The Death of Church
“The high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak[ …] is a man whose name is Branch: for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord.” – Zechariah 11-12
Sorry, Zechariah. Read any newspaper and you’ll hear that religion is less like Zechariah’s branch – spreading understanding as it grows – than a stump. A dead end. Here’s the thing, though. I’m so tired of hearing about the impending Death of Church.
In her novel, The Giver, Lois Lowry describes a future world without pain or hunger, danger or fear. To create this world, however, the people had to eliminate things like color and music, along with things like joy and love. To forgo loss, they forgo memory. There is no past; there is no future.
One person in each generation – “the Receiver” – keeps all the memories of the things they have forgotten. The novel centers on Jonas, the newest Receiver, experiencing the complexity of the world – our world – for the first time. Slowly, painfully, he realizes that everyone else is satisfied with a life that is less like heaven than it is hell.
As we sanitize the essential things of life – things like childbirth and aging, disease and end-of-life care – I meet an increasing number of mourners who have little-to-no system of reference for death. I hear from teenagers whose parents are unable to answer their questions about life, and how to t(m)ake meaning from it. Socially, many are afraid to talk about our experiences of transcendence, lest they seem a little “off.”
Maybe, just maybe, it would be helpful to think of the pastoral office – and religion in general – as a Receiver – a cultural holding place for all the things that are hard to understand and easily pushed aside.
The solution, then, becomes easy – instead of spending so much time talking about how and why we are declining – we just follow Jonas’ example. Finding that there were no words to explain what he experiences, he leaves the community, hoping his physical departure will say what words cannot. He leaves, knowing that his willingness to sacrifice everything he knows will show to others that there is a whole world beyond what they can see.
Of course, if the story of Jonas doesn’t work for you, I might also suggest Jesus.
God, thank you for this institution that helps us to remember the way you have been, and always will be, present in our lives. Today, help me to express this gratitude not simply with my lips, but with my life. Amen.
Elissa Johnk is the Senior Pastor of The Old Meeting House, East Montpelier Center, Vermont.