We had quite a snowfall in the area in which I live here in the Pacific Northwest. As with most big snowfalls, the compounding of millions of tiny snowfalls over time, layer upon layer, becomes a bit of a mess to navigate. The pathways we had established are erased from sight, the layering of snow and cold becomes compacted ice below the surface that can send you sliding into a ditch if you are not careful. The heavy snow also covers up all the dead waste of winter: brown grass, dead bushes, weeds become covered up in a purity that is both difficult yet also removes the dead from our vision… at least for a time.
Am I merely waxing lyrical with the cheesy sentimentality of Jack Handey? Not entirely. No, I am standing over my snow shovel clearing an obscene amount of snow so that I can go to work, teach the classes I need to teach, get the things done I have planned on. So no, this is not some romantic Robert Frost idyll about pondering existence on a snowy evening. This is me with a shovel in my hand trying to get a pathway onto the road. True enough, this scraping and digging has brought thoughts of Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) from the Coen Brother’s 1996 film Fargo to mind quite a few times – the futility of it all yet needing to do something in trying to find a way through this snow:
Yet there is another layer to this weekend and what I learned in shoveling the snow today…
My denomination – the PCUSA – has been going through a difficult time navigating some questions of what it means to be a denomination. In an email exchange last week, a colleague in ministry reminded me of an important point:
What makes a denomination? Not merely ecclesiastical structures or customary loyalties. Denominations are shaped and sustained by shared faith, shared worship, and shared mission. Not uniform faith, worship, and mission, but genuinely cohesive, communal, integrated beliefs and practices. For many, including many denominational loyalists, it is precisely this that we have taken for granted and thus allowed to dissipate.
I have really taken this to heart as I followed what is taking place this weekend in Orlando as almost 2,000 members of the PCUSA discuss a new polity structure and theological statement for what they are calling the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECOP) or ECO. Aside from what strikes me as a problematic branding issue with a denominational title that sound akin to 1950s fraternal organizations like the Elks (B.P.O.E.) and Eagles (F.O.E.) thereby making it a challenging sell for younger generations to see how this is moving us forward, I don’t see how creating another organization will help us offer a connected, vital witness to the world that is looking for unity not more divorce and discord. Another friend in ministry sent the following this week:
What the denomination does for us is to offer vision and relationships with God’s global mission. It gives us connections with other congregations as we work together at things we couldn’t do effectively alone. Even in a post-denominational environment, there is still a great need for connections which are reliable/trustworthy. Unfortunately, many congregations these days see Presbyteries and GAMC more as regulators and bureaucracy rather than catalysts and partners in the mission of the local congregation. There has been enough truth in this stereotype in the past to warrant this caricature, but that has been changing in recent years in good ways.
I believe this to be true. There needs to be more coming together and not coming apart. As I read through this ‘new’ polity document and ‘new’ theological statement and then look at how much energy is being put into creating this new structure by pastors who are not with their congregations but working on this… I have to wonder what will be become of us all who are in leadership. Thousands of hours have been generated away from the needs of the local congregation, thousands of dollars in a depressed economy spent to fly clergy to and from national meetings and to what end?
Perhaps this is just the way of all things. Perhaps the ice and cold of the years have got to be just too much and people are tired. So we break out the shovels and attack the snow and ice, driving our shoulders into the work of ‘making a way’ again – a safe place, with defined borders, with no chance of stumbling, with no friction or tension so that we don’t even have to change our footwear.
Maybe this is what it all comes to – we need to make a new way.
Yet as I have been digging, something happened I didn’t anticipate…
The temperate changed. And now it is raining…
So I am not forcing a path anymore. I put my shovel down and am inside with my daughter who has a bad headcold and is resting by my side reading a Nancy Drew book in a quilt her grandmother made her. I don’t need to work so hard it turns out. Rain is coming and I need to be patient enough to let the rain do its work. For me? I don’t need to be wasting my family’s time away from them making a path. No. The rain is working on that. I need to be with them. Getting Kleenex boxes, spooning Tylenol, feeding the dog, helping with dinner, attending to getting the bills paid. In some ways plowing a path in the snow is easier – I feel like I am getting somewhere, making something happen. I can point to the sidewalk and say “See… I made that! I have productive!” Clergy face the ever present push from their congregations to prove they are worth the salary they are paid – “How do you spend your time? Are you productive? We don’t get study days… why should you?” Flying to and from national conferences, spending hours drafting new statements on polity, arguing and challenging the system in order to make a better, clearer path is a way to say “Hey… I am productive! I am leaving my mark!”
But are we really? The path is there… and the rain is doing its work. In fact, in my frenetic digging, I hit the lawn a few times and didn’t even hit the path. Some people in Orlando were said to be shouting ‘Carpe Diem’ which other than evoking a seminal scene from Dead Poets Society is actually a shorter refrain from the Stoic poet Horace. The full aphorism reads “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” or “Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the future.” To be chanting such a refrain at such a time as this should give us all a moment of pause and ask what is really going on here.
Do we really have so little faith in the future that we must seize today from that future?
Do we trust the rain?
The rain is working in ways I couldn’t nor shouldn’t. Tomorrow I will walk about to cleared sidewalks and a driveway literally washed clean. I will have spent time with those God has called me to love and care for.
So my prayers for Orlando and my brothers and sisters gathered there?
I am praying for rain. I am praying that you can find a way to wait for the rains to come. Perhaps if we focus even more intentionally on our congregations, on the mission to our neighbors, to the prayers of the people and the cries from the streets, we can fall in love with ministry to the local congregation which has always been the focus of the PCUSA and the freedom we have to do that which we were ordained to:
Show people the rain is falling on the just and unjustice.
Show people the love that passes all understanding.
Show people that we are about grace and not working, straining, forcing something into being that will divide the body.
And listen for the rain…