This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Witness to the Resurrection.


He not busy being born is busy dying.
--- Bob Dylan

            I am sitting in a conference room in the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.  It’s the annual Fall Polity Conference put on by the Office of the General Assembly, of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The room is SRO with profoundly concerned presbytery Stated Clerks and Executives sitting around a rectangle of tables. 
            I am listening to a presentation concerning the current mass exodus of conservative congregations from the denomination.  First, we go around the room and one by one each participant briefly tells their story of churches departing from their regional presbytery, adding the occasional significant detail, like the current state of litigation. 
            The mood is somber, resigned, angry, sad, frustrated, and tired.  I learn that some presbyteries are losing a third or more of their congregations.  There are people around the table whose jobs are on the line, as these departing congregations were helping to pay their salaries.  It feels like a kind of deathwatch; like the respirator has been turned off, and the gathered family awaits the inevitable. 
            In the middle of this I start wondering what would be a better metaphor for what I am observing.  The breaking off of a new moon from a larger planet?  Cell division?  Giving birth?  Rats abandoning a sinking ship?  A chick emerging from a shell?  Lifeboats drawing away from the severed pieces of a sinking Titanic?  That toothy monster exploding out of the gut of the dead astronaut in Alien?
            None of these quite work for me.  Do we have to assume a new thing being born and the old thing, from which it is breaking away, dying?  That doesn’t feel right.  Amid the panic and depression which is palpable in some corners of the room, I am also feeling a certain refreshing loss of weight, like a hot air balloon dropping bags of sand and buoying upward in a new freedom of lightness.  An ability to breathe.  Energy.
            We are not just seeing the spawning of new conservative denominations with exciting (if on many levels misleading) new names like “Eco.”  At the same time we are witnessing the emergence of a new more focused and intentional gathering of Progressive Christians.   Maybe the churches breaking off are not the only ones feeling the energy of newness and life.  Maybe there is also new life arising among us!
            Here’s a better image: A body excreting wads of cancer cells after courses of chemotherapy and radiation, and emerging into new health, strength, and vigor.  Yeah, the body is thinner and somewhat exhausted, pale and damp with sweat, and drawing in deep and long breaths of good air.  The healing process was painful and debilitating, and very scary.  But, this body is alive!
            By the time we get to the closing worship service of this conference, that’s the feeling I would have.  We are alive!  I look around at all these disciples standing and singing a full-throated rendition of “It is Well With My Soul.”  You’re damn right it is well with our souls.
            The author of that hymn tragically lost his family in a shipwreck.  What are we losing?  Decades of internecine guerrilla warfare that had dragged down and held back our mission?  Incessant petulant sniping about the erosion of the theology, morality, and political sensibilities of bygone days?  Hand-wringing over membership loss and who is to blame?  Bigotry wrapped in a veneer of self-righteous Biblicism?  A tradition of cheerleading for a racist, capitalist, militarist, nationalist, sexist, and oppressive globalized empire?
            What if we re-imagined these “losses” as the shedding, not, of course, of people and congregations, but of unnecessary layers and masses of paralyzing, crippling habits, conflicts, and corrupt ways of thinking?  Maybe what we are really jettisoning are the fear, anger, and shame that had nailed this family of Christians to obsolete models and structures, timid, worn-out, and hyper-circumspect theologies, and fruitless compromises, holed-up within impregnable stone fortresses on urban street corners while the world blew by.  Maybe the Holy Spirit, as a sheer act of grace we do not deserve, is blessing us with the opportunity of the century, if not the millennium!
            We’re better off without them.  We’ve never been in a better position to move forward in God’s mission than we are right now.  And with each departure our position improves.
            Since the early 1970’s, the funeral liturgies in Presbyterian worship resources have been called, “Witness to the Resurrection.”  That’s really what we may be seeing now:  The death by dismemberment, leading to the shocking, surprising, amazing resurrection of Christ’s body, in this church.
            (Or.  On the other hand.  We can continue to busy ourselves with dying.  We can fight over money and property, pay lawyers, and do everything we can to appease and feed malignancies that hate and suck the life out of us.  We can try yet again to infuse energy into organs long dried up and dead, clutching our decrepit buildings and our obsolete ecclesiologies.  Like that’ll work.  We can clutch on to current models of success, sustainability, structure, and theology until we whimper into oblivion, deservedly forgotten by all but a few future historians.)   
            We may now choose life!  We can imagine together the new constellations and networks of discipleship and community to which the Holy Spirit is calling us, and get busy being born.  Remember that resurrection is not resuscitation.  The new communion being born will not look like the denomination now passing away.  It may not even be a “denomination.”   Our task now is to flow with what the Spirit is causing to emerge among and within us.

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