I was working at the kitchen table this morning, planning
the Blue Christmas Service, when on the muted TV an image caught my eye. Three
SUVs stood in the midst of the worship space in a Detroit church. I turned on
the sound and listened to an interview with the pastor, Bishop Charles H. Ellis, III. He
explained that the church frequently uses dramatic presentations to illustrate
the message of the day, in this case a sermon called “A Hybrid Hope.”While photographs might give the impression of a group of people worshiping the very cars killing American car manufacturing, those big vehicles in the midst of the enormous sanctuary were all hybrids.
And it occurs to me that Christians living in America are hybrids, too, raised in a strange marriage of the civic and the sacred. And despite our intention to prevent the state from running the church, churches do have something to say to the state. Clergy of all faiths in Detroit came together: Christians of various stripes, Jews, Muslims, convened by the Catholic Cardinal. Ellis explained that the clergy would fast and pray until some word came from Washington about the bailout.
"Pray without ceasing," wrote Paul to the Thessalonians in the letter that is our earliest piece of the New Testament, the very first distinctive instructions for living in a brand-new faith. "Pray without ceasing," but could he have imagined praying to sustain the economy, to keep the jobs, to bail out the corporations? Paul lived in a world he expected would be transformed, soon, into God's own kingdom. His writing continues to influence our thinking and makes some of us feel we should pray to be prepared for some future world rather than to live in this one.
But the religious leaders in Detroit, the fellows clever enough to get three SUVs onto the platform and caring enough to anoint with oil the auto workers and the retirees in the congregation, understand we need to live right here until such time as Jesus rides in on the milk-white horse or descends on the clouds and sets things the heck right, flaming eyes and sword tongue.
"Pray without ceasing."
It's not worshiping the cars to care about what happens to families when the parents lose their jobs, what happens to small businesses when the usual customers can't afford to shop, what happens to retired people when their health insurance disappears in a cloud of crashing corporate mismanagement and failure.
I don't come from a tradition where people anoint each other with oil, but I understand the desire to touch another person in a ritual fashion, to say, "you are beloved by God, whatever happens, and if at all possible, let this crisis pass and a time of safety and peace come to replace it."
We talked a lot in seminary about how to make our language more inclusive without losing the relational nature of the names for God, the father-and-son dynamic that leads to the King and Prince talk that gets us a Kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven. Someone said, really, it's a Commonwealth of Love.
Yes. I like that. A Commonwealth of Love would be the way, the place, the time when we would not see some with more than enough and some with nothing at all. I don't know how it would really look. It's almost easier for me to imagine Star Trek's lovely future than to calculate a way of getting from where we are to a time of peace and generosity the world over. A Commonwealth of Love, would that be a place where everyone rode a bicycle and ate local produce? Or would it be the place where oil went on forever and we had an SUV in every garage?
Which of those is the fantasy? It's the other that may be come reality. I fear it won't without some major resistance from the hold-out fantasists and even from people like me, who have gotten used to living a certain way and driving a certain–ahem–Volvo wagon. But we're going there, to the world where Ms. Green meets Mr. Frugal, and the only question remaining is whether we're going there together peacefully.
I hope we will. It's possible, just possible, that might be the Commonwealth of Love, the time and place and way of being that requires consideration for others and attachment to the idea that there's more to us than what we see this minute, that our actions have consequences and our existence has meaning, and we're utterly, dangerously free to believe it, or not.
I don't know what's coming; I'm pretty sure getting there will be painful. Paul's instruction still seems to apply, and so we pray, without ceasing.