Wednesday, January 02, 2013


Another new year. I’m amazed. When I think back on my profligate youth I can’t figure out how I made it to fifty, much less seventy. It must have something to do with the way the grace of God intercepted me back in ‘67.
In a Gazette op-ed a few days ago Bonnie Erbe hammered a nail or two through the lid of contemporary Christianity’s coffin. Citing research polls indicating that more and more Americans are abandoning religious affiliation (20% of us, according to a Pew Research poll). Erbe triumphantly concluded, “One day, Christian leaders will wake up and recognize that their era is crumbling.” If the trends continue, she believes America will eventually free itself from the shackles of “oppressive Christianity.” Thus, Christianity will become irrelevant and powerless. Erbe sees this as reason to celebrate.
Should I, as a Christian, be troubled? Absolutely not! If my faith meant nothing more to me than cultural relevance or political power it would be utterly meaningless. I gave no thought to those things when I embraced faith in Jesus. In fact, I was powerless, not powerful. I was an outsider looking in, not an insider looking out. I was weak. I was lost! No amount of cultural relevance or political power could fix what was ailing me.
Nothing that I’ve seen on the political or social scene over the past fifty years has changed my thinking. Political power shifts over time. So do society’s trends. The powerful one day become the downtrodden the next. Yesterday’s chic and trendy becomes laughable as soon as the latest fashions are displayed on the runways in Paris.
There’s one thing, though, that doesn’t change with time – our search for meaning in life.
Nancy and I have seen this played out over and over again. We moved to New Jersey in the late eighties. Once we found a place to live we started looking for a church, a particular type of church. It wasn’t easy, since the prevailing religions on the east coast are humanism and mammon, and sometimes a marriage of the two. But we found it in a place called Jockey Hollow. It wasn’t a glorious place. There were no flying buttresses; there was no massive pipe organ. In fact, the roof leaked and the chairs creaked. But, over the years we found ourselves bound together in a pilgrimage with a small, eclectic band of societal castaways, nuclear and design engineers, musicians, poets, vagabonds, and a PhD chemist thrown in for good measure. We had none of the trappings one normally associates with power. We had very little money, and the little we had flowed through us. I remember a business meeting when we deferred plugging the leaky roof and gave every penny we had to missionaries in India, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Mali, and other mission posts along the world’s 10-30 corridor. I can still hear the cheers erupting as the last dollar was given.
The church in Jockey Hollow was never relevant or powerful in worldly terms, but Nancy and I experienced quiet, transcendent power in that seemingly insignificant place. The relationships and bonds of affection we developed there will last our lifetime, and beyond.
We’ve seen that transcendent power displayed in the most unlikely of places. We’ve even seen it on Memphis’s Highland Strip, in a small generation X church sandwiched between a psychic advisor and Rocky’s Tattoo Parlor. 
We occasionally reminisce about a Sunday morning years ago when we toured Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Like most that morning, we were tourists caught up in gargoyles and the gold-laden altar. We made our way around the nave, taking pictures as we did. As we moved close to the altar we noticed a small group of worshippers singing a’ Capella. They didn’t seem to take any notice of the tourists like us skulking around. My words can’t adequately describe the beauty of the polyphony. It was a transcendent moment. The twenty or so songs gathered together, became one, then rose gently heavenward, past the massive columns and statuary. The power of the experience brought me to my knees.
I often hear that Christianity has become meaningless in Europe. My experience that morning taught me that Christianity’s European presence, while small, is alive and powerful.
It’s sad, but true. Religion almost always loses its way when it becomes big, socially relevant, or politically powerful. So, Erbe may be at least half-right. Institutional Christianity may be on the wane. But, whatever happens, there will always be small bands of pilgrims searching for absolution and meaning. We may become the minority report, but we’ll still be there. As Bob Dylan put it:

 “All my loyal and much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that’s long been abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road.”

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