I have recently been re-reading the Napoleonic era seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. Though there are 21 of them, for some of us, they are read all too quickly. You may remember the Russell Crowe movie, Master and Commander, which was based on the series. A frequent theme in these books concerns the flow of the tide, and how the tide waits for no one. Because we don’t control the tide, it behooves us to live in accord with it. Where waters are tidal, sea levels rise and fall every day. An incoming tide is a rising tide, and an outgoing tide is falling one. Back in the days of sailing ships, a vessel heading for the high seas would float out on a falling tide, carrying the ship with it. On the other hand, a returning ship, when entering a harbor, would be carried in on a rising tide.
This example of tides provides a metaphor for phases in the life of a church. At my own parish, we have been experiencing a time of significant change. For churches, change can be measured in different ways ~ in the number of members, the average attendance, or by donor giving levels. Other things are harder to measure, like spiritual growth. Consistent with the patterns of nature, many churches experience the equivalent of both rising and falling tides. And like the patterns of nature, they involve factors beyond our control.
Advent provides a helpful reference point for considering these variables. Advent means that something is arriving, appearing or emerging. For with Advent, a new church year arrives. We hear Gospel-beginning narratives about the appearing of John the Baptizer. And we hear about the Son of Man coming at the end of time, and his revealing of the fullness of God’s Kingdom. In every Gospel, John the Baptizer plays a key role in the arrival of God’s long-awaited glory. Given these positive Advent themes, we can associate this season of promise with a rising, or incoming tide. We are, as it were, flowing in to a harbor of hope.
The photographer Dewitt Jones teaches that the times of greatest change are also the times of greatest potential. And so, we have a choice about how we see things. For change can mean a gain, just as much as it can mean a loss. So, do we focus on the change that is from something in the past? Or do we focus on the change that is to something ahead? In other words —and relevant to my own parish as well as many others— do we see our churches riding a receding tide, measured by factors like a decrease in membership and attendance? Or, do we see ourselves being lifted by an incoming tide, measured by rising giving and spiritual growth? These are among our most important questions.
This post is based on my homily for Advent 2, December 9, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The photos above are used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, the source for which can be found by clicking here. Dewitt Jones’ work can be accessed by clicking here.