Archive for April, 2013

Death Rattles or Birth Pangs?

My wife Dianna and I went to a church meeting last night. It was a historic occasion. During my nearly two years of retirement from active ministry I’ve religiously avoided church meetings other than choir rehearsal. This one was advertised as “brainstorming” for the church’s future.  Technically it didn’t qualify as “brainstorming”, but that didn’t matter. In the course of 40+ years of pastoral ministry I led dozens of similar sessions variously identified as “brainstorming”, “goal-setting”, “long-range-planning”, “visioning”, “strategic planning”, etc. Nearly every congregation, from house-church- size to mega-mega, does this regularly on some level.

I went to listen. Would I hear death rattles or birth pangs? Even without knowing the congregation I could have written much of the script for this church meeting and thousands like it. We’d hear concerns expressed about:

  • Survival—attracting more (younger/healthier/energetic) people who’d give more money and time.
  • Attracting and serving families with children (like the children and grandchildren of the retirees who composed most of that group and congregation—now including Dianna and me!).
  • Financial stability/sufficiency/survival.
  • Maintaining and improving the building and grounds—a growing challenge (bordering on burden) for a heroically faithful but declining, aging, and increasingly-burned-out group of volunteers.
  • Increasing the volunteer base, primarily by recruiting more people to serve on existing committees and groups.  

Everyone read their lines about as expected.  I heard what I was afraid I’d hear. I heard death rattles of a church (terminally?) turned inward on itself, afraid to die and afraid to change. I’m not blaming anybody in past or present leadership. I’m just telling the truth for a disturbing number of churches in this country. They/we keep doing things the same way we have for decades and expecting different results. As you may know, that’s one definition of insanity. Institutionally speaking, it’s suicidal behavior.

But I also heard faint cries I pray are birth pangs of new life (Romans 8:18-25):

  •  Genuine concern for children in the community—not just to fill up empty classrooms, but to help them discover the wonder of being children of God and part of the Family of God.
  • Passion to care for caregivers. “Caregivers” includes anyone caring for a family member who requires significant assistance due to some physical, emotional, developmental, or other issue. This small congregation seems to have more than its share of such situations. The folks raising this issue (feeling this calling?) understood that this ministry requires us to form creative partnerships with other community resources.
  • Desire to move mission beyond arm’s-length donation to personal relationship. In the interest of full disclosure, this was my contribution. This church (like so many others) does a good job of raising and sending money and “stuff”, e.g., food for the local food bank and those well-filled Christmastime shoe-boxes. A few individuals volunteer faithfully with various organizations. But I don’t think that in its nearly forty years of existence the church has ever sent a mission team to serve beyond its local community. I believe authentic Christ-following mission means that we go in person wherever and whenever possible. The big theological word for that is “incarnational” mission–going in the flesh, the way God did in Jesus!  I identify this as a possible “birth pang” not because it was my brilliant idea but because it seemed to resonate with some other folks.

Death rattles or birth pangs? It’s far too early to tell. It depends on the follow-up from that session. It depends on the presence and practice of persistent, courageous leadership. It depends on our willingness to respond faithfully to the Holy Spirit’s gentle nudges (and less-than-gentle shoves) toward the future.  It depends also on the preponderance of the congregation that wasn’t present at last night’s meeting. They can lead, follow, or get in the way. They can choose life—the harder way, the uncomfortable way, the messier and more chaotic way. Or they can choose slow, lingering death.

God set the prophet Ezekiel in the middle of a vast valley filled with dry, parched bones. “…can these bones live?” God asked the prophet. “Master God, only you know that,” Ezekiel replied.(Ezekiel 37:3) That’s where our church and many others in North America find ourselves today. One of the church’s traditional rituals affirms that “The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time…”  Particular churches come and go. They come into being when God’s Spirit calls some people together into a new expression of the Body of Christ, the Church, in order to accomplish God’s purposes with people in a particular community. They  pass out of existence when God no longer needs that congregation in that particular setting, or when God finds other, more suitable instruments to accomplish God’s purposes in that particular setting. I think God can still use this congregation in this place. Will the congregation choose to be sufficiently responsive to still be usable by God?


