Near the time of sunset Saturday, a horizon-wide quilt of small, cotton puff clouds happened to be spreading from the west towards us when the sun’s last rays painted the clouds a rich pink, sending a beautiful symbol of the transforming power of the sun for all to see. The color receded as the earth continued its turning away from the sun, so the clouds turned purple. It also being the time of departure, these shadow-colored clouds were no longer inspiring enough to keep our attention.
Sometimes the Greek word kairos is used by New Testament writers to describe a special time that’s a collaboration of or the collision of various actors that make something special possible. Like the way in which the formation of certain kind of clouds at a certain hour makes a beautiful sunset possible. Sometimes the New Testament writers affirm that God is one of those actors, who, upon discerning a favorable moment in time, acts decisively in those times to make something possible that God had longed to make happen.
Some Christians believe God was at work in “the Reformation,” that the Reformation was a special kairos. The “pre-Reformation” Christians were inspired by the teachings of Jan Hus and formed an independent Protestant Kingdom in Bohemia for a time. But war and persecution scattered these people, some of whom are today known as the Moravian Church. Many of Luther’s ideas were similar to Hus’s ideas, but lots of other factors made the impact of Luther’s Reformation more influential over the centuries. And Luther’s Reformation was only one of the movements that tore Roman Catholic unity to shreds. John Calvin, King Henry the VIII, Menno Simons, Ulrich Zwingli and others all led movements of Christians out of the Roman Catholic Church all in about the same time period. If “the Reformation” was a special kairos, it was not an unambiguously beautiful one like a sunset. There was the recovery of a clearer sense of the Gospel of Jesus, but also an explosion that has become the church of thousands of relatively disconnected denominations today.
Now some Christians think even the beautiful Reformation sunset is over. Many churches that are direct descendants of the Reformations of the 1500’s are, after all, shrinking radically … particularly in Europe and North America. Christian gadfly John Shelby Spong even recently wrote a book to offer an explanation as to “why neither ancient creeds nor the Reformation can produce a living faith today.” Spong, of course, offers us a creed for the next reformation for “the church.” For 20 bucks.
Still it’s not a bad idea to read Spong’s book. Because there are a lot of ways in which the Reformation sun has set. The Gospel of Luther’s Reformation brought healing to short-lived people whose “consciences were terrified” by purgatory and hell. Most 21st century Europeans and North Americans don’t live in that world anymore.
And we don’t live in a world in which we think that “worshipping” a God together as God’s family holds much value. Many churches have, of course, tried to make “worshipping” more exciting, but the focus of that is off. Worship isn’t for the purpose of exciting us. Worship is a way of expressing our (not my) love for God. Worship isn’t for us; it’s for God. But we live in a world in which we’re all so harried by all kinds of things that we are constantly judging the precious little free time we have to spend, “Is there anything in this activity, this choice, for me? What do I get?” Worshiping God is in and of itself an act of sacrificing what we would really rather be doing for God. It’s a gift we offer to God.
One of the few positive things I hear that people do get from churches are ways to make a difference for good in the world. Churches form and staff food pantries, homeless shelters, affordable housing programs, job training programs, etc.. But there are ways to make a difference in the world that are not run by churches. And as important as it is, making a difference in the world mostly helps us feel good about ourselves and our ability to make a difference in the world. Doing good doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with God at all. Even in Jesus’ famous Judgment Day story, the Sheep are surprised that the good they’ve done was done for God.
So in a world in which “the church” is quite preoccupied with offering things to do to make us feel good about ourselves, how do we change the focus? How do we get people to feel good about God? Or to put it back in terms of the sunset story we started with: how is the transforming power of the Son shining on the clouds gathering today? What kind of beauty is God making in our world today? How are we one of those clouds who are “sending a beautiful symbol of the transforming power of the Son for all to see?” How do our answers to these questions change what we as a church spend our time and money on? These are some of the questions for our kairos.