Embers and Ashes

Twenty-plus years a pastor in a local church (Presbyterian Church U.S.A.), college ministry, and national educational ministry have convinced me of a few things. But only one that seems to really matter.

And that one only matters because the church in our time and place is in such shitty shape. Yes, shitty — that’s what I said and what I mean. But not because the people in the church are often shitty — that’s a given! It’s because the institutional structures of the church inhibit just what seems to me necessary for it to enable shitty people to stand the stench of each other and still hang together and bear a credible witness to the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped that he could only stand the stench inside the church because the stench outside it was a little worse. And that’s how we’ve operated. Proud that we could consider ourselves better (even if only by a little) than the world outside our walls, a faux-righteousness overtook us and eroded our capacity for solidarity with the poor and inflated our illusions that we could do Kingdom work by pushing and pulling the levers of business and politics from the top down.

Relationships got shorted in the process. We didn’t really want relationships with poor people or non-white people, so we didn’t have any. The relationships we did build with the movers and shakers were ad hoc and functional. And in the process relating to God atrophied as well.

Some of us became pray-actors while others became play-actors, well-intentioned, good-hearted, do-the-best-they-can kind of folks. The former shorted our relation to and accountability for a rightly-ordered world for a “spirituality” centered on the church as the site for religious practices and vendor of religious goods and services. The latter shorted the church as primarily a place of moral and social exhortation and the world as the place of Christian action. Both were right in what they affirmed and wrong in what they denied or neglected. Gradually differing political ideologies became the de facto grounds defining and dividing us from each other and, dare I suggest, God. Instead of being embers awaiting only the breath of God to blaze to life in the world, we have become burned out ashes blown about by the winds swirling down the chimney of a dead fireplace.

This relational failure is endemic to the way we have come to do church. I can illustrate it like this. On any Sunday morning some people who live in the same area or structure get up and drive away from their home to another part of town to “go to church” with another group of people whom we don’t live with and who we hardly “know” in any organic sense. And the place we gather is not by and large a place we minister to often or well.

Imagine now an alternative scenario. All the Christians living near each other leave their cars in their driveways or parking spaces and gather together somewhere in their neighborhood. Together, in spite of all the differences they may have, they covenant before God to be God’s people in that place. They serve their neighbors, first be getting to know them as friends, and then by random acts of kindness and intentional acts of justice and peace, sharing the joys and sorrows, trials and terrors of life together. They tell the gospel story as they live it out in the midst of their life together inviting all to join them in worshiping Jesus and becoming who God always intended them to be and doing and living as the human beings he created “in his image.” All are God’s gifts and presence to each other. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what “knowing God” might mean apart from such community and interaction with the people and in the place where God has put us.

The difference in these two scenarios is, I believe, the reason we need a complete rethink and reinvention of the church. And it has everything to do with the relationships mentioned above. I have a formula to express this: passion + proximity + priority + perspective (Kingdom of God) = church.

The elements of this formula are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. They are gifts of God’s grace and, thus, not manipulable or under our control. We receive and experience them only in a living and growing relationship with God. As outlined above, this is precisely the point where the North American church has failed.

God created us to be embers needing only the breath (Spirit) of God to blow us into full flame. Apart from God, however, we become ash, remnants of a once-living relationship fired by God’s Spirit but now good for nothing to God’s kingdom work in and through his people, the church.

Only the life-giving Spirit can grace us with the passion born of living, knowing, and growing with God. Only the Spirit can convince in us and create among us a desire to live close to each other as a committed band of Jesus-followers in our local settings. Only the Spirit has sear the priority of being this people of God into our hearts and minds. And only the Spirit can lead us into the full truth of what we are a part of as Jesus-followers.

So relationship is the heart of this Christian-thing. Relationship to the triune God. Which is the way we remain burning embers open to the Spirit’s breath blowing us into full life. And because it is this God we are related to we are related to everything else as well. The Triune God is an eternal relationship of giving, receiving, and returning love between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Thus we, who bear this God’s image, are created for similar community with God and one another. This God is also the Creator. Hence our love for God extends to all that he has lovingly called and fashioned into being. In fact, we can only know this God in community with each other and the creation which he has made for divine-human fellowship to be realized.

To be an ember of God, then, means being fired with a passion for God from whom we receive life, a desire to be near one another in community (proximity), a compulsion to “seek first God’s kingdom” (Matthew 6:33), and a perspective on life and the world that aligns itself with what God is doing there and where he is taking us.

In Christian faith, rooted in a living relationship to the living God and his crucified and risen Son Jesus Christ, passion for God is a sharing of God’s own passion for his world and a willingness to suffer with and for it on his behalf (compassion — “to suffer with”). Proximity morphs into a yearning for community. Our priority translates into commitment — intentional, undivided, single-minded. And our perspective is grounded in and directed by the coming kingdom of God, the world as God intended it to be which has become the reality from which we live in and through Jesus Christ.

It all finally begins and ends with relationship to God. Or at least openness to such relation. Only God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, can blow the embers we are into a bright and glowing fire of God’s love. Only this love shared with the world makes and keeps us Christian (and human, for that matter). When the uncontrollable, unpredictable Spirit ignites us we will find ourselves burning and glowing in every area of life and as far as God’s concern takes us and as deep as the deepest hell. And we will know joy!

We will be delivered from the joylessness of both secular and religious life into the worldliness pointed toward by Dietrich Bonhoeffer — a total immersion in the daily life of the world intent on being God’s mission there to reclaim and restore those from whom sin and evil have taken this joy. They are joyless ashes, blown here and there by every change and wind, dead relics of once living ember of God. And our joyous witness to them in the midst of life points them to the one alone who can (miraculously) restore them to being the embers he created them to be.

THE WINTER IS COLD, IS COLD by Madeleine L’Engle
… The winter is cold, is cold.                                                                                                                  All’s spent in keeping warm.                                                                                                               Has joy been frozen, too?                                                                                                                            I blow upon my hands                                                                                                                                 Stiff from the biting wind.                                                                                                                                My heart beats slow, beats slow.                                                                                                           What has become of joy?

If joy’s gone from my heart                                                                                                                        Then it is closed to You                                                                                                                                   Who made it, gave it life.                                                                                                                             If I protect myself I’m hiding, Lord, from you.                                                                                         How we defend ourselves                                                                                                                             In ancient suits of mail!

Protected from the sword,                                                                                                                Shrinking from the wound,                                                                                                                           We look for happiness,                                                                                                                           Small, safety-seeking, dulled,                                                                                                                    Selfish, exclusive, in-turned.                                                                                                                 Elusive, evasive, peace comes                                                                                                                  Only when it’s not sought.

Help me forget the cold                                                                                                                               That grips the grasping world.                                                                                                                         Let me stretch out my hands                                                                                                                    To purifying fire,                                                                                                                                 Clutching fingers uncurled.                                                                                                                         Look! Here is the melting joy.                                                                                                                      My heart beats once again



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