Because God Loved Us First
This past Sunday I baptized a baby. It was a joyful event, all the more so because he had been born very, very early and we prayed our hearts out for his safety and health. At one point I even brought a little knitted Jesus magnet to put over his bed in the hospital so that the symbol of God’s love would hover over him. The joy of baptism could also not have come at a more welcome time, only a day after the terrorist attack on Israel, and Russia’s brutal bombing of another village in Ukraine.
I have no idea how to “save the church,” and I have no plans to write a “church of the future” book. What I do know is that God’s grace is made visible to us in baptism and in our faithful response to that grace.
So, there we were: the parents, the grandparents, the congregation, making our vows in response to God’s grace, promising to raise the little one and help the parents to raise him as a faithful Christian. There was a special poignancy to the baptismal prayer by theologian Thomas Torrance: “All of this God did for you, even though you did not know it yet, and so the words of Scripture are fulfilled: we love, because God loved us first.”
An Old-School Approach
I do not lead a large, affluent, visible, prophetic, or cutting-edge this or that ministry. I am not sure I have the talent, fortitude, or patience for that kind of approach. For the past twelve years I have been ministering to, and ministering with, a humble, loving, and modest Congregational church. We are old-style Reformed: the Word of God is preached (mostly in a Geneva gown and preaching bands), the sacraments are properly administered, and we reach out in love and gratitude to those around us. Calvin, Barth, William Placher, and “Big Bang Theory” show up in my sermons.
I have been a churchperson all my life, and have seen, especially in the last 15 years, various new models and visions of the “future church” come and go. The future has quickly become the past. Still, at least once a year I receive an email about a new book by a successful pastor who turned their church around, declaring I can too. Such confidence in my skills! It is not just the churches, of course: we have seen Facebook replaced by Twitter, then by Instagram, Snapchat, and now TikTok. In politics, words like “liberal” and “conservative” morph and intensify, secular gurus from four years ago are disgraced today, while once-urgent hashtags, slogans, and trends turn to dust.
Showing Up: It Still Matters
More and more, I am realizing that what the Christian church can offer to the world is not another sexy way to reinvent itself. Rather, what we can offer is the most difficult and yet seemingly the most vanilla virtue of all: faithfulness. God is faithful to us, and therefore in gratitude we make our imperfect response to both God and neighbor.
When sickness or personal circumstances overwhelm us, the church points to a God, who created us, chose us (predestined us, if you will) for Godself, and gives us grace and strength to respond in love yet another day. Not just theoretically, but practically we do this by bringing our children to baptism, by raising them in Sunday worship and prayer, by making other, more demanding vows later in life, and keeping them to the best of our abilities. We respond, making plain that faithful consistency is a virtue and a public good. Predestination by the God in Christ, is also a predestination to witness to this broken, confused, and dying world that vows matter, words matter, showing up matters—because in the end as in the beginning we have been cradled by the one true Word, the YES to us in Christ Jesus, our faithful Savior.
An Unglamorous Virtue
Fads—be they political, cultural, musical, even theological—rise and pass away. God’s faithfulness does not. And that is why we are called in churches to follow Christ by daily, faithful Christian living and worship. This is such an unglamorous virtue that we can be quite sure that no TV series will be made about it, no bestseller book written, no hashtag invented and shared on X. But when I see my church members visit their spouses of many years touched by disease and now in hospitals or nursing homes, when I see them hold hands and say, “I love you dear,” and both light up, I know I am privileged to be part of something bigger. When I observe my church members taking care of a good and faithful man who is alone with Alzheimer’s, I know that God is nearer to us than we imagine, and I “fear the Lord.” When I witness younger members vow to love one another in marriage and then bring their child up for baptism and promise to raise them up as Christian—I am humbled and floored by what we are all given to witness to and support. It prepares all of us for the prayers that I say on another occasion: “Thus says the Lord: I am the Resurrection and the Life” and then, “Remember your baptism, and look to Christ, who through death defeated death and gave life to those in the tombs!” The presence of God in quiet, imperfect, faithful living from birth and baptism to its completion on this earth. … And God’s sure and certain promise to be faithful to us beyond it.
I have no idea how to “save the church,” and I have no plans to write a “church of the future” book. What I do know is that God’s grace is made visible and given freely to us in baptism and in our faithful response to that gift. It is something only we, the Christian church, can offer. So, I will minister to the best of my abilities, praying and hoping the God in Christ Jesus will not let me screw it up too badly. I am happy to leave the future of the church to Him. He has promised to be with us to the end of ages and has thus far has so wonderfully and faithfully delivered. Grace and peace be with you, all Saints of God.
The Rev. Kazimierz Bem ’10 M.Div., ’11 S.T.M. has been pastor of First Church in Marlborough (Congregational) UCC, in Marlborough, MA., since 2011. He holds a Ph.D. from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with a focus on international refugee law. He is the author of Calvinism in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1548-1648: The Churches and the Faithful (Brill, 2020).