you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not,
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not,
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not,
you must go by a way in which you are not."
—St. John of the Cross
Put another way, to come to pleasure, you must go the way of sorrow and pain; to come to knowledge, you must go the way of not having the answers; to come to possession, you must go the way of loss and letting go; to come to life, you must go the way of death.
To come to resurrection, you must go the way of the cross. Even though this is the center of the Christian faith, it is the part of the Christian narrative we avoid the most. Of all the special worship services in the liturgical year, which ones are the most well-attended? Christmas and Easter. Birth and rebirth. Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday are usually for the stalwart. Perhaps the more we are privileged and protected from suffering and exclusion or the less we think about those things, the less those worship services have meaning for most of us. We are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidant creatures, which means so are our institutions, our corporate life. And yet growth comes more from failure, pain, uncertainty, loss, like a seed that dies and bursts forth from its earthen grave.
The Church has had its share of birth and rebirth but it has avoided its own death like the plague. We are the Body of Christ, we live out the life of Jesus in our life together except this one aspect. If the Church is to be renewed, reborn, then first it must die. One of the devotionals from the United Church of Christ asked the question, why anyone would want to lead a dying church. And I could not believe the naiveté of the response: “I don’t believe that God will let the church die.”
Jesus died on the cross. People, organizations, businesses, companies, friendships, relationships die every day. Everything has a lifespan. Everything dies, eventually. Church as it currently exists has been coming to the end of its life for some time now. And just we treat our own death by using more resources at the end of our lives and forestalling the inevitable, we have been doing the same with the Church, the Body of Christ. We’ve reformed and split the Body into different versions of itself. We invest resources and time and energy to keep it viable. We institute programs and activities and attend workshops on how to do church so others will come and join us. We even have a church renewal organization with the acronym CPR. And much of our motivation has been fear and the survival of the Church rather than inviting people into a relationship that could change their lives and meaningful work that could change the world.
I think denominations are dinosaurs. The population of the state of Delaware (961,939) is greater than the membership of the UCC (853,778). The United Church of Christ has been continually shrinking—conferences merging, national staff dwindling, people seeking life elsewhere—not because people aren't interested in justice or raising the poor or living well with their neighbor but because the denominational model doesn't work anymore. People have found other ways of doing this work that doesn't include a specific religious belief or require a hierarchy and uses resources more effectively. Even with our congregational polity, it's still a hierarchy. Which translates into inequality.
Many church buildings are an albatross in regard to time, resources, and volunteers, let alone accessible, a proverbial millstone around the neck of the Body of Christ. We've been more about indoctrination and faith formation than transformation, how we live. But Church has never really been about the four walls and what goes on inside them. In the UCC we say "Be the Church": be the Body of Christ, wherever we are, whoever we are.
But we also need to be willing to fail in order to do what is good and just, holy and true. By no means am I saying we should just shutter the church and dissolve. Like Philip Gulley, I don't want to be an "I" but an "us". I love my church, the New Ark United Church of Christ. Church reveals to me the way of compassion and forgiveness. Church teaches me how to be not just generous but open-hearted. Church informs me that I’m not the center of the universe. Church is where I begin to recognize that everything is sacred and that God—what is good, holy, and true,—is present everywhere. Church is home, the place where they take you in, no matter what. Church is where justice begins, the workshop for the kin-dom of God. Church is how I learn to love and work with people who are different from me—which is everyone. Church is where I discover that I am a whole person—body, mind, and spirit—made in God’s image, and that God calls the whole person, the gifts and the flaws, to be God’s hands and feet in the world. Church is the place, the people where I don’t do all this perfectly but only with the help of others. Church introduced me to the vulnerable heart of Jesus and to resurrection, when my old life, the one that wasn’t working, died and a new life rose in its place.
But like any lifeform, let us live whatever life we have left to the fullest. Which includes risk, daring, dancing our way fearlessly to the cross, coming to the inevitable grave breathless from singing and service. In the words of author Hunter Thompson, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a ride!”
They don't call it a blaze of glory for nothing. As Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote,