(OPINION) As I wrote a few weeks ago, I find myself in a series of life transitions. Transitions for me are usually unpleasant. I don’t like unknowns. I basically don’t like new things, either. I prefer routine, comfort and continuity.
Old and corny joke:
Question: How many country music singers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Answer: Twelve. One to change the bulb, and 11 to sing about how much better the old bulb was.
I should’ve been a country music singer.
I wrote earlier about several changes that have affected, or could affect, my and my family’s well-being.
But here’s another transition I’m having a hard time with.
The small rural church I lead seems to be struggling in a way I’ve never seen in 40-some years of ministry. And I thought I’d seen it all by now.
Paradoxically, we thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic. We shut the church house doors and worshipped via Facebook Live and Zoom. Attendance multiplied into the thousands as strangers joined us online. Offerings tripled via the Givelify app we used. It was an incredible and surprising turn of events.
We eventually came back to live in-person services, then had to shut down again briefly as a COVID variant surged. Finally, though, we returned to in-person worship. I thought we’d weathered the pandemic in miraculous fashion and come out the other side intact.
Then, after the pandemic seemed finally past — people began to fade away. For at least a year, maybe more, our in-person attendance has dwindled. It’s as if folks can’t get back into the habit of going to church. Longtime, faithful members have disappeared.
Whereas in our prime, some years ago, we had 200 active members, now our actual Sunday attendance hovers in the 30s and 40s, and a couple of Sundays has sunk to the 20s. Once upon a time our dynamic music program featured more than 15 musicians, some of them professionals. Recently it declined to just four folks — and this past week we learned two of those are leaving.
Too often, I’ve found myself mourning the glory days and worrying about the future.
Last Sunday after church, our congregation’s two elders and I had a lengthy meeting at a local restaurant. When the meeting was over, one elder, Wayne, had to go, but the second elder, Stacy, and I hung around a few minutes just chatting.
Stacy, in addition to being an elder, also directs our worship music.
I started digesting the latest gloomy news about the music and conjuring up images from the bountiful past. I said something to the effect that I had no idea why all this loss was happening or where it would end.
Then Stacy, who didn’t seem worried about the diminishing numbers, said something wise.
None of that is up to us, she said. All we need to know is that God is still present. The Holy Spirit is still moving. We had a great service today, with however many people were there and with us limping through the music. Really, there is no past and there is no future. The past is gone. The future’s unknown and will be what it will be. There’s only today. That’s all there’s ever been. And today we’re OK.
I immediately felt my spirits lift.
I knew all this, of course. I’ve read it in the works of Christian mystics and Buddhist teachers. Hey, Jesus himself said it: “Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will have enough troubles of its own.”
I’ve tried to practice this profound truth, but I’m embarrassed to admit how easily I lose sight of it. It doesn’t come naturally to me.
By coincidence, this week I also read a devotion on the Center for Action and Contemplation’s website that included an excerpt from Buddhist author Sebene Selassie. She was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, yet found joy, love and freedom even there.
“Joy is not about happy or unhappy, liking or disliking,” Selassie explains. “Joy accepts each moment for what it is without contention. We belong to any moment simply by meeting it with joy. This is freedom.”
It’s been my experience that we can nearly always cope with — sometimes even thrive in — what we’re dealing with today. Our trouble often starts when we drag the bearable present off into the muck of how much better the past was or how much worse the future could be.
Selassie cites a Zen teacher who said, “Joy is exactly what’s happening, minus our opinion of it.”
Yes. So much better to let go of all that and simply embrace the now, without judgment or fear. We can choose to regard each new day as a gift we’ve been granted by the Lord, just as it is, without regard to what came before or whatever will follow. This moment is our only reality; all the rest is illusion.