Yesterday we closed a Presbytery worship service declaring a building vacated and dissolving that worshiping community as a congregation. It was a moment to recognize that death happens.
The week before that I preached at that same church on Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and Peter’s rebuking him that he can’t die (Matthew 16).
We have a tendency to confuse form and function. In that moment I believe Peter was obsessed with the form of Christ. He didn’t have a failure of faith. He has a failure of imagination. He could not imagine Christ outside of the way he had experienced him to that point. He was obsessed with the form, rather than the function of God… of Jesus. So resurrection held no hope for him. He didn’t want resurrection – he wanted not to have to go through any changes.
We get that way about Church. (God too…) We get where we obsess about the forms we know and are comfortable with and cannot see past them. But God is on the move. And the form of the Church is too… the Church will form and re-form as need arises to fulfill its function. When a form has played its part… it will die. But that doesn’t mean the Church dies. The Church is not a form. And the Church will find a new way to be manifest even as we mourn the loss of the way we knew, the way we were comfortable with, the way we wish it could still be.
The challenge I find with regards to death is that we are called to give it neither too much, nor too little, credit. When we obsess on death we miss the point, and those who wish we would talk more and longer about “a dying church” are perhaps a bit too obsessed with form. The Church isn’t dying… the Church is finding a new form. Its purposes will still be lived out, its function is as much in demand as it always has been and always will be. It just isn’t necessarily being met the same way we are used to imagining. Like Peter… we need to give that up a bit and challenge our imaginations to see a new way. We need to be Church making real the same hope, love, and justice in very new ways through unfamiliar forms. We need to trust that resurrection is real, and – wait for it – good. We need to be willing to be re-formed.
We proclaimed yesterday at the end of the service that this site was no longer a worshiping congregation of our church. But as I walked out the words that resounded in my head were, “but of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The Church – even THAT church – will go on. Its a form that died, not its function, not its purpose, not even its being. That is simply waiting for resurrection and the new form it will take as God coaxes life from the formlessness and void, and calls it good.
Two things are happening in the midst of my life at this moment that have collided. The first is that my wife Caroline works for an awesome company that is flying us (all 6 of us!) for free from Idaho to Florida so that we can participate in a company-wide celebration day at Disney World (she still works for her Jacksonville, FL based company from when we moved here and she is a remote worker now). This has afforded us the opportunity to see old friends and family. It also means we will visit the church that was our family for 8 years while we lived there – and the church where I served my first ordained call as the Associate Pastor for Discipleship. We have been gone for a year and half. Going back is a natural time to reflect on what it’s like to leave behind a congregation who was your family, friends, colleagues, partners, and co-workers. Such “leavings” are difficult and the healthy systems approach as a pastor to congregation is that this severing of ties is done cleanly and, to an extent, completely – making clear that you are no longer their pastor and confidant so that they make ties to those who are now called into that roll. (It’s a bit different as an Associate I would imagine, as it is different in a larger church than a smaller – but I’m not going to be bogged down today in those nuances… maybe another day… don’t hold your breath though.)
I buy into this theory from an institutional standpoint. It’s a little bit different from a relationship stand point. It asks me questions like: can I shed a title and an aspect of a relationship without having to cut the whole tie? If God binds us together as church what does it mean that we think it is necessary to sever those ties? Isn’t that more about us than it is about God? Clearly it’s a boundary conversation and in my head the idea that the relationship must be completely severed seems to a way of dealing with it when the individual isn’t capable of making and holding themselves to boundaries – so much easier (and more dysfunctional?) to just cut it completely. It is, I think, even more complex when you consider it was my family’s church as well. My wife wasn’t the pastor; my kids certainly weren’t (though they did a good job of it at times). Does it make sense that my calling overrides their relationship? If this is much about power dynamics isn’t that itself an abuse of power – that it becomes all about me? Not for the first time I wonder about poor Sarah who simply followed Abraham around without so much as a word to her from God (that we know about) except for those she “overhears.” Her faith was great. But is it fair? Like it or not clergy spouses are part and parcel to their calling – and it has to be their calling too. A fact the church struggles to understand as it tries to both acknowledge that and not turn it into something more (they aren’t getting a 2 for 1 special on pastors).
Anyway… these are questions that are in my head – and mostly for me it’s easy. I moved 2,000 miles away. That’s a pretty easy boundary making reality. I left behind great pastoral colleagues so my congregation had plenty of relationships left to them. My parting was truly celebration and I didn’t really even have a baton to pass because it was already running down the road without me! J (Thanks be to God!)
