Presented at Gathering Leaves
September 14th 2013, Fryeburg Maine
It seems in general that we’re more comfortable with changing seasons than we are with change in our own individual lives. We are more comfortable with the leaves dying while displaying their vibrant tones than we are with facing our own mortality, or the mortality of those we love. And then when we move from our own mortality, or the mortality of those we love, to the death of our churches, it brings up another collection of responses. The idea that our churches may be dying stirs up emotions and reactions for all of us, and I believe it’s important to recognize and name that.
I’ve spent much of my career in outreach and evangelization, and I was often the person who would come into a congregation or denominational setting and say, “There’s hope! Try this, try that!” And I do believe there is a place for that. There are positive things that are happening and there are good places to put our attention. I have come to believe that in order to be healthy organisms, we also need to be able to see and name the places that are dying and where things need to end. It gets confusing when the cycles of life and death are going on in our churches and our denominations at the same time. Within a community, it’s not always clear what part of the life of the church is on hospice and what is coming to life.
Being aware of what is going on in our churches and having the courage to name it is a call to all of us. When a hospice chaplain walks into a room with a family, often the job to be done is to name the thing that no one is going to say, which usually is, “Your loved one is dying.” This is a hard and painful job, but I find that often this honesty is the greatest gift you can give. To name what everyone in the room is thinking and feeling—and not saying.
And so I invite us—collectively—to be hospice chaplains for each other, and to acknowledge and say, “There are things in our church that are dying.” Aspects of our churches are changing—whether it be it a congregation, a way of doing things, or an idea we’ve held onto. We are called to acknowledge that some of our congregations have died or are going to die in this season, in this giant rummage sale that we are going through. We can be honest by acknowledging that this movement and change is held within the Divine cycle of life.
I believe that one of our callings in this time of change is to be hospice chaplains. A good hospice chaplain is present with the cycle of death, not rushing it and not prolonging it. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to come in and say, “Let’s celebrate and then let go.” To be able to say together, “ You know what, we’ve always done our worship service this way, and we know it’s time to change.” It doesn’t need to be an abrupt cutting it off, and it also doesn’t need to be drawn out on life-support. We could say, “For 100 years we have said that same litany, with those same words. Let’s celebrate that… and then let it go and see what is waiting to be created anew.” This gets harder when it’s our congregations and our buildings—these places and communities we love. I know some of you have been through this, where you’ve had to let go and say goodbye. Let’s be good hospice chaplains together. Let’s celebrate, let’s look at the legacy, let’s claim the memorial, and then let it die.
I believe we need to be open to the possibility that our denominations hold this process of death as well. I do not know what next season is going to look like. I’m not predicting whether our denominations are going to disappear or not. But what I do know is that something is changing in them, and that there are ways of being, systems, concepts, and cultures, within all our denominations that need to die. How can we be present to that? How can we differentiate between the new growth that is alive and from the Lord and the things that we’re clinging onto, trying to survive?
How can we accept that death is part of the cycle, and remember that death is not a failure? When our elders die, do we criticize them on their deathbed, telling them how they should have lived longer? No, we celebrate their lives, and then lay their bodies in the ground to decompose and go back to be part of the dust from which we all come. Could we not treat our churches, our worship services, or dwindling programs with such dignity and respect? Could we celebrate the years of legacy, the people, the pastors, the buildings, the events, the marriages, the deaths, the service to the community, the heritage of worship? Grieve the loss of something we love, celebrate life well lived, and accept that our churches have a life cycle. Death is not a failure. Death is a part of life.
To be continued… or if you can’t wait and want to read the whole piece right now, you can find it published in the recent edition of The Messenger.