The Lutheran, June 2011
A monthly column by Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson
Christ present in challenges
Be confident the Spirit renews our faith and witness
Remembering belongs to being human. Some memories are painful and we wonder if we will ever be able to forget them. Yet we fear losing our memories entirely. Certain memories of the past hold treasure for our hearts. That is why in the rubble of homes and churches devastated by storms or other disasters, survivors often look for a particular item passed on from generation to generation — a Bible, a photo, a certificate, a pendant. When found, these items are both a source of identity and a sign of hope.
On Memorial Day my wife, Ione, and I used to take our children to the cemetery to remember loved ones no longer present. Our now young adult children remember going as a family, sharing stories, shedding tears, joining hands, offering prayers, placing flowers and tidying the gravestones. As in earlier years, this remembering is in service of being rejoined to others in love and faith.
When he wrote to Timothy, the apostle Paul shared memories of the faith being passed on from generation to generation. He expressed his longing to be rejoined with Timothy, saying: "I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you" (2 Timothy 1:3-5
). Remembering in this way serves reunion within the body of Christ.
Not all remembering reunites people within Christ's body. In many of the challenges facing congregations described in this issue ("10 trends to watch
"), there is the possibility of memory becoming a nostalgic longing for an idealized past that probably never really existed as remembered. Such nostalgia can function as a buffer against embracing the possibilities for reconciliation and community in Christ today.
In extreme instances nostalgia cloaks a partisan agenda that uses "tradition" as the basis for judgment and condemnation of others. Asking what from our past can give strength and insight for ministry today is a far different question from asking how we can re-create an idealized past in the present. The former way is informed and shaped constructively by memory; the latter way is imprisoned and paralyzed by memory.
When the apostles gathered with Jesus at his ascension, they wanted to know if it was the time when the kingdom would be restored to Israel (Acts 1:6
). Their understanding of the present was imprisoned, not liberated, by their memory of the past.
Jesus' response turned them toward God's future: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8
The ascension means the crucified and risen Christ is not confined to memories we have of his earthly life, but is alive and on the move today. God provides the Spirit's power through the gospel so we might bear witness today to God's redeeming love in Christ.
Christ is present in every one of the challenges facing ELCA congregations, just as Christ lives and moves in the gathered worshiping assemblies of some 10,000 ELCA congregations and in the daily work and witness of ELCA members.
When memory is in service of our being joined together, we can be confident that we are the church we have always been in Jesus Christ. When the challenges congregations are facing become an occasion for coming together to imagine new possibilities for cooperative ministry with other ELCA ministries and ecumenical partners, we can be confident that Christ's Spirit is renewing our faith and witness.
In this way memory gives life to evangelical imagination. That is why we are committed to supporting congregations as they engage in three great "listenings" — listening to God who speaks through God's word, listening for the gifts the Spirit gives to the people of the congregation, and listening to the joys and hurts of the people in the communities the congregation serves. Where memory serves the meeting of God's promise and human faith, lives and ministries are transformed.