By Molly Vetter, First United Methodist Church in San Diego, Justice and Outreach
California – Pacific Annual Conference
As I stood at the communion table, repeating the words I use most every Wednesday afternoon at our Vespers worship, one line jumped out at me, as if in full, living color, declaring that Jesus Christ “delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant by water and the spirit.” I’d heard it and spoken it so many times—but that day, it was as if I were uncovering something precious and dangerous that had been buried for centuries.
Too often, I feel bound by the exhausting and debilitating expectation that I, as a young clergy leader, will save the church. That day, our liturgy declared something else: that Christ’s power is unafraid of death. I have to assume that includes institutional death.
I ought to clarify that I trust in the power of God, whose success does not depend on any one of us; I am confident that the Holy Spirit will find a way of working to empower and continue the work of the church (broadly understood), no matter what. Just this morning in worship, we read from Esther—Mordecai spoke of the power of God to work in every time and age when he claimed with confidence that, whether or not Esther acted to save her people, “relief and deliverance” would come from somewhere (Esther 4:14 NRSV).
Recently, a friend asked me to help with a sewing challenge: she was given a tattered, faded family quilt. She asked if I might be able to dye it a brighter color, and cut and sew it into something new and fresh, something to help decorate or equip the nursery for the twins she was expecting. Having been raised by a librarian-archivist, this all sounded a bit radical to me; preserving it carefully in the closet seemed more responsible. Her arguments, though, won out: as it was, she sure wasn’t going to use it anywhere. Taking a deep breath, I let my scissors cut the quilt in two. I turned one half a deep turquoise, and the other a vivid orange. Then I made curtains out of it all.
It was scary for me to tear into a family heirloom—especially a fragile one. Careful preservation seemed more responsible. But responsible to what? “Preservation” would have rendered the quilt useless for the purposes for which it was originally, painstakingly created: covering, comforting, warming, delighting. There are dangers in deconstructing old things, but there’s also possibility.
More often, I’m eager to see possibility in old, apparently irrelevant things. In my house, there’s a constant struggle between my delight in accumulating worn, “thrifted” things that have potential, and my husband’s desire for a clutter-free home. (Recently, he added a loft to the garage to help mitigate this tension.) I have a special ability to see possibility where other people see trash, and to believe that I am the person who can redeem discards from the junk pile and refashion them into beautiful, useful things. Not merely recycling, but “upcycling”—making old things into something better.
I suppose it’s an occupational hazard—like the temptation to be a “fixer” in human relationships. In my creative hobbies, too, I want to convert, transform, redeem. I suspect I also quite like that in crafts making, unlike church leadership, the whole change is almost completely in my control.
There are days when I’m pretty sure my church work would benefit from the same wholesale, evaluative, possibility-seeking gaze I use when scouring the thrift store for craftsy potential. Having loved and been loved by the church my whole life, I sometimes fail to see how strange it looks from the outside. I forget how bizarre our habits—the ones I treasure as well as the ones that make me wince—look in contemporary San Diego: the way we bring all generations together to work and worship, side by side (a treasure). Our expectations of how people ought to dress (which makes me wince). Our code words and liturgies and committees. We look strange to the culture around us, and to people who’ve made assumptions about our culture, so much so that it’s easier to ignore us than try to make sense of us. Just today, at lunch, a young woman in my congregation told about having been at a school-related conference recently, where her roommate from Texas had remarked that she “didn’t know there were church people in California!”
I do know, though, that I’m often hesitant to tell people that I’m a pastor when I’m out in the community. Among my peers, this disclosure tends to stifle conversation, imposing a multitude of assumptions on our interaction, and just generally makes things awkward. It’s hard to imagine how different things were in other times and places, but I have to believe that it’s not always been the case that admitting to being a pastor was a social liability; contemporary surveys show a declining trust in the clergy, internationally.* There was a day when introducing yourself as a pastor gave you instant credibility. Now it’s a set of stigmas and assumptions—about the church as well as church leaders—to overcome. Additionally, as a young clergywoman, my status is often enough of an oddity to render new acquaintances silent.
