Getting the Church Ready for a New Time

I remember vividly the first time I knew that something was very wrong. It was March 14, and I attended a funeral. COVID-19 had just emerged, and my colleagues and I didn’t know what to do. Several hundred people were at the funeral, no one was wearing masks yet, and I was sharing a remembrance. We didn’t fully understand the gravity of what was to come, but all reports were that COVID-19 had become very real.

That Saturday evening, I sent an email to all clergy in the conference, writing, “I know that it is now Saturday evening and Sunday’s a’coming. However, the rapidly evolving face of the Coronavirus Pandemic means that continual reevaluation of safety procedures is necessary… While it is likely too late to contact people before tomorrow morning’s worship, I am asking that you consider suspending in-person worship services until the end of March or until it is deemed safe.”

I also included recommendations such as no hugs or touch; social distancing; no coffee hour; electronic giving; encouraging social media as one way to communicate; learning how to use YouTube, Facebook Live, or live streaming for worship; using Zoom to lead classes or hold meetings; and reaching out into the community so that people can be connected to resources for spiritual, physical, or emotional support.

It’s now eight months later, and our world is still in an upheaval. “We’ve never been here before.” I’ve heard that from dozens of people over the last nine months. We’re still in an in-between time, betwixt and between. The word for a time like this is liminality. Author, teacher, and consultant Susan Beaumont defines liminality as “a quality of ambiguity and disorientation that occurs in transitory situations and spaces when a person or group of people is betwixt and between something that has ended, and a new situation not yet begun.” “Liminal” comes from the Latin word limen, which means “threshold.” A liminal space is a threshold, an in-between space where things pass through and don’t remain.

We’re in a liminal space right now regarding COVID-19, which has changed everything in our world. Last Thursday we had a record 4,562 new cases in Iowa, with 839 hospitalizations. The highest previous daily total had been 2,887. We have now surpassed 150,000 total cases in Iowa. Most of the state is definitely in the “red zone,” and we are strongly encouraging our congregations not to meet in-house.

We’re passing through an in-between space in this liminal time because we have no idea when the coronavirus will abate. All we can do is try to provide the best worship we can, take the strongest precautions, wear masks, social distance, and stay home, if possible. Another casualty of COVID-19 is that a number of our churches are struggling financially. When parishioners lose their jobs and/or are not able to worship in their building, programming and mission decline as well as giving. This is especially the case with congregations that have been teetering on the edge of viability.

 

Of course, we’ve experienced other liminal spaces over the past several years. Our differences over human sexuality in The United Methodist Church have created a liminal space, an in-between time as we await the postponed 2020 General Conference in 2021. In this waiting time, various proposals continue to develop that occasion hope for some resolution and a crossing of the threshold. A further liminal space centers around racism. We are struggling to become an anti-racist country and an anti-racist church. When George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck and ignored his cries for help, protests exploded throughout the country against police brutality and have continued through the summer and fall.

In addition, we just emerged from five days of liminality last week as we waited for all ballots in the presidential election to be counted. Now we will enter another liminal time as we wait for the inauguration of President-elect Biden on January 20, 2021. As we continue to sit in this season, between what was and what is next, we wonder how we arrived at such an unsettled time and where we are headed.

Last week the Council of Bishops engaged in a learning experience with Susan Beaumont, author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. To access an online workbook format of Beaumont’s book, click here. Beaumont reminded us that one of the primary characteristics of a liminal season is disruption. We have a sense of unsettledness and disturbance because we don’t know when, where, or how we will emerge and return to normal. Nor do we know what a new normal might look like if there is even such a thing. Beaumont also shared with us how a pattern of emergence is found in liminal times.

  • There is a disturbance of the status quo.
  • This disturbance causes disruption/disharmony of our practices.
  • We empty ourselves in this liminal space: waiting, vulnerable, silent, and
  • We achieve coherence (integrating what is new into what is already known) by clarifying what wants to emerge and who will do what according to their gifts.
  • The result is a commitment to the adoption of new narratives and innovative practices, avoiding premature solutions and certainty, and using new metrics to evaluate effectiveness.
  • Throughout the process, it is critical to be clear about our core values and missional priorities.

Most important is to recognize that in liminal times of distress, uncertainty, and dislocation, God wants to teach us something new and give us a new identity. In a recent interview with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks, Beaumont says, “Every one of our biblical heroes is a story of someone transformed – who went from an old identity to a new identity. We can see that in the figure of Moses. We can see that in Job and Jonah, in Abraham and Sarah. Everybody is drawn out of, ‘I was this kind of person in this settled place, and then that identity undid itself and God took me to a new identity.’ Many of us will have ministries entirely defined by liminality, as Moses did.

“If we can contextualize what we’re experiencing now in light of that instead of looking at this period of time as a ‘woe is us’ period of time, we can come out of it with a deep sense of hopefulness and expectation about what God might be doing with us and the identity that we are being drawn toward. This is not that somehow we have failed the church, but that God is getting the church ready for a new time and we’re key players in it.”

In this liminal season in our world, clergy and laity together are called to actively lead our churches and engage our communities in new ways. At the same time, we must care for ourselves and each other. What unique activities/programs can we offer for our communities right now that will bring people together and enhance cohesiveness and solidarity? How can we engage disturbance by innovation and experimentation? How can we embrace this liminal season to learn new ways of living out our faith that reach far beyond the walls of the church?

How can you and I get the church ready for a new time?

Complicated Blessings

William Sloane Coffin Jr. wrote the prayer in 1983 when he was the pastor at Riverside Church in New York City. I had just started my ministry the year before and was inexperienced, idealistic, and naïve. But one phrase in his prayer has remained with me all these years: “And grant us to count our more complicated blessings.”

A Prayer for the Church in These Times

O God, whose mercy is ever faithful and ever sure, who art our refuge and our strength in time of trouble, visit us, we beseech thee – for we are in trouble. We need a hope that is made wise by experience and is undaunted by disappointment. We need an anxiety about the future that shows us new ways to look at new things but does not unnerve us. As a people, we need to remember that our influence was greatest when our power was weakest. Most of all, we need to turn to thee, O God, and our crucified Lord, for only his humility and his strength can heal and free us. O God, be thou our sole strength in time of trouble. In the midst of anxiety, grant us the grace to count our blessings – the simple ones: health, food, sleep, one another, a spring that is bursting out all over, a nation which, despite all, has so much to offer so many.

And, grant us to count our more complicated blessings: our failures, which teach us so much more than success; our lack of money, which points to the only truly renewable resources, the resources of our spirit; our lack of health, yea, even the knowledge of death, for until we learn that life is limitation, we are surely as formless and as shallow as a stream without its banks. Send us forth into a new week with a gladsome mind, free and joyful in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.  

When I pray, whether privately or in public, I often begin by thanking God for my many blessings: faithful parents; beautiful children and grandchildren; the opportunity to go to college; and the privilege of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, called to embody and share God’s love.

Each one of us has been lovingly created by God, blessed in order to be a blessing to others. As I have matured in my life and faith, however, I have discovered that there is also much pain, disappointment, and heartache in our world that calls for a response. There are not always easy answers to our questions, and in the midst of sighs too deep for words, I realize now more than ever the more complicated blessings of which Coffin wrote.

  • Failure is my constant companion, yet God continues to surround me with love and urges me to keep on keeping on.
  • When my faith falters and I cannot sense the “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:3-5), still Jesus whispers encouragement in my ear.
  • Complicated blessings, which include COVID-19, struggling economies, and a world turned upside, remind us that every life is precious and no one is more deserving than another.
  • Our lives are ultimately not our own. Rather, they are about how God desires for us to serve through personal sacrifice as well as by a sensitivity to the oppressed and the downtrodden.
  • We are connected to the welfare of all living creatures on this earth, which becomes complicated when we are unwilling to address our complicity in the inequalities that plague our world. Bearing the load of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation leads to liberation.

  • Our long and complicated journey toward becoming an anti-racist conference, an anti-racist denomination, and an anti-racist world gives us the courage to admit our own fears and prejudices and take active steps to dismantle racism. Anthea Butler writes in Faith and Leadership (Duke Divinity School), “In a season of reckonings, forgiveness is not forgetting. Extending forgiveness isn’t simply about comforting or healing those who have been wronged. There are emotional and psychological effects for all of us, especially when there is no hope of restitution or resolution.”
  • Our inability to let go of power and entitlement is challenged by our responsibility to create a more just world so that all people have the opportunity to become who God created them to be.
  • As we prayerfully await the results of our local, state, and national elections, we are reminded that government of the people, by the people and for the people continually creates a new birth of freedom.

The complicated blessings of liberty and justice for all must lie at the center of our commitment as followers of Jesus Christ to deeper levels of discipleship. Only when we are willing to give up ourselves, take up our cross, and humbly follow Jesus can we truly bless, serve, and empower others on their journey.

Regardless of how the election results come in tomorrow, may we all turn to our more complicated blessings to embody the hope that is in us. William Sloane Coffin Jr. offers one more complicated blessing.

May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short;
Grace to risk something big for something good;

And grace to remember the world is now
too dangerous for anything but the truth and
too small for anything but love.

The Great Letting Go

“What’s your favorite time of year?” I asked a friend as we were walking.

“Fall. I love this time of year! The leaves are changing, it’s getting colder, and the days are growing shorter. I really like the clouds and darkness of fall and winter.”

