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Wishing and Hoping

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about the difference between “wishing” and “hoping.” At first blush, the two seem nearly synonymous: both involve a desire (sometimes a very strong desire) for something one has not yet achieved or acquired. If any immediate difference stands out, it’s likely in the fact that wishing can happen in reverse – “I wish that hadn’t happened that way…” You can’t hope in reverse. Hope is intrinsically always forward focused. But I would argue that wishing and hoping are different in another, less obvious way: namely the degree in which an individual is personally invested in seeing the desired events come to pass.

As a fake-it-till-you-make-it handywoman (this week, I fixed my own dishwasher) I experience this dichotomy frequently. There is a distinct difference between what I mean when I call my mother up and sigh, “I wish I had an (insert tool of the moment here)” and “I hope I can find an (insert same tool here).” In the first case, I am clearly indicating that I do not have said tool and that while it would be helpful, I do not expect to acquire said tool and will be making do with whatever I have on hand. In the second, I’m expressing that I am taking action to acquire the necessary tool – digging through my toolboxes and maintenance drawers, conducting a search online, or even going to a hardware store to make a purchase. I wish for what I am resigned to living without. I hope for what I believe I can acquire.

Viewed from this perspective, wishes are the thoughts of those resigned to the present circumstances as all there is or will be. Hopes are the actions of those who believe these circumstances can be changed. And this brings us to the church.

Sadly, for many Christians (especially those in declining congregations), wishing has become our default. We wish we were making a bigger impact upon our communities. We wish we had more diversity in our pews (or for many mainline congregations, any diversity in our pews). We wish we had more young families, youth, and small children. But we have looked at our budget, our membership numbers, the age of our congregants, and have resigned ourselves to the present moment as all there is or all there ever will be. If asked to create a vision for the congregation’s future, we produce this list of wishes – things we had (or believe we had) in the past, but which we hold no hope of recovering. While members may still embrace the vision, they are no longer willing to invest themselves in reaching it.

This brings us to another key difference between wishing and hoping – wishing can see the desired destination, but hope is the bridge that takes us there. In other words, once hope is gone, there is no way to get there (to that beautiful vision of impactful, diverse, thriving ministry) from where we are. This is why congregations die. This isn’t, of course, to deny that there aren’t other factors which contribute to the decline of congregations. But in the end it is the loss of hope that sounds the death knell.

Congregations that lose hope do so for a reason, not infrequently related to the belief that they have “tried everything and nothing works.” What is usually meant by this is that the strategies that helped churches grow 50 years ago are no longer effective today. Think about it: a lot has changed in our world since 1971! The ways in which “rebellious youth” sought (sometimes successfully) to change the world then are very different from the ways in which today’s “rebellious youth” seek transformation. And so are the ways in which those youth relate to the church. Which means that not only will the old strategies for outreach continue to fail, but so will any strategy that isn’t rooted in an understanding of the world in which the younger generation now lives – not from our perspective, but from theirs. Yes, this means that what Millennials think and believe, their preferred methods for developing relationships, their passions and dreams matter for the future of the church.

Congregations that survive do so because instead of resigning themselves to their circumstances when they recognized that the old strategies were failing (and doing so repeatedly), they dared to invest their time and effort in new ways of approaching the world. This isn’t always easy. In fact, it’s painful and exhausting. But in the end, it’s far less exhausting than using the wrong tool for the job, investing huge amounts of time and effort, and still failing in the end.

So do we have hope? To be honest, I don’t know. But my guess is that you do – that you can look at which projects, plans, and initiatives attract not only your attention but your elbow-grease. You know whether you continue to hold out the hope that leads to life and a future for our congregations or have resigned yourself to the wishful thinking that leads to death. This also means that you matter – that your action or inaction makes a difference in whether our congregations see their vision of ministry become a reality or watch it fade into the past. Success is not a matter of chance, but of choice. Will you choose hope?

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Disappearing Churches

I’ve been thinking a lot about mask mandates this week. No surprise since the CDC (a few weeks later than WHO) has finally conceded that the vaccines while showing some protective effect against the Delta variant, are not adequate to the task of fully preventing an infection or reinfection with The Virus. In response to the resurgence of COVID-19 diagnoses, many communities in California (including Sacramento County) have reinstated the mask mandates that were lifted on June 15. For us, this means a return to covering our faces whenever we are in public locations – courthouses, grocery stores, churches.

            As I reflect on this, I am struck by the fact that the mask mandates both present and past were government orders. For now, I’ll set aside the fact that as Christians we are Scripturally charged with showing concern for one another’s’ well-being and focus solely on this factor. Because we tend to value obedience to the laws of the land in which we live, most courthouses, grocery stores, and churches have elected to abide by the mandates.

