When Faith Is Revealed

chi rho aureole, Call of Paul window, FPCEAs I read through the lectionary texts this week, I found myself thinking about Christ as the bringer of change to change-weary people. In the text from the eighth chapter of Luke, he goes into the country of the Gerasenes, on the eastern shore of Galilee. The population wasn’t Jewish. The pigs they keep are a clue: perhaps they’re used as ham hocks for the Gerasenes or pork steaks for the Roman garrison, but they’re certainly not for the consumption of anyone associated with Jesus’ crowd.  Apparently, he goes in uninvited. When he steps out of the boat, the first thing he does is to confront a demon-possessed man, and heal him.  Without consulting the locals, he sends the demons into a herd of pigs, which pitch themselves off a steep bank, and drown.  Imagine that, all those pork bellies, and funeral hams, and bacon, bacon, bacon, bloating and rotting on the beaches of Galilee. The dead pigs represent lost income to the swineherds, and whoever might be employing them. But whatever anger they may feel is trumped by fear when they realize the ways things are changing. A mentally ill man has been cured, and, because of the pigs, the Romans might need to move on to oppress some other town and its people for groceries. Remember the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” when the character named “Red” (played by Morgan Freeman) is grappling with his feelings about prison. He says, “These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.” The Gerasenes say, “Jesus, don’t mess with us. We’ve gotten used to craziness. We depend on oppression; we stay close to home, follow their rules, make sure they’re fed, and everything is all right. Get out of town, and leave us alone.”

If we hang around the Church long enough, then we might run into some Gerasenes. In fact, we might look in the mirror one morning, and see a Gerasene.  Gerasenes don’t have evil intentions. We’re just afraid.  If we can be assured of comfortable stability and predictable order, then we’re often willing to give up both freedom and health. But then Jesus comes along, leading us down a path of change, healing people who don’t ask for it, and changing things that we didn’t invite him to change.

Earlier this year, our regional presbytery elected me to serve as moderator of a nine-member “Presbytery Leader Search Committee.” Our charge is to recommend the candidate who, when elected, will serve in the role of coordinating the common mission of the 84 Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations and 175 ministers in our region. From the beginning, you could feel that this change in staff wasn’t going to be completely comfortable. During the presbytery meeting in February at which our committee was constituted, the nominating committee fielded questions about the qualifications of the people chosen to serve, and the process whereby they were nominated. Then we came forward, rather timidly, to be commissioned to our work. In March, we gathered for orientation with the executive and stated clerk from the Synod of Mid-America. In April, we held meetings with the representatives of the presbytery’s design team and personnel committee. All these people, I could tell, were feeling the stress of change. Finally, by May, we were ready to begin the work for which we were elected. On one level, the purpose of the preliminary conversations I’ve mentioned was to communicate information that would serve as a foundation for our work. At another level, the conversations were about venting anxiety regarding change, and expressing the hopes of various individuals and groups that their values, their priorities, and their dreams would not be lost in the transition of leadership. Currently, the moderator of the presbytery leader search committee has a pretty good window for viewing anxiety about change in the larger church.

If you want to know the shape of the anxiety, then you might read a little book that is popular among the ministers of our presbytery, called “Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age.”[1]  Richard Hamm is the author; he served many years as a pastor before taking up the role of denominational official for the Disciples of Christ. In 122 pages, he describes changes that have challenged the mainline churches, and prescribes a coping strategy for church leaders. Not everything he says is new, and his book is not meant to be an exhaustive study. But he does sound a number of familiar notes:

  • The cultural consensus in which mainline churches thrived has given way to tremendous diversity in the larger culture. No longer is there automatic respect for or attraction to churches of white, northern European, Protestant heritage.
  • Within our mainline churches, generational differences mean that the religious preferences of the so-called Baby Busters and Millennials differ markedly from the Baby Boomers and WWII generations before them. In many congregations, things go on in the same way they have for decades, with the result that the generations born after 1965 are underrepresented.
  • One of the main ways in which you see changes in generations is in their preferences for organizational style. Hamm reminds us how the WWII generation saved the world through high effective organizations like armies and factories. After WWII, they transferred all that energy into building institutions, and bringing their sense of industrial organization and military efficiency into the churches they served. Many in the WWII generation genuinely love meetings as part of the way they enact their faith; most of the younger generation see meetings as a necessary evil, at best.  In short, the organizational structure that worked so well in the past seems to be increasingly obsolete, and it is that movement that so threatens people in control of our larger church bodies. Streamlining structure often means personal change for everyone in it. Sometimes, such change is too frightening, even if it might mean bring more sanity and more health.

The Apostle Paul would understand our fear. He, too, worked in a time in which one way of practicing faith was becoming obsolete while another way was rising fast. In his letter to the Galatians, he contrasted them as the way of the law, and the way of faith.  In our text from the third chapter, “faith” is more than an individual’s act of believing. It is a new historical phenomenon revealed by God that impacts the way God’s people think, speak, act, and organize.[2] Law was good, as a kind of disciplinarian. But faith is better, according to Paul, more adaptive. It’s focused not merely on doing the same old thing right, but rather on doing the right thing.

I was thinking about all this when I met with Bob B. and Rick and Rhonda P. about membership.  I was thinking about all the places they’ve been geographically and in their spiritual journey. So many changes have taken place in the world and the church, and continue to take place, and sometimes anxiety about the future can be overwhelming.

I want you to know that I believe the Presbyterian Church still has an important role.  I agree with Richard Hamm, who offers five reasons that mainline churches are still relevant:

  • They hold faith and reason together in a time when the world wants to separate them.
  • They engage in education rather than mere indoctrination.
  • They offer a worldview that analyzes reality in terms of larger structures and systems, rather than solely through the lens of individualism.
  • They interpret the Bible with understanding about the sins and shortcomings of past generations, allowing women, people of color, and other historically marginalized people to participate more fully in the church.
  • Their involvement in other countries is marked by partnership with indigenous people rather than colonization of them.

When I see the problems caused by Christian fundamentalism in our country, and religious extremism around the world, then I have to believe that God isn’t finished with the Presbyterian Church yet.

Each time we confirm youth, or baptize children, or receive new members, that hope is renewed. No matter the forms of the church, or the generations within the Church, or the organizations through which we do Church, God still is working to loosen the chains that bind us. In these anxious times, may we have eyes to see when faith is revealed.

                [1] Richard L. Hamm, Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007.

                [2] Footnotes 121 and 122, “Galatians 3:19-25,” in Hans Dieter Betz’s Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia, Hermeneia Commentary Series, Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1979, p. 176.


~ by JohnH1962 on June 23, 2013.

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