Archive for January, 2011

The Great Unraveling and the Great Re-Weaving

January 30, 2011

Every once in a while, I will find a loose thread on my shirt or on my pants. My first reaction is to pull on it and remove it from my clothing. I have had a few times where instead of removing a short piece of thread, I pulled and pulled and pulled and ended up removing a much longer piece of my clothing than I really wanted to. I once saw a picture of a blanket that had unraveled into a “half blanket” with a large pile of yarn on the floor. Once you start pulling on a thread, it can unravel faster and longer than you might wish!

As I read the news in the paper and on the internet, I get the sense that a lot of our culture seems to be unraveling around us. We hear about national, state, and local governments that are cutting budgets and services to needy people. We hear about an economic recovery which seems to be a “jobless recovery”. Companies seem to be doing better, but they are not hiring workers back at the rate we have come to be used to in coming out of a recession. Our unemployment numbers remain stubbornly high. We are rattled by assassination attempts on government officials. We used to live in a 40/40 world – where many people could work 40 hours a week for 40 years and receive a good pension. Those days are gone. The shifts taking place in the global economy and global communications are changing our world and we are rushing to keep up to figure out how to respond.

We see this Great Unraveling in the church, as well. Most of our church structures were designed for the modern world we used to live in, not the post-modern world we live in now. Some churches became very good at appealing to consumers by offering religious goods and services, but now the demand for those markets seems to be drying up. We spent our time studying what to do with people after they visited our churches, but now church visitors are becoming rarer, and our attempts to attract them seem to fall on deaf ears. We became great program operators, but now fewer people seem interested in pre-determined church programs that already claim to know what they need. North America is once again a mission field, and churches are discovering how very difficult it is to do ministry in this environment. There are no technical “quick fixes” that will “save the day”.

What happens when our church and culture are both experiencing The Great Unraveling at the same time? We often see a rise in the level of people’s anxiety and uncertainty. We see an increased level of conflict and “picking on each other”. We see churches laying off staff and encouraging sub-performing staff to move on sooner than they would have before. The tension level seems to rise.

Without sounding over simplistic, I believe that God is alive and active in the midst of The Great Unraveling and is knitting the Church back together in the Great Re-Weaving. When a blanket unravels into a pile of yarn, there can be some sadness and a sense of loss that the favorite blanket has been lost. But, it is also a time of great opportunity and creativity to see what kind of sweater or clothing can now be created out of all this newly available raw material. When the world seems to be falling apart around us and ending up in a big pile of yarn, God does not simply walk away and close the door. Jesus Christ is right there in the midst of everything, beginning to re-weave, re-shape, and re-form the old blanket into a new sweater, a new set of drapes, or something yet to be discovered.

One of the keys for those of us in the church is to develop our missional imagination about what God might be calling us to be and to do in this new place and time. What is God up to already in the neighborhoods around us? What does God want to do? How is God wanting to re-shape and re-form Christ’s Church to move into the new opportunities that are springing up all around us? What new skills do we need to develop? It calls us to learn how to discern the movement of the Trinity around us. It requires us to re-establish the spiritual habits and practices of the church of ages ago – dwelling in the Word, prayer, fasting, hospitality, caring for the widows, orphans, strangers, and the needy among us.

It can be hard to move forward when we are focused on the sadness of the beloved blanket that has unraveled. But, as we catch a vision for the re-weaving that is going on around us, as we see that God is inviting us to join in the Spirit’s work of re-creation, our imagination can begin to see new opportunities, new possibilities, and new options for ministry that are right under our noses. We live in a time of Great Transition as we see both the Great Unraveling and the Great Re-Weaving taking shape. The scriptures re-assure us that God is not finished with us yet. The work of the Spirit is alive and well in our world today. We may see the forms and shapes and structures of our church change. But, if we see that Christ’s ministry is continuing in ways we had not imagined before, we can begin to see the place where Jesus is inviting us to participate in the Great Expansion of the Kingdom of God.

The Haystack Prayer Meeting and the American Missions Movement

January 2, 2011

In John 20:21, Jesus tells His disciples “as the Father has sent me, so now I send you.” We serve a sending God. God is sending every one of us into various places in our region and around the world to be ambassadors for Christ, giving us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5).

