Lenten Midweek reflection for 11Mar15
Isaiah 44:24-45:5; 61:1-4; Psalm 1
Paired with verses from the hymn O Blessed Spring, we are proceeding through our ages. Last week Paige talked about lively energy of children. Next week Edward may reflect on resolution and rest toward the end of life. Yet, today’s reflecting on faith among my age group is a matter of disruption, with probably the defining characteristic being that we don’t participate.
My age is approximately where many of your daughters and sons and grandchildren are. I share your pain and lament of wishing and wondering why they don’t come to church. I’ve even heard several of our older generation of members as they’ve been dying, that having their offspring connect to church would be almost a last request.
Yet there aren’t obvious answers. We can’t force each other to go to church. In spite of huge amounts of research and strategizing and books and books on the topic of faith and my generation, there is still no quick fix.
To start, some standard generational differences are helpful to highlight. The World War 2 generation built St. Stephen’s and many mainline congregations. That generation by-and-large trusted authority. They came to church just because it was the right thing to do. The Baby Boomers were more skeptical. They went through Vietnam and Watergate. They were willing to question church, among other authorities, and hold them accountable.
We younger generations, however, are said to have lost almost all confidence in institutions. There is nothing about a national brand of ELCA (or McDonalds or Oldsmobile) that automatically has our loyalty. We won’t say, “my country, right or wrong.” Instead, our loyalty is relationship-based, in diffuse small groups, online connections, and what we experience.
One way this is talked about is that the older generation would give out of a sense of duty and would give just plain to support the budget of the church, but younger generations respond specifically to causes or projects. And the more evidence they have their giving makes a difference, the better.
Among my people, I’m an anomaly. I wasn’t a church-geek as a kid, but since I started college I’ve probably hardly missed two weeks of church in a row. That’s weird. My peers don’t have that kind of rhythm. Sometimes it’s because our lives are actually busy, and work weeks aren’t 9-to-5 Monday to Friday. Or because we’re more mobile, and traveling on weekends. Or because life just feels more distracted, since we’re bombarded by news from around the world and are always in touch through social media and have zillions of other media options. We’re the generations that were first to have VCRs and cable, on to video games and cell phones and the internet. Even having children, which in former times was supposed to bring people back to church, doesn’t work well in my generation, with lives so overprogrammed from the get-go.
A lot of this reflection seems pretty dismal. So the first of my bright sides amid the darkness is that, even though my generation is less in church than others were, still when we we’re here it’s because we want to be, because it’s important to us. I like to share my anecdotal evidence that even in the 10 years I’ve been here I’ve witnessed a change. It used to be that young families brought children to be baptized as an insurance policy in case something bad happened (we’ll say more about that later) or just because they’d been baptized and thought it was what they were supposed to do. The same for parents of Confirmation students, saying, “I had to go through this even though I didn’t like it, and so my kids have to, too.”
Now it’s more like parents I met with today who said they’re bringing their daughter for baptism because they want her to be part of this community and to know God’s love and to learn to live with these values. Even when parents aren’t mindful of it, students themselves are seeking to be part of our Sunday School and Confirmation gatherings. Being here is not just by default, but because you really want to be, and find some sort of value in this.
So what sorts of values are there? I’d say the church is still looked to as a moral authority, a place of answers, and probably some peace or serenity compared to the rest of life. In this week, I’ve had people who are otherwise not at all connected to church asking me—and therefore asking for some sort of official church response—about the shooting of Tony Robinson, and for prayers during sickness, and for financial assistance amid a time of crisis. That people are turning to the church in those various needs and concerns still says in our society we’re seen as a resource, a place of morality and insight and caring. In the words of our hymn, people still expect from Christians “gifts of beauty, wisdom, love.” That’s another of the potential bright spots.
The shadow side of it, though, is that it’s tough to exist only as that occasional resource. If people aren’t listening to the church or listening for God except in sporadic moments of emergency or panic or despair, first of all that’s not a very pleasant way to live life, and second it doesn’t allow for any sort of sustained involvement. It leaves faith as a sound bite instead of the Word that becomes flesh to inhabit and inform all of your lives and outlook on the world.
That sort of superficial connection is also problematic for sustaining the way we’re used to doing church. In pre-marriage counseling I ask about generosity and what people do for charity. One couple said they support the Humane Society and American Heart Association drives at work, and said they put $10 in the offering plate when they come to church. But if they’re here once a month, that level of support sure doesn’t pay my salary!
It also doesn’t do very well to build community. I can get by visiting my dentist twice a year or car repair shop only when I need it. But for church, community is vital to who we are. We’re not just an outlet for theological answers or a venue for finding inner calm. We are—from the very core of our identity as people of God—in community. This is what we understand of God in Trinity. God is not God by being the Solitary Highest Individual. Nor is Trinity a pyramid scheme, where the Father is boss and the Son and Spirit are subordinate. No, the theological vision is all about mutuality, agreement, and balance. And since God is like that, then that’s our shape, too. But, again, it’s hard to be community when we’re around each other only once a month, and when we’re also trying to put on a good face to mask our problems and pains.
I’ve heard from numerous peers and parishioners that the breakdown in relationship is indeed what separated them from church. They didn’t get the support they needed when a baby was born. They felt ostracized or were hurt or shamed by the very ones who were supposed to be about love and care. Church, which is supposed to represent God and to live Christ-like, as the Body of Christ, where we ought to be able to practice living as Jesus people with love and vulnerability, too frequently has instead become a liability in relating to God, leaving people to the hard task of trying to find a relationship with God apart from church. The difficulty is that it’s nobody’s singular fault, since we all need to practice being community together. For it to work when you need it, you also need to be here when others need it. It’s not about being perfect, but is for practicing grace, forgiveness, and compassion.
Besides those direct, personal failings in relationships, people also of course cite the broader categorical failings. Some see the church as anti-science, or anti-woman, or anti-gay, or as greedy or causing violence, or as navel-gazers who insularly talk about what we believe in but don’t stand up for it when the rubber meets the road.
I’d hope we could counter all of that. I’d hope we would understand science and faith are not mutually exclusive, that they cover different territory and may both inspire increasing wonder rather than reductionist blinders. I’d hope we would see the early church’s work of breaking down barriers to include so many in society—the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the local and the foreigner, the righteous and the sinners, young and old, men and women, slave and free—and that we’d be able to see society has taken 2000 years to get back to the equality Jesus and the early church were already embodying, seeing all humanity as valued in Christ, respecting insiders and outsiders of all types and abilities. I’d hope we’d continue to embody Jesus’ way of suffering love, not voicing brash aggression, but living out callings for humility and peace and reconciliation.
In my view, there are some bad reasons and weak excuses for not being part of church, but there are some really rational reasons, even if those aren’t usually what’s mentioned by those I’ve asked. For example, if you’re selfish and don’t want to share your resources or your time, then church should be a difficult place for you. If you think Jesus just doesn’t really matter and that there’s nothing in him that connects you to God, then church probably loses most of its meaning. If it seems that church has restrictive belief, that we claim that what we believe is true, well…I’m still not sure how to disagree with that.
For a final bit of grounding, I’d like to use our Bible passages. The first chunk from Isaiah I chose because it talks about God’s activity and operations even among the unsuspecting. Cyrus was the Persian emperor, a foreign. He didn’t worship God. He didn’t even know about God. Yet this declares that Cyrus was God’s shepherd, God’s chosen, God’s messiah, working out God’s good purposes and larger intent. That’s an interesting and helpful word for my generation, separated from a regular worshipping assembly. God is still working in our lives, even when we don’t realize. Those of us here may cling to the blessing of knowing what God is up to, joining in the callings to strive for God’s kingdom. Yet our lives are never cut off from God. The stanza of our hymn for this week seems to recognize busy lives filled with so many details and so much work, about “limbs holding a heavy harvest.” God is still producing fruit in our lives, through our various vocations and careers and places in life where we try to be productive and prosper. Sometimes it’s with our best efforts, and sometimes in spite of us. That’s a word of relief for us who can only continue to commend our friends or siblings or children or grandchildren into God’s ongoing care.
The other Isaiah passage is about the work that God is up to, that the Spirit anoints us “to bring good news to the oppressed and poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty, to comfort all who mourn…” to repair ruined cities, the devastation of many generations. Two things are significant about this: first, Jesus quotes this passage as the purpose of his ministry, too. Second, there’s no mention about the afterlife or going to heaven.
Church shouldn’t only be about the insurance policy of whether you’ll get in to heaven if or when you die. That isn’t a burning question for people these days, and it should never have been our sole focus. A more important question is who God is and what the church is and who we are for all the days of our life before death. I’d say if God so loves our world and is concerned about all hurting lives, and that that’s a word for so many of our moments and not only for facing death, that we will do well to receive that work and to join in on it. It is first what God does for us, but also what God does through us. As that kind of people, we’ll be sustained by a power that restores devastated generations.