A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever. – Ecclesiastes 1:4
A post from my good friend Joel Watts caught my attention for several reasons.
The Church universal is indefectible but people seemed to have forgotten that. Indeed, we no longer remember we are Christians together.
The two extremes in the United Methodist Church have likewise forgotten the nature of the Church. Both seek to control it. For them, it is there Church. Like Shea’s comment above, both extremes have lost faith in God — failing to realize the foundation of doctrine. Whereas the Church was once the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit – the same Holy Spirit that is supposed to lead us into all truth — it is now a battlefield between Justice-without-Righteousness and Righteousness-without-Justice. Both sides want to win in a place where we are to be made one, in a place where we are to be humble — in a kingdom established by the self-sacrifice.
I honestly had no idea what the word “indefectible” meant, so I checked it out. It is a Roman Catholic doctrine that means that Church shall not pass away. Watts is here transferring the idea to “the Church universal” from a specifically Roman context, via a post by Mark Shea at Patheos.
In short, neither Progressive nor Reactionary dissenters really trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit or the indefectibility of the Church. Both believe the development of doctrine is, at bottom, not the Church coming to a deeper understanding of the will of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but a random collision of power and mere human will in which anything might happen and any ideology might become top dog depending on who is the strongest. And therefore, they believe it is all on them to (for Progressives) Change the Church into modern reflection of Liberal Values or (for Reactionaries) Save the Church from mutating into a “dark and false Church“. Neither really believes the job of Savior of the Church has already been filled, so they need to make it happen.
To both I would respond: Everything dies. It’s really that simple. The photo above, showing the excavation of the ruins of Gobekli Tepi in Turkey, is really a marvel. Not so much “discovered” as pointed out by local goat herders who knew the rocks peaking above the sand meant something but couldn’t care less, the painfully slow process of unearthing . . . whatever these ruins might be – temple? waystation for travelers? part of a larger city? – has done at least one thing: Doubled the time span during which human beings are known to have built settled habitations. These ruins are as far back in time from the civilization in Sumer as we are from the Sumerians. Which, of course, creates a whole set of questions as yet unanswerable about evidence for what happened in the millennia in between. In any event, hazarding a guess, the folks who built the structure at Gobekli Tepi, folks like us who worried about putting food on the table, making sure their children grew up safe and happy, whether the government would be fair or arbitrary in the dispensation of justice; something tells me the folks who built this assumed it, and they, and the society that created it, would last forever. The irony, of course, is that at some point other people came along and purposely covered the entire site in sand and dirt, not so much destroying it as burying something as dead as Jacob Marley.
To claim either the Roman Catholic Church or the Church universal will last forever absent human action to make it so is ridiculous. What else is the action of the Holy Spirit but people actively continuing the work of the Church? What more potent statement of our sinfulness would there be than the closing of the last United Methodist Church, the sale of our assets to pay our debts, and the scattering of our people because we assumed it would just last without actual human beings fighting for it to do so? To claim that those actively involved in the process of moving the United Methodist Church forward both have forgotten the Holy Spirit and are “extremists” who should be ignored is deeply troubling. Where else do we see the Spirit in action, other than human beings engaged in the important work of ensuring the continuity of the ministries of the United Methodist Church? Where else do we hear the voice of the Spirit than in those vigorously engaged in discussions and disagreements about our future? Rather than claim some group or other seeks “control”, it might actually do us all good to look at what is actually happening. People passionately concerned about the future of the United Methodist Church are trying in faith both to discern the best course of action for our future and to move us toward that future together in the only way we have as a denomination to do so, through the mechanism of General Conference. To insist we should not listen to these “extremes” would be to insist we not become engaged in making our voices heard about the future of the people called Methodist. To insist upon the indefectability of the Church, whether Universal or some part thereof, is to ignore the reality that like all things zwischen den zeiten, the Church of Jesus Christ is simul iustus et peccator.
