Friday, June 03, 2011

Bound By More than Loose Connections

I had a lovely dinner last night with a couple whose one-year-old daughter I get to baptize on Pentecost. The family has been worshiping with us at the wee kirk since last fall. Mom joined the church mid-winter. Dad may at some point down the road. He likely would have joined last winter, too, but for a month of out-of-state Air Force training back in January.
None of that is particularly interesting outside of the personal connections, to be sure, but within that simple description lies a tangle of broader connections wound tightly around the challenge of being the church near to the heart of the empire these days.
To untangle this just a bit: a young couple choosing to join a church -- any church -- these days in America is a bit unusual. The cover story of the current issue of Christian Century, "Loose Connections," is all about the rise of American religious participation and the simultaneous decline in Americans claiming a particular religious identity.
We are, as the article points out, no longer the "nation of joiners" that Tocqueville found when he went off to look for America.
I might have explored why this particular couple was choosing to buck the trend, but the conversation followed a slightly different thread into the tangle: the tension between Christian faith and participating in the military-industrial complex of the empire.
We touched on Augustine and Niebuhr, just war and Christian realism, Vietnam and the war on terror. There's plenty of grist for any mill in that list of names and topics, and it struck me somewhere in the midst of the naan that rich conversation over the breaking of bread is the only way we'll ever find common ground. After all, I do a great deal of work with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Christian Peace Witness, and, from a certain point of view a faithful conversation between airman and peace activist might seem impossible.
From a certain point of view one might anticipate nothing more than the scene from an old Phil Ochs song:
Soldiers, disillusioned, come home from the war
Sarcastic students tell them not to fight no more
And they argue through the night
Black is black and white and white
Walk away both knowing they are right.

But if that is all there is we will never move beyond the loosest of connections. Something more must bind us together, or we wind up loose threads blowing in random winds.
At some point in the conversation on-line discussion came up, and I allowed as how I generally try to avoid any threaded online conversation that deals with anything more controversial than the fate of the Nationals. Godwin's Law is almost as certain as death and taxes, and most on-line discussion forums -- whether conservative or liberal -- leave me feeling like I need to take a shower. I get sucked in occasionally, but mostly I stay away.
Sometimes, though, it follows me. Indeed, some anonymous reader this week left a rude comment (that I deleted) on this blog. Obviously, following Godwin, I'm not surprised by much of what I encounter in comments but this one surprised me because it commented on a comment on something I posted one year ago! It takes more crankiness than I can muster most days to get worked up to rudeness about something from 12 months ago.
If you're still hanging in there with this loose thread you may be wondering just what it has to do with the beginning. Hang in there, this is a big tangled mess!
In another week or so we are going to baptize the baby girl who slept through the last evening. We'll welcome her into the communion of the saints, and to the gathered community at the wee kirk. We'll promise to teach her the good news, help her to follow the way of Jesus, and strengthen her ties to the household of God.
In all of that, we will also welcome her to an institution whose connections seem to be growing looser precisely at the moment when the remarkable communications technologies at our fingertips have given us unprecedented capacities to connect with each other. But, instead of connecting, we call each other Hitler and then retreat ... to what?
Too often, we retreat behind walls and gates and, particularly in this part of the world, the hyper-security of pax Americana.
The church, at its best, offers no such security and builds no such walls. Instead, at our best, we offer a table to which all are welcome, a table at which to break bread and to risk authentic conversation about the most complicated and tangled strands of our broken lives. Something beautiful can be woven out of all of that, if we are willing to risk being honestly vulnerable. With respect, at least, to our own complicity in the violence of the empire it means also holding out our own dirty hands. Fortunately, in addition to the table, we also have a font at which to wash our hands before we break the bread.