by | Aug 21, 2023

Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:35-36

As has been said way too often for way too many reasons, we are living in unprecedented times. As we mourn the horrendous fires in Maui and Canada, I am writing this column a little ahead of time,
so we are watching a hurricane come up the coast of Baja California, with the expectation that we will experience our first tropical storm in nearly 84 years. I take comfort in knowing that you join me in praying for all people who are impacted by these extreme weather events, especially those without safe shelter. And my hope is that as you read this column, we are already on the other side of the storm, and relieved that we got through with little or no damage.

While we are becoming used to unprecedented times, I don’t know that we have figured out how to live into them beyond crisis response. For instance, we are now accepting the fact that our churches are not going to go “back to normal” post-pandemic, but we don’t know what faithful church life looks like in this new world. It seems that COVID impacted our churches’ ministry with children and youth, and I’ve worried that I don’t even hear concerns that we don’t have children in our churches anymore. And we continue to wonder what “two or three are gathered in my name” means in a hybrid or online community, how emotional health is impacted by lack of in-person relationships, and how to plan for an attendance pattern that has moved from sporadic (pre-pandemic), to totally unpredictable now.

I have not heard of any definitive answers, except that our need to trust in God has never been greater. I have recently heard from a couple of younger leaders their visions for the church. One is developing a new way of looking at children in church as co-leaders within the faith community. Another is considering what a faith community looks like if it is designed for these post-pandemic times. She wonders about a community that is formed with people who are not bound to weekly worship with a consistent pattern of practice, but instead offers opportunities for embodied faith that incorporates movement and food as well as preaching and study. Both of these approaches to ministry are significantly different from the way we’ve always done church. I know I’m still trying to imagine what these approaches would look like. But I’m inspired by their new perspectives, and I’ve encouraged the leaders to consider new worshiping communities to try out their visions.

Now I can imagine people asking, “Why are we always talking about new worshiping communities? What about us existing churches, who have struggled so long to survive and stay relevant?” Believe me, I hear you. But I don’t think I’m alone in being so rooted in the way we do church now, that I would have a hard time accepting some of these very different, even opposite, ways of looking at church. So it would be a regular struggle for our sessions to know how to be supportive but diligent if they were asked to support these new visions. And I’ve heard (and intuitively understand) that people are far more likely to try out a new church than an established church, especially for the many folks who do not have a church background or have been hurt by the church.

Perhaps in these ever-changing times, we have to transform the way we look at church from static institution to living organism. While some have hoped for the church to be the one anchor in our lives that never changes, we have seen that we cannot force others—including our own family members—to continue to participate in a church that has not adapted to life as we now know it. But if we saw the church as a living being, able to grow and adjust to whatever God asks of us, we might also need to accept the idea that living beings have life cycles, and we are asked to guide and nurture new churches, and even step back so that new leaders can move the church forward. (This is also true for leaders within existing churches, even changing our bylaws to allow younger members to become elders even if they cannot promise 6 or 60 years of commitment, or ask to meet and communicate in new ways.)

I am of the age when it’s getting harder to understand the perspectives of younger generations. (My cousin shared that her college-age daughter told her she shouldn’t bother seeing the movie “Barbie” because she wouldn’t get it.) So I have the choice to correct them so they live the way I understand, or let them take over however they see fit. Or, like with much of life in community, do I listen to their wisdom with humility, but also offer my own discernment, and look for ways that we can connect when we can, and go separately when we must?

This last week I have been transported back to two of my “past lives.” The stories of the fires on Maui remind me of my time serving in Hawai‘i, in a very different culture, an indigenous island culture that taught me a lot about respect, and community, and faith. I fear I have forgotten some of those lessons. But there can be kindness everywhere. A few days ago, I received an email from a stranger, saying
I am writing today to see if I can connect a picture with its owner. I had a picture frame shop in Alameda, Bay Station Accents/Urban Forest, and I framed a needlepoint for someone with your name. I have the picture and am hoping you are the owner. It is a spiritual picture with orange, blue and green. If this is your picture, I would be happy to ship it to you.

She went on to say how she had tried to contact me over the years, but didn’t get through. I did live in Alameda after graduating from seminary 25 years ago, and I did needlepoint back then! This may seem odd, but it isn’t the first time, or second or third time, that a stranger took unusual lengths to show kindness to me.

As I consider these very new visions of church, visions I don’t understand, these glimpses into my own life remind me that we can be supportive and generous, even to people we don’t know, even to movements of the Spirit we don’t understand. Because we are now regularly confronted with things we don’t understand, perhaps we need to cling all the harder—not to our past, but to our faith that God will bring us through the unknown and the downright scary. My experience is that God comes through, often far exceeding what I dared hope for.

May we be agents of hope by showing grace and generosity, as God has done for us. And may we have eyes to see the new blooms of faith that are springing up around us.

In hope and trust,