As much as we may rest our faith in the Holy Spirit to guide us, to proclaim the eternal presence of the Son for the sake and Glory of the Father, the churches are also human institutions, fallible and prone to all the foibles and evils our fallen state carries with it. We cannot sit back, call those who speak and act most forcefully “extremists” to which we should pay no attention, but rather listen to their voices, watch their work, and prayerfully seek to find the Holy Spirit in their words and deeds. Nothing lasts forever, human institutions most of all. It may well be the case that the particular ministries and what we call our emphases as United Methodists are now or will at some point in the future no longer either be relevant or serve their Lord. In either case, there will come a day when that last United Methodist church will shut its doors, and the people called Methodists no longer exist. In order to delay that as long as possible; in order to push that date far in to the future so no one is burying the last UM church in sand and dirt like some people did Gobekli Tepi, all we can ever do is act in love and faith and hope. This isn’t being extreme best ignored. It isn’t forgetting the presence of the Holy Spirit, but actively seeking it.
It is precisely modernity’s incomprehensibility that art confronts, in one of two ways: either by attempting to stuff modernity back into the clothes of the pre-modern, pretending to a familiarity that is only ideological – in other words, denying reality – or by acknowledging modernity’s radical strangeness (and estrangement) by direct confrontation via art techniques up to the task,, thereby making critical sense of it. But to accomplish the latter, new art must make itself strange, because the techniques of old no not permit access to modernity, and this fact results in art’s distance from an audience that social conditions regressively shape. In an art worthy of the name, production and consumption cannot be productively brought together, Adorno maintains, unless society itself changes. And he is clear that art itself is not going to change the wordlld – its role is principally diagnostic. – Richard Leppert, “Commentary: Locating Music”, in Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Essays On Music, p.95
Have you ever been to a concert? Rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, classical, it doesn’t really matter. Just being together with other people to enjoy the performance of music. If the music is done well, and if the performers are reaching the audience, something magical can happen: there’s this flowing back and forth of energy and emotion, in which each drives the other forward and upward, making the music better and better, pushing the audience even deeper in to the experience of the music. You close your eyes and let the sound wash over you; you clap your hands to the beat, sing along, even at heavy metal shows you bang your head and wave your hand in the air with the “devil’s horns” sign. At its best, music as a communicative art form should transport listeners to the place the music is. That is why it is such a demanding art form; for all its contingency and the limits on its ability to communicate more than mere emotion and feeling, its purpose is to move listeners and performers alike, only the listeners have further to travel.
As Leppert makes clear in this overview of Theodor Adorno’s general thoughts on music, our modern age has made this all the harder. First, it has stripped our ability to place what we hear in some kind of historical context. Music is little more than a product now, and even those most devoted to any particular style of music are still kept at a distance from it by the fact of exchange. Furthermore, modernity forces even the most “radical” music either to move backwards (Adorno considers Stravinsky to be this kind of primitivist) or make listeners comfortable with the status quo (Adorno considers the neo-classical composers, particularly of the post-WWII era to be this kind of comforting friend of the bourgeoisie). When music confronts us with the real disjunction and dysfunction of our modern, late capitalist age, it can become almost impossible to listen to precisely because it offers us a view of reality that we understand is true, but do not confront in the normal course of events. Thus it is that 20th century composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and their followers in composing using 12-tone and serial style are difficult to hear precisely because they are, to use Leppert’s term, diagnostic.
Yesterday, a friend of mine posted a link to this article, in which the author states that, for some Christians in some traditions, music has taken on a priestly function, even a sacramental one, which in the author’s words makes it more akin to “ecstatic pagan practices than to Christian worship.” The biggest problem with this article, besides offering no evidence whatsoever that this is actually happening, beyond a few fliers and some quotes from a book, said quotes also having no actual evidence, is that defining “ecstasy” as “pagan”, and akin to a priestly, sacramental function denies not only the experiences of two thousand years of Christian experience, but even evidence from the Scriptures themselves. Furthermore, he makes the category mistake of insisting that an expression of deep emotion during hymn or praise singing is what we should experience during the declaration of God’s Word and in the sacraments.
From Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to Sts. Peter and Paul, the Bible has numerous instances of reports of ecstatic experience. St. Paul’s is actually first hand, in which he writes about being lifted up to heaven. In the centuries that followed, the anchorite St. Anthony often reported ecstatic experiences. Martin Luther claims to have encountered Lucifer in his monk’s cell. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton and more all have left us vivid accounts of ecstatic experiences that have shattered their understanding of the world and planted their faith in a place far different from that of the rest of us. To claim, then, that ecstasy is “pagan” is to deny our collective history as Christian believers.
Furthermore, when it comes specifically to worship, the best worship services are those where all elements combine to bring the congregation out of the world, out of our mundane worries and fears and joys and in to the presence of God. The altar is a stand-in for the throne we read about in Isaiah and Revelation. The hymns we sing are echoed in heaven in the praise of the cherubim who sing eternally before the throne of God, as St. John of Patmos reports in his ecstatic experience of Divine Worship in heaven.
I’m guessing that Adorno wouldn’t quite know what to make of music in Christian worship. Whether it’s the use of historical artifacts such as ancient hymns, or the cozy, comforting sounds of contemporary “praise” music, both I think would raise his hackles as attempts to avoid the needed confrontation with our modern age that real music, real art, should present the listener. The problem, of course, is that it is the whole worship experience that should, in fact, present this confrontation precisely by moving the congregation out of this world, offering the stark contrast between what God promises for us and what we experience. In this way, Christian worship is little different than Adorno’s understanding of music, except that it is more than “diagnostic” precisely because we Christians are called to go forth and offer others the vision of faith and hope and love we receive in our worship together. Prayer, our offerings, music, the preaching of the Word – when done well and with the presence of the Spirit, the congregation is moved. And music is a part of that.
The first video above is of a traditional African-American Ring Shout, an ecstatic expression of faith still practiced in some part of African-American churches. To deny ecstasy in Christian worship is to deny the very real experience of African-American Christians who experienced the freedom they didn’t have in this world; the love they shared for one another as a bulwark against the hatred of a society that consistently denies their humanity; to celebrate their love for God and God’s love for them when there was little more to celebrate. The ring shout is more than ecstasy. It is more than just a part of worship. It is God moving the people to express the freedom and joy that comes to a congregation that believes they are named and loved by God, the Creator of the Universe, and that no amount of dehumanization can take that away, at least at this moment.
The second video, of Freddie Mercury leading a crowd chant at the old Wembley Stadium, is an example of how, when musicians and audience connect through the music, it becomes possible to act as one. When music in corporate worship moves us to see ourselves before the throne of God, that altar up front, we become like that crowd at Live AID, ready to follow the lead together in the faith that is communicated through song. Our secular experience of music as an emotionally communicative medium (thus all the discussions about “is music language?”) occurs in our worship as well, readying us by dragging us out of our lives in this world and syncing our voices with those angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts and the Lamb who was slain.” When we give ourselves over through music in worship, we confront the disjunction and dysfunction of our world with the present and coming Kingdom of God. This is more than mere political or social ideologies clashing with a sudden insight in to the contradictions of these systems; this is the radical break between our sinful world and the hope and faith and promise of renewal through the power of the Spirit.
To dismiss all this as pagan is not to understand that Christian worship is supposed to grab hold of our whole lives, using all the elements possible, place us really and truly before the throne of God, so that we are ready to go back to our lives in our sinful, broken world and be the hands and feet and voices of God. If our music isn’t doing this, if it is little more than stately, quiet recitation-in-harmony-and-rhythm, what, then do we do with King David, wearing only a loin cloth, singing and dancing and leading the procession on the entrance in to Jerusalem? We should never deny the very real place ecstasy has in Christian worship, or the role of music in making this possible.
