by Daniel Harrell
Acts 2 marks the birth of the church—an exceedingly spectacular one: disciples gathered in an upper room waiting on Jesus to deliver, a hurricane blast of wind blows and blazing tongues descend with spiritual fire and light up each person present. The disciples-turned-apostles spill into the streets and preach the gospel to people from every nation and tribe gathered in Jerusalem for Jewish Pentecost. Crowds marveled at hearing these Galilean fishermen speak fluent French and Latin, and thought they were drunk. But Peter lit them up with more wind and fire they converted to Jesus by the thousands.
It was one of those breathtaking mountaintop moments that blow you away, shrink all all your worries and fears, focus your faith and finally make sense of your life. But then just as abruptly, the wind dies down and the fire fades. The French is forgotten and the experience is over, and all that’s left is coming down off the mountain. Back to work, back to your troubles that are still your troubles because the experience by itself, despite all of its glory, didn’t fully fix anything.
Repentance and baptism occur in a flash. But faithfulness requires a lifetime. “Day by day,” the scripture reads. Verse 42: The believers committed themselves to learning and life together, to breaking bread and to prayer. And then verse 46: they spent much time together in the temple, they shared their meals in houses with glad and generous hearts, all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people.” No mountaintops here. Just mundane everyday faithfulness infused with love and joy from the Lord.
I preached this text as prelude to our Annual Meeting last Sunday, as mundane an experience as any, and yet a centerpiece of Congregational life where we trust the Spirit to be present to direct our ways as a church. We presume the Spirit showed at our Meeting last Sunday, though there was little wind or fire. There was windiness—the meeting did run two hours long, mostly sorting through church staffing, budgets and the building and electing our leaders. Church business as usual you might say. The Holy Spirit infused our collective souls as one body with collective wisdom and capacity for discernment, spiritual common sense and concern for each other, as well as with courage and mutual support to do the right thing. This is long and obedient work of the church.
It can get tedious too. Last Sunday you asked my vision for our church, and rightfully so. As one of your pastors called to shepherd, and taught to pray and mine Scripture, to teach and lead worship, to marry and bury and lead congregations, I should have some ideas. At the same time, we modern day ministers of larger congregations are tasked with duties seminary never taught us to handle—building management decisions and benefit plans, year-end budget shortfalls and personnel issues, baking communion bread with sixth graders and keeping bees out back. We do all of this amidst rising waters of indifference and insignificance: 40 percent of Americans say they go to church weekly, but less than 20 percent actually do. Somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 churches close their doors every year. Since 2010, more than half of all American churches failed to add a single new member. We rejigger our identities and try to be relevant, we design new programs and cool websites to get attention and prove we still matter. I have trouble sleeping and try counting sheep, but mostly end up counting the loss of sheep and other dismal statistics. My vision? It mostly has to do with me drinking cold beer on a beach.
Thankfully my vision doesn’t matter. As Congregationalists we aim together to discern and do the will of the Lord. I mentioned last Sunday how the difference between a good church and a bad church is up to the congregation. Good churches, like Acts 2, learn and live life together, break bread, pray and love and speak truth, repent and forgive and care and serve. I made the comparison last Sunday to surfers who stay in shape and eat right and hone their boards, even though they spend most of their time paddling and waiting and watching. If and when the big wave comes, and the Spirit blows, we are ready to ride. We rise and stand tall and are on top of the world.
A bad church is the slacker who thinks he can just float on any piece of fiberglass with a beer and be done. And as long as the seas are calm, you can’t tell any difference. But when the big wave hits with all its terror and glory, then the difference is clear. A big wave makes a good church look great.
But as with winds that also destroy and fire that also burns, big water floods and drowns. Both realities operate simultaneously. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Conservative journalist and writer Ron Dreher, in his widely read book, alternately embraced and dismissed, entitled The Benedict Option, believes Christianity in America is already sunk. He describes ours as an age of “liquid modernity,” a corrupt generation where capitalism and technology (not to mention crazy politics) catalyze such rapid change and instability that nothing of depth or intimacy or long-lasting value has a chance. Success in our fluid society means flexibility and rootlessness, free of commitments, unbound by the past or the future, flotsam and jetsam adrift in an everlasting present. Liquid modernity is its own massive wave, a rising and unstoppable tide. Surfboards won’t do. Dreher says we need to build arks, ride it out and pray for the best.
The good news, if you know the Noah story about the flood and the ark, you know that despite all the gloom, a glorious rainbow eventually shone. At his own baptism in water, a preview of the cross, Christ emerged to be greeted by the Spirit in the form of a dove, just like Noah was greeted when the floodwaters receded, all of it a foretaste of resurrection and new creation. The church on earth rides its ark through baptismal waters until Jesus delivers and new creation takes hold. It is significant to note how in the book of Revelation eternity never contains an ocean or a sea.
