Letting the sun set on normal

Since the day the worlds health crisis landed on our shores, right here in our very own greater Seattle region, we have been longing to return to “normal” … whatever that means in whatever context we find ourselves.  As days have passed into weeks into months there has been a subtle but noticeable shift towards imagining what “new normal” might be.  I will admit to not having any idea what this might really look like a year from now.  I’m coming to believe though that this is alright.  Any intent to attach “new” to any concept of “normal” is admitting that we are in the midst of a historical moment that will and must mark a global cultural shift that will undoubtedly be more identifiable to the generations that follow that it will be to us living in the moment.  I’d like to hope that when our descendants in generations that follow look on this time, they can celebrate that the Church didn’t insist on restoring “normal” but rather they recognized an opportunity and adapted to the new reality.  I’m praying that as we live in and meditate on the current moment, we allow the sun to set on our pre-2020 view of normal.

I believe that we all have our own default setting.  When under pressure, ie faced with a crisis, that default setting gets exagerated and intensified. In other words, generous people become more generous, selfless people become even more selfless.  The selfish turn even more tightly inward.  Asses become even more unbearable. Givers give more and takers take more.  I find that churches have a default setting as well and pressure tends to do similar things and my observation to date has bore that out in how individual faith communities responded to the Covid-19 crisis.  If you are wondering what a churches default setting is, you might consider this “If your church ______________, then your default setting might be ____________”  Please don’t see these as judgmental, rather as observation.

  • If your church focused a tremendous amount of energy on a video version of their weekend experience then your default setting might be considered attractional (Get them in the building)  Some of the fortunate ones already had online environments in place and just had to do some tweaks to get or keep their people watching.  Others spent a good deal of time getting themselves up to speed.
  • If your church  focused its energy on loving neighbors in tangible ways  your default setting might be considered missional.
  • If your church focused on providing ways for people to observe the mass being presented, your default might be considered sacramental.
  • If your church focused its energy on creatively offering the elements (drive up sermons, communion, prayer, baptism) your default setting is probably more clerical.

I’m not even going to include those who insisted on changing nothing at all while defying all logic, compassion, grace, and love while demanding their rights to assemble as they wished.  Their default setting has already been mentioned earlier in this piece, I’ll leave it for you to decided that one.

Neither of the above observations are inherently good or bad … they just are. Many of them are based on our particular theological and ecclesiological beliefs.  Some we have no idea … they are simply versions of “we’ve always done it that way” methodologies.  However, I’d like to offer that much of what we’ve developed as our defaults have been the result of traditions lived out in a world that was pre-2020.  I’m not implying that we have entered into a complete upheaval and the ending of all that we knew.  What I want to imply is that so much of our effort to date has been spent in trying to do what we’ve always done, just differently, better and to protect it at all costs.  In short, much of what has transpired these past several weeks has been very “us” centered with less than sacrificial investment in our neighbors or neighborhoods.  These past several weeks I’ve watched too many sermons online that barely acknowledged, if at all, our current circumstances and offered nothing in the way of actually contributing to the basic needs of the hour. Once again we were struggling to answer questions not being asked.  Unfortunate … a critical look at the life of Jesus would reveal that he always had time to focus on the immediate and often interrupting needs of others he encountered along the way. Yet many of us had a hard time getting out of our own way presenting “The Gospel” to our people when what people outside of our communities needed to see was us living it out. They needed to see good news first. You know, its the old maxim “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care … cliché, but still true. Missionaries know all too well that if you want to have an effect on a persons spiritual life, you need to deal with the physical life in the process … their practical needs.  It is not simply that the hungry, the sick, the infirmed, or the unemployed need Jesus … that is actually the one thing we all have in common.  More profoundly and admittedly inconvenient is that they have real needs, real fears, real families to care for.  Someone told a group of us last week as we were handing out meals to some neighbors from the street “I don’t know where I would eat if it weren’t for this church”.

So what to do? What would be helpful if we were allow the sun to set on our version of “normal”?  Many of those who are part of our faith communities are spending a good deal of their “Stay at Home” time Marie Kondo-ing the crap out of their lives. They are looking at the accumulations of habits and stuff and deciding what really contributes value to their lives and what they should let go of.  In my humble opinion, I think that those of us charged with leading faith communities are negligent if we are not doing the same with the ministries in our care.  Just as in our own personal lives, one of the reasons we don’t declutter is because we don’t want to take the time.  It’s not very different in the world of leading ministries … putting out fires is more urgent than evaluating the effectiveness of what we do. Remember how we never wanted to take the time to stop and honestly and critically evaluate what we were doing? Now we have the blessing of time and what we do with it will certainly either position or handicap us in years to come. We should be investing some of our Zoom time seriously evaluating alongside our leaders those things that add value and those that have become clutter.  We should be seeking ways to answer the questions being answered and not simply the ones we have degrees in. We can and even should express gratitude for those pieces and programs we won’t carry across the cultural chasm.  For good or not, they carried us up to 2020.  Just like the accumulated clutter of our own lives and living spaces, they will not all serve us well on the rest of the journey. Encouraging to me during this time were those communities able to both teach and live the gospel through incredibly creative and strategic ways to adjust and adapt to the way things are, not the way we wish things were.  They did it simply by asking the question “What is good news here?”.  As the sun sets on all that we knew or thought we knew  just a few short months ago, lets allow it to also set on the “way we’ve always done” church.  Let’s take a long hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves “What will tomorrow look like and how will we prepare for it?”

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