Energy, intelligence, IMAGINATION and love…

By Mary Harris Todd

At ordination and installation Presbyterian elders promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Of the four, imagination may be the most challenging.  Unlike a body of information or set of procedures, imagination can’t be mastered by the intellect.  Imagination must be inspired and sparked.  Being open to the imagination and acting on it requires effort and courage.  It’s always much easier to go to the default setting: what did we do last year (or last century)?

While it might not be possible to train the imagination in the same way we study the contents of the Book of Order, it is possible to give the imagination a workout.  One of the primary ways of doing that is telling and listening to stories.  That’s why storytelling is central at all our NEXT Church gatherings.  We listen once again to God’s story in scripture, and we share stories of what God is up to in the church and in the world now.

Healthy small congregations are a rich source of stories to spark the imagination.  We offer a great deal of “scope for the imagination,” to the church at large, to use Anne of Green Gables’ expression.   Now that the mainline church finds itself pushed to the sidelines, it makes sense to listen to the witness of small congregations that have always lived and served on the margins.  We know that it doesn’t always take a program and money and big buildings to answer the call of God.  We know—or at least we’re learning—what it means to live simply and sustainably by radical dependence on God.  We know how to rise to the challenge of operating creatively within limits.

In his new book Imagining the Small Church: Creating a Simpler Path (Alban), PC(USA) pastor Steve Willis shares many sights, sounds and stories from the world of the small church that can bless the imagination of the whole church.  He writes, “Imagination is the prayerful interior work that helps me see what is really going on, not so much dreaming things up but rather being open to what could be” (p. 105).  The eye of imagination allows him to see God’s upside down wisdom at work in the lives of the people and the congregation.  Through imagination he sees both the wonder of what is, and the wonder of what could be.

Two other books from Alban that offer imagination-sparking stories from the small church world are In Dying We Are Born by Peter Bush and Born of Water, Born of Spirit, by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett.  Bush explores why dying and rising with Christ is the way to new life for every congregation, regardless of size.  Writing out of their experience in the Episcopal tradition, Kujawa-Holbrook and Thompsett tell story after story of small congregations finding new life when the whole people of God begin to see themselves as called to ministry.  You can find links to reviews of these books on the resource tab of my blog, The Mustard Seed Journal.  Note that these books both reflect on what it means to be born again, which is the theme of the NEXT Church national gathering in Charlotte in 2013.

Imagination is prayerful work indeed.  It is altogether fitting that we also promise to pray when we promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Come upon us all, Holy Spirit to spark, empower and guide in all these essentials, so that it may be with us as it was on the Day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God says, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, Your young will see visions, Your elders will dream dreams” Acts 2:17 (CEV).

Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

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Seasick Church

Lately the story of the storm at sea in Acts 27 has been much on my mind.

Paul and his shipmates were caught in a violent storm that just went on and on and on, tossing the ship up and down. The text says that they didn’t eat for fourteen days. My hunch is that everybody had to stick close to the rail. Even pastor Paul was dreadfully seasick. Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t resist reminding the crew that they should have listened when he told them much earlier that they needed to do something different. Moreover, the passengers and crew were disoriented. Verse 20 reads, “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”

Our congregation is traveling through a stormy time of grief and loss and uncertainty and fear, plus we are downright bewildered about how to reach people beyond our current boundaries and incorporate them into the life of the family of faith. We are experiencing up-and-down worship attendance, and a few Sundays have been painfully low. On one of those Sundays one of our ruling elders reports feeling literally nauseated.

Yet there are also hopeful signs to give thanks for. God is bringing us into contact with new people, including a flock of children and their families. It was a joy to spend Tuesday afternoons this summer with some of them in a VBS-like experience in one of the children’s homes.  On a recent Sunday evening we had a service of evening prayer focused on anointing and laying on of hands for healing, and communion.  So many people came that we had to move from a smaller room to the church fellowship hall.

Wow! Talk about going up and down with the waves!

After Paul got the urge to say, “I told you so” out of his system, he went on to tell his shipmates, “Keep up your courage! There will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. The ship is going to be wrecked, but we are all going to be safe.” Then later, when some of the sailors were tempted to abandon the ship and sail away in a lifeboat, Paul called out, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” The soldiers on board then cut away the lifeboat and set it adrift. Everybody ended up staying on board.

Then, just before daybreak on the day of the shipwreck, Paul urged everybody to take food. He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, ate, and gave it to others. Holy communion!

Hours later, the ship ran aground and began to break up. Everyone headed for shore. Some swam, while others floated on pieces of the ship. In the end, all reached shore safely. Not one person was lost.

There’s a word from the Lord here for the storm-tossed, seasick church. While the institutional vessel may be wrecked and broken, God is going to get us safely to the shore. And while we mourn the loss of the vessel as we knew it, the Church of Jesus Christ lives. Even now, God is inspiring designs for new vessels, and building is underway. Not one to waste anything, God may well be reclaiming strong, seasoned lumber from the wreckage and repurposing it. In fact, I’m sure of it.

Take heart, seasick church! Over the sound of the storm, above the waves of queasiness and waves of exhilaration, a voice calls, “Take. Eat. This is my body, broken for you.”

Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Back to What’s Next …

by Mary Harris Todd

As we discern what’s next for the church, let’s take time to visit our ancestors in faith who struggled to discern what God had in mind for them next.  Let’s revisit our mothers and fathers in scripture, and let’s also take another look at church history and our congregations’ histories.  Here is a story from Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church, the small congregation in which I grew up.

When the church was founded in 1876, the Kirk’s building was literally perched on a cliff in Spotsylvania County, Virginia—hence the name. By the dawn of the twentieth century, however, the congregation had migrated away from the community in the neighborhood of the building. It would still be years before cars made rural travel easier. And since people still depended on horses and buggies and their own feet to get to church, the people of the Kirk had a problem.

What did they do? The congregation decided to move the building closer to where the people actually lived. In 1911 new land was given, and they went to work. They dismantled the church building piece by piece, loaded it onto horse-drawn wagons, moved it to its present location and reassembled it. With the exception of some bricks and a few boards, every piece survived intact. The congregation more than survived. Today the church is still called Kirk O’Cliff even though the cliff is ten miles away and covered by the waters of Lake Anna. As I think about the passion, the commitment, and the sheer sweat that dismantling, moving, and rebuilding required, I marvel.

When it comes to what’s next for the church in the twenty-first century, I wonder what God is planning to “dismantle,” “move,” and “assemble” in a new way now. People who need the embrace of Jesus have in many ways moved out of range of the church, so we are now called to move. Knowing where and when and how is going to require prayerful passion, prayerful commitment and prayerful sweat.

If you’re looking for more stories from our great cloud of witnesses who discerned what was next in their day, I recommend Diana Butler Bass’s book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

There you can visit with some well-known folk like Augustine, Luther and Calvin.  But more importantly, you can also visit with a host of lesser-known witnesses, many of whose names are unknown, who simply did the best they could to follow Jesus, loving God and neighbor in their place and time.  For example, you can begin to get to know the Beguines and Beghards of the late 1100s, Spirit-led women and men who formed semi-monastic communities whose purpose was to care for the poor and people with infirmities.

Let’s dig into the church’s stories and mine them for more examples of people exercising imagination and courage to move in faith towards what was next.  We are here now because a great cloud of witnesses along the way asked, “Gracious God, what’s next?”  Thanks be to God for them, and for the opportunity that is now ours.  New stories of faith are developing every day.  Let the wagons roll!

Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.