Sunday, December 18th was an event-filled day for me. After the Christmas Cantata had been presented that morning, I pronounced the Benediction just before 12noon, and three hours later was on a train bound for New York City. I had made plans to join Charles & Gloria Freeman on their annual group excursion to the city that never sleeps. The trip was a graduation, Christmas, and birthday gift for my 18 year old nephew, Cody, with whom I was so excited to share the New York City experience. And since he’s a volunteer fireman, I particularly wanted to take him to see the 9/11 memorial and museum and the New York Fire Museum.
On Monday morning, when we set out to conquer the city, I was armed with an old fashioned paper map as well as my iPhone. It’s important at this point in this story to let you know that I’m a pretty good map reader. I don’t consider myself a direction-ally challenged person, but what I do lack is an instinctive sense of which way is North or South, or East, or West. But with map and iPhone in hand, I knew we were all set.
But we weren’t. We weren’t because when I used the Google maps app on my iPhone, I could stand perfectly still and it would indicate that I was still walking. We weren’t set because when I headed us in the direction of a subway station, a red line subway station which is what the map indicated we needed, I ended up on the side of the tracks heading in the wrong direction. And when I asked the subway employee behind the bulletproof glass how I could get to the other side, she pointed to the stairs and said “go up, then over there.” Hm. So I tried again and asked, “When I reach the top of the stairs, which way do I go?” She waved her hand in the air and repeated, “Over there.” It took Cody and me thirty minutes to find “over there.”
Since Google maps had failed me on Monday, on Tuesday morning I decided I’d just use my paper map and my trusty iPhone compass. Wanting to walk from the hotel to the New York Fire Museum, I consulted the map and determined that we needed to head South. So with my iPhone held out in front of me, we headed South. But soon I realized that the streets we were intersecting were not the streets the map said we should be intersecting. Grrrrrr. So we stopped and I checked the map again. It indicated we should be heading South. I checked the compass again. It registered that we were heading South. With my frustration level rising, and my patient nephew growing impatient, I took another look at the map. I scanned it up and down, left to right, corner to corner until finally, finally I had a small but significant Epiphany. There, on the bottom left corner of the map, was the piece of information I had been missing. About the size of the finger nail on my pinky, was the compass rose, that star-like symbol that lets you know which way is North. I had assumed that the top of the map was North and the bottom was South. But oh no, the bottom of the map was actually South West! which required me to hold my map at an odd, sideways angle. So with my map now in the appropriate position, Cody and I began to navigate the streets of New York City better and find our way. That star-like compass rose made all the difference.
Over two thousand years ago there was another set of travelers trying to find their way in the world, not in New York City, but in ancient Israel. Without Google maps or iPhones, the infamous three Wise Men traveled from somewhere in the East, trusting a different compass rose to guide them Westward to the Christ Child. The story of the Wise Men has been told, illustrated, enacted, and sung about for centuries. Even so, the significance of their place in the story of Christ’s birth too often gets missed. They were not faithful Jews who had been brought up in the Hebrew faith. They hadn’t spent their lives waiting expectantly for the promised Messiah. They were outsiders, astrologers who studied prophecies and the skies. Yet when they realized their studies were leading them to travel thousands of miles from their home, a journey which would take them years to accomplish, they went. And because of their willingness to go, their compass rose, the Star of Bethlehem, led them to the Savior of the world.
At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2017, a brand new year was spread out before us. A new year filled with possibilities. At this crossroad I’d like you to join me in considering this question: As individuals and as a church, what compass rose will we trust to point us in the right direction? With that question in mind, I’d like to share the following.
Since our church is in the beginning stages of a Capital Campaign, and will soon begin a search for a new pastor, there’s been a good deal of buzz regarding what direction we might choose to go. And that’s a good thing! We need to be having these conversations. But I confess that I have some concerns about some of the directions I hear tossed about. For instance, I understand that some folks want to point us in the direction of building a Family Life Center, thinking that if we build it, they (meaning new members) will come. I’ve heard that some folks want to point us in the direction of looking for a young pastor with children, thinking that if we do, we’ll attract a great number of young families with children. A few others have wondered if the direction we ought to head is to move to a contemporary worship style. Now, perhaps a Family Life Center or a young pastor with children or contemporary worship would cause us to add to our membership. But is that really the direction God is pointing us to? Should these things become our compass rose for 2017? I’m not so sure.
But here’s what I am sure of. The health and future of this church is not dependent upon a building (new or old), a pastor (no matter his or her age), or our style of worship. The health and future of this church is dependent upon the spiritual health of every one of its members, in partnership with the Holy Spirit. Imagine what 2017 might look like if each of us invested as much time and energy on our spiritual health as we do on our physical, mental, and social health. We’re quick to approach the new year resolving to lose weight, or exercise more. But we’re not nearly as quick to resolve to deepen our prayer life, or learn new ways of studying the scriptures, or discovering our spiritual gifts and using them, or integrating our faith into our home life. We’re too quick to let societal and cultural pressures serve as our compass roses which lead us to lives that are too busy and unbalanced, overly stressed, and financially burdened. What the church of Jesus Christ needs in 2017 is for us to make Christ our compass rose. There’s not an iPhone app or a Google map that is going to point us in the right direction. Forget GPS, we need to put our trust in JPS . . . a Jesus Positioning System! (Yes, I know that’s hokey.) It is Christ who gives us our direction for living faithfully both as individuals and as a church.
Most likely many of you are aware that the Christian church in the United States is experiencing considerable decline. Membership numbers are dropping, participation numbers are dropping. Current trends are indicating that being church in the 21st century is going to be more difficult than it was in the 20th. Some churches, out of fear and anxiety, are trying all manner of things to try to hang on: high tech worship services, a Starbucks franchise in their lobby, personality driven worship services, building a new building, hiring a young, cool and hip pastor. Perhaps these efforts are indeed Spirit driven. Yet I tend to think that churches try these things because they are easier than doing the hard work that is required for its members be healthy, faithful, continually maturing followers of Jesus Christ.
I believe that the health and future of this church is dependent on the spiritual health of every one of its members. So what will you, me, we the church use as our compass rose for the year ahead? At this crossroad, may it be the Christ whose birth we have celebrated, whose teaching we are called to live by, whose death and resurrection saves us, and whose Spirit serves as our faithful, trustworthy guide. Amen.