One must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly. – Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 52, quoted in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.81
Properly, this post belongs on my other site. Yet as I was reading Leppert’s interpretation of Adorno on tradition, I couldn’t help but find parallels to our on-going discussions in The United Methodist Church. Precisely because Adorno insisted that all of us, including this author and Adorno himself, were inescapably involved in the compromises and contradictions of late modernity, the best he believed was ever possible was to highlight those contradictions without offering a resolution, precisely because that inferred some kind of clear-sightedness past our current dilemma that isn’t possible. For Adorno, this offered at least the hope, the Utopian promise that, as commentator Richard Leppert says, things could be better than they are.
While dealing with aesthetics, specifically with music, the aphorism above applies in all areas of life. For Adorno, tradition, like everything else, is no longer a living thing, a historical, social, political, human reality, but a commodity to be purchased. We believe buying antiques, or listening to an older piece of music puts us “in touch with tradition” when in fact we are only consuming a product sold to us as fulfilling a need. Late capitalism has stripped the living human world and reduced it to products to be packaged and sold. We are no longer in touch with our past because it has become commodified.
Adorno was critiqued, in particular by Georg Lukacs, for living in what Lukacs called “the Grand Hotel Abyss”, never once disturbing the quiet of his thought or the pleasures of his retreat from the Abyss in to which he would gaze. Yet, Adorno was always consistent that action, even in his youth, went against the historical realities, which Leppert described as fascist on the one side, Stalinist on the other, and neither attractive. In the years of his American exile, Adorno didn’t so much come to despise the United States as he came to understand how it was the epitome of all that was both great and terrible about modernity in its dotage. Even in his late years – the mid- to late-1960’s – Adorno refused to become involved in the student protest movements in Germany and elsewhere, because he believed the students had become far more enamored of praxis without thought, whereas for Adorno, thought either guided or reflected upon practical action or the action became little more than mob violence, serving the ends of modernity’s real goal – making even revolution a product to be sold.
For Adorno, the most difficult thing in late modernity was to think. More precisely, whether it was fascism, Stalinism, or the totalizing tendencies of the Culture Industry in the United States all worked against thought. Nothing was more revolutionary than to think, specifically to think about what is and more importantly what could be. In order to do this, one has to be aware of the past in a way that late modernity’s political systems worked so hard to prevent: the past had to become a part of one’s life, a living thing against which one struggles in thought first. You cannot overcome a past you do not know, but only own, offered to you at 20% off.
We United Methodists have an abundance of multiple traditions from which to draw. Some of them overlap. Some of them contradict. All of them, however, need to become part of our marrow, part of our heart and life if we are to overcome them and become the United Methodist Church for the present and future. Yesterday, I offered a Moltmannian approach to our problems, in which we dared to be a church that could stand before the cross, emptying ourselves of pride, of power, of our reliance upon doctrine and the Bible in order to be what God is calling us to be – those willing to die in order to follow God’s call. Today, I’m insisting that there are things we need to do before we take this via Dolorosa. We need to acknowledge that our traditions are, by and large, no longer a part of who we are. Oh, we mouth platitudes toward John Wesley, toward Bishops Coke and Asbury. We talk about the Holiness movement and how it changed and electrified our churches. Do we also acknowledge the depth of Boston Personalism, a religious/philosophical system developed by United Methodist theologians to respond to the perils and problems of Gilded Age Christianity? Do we even remember the multiple threads of tradition from what was the Evengelical United Brethren Church, its deep German pietism and commitment to congregational autonomy? Are we willing to embrace the history of racism that still infects our church?
We are confronting not just our recent history of refusal to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of sexual minorities, and all they can and do offer our churches. We are confronting our own forgetfulness, our own refusal to understand this as part of a real, living, human tradition called the United Methodist Church that has always tried to overcome its worst demons while never doing so completely. We cannot take the steps necessary unless we first acknowledge, and then repent, our forgetfulness, our traditions of discrimination, of bigotry and white supremacy that still exists, that these traditions are a living part of who we are. We cannot become who we should be until and unless we are willing to acknowledge who we are.
