Day 57 Sunday, September 4 Sacramento to Vallejo, CA 68 miles
What a full day of varying experiences. The day began with participating in the worship service at Grace Presbyterian in Sacramento, followed by the ride into Vallejo on a hot afternoon, and ending with a rich evening with Warmshower host, Bruce, with whom I shared a good Thai meal and lots of stories about our separate touring experiences.
So much has happened that I feel a little emotionally garbled. Both times I have worshiped at a church on this pilgrimage I have left with lots of feelings about the state of the church in this time as well as my role in it. I have a feeling after I return to Portland I will have time to really process the feelings and the implications, but I am struck by how much my past work in hospice and grief work seems to surface when I think about how best to be present and lead as a minister in this time.
As I was sitting in the chairs behind the communion table looking out over the congregation I could also see through the windows of the doors to the entrance. There we were saying our prayers, singing, and listening for the spirit in Scripture. Through the window a young father was towing his child behind him on bike for a leisurely Sunday ride on a long Labor Day weekend. For so long we have insisted that Sunday is for worship and I wondered as they passed by which of us was really worshiping. Maybe both of us in our own ways?
I met Leslie after the service and she was not bashful about saying that she is a self-avowed atheist who has felt welcomed at Grace. She was very clear that she comes because one of the first things the pastor said when she showed up was that they are not here to change her. I imagine what he meant is that she is likely to be changed, but they are not in the business of making others look like them and believe like them. She enjoys the community, sings in the choir, and is a dedicated advocate for justice issues. When I think about Leslie and I am both heartened and saddened. I am heartened because I believe the future of the church won’t be based on “right belief” but on a community of caring people dedicated to each other, to spiritual growth, and to compassionate service with the community. Leslie fits as well into that community as any faithful Christian I know. I am saddened because church as we know it is passing away and I find people resisting this natural process of gracefully letting go. I think this is why images of my grief work in hospice continue to surface as I think about and visit with members of the church. I find the grief palatable in so many of my conversations with people associated with our mainline congregations. “Where did that once vibrant church go?” seems to be an underlying question capturing this sense of loss.
I feel sort of strange sharing this sense of loss and grief. I can hear voices in my head from nowhere in particular that seem to be saying, “C’mon Brian, have a little faith and don’t be so pessimistic!” But, I don’t feel pessimistic at all. I just can’t shake this feeling that our best hope is to finally accept that God is doing something new, a shift has taken place, and it is time let go of the hopes that the church of yesterday can be recreated and resurrected. So much of my experience on this trip has confirmed that the theological earth already moved and our work is now to catch up to it. There is a reason our gradual decline has continued for over four decades. I don’t think one more creative Sunday School curriculum is the answer at this point.
I do wonder how I’ll feel in the morning about writing this tonight. I am tired and I have just enjoyed a homemade microbrew at my host’s house. If anything, I may be just loosened up enough to not sugarcoat what my heart tells me is happening. We are in a time of loss and decline. I don’t think we can deny that. What if it wasn’t a problem to be fixed, but a stage of community life to embrace? How would that change us?
I do think there is hope for the Church. If Grace can communicate that Leslie, an atheist, feels welcome and embraced it is an indication of a new kind of Christian community that reflects our new world. But, this is not church as we have known it, and as welcome as it may be, in order to fully embrace Leslie we will also have to let go of our images and expectations of what a church community should consist of.
I will spend the next week staying in the homes of church members and listening and sharing more of what I am experiencing. I may be wrong about all this. I am quite open to that. But, what I don’t think I am wrong about is that we have to move beyond trying to solve our “declining membership problem” to acknowledging and owning that our tradition and church as we know it is passing away. There is a future for the church, but I wonder if we’ll recognize it in 50 years.