Why Fix The Roof
If It Isn’t Raining?

Issues of war and peace grab our mind.  Bad things happening in our neighborhood catch our attention.   The serious illnesses of friends and acquaintances draw our empathy and foster action of prayer, cards, calls, food, and help with errands.

Then what do we do on so-called “normal days”?  On those bad-free days, do we engage life in a way that strengthens our sense of resilience in preparation for those difficult days that we know will come again?  Or, do we think, “Why Fix The Roof If It Isn’t Raining?”

Church congregations can be like that, springing into action when members of the congregation are sick or have an accident or fall into difficult times.  But absent terrible news, churches may not understand how important it is to help their congregation members strengthen the reach of their collective resilience.   But, how could they know;
Our culture stresses the power of the individual.  It is easy to forget that we are all created as social creatures.  We learn early as babies, that we are physically and socially dependent on others for everything, but we fight that dependence later as teens when our newly sanctioned legal freedoms promote our struggles to be independent.  In those very same years, however, teenagers also confront their strong physical attraction toward others – and then more or less live with that independent/dependent bewilderment for the rest of their lives.

Yet in messages of strength, courage and leadership, our culture is clear that it is “I” as an individual who is responsible for my own health and well-being – until “I” am hurt, sick or become old, then “I” must suddenly flick the switch and become a ward of the care of others.  “That’s the way it works”, we are told.

Where do we learn about our God-given relationship-oriented-spiritual-heart in all of this?  Where do we learn – where do our churches learn – that we are all a part of the well-being processes for each other?   Experience, perhaps?

Before my wife and I had cancer at the same time a few years ago, I saw myself as highly independent and very resilient.  I was not worried about doing what needed to be done;  I just knew I could do it.  I saw “resiliency skills” as being a part of who I was as an individual and since my ideas about myself were so solidly culturally appropriate, I never had any reason to think otherwise.

Then came cancer, and everything I believed about my resilience changed.  I will never be so fooled by cultural messages again!

I found that not only could I not, by myself, effectively help my wife with her cancer, but I really couldn’t help myself very well either.  It took a proliferation of comforting stories about what to expect from colleagues, continuing affirmations of our strengths from friends, prayers from our church, and diverse positive conversations with laughter and kindness to requests for help, from acquaintances, friends and family.

When those “very bad days” were over for us thanks to that circling of the wagons of reciprocal support from our friends, family and acquaintances, I realized how important it was to spend time during “normal days” filling our watersheds of resilience with what I now saw as “social resilience” not “personal resilience”.

During those “normal days” are times when we need to work and play together with others to develop and sustain the reciprocal relationships of knowing, caring and supporting among those who will be a part of the circling of the wagons team -- for adding to our resilience the next time the “very bad days” happen.

Furthermore, I realized that as I age, it becomes more difficult to engage others -- my energy wanes and developing and sustaining social resilience becomes more difficult with each passing year.  I now realize that to encourage the filling of people’s watersheds of resilience is perhaps the most important social task that a church can do for its older adult members.  

Churches must learn to divide their time between helping the congregation circle the wagons of support and comfort for those of us who are having “very bad days”, and at the same time create settings for their congregational members to gather for fun, challenge and learning, and in the process fill their watersheds of resilience.

We are diverse people, we older adults, and a universal approach for filling our watersheds of resilience will not satisfy everyone.  But if the leaders of our churches can find former leaders among their older adult community, those capable people can, by using their “leftover talents”, help build diverse but sustainable approaches to meeting the needs of the older adult community for (1) exercise, (2) health enhancing behavior (including proper nutrition), and (3) volunteer possibilities. 

But the most important will be for the church to develop enjoyable ways for older adults to bring their ideas, meaningful issues, hopes, and dreams to church, to share with those who listen and accept their questions and ideas, and work together to transform those creative ideas into workable processes for enhancing health and well being.   


Balanced Conversations: 

                        A Matter of Community

I have been having a good conversation online with a man I do not know other than the fact that he is the president of a moderate-sized Lutheran church congregation.  We have been discussing the evolving position by the ELCA for welcoming gay and lesbian people, including gay and lesbian church leaders into the fold.  [Note: The gay/lesbian issue is merely an example of the importance of balance in communication that my friend and I are discussing.]

I personally welcomed this change in ELCA support for the gay and lesbian concerns.  Not that I would have 20 or 25 years ago. But thanks to conversations over the years with a friend-of-ours’ daughter, a lesbian, who we have known personally since she was a baby, my wife and I have become advocates for appreciating our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters completely.  It has become real to us that we are all equal as human beings in God’s eyes, regardless of our sexual orientation. 

However, my Internet friend and congregational leader basically said to me, “Whoa, not so fast.  Just because you are convinced that the ELCA made a good move in their votes, does not mean that all ELCA members feel that way.”  As he was telling me about this controversial issue in his church, he said,

“When we were in a recent call process it took all we had as leaders to hold the congregation together, as members on both sides wanted to have it out;  a my side vs. your side battle for the congregation.   I would not let them slug it out.  I used the statements in ELCA documents to show that each side was 'accepted' and we came together and this year accepted a set of core beliefs that don't push that topic one way or the other.  Declaring a winner in this fight is not core to being Christian. Therefore we agreed as a congregation to abide together.  I had to take this approach because our mission would not survive with a significant fragment of either side remaining.  So sticking it out together with our diversity of views on this topic is slowly moving us forward.

However, when the top down church position is clearly slanted and the more conservative members of my church call me out on the fact that all positions were supposed to be OK, how I am supposed to respond?  Where is there anything, an article, an editorial, any official statement of any kind balancing the equation so that those who stand opposed to ordination of gay and lesbian people can have their say?”

I thought about my friend’s comments.  Ironically, I talk about the importance of helping people notice and tell others about doing good in life, i.e. “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us”,  I know that the personal meaning inside that well known Biblical injunction is a matter of subjective belief based on a person’s experience and the influence of their friends and other social persuasions.  

As a result, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of listening to public statements from those ELCA members who do not support the evolution of the church toward complete acceptance of gay and lesbian people in all positions in the church.  It is in the midst of trying times like these that it remains important that we church community members continue to talk about diverse but meaningful issues together as an acknowledgement of our respect for each other – all under the umbrella of God’s children.


Benevolence Reconsidered

I was talking with a good friend and faithful church member about our church’s benevolence gifts the other day.  I was lamenting the fact that the church seems to spend most of its benevolence money on foreign missions while meeting needs in our own community and especially in our own church with some reluctance.   My friend seemed somewhat surprised that there were “marginal” folks in our midst.  I think that my friend assumed that those are people who live or go to church elsewhere.

What’s going on here?  Are those “worthy” of our church’s benevolence being painted with the same ideological brushes as our national media paints recipients of government entitlements and need-based assistance?

Perhaps a part of the problem is our criteria of “need”.  As individuals, we can think of the words needy, marginal, deprived, disadvantaged, or poor with some degree of clarity in our own mind.   We may “know” who those people are and what they look like – disheveled perhaps, or without transportation, or strange, or sick, or old.  Everybody else, we may think, can get by just fine on their own, like we do.  

But “need” is a subjective phenomenon.  “Marginal” has very different descriptive criteria for different people.   So to focus our 10% benevolence money on foreign mission work, for instance, can miss the needs closer to home that would make both church and community stronger and more vital.

Perhaps a part of the problem is our divergent understandings of issues such as the meaning of benevolence, the instructions from the Gospel and the components of our well-being.

Benevolence is defined in the dictionary as good will or disposition to do good for others;  an act of kindness; a generous gift.  There is nothing here to suggest that the recipient of benevolence must be the poorest of the poor in a foreign country.  Even the Synonyms listed in the dictionary (favor, boon, courtesy, grace, indulgence, kindness, mercy, service) only note one possibility, “mercy” that suggests that benevolence is related to a form of pity for others. 

The Bible discusses many ways that help us better understand benevolence:
In Acts: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
In Galatians: , “…let us do good to everyone...”
In Romans: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
And especially in Mark: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Nothing here suggests we share our benevolence only with the most downtrodden in the world.

And then there is the whole confusion around issues of giving vs. receiving.  Certainly most of us know from our personal experience that we feel good about ourselves when we contribute to life in meaningful ways, and that we actually begin to feel down and somewhat helpless when we are just recipients of other people’s benevolence’s over time.   So to love our neighbor and build her or him up, we need to be open to receiving his or her offers of help to us so that he or she gains in their sense of well-being and health. 

But perhaps the problem is that we don’t really know how to empower people in order to enable them to build a better life.  We know how to give money, and cans of food, and old clothes, and used furniture. But do we know how to make our church a place where if people come, they feel they are built up, that they find a sense of well-being, and that people pay attention to them and ask for ways that they are able to contribute to life in our midst? 


Through the Front Door Conversations 

As Complimentary to Steeple Teachings

Must conversations and understanding of church always start by coming through the steeple with God’s words?  Can the conversations and understanding of church also start by going through the front doors and listening to what’s on the minds of the people of that community of God? 

Both approaches, through the steeple and through the front door, assume the betterment of our life together through faith, hope, grace and the love of neighbor as oneself. 

The “potential for good” from listening to what is personally meaningful and on the minds of people of God’s community accessed through the front door, can be seen as complimentary to essential teachings of God accessed through the steeple. 

I argue that if we don’t begin soon addressing both the healing and the empowering components of our local church by listening to conversations started with what is on the mind of people in local churches, we will never solve the several difficulties our contemporary church is facing.

I am going to paraphrase the thoughts of Mark D. Roberts in his Reflections on Christ, Church and Culture: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/what-is-a-church/  drawn 8/27/2014.
The very thing that our church should be focusing on – our life together as a community – is hampered by misdirected efforts to focus as a church on larger societal issues through pronouncements.  We must try harder to get our own act together in local congregations.

We need to pay more attention to the regular, tangible, essential gatherings of our local church community.

It means that the larger church body needs to put more energy into nurturing (empowering) local church engagements. 

It means that both the larger church body and the local congregations need to be open to new structures that support both broad church and local congregation purposes, rather than holding on to structures of the past that serve existing hierarchies but do not support the common life and mission of local churches.

It means that we would strive harder to form complimentary gatherings that truly reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ, one that shines as a light into our dark world and gives hope to individual and community alike.

It means that we would see our local gatherings as essential, not only to our congregational life, but also to the health of our local communities.

It means we would care as much about God’s justice unfolding within the unique contexts of local churches as we do about the overarching message of God’s justice from church hierarchies.

Can the Church Turn Around the Tables of Success?

I just attended the funeral of a colleague from St. Olaf College;  she was one of the most unusual administrators I have known.  I was a department chair during the time that she was in charge of connecting undergraduate students with employed graduates around the country for conversations about and exposure to life after college.

But my colleague didn’t just make policy, create structure, and inform faculty what we were supposed to do.   When our department expressed interest in some kind of program, she would suggest a variety of possibilities, make the arrangements for our choice of possible approaches, invite resources, contact students, set up the facilities and arrange the “educational” opportunities.  As the chair of a department, I was daily involved in so many diverse tasks, that working with my administrative colleague in this manner was truly a breath of fresh air.  

As success came from projects completed in partnership with her, other challenges and endeavors also seemed more amenable to success.  This is no small issue, for in the midst of a frustrating complexity of tasks and the lack of easy resources for resolution, thoughtful offers of support and guidance shaped a hopeful future at the same it brought people together.

Drawing on the dilemma I brought up in my last blog, “Church and the Red Splot”, I wonder if it would ever be possible for our Lutheran Church hierarchy to become like my administrative colleague to those of us in congregations who struggle to find ways to address what’s on our mind -- mental illness, alcoholism, joblessness, diminishing membership, youth expectations, cancer, or homelessness (etc.)? 

As individuals and congregations we are often asked to respond to the issues that are of special interest to the leadership at the top of the church hierarchy.  Those issues are usually important yet they may seem to have little to do with the burning personal issues that so many of us in congregations are facing – today!  

