Nothing Lasts Forever
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.