On good days, all these things are the kind of vitalizing challenges that make sure I’m a pastor for all the right reasons, and that hold me accountable to the kind of faithful living that I hope Jesus would be proud of. It is seldom possible for me to ride the coattails of a triumphalist national brand of Christianity that assumes it’s in control culturally. Increasingly, I have to rely on the authority of the Gospel and the authenticity with which I live out my call to earn the attention and respect of the community. On bad days, this feels like an oppressive frustration; ideally, it’s a reminder that I’m called to a countercultural way of living that demonstrates the values of God’s kingdom, rather than the consumerist, individualist, domineering values our USAmerican culture tends to reward.
Being church in this time and place, in a way that demonstrates the life-giving, transformative power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, requires some careful thinking. As global cultures shift and the worldviews of so many are changing daily, continuing to do things the way we’ve been doing them, increasingly, isn’t cutting it. Preaching the Gospel amid new technologies, greater global interconnection, and our increasing proximity to people who represent tremendous diversity requires some rethinking. It demands that we look at the old ways we’ve done things, see what still conveys that vital Gospel power, and then determine what we need to let go of because it’s getting in our way.
All of which brings me back to my love of upcycling.
(A caveat: I’m a bit uncomfortable with the triumphalist assumption conveyed by the word upcycling, as if I imagine myself to have the wondrous ability to improve on everything. There are implications in the idea of upcycling that I ought to unpack a bit. First, in upcycling, the initial product is not totally destroyed. A glass bottle is not smashed to small pieces to be melted and remade, as happens in conventional recycling—instead, it might be cut and sanded to become a drinking glass in the same basic shape as the original. An upcycled product is not necessarily better than the original, but it does at least maintain value—or, even better, improve its usefulness or beauty. A used 8-track turned into an ironic iPhone case isn’t necessarily better—the original played music, and the new version just holds things—but it’s certainly more useful to more people in 2011.)
I wonder if the church couldn’t use a bit of upcycling in our lived ecclesiology. A little examination of our structures and habits to see if they’re still doing what they did when we started doing it that way. My sense is that we’ve been hanging on to something we hope to preserve—much like that heirloom quilt that no one was enjoying in the closet—all the while missing the fact that our preservation attempts have unknowingly made it ineffective at any of the stuff we first loved about it. We forget that what we loved about the quilt was how it had transformed cast-off scraps of fabric into something truly lovely that warmed us and conveyed a sense of deep caring in its handmade stitches. We turned it into a useless object of abstract value, never to be touched or enjoyed.
The transforming power of Christ’s grace is certainly meant to be touched—theology is most potent when it’s down in the mix with the messes of life. When it’s trying to make sense of how Jesus would have loved the Muslim family next door, the suicidal gay youth in my congregation, or the homeless addict who asked for cash in the Target parking lot. When it’s trying to reconcile the images of oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico and the endless stream of cars on our local freeways. When it’s trying to understand how prevenient grace and the new border fence are related. The questions and challenges of faithfulness to Christ’s Gospel today are begging for a robust, thoughtful engagement by the church.
My fear, as someone hopeful that the ten years she’s spent in full-time ministry will be just, perhaps, the first fourth of a long career, is that we’re too easily convinced that we need to save the church—drawn in by responsibility, guilt, or the tempting belief that each of us is the right person to turn things around—and that we’re missing out on the real good news: Jesus saves. And his salvation is transforming us and the whole world. It’s wonderfully good news that he’s freeing us from slavery to sin and death, and freeing us for the work of living into the Kingdom’s reign of shalom.
I’m encouraged by the relatively recent work of others in the emergent church movement and elsewhere who are pushing us to claim our call as a missional church. In our congregations, I suspect a decent way to do this is to ask big questions. Not just the easier questions—like how many people came—but questions like, where have we seen signs of grace or embodied hope or transformative love in our ministries? Simply maintaining our present (and longed-for past) structures are insufficient for the constantly demanding work of the Gospel today.
My hope is that I’ll have eyes to see similarly beautiful possibility in our church structures to that which I see at the thrift store. And that I’ll be faithful and wise enough to know how to reclaim the more important qualities and structures so that I can be a part of a vital church that will serve generations to come, giving form to the power of rebirth that is possible through Christ. I suspect this same kind of upcycling has been happening since Pentecost, as generations of church leaders have sought to respond to the timeless saving grace of Christ in a way that embodies its ongoing work in allowing us to be reborn, incarnate in every age.
* From an International GfK survey of trust in a variety of professions. See “GfK Trust Index 2010: Police Officers Appreciably More Popular,” http://www.gfknop.com/pressinfo/releases/singlearticles/006025/index.en.html, June 9, 2010.