Reflections to start the week
Monday, October 20, 2014
Signs of the times
“Am I open to God’s surprises? Am I at a standstill, or am I on a journey?” These questions surfaced in a homily preached last week (October 14) by Pope Francis, who reflected on Jesus’ interaction with contemporary religious leaders. The pope said in this sermon that these leaders failed to understand that the law (doctrine, teaching, ritual, liturgy) which they “guarded and loved was a pedagogy towards Jesus Christ.” He said: “If the law does not lead to Jesus Christ, if it does not bring us closer to Jesus Christ, it is dead.” Jesus rebuked these leaders for their “closure, for not being able to read the signs of the time, for not being open to the God of surprises.”
This Monday morning, we are called to read the signs of the times. It can be tough reading. These signs include not only any number of bleak global crises of seemingly unprecedented threat. They also include dramatic shifts in attitudes toward religious institutions. (I take it that if you are reading this email you have some interest in that shift.) Last week, the Barna Group, researchers on contemporary religious observance, explored the question of why fewer Americans are attending church. Their study noted five trends stated here in a few words, with some editorial comment from me:
- A rise of secularization: Nearly half of millenials (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared with Gen-xers (40%), boomers (35%), and elders (28%). Get the trend?
- Less openness to the idea of church: Receptivity to an invitation to church among people who don’t presently attend has dropped from 65% to 47% over the last 20 years. Thanks but no thanks.
- Churchgoing is no longer mainstream: In the 1990’s, one in seven unchurched adults had never experienced regular church attendance. Now it’s one in four. Never.
- Expectations of church involvement have changed: There’s been a dramatic increase among those who say they’d rather do something else than attend services on Sunday morning. As one person said, why bother?
- Growing skepticism about church’s contribution to society: Almost half of those who don’t attend church couldn’t identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community on the culture. Ouch.
Last week, Jim Naughton reported these findings in his blog Episcopal Café and concluded with a question: How will our church leaders read the signs of the times? To which I add: How will readers of this Monday message read the signs of the times?
For me, a religious professional, results like those indicated by the Barna Group could be depressing and dispiriting. (I hear that the local Starbucks is hiring.) Then I hear words from the Pope about the God of surprises, and recall that we follow a Lord who was resurrected, knowing that resurrection literally means “to stand again.” I suspect that the God of surprises can and will bring new life to the church, and to each of our lives, as we remember that the things we do in church, our religion, our spiritual practices, our acts of charity and service are not ends in themselves. They are intended to lead to Jesus Christ, intended to bring us closer to Christ. That can mean different things to different people. But we each are asked by scripture this question from Jesus: Who do you say that I am? In that question, I hear a call to follow Jesus who helps me know and to show grace more, to receive and give forgiveness more, to serve following his example of service. What do you hear?
I have a feeling that the God of surprises might actually work powerfully through the dramatic (and perhaps depressing) statistics about religious observance, opening a way for us to focus with greater singularity on the center, on the goal. If that happened, it will make the point that new life comes not because of our activity but because of what God does, not because of what we believe, but because God believes in us.
I could be wrong, but I believe that the Pope who speaks of the God of surprises is on to something, as a Pope who continues to surprise us all. Pope Francis gives us a chance to consider resurrection possibilities. This morning, what would it mean to open yourself to the God of surprises?
- Jay Sidebotham
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away. See, everything has become new. -II Corinthians 5
But the Lord said to me: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness….for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” -II Corinthians 12
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am? And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” -Matthew 16
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.