We are better, together, through the Holy Spirit.
You may have read on facebook, or seen a newsclip of the human chain that formed to pull a family caught in undertow to the shore. I almost drowned as a child, caught in a river’s current, so any story about undertow catches my attention and raises my anxiety level. It seems recent storms and rains changed the normal flow of the undertow off of this particular stretch of coastline, so a family found itself being taken away from where it most wanted to be: safe, on the shore.
Instead of giving them up for dead, or deciding that the situation was someone else’s problem, a human chain of over 80 people formed to reach out to them and bring them to land. They didn’t blame them for getting into trouble, that they should have known better: the crowd saw that help was needed, and they worked together to provide that help. And I believe that the miracle of a group of strangers working together to help people in need is the work of the Holy Spirit. One person trying to help might well have drowned in the attempt. Two or three folks would not be enough. But a whole community? That can work miracles. The Holy Spirit works to create good.
The change in currents because of storms caused a need. And folks responded. In the same the change in circumstances for the church in Jerusalem caused a need: gentile, Greek-speaking people were joining the church, becoming part of the community, and some were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
It’s easy to visualize: frustration over language differences, impatience with the need to slow down, not understanding that someone wants barley soup and wheat bread, not barley bread and potato soup and so just throwing down what they have in front of the widow grumbling in a foreign language.
There was a growth problem, and the disciples decided together to delegate, create a new group in the community – the deacons, who two millennia later are still a caring and serving arm of the church. Rather than insist on things staying the same because that’s how we’ve always done it, the apostles met together, prayed, considered, and did as Jethro advised Moses to do – delegated responsibility, so that the church could grow, and pull more people to Jesus.
Early church had growth problem, which is a good problem to have. Needed to respond, new way to act in order to thrive and grow, rather than stay the same and eventually be meaningless and irrelevant.
We too have had a recent growth problem – new people in the bell choir, and rather than insist on keeping the bell tables where they’ve “always” been, it was decided to move them to a new place in the sanctuary. Not because one person insisted, but after discussion, and consultation, and consideration by Session because anytime the sanctuary is rearranged, Session gets consulted. And the Bell Choir tried the new arrangement, and it works, so the Bells can continue to grow and thrive and expand their community and the work of the gospel.
We had our own growth problem, so we moved music tables. And the way the decision was made was because Calvin went back to the church in Acts for how to organize the church. Not with a hierarchy, but with councils who had various responsibilities. Equal councils, not one spiritually superior to one another, but equally ordained, to different functions. Deacons are not the lesser-rank of service, then the more spiritual Elders, then the clearly spiritually superior Ministers of Word and Sacrament. We are one in the Spirit, and better together when the Holy Spirit works through us.
That is why we pray to open meetings: to ask the Holy Spirit to transform our personal agendas into a search for the mind of Christ for the committee, for the work, for our church. It’s not magic words: presto, chango, do-what-I-want-o; it’s an appeal for the Spirit to guide our thoughts and direct our words. And we pray to close meetings, in effect saying, “Lord, this is your church. Bless what we’ve done that is pleasing to you, and change what needs changing. We release our plans to your control.”
When the Holy Spirit works through us, we are better together. We are wiser, together. We are more knowledgeable, together. We can see a bigger picture, together.
And beyond the bell choir tables, there is a bigger problem. We are blessed to have several people under 40, we are blessed to have several members over 85. In between, we have wonderful servants of God, mostly between the ages of 50 – 80. We are not the only church missing the age group of 20 – 39. According to Barna, in a study done in 2014 and referred to in an article I will link to at the end of this page, only 2 out of 10 millenials think church attendance matters, and 35% perceive churches as a negative force in our society*1.
There are literally millions of people being pulled away from the shore, who do not have a safe place to be, and where is our energy in creating a human chain to bring them to God, to Jesus, to a real faith?
The Holy Spirit is at work in us, and it is because of the Holy Spirit that this congregation continues to exist. I spent last week reading Session minutes from 2002 – 2013. That was a “fascinating” time for this church. The reason our congregation exists is that God still has work for us to do, together, to draw people from danger, loneliness, boredom, fear, alienation, into meaningful work and a community that loves them, with all their doubts and questions.
Where is our energy to find out how and why we can respond to changes in our nation’s culture and the generational differences so that we can be a human chain to help people caught in the tide of frustration, despair, or trying to find their way to a place where they can be themselves and do something that matters? Out of the undertow, on to holy ground.
The Spirit continues to work in us and through us because we received the Spirit at our baptism. But it takes practice to listen to the Spirit, and the Spirit can be quieted – sarcasm which closes hearts from fear and keeps people from sharing; mistaking silence for consent, when people just shut down and wait for someone to stop talking instead of sharing their insights, and making things drag on. We can squelch the Spirit by putting our focus on our own needs, rather than seeking God’s will and praying to be of use.
Practicing lectio divina, a way of reading scripture to hear the Spirit speak to you, or using examen – reflecting on where your energy was high and positive during the day, where you felt low or drained – can reveal the Spirit’s direction. The Spirit is at work in you, learning to listen is what takes practice.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. So every time I start down the stairs to the kitchen, I discover, again, that the stairwell is dark, very dark, once I get to the landing with the restroom. So I have to walk very carefully down the last set of steps. Every time. I’ve been doing this for two years, and I still decide not to turn on the lights at the top of the stairs .. because maybe this time it won’t be dark. Right. A little touch of insanity is in all of us.
Instead of doing the same thing over and over, and letting the church community shrivel, the Jerusalem church sought God’s wisdom, and did a new thing, deacons, so the church could grow and pull more people to Jesus. Like vinegar, peppermint, cinnamon, or salt, we are called to add new, good things to our life together so that we can be a human chain and bring folks to a safe shore, to Jesus. The Holy Spirit is at work within us, among us, to do good. May it be so.
*1 “Americans Divided on the Importance of Church”, Barna, 2014. Quoted in “59 Percent of Millennials are Leaving Church and They’re Trying to Tell Us Why” by Sam Eaton, found on faithit.com.