The Future May Not Look Like the Past

On our journey to Jerusalem and Rome, we were seeing people and doing things so fast, I didn’t have an opportunity to process all of the experience, while it was happening. Only after returning home and reflecting do I begin to make connections I missed during the trip. As our group moved on to Rome we interviewed several people, who gave us a glimpse of the challenges facing people of faith as we move into the future.

Dr. Yann Raedalia is the Dean of the Waldensian Theological Seminary in Rome. The Waldensians are a small protestant group that has survived since the 1100’s in Italy. Today there are about 30,000 Waldensians in Europe and in Uruguay. In recent years in Italy the Waldensians have merged with the Methodists and that has brought into the church a large number of immigrants from Africa, and that development has raised both opportunity and challenge in the life of the Waldensian community.

For as Dr. Raedalia explained, “there is some tension, because the European Waldensians are fairly tied to traditional worship, silent in prayer and oriented toward more learned study, favoring the centrality of the sermon in worship, while many Africans have a Pentecostal background, worship is interactive with shouting and praise. They like to shout in prayer focusing on the direct and immediate experience of God.” Some of us might be able to identify with the discomfort of the European Waldensians.

Despite the tensions Dr. Raedalia says, “We are trying to be church together, (I like that phrase ‘church together’) rather than becoming separate ethnic enclaves, but becoming fully integrated will take more than one generation. Trying to be ‘church together’ will hopefully be a laboratory for finding our way into a new religious and cultural future.” At the same time the Waldensians are uncomfortable with the noise of the worship of the African immigrants, they need the energy represented by these relatively new Christians from Africa.

Dr. Raedalia also commented that the European Waldensians have largely failed to communicate their faith to the youngest generation because of increasing secularization in Europe. But even as young people leave the church, he said, “we see a new interest among these same young people in things spiritual, but they are interested in believing but not belonging.”

We walked six blocks from the Waldensian Seminary, to one of the Vatican office buildings just outside of St. Peter’s Square. And the very next person with whom we met was Archbishop Brian Ferrel, who is Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the department in the Vatican charged with the responsibility for communicating with other church bodies outside of the Roman Catholic Church. Archbishop Ferrel echoed many of the sentiments expressed by Dr. Raedalia. “Three of the most important issues in the church are the transmission of the faith to the younger generation, ecumenical spirituality, and the effect of migration on churches.”

“There is a real crisis,” Bishop Ferrel said, “because no one seems to be succeeding in the transmission of faith to this youngest generation.” Migration, transmission of the faith, and changing spirituality, themes we heard again and again on our journey.

The third person we met with on the last day of our visit in Rome was the American Ambassador to the Vatican Dr. Miguel Diaz. Dr. Diaz was a Roman Catholic theologian from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota before his appointment as ambassador. Ambassador Diaz was at great pains to assure us that as an Ambassador of the United States, he maintains the separation between church and state, however, he pointed out, “today it is impossible to deny the importance of religion in society in the world. We just cannot get around the impact of religion on the world stage.

When a Pastor burned a Quran in Florida Ambassadors from around the world especially from Muslim countries contacted me. I had to represent the United States. Diplomacy needs religion and religion needs diplomacy. We can begin to build networks of religious leaders, who can work together for the common good.”

On the subject of migration the Ambassador volunteered, “I have a lot on my plate as a result of migration due to conflict in the Mediterranean world. We need to be proactive rather than reactive to developments in the world.”

Ambassador Diaz did not directly address the issue of the transmission of the faith to the younger generation, but he made an interesting comment about secularization. “Pope Benedict is focused on European secularism. Don’t worry about secularization,” he commented. “From the perspective of Karl Rahner,” an important liberal Roman Catholic Theologian, “spirituality will come out in the end, because it is so central to the human experience. The internet is creating new religious communities. How is the experience of the divine in an internet age? We need to raise a whole new series of questions. Weekly participation in worship may no longer be the measure of being secular or religious.”

The ambassador’s comment brought me up short. As a preacher what do you mean weekly worship may no longer be the measure of being secular or religious? Can the world change that much without my permission?

And that brings me to our scripture this morning. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; if he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins.”

Old wineskins are inflexible and brittle, they cannot expand with the fermentation of the new wine. In the same way Jesus was saying to his listeners, old ways of thinking, old forms of religion may no longer be able to be able to contain the challenges of the future. The future may not look like the past. All things change. And whenever there is change, there is anxiety, fear and grief.

Something new is being born, and something old is passing away. Whenever something passes away there is loss, and all losses have to be mourned. Friends die. Businesses disappear. Ways of doing business change – just try calling somewhere and getting a real person on the other end of the line. The world changes without our permission, and we don’t always like it. So, sometimes we must mourn the passing of familiar and cherished things – video tape, 8 track tapes, vinyl records, record players, 78 rpm, 45 rpm, telephone booths, rotary phones. I had a friend in Monee, who owned a bike shop, and he kept an old rotary phone in the bike shop. One day a couple of kids came into the shop and asked to use his phone, and after a minute they came up to him and asked, “Mister, how do you use that phone?”

Change also means learning new things, and as we get older learning is harder. Every time they upgrade computers or computer software there is always something new to learn, and my learning curve is getting really steep. Sometimes I wonder how much longer I will be able to keep up. The future may not look like the past, and all of that change can help generate anxiety.

How many people here experience anxiety in relationship to change going on in your life? I especially struggle with changes due to getting older. The hill on Dell on our morning walk gets longer and steeper somehow. And I noticed someone was posting on Facebook about having trouble remembering people’s names at church. And I was reminded of a story.

Two older gentlemen were playing cards on a Saturday evening as they have done for the past 35 years. Max, the older, had been having problems remembering what cards were what, and usually needed help from his wife.

At the end of the card game Ed said to Max, “You did very good tonight. You didn’t need any help at all. Why is that?”

Max replied, “Why ever since my wife sent me to that memory school, I haven’t had any problems at all.”

“Memory school? What memory school?”

Max thought for a moment, “Oh, what’s that flower that’s red with thorns? A really pretty flower…?”

“A rose?”

“Yeah…that’s it!” Max turned to his wife and asked, “Hey, Rose! What’s the name of that memory school you sent me to?”

We all struggle with change and the anxiety occasioned by change, and believe it or not our struggle with change and anxiety is a faith issue. For you see nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not cell phones, or computers, or e-mail, or GPS, or Facebook, not memory loss, or arthritis, or failing health, not even death can separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

People of faith are intended to be a non-anxious presence in a world of change. We don’t have to be anxious, because we know through prayer that God is with us. And that is why I want to recommend the class Jim Norris will be teaching on contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer can help us learn how to be a non-anxious presence in our changing world. And Jim is such a wonderful example of a non-anxious presence. I am hoping some of us can learn from him, because we live in families, and communities full of anxiety, especially right now during hard economic times. Anxiety is contagious. There are stressors in our lives that are continually trying to ramp up the anxiety level of everyone around them. And we can witness to the power of the love of Christ, by serving as non-anxious presences, helping everyone around us to soak up the love, patience, trust and peace of God. The practice of contemplative prayer can help us reflect the peace of God to everyone around us, like Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

And I would add. Through prayer, faith and God’s grace, we can become a non-anxious presence in a world desperate for God’s peace.

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