Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lessons from Mary

Sunday night took us to third row, center seats for the Oak Ridge Boys. I grew up singing the music of the Oak Ridge Boys. I can remember two-stepping at a place called Good Time Country to some of their music. Who doesn't remember singing Elvira? I love the Oak Ridge Boys, and seeing them in concert was a treat.

Midway through the concert, I noticed the lead singer making regular connection through eyes and smiles with someone in the audience. I did not turn around to see who it was, however, until the singer started to talk to her from the stage during a break in the music.

Mary was introduced to the crowd as one of their most loyal fans. We then learned that Mary is 88-years-old, and that her mother was also a devoted fan of the Oak Ridge Boys until she died at the age of 105. Mary had just returned from being on a cruise with the Oak Ridge Boys. She continued the conversation with the band, while the audience looked on in delight. She filled us with laughter as she sat in her chair with her cane tucked between her knees.

The band started to play again, and several more number one hits were belted out from the stage before another familiar tune started to be played.

Can't you feel it in your bones?
Oh, a change is comin' on
From every walk of life
People are seeing the light
A new thing is taking shape

Reach out, touch a hand
Lord, make a friend if you can
Anytime you come on in
Live the united way
Why don't you join us today?
Make a friend if you can

Reach out, touch a hand
Make a friend if you can
Of others just like you
Reach out, touch a hand
Yo, make a friend if you can

Many people in the crowd started to sing along. I also started to sing words to a song I had not heard in what must be 20 years. But Mary did something different. She actually started to reach out to everyone around her. She made every effort to touch the hand of anyone sitting within five feet of her chair. Again, we took delight in Mary. But none of us followed her example, and some of us got a little uncomfortable at the thought of having to touch the hand of everyone around us. 

We're not used to holding hands with strangers. 

Mary has not left my mind since Sunday night. I keep picturing her reaching out to everyone with a huge smile on her face. And I'm convinced the world needs more Mary's. I am even more convinced that the church needs more people like Mary.

There are more churches today that are in decline than there are churches that are growing. The average age of a church goer goes up each year. Many millennials are giving up on the church all together. 

At the same time, there is a movement within the church that believes the only way to reach those on the outside - the best way to get young people in our pews - is to start something new. We are regularly tempted to believe that the church has to present an entirely new face - new music, new technology, new attire, new space, new people - in order to reach new people. I'll admit there is a huge amount of power in new church starts. It's a rather wonderful thing to have the capacity to reach new people without the resistance of older people criticizing every change you make. But I've learned a thing or two about the power of having people like Mary in the congregation.

Mary is six years older than the average age of the congregant in the pews when I first came to Mount Vernon Place in 2005. Our leadership team consisted of a 97-year-old chair of Staff Parish, a 93-year-old Finance Committee Chair, and a 90-year-old Lay Leader. These individuals had fallen in love with our church when it had over 4000 members and had stuck with it as the membership rolls plummeted to less than 300. They had been part of a vital church that made a profound difference in the city and were struggling to believe that God still had a plan for their church. While most were resistant to change at first, there were a few people who got excited when young adults started to come to worship. One person invited a young couple into her home where the three lived together in community for over four months. One took notice of a young teacher and her passion for children, seeking to do all she could to get her connected to the Methodist Children's Home. Another man started to count how many young adults would come forward for communion on the first Sunday of the month, announcing with a great sense of excitement how his church was growing again. Still another continues to go out of her way to welcome people this day - extending her hand to touch the hand of whatever new person is sitting near her. And another prayed fervently for her pastor and each new member as more people started to come into the doors. When Mount Vernon Place started to grow again, I regularly told people that one of the gifts that set us apart from other places in the city is that our church was one of the few places where a twenty or thirty-something could develop a meaningful relationship with a ninety or one-hundred-year-old. And it was true. The longtime members of our church showed us the gift of reaching out, extending a hand, going out of their way to welcome new people into our midst.

I'd love to see Mary walk down K Street during lunch hour. I imagine her saying "hello" to everyone in her midst. I get a kick out of imagining her reaching out and shaking the hand of everyone she passed. Her presence would bring quite the contrast to a busy city filled with people consumed by their smart phones or hesitant to say "hello" to whoever they pass on the street. Washington is a place where saying "Good morning" to a stranger can be as startling as a horn being honked from a car nearby.

Most of us have a Mary or two in our churches. We need to seize them for the gift they are and unleash them into the movement of the sweet Spirit that longs to breathe new life into dry bones. Mary and her friends may be the most valuable asset within many of our congregations.

Thank you, God, for Ruth, Howard, Annie Lou, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Lou, Sally, Michael and so many others that reached out and touched the hand of new people in our midst.