The Church and the World
The Church and the World
The other night we worshipped in a public auditorium, at The Bushnell in Hartford, in Mortensen Hall. A chorus of 150 singers, with a quartet of soloists, accompanied by the Hartford Symphony orchestra, presented Ludwig von Beethoven'sMissa Solemnis. Critical Christian gives the performance six haloes. Talk about being transported to the throne of heaven: we arrived there with the opening "kyrie" and stayed there through the final "dona pacem."
In remarks during the musicological session prior to the concert, Conductor Edward Cumming noted that Beethoven was not much of a church-goer. But, by God, Ludwig certainly knew and captured in his music the grandeur and glory of the eternal dimensions of this very mortal life. And never, even during a lifetime of Easter sermons, have I been so jolted by the incredibility and wonder of a central Christian confession as when the chorus, at top volume after a moment of quiet, shout/sang, "Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum" (We look for the resurrection of the dead). Perhaps, this outburst, a hope eagerly embraced by a musical genius struggling with the onset of deafness?
Beethoven's unbaptized testimony (well, maybe Ludwig was baptized, but his testimony wasn't officially blessed!) to God started me thinking, along the lines of the last sentence in the last essay posted here, to wit, "In retirement I am trying to learn how the world can be my pastorate." To be fair to me, I've never subscribed to the notion that the church is the primary arena of God's activity. Nor have I ever been of the opinion that the church's job is to make everyone a Christian.
The church is God's sentinel, not unlike our bichon friese who sits in the front window of our living room and alerts us, among several reasons to bark, to the arrival of the UPS deliveryman or little girls selling Girl Scout cookies. That is, the church's job is to point to those events, people, and moments in the world where the mind and heart of God are operative. Methodists might prefer I use the image for the church which they have appropriated from Jehovah's Witnesses, the watchman on the watchtower. Whatever, the church's purpose in the economy of salvation remains the same: not to be the kingdom of God but to point to its reality in the world six billion of us have in common.
Which is where my retirement comes in: in the course of things, otherwise known as God's providence, I have been cast adrift from the ship of faith, not quite thrown overboard like Jonah, but told by the captain that it's time to go and row for myself. No longer am I a professional Christian, buoyed by the acclamation of an adoring congregation. No longer am I narrowly focused on maintaining the church, breathing life into its administration, finding the money to repair the steeple and minister to the sick and aged. Now in the vast ocean of God's mercy my personal dingy of faith is privy to sightings of the deity in coves and estuaries which the pro (pastor, that is) never got around to exploring.
And I can report (have already, in fact) that in locker rooms, supermarkets, and concert halls, where my halo goes unnoticed, there is an immensity of grace. The Psalmist says it just right: "Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things. And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen." (KJV 72:18-19) In fact, this Christian sailor has a special reason to bless the Lord God of Israel. Many of our neighbors are Jews. To our north and our south. To the east are Roman Catholics. To the west are the beasts, small ones mostly. But in December our house shines brighter than all the others in the neighborhood, is the cause, in fact, for passing cars to slow down and rubber neck. The December darkened houses on our street, I can now more accurately report, contain families of faith, if not mine exactly, still a faith that inspires a pursuit of justice, a passion for excellence, and a reverence for the Scriptures which would make proud the Puritans of old Connecticut. I am happier than ever to announce that I am a follower of a Jew.
"I have other sheep, that do not belong to this fold," Jesus promises and, maybe, warns us. Some of them are strays, and you do remember, don't you, what the Jew I follow said about the good shepherd and his fondness for strays. With this thought in mind I took up and began reading a biography this morning, Joseph Hopkins Twichell. Joe Twichell's name appears in a couple of essays in this website's archive, mostly as the father-in-law of Charles Ives. I was curious about Congregationalist parson Twichell and his forty year friendship with Mark Twain, so close, in fact, that composer Ives is reported to have been fearful of having to pass muster with Uncle Mark when when asking for the hand in marriage of Joe's daughter Harmony. How should it be that a pillar of Hartford Yankee righteousness should befriend America's most celebrated and irreverent iconoclast?
Maybe Joe Twichell was just a perceptive sentinel for the Gospel. In the renegade Twain's impiety he could have heard an echo of the prophetic voice (see Micah 6:6-8) and the Galilean rabbi (see Matthew 7:21), that there is far more to being faithful than saying your prayers and fulfilling your churchly obligations. Tune into this same station, should you have a mind to, in a couple of weeks for a more educated explanation. The point, however, will not change: that the church, far from being a better world, exists to make the world a better place.
You know, something about being the salt of the earth.