Sunday, December 2, 2007
Happy New Year!
Well, today is the first Sunday of Advent and we are getting ready to do our at-home Advent devotions. The wreath is ready and so are our Divine Chocolate Advent Calendars. In my teaching parish, today, I distributed these advent calendars during the children's sermon. Behind each window is a part of the story of the birth of Jesus and a yummy Divine chocolate heart. We spent a moment talking about how the chocolate was one way that families can earn the money they should for the crops they grow. Several of the adults were trying to be "kids" just to get a calendar.
Today was also my last Sunday in the parish until February because of finals and a January term project. I just finished my reflection on the core convictions of the congregation and their theology for my Teaching Parish seminar.
These are good people, but they are a stuck people. Change is not just a challenge, it is almost insurmountable. There is a lot that is lifeless and methodical.It can feel like a seminar about God rather than a place where God is. There is not energy for ministry or mission here. Stuck in time.I have contemplated how the historic tensions have affected the view today and how the group is in many ways closed off. Wonderful people who have somehow lost their way.I have prayed about them, that something might be stirred.
So last week, as Fellowship was drawing to a close, there were about 8 members who were still sitting and chatting with me- all people who did not grow up in this parish; people who have come here within the last 5 to 20 years. They were chatting about the upcoming annual congregation meeting, worried about the fact that the budget for the year has not been met. They worried about attracting more members and more families. I was asked if my home parish struggled with these issues. For the next 35 minutes we had a candid sharing about being a welcoming place, discipleship and the various reasons why many parishes struggle with these issues. We talked about the difficulties in encouraging growth in stewardship and in drawing others to the congregation and the faith. We talked about the gifts different members might have and how often people struggle with identity. Each shared that when the congregation was in transition, people rolled up sleeves and did what needed to be done; how they did a building project “without a pastor”; how there had been energy, but now that there was a pastor, people just kind of left the work to the pastor.
They commented on how hard is to do the work of the church without a lot of help. And a comment I have heard before- "We used to sing, but we don't now- I don't know why. I think we should know why." I asked if they had considered that a pastor could feel the same way.
We discussed how congregations can share struggles, but also ideas- we are not alone in this. Not only there eight people who feel a tug to seek more, there is the presence of the Spirit to guide and sustain this work. Dialogue led to “more questions than answers, ” but also a desire to explore further. Anthony Robinson indicates in the closing lines of his book, What's Theology Got to Do With It?, states“ … teaching will be in the midst of the life of the congregation and its people. This does not mean always having the answers; indeed it may mean having the question. It does mean putting the little dramas of life in community and our lives individually into the context of the great story of God’s redeeming and relentless love and purpose. It means taking connections between God’s story and our stories, because in reality they are not two different stories, but one story.” Perhaps this is an opportunity in response to prayer that will bear fruit.
So I spent a couple of minutes during parish announcements today thanking all of them for welcoming me into their midst and for sharing with me what it means to be God's people here in this place and time. After a little humor and telling them I will continue to hold them in prayer and blessings for them, it seemed important to leave something else to think about. I encouraged them in this "new" year of the church to ponder anew. What does it mean to know God's message of grace, mercy and forgiveness and how can I share that message with someone who desperately needs to hear it?
We all know people who yearn for this news- how can we in our own ways tell the story?
These questions are universal for all of us. May we toss them around in our heads, ponder them in our hearts, listen for God.
The church was packed today. There was a buzz in the air. Many people were wearing their advent blue. Fellowship and the Advent craft were aglow with cheerful souls today. There were lots of hugs and best wishes for my exams, and genuine expressions of how I will be missed by them. There is an eagerness for me to return. Give my family their best wishes ( easier since last Sunday I brought the whole family to worship).
Amidst all of the festivity of the day was the common refrain- they really liked what I had to say about telling the story. They know they need to hear this and do this and they want to I look forward to coming back in February to continuing the journey with them.
I leave you today with the ELCA World Hunger Calendar thought for the day, and a prayer from our Seminary devotions by Dr. Mark Vitalis-Hoffman.
Each day collect change for World Hunger. Do you have an Advent wreath? If so, give 25 cents; if not, give 50 cents.
Gracious Lord, grant us to walk in your light! Teach us to know your ways and walk in your paths. Guide us so that we make right judgments that reflect your will for us and for all peoples. Help us especially to know and pursue the ways that make for peace. Gracious Lord, grant us to walk in your light! Amen