But can The Church hierarchy turn these tables around?  Is it possible that church leaders can begin by asking (all?) congregations about the most important and meaningful personal issues they and their community are now facing?  Then by drawing people together from those congregations that have similar issues, can they engage them with issue-specific resources and empowering support;  enabling congregational teams to do what needs to be done to find success in approaching their concerns? 

It need not be expensive to do this;  online gatherings can be amazingly helpful.  And retired resources may be more than willing to lend their support.

So, can we give it a try?       


Church and the Red Splots

An important encounter happened recently as my wife and I walked back to our car at the conclusion of a funeral in a small Minnesota farming town.   The town, I’ll call it, Crucible, had been a small farming community of Scandinavian (mostly Norwegian) immigrants.  It had a maximum population of a bit over 600 in the mid 1940s.  It had dropped to a low of 250 a few years ago as a result of the change from many small farms to much fewer bigger farms in the territory plus the recent financial recession.  Recently, partly as a result of an influx of immigrants from the South Pacific Islands, the town’s population has increased to about 370. 

As my wife and I walked to the car, the first thing we saw was three Black young adults in gym shorts and shirts walking by on their way to join their friends at the school.  As they passed right by us going the opposite direction, they didn’t catch our eye at first, but responded as my wife said “hello guys”. 

A few feet further along our walk, a man dressed in a suit came up to us and said, “Come here, I want to show you something.” (We didn’t who he was for sure but because he was dressed up we assumed that he had been at the funeral and perhaps knew me as one of the speakers.)  He pointed to the black topped roadway about five feet away where there was about a four inch splot of dark red. 

As I first looked, I thought the red splot might be dried blood and he was going to tell us about a recent tragedy.  But instead, he said, “This is what they do.”  It was said in a way that the red splot was identified as definitive evidence of the whole situation.  Then he went on, “We love them to death, but these immigrants come here and eat their “betel nut leaves” and then spit out the juice like this all over town. 

Our interpreter of his changing town went on to say something in a way that was clearly not meant to be a statement about statistics.  It was a comment about his own and “his” town’s changing life -- and his confusion, fear, or anger -- not really sure what was the underlying emotion.  Anyway, he said, “We used to be a town of Norwegians and some Swedes, but now we are only 40% of the population.”  He stopped his comments at that point as if what he just said explained the entire state of affairs and his apparent quandary.

Frankly, I don’t know more about the town of Crucible, or the interracial dynamics in the town, but the encounter that day reminded me of the late 60s at St. Olaf College when there were huge changes going on in the culture of our student body as a new array of illegal drugs permeated the campus.  The drugs caused “strange” behaviors in the students and created a difficult challenge for the staff who were supposed to deal properly with this new world;  we were confused, fearful and sometimes angry (because we didn’t know what to do to be helpful).

Steve Miles, the student body president, suggested that some of the staff should get a quick education on the new drugs in town and how to go about being helpful – no matter the cost.  The St. Olaf College President, Sid Rand, agreed with Steve and consequently sent me to the University of Chicago for three-days of classes addressing the issues we were facing. 

Soon policies and educational efforts on campus evolved that made a positive difference.  I’m not arguing that our new set of approaches alleviated all the problems by any means, but with the help of many students it lowered the student and staff level of fear, confusion, and anger so that we were better able to address many issues on campus in an intelligent and rational manner.

Given the amazing stories of change coming from our churches, why can’t they serve themselves and the communities in which they are located as leaders asking good questions and hosting discussions for exploring multiple routes toward some kind of resolution. 

First, teams of congregation and community members could attend education sessions (in central locations and/or online) to learn more about the situations they are facing and together share ideas for addressing what needs to be done in their locality. 

The issues addressed would of course need to be contextual to the situation of any given church and its community.  For some the issue might be a dwindling number of parishioners, for others the drug use of some members of the church or community, for others an influx of immigrants in town, for others concern about texting and driving by the young, and for others the draw of gangs.  The possibilities are endless, and our churches would seem to be the most significant organizations in most communities to get the process started and bring a measure of hope.

