Thesis 10: Go Gently

This post is part of a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in the series here.
10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.
For some reason, this thesis struck me as an interesting metaphor for the interaction between United Methodist districts or annual conferences and local churches.

Attendance decline in local American UMC churches is a well-known and much-bloviated-about fact. Whole staff positions at annual conferences are dedicated to attempting to reverse this trend, typically taking the form of life support or hospice care for churches in the twilight of life.

Carrying this metaphor out further, we are ignorant ("Ignoramus" literally means "we do not know.") to think that our leaders are acting out of a good moral place by exchanging these local churches' bad decisions for penances, allowing them to continue in purgatory.

I'm realizing as I type this that it sounds really harsh. By no means am I implying that it is easy for a church to go under. Lives are impacted in real ways that create deep hurt. This should not be glossed over or understated.

It is exactly because of the weight of these decisions that we need to find better ways of being merciful and Christ-like about the way we ask churches to "repent," to "change their minds." Holding onto past, false notions of better days leads to go-nowhere conversations. Our God is one of resurrection, of new life, not one of we've-always-done-it-this-way.

Luther seems to be saying that instead of being merciful to the dying in ways that create life and honor death, priests are providing wishy washy non-answers to people looking for absolution, and making them pay for that absolution.

When we require that churches, despite all evidence pointing to inevitable death, undergo revamping initiatives or renovative actions, are we not making them pay for their past actions? Are these not our own new canonical penances for being an "irrelevant" church in the UMC? Are we not asking these older, dying local churches to trod around Mount Purgatory for a few years in some absurdist, Sisyphean act?

Let's get them into heaven, and quickly. Getting into heaven now equals death now. It also equals life now.

How do we faithfully hold that paradox with our declining local churches?


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