August 24, 2016

Should We Make Decisions Today That People Tomorrow Will Change?

For the past several weeks, I’ve snuck a hour or half-hour, here or there, on as many days as I can to clear rocks from the rectory’s front yard in Valley Lee. My late predecessor, his wife tells me, got a call one day from a friend who offered him stones – a whole assortment of large, extra-large and not-so-small rocks. He gladly accepted the gift and turned them into edges for flower beds – lovely, I imagine, in his time. Ever since his departure and throughout the decade after he left and before I arrived, the rock edges did little more than keep the weeds in and the trimming out. I thought clearing the beds and cleaning up the front yard would be an easy summer job, achievable in a just few days since, after all, the stones didn’t appear very large. Regrettably, I’ve been reminded that heavy objects sink rather well in this porous southern Maryland soil, such that I was only looking at the tip of what are, in retrospect, hundreds and hundreds of extra large boulders!

Needless to say, I’ve had plenty of ‘conversations’ with my late predecessor, a fine priest all around but whom, I wished, hadn’t set up such a labor to clean up the place. (I’ll also confess to a bit of jealousy regarding those so-called ‘good old days’ where rectors living in rectories could spend their time erecting and planting flower beds, weeding and enjoying what was, surely, a more straightforward sense of call.) “What were you thinking?!” is a phrase I’ve uttered plenty, the garden stones and churchyard being my only companions on these hot August days.

I’m reminded of wise advice a savvy parish administrator once told me. “Don’t make any decisions today that you think will impact negatively the person who comes after you,” she warned. I was a curate back then, and she had seen plenty of my kind come and go. She was right, and ever since she said that, and throughout plenty of other ministry I’ve admired how true her warning remains. We could do a much better job, we who are currently incumbents in whatever positions we hold, of travelling lightly, storing less, and creating less of a load for those who may come after us. From the physical stuff we accumulate to the stories we tell to the titles we hold dear, it may be wise to ‘lighten the ballast’, as it were, in our corporate experience, to the degree we can, even if in only small measures.

At the same time, however, I’ve had the nagging sense that I need to be more assertive, more direct in what I sense as the mission of the church today – specifically as it relates to the ministry to which God has called me in St. Mary’s County, Maryland; even more specifically as St. George’s, the congregation I serve as rector, and Ascension, Lexington Park, our neighbor congregation, put plans in place to move into a more intentional, institutionally collaborative, covenantal relationship. As much as I and, I imagine, most members of Ascension and St. George’s want our shared future to be a response to God’s call and, concerning what precise shape it all begins to take, to be the fruit of godly discernment which emerges crystal clear from the entire community, I also need to remember that ministry isn’t an intellectual, theoretical exercise. Ministry involves real people living real lives in real time, and, like it or not, I am also one of those people – not better or different or more or less capable of anyone else of seeing what God intends for these congregations. I, too, have specific ideas and hopes and dreams, and I also have particular fears and resistances that may or may not be relevant on a grand scale but they matter very much right now, right here.

Therefore, today we may very well start to do things that someone, someday down the road will look at and think, “What were they thinking?” We may very well do things, today, that impact negatively someone at a later date. And, in fact, I really hope someone, someday asks that very question – What were they thinking? – and, even more, I hope those folks can’t come up a with a good enough reason or maybe they just disagree with what I’m thinking today. Because if they ask that question it means that whatever we did, today, gave them something to wrestle with and, similarly, they’re just as free to chart a new course and ask new questions and dream new visions as we (might be) today.

Rocks and stones can always be removed; garden beds can always be turned into patches of grass. It may take hard work and, from time to time, select ‘conversations’ with those who’ve gone before, but there’s nothing but the lack of our imagination and God’s will stopping the work, in the end.

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