Sunday, May 13, 2012

Believing and Belonging

1 John 5:1-8
Easter 6
May 13, 2012
William G. Carter

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 

            If we continue after Easter to explore the Easter life, we need to talk about believing and belonging. Believing and Belonging. Those who believe belong, those who belong believe. At least, I thought that was the connection. These days we aren’t so sure.

            Like a lot of you, I grew up in the church. There were twenty-one seventh graders in my seventh-grade Sunday School class. It was the high water mark of the Baby Boom. But I don’t know how many of them still go to church. I’m going to guess five, maybe six. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

Confirmation was a big day for us. In seventh grade, in 1973, confirmation was a big deal. Confirmation was the ceremony when seventh graders joined the church and left the church on the same day. Maybe their parents cut a deal: if you endure confirmation to the end, we will let you decide from now on if you are going to go.

Some resist joining a church because a church seems like just another organization. And they won’t have it. They want nothing to do with organizations. Organizations have dues to pay, gatherings to attend, and structures to maintain. If that’s all it is, they don’t want to have any part of an organization.

My generation has its own issues. If you grew up in the ‘60’s, you learned to question organizations and talk back to power. If you grew up in the ‘70’s, you saw how corrupt Nixon’s White House was, and it signaled that any pre-existing institution was also probably corrupt. It’s not unique to my bunch. If you grew up in the ‘80’s, you saw those old TV preachers were greedy and sinful. If you grew up in the ‘90’s, you discovered some of the dark corners of the Roman Catholic church.

The curious thing about the Christian faith is we don’t believe in an organization. We believe in Christ. Through Christ, we belong to everybody else who believes in Christ. That’s how he set up everything. “When we love God and his commandments, we love the children of God.”

When we say, “I believe,” we find ourselves in a larger family. That’s what 1st John is working with, in a way. John is a church leader who writes this letter and says, “We are the ones who have seen, we are the ones who have heard, we are the ones who testify.” If it’s the case that not everybody has seen or heard, or that not everybody was there around the circle, there is a living center to it all that keeps everybody pulled in.

We have heard the past couple of weeks about the character of that community. It is the character of love. Tertullian was a church leader who lived in Carthage about 180 years after Jesus. He was also one of the crankiest figures in church history. Yet he reported what the non-Christians around him in North Africa said about their Christian neighbors: “See how they love one another!”[1] He was particularly talking about how the Christians cared for the poor and the outcast. 

Practical love was the mark of the church from the beginning, in the name of Jesus, about whom it was said, “He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.” (Isaiah 42:3).  “When we love God,” said John, “we love the children of God.” There is a constant magnetic quality about that love that pulls people toward it.

The sad news we hear these days from the young adults is that when they hear the word “Christian,” the very last thing they think is “love.” It’s not only the flap about gay and lesbians being allowed to marry, it’s the general judgmental attitude acquainted with the word “Christian.”

One of the twenty-something’s went to a church that a lot of her friends were raving about. It seemed exciting – they had strobe lights and a fog machine. She sniffed it out immediately and said, “They downplay their bigotry as a marketing ploy. It was clear they would treat me as second-class because I was a woman, kind of the same way that people who were slave-owners never thought they were racist.” Her decision was to never go to another church ever again. She gave them one chance and they blew it.

This attitude is in the air. There was a recent article in The Christian Century about the reluctance of young adults to join churches, to actually sign up and become members. One of the interesting facts is that Americans have not always been big church members. Historians think that in the year 1800, only one American in six belonged to a church. By the 1850’s, due to the revival movement and its individual commitments to Christ, the number was one in three. Fifty years ago, church membership climbed to over eighty percent – but it’s been declining ever since.

On May 3, the Scranton Times-Tribune ran a front-page article about church membership in our region. It was fascinating, if only because the headline was wrong. The headline said “Evangelical population growing, Catholic population flat.” The editor really should have read their own article. The evangelicals are growing, mostly in the Assembly of God churches. The Roman Catholics are shrinking, and the Methodists are shrinking worst of all. But what the headline missed is that the biggest growth section in our region is in the people who have no religion at all. They claim no affiliation. They don’t belong anywhere – and once they did.[2]

Statistics like these have been making the rounds nationally for twenty years, but we live in an area where things seem to happen ten years later. If you saw the March 12 issue of Time Magazine, it featured a cover story on the “Ten Ideas That Are Changing Your Life.” Number one: Living alone is the new norm. Number two: information is kept in a cloud. Number three: carbon emissions are the air.

Then there was number four: “The Rise of the Nones.” That’s N-O-N-E-S, as in, none of them go to church, none of them declare a religious affiliation, none of them profess a religious belief, none of them much care for anything religious at all.

Do you know anybody like this? Let’s ask for a show of hands: how many of you know somebody like that? How many of you know somebody like that in your extended family? (I’ll stop there.)

