seek the welfare of the city...

Should those of us in the once main street expressions of American Christianity, who now own our disestablishment from the centers of power and influence, ever grow discouraged or weary: take heart. Our diminished status not only liberates us from serving the status quo, but also grants us the space to embrace others on the periphery - and join them in lives of authentic solidarity. Not in a self-congratulatory way, however, as has been our habit; but as quiet, tender and humble partners seeking the welfare of the city and the restoration of compassion to the core of human community.

The exilic prophet of ancient Israel, Jeremiah, urged those who had been forced to exist on the fringe of Babylon during the 6th century BCE, to "seek the welfare" of their new habitation. After a generation of grief, where the best and the brightest of Jerusalem were condemned to weep in shock by the River Cebar and the waters of Babylon, a new calling was offered:  seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its well-being you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 27: 7)  Earlier this week, I read a Facebook posting from writer, Diana Bass, who put it like this:

Between us as friends, I'm kind of sad that the TIME magazine religion reporter is tweeting out all the nice things that evangelical pastors and RC church leaders are saying about the LGBT community and not a single word about the mainline and liberal churches and synagogues who have risked and worked and witnessed for two generations for full inclusion of LGBT people, their calls to ministry, and the affirmations of their families and loves. Don't get me wrong -- I'm pleased that Rick Warren can say something kind today and every bit of kindness helps. But it is hurtful that the Christians and Jews who have been kind and compassionate and passionate and welcoming and willing to learn and listen to the LGBT community for so long are not heard or seen for that courage and solidarity and witness. Indeed, entire denominations were put on the line in order that God's love would overcome hate like that of today. And our churches, communities, clergy are heartsick today over this violence -- and the brokenness of a world that fails to see LGBT people as fully in God's image and grace. On the potential flip side, maybe it isn't "news" when mainline Protestants preach on love, only when evangelicals do??? That's even sadder.

My experience in the once mainline but now sideline camp of American Christianity is this:

+ In the 50s and 60s, clergy and laity who had experienced the intense fear and apocalyptic reality of WW II, returned to a bland USA and started a quest for meaning, depth, hope and social commitment in our churches.  You can see it in the art and music of that generation. You can point to it in the unity of the early Civil Rights movement. It became palpable during the drive to end the Vietnam War. It brought to birth a new wave of priests and nuns who were set free to be engaged with the world after Vatican II. And  it was synthesized theologically in Harvey Cox's The Feast of Fools. This was to become an era of renewal through play and paradox, action and contemplation, sensuality and spirituality. That it wasn't fully realized does not diminish the energy set in motion by this movement.

+ As the 70s and 80s ripened, the hopes of this effort were only partially realized as many in our mainstream congregations fled in fear and confusion.  Some ran into the arms of evangelical churches that were long on loving fellowship and community and short of social engagement. Others decided to opt out entirely and nurture the spirit within through Eastern meditation and/or retreat centers. And still more simply just stayed home on Sunday mornings and enjoyed a break from the grind of earning a living.

+ By the 90s, when "big box" churches were all the rage with their gourmet Christian baristas and seeker-friendly rock show productions, the once liberal mainstream began to rethink their strategies. Some mimicked the mega-churches albeit on a smaller scale. Others folded or merged as numbers continued to dwindle. And a remnant decided to "seek the welfare of the city" through a renewal of prayer and acts of social justice with the poor, broken and socially marginalized. As conservative Christianity became the social norm in popular culture, our side-line congregations worked under the radar of the media: Open and Affirming movements came into their own, the seeds of missional and emerging congregations were planted, and new eco-peace coalitions began to take root, too.
What I am trying to point out is this:  just below the surface, these "seek ye the welfare of the city" churches have acted as a leaven within the whole of American Christianity. It could very well be said that our work in the vanguard of Christian/LGBTQ solidarity prepared the soil theologically and practically for more conservative churches to move towards compassion rather than rigid judgment. And that is where I trust our brand of Christianity must continue to toil, but only with humility. Too often I have heard some in our camp brag about being light years ahead of this or that group. That arrogance is poison. Rather, let us continue to sacrificially seek the welfare of those who have no allies in our realm - without bravado or even commentary - for such is the life of those who follow the man for others.

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