Wendell Berry beautifully writes in his classic work Jaber Crow; “The mercy of the world is time. Time does not stop for love, but it does not stop for death and grief, either. After death and grief that (it seems) ought to have stopped the world, the world goes on. More things happen. And some of the things that happen are good. My life was changing now. It had to change. I am not going to say it changed for the better. There was good in it as it was. But also there was good in it as it was going to be.”
There is wisdom to be gleaned from Berry’s words. A wisdom that once again jostled my mind as my wife and I traveled back to Oklahoma this past weekend to bear witness to our grandson Joan’s Christian dedication. This tradition in many Christian churches gives the parents an opportunity to pledge that they will raise their children in the Christian faith. It was a beautiful ceremony, that as Joan’s grandparents, we were thankful to behold. My daughter Erin and son-in-law Isaac are wonderful parents who are embarking on a journey that, speaking from experience, will be filled with much heartache but also with unparalleled joy.
The style, music, and ambiance of a church service is often a good gauge for determining just how old one is becoming. My children’s church Bright City is a new church in Oklahoma City that has been launched with a desire to reach a much younger audience than me. This was obvious as the service progressed. But what remained amid the songs with lyrics I didn’t know, and the dim lights which made it even more difficult for me to see all that was happening, was a profound sense of reimagined faith that was as relevant today as my reimaging of Christian worship was in my youth. In fact, attending church services these days, I can’t help but laugh when I think about the “innovations” that I experimented with as young youth pastor. I remember being severely chastised by church leaders for dimming the lights during service and introducing music that had rock’n’roll beats. This would have been the late 1980’s and early nineties. I even recall records (wax cylinders of recorded music) of mine were confiscated by my pastor because the overtly Christian lyrics were rapped instead of sung. Now much of what I was condemned for introducing to a church service, has become a mainstay of modern church services.
But even trailblazers can wax nostalgic, as one generation’s innovation becomes the next generation’s tradition. These were some of the thoughts that filled my mind, as my grandson wore oversized noise canceling headphones. Headphones much like I wore in my youth, with much too loud Christian rock music pulsating through them. Joan and I shared something in common last Sunday, and for very different reasons, but both connected to the use of headphones, neither one of us could hear all that well. Joan’s hearing was being preserved, while mine increasingly deteriorates.
Yet the ceremony was familiar, with a young family standing before the front of the congregation as the young pastor led us in prayer and blessing. The pastor charged the young parents to raise the child to “love the Lord” and to pursue the Christian faith. A charge that the parents agreed to by saying in unison “We will.” I reflected on my own words of naïve commitment in my youth. I contemplated how most of the energy of my youth was dedicated to obscure positions of certainty on the fringes of orthodoxy, that in retrospect, matter so very little. I was convinced that my allegiances to specific dogmas was my ticket to heaven, missing so much of what is grace I opted for rule keeping instead. Allegiances that alienated me from any real influence in the world, becoming an oddity instead of a light.
Thankfully what I did manage to pass on to my children, whether by accident or intention, and perhaps a bit of both was an allegiance to a certain authenticity that leaves open the possibility that we don’t have everything figured out. The commitment, my children made, at least as I heard it was a commitment to pursue faith and not a commitment to possess it. Because in the moment that any of us feel like we’ve arrived, we’ve only just begun.
This was made evident to all of us in attendance, when the pastor announced that he was taking a risk in the service and invited an elderly couple to the front of the small auditorium. The young pastor introduced all of us to Bruce and Carolyn and shared that Bruce was recently placed on palliative care and was facing his final days on earth. The pastor shared how Bruce had spend many long years in Christian service, and how his loving wife Carolyn had suggested this “Celebration of life” as the members of the local congregation pledged to walk with him as he took his final steps, even as we had pledged to support the babies who were taking their first steps in this life.
It was a beautiful moment, and a poignant reminder for all in attendance, but especially for this young congregation, that life on this plain of existence has both a beginning and an end. Even though in the Christian faith we share a hope of a resurrection to come, we can become so distracted by the importance of our celebratory moments of birth and growth that we forget others are having moments of sorrowful decline and death. Moments that we all collectively share, and in the context of a small group of witnesses last Sunday at Bright City, we all beheld together.
Indeed, a mercy in the world is time. Sometimes, in the briefest of moments you can see life and death up close and together. Beginnings and ends should both be celebrated because they remind us of just how fragile and how beautiful the life we’ve been given.