This is, it seems to me, doing God’s work.


The “Right Way” as Keel?;
Our Eternal Conundrum.

There is no doubt about it, many if not most of us find solace and comfort in knowing the “right way” to think, feel, believe, act, etc.  In an often confusing world, to know that you know what is right is a like the keel on a boat – it helps you to move straight ahead even in the midst of troubled waters.  Our religious beliefs can be like that for most of us.

But there is no doubt about it, many if not most of us have found that at some point or other in our life, as we seek actions that are clearly in the best interests of everybody, we bump into gatekeepers that tell us our plan is not “the right way”;  it’s not the way to do it here.   The religious beliefs of others can be like that at times for us.

Why is it that rather than open our ears, our minds and our hearts and really engage each other in honest and open conversations about the issues before us, those who know “the right way”, those who have counted on the keel of their religion to keep them upright and headed straight ahead, point to that which give them solace and comfort and then close their ears, their mind and their heart to alternative suggestions and approaches that might offer hope, support and help given the difficult issues before us.

The easiest way to cling to one’s own keel, is to simply not to acknowledge or reply to considerations, questions, and ways of thinking outside of one’s own religious and family traditions.  But this rigidity is a serious barrier to life-giving positive relationships in a congregation or across our larger church.  Weakened or destroyed are the very relationship connections that bring us all health and well-being.

We follow the nightly news and sorrow at the horrendous conflicts among people who have different beliefs about the right ways of thinking and believing in other countries.  Yet, in our own towns and congregations we allow similar differences to keep us apart and  muffle healing conversations. 

Why not redouble our efforts to use the power of open conversations -- easily available to us via The Lutheran Online or The Living Lutheran, for instance – to comment, to ask, to share, to know, to listen, to comfort, to sustain each other as together we as a church become part of the solution in our troubled world, not part of the problem.  


Ask Not

Ask not what your church can do for you, ask what you can do for your church.

With apologies to President Kennedy and to members of congregations who have for years given their all to shore up their church in creative ways, I would like to come to grips with the reality of the human nature behind of Kennedy’s words.

Our churches often point with pride to their outreach to those in need, whether across the street or across the globe.  How many of you are members of congregations that identify front and center your good works in supporting missions in Asia or Africa?  How many of you are members of churches that proudly identify efforts by clergy and laity alike to keep in touch with the less able, the shut-ins and the bereaved?  How many of you are members of churches that repeatedly identify the blessing we all receive as gifts from our God?   

I hope that most of you answered, “I am.” to those questions.  These actions are important to the missions and purposes of our churches and as such should be “practiced” and publicly noticed and appreciated.   The focus in our newsletters, bulletin boards and “Temple Talks” about the things we do as a church not only define our church, but they identify ways to think about a Godly life for each of us.  The practices noticed in our church can become the identity practiced by members of a congregation. 

But we all know, because we have been there, that as much as we appreciate a helping hand with food when we are incapacitated, or words of compassion when we are troubled, or directions along a pathway when we are confused, that we would never choose to live our life in such a “receiving” mode.  We, all of us, need to also feel that we are reasonably capable of giving help, finding solutions to problems, and being in reasonable control of our own lives in the company of people we like and appreciate.  This is as true for older adults as it is for the middle-aged adults as it is for the youth.

So how does a church go about including success in empowering people for the “I am competent” half of the human equation.   Where are the headlines in the bulletin and newsletters proudly touting instances in which congregation has created opportunities for those who receive the churches support to become our teachers in ways we would never have expected?  Where are the “Temple Talks” lauding the older adults in the church who gathered the youth to ask the young for ideas for making life better for all?  Where are the well-publicized discussions of clergy and laity alike asking the less active members of the congregation for help in thinking about and acting on creative ways for fostering new ways to improve life for members of the communities in which they live?

I write these words as an older adult who, though feeling a bit less energy or capability to do what I’d like to do with each passing year, still do not like being given a default identity as the kind of person the church needs to help.  

The solutions lie in considerations of new, creative ways all members of the church, including my older age-mates can be noticed publicly as we contribute in ways that we are able to improve the well-being of our church, our community, our country and our world.  I’d like us to be known not just as a part of the problem but also as a necessary part of the solution.  It would do wonders for our health and well-being and could support our churches in their efforts to help create a better world.


In Praise of Acquaintances

The other day after a Sunday church service, one of the members of the congregation came up to me and said that he had signed up for the course on Gratitude and Beliefs that my colleague and I are teaching this fall in the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium.  I know this person and like him.  When we meet at church we usually make eye contact, nod and smile, and perhaps say “Hello” or “How’s it going?”   If there is something significant going on, like a snowstorm, or a big game, or a forthcoming program at church on mental illness, we might comment even more.  If we bumped into each other downtown or in a store, we would typically follow the same pattern of greeting.  Should we happen to sit next to each other during an informal church gathering, our understandings of each other’s interests and experiences would surely increase a bit.

I feel good during those brief meetings in the hall, whatever form they take.  I’d be hard pressed to say that our greetings make my entire day, but they make me feel cheerful at the moment and they remind me that I’m not invisible, and that I am recognized by a person who I know and appreciate – that I matter to someone. 

If asked, I’d say that this person was an acquaintance.  He is certainly not a stranger, nor is he one of my more intimate close friends. 

Such face-to-face encounters with “acquaintances” in my church give me feelings of “belonging” – a connection that affirms to me that who I am – a person welcomed by others.   It makes me feel at home; connected to my community.  When I sit in church with acquaintances on all sides, and we join together in prayer, liturgy, song and communion, it makes me feel comfortable and content –- I suppose it is a form of gratitude for my faith and those with whom I journey.

To praise interactions with acquaintances in church is not to degrade the importance of close personal friendships that also may be reinforced in church hallways.  But a growing appreciation for the role of acquaintances in our health has fostered a new exploration of the contexts in daily life that support our well-being.  In this case, the advantages of attending church are front and center in their fit.  

A generation ago, psychology made an important shift from research that explored recovery from emotional difficulties to also exploring benefits from enhancing the positive events in daily life.  The research from this positive psychology has increased our awareness of the roots of resilience – an especially important perspective for older adults!   But until recently, the source of positive emotions that enhanced well-being and resilience was seen as lying primarily with close relationships with family and good friends.  But recently, psychology has also begun to explore the importance of increasing the number of one’s acquaintances and the frequency of interactions with them, as influential means of enhancing our well-being and resilience.

In a nutshell, here are some emerging components from acquaintance research:
Both the number of acquaintances we know and the frequency of our pleasant interaction (even minimally) with them will affect our immediate happiness and sense of well-being and “belongingness” (in an organization, like a church).  These are all powerful cognitive and emotional signals to us that life is good;  and such feelings clearly affect our physical and emotional health and our sense of resilience.

What fertile understandings these are for knowing how our churches serve as important sources of spiritual, physical and emotional health in the lives of our parishioners.


MemoryKeepers,  Attentional-Pie  

and Our Disappearing Church

 The organizations with which we align ourselves affect our thoughts about ourselves and others, our emotions, and our actions.  This can be true for the sports team we support, the business we work for, and the church we attend.   Our allegiances affect our identity, and our identity affects what we think, feel and do.   We grow to have cyclical relationships among our identity, the other people in our lives and our “organizations” (groups).

Most of us can recognize the truth of such a cyclical relationship, at least for the formative events that added to our sense of who we are as a person.   What seems to be harder to understand is the important role that our accessible memory of “formative events” plays in our current identity.  It is not an accident that weekly sermons at church cover, more or less, the same ground covered last year at this time.  The continuing reminder of the Word of God is a key part of the awareness and strength our own religious beliefs.

What we pay attention to is like a pie – an attentional-pie.  The more we focus on some aspects of our life, the less attention we have remaining to focus on other elements of our life experiences -- that could have “come to mind”.  Thus, as we consider our personal characteristics that affirm to us who we are (our identity) what comes to mind is necessarily a limited number of the possibilities of current events and events from our history.

