Text: Acts 15:36 – 16:15
As we enter 2016 I am pleased to report that the state of First Presbyterian Church in Columbiana is faithful.
We were faithful as we provided amazing support to the Toker family during the long, tragic illness of McKenzie. Support that used every tool in our congregational care arsenal – prayer quilts, food deliveries, pastoral and other visits and myriad other forms of compassionate support.
We were faithful as we welcomed hundreds into our building when we hosted the Eyes of Freedom memorial, inviting our neighbors not only to remember but to pray.
We were faithful as some of our oldest members filled their cars full of food and fishing gear, games and unconditional love and headed south to Salineville to bless the young men at Youth with a Purpose.
We were faithful as we collectively raised over $17,000 for mission beyond our walls in 2015. $17,000 – to bring blessings to neighbors across the street and neighbors on the other side of the world.
We were faithful as we gathered old friends and our extended church family around the banquet tables of the Dutch Village Inn to celebrate 150 years of living out God’s faithfulness through First Presbyterian Church. Our energy over those years has ebbed and flowed. Our connections at times have been strained and our witness at times has been compromised, but God’s faithfulness has remained
Every once in a while I ask Gary Kimble, who as our Clerk is at least as responsible for this place as I am, for an assessment. How are we doing? I ask. “I think we’re in a good place right now,” Gary told me the other day. A good place: less turmoil, stable and strong leadership, financial security and overall more positive energy. But, he said, we’re still stuck –
Stuck. Listless. I’ve heard that from others too. Its been a while since the Spirit blew through this place. It’s been a while since we’ve seen visions and dreamed dreams, looked forward instead of backward. Its been a while since we truly knew why we are here, how we’re being called to impact the community and where we hope, as a congregation in ministry together, to go.
There is a story from Paul’s second missionary journey where he finds himself in a spot similar to the one we’re in. His first journey to Asia – the Roman name for what we call Turkey – had been a great success. Paul grew up in Asia. He knows the culture. He has connections among the people. He has every expectation that his second journey will be just as successful as his first. Yet God has different ideas.
It takes the vision from the man in Macedonia – the ancient name for northern Greece – for Paul to realize that he’d gone where he was comfortable rather than where he was called. Once they answer that call, once they get on the boat, go across the water, pray with the worshippers along the river and meet Lydia, only then does the Holy Spirit flow through them and the power of their witness return.
In conversations with our congregational leadership it seems the time is right to get on a boat and go on a journey. We’re financially stable and have money in the bank for targeted investments. Columbiana is growing with a community of young entrepreneurs bringing new energy to Main Street. Yet at the same time hurt and pain – record rates of addiction, struggling families, increased poverty, entrapped elderly – continue unabated. Our community needs the gospel of Jesus Christ as much now as it ever had – and they need the gospel our heritage uniquely equips us to bring – a gospel rooted in grace, inclusive in leadership, accepting of diversity, anchored in God’s word and open to those who bear the scars of battles large and small, temporal and spiritual.
But where should we go? What can we do? Who is going to do it? We’re too small to do everything all at once. We’re older, more tired and less connected than we used to be. Many members have died, leaving empty pews and financial stress. We need the man from Macedonia, but we haven’t had the vision. We need Lydia and her community, but we don’t know them. And, by the way, they need us as well. Connections must be made.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, as we enter 2016, I am convinced that the time has come at First Presbyterian to listen. We’re tired of sitting where we are waiting. We don’t know what boat to get on. So we need to listen – as a congregation – collectively, intentionally and intensively. To listen to God, listen to each other and listen to our neighbors. While we listen we will continue to strengthen worship, seek better ways to serve our youth, fellowship together and go out in mission. But our main goal, our main priority, will be to listen for the wind, for the Spirit of God, moving in our midst and calling us forward.
At its meeting on Monday, the session will devote their entire time to prayer, study and long range visioning. In April we will do the same. And again in June. All part of a commitment to help lead the congregation during this time of listening. It won’t be session like we’re used to, but this congregation at this time needs more from its leadership than building use approvals and committee reports.
Some of this prayer and visioning will lead to perhaps the most important decision currently facing this congregation. If you recall, I was called here on a two-year contract. In May or June you as a congregation will vote to continue current leadership or move in a different direction. This decision should be taken seriously and entered into prayerfully. Closer to the vote we will solicit congregation wide input. You are also free to confidentially express any leadership concerns with either Gary Kimble or Mary Ann Pollack, chair of the personnel committee.
Should leadership remain stable, we hope to begin a formal long-range planning process in the summer or fall. To lead us in that process we will select a team of listeners – both members and non-members, people at the core of our community and people on the edges – sisters and brothers in Christ who are grounded in faith, spiritually mature and broadly connected. They will engage in their own process of prayer and study and will lead us as a congregation in a process of prayer and study. Together we will listen for the man from Macedonia. Together we will seek new visions and dream new dreams. Together we will harness spiritual energy and make concrete plans, together we will strengthen existing ministries and launch new ones. Together we will get on the boat. Together we will meet Lydia. Begin praying now for this team and this process – it is that important. And if you think you may be called to help lead this listening process – or know someone who might – let me know.
Finally, as we listen, I believe we need to expand the bounds of our community. We must minister regionally as well as locally, cooperatively as well as independently. As we struggle with youth ministry, our neighbors at Common Ground have a great little youth group. This morning, Maria Costanzo began confirmation class. Not here, but in North Lima, at Common Ground, through the beginning of an attempt to create deeper partnerships in the area of youth ministry. As we have stable leadership, our neighbors in East Palestine struggle with leadership. Can we partner? We may have different buildings and different traditions, but we are one body in the same interconnected set of communities. Each congregation has a range of gifts that will help strengthen the others. Together we can strengthen our witness, increase our viability and powerfully impact our community with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A few months ago, as part of my duties on the Presbytery Board of Trustees, I sat with the session of a congregation in the process of closing. They were a wealthy congregation in a community in desperate need of the love of Jesus Christ. Yet they turned their backs on their neighbors, refused to cooperate with their sister congregations and stopped their ears to the gospel message. At the time, denying God’s call probably seemed easier. It certainly was more comfortable. Yet in the end it brought only judgment as they squandered God-granted resources in the name of keeping everything the same.
The time has come to unstop our ears and listen. To stop wandering like Paul through the upper regions of Galacia and get on the boat to Macedonia. Lydia awaits. We can, I guess, not go. It certainly would be more comfortable – at least for a while. It certainly would be less tiring – at least initially. Or we can go. We can meet Lydia, and see what adventures God has in store. I’m ready to go. I hope you’ll come with me.