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Traveling lightly

Backpacker preparing to climb mountain

In this season of change, Rev. Scott Harmon suggests that we pack lightly as we sort through our belongings and ready ourselves for transformation.

Superintendent, Northern Skies District

Leaves are turning and, in the highlands, falling from the trees. Canada geese fly overhead, filling the morning air with their cries as formations head south. The season of color tours and highways crowded with camping trailers and side-by-sides is here. Fall in northern Michigan is in full display.

Fall is also a season of preparation, for we know what will soon be upon us. It’s time to put away the deck furniture and terra-cotta pots, install the storm windows, and complete the painting projects long overdue. Garden rakes need to be exchanged for snow shovels, and the garage should be rearranged so the snow blower is closest to the door.

It’s the time in our household when we “thin,” intentionally letting go of those things no longer used. Throughout summer, treasured finds haphazardly settle in the garage with the promise, “I have a great idea for this in just a couple of weeks.” A couple of weeks turn into a couple of months, and soon, the dust has accumulated like snow on a frosty November afternoon.

Never one to join the lament of the changing seasons, I love the winds and snow of winter for the hearty intentionality it all requires. Yet, whether hunkering down for another snowy season or packing the car to follow the geese in their annual migration, it is a time of thinning for us all.

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, was remembered as saying, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (6:26, NRSVue). In the many years of looking up at the sound of geese overhead, I have not seen any carrying suitcases. As a pastor, I confess to carrying box after box of books from one appointment to another in confidence that the answers needed could be found within. Local churches have done much the same. In many a basement, there are shelves of Sunday school and vacation Bible school materials from years gone by, costumes from Christmas pageants past, and fine collections of Disciplines and Conference Journals neatly lined up in order, yet we struggle for life.

Lest there be confusion, my thoughts on thinning are not so much centered on the physical stuff we all live with, whether in garages or church basements. Rest assured, those piles will be dealt with by our children or future committees. No, my concern is that the seasons are changing, and as a church, we need to get ready to travel.

In accounts from the biblical exodus to Ukrainian women and children fleeing westward, images of leaving what is familiar and taking only what is most needed are consistently present. By far, as superintendent, the hardest thing I see congregations wrestling with today is leaving what is familiar — intentionally setting aside what has represented security for so long and stepping into an unfamiliar world. If you’ve not encountered Tod Bolsinger’s book Canoeing the Mountains, it is a must-read. While originally published in 2015, it has become the go-to metaphor for understanding the challenges the church faces today. In adaptive leadership circles, the basic question is this: “What are you willing to give up in order to change the outcome of the circumstances you face?” Letting go — “thinning” — offers no guarantees, yet carrying a backpack rather than pulling a house trailer certainly enables far greater flexibility. All that we’ve accumulated in the church garage over the last fifty or more years poses a mighty big challenge to get up the mountain.

If church life — what we understand it means to be a faith community — is changing, and it is, what is truly needed as we pack lightly for this transformation? The answer is undoubtedly different for each, but praying for an open, humble spirit would be a good place to begin. How can we honor how God works within others while also recognizing that it may not be how God works within ourselves? As fellow travelers, we each have our unique journey in faith with Jesus Christ. Recognizing the contributions that we all bring while not overreacting to the tensions we hold creates a space in which God’s thumbprint can be recognized in each person’s life. This leads me to believe that people — the fellowship of the church, to echo Tolkien — matter more than buildings and barns. Certainly, a physical structure offers focus to the gathering, but no building, historic or modern, is a substitute for the journey of the soul and the spiritual life.

Given the changing seasons experienced inside and outside the church, it is time to ask ourselves what we’re willing to let go of — “to thin” — to walk today as followers of Jesus. It won’t be comfortable, as it’s often easiest to stay indoors by the fire, and the future will not be assured. Yet, in many settings, new questions must be asked: “Why are we here? Is this a meaningful part of my life? Do we need a trained pastor, or are we better with a group of dedicated laity? Do we need to own a building, or are we better to rent? If an owned building is needed, is it our current building or something else? What does it really mean to be the church?”

There will be much second-guessing in the coming years, but it will change little. We can shake our fists at the widening diversity of cultural voices, denominational strife, community decline, or any number of issues and legitimate reasons change is experienced. But that does not change the fact that what has accumulated in our garage of wonderful, hoped-for ideas may not serve us well in the future, which goes forward from where we are today.

In this season of change, my best advice is to pack lightly, friends, for discipleship is a long and many-hilled journey.

Last Updated on October 23, 2023

The Michigan Conference