Who are we? Where are we going? How do we get there? These are questions a church vitality coach/consultant that I’ve worked with successfully for many years suggested we at First Church Old Saybrook consider. This vitality coach, Rev. Paul Nickerson, also told me that this is the bulk of the work he’s doing with congregations right now. Following the COVID pandemic many congregations are feeling a need to reinvent themselves. Worship attendance is down 40%-60% in all sizes of churches and in all denominations. As Americans continue to explore the many options available to us to lead lives of meaning and purpose, where does the local congregation fit in?
This echoes some of the things I’ve been hearing from FCC Saybrook. At a recent deacons meeting one of the deacons raised the issue of identity and the fact that in her opinion the church didn’t have a strong sense of identity–the “Who are we?” question–and is nevertheless moving in a direction to better define that identity.
Paul suggested FCC Saybrook gather a group of leaders for a Zoom consult with him around the questions Who are we? Where are we going? How do we get there? My invitation to you is to consider whether you might be interested in being a part of that call. Stay tuned!
The theme for the First Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Keep Awake.” On one level this sentence contains a contradiction. How can those who keep awake dream? We know that dreams happen when we’re sleeping. That was assumed to be the case in many of the dream stories we studied throughout the fall. In the cases of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, the Bible tells us that their dream messages from God disturbed their sleep, which motivated them to seek an interpretation from Joseph and Daniel respectively. In what sense do those who dream keep awake?
Those who dream keep awake by keeping their eyes open and their hearts attuned to what God is doing in the world. Our Scripture text for Sunday is Mark 13. Scholars call it the “little apocalypse.” It is a sermon by Jesus that he gives to his disciples during his final days on earth. He gives them instructions on how his followers can live faithfully in the midst of upheaval. “Apocalypse” comes from a Greek word meaning “revelation.” Jesus is giving his disciples a “peek behind the curtain” so that they can see that God is active in the world even when circumstances are difficult. When we see through the eyes of faith even difficult circumstances can be a source of hope because they reveal more clearly God’s actions on our behalf.
I enjoy watching “post-apocalyptic” movies. This is a genre of movies in which some great cataclysm has taken place. Survivors are confronted with the challenges and perils of creating new ways of living in the face of greatly altered circumstances. My daughter, Olivia, is a film student. Last year she and I were talking about post-apocalyptic movies. We noted that one of the common apocalyptic scenarios is global pandemic to which I responded, “We don’t have to wonder about what living through an apocalypse would be like anymore. We’re living it!” It’s no surprise to me that real life apocalypses are much more mundane than movie apocalypses.
In his apocalyptic sermon Jesus encourages his disciples to “keep awake.” This means cultivating awareness of what God is up to and to keep focused on what is truly important in life. Last Sunday after our Thanksgiving worship a group of volunteers decorated the church for Advent. A church member and I found ourselves chatting and setting up an artificial Christmas tree in Cook Hall. He said to me, “I’m so grateful for being alive and that we can be together, but I forget to be thankful. That’s why I need worship so I can remember what is truly important.”
Though theology can be incredibly complex and subtle, thought the language of faith can at times sounds strange and unfamiliar, the practice of keeping awake is very simple: gathering in person or online for worship, taking time daily for prayer and meditation, again and again giving ourselves whole-heartedly to just this moment: just chopping the carrots, just washing the dishes, just talking with friends, just watching the birds at the feeder, just this grief, just this joy, just this loneliness, just this one precious life.