Time to Lighten our Load
Moving. It’s a chore many of us have had to do at least once or twice in our lives, and I imagine that most ministers have practiced the ritual even more than that. As a veteran of ten or twelve moves myself, I’ve come to regard it as an experience only slightly more appealing than smashing my thumb with a tack hammer. Sometimes, however, there is just no avoiding the necessity of sorting through the things that one has accumulated, deciding on what must be packed up and taken with you, and what must be left behind.
Whether through greed, sentimentality, insecurity, or just plain old laziness, we humans seem prone to collecting things. Not infrequently in a society like ours—a society in which mindless consumption rises almost to the level of virtue—we often latch onto things that, while there may have been what seemed like a good reason for doing so at the time, wind up making us scratch our heads later and wonder, “what was I thinking?”, or perhaps worse, “what on earth was the purpose of this?”. I’d wager that most of us have been there at one time or another in our lives; I know I have. While it needn’t be a source of shame, it also shouldn’t be a habit we engage in without considering its possible effects on our spiritual journey.
A very close friend of mine is a self-acknowledged “hoarder”. Fortunately, his keen awareness of the disorder has led him in recent years to take several positive steps toward addressing it. Still, whether a result of anxiety, or depression, or some other mental health-related issue, it’s a constant struggle for him to part with things that most people would consider of little or no value—things that certainly have no value in terms of making him safer, or happier, or more fulfilled in his purpose.
While we were visiting recently, he observed that in addition to the tangible things that he has collected and knows he must jettison in pursuit of a better life, he has also recognized the need to get rid of some pretty significant intangible detritus as well. The hoarding of unnecessary or harmful attitudes, beliefs, anxieties, and fears, he says, can be as debilitating as the piles of rummage and rubbish around his house that threaten his physical well-being. It occurred to me in that moment that the church could perhaps learn a lesson or two from my friend’s observations…
It’s no revelation (or shouldn’t be) that the institutional church—at least in the United States—is facing an existential crisis. For that matter, our own denomination is hardly immune from the possibility of disappearing into oblivion, as is plainly evident from the trend line defining our annual domestic numerical growth. None of this is news. We could sit around and complain that discussion of such a fact is an exercise in negativity or defeatism, or we could dismiss it as a lack of confidence in the good news we have to share—and some of us have had a lot of practice at that. But in the end, unless we face and deal with the uncomfortable truth that adults—particularly young adults—are not only not attracted by today’s church and what it has to offer, but are often actively avoiding it, the trend line will likely continue to point toward extinction.
As I see it, one part of the problem is that the church has collected a hoard of attitudes, beliefs, anxieties, and fears that we simply do not need (if we ever did), that are not essential to the Christian faith, and which are in fact detrimental to our ability to relate meaningfully to those who could use some good news. Over the last half-century or so especially, our society has allowed certain individuals and organizations—commonly generalized as so called “evangelical Christianity”—to coopt responsibility for representing the Christian faith to a world that desperately needs the love that Jesus modeled—a love that in many respects is the antithesis of what is promulgated on the air waves and in many fundamentalist sanctuaries.
How many times have we heard the charge—particularly from young adults outside the faith—that Christians as a whole are hypocritical in their faith? For those of us who are listening, it is a frustratingly familiar refrain. But what else can they think when they see others who claim to represent Christianity demanding that walls be built to exclude refugees and immigrants from the safety of our shores? Or supporting Draconian cuts to social safety nets in favor of massive increases in defense spending? Or looking the other way as our public officials make a mockery of decency, integrity, and decorum?
As rooted in authentic evangelical thought as we may be, I do not believe that such merciless attitudes and beliefs come naturally to our denomination, or for that matter, to the majority of people striving to follow the path that Jesus set out for us. And yet, we have by some measure of default accumulated vestigial parts of those attitudes and beliefs—to the detriment of our calling, as I see it.
We can see those vestiges in our meetings of Presbytery when specific groups of people are singled out for exclusion from full participation in the life of the church. We can see it when we choose silence in the face of mass shootings in our schools and places of business, and of our national idolatry of weapons of war. We can see it when, despite a disturbing number of open pulpits, we refuse to call any of the many available women ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament. We can even see it in the language we use, knowing the hurt it can cause in its exclusivity. We have, in short, allowed for an accumulation of pseudo-theological odds and ends that Jesus would surely find unnecessary and unhelpful.
It is time to rid ourselves of those narrow-minded attitudes and beliefs that have little or nothing to do with Christ’s imperative to love and welcome our neighbors as we ourselves would like to be loved and welcomed. It is time to move away from fealty to political power and trust that God will supply the strength we need to nurture God’s kingdom on earth. It is time to abandon the prejudices that have driven our world view closer to that of power-obsessed religion and farther away from Christ’s Way
In his letter to the Editor, published in the May 2018 issue of The Cumberland Presbyterian, Rev. Phillip Layne suggests that “our nation and our world are on the cusp of a new massive move of God” and that this move will “provide an opportunity for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church…to be in a position of leadership…in what God is going to do next.” I believe that Rev. Layne is on to something, and could hardly agree more. It is time for us to prepare for that move by lightening our load, leaving behind those accumulated attitudes that will only weigh us down and keep us tethered to a place where oblivion may be the only available destination.