Feb 20, 2019
Last month, after worship on Long Island, a parishioner approached me and asked, “Do you have hope for our synod?”
I was taken aback. Do I have hope? I mean—I do—of course—?
I stumbled through a response: “I do have hope for our synod. We have active and engaged laity. We have first-and second-call clergy building congregations. We have tremendous mission developers. This past year has been difficult, following the resignation, but Bishop McCoid has been the steady hand we needed to see us through. So, yes.”
The parishioner seemed satisfied. Relieved, even. She said, “If you have hope, then so do I.”
But I wasn’t satisfied. I felt uneasy that a member of our synod would even ask that question, and I sensed that my answer was missing key points.
To make matters worse, only a few days passed before a member of our Synod Council, a dedicated lay leader, wrote to thank me for my leadership as vice-president and for bringing “hope to this seemingly hopeless situation.”
I get it. We hear bad news constantly: declining membership, youth disengagement, less giving, failing congregations, even scandals. We’ve all wondered what the future holds for our MNYS, or the ELCA, or mainstream Christianity in the United States.
Some folks probably think we’re dead already.
Well, we aren’t dead already. And even if we were, we wouldn’t stay that way. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is founded in resurrection. Even if we agree on little else, we must agree on that. So it follows: If tomorrow, all our rostered members walked out the doors and our buildings fell to dust, we would not disappear. No, we would not. The remnant would get to work on a resurrection, and we would rise again.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther encountered a church that seemed to be sinking in theological corruption. He refused to let that happen. Instead, he radicalized and set about reforming.
Hopelessness is getting stuck in what is, and closing our minds to what can be. Have we radicalized? Have we taken the time to envision what our future synod should look like? Have we conjured our own 95 theses and nailed them to the door, metaphorically or otherwise?
Luther never set out to found a whole new church—or maybe he did, but a sort of rebuilt structure upon the Roman foundation. When is the last time we considered whether we need to invest ourselves in changes so radical that we build a new structure on the solid foundation our forebears bequeathed us? I can tell you this: If we feel hopeless, then it’s been too long.
Wondering about the future is natural and human; the Apostle Paul counsels that we should not be uneasy (Philippians 4:6-7) about what will be revealed to us in God’s time, not ours (1 Corinthians 13:8-12). Still, the comfort of knowing that our synod and this church will endure does not excuse us from doing the hard work of creating the future (Colossians 3:23-24; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12; Proverbs 16:3). For that work, we must be ready. Like Luther, we must be radically ready to question what we’ve received and to discern God’s plan for this church, no matter how uncomfortable we become.
Here’s what I should have said to that parishioner on Long Island: “Hopelessness is the devil’s work. I choose the very embodiment of hope, our Risen Lord.”