Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Total Waste

In May of 1934, a group of pastors from all over Germany gathered in Barmen to protest the actions of the Fuhrer, as his National Socialist movement (Naziism) arrogantly steamrolled over all opposition. The Fuhrer himself had seized control over the Church in Germany, placing his own puppet as head over it. There ensued a movment to eliminate any and all mentions of anything Jewish in the Scriptures. The State was exalted over the Church as being paramount, based upon, among other things, the belief that Creation trumps Redemption - that is, that Creation itself has established the Aryan race as the dominant and best race from the beginning, and that whatever Redemption/salvation is, it is defined and shaped by that Creation reality. Jesus' salvation, thus, was reduced to something little more than the notion that God would give victory into the hands of the Aryans.

This gathering of pastors produced a protest document called the Barmen Declaration. You should read it. It consists of 6 simple assertions of truth, followed by 6 concomitant assertions therefore of what ISN'T true. And in it they lay bear the hideous idolatry of National Socialism, and, in fact, every idolatry known to humankind. For those of you who cannot stand Karl Barth, you may gain a new honoring of him when you read the Barmen; for he was the primary author of it. Those who adopted it prayed, pled with God, worked passionately on this project, and in so doing became known as the Confessing Church. There were several hundred of them. They became a protest movement within the larger German Church, standing on orthodoxy and historical faith.

Four short years later, every single one of these men (except three) had been put to death, thrown into concentration camps, or silenced. The movement, the only public protest anyone mounted against Hitler from within Germany, was completely vanquished. It was a total waste of life and effort.

Where's the significance in that?

St. Paul had a lot to say about not living by what you see but by what God says. And so, in the context of telling the story of how much he and others had suffered, he says, "For this momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen." 2 Corinthians 4:17-18a And his perspective is eschatological (that is, arising out of what is true in the Age to Come). Paul is saying that what really matters in this life is participating in the life that is already true in the Age to Come. Paul believed that there are events, actions, a reality which is true THERE, but which becomes present to us HERE through faith, and begins to break in upon us. This reality is called the Kingdom of God. And when we participate in these actions, in this reality, what we do and say now lasts forever. Is full of significance, regardless of how it looks to the watching world. . . or Church.

T.S. Eliot spoke to this, at least tangentially, some 1900 years later. "I am not myself very much concerned with questions of influence, or with the publicists who have impressed their names upon the public by catching the morning tide and rowing very fast in the direction in which the current was flowing, but rather that there should always be a few preoccupied in penetrating to the core of the matter, in trying to arrive at the truth and to set it forth, without too much hope, without ambition to alter the immediate course of affairs and without being downcast or defeated when nothing appears to ensue."

As the Confessing Church was destroyed by the rising tide of Naziism, total failure was all that, honestly, anyone could see. Little would anyone have known that the document would be discovered, resurrected as WWII led into the Cold War, and as the U.S.S.R. seized East Germany as its own. And rediscovered the Barmen spoke courage into the hearts of pastors within East Germany who pastored the faithful through the nightmare of Communism. The inspiration they received from the Declaration led them to start what became a 10 year prayer movement that issued forth in 1989 into the non-violent uprising of the Church in East Germany became a central part of the fall of the U.S.S.R. in East Germany. Without so much as a bloody nose, as Dr. Jim Edwards said a few weeks ago.

Who would have known that simple acts of obedience would not only be signficant in and of themselves, expressions of the Kingdom of God breaking in and full of worth in the Age to Come. But also usable in the hands of the living God 30 and 40 years later, after all the signers were dead, to bring justice upon earth.

Makes you think twice about worth and significance in an age which knows nothing but the immediate and that which makes one feel good right now and that which brings the BIG and the measurable. It makes me think that sometimes the visible result right now might actually be the total waste.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Built to Last

A friend of ours from an Eastern European nation entered seminary when the Iron Curtain was still a reality. In that particular country, the communist oppression was exacerbated by a megalomaniac dictator's fears and absolute control. The nation was ruled by the Secret Police, who had spies in every church, electronic bugs in every hotel room and every seminary dormitory room. Pastors were regularly accosted on Monday mornings for something they said in their Sunday sermon that sounded remotely threatening to the government. It was a cold, dark world, with no earthly hopes of freedom anywhere in sight, no tangible reason to believe anything would change in their lifetime.

