Lenten Meditation: March 6
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when [we] dwell together in unity! Psalm 133
Jesus did many remarkable things while upon the earth. He healed the unhealable, he raised the dead, he fed the multitudes. One thing he did less well is to inspire his followers to adhere to the wisdom of Psalm 133.
Psalm 133 is a short psalm that gets right to the point. How good and pleasant it is when we can dwell together in unity. A simple factual statement that seems so hard to manifest in the world and the church.
Jesus certainly tried. When his disciples argued for supremacy he cautioned that the least among them would be the greatest. He asked them at the Last Supper to remember him but they were gone by noon the next day. Paul spent most of his time in damage control with the congregations he founded as they descended into conflict and division.
Why is it so difficult to dwell together in unity? There are many reasons, but two seem predominant in our congregations. One reason is that there are deeply felt differences in theology and social issues that divide. But a second reason, less obvious and more pervasive, is our inability to adapt to the changes around us, and our need to cling to what makes us comfortable.
I recall a man who within a five minute period uttered the following two questions. “Why are more young people not attending our church?” And, “Why aren’t we singing hymns like the Old Rugged Cross?” This was an “aha” moment for me when I realized the following: Most of us want our churches to grow, but few of us want our experience of church to change. This mutually exclusive position leads to the slow decay we see in so many of our congregations.
I was saved from self righteousness on this topic when I had this experience. In my first call I was part of a clergy group that met weekly at noon. We enjoyed each other’s company and we seemed quite compatible. A trust developed. The day came when a new minister to the Presbytery heard about our group and wanted to join. My first thought was, “start your own group.” When I realized that I saw this colleague more as an intruder, I came to understand how many people feel in our congregations where the routines are reassuring and the company known. It is human nature to resist that which threatens our comfort zone, be they new ideas or new people. Intellectually, we want our church to grow and become more vibrant but, truth be told, we also like it as it is. It’s predictable. We are comfortable with each other. The times and days for our events work well for us. We have our spot in the sanctuary and our influence on the board. It is hard to share and it is hard change because this requires a lot of surrender on our part. We have to let go of some things so we might grasp some other things. But these other things are unproven, potentially undependable. Best we stay with what we now and who we know.
The decline in some of our congregations is beyond their control. Population shifts and other cultural shifts are too much to overcome. But some decline is self inflicted-in areas where the potential for emerging ministries and ways of being church run up against a fear of difference or a loss of control. The psalmist wants us to dwell together in unity. This can be an invitation to prioritize community over sameness and growth over familiarity. In some cases, however, it may not be as good to dwell together in unity if, by unity, we mean the way we have always done it.