The Church Beyond Anxiety

We live in anxious times.  

It doesn’t take a keen observer of the news to feel it.  It is always there during an election, but it feels more acute this time. The stakes are so high, it seems, that Canada is already offering a new home for the losing side.  If you have to go somewhere, there are worst places. 

As someone who spends most of my waking hours either at a church, reading about church, thinking or writing about what it means to be the church, all this feeling of anxiety isn’t unfamiliar. 

It flows from our fear – the fear of what we can’t control or predict, the fear that the ground beneath us is shifting, the fear that the ground might not be what we thought it was or what it always has been. 

It is, in fact, more than a feeling. It is reality. The ground on which we stand is shifting. What were once our strengths we now experience as liabilities. We don’t have the same influence we used to, even here in the Bible Belt. The institutions and structures we created to enable ministry have become burdens and obstacles to continuing it. Our experience isn’t the answer because the culture and church where we gained it no longer exist apart from our memories. 

The shifting landscape means we aren’t sure where we are headed and what exactly we should do.  The only thing we are certain of is that we don’t like uncertainty. 

I was struck last week at how friends from another denomination were reporting on the exact same arguments and frustrations and battles at their annual meeting as we did at ours a couple of months ago. Different names on the signs and different meeting places, but the same divisions, the same heartbreak, the same falling short of the city of God. 

When it comes the church, anxiety is a universal experience. 

The Antidote

The uncertainty tempts us to seek our salvation in new strategies and well researched plans – a third way, a new approach, a call to action, a way forward, you’ve heard them all. But a surplus of plans and consultants hasn’t released us from the prison of anxiety and uncertainty. 

That’s because the antidote to the problems isn’t a new strategy – it is faithfulness. The firm foundation we are looking for in the midst of uncertainty won’t come from marketing slogans or complicated plans.  Instead, it is found where it always has been – in answering Jesus’ call to follow.  The call to fidelity is the call that created the church and it is the call that will see the church through.

The way beyond fear is no more and no less than the Way and the pattern of life that Jesus handed down to us.  It is found in worship that reorients our life by centering it in God, in spiritual formation that reminds us that everything we have is a gift and in working to make the world more just and more like God envisions it.  It is acting from our core conviction that everyone was created in the Image of God and it is living by grace that in the best times and in the worst times God is with us.  

It is the Way that prevents us from chasing lesser things and it is the Way that enables us to stay true to our purpose and calling.  It is the Way that reminds us of why we actually exist in the first place – to bear witness to God’s love, to make the world a better place for all of God’s children, to enjoy a community where everyone can find and use the gifts God has given them and to help one another live lives that look more like the life Jesus lived and the one he envisions for us. 

We find our way in this complicated time for the Church by living into the rhythms of these convictions – the Way and the pattern of life shaped by gift and responsibility, by confession and forgiveness, by absolution and reconciliation, by salvation through faith  and membership in God’s beloved community. 

Make no mistake, this Way isn’t easy.  It requires a trust and a radical commitment in the victory of God.  But why not – don’t we say that the church is of God and give our lives in the promise that the church, the bride of Christ, will be persevered until the end of time? 

It’s probably unrealistic to think that the anxiety we live with in the church is going away any time soon.  As dramatic as this might seem, the culture will shift again – there will be new challenges and more obstacles, new uncertainties and more chances to live in fear.  

But the way forward is the same as it always been, and it begins with answering a charge – Follow Me.  

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The Grace Is In The Details

Sometimes you just need to spell it out – or at least when you are going to dump water on somebody.

I’ve been thinking a lot about baptism lately. I know, something only preachers probably do, but at least I have an excuse. It all started with Jason’s Micheli’s wonderful piece on infant baptism over at Jesus Creed and then it continued when we remembered our baptisms to begin 2015 at my church a few weeks ago and continued this past Sunday when I had the privilege to participate in an adult baptism.

WaterIn my particular context for following Jesus, the United Methodist Church – whenever someone is baptized, whether that someone is a committed adult making a conscious decision or an infant who doesn’t know what church is much less how they are going to reject the forces of evil – we affirm that the sacrament is an act that involves more than God, the preacher and the person about to receive the water. No, instead baptism takes place in the context of a community of sacramental faith and discipleship; it involves the people in the pews, the chairs, the benches, or wherever they are gathered for worship.  And so they have to answer some questions too, about whether they will commit to helping the newly baptized live out the earth-shaking promises they have just made.   

