It’s post-Easter and perhaps not the best time to return to my take on our “doomed” problem. But, it’s something that I’m now thinking about almost all the time. In fact, I’ve lined up at least four weeks worth of “We’re Doomed” blog posts. They are not meant to be completely negative and depressing. Instead, I would hope that we can see what we do, and why we do it, in a more positive and “faithful to the Gospel” way, even if it means that our church won’t survive well into the future.
This week’s “doomed” topic actually goes back quite a few weeks. During Lent at Old South, we followed the Narrative Lectionary, which focused on the parables of Matthew. Not far into Lent, we encountered Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast. It’s an ugly, difficult parable.
In thinking about that parable, I found the perspective of David Lose to be particularly helpful and meaningful. You can find his column here:
Lose essentially encourages his readers to refrain from a simple Christian-Jewish antagonistic reading and to see the harsh tone as more reflective of an internal family debate, that in the increasingly distant divide between Jews and Christians in the first century, there were not just two distinct communities, but communities in which and through which people knew each other and were even related to each other: “On the whole, Matthew’s version is darker, more violent, and pushes even the typical parable’s tolerance for absurdity to the edge. Why? Because at this point in the family conflict, he is willing to say that God not only rejects those cousins and kin of his that rejected Jesus but actually sent the Romans to destroy the Temple as punishment (a conclusion not uncommon to Matthew, but intensified in this parable).”
While we, in the 21st century, might not choose the kind of violent imagery that Matthew employs to level judgment against those “in the family” who chose a different path than our own, we can probably understand where such animosity might come from.
Mr. Lose, then, suggested that we bring the parable to our current day, and ask our parishioners to consider their own feelings in light of their own family members who have chosen not to attend church, or to attend a very different church or religious community. In this part of the world, there are lots of people whose family members do not attend church—not even on Christmas Eve or Easter.
On that particular Sunday at the beginning of March, I wondered about our feelings about this problem, a problem that we would rather never talk about. Our decreasing attendance numbers are not just about “out there” kinds of problems—sports practices, busy people looking for a one morning when they can sleep in, etc. Our decreasing numbers also involve our own family members who no longer attend church, our own family members who are no longer swayed by the Good News, who no longer feel bound by covenant as we do.
Some family members have moved away, but there are others who are still right here. And they don’t come to church.
We might not think about such notions as casting them into the outer darkness, but if we allow ourselves to go to that place of thinking about it, we may find ourselves with feelings of guilt, shame, loss, and regret.
As I come myself to the realization that my own daughter, now eighteen, has no meaningful tie to the church, I have my own complicated feelings. Did I do something wrong? Did the church?
These are issues that really ought to be in the forefront of our thinking about who we are and why we do what we do. If our own family members choose not to attend church, is it our fault or is it that we are finding in our own families the significant divide of religious and spiritual experience? If my daughter goes down a different spiritual path than mine, is it that I’ve done something wrong or that what feeds her spirit is different than what feeds mine?
There’s a lot to these question. It may be that we are doing something “wrong,” that we have not adequately shared our experience of the good news or the love of God. But, there’s also something to be said for recognizing that things change. How and why we practice the faith as we do may not be right or wrong, good or bad, but it might just be that we are finding that it doesn’t hold up well over time.
In a place like Central Maine, where there really are more older people than younger people, and many younger family members who choose to move away, it’s not even so easy as to suggest that we start practicing the faith differently. That still may not do much to ensure a future.
My feeling is that we should consider and explore what is meaningful and to be about sharing the love of God in reckless, wanton ways—even in our staid, private, old fashioned, New Englandish kind of way. Just let’s make sure that we remain bound to the Spirit, that we embrace that we are likely “doomed.” But, that we are taking that right to the cross, knowing that even in death there is life.