Below is a short piece that I’m putting in our church newsletter. Enjoy.
When does a church die? When does faith slink away to its grave? When is a religion reduced to a cultural trinket, a slowly fading pattern of entrenched habits and gatherings? The answer and antidote to such troubling questions, I think, has to do with memory and with story.
If I ask a friend, “Who are you?” and encourage a full reply, I will inevitably be invited into a rendition of her story, learning about where she is from, the people who have shaped her life, and the experiences by which her identity has been formed. Identity-who we are-emerges from memory, the re-presentation of our story in the present. When someone among us begins to lose his memory, the community around him remembers with him, and eventually even remembers for him, just who he is. Memory is shared; it is a function of a whole community just as much as it is a faculty of the individual. And so, the story we tell as a nation, as a city, as a church, is what binds us together in common understanding and shows each of us our place within the whole. Our common story enables us to communicate with one another. In fact, when we argue, it is often because we disagree about where some event or character fits into the story that we already share.
So when does faith die? Faith is diminished to a hollow shell when the Christian story is no longer the story in which we understand our lives. When going-to-church is only one more event in the story of loyal citizenship, success in business, or just “being a good person,” then God’s story is subordinated to another tale-it becomes a sub-plot in our memory. When the story of creation, redemption, and hope for resurrection is no longer the framework in which I buy groceries, greet the neighbor, and brush my teeth, then my identity is shaped by some other story-I have mis-remembered who I am. Loving our enemies, becoming servants of the least, and opening our homes to those who seek hospitality, are actions that only make sense within the story of the God who opens his life to the world and joins in the plight of the hopeless. Every other story finds a prudential limit for our generosity, a threshold of acceptable risk for our love.
Is this “religious” story a political and economic story as well? Most certainly! Loving every neighbor as ourselves (because we love God with all our hearts) is the first and most important political act. It is the only real foundation for politics at all! The story of our faith in-forms us that God is at work in Jesus Christ reconciling the whole world to himself through the Spirit-the whole of it, from barstools to bulldozers! Once we remember ourselves within that story, enmity melts as an illusion in the face of love, forgiveness for grievous wrongs becomes “natural,” and even death itself loses its sting.
The Church, First Lutheran Church, is the community where God’s story embraces each of our individual stories. It is the place where we gather to purposefully remember the good news together through liturgy and over doughnuts, amidst the howling of many competing narratives that would lead us off into distraction and discord. The story of the God-made-man, whose Spirit still haunts the world, holds the power to narrate our lives and our community toward healing and peace-if only we do the sometimes difficult work of remembering aloud who we are within the new story we’ve been given by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.