I had the privilege of laying to rest one of the unknown saints of our congregation this afternoon. For me, she was an icon of God: a woman through whom God's light shown as she smiled, laughed, lived and loved. She never made a big impact on the wider community - she was a gentle home body - but her simple acts of tenderness were authentic.
I was struck that nobody from our faith community was present for this farewell except the staff. My hunch is that she fell off the radar of the movers and shakers back in 1968 when profound tragedy struck - and was never able to make it back. No one ever spoke to me of visiting her when I first arrived 8+ years ago and many remained ignorant of her life. After all, when heart break struck so long ago, it was apparently too tragic to deal with back in the day of power and prominence. I can't say exactly how she came upon my awareness, but she was one of the first home bound people I visited - and she's been a blessing to me ever since.
In anticipation of a new year in ministry - one in which my role is going to shift profoundly as well as our way operating as a congregation, too - I've been rereading David Ray's The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches. It is very insightful. One paragraph clarifies so much for me - including why and how some people fall off the map for others and never return - in a chapter entitled "theories and tools for understanding smaller churches." The late Lyle Schaller has noted that smaller churches are different from other sizes of church, but not all smaller churches are the same. All have a distinctive history, appeal and sense of self. Our congregation falls into this category:
The once large or remnant smaller church... a prevalent and often troubled reality in the
USA. It has a sense of inferiority and - ignoring reality - wants to bring back the good old days when the pews were full and the Sunday school was overflowing. It is at greater risk of closing, because it may not have learned how to be small or is saddled with an albatross of a building it cannot support. A pastor who is quite astute, loving and visionary is required to love the people into loving themselves, to build their self-esteem and morale by leading the people from one successful strategy to another, and to help the church discern a new, God-given identity and reason for being.
In 8+ years we have moved from inferiority and fear to trust and love - mostly - but we haven't broken free of old expectations of being "big" again. In a word, we haven't yet figured out how to love the people who are now present fully and profoundly rather than just the people we've known for a long time. We've made progress, but our future depends on opening our hearts. It also depends on celebrating the blessings of our new smallness. We are now better equipped to respond to real needs. We are now part of the marginalized and vulnerable rather than the movers and shakers. We are now required to fully trust God rather than social standing and bank accounts.
Indeed, we are now ready - and I pray able - to love those who have been invisible to many for too long. It did my heart good to lead the liturgy honoring this unknown saint today. I pray that tomorrow we may take another step towards honoring our new condition as part of the unfolding of God's grace in our generation.
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