Presented at Gathering Leaves
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine
This word “change” is not a comfortable word. And it often makes for uncomfortable conversations. But, maybe being comfortable is not the point of spiritual life or church or being human. Maybe the church really isn’t about what our needs are and having our needs met. Being the church is about following the movement of God and community. Being the church is about being a collective embodiment of the two great commandments—loving God and loving the neighbor.
When Christ was on earth, he certainly didn’t preach comfort or stability, feeling good or that it’s about what we want. That was not Christ’s message, though I often want it to be. But that’s not the message the Lord taught or demonstrated with on earth or that we read about in scripture. Christ preached that we should sell all we have and give to the poor and follow him. Jesus’ call is to take up our mats and walk, to lay down our nets and follow.
It’s so tempting, especially perhaps as Swedenborgians, with our ideas of the internal sense of the Word, to spiritualize these phrases and to push them away into intellectual concepts to keep ourselves comfortable. But I have come to believe that these are direct teachings—God’s call on our lives. I don’t know what it means in your life to sell all you have and give to the poor. But there’s something in there about sacrificing our own comfort and stability to be part of following God and a community. Following the Lord probably doesn’t look like physically putting down fishing nets for most of us, but it might involve letting go of that which has been core to our daily existence, and trusting and following and being changed. Taking up our mats, these things we’ve learned and know, and actively engaging in the work of our lives of faith even when it’s not comfortable or how we’ve always known life to be.
It’s God then, who seems to be all about change—process, transformation, death, life, letting go, and rebirth. And it’s God who says, “I’ll be with you through it.” Isn’t that the beauty of the incarnation? God coming to earth in human form, taking on this life process of being born, living, struggling, having joy, being in community, teaching, serving, dying, and then being resurrected, glorified, and coming again. Is this not the call to us individually, this call to the repentance of spirit, to transformation, to death and rebirth, to change? And if this the call to us individually, is not this the call to us as a church?
I think it’s easier to be present to the process of change by looking at the life cycle of an individual. I’ve heard some beautiful stories this weekend about aging gracefully, as people shared about having the courage to let go in a different way in these stages of life. There is a deep wisdom that the generations in their second half of life hold about aging, and that wisdom is needed in this conversation. If I’m standing here speaking as a “voice for the next generation of the church,” it’s important for me to honor and say clearly: this is not about wanting everything to change, getting rid of the old, and swooping in with the new. No, the message is: we need to have some dialog between generations. Because the church is changing, and I believe we all need to be presentto each other and the conversation.
Giant Rummage Sale
I’d like to zoom out for a moment, and think about not just our local churches or denominations, or even the churches in our neighborhood, but to look at the greater swaths of movement in this cycle. Phyllis Tickle, a scholar of religious history, wrote a book called The Great Emergence. In it she offers a theory that in the sweep of Christian history, every five hundred years there is a giant rummage sale, where things are thrown up in the air and questioned, and then it settles back down and the church is changed in the process.
Tickle posits that the last time this happened was the Protestant Reformation. There was upheaval against the Catholic church of the time, reformers such as Luther and Calvin wrote and preached, and radical break-off groups formed, such as the Quakers and the Methodists, Anabaptists, and a bit later, the Swedenborgians. That was the last giant rummage sale. These rummage sales don’t happen overnight, they stretch over decades. She suggests that we’re in another one of these giant rummage sales in Christendom as a whole. This idea resonates with me within a Swedenborgian framework, and the concept of the Second Coming moving into the world. Maybe what we’re seeing is the actualization of a New Christianity, alive and working in the world. When I look at what’s going on in Christendom as a whole, around the world, something is happening. Something is changing.
And we’re all in the same boat. From each of our denominations we have story after story about declining membership and churches closing. So something is changing around us. The way we’ve always done church is not how church is happening. Something is dying, and beginning to decompose.
To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole thing right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.