It took a little study time away for me to be reminded of a most essential truth: the congregation, the living Church, is not mine to keep alive. I know it must sound crazy to you that I would somehow forget that God’s Spirit is alive and is and has always been the source of Life for the baptized that are kept alive in Christ.
It’s just that this is the first time in my thirty-four years since my ordination that the Church in all of its expressions is really hurting: families are afraid, in great part due to isolation from the things that once grounded them; community is scattered; major damage is being done to the very things that make a congregation a congregation (i.e. when will we have a packed fellowship hall for coffee hour?); partnership ministries that we own—like Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota—are facing the prospect of decline from which they might not recover. I could go on and on listing the trouble that I heard about over the last two weeks.
But here’s what I also heard again: God is the keeper of the Church. Through the centuries of war and plague and political unrest and even in times of the Church’s own infidelity, the Spirit was at work creating new opportunities for the faithful to follow Jesus Christ into a world that is redeemable.
Sitting in a coffee shop in Rochester, MN, I read the wonderful article, “Church at Its Best,” written by Patricia J. Lull, Bishop of the ELCA St. Paul Synod. In this article she reminds the reader:
“At its best, the church gathers people to hear and study the word of God, to be given an identity in baptism and experience a table with room for all in communion, to practice forgiveness in season and out so that it becomes a way of life, to be led by pastors worthy of the title “shepherd,” to center worship in prayer and praise of God, and to embrace the suffering that comes to oneself for the sake of the gospel and to embrace with love others who suffer in the world….When those features are present as concrete expressions of the church in a local context, there is no reason to wonder about irrelevancy or to worry unduly about the future.” (Lull, Word and World, Volume 40, Number 1, 2020, p. 48)
I appreciate Bishop Lull’s invitation to not “worry unduly” about the Church’s and more particularly this congregation’s survival. God’s word (which will be shared here, together, but also solidly to members worshipping apart at home) is a force that shapes who we are to others throughout the decades of life. We will find ways to keep communing and forgiving. And, we will look for ways to be Christ in the midst of others suffering. Let’s say it again: This is God’s church and we are a loved people.
Renewed in my point of view, I suggest that, “Alive in Christ, together or Apart” is a good theme for Beaver Valley as we head into the uncertainties of fall. There are all kinds of things we don’t know: how long will teachers teach children in classrooms in public schools? Will we have a Christmas program for our children this December? Will a vaccine really help us come back together like we remember it or will it only serve to keep at bay a new enemy that will always be with us? Answers to these questions I do not have.
But, there are other questions that we must ask and will be given the answers for: Who needs my best energies today? What is God’s living Word for me and for my loved ones this week? How do we commit to the hearing of God’s word “Together or Apart”? Have I ended my day with confident prayer for myself and others who suffer? Have I embraced Christ’s call to enter into my neighbor’s trouble and do what I can to help? The Gospel—the Good News of Christ’s grace for all—will help us answer these questions. And, in so doing, keep us alive into the days to come.
Together and apart from you,
Pastor Greg Johnson