life and death

I am not sure when or how it happened but somewhere along the line going to church on Sunday became more like attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous than, well, going to church. Raised in a preacher’s household and now a preacher myself for three decades my own conversion happened gradually. I didn’t even realize what I was going through until one of my parishioners told me that the congregation had been watching my conversion one Sunday, one sermon at a time.

Somewhere along the line choosing to worship the God met in Jesus became a matter of life and death. There was a time when preaching Moses’ invitation to “choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy. 30:15-19) seemed straight forward to me. The life-giving choices conveniently lined up with me political and theological leanings. Youthful certitude soon gave way to doubt in Moses’ assurance that “this commandment ... is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away” (Det. 30:11). Choosing life in a messy world turned out to be much harder than Moses had promised. So I was soon careful to dance around this hard text whenever it showed up on the calendar. The congregation did not seem to notice. But I did. The text haunted me.

As it happens, the pulpit that I now inhabit on Sunday morning has inscribed upon it - from right to left in Hebrew lettering - the words “etz hayim”. Tree of life. Those who gather to listen to the Word on Sunday morning see, over my shoulder, a large wooden cross. Tree of death. The upside-down logic of the gospel is in the face of the congregation every time it gathers. Tree of life. Tree of death. Which is which? We come from a world in which choosing the good life looks like securing the bottom line, building up a good portfolio, bolting the door against trouble and playing your part as a consumer of the latest that technology has to offer. On Sunday we enter a world in which trying to save your life leads to the loss of everything. In this peculiar world dying for Jesus’ sake turns out to be the portal to a life that is richly blessed.

When it comes to pointing the way to this cruciform life I feel overwhelmed by my incompetence. In what ways have I died to the temptations of consumption and of securing my future when faced by my neighbour’s poverty and ache? Then it dawns on me that it is the congregation’s story of loss that informs my story, not mine that informs them. Thirty years ago University Hill Congregation in Vancouver could not sustain its life in the church that it had constructed in the halcyon days of the baby-boom. The church building and property was sold. A chapel was rented for Sunday mornings. There was no longer space for mid-week programming. There was no building to call “our church”. The congregation died to its identity as a place in the neighbourhood.

On the other side of this death the congregation chose life. It chose life free of the anxiety of losing its building and its promise of security. That was gone. The congregation was under no illusions. Its future was, and is, tenuous. There are no guarantees. In the face of this uncertainty the congregation discovered that worship is its beating heart. Now it hangs on the words of scripture, waiting in hope for a living word. We are rediscovering week by week what it is to live by the word. Keeping a thriving, lively congregation alive on Canada’s west coast (the most secular region of North America) is really hard. Churches die with alarming regularity. Few are born. In a culture that shapes us to believe that we never have enough it is a massive leap of faith to trust that “The Lord is <our> shepherd, <we> don’t need anything else” (Ps. 23:1). Learning to trust God with our future rather than to take charge ourselves is a risky choice.

Maybe the reason that going to church now feels more akin to attending a Twelve Step meeting is that every time we gather it is about choosing to live by dying to our former way of life. At every gathering there is a congregation that has died to the belief that the church is entitled to a prominent place in the neighbourhood. It is learning to choose a life of loving God and trusting in the Good Shepherd week by week, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Old habits die hard. As it is in AA, so it is in congregational recovery. The journey to trusting in God’s power to save us is filled with set backs. But there is something wonderful about living on the other side of denial. We have given up trusting in our own capacity to create a thriving church. Now we are working the steps to recovering faith in the God who heals and redeems. 

It is not only the congregation that is in recovery. At every gathering there are women and men seeking sobriety from the addiction to have and to consume and to control the outcome of life. I count myself among them. For us the church is no longer a location, it is a movement. We are discovering others who have also heard Christ’s call to die to the harmful patterns, mistaken assumptions and idolatrous beliefs that we have called “good” and “life”. We share a common struggle to choose a life of obedience to God’s way of neighbour love.  

Moses was right, after all: “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut 30:14). We have long been singing, preaching and teaching that it is “in God we trust”. The word has been very near to us all this time. Yet it turns out that trusting the word to be true requires choosing to die in order to live.

                                                                        - Edwin Searcy

an edited version of these lectionary notes was published in the Christian Century, February 2011.

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