I have recently become acquainted with the music of Jason Isbell. He used to be in the group, “Drive-By Truckers”, and his music is called Americana – it is a mixture of country, folk, southern rock – and he is really good. I would describe him as his generation’s John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen. He writes about God, politics, social issues, and addiction, among other things.
His recent album, “The Nashville Sound”, starts with a beautiful acoustic song called Last of My Kind. The song speaks to me -it addresses the scourge of homelessness, the change in the world, the loss of family connections, and so much more. He is a fish out of water. I think most of us have felt this way at some point – the world just seems to be crazy, and we wonder if we are the only sane people left.
Anyone who has served in the Mainline church at any point in the last 35 years has probably heard stories about when the pews were full and life was great. “We had to put seats in the aisles!” we are told – the Christian religion was king and life was good. It was the Golden Age of America – when America was truly great. But was it? Do we really want to go back to the 1950’s, when most women were servants of men and African Americans were segregated? Do we really want to go back to a time when many churches were private clubs and only white men held power in politics? I don’t, and I doubt many of us – unless you are a White Supremacist – do.
What if now is the Golden Age of the Church? We see so much of what used to be considered normal fading away. We see male domination and racism and sexual abuse being called out for what they are. We see the people attending worship for who they are – faithful, flawed, and searching. The Church in Europe and America had it so easy for so long that we have forgotten that being a Christian was never supposed to be easy. We are supposed to challenge our political leaders when they do something wrong. We are supposed to challenge each other and ourselves when we aren’t living up to the teachings of Jesus. We are supposed to point out that parts of Scripture are just plain wrong (like the approval of slavery and the denigration of women, just to name two) and should be taught that way. For too long, voices of dissent were forced to be silent, and challenges to do the right thing voted down. No more.
And one more thing – the Church is supposed to be a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints. If we can tell that story, then maybe people who feel lost or broken – the ones who are fish out of water – will find their way to us again. Jesus clearly went out of his way to help them, but the Church turned it around so that those who felt out of place were kept out. We focused so much on being right with God (or at least seeming that way) before you came to the community that we lost the central teaching of acceptance and affirmation. Jesus began His ministry looking for the lost children of Israel. We need to do the same – those who are lost, persecuted, ill, awkward, or feeling unworthy – the Church is your place. See you there…
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary UCC in Reading, PA since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), an MDiv from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a DMin in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH), and a PhD in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).