DENVER (Outlook) God with us in the chaos. That’s the theme of the 2017 Association of Presbyterian Church Educators annual event being held Jan. 25-28 in Denver. Over 600 participants – primarily pastors, Christian educators and children’s ministry directors – are attending the event, which is drawing from Psalm 46 and reminding participants to “be still and know that God is God.”
Opening worship reminds conferencegoers: “Do not be afraid”
Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor of House for all Sinners and Saints in Denver and author of “Accidental Saints,” preached opening worship on Psalm 46 and Matthew 14, the story of Jesus walking on water to meet Peter. Bolz-Weber said that many Christians believe that facing difficulty is a sign that they are not spiritual enough. “When we assume that chaos is the opposite of spiritual,” she asked, do we assume that God is not present in the boat when we face the storm? She explained: Peter’s lack of faith was not his inability to walk on water; it was not recognizing that God was already present in the chaos. “Sometimes God’s presence is the help and the trouble,” she said, but “we expect it to be in the calm.” She concluded her sermon with this reminder: Jesus is in the storm saying, “It is I. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.”
Plenary session considers: Where is the church’s success?
Bolz-Weber used the first plenary session of the conference to question how the church measures success. Using Luke 12 (“Consider the ravens…”), she said that church buildings and signs of worldly success may “be signs of a kingdom … but not the kingdom.” She noted that the church is often afraid for things to die, “but that’s where new life comes from.” She offered the example of the ELCA Rocky Mountain Synod in Denver choosing to move from a building downtown (with annual rent around $100,000) to a neighborhood on the fringe of the city where most residents speak Spanish. Some said that was evidence that the church was dying, she remembered, but instead, she found it to be a sign that the church is living. “To be religious is to be human in the midst of other humans who are as messed up as ourselves,” she said, adding that the church’s bold identity cannot by driven by corporate measures of success.
She offered several statements of encouragement to address the fear some have of a dying church: “Long after we’ve gone, the Word will remain” and “People of God, do not worry because we have this Word” and “God chose to enter the finitude we fear.” She recalled hiking in Cappadocia, Turkey, several years ago among ruins where Christians had once lived. “We are not the first Christians to worry about the decline” of the church, she said, adding, “Worry not church. The tomb is empty and God will be praised.”
During a question-and-answer session with participants, co-moderator Denise Anderson asked what truths need to be told right now. Bolz-Weber answered that she does not find her calling to be prophetic, but rather pastoral. Because of that, she said she believes it is important to speak to the pastoral needs of the people in her care.
Another participant noted that this is the week of prayer for Christian unity and asked what Lutherans might offer Presbyterians. “I try to have a lush ecclesiology. … I am not a post-denominational girl right now,” Bolz-Weber responded. She noted that denominations have been caretakers of important traditions – for example, “Anabaptists have caretaken a peace tradition on behalf of the whole body” (and she allowed that Presbyterians have mastered meetings). “The absolute center of all Lutheran theology is grace … . The thing that Lutherans focus on completely is … grace as the center point.”
Perhaps that point was demonstrated when a baby cried during her talk and Bolz-Weber paused to remark, “There is no more pleasing sound to God than a baby in church.”