Notes from Home: Where Two or More
By Trudy Wischemann
We’ve entered the last month, the darkest, heading toward Bethlehem. The sanctuaries of our churches are being decorated, but in many the pews are emptying as the elders head off toward the far side banks of Jordan or move to Visalia to have medical facilities nearby. The remnants, myself included, find ourselves wondering what the next year holds.
“Wherever two or more are gathered…” is a common phrase, a Biblical reference to the power of faith. Matthew 18:20 ascribes these words to Jesus: “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” If we take these words as God’s truth, then what are we to do with this gift of Presence?
“Be disciples,” I hear my inner self answer, though what that means is larger than I have words to describe. What it means to be a disciple is not given in a laundry list with boxes to check off as accomplishments. It means a kind of whole-body transformation from social performer (the role we’re taught to play by our culture) to becoming a real, breath-inspired soul operating in the world free from fear. It’s not for sissies.
Which brings me to Mary. As far as we know, Mary was pretty darned alone until the Angel came to annunciate her betrothal to God and her impending motherhood. Mary plus the angel makes two. Then Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who has John the Baptist in her womb already, joins in, and later Joseph is dragged into the picture. By the time we get to Bethlehem, with the shepherds, wise men and more angels, the seeds of the church have been sown.
And I think we tell the Christmas Story every year to remember these humble, singular beginnings. The dark and danger of the road to Bethlehem, seen on our Christmas cards—Mary, Joseph, the tired donkey, the tiny but bright star—are important models for us now. We have only ourselves to turn to, ourselves and God—and with faith, luckily, that is enough.
Last month, in Ministry Matters, an article on rural churches was published that I found helpful (www.ministrymatters.com). It’s called “Thriving Rural Congregations,” by Methodist pastor Allen Stanton, and one of the things that helped most was his identification of conditions which are different for rural churches compared to urban or suburban ones.
First was the recognition that each rural context is unique: “if you’ve seen one rural area, you’ve seen one rural area.” The next was the recognition that most rural communities are declining economically, thanks to the national context of farm consolidation and loss of manufacturing. Third was the fact that thriving rural congregations recognize the changes in their communities, and work to meet them.
The most important component in addressing the change was to claim a clear theological identity and apply that in what he calls a “theology of place.” Thriving congregations, he says “know their own history, and in their own language can tell the story of what God is doing in their community. They remember both pain and joy and hold together the tension that runs between sorrow, repentance, and hope.”
The context of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem holds many of the same elements we in rural America face: concentration of land, natural resources, and wealth in few hands, impoverishment of those whose hands bring that wealth into being, and uncertainty where to turn. That is why we need to stick together, and with the power of the Presence, be disciples no matter how few are there to light candles and celebrate a long-ago birth.