Just seventy-three years ago, Jews were still being killed in Nazi Germany. Forty-five years ago, civil rights in our own country were unavailable to a whole bunch of people. Forty years ago, Women couldn’t be pastors in Lutheran churches. Twenty-five years ago, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) didn’t exist. None of us had emails until about seventeen years ago. About that time, you couldn’t take communion in a Lutheran church if you were a child under a certain age. Three years ago, people who understood themselves as gay and wanting to be in a relationship couldn’t be pastors in the ELCA. This is all true.
I have to remind myself of these things.
I have to remind myself because sometimes I get really worried about the church. I have read articles that talk about how the church has three years to figure things out. Steve Knight talks about the age and number of baby boomers and the trends that show how the dollars in churches will decline.
I am haunted by the ideas in that article. I look around and feel like we’re all on the Titanic, (at least the movie version) and some people are choosing to keep eating and playing music, pretending the ship isn’t going down. Others are running around trying to save each other, with great lines: “Music to drown by. Now I know I’m in first class.” And this great line: “Incredible. There’s Smith and he’s standing there and he’s got the iceberg warning in his hand, and he’s ordering more speed.” And, to someone who has just decided to quote Psalm 23: “Could you walk a little faster through that valley?” I get really worried about how everything still seems like business as usual, even as we cut programs and staff, in every expression of the Church.
After Steve Knight wrote this blog, one friend tweeted something like, “I get that we have three years to figure this out, I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do.” Therein lies the problem. Dollars have been designated for certain things; commitments have been made. Rules and guidelines have been set with much thought and prayer, and so they must be followed. People voted on all these things, so changing anything in a system this large is…well, it’s like the Titanic.
So, when a pastor, bishop, seminary professor, seminary president, or even a pastoral intern (like myself) wakes up in the morning, knowing the church may be dying, WHAT DO WE DO? Attempts are made from the margins, and if they can get close enough to people who feel empowered to make a different kind of decision than what has been dictated and preceded by others, then change happens. There are little pockets of hope everywhere. It takes a lot of work in a slow-moving machine, and it is hard to know what the first step is. Or the step after that, or the step that follows the one after you meet a brick wall. Time I fear we don’t have.
And it is on days like this that I have to remind myself that seventy-three years ago, millions of Jews were dying. Fifty years ago, some people couldn’t sit at lunch counters and white people didn’t share bathrooms with non-white people in this country. Forty years ago, women couldn’t be pastors. Twenty-five years ago, none of us had the internet. Four years ago, my friends who understand themselves as gay and also called to ministry could not be in relationships that fit their identity as humans. That is all different now, and these changes were TITANIC. It seemed impossible that life could be any different; that the structures that held these things in place could be changed. But they did change, because of a lot of faith, courage and persistence. Even when people’s lives were on the line for affecting change.
And though my life is not on the line, that is the hope I have to practice. As Church, I hope we can notice where God shows up and how God is working through people, and make room for that, even if it doesn’t follow the precedence and procedures set up by well-intentioned people just like us in an earlier time. And if we don’t, well, God will still work.
I get that it is Easter. I believe God has conquered death and raises all things that encounter deaths, big and small. And I also believe new life never looks the same as what died. But I’m still trying to avoid death. At the end of Titanic (the movie), when they’re working on rescuing people, they’re rowing through those frozen waters checking bodies for signs of life. An officer says, “we waited too long.” Can we tell a different story?
So, for those 10 people who read this, if YOU were a pastoral intern kept up at night with these concerns about the Church, what would YOU do in the morning? There must be something, because Jack (from Titanic) says so. He tells Rose: “What I was thinking was, what could’ve happened to this girl to make her think she had no way out?” Beyond advice for me, what might we say to other conversation partners? (pastors, bishops, people in congregations, people who run seminaries, people who write for the Church, people who work in the Church who are and are not rostered.) What should they do tomorrow?