(Illustration of the Maldives Islands folk tale of the heron, by Xavier Romero-Frias, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; *
do not be jealous of those who do wrong.
For they shall soon wither like the grass, *
and like the green grass fade away.
Put your trust in the LORD and do good; *
dwell in the land and feed on its riches.
Take delight in the LORD, *
and he shall give you your heart’s desire.
Commit your way to the LORD and put your trust in him, *
and he will bring it to pass.
He will make your righteousness as clear as the light *
and your just dealing as the noonday.
Be still before the LORD *
and wait patiently for him.
Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *
the one who succeeds in evil schemes.
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; *
do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.
For evildoers shall be cut off, *
but those who wait upon the LORD shall possess the land.
In a little while the wicked shall be no more; *
you shall search out their place, but they will not be there.
But the lowly shall possess the land; *
they will delight in abundance of peace.
The wicked plot against the righteous *
and gnash at them with their teeth.
The Lord laughs at the wicked, *
because he sees that their day will come.
The wicked draw their sword and bend their bow
to strike down the poor and needy, *
to slaughter those who are upright in their ways.
Their sword shall go through their own heart, *
and their bow shall be broken.
The little that the righteous has *
is better than the great riches of the wicked.
For the power of the wicked shall be broken, *
but the LORD upholds the righteous.
I have to admit; I've been in a mood. I have had three or four things brewing in my life that feel like "people plotting against me," or at the very least, "the mean people plotting against the good guys." I particularly find myself becoming more and more that way at election season, particularly at certain candidates. But once in a while, I get that feeling that there are vandals at the gates. There have been some difficulties at work, at church, and in my personal life, and it's easy for me to start thinking that I have a target on my back. It's all I can do, sometimes, to focus on simply changing myself rather than chase down the motives of others.
I wonder sometimes if that is also part and parcel of the mood that often precedes Annual Meeting in Episcopal parishes all over the country. Annual meeting is, frankly a lot of work--especially for clergy, senior wardens, church secretaries, and church treasurers. Among the people I lovingly call "my Episco-geek" friends, I have heard dozens of horror stories about Annual Meeting. They range from carefully scripted clergy attacks (both the kind where the clergy are attacked or the clergy is doing the attacking,) to influential lay folk pushing an agenda, to factions in the church going medieval on each other. At the very least, Annual Meeting is when some difficult truths sometimes are revealed in a more public way--budget cuts, pledge shortfalls, program eliminations, or serious and straight talk about "mission vs. maintenance."
Annual meeting, for me, is this weird mix of good food, hopeful planning, and occasionally painful revelations--and it's always too long. That is no one's fault, that's just me being impatient. I am so used to the carefully scripted hospital committee meeting where everyone understands everyone has to get back to the clinic or the operating room, or in my case, back behind the microscope. We tend to work all our business behind the scenes, one on one and in small groups, via e-mail and hallway conversations, so the goal is at the meeting itself it is very businesslike and fits within the time allotted. I am not accustomed to meetings where things come up I may not have known about or are asked to consider with no advance notice. I am not very good at it, honestly, because I know myself well enough to know my initial reaction is not always my final opinion. Mistakes I have made in the past by displaying my initial reactions have taught me that my poorly thought-out reactions have created a level of polarization that doesn't need to happen.
When emotions fly around the room, it's hard for me to discern "what's real" in a short period of time. I think all of us in parishes hold some things in the life of the church closer than others. To question their value or utility or expense feels a little like those evildoers the Psalm above mentions. Sometimes an honest, but perhaps slightly blunt question feels crass and personal. I think about how maybe all of us who attend an Annual Meeting need to simply accept what might fly out of someone's mouth (or ours) might not be their last word or final thought on something, that we just let those emotions or reactions sit on the table and cool off a little.
I have thought a lot lately about a folk tale that comes from the Maldives about a heron. It goes like this:
On the scenic island of Maakana Fushi in the Maldives, a heron was standing on the beach when suddenly his dropping was washed away by the sea. "Hey sea!" he shouted, "why do you take away my turd, it's mine!"
The sea was surprised, but answered: "Well, bird, it's true I took your dropping, but I will give you a wave instead."
Splash! The bird took on the wave and settled down on the beach. Not far from him a group of fisherman were trying to push their boat into the sea. This upset the heron. "Where is my wave?" he demanded to know. The fishermen replied, "Yes, we used your wave, but instead we shall give you a fish."
Whack! The fisherman slapped the fish on the wet sand, and the heron took it in his beak.
He sat down next to a group of youngsters enjoying themselves while making music. They had been playing drums for hours, and were hungry. "Hey guys, look," said one, "that bird has a fish. Let's take it and make fishcakes."
So they snatched the fish from the heron, and of course, the heron complained again: "That is my fish you took!"
In exchange, the youngsters gave the heron an old drum. The bird was now very keen to hide the object so that nobody would take it away from him.
So he flew onto the highest branch of the tree, and started playing the old drum with his beak. "Dah-dam, dah-dam, dah-dam," went his beak on the drum. He played it harder and harder, faster and faster. He played so enthusiastically that he fell off the tree and broke his neck...and there he lay, dead...the old drum lying next to him.
It reminds me that none of us own anything in a parish.
We so often talk about ministries in "my" and "our" terms. We talk about "our" money in stewardship. If any of the things dear to us are threatened, we act like it's been taken from us personally. We take things like a budget cut cutting a program close to our hearts as a statement that our efforts are not valued. But none of it was ours to begin with. It was God's all along. We don't ask if things build up the Body of Christ as much as we fret about us not getting to do "our" thing. We lose track of the big picture.
Is it worth breaking our necks over?