Moving On

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On Monday, I attended a meeting of our regional presbytery’s Leadership Team. The Leadership Team functions for the presbytery much like the session functions for a congregation, charged to lead and coordinate the mission and ministry of the presbytery. I’m just completing service as moderator of the Presbytery Leader Search Committee, and just getting my feet wet in the role of presbytery vice-moderator.

Before we addressed business, we paused for a devotional exercise related to “adaptive change,” which is a much-talked-about concept in the life of our presbytery. Group discussion was framed in this way: Adaptive change necessarily involves embracing new ways of doing things. In order embrace new ways of doing things, what old ways are we willing to give up?

Mark T., who is pastor of Ladue Chapel, offered an interesting reply. What we need to give up, he suggested, is the time we waste grieving about the way our churches used to be. Presbyterian churches don’t enjoy the privileged status in society they once did. Cultural preferences about church membership are different than they once were. Mark said, “We need to stop wringing our hands, and move on.”

I thought a lot about that discussion as I approached the passages of scripture suggested by the lectionary for this fourth Sunday in the season of Lent.

In the sixteenth chapter of the first book of Samuel, we enter in the middle of a long narrative that has to do with Samuel, a prophet and the last of the judges, and Saul, Israel’s first king.

God rejects Saul for reasons having to do with Saul’s disobedience. When Samuel doesn’t arrive to offer the appropriate sacrifice before battle, Saul takes the matter into his own hands, and plays the role of the priest. When Samuel finally gets there, Samuel tells Saul he has acted foolishly, and his kingdom will not continue. Later, when Saul’s armies defeat the Amalekites, he disobeys again, allowing his men to keep the best of the livestock and valuables as booty, and allowing the Amalekite king to live. Again, Samuel pronounces judgment on Saul’s disobedience, telling him that his kingdom will not continue. By the time Saul finally gets around to repenting , a pattern has been established. Saul has a tendency to argue with God’s prophet, always finding a way to rationalize his poor behavior. His repentance seems aimed at maintaining political advantage, like a spoiled child who apologizes to avoid punishment, but doesn’t really intend to change. Like many a compassionate parent, Samuel wants to believe that next time things will be different. Next time, the gift will be appreciated. Next time, the love will be reciprocated. Next time, obedience and appreciation will replace bad behavior and bitterness. But, for Saul, it’s too late. The Lord says, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out.”

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to stop wringing your hands about a past that cannot be recreated. When you let go of the past, then you can move on into the future and receive God’s gifts.

The ninth chapter of John’s gospel records an encounter of Jesus and his disciples with a man blind from birth. The disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In Jesus’ time, it was popular to believe that those born with disability were receiving punishment for the sins of their parents, or personal sin. Jesus refuses to be caught up in unproductive arguments about the origin of suffering. Regardless of whose fault our problems are, he says, let us work at fixing them while we have time.

If the disciples will cease anxious speculation, Jesus suggests, then energy will be freed up to work on restoring vision. They have to stop wringing their hands about a past that cannot be recreated. When they let go of that past, then they can move on into the future and receive God’s gifts.

We are celebrating the season of Lent, which, according to tradition, offers us reminders of mortality. After a long winter, leafless deciduous trees are a reminder of mortality. The recurrence of a terrible cancer in my father-in-law is a reminder of mortality the members of my family are living with. I would venture to say that most people in this room are not far removed from some experience of illness, surgery, or death of a loved one that is for you a daily reminder of mortality. On our better days, we know that grieving, as natural as it is, won’t bring back the past. The only way to go is forward.

I count as one of my mentors the Rev. Dr. Bruce Thielemann, who for many years served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA. Not too long before he died, Bruce preached a sermon on reaching the age of 60, “the Big 6-0” he called it. In that sermon, he shared an old Buddhist tale about the man who, while picking strawberries, is chased by a raging tiger into a tree on a cliff. He discovers that above him is a bear. At the base of the tree is the tiger. He is out on a branch over a waterfall. Then gophers start chewing on the branch. What should he do? He reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a strawberry he has picked. Tiger and waterfall beneath him, bear above him, gophers behind him, he eats the strawberry in front of him.

I didn’t appreciate that story the first time I heard it, but as the years pass it seems full of wisdom. In our journey from this life to the next, there comes a moment to stop wringing our hands about a past that cannot be recreated. When we can let go and entrust the past to the faithful One who never forgets, then we can receive God’s gifts, and, when the time is ripe, move on into God’s promised future.

This past Sunday, a meeting of the congregation was held in which a sale proposal of this property was approved. Emotions were high, and I know some of you are feeling hurt. In preparation for the meeting, I had opportunity to review the fascinating foundations of Presbyterian polity. Our process of governance originated during a time when monarchs and oligarchs ruled over great numbers of common people, who possessed neither voice nor vote in decisions that affected them personally. Through the centuries, we have developed rules that aim to carefully preserve the rights of the minority, while preserving the rule of the majority. I believe this congregation has made a faithful effort to achieve that balance. The rights of the minority are preserved: they still have voice and vote, they still are loved and cared for by this body, and they can fully participate in the life of the congregation. The rule of the majority has been preserved. After a process of information sharing and discussion, the body has discerned through the rule of the majority that God is leading in a certain direction, and that’s the way the body will travel.

History is important, and the record of how God has worked through this congregation will continue to inform our mission and ministry. Yet, the best thing we can do for the health of this congregation is to stop wringing our hands about a certain kind of past that cannot be recreated. When we can let go and entrust the past to the faithful One who never forgets, then we can move on into the future and receive God’s gifts.

Let it be so.


~ by JohnH1962 on March 30, 2014.

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