Recently I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark. I met her years ago when she was the lone woman preacher among several men at an event for pastors. Dr. Brown Taylor’s writing is lyrical and profound, at once available and deep. Emerging from her intermittent sojourns in darkness, she makes a case for its necessity in life, and most certainly, in the Christian journey of faith.
We have emerged from the dark nights of winter into the glory of spring in the last few weeks, from the period of reflection on the temptation, betrayal, torture and death of Jesus to the glorious resurrection which is echoed in the beauty of budding flowers and greening trees. All of life God creates has seasons and moments of dark and light, of sorrow and joy, of despair and hope, of death and resurrection.
Last week I spent two days with a cohort of presbytery leaders, all of us serving in presbyteries with large urban centers. Many of our churches face the challenge of aging buildings and shrinking membership. This gathering in Washington D.C. exposed us to a few models for unconventional ministries being nurtured in older spaces. One church has a jazz ministry that reaches a neighborhood transitioning to be racially diverse . The neighborhood gathers once a week to share food and listen to concerts featuring professional jazz and blues musicians. Another congregation of about 30 members is selling its building which will be torn down and replaced by badly needed affordable housing. The new building will include dedicated gathering space for the church. Congregations all across the country are “learning to walk in the dark” as we seek ways to repurpose, transform, reclaim, tear down, rebuild, and in some cases move away from real estate that just doesn’t fit God’s call to new ministry.
Eleven of us from Giddings-Lovejoy attended the NEXT Church conference in Chicago a month ago. Preachers and musicians, artists and work shop leaders encouraged us to ponder where God is leading us in this time of great emergence, this time during which we struggle to be relevant to our current context. NEXT Church invites us to rise above the “ways we’ve always done it” to see what new things God is up to in our neighborhoods and churches. We don’t know where we are going. We are learning again to walk in the dark, trusting God’s guidance, because we know that God is already in the future, and though we do not always know where we are going, we trust in the Spirit who walks before us and beside us and guards us from behind.
The Leadership Team, building on the vision of dynamic leaders and vibrant congregations, has established some goals and strategies. We have some ideas about where we believe God is leading us, some plans on how we might travel together.
As I visit with pastors, church leaders and members, common threads weave their way through conversations– dwindling resources and numbers of participants, struggles with factions in congregations, changing demographics, people who are tired of carrying the mission, doing the same activities they’ve always done with fewer resources. Long time members are puzzled that the same deeply meaningful practices of church they have found rewarding are dissed or ignored by younger folk. And young people despair of the older generation ever letting go of “the way we’ve always done it.”
As I child my family traveled long distances across the desert to visit beautiful places. I was fascinated by what appeared to be lakes of water on the road ahead that interrupted the otherwise endless vistas of dirt and sagebrush. To my dismay, we would never arrive at the water. My scientist father explained the “optical illusion” of a mirage. The desert can be a dangerously thirsty place. We are reminded of the people of Israel complaining to Moses, afraid they would die for want of water. God’s people have been on the move since Abraham set forth to journey to a new place, and perhaps before Abraham there were other faithful ones whose stories were not preserved in writings for us to decipher. We are traveling toward our vision of dynamic leaders and vibrant congregations, living into what God is creating, leaving the old behind, pressing on toward the goal, what the Apostle Paul described as, “the upward call of Christ.”
Here we gather. We share our stories of the journey, our dreams of the promised new life, and support and encourage one another along the way with our stories of faith and hope and God’s love, sometimes stumbling together in the dark, but trusting that God is out ahead of us… lighting the way.
I am deeply grateful to God and honored that we are companions together in this journey.