A previous column on thinking outside the box referred briefly to initiatives in our diocese to become creative and compelling witnesses to Jesus Christ. Being compelled to think about that raised more anxiety than the usual discomfort with “evangelizing,” as we have come to understand it. Very small, aging congregations in rural towns have another source of anxiety. “How can you ask us to do even more than we are already doing? How much more can you ask of us?”
These congregations of twenty or thirty senior citizens, of whom maybe fifteen or so show up on any given Sunday, have worked hard their entire lives for their families, their communities, and their church. They still do. But they’re aging, their endurance is not what it used to be. Being asked to do more seems unfair and wholly unrealistic. Don’t ask where the young people are, and why they are not picking up the load. Most of these rural towns have few young people as it is. The town where I serve a small congregation a few times a month has a stable population, but the majority of new residents replacing those who died or moved away are mature adults without dependent children. That may change, but it seems unlikely.
What I suggested to the congregation is that they take a lesson from St. Peter who, in his first letter, wrote, “…let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood…” The key word is ‘let’. Don’t try so hard. You are not being asked to do more on top of what you are already doing, You are being asked to relax and ‘let’ the Holy Spirit take the lead. Be willing to ‘let’ it happen, and don’t worry about it.
It’s not the same thing as saying sit down and rest a while, let somebody else do the work. We get ourselves in a lather about being asked to do more, when the question is really about doing what we do well, and enjoy doing, but in a way that is open to God working in us so that what we are doing anyway becomes a creative and compelling witness to Jesus Christ. It’s a process. Processes proceed one step at a time. Let it happen and don’t worry so much about it.
Paul made a point of admonishing his congregations that not everyone has the same gifts. Some can teach, some are good pastors, some have generous hearts, some can run things well, some are more able than others to be comfortable talking about Jesus in public. Not everyone has the same gifts, but each working together is what makes the body of Christ.
If each one does as he or she is able to support others in the exercise of the gifts they have, the Church will be doing the work God has given it to do. But what are your gifts? Don’t worry about that either. Scripture offers a couple of lists, but they’re not definitive, just examples, so there’s no list to draw from. Whatever your gifts are, you already have them. There is no test to take to find out what they are. Relax. Don’t worry about it. ‘Let’ yourself be built into a spiritual house, a member of the royal priesthood. It is God who will do the building. Just let it happen.
Is there something more you have to do? Yes. Stop fighting the Spirit. Relax.
What does that look like in real time? I had an interesting experience the other day, and wrote a brief Facebook post about it. Here it is.
Teeth are not my favorite subject. This morning I saw a dental specialist for a consultation about one of them that seems to be misbehaving. Glancing at my paper work, he noted I was clergy. A little later, with me saying I didn’t want to get trapped in some foreign land with a tooth problem, he asked if we traveled on mission work. “No,” I said, “good grief no! I’m retired. We travel for fun.”
I got to thinking about that. It’s not the whole truth. Everywhere we go turns out to be a mission trip, even when I try to avoid it. Let’s face it, nothing shuts down conversation faster than letting on that one is a priest or pastor. I try to keep it quiet until forced to admit it. Just the same, if you get me you get God. That’s just the way it is. We offer a blessing at meals. We talk about going to church, or visiting a church, or the meaning of art we’ve seen in museums. I’m quick to say I write about politics, economics, and theology. It always raises questions about what one has to do with the other two, and why on earth would I wade into such a swamp.
Eventually Jesus comes up. It’s shocking that I can say his name in only two syllables with a drink in one hand and a plate of vaguely edible whatever in the other. “You seem like a regular guy. Are you sure your’e a pastor?” Sooner or later someone will seek me out with a question they would just as soon no one else knows they have asked. Sooner or later someone will challenge me in public to defend Christ and Christianity. It always happens..
So yeah, I guess we do travel on mission work. It’s just that we do it for fun.