Today I am driving with my colleague and friend, Joe Duggan, to Lake Tahoe, some miles away from Reno where he and I spent yesterday in intense conversation about vulnerable congregations and the future of ministry like the one I am involved in. Today is a sparkling beautiful day in this part of the world and I am glad for the chance to feast my eyes on beauty after yesterday. At one point in our conversation, Joe said “no amount of money will prevent a dying organization from death”. Joe speaks in a very quiet, forthright way—this is not about drama. But there was much power and truth behind the simplicity of those words.
I speak carefully, and I hope, gently, as I try to put some words around what this insight means to me personally, and the people I serve. This week we went through another round of “maybe”. We’d been approached about the possibility of leasing much of our space to a charter school. In the end, the outfit found out that bureaucratic issues prevented them from pursuing this possibility further. But for about 3 days, I worked intensely to try to make that work without compromising our ministries and mission beyond recognition. In the crucible of stress created by tight deadlines and high stakes, much about who we are and the state of relationships in community stares us in the face—the good, the bad, and the ugly. This time was no different than others in that respect.
The situation has been depressurized because this possibility is no more now. But the reality remains—a business plan that needs some more pieces in place “to work”, some enormous, disquieting questions about business plans and mission and the faithful way forward, folks who are tired, often scared, fractious—all of us. No saints here, just folks. And for me, now, the quiet phrase repeated in Joe’s voice—“no amount of money in the world will stop an organism or organization that’s dying from death.” Of course, this is almost a truism. It applies to all of us, to all that has life. Death is an inescapable part of our destiny.
The journey I’ve been on for the past 2 years informs what Joe said, it informs how I look at the ministries I am involved in. Watching my mom die on June 5, 2011 and then making María’s bed at BARC, exactly one year later, on June 5, 2012, because from that day on I was entrusting my daughter into others’ more capable hands, happened. There is no denying that they were thrust on me, not in terms of choice but as moments to find a new way to live in the midst of loss. I’ve managed a fair number of accomplishments since those two days of total bleakness but what I am most grateful for and aware of is the meaning that I have found in my life by not avoiding the grief.
Now, in other parts of my life, including my ministry, I am faced with a different kind of loss that has to do with learning more about what it means to be true to myself, the principles that guide my life, the history that has shaped me. It would be easier to remain in the status quo. Walking away from it involves loss and for a long time continues to beckon and call like the sirens of ancient myth, offering a life built on the comfort of what is safe and known. The church, including our ministry, has a similar challenge. We have ways of doing things that are tried and familiar. Easy to replicate because so many of us who make up the church know how to do that work, you build the business plan, you raise the money, you start, then you grow the programs. The thing is, there has already been loss, and death that has revealed parts about what it means to be people of God that were not as clear and visible before but now are undeniable.
The old familiar ways run the risk, not of killing us all the way, but of leaving us as the walking dead. Working so hard, giving so much of ourselves, many of the people who make up the ministry I am a part of are tired and it is hard to face into what, in some ways might be even harder, even more painful work. I’ll be the first to say that it was death and loss thurst on me that made me even consider that I am capable of living more fully into my future by choosing some more loss and the grief that will surely come with it. I would never have chosen my mother’s death, or to institutionalize my daughter. But I would never, in a million years, go back to who I was two years ago. Death has given me life.
On Wednesday evening, my friend Joe and his wife Stefani served dinner out on their deck as a cool evening breeze rustled through the pine trees in their back yard. I had my back to the pine trees when I heard a loud “whoot whoot” and Joe explained there was an owl at the top of one of the pines, a tall one, almost 30 feet high. I turned and saw an enormous, Great Horned Owl. Five or six of my little burrowing owl friends from Fort Lauderdale could have fit in him easily. He swayed and balanced in the breeze, and we could see him turn his head completely this way and that, looking for prey. Stefani is able to do a wonderful owl call and she and that magnificent creature whoot-whooted at each other for several minutes and in the end, I got to watch him fly away, an enormous wing span carrying him away.
As Joe and I talked yesterday, as I walked later in the afternoon, as I said my prayers before I fell asleep, I wondered what that might mean. My owl companions, my talismans, my fellow creatures and I, watching each other, watching for each other, finding our way in the darkness, towards what?