From the Prophet Isaiah:
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let them proclaim it,
let them declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be.
Do not fear, or be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 44:6-8 (NRSV) – December 27, 2013.)
I took yesterday “off” and stayed away from church-related things. I read the Daily Office, of course, and thought about St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr. I even thought about writing one of these meditations, but never got around to it. I really did nothing “religious” . . . until dinner time when I had a previously scheduled a meeting with a small group of parishioners.
We met at a local sports bar for burgers and beer, and a discussion of how to get the church out of the church and into the marketplace. Some weeks ago, one of the group had had the idea of promoting our church by offering a place to park and a breakfast to those who might attend the town’s winter festival, which is held on the town square a block from the church building and is coming up in about six weeks. “Parking and Pancakes,” he called it. Another noted that making our restrooms available might be just as big a draw, so we considered (and dismissed) retitling it “Parking, Pancakes, and Peeing.”
We kicked around the various logistical elements of the idea, handed out action assignments and report-back deadlines, used our smart-phones to get data pertinent to our discussion, ate our burgers, drank our beers, and went on our ways.
This morning I am struck by the pertinence of Isaiah’s declaration (on God’s behalf), “You are my witnesses!” and its follow-up question, “Is there any god besides me?” In a society which is increasingly religiously pluralistic and increasingly non-religious, I am heartened that at least a few members of the church are beginning to understand the role of each member, and the whole of the church community, as “witness.” We can no longer sit at the side of the road and expect passers-by to turn into our drive and knock on our door. We must go out and testify; we must open the doors of the church, stand in the road, and beckon the worn and the weary to come in for respite. Because the answer to the follow up question is no longer that proposed by Isaiah (or by God?), “There is no other rock . . . . ” There are plenty of other rocks, other gods.
Some of those other rocks are, indeed, gods – or at least religious in nature. Within not-very-many miles of our small Ohio county-town church one can find a Hindu temple, a Moslem mosque, and a Buddhist ashram. Though there is no synagogue in town, there are several within a reasonable drive. I have no interest in trying to convince the members of these faiths that they should become part of mine; they are already, in their way, in touch with the divine.
There are the “gods,” however, from which we should like to turn their followers. The gods of money, status, acquisition . . . the gods of alcohol, addiction, self-destruction . . . the gods that promise (but do not deliver) immediate satisfaction, a temporary filling of the void in human lives, the void that only the divine can fill. These gods are incredibly attractive and once a person is in their thrall getting away can be incredibly difficult, almost impossible. It takes the help of a witness, perhaps even a witness who has “been there and done that.”
That is why last night’s little meeting over burgers and beer was so important. I don’t give a damn about “growing the church.” I care very much about spreading the Good News, about helping people find a solid rock on which to ground their lives. If parking and pancakes and giving people a place to pee can do that, I’m all for it.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
One of the primary reasons I walked out was the disinterest displayed by our priest in activities like this. Or anything else for that matter.