            There is no denying that this makes the situation difficult for many individuals. The truth is, if most of us wanted to be wearing masks, obscuring our faces, altering the way our bodies intake oxygen and exhale CO2, we’d have been doing it already. (Just ask anyone at the gym training for high altitude athletics.) Masks are uncomfortable; they itch and scratch and fall off our noses. They hinder communication because we can no longer see each other’s expressions. (Are you being genuine? Sarcastic? Insulting?) And it niggles those of us raised with an unusually broad range of freedoms (more than are available to most citizens in most parts of the world) to have to give any of them up – even if doing so might save our own lives or the lives of others. So in proper American tradition, many Americans protested and continue to protest… in church.

            I admit that I find this peculiar. If one is protesting a government order, it would seem that the first place to protest would be in… well, government spaces. Places where those responsible for creating the laws and with the capacity to lift them would have to confront the displeasure of those living under them. Yet I haven’t seen a great many disgruntled Christians protesting by refusing to wear masks when called for jury duty or standing in line to renew their drivers’ licenses. While there are a multitude of possible reasons for this lack of open confrontation, my guess is that for most protestors this is a bit too risky. They simply don’t want to pay a fine or sacrifice their freedom (or any more of it) for their violation of the new legal standards. So they may not like the law, but most choose to comply in government settings – at least most of those whom I and my clergy colleagues know to have protested in other ways and places.

            It also seems odd that in an economically driven country (one in which the government has a vested interest in ensuring that funds continually flow through the market place), those who protest often don’t do so by refusing to mask-up before walking into grocery stores or small businesses. Admittedly, the stay-at-home orders have already caused pretty significant economic damage, but many of those protesting the mask mandates aren’t willing to deepen this impact. Again, the decision not to protest in this way is, for some, likely tied to the level of risk involved. Most Americans have a limited ability to refrain from eating for any prolonged period of time. (Kudos to all of our ancestors who, prior to the industrial revolution, often did go without two or three small meals between lunch and dinner). Buying food requires compliance. Compliance means putting on a mask.

            And this leads us to the peculiar case of the churches. Admittedly, for much of last year churches were shut down. Some congregations protested by continuing to meet and the most prominent of these made the news as police officers barred their doors shut. Others small enough to fly under the radar sometimes did manage to sneak through – with disastrous consequences for some who did so without considering ways to mitigate the risk of viral spread among their congregants. Others (like our own) continued with worship online as they sought creative ways to follow the Biblical mandate not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25) while showing equal concern for making that “assembling” safe for those most at risk within our communities. And, sometimes, with a bit of interest in the fact that the government was mandating the type of caution that Christian churches have taken of their own accord without any mandate through outbreaks in the past – including Europe’s Black Death.

            Earlier this year, when it was again safe to reopen, many congregations (our own included) did so, but continued to observe what we (in our limited knowledge) considered reasonable health standards for the protection of our membership and visitors, and in compliance with the law. Fascinatingly, it is at this point that many Christians decided to protest – refusing to return to worship at all until the mandates are lifted. In other words, in response to a government order, many Christians have chosen not to deliver a message to the government by putting something they themselves value at risk, but to God and those whom God has called by putting something they don’t value at risk.

Because of this, it really isn’t surprising that in the early part of this year, many of the congregations who survived 2020 began to close their doors. Permanently. Without people in the pews or money in the coffers, these mostly small congregations simply couldn’t make ends-meet. The last statistics I heard suggest that 30% of churches closed permanently in the last year – they won’t reopen when the law changes or the economy improves. They are gone.

Remarkably, these closures aren’t due to COVID-19 or mask mandates. If anything, the events of 2020 and 2021 have merely served to amplify a truth that has undergirded Christian worship for the last 50 years: namely, that the majority of those attending Christian worship don’t value the privilege. Sunday morning service, corporate prayer, Bible study, the sacraments (all ancient hallmarks of the Christian faith) have become merely a few of our ever-increasing options for the investment of our time. If we’re honest, the fact that the things we offhandedly label as “sacred” often lose out to everything from time with family (which if I recall my childhood correctly can involve sitting together through a service and discussing the sermon afterward), going for a hike, or attending sports events, suggests that they simply aren’t things upon which most churchgoers place much value. And that leads to a hard truth: things we don’t value become easy to sacrifice. And the things that are easy to sacrifice… well, they disappear with or without a mask mandate.

            So, write your congressmen. Vote when you can. Then put on a mask and bring your family to church.

