Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church

Do we live in the shadows?



As a church, are we in a penumbra? What is that?  

The word comes from the Latin and combines two words meaning almost and shadow.

Are we shadows of what God is calling us to be? Are we almost what God intends us to be?

A similar word, from the field of science, is eclipse. We enjoy seeing these astronomical events — the solar or lunar eclipses that occur when the earth, sun, and moon are in special celestial alignment.

In medical terms, a penumbra is an event that occurs when part of the brain loses its blood supply. The result is a stroke.

It might be said that when something experiences a penumbra, it still may show signs of life, but it has been disconnected from its source.

Could the church be experiencing a penumbra? Could a fresh experience with God be what the church needs to be full and complete?  

In his New York Times article titled “The Christian Penumbra,” Ross Douthat opened with these words: “Here is a seeming paradox of American life.”

He continued, “The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation, not from affiliation or nominal belief. And where practice ceases or diminishes, in what you might call America’s ‘Christian penumbra,’ the remaining residue of religion can be socially damaging instead.”  

His point: People who identify as Christians but do not participate in a church community have social behaviors as bad as or worse than the general population. Church participation makes our society better!

But that is not why the church exists.

The church’s purpose is not to make society better.

In 1938, at the outset of World War II, author T.S. Eliott wrote, “It is essential that we not revert to a very dangerous inversion where we advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial” (from the book “Christianity and Culture,” by Eliott).

The Apostle Paul understood these dynamics. He wrote a letter to Titus to guide the new pastor in a church that was slightly off the mark. It was in a penumbra. Its people were busy doing good things, but they had neglected the first things.

Paul affirmed the truth of those first things that remove shadows and complete the journey of faith.

Titus 3:4-7 articulates the core of the gospel: “When God our savior’s kindness and love appeared, God saved us because of his mercy, not because of righteous things we had done. God did it through the washing of new birth and the renewing by the Holy Spirit, which God poured out upon us generously through Jesus Christ our savior. So, since we have been made righteous by God’s grace, we can inherit the hope for eternal life” (CEV).

Without God’s kindness, love, and mercy, we are mired in a penumbra. Our faith is only a shadow of what God purposed.

Paul instructed Titus to “insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God might give careful attention to doing good” (Titus 3:8, CEV).


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