Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Can This Church Life Again?

Can This Church Live Again?

Inasmuch as Lazarus was raised from his death by Jesus, so too our aging, dying, and often dead congregations can also live again. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and American Life shows that more than a quarter of adult Americans have migrated from one religious affiliation to another. And too, the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly asks on the cover page “Which Religion Will Win?” It is a time of much soul searching for many an American.

Between politics and religion there certainly is plenty for us to consider in the marketplace of ideas being developed here in the United States and abroad as well. But we seem to be a particularly “religious” nation. We seem to be going through a stage where we are migrating toward a more “conservative” and “evangelical” expression of our faith. But at the same time there is a rediscovery of the Compassionate inclusive Christ by many of our mainline denominations as well.

It is a fascinating time in which to find our way toward God. As I make my way through this time in our shared faith development, what strikes me is just how deeply our young people want to know of their spirituality. They want to “practice the presence of God”, if I may use the phrase Brother Lawrence used so many years ago. And it is not just the young that want to come to know about their journey toward God. Among almost all the folks that have recently visited our congregation, there is a deep and sincere desire to come to know of how the heart of God beats within the heart of each of us.

It is as if almost all by itself, the church is coming back to life from a long and sad slumber. Not long ago, a young man whose life had been marred by misuse of drugs and alcohol came to me seeking help. I turned him toward the Sermon on the Mount and the shortest and earliest of the Gospels: St. Mark. I pointed out that he could read both within an hour. I gave him a copy of the Good News Bible and he read through his assignment and came back to me with amazement and delight in his heart.

“God loves me” he said as if totally blown away by the Bible. But there was so much more to it than that. God loves everyone, he said with bright and beaming joyous eyes. God loves the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the sick, those in prison…he was utterly dumbfounded. I asked him why this surprised him so. He told me that when he watched television evangelists, he heard judgment, condemnation, and anger against the very people the Bible describes as being sought out and loved by Jesus.

It was a total surprise to my new young parishioner. So many of his friends had gotten caught up in drugs, sexual promiscuity, alcohol, and had or were “doing” time. He single-handedly became responsible for bringing many other young people to church, because he was coming to discover that the Good News was that Jesus does indeed love the sinner.

An old dying church was coming back to life again. Lazarus, lives! Another older couple migrated to our congregation from another denomination, because they had a gay uncle and there was a divorced daughter to be loved by Jesus. They found a place where God’s embrace was enfolding people in ever widening circles of inclusivity. And too those with mental and physical disabilities seem to be wandering into the doors of the church as well.

I don’t know for sure just what is going on here, but I will say this; if we stay on message about this all inclusive love of Jesus, and faithfully present the Compassionate One as being the One in whom we place our faith, I believe that there is much life still to be lived in these old churches of ours.

When I was a much younger priest, I was told that God does not ask us to be successful; God is asking us to be faithful. I must confess to you that I am praying for the day when our faithfulness will pay us off with just a little success.

In the meantime, I believe that Jesus is always close by his church and is always calling out for the dying part of us to live again. “Lazarus, come out!” It always amazes me that the power of God is best known at the time of death. My wife recently went to work for Hospice. She reports that she has never worked in a more cheerful setting. Isn’t that amazing when you think of it?

Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he said that “as often as we eat the bread and drink the wine of the Eucharist we show forth the Lord’s death until he comes again.” (I Corinthians 11:26). This may well be the key to our rising again.

May God grant us grace to hear Jesus call out to us; “Lazarus, come out!!

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