I’m pondering a piece on the ethics of Wikileaks and kindred sites. That also has to consider the practical question of what conversations and information are best kept reasonably confidential so that candid thoughts can be shared and complex issues worked out through the sifting of bad ideas, good ideas and crazy ideas.
Maybe you already have some thoughts on the matter and would like to drop me a line, which you can do either here as a comment or in a “private” e-mail. In any case, what you offer may influence what I eventually write, so have at it.
It gets complicated by the fact that we have two seasons going on at the same time. One is a secularized holiday combining the best of European pagan solstice celebrations, often with a thin veneer of the Christmas story. There is a lot about that that I like, especially the decorations and cookies.
The other is so different. It’s the season in which we remember the shame of a young unmarried pregnant woman, her reluctant and equally shamed husband to be, several hard journeys, a lack of common hospitality, danger, murder and escape in which somehow, and most improbably, God’s presence is made known through choirs of angels that almost no one hears, a handful of shepherds, a couple of loony prophets, and some wayward astrologers who could read the stars but not the politics of the times.
I do love the way we dress it up with children’s pageants, massed choirs, music filled midnight masses and all the rest. I wouldn’t change any of it. But I also know how powerful the story, in its raw form, can be for those who are struggling through this blue time of the year. It is that raw story in which, as John says, a light shines that cannot be defeated by darkness. Here, in the dark and among the least of us, is where God is present, hope is present, and our brokenness, the brokenness of the world, begins to be healed. It’s the raw story that I talked about over a cup of coffee with the victim of a Sunday morning house fire for whom there is nothing merry about this Christmas. Trees, lights, parties, carols and all the rest have become repugnant. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire is a frightening thought. But the raw story of the nativity of our Lord is a story of hope. I wonder how we best offer that gift this year? How can I? How can you?
Image by hickory hardscrabble via FlickrThe little rural church I serve, along with two other retired clergy, has two dozen members, if you carefully count everyone whether there or not. No one is young. The church growth gang (now called church transformation) calls it a declining and dying congregation. The thing is, it’s been there for over a hundred years and has never had more than a couple dozen members. People come, people go, people die, people come. Now and then it has tolerated clergy attempting to be full time, but, for the most part, it has got along fine with a long line of supply clergy.
Right now they have the services of three experienced, well respected pastors who provide both continuity and variety. A skeptical colleague wondered out loud about how long they will last when we are gone. My guess is at least another hundred years. Fifty years before I came on the scene they were served by a local professor who was also an Episcopal priest. Others have included clergy skilled in mission work, new clergy trying out their wings, another professor, and even a high church priest who may have been the only one who knew what to do with a maniple.
That’s all be beside the point. Small rural congregations don’t really depend on seminary educated clergy. It’s nice to have them, but not a necessity. They don’t even depend on a flow of new families with young children. They do depend on the economic viability of the towns they are in. Dying towns beget dying congregations. But if a town can sustain itself, an otherwise healthy, small rural congregation will just keep on going. It has more to do with the spirit of the place and the Spirit that fills it than with experts on church growth and transformation.
What might be the nature of that Spirit filled spirit? From what I can tell, it is the genuine love and care between members, and for the community, that transcend the petty irritants of small town life in which there are no secrets. It’s the joy of worshiping whether with or without music. It’s the making of parish decisions, sometimes with more than a little contention, right in the midst of a Sunday morning service. It’s the embrace of whomever comes in the door, no matter who they are, with a naive lack of awareness that their embrace may be more than a stranger desires or can stand. It’s the genuine concern for others in the community who are suffering or in need.
It requires one more thing. It requires an openness to a subtle indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By subtle presence I mean an atmosphere of the Spirit’s presence, unseen and unheard, yet there. I don’t think you can make that happen whether by loud proclamation or through sophisticated consulting. A small rural congregation without that subtle presence may indeed be declining and dying, and we have all seen that happen. One with that subtle presence will probably continue from generation to generation as long as there are generations to be had.