Pastor’s Perspective – January 2019
When I was a young man falling was something that I could laugh about. Young men don’t fall; they dive. Falling was a product of physical exercise and contact sports. As a young man I would hurl my body over court, field or rink. In soccer I was adept in the slide tackle, removing the ball from an opponent by sliding through the ball across the field of play. I would willingly and joyfully dive at a line drive or a loose ball, never imagining that I would have difficulty rising. For a young man, hitting the ground was not a product of weakness, but of strength and heart. The subsequent years have changed my perspective on what it means to hit the ground.
I recently fell. It happened so quickly that I am not sure how it happened. I was leaving my house, hands full of things to place in the car, and I stepped down from the porch… Before I knew what was happening, I was bouncing off the grass. I picked myself off the ground, dusted myself off, and continued on my way, bruised and bloodied but not deterred. Thankfully my injuries were more in pride and twisted muscle, than in bone or ligament, but I couldn’t help but ponder that my younger self would not have hit the ground. I would have caught myself, righted the ship, and skipped toward my vehicle without literally bouncing off the turf. That was then.
A fall can be a catastrophic, life changing moment. To fall is rarely a good thing. The word itself connotes a loss of balance or control. In the language of the scriptures to fall is to plummet from the safety of the Garden of Eden into the curse of exile. We fall from grace. We fall out of favor. Even the positive vision of “falling in love” maintains the spectre of the loss of control connected with the passions of erotic love.
The American Church has fallen. Since the post-war revival of the 1950s, the American Church has suffered a significant decline in numbers and influence. Sixty years ago the Church could dance and twirl and spin. We enjoyed the limber qualities of a healthy and robust body. We did what we wanted to do and reached out to whom we wanted to attract. When we hit the ground it was because we were giving the maximum effort and extending ourselves in order to win the world for Christ.
Over the decades something happened. We began to play the game like an injured veteran. We extended ourselves less, seeking to conserve our energy. What used to be accomplished with joy and exuberance was now being done only when necessary. Our habits changed and before you knew it people were taking classes in Church in order to learn how to invite someone to worship. What we used to do without thinking was now seen as a complex and risky action. Regardless of the reasons, it seems true to life that as soon as we stop diving for the ball, we begin to move down a path by which we eventually lose our ability to even take the field.
There was no idyllic past. There was never a moment when danger wasn’t lurking around the next bend. We have always faced dangers, toils, and snares. As the rust has set into my joints and limbs, I have forgotten the aches and pains of physical exertion that plagued me during the days of my youth. The sad truth is that I have always dealt with physical pain and risk. My 18 year old self could run like the wind and boast a chest that extended beyond my belly, but I was far less confident in my self than I am today. Pain, loss, fear, and anger have always resided in me. The dangers of falling and its tragic consequences are never far from me. It might have been easier to get up yesterday, but it always left a mark. We often forget that one can become injured as easily from diving into new opportunities as we can from suffering a fall, but that doesn’t make old men any less inclined to regret the loss of youth.
The simple truth is that falling (and failing) has always been a part of our lives. To fall is natural. It is a product of rising and walking. Falling is a normal part of growing up, but as we get older the damage incurred by our falls can dissuade us from rising with the same vigor as we once rose. I have seen my children and grandchildren fall a dozen times in the same day. Each time rising to wobble and then tentatively take another step (usually to grand applause). Their bodies are built to endure falls and survive to walk another day, but much of this is due to the tentative nature of their gait. Children learn how to fall in a controlled fashion, with most “falls” being a measured escape route for an aborted walk. When a child falls unexpectedly their bodies react in much the same way as their parents and grandparents; shock, pain, and occasionally tears.
The Church, like any physical body, has consistently suffered these traumas and injuries over time. We must overcome our tendency to believe that we are the only ones who are dealing with these risks and dangers. We must remember that to rise means to risk falling. To walk or run will always involve the risk of injury. We cannot avoid the risk if we desire to remain upright and ambulatory. We must also consider that the reason that a fall can impact an older person (or Church) in a more serious fashion is not only related to the vulnerabilities of age. It also might be due to the fact that when we fall as adults, we are not really expecting it. Our bodies, stable and satisfied after years of effortless movement, aren’t prepared to fall. We don’t remember what it was like to twist and roll or to recover after hitting the ground.
In this way a Church in its younger years was better prepared to fall (or fail). We were constantly bracing for the next stumble, the next birth pang, the next trial to hit. The young Church knows that it must weather these pains and traumas in order to rise and become what God is calling us to be. Over time, however, the Church (like adults in middle age) can begin to live in a manner that avoids the risks inherent in life. Our youthful selves were more likely to risk failure and its bumps and bruises, our middle-aged self seeks to create a more reasonable and balanced approach to success.
The impact of this in our lives and the life of the Church is that we can easily become conservative and soft, seeking to avoid falling rather than to stretch ourselves toward improvement and perfection. We do our best to create safety nets and avoid dangerous situations. We become risk averse in financial decisions and career moves. Things that would have been considered normal for us just a decade earlier now become Herculean feats of endurance and strength, primarily because we have grown accustomed to choosing safety over success.
It hurts to fail and it hurts to fall. So we do whatever we can to avoid both. It is both understandable and untenable. If we follow a path that avoids pain and conflict then we will exacerbate our own decline. In protecting ourselves we will allow our muscles to atrophy and our ministry to decline. No healthy person has ever grown strong by ceasing to exercise their muscles and no church has ever grown strong by retreating from risk and failure.
Thankfully we are not done yet. The source of our strength is still vibrant and available. The Holy Spirit remains invested in the Church. God is not dead. In fact, our God is the author of life and the source of resurrection. He gives us wings of an eagle and grants old men the strength and endurance of the young. God wants us to risk in God’s name. God wants us to learn to dive again. To stretch ourselves beyond our abilities so that God might be glorified by our reach and resolve.
We all fall down and we all must die, but in Christ the Godly will rise and renew their strength. This is the path forward for First Baptist Church. A path of resurrection and renewal. A path of risk and divine reward. Let us prepare ourselves for the bumps and bruises that await us in the new year as we learn to soar and fly once again.