“I’m just the opposite.” I said. “I dislike fall and always have. I love light and sun, and when it gets dark so early, it’s depressing. Besides, fall was always the time when school started, and as a kid I never wanted to give up the freedom and joy of being outside playing all summer.  Summer has always been my favorite season, and I never want it to end.”

But there’s more to it. A few years ago, I finally realized why fall is challenging for me. Fall is a time of change and movement, and I often struggle with transitions. During the summer, nature explodes with growth, light, energy, warmth, and fruitfulness. Fall, by contrast, is the time when crops have been harvested, fields are plowed under, leaves fall to the ground, and the earth becomes fallow. Wood is chopped, silos are filled, warm clothes come out, storm windows replace screens, and we anticipate hunkering down for the winter. What has been given in such abundance is now taken away.

No wonder I am wary of fall. I don’t want to let go of summer, contemplate six months of darkness and isolation, and be forced inside my house, let alone inside my heart, where God waits to teach me patience, hope, and the value of rest and growth.

On my daily walks, I check out the leaves. From a maple tree, I pick three leaves that have not yet made their way to the ground.  One is green, one is half green and half red, and one is red. These leaves reflect not only the progression of fall but the letting go that characterizes the spiritual life.

I confess that I am not ready to yield fully to God. I want to live life on my own terms and remain green forever. At the same time, I yearn to align myself with the fullness of life that God offers. I grudgingly allow myself to turn partly red but keep one foot firmly planted in the life I desire.

I remember John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” I turn a brilliant red, offering myself completely to God’s cycle of life and death. As I prepare to die to all that prevents me from becoming who God created me to be, my color is a witness to the obedience and trust that guide my life’s journey.  “The summer ends, and it is time to face another way.” (Wendell Berry, Fourth Sabbath Poem, 1984)

The earth prepares with me. Squirrels hoard acorns. The coats of animals thicken. Deer are active through the winter, their digestive systems adapting to a changed diet. Bears gorge themselves as they anticipate the long rest of hibernation. Birds head south, finding their way together. Carved pumpkin faces delight. Children roll in the leaves.

Of course, the word “fall” does not come from a bed of leaves but from the sun. The amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface determines the change of seasons. As the earth slowly falls away from the sun, the intensity of light lessens. The light then “springs” back in six months.

Finally, there is The Great Letting Go, and I fall, playfully surrendering to the ground, where I lie, waiting to be transformed and ultimately reborn in due season. The losing of my life: surrender, emptiness, melancholy.

Letting go of possessions, children, perfection, youth, dreams, productivity, relationships, addictions, anger, and old ways of thinking. Completeness in nature. It’s done for the season.

Waiting.
Gather it in and wait;
Wait for the cold;
Wait for restoration;
Wait for hope;
The ebb and flow of life… the spirituality of fall.
All things pass away.

Completely free, I am able to see myself and God more clearly. I recite Psalm 8, which I memorized during Disciple Bible Study many years ago, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

I can’t tear my eyes away from the heavens, claiming the beauty and gifts of the darkness in my own life.  “I will love the light, for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness, for it shows me the stars.” (Og Mandino)

As I walk, I wonder and ponder, eyes and ears open to God’s leading. I ask the hard questions. What do I need to let go of in order for Jesus to fill me up again? Disappointment, bitterness, fear, hopelessness, helplessness?

In the midst of COVID-19, ours struggles around racism, worries about the future of our beloved UMC, the health of our local churches, a farm economy that has suffered great losses this fall, and fears around the future of our beloved United Methodist Church, there is a great letting go.

·      A hawk glides through the sky. I, too, long to fly free.
·      The wind whistles through the trees. I long to follow the wind of the Holy Spirit.
·      I rejoice in the warmth of the fall sun, knowing that those precious days are already        giving way to the coldness and darkness of winter. God, I long for the warmth of your love in my life so that I can warm the hearts of others.
·      Just as the clear water reflects my own image back to me, so I long to reflect God’s grace back to others.
·      I long for the faith of trees firmly rooted in the earth, trees that trust God enough to offer their leaves to death, believing in the new life that will return in the spring.
·      I long for Jesus to carry me through periods of dormancy, knowing that God can work through me even when I cannot see it.
·      I long to be nimble as the white-tailed deer bounding through the forest, always ready to go where God calls.
·      I long to clear out the undergrowth weighing down my spirit so that I can see and smell the flowers that still hang on to life.
·      I long for the drops of dew that are my tears to be a source of healing and hope for others.
·      I long to say goodbye to what no longer matters rather than cling to what I do not need.
·      I long to respond to the persistent call, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  (Isaiah 43:1b)

Like nature, I am dying to live.  The Great Letting Go.