Loud Amen, Not a Last Hurrah
This past week I read James Carroll's Christ, Actually, a rethinking of the Christian faith for the secular age. Carroll is the author also of Constantine's Sword, in which he reported and regretted the history of Christian-Jewish relations since the second century. That was an engaging and illuminating work; I looked forward, therefore, to his diagnosis and prescription for the future of Christianity.
Carroll wants (and he might prefer the word "anticipates") the emergence of a Christian faith that (1) has overcome its divergence with rabbinic Judaism; (2) rediscovered its ancient egalitarianism, especially with regard to women; (3) restored the insistence on the Jewishness and humanity of Jesus against those enamored of his divinity; and (4) replaced institutional notions of the church with the idea of it as a community or, better, a family.
Big order! But what one might expect of someone who sees the big picture. Like a friend of mine, the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, who has devoted his five decades of writing and reporting to the disestablishment of Christianity in North America, not by forcible means but by the erosion of its influence as the consequence of its failures (think, for example if not only, of the child molestation epidemic in the Roman Catholic Church) and the rise of secularism.
As much as I might like to dismiss these predictions of the church's demise, I am realist enough to see the gradual but undeniable attrition in church attendance, membership, and finances. Across the board. Robert Schuler's Crystal Cathedral has come tumbling down. My Methodist denomination in this region has closed a hundred churches in the past sixty years. Nor is the Roman Catholic Church spared, hurting as it does so badly from the lack of vocations (meaning ordained priests).
This ecclesiastical reality and my own time in life collaborate to make me wonder what comes next for those who love and follow Jesus. But equally it requires from me an evaluation of how I did spend my years in the pastorate... as a leader of a declining institution? And did I contribute to its attrition? To this end I ask myself the following (happily acknowledged as loaded) questions:
Was it foolish of me to labor in the vineyard for nearly fifty years under the assumption that the church is God's primary instrument for getting out the good news of Jesus and keeping alive his memory in the present generation? As much as I do take Jesus at his word when he states to the misbelievers of his day that "God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham" - that is, God is not dependent upon the church to get the job done - somebody has to do it. And I was one and would be one again, raised in the church, who volunteers, "Send me." But I would dispense with the hype I hear too often from the pulpit about the GREAT congregation and finding God in this wonderful house of prayer. The church is not and never has been the primary locus of God's work; that work is everywhere and maybe especially where it's not acknowledged. The church should be like John the Baptist in the Isenheim altarpiece, the figure pointing away from himself to the fellow on the cross and saying of him, "Behold the man!" We're the pointers of the dog show, a bit shaggier than a pure bred, but useful for telling the world where the prize is.
Did I waste my Thursday and Sunday afternoons each week, spending them in instruction and play with junior highs in confirmation class and youth fellowship? Sometimes, God forgive me, I was certain there were far better things for me to do than suffer the inanities of thirteen year olds and abide their often chaotic energy. To tell the truth, on Mondays before the Friday nights I would embark with these young people for a weekend "retreat," my anxiety level would begin to build with apprehension for the sleepless nights ahead of me, plus the worry that someone was sure to get hurt. But it is now those same over-energized souls who are keeping me alive and telling me wonderful lies about myself, how important I was to them as they grew into their maturity. I've reported before, several times on this website, the evening at a Chinese restaurant on 8th Avenue in Brooklyn where I went to help one of those young people celebrate his 60th birthday, that I went to his Mom's table and said to her with Tommy and his four siblings in mind, "Mary, you did a great job." Without missing a beat, she replied, "No, Pastor Howard, we did." In the churches I served, the church was the primary community for many of its members; and the pastor became a surrogate not only for Jesus, but for fathers and brothers too. I do not foresee any future in which that role should be minimized or abandoned; if anything, it will need to be multiplied. The pangs of my Thursday and Sunday afternoons, it turns out, were harbingers of the celebratory gratitude that continues to find its way to my door all the way up here a hundred miles from its original inspiration.
Was there any good purpose in taking the bread and cup of holy communion three times a year to the congregation in its old age diaspora, meaning nursing homes throughout the one hundred mile length of Long Island? In the evening on such days I would slump into my recliner, more from emotional exhaustion than any physical exertions. Senile dementia afflicted a quarter of the souls visited. On one occasion Helen mistook the cup for the bread and began to chew the plastic, with bloody results. Mostly the visits were surrounded in a haze of gratitude, from recipients and family members. Still it was always hard on the psyche to behold the inevitable deterioration of the flesh and the brain; to see, in effect, where I would be someday myself. That realization alone would be reason enough for home-delivered communion: a man in his fifties, even if clergy (or maybe especially because clergy), can get to be full of himself, especially when collecting praise every Sunday at the church door after the service. But the family of faith is built on, well, families, and the word spreads... that Aunt Helen is gone but not forgotten, and that speaks worlds about the church's insistence that God is love and no one anywhere is beyond God's reach. Yes, I'd do it again and again and sink into my recliner at evening's end, if in exhaustion then also with a smile of satisfaction (with a hint of self-satisfaction!) on my face.
