“I Float in Mighty Waters”
In the course of a given week, I consume and produce a lot of words. I read books and articles, newspapers and blog posts, denominational publications and the detritus of social media. I send and receive what feels like roughly a billion texts/emails/messages per day. I pour forth my own stream of words via this blog and other forums. Many days, it feels like I am drowning in words. I suspect I am not alone in this. To say that in the digital age words are cheap and ubiquitous, disposable and forgettable is to simply add a few more to the pile. We have become grazers on words, rarely pausing to let them affect us in the ways that they should or could.
Every once in a while, though, a few good words will penetrate the fog of dull half-attention and listless consumption that is so easy to default to. Over the last few days, I have encountered some very good words on the nature of the church. They are words that have spoken life to my soul and given me hope (a rare commodity in a cultural context that doesn’t always produce a lot of hopeful words for the church). Perhaps they can be good words for you, as well.
First, a deeply encouraging post from Richard Beck:
I have a passion for the local church. Rolling out of bed on a Sunday morning isn’t the hot, cool thing to be doing as a Christian. But to me, it’s one of the most radical and counter-cultural things we can be doing.
And yet, for church leaders and pastors working in small, struggling congregations, leading a church can be hard, demoralizing work. Especially as America walks deeper into the post-Christian wilderness. The demographic tide is sweeping the church away.
So it is also a passion of mine to encourage local pastors. If you’re leading a small, local church I want you to know you’re a hero of mine.
And the reason is quite simple. If the kingdom of God is going to show up, it shows up among a people who gather to make and keep promises to each other, where the people of a community struggle through the generations to love each other and their particular place.
The kingdom of God is not found at conferences, on social media, in a book, or in your headphones. If you’re listening to a speaker, scrolling through your iPhone, reading the pages of a best-seller, or jogging to your favorite podcast, you’re not really encountering the body of Christ.
The kingdom has an address on a neighborhood block.
A great line, that last one.
These words come at the end of an article called “Strange, Like Pentecost: A Journey for the True Church” by Erick Sierra in a recent issue of The Other Journal. He spends the bulk of his piece narrating his own journey from Roman Catholicism through Pentecostalism and various strains of evangelicalism, on to the “respectable” upper class liberal church and eventually to Eastern Orthodoxy. His piece closes with an expression of frustration at the church’s persistent tendency to imagine that “my church is the best/only true church”:
About a year into my new Orthodox life, I struggled with an especially difficult bout of confusion one Sunday morning. Our priest was preaching that heaven would be Orthodox Liturgy just like this, the faithful silently absorbing divine procession forever. Yet when I closed my eyes, I kept seeing a celestial storefront church of working-class Latinos. Shivers of divine eros. Eruption of hands. Shouts of praise. ¡Por siempre tu nombre será exaltado! But they were not alone. Spread out throughout and beyond them was an expanse of Christians somehow doing very different things in unison: crossing themselves at altars, contemplating academic sermons, clapping hands and swaying in choir robes, standing, kneeling, locking hands in expanding rings of dancing—Hebrew cymbals, English boys choirs, African djembe drums, ancient lyres, the worship rock of American millennials. Why couldn’t it be, I prayed? Why couldn’t the kingdom be the perplexingly beautiful reconciliation of those who respond in love to Christ in whatever way they’ve had the chance to come in contact with his voice? Saint Basil the Great alongside Billy Graham alongside Pope Francis alongside the thief on the cross.
Why couldn’t it be? I pray this, too.
And then, a simply marvelous piece by Marilyn McEntyre over at Cardus. It’s called “Choosing Church” and is worth reading in its entirety. But, as always, a few passages stood out.
First, on the importance of confession of sin and church as one of the few remaining places where this can be done:
It may not seem that acknowledging guilt would be a particularly attractive reason to attend church, but you find, if you do it, that it’s amazingly restorative. Most of us carry around guilt like a stone in a pocket. Sometimes you get so used to its weight you stop even noticing it. So it can take a long time, if you’re leading what seems to be a decent and innocuous life, to get to a place where guilt becomes pain and you long for forgiveness.
When you do get there, a healthy church is a good place to go…
Until you’ve tried it, it’s hard to imagine the complete release that can come with full, open-hearted confession. And though the act of corporate confession repeated weekly in many churches may seem rote, speaking it creates an opening in the heart that widens over time into willingness, even eagerness to be “cleansed,” released, forgiven, and to find that energy begins to flow again that has been tied up in the arduous business of ego-protection and self-deception.
…especially when therapy has worn thin and relationships are frayed and you find yourself pretty sick of your own addictive habits. Kneeling in a healthy church and reading with others that we have sinned “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone” may both reframe the pain of guilt and relieve it.
And then, on the importance of gathering together rather than seeking God on our own:
We gather in churches because our combined will and willingness, our collective energy, our voices attuned and our attention directed toward God, enable something to happen that is far less likely to happen alone or at random.
