“May you live in interesting times” – the phrase is often attributed as a Chinese proverb or curse. That’s subject to some debate. What seems to me to be less subject to such a debate is that Church is facing interesting times.
In a conversation earlier this week I stated that I thought the Church was under seige in ways I’ve never experienced or ever read about before. Part of this “seige” can be viewed as a societal attack on the relevance of the Church; part of it is about the relevance or existence of God. This is far from the first time this has happened. Time magazine’s cover (April 8, 1966) famously asked, “Is God Dead?” Friedrich Nietzsche’s first declaration that “God is dead” was published in 1882. Doubtless there are others, some of earlier date, others more recent. A collection of more current authors might include: Stephen Hawking, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and in a somewhat different vein, a mother of two in Texas known as TXBlue08 from her electronic posts.
Just the other day I heard a sermon wherein the preacher spoke of the Church being in ICU and on life-support. He opined that this was in large measure because many people “played at (being) church” and were not intentional about the demonstation of their faith. He had some very specific manifestations in mind – healing the sick, casting out demons, and more. At one point he cited the handling of snakes as referee recorded in Scripture. He acknowledged as how that was not one of the ways he was going to be demonstrating his faith. (For the record, it is not one of my spiritual gifts either.) This preacher went on to indicate that part of the above cited failures could be attributed to people of faith not living under the authority of God, but rather (my paraphrase) walking a walk that did not subtantiate the talk being talked.
Some of this is undoubtedly true. The Church, down through the centuries, has a pretty significant record of condeming concepts different from those long thought to be inviloate – just ask Galileo – only to embrace them later. It has also been more apt to hold others accountable for their actions while ignoring elements of its own behavior. On one level we should not be surprized at this, as it is a repeated pattern of human behavior. Jesus addresses it in his conversation about splinters in another’s eye and beams in our own (Matthew 7 and Luke 6). We are not allowed, however, to sluff this off as just being human since the very same Jesus calls us “to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).
For the record, I do not believe that God is dead. Much of the behavior of “the Church” that is getting reported in the press is not anything close to what I see being counseled in Holy Writ. Jesus’ calling us to perfection is, I am convinced, an unwillingness to let us set the bar to any lower standard, because anything lower is unworthy of a relationship with God. Could it be that Jesus was aware of our get-an-inch-take-a-mile propensity?
In our expression of Christianity, Lent is a wonderful time to work on reconciling the talk we talk and the walk we walk, as individuals on a Christian journey, and as the community of faith that is called, and has vowed, to support one another in our life in Christ. I’m pretty confident we will not reach perfection in this earthly journey, but for people of this faith, the journey does not end with our earthly life concludes. Plus, if we do not find it within ourselves to continue to strive, it all devolves in chaos.
All these things seem to me to be related: A time when the Church and God are quite under siege, and a time for many parts of the church to “person up.” We have to be vigilant in our self-examination, repentence and renewal with nothing hid under a basket or left in the shadows. (Again, this rings of the call to observe a holy Lent, does it not?)
As for God being under seige, I have two observations. First, I’ve not seen anything from Hawking, Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, with which Lanfranc, Abelard, Anselm, Aquinas and others have not already delt. Second, I’m sure the God in which I believe can take care of the Divine Self quite well. I’m always a bit surprised when people are compelled to have to defend God. Maybe I am surprised because, as I observe it, such defensiveness often comes complete with judgement. That judgement is something Jesus avoided (can we say religiously). Even Nietzsche, along with Gandhi, struggled with the incongruency of what Jesus taught and modeled and Christians’ practice, or non-practice, of the same.
God called me, and calls us, to help defend the defenseless. Since I cannot conceive of God as defenseless, I best leave that defense to God and get on with what God is calling me (us) to: defending the defenseless, loving the unlovable; welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, nurturing the seeker, etc. We show that to folk and they will understand. All will not seek to join us, but some will, and others will acknowledge a resonance between the walk and the talk.
These are interesting times, and it is time for us to step up our interest.