Don't I regret the lifetime of late Saturday nights spent in sermon and service preparation when most families were eating out at McDonald's or Sardis and looking forward to a sleep-in the following morning? In fact I have invoked the Beatles Father McKenzie ("writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear") a few times as a rueful description of my lot as a preacher. But, on the other account, dining out, I am a child of the Great Depression and never got into that expensive habit, which treat I tended to associate mostly with an ice cream cone at Murray Gold's candy store. Unlike the general population the weekends for me were not a time of rest and refreshment, they were a time for me to prepare and serve the refreshments. For Barbara it was even worse, during those years with student ministers dining Sunday at our house, and she cooking roast after roast week in and out to feed hungry seminarians and, sometimes, their wives. Tell me now that all of that feverish activity in the name of the Lord was a wasted prelude to emptier and emptier pews and I'd be inclined to throw an Exhaustive Biblical Concordance (weighing roughly fifteen pounds) at you. There is no more urgent hunger in the modern world than the hunger for meaning. That's what that robed figure in the pulpit is supposed to be doing, connecting the dots in the mystery that reality is, without diminishing the mystery but exploring it in the shadow of a cross. Voices on television demand our attention, telling us that this or that certainty is definitive for the living of our days. Meanwhile, I stood for fifty years at the church's wooden dais offering the insights, the truth, the summons, the sympathy, and the comfort of the Scriptures. No, I didn't convert the world; not even my small corner of it. Too often I barely persuaded myself. But I tried, I tried to use what intelligence I had, with as much imagination as would be appropriate, to make sense of the world in which I and my fellow believers found ourselves. As the late novelist and priest, Andrew Greeley, once explained on a talking-head program on TV, we (Christians) are not called to be successful, but we are called to be faithful. Burning the Saturday night oil and ignoring the Sunday morning sleep-in was my attempt to be faithful and to help others go and do likewise.
Couldn't I have accomplished more for the good of the world and made a bigger difference there with my life if I had gone to law school (as I predicted I would in my high school yearbook) and spent my years among people of comparable educational attainment, being a mover and shaker among movers and shakers? Forgive, please, this implicit and immodest assessment of my abilities; but I was offered a job my last year in college, with Time Magazine, by its publisher, Jim Linen, which, if taken, might have led, as it did for others in whose line I stood, to the executive office of that storied (and now struggling with attrition in readership!) publication. But running the corporation from the corner office cannot hold a candle to the soul satisfaction of standing in the pulpit or shaking hands at the door of the church. Sure, the pay isn't remotely comparable; but I've lived long enough with Jesus to appreciate the plain truth in his counterargument to Satan, that man does not live by caviar alone. To hear from a parent that a child who has participated in the Sunday morning children's sermon thinks you are God is as ingratiating as it is laughable. I doubt Jim Linen ever had that said about him.
When in 2002 Sister Margie asked me what I thought I would miss most in retirement, I chuckled in reply, "No longer being important." In which there is more truth than I care to admit. I loved being in the middle of everything. I lived and moved and had my being in the family of faith. I preached and counseled, waxed floors and cleared drains, married and baptized and buried, cooked gallons of clam chowder and charbroiled thousands of hamburgers, held hands and gave my shoulder to cry on, prayed over graduations and yachts and a new Pontiac, made a midnight run or two to calm troubled waters... and did whatever needed to be done in the family of faith to hold us all together. Yes, I would do it all over again, happily, as if it were apparent to me, as it wasn't then, that I was made for this purpose.
My father-in-law, a poor parish priest if ever there was one, far more humble than me, a graduate of the same college, attended a homecoming football game with me. We found ourselves seated behind a gray-haired eminence in a camel hair overcoat who was Barbara's father's classmate, a well-known lawyer on the West Coast. He turned to Dub Davis at the end of the game, exchanged pleasantries, and then delivered the opinion to the Methodist preacher classmate, "You've done more with your life than I have with mine." He meant it. And he spoke the truth.
The world would be a far less hospitable place without havens for the soul scattered around it, tended by large-hearted pastors caring for the family of faith and letting anyone in its sphere of influence take advantage of its offerings of grace and love. When it sets aside its tendency to self-righteousness; when it genuinely welcomes all sorts and conditions of humankind; when it nurtures its children in the kindness and the wideness of God's mercy; when it reaches out in that mercy to the lowest and the least; when it learns to laugh with others and at itself; when, in other words, it truly carries forth the memory and mind of Jesus in each generation; there will always be those ready to sign up for duty within its ranks.
I say this as one from the inside. Big picture analysts see the church mainly from the outside. Their view is helpful but not final. They can point the way for us into the future, but they are not expected to live it. Having been there and done that (serving within a congregation) I can be excused for thinking that work and witness so compelling it will not be abandoned, either by God or by those who succeed us.