Welcoming the Powerful Stranger

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"Welcoming the powerful stranger" by Nathan Ahearne (CatholicMom.com)

Image credit: Pixabay.com (2017), CC0/PD

The following reflections are the synthesis of research and pondering in the lead up to the Guinness and God Series hosted by ACU and the Archdiocese of Canberra Goulburn. The title of our discussion was “Belong – Encounter in the Church” and is the first in a series which will examine the praxis of “Belong, Believe, and Become,” a model which Archbishop Christopher Prowse has proposed for our Archdiocese.

“Belong, Believe, and then Become” is actually the reversal of an older process which required new members of a Church community to:

  • First become (change the way they lived; repent; act like they belonged there).
  • Then believe (change the way they thought; have faith; believe like one of the community).
  • Then they could belong (because they had behaved and believed, God forgave them and made them His child. Then they were welcomed into God’s family).

The “Become, Believe, then Belong” model is the extreme opposite of Jesus’s handling of power in the Gospels. Conversely, we see Jesus empowering the powerless, giving a voice to the minority and starting by listening to the unique story of each person. Doug Bixby reminds us in his book The Honest to God Church that “our call as Christians is to share God’s grace, not to decide who gets it.” Belong means to come as you are, not as you should be. It’s a new way of being Church that allows people to be honest and vulnerable and leaves room for grace. The model places a sense of belonging as the starting point and acknowledges the sociological need for connection.

It is human nature to want to belong to something, whether it’s a sporting team, a nation, a culture, a family, or a shared history. Research conducted by Brené Browne led her to conclude that we are biologically wired for connection, that “we are created to belong, and our greatest fear is that we will not belong.” The “Belong, Believe, Become” model suggests that anyone can belong, regardless of their orientation, regardless of their beliefs, or whether they are even Christians. They are included, loved, embraced, and welcomed. Then, only after belonging, do they begin to hear about Jesus, see Christians acting in counter-cultural ways, and learn about this Jesus who claims to be the Son of God.

Nathan Albert notes that this model is also exemplified through the life of our doubting Thomas who belonged to his community for three years. It was there that he belonged and was intimately known by Jesus and the other disciples. However, it wasn’t until a week after Jesus’ Resurrection that Thomas saw Jesus face-to-face. During this week, all the other disciples believed and Thomas continued to belong even though he didn’t believe. Thomas belonged, believed, and then became. Perhaps he didn’t want people telling him to “change” but instead be told he was God’s beloved.

Jesus simply called the disciples as they were: They didn’t need to change; they just needed to follow. It is difficult to ignore our uniqueness of nationality, culture, gender, family experiences, sexuality, socio-economic status, hurt and rejection, addictions, shame, disability, misunderstanding of group culture, lack of education, mental illness, or age differences. Belonging can be a hard first step, because we don’t feel like we know what we are doing, we compare ourselves to others and don’t feel like we fit in. We don’t know the dance steps and feel out of place. We need someone to show us and make us feel welcome despite all of this difference.

Another challenge to belonging is the tendency to want to be part of a winning team, to follow the victorious, take sport for instance. Sporting team doing it tough, staying loyal, some switch teams or just, others follow a different code, or at worst they stop following altogether. It’s easy to follow a team when they are going well, harder when they are struggling, making excuses, etc. At the end of the day it’s not about your own performance or contribution; you are just a fan, someone to cheer and be a supporter. You can’t really make any difference to what happens on the field, besides the mood.

Pope Francis is calling for Catholics to have skin in the game, to stop viewing life from the balcony and confusing happiness with an armchair. We should be less concerned with commentating on what it means to be a Catholic, and actually start living it daily – that is how we will belong, decide, and be. We cannot belong by proxy. That means living in the mountains and the valleys, where you will get dirty, but there will also be moments of hope and joy. Jesus didn’t say, come follow me on twitter. He literally meant follow in his footsteps, eat, weep, heal and pray.

In his book titled Finding a Home in the World, Pádraig Ó Tuama quotes a poem by David Wagoner called “Lost.” And there are these two lines: “Wherever you are is called Here, / And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.” Pádraig says,

Powerful strangers can also be unsettling and troubling. And powerful strangers can have their own hostilities and have their own way within which they cause you to question who you are and where you’re from. That is a way within which, for me, the notion of saying hello to “here” requires a fairly robust capacity to tell the truth about what is really going on. That can be very difficult.

Padraig, a practitioner of conflict resolution speaks eloquently about the inclusion of language, “we infuse words with a sense of who we are. So therefore, you’re not just saying a word; you’re communicating something that feels like your soul. And it might even be your soul. So the choice of a particular word is really, really important. There is what is in the text and — whether that’s a sacred text or the text of somebody’s life — and then there is the lenses through which you read and interpret that. There is the way within which there’s a generosity of listening. And when somebody says something, to try to figure out, “Did I hear them correctly?” because sometimes I’ve heard what I want to hear, and I might be completely wrong.”

For whatever reason, be it a past hurt, fear of commitment or previous disappointment in community, many people chose to walk the path of faith alone. There may be a desire to belong, but it is overshadowed by an inability to trust or find a suitable community that ticks all of the boxes. However, Pope Francis suggests that “we are not Christians as an individual, each one on his own,” he said. “None of us become Christians on our own,” but rather “we owe our relationship with God to so many others who passed on the faith, who brought us for Baptism, who taught us to pray and showed us the beauty of the Christian life.”

“We are Christians not only because of others, but together with others” he pointed out, describing the Church as “a large family that welcomes us and teaches us to live as believers and disciples of the Lord.”

Are we creating safe places for belonging to grow, places where different points of view are heard?

Are people willing to speak or is there a sense of pervading fear and silencing of difference?

How well do you welcome the powerful stranger called here?


Copyright 2019 Nathan Ahearne

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About Author

Nathan Ahearne's faith journey has helped to shape the person he is today as husband, father, teacher and formator of young people. His vocation and faith are strengthened and nourished by those he encounters in service and contemplation. Nathan is a creative thinker and likes to roll up his sleeves and see projects through to completion. He is a John 10:10 fan. Read more at Expressions of Interest.

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