Thus, our mind’s attentional-pie determines in many ways, what will come to mind as we think about who we are as a person. The role of memory for the stability of knowing our own identity came to me in an unusual way recently.  It began with a conversation with a friend who has Alzheimer’s Disease;  I’m going to call him Roger.

Roger was able to express to me that as he has a conversation, he feels a sense of enjoyment and appreciation.  He said those conversations bring him “happiness” of some sort.  For instance, I have recently had excellent conversations with Roger about his youth in Alaska and about the reasons he has chosen to open himself for challenging opportunities and new directions throughout his life.  He does seem to realize that in ten minutes he will have completely forgotten our conversation about his experiences. 

For most of us, a recall of our experiences is what keeps us on a reasonably steady life journey.  An ability to remember our experiences can be what gives us an identity (a sense of who we are) because we can “see”, in retrospect, our consistencies of thought, action and feelings.  This is an invisible, but extremely important psychological process.

Roger explained that he is OK with only momentary sources of “happiness”.  In some way he seems to recognize that something is missing.  I can certainly understand how hard it is for any of us to “see” something that isn’t there – although beliefs of all sort play a real-life role here.

Then, as Roger and his wife, and my wife and I were having dinner, Roger’s wife shared a brief story.  She and Roger were walking through their nearby river-side park recently.  They passed near the park gardener.  Roger noticed the well trimmed hedges and said to the gardener, “Thank you for trimming the hedges.  They look nice.”  His wife said that the gardener stopped what he was doing, looked at us in amazement and said in return, “Nobody ever stops to tell me things like that about my work.  Thank you.  It makes a big difference.”

The look on Roger’s face as his wife was telling this story (his story) was one of smiling intensity.  Clearly he appreciated this powerful story being told about himself – something his failing memory would never have enabled him to do.   It seems that listening to somebody else telling about the good things in life that he did (and was doing) was the way that he now had to learn about his own identity – in this case, that of a being a good person who made other people feel good.

Being a good person is truly consistent with his identity as I knew it over the years.  But he truly had no way to remember and understand that, without hearing a story about himself told by somebody else.  Roger’s wife was, for him, his MemoryKeeper.   

The same dynamics are true, it seems to me, for the identity and values we have incorporated over the years that have come from the organizations and the people in those organizations with which we have been aligned -- such as our church.  The problem does not usually come from our lack of ability to remember things, like it is for Roger.  Our lack of remembering what our organization stood for last year or twenty years ago that affected our sense of who we were, is more likely because our current attentional-pie now only brings to mind recent events or only a few of the meaningful events from past years.  The breadth of events and values that were embodied in our church that truly influenced us in the past, are simply not likely to be recalled and thus considered.  This is a serious handicap because it can narrow our perception of our contemporary identity – who we are today.

Furthermore, who we think we are today, can be projected back on our perception of what our church has become as well.  For example, to the extent that we older adults think of ourselves as less capable and resilient, we may see our church as less capable and resilient as well and vice-versa.  (To the extent that we really care about our church, our understanding of our identity and the identity we perceive our church to have can be quite reciprocal.)

Importantly, these issues must be considered in any conversations about how to address our “disappearing church”.

We are, in reality, all MemoryKeepers of our own church.  The fact that we differ in what we recall about the meaning our church to us over the years is perhaps the most significant resource available to a congregation.

As members of a church congregation share their diverse stories (from yesterday and last year and 20 years ago) the reality of a complex, living (and changing) church becomes clearer.   When we combine our memories, hidden strengths and sources of resilience will emerge that never would have been recalled and considered with a more traditional, hierarchical approach.  These newly recalled resources can enable a church to consider a host of creative ways to find resilience in the face of change.

Note:  As the writer of this blog, I find myself becoming very emotional as I write the words of the last three paragraphs.  The reality of what I write is so clear, and yet the approach is hardly ever discussed, let alone tried (as far as I know), that I weep as “disappearing” increasingly becomes an identity of far too many of our churches – and an identity of far too many congregation members as well!