But our friend fell in with 7 other like-minded seminarians, who discovered quietly that they were not only of the same mind theologically but also prophetically - that is, they believed that God was on the move invisibly, and that a new day was coming, and that they were to play a part in it. They found their way often out into the hills to pray and read Scripture together, to listen to God about what He was doing, to create a code by which they could communicate hidden messages by phone, and to determine ways to communicate hidden messages imbedded in the Sunday services they would soon lead, messages only the faithful would understand. When they graduated, they all went to their first churches and set about faithfully building up their local churches.

One of their number in particular was charismatic in personality, a bold leader, a person others naturally would rally behind. When he took a dying church in a university town, the agnostic/atheistic students, at last hungry for something more than scientific materialism, began to flock to his church. The Secret Police threatened the pastor with retribution, then murdered a member of his church. Ultimately they removed him from his parish forceably, violently. And it was that action by the Secret Police that actually began the 10 day revolt that overthrew the dictator and his communist empire. It was only right that this pastor would become a major political personage in the re-formed government, and would be made Bishop of the entire district of the church in which the 8 former seminarians served.

Only. . .somewhere in this process, the new Bishop succumbed to, what? Internal temptations? External luxuries? The insecurities deeply buried and never to be uncovered when they were fighting injustice? No one, I guess, truly knows. But as Bishop he became his own dictator, terrified of anyone that might be a threat. . . like our friend, and the other 6 seminarians. He sought the power to remain Bishop forever. He bullied and coerced. He ruined people who resisted him. He lived in opulence, while his people lived in poverty. And he betrayed his 7 loyal and dear friends. Susan and I presently are concerned because our friend has not answered an e-mail, a phone call, or a letter in 3 years. It's as if he has dropped off the face of the earth.

Where's the lasting significance in all of this? What has worth when such wrongdoing is afoot? How do you square up the years of yearning, praying, working for change, for justice, for the Name and honor of God, for the wellbeing of not only the people of God but the unsaved people of the nation. Although there are scraps of goodness to be seen lasting, almost everything they had worked for, including and maybe especially friendship that matters, all of this was basically soiled and discredited and in some cases destroyed. Where's the worth in that?

And there's no place we feel this dissonance moreso than in the Church. Right? Where's God in all of this? Or to say it in another way, "Is there anything that matters, that lasts, that makes a difference, when such destruction happens? Is there anything that carries over to the life to come?"

To which St. Paul says something breathtaking. He's writing to a church that is polluted with sexual incest between a man and his mother; by the rich of the church eating all the food at the Lord's Supper and the poorer Christians going hungry. . . regularly; with spiritual gifts being used as political weapons to gain status; with petty divisions based on favorite upfront leaders (sound familiar?); by some partaking in pagan ceremonies ostensibly in the name of Jesus. In other words, Paul is writing to a church filled with destruction. And he says, "Now if anyone builds on the foundation (of the Church) with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. " I Corinthians 3:12-14

To put it into the language of significance, Paul is saying, "If you tear down the Church, if you contribute to its decay and disease and pollution and discouragement and fracturing divisions, what you have done will be burned up in the Day of Judgment. But if you build up the Church and encourage faith and the growth of its members, and help people enter into the acts of love which arise from the heart of Jesus within you, all of this which comes from the One who lives in the Age to Come will of course carry over into the Age to Come." It will last forever. "Blessed are the dead who die in the LORD, says the Spirit, for they rest from their works, and their works follow them."

Try to imagine how this looks. In the Age to Come, when we are restored fully to the image of God and embodied in resurrection bodies and the fullness of life in the restored creation, what we are doing now that builds up the people of God will be present in that new Age. The fruits of our work now, no matter how much outwardly appears to have been destroyed by evildoing or foolishness while we were in this life, carry over. What it means is that Jesus wastes nothing that is in Christ.

What it also means is the Church, in a way far greater than Protestantism has grasped, is far more important than just a means to an end, or an unhappy necessity for this time on earth, gladly to be dismissed in the Age to Come. The question, as Simon Chan puts it (Liturgical Theology), is, "Is the church to be seen as the instrument to accomplish God's purpose in creation, or is the church the expression of God's ultimate purpose itself?" One thing's for sure, it's a lot more important than the way it is used as yet another means of feeding the consumeristic bent of American churchgoers. And what we do to build it, even if or when our efforts are later dismantled, have eternal significance.

I don't know where my friend is, or if he's alive or has been placed in some going-nowhere chapel, tucked away where he can seemingly do no harm to the Bishop. But I know this, wherever he has loved people, fed the poor in his congregations, told them the truth, baptized, given Communion, taught children the Heidelberg Catechism to hold their lives together in a post-communist nightmare, something is being played out in the Age to Come that lasts. Built to last.

How about you?