  Should we write a different profile for the church based on what you and I have observed to be actually true and not just wishful thinking?  What if we do this by noticing what is lacking, what is needed, what is urgent? Will imagining an expanded identity together lead us to that love letter Gustavo Gutierrez talks about?

The Church is One

Let’s start with the description of the Church as “One.”

Is the Church as “one” about rigid uniformity?  Is being “one” about the power of a male  privileged minority to set the rules that force conformity and compliance on the rest of us?  Is one about being “the one and only” to the exclusion of all others?  Is the idea of being “one” actually a constantly painful reminder of our separations? Can we get a better identity marker than One?

Imagine this with me.  

(Image: blank canvas) One color, nothing to see here, (Image: single-color outlines) two colors (Image: outline with shading), a little more, three, four, more, (Image: Full color image of "The Procession" by John August Swanson, 2007) now we’re getting somewhere!  Science tells us that variety is nature’s way, the natural world thrives in building up both complexity and reciprocity.  (Image: bee on flower) Ecosystems survive precisely because of differences coming into contact with each other. And beyond science, we recognize this natural entanglement of what is different as good because it strikes our hearts and takes our breath away.  (Image: road under gray, cloudy sky) We don’t feel the same under the gloom of a uniformly gray sky and a glorious multi-hued sunset.  (Image: coastal sunset) In its abundance and meeting of light upon light, the sunset speaks of the world’s lushness and fills us with longing.

What human making in a painting or a symphony, and nature’s making in butterflies, fields of flowers and bountiful creation teach us is that variety, diversity, and difference represent the abundance of life.  Of course, as the Church described itself as “one” originally, it meant unity in difference.  Early Christians knew themselves many, often far from each other and radically diverse.  To say One was to speak of the very joy of discovering that in our otherness the power of the Spirit drew us together.  When we encounter difference, the experiences can lead us into the challenge of stepping out of our certitude and into the unknowing of what may be revealed by others.

Churches from the East and West, North and South tried to find ways to be unified in the common bonds of baptism and experience the anticipation and excitement of letters, visits, and news from other churches.  But, sadly, just as soon as we started to define what that unity meant, we began chipping away at it.  Young people today are often disappointed to learn about the bewildering fights and separations of the Christian church, and more often than not, when we study Church history what I see in them is a profound sadness.  How could Church authorities so violently condemn each other?  How could they question that God’s love was for all and not only for those who agree with me?  Who are all of these different groups today that insist on their rightness and thrive on judging others, which for them means they are the only ones defined as “One”?  We live with a heartbreaking state of being, radical divisiveness, breeding more divisiveness by the requirement of conformity.

What do you say we begin building a new profile for the Church?  Let’s forget the Church is One and let’s say instead the Church is Encountering.

The Church is Encountering

The Christian life as one of constant encounter is a central teaching and hope of Pope Francisco.  Even in my choice to name him bilingually, I am purposefully celebrating the difference posed by a Latin American pope.  Just in that moment between my saying Pope Francisco and you hearing it, something new happens, a new color, a new note, a momentary flash of otherness appears.  What does it mean to encounter each other as particular, as many-hued, as full of multiplicity and richness?  What does it look like to be intentional about seeking the other?  The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer put it this way, “To reach an understanding with one’s partner in a dialogue is not merely a matter of total self-expression and the successful assertion of one’s point of view, but a transformation into a communion, in which we do not remain what we were.”[2]

The Church is Holy

The holiness of the Church as an institution and as a people is probably one of the most painful realities we are forced to face.  As we clear our eyes, we see decades of destruction uncovered, each a graveyard of lives, families, institutions, and communities.  We are forced to face the truth of sexual abuse by clergy by sifting through the ruins of what had been the unconditional trust of millions of people.  We, Catholic Christians, have lost any right, if we ever had it, to call ourselves “Holy.”  But let me add, that the idea that somehow we can claim a “corporate” holiness for the Church, that the Church as Church is holy, even if its individual members are sinners has to be questioned, and questioned vigorously.

Systemic sinfulness is just that, it is part of a system, facilitated, built up, covered over and prolonged by this system.  The system keeps corporate sin from being seen because it is in the very gears of what makes the system run.  

Sexual abuse against minors availed itself of the trappings of an entire way of life, using the tools of trust, of familiarity, of respect and of deference.  It counted on a code of silence, on male dominance and collusion, on favors given and favors owed.  As Trina McKillen’s heartbreaking art installation Confess, which I experienced at Loyola Marymount University makes abundantly clear, just as the symbols of holiness were used to destroy vulnerable children, so must they be reclaimed, loved back into existence and rebuilt again as in their defiled beauty they accuse the demonic, which tried to possess them.  We must first empty them so they may be filled with a new reality.

As I spoke with McKillen my heart ached as she described being a child during “the troubles” in Ireland and having the space of the church building and her faith community as her only refuge as bombs exploded.  Being Catholic was to be home, to be safe, to be loved and to love.  Yet, as she told me with the mix of rage and brokenness of heart of betrayal that we know too well, as the sex abuse allegations surfaced her mother, a daily communicant and octogenarian, stopped setting foot in her parish.  It was her mother’s pain at losing what she most loved that moved McKillen to create art celebrating the extraordinary beauty of the Catholic tradition, while turning it back on itself with the accusatory cry of desolation of her mother’s voice.  The confessional is now glass, empty so all may see, the chair of the priest is the size of a child who is the only one who may grant forgiveness.  The kneeler’s cushion is replaced by a bed of nails, the children’s robes stand as ghosts, and in another room, small handmade fabric reliquaries to tears flicker as candles.  Sinfulness must be spoken, must lead to reparations, must bring about radical humility and change.