Now, there may be any number of reasons for this. Let’s list a handful:

·         Maybe they hooked up with the church when the kids were young, and now that the kids are older, the incentive is gone.
·         Maybe it’s because we are now an attention deficit nation, and nobody wants to sit still for an hour, or because people are entertained everywhere else and they want to be entertained in church, too.
·         Maybe it’s because many people don’t read books, and the Bible is a book.
·         Maybe it’s because our nation has lost its innocence, in so many ways, and with that loss, cyncism creeps in.
·         Maybe the preachers are uninspiring. Or the church members are too petty.
·         Maybe it’s because there is no current consensus on moral values, and it was a lot easier when we all pretty much agreed on the same things.
·         Maybe people got out of the routine of going to church and discovered they liked it.
·         Maybe it’s the fact (and I’ve given some thought to this) that many Baby-Boomers are burying their parents, and now they don’t have to feel guilty about sleeping in on Sundays, and don’t have to justify themselves to mom and dad who always went to church.
·         Maybe it’s because people travel more, or vacation more, or move around more, and nobody has any roots anywhere, so why put down roots in a congregation?
·         Or when you get right down to it, maybe it’s because people just don’t think they need God very much. They get along fine on their own. They can define their lives, their work, their relationships, whatever, as if God has little to do with any of that.

All of these are observations that the historian Diana Butler Bass has been making. She’s been studying the people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” There are a lot of them. Some of them are in churches, some are not. If we pay attention to them, she says, they reveal signs of a possible spiritual renaissance.

      Diana writes about this in a new book called Christianity After Religion. I’m reading it now, and I invite you to read it too.  If you do, maybe we can talk some more about it in the next couple of months. Anyway, I want to tell you what she says, all as a commentary on our scripture text. Diana says this:

Three deceptively simple questions are at the heart of a spiritually vibrant Christianity--questions of believing, behaving, and belonging. Religion always entails the "3B's" of believing, behaving, and belonging. Over the centuries, Christianity has engaged the 3B's in different ways, with different interrogators and emphases. For the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:

1)  What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2)  How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3)  Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)

But the questions have changed. Contemporary people care less about what to believe than how they might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:

1)  How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)
2)  What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?)
3)  Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)

            Diana says, “The foci of religion have not changed -- believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which people engage each area have undergone a revolution.”[3]

            If I might dare to boil it down, what a lot of people are looking for is an authentic faith. They don’t want anything fake. They don’t want anything plastic. They don’t want to check their brains and hearts at the door. They want to be around people who are seeking to understand the Holy Mystery at work in all of life, people who actually do love one another, people who doing the hard work of living a life that matters.

            And I guess that reminds me of my mom. She married when she was almost 21. She birthed a couple of kids, lost a couple of infants, and decided that she always wanted a house full of love. My brother and younger sister were adopted, and always treated equally. She raised the kids while Dad was off earning money. She made sacrifices for us. She had high expectations of us. One of those expectations was that we would love Jesus, and that we needed to know how much he loved us. So every week it was church, Sunday School, fellowship, and mission.

When the four of us started to grow and spread our wings, she decided that the house needed more kids, so she and Dad started taking in exchange students. They were from all over the place – Ecuador, Sweden, Germany, Japan. And then, she taught us it wasn’t Thanksgiving Dinner unless we invited people to the table who had nowhere else to go. So she found some widows, all of them widows of Presbyterian ministers, and she invited them to the table. She still does that.

            Where did I learn how to love like Jesus loves? From my mom. She was recently elected again as an elder to her church. I said, “Why do you let them do that?” She was assigned to chair the Christian Education committee – and she had never ever been to a meeting of that committee ever before, and she’s chairing the committee. I said, “Why are you doing that?” And she said, “We have to teach people however we can that Jesus loves them, beginning with the little ones.” And when her town was flooded by the Susquehanna last September, she was one of the first to say, “We need to invite the rescue workers to sleep on our church pews, and to welcome the Red Cross to use our church’s hall to hand out food, water, and blankets.

That’s my mother. God loves her, and she loves the people that God loves.

            Did you write down the questions that Diana Butler Bass says that the spiritual people are asking? I have some working answers:

How do I believe? My mother believes with her heart, her soul, her mind, and her strength.

What should I do?  My mom says, “I welcome everybody to my table, especially those who have nobody else.” She adds, “We teach people that Jesus loves them, beginning with the little ones.”

Whose am I? My mother belongs to God, and she belongs to all the people who belong to God. And when I think of her, it makes all the difference.

In fact, when I think of my mother, I know how to live a holy life in the world. Because when you get right to it, all of us want to be in the presence of people who are in the presence of God.[4] It would always be nice to have more church members, but what I really want is to be in the presence of people who are in the presence of God. How about you?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment