Wisdom from Galatians for the Anxious Church
A large part of that, of course, is that the church is in the world, and the world in which we live is anxious – anxious about power and who will have it, anxious about identity and how we deal with difference, and anxious about how exactly we are going to live into a future that we can’t predict.
One of the most important parts of God Unbound, Elaine Heath’s new book, is that she doesn’t hide from that anxiety. It is right there in the title, and one of the book’s gifts is naming the anxiety and then setting out to help us think through how we can faithfully live in the midst of it.
The particularity of the church’s anxiety often centers on institutional survival. A generation ago we built buildings and created organizations and made assumptions out of strength and confidence. But the world has changed – and those assumptions and those buildings and those structures that once seemed to serve us so well now look more like obstacles than pathways to faithfulness.
Of course, we aren’t the first generation trying to find our way in the midst of changing times. In rereading Galatians, Heath discovered in Scripture wisdom and guidance for rediscovering tradition, for learning how to catch the vision of God’s Spirit and for participating in spiritual practices that help us trust that God is at work especially when that work makes us uncomfortable.
The first step to healing, Heath argues, is to admit the problem. And one of our most significant problems is that for too long we have been focusing on the wrong kind of tradition. The tradition we need isn’t a particular style of worship or a certain way of organizing ourselves. Instead, the the tradition behind the tradition we need is the conviction and experience that God isn’t bound by the same assumptions and ways of being that we are.
As she writes, “To take up our apostolic vocation today we have to come to terms with this reality: the God we love, the God revealed in Christ, is much bigger than we knew. God has never been bound by our theology or our traditions. It is now time for us to see the unbound God”.
Regardless of the logo outside the building where your church gathers you know some of the challenges the church faces. The way through these challenges isn’t anything new, Heath writes, but is found in the purpose the church was created for in the first place – to help people connect with the God who is about connecting with us.
In short, the church doesn’t need a complicated program. What the church needs is to focus on finding its way back to God. The church’s way of stability in a shifting landscape is found in contemplative practices that lead us into a deeper and more faithful relationship with God. What the church needs more than anything else, Heath writes, are contemplative leaders who are connected to God and who can lead their communities into rhythms of contemplative practice.
We find our way, she writes, by teaching one another how to pray. We learn again how to prayerfully read Scripture through the practice of Lectio Divina. We identify and confess our sins and idolatries through analysis and confession found in the Examen. These practices form the way of life that will lead us not to hustle and hurry towards a path of survival, but instead will enable us to recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit towards a more faithful and abundant life with God.
In the end, when it comes to moving through the changing landscape, Heath writes that what the church needs more than a program or a strategy to achieve predetermined outcomes is a commitment to explore and experience again the power of God. The way forward is found in connecting with and being faithful to the God we gather together to worship in the first place.
As she writes near the end of the book, “Whatever the emerging expression of church happens to be, the only aspect that counts in the long run is faith working through love”.