Love and The Hard Work of Following.

This morning’s thinking is inspired by an article written by Rev. Melech Thomas who asks some hard questions and proposes that the answer to all of them is authentic love. Please read his article first, then journey back here for some thoughts that it inspired in me.

These past two years (and even before), I’ve found myself in so many “Church in the Time of COVID” conversations with PCUSA and ecumenical colleagues which reflect much of what Rev. Thomas describes in his article. Although most of us still feel called, we also note that it has become increasingly more difficult to share the fullness of our whole selves and the gifts we have received through training, education, and experience. We now face more anxious systems, some of which are experiencing for the first time the sudden emergence of long-hidden pain and latent conflict; an awareness of the aging congregation, a lack of meaningful relationships, increasing worries about decline (which may have been been a decades long reality but never really talked about), and a deep sense of disconnect between previous and current realities. many of these worries may have been present pre-COVID but the pandemic accelerated many of the conditions we were already experiencing. This has impacted almost every aspect of traditional ministry.

So what’s the solution? Is there a solution? I am so grateful to Rev. Thomas for his reminder that a way through might be for the church to turn to 1 John (especially chapter 4), and the call to love:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

1 John 4:7

Rev. Thomas’ call to love has left me wondering not only about the impact we might see when we embrace God’s love for us and pour that love on each other, but also how this might help all of us do some of the hardest work we will ever do in the church. As is typical for me, I am left with more questions. But this is also part of the new world we live in so there it is…

Here are 5 thoughts/questions I think might be useful for us to engage:

  1. Because so much in the past two years has been brand new, we yearn for stability and cling to those lifelines we know and trust. Yet when the anxiety persists and our discomfort continues to grow, we feel uneasy, even ashamed to admit that we don’t like how things are going AND that we don’t know how to change the trajectory. How can we create a loving and grace-filled space where we can admit our pain, our worries, and especially our fears of failing so that we can nurture creativity and create resilience among us as the pace of change continues to accelerate and our context continues to become more unpredictable?
  2. Many of us are sitting with our worries about questions that feel too overwhelming, and for which there seem to be no easy answer. Engaging questions like “what do we do about half-empty sanctuaries, closing churches, deficit budgets, lack of volunteers, staff/clergy/congregant burnout” make us feel too precarious especially when most of us aren’t sure where to go or what to do? How can we learn to love in ways that help us courageously enter into these questions AND that teach us that it’s OK to ask for help from people with skills and knowledge to guide these difficult and essential conversations? 
  3. The past is an important part of our current reality but history-telling is not always joyful. Because not many of us have had the experience of sharing truths in ways that bring healing and encouragement, we tend to bury our pain rather than struggle together in hope. How can we learn to love one another as companions in a courageous life that engages the experiences of the past and present as the way through, even when what we see or hear or experience isn’t always pleasant?
  4. Most of us are generally more comfortable with definitions, categories, answers, facts, norms, data, and especially, binaries like “yes/no,” “not this/but that,” “on/off,” “me/you,” or “like/dislike.” But these days, we find ourselves engaging what feels like a dramatic culture shift that is more “neither this/nor that,” and “also this/and also that,” and where spectrums and context-specific analysis are essential go-to resources. How can we learn the skills of curiosity, wondering, and asking “why questions” in order to both better understand our context and deepen our love for each other? 
  5. When we feel uncomfortable, upset, disconnected, it’s much easier to  move to a new call or move to a new church or just disconnect from organized religion entirely. How can we learn a new way to love that will help us not only build our capacity to endure, but which will also teach us how to work together to find the pathway toward our shared goal of sharing God’s good news?

To say “love is the answer” may seem trite. But this is so much more than a bumper sticker slogan. Out of love, we were made in God’s image. Out of deep love, God has stayed with us in spite of humanity’s multiple and massive betrayals over multiples of millennia. Because of God’s love, God took on the fullness of humanity in Jesus – the fullness of our fragility,  the fullness of our physicality, the fullness of our hopes, the fullness of our joys, the fullness of our pain, the fullness of our sin. And the path of Jesus is our path now: a path that will always take us into the heart of conflict, into the depth of need, into the complexities of life in community. And it is in THIS love that we will find our answers. THIS love will show us the way.

(Thanks to Rev. Chuck Goodman, the pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Springfield, IL and the moderator of the Presbytery of Great Rivers who posted this article on his Facebook feed this morning.

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