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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy

Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy
Exodus 16:2-15
October 26, 2014
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

Stand-up comedian, writer and star of his own cable TV show, Louie CK was interviewed recently by talk show host Conan O’Brien:

Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.  Like, in my lifetime the changes in the world have been incredible.  When I was a kid we had a rotary phone.  We had a phone you had to stand next to, and you had to dial it.  Do you realize how primitive? You were actually making sparks. And you hated people with zeroes in their number because it was more work.  This guy’s got 2 0’s…forget him.  And then if they called and you weren’t home, the phone just rang, lonely. 

And if you wanted money you had to go in the bank.  It was open for like 3 hours, and you had to write yourself a check, like an idiot.  And then when you ran out of money you’d just go “Well, I can’t do any more things now. I can’t do any more things.”

O’Brien: Do you feel that we now in the 21st C we take technology for granted?

CK: Well, yeah.  We live in the most amazing world and it’s wasted on [us].

I was on an airplane and there was high-speed internet on the airplane.  It’s the newest thing that I know exists.  I’m sitting on the airplane and they say, open up your laptops you can go on the internet.  And it’s fast, and I’m watching YouTube clips.  And I’m on an airplane.  And then the internet breaks down.  They apologize, “the internet’s not working.” And the guy next to me goes “Phhhbt. That’s [beep].” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago. 

“Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.”

Better, even, than internet on an airplane was the escape through the Red Sea waters by the Hebrew slaves.  An act of extraordinary grace, a miracle.  Now it’s two months later….and nobody’s happy. 

The whole company of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron there in the wilderness. The Israelites said, “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!”   (The Message)

The comfort in Egypt? All the stew and bread they could eat? In Egypt? Where they were slaves? Where Pharoah broke their backs with hard labor? Where he ordered the slaughter of their babies? They want to go back? Really?

Memory is a slippery thing.  Remember the 50s? You might “remember” the decade even if you didn’t live through it. Life was simpler. Families were stronger, with much less divorce; children were happier, they played outside unchaperoned and without video games; we weren’t chained to our phones and laptops; the world moved at a healthier pace.  The churches were full; the youth groups were large; the finance campaigns successful.

Remember the 50’s? Jim Crow; segregated schools; quotas for women and Jews at universities; Joe McCarthy and blacklists and red-baiting?

A good place to hear about how good the good ol’ days were and how bad things have gotten since then is…at clergy meetings.  With all due respect to my colleagues and co-workers in the Lord’s vineyard, clergy meetings can be real downers. 

  • Nobody volunteers anymore.
  • Soccer games are held on Sunday mornings now; Sunday School attendance is down.
  • Half the congregation threatens to leave if we put a drum set up in the chancel, and half of them threaten to leave if we don’t.
  • They expect me to do it all; I can’t get a day off.
  • I used to do 5 baptisms for every funeral, now it’s the reverse.
  • We’ve cut staff and no one’s had a raise for 3 years.

If you read the Scripture lesson carefully, you realize that the Israelites actually had a good reason to complain.  Painting their life back Egypt in rosy colors didn’t make much sense, but it’s clear that they were facing a dire situation.  Deserts are not hospitable places and we can imagine that any provisions they had hastily gathered to bring with them from Egypt were gone.  They were starving in the desert.  They had a legitimate reason to let their concerns be known.

And, if you look at our situation in the 21st C church carefully, there’s also reason to be concerned.  We’re not talking about life or death for individuals, but we are talking about life or death for some congregations. 

Last June at our West Michigan Annual Conference gathering, Albion District Superintendent Tamara Williams gave her report as Dean of the Cabinet.  She addressed in very direct terms the decline of the church that she was witnessing:

“Even in those places where spiritual growth is happening, where discipleship is developing, where worship is uplifting, where mission and outreach are making a profound impact… there is still a sense of loss. Grief is still present. Beloved members and friends have grown old and died; others are no longer with us because their health limits them; others in our church family had to find a job in another state and POOF they were gone.

“And then of course there are our children. We raised them in the faith and in the church, but something happened; so many of them grew up, moved away, and stopped going to church – any church. They tell us they don’t need organized religion to believe in God. But the harder truth is that some of our children don’t believe in God at all. Which means our grand-children aren’t being raised in the faith. Some of our grandchildren have no concept of God, much less a relationship with God. We are reminded of all of this loss every time we go to church, because it’s always right there in front of us: Fewer people in the pews. Fewer visitors.  Decreased giving. More frequent reports about financial troubles.

In addition, regardless of how much or how little our own local church is struggling, we all grieve together the loss of the presence and influence of the Church in our society. The church used to matter; the church used to be relevant; that’s been lost, too.

Posted on the wall right outside my office is one of those hand-drawn maps of Lansing and East Lansing.  It’s not a very accurate map, but it’s fun to look at as it illustrates in caricatures most of the businesses and tourist attractions around town: MSU landmarks, the capitol, the zoo, Old Town.  When I picked up the poster – at one of the businesses that is on the map – I noticed that our church was missing.  So I cut out the profile of our Bell Tower from a sheet of church letterhead and glued it on the map, right between Goodrich’s and the Harrison Roadhouse.  But later I noticed – there were no churches on that map. 