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They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love

“God, I love you, but I can’t stand your people.” At the age of 18, the prayer seemed a fitting and final conclusion to life in formal congregational settings. I was growing in leaps and bounds – reading the Bible, memorizing whole passages, and praying regularly. I’d even picked up the odd habit of reading classic Christian theological texts (the big ones with complicated words that only seminarians understand) before bed at night. My relationship with God was strong and getting stronger – which was more than I could say for 99% of the other people I sat with on the average Sunday morning.

The best I could figure, these people were the duds: the ones who attended church because of habit or tradition or were hoping that at least if their butts were in the pews on Sunday mornings, they stood at least half a chance of being taken up by accident when the rapture occurred. Though I wouldn’t say it out loud (I was too humble for that), their faith was nothing by comparison – with a few exceptions, they were mostly hypocrites and pretenders. And the truth was, I’d grown tired of the toxicity which seemed to pervade every “Christian” setting I’d entered – the politics and infighting, gossip, slander, elitism – I’d simply had enough.

Over the course of my short life, I’d seen congregations split over issues ranging from the consumption of alcohol to what type of music should be played during Sunday service (“God forbid there should be drums!” “How can I possibly stay if there aren’t?!”). If these really were God’s people (and I had my doubts), they were the pettiest, most immature, and unloving examples I could imagine. They were hardly likely to become the sorts of believers I’d read about in Christian history (the ones I fancied myself most like) – Polycarp (the disciple of John) who about to be burned to death in a Roman stadium and given one more chance to recant his faith declared, “Fourscore and six years have I been serving him [Christ], and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” or Martin Luther who about to be excommunicated for his persistence in his charges against corrupt church leaders and given an opportunity to recant softly replied, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

 To make things worse, I’d been the victim of so much judgment and discrimination (how I dressed, the music I listened to, my personal interpretation of the Scriptures – which I at least had bothered to read – more than most of my classmates) that I didn’t think I could sit through another day in the same building with “God’s people.” I’d been taught that my relationship with God was personal (something I’d interpreted to mean “you can do it on your own without associating with any other human beings”) and it was clear that for my own spiritual growth and mental stability, it was best if I struck out on my own.

Over the next few years, I continued to grow sans “God’s people.” I met intermittently with other believers who I judged to be sincere to discuss Scripture and other issues related to faith (though much less frequently in actuality than I’d convinced myself I was doing) and continued to acquire as much knowledge about Scripture, theology, and Christian history as my brain could hold. I had become in my own opinion, a model Christian – and all without any need to engage with any of the irritations which accompanied formal worship or commitment to a worshipping community. The only problem? I wasn’t actually growing.

You see, I had erred in comparing growth in my knowledge of God to growth in my relationship with God – a relationship which from the very beginning demanded that those of us who consider ourselves part of God’s family actually interact with God’s family. In fact, it is these interactions which Christ told His disciples would serve as the primary factor which identified them as His disciples.

In John 13:34-35, having just finished washing eleven sets of feet (a final act of service prior to his trial and execution) Jesus declares, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

            If you’ve ever looked up the Scriptural definition of “love,” you’ve noticed that it’s actually pretty demanding. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 states:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

            The trick with living this kind of love? Well, to begin with, you can’t do it outside of a context in which you have the option not to. Patience doesn’t exist apart from circumstances which tempt us to impatience (think church committee meetings). One can’t be kind unless there is someone to be unkind to, or chose not to envy if there is no one to potentially compare one’s self to. And pride? I can tell you from experience that that one exists in greatest abundance not when I’m around other Christians who might knock me down a peg, but when I’m on my own removed from them because I’ve decided I’ve got things wired and they don’t.

            Now pay attention because that last one starts to highlight an important point that only grows stronger as we examine the rest of the things that “love is.” If I decide to separate from other believers, I dishonor them as members of Christ’s family – I have excommunicated them. If I avoid fellowship because it’s “better for my spiritual growth and mental stability,” I’ve become self-seeking. I’ve already demonstrated my ability to be angered. And my choice to separate from other believers was directly due to my keeping a record of wrongs.

            Have you picked up on the problem yet? In removing myself from regular fellowship with a congregation, I was making a very clear choice to disobey Jesus’ final and most important command to His disciples; I was choosing NOT to love.

            The Apostle Paul is clear, “If I speak in the tonguesof men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). In other words, every act of faith or discipleship is worthless in the absence of love. And we cannot love without the presence of one another.

            So what does this mean? For many of us, it means we need to swallow our pride, let go of our grudges, and start again; This time not as consumers of the Christian faith sitting in pews and hoping for a “personal” experience, but as lovers of the other pew sitters – genuinely concerned with the growth and well-being of those with whom we have little in common, who’s faith isn’t growing as fast as ours or in the same direction, and who’s perspectives and opinions often rub us the wrong way. We start again. But this time, we start with love.

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