23 October, 2013

Changing Seasons

For everything  there is a season, and a time for every  matter under heaven.
  Ecclesiastes 3:1
   Can you feel the seasons changing?  The weather has gotten colder; frost has greeted us on recent mornings.  Most of us are ready to turn up the thermostat and to put warmer blankets on our beds.  We've put the gardens to bed, and are rushing to get the harvest out of the fields.  Change is in the air.
   Can you feel the season of change in our churches?  It is becoming harder to attract and retain new members.  Fewer folks are able to help out with the church activities and annual dinners; and  more people chose the drive through at the dinner than came inside to fellowship while they eat that delicious meal.  There are more people shopping at the mall on Sunday morning than attending a church service. And, over 65% of US Americans under the age of 30 have no church affiliation.  Change is in the air. 
   Adapting to change is not always easy.  Most of us would prefer to remain within our comfort zones.  When the whole world is changing rapidly around us, it would be so nice if church was the one place that stayed the same, wouldn't it?
   While that sounds like something we'd like, the long term implications would threaten the existence of the Church.  What worked well in the world of 1860 or 1960 are not always efficient or appropriate today.  Can you imagine what things would be like if we still spoke the German of our ancestors in a culture that speaks English?  Or a sanctuary with the hard pews and no heat or air conditioning?  In a culture that drives, depends upon the internet and electronic media, we would be ill advised to expect our members  find the church by walking the streets of town, to arrive to worship via horse and carriage, use stencil-printed bulletins and respond to news sent via the Pony Express.  While "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8), the means by which we acquire knowledge of Christ has changed significantly from word of mouth to papyrus to printed pages to pixels on a screen. And, the world into which Christ's message is proclaimed has changed significantly in 2000 years!
   In the midst of change, we too must change to remain relevant to the world to which God calls us to bring the Word.  We must change or we cease to be faithful members of the Body of Christ. First, we must continually learn and grow in our knowledge and in Spirit.  A disciple of Jesus Christ should not be stagnant in their faith but should be in constant motion!  Scripture reminds us that  "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed." (Cor.15:51)
   We must change how we "do church."  Diana Butler Bass makes a distinction between the spiritual and the religious; the implication of "religion" is the institutional church, the form and practices of congregations including the traditions and methodologies of worship, Sunday School, and fellowship.  "Spiritual", on the other hand, confers the relationship of a person to the heart of God, the ways in which God's light shines through an individual or community; it's about relationships both vertical and horizontal.  Younger generations claim to be "spiritual but not religious." They relate to the substance and heart of faith, but not the institution or form of the Church.  In the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ, we affirm "the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God." It is part of our organizational DNA to be about change so that the Body of Christ can and will relate to each new generation.  We must change or we will be responsible for the death of this Body!
   The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that even in the midst of change, God's plan is being fulfilled.  "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."  (Jer. 29:11)  This is Good News!  It's more than pocket change; it is change we bank our future upon.  We have not only the interest but the promise and commitment of God to see us through it. 

16 October, 2013

Are we Changing or Decomposing?

I’m sitting at my laptop on a table with a calendar hanging over it. The calendar sports several pictures from days gone by: my husband and his sister singing in church at about age 12 or 13, my youngest son strumming a guitar, my husband reading a newspaper with a teddy bear under his arm, and my youngest son leaving the church amidst bubbles with his new bride on his arm.

It’s the large picture in the center, however, that draws one’s eye first. It is a smiling 3 year old, my first born son, who is eating freshly frosted sugar cookie. Outside the window behind him, snow sits on the window sills and the snow on the roofs beyond the window is deep. In the fore ground are unfrosted sugar cookies: the bottom of a snow man, a couple of candles. By the turtleneck and long sleeves and the chapped lips on the child, it is clearly mid winter.

It’s a memory I cherish of my oldest son’s earlier Advent seasons. The enamel topped metal table and matching red chair upon which my son kneels reminds me of a different time when my children were so very small. His baby teeth shine in his bright smile. His eyes twinkle with joy as he “sneaks” a bit of a cookie he’s supposed to be decorating for Christmas.

Those were very different times. Life was simpler. The laughter of children in the house made a different atmosphere of daily living. It was a harder life. Our income level was only just enough on which to live without receiving welfare; we struggled to pay off our student loans. It was a time of stress as we juggled the roles of young parents, freshly minted pastors, part time social advocates, and full time naïve young couple.

As I look at this picture now, I long to tickle that little boy’s tummy with my fingers to hear him squeal with laughter. I remember all the good times we had in that little house in Pennsylvania. And it all feels like something I’d want to do again.

Only I don’t. Even if it were possible, I wouldn’t repeat those years. Yes, I remember them fondly. Yes, I feel things were easier then. But I wouldn’t want to repeat them because it would mean losing out on the experience of today. Today, when my sons are young adults exploring lives of their own. Today, when as empty nesters we have the joy of being able to pick up and go whenever we choose without regard to school calendars or nap times. Today, when I am wiser, more mature, and certainly a different person that I was 27 years ago. Today, while a very different era, still offers its own joys, challenges, stresses, and—yes – sad times.

I can’t go back; I am not the same now as I was then. I can’t go back; it is not possible to turn my adult sons into children again. I can’t do it over; I’m not that same young and spry, limber and energetic person I was 27 years ago. I don’t want things to be the way they used to be even if I’m not completely happy with how things are today – because I know in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t as happy then as my memories would like to lead me to believe.

What is true in life, is also true in the church. We can never again be what we once were because the world is not the same now as it once was and because you and I are not the same people we used to be. We have grown older, (hopefully) more mature and more wise, and (hopefully) to a different place on our faith journey. We can never again be what we once were because the world doesn’t need us as we used to be; Christ needs us in the world as he calls us to be for today. What worked in the culture of yester-year cannot work in the world today.

Friends, we’re not in Kansas any more. We are in a new era when the Church is not dominate in culture (if indeed it ever was in our lifetimes), where the choices of belief systems have developed along side of our capitalistic, consumer based economy, and where people of faith struggle as an alien culture in a strange land. Just as we do in our everyday lives, the Church needs to adjust to the realities of this new era.  The proverbial way we've always done it isn't working any longer; we have to adjust and adapt, and, by trial and error, find new ways of relating to one another and the world around us.  

The good news is that we know how to do this!  We've been doing it in our homes, in our work places, and in our everyday living.  We've adapted to new technology (internet, Skyping, networking via social media, microwaves, hybrid cars), to a smaller world and all its connections, to new relationships, and new ways of thinking.  We've reconsidered our opinions and ways of thinking about issues.  We revisited our values and priorities in light of all these changes.  

Now it's time for the Church and each part of the Body of Christ to do the same.  

Because if we don't adapt, we will cease to exist.  When any organism ceases to change it dies, and then the decomposers feast upon it.  The dead become the food of the living.  I'd rather we change than decompose.  Wouldn't you?!