In for the long haul

I was fortunate to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Switzerland, visiting a dear friend who, sadly, has had her cancer return with a vengeance. A pastor in Zurich, Denise and I met years ago at a Reformed theology conference sponsored by the Office of Theology and Worship. Later her daughter became our exchange student here in the States, and a big sister to our only child. Our families have stayed close.

This time our visit took place near Denise’s native village in the Swiss mountains. When I say “native,” I mean that her family has lived there for around 500 years. She will have an apartment in their ancestral house someday, after her aunt and uncle die — if she lives long enough. It is simply the way things are, she says.

She shared with me her struggle with her illness, as well as her strong relationship with God. She does not blame God, she said; nor does she exactly look to God for a miracle healing or even comfort. It is more that God is an old and reliable presence, somehow trustworthy regardless of temporal difficulties. Denise has the gift of seeing the long view.

One night while we were in the Alps, we went to a birthday party for a young friend of Denise’s family. The apartment was packed with well-wishers, most of them fellow natives of the region. At one point, Denise leaned over and quietly interpreted our Swiss-German dinner companions’ conversation: “They are talking earnestly about the Mayan calendar — and its prediction of the end of the world.” Then she added, in a mixture of ruefulness and resignation, “But they don’t believe in God.”

The Swiss churches, ancient as they are, have 10 or so worshipers any given Sunday. Many pastors like Denise are ambivalent about American evangelism efforts in Europe. They recognize that their beloved church will die without it; and yet they are also concerned about the theology that might be imported. They sincerely believe in and cherish the Reformed understanding of grace, and worry that Arminianism will infiltrate and take hold.

Sometimes, as we here in the PC(USA) wrestle with our denomination’s fate, I suspect that we are waging war against the future. We are terrified that our beloved church is on an inevitable track toward the Swiss church’s current reality. And maybe we are. With few regional exceptions — pockets of the Midwest and much of the South — American culture is on a fast trajectory towards secularism. What was once common knowledge — Bible stories, Christian hymns, holiday traditions — is no longer background noise familiar to all. Even in my traditional, WASPy Midwestern suburb, it is assumed that soccer games will be held on Sunday morning. Nobody blinks.

And maybe that’s not all bad. When practices of faith were handed to us on a silver platter, we were prone to going through the motions. The rituals of mid-20th century American mainline Protestantism were perhaps not completely far off from the automatic Catholicism of the pre-Reformation period, even if devoid of mortal fear. It is not to say they were empty practices; only that they were not embraced as counter-cultural. Now, in most places, American Christians have to choose to practice our faith.

Must the choice be bipolar? Must it be a decision between either post-modern secularism or Arminian evangelicalism? Like Denise, I like to think there is another option. That the winsome power of radical grace is not just a viable alternative, but a life-giving path. That the historic wisdom of quizzical, thoughtful faith is not just possible, but crucial in our post-modern era. That the difficult work of democratic discernment, in spite of our fallible nature, is a model of hope and gift of governance for our broken world.


CHRISTINE CHAKOIAN is pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, Ill.