Monday, June 20, 2011

Discerning God's presence in a secular society


A month ago, I attended Evensong on a Wednesday at Winchester Cathedral. The Cathedral has a daily schedule of services that features Holy Eucharist and morning and evening prayer. About 60 people were present that evening, in addition to six vested clergy, twenty-two paid choristers, two vergers, and the organist. The size and apparently youthful (anybody without gray hair!) congregation impressed me. The service was beautiful and well-conducted in a place in which Christians have prayed daily for over 1000 years.



The second reading was Jesus’ parable of flood waters washing away a house built without a foundations while a house built on stone stood strong against the ravages of weather (Luke 6:47-49). Sitting in a choir stall that monks had once occupied, aware of the plunge in housing prices that had devastated many in both the United States and the United Kingdom, the warning not to construct one’s life on sand had special poignancy. Gazing at the magnificent stone work that still stood strong, with exposed beams high overhead evocative of a ship’s framing (perhaps because I’m a former naval chaplain and like the image of the church as the ark of our salvation), the injunction to build on stone also had a special emotional power.



Then the officiant announced that the chaplain and several students from a local college were present with family members, this being their graduation week. So much for hoping that a revitalized Christianity had established a toehold in Winchester! I did give thanks that the chaplaincy had sufficiently engaged at least a large handful of students such that those students would attend Evensong with their families. In the States, it is easy to forget how secular Europe has become and how marginalized the Church of England is.



Two weeks later, I wrote this on the 61st anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, site of Allied invasions that, after a hard fought campaign, liberated Western Europe from the Nazis, brought a much belated end to the Holocaust, and culminated in Hitler’s suicide.



Tourism is an economic force here in Normandy. It feels impossible to escape from other tourists speaking English in a variety of accents, the occasional Chinese, Scandinavian or Italian, and, to my surprise, a considerable number of Germans. In fact, there are enough German tourists that some signs and brochures actually use French, English, and German.



Why would Germans choose to visit Normandy? Some almost certainly have family members who during WWII fought, were wounded, or perhaps died in Normandy. Others may want to learn more about German history. And some may simply want to vacation at a scenic seashore with great food. But for whatever reasons, they are present in surprising numbers and I have seen no signs of anti-German sentiments.



Another shooting war between the United Kingdom, France, and Germany seems highly improbable, perhaps even impossible. These nations and peoples that fought as bitter enemies for centuries are now bound together in the European Union (EU) by common political, legal, economic, and social ties.



Does the EU rest on solid foundations, like the house built on stone in Jesus’ parable? Conversations with European friends, acquaintances, and strangers give me hope that it might – in spite of the economic stresses placed on the Euro by the economically weaker members of the European Union. Europeans remain aware of the death toll and pervasive destruction of WWI and WWII. European nations recognize that they have passed the apogee of their individual power and glory; future success depends more on mutual cooperation than nationalism. Today, no European nation has the military capacity to wage a European, let alone global, war.



So what does this have to do with the Church proclaiming the gospel? If a secularized Europe is on the cusp of a more perfect union in which they beat most of their swords into plows, what message does the Church have to proclaim?



A media circus surrounded Harold Camping’s latest prediction of the Rapture. Thankfully, most Episcopalians do not subscribe to any eschatological theory involving the Rapture, with or without a timeline supplied by Harold Camping. What then do we believe? That in Jesus God’s love broke into the world, precipitating the arrival of God’s kingdom that even now moves toward fulfillment?



I have visited WWII military cemeteries with the graves of thousands upon thousands of war dead. I have seen memorials to the war dead in French and British cities and towns in which the WWI dead far outnumber those who died in WWII. I have visited Nazi death camps and know that the numbers killed in those camps dwarf the WWI death toll. I have seen photos and read stories of the millions killed by dictators, famine, plague, and other disasters. And I understand why Christians are wary of na├»ve triumphalism and often very reluctant to proclaim that God’s kingdom is breaking into the world.



Yet, is that not our hope? Do we believe only in some deferred, post-death form of justice or do we believe that Jesus’ message of love and justice will someday prevail on earth?



The Jewish prophets were not foretellers but discerners of God at work in the world. If Christianity is to be credible in the twenty-first century, then we too need prophets, not foretellers (i.e., Harold Camping and others who think that they can tell the future need not apply).



Moves in Europe away from nationalism and toward pan-Europeanism are one sign that God is at work in the world. Moves in the United States and elsewhere toward full civil rights for all – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion – are other signs that God is at work. Although secular forces contributed to all of those moves, I believe that those moves have their roots in Christianity’s affirmation of the dignity and worth of all and Christianity’s demand for justice on earth; I believe that the impetus for those moves is from God.



The way that leads to the fullness of God’s kingdom is neither flat nor easy. Numerous unforeseen and unnecessary detours lie ahead, replete with tragedy, perhaps of greater magnitude than any humans have yet experienced. Yet let us boldly declare: God is at work; progress toward the fullness of God’s kingdom is not only possible but also visible. We build on a foundation of solid rock, one able to withstand the strongest tempest. Christianity that offers no bold hope for tomorrow is indeed an unattractive gospel.

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