What kind of holiness can a community claim that has betrayed its most vulnerable?  None.  We can attest to nothing on our behalf, what we can do is after the destruction, when “the land is a desolate waste” as Isaiah tells us (Is: 6:11)  embrace our want, our nothingness, divest ourselves of power over others, follow the parables, reverse the order of the world.

Because we have failed to be holy, our church must become kenotic.

The Church is Kenotic

There is a strangeness to the Greek term, which in the New Testament is always a verb, to empty, that reminds us of the one who taught it to us.  Kenotic speaks of long ago, and it speaks of the otherness of Jesus, whose everyday acts were always countercultural. How often do we stop to contemplate that the Church is not about itself and its survival, but about holding ourselves together in the Spirit to continue to love and work for a suffering Creation as Christ did?  

Scholars tell us that Paul wrote the letter to the young church of Philippi that gives us the theology of kenosis while he was in prison facing a possible execution.  Paul was jailed so many times that three different locations are possible, and yet (so paradoxically as to require us to pause) scholars also refer to this letter from prison as “the letter of joy.”[3] Paul discovers, what wise spiritual teachers continue to teach, that when we face our powerlessness and open our hearts fully to the Spirit, we become astonishingly free.  In our wounded emptiness we make room for grace.[4]  Before he puts forward his Christological meditation on Jesus’ self-emptying Paul explains to the community, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others” (Phil 2:3-4).

A church that is kenotic, is always in the act of examining its motives, of removing any illusions of power, of becoming least, and rejoicing in being the servant and giving.

The Church is catholic

The descriptor of the church as catholic did not start showing up in creeds until the late fourth century, picking up an earlier idea from Ignatius of Antioch[5] who used the Greek term to describe the Church as both a local community under a bishop and a whole or universal community under Jesus.  Today, it’s likely most Catholics believe the description of the church as catholic refers to the primacy of Catholicism, as a denomination, failing to note that in the Creeds catholic is written with a little c.  It’s about all Christians, it’s about wholeness.  The tendency to use this term to express the actual opposite of what it meant brought the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio to say

“…that the radiance of the Church's image is less clear in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, and the growth of God's kingdom is delayed… the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her… the Church herself finds it more difficult to express in actual life her full catholicity in all her bearings” (UR 4).

How should we describe ourselves then as we move away from a word that has been used to stress divisions?  What about the Church is Cosmic?

The Church is Cosmic

In Laudato Si, the attitude of boundless and integral love toward the entire cosmos is what Pope Francisco discerns in Francis of Assisi.  He describes how

“To [Francis] each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection.  That is why he felt called to care for all that exists ” (LS 11).

Pope Francisco draws a direct connection between Francis’ way of living in the world as an ever expanding love that breaks all boundaries between all God has made and his way of living as a “refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (LS 11).   In describing the Church as Loving, we also refuse to allow claims of catholic identity to absolutize what cannot be absolute, to claim we have achieved what has yet to be, and to leave out the rest of creation.  In seeing the Church as cosmic instead we are called to reach out constantly in search of an ever-wider circle of “us,” which includes not only people but all of existence.  

The Church is apostolic

The final identity marker is the Church is apostolic, once again in our context this has become a site of controversy.  Does apostolic mean the church traces the lineage of its most visible leaders, the bishops, to the Apostles?  If that is so how can denominations within the Christian Church, such as Roman Catholics, exclude women from episcopal office since we know women were apostles, especially in light of Mary of Magdala, termed apostle to the apostles?  (Image: statue and icon of Mary of Magdala). Does apostolic mean as Calvin stressed “conformity with the teaching of the apostles”?[6]  Just which teachings does that refer to?  How do we deal with all of these fights?  If to be an apostle, as Mary of Magdala was, means to live in the world in the joy of the resurrected Christ and to take this joy out to all, can we have a marker of identity that is much more clearly about that in our time.

The Church is Beautiful

Beauty as a marker for the Church requires it to hold together the one and the many, to seek wholeness as a way to express its exuberance and fruitfulness.  The Church beautiful is abundant, welcoming of difference, enjoying encounter, expressing itself in widening circles of cosmic usness, and visibly inviting to the world.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said “beauty will save the world.”  What could that mean?  

Beauty is visible and felt, it engenders love, it invites us to it.  Similarly, the absence of beauty repels us and is also a very efficient way for us to notice what is wrong and needs attention.  Beauty in its presence or its absence is an ethical marker, a pointer, an assurance of being on the right path or of having terribly failed.  If we hold the Christian church to the requirement of being beautiful, exclusion, animus, bickering, blame and all other forms of ugliness quickly become signs of abject failure.  If we are to be beautiful, we must replace these with inclusivity, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.  Beauty is not difficult to spot, as the theologian Alex García-Rivera expressed it, beauty must be loved to be known.  Beauty will call us to it in our very hearts and ask of us love to keep the beauty alive, and when it is heartbreakingly absent, as during these moments, which will come because reality is reality, the heartbreak has to call us to transformation so beauty may return and our hearts be filled with love again.

(Image new social media profile for church) A church which is encountering, kenotic, cosmic and beautiful, how does that feel to you friends?


[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, La Densidad del Presente (Salamanca: Ediciones Sigueme, 2003), 70.

[2] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 379.

[3] NABRE, Introduction to the Letter to the Philippians.

[4] Wounded Grace and the….

[5] Rausch, I Believe in God, 132.

[6] Rausch, I believe, 134.