It’s my mother’s birthday and that always brings roses to mind. They are not my favorite flower. Given a choice, I prefer wild flowers over cultivated roses any day. Unlike me, my mother loved roses. At one point she had planted many varieties all over her front yard. In later years, there were not traces of most of the hybrid, delicate plants. Yet there was one rose bush that flourished. It had started out as a cutting from a friends’ white dawn rose bush. Over the years it had grown up the six-foot chain link fence, over a makeshift trellis, and down the old stockade fence. The last time I saw it, it was wildly overgrown, enormous, and absolutely beautiful in it’s early spring bloom of pale pink roses.
After my mother sold her house and moved away, I was disappointed when I discovered that the new owners had removed the bush completely. Moreover, I was sad that I had not thought to take a clipping of it to plant in my own yard. In my mind, I would have planted the clipping in my yard and repeated this each time I have moved since. If I had done this, I would now have a rose bush growing in my yard that was connected to the glorious one that had grown in my mother’s yard.
Funny thing, I now know it wouldn’t have worked. Eve if I could have gotten the rose to grow in each place I’ve lived since my mother moved – six places and three states in twelve years – it wouldn’t survive in Minnesota. Climbing roses like the white dawn don’t do well with harsh winters. Not only that, but I’m such an amateur gardener that the original cutting probably wouldn’t have survived its first planting, let alone the five subsequent ones. However, in my mind, that same wild, glorious bush that took over the corner of my mother’s yard after several decades of growth, is thriving in the back corner of my yard. Looking into purchasing a white dawn rose bush has proven to me that it’s time to let this dream go. That bush that was such a beauty simply will not grow where I live. I will choose another variety that is more suitable to Minnesota’s climate. It will still make me think of my mother just as surely as the white dawn would have.
As Pentecost approaches, I find myself having similar thoughts about the church. I grew up in a church that was just coming out of it’s heyday. In the 1970s the large, rambling building was still in full use with a busy Sunday School, active committees, choirs, and two services on Sunday. I went on to work as a youth leader and seminary student at churches of 2000 members and more. The first church I was called to as a pastor was over 800 members. These kinds of crowds inform my understand of what church was supposed to be for a long time. And, if I’m honest, I sometimes have to remind myself that this kind of church is a thing of the past. It was beautiful and glorious when it was in full bloom.
I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to cultivate church so it would re-grow into it’s former glory. In affect, I kept trying to solve the problems of membership and budget with tools no longer useful. Everything I had learned about church from childhood, college, and seminary were for a different era, a different climate. It was a time when attending church was the expected norm. People went to church because they were supposed to. It was the place to socialize, to network, to see and be seen. It was how you demonstrated that you were a “good” person. Parents brought their children to church because their parents had brought them. Yes, there were spiritual and religious reasons for church membership, too. Yet, it seems to me that a lot of church attendance had to do with existing social norms. Then, the cultural climate began to shift.
Somewhere along the way, the church stopped meeting the needs for community, for religion, for spirituality, for faith formation. A few generations have been clearly communicating their dissatisfaction with church. Yet, we keep trying to re-grow the old without paying attention to climate. What we cultivate or transplant, might be okay for a while, but a close look might reveal new growth too fragile to withstand the rigors of the seasons. Maybe it’s time to stop pretending that the old growth was always pruned well and remains as healthy and vital as ever.
I don’t suggest ripping these old churches out by the roots, though. They have a place, especially for those with long memories. But nearby, we ought to consider planting and cultivating another variety of church, a kind more suitable to the climate. It won’t look like the enormous, cultivated beauty of yesterday. The new variety is likely to be smaller, durable, and a bit wild. It’s time we admit that we have practically cultivated the Spirit right out of the church. But let’s not worry. As we plant a new variety of church, if we are patient, we will notice blossoms in a familiar shape as she grows her own way.
We would do well to remember that the Spirit, whose movement set heads on fire and blew doors open and bubbled up in a myriad of languages, cannot be tamed. If we cultivate and nurture a church suitable for this climate, the Spirit will surprise us with her tenacious, wild, beauty.
RCL – Year B – Pentecost – May 20, 2018
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe