Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together as one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
As we begin a new year and the third year of the pandemic, I am grateful to be Presbyterian.
If I were not Presbyterian, I would be in this on my own. Given the challenges of this time and place, I don't want to be facing the daunting questions of life alone.
This came clear the other night as the Session met to discuss the challenge of growing attendance on Sunday morning. I shared with them, "in all the years of doing this pastor gig, never did I imagine I would look at significant increases in worship attendance and be afraid. Never could I conceive of this as a problem." Yet, when I look out at the sanctuary filling up, I am not so much filled with excitement as I am concerned. I shared this concern with the Session.
I am glad I did.
Moving around the table there was a sense of "yes, there are more people, but this is the one place I feel safe." "Yes, there is an ongoing pandemic, but there is also an ongoing life. We have done the right thing; let's continue to do the right thing." Mostly, though, there was a sense of conscience. We do our best and hope others will do their best.
If I were not Presbyterian, then this wisdom would have eluded me. I would have been left to wrestle with the concerns on my own. Perhaps I would have come to similar conclusions. Perhaps. But it would have taken so much out of me, to reach this level of wisdom, and clarity would have come at a very great cost. Sitting as one voice around a table of many (and a screen with many), the cost was shared, and the demand for clarity didn't exhaust me.
I knew this before the pandemic; I was already glad to be Presbyterian. Yet, the nature of joy is that it can grow. Paul will say to the church at Philippi, "make my joy complete." In the Gospel of John, Jesus instructs his friends on the night of his arrest, that they are to seek complete joy."
Completion is often seen as an end. "This is complete" can mean "this is done." Complete, though, can also mean, "now this can work; now this can begin." When we complete a form, when we complete a task, this can be the beginning of something good. I believe that there are many tasks to complete so joy can be so as well. Being Presbyterian is to see the tasks as shared.
One of those tasks is to find the strength of a life together. To leave aside the solitude and enjoy the table set for many; to leave the solitary path and find a way with a friend; to lay aside the safety of my choices for the confluence of a common choice. What makes me so grateful as the new year begins is that the common way is what it means to be Presbyterian. Never before have I seen the need for and the value of a life in common.
We are led by a life elders. Not one. Not the elderly. We are led to share a life of common faith by the common voice, the shared voice. It's baked in. It may be that the pandemic persists or that that it fades from view. I no longer take comfort in prediction. Better to see what is at the hand than what might be.
What I need not prognosticate is this: we need to regain the common life. We need to relearn the gathering. Somehow, some way, this will happen. The good news is that we are a shared life, a Life Together. This is what God has already made for us.
Let 2022 begin as a grateful year.