Thich Nhat Hanh is changing the way I think and feel about the church. Honestly, I don’t much like “The Church.” Haven’t for a long time. It is getting more and more difficult for me to love Jesus and follow “the way” of Jesus, “the way” of grace and peace, and at the same time to call myself a “Christian.”
This is especially poignant to me because, as an Episcopalian in America, I am regularly confronted with the judgment of Christians who say something like, “Episcopalians aren’t really Christians.” The little Episcopal parish church I love and belong to is filled with the most sincere, loving, grace-full seekers/believers I’ve ever encountered. This judgment, then, by other Christians creates quite a disconnect for me with Christianity as it seems to be defined in the culture around me.
Then I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s words in Living Buddha, Living Christ: “The church is the hope of Jesus, just as the Sangha [Buddhist congregation] is the hope of the Buddha.” Okay, I trust Thich Nhat Hanh as a man full of the Spirit of love and grace and wisdom, so I have to step back and think about what he’s saying. He continues: “It is through the practice of the church and the Sangha that the teachings come alive. Communities of practice, with all their shortcomings, are the best way to make the teachings available to people. The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit need the church in order to be manifested.”
I had to mull that one over for a bit. In the end, it does not change my belief that much/most of Christianity has little to do with Christ. The key phrase in Thich Nhat Hanh’s statement is “communities of practice.” The word “church,” with a small “c,” describes a “community of practice” in a particular time and place. I have to ask whether there is such a thing as “Christianity” outside of a “community of practice.” No, I don’t think so. There are only communities of practice that are either practicing “the way” of Jesus, “the way”of grace and peace, or not practicing it. The ones who are not, Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as “a false Sangha, a false church.”
I belong to a community of practice, Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, that is doing all within its power to follow “the way” of Jesus. But then I imagine every Christian church in existence would make the same claim. And God is the only Judge. It is human nature to judge others in part by the way others judge us (think of Jesus’ words in Matt. 7: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”) I guess it’s the same with churches.
Thich Nhat Hanh closes this section of teaching with this: “If the church practices well the teachings of Jesus, the Trinity will always be present and the church will have a healing power to transform all that it touches.” Amen to that. I just wonder why I had to read Thich Nhat Hanh to hear it. So here’s my “take-away” on this. My concern must be the community of practice to which I belong–whether it manifests the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and has “a healing power to transform all that it touches.”
All the rest is chaff.