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Join in all the reindeer games

Merritt: Sing, clap ― or at least understand and appreciate change

August 3, 2012

STORM LAKE, Iowa

When she helped save the life of her brother Moses, Miriam was singing a new song in a strange land.

And so can we, even though a changing world makes us sometimes feel like outcasts, keynoter Carol Howard Merritt told a Synod of Lakes andPrairiesSynodSchoolcrowd of about 660 people during her final keynote address Friday, July 27, atBuena VistaUniversity.

“Not all of you will be Miriam,” Merritt said during her fifth and final talk. “Some will be standing back and watching it happen, nodding your head and clapping along, and that’s OK.”

“People may say, ‘It’s too much change.’ If you’re not ready to lead this change, that’s OK. But if you can appreciate what is happening and have an understanding of what’s going on, that will go a long, long way toward leading us to the Promised Land.”

Change ― technological, sociological and economic ― can be uncomfortable “when you’ve supported the church your whole life, things are changing and it doesn’t feel like your church anymore,” she said. “It can be painful, disconcerting and frustrating. But in the midst of that, keep thinking about your children and your children’s children and the liberation they might have because you were able to nod, step aside and clap a little bit.”

Existing customs might not translate well to a new generation. Merritt cited a weekly dinner that a church she served had been holding. Attendance was way down because working moms and dads found it difficult to get their children downtown at dinnertime on a week night ― what with all the homework and laundry that needed to be done.

The solution? Alter the tradition to hold the event in various neighborhoods. Attendance shot up tenfold.

“We like the touchstones that we do year after year, but they may not go on [as we intended] to the next generation,” Merritt said. “There are traditions of sitting around a table together, and we don’t want to let go of those traditions, which are historically grounded.”

Instead of “bringing on a big fat guilt trip because they’re not playing our reindeer games,” she said, “we might think about how we can hold on to these traditions.”

Merritt cautioned church leaders to ease into changes they might have in mind.

“I’m not asking you to go home and blow up the place,” she said with a smile. “But if someone is willing to do something differently, it might be your job to smile, nod and encourage that person – or even to lead a little bit of change yourself.”

Those 20- and 30-somethings who are looking to be part of a social justice movement will find experienced practitioners in churches, she said.

“We’ve been loving our neighbor and changing the world for 2,000 years and they don’t know it,” she said. “The new generation is segregated and often far from their parents and grandparents. The new generation is yearning and longing for a sense of community, and that’s something we have had for a long time.”

She said small churches have a particular advantage in providing that community.

“As you sing this song in a strange new land,” Merritt offered as a benediction, “may God give you wisdom and peace.”

Mike Ferguson is a ruling elder at the United Presbyterian Church of Lone Tree (Iowa), a reporter for “The Muscatine Journal”― the newspaper where Mark Twain got his start ― editor of “Out and About, the enewsletter of the Presbytery of East Iowa, and a frequent contributor (especially the last 10 days) to Presbyterian News Service.

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