Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Locating the Church

 Where is the best place to look for the church in a Post Christendom context?

In the context of persecution, to find the church you must look in the concealed and secret places. Indeed the survival of the church relies on being unseen and hidden. Not that the church is inactive, but rather the location of gathering is undisclosed.

In the context of Christendom, the church is much easier to find. When it is an institution of respect and favour, the church is located in obvious places. It meets in the open and makes its presence known. It looks for the best exposure so that location is easy to determine.

Mennonite Church Canada and its Area Churches have begun to explore what it means to be a family of faith across the country in a Post Christendom context. From its congregations to its Area Churches and National Church, our Canadian context has necessitated that your family of faith discover a new way of expressing itself. A newly formed Future Directions Task Force is seeking to better understand and respond to this significantly changed context.

The first teleconference of the Future Directions Task Force was planned for a mid-week afternoon.  This created a conflict for me. I had promised transportation for my family during that same afternoon. We determined to leave a little early and that I would connect for the teleconference from my vehicle.

That afternoon I transported my family to the event and parked myself at the edge of a nearby parking lot. As I discussed the need to discover how to be a national family of faith in our changing Canadian context I watched the world of commerce stream by. I watched school children walk by. I watched people return from work. Ordinary life bustled in front of me.

In the context of persecution the church is removed from view. In the context of Christendom, the church seeks key locations of exposure. But where is the church to be found in a Post Christendom context? In such a context the church is not persecuted, but neither does it enjoy the place of honour and respect. It can remain in obvious places of exposure, but it is disregarded. It can advertise its location but the welcome is ignored.

As I reflected later on that teleconference experience, I couldn’t help but smile at the irony of it. Family schedules needed to be accommodated. And the work of the church was taking place in the parking lot of ordinary bustle of life. Maybe there is a message in that experience. Perhaps this is best place to find the church in a Post Christendom context.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Understanding Grace

When I was a pastor I often felt as though I had been invited into sacred space. Space so intimate that I felt guilty by my presence. My breath alone felt an intrusion. The intimacy undressed my defensive robe of resolve and left my emotions vulnerable. Paralyzed by the gripping scene, all I could do was watch and marvel. I consider these experiences precious gifts because they have plunged me into a deeper understanding of grace.
Sometimes it is only when you are plunged into a space that undoes you that the clearest demonstration of grace emerges. Often the most vibrant display of grace is seen in the shadows where the brilliant light of goodwill does not eclipse it. When grace presents itself in the shadows, in the sidelines, it is unmistakable.
One of my most potent glimpses of grace came at a funeral. Grace is a common guest at funerals. Perhaps it is attracted to the deep sorrow of human suffering. It knows it is needed and so does not hesitate to be present.
As the pastor at a funeral, it is important to step alongside your own emotions. Not that you deny your emotions. But you determine their expression. Mourning can seep through words without being flooded by tears.
                The congregation was waiting in the sanctuary as the family expressed their final goodbyes. I stood in the shadows and watched them file past the body of a loved husband, father and grandfather. I had witnessed this many times. There is something about witnessing the deep sorrow of others that is difficult to bear. My heart becomes heavy as well.
                Two brothers approached their father. An intense history accompanied them. Both were rugged, strong men. But through an occupational accident one had been confined to a wheelchair, unable to communicate or feed himself. His aged parents returned to their role as caregiver. Although now an adult, the man in the wheelchair was their son and received the same nurture required as a child.
                I watched in silence as the two sons came to say goodbye to dad. One brother looked down in sadness. The other looked up in grief.
                Some say that rugged men do not display tenderness. But some tenderness can only be displayed by rugged men.
                My breathing came slowly and deeply as I watched. I saw the son lean over and whisper into his brother’s ear. Then strong arms coiled around a frail body and the muscular brother held up the weakened son. Together they stood. Together they mourned the loss of their father. Together they embraced the new reality. Together they gazed upon their father one last time.
                That image has been frozen in my mind. I cannot shake it free and neither do I want to. I cherish it. The tenderness crumbled me. The gentleness weakened me. The image rushed upon me and quickly paralyzed my defences. I was reduced from the pastoral leader and elevated to a common mourner. When grace reveals itself, everything else is humbled.
                I witnessed another side of grace, a nuance I had not yet understood. Grace is not limited to the context of happy endings or celebrated resolutions. Sometimes grace is the gift of seeing what we know we must see, even though dreaded. To be lifted up to see that, which we must reconcile, is a gift of grace.
                This is the grace exercised by God. When allowed by our surrender, God will lift us up to see that which must be mourned; that which must be reconciled. Only then can we allow ourselves to be led into the new reality offered by the God who is eager to redeem, restore and reconcile.