GROWING IN GRACE
The other day I retrieved my journal where I recorded my New Year’s goals and resolutions and a weird thing struck me. In those pages were the hopes and dreams of a year that, at the time, was a blank slate. And, looking back, it felt like I was reading something I wrote years ago. So much has happened since that feeling of excitement over a new year: a global pandemic, upheaval over racial injustice, and political divisions that have reached new heights of vitriol as we debate things as straightforward as science and taking basic precautions to ensure the safety of our neighbors. Added to this for me is that on July 5 I was in an automobile accident and walked away (thankfully) with a severely broken radius – something a short hospital stay, a plate and some screws, and physical therapy are continuing to heal.
What a year, right? If we can’t agree on anything else, can we agree this is NOT the year we all wanted it to be?
So, what do we do now, with these final four months of a turbulent year? How do we salvage this year and end it better than it started?
I think one way this year could end well is to lean into what I think could be an amazing by-product of such a hectic and unpredictable year: by cultivating a sense of resiliency. The dictionary defines residency as: “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”
In the church, this global crisis only accelerates the sense of decline and impending doom. We’ve spent the last generation watching our attendance decline, budgets hemorrhage, buildings become increasingly under-utilized, and disciples become fewer and farther between. This pandemic has driven many of us to wring our hands in despair as we scramble to go online with church only to pray every day that somehow, some way things will just go back to the way they were before. Like Dorothy, we long to click our magic heels to make the good ‘ole days – the days when our churches were full – return. And yet, deep down in our souls, we know those days aren’t coming back. Life never works in reverse; you can only move forward.
This is where resiliency comes into play. We need to cultivate a spirit in ourselves and in our churches where we see challenges as opportunities to lean into the mystery of God – a mystery that leads us to think in new ways, design new ways of being and doing church, and calls us to find life and energy in the in-between. Bishop Bryan wrote a great column on a wonderful book by Susan Beaumont. This book goes in depth about the idea of liminal thinking. This word, liminal, comes from the Latin word, limen, which means “threshold.”
If 2020 teaches us nothing else, I hope it teaches us that we are in a liminal season in the life of the church. We don’t have all of the answers — heck, we hardly have any answers. But we can have a residency that bears witness to the fact that even when we don’t know the answers, we can live into the truth that, by the resurrection power of God, the future can and will be better than the past.
My favorite story about resiliency is a story about my grandfather. My grandfather had a stroke in his middle-aged years, leaving him with limited use of one side of his body. He had to learn to write with a different hand, do things one-handed, and he drug his leg when he walked. The story goes that my grandfather had a tree cut down in his yard but they forgot to grind up the stump. My aunt tried to tell my grandfather to just call a stump grinding company to finish the job. He wouldn’t have it. He insisted on doing it himself. So he got a hatchet and proceeded to chop at the stump until he gave out. He went back, every day for the next few months, to chop at the stump, a little at a time, until that the stump was finally ground up.
Rather than wringing our hands in despair, it’s time for the church to grab a hatchet and find the little bit we can do every single day to serve the kingdom of God. This means garnering the courage to make tough decisions – even decisions that challenge the ways we’ve always done church locally, as a conference, and as a denomination. This liminal moment can be our moment to shine. More important, it is God’s moment to call us into new and faithful ways of being the Church of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.