Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Cycle of Life

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.  (Isaiah 61:11)

The church is a living organism, not an organization.  A movement of the Spirit, not an institution. 

The difference is most evident in the natural cycle of life.  Organizations and institutions are deeply committed to self preservation.  Living organisms are constantly engaged in the cycle of death and rebirth, of seed time and harvest, of rising up from the ashes.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  (John 12:24-25)

We'd rather be a tree.  At least with trees, the pruning feels less painful that tilling and planting.  And forest fires that destroy the old and make way for the new are few and far between.  We can even comfort ourselves with the knowledge that many trees have a life expectancy of hundreds, even thousands, of years.

Burning the fields.  Tilling the soil.  Destroying the refuse of last year's crop as a preparation for next year's seed time and harvest.  Planting the seed and waiting.  Watching the new shoots emerge from the soil, yet knowing that the harvest is still many months away.  We are an impatient people.  We want the harvest now.  

I knew a farmer who would watch the grain in his field ripen.  When it was getting close to harvest time, he'd leave and go fishing for a week or so.  It was his discipline not to rush the harvest.  

I've been thinking and writing about this quite a bit.  It's a struggle.  I entered ministry envisioning a perpetual harvest.  That the church would simply grow, and grow, and yield its fruit in all seasons.  It doesn't happen like that.  

One of the goals of our church at its inception was that we might become more of an inclusive church than our predecessor church bodies had been.  I loved the statement that inclusivity is achieved with the lead end of the pencil, not the eraser.  Now I'm not sure.  Something had to die.  The soil needed to be tilled.  Yesterday's crop is tomorrow's mulch. 

No where is this more clear to me than with respect to our decisions on sexuality, and specifically our commitment to welcome and include GLBTQ people into the life of the church and full participation in our ministry.  It has not been a net gain proposition to this date.  We thought we could simply move forward, recognizing our diversity, and allowing for all, both those who favor such a move and those who oppose it, to continue to live together, reconciled in our differences.  The truth was that in order to include some, others were lost.  A more inclusive church will emerge, only as the exclusive body dies.  Fact of life.

Is the same thing true with respect to including a broader spectrum of ethnic groups?  I think it may be.  Our unspoken identity as Scandinavian and German cultural centers probably needs to die in order for us to be a welcome place for Latinos, Blacks, Native Americans, and other groups.   

Some congregations will experience renewal only as the core group that has dominated the life of the congregation for a generation dies.  This is one of the hardest realities to face.  The lifelong commitment of these saints too often precludes the emergence of new leadership and direction until death creates the opportunity.  That's relatively easy to write in a blog.  Hard to say to someone whose held the reigns of a congregation for 50 or more years.

When we participated in the formation of a new congregation I was, and still am, amazed at the young leadership that came to the fore.  We were breaking new soil.  We don't have adequate resources to start many new congregations today.  And the old ones, just get older.  As I have visited numerous congregations it has felt like I was looking at a corn field, post harvest.  The corn still stood, no longer green, and the cobs long ago picked.  Springtime will come, and with it the plowing of the field and the planting of the seed.  But for now, stalks stand in the field.  And as I age I am aware that soon but very soon, I too will be a stalk that has already yielded its harvest, and now simply awaits the tilling.

I wonder how those of us who have served a lifetime in the church can prepare the soil for the new generation of leaders that is emerging.  Our work is incomplete.  I rather think that my generation of pastors may have served the role of tillers.  Perhaps even sowers.  But the harvest we had hoped for is still a long way off.  Faith is believing that having tilled and sown the crop it will bear fruit, that there will be a harvest, even if we ourselves will not be the ones to harvest it.

My sense of the last thirty  years in our church is that we have undertaken two major initiatives, one with respect to ecumenism, the other with respect to inclusivity.  With respect to ecumencal relationships I believe that the seeds have been sown, and are germinating, and breaking forth from the soil.  With respect to inclusivity I think we are still in the tilling phase, preparing the soil.  

Am I just depressed and not optimistic enough?  Recognizing the cycle of life that is essential to a living organism is not pessimistic.  It is actually optimistic.  Pessimism is looking at the harvested field and concluding that it is all over.  Optimism is gathering in the harvest and setting aside the first fruits to be planted again, next  year.  Pessimism grieves over the stubble.  Optimism sees renewal in the tilling.  I loved the look of a freshly tilled garden, even more so as the stakes marked out the rows of  planting.  There is anticipation and hope in that.

Can we capture that anticipation and hope at this time?

There will be challenges.  I am aware that in my own congregation the loss of even one member will necessitate the re-writing of the budget.  Whenever someone steps back we wonder if anyone is left to step up.  The 800 pound Gorilla in the room is whether this congregation, as a congregation, will weather the transition.  It may close, as many other congregations may close.  The land may need to lie fallow for a time.

And yet we believe.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

In the end, we may be the seed that needs to fall into the earth and die.  But the Word will call forth new life and a new day.  

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