The Benedict Option, a strategy for the meantime, is named after St. Benedict, the sixth century monk. Frustrated with the bad churches and rising tide of his day—Benedict turned back to the basics—learning and living life together, breaking bread and prayer. My first experience at a Benedictine monastery occurred many years ago at the behest of a spiritual director. Sensing that I could do with a bit of refocusing, he shuttled me off to a small, plain, barn like structure, where I rapped on the huge oaken door and was warmly greeted by a middle aged monk properly dressed in his black cowl and tunic. He led me to an austere cell from which I entered into the simple rhythms of monastic life, work and rest punctuated seven times by the daily office—a liturgy of prayer, chant and oration. A bell would chime and we’d pad into the chapel. The abbot would knock this little knocker to commence the chanting—heavenly music Benedictines have sung as prayer for nearly 1500 years. One morning, as soon as the benediction was done, a younger monk peeled off his cowl and tunic to reveal a business suit underneath. He then grabbed his briefcase and dashed out the door, presumably on his way to another daily office. Chanting alone doesn’t pay the bills. You can’t live life on the mountaintop or in the curl of a wave.
The draw of Benedictine monastic life is its stability and community—which for St. Benedict was the means to obedience. Aware that following Jesus is wrought with impossibilities when attempted solo, Benedict advocated a corporate life of mutual effort that bound men and later women together in the long and unwavering haul of holiness. Unwilling to ever settle for religious warm fuzzies or temporary spiritual highs, Benedict insisted that daily Christian life be woven with good work, honest prayer and serious study. Time and proximity were essential for spiritual depth and length and height to take hold. Monks remain in community until death do they part. When someone wanting to join the monastery knocked on Benedict’s door, he would refuse to answer choosing instead to see if “the petitioner should show patience and persist in knocking over several days despite the harsh treatment and reluctance to admit him.” If the petitioner did persist, he would be let in and given reasons over the next six months as to why he shouldn’t join. If after that he still persisted, he’d be considered for inclusion, a process which took four months more. Sort of like our New Members’ Classes.
Once in, Benedict required his monks to abide by his rule, a regimen of dos and don’ts that governed almost every minute because everything belonged to the Lord. It could get tedious. Some monks started to grumble and whine and sulk. Eventually, grown weary by Benedict’s relentless determination to reform their lives, curb their vices and cure them of their laziness, several mutinous monks tried to poison him. At dinner, as Benedict blessed, unbeknownst to him, a poisoned pitcher of wine, it miraculously shattered as if struck by a stone. Recognizing this as a sign of a devious plot, Benedict stormed from their midst, shaking the dust off his feet as he went yelling, “I told you this wouldn’t work!”
And mostly it doesn’t. Not in monasteries and not in churches. The Rule of Benedict, not really an Option, is very difficult and demanding. It commands impossible things, straight out of the Bible, like “Respect all people. Do not do to another what you would not have done to yourself. Visit the sick. Comfort the sad. Reject worldliness. Do not become angry. Do not keep deceit in your heart. Do not make a false peace. Do not murmur. Do not love sleep. Attribute to God the good you see in yourself. But attribute only to yourself the evil. Fear Judgment Day. See death before yourself daily. Desire eternal life with all your spirit. Monitor your actions ceaselessly. Know that God sees everything everywhere. Despise your own will. Do not desire to be called holy before the fact, but be holy first, then be called so with truth. Hate no one. Do not be jealous or envious. Honor the elderly. Love the young. Make peace with an adversary before sundown. Never despair God’s mercy.” Rinse and repeat. Until death do us part.
Spending a few days not so long ago at the Benedictine monastery at St. Johns in Collegeville, MN, I asked a monk what was so good about monastic life. Of all the things he could have mentioned, he answered by observing how well Benedictines die. “It’s what we all look forward to,” he said, without a hint of despair. “Each day in our service and in our prayers we step closer to our final joy in the full presence of Jesus. Why would we want to spend eternity here?”
When I find my work and prayer tedious, this usually means I’ve lost sight of that farthest shore. Short-sighted, I grumble and whine and sulk. Arks are so unbearably boring and hard to keep clean, and seas make me sick; I’ve puked just paddling my kayak. Don’t even think of handing me a surfboard, I’d definitely drown.
And yet this too is gospel: To fully follow Jesus you do have to do more than ride out the flood. You have to be baptized in it. “Lose your life to find it,” Jesus said. The water that drowns in the water that saves. Only by dying to your self can you drink from the living water of grace. Both realities operate simultaneously. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Hardship and high water are not what we choose. But in God’s time, suffering chooses it us. The way of the cross is the way of life. Theologian Paul Tillich taught how suffering scours away a floor inside ourselves, to expose that deeper level, and then our floor gets scoured some more and another deeper level is revealed. Finally, we get down to the core wounds, the core loves, our real faith, outcomes not of our own effort, but of our yielding obedience to the spirit of Jesus.
The world needs the church—in all its oddness and awkwardness—not merely to make the world a better place to live, or a nicer and safer place for families to raise children, or to make the world more generous toward the poor, or more peaceful, as good and right as these things are. The world needs the church so it can see itself as broken and fallen and in need of that redemption only Christ can accomplish. To do this, churches must visibly live out our resurrection and obedience to the Lordship of Christ as the faithful, sometimes hurtful, yet always hopeful, culturally irrelevant communities we are. Communities where people still keep their promises, where adversaries are genuinely loved, where truth gets spoken and heeded, where the poor and sinner are welcomed, where burdens are borne with grace, where morals get practiced, prayers get prayed, Scripture read and believed, swords are hammered into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, where having enough is not having it all, where righteousness is a farthest shore worth reaching, where there’s a beach with something better than beer, the fine wine of Christ’s blood shed for us.