When I was at First Baptist Church of Granville, I would occasionally hear people rue the transience in the congregation. At times, it seemed as if people were constantly coming and going. I’m not sure how constant the turn‐over was but there was enough for people to comment on. Of course, this is a phenomenon to be expected in a college town. Students definitely come and go, but so do faculty and staff. Transience is a fact of life. It has nothing to do with how well (or how poorly) a church is functioning. It just happens, especially in our very mobile world in which people frequently find themselves moving on – to a new school, to a new career, to a new job, to a new relationship, to a “new” retirement.
For some who remain, it is a struggle not to feel responsible. This is clearly not a logical response but it can be a deeply emotional one. What did we do wrong? What might we have done differently or better? Why don’t they want to stay with us? Surely, one of the psychological links is to the way in which we respond to loss of any kind. There is always a sense in which each loss is a little death and we need time and ritual for saying good‐bye and letting go.
Every good‐bye, every moving on, with its inherent sense of loss, also changes the make‐up of the comuunity. We are, minimally, the sum of our parts (though I believe we are much more.) Still, when a member of our community moves on, they leave a hole in the whole that fits their unique personality and contribution to community life. It’s not that those holes can’t be filled in some way or another, but we will not look or feel exactly the same. So, we must learn to live with, to embrace new and even shifting shapes to our community.
I suppose I am pursuing this theme today because we are facing some significant transience. We said farewell to Joanne Jones last Sunday. Soon we will say good‐bye to Pastor Tripp and not long after Oscar Ramirez will go away to college. That’s a lot to process. Even though this is a university town, we don’t experience as much transience as a small college town like Granville. Joanne Jones only stuck around for 57 years before moving into retirement. Fred Hillier came as a Stanford student and stayed 50 years. We have a number of folks in our community who have been here 50 years or more, so the loss has the particular flavor of all those many years shared. It is different from losing someone who has been in the community for only 3 or 4 years, though those losses carry their own grief with their own depth.
In a small congregation these transitions can be felt acutely. What will we do without…? What will become of us? Can we go on? When I first wrestled with this phenomenon in Granville, I came up with this image – church as way station. It may be that a vital aspect of our ministry is to be here, faithful and steady, to serve those who pass through. It is not unlike the great Benedictine tradition begun in the Middle Ages to provide hospitality to travelers. As it was for those nomadic people in biblical times who wandered the desert from oasis to oasis, the Benedictines and others recognized hospitality, especially to
the transient, as essential to both the life of the body and that of the soul as people passed through. It may be that God has put us here precisely so that we might offer a welcome, a respite to weary travelers of every sort.
I used this quotation from Henri Nouwen in a recent Midweek Message. It goes with the wonderful Emmaus Road story that is a frequent text for the Sunday after Easter. Nouwen writes, “I have many memories of encounters with people who made my heart burn but whom I did not invite into my home…It is one of the characteristics of our contemporary society that encounters, good as they may be, don’t become deep relationships. Thus our life is filled with good advice, helpful ideas, wonderful perspectives, but they are simply added to the many other ideas and perspectives and so leave us ‘uncommitted.’ In a society with such information overload, even the most significant encounters can be reduced to ‘something interesting’ among many other interesting things. Only with an invitation to ‘come and stay with me’ can an interesting encounter develop into a transforming relationship.”
We are a people willing to invite others into our “home.” Come and stay with us. Be our guest. Stay as long as you need or want. We are delighted to share what we have with you – whether you stay 3 years or 57. As God’s Easter people, we want to be in the business of transforming relationships. Of course, transformation often means we can’t hold on – to traditions, to expectations, to people. We have to let go and let God…let God be our guardian, guide and stay. We’re a little way station, a small boat on a large sea, a limited community but we serve a God who is big enough to see us through, a Christ who shows us the way, a Spirit that gives us power to be and do what is asked of us. We are not without resource and the ministry we provide is important. Even in times of tough transition, let’s not lose sight of that.