Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” — Acts 3:6
Even in college, there was gym class, a fact that disappointed and angered me to no end. Since a Physical Education credit was necessary for graduation at my undergraduate institution, I signed up for a backpacking class. This seemed a reasonable choice, and the almost perfect lack of content or work for the class suited me just fine.
On our first hike in the dead of winter, a few of the guys started doing a very “guy” thing— we’d walk up to the trees which, though still standing, looked as if they were sick and vulnerable enough to just get knocked over by a good hit from the shoulder of the hiker. We’d keep an eye out for trees with woodpecker holes, trees with rot, trees with no twigs. These dead trees are known as snags. We’d see the rot and the vulnerability and turned the great tree into a source of amusement and chest thumping. It’s easy to spot a dead tree in the summer— it has no fresh growth, no leaves. But in the winter, it’s different, and our stupid game led to some big and dramatic mistakes when one of the guys would walk hard into a tree only to discover that it was still living and solid. We were surprised, at times, by the vigor of a tree that looked dead. Now, in the natural course of things, all of those trees would’ve fallen in the forest, perhaps alone (and yes, they would’ve made a sound, wise guy). My fellow meatheads and I merely expedited a natural process for fun and sport. But the drama was equally great when one of us would walk toward what looked like a big, healthy tree and knock it to the ground with one good hit.
Beautiful, majestic trees have a life cycle, and the health of any forest depends in large part on the cycle of death, decay, and renewal. But in any given case, losing a tree is a moment of sadness and a reminder of mortality.
Although it is hard to admit, it is equally impossible to ignore: Many of our American Christian parishes and institutions are dead and many others have begun the inexorable march toward death.
When you actually sit down and listen to the so called “religiously unaffiliated,” you hear a lot of interesting stories. A great many of those stories are stories of heartbreak and disappointment. There are, it seems, millions of casualties of the church’s inability to inspire love, confidence, and celebration. Many of our beloved institutions have become like those dead, rotted trees, the vitality gone, and with no growth possible. And, of course, it’s more than that.
When I was in seminary, my friends and I coined (or, more probably, appropriated) the term “the Millstone Club,” a phrase that reflected Jesus’ warning that it would be better for one to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to hurt one of his little ones. The term “Millstone Club” was applied to those clergy we knew who’d ruined lives through sexual abuse, sexual assault, and other horrible behavior. At the time, we had no idea of just how large or how ruinous the Millstone Club had been for the Church, nor did we know of the complicity of church leaders.
And now for the last decade we have seen this great era of truth-telling and God’s score-settling. In the Gospels, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit– his continuing presence in the world– will lead the Church into all truth and that the truth will set us free. But as David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” It seems self-evident that the truth will not be finished with the Church until its leaders thoroughly repent, accept what has happened, and care for the casualties of the Millstone Club. There are hopeful signs. Great effort has been made by good people to take the truth seriously and to accept its consequences. I pray every day that the process will continue and that the leaders of the Church will accept this era’s suffering as, to borrow an image from Thomas Merton, God’s resetting of the Church’s broken bones.
And still, there’s often this attraction to Jesus. Strangely, Jesus is almost never actually the problem. Even though he says these difficult and deeply challenging things, people will still give him a listen. I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think I get why: The challenges that Jesus presents are things that, deep in our being, we largely know to be true. We know that our possessions don’t make us happy. We know that our life and well-being are tied to the well-being of the needy and vulnerable. We know we need to pray. We know we need to forgive. All this is true, and all of this is hard. It starts to feel impossible when it seems that the institutions given by God to empower us to follow Jesus are themselves in disrepair.
So, when things are broken, we do what we’ve always done: Retrace our steps and see where we’ve lost our way, what lack of foresight has led to the present crisis.
There is, admittedly, a long list of factors that contribute to our present malaise. But, whatever else we can blame, we can safely conclude that the Church has frequently been lacking in love, lacking in justice, off-mission and off-message.
There is this great story in the biblical chronicle of the earliest days of the Church called The Acts of the Apostles. We find the leaders of the Church, Peter and John, are heading to the Temple to say their prayers. They are greeted with hope by a man who cannot walk. There are a million things Peter and John could have done, of course, but what they did was extraordinary. Peter admitted their material poverty– “I have no silver or gold”– but, instead of turning to social services or instead of just saying “I’m sorry,” he did the one thing that Jesus asked him to do: He proclaimed Good News in the name of Jesus. In the name of Jesus, rise and walk. Peter remembered that he had one thing: A message of hope and redemption.
At the deepest level of its identity, the Church has exactly one thing: A message. The message has all sorts of implications for behavior and for our common life, but none of those implications are themselves the message. Peter understood what Church people need to regain: It is not about us or our efforts. It requires, in a sense, our willingness to be vulnerable, to admit our poverty, and to allow the one thing we do have– a message about the reconciliation of all things in the love of Jesus– to come to the fore.
Study of the long history of the church reveals this: It is in the moments when the church is righting itself after or during a crisis that the Holy Spirit’s presence is most obvious. So, for Christians, there is reason to hope, and reason to treat this as an era not of despair, but of expectancy.
The thing to do with a denuded forest and so much death and decay around you is to plant seeds. I hope to plant some seeds here, and I hope to invite you to do the same in your own life and your own place.