Saturday the 15th of September is the day we remember Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a nun and spiritual reformer whose influence on the church continues to grow to this day. One of the most beautiful contributions to the Christian faith she left with us was a reflection on how the incarnate one, Jesus, once raised from the dead continues that incarnation through the faithful.
What exactly does it mean to be ordained? It doesn’t really mean that one is called to follow Jesus. That calling comes to every Christian through the sacrament of baptism. To be a Christian is to be called to serve.
“I just don’t understand.” These are perhaps the most frequently used words spoken by loved ones in the wake of a suicide or suicide attempt. They are wise words. The fact is, we can’t understand the pain, despair, weariness, or hopelessness that leads to suicide. Each struggle is unique and takes place in isolation. From Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, who becomes convinced his family is better off without him to Robin Williams who could not sustain his struggle with his mental health; from the retiree who suddenly lost his investments and was overwhelmed with a sense of failure and shame to the teen who just cannot take another day of bullying, shame, and despair; from the LBGTQ+ person who has been rejected by family, friends and seemingly, the whole culture to the newly diagnosed cancer patient who is terrified and cannot imagine healing, we can only understand in part, at best.
“I’m spiritual, but not religious” is a mantra for many. Studies tell us that each successive generation becomes less and less affiliated with a religious community. Along with a host of other indicators, we are moving farther away from communal expressions of faith and embracing internal, individualized ideas of faith. It seems like we are all on a quest to privatize spiritual life to the extent that it has nothing to do with anyone but ourselves. The result is that we are more lonely, depressed, and fragmented than ever.
We are divided. Our nation, our communities, our schools, and our churches are all divided. That is not news. We have become a nation of red or blue states and citizens. The divide has driven wedges between friends and family members. Our government is so locked into the red and blue binary mindset that compromise, working for the common good, and so, governance is nearly impossible. Congregations have been torn apart or simply sit in sulking silence unable to find any unity. You are red or you are blue. It is reminiscent of our past when blue and gray divided us
This spring one of the synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had to cancel its annual assembly because they couldn’t gather a quorum. A synod’s assembly elects leaders and adopts budgets. A synod’s assembly affects every congregation in the synod, yet they couldn’t make it happen. Our congregation had to cancel Vacation Bible School this summer due to a lack of interest. Congregations all over are registering lower participation levels in all aspects of congregational life. The pandemic did not cause this – but it accelerated it. Twenty years ago, the average church member attended worship twice a month or more. Today it is once a month or less.
In the pre-modern age, asking the question, “Who needs God anyway?” would have been unthinkable. Everything in heaven and earth was an expression of the transcendent reality of the divine. Today, this question is a quite mainstream question, even a rhetorical question that assumes the answer is, “No one!” Now, there are still plenty of folks who would answer that we all need God in some way. We might bemoan the fact that so many people even think such things. We might blame the problems of the world on those who don’t think we need God.
Grief, on the one hand, is a universal human experience. On the other, grief is as varied and particular as everyone who walks its path. Grief is not a journey we choose. It can seem like a force that hijacks our trip through life. Sometimes grief can seem like an unwanted guest who shows up to stay and we don’t know the duration of the visit.
The most common form of greeting for just about anyone we meet, close friend or total stranger, is, “Hi. How are you?” For most of my life, the standard response from an optimist, or one who wants you to mind your own business, was, “Fine.” Others might answer with something less committal like, “I’m upright.” George Carlin, the late, great comedian once said he liked to respond, “I’m not unwell,” just to throw people a curve. These days, however, the most frequent response to my query, “How are you?” is, “I’m busy.”