“Look for the Helpers”

This morning, the day after the Boston Marathon bombing, I heard a television personality ask the question on every parent’s mind: “What do we tell the children?” I don’t know a better answer than these words from the wise and beloved Mr. Rogers“…”Look for the helpers.”  We saw them in the first shocking seconds of video–police and other first responders in their neon-green vests running toward the explosion victims; a race official running to help a runner knocked down by the blast’s shock wave; ordinary folks doing whatever they could to help the injured around them.

Inspiring and encouraging stories of “helpers” continue to emerge from Boston. A recently-returned soldier used his combat experience to move the people around him toward safety and help them stay calm. An emergency room doctor who’d come to support his marathon-running friend sprang into action helping the injured around him. Runners ran beyond the finish line to the nearest hospital to offer blood donations and other support. Emergency room personnel treated to-MISTER-ROGERS-HELPERS-QUOTE-570he 150+ injured with the skill and compassion they bring to work every single day. Leaders of many faith traditions offered resources and facilities to support the victims and their loved ones.

“Look for the helpers,” Mrs. Rogers told young Fred—and all of us. That’s Easter faith! It doesn’t deny the reality of evil. Bad things happen–to the good, the bad, and the average. Eight-year-old boys like Martin Richard run to congratulate their marathon-running fathers and a bomb blast snuffs out their lives. Friends come to watch friends run and a terror attack obliterates their legs. Bad things happen and the power of good (the power of God!) replies, “Death is strong, but Life is stronger. Life, not death, is the last Word!” I’ve just seen an interview with long-time Boston reporter Mike Barnicle (yes, that’s the correct spelling). He talked about the resilience of Bostonians. Many who witnessed the event, Barnicle said,  will retain more than the image of the bomb blast’s carnage and chaos. They will hold in their minds what he called “a freeze-frame of strangers helping strangers…” Don’t ignore the chaos and tragedy. It’s real. Do “Look for the helpers”. They’re equally real  signs of God’s presence and power.

Bill Richard, Martin’s father, may not be ready to hear that yet. He not only lost his eight-year-old son. Both his wife and daughter were also severely injured. This evening (Tuesday) he released a statement asking for patience, prayer, and privacy for himself and his family. I suspect that the helpers are already beginning to make themselves available. The most effective ones will be quietly present but willing to give him plenty of space, sensitively and unobtrusively helpful, and fiercely protective of the Richard family’s privacy. Those helpers may be friends, family, hopefully their faith community. They will be there when the family is able to recognize and receive their help.

Tragedies like Boston drive many to seek God more urgently. Numerous vigils and prayer services are being held or planned by various faiths. United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar invited New England United Methodists to pray with him, “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble.” (Ps.46:1). The Rev. LaTrelle Miller Easterling, Superintendent of the UMC’s Metro Boston Hope District, reminded the people she serves that “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:8)

Sometimes when we “look for the helpers” we see—ourselves. Hundreds of folks have had that experience in the early aftermath of the Boston attack. It will happen often as the injured make the long journey toward wholeness. It will happen as the whole community mourns its losses and moves toward healing. Some of the best “helpers” are those who have suffered themselves. Most “support groups” simply share the wisdom of those who are at various stages of dealing with grief, addiction, weight loss, or some other issue. Those who found helpers when they looked, or perhaps when they thought they were beyond help, have healed enough to become helpers available to share someone else’s struggle. Your best credentials for being the “helper” I need are your own battle scars from a struggle like the one I’m going through right now.

Have I wandered long way from “What do we tell the children?” The link at the beginning of this post leads to some good wisdom about helping your children deal with tragedies like Boston and Newtown. You might even find yourself talking about how each of us can be a helper for others. We more mature children of God can reflect on the two-sided message of Mrs. Rogers’ wisdom for Freddie and all of us. 1) “Look for the helpers” because their presence is a sign of God’s presence with us in a scary time. Look to other people and look deep into the resources of your faith. 2) Expect to find yourself called to be that “helper” for someone within your reach. You’ll be the one in just the right place at just the right time with just the right help for the person who’s “looking for the helpers” with no real hope of finding them.