Melissa Wiginton: Enough of the river remains

What ministry looks like in a time of drought.

It is still hot and dry in my hometown. We marked 72 consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures in Austin, Texas, before we had a three day respite, then back up to 101 degrees as the high. We cannot remember the last day it rained. This is the single worst one-year drought on record in Texas. Incredible, destructive fires are the latest manifestation of this reality.

My life this summer gave new meaning to the refrain of a song we sang at church when I was growing up, “A Wonderful Savior Is Jesus My Lord.” The music of the chorus was rousing and I sang with all my earnest child’s heart:

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life in the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand,
And covers me there with His hand.

I understand the real life-saving importance of being shadowed in a dry, thirsty land as I never have before. And -- as happens with poetry -- the vivid image renders its object more vivid as well: the dry, thirsty landscape of our entire lives, from our bodies to our souls to our community.

In hard times, drought is as much a metaphor for our material conditions as it is a geophysical reality. Here in Texas, where supposedly there has been an economic miracle, large numbers of children, elderly people and working families suffer from a lack of resources. It is a complicated picture, but one small example is indicative of the whole: one in five -- 20% -- of the people in Travis County, where I live, are hungry. 17% of the children here live with food insecurity; they don’t know where the next meal will come from. The church works to meet the material needs of these Texans who are hungry, sick, on the edge of collapse. For many mainline churches, the ministry to material and physical needs has become “the” way of extending Christ’s love into the world.

All kinds of organizations exist to provide basic human needs, and for that I am grateful. Yet, as the good book says, man (sic) cannot live by bread alone. Even inside full pantries and underneath professional sprinkler systems lies the dry, thirsty land of the human heart. The church uniquely is called, and gifted, to show the way to the cleft of the rock, the life-giving depths of God’s love.

Last week, I met three pastors who are planting new churches. Yes, they are foolish enough to plant something in this cruel place. One is a truly multi-cultural, multi-racial congregation. For some members, the service is too long and has too much praise music, for others not enough of that. Yet they seem to agree that in the prayers of the people -- where people in the pews speak their needs and celebrations -- the power of Christ is truly present. There, they are in the cleft of the rock, covered by God’s hand.

A second pastor finds himself in a kind of cultural dryness of religious faith that for decades has spread across the land like a growing desert. When his father was a church planter in the 1970’s, almost everyone he met said, “We’ve been meaning to find a church.” No one now has been “meaning to find a church.” Many of the new members who join his congregation are eager to serve in leadership but they do not know how to be a leader in a spiritual community. They have to learn a different way of being, like learning Spanish as an adult native English speaker.

Our new brothers and sisters come to drink living water, and frankly, they are rarely motivated by focusing on the specifics of the well. Denominational politics and policy fights drain precious resources, threatening to pollute the sources from which new congregations draw life. The third pastor I met echoed the experience described by her colleague, and added that people in her fellowship (part of a mainline denomination) know nothing of its polity or politics; they are just now learning about Jesus Christ. She talked about a mother and daughter who walked in the doors never having known about the love of God. “Next week,” she said, “we are going down to the river to baptize them.”

Yes, we do have enough river left to cover people with the waters of baptism. This is where new life begins. Thanks be to God.

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.