Before I make a parish visitation I try to meet the confirmands weeks beforehand so that I’m not a stranger when their big day arrives. When we meet I say, “God seeks to engage the whole of you--if you have any doubts about being confirmed…you are in the right place.” Eyes always widen with this statement. Claiming one’s faith in the midst of doubt means an exit from childhood and a candid reflection on truth and meaning. It is a level of sentience each mature person brings to a profession of faith so we can boldly say, “We believe in God…”
The spirit of that doubt and inquiry is about us today. Not an uncertainty about faith but what is professed and how the Church will be. I present this to you as a fellow traveller, not as an adversary. In Gaelic, I seek with you the “hearting” or the throbbing beat of our common life together in Christ. (HE) We are called through Christ to share this pulse with the blessedness of Creation and with a redeemed world…but something is seriously in the way.
I see a Church subsumed in budget worries, aimless program, separated by rankings and supervised by distant hierarchies. Distracted, the Church can’t hear the clear call of Christ to come into the streets of consequence even when that byway is as close as Main Street. In December I climbed a ladder in New York City and the perspective gained from that modest height confirmed a terrible hunch I had had for some years. The Holy Spirit has been calling us away from the dowdiness of institutional life for a while.
But we as individuals must have a confession of conscience and truth, first. The night before my arrest I had to die to the fear of loss of reputation and retribution by church authorities if, indeed, I thought there was a moral question at stake here. It’s embarrassing to be afraid. Former Union Seminary (NYC) President Donald Shriver calls this an “aha” moment. One of clarity when we are standing in a new reality, fully aware of our finitude, and realizing God is insisting on actions of consequence. I’m cautious to make the comparison, but Saul of Tarsus showed us the way on this path.
The financial collapse of 2008 brought into high relief that we have lost our personal “agency” (control)--as Carne Ross puts it—over what happens in our lives. If we thought we had prerogatives…we are living an illusion. Some have arrived at a communal awareness of this impotence as in Occupy Wall Street, others have not. For example, if we don’t have serious money in Washington’s game we have no power, no say. Credit and most other choices are controlled by forces not our own.
While our national church squabbles about overhead and polity life has moved on--attention is galvanized by important things: hunger, revolution and war, water shortage, pandemic disease, and the detritus of financial collapse. That global commotion has a message about a world taking cues from “principalities and powers” which doesn’t even pause over whether the organist does a Lenten concert, what color the new chasuble is, or the seating arrangement at the next diocesan convention.
We’d think the Church would be alarmed by this national sham as idolatry but it has been mostly silent or acting from a cleared script on charitable work that has become the acceptable substitute for action. Martin Luther King Jr. railed against trivializing the Gospel in this way when he said we needed less Good Samaritan work and more vigilance about social justice on the Jericho Road.
The lesson from Acts gives us instruction on what to do in Saul’s conversion…which arrived when he was capable of experiencing it and when the Church needed it most. His energy, spirituality, and intellectual insight were timely: just as he had been a formidable opponent he became a formidable emissary.
Truly, Saul had issues as a loathsome character and “Christ-baiter.” Walter Wink has used the term “System”—more descriptive for modern ears--about idolatrous values of power in scripture. Indeed, Saul was consummately in the “System” as an agent and sustainer and it is from that bowel he was pulled through Christ’s intervention. A System isn’t all good or bad, it is God created after all, but most times it is fallen and in need of redemption. It is “fallen” in the sense that its end purpose of service has been lost and replaced by a fetishistic idolatry in its own existence. That’s corporate life today.
Ananias, the reluctant mentor to Saul, brings support of the community reminding us of an essential component to any conversion (eyes are opened). It is the only Easter theme we are absolutely sure of: the disciples are transformed from being terrified to being determined. This ingredient is always present…a certain dying to fear because the act of witness is so compelling. It was present in Ananias as he approached Saul and there’s a forecast that Saul’s future life will be lived this way from now on. He must pass through a fear of suffering to be a witness.
What of the Church’s existence within the System? Where is it fallen and on a sidetrack of idolatry? And what of this institution of VTS and our preparation for ministry? Unbidden, the answers might be right before us. The devolutional movements, Occupy and Tea Party say this: be authentic and don’t be remote. Does Church hierarchy and ranking do violence to the model of “sharing, partnership, compassion, and equality” known in the gospels? Can we level with ourselves…why do we really want to be clergypersons? Is it to achieve some status? What fear needs to die in us to claim such honesty?