Friday, March 24, 2017

Wandering the Park and Facing the Future

In Albany, New York’s Washington Park, you will be able soon literally to “tiptoe through the tulips” with the annual Tulip Festival.  If you like tulips, Washington Park will be laden with many beautiful beds of tulips.  They crown a Tulip Queen and the festival weekend provides all manner of amusement and enough fried foods to make a cardiologist weep.
In the midst of the Park, the great fountain will be soon home to pennies and quarters tossed in, the screams of joy as children splash in the waters (especially on a hot summer’s day) and undoubtedly, more than a few youth and grown-ups who decide to give in to their own urge to splash in the waters as well!
When I first visited Washington Park, I noticed the beautiful statuary all around the fountain’s center.  From a distance, I wondered if it was Poseidon with his trident upraised and attended by his court.  As I got closer, I realized that it was a different scene being recreated.
I knew what the subject of the fountain was thanks to years spent in Baptist Sunday School.  The fountain recreates this moment of Moses striking the rocks with his staff and the waters pouring forth. For many around the statue that day, some likely had no clue at what inspired the fountain’s subject matter. 

As an obviously religious person (the robe is always a dead giveaway at church, isn’t it?), I found myself wondering how the generations of Park visitors saw this same fountain.  Surely when it was dedicated, it was with great pride and common knowledge of this story from Scripture.  But today, with the Capital District ranking highly (and nearby Vermont the same) with a distinct “religiously disinclined” or “nones” populace, did the fountain in Washington Park resonate with mere aesthetics (for it is beautiful) and really not with the biblical text inspiring its creation?
For all of us, those who see Poseidon, those who see Moses and those who just go “cool fountain” and move on through the snow banks today (wishing for the tulips sooner than later), I say “Welcome to 2017!”   This is the context every local congregation (American Baptist, Christian or otherwise) deals with on a day to day basis.  The brave faith communities are the ones who understand it, mourn the change and then look for ways to move into the challenges such a time as this presents.
When I visit congregations, I find that for many, there’s a very offensive four letter word that I likely get into trouble for bringing up.  The word is (and I hope your ears will not burn as I utter it):  RISK.
Risk is what makes a church or any other organization do something other than feel left on the sidelines by change.  Change comes at us, change rushes past, without looking to see if we’ve reacted to it.  Change, after all, is not the “enemy”.  It’s part of the world we live in.  How we decide to engage what change brings, well, there’s the big question.
Most of us would enjoy church if it were more like the park we can visit in Albany.  A stroll, a bit of leisure and beautiful fountains and tulips appeal far more than church business meetings, balancing budgets and counting attendance.   Yet that park is also the creation and ongoing commitment of a city to keep up the park, plow the snow, plant the tulips and repair the fountain when Moses strikes the rock yet the piping underneath is being difficult and requires more of a plumber than a patriarch to bang upon it.
Church is about brick and mortar (and if you are a Trustee, you pray for the brick and the mortar each night as you remember the last time pointing had to be done and the bills and headaches that followed).  Church is about the worship services that happen (and if you are involved with worship, you know it comes with the weekly wrestling match of getting a sermon to come together, preferably before 3 AM Sunday morning, and the difficulty of getting everything “just right” to help the gathered worshippers sing and pray together, unless a snow storm rolls through the night before).  Church is about the little stuff that makes a person feel connected enough to move from being a visitor to becoming a member (and even learning how to pitch in with committee work, while praying that a term on a church board is for three years, rather than a life sentence).
Church is a lot of things, but it’s more than all of this.  It’s also about evangelism, outreach and being part of a community and its needs.  You’ve undoubtedly heard this over the years in various forms and with opinions about what was tried and what failed.  Indeed, you may have heard the people and Moses and thought to yourself, “Are sure that was back in ancient times?  Some of it sounded quite familiar and hits close to home!”
Every congregation has its ups and its downs.  How it learns to thrive, how to become more resilient to challenge (and in fact even energized by taking the punches and rolling with them as well) will be a matter of learning how to risk and live to tell about it.
What the future holds is uncertain and involves a decision about what risk you are willing to explore.  But remember that whatever each person has on their hearts and minds, whatever each person here wishes to say out loud at the meeting (or outside in the parking lot afterwards), each of us has the blessing of this story about Moses, the people and a rock that sprang forth with water.  God is with us, even when we think God has given up on us (or we’ve just given up on our own).
I’d like to think that the church can be that park where much toil and effort happens by the work of many hands willing to engage in the mundane tasks of day-to-day needs as well as the short moments when tulips are admired briefly over a weekend.  Churches are places where much good can come even from people wearied or worried by the circumstances at hand.   For God is the God of abundance, and with that hope, how can we not move from grumbling and wanting to being given the refreshing sustenance of holy waters that lift us back up and out into the desert once more, knowing that indeed, there will be a Promised Land?

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