I want to end with an apologia for Adorno’s overall philosophical project, written by Neil Lazarus, from an essay entitled “Hating Tradition Properly”, originally published in No. 38 of New Formations in the summer of 1999 and included by Leppert on pp. 81-82, at the close of his general introduction:
The point for Adorno . . . is that while the tradition of European bourgeois humanism has always insisted upon its civility , has always gestured toward – even made a promise of – a unversalistically conceived social freedom, it has never delivered on this promise, except, arguably, to the privileged few, and even then only on the basis of the domination of all the others. To have tradition properly is in these terms very different from championing this exclusive (and often excluding . . .) tradition; on the contrary, it is to keep faith with true universality, with the idea of a radically transformed social order, and to oppose oneself implacably to the false universality of modern (bourgeois) sociality. It is to use one’s relative class privilege to combat all privilege, to shoulder the responsibility of intellectualism by “mak[ing] the moral and, as it were, representative effort to say what most of those for whom [one] say[s] it cannot see.
The man for whom the whole is the lie, desire only to save the spirit of the Enlightenment, from which the Methodist movement, arguably at least, was born, from its actual history. Its tradition, you might say, a tradition with which Adorno was intimately familiar. In the same way, I have no idea what the specifics of the future for the United Methodist Church will be. I only know there is much in our past to overcome, to stand against, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit giving us the courage to set it all aside and stand at the foot of the cross and say, “Yes”. Not only for ourselves, but for the whole Church and the world we are called to transform.
The decay of faith and its identity, through a decline into unbelief and a different identity, forms an exact parallel to their decay through a decline into a fearful and defensive faith. Faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to die inwardly, struggling to maintain itself and reaching out for security and guarantees. In so doing, it removes itself from the hand of the one who has promised to maintain it, and its onw manipulations bring it to ruin. This pusillanimous faith usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid and ever. It occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaces by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality, and by penal law. He who is of little faith looks for support and protection for his faith, because it is preyed upon by fear. Such a faith tries to protect its “most sacred things”, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves. When the religion of fear” finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it. Instead of confidence and freedom, fearfulness and apathy are found everywhere. This has considerable consequences for the attitudes of the church, faith, and theology to the new problems posed by history. “Why did the church cut itself off from cultural development?” asks R. Rothe, whose messianic passion in the face of the modern age can speak for itself here: I blush to write it down: because it si afraid for faith in Christ. To me, it is not faith in Christ if it can be afraid for itself and for its Christ! To me, this is not to have faith, but to be of little faith. This, however, is the consequence of a lack of faith that the Saviour is the real and effective ruler of the world; and only when this faith is lacking is such fear psychologically possible. – Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, pp.19-20
Of all Moltmann’s enormous work, it is in The Crucified God where we come up against something that so much theology lacks: the reality that ours is not a faith in doctrines or practices; it is not rooted in our traditions or even in the Bible. Our faith looks past these to their true source, the event of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible is witness to this event. Our traditions and doctrines continue to try and make some kind of sense of this event. Our worship only exists because it celebrates this horrific, bloody event and its aftermath. While we all gather on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the beginning of the final victory over death, it is always and only ever the resurrection of the crucified Jesus or it is no Easter event at all. All faith, all doctrine, all theology, all worship, all mission, all our history, all of the Bible must be able not only to stand before the bloody dying Christ on the cross; it must be willing to make this journey with Jesus, the abandoned, tortured, humiliated Jesus who discovered that even the One he called Father had forsaken him in this his most terrible moment. If we are not willing, as a people, to say “Yes” to the Cross of Jesus Christ, then all our other “Yes’s” are meaningless.
