While on vacation in Vancouver last week, we were treated to a tour of a Chinese garden that demonstrated reverence for the concept of balance in nature–the yin and yang.
The lessons on respect for universal harmonics that we learned there came to mind days later as we marveled at the indescribable beauty of the Alaskan landscape. Travelers from all over the world were reveling in the majesty that surrounded us, illuminated by the light of the midnight sun. The place was vibrant, alive. But somehow the experience with this unusual length of the day carried with it a reminder that the balance would soon tip the other way.
You cannot stand in a bright Alaskan sun without feeling the chill of an underlying shadow: the sense that in six months Alaska will be hunkered down, shivering in darkness as pervasive as the present daylight.
In the heart of summer, nearly every conversation we had with an Alaskan eventually turned to the opposite season. How do you survive the time that is surely coming when the state is largely abandoned, when the shops are closed, the weather brutal, the roads emptied, and travel is hazardous at best?
While it may be overdramatizing the issue, most of us who spend time in the pulpit experience a little of this in the seasons of the church year. I refer not only to the order but also to the natural seasons that surround us. We take part in a church year filled with festivals and special events beginning with the September’s Rally Day, the resumption of school, passing through to All Saints’ Day, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, New Years, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost and all the rites of passage and graduation and ritual and tradition. All full of life and activity–evidence of a thriving congregation.
Then comes summer.
The bleak season of the church year.
Choirs are nowhere to be found. Education takes a break. No one comes forward for the children’s sermon you carefully prepared. We find ourselves preaching sermons that echo off the walls amid sparse attendance.
It takes a greater measure of faith to preach to a summer congregation widely scattered across the vast sea of the sanctuary.
You cringe when you see a visiting family walk in the door and want to explain to them, “No, it’s not usually like this! Come back during the church year when it’s full!”
You get the incessant urge to nag and scold the congregation for their hedonistic pursuits in the summer and their shameful neglect of their relationship to God.
You crank up youth programs in the summer: mission trips, camp, Vacation Bible school, etc. but the activity doesn’t carry over into Sunday worship and you wonder why.
You wonder if you should save your best stuff for when people are there to hear it.
I’ve begun to wonder, however, if this summer slump is just part of the yin and yang of the Christian community. We have seasons of full sun and seasons of shadow. Seasons of life and growth and seasons of rest and dormancy. There were times when Jesus had to take a break and get away from the grind.
Maybe I’ve been gnashing my teeth over something that restores balance to the church. Maybe people experience alternative ways of encountering God in the summer or maybe the short period of separation brings them back more eager than ever to encounter the living God in corporate worship.
If Alaskans had their wish, winters would not be so bleak, long, dark, and harsh. But that’s the way it needs to be to maintain harmony in the world. If we in the church had our wish, summer worship would not be so poorly attended or so low-energy. But maybe that’s how we maintain the yin and yang of our existence.
At any rate, I’m trying hard not to take it personally when my congregants head for the cabins all summer, or to apologize to God for their lack of commitment. I’ll focus on what I’m supposed to do–proclaim the Good News to all. Whether the house is full or 2/3 empty, there are folks who need to hear it, even in the summer, even when the energy is low.
The longest night of winter is when summer begins to return. The church year is coming; even in the summer doldrums I can already feel it in the air. The music of God’s universe is playing.