Today I led the Discovery study with over forty students who are preparing to become teachers in the Catholic school system. As has been the case over the last ten years, a large majority are not practicing their faith. Some of them actually, when asked the question, “What are you hoping to get out of this study?”, responded with, “I’m hoping I’ll be given a reason to reconsider – a reason why I should come back to the Church.” So it’s a great joy for me to lead this study with people who are far away. But every time I lead it I learn something new, and I would like to share with you what I learned this week.
In the first study, we talk about our God’s personal love. There’s a Scripture passage I ask them to discuss in their small group – a well-known passage, Jeremiah 29:11.
“For I know the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord. Plans for your prosperity – not for your harm– plans to give you hope and a future.”
One of the participants found it hard to identify with that passage – “I know the plans I have in mind for you” – because in the back of her mind, she’s thinking about how she’s heard that, in the Old Testament, God is a vengeful God, destroying cities, killing children – He seems to be angry at everybody. She had a hard time reconciling that image of God with the passage from Jeremiah. So to help her move beyond her perception of God and to enter into that passage, I shared with her an analogy.
Imagine if you’re walking by my house. And I was on the front porch, pointing my finger and yelling at my seven year old daughter, and with great anger I’m telling her “You can never do that again. If you ever do that again I’m going to lock you in your room for the rest of your life!” And I’m screaming, and my daughter is crying, with her head down – and I continue to point my finger and yell. What would be your impression of me at that particular time? You’d probably say, “Wow, that’s an angry man! I feel sorry for that little girl. That’s not the way to treat your daughter.” So you’d leave very disillusioned with me as a father. But you’re unaware of the rest of the story, what happened earlier. Two minutes earlier, I was on the front lawn, and told my daughter not to kick the ball into the street. But she did – and she ran to get the ball, and a car was coming, and slammed on its breaks, and was only two inches from hitting my daughter. So I grabbed my daughter, and said what I said. Did I do that out of anger? Or did I do it out of love and concern for my daughter?
Sometimes when we read the Old Testament, what we see and hear appears to be the vengeance of God – or at least that’s how we perceive it. But we rarely hear the rest of the story – “I know well the plans I have for you” or, “You are written on the palms of my hand.” To really understand the Old Testament we have to know the Heart of the Father, and then we’ll understand why at times we’re hearing what seems like screaming, shouting, vengeance… To understand the “vengeance” we have to understand the love and concern that the Father has for his people.
I asked this girl to give the other side of the story the chance, to understand the other side of the “vengeful God”.
These perception problems often affect the way people relate to the Church as well. The reason people find it so easy to walk away from the Church is because their perception is that they’re walking away from something that is not attractive or relevant – like the Sacraments, hierarchy, liturgy, or our worldview. It isn’t so much that they’re angry with the Church or wish to reject it outright, but they perceive it as not having anything to do with them – or worse, as being like the so-called “vengeful God” of the Old Testament. Our task is to communicate to them the message of our faith – the core of our faith, which is a relationship. The Father sent his Son in order for us to have life – each individual person. When people understand that God sent Jesus because he loves us, and that the core message of the Faith is a relationship with the Living God, they are able to perceive other things about the church – its liturgy and hierarchy – in light of this relationship.
by André Regnier