There is a Hindu spiritual teacher who is known as the “hugging saint.” She intends, in her words, to bring peace to the world one hug at a time. That’s quite a goal! However, it is strikingly similar to the goal of the early church, where the leadership wanted to spread Christ’s message by first preaching the Word, and then building relationships, one relationship at a time. These relationships would be nourished in local communities called Churches.
How were relationships formed and kept strong? They were formed with people who believed the same teaching of Christ, thereupon meeting with each other and agreeing to worship together. They were kept strong in the way they related to each other. If the New Testament can be regarded as a guide here, we see that the leaders became leaders because they had the ability, itself built up by prayer, to recognize the strong points in their churches and in the people who composed them. The relevant questions were “how is this person strong in love?” and, “how is this community strong in love?”
This ability is important because once accomplished, the next aspect of community life can manifest. And that is “Growing.” We all need to grow. We are not ordered to grow as much as we need to grow. If the goal of a Chris- tian community is to be loving as Christ wants us to be, then there is always a higher bar of attainment that we need to reach for. And that means some correction has to take place from time to time. I mean, ahem, criticism.
Now criticism can best be heard by people who know they are loved and accepted. They have to feel secure. To the extent that they are secure, they can both hear and work with whatever criticism comes their way. If they do not feel loved and accepted, criticism (in particular, harsh criticism) merely anchors them in whatever negative states are manifesting within them.
If you look at Church history, the importance of building strong relationships is evident. For example, just ponder the traditional three levels of spiritual growth. Simplified, it’s really just the following. At the lowest level we see 1: Only my needs are important. Then we have 2: I’ll satisfy your needs when you satisfy mine. (Bartering). Finally, we have 3: Your needs are more important than mine.
Granted, often enough these three steps are used to describe how we grow in our relationship with God. But if you research these steps more deeply, you end up seeing how these steps also adequately describe our relation- ships with each other and what they can be – in particular, benefitting people who are married. In fact, a gentle- man in this parish told me that this is how he lives by the third and highest stage in relating with his wife, and she with him – “Your needs are more important than mine.” So here, too, we are still on the topic of maintaining a strong relationship. It works.
I can satisfy my needs in negative ways, thinking anyway that I am satisfying them. Or I can satisfy them in positive, life affirming ways. The choice is always mine to make. I can offer a good correction or criticism in a loving manner that does not offend, knowing that I can do this because my relationship with this person is strong. Or I tear this or that person down, effectively ending the relationship, by criticizing this person harshly and unlovingly. Looking at Church history, we see that maintaining good relationships was always a high value. I think the Church was right. God bless you!