Over fifteen years ago I found a brand and style of shoe (no laces please) that was very comfortable.
One time, in the past, as I unpacked into a new place (remember, before getting re-married 3 years ago I moved every two years), I found my old favorite everyday shoes packed in a box with all kinds of other footwear. These shoes felt like they were custom molded for my feet from the first day I wore them. And each time I wore them, they seemed to fit better! But, in the box there, I could see that I had worn them out down to the third layer of outer sole, which was really actually the second layer of foam lining going from the inside out. Yet I kept them… and automatically slipped them on if they were by the door. Why?
Oh, those shoes had travelled many long distances with me, some in the car, but mostly on foot. They were on my feet when I was walking at a place in British Columbia called Riverview – an abandoned mental hospital complex (Think “One flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest” and which was the place where much of the X-files TV series was filmed). These shoes were on my feet when I was hiking and came around a corner and surprised a bear on that same large property one day. The shoes froze with me in that moment, seeming to clamp into the ground. Fortunately the bear ran away, and my shoes let go of the ground so I could follow the bear from a safe distance and watch it’s behaviour.
These shoes were mine when my wife and I hit difficulties in our marriage that we could not surmount together, and we agreed to walk away from each other to what felt like a safe distance in order to get some perspective and to reduce the tension in our lives so we could consider things more clearly. These shoes were on me when she and I – and a pastor couple who were helping us – met, a year later, and she shared that she was not interested in working toward coming together anymore.
Yup, those shoes had been through a lot with me. So, when I stepped in a puddle one day and could feel the water soaking up into my socks immediately, I sadly knew I had to stop using them and find something new to carry me forward. By the way – they are a type of shoe that can’t be re-soled, for you Dutchmen who – like me – think if that as the first next step.
So did I throw them out then? No, I put them to the side, and ended up packing them along to Iowa, and eventually Southern Alberta, where I first wrote this reflection. How silly!
But as I unpacked, and found them, I threw them out finally, with thankfulness for what they had meant, but with recognition that if I kept carrying around many things that were only good for memories, and not for ongoing practical use, well, the UHaul I would need would get bigger and bigger with each move.
In a way, each church I have served is in a similar – what do we keep and what do we toss?- mode when I get there. They have gone through a life cycle where many young families came together to start the church, and birthed children and ran programs and grew and built and dreamed. The dream usually included the kids staying and marrying the person you had spotted and hoped they would, and having family, and them having family, and so the dream included multiple generations expanding under one church roof. Such experiences and dreams mingled together make it hard to cast away old familiar things that remind us of them… … …
Had the larger world around you not changed, it might have worked out well. But travel became easier, and even a ‘normal’ rather than a ‘special’ event. Economics changed so that not everyone wanted to – or could – stay “at home,” and spouses were met and married from far away places, and so on. Also, “the kids” would find churches that worshipped differently than the way that works best for you. Some of those churches were even not far away geographically. You showed interest one time, and went along, but found it loud, boisterous and disorganized and ____________ fill in your other words.
When the long dreamt-of Youth Room or gymn were finally able to be funded and completed, lo-and-behold the vast number of youths you had hoped for were not here. And now, the worship space you dreamt of filling and maybe even expanding once again one day, has seen too many funerals and other ‘leavings’ and all you notice is that the building size and congregation size don’t fit well. That’s like the feeling I had, stepping in a puddle and feeling reality soaking in. The old “shoes” are no longer working out. They have been through a lot with you, but you know deep down somewhere some tough choices and changes need to be made if things are going to change. Or, if that is not possible, you know deep down you need to make the bold choice to let the church die well.
You and I together have the privilege of making some of those difficult decisions together with God’s guidance. I know it is difficult, because I too tend to hang on to things that used to be useful, sometimes just for the memories they bring back and meaningful stories they tell me. But there comes a time when it is not worth hanging on to the formerly comfortable anymore, all for the sake of starting a new walk.
“C. Peter Wagner noted five reasons church members often resist the change needed for growth: the desire to preserve social intimacy; the desire to maintain control; the desire to conserve memories; the desire to protect turf; and the desire to remain comfortable.”