Autumn ripens into winter...

There is a gentle, white frosting falling on the Berkshires this afternoon
that will continue for a few more hours. While I write, friends in the congregation are both currently in surgery or recovering from surgery at home. Other church families are trying to figure out what comes next after loss, death or physical challenge touch their lives. And all of us are going a little deeper into the wisdom of Advent that calls us to take stock of what is real within and among us - and then keep alert for outbreaks of grace in the most unlikely places.

One surprise for me came during the 2+ hours I spent on-line with a person from Norton Anti-Virus tech support earlier today. She was a genuinely helpful and attentive guide from... who knows? India? Pakistan? And while I once or twice struggled to hear what she was telling me, she also skillfully led me through a bewildering process that eventually cleaned-up my beleaguered computer. For about 45 minutes everything became surreal as I watched in awe as the techie took control of my lap top (after my sign-off, of course.) From someplace far away, my cursor was moving - opening and closing various programs - and downloading others. And when it was all said and done, the 7+ year old dinosaur worked like new. I was grateful and humbled.

Another surprise came in an article posted on The Jewish Daily Forward by Jay Michaelson. I am going to quote part of it below because it resonates with something I have been sensing for the last few months. Namely, as a person of faith, there is no point in fighting what is inevitable: this is a time of religious retrenchment. So instead of being anxious and distraught, rather than second-guessing and blaming myself, why not live faithfully and playfully into the best my spiritual tradition offers and trust that God will take care of the rest? Brother Michaelson is lamenting the sad state of Jewish affairs in 2014 but his words are true in the Roman and Reformed churches, too:
Reading a Jewish newspaper — and writing for one — is often an exercise in masochism. Of course, the Forward has inspiring pieces on the gefilte fish revival and the first female-majority Forward 50. But when you look at the “hard news” and follow the trend lines, it’s easy to feel despair.

If you’re a progressive, Israel’s “Jewish State” law is but the latest in a long line of anti-democratic, nativist and thuggish actions by the present government, a government subsidized by American billionaires, one of whom has recently opined that Israel need not remain a democracy. He’s already put his money where his mouth is. And if you’re a conservative, you likely see Israel as increasingly demonized on the world stage: On college campuses and in European parliaments, the Palestinian narrative seems to be winning.

Meanwhile, here at home, mainstream Jewish denominations are shrinking, like those of Christianity, and no one has a solution. The American Jewish community in 2025 will be disproportionately ultra-Orthodox, with a shrunken base that is increasingly ethnocentric. If you think the Jewish institutional wagons are circled now, just wait until the circle is smaller.

At this point in a piece of this type, most writers would say, “But don’t give up! Don’t despair! Recommit yourself to fighting the good fight, to writing good checks, to being the change you want to see in the world!” I’m not going to do that. I’m done. I’m in despair mode, and I’m not getting out of it. It’s December, after all. I think it’s better to give in to despair. Admit it. Kick the tires of it. How does it feel? Is everything really so terrible?

It’s a delusion that the microclimates we find ourselves in, at this conference or that social justice event, are really the weather of the world. In fact, the whole notion of “be the change” is highly misleading.

Something like this is becoming an inner meditation as autumn ripens into
winter: these are hard times of institutional stagnation for many churches. Sure, tons of people self-identify as spiritual but not religious - and I think this group holds some potential for our age - but it doesn't help me a whole lot right now as I try to steer a 250 year old institution through uncharted waters. I need resources and people able to commit themselves to the way of compassion, justice and humility. I need families willing to train their children - and be trained themselves - in the counter-cultural values of Christ. I need colleagues who are energized and unafraid of being gospel women and men. And, all too often, it seems as if our busy, frantic, consumption-oriented culture has hold of so many of us by the throat that we are immobilized by fear or fatigue. So maybe this moment in time is teaching me two truths. The first is nicely said by Jay Michaelson in the Jewish Forward article:

Financially, I think there are sufficient resources and momentum in what might be called “boutique” Jewish communities to sustain these enclaves of creative Jewishness for at least a generation. Maybe more, given endowments and boards and buildings. And creatively, I think ours is among the most fertile periods in all of Jewish history: more innovation; more hybridization; more exchange of the treasury of Jewish cultural, spiritual and communal resources.

I do not think any of these will “save the Jews,” if by this designation we mean the kind of large, multiplex-scale religious and cultural community that most of us have known all our lives. Most of these people don’t need saving; they’re leaving and they’re fine with that. We’re the ones who don’t like it.
But there are enough stewards of the Jewish heritage that it will not disappear from the earth. Even if Israel continues its spiral into moral bankruptcy, it’s highly unlikely that a nuclear power will simply cease to exist, even if its character is forcibly changed by an international community exasperated with a racial non-democracy. And even if some large synagogues can no longer afford the upkeep of their edifices, there will be a vibrant, diverse shearit yisrael, a remnant of Israel, that, like the talmudic academy at Yavneh, will keep the fires burning for those of us still interested in them.

It’s an interesting spiritual practice to hold both sides of this equation — the renaissance and the ruin — simultaneously. Mass-market American Judaism, and mainstream political Zionism, have lost much of their integrity. And yet at the same time, the alternatives to both are exciting. Here’s what Gandhi actually said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do.”

My world - my way of being church and community - is shrinking. And it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. There are, indeed, likely enough resources to keep some parts of it alive - so let that be enough for now. The other truth is that given these facts on the ground, maybe I can finally let go of any thinking that blames my leadership for these inevitable cultural changes. For most of my life I've been a pastor who needed to get things done. I took charge, I organized and worked hard to get results and I've been modestly successful in revitalizing the congregations I've served.

But right now, guess what? Our shrinkage is bigger than me; it neither started
on my watch and it certainly won't end here either. So why not let this time honor another type of renewal? One of joy in the simple acts of compassion and justice? One of appreciation for the little acts of beauty and hope? After all, most of what God does in Jesus Christ is hidden, yes? That is what Jesus called the blessed mystery that the powerful always fail to see:

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Back in the 60s, Donovan sang "Season of the Witch." I loved that weird-ass, rambling tune then and still do now. But ours isn't the season of the witch; no, my hunch is that this is the season for a rest.

NOTE:  Later in the day I read this article which gives the analytical documentation re: shrinking - and learning to love it. Check it out @ http://www.wsj.com/articles/decline-in-church-building-reflects-changed-tastes-and-times-1417714642

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