It usually goes something like this:

“With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” – United Methodist Book of Worship Service of the Baptismal Covenant I

And most of us can admit that at one point or another we have mumbled through this, skipped a word or two or even missed the whole thing while waiting to move on to the next part of worship. That’s a shame, though.  Because I have become more and more convinced that this is one of the most important parts of the whole deal, more important than how many people surround the one being baptized or even how cute a baby looks during the obligatory pictures.

It’s why I’ve come to appreciate the leaders who not only showcase the newly baptized to the congregation, but in so doing remind us just what we are committing to.  It’s at this moment that the church comes together to declare its purpose and how it will play a part in being a conveyor of God’s grace to the newly baptized.  It’s at this moment that the church will come together and say you aren’t on your own, you aren’t in this by yourself, that when faith gets hard and you don’t know where to turn you can turn to us, and we’ll show you the way because we’ve been in your shoes and we’ve come out the other side.  It’s at this point that we say boldly and in unison that we are willing to share our stories with you, to walk beside you and to let you know how we made it and how we have remained  faithful in the good times and especially in the bad ones.

The truth is that we don’t experience God’s power and grace in general affirmations or overly spiritual language. No, we feel the power of grace in the specific, in the particular, in the times and places where we really need it, when in the middle of our calendars and schedules God breaks in and we experience something so divine that we know it can only come from a power beyond ourselves. And that’s why in our promise to walk with the newly baptized, we should get specific.  We need, in this beautiful and powerful moment of God’s grace breaking in to another life, to get concrete and go into the real life stuff, the ways and the places where we really experience this grace. So, I wish we would say something like this:

– We will commit to actually being fully devoted disciples of Jesus and to live our faith in such a way that you know what a fully committed follower of Jesus looks like because they are all around you.  You will worship with them, you will learn with them, you will serve with them at the soup kitchen and see them sharing life in your family.

– We will commit to seriously studying and learning and applying the Bible – the beautiful story of God’s ever expanding covenant that now includes you – in a way that will not bore you but inspire you and spark your imagination.

– We will commit to being with you and staying in covenant with you when you ask different questions than we do, when you struggle with the hard questions and when you provoke us to examine our accepted ways of life in light of the way, the truth and the life of Jesus.  We can do this, even when its tough and painful, because we take seriously what Jesus said when he promised he would always be with us.

– We will commit to wrestling with and searching for who God is in such a way that we will help you face the biggest questions of life, because belief in the Incarnation means that the Gospel has something to say about every aspect of the human condition.  Our faith isn’t scared of questions of war or politics or violence or inequality or health, human relationships or countless other life-shaking and life-shaping issues. We’ll promise to help you as you come to terms for yourself with how an ancient story intersects with the rapidly changing world of the 21st Century as we connect with people of different faiths, live in a global world brought into our homes and hands, and experience the struggle to find a way of hope between the division, polarity and cynicism of our shared life together.

– We commit to being with you in the good times and the bad, rejoicing when you rejoice and weeping with when you weep, praying for you and loving you – all while bringing you casseroles and coffee.

– We commit to living and helping you live a life of meaning and beauty and truth so you can see and know that following Jesus isn’t only about where you spend the hereafter but is the best way to thrive as you live your life in the here and now.

This of course would make the worship service a whole lot longer, and there are plenty of other things we could say, plenty of other truths we could promise to live out, plenty other situations in which we could make vows to be the hands and feet of Christ to the newly baptized.  

But to get specific, to drill down into the grime and the grit of real life, reminds us that baptism isn’t the end but the beginning, it helps us remember the promises made at our own baptism, it helps us recall the ways that God has been faithful in our lives, it brings to mind the larger-than-our-life-purpose of the church that can get lost in our attempts to make the mission of God safe and comfortable, and it sends us out into the world more aware of the obstacles we face and the incredible opportunities we have to experience and share God’s grace in a hungry and hurting world.

I’ve grown up in this particular tribe of the Church, and like so many I left it only to be drawn back to it, and I have been identified as one of its leaders in one of the turns of God’s way I never saw coming.  I was baptized before I was aware of it, without a choice in the matter, and certainly without any say in what I wore to the event.

And yet I have experienced over and over again, in ways typical and radical, the grace that comes from people taking seriously that promise they made, when they prayed for me when I was struggling, taught me in word and deed what following Jesus looked like, held onto me when I wasn’t sure I could hold onto the church anymore, showed me how to forgive someone even when that was the last thing I wanted to do, saw gifts in me that I never saw in myself and who reminded me again and again that no matter what, I belonged to God.

We do these things each and every day.  We take seriously what it means to be a community who walk with the baptized.

So let’s start saying it – together.

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