Rebuilding Foundations

Giddings-Lovejoy Transitional Presbytery Leader

Rev. Dr. Craig Howard
choward@glpby.org

 

First Lesson: Mathew 7:24 – 27
Second Lesson: Hebrews 11:1 – 3

Rebuilding Foundations

Our lessons today are concerned with building upon foundations. In the gospels, Jesus is saying that if we build a house without a foundation, when the rains come and flood rises, and the wind blows, the house will be destroyed. But if we dig deep and build the house on a solid foundation, when the rains come, and the flood rises, and the winds blow, the house will stand.

But our Hebrew text from Psalm 11 paints a different picture. In verse 3 the psalmist asks the question, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

It is not just the home that is destroyed in the psalms. It is not just a cosmetic exterior. But the very foundation that the building sits on is destroyed. In my prior life, I was in insurance. I have seen all manner of destruction; fires, tornadoes, even hurricanes. But I have never seen a foundation destroyed.

“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

I believe we are living in the times of destroyed foundations. It is a time when the way we have been taught and raised to do church, no longer has meaning to the wider culture. The way we use to believe, isn’t as important. The institutions we thought were solid, are now crumbling.

We see the statistics of decline. In 2016 our presbytery took a huge hit. Ordinarily a decline in membership of 3 – 4 percent is normal. Our membership declined around 14 percent. This is because one of our largest congregations left. But the echoes of the loss are still being felt, numerically, financially, and spiritually.

In any given year 20% of our congregations will grow. We’ve maintained that number in 2016.

What we are experiencing is not only relevant to Giddings-Lovejoy. Out of 171 presbyteries in our denomination, zero grew in 2016. In fact, the only numerical growth in any presbytery in our denomination in the past 5 years has occurred when two presbyteries merged.

The problem is not that our gospel is weak or our churches aren’t doing the job. We are challenged by the age in which we live.

We are living in an age of non-members. We are not losing members to the Baptist or the Catholics, the truth is people don’t join anything. More young people are joining the “nones,” meaning they do not call anyplace their religious home.

And on the other side, our long-term members are getting tired of the same old same old. They are what is called the “dones.” They are done coming to church sitting in the pews, hearing the preacher, and passing the plate. They are done participating in committees just to do the same thing as before and get the same results. They are skilled, gifted, and are ready for change.

This is why the foundation is crumbling and being destroyed. It is the social foundation; it is the political foundation; it is the religious foundation. We know about it because we are living it. The question is, how will we respond.

There are three ways to read our Hebrew text. And each different parsing demands a different response.[1]

First, the text can be seen as a very dark apocalyptic vision: When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? Or in other words, when things have gotten bad, and they will only get worse. Our churches will not grow. The future of the presbytery is filled with lawsuits, congregations leaving, and people murmuring and complaining. This reading says we are in darkness and it won’t get any better. The light at the end of the tunnel is a train coming right at us!

One way to respond to this dark vision of our future is to do nothing different. Instead, we can hold on tight to what we have. We can make sure our resources stay in our church, in our building, in our presbytery. We can hold on and hope that the church lasts long enough to bury me. Then I don’t care what they do.

What can the righteous do? What can we do?

Another way to hear the text is with a defeated attitude and spirit, “When the foundations have been destroyed, what has the righteous accomplished?” This reading says that everything is such a mess. Why should we continue to work? What is the point? Why should we continue to do ministry? What is the point? Why should I come to presbytery gatherings? What is the point? Things aren’t getting better. Things aren’t turning around. We are just like Sisyphus pushing that bolder up the hill. Just to watch it roll down again.

What has the righteous accomplished?

A third reading of the text shifts the image of the righteous from us, to the Righteous One being God. When the foundations are destroyed, what has the Righteous One done?

And here is where we find hope. Because if God is with us, (and God is with us!) then God is present even when the foundations are being destroyed. If God is with us, then God is the God of hope, and God has a plan for us, even in the midst of decline, and devastation.

Perhaps we are at the end of something. Perhaps the way we have done church for the past 200 years has run its course and we are winding it down. This does not mean God has left us or is leaving us. Remember, all the churches Paul founded have closed. All of them! But God did not close. Jesus did not shut his doors. The Holy Spirit did not leave the building. Their way of doing church came to an end and another way formed.

Sometimes to move forward, we have to clear the ground, we have move everything out before a new thing can come in.

Sometimes to move forward, we have to let go of what we have. In order for God to do a new thing, sometimes the old has to be let go.

And this is hard. This is very difficult. It is not easy. We become attached to the old way of being and of being seen. In the book, “Transitions” William Bridges describes the letting go as Disidentification, Disenchantment, and Disorientation[2]. During disorientation, we keep wanting to try and do the same thing over and over, even though we know it doesn’t work. He writes about the disorientation phase this way,

“We resist change. Instead our inner voice says, ‘Do it again, don’t change now, live up to your image, keep on being the old you[3].’” Does this sound familiar?

“We’re the Presbyterian church. We are one of the founders of this nation. We’re the bedrock of this community. We are rich, powerful, and educated. Our church must be in this community. Our programs must keep going.”

Even if it doesn’t work.

We say this while fewer and fewer people attend, fewer and fewer people listen, and fewer and fewer people care.

The attitude to keep doing it the same old way, is the very attitude that aborts new life and new possibility.

If God is with us, then we have hope. If God is with us, then we are being challenged and stretched to find the new life and the new way that is ahead of us.

But we have to let the past go. We have to move into our ending, mourn our losses, experience the grief, and move on.

Sometimes I believe we are like Humpty Dumpty:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put humpty together again.

There is no rebuilding Humpty Dumpty. Instead we are broken and fragmented dreaming about who we use to be, instead of imaging what we can be.

This is where the presbytery office has to also take blame. In my first month on the job, I’ve heard the disturbing stories about the divisions and separations within the staff itself. And I want to say I’m sorry. I apologize for the pain, frustration, and dysfunction that it caused the body and the presbytery. My vision of the presbytery office is that we are a model of ministry for our congregations. We demonstrate hospitality, efficiency, and faithfulness. This has not been our story in recent history. And for that I am sorry.

Now I ask you to give us a chance. I ask that you begin to let go of the hurt and pain, and memories. That you allow the balm of Gilead to heal the spirit of the presbytery, and make the wounded whole again.

Can I tell you about my dream for the presbytery? Can I tell you about my vision?

I dream of all of these fragments moving together in the same direction. No more silos; no more separation by ideologies, geography, theology, or personalities.  but we all move in the same direction, together. I have a dream that as we move together we begin to come together; letting go of hurts and anger; opening ourselves up to trust one another. I have a dream of this presbytery reaching through the walls and silos that have been built up and thickening since reunion; joining hands with other Presbyterians and other faith traditions, and moving into a prosperous future that benefits the whole community. This is my dream.

As I said, in the insurance business I saw homes destroyed by fire, ripped apart by tornadoes. But one thing I have never seen. I’ve never seen a family rebuild their home the same way it was before. When given the opportunity, they change it. They don’t want the kitchen they had. That kitchen was 15 years old. They want a modern kitchen. When given the chance, people rebuild from their dreams and imagination, not from their past, not from their history.

We have the unique opportunity to rebuild and dream again. All of these broken pieces, and fragments can come together and be something new, fresh, and alive.

But I must warn you. New beginnings are always a little messy. The start is a little bumpy. But if we stick with it we can work out the knots and kinks. We have to listen to that new song that is playing in our hearts and walk to that rhythm.

God is doing a new thing in Giddings-Lovejoy presbytery. Don’t you want to join us? Don’t you want to come along and be part of God’s new creation for the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy? Amen.

[1] Segal, Benjamin J., A New Psalm, Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2013 p51

[2] Bridges, William, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes- Strategies for coping with the difficult, painful, and confusing times in your life., Perseus Books, Massachusetts, 1980 pp 92-104.

[3] Ibid, p102.

 

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