So many congregations right now are awash in uncertainty, haunted by loss, and longing for normalcy or a way back. It is imperative that church boards find ways to talk honestly, truthfully, with sensitivity and with tenderness, about where we are.
We think that Tracy K. Smith’s astonishing, complex poem, “An Old Story,” can help church boards to do that.
An Old Story
by Tracy K. Smith
We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.
Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.
A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended
Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.
Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.
Smith’s long pause, in the middle of the poem, invites us to pause as well—and only then to enter into the knowledge of how little will survive us, and the surprising color of a world in which we accept that truth.
What if uncertainty were an invitation, rather than something to dread? An echo of that invitation is found in 1 Corinthians:
[W]e speak God’s wisdom, a hidden mystery, which God decreed before the ages for our glory and which none of the rulers of this age understood, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”— (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)
Trusting that God is preparing us for something we have not seen, nor heard, nor conceived… this is a high challenge, especially for church boards faced with aging boilers, aging donors, and increasing anxiety about programs and worship that are not bringing in the same numbers.
How does a church board enact such trust in practical terms?
Accept reports and recommendations from your board colleagues with less conversation. Save the conversation for building trust in God and one another.
Pray more. Way more. Together, even awkwardly. Out loud.
Devote the first half of the meeting to the very purpose of this blog: digging a deeper well. Talk about what 1 Corinthians means to you. Share how you struggle with it. And devote thirty minutes to seeking to understand Tracy K. Smith’s poem. Wrestle with it. Laugh with one another about how hard it is to gain that understanding together…and keep doing it.
Change the order of your meeting to start with this sort of discussion and exploration. After that, move to pastoral needs. Stop and pray for those needs in the middle of the meeting. Move from there to thoughts about what sort of adult faith formation would interest you, and/or appeal to a co-worker, a neighbor, the young adults in your life. Then, finally, spend a few minutes on budgets and buildings. Starting with budgets and buildings makes that the lens through which the rest of the work is viewed. It is not working. (It has not worked in at least 30 years – just look at where we are.)
To pick up a thread from our post last week, a recent article by Tim Denning on how “ambition is dying,” especially for Millennials, quotes one leader: “Ambition used to mean a bigger paycheck, a bigger brand, a more senior position… Now I’d actually rather go and watch the sunset.”
We’re not sure you can convince your church board to go view the sunset, but it’s not a bad idea. To paraphrase Tracy K. Smith…just look at that color.
What is the old story in Smith’s poem? What is the old story in 1 Corinthians?
Can you think of a time in your life in which knowledge of loss made room for “something large and old” to awaken?
What allows the “we” of Smith’s poem to take new stock of one another?
What could help you, as a church board, to take new stock of one another?