Now maybe the businesses on the map paid to have themselves included.  But my guess is that the churches of Lansing and East Lansing weren’t even asked if they wanted to pay.  We don’t count, certainly not like we used to, as part of the tourist-attracting, commercially and culturally-significant world that the map represented.

That would have been unheard of 60, 40, 20, maybe even 10 years ago.

When faced with loss, DS Williams said, the human reaction is to hold on tightly to what remains.  The options ahead of us don’t look good, so we look backwards and cling to the past: the same traditions, the same leaders, the same worship service, the same hymns, the same committees meeting on the same nights in the same space.  Sometimes these things give us a measure of comfort.  But hanging on to them doesn’t change the downward trajectory that we’re on.

“Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat?”

This is not the first time the Israelites have cried out to Moses in complaint.  Standing before the Red Sea, with the Egyptians racing at them from behind, they raised their voices to Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?  It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

Three days after they passed through the waters and escaped the Egyptian soldiers, they found themselves in the wilderness with no water.  They came to a spring, but its water was bitter.  “And the people complained against Moses,” chapter 15, verse 24 reads, “saying ‘What shall we drink?’

Now two months later, they are starving: “You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!”

So God does this time, what God did the other two times: God hears the cries of the people, and responds. God provides – each time, no matter how often the people complain or misunderstand, God still provides.  God never says, “Too bad, people, I’ve had it with you.  You get yourselves out of this mess.”  The pattern repeats itself not just in the book of Exodus, but throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments…and throughout our lives: we cry out, God hears us, God responds, and we respond to God.

When we find ourselves caught between the Egypt of our past and the wilderness of our future, whenever we look back and cry out to God for a past that never actually existed, God responds: showing us the way through, making the bitter sweet, providing us with what we need whether or not it’s what we asked for.  Our fear wants to turn us back, but God’s grace pushes us forward.

Brothers and sisters, God’s grace has brought us to this moment in the life of our church, and God’s grace is inviting us – pushing us – into the future.  How wonderful!  How amazing! 

  • We will have to learn new ways of making differences in the world – how amazing! 
  • We will need to think outside our old boxes in order to touch the lives of people on campus, in town, around the state, and throughout the whole world.  How amazing! 
  • We have a new responsibility to care for this facility, so that we can use it for new people in new ways.  How amazing!

What possibilities lie in the unmapped wilderness in front of us? 

Tamara Williams told the Annual Conference that the most fruitful churches in our Conference are those that have stopped looking at their own belly buttons, stopped allowing the walls of the church building to insulate them from the community around them, and are engaging with those “others” in wonderful new ways. The fruitful churches are learning how to be neighbors.

She described a 95 year old man who, every time someone new moves in or visits his church, invites that person or that family over to his house for a banana-split party. And then he also invites some of the friendliest people from his church so they can build relationships over a banana-split. “I understand he is very “fruitful” in this approach,” she said.

She said she had visited a church that took its women’s study group out of the church building, into the community, to a local coffee shop. And then – heaven help us! – they switched to some very edgy books that are awesome for fruitful conversations… Conversations between women from the church and women NOT from a church.

University United Methodist Church, MSU Wesley Foundation: we have been planted by God in this unique, exciting, youthful, culturally-rich neighborhood: the corner of Harrison and Trowbridge, as Pastor Bill puts it. 

How can we learn more about it?  How can we meet the people who live, and work, and study here? How can we build relationships, and respond to needs, and be Jesus Christ to them?

Wesley Foundation Board Chairperson Bill Donohue thinks a great way to do that would be to build a gym – a place where students can come to work out or shoot a few hoops.  I’m thinking this neighborhood could use a coffee shop – a place for edgy book discussions and soul-searching conversations.  This probably reflects Bill’s interest in health…and my interest in caffeine.

Surely, if we try new things to build relationships with our community, we will fail some of the time.  We will have to learn from our mistakes.  We might even feel like we’re in a wilderness and don’t know what to do or where to go next.

When that happens, when we find ourselves longing for the good ol’ days of ease and plenty, let us turn not to our faulty memories, but to the amazing future ahead of us.  Knowing that we serve a God

  • who hears our cries,
  • who never fails to respond,
  • who never leaves us in frustration with our hard-headedness or in disgust with our timidity,
  • but always responds with love and grace,
  • and who gives us all that we need to respond with faithful lives and action.

 

 

References

Tamara Williams, Cabinet Dean Report, AC 2014, available at http://www.westmichiganconference.org/pages/detail/2904

Louie CK Interview with Conan O’Brien available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEY58fiSK8E

Callie Plunket-Brewton. Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15 at WorkingPreacher.org. September 21, 2014. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2196

Robb Mc Coy and Eric Fistler. 81: P20A (Sept. 21) Deserve’s Got Nothing to Do with It. Posted September 13, 2014, on Pulpit Fiction.  http://www.pulpitfiction.us/home/81-p20a-sept-21-deserves-got-nothing-to-do-with-it