Rev. Aaron Todd
I did it again; I didn’t mean to, it just happened. It was an innocent mistake, and it happened so fast. Yesterday morning I walk into our Sunday school room where I was surprised (and pleased) to see a room full of smiling, happy, and awake(!) teenagers. As I sat down to begin our conversation for the morning, my attention was drawn not to the kids that had crawled out of bed and meandered their way into our youth room, but instead to the kids who, for whatever reason, where not there. As I took a mental inventory of our attendance, I couldn’t help but think, “Where is______ and _________?”
Thankfully it did not take long to snatch my brain away from those questions and bring it back to the present moment, but now I find myself thinking back to that moment during our Sunday morning gathering where I neglected to give thanks for who was present, but instead lamented those who were not. And what amazed me (in a not-so-good way) was how quickly those thoughts came on and how natural they seemed. It seemed like second nature to think such thoughts and to find my brain and my heart wandering away from the present moment.
As I made the return to youth ministry last year I made the commitment to myself and to my congregation that I would, among other things, “pursue contentment.” That is, to give thanks for the present moment and to be fully attentive to who is with me and whatever is currently occupying our time. I have made this one of what I call my “Ten Commitments for Youth Ministry” and it is the one that proves to be the hardest for me to maintain and uphold with any sort of regularity. This is something that I have, and continue to struggle with, both in ministry and in my personal life. I often will find my brain wondering to other things and other places, and I will admit to the constant tug-of-war that exists in my head and in my heart between the “now” and the “could be.” I am committed to doing better and I am give thanks for a very high level of grace that exists within my family and within my congregation as I continue this pursuit of contentment.
I also give thanks for the realization and the understanding that I am not alone in this struggle or in this journey. The road towards a sense of contentment is one that many, if not all, of us find ourselves desiring to travel and it is the struggles that we encounter along this journey that personifies a very real element of the human condition; the penchant for wondering and dreaming about what “could be” and not focusing on and giving thanks for, “what is.” This element of our humanity manifests itself in all varieties of ways, both within our professional life as well as our personal one. For some of us it is the continual dream for a different job, more money, or perhaps greater authority. For others it is the pursuit of more and more “stuff; “the car, the house, the latest gadget or gizmo. Even still, for some it is the desire for different people to be in our lives than the ones that are currently present.
Tragically, often we see these desires and dreams acted upon in not so healthy ways. Perhaps we read the story last week about the girl who was preparing to begin a job at a pizzeria, was not all that pleased with her new working conditions, and decided to share her displeasure on social media. The result predictably was that she found herself out of a job. Instead of perhaps working to clean up and/or modernize her new gig, or to just be thankful she had a source of income, she chose a different, unhealthy path, and paid the price for it. Perhaps we know someone (or are that someone) who has dedicated themselves to the relentless pursuit of the newest “stuff.” This is certainly a temptation that I have to combat regularly as I remind myself that what I have is perfectly good and useable and because I am lucky enough to possess a phone, TV, and a laptop computer, I am in a decidedly more secure place than an overwhelmingly large percentage of the population.
How difficult it can be to remain content with what is.
While this is true in many elements of our life, so it is true in the Church as well. How ironic it is that we who have dedicated our lives to following in the footsteps of the one who told Martha that Mary had chosen the “better thing” and who implored his disciples to stay awake and pray so that they would not fall into temptation often find ourselves looking ahead or elsewhere, thinking about would could (or should) be. How often do we find ourselves comparing our worship attendance, youth groups, or outreach ministries alongside the congregation down the street? How often do we feel the temptation to either embellish (ever so slightly) what it is we are doing in order to save face or “keep up with the (insert any other denomination here)” or to speak about our own worship settings in some sort of depreciating manner? How often do we catch ourselves, like I did yesterday morning, lamenting those who are not present in worship or in youth group or the ministry that has not borne fruit, often doing so at the great expense of paying full attention to who has come to our events and the ministries that are in fact changing lives?
And now perhaps I am the only one that is tempted by such things, maybe it is just me that struggles with remaining completely present and content in the moment, but I doubt it. And the truth is that when we do such things, when we fail to immerse ourselves fully into the present moment, we are doing a great disservice to the people with whom we find ourselves and to the One who desires to work through the opportunity that has presented itself.
And now, that is not to say that we are not called to continue to seek ways in which we may improve, grow, and nurture new opportunities. The failure to do such things is just as unfaithful to the call that God has placed upon us. A crucial element of a life of ministry is to seek out those who were not present, to be mindful of the bigger picture, and to be participating with God in the dreaming of a bigger dream. There is a vast difference between contentment and complacency. Contentment is good for the mind, body, and soul and is the mark of a healthy life and a healthy ministry, but complacency? Not so much. When we become complacent, we become passive, and we lose the drive and the desire to help others around us improve their situation just as we cease seeking to improve our own. When we become complacent, our perception changes from, “this is what is,” to “this is all there is” and we stop asking questions and challenging assumptions, resigning ourselves to our current state.
It is the state of complacency that plagues so many of our churches and it is this resignation to our “fate” that is, more than any other factor, leading to the decline of so many of our congregations. So we see that it is a fine line between that sense of contentment, and the scourge of complacency. How we walk that line with go a long way into determining the health of our churches and of our own spirit.