Distracted, reluctant, confused, or apathetic you may be on any given Sunday, but if you go, something will happen. A word, a phrase, a flicker of candlelight, a gesture, an image, an extended moment of silence—all these have their effects. On Sundays, and they are not infrequent, when I don’t really feel like getting dressed and going to church, but do it anyway, I invariably leave with a gift I could not have foreseen. It’s not always the sermon—a good sermon is hard to find. And sometimes the readers read poorly or the person behind me can’t stop coughing or someone won’t take the crying baby outside. But underneath the distractions and irritations runs a current so strong it carries me in spite of myself. I float in mighty waters.
Again, that last line… Wow.
Finally, a few lines from a song off the latest album from Young Oceans. The song is called “Are We Not One?”
O are we sons fashioned in Your image
O are we daughters carrying Your name
O are we brothers across the generations
Are we not sparks from an everlasting flame
O are we light summoned by the light
O are we gleaming and dancing on the shore
Lord, can we hold each other through the crossing
Are we not one, O Lord are we not Yours
Those last lines are worth clinging to. Despite all the wrong that we do, all the ways in which we misrepresent you, all of the ways that we dress up idolatry as enlightenment and selfishness as progress, all the ways in which we fail you and each other—
O Lord, are we not one? Are we not still yours?
Thanks for this post. I appreciate posts like this, as well as your “miscellany” type posts. In the sea of words, yours are helpful ones. Thank-you. I’ve picked up a good book or two (or blog post or two) on account of having first heard about it here.
Re: “leading the church can be hard… especially as [North] America walks deeper into the post Christian wilderness” and “Why couldn’t the kingdom be the perplexingly beautiful reconciliation of those who respond in love to Christ in whatever way they’ve had the chance to come in contact with his voice?”
I’ve lately become more and more convinced that when Paul wrote the following words, he wasn’t just talking about individual members of a local church body, he was also talking about individual churches in a broader community of Christ followers…
“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ… in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If there were all one part, where would the body be?”
(1 Cor 12:12 & 18).
A local Anglican priest summed it up in our ministerial best: “we just don’t have the luxury of not being able to work together anymore…”
Thanks very kindly, Kevin. I think your analysis of 1 Cor. 12 is very appropriate in our context. The body—whatever its size—isn’t allowed to say, “I have no need of you.” And re: the comment from your Anglican friend, I think I said just about the exact same thing (verbatim) to one of my Anglican friends here just the other day! 🙂
A good word, that.
I also wonder how much of the present foment in the North American church has to do with our propensity to put faith in what we can see, and worry ourselves into building earthly kingdoms instead of trusting in the heavenly one (and some reading I did this morning indicated that “church decline” prognostications have been around since the 1960s… or maybe since John wrote the book of Revelation).
It also occurred to me as a re-read a portion of Jesus’ take on all this speaking to us of little faith: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 5:31-34 NIV)
It never quite occurred to me that Jesus command to seek his kingdom is sandwiched between observations about how much we worry. It appears as though worry drives us to build kingdoms on earth, and faith leads us to trust in God’s kingdom instead. Earthly kingdom building is competitive, heavenly kingdom building has much more to do with peace.
Thanks for these wise reflections, Kevin. It’s sobering to think about how much of our agonized reflections on the state of the church amount to little more than a bunch of pagans running after “all these things” while our Father patiently waits and watches, knowing what we need and when and why and how…
Well said, and thanks for providing some rich ground for reflection. I’ve enjoyed mulling some of these themes the last week or two.
I also wonder how much anxiety or fear is the hallmark of our (any?) age. I think we often build institutions to manage our anxiety, or try to save them because we are afraid of what we cannot know or see (usually the future). Generally speaking, anxious responses aren’t the most constructive. In our day, we could certainly use a lot more faith, patience, and trust.
But of course, that might have more to do with the human condition in general, than the particular condition of our day. I digress. Thanks again.
Yes, absolutely. In every day.
I’m not sure how much longer the current church paradigm can be maintained/propped up before the slow motion implosion we are witnessing within institutional Christendom is completed. The final attempt to breath life back into the dying Institution seems to be Ecumenism. I myself had bought into this novel idea until I recently came across a teacher/preacher who pointed me back to the actual word for word teachings of Jesus in the scriptures. This has been a disturbing and unsettling experience for me as I return to listening to what Jesus actually SAID and TAUGHT his disciples…ALL OF IT. I’m realizing now just how far I and the Church have drifted away from Christ’s actual teachings and commands. God help us all.
FYI: “a voice in the desert” Youtube channel. (Warning-This WILL be disturbing)
Hmm, I don’t doubt that the church has drifted from “Christ’s actual teachings.” I suspect it has ever been thus. But I’m not sure how ecumenism contradicts the teachings of Jesus.
And on the other hand…