Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest known throughout the world for his writing and spiritual conferences, told the story of a tourist who says to his guide, “You have a right to be proud of your town. I was especially impressed with the number of churches in it. Surely the people here must love the Lord.” “Well, replied the cynical guide, “they may love the Lord, but they sure as hell hate each other.” (The Song of the Bird) How we wish that were never true. Even churches dedicated to loving the Lord have members who bicker on major and minor issues. In my previous ministries I dealt with controversies surrounding the moving of the altar rail and the installation of a new organ. In other congregations the issues can be miniscule, including the placement of flowers in the sanctuary or the repetition of an outdated liturgical practice.

De Mello tells another story about the Guru’s cat. “When the guru sat down to worship each evening the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat expired, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s scholarly disciples on the liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.”
Some troubles are as silly as the one described. Serious issues arise in any organization, however, when the purpose of the organization is forgotten or the mission statement is not observed. Churches that exist primarily for the preservation of the institution often forget the purpose for the institution: to proclaim the good news of Jesus. Sometimes churches take a hit when the message of love and justice is more important than the immediate welfare of the institution itself. Think of the “heat” that churches and individuals suffered during the early days of the civil rights movement. Think of the struggles now in our nation to accept and grant equal rights to all people regardless of race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, etc.
Disagreements of any sort don’t give us permission to love only God and to hate our fellow human beings. As written in 1st John, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate
their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this; those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 John: 4:20-21)
Religious hatred exists and in some places is rampant, as in Iraq. The Muslim controversy between the Sunnis and Shi’ites dates back to the year 632 over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad. That struggle continues in wars for political dominance. What happened to respect for Allah? Most Muslims believe that the Koran is a book of peace and that indiscriminate taking of human life violates Allah’s wishes. Of course, Christians cannot be smug in this regard having fought one another through the centuries in bloody religious wars. Our struggle for love and peace continues.
Here is a prayer to help us uphold the banner of peace: “Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all people may be gathered under the banner of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever.” Amen (Book of Common Prayer)
Editor’s Note: This column was originally published on July 17, 2014.