Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. –Luke 6:21
Monday through Wednesday of this week, I was a presenter at a retreat that focused on congregational grief in the face of mergers, consolidations, closures and other times of transition and change. The participants in the retreat were the Bishops, Directors of Evangelical Mission, Assistants to the Bishop, and a few parish pastors from five synods. They invited me to share some of my work on grief in congregational systems that forms the basis of my book, Embracing God’s Future without Forgetting the Past (Fortress Press, 2019). What an amazing group of leaders! The conversation was rich, deep and faithful by people who love Christ’s Church and are called to care for it through some of our most difficult days.
The loss and decline that many congregations have experienced can result in a yearning for the past that can trap us in our grief. Until a congregation works through the pain, and sorrow and heartbreak of that grief, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to think creatively about the future. But, simply telling a congregation to “get over” the remembered past is not helpful. Instead, we need to learn how to mine those memories to discover our strengths, our core values and ultimately the roots of the faith that has sustained us along the way. This is not to help us recreate the past, but to use it give us hope and vision for the future. It is the affirmation of these nostalgic memories that assure us that, though we weep now in the throes of our grief, the day of laughter and rejoicing is coming. As we explore the blessings of the past through the tears of our grief, we will discover a confidence that, though we cannot see it, our future is always in God’s gracious hands – even though we need to pass through the valley of the shadow of death to see it fully. But, we are a resurrection people, and hope of the empty tomb can free us from our yearning so that we can embrace God’s future with joy (and yes, maybe even laughing!)
On this weekend many of us will be celebrating “All Saints Sunday” when we remember those who have gone before us in faith and draw strength from their memory. Saints are not perfect people, but sinners who have been claimed by God in Christ. Saints live their lives between the witness of God’s faithfulness in the past and the hope of God’s future which they cannot fully see.
One of the participants at the retreat told us that, in the church where she serves, they light white candles for those saints who have died and red candles for those saints who have been born in the past year. This ritual reminded the congregation of the continuity of God’s promises that underlies our identity in Christ. I like that tradition. It reminds us that, whether we live or die, or whether our congregations, synods or even our denominations live or die, we are the Lords, and that God will continue to be faithful to all God’s children and to the whole creation until the final day and beyond.
Give thanks for all the saints in your life, and say a prayer for grieving congregations facing transition and grief. Thanks for reading.