We were camped in the mountains far from city lights. On the last night of our annual family reunion campout, the rain went away, the sparkling creek next to our group site returned to its banks, and we were finally able to build a fire. We ate s’mores and laughed about smoke following beauty and told a tall tale or two. Eventually, Mike and I made our way by flashlight back to our little t@b camper and closed down the kitchen hatch at the back, our middle-school-aged great-nephew, Caden, chatting with us the whole time. He asked, Do you mind walking me to Grandpa’s camper? I’m a little afraid of bears. (It was not an unreasonable request)! We stepped away from our camper, out from under the trees, and into the pitch-black night. All three of us gasped. The stars! Cayden had never seen such a canopy of light, and it had been far too long since Mike and I had seen it. As we stood gasping at the beauty, my cousin, an astronomer who in his long career discovered a minor planet and gave it our family name, emerged from the outhouse on his way to his tent. “Chris, Chris, come here for a minute, will you?” For the next little while, Chris connected the dots, helping us see constellations and planets and satellites, helping us make sense of the cosmic beauty spilling across the sky and all around us.
Do you remember the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter 8? Do you remember Philip encountering him as he read from the prophets and asking him if he understood what he was reading? The eunuch responded, “How can I unless someone guides me?” And so, Philip connected the dots for the Ethiopian. From all the words of the prophets, Philip shared with the man the good news that God’s reign includes even men like him. The Ethiopian’s life changed. He was baptized and went rejoicing on his way.
My cousin Chris connected the dots of the night sky for us. Chris helped make sense of the vastly glorious sight we were seeing. Philip connected the dots that were the words of the prophets read by the Ethiopian official.
Maybe, especially in these times, our congregants need more help than ever to connect the dots. The explosion of information that has come with the internet and modern media surrounds us. We are overwhelmed like the vastness of the sky on a pitch-black night in a far-away place. How do we make sense of it? How do those in our care see the connections between our faith stories and the world around us?
As pastors, isn’t our job to help our people connect the dots?
How is it possible for a seventy-year member of the congregation, who was part of the Sunday School class that resettled Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, to yell into the telephone, “You care more about those damned Moslims than you do about our congregation! I’m leaving this church and taking it out of my will!” All because the congregation helped a Somalian man find his way in our city in 2019?
How is it possible church leaders stopped attending worship in a fit of pique because the pastor wrote in her blog that “there was nothing of Jesus in what happened at the US capitol on January 6th”?
How is it possible that members of churches in denominations that have long supported public education and higher education and scientific discoveries now refuse to wear masks and call COVID-19 a hoax?
How is it possible that people who grew up worshipping, going to Sunday School, confirmation, and youth group; who valiantly struggled to get their children to church when they were squirming small bundles of mischief and energy can blithely say, “those people need to go back where they came from.”?
How is it possible a farm woman, an elder in her church, proudly shared a caricature of the former First Lady of the United States as an orangutan? How is it possible her whole family made racist jokes around the Thanksgiving table after asking God’s blessing upon their meal?
How is it possible a man at the men’s breakfast from the church proudly proclaimed he is excited about his family’s pending move because their new next-door neighbor flies a “don’t tread on me flag” on his flag pole. That he will finally feel at home, and not one of the Christian men spoke up to say that’s not ok?
How is it possible a long-time church member, a minister’s mother, proudly describes her years-long and finally successful effort to get her pastor to leave their church because he supported the ordination of GLBTQIA people?
How is it possible a proud, Bible-believing, invite-the-new-neighbors-to-church-man make a wisecrack in the car with those new neighbors about how a lightning strike to a mural of George Floyd was a sign from God, laughing while he said, Hmph! All those people who made an idol out of a damned criminal.
How is it possible?
I think too many of us have been derelict in our duty.
I think too many of us have been like a colleague of mine who said, I make a point of never being political. I just talk about Jesus. I talk about the love of Jesus. That’s all I talk about. It keeps the congregation happy, and it keeps me in my job.
I doubt many of us would be that forthright about having the same strategy. But I suspect far too many of us have cast the vision, shared the stories, and faithfully scattered the beautiful images of God while assuming (or at least fervently hoping) our folks would connect the dots without our having to do it for them.
That strategy is not working.
Our folks hear us preach 15 to 25 minutes a week (if they make it to worship every week, and most folks don’t). Some of our folks may engage in a 45 minute to hour-long weekly Bible study taught by someone with knowledge of Biblical criticism or from curricula by responsible publishing houses that helps to connect our ancient texts with our modern lives. A small number of our congregation members may participate in the wider Church where they encounter prophetic preachers and teachers in our denominations. We may write columns or blog posts a fraction of our flock will read on occasion.
Compare that to who and what has their ears, eyes, and attention throughout the week.
What are they listening to on the radio on their commute to work? Who do they hear for ten hours a day in the cab of their tractors and combines?
What are they watching on tv?
Whose Facebook and Instagram posts are they most likely to read?
Before worship one morning at a country church I served, one of the women mentioned the great sermon she listened to that morning on the radio before coming to worship. It turned out the entire congregation had heard that sermon. It was on the station they always listen to for the weather reports and the ag reports. Every. Single. Person. The whole congregation except I had listened to and appreciated the sermon of a fundamentalist preacher exhorting them in ways I believe to be fundamentally antithetical to the Gospel. And, here is the kicker, all of them told me they listen to the same preacher every day. Every. Single. Day.
If I am correct, if our congregations are getting their Christian formation primarily from the secular media—if they are being formed by the “Jesus loves me and you but not them” channels, stations, and websites that are rampant, is it any wonder that the gospel they believe and the Gospel we are called to proclaim are so different from each other?
We need to be intentional about connecting the dots. We need to be clear about the constellations we see. We need to carefully point out the stars and planets God planted in the skies and give our people the tools to distinguish them from the satellites of human making.
If what we preach, teach and write looks more like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” or “God loves you and I love you and that’s the way it’s going to be, boom boom boom,” if we preach theological head-games or Jesus-lite, obfuscating or skating-over what it truly means to follow Jesus, how can our congregations know any better?
My great-nephew was not wrong to be nervous about bears in our campsite. We preachers have every reason to be nervous about the threats to our lively-hoods when we stand out in the open and speak with clarity, but if we won’t take that risk, who will?
How can they know without someone to guide them?
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Zahller McNeil retired June 1, 2021 after serving ministries in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Zaire, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Nebraska in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She and her husband Mike just moved to Trinidad, Colorado where they enjoy worshipping with Zion’s Lutheran Church. They’ve started hiking and are thankful to begin to be able to breathe at higher altitudes. Becky blogs at http://everydaystories.blog
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