The Mystery of Divine Favor

The Mystery of Divine Favor

by the Rev. Larry Holben, adapted from his pastor’s column in the June/July issue of “The Crook,” the newsletter of St. Barnabas', Mt. Shasta.

A century ago, give or take a few years, there were six Episcopal churches in Siskiyou County: St. Paul’s, Ft. Jones; St. Mark’s, Yreka; All Angels, Sisson (Mt. Shasta); St. John’s, McCloud; St. Andrew’s, Mott; and St. Barnabas, Dunsmuir.

Today St. Barnabas, which moved to Mt. Shasta in 1987, is the only remaining Episcopal congregation in the county.

I’ve been thinking about this fact a good deal lately, especially as, in the last few months, two churches in our diocese have closed, Good Shepherd, Orland, and Holy Family, Rohnert Park.

The question that keeps coming back to me is this: how is it that some congregations die while others survive?

I doubt that it’s because the congregations now gone had less commitment to their parochial life and ministry than those churches which are still with us. It’s not that the members of these no longer existing congregations didn’t hope and pray for the continuing viability of these cherished holy places in which they had worshiped, been married, and baptized their children, and out of which they had buried their beloved dead.

One can, of course, point to certain practical factors that contribute to congregational vitality: deep and committed lay involvement in all areas of congregational life and ministry; careful attention to the quality of public worship; avoidance of party spirit or cliques; community involvement and service; a conscious focus on spiritual growth and discipleship. But I would guess that many of our “lost congregations” made serious efforts in all these areas, and yet they were ultimately forced to close their doors.

There are factors, as well, that can sometimes explain decline: shifting demographics, collapse of a local economy, failures in clerical or lay leadership, reactions to change in the larger church. But many of our surviving congregations have faced and weathered such challenges.

Our human impulse is to seek for cause and effect: we did this and the result was that. And, conversely, if we have a particular result (in this case, congregational survival) it must be because of something we did or are. But however much we may crave this kind of comforting logic, if we’re honest we must admit that, as with so many things in the Christian life, we’re finally left with a mystery: in this case, the generous – but what sometimes seems from our limited human perspective arbitrary – blessing of Almighty God.

God’s blessings cannot be earned, we know that. They are gifts of grace, and grace is, by definition, unmerited favor. Like the ancient Hebrew people, called by God not because of their prior faithfulness or piety or worthiness but simply because God chose them; like the disciples, whom Jesus told explicitly “you did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16), we whose congregations continue are the beneficiaries of the mystery of divine favor, of God’s loving, unfolding purposes which are far greater than we can know or imagine. That is, in the end, all we can say.

And what are the practical consequences for us of such a reality?

Several occur to me. First, we can never start to think that we or those who went before us in our congregations are ultimately responsible for whatever success we have had; the glory (to use an evangelical term) must ever and always go to God.

Secondly, we dare not become smug, assuming what happened to other congregations can’t happen to us (think of Paul’s warning in First Corinthians 10:12, “therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall”).

But most of all, our hearts should continually be full of gratitude for the lavish mercy and blessing of God, who has given us the gift of our churches, our congregations, our common life of worship and prayer, instruction and service.

On June 9th and 10th here at St. Barnabas, we celebrated 125 years of Episcopal ministry and worship in south Siskiyou County, and celebrated as well what is likely the 125th anniversary of our congregation (no records exist which can establish the exact date of the first Episcopal service in Dunsmuir). As we rejoiced with special liturgies and a banquet and visits from distant friends, I encouraged each of us at St. Barnabas to make a personal commitment to offer daily thanks for everything God has showered upon us as a church family – and to offer that prayer not just during this period of celebration, but through all the days to come.  Might I suggest that all of us in the diocese to do the same for the extraordinary gift of our own congregations?

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