Over the last couple of months, I’ve learned that several pastors I know and love have either left a congregation or retired from ministry far earlier than planned because they have no more to give. The pandemic and all the other cultural forces that make our society uncivil and adversarial have left them, as one colleague put it, unable to keep turning the other cheek.
When people are asked, “Do you pray?” the majority say, “Of course.” Surprisingly, this holds true even among those who say they really don’t believe in any god. Prayer seems to be a rather ubiquitous part of human experience. On the other hand, what people mean by “prayer” is much harder to pin down.
In some small way, I think that the pandemic feels like a "diaspora" of a sort. We feel scattered, or at least disconnected, from the communal relationships that define us. Nowhere has this been more evident than in church.
One of the phrases heard frequently when traveling by train in Europe is “Mind the Gap.” It is a phrase that is repeated every time the train door is opened. “Mind the Gap,” in other words pay attention to what you are doing so that you do not fall or trip as you maneuver the steps to the landing outside the train. There is an open space, a gap, between the outside of the train and the sidewalk. “Mind the Gap.”
Maybe it is an illusion, perhaps a response to fatigue, but the number of questions that seem to demand answers is increasing geometrically. As the approach of fall brings a new school year, a new season of learning in the church, and a thousand other “new” things marinated in the odyssey known as the pandemic, every moment demands answers and spawns more questions. Speaking as one who is supposed to know stuff and provide answers, I am going to make a confession – and I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t know. I don’t know how to keep everyone safe, nor how to keep folks satisfied and connected to a congregation that is still mostly scattered. I don’t know when this will end, nor how the weeks and months ahead will unfold. I don’t know.
The Book of Revelation is a source of much conversation and speculation. Its wild images and often terrifying beasts and battles can make it hard to find hope, love, or grace in its pages. Martin Luther found the whole of John’s Apocalypse to be so unhelpful to faith that he thought it should be plucked from the canon of scripture.
I have been thinking this week about the Lord’s Prayer. Besides praying it, I have been contemplating what it means to pray, “God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven." Many challenges are interrupting the peaceful loving world we all desire.
I have a couple of shoe boxes on the top shelf of my closet that contain notes – love notes. They are from my wife and span the thirty plus years we’ve been together. We met in a distant past where people still wrote letters to each other. Those love notes, in letter and card, tell our love story. Once, in a moment of insanity, I took them down to throw them away figuring that I knew well enough the sentiments the boxes contained. This interrupted our marital bliss for a moment, until I came to my senses and placed them securely back on the shelf. My wife knows more about devotion than I do.
It is hard for congregations to become a manifestation of Christ’s Beloved Community. There are many reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason in our age is consumerism. Our culture, driven by economic values and personal satisfaction, turns everything into a commodity. We “shop” for churches. In the same way we decide not to go to a restaurant that gave us a bad burger, we decide to find another church because of a slight from another member, a sermon with which we disagree, or a song that we disliked.
This coming Sunday the Church observes the Festival of the Holy Trinity – The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Grasping the meaning and essence of the Trinity is not an easy task. In fact, it is ultimately impossible for it is the attempt at trying to express the deepest mystery of a God who is as close as your breath and as distant as the farthest galaxy; as intimate as your most inner thought and as transcendent as time itself. When the Athanasian Creed teaches, “We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being,” I find myself over my head and out of my depth.