Which is why I find so much of the appeal to doctrine in our current discussions in the United Methodist Church both fascinating and self-defeating. The various appeals – to doctrine, to our history, to our unique Wesleyan emphases – are certainly important. Not, however, as ends in themselves. Unless they are in service to the very real living Lord who died on the cross and rose on Easter Sunday, they are little more than the fearful, ultimately fruitless attempts to shore up the collapsing walls of our church. Unless we return to the most fundamental reality of faith – that our faith is in the God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who entered so far in to human reality as to embrace death so that it would be overcome, so that creation would no longer fear our endings – all we’re doing is shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
When The United Methodist Church is willing to risk non-identity, that self-emptying that St. Paul celebrates in Philippians 2 not only as the Christ-event, but as how we must imitate Christ, then and only then will we begin to be the Church of Jesus Christ called United Methodist. Only when we are willing to say that our distinctive emphases are the practice of Christ on the Cross – the self-giving love that experiences abandonment and death as the real mark of the human condition under sin, therefore that which we must embrace in faith so that true faith, true humanity, true ministry, true doctrine can be. Unless we are willing to plant that bloody Roman execution device at the center of our Bibles, they are little more than old books written a long time ago with no more meaning for us than any other ancient curiosity.
Our faith rests on real things, indeed on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon to a German congregation he served in Spain, said was not only the only truly historical event, but also the event that gave the rest of history its meaning. None of this is to deny the importance of doctrine, of the history of the faith or our unique, Wesleyan contribution to it. None of this is to deny the reality that we always face the choice of good and evil in our actions in this world. None of this is to belittle our communal worship. It is only to remind us all that all of this, this edifice we call The United Methodist Church, only stands if it stands underneath the cross of the Christ who will rise. If it can stand there, if we can stand there, willing to bear the pain and shame of the abandonment of the Son of God as our pain and shame and abandonment; only if as a church we are willing to enter in to the world knowing this cross defines “the world” that God loves and that we are to serve, willing even to go to the point of non-identity that is death and denial; only then will we be worthy to salvage ourselves, to be the Church we can be.
Let us not be pusillanimous in our faith. Let us, rather, be bold and unafraid, knowing that in fact the Christ raised from this death reigns already. Let us live without fear of the threat of abandonment, of non-identity, even death because we believe these have been taken up on that bloody cross outside the city gates and entered in to the new life in God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from this death.
Thus it is that our hope as United Methodists lies where it always has: in Christ. Not as a theological principle, but a living Lord who will never die so that we might not fear death, but live the life to which God is calling all creation.
The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name.
Holy is he! – Psalm 99:1-3
We praise God’s name, sure. We get together and say all the right words, we make sure we proclaim the infinite difference between Creator and Creature, God’s mighty power and our eternal indebtedness. Then, after praying something like Psalm 99, we act like Moses in Exodus 33, demanding a sign from God. We keep hearing all these words of how God is with us, all that God has done and is doing for us, yet here we are, wandering around lost. Our communal prayers are nothing but praise; they hide our collective private frustration, anger, and doubt that any of it means anything at all. Churches keep closing. The pews sit empty. The bank accounts get more and more difficult to balance each week. It seems that no matter what programs we offer, no matter what classes for children, youth, and adults, fewer and fewer want to learn more about what it is to be a Christian. Is it any wonder that, like Moses, we throw down the gauntlet and demand specific answers to specific questions? Most of all, is it any wonder we demand a face-to-face? We keep doing all this, none of it gets us anywhere closer our destination, so where is God? Is God really there?
A long time ago – a very long time ago, it seems – my life had come to a complete standstill. I knew I was lost, so I had just stopped. I remember so well one night, demanding God show me my future, a future in which my life meant something, a future to which I had moved, a future through which I lived and had purpose. I also remember the absolute silence. Obviously, that kind of prayer is ridiculous. If my life had come to a standstill, that wasn’t God’s doing but mine. If I felt lost, well, there were actual things I could do instead of demanding God work magic with me and my life.
We all get frustrated when things aren’t working. This is a perfectly normal, human response. People of faith demand signs. We demand miracles. We demand some kind of evidence that we haven’t been pretending all these years, following what we thought was Something but might well in fact be nothing at all, just like we keep hearing. Moses is tired of the platitudes. He’s tired of the promises. He doesn’t care that the Hebrews are a special people. They’re wandering in the desert. They’re tired, they’re hungry and thirsty, they get sick and die. Every once in a while, when God gets particularly peeved, snakes or boils or some other curse will appear to punish them. Yet where is there a hint, a glimmer, some kind of notice of all this promise of greatness and special favor? What’s worse is that while God says, in essence, “Fine. I’ll show you,” God tells Moses all he can see is God’s back. The thought of seeing the Divine tuchus probably didn’t do much for Moses.
All the same, that’s what we get. In the midst of our grief and anger and struggle, all we can do is look back and see where God has passed and realized that God has, indeed, passed. Furthermore, if God has passed with us, then God is still with us, even if we can’t see all the evidence of it right now. We will probably have to continue wandering through that desert, face snakes and hunger and thirst and illness with no idea what any of it means or if we are actually moving anywhere. The hardest thing is to keep going when, deep down, there is no real sense of hope that “going” has any meaning whatever.
Our churches are living this reality right now. Around us, our neighbors and coworkers, our families and friends all want answers. They want more than comfort, as appreciated as that may be. Deep down, those of us who continue week after week to gather to praise God, in our heart of hearts, we want some kind of sign that it isn’t all just dumb show, empty words spoken to a vacuum. We seek signs from those church leaders that seem to have some kind of success, trying to replicate enormous growth in attendance and giving through imitation of superstars, we are told, have some gift that we others lack. We keep hearing about how this class or that program can turn things around, as long as it is done just so. The thing is, most of the time, these gimmicks and tricks, imitation of church leaders, programs and classes – they don’t work. They don’t work because they are no different than Moses standing on the mountaintop demanding some kind of proof that all those words he’s heard about the Hebrew people being chosen, about Moses enjoying special favor, about heading to some promised land when in actual fact we are stuck in a desert, lost and wandering, attacked by strange illnesses at one point, then by some horrible creature at another. None of it makes any sense, all of it seems the exact opposite of what we have been told, time and again, is what God has done, is doing, and will do.
What we get, like Moses, is the realization that God has passed this way with us. That God, even though all we catch is a glimpse of the back, continues to be with us. The Hebrew people aren’t presented as all that different from us. Instant gratification, miraculous deliverance, Divine favor equaling freedom from the hardships of life – we’re no different than they were, except our clothes are probably a bit less comfortable. In the midst of our lostness, our wandering, our doubt, all of which leads to anger and frustration and demands for a sign, we need to remember that the promise of Divine presence isn’t a promise of miraculous deliverance or the gift of the One True Key that will solve our woes. Divine Presence is what God promised Moses, and Moses told the people all along – that in the midst of the wanderings through the wilderness and all that comes with being desert nomads, God will be with them, a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. Follow, and we’ll get where we’re going.
God isn’t much for giving us the answers we want. God usually doesn’t satisfy our demands for miracles and wonders. What we get is the reminder of the Divine presence, that we are moving toward something, toward a goal, toward that Promised Land. We don’t need patience so much as faith that even in the midst of all the troubles that come with feeling lost and unsure of what we’re doing, that God has been with us all along and will continue to be with us. Even if all we get is a glimpse of the Divine passing through our midst, shouldn’t that be, isn’t that enough to remind us our faith is not in vain, our wandering is not aimless, that we are in fact God’s special ones, offered a mission to the world?
The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass – Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 50, aphorism 29, “Dwarf Fruit”
While some folks continue to insist we need to make clear who can and cannot speak on the floor of General Conference; while others continue to make threats about leaving the denomination should we change our pastoral stance regarding sexual minorities; while we continue to divide our congregations according to “worship style” and other increasingly meaningless phrases; while all this is going on, more and more folks are just taking a glance at our institutions and saying, “Forget it.” Congregations lament their shrinking size, the lack of young adults, particularly young couples with children, yet refuse to make the changes necessary that might well make these same young folks take a second glance at the church doors on a Sunday morning and say, “Hm. Maybe I will go in there.”
An article at Religion News Service, by church consultant and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich nicely captures the current state of our mainline churches.
Seminaries’ woes are further sign that mainline Protestant religion is being forced to engage with a world that yearns for faith but cares little for mainline institutions and traditions.
When so much energy has gone into maintaining those institutions, what is left when people, especially young adults, turn away from “church” as we know it, that is, our church facilities, clergy, doctrines and church-centered worship?
The most far-reaching implication is this: We are discovering that the world can get along without us. Few are asking for our authoritative guidance. Our clergy aren’t seen as “thought leaders” or our institutions as worthy of emulation.
Before we get all caught up in other arguments, perhaps we all need to shut up and take in this reality: No one cares all that much for what we in the churches have to say. As hard as we work; as many consultants as we hire; as many gimmicks as we try; as many superstar clergy we lift up for others to emulate; as much as we try to get the word out about all the good we do all over the world; despite all this, more and more young people wonder why they should waste their time, their emotional energy, and their resources with institutions that seem hell-bent on destroying themselves arguing among themselves over things that are irrelevant to the lives of those the church should be reaching but aren’t.
Now we are the “least of these.” We are the ones who can’t manage our affairs without ugly conflict. We are the ones who get caught in unethical behavior, whose assemblies are marked by nostalgia, not urgency. We are the ones who don’t know the way forward. We are the ones with problems we can’t solve.
Like the downtrodden peasants in a Russian novel, we know ourselves as decent people, but the powerful ignore us, and our neighbors find us tiresome, evaders of taxes. What happened to the “noblesse” we thought defined us and the special treatment we thought we deserved?
It’s a difficult time. Some disturbing new reality is settling in, and it’s deeper than struggling institutions and financial shortfalls.
We are discovering that we are in the one-down position. We are the needy; we are the uncertain. Our clergy struggle with burnout and self-destructive behaviors. Our lay leaders are angry and distracted by worldly concerns. Our gatherings often feel listless and backward-focused.
There are few things worse than being ignored, treated as a joke, told that one is irrelevant. All this is happening, however, in a world desperate for Good News. American society, for all we have and all we are, is floundering. Staring at an uncertain future, we allow ourselves to be frightened by each story that we hear or read, whether it’s a new terrorist group in the Middle East or a dread, tropical disease that has come to our shores. We want to hear there is more to life than treading water, our head barely above the surface, with the thought that sharks are circling beneath us. We want to know that our lives are for something, not just struggling week to week, wondering what kind of world our children and grandchildren will have left to them.
Our churches must not lead. We must serve. We must look out upon our communities, large and small, big cities, suburban sprawl, and the vast rural landscape, and hear the cries of the needy, the mourning over lost community, lost direction, lost purpose. We must not – must not – offer answers, programs, prepackaged solutions to the many complaints, fears, and pent-up rages. We must – must – rather, be willing to invite these mourning, hurting, drifting neighbors and friends, coworkers and strangers to come and mourn with us. We must comfort them. We must listen to their pain, their anger, their hurt. The Good News they need to hear is not about Jesus entering their hearts. The Good News is not that God will solve their problems if they pray harder. The Good News they need is a place to go to be comforted in the midst of their mourning, confusion, anger, and questioning. When they demand answers, when they insist we respond when they ask us about what God is doing for them, for all of us, we must not answer with words, but surround them with a community of love, and care, and fellow-mourners, fellow angry, confused, hurting lost people who have the same questions, the same fears, and offer only comfort to those who mourn. That is more than enough Good News to be getting on with.