“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?