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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Gathering or Scattering?

According to tradition, the Book of Ecclesiastes expresses the wisdom of King Solomon in his old age. That makes sense to me, because Ecclesiastes is more about questions than answers. Although I certainly feel like I know more than I did when I was young, I also feel like I have more questions, and that my answers are not as sure as they once were. It seems that the older we get, and the more learn, the more we realize we don’t know.

Ecclesiastes is also a book that seems to resonate with the times in which we live, where a lot of old certainties just don’t hold any more. Old Testament scholar William Brown says that Ecclesiastes is about finding “God … in the details of the daily grind of living” rather than in some all-encompassing explanation of the meaning of life. Ecclesiastes reminds us that faith does not necessarily mean having everything all figured out.

The best-known section of Ecclesiastes (made doubly famous by 1960s song by The Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn) is found in chapter 3:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Fourteen sets of polarities, each declaring that answers change with times and seasons. That seems especially true in these times – times of fluidity, uncertainty, anxiety, change.
At the Annual Meeting of Hamilton Conference May 25-27, I invited delegates to reflect on three of the fourteen pairs of opposites in this well-known passage in the light what we are going through as a church.

“A time to throw away stones and a time to gather stones together.”

Nobody really knows what this verse means by scattering and gathering stones. But we know from experience that there are times when it seems right to gather together, and times when it seems right to scatter. Since the First Letter of Peter calls the church, a “house of living stones,” I wonder if we can find a metaphor for the church?

We usually think of church as gathering. The church is really the church when we are
together, strong and united, full and busy. When we go our separate ways, we’re done with church until the next time we gather.   

Except that, in Scripture, God’s power and grace often show up most dramatically in times of scattering. The Israelites scattered in the wilderness. The Jews scattered in exile. The Book of Acts says that the early Christians were scattered by a great persecution. Rather than stamping out the new faith, this scattering spread the Word far and wide.

We focus on how to gather the church – into worship, into programs and events. But what if we are in a time for scattering? After all, Jesus didn’t invite his disciples in to a sanctuary or
a building, he sent them out to witness to the kingdom and to prepare his way.

I asked Conference delegates to choose between two sentences and complete one of them – either “I believe we are in a time for GATHERING because…” or “I believe we are in a time for SCATTERING because…”

Sixty-three people said we are in a time for gathering.  Some of their reasons for saying this were:
         Because we need to come together for mutual support – to be grounded in                            tradition, to share stories, experiences and common practices, to encourage                          one another in times of anxiety, challenge and aging.
     Because people are hungry for intimacy, community and the love of Christ.
     Because we’re going through a time of structural change and we need each                          other.
         Because we need to imagine together a new way to be the church.
     Because by gathering, we are equipped to scatter.

Ninety-six people said we’re in a time for scattering. Some of their reasons were:

·       That’s what God calls us to do.

·        As in the Parable of the Sower, we need to scatter the Word.

·        Because we need to get out of our sanctuaries and connect with our communities.

·       Because we’re going through a time of structural change and we need to get used to            being more scattered.

·       Because everything around us is being shaken and we need to learn new ways to be the      church in the midst of that shaking.

·       Quite a few people connected the image of scattering with other biblical metaphors,              such as “new wine,” “springtime,” “rebirth,” “pilgrimage,” “being the wilderness,” “yeast,”        “the hovering Spirit.”

The church is meant to be both a “gathered” people and a “scattered” people. That two-fold reality is maybe more true than it has been at any time in our history.

In my next post, I’ll look at “Embracing” and “Refraining from Embracing.”  

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