“The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out.
It has long ago been learned by heart;
It repeats itself over and over,
Bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit.
I will sing a new song.
I must learn the new song for the new needs.
I must fashion new words born of all the new growth
of my life – of my mind – of my spirit.
I must prepare for new melodies that have
never been mine before,
That all that is within me may lift my voice unto God.
Therefore, I shall rejoice with each new day
And delight my spirit in each fresh unfolding.
I will sing, this day, a new song unto the Lord.”
These words are from Howard Thurman in “The Moods of Christmas & Other Celebrations.” As we turn the page to 2022, it seems timely. We are all tired. We want life to get back to “normal,” but it seems there is no going back. We are looking for someone to fix it, make it better for us. And if we can’t find someone to fix it, then we want someone to blame so we can take all this grief, anger, and frustration that is making us so uncomfortable and project it out there, somewhere else. But how is that working for us? Perhaps it is time to learn a new song.
So can I have an honest conversation with you today? It is hard out there. It is hard for health care workers, and teachers, and restaurant owners, and essential workers, and flight attendants, and pretty much anybody interfacing with the public. And it is hard for pastors right now as well. Perhaps you saw this Washington Post article about the increase in clergy quitting parish ministry. Why are they leaving? It is not that their calling and passion have waned. But they are worn out by the polarization, the constant pushback they receive on COVID protocols, the impatience and criticism born out of a deep grief of wondering: Where are all the people, and why can’t church be the way it used to be?
A reality that we need to face is that the people who are here in our churches are the people we have. This is our new starting point. Restaurants are busy. Football stadiums are full. People are going about their lives. Yes, for a few, there may be some COVID cautiousness at work, but more likely, all the trends we were seeing before the pandemic with lessening church engagement have accelerated. This is not your pastor’s fault. It is not your fault. It is not because we are wearing or not wearing masks that is causing this shift. It is a huge societal trend that has been occurring for years, and the reasons are complex. And while it can be helpful to analyze all the reasons for this trend, more important is to accept it for what it is, and move forward instead of constantly looking back.
Here is the good news: The people who are here—they are committed and want to be here. That is you who are reading this! You, too, have so many choices for your time but you decided that following Jesus matters, and that your faith community is important to you. You made the choice to show up and be engaged. So instead of focusing on who is missing, let’s celebrate who is here. Look around and see who God has brought together, which gifts are in your midst, and how you can be the body of Christ, the church, now, together, in this time and place. Instead of trying to sing an old song that just does not seem to sound the same anymore, let’s listen for a new song that might be emerging in our midst.
Because here is the other good news: The church is of God. This has always been God’s work and not ours. And God is not done. That is the message of Christmas and Epiphany. God keeps breaking into our world and manifesting in new ways, and we are invited to have the eyes to see and heart to perceive and welcome God in however God comes.
I won’t sugar coat it: This is a time of church being undone. That can be painful. But it is also full of possibility. I was reminded in a conversation with my nephew, the historian, that in times of great upheaval, like the Reformation, when we are living in the midst of it, we can’t see the transformation that is happening and how it will impact the world. I believe we are living in one of those times.
So what I ask of you in this new year is simply to be kind to one another. Love one another. Listen. And listen some more. Be willing to sit in the uncomfortableness without blame or judgment. Be open. Try some new things and just see what happens. I am convinced that the world is hungry for good news and a better way to live. That is why we keep making those new year’s resolutions every year. We want to do better, be better. But self-discipline alone will never get us there. This is heart transformation work, and that comes from God. So do not lose hope. The form of church may need to change, and it may take some new ways to connect to the heart of people, but we can learn a new song and prepare for new melodies that have never been ours before.
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries and clergy assistant to the bishop for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church