The second thing (I did mention two things colliding, didn’t I?) is another similar situation. I won’t say more about it, but suffice it to say it was one that made me reflect on this, but it isn’t my story to share. Just know that while this transition has been somewhat easy on me thanks to great distance, it is often far harder and more complicated. I also think it’s not necessarily unique to pastors. Yes there is an added level of complication. Pastors are invited into the lives of our congregants in ways very few other people are. This requires trust, it requires shame and overcoming (or hopefully letting go of) that shame. It requires confidentiality. All of that requires time and personal investment. And then it just goes away – poof. We have to walk away, and someone else walks in. But all of us have to do these kinds of things. We lose a job with valued friends, or we find a new one that yet requires us to leave a place we love. Kids grow up and leave our homes. Friends die. All of these are major transitions that are a kind of death (or actually death) occur. A kind of severing. A challenge to figure out what do we sever… and what yet remains. All such transitions are hard – regardless of your roll, your training, and your emotional fortitude.
As I thought about this last night these words came to mind:
“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land… The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.” (Deuteronomy 34:1-8)
Moses went up from the plain… to the top. What a journey. What was Moses feeling? Thinking? Saying? How weighted down did he feel? This is journey not unlike Jesus lamenting for Jerusalem as he walks up the road on Palm Sunday… to the cross. A journey not unlike Abraham to the binding of Isaac.
Moses never wanted the roll of prophet and leader of Israel. But his vote wasn’t counted. Moses went from something of a cowardly (fleeing his own torn identity), inarticulate (he said he couldn’t speak well so he didn’t want the job) shepherd (he bummed a job off of his father-in-law) to standing up to the Pharaoh in (sorry Washington DC) what had to be among the greatest home court advantages ever! And then he traveled (dragged?) this group of Israelites around for forty years through thick and thin (and it seems to have been mostly all thin). And on the cusp of a major transition and celebration. He has to bow out. He has to say good-bye, bless his successor… and make “the walk.”
I don’t know how he did. He was bright eyed and bushy tailed still (so says the text). He had the goods to keep going. And I don’t care what the text says. I’m not sure about this whole “dying” thing. It’s a rather lame plot device. And the punishment from God? Maybe. The text says it, and afterwards my tradition would be to say: “This is the word of the Lord.” But I wonder…
Maybe Moses had just done his part. Walked his part of the journey. Knew that the next phase needed a different kind of leader, a different set of skills, or that Israel just need the shakeup (maybe Moses needed one too). Maybe what died wasn’t Moses, but his roll, whether he actually died or not. After all – they can’t find a body, and I’ve watched enough detective shows (clearly the WORD of the LORD) to know “no body; no death.”
The truth of Moses end isn’t important – though it is often what we trigger on. The deep truth of the text is that life has transitions, and sometimes we don’t get to make those together. And it isn’t easy. And there is no magic answer (sorry if you thought I was going to offer any answers here… you’ll learn I rarely do). What I know the text does seem to say is. Leaving isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s what we need to do (even Jesus does it… check out John 16:7, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away…”). Sometimes it’s the best for both of us, thought it’s hard to see that. The text also says such transitions should be mourned. Truly mourned. We need to stop. Stop life – and honor the “death” that has happened. (How many congregations struggled with this in their desire to move on? How many pastors don’t do this because they don’t want to open up the flood gates? For that matter how many literal deaths do we fail to actually mourn because it isn’t convenient? Can you imagine looking at the Jordan river – your goal for 40 years, and not charging forward? Such resolute and disciplined lament. They waited there 30 days.) And then… after the appropriate time. We need to move forward.
“The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.” And the Bible moves on. Book over, section over, major time in the life of Israel over… and the story continues to unfold in a new way.
I don’t have answers to what is the best way to make transitions. How do you honor relationships when the functional reason for their being has passed away? How do you navigate these messy waters of family rolls? How do we deal with death… of a job, of a loved one, of a relationship? My sense is that making them clean is easier, but not necessarily better – but what mitigating halfway severing looks like? You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.
What I do know? We ought not to fly through such transitions – any such transitions – without pause. And we ought to lament even in celebration… for what has been and what is no longer. And then we need to move on. It isn’t uncaring – though I think it feels that way. Does Jesus not care for his disciples when he tells them he is leaving? Does Moses not care as he hands the torch to Joshua? I think the exact opposite. Their care is almost too much to bear. But they still leave. Their care for themselves, for their friends, but also for the larger community moves them to do that which seems uncaring… step aside and journey in a different direction. And in their stepping aside, and their heavy hearts, they see that their void will not stay a void – even if it’s not entirely filled either (because God loves putting square pegs in round holes just so we don’t forget that life is meant to be more than a little bit messy). They aren’t replaced. An-other comes. A new thing, new growth, new opportunity. Not better – just different. Because God is in the business of keeping us more than a little unsettled even as God provides us green pastures besides still waters.
Thanks be to God.