Coming out of a class I had just led on death and dying, Bob pulled me aside to ask an easy question: “Is cremation a sin?”
My quick “no” was just what he needed to ask his follow-up: “No? Well, it used to be. What happened?”
Bob had been part of the church longer than I’d been alive, and he’d lived long enough to know that the times weren’t the only things a-changing. Over the years he had watched as long-held and cherished beliefs, entrenched values, and even core truths once etched in stone had moved from a place of common conviction to suspicion, or worse, rejection.
His question to me that day wasn’t really about cremation at all. It was simply a way to name the deeper conflict that haunted him. How had something once forbidden by the church ended up with its blessing?
People of faith have asked that question countless times throughout history. Any time widely-held thoughts about race or national identity or sexuality or gender or morality have moved from one understanding to another, the church has felt the added burden of trying to identify where God is and what God is doing in the chaos of our swirling understanding.
One statement of faith reminds us that this is difficult work. It tells us that “we risk disagreement and error when we try to say what God is doing here and now” (A Declaration of Faith). But while it is surely risky, stressful work, it is also faithful work.
Poet Ann Weems says something like that in one of her poems. She writes,
Sometimes in the stress of life
we feel overwhelmed
by the responsibility
that we are right
equally as faithful,
feel they are right.
O God, wouldn’t it have been easier
on all of us
if you had just written down the rules?—
if you had just spelled it out?
The challenge of seeking to be faithful in a changing world is not a new one for the church. These days, however, the pace of change has increased so dramatically that just about everybody is struggling to keep up. That’s why countless people are lined up to ask Bob’s question. In a world where so many things are not like they were, we just want to know, “What happened?”
Some are quick to answer that question. “I’ll tell you what happened. We are forsaking everything we have ever held dear in the name of following our own desires. We are turning from God to follow the world.”
But there are others who offer a different witness. They understand that the movement from one understanding to another can be seen as a sign that we are becoming more faithful, not less. They are quick to say that God is at work in the world, “especially in events and movements that free people by the gospel and advance justice, compassion and peace” (A Declaration of Faith).
These competing voices within the church make it difficult for people of faith who just want to get it right. Every now and then I’m tempted to jump in with Weems and shout for God to just spell it all out for us, to just tell us what’s right and faithful and true.
And then I start to wonder, “What if that’s what God is doing, only in a way that is as slow and messy as the new creation?” Unlike the first creation which happened so easily, the new creation seems to arrive only after the birth pangs cause us so much pain that we want to turn back.
The Bible is filled with stories where we have turned back. Sometimes the stories show us how we turned back in faithfulness to God.
But other stories offer a counter word. In turning back, or in standing firm, we actually turned away from the God who beckoned us beyond what we believed faithfulness required.
Like those who wanted to go back to Egypt, or who jumped on a ship headed away from God’s call, or who kept insisting that God’s embrace would never be wide enough to hold the Gentiles, there are those moments that come when the church simply has to figure out whether faithfulness requires turning back or standing firm, or whether it requires moving toward something we’ve never considered before, and perhaps don’t want to consider at all.
The church finds itself facing several such moments now, from immigration to marriage to the death penalty to mental illness to the growing discrepancy between the rich and the poor. What will faithfulness require of us in these conversations? Will it require us to turn back to some prior understanding? Or to stand firm to what we believe now? Or will faithfulness require us to see some new thing that God is doing?
I think that’s why everything looks so murky these days. I’ve come to believe that we’re right in the middle of a story like the one Mark tells in his gospel (Mark 8:22-26).
Do you remember that day when some folks brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to offer a healing touch? Jesus took him by the hand and led him outside the city, and then he spit in the man’s eyes and touched him. And then Jesus asked him, “Do you see anything?”
And we’re prepared to hear that Jesus’ touch has fixed everything. Only that’s not what we get: “I do. I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”
For some reason, the healing that day took more time. Mark tells us that Jesus touched the man’s eyes a second time. And when he looked again, he saw everything clearly. In other words, the healing was complete when he saw people who looked like people, and not trees.
Every one of the struggle moments the church has faced before has followed a similar path. The church moved from one understanding to a place of murkiness where new understandings were tested by the church. And then, sometimes centuries later, those new understandings, once thought impossible, became the new norm for faithfulness. And it happened not because the faith was rejected, but because the church believed it finally saw clearly what Jesus was calling us to see.
I think we are in that murky middle again. And I believe Jesus will touch us again. And when he does, we may find ourselves seeing something more clearly than we ever imagined. And it might just make us wonder, What happened?
Even so, Lord, touch soon.