Hope comes in small packages

By Rev. Mindi

Sorry for that terribly cliche title. But bear with me.

I’m in that weird post-election pre-Advent what-do-I-write-about phase. You know, the calm before the storm for pastors, because the next month will be ca-razy!

As a pastor, I’m constantly challenged by outside the church of what I need to preach about, because outside seems to be where so many are.  Outside the church is the real world of political struggle, conflict over debt, taxes and support to the poor; outside is where the difficult questions about ethnicity and religion are happening over in Gaza and Israel; outside is where the “nones” are and we need to reach them and we need to abandon this old way of doing church so we can get out there and be with the “real” people.  Outside is where the homeless and poor are. Outside, outside, outside. The church is stuck inside and is cold and boring and dying.

*Yet this week I heard the story of a 70-something woman who is finding new life after almost dying. After being unable to walk she is starting to learn a new musical instrument. I know another who is reclaiming a passion for art that they had in their teens but lost in their adult years.  Another is struggling with a child who has AIDS, another has a grandson they have never seen.  Another’s brother is in rehab and another’s child is pregnant and not seventeen.  I know grandparents raising children and grandparents going back to school for another degree.  I know of elderly volunteers at elementary schools and young environmental activists reorganizing the church’s recycling. 

For all the criticisms of the church that we might have, for all the “new” and emergent churches that are making a difference, our old churches can still make a difference, too, and may be doing it under our noses.  There are days I throw my hands up in the air in ministry and think, “These people will never change, they’ll never grow out of their habits and they never want to do something new.”  And then I peer under the surface and find they are reaching out in new ways, but also living into hope in new ways.  They are miracles in and of themselves.  And they love their church.  And sometimes they just don’t know what to do, and they know the way they have always done things isn’t the best way, but they are trying their darndest.

So sometimes I think those of us, and I am including myself, who get all critical and huffy about the church being stuck in the past, need to take a moment to pause before the craziness of the world and be thankful for the problems we have, for the people we are with, because these are the real people in our lives.  We may see the conflict in Israel and Gaza and wonder how in the world we can make a difference.  I have friends involved in petitions and protests and peace conferences and interfaith dialogues—they are doing good work.  But the grandparents who keep an eye on the neighborhood kids in our small city streets—they are doing the work of peacemaking as well. 

For those of us in our small churches, let us be thankful for what we have, let us work with what we have, and let us see those miracles, those stories of living hope, and do what we can to tackle the small problems in our lives.  Who knows?  Maybe we can reach out to some of those “nones” by our everyday ministry and stories of hope. 

This Sunday I’ll be dusting off the Advent wreath and getting ready to participate in the traditions that this church has held for a long time, some of which the meaning has been lost.  But there is hope here, hope in the living stories of the people who still gather here, and the meaning of these traditions becomes apparent when I remember that: this is a community of faith, and the ritual of tradition at times stirs in them hope that even when they are gone, things will continue on, and that they won’t be forgotten.

We have plenty of poor people, people on Social Security and food stamps within our congregations.  We have plenty of reasons to speak out for social change and to act for greater change in the world around us.  And yes, we do need to step out of our comfort zones and we need to go out into the world.  But that doesn’t mean we are dead on the inside.  No, for those who have grown up in the church, put their faith in their community, there is life here, too.  And we need to honor and recognize and celebrate that life. 

So as I prepare for Advent as a pastor, to preach a familiar message once again, I am reminded that even in the familiar, I can find challenges and struggles, despair and conflict—and hope, hope, hope.  Hope that is alive in the lives of people going through chemo, recovering after a fall, searching for a new job, dreaming of college.  Hope of those with a family member in rehab, hope for those struggling with health care.  If there is one thing that Advent does, year after year, candle after candle, it is remind us that Hope is always, always possible, in the darkest of times. And maybe there is no greater place to find hope lived out than in the faithful in a small, aging church, as they light the candles year after year.

*obviously I have changed these stories, the details and ages because these are real people I know, but you may know these stories in your lives.