Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Advent Community

The group formally known as the Acts 8 Bible Study will now be known as “The Advent Community”. We will gather in the fellowship hall at 10:30am every Sunday to listen for the call of God (and go there), to pray together, to support one another, and “do life” together. This is not “Bible Study” in a traditional sense, though we will read the Bible together. We believe God has something in mind for us and we want to be a part of it. Everyone is welcome. Come and see what God is up to among us.

Pastor Erik--December 2009

God is going to do what God is going to do. The question is, do we want to be a part of it or not?

On Sunday, October 12 I preached a sermon entitled “What is holding me back from following Jesus?” (you can listen to it here) The Gospel story was Mark 10:17-31 about a rich man who wanted desperately to follow Jesus. He had been very religious his whole life, followed all the rules, done everything right. When he asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to give his riches to the poor and follow him. The rich man didn’t follow Jesus, but went away grieving because he had many possessions. We explored how Jesus asks each of us “What is holding you back right now from following Jesus?” is it money like this rich man? Is it fear? Is it your family? Is it tradition? Is it too much stuff? What is it for you?

After we pondered this individually (on our now classic sticky notes) I shared what the answer was for me, though it was difficult for me to do so. What is keeping me right now from following Jesus is trying to save our congregation. Over the past three years as we’ve engaged in transformational ministry together, I (along with many of you) have poured my heart and soul into this community, helping to lead us through some difficult but important work to discern where God is calling us, and how we might transform to be better able to go where God calls. This spring our council leaders realized that while many changes were happening and our life together was improving, our finances were still in trouble, and the path we were currently on was simply not sustainable without some deeper transformation and more changes. The council invited us all to take this seriously and make a decision to either step up in a whole new way with time, effort, and finances for the sake of mission or to find a way to live together that requires less resources and less energy to maintain. To either lay it all on the line for mission or to choose to maintain what we have as long as that lasts. And in those conversations, folks by and large enthusiastically said “Let’s go for it!”

But in the months that have followed, the actual response has been less enthusiastic. We’re having an unbelievably hard time getting people to participate, even in things like ushering, bringing cookies, and reading the lessons. Attendance on Sunday morning has gone down, not just the temporary summertime “dip” we have come to expect. Offering is below what we need for our budget, and because of that we’re nearly $10,000 behind in our commitment to the wider church and the world through our Synod. Nearly two thirds of members invited to our “member appreciation event” who RSVPed earlier that week, didn’t show up. Events planned by new members did not find support among the congregation, and now many of those new members have disappeared from our community (some are just not around much and some have decided to join other churches). There have been fewer and fewer children in worship. And complaining is high: about the liturgy, about worshiping downstairs during the summer, about all manner of changes that are taking place. And we are hearing more and more “When is this transformation thing going to be over so life can get back to normal?” This is hardly the “let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work” response any of us were hoping for.

And so, for the past 6 months I’ve been praying fervently for our congregation. “Lord, what is it going to take to save this place? Just when we need to step up into your dream for us it seems like we are taking a step back? What more can we do? What more can I do? And as I studied and prayed over Mark 10:17-31 in preparation for that sermon in early October, the voice of the Holy Spirit whispered in my ear “Give up what is holding you back, and follow Jesus.” And I realized that in the previous 6 months (and probably longer) I’d been holding on to the “saving” of Bethlehem Lutheran Church as my personal responsibility—or at least to lead the charge that would save it. And God reminded me that this is not my job, and I was not called to “save” this community, but to lead efforts to transform it. And the transformation was not ours to make happen, but God’s. Our job is simply to figure out what God is up to and do what we can to join in. As rock star Bono of U2 once said: “Stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Get involved in what God is doing -- because it's already blessed. And so, in the face of all this, “I let go, and let God.” And so I pray: “God, if it is your will for Bethlehem Lutheran to continue as your people in mission in this place, let it be so. And if it is not, help me (and all of us) face this reality and live and love one another though it.”

Since that sermon, many people have asked me if I’m “giving up” or “planning to leave.” And I can see how people might have gotten that impression. The answer to both is no. What I’ve given over to God is the “saving” of Bethlehem. I am not intending to fall short on my call to lead us into the future God has for us—even if it’s a future none of us was expecting. I was called to this community to lead our efforts to transform into God’s dream for us and the world—and that is still my calling here. But I had confused that with saving the organization known as Bethlehem Lutheran Church (and maybe you have too). I feel called to be a part of this transformation effort until I simply can’t be any more—at which point God will be calling me to other adventures.

I have to admit given the lower offerings, the threats to leave or withhold giving if changes continue, the lack-luster participation of these past 6 months, and the seeming rejection of the next stage of transformation raises my anxiety level. As the stewardship packets come in this month and we meet to discuss what we are going to do with our budget, I wonder if there will be enough support from the congregation to pay my salary—and I don’t know what this means for my family. And even if the finances come through another year, is it going to be sustainable in the long run? And what about participation and volunteering? The truth is, I simply don’t know what all of this means for us as a community of faith. But the call to follow Jesus is not always meant to be clear, and he certainly didn’t suggest following him would be easy. But it is easier together than alone, and it leads us into deeper community and authentic life together. I can’t imagine a harder, or more rewarding, way to live.

I hope that all of this doesn’t sound too pessimistic, because I don’t doubt that God has something in mind for us, and that God is going to transform this community for the sake of the world. It’s just becoming more and more clear that it’s going to be a different sort of transformation than any of us hoped. More “death and resurrection” than “resuscitation.” But I (and we) can trust that God will come through on God’s promises to us—to be with us on our journey even (maybe especially) in the wilderness. And God has a plan, even if the details are foggy (or frightening) to us. Ruban Duran, from the ELCA Churchwide division we connect with in our transformation efforts, once said “God is going to do what God is going to do. The question is, do we want to be a part of it or not?” And that, I believe, is the question before us all.