I'm not one for pithy quotes posted on big signs outside churches. I typically find them distracting at best or silly and inane at worst. But when I drove by the local Reform church in my town yesterday, the posted comment hit home:
"You don't change the message; the message changes you."
I found myself giving a little "Amen!" as I turned onto a side street. Sure this sign referred to the general Christian message, but I think it applies even more appropriately to the Catholic message.
We live in a world where everyone tries to change with the times, and too often society thinks the Church should follow suit. We should be more flexible and fluid, more "modern" and adaptive, we hear from sources of every stripe, Catholic and not. And still we attempt to stay true to the message, even when the message is as counter-cultural as it gets, from abortion and embryonic stem cell research to capital punishment and war.
Why don't we just change the message and take the heat off ? Because our Church knows -- we know -- precisely what the signage tried to convey in one line. If we keep moving the goal posts, changing the message to suit the times, we don't move closer to the Kingdom or according to Jesus' teaching. We move according to our own needs and desires. But, if we allow the message to sink in and to become part of us, even when it's not easy to accept or practice, slowly but surely the message will, in fact, change us.
In her beautiful book "One Thousand Gifts," writer Ann Voskamp writes about discovering the fact that living the Christian message means being grateful -- counting our blessings -- even when the "blessings" are painful or difficult experiences that we don't want in our lives and can't understand. That's some hard teaching, but it's at the heart of this idea that we can't change the message. The message is what it is, and it will change us if we let it.
"Thanksgiving -- giving thanks in everything -- prepares the way that God might show us His fullest salvation in Christ.
"The act of sacrificing thank offerings to God -- even for the bread and cup of cost, for cancer and crucifixion -- this prepares the way for God to show us His fullest salvation from bitter, angry, resentful lives and from all sin that estranges us from Him. At the Eucharist, Christ breaks His heart to heal ours -- Christ, the complete accomplishment of our salvation. And the miracle of eucharisteo never ends: thanksgiving is what precedes the miracle of that salvation being fully worked out in our lives."
So the message doesn't change. The message can't change. Not if we hope to be changed by it, to be made new in Christ. His message must be our message.
That's a pretty powerful faith lesson for a little church sign on a hot May morning. I hope I remember it, not only in good times but in the bad times that are an inevitable part of life. Thanksgiving, Eucharist -- an unchanging, life-changing message.