‘Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”’ Isaiah 6: 8
I have to admit that as I pondered this text that I have preached on so many times that I felt a twinge of grief. “What was that about?” I thought. I knew it had something to do with what I have been experiencing in my visits as I make my way around the presbytery. Last night I visited Savage Memorial in East Portland, my 53rd church on this wonderful and crazy tour.
But what was it about Isaiah’s enthusiastic willingness to respond to God’s call that troubled me just a bit? After visiting so many churches I had this vague sense that reinforcing the Christian obligation to “be sent out” just didn’t feel quite right for every church and everyone I met. In fact, it felt like it almost bordered on a subtle form of elder abuse.
Of course, I didn’t feel this with every church that I visited nor with everyone within a particular church. The vast majority of churches still have the resources and energy to respond to God’s call to “be sent out” to do God’s work. Isaiah’s response, “Here am I; send me” mirrors most of our churches and their members. But I have also been struck by how much the spirit of Sylvia Boorstein’s quote, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” honors the life stage of many of our members and churches.
As I have visited the churches of our presbytery I have discovered a deep Isaiah-like service orientation to go out as well as more and more of a focus on reinforcing pastoral care and looking out for each other. I have been struck by the sheer volume of Sunday prayers that focus on members fighting cancer, recovering from falls, facing surgery and grieving losses. I don’t think this is a sign of spiritual navel-gazing (in most cases!), but simply a reality of the aging of our congregations.
The fact of the matter is that an increasing number of our members now shuffle into church behind a walker or use the arm of a friend to steady themselves as they make their way into the fellowship hall. Others, more able, have just enough energy to make getting to church on Sundays the one big event of the day. Still others are so overwhelmed by the responsibility of caregiving in their families that the church is their one sacred place for rest, recovery and retreat. Going out to serve on behalf of the church ignores the fact that God has already called them to serve full-time in their families.
I write this post today because I want to give our congregations permission to insert the practice of the “Don’t just do something, sit there!” motto. In this time of ecclesiastical anxiety as the majority of our congregations face annual declines it is easy to think that God is calling us to work harder, to serve more, and to look at the suffering of the world outside our doors and assert, “Here am I; send me!”
But there is also suffering within the doors of our churches. Congregations, as their members age, are increasingly made up of the vulnerable populations that we are used to serving outside of our church walls. We have more homebound members. ADA approved facilities are now a virtual necessity to congregations where walkers, canes and wheelchairs are a normal sight. Hearing amplification devices are now mandatory in sanctuaries as one in three Americans over the age of 65 have hearing loss.
Like I said the enthusiastic response of Isaiah to be sent out to serve God struck a small chord of grief for me. “What was that about?” I asked myself. My answer is that sometimes we are called to DO more and sometimes we are called to SIT more. Sometimes we are called to go out and serve and sometimes we are called to let others serve us.
The trick is to know when to honor God’s call to do and when to honor God’s call to sit. This holy listening is tricky business.