Thursday, August 29, 2019

Back from the Moon...

In Tom Hank's HBO special series, "From the Earth to the Moon," chronicling the U.S. Apollo Program, Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad asks fellow crewman Alan Bean, "Are you back from the Moon, Al?" To which Bean replies, "I just keep thinking, 'Is that all there is?'" Well, Yours Truly is "back from the Moon"--or a great month of vacation, to be more precise. And yes, the strains of "Is that all there is?" are running through my brain, too.

For the past three years, my partner, Dara, and I have taken most of the month of August as vacation. My wonderful colleagues at St. Paul's are most gracious to cover my responsibilities, and we have enjoyed a variety of restful venues, including a Royal Caribbean cruise to New England this year. I'm always trying to come up with trips and activities that Dara will enjoy, as my best joy is in seeing her having a good time. I'm working on a lighthouse trip for next year, as she really likes lighthouses. I'm hoping we can actually stay in one--or in the keeper's residence. (I found a couple where you actually get to perform the keeper's duties, too, but the accommodations were pretty rustic, and one came with a warning that fairly common fog banks meant that a fog horn would be blasting day and night at least twice per minute. Not restful.)

We really have a good time on vacation together, so "returning from the moon" has the potential for evoking at least a small dose of depression or regret ("Is that all there is?") However, my experience these past three years is that I really DO get rested, and use some of that "down time" to contemplate: my relationship with God, my significant other, and my family; my call to ministry (has IT begun to evoke the "Is that all there is?" question?); and the efficacy of the church I serve. Now in my 35th year of pastoral ministry, I find that it is still fresh for me because the world is changing so much, and the challenge for the church is three-fold, in this light: 1. Keep proclaiming the timeless love and grace of God as revealed in Jesus Christ; 2. Be a constant observer of what is happening in the culture and in the lives of people who are--or who may become--the objects of our ministry; and 3. Develop innovative ways our church can respond quickly, lovingly, and efficiently to the change we see, tailoring our message so it can be "heard" by our rapidly changing audience and its needs.

I wish I could tell you that we have come up with a magic formula as to how to do this. We are learning mostly through trial and error, and have programed some changes, based on our observations and analysis, that have IMMEDIATELY elicited passionate--and sometimes negative--response. The trick here is to hear the "new" concerns, adapt our efforts to address any legitimacy we hear, and yet stick to our core plan, which we work to hard to assure is based on our church's purpose, mission, and vision statements. Being a responsive church is a messy game--sort of like launching three raucous "flyboys" in a spacecraft built by the cheapest bidder, and hoping they hit the moon. And that "cheapest bidder" part is key, as St. Paul's is a great example of a church that has the proverbial "champagne tastes and beer wages." Ministering in a consumerist culture, a large, vital church is so tempted to offer an abundant cornucopia of ministries and programs to address the whims and needs of every member family. Unfortunately, the funds necessary to carry all of these out with quality and consistency are rarely available, so we rely heavily on volunteers. Always have. And yet, in this current "paradigm shift" (sorry for dragging out that old chestnut), our younger families are too busy to staff for their own needs by volunteering, at least with any measure of consistency. Nowadays, when we make an appeal for persons to help us in a Sunday School class or with a hospitality ministry, we hear things like: "Oh, I can help on the second Sunday of the month, and occasionally on the fourth Sunday, unless my spouse is out of town, or my work schedule changes, which I won't know until the week before." Sound familiar?

Sometimes, what is at play in these machinations is a lack of priority for one's faith and/or faith community. That we can "preach about," challenging persons to give God more "time, talents, and treasures." However, I am not convinced that this is the central issue in this new environment the church finds itself in. The issue is change, itself. Things are changing so rapidly in the culture and in the lived-out realities for our families, that they struggle to know how to keep up, and how to both protect and nurture their children in this "time soup." This is NOT a time for the church to play the "blame game." I am increasingly convinced that we must use our vision to dial back on the "smorgasbord" approach to ministry and program, and to engender ownership and "permission-giving" ministry on the part of our people. And, at the risk of pulling out another of those tired, old chestnuts, we must be willing to try new things while letting some old things die a benevolent death.

The most perilous part of sending people to the moon was getting them safely back--that's why President Kennedy made clear his goal was of "...sending man to the moon and returning him safely to the earth." It's time for the church to come back from the moon, and to "return safely to the earth" by taking stock of what it feels God is calling it to be and do now! One of the great joys in serving a lively church like St. Paul's is that I RARELY hear in any meeting a suggestion that we "go back to the way we were," or regurgitate some program that worked in 1989, because someone has a great memory of how wonderful it was. At least here, people realize we are in 2019, and the world now is just about as different from what it was in 1989 (or 1952, in some churches) as the moon is from the earth.

At the risk of totally wearing out this "moon mission" metaphor, maybe what the church of today needs is a new spirit of exploration--exploring what kinds of things other communities of faith are doing that is reaching people successfully; being willing to try new things, especially when it involves a risk of redeploying scarce resources; and taking prayer and spiritual formation seriously as a root function of Christian discipleship, rather than just "feel good" exercises to temporarily re-inflate souls flattened by fatigue, burnout, or being stretched too thin.

All sounds good, but how do we make it work? I wish I knew. Again, maybe we can take a lesson from Project Apollo. In the opening segment of Hank's "From the Earth to the Moon," after hearing Kennedy's "man in the moon" speech, a staffer asked the NASA Administrator, "Can we do this?" He responded, "Most of the technology we will need hasn't been invented yet, we have no idea how to build the rockets needed to do it, and we have little information about the moon and how to keep a man alive there...Yeah, we can do it." His confidence was based on two things: the vision that launched the effort, and the people who would step forth to make it happen. So it is with the Christian church, Dear ones. So it is with the church. Grace and peace...

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...