Much of the missions movement in the United States got its first burst of energy about 200 years ago. One of the defining moments happened in 1805, at a place called Williams College. The Second Great Awakening had spread from its origins in Connecticut to Williamstown, Massachusetts. Enlightenment ideals from France were gradually being countered by an increase in religious fervor, first in the town, and then in the College. In the spring of 1806, Samuel J. Mills, the twenty-three year old son of a Connecticut clergyman, joined the freshman class. Mills, after a period of religious questioning in his late teens, entered Williams with a passion to spread Christianity around the globe.

On a sultry Saturday afternoon in August, 1806, Mills and four other students gathered as usual in the maple grove of Sloan’s Meadow for one of their twice-weekly prayer meetings. Thunderclouds broke open the sky, driving the students to seek shelter from the rain on the lee side of a great haystack. With thought turned toward their classroom studies of Asia and the East India Company, Mills shared his burden that Christianity be sent abroad. With the exception of Harvey Loomis, who felt that missionary efforts should first be concentrated domestically, Mills, Byram Green, Francis L. Robbins, and James Richards prayed that American missions would spread Christianity through the East.

In 1808, Mills and other Williams students formed “The Brethren,” a society organized to “effect, in the persons of its members, a mission to the heathen.” Upon the enrollment of Mills and Richards at Andover Seminary in 1810, Adoniram Judson from Brown, Samuel Newall from Harvard, and Samuel Nott from Union College joined the Brethren. Led by the enthusiasm of Judson, the young seminarians convinced the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts to form The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810. In February, 1812, Rev. and Mrs. Judson, Rev. and Mrs. Newall, Rev. and Mrs. Nott, Rev. Gordon Hall, and Rev. Luther Rice were commissioned as the Board’s first missionaries and set sail for Calcutta, India.

Though only two of the five Williams students at the Haystack Prayer meeting ever left the United States, the impact of their passion for missions is widespread. Loomis, true to his early convictions, dedicated his life to domestic missions in the State of Maine. Robbins engaged in missionary work in New Hampshire before returning to pastor a church in his native state of Connecticut. Green preached for a short time before serving in New York State government and later in the U.S. Congress. Richards left America in 1815, serving as a missionary in India until his death in 1822. Mills engaged in missions in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, in the Southwest United States, and in New Orleans. He influenced the founding of the American Bible Society and the United Foreign Missionary Society before he died in 1818 while returning from a short-term mission trip to Africa with the American Colonization Society.

In 1854, the Hon. Byram Green returned to Williamstown and marked the location of the haystack next to which he had prayed forty-eight years earlier. Interest in the site peaked and in 1855 a group of Williams College alumni purchased a ten-acre tract of land to commemorate the Haystack Prayer meeting. In 1857, Williams President Mark Hopkins and two other alumni incorporated the Mission Park Association for the purpose of “improving the grounds…and to commemorate the origin and progress of American Missions”.

After visiting Williamstown in August, 1866, the Hon. Harvey Rice (Williams Class of 1824) elected to donate the funds to “erect a monument of some kind, on the sacred spot in Mission Park” that Green had marked more than a decade earlier. The twelve-foot tall marble monument, mounts a globe three feet in diameter and proclaims, “The Field is the World.” Beneath this inscription is a similitude of the haystack and the names of the five students who sought its shelter while in prayer.

Though Williams College never held religious affiliation, President Mark Hopkins served as chair the American Board from 1857 until his death in 1887. Williams has also been host to commemorative services of the Haystack Prayer Meeting in 1856, 1906, 1956, and most recently in 1981, drawing missionaries and other participants from around the globe. The scope of American Foreign Missions has expanded to include the establishment of educational institutions throughout the world as first begun in 1815 by Hall and Nott’s pioneering work in India.

The story reminds us of the importance of prayer and listening for what God is saying to us. It illustrates the value of asking what God is up to in our world. As we learn more about what is going on in our neighborhoods and on the other side of the globe through the internet, this story encourages us to ask how God wants to send us into God’s world, where we are called to serve, and how we can participate in the missio dei. The story reminds us that a small number of people can have a global impact. It reminds us that God works through young people. We continue to live into the tradition of the saints who have gone before us, even as God gives us new missional imagination of how to serve our Lord during our own times. Now to Him Who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20)