It’s Holy Week. Sunday we welcomed Jesus and his ragtag followers into Jerusalem like lambs to the slaughter. The drama of raised celebratory expectations – while knowing the grim bloodshed ahead – is always a stretch for me. Why don’t they see what’s coming? Are they just hoping beyond hope that God will intervene and everything will turn out okay?
What is my hope for the church this Easter?
We’re boiling down the last of the sap from our little stand of maple trees. Monday morning I’d made the rounds one more time. Collected not even another 20 litres of sap – most of the pails had hardly anything in them but a little clear liquid and dead moths.
Getting and keeping a bonfire going in the rain is a trick. Most of the fire however is covered by the old stainless steel sink we use as a boiler. It sits on top of a frame of steel porch railings welded together, left behind by the previous owner. I’ve cut up and split a bunch of four foot long 2x6 spruce boards I scrounged from the city curbside last fall for just this purpose.
Scrounging is an art taught to me by my dad. It helps if you’re not too proud to go through other people’s garbage.
Ministry is also an art taught to me by my dad. Things are a little different now than in his day. Ordained in 1957, dad rode the wave of post war North American Christian culture. Not only were churches full, and new education wings and new congregations being built to meet that generations needs for belonging and purpose. It must have seemed back then that Christianity was going to sweep the globe. A new world order was coming…
Modern transportation and communications sent the gospel out on the four winds to reach the darkest corners. The World Council of Churches met in Europe making it seem like global cooperation among Christians was about to change our divisive ways.
In the spring, when the rain falls and the snow melts, the Burnout River begins to thunder over the 3 brothers falls. The falls are transformed from a steady ice-encrusted flow that never quite freezes over all winter - to a wide-mouthed surging force of nature. The river rushes through the granite funnel above the falls as an unstoppable white churning roaring flow that seems to have no end.
But seasons come and go, and what once seemed without end – does end and a balance is restored.
In Africa, Asia, and the Americas, where the gospel had arrived with colonial lords and ladies, an educated generation of indigenous peoples began to walk the Jesus path. Not only had they been schooled in the “3 Rs”, they had been taught the
Bible’s stories of liberation. Once chewed and digested, this generation of Christian-schooled young people became the leaders of countries that shed their Colonial governments in favour of independence and democracy.
The message that arrived back on our shores was not unlike the message of the sixty’s baby-boomers. Shedding the Western corporate consumer culture with its inherent, violence-based, exploitation of both the earth and earth-peoples – was the Spirit of the times. Jesus was on the move.
This left western churches stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock was the wealth and success of that corporate culture that built all those churches. It was the paycheques and pension plans of those employers that paid the bills for those congregations. It was a lifestyle that afforded stay-at-home moms, that created the volunteer economy that churches depended on to function. Indeed, the entire social service networks of that generation depended on the lifestyles generated by that same – now questionable - consumer culture. Taking a stand against this same cultural status quo that created its success – was a hard place to be.
Do you know that it takes forty litres of sap to make one litre of syrup? This means that those 39 litres of sap need to become steam. On an open fire, with rudimentary homemade equipment, it takes time. A long time.
A generation of Canadian baby boomers went to Sunday school, learned the stories, got the message, and left the church behind. Over the decades between then and now, church membership has evaporated.
Feed the fire. Add more sap to the boiler. Watch and wait.
Ministers today watch helplessly as the culture that once sustained congregations dies away. A generation is slowly said goodbye to, with funeral after funeral.
What can a minster do? Feed the fire. Add more sap. Watch it boil away. Fewer and fewer people are giving more and doing more than ever to keep their churches alive.
In Jerusalem, so the story goes, Jesus knew that his followers would not, and could not, walk with him through the torture and crucifixion. He knew they’d be watching at a distance. He also knew that though they seemed to abandon him, that their faith and their hope would outlive their leader. What they thought they needed to keep going – the man – was not what they really needed.
The whole institutional church structure is slowly folding in upon itself. The courts and committees once run by volunteers now depend more and more on paid staff to keep them going. As the money generated by all those volunteers slowly evaporates, fewer staff are stretched thinner and thinner. Burnout is common. Turnover caused by unhappy congregations and unhappy clergy, combined with increasing sick leaves for Ministry personnel, only increases the strain on an already overloaded system.
Feed the fire, add more sap, Watch it boil away.
Congregations close. Churches are sold. The faithfull scatter.
There is a magic moment when sap becomes syrup. After hours and hours and hours of patient boiling and evaporation - the transformation is sudden. If you keep boiling the batch after this moment of transformation – it will burn and spoil.
In the past two years I’ve burned two batches of syrup. Multi-tasking me – always looking to the next thing instead of staying with the present thing – gets distracted and 40 litres of sap; collected drip by drip, hauled, boiled, watched, watched, watched – is wasted in seconds of inattention.
That’s why Lynn does the final boil.
I’m a product of the United Church of the sixties. I know how those churches grew and worked and ran. I learned to minister the way my father ministered. Feed the fire of people’s passions, add the sap each Sunday, patiently work within church rules and systems.
But Lynn is brand new to the United Church. She’s been training at the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg. She’s reading the Bible – again – with eyes to the liberation story she was never shown before. A Jesus who died as a result of God’s plans to pay for my sins is now a Jesus who died at the hands of an empire not unlike the one we’re living within today. The middle class consumer culture of mainline Christianity – that she’s never been a part of (living in poverty for most of her adult life) – is as foreign to her as a Roman Centurion.
Where I’m spending my time hauling buckets of sap, Lynn has her eyes on the syrup. While I’m dealing with the slow painful death of an institution, Lynn is meeting young people, boomers, raging grannies where they’re at - inspired by the struggle for a world that is just and sustainable.
While I’m toiling at a fire in the rain. Lynn is dancing and playing with a ragtag bunch of people outside the Temple’s gates. Why are they dancing? Don’t they know the Church is dying? Don’t they know that Jesus is about to be crucified?
Can they taste the syrup already?