Ireland is dotted with the 'skeletons' of buildings and church structures from centuries ago. There was not an abundance of grand cathedrals (like in England) which overwhelmed you in their beauty and majesty. There were however, churches which were very old and, in many cases, monastic in their origin. Anyone who has read Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization knows that the monastic movement produced the missionaries and evangelists who led the pagan people to Christ. More than once.
Wandering around the remains of one such monastery was especially sobering for me. As I looked at the stone walls which remained standing, I tried to imagine what the windows looked like, where floors and doors would have been. I searched for the spot where eucharist was celebrated and tried to imagine what the different spaces were dedicated to. How many souls were saved in this enclosure, how many lives healed and renewed. How many hours of prayer and praise? The place was established around 1000 years ago, but had been unused for 250 years. The reason? During the Age of Reason, the 18th Century church could not produce enough men willing to become monks. No monks, no prayers, no worship, no life...
As I pondered the 'eternal return' my mind thought of the health of the church in Europe and in the USA. It is no secret that the church is currently in decline, rather serious decline. It is the fault of churchmen and institutional sin. It is the fault of mediocre Christians satisfied with going to heaven and little else from God. It is the fault of a new age of anti-reason (called postmodern) which rejects the Big Story and prefers each man, woman, child, and any other life forms (too numerous to mention) assert their own stories and own truths. It is also, the work of "spiritual warfare." Humans are going astray and being led astray by "the world, the flesh and the devil." Always have, and will until The Day of Judgment.
What made this trek through the monastic remains (ruins) more personal was a sense of God communicating to me about what I was seeing. "This is the future of your church." Someday, St. Andrews, built in 1891, will be brick walls and nothing else. The speed with which that happens, though, I am clear on this, is our choice. As that monastery stood 750 years, it is possible to be around for a while....
My initial reaction was to try to figure out how to keep our church on life support for a couple more decades. It was not a noble thought or desire. It is a dream unworthy of the Lord we serve. Do I want to be a priest serving a church with a dozen fewer folks each year? Is God's Kingdom dream for us to be a place that waits around, slowly dying?
An additional part of the story was the "fairy fort" which stood in the road leading up to the monastery. This was ground set aside for the pagan past. It was understood to be a place of magic. A place of the old gods. A place St. Paul would say belonged to "gods which are no gods; they are demons." The belief in the invisible world is strong in Ireland.Our guide told us that when the monks put a road through that fort it sealed their fate. The monastery was no longer there because of it. He basically said the old gods defeated the people of God in the Church. People who think such an idea is nonsense will say they do not see demons so no demons exist. Of course, the logic of that is faulty. And the silliness of seeing a devil behind every tree is obviously not helpful. But the idea that there really is spiritual warfare is not silly. Documented cases are everywhere and rational, professional, balanced men and women have attested (some admitting they would not believe it themselves had they not seen and experienced it) to the reality of the spiritual realm. Christian preachers believed they were at war with the demonic when they confronted those pagans so many years ago. And the pagans thought the same. The war between God and the other powers in our world is real
There has been a dark cloud of discouragement and thanatos upon me for a long while. Darkness is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Sin, evil, despair are powers as well. The anti-christ (at least at one level the world leaders who exert power and control over our lives in opposition to the Lord) is powerful. The headlines and problems can overwhelm. I have tried to figure out different ways to be more appealing. And too often I just tried to figure out how to hold on...I forgot that sin is strong, forgiveness stronger, death is strong, resurrection stronger, hate is strong, love is stronger; anti-christ strong, Jesus Christ stronger.
My little church was 300+ actively worshipping members at over full services ten years ago. Today that attendance is almost halved on some Sundays (down 30%). There is still a lot of generosity and love and kindness. There are still faithful and faith filled people. We are, even yet, pretty healthy by most measures. But our future trajectory is bleak: we are older and smaller every couple years. This year has been abysmal which is more sobering. Those ancient ruins have become a graveyard. Irish families bury their dead there. So graves from 1800's, 1900's, and now 2000's are everywhere. Some recent with fresh flowers. A church for the dead. A choice each church makes today. A choice, I sensed God was telling me, we were making ourselves.
I shared this experience with my people today at church. I reminded them of The Truth. You are children of God. You are children of Light. You were purchased and set free (redeemed) by the death of Jesus. The blood of Jesus washes and cleans you and renews you. You are His beloved and He wants more for you. I am praying to bind up lies and deceit and confusion with greater intensity. Instead of a proforma blessing (standard liturgical language) I called down actual blessings and did an actual prayer of release and deliverance. The sad fact is our marriages fall apart, our people get sick and our families are rife with conflict. The sad fact is mental and emotional problems exist and there is a lack of enthusiasm for the things of God. Not enough worship, not enough love and service, not enough faith, hope and love, not enough prayer and study. We need conversion. We also need satan and his minions to be sent away. And we need real concrete blessings on our lives and loved ones and our world.
Many people were shocked by what I said today (they gasped). Most were stunned by the power of the blessing. A few are probably leery of what they heard. Most are anxious to be more and live better. I know that today we made more concrete something we have done at all times. Every church is involved in the same warfare. I am sure that God will prosper and bless what we are trying to do. We want to be the church that God desires us to be. We want His will to be done. So does He!!
Some day my parish will be a ruins. Brick piled on brick but little else to give a clue as to who we were. I do not want that on my watch. I want abundance and life, I want Jesus and the Holy Spirit for God's people in my care. I am excited about what lays ahead. I believe God's word. I believe God's promise. I know that the "fairy castles" in our rapidly paganizing nation will send out their 'armies' to do harm. I know God's angels (messengers: human and spiritual) will offer the Gospel. Good vs Evil. I know who wins. So I embrace New Life. WE are still a church today, right now. We are still alive and standing. We are going to choose the Kingdom and see great new life.