My sabbatical begins officially April 15, but I think it may have actually started more unofficially last night in the check out line of the grocery store. I was standing there with my daughter, we had just finished unloading the buggy when I noticed the Newsweek magazine cover pictured here.
I remembered linking to this article by Andrew Sullivan on my Facebook page a few days ago, but seeing this striking image on slick paper in the check out line seemed like a sabbatical moment. After all, part of what I am examining is how the church in the south should respond to its looming disestablishment. How much more looming can it get than standing in a Publix in Franklin, Tennessee reading “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus.” I picked up the magazine and put it on the conveyor belt alongside the broccoli.
Chandler saw it.
I replied, “An article I’m interested in reading for my sabbatical about the church.”
She picked it up and thumbed to the cover story. Meanwhile, the store clerk began scanning our items.
She read a moment, and then said, “This guy’s saying we should ignore you.”
“Well,” I said, a little concerned that the clerk had just heard her comment, “Not me personally.
“Maybe not you personally, but your people, you know, your kind.”
I think I saw the clerk smile at that one, so I ended the conversation. After we got outside, I told Chandler that she had just given me an idea for my first sabbatical blog. “Do you mind me writing about what just happened in there?”
“No, I don’t mind…But, Dad, how many people really read your blog?”
When I set out to write about what Douglas John Hall calls the “disestablishment” of the church, I didn’t realize I would have my first sabbatical encounter with it in the person of my own daughter. Don’t get me (or her) wrong. She loves the church. It is all she has ever known. It has nurtured her faith, showered her with grace, and opened her eyes to the wonders of God. I believe that she sees herself as a disciple of Jesus Christ and wants her life to mirror the love, peace, and joy of his risen life.
But she’s also a part of a culture that no longer views the church as all that special. She is able to access volumes of information more quickly than I could have dreamed at her age. Christianity and the church are merely one option among many, and I have no doubt she sees and hears regularly a variety of competing worldviews that challenge her faith. In some ways, she senses that her choice to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is just that – a choice – and one that will soon place her in the minority of her peers, if it hasn’t already.
In the article he wrote in Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan argues that the church, if it is to make it in a world where it is not in a position of power, will have to give up its infatuation with politics of both the right and the left and embrace once again the teachings of Jesus. As he puts it, “Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, and embrace him.” It seems a fairly simple argument. It is certainly not new. I don’t agree with everything he writes; in fact, I think he has engaged in some sensationalism and over-simplification himself.
But the era in which we live does seem to call for a fresh look at what it might mean to be a faithful church in a time when major newsmagazines can boast a cover during Holy Week that says, “Forget the Church.”
I’m excited to be given the gift of time to explore these questions. Chandler’s gift to me was one she offers with some regularity – honesty. I pray I will discover words to say and ideas to share with her and with the church in the days to come that will honor that honesty.
In the meantime I can still send her to her room…