I used to have a computer that I hated with a passion, except for one thing- it came loaded with a game called Galapago that I loved. It was a pretty simple game, in concept at least -you match three butterflies, turtles, or other island inhabitants, which turn to gold, and you move up through increasing levels of difficulty. My favorite part was the two shrunken heads in the corner of the screen that cheered me on in gibberish that sounded like fake French.
Eventually the despised computer was replaced with a MacBook, and I was sad to learn that Galapago was not available for Apple devices. And then I discovered Candy Crush. Sadly, no one cheered me on in fake French, but the basic concept was about the same: match three or more of the same colored candies and move up through the candy kingdom and increasingly difficult levels. At the beginning of each level you are told what your goal is: rack up a certain number of points, clear all the jelly, match up three wrapped candies and nonpareils, or some other confectionery goal.
But just when you think you’ve got the hang of the game, ‘problem candy’ begin to appear and threaten to take over the game board. When those turn up you have to work toward the game’s stated objective, while at the same time not letting the chocolate multiply out of control or the candy bombs explode. If you aren’t careful, you can easily find yourself giving all your attention to combating them, and forget about the real objective of the game.
Not long ago it occurred to me that that was a pretty good metaphor for life in the Church. It’s very easy to let ourselves get distracted by the problems and threats that surface and forget that we have a mission we are trying to accomplish.
Before Jesus left his disciples for the last time he told them to go out into the world and do whatever it takes to tell the story of God’s great love that doesn’t just promise an afterlife of bliss, but means to have signs of heaven visible right here on earth as well. So we park our cars and come in intent on feeding the hungry, welcoming the outcast, freeing those who have been unjustly beaten down or imprisoned, and healing all of the wrongs that our world has done to people. And then the roof leaks. A lot. A declining Sunday School class is asked to give up its prime real estate to a class that has outgrown its room, and resentment grows. A new hymnal comes out. Doomsayers (or are they prophets?) warn that without a screen and drums, or some other newfangled thing, we will surely close and lock our doors in 20 years. No one wants to volunteer to head up the prayer group that everyone has been asking for.
And all of them need attention, money, sensitivity and compassion, and boldness. None of the problems and conflicts that come our way – the Church has always had them and always will – can be ignored or brushed off. But if they get all of our attention, or even a very large measure of it, then our true mission isn’t.
We have spent a lot of time in the mainline church wondering why our membership is declining. I don’t happen to believe it’s because we still use a hymnbook (although we are missing out on some wonderful new music if we restrict ourselves to that alone), or because we don’t wander around on the ‘stage’ when we preach, or any of the other causes that have been kicked around. I believe it is because we have lost our focus. We have let ourselves be distracted by all of the things we think are a threat to us, and have no energy, imagination, passion, and yes, faith, left over to be bold, risk-taking witnesses to the Kingdom of God here on earth. A reactive, fearful church cannot be a joyful, vital church.
In her sermon at the opening worship service at the Big Tent a few weeks ago, Jana Childers pointed out to us that we are trying so hard not to die that we have forgotten that we have already died. Did you know that? “Anyone (or thing) who is in Christ is a new creation; the old life has gone, and a new life has begun.” (2 Cor. 5:17). We can let that worry go, she told us. Let the Spirit fly freely among us, and do what Jesus left us here to do.