Monday, August 8, 2022

The problem. . .

It is not uncommon for those who recall a bygone age to suggest that the problems in America began when we banished God from the public school.  A nice sentiment but is this an accurate location of the problem?  I don't think so.  God in the classroom is not the Gospel but the Law; it is the God of personal responsibility and accountability, of natural law, of creative order, and of consequences.  To say we banished God from the classroom is not quite as accurate as we ceased to speak of the responsibility and accountability that accompanies liberty, of the natural law that is common to all people regardless of faith, of the creative order that is found everywhere and not simply among Christian people, and of the consequences for disobedience.  Instead, the schools began to speak in glowing terms of possibility and potential, rights and privileges, victimization and blame (on others) for the ills of life and society.  That is what changed.  You can summarize it all by saying God was given the boot but it was more than God that disappeared from our schools.

That said, the core of the problem is not the secularization of the secular world.  Yes, God has always been there -- whether we put Him there or not.  He is always there because His creative power brought forth all things and still preserves them.   Our recognition certainly benefits us but we cannot make Him be where He does not will to be nor can we prevent Him from where He wills.  I wish it were as simple as restoring God to the classroom.  It is not.  The ills that befall us today are not the poisoned fruits of our banishment of God from the public school.  They are the result of the secularization of the Church.  It was an ill-considered and ill-advised marriage of culture and the Church that existed more in our imagination than in reality.  Sure, there were times in the past when the aims and purposes of the Church and the state coalesced into one but it was an accident and not some deliberate union of two distinct and separate realms.  That was true when we thought culture and society more friendly to the Church and God's purposes but it is just as true today when we harbor no such illusions.

The Church began at one point to take a decidedly more friendly view of culture and society.  It was not an honest appraisal and engagement as might have been done but a move to accommodate the culture at the expense of doctrine, truth, and the integrity of the Church.  It certainly began by listening to the voices outside the Kingdom but it did not end there.  Eventually, the voices outside became the only voices that were heard and the Church learned to adjust what is believed and confessed in view of what the world believed or was thought would tolerate.  With that in mind, the change or die doomsday prophets looked into their crystal balls and saw that unless we adapted ourselves to the changing truths of the moment, we would not long survive.  In desperation, survival often means that we give up what is most important over the long haul because of what we think is most urgent in the moment.

Of course, we have to do something.  But what?  What fruits have been born of the age of accommodation?  The Church has not even slowed our decline much less reversed it.  The churches which have been most proactive in adjusting belief and re-creating worship to fit the times have emptied at a faster rate than those who changed as little as possible.  The challenge ahead of us does not lie with trying to figure out where the world is headed and to get there on time or even a moment ahead.  The call before us is to remain vigilant and faithful -- allowing the Word of God to define the mission and empower that mission.  The problem with much of Christianity is that there is nothing left of that Word to hold onto, much less empower and equip a mission.  Our missionary task is not to accompany the world in its ever changing view of sexuality, gender, climate change, social justice, and the like.  Our missionary task is to proclaim the eternal Gospel, faithful to the Scriptures, and with a hermeneutic of continuity that insists we are just as much our grandfather's church as we are the church of his grandchildren.  That is only because our anchor is in Christ.

Whether you are looking at Rome or Wittenberg or anywhere else, the great temptation has been to dilute the sacred with the secular, to mimic the sounds of the world's music, beat, and lyrics, and to erase the distinctions once so well known to us of being the set apart, the holy, and the righteous people of God.  The allure of this has caused us literally to lose our souls.  The Church has become a sad and pathetic echo of what the world has already moved beyond.  A day late and a dollar short, the Church has deposited hope not in Christ and the power of His death and resurrection but in our own efforts to build a perfect kingdom here on earth.  Nevermind that our version of a perfect kingdom bears little real resemblance to the perfect, whole, and complete of Christ's righteous, ours by baptism and faith.

If we have done so poorly for God by abandoning His Word and truth, perhaps the only future worth securing will be to renew our lives by restoring His Word as the voice of truth and the saving voice of God addressing us with the good news of salvation.  Whether you are talking about the shifting values that leave us disconnected and off anchor from the clear and unadulterated truth of the past or the changing shape of our life together, change has brought its own death.  When we deconstructed the Gospel, we also weakened the very structures on which the Church is built.  Now that it is poised to tumble to the ground, the Lord calls to us and insists it did not have to be this way.  

The way forward is not to repaint the cross and renovate the marks of suffering to make the love of God more palatable and tolerable for a people loathe to admit to be sinners.  Instead, the way forward is to begin right there -- with examination and confession, food for along the way, and the will and desire to be faithful unto death.  Modern civilization has been on its last legs for hundreds of years and we have become tone death to the sound of our own defeat and doom.  What has contributed to the decline of the world has been the sad reality that the Church has also been in decline -- and not simply in numbers but in faithfulness to the Scriptures and to the God of the cross and empty tomb.  The secularization we ought to be worried about is that one happening in church, on Sunday morning, through sermons that fail to use the vocabulary of the cross or address us with the eternal Gospel and substitute the kind of feel good, therapeutic deism, and pop psychology that appeals to the flesh but is death to the spirit.

We thought for too long that if we were out of step with the world around us, nobody would bother with the Church.  What happened is that we did such a good job of being in tune with the world that there was no compelling reason for anyone to give us a second look.  Only the vain enjoy the echo of their own voices and that is what we gave them -- a faint echo instead of the sword of God's Word.  In order to save the patient, we killed it and the Church has been on life support ever since.  Of course we are out of step with the world.  That is how Christ intended us to be.  We speak the Gospel of the set apart to set apart those who by the Spirit's power will hear and believe.  This Church will never die but the Church we created to listen and fall in line with the world is dead already.

I am frankly sick and tired of hearing that we live in a post-modern world or that it is not and should not be your grandfather's church or that we have to learn new tricks or fade away.  It is time to try a radically new path -- faithfulness.  Not the old faithfulness of ideas alone but the radical faithfulness of lives that show forth our status as the set apart, worship that is other worldly instead of this worldly, a righteousness which is not simply spoken about but lived, and love that is not the weak tolerance of the silent but the prophetic warning that without repentance there is only death.  Once we have tried that and failed, then the outcome lies in God's hands.  But if we have failed to be faithful, the blame should rightfully fall where it belongs -- on a people who lost faith with God and abandoned him as readily as Adam and Eve once did in Eden.  Calvary is not an idea of love but the most vivid and concrete expression of love.  It bears its fruit in us with the lives born anew of baptismal water, hearts moved to repentance and faith, and lives fed and nourished on the today's bread of eternal life in the Eucharist.

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