I don't know why I decided to visit her. My fate was sealed. I was leaving, and it frankly didn't matter what I did by that point. I no longer owed anyone, anything. Actually, now they owed me. Two months of full pay, the opportunity to stay in the parsonage until February, and money to help move. Thinking back on it all, I still feel dirty. I wanted to enjoy the new life that had just been born. Instead I'd cry at random times during the day, sometimes while holding my baby girl.
Still, only a few days after it all went down, I went to visit a congregant. Even though the vote was private, I knew where she fell. All the Elders voted to let me go. I also knew, many of those votes were manipulated and strong armed. "It is the only way to keep the church together." (It led to a church split.) "Deacons don't have votes." (They did.) "This is family." (That one was true.) More alarming was the communities words, "Oh, I see it happened again." I would eventually learn it happened in some from to almost every minister post 1980. Why 1980? That's when the church split over charismatic differences. The split eventually failed, but the damage remained. Researching their history I heard and read of ministers damaged and broken by the church.
They always tried to oust the minister privately, but they couldn't do that with me. I came broken. Seriously, right after I took the call I broke my ankle. Then, once I was on the mend, I got pregnant. Everything hit the fan just as I was in a place to be well.
I knew my life would take certain turns after I left that town. In the beginning, there would be morbid curiosity. We like to look at a car crash. There is something that causes us to drive just a little slower than we need to so we can crane our neck back and look. I knew immediately following the event I could have capitalized on the gore. At the same time, I knew I needed to stay quiet; to let the event sit. I wasn't called to speak of woundedness. I was called to map the road to healing. I'm not called to be the poster child for the Flashy New Church™. My experience is not one that is comfortable, or easily branded. I'm also not unique. This one probably breaks my heart the most. There are broken ministers, congregants, and churches all over the United States.
The problem is, and yes you can call this a problem, we are stuck on the car wreck.
"Wow did you hear what so-in-so church did?"
"That was horrible!"
Then out of sight; out of mind.
No one talks about the car crash when they get to the grocery store. By then, you are more worried whether you are going to get the right brand of snack cake. Once your home, it might only be an interesting side note to tell anyone home Then it's forgotten.
Meanwhile, someone is still suffering. Someone is possibly mourning. Everyone wants to tell their story, but no one wants to listen to recovery. Recovery is boring. Recovery is only interesting if something flashy happens. We want a good story. Who can put the church's problem in a click-bait title, where the problem is solved in exactly three steps?
The answer will be simple to understand, like, "Eat less; exercise more." Doing the answer will be blood sweat and tears. Sometimes, literally. Getting the answer will be like getting pregnant, and following the answer will be like carrying that answer in your gut for nine months. It will be about ripping you apart to get to God's grace and love. It's about getting to the wilderness, and being tempted. Then, when that flashy choice is given, turning it down. It's about knowing everyone has moved along, and you are now without support. This is the right way to deal with being sent down the wrong path. If that's not enough for you: here's the one liner. The obvious line that will get us on track is this:
The answer to the church is getting to know the community they serve, and acting in that community with Christ's love.
I love this rock. I've shared it before. A few years back Atlanta had a really bad flood. Six Flags, and I-20 next to it was under water. All the neighborhoods in and around Clarkdale Elementary was completely submerged. (The smell of mold lingered in the area for years. There are still houses that remain vacant, because they simply need to be torn down There is nothing else that can be done with them..) Part of the road in front of our home was washed out. It made it precarious to pull out of our drive way for months. My husband worked at a school. The road next to it was completely washed out. That's where I got this rock. Before the flood it was buried under feet of dirt and pavement. I keep it to remind myself of the fragility of life. Even things we think are solid can be ripped apart in the matter of hours, maybe minutes.
That's not what I'm here to talk about today. When the waters receded, and cleanup began, I watched the world being put back together. There were four areas, near to where I lived, that were hit pretty bad. Off of 92 there was an old bridge that was completely obliterated. There was the road in front of our home that was half way washed out. There was the road next to the school that was completely washed out; where I got my rock. Finally, there was Clarkdale Elementary School, completely flooded out.
There was something that didn't happen to these places after the flood. They were not rebuilt to be exactly what they had previously been. The storm came. It left, and these areas were found lacking the ability to withstand such a situation. Even in the case of Clarkdale, where there was nothing that could be done to keep those waters out of the school, they had the opportunity to make it better for those kids. Not only was the road in front of my home repaired with extra fortification, a fence was put up to protect people from the chasm that lay on the other side of it. The bridge off of 92 was never rebuilt. A better path was chosen for the cars to cross. As for the school road? A bigger pipe was installed so it could handle the waters if they were to return.
The point is, when a structure is tested, and fails, the new structure should be built to withstand the very thing that made it fail.
Bringing the focus to the church, in many ways the storm is over. For the American Church, we've come through broken, and in pieces. Over the past half decade I've been to many of these churches, and you have no idea how many just want to rebuild to some pre-storm status. More than that, we think we can do it when our very core has been washed away to almost nothing. We can't do that! Why are we so nuts?!
The answer is incredibly simple. Research how to rebuild with the churches new situation in mind. Don't discount new technology (i.e. research) when rebuilding. Follow the new plan!
The problem is extremely difficult. We can't do any of that until the church accepts the storm came, and things can't be done the same way anymore. In some cases, it's just making what they already have better. In many cases, it's completely changing things up. That's scary. Old "building plans" can't be used. (You know, the classic method of finding a new Vision. Doesn't work anymore. Congregants know how to hijack the system in their favor.) Churches are so focused on what they had, they can't accept what God wants them to be.
Solution: Have a funeral for the church of the 1990's, and mean it. You can't bring it back, and you can't move on until you let it go. The storm is over. Pick up the pieces and rebuild.
8 The Lord’s word came to Elijah: 9 Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. 10 Elijah left and went to Zarephath. As he came to the town gate, he saw a widow collecting sticks. He called out to her, “Please get a little water for me in this cup so I can drink.” 11 She went to get some water. He then said to her, “Please get me a piece of bread.”
12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.”
13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. 14 This is what Israel’s God, the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t run out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15 The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. 16 The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.
- 1 Kings 17:8-16 CEB
On Wednesday the Powerball Jackpot reached a record 1.5 billion dollars. Never had the jackpot been so high. My husband meditated on it for awhile. "I couldn't ever own that much money," he said to me. "I would end up giving most of it away." I tend to agree with him. I think our family got to this mental realization because our priorities were put into question. We lost everything that wasn't really needed, and had to really work for what was truely important. It left us seeing God's abundance and God's manna in new light. This month I didn't even have enough money to help officiate a friends funeral. (I just want a glass of water. 1.5 billion gallons of it would be more than enough to drown.)
I think scripture helps us see what we shouldn't do with such an abundant windfall. In Genesis 26:12-33, Isaac follows God's instruction and comes upon a windfall crop. He could share from his abundance, helping those around him in famine. Instead he keeps it. What results is his neighbors taking away his water, and kicking him out. How the story might have changed if he had been a good steward of God's blessing. We will never know.
Conversely, we have the widow. She had almost nothing; just enough to feed her son and herself for one more meal. This is like the story of Isaac, in that there is another famine. It diverges from the initial story, in that God's not blessing some huge crop. Instead, God asks Elijah to go to a widow, who is preparing the last of her provisions for her and her son, and bless what little she already has.
The first story was basically an ancient Near East lottery win, and the devastation that followed. The second was God's manna, God's "just enough," coming in and taking care of three people.
Here's some questions to consider the day after the drawing: