The 2013 World Conference of Community of Christ is about to get underway in Independence, Missouri. Organizers looked to chapter 4 of Luke’s Gospel for daily themes. The heart of that story is Jesus in his home synagogue reading from the scroll of the book of Isaiah. Luke gives us just a few verses, but it’s what comes after that in Isaiah 61 that may be most important as we gather for this World Conference and the subsequent USA National Conference:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. –Isaiah 61 NRSV
The prophet spoke to those who had returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Resettlement in their homeland and the rebuilding of a temple hadn’t turned out to be quite as glorious as they’d hoped. Stark reality was setting in. Their nation would never be truly independent. Jerusalem would never be as prosperous and important as in the glory days under David and Solomon. And the new temple could never match the remembered magnificence of the original. That’s why the people were “mourning in Zion”: the good old days would never return, and that represented the shared failure of both the people and their God.
In a sense it represented the death of a dream based on collective memory. Human nature being what it is, those hopes were flawed from the beginning. What the people had to do, the prophet counseled, was to build something new without forgetting where and what they’d been in the past. That included both “golden years” (tempered by the perceived memories of several generations) and the painful challenges of exile. Out of that would arise a new covenantal relationship with God.
The leaders and members of Community of Christ can learn something important from this ancient text from the Hebrew Scriptures. For us it requires discernment by a prophetic people. That term has been bandied about in the church for quite a while, and it’s now time for us to finally grow into that challenging role.
Many folks within the church still long for our own version of the “good old days.” That’s understandable, I think. Look around in just about any of our congregations on a Sunday morning and you’ll find far fewer bodies in the pews or chairs than there were two or three decades ago.
We all know (or, let’s face it, are related to) now-former members who left over disagreements about women’s ordination, open Communion, changes in baptism/confirmation rules, church membership in the National Council of Churches (USA), or any number of less major or more local issues. Or maybe it’s because the church doesn’t emphasize tithing statements, or the Book of Mormon, or the “Old Jerusalem Gospel,” or the Word of Wisdom, or the exclusive authority of priesthood, or, well, just fill in the blank with lots of other choices.
We’re about to convene a World Conference in which one of the resolutions calls for “liberalizing” restrictions on the social use of alcohol by priesthood members. My grandmother is no doubt spinning in her grave. I doubt if there’s a current longtime church member who couldn’t insert the name of the dead relative of their own choice in that sentence, as well. That’s just one of the issues we’ll debate. Then immediately after World Conference ends, delegates from throughout the USA church gather to discuss the possibility of marriage and priesthood ordination for people in same-gender relationships. If most of our dead relatives weren’t spinning before….
There are different ways of looking at all this, but the first one that comes to mind for me is that a sizable chunk of Community of Christ members are in mourning. Maybe it’s because of all those changes; maybe it’s because those changes haven’t gone far enough. Perhaps it’s because of all the folks who’ve angrily stomped out the front doors of our congregations during the past three decades or so. Or perhaps it’s for all the others who’ve much more quietly drifted out the back door, tired of the constant bickering and accusations, weary of patiently waiting for the kind of transformation they believe the church sorely needs. Maybe they were just tired of carrying heavy loads without much help.
Of course, change simply for the sake of change is wrong. But so is longing with flawed memories for a golden era or “good old days.” While it’s true that the church has changed, it’s time to recognize that our society and culture have changed even more. And so what it means to be the body of Christ and the people of God in the 21st century will challenge us in ways even our recent ancestors could never have imagined.
My own childhood in the late 1950s and 1960s represented a time when the then-RLDS Church was constructing buildings practically nonstop. My congregation was one of a handful of churches in our small town. Today it’s a sprawling suburb with 50,000 residents, but back then just about all of the 2,500 or so folks identified with one of those churches. Most people were in church every Sunday morning (Catholic mass on Saturday evening served the same purpose). There were Sunday evening services and Wednesday night prayer meetings, Scouts on Monday nights, priesthood visiting on Tuesday, monthly Women’s Department meetings on Thursday evenings, and in the summer volleyball or softball games on Friday night or Saturday. In short, social life centered on church activities. Even in small towns today that’s rarely the case. Active church members now often find themselves uncomfortably out on the margins of society not at its core running the show.
A majority of Americans today are no longer regular church attenders. Even that term has been redefined to mean once a month or maybe a few times a year. This is by no means a Community of Christ phenomenon. Why, even the Southern Baptists have a shrinking membership. Many of those churches we built back in the 1950s and 1960s are underutilized, in need of major repairs, or being closed. The chief financial supporters in many congregations are growing older and dying off. Young adults are not returning to the church once they marry and have children the way previous generations did. As a result, many faithful members wring their hands and, yes, mourn.
I love the church. I’m not alone in saying that. There’s a little voice in the back corner of my mind that sometimes whispers, “Wouldn’t it be nice if things were the way they were back in the day.” Fortunately, there are other voices that counter, “Get over it already! Jesus never said anything about putting up impressive buildings and getting butts in the pews—or chairs, as the case may be.” No, Jesus quoted Isaiah:
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory….”
Yes, I know there’s lots of people worried about what’s going to happen at these two conferences. Much of it can be stated in the form of “If this is approved/recommended, then….” I don’t have a crystal ball to see how it will all turn out. There will be some folks who will be unhappy and others who are happy; most likely there will be a fair bit of confusion and worry. And probably a little mourning for the good old days, whatever that means, or for what might have been.
I believe the bottom line is this: It’s time for Community of Christ to step up and become the prophetic people we’ve only talked about in the past. Oh, and one more thing: We really need to get over ourselves.
Rich Brown writes a weekly lectionary blog, ForeWords.