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Thinking Out Loud

How Full is the Glass?

by Michael Jinkins | Aug 30, 2016


Grace Winn EllisEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by teacher and playwright Grace Winn Ellis (pictured), who is the daughter of the late Dr. Albert Curry Winn, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1966 to 1973. Grace’s writings can be found on her website, gracewinnellis.com.

Optimists see a glass half-full. Pessimists see one that is half-empty. I admit that I lean more toward the negative point of view. And recently I have been having half-empty feelings about the church—about the small congregation I am part of, about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and about what we used to think of as “mainline” protestant churches—Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, etc.

The truth is that there are many signs to indicate that these churches are in trouble. Attendance is dwindling. Congregations are aging. The median age in the Presbyterian Church is now 61! Finances are strained. Any attempt to raise funds for maintaining our buildings would seem very risky to a financial analyst.

My father’s generation rejoiced when their efforts reunited the Presbyterian denomination, which had been divided since the Civil War. Almost immediately, there were new divisions—ostensibly over the question of whether the patriarchal traditions of the first century still applied to the church. I grieved over that division. I grieved again a few years ago when a downtown church, where my father’s great uncle once served as pastor, left the denomination.

The majority of the millennial generation—those born between 1980 and 2000—describe themselves as “nones”—vaguely spiritual but not attached to any particular congregation, denomination or religion. The minority who do attend church are more likely to be attracted to conservative churches, including some of those formerly part of the PC(USA). These statistics have played out in my own family. My husband and I and our six siblings have eleven children. Four have been part of conservative churches. Seven do not participate in any form of organized religion.

Sometimes I feel drawn to those Psalms of complaint and despair: Oh, Lord, where are you? Why have you abandoned us? We have been faithful. Why do we suffer while others prosper?

I find some comfort in the writings of Phyllis Tickle. In her book The Great Emergence (Baker Books, 2008), she tracks major shifts in history of the church. One key idea is that when there are splits, both the old and the new survive. When Christianity broke its ties with Judaism, when the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches split, when Protestants left the Catholic Church—all survived. All still seem to have a role to play in God’s plan.

I also remember learning that in its earliest days, the Soviet Union brutally attempted to stamp out the Russian Orthodox Church. After great unrest, the government tried a new tactic. It forbade anyone to teach the faith to the next generation, but it allowed the old women, the babushkas, to come into the churches and dust and light candles, thinking that when all of them had died, that would be the end of the church. But as each generation of babushkas passed away, it was replaced by the next one. The church survived, and when the restrictions were relaxed, it bloomed again.

So, here’s the thing. It’s not about whether the glass seems to us to be half empty or half full. It’s about God’s purpose, God’s plan, God’s will.

Congregations one hundred years from now may be quite different from those today. Our systems of government may be altered. Buildings may be abandoned. New collaborations may serve community needs. Our job is to listen with attentive hearts to where God is leading us.

As the Psalms and our favorite hymns teach us, with the eyes of faith, we can see the glass that is, in fact, neither half empty nor half full, but filled to the brim:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

“I nothing lack if I am His.”

“My cup with blessings overflows.”

Or in the words of a Taizé hymn:

“Those who seek God can never go wanting … God alone fills us.” (In Spanish, “Solo Dios basta.”)

God’s mercy is, quite simply, enough.

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