Blackened trusses stand against the sky above the walls of an old church that burned. I often pass the corner where the church has sat since long before I knew the neighborhood’s name, long before I was born.
The first time I saw the destroyed building, I was on my way to another church next door. It has a dwindling congregation, but its sanctuary remains a place of quiet peace, walls and pews lined with memories of decades past rather than covered with the tracks of smoke and flame. I asked a volunteer about the burned church, and she gave me a card with details on how to donate to help their neighbors rebuild.
I took the information and did nothing with it, not even thinking about it until the next time my route to work took me past the empty shell. Why rebuild this church? Churches are closing all the time in this city, state, nation. Do we need to recreate this place? If someone does, why should I be part of that? Those walls don’t hold my memories, my hopes, my visions for new life.
This all sounds callous, but I share it because all of us who care about any Christian institutions are in a time of hard choices. And that calls for blunt truth.
Stewardship season has ended and church budgets have come up for approval at congregational meetings. Nonprofit organizations vie for end-of-the-year dollars, a competition made more dire by governors and others who see business interests and care for the poor as incompatible. Many good leaders face the challenge of deficits and the specter of layoffs.
It’s too simple to say to our households that those of us who have money to give should tighten our belts even more, and those who aren’t making ends meet should receive mutual aid and economic sharing without shame.
It’s too simple to say to our leaders that God will provide, as though that would put all of our institutions’ finances back in the black.
We can trust in God’s provision, but that provision does not always line up with our hopes, or even sometimes our needs. God’s people go hungry, lack housing, and go without medical care.
A tithe only goes so far.
We face painful decisions about which agencies and programs we wish to see exist in the future. It’s unlikely that any one choice to reduce giving would be the reason that an organization or program had to cease its work. But we may find it valuable to ask ourselves, How would I feel if this organization didn’t exist anymore?
God reminds us that new life can send its shoots forth amid the grief that accompanies mergers and closings. Isaiah 43 gives assurance that the redeemed need not fear being overcome by trials. “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you,” the Lord says, we can hold on to God’s promises.
Then the prophet proclaims that we are not bound by the past. God motions us closer. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
Though our time calls upon us to make difficult choices about the work we do in our churches, our broader communities and in the world, we can trust that God’s power is not limited by times of change and uncertainty. The Spirit may even find more fertile ground for new life, if we are open to nurturing it and bringing it into being.
Celeste Kennel-Shank is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.
Have a comment on this story? Write to the editors. Include your full name, city and state. Selected comments will be edited for publication in print or online.