Dance by Stepan Mazrov Flickr 2010 CC BY-SA 2.0
When the island began, it wasn’t an island at all. It was instead a landscape over which there was a great movement. A great flight of birds soared up, rising from the neighborhoods, cliffs, rivers, and forests, and they came together and met right at the center of the landscape of the town, singing and chattering together. That was what happened first. That was the beginning of it all.
Some of the birds were local, others had traveled from far away but all were excited for the promise of the community where they now lived. The birds formed a flock made strong by friendships and social ties and they worshiped their creator and were thankful for their blessings. The birds became a great congregation, a church.
Over time the worship grew! The flock was blessed with such optimism, steady hands, and good hearts. This was a time when nesting pairs from neighborhoods all around flocked to the church for belonging. The church provided schooling for the fledglings and social networks for the pairs. The flock fit the landscape perfectly, every breed and age reflected in it. They were a mirror of, and a cornerstone to, their community.
From the beginning these birds from all ages and walks of life formed tight bonds and became a particular flock, set apart. They built a building and dreamed of what their fledglings would become—missionaries and deaconesses and doctors—all of which must be accomplished in the precise and right way. They wanted to be the moral center of life. They hoped the enduring church they built would last forever.
They gained their own style and way of doing things. And it was wonderful! They sang hymns, led prayers, a few key leaders rose up and everyone pitched in. They wanted their church to be a good place, and it was.
Two Chicks by Justina Flickr 2013 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
For a long time, things were so busy within the church that everyone in the flock was happily occupied. There were church eggs to hatch and church fledglings to raise and church programs to perform and the Christmas Play and VBS to keep the little nestlings of the church learning the right things. Everything stayed the same, why mess with success!
New songs became the usual favorites. New ways became usual ways. New eggs hatched and the fluffy chicks cheeped and were nourished.
The years were marked by regular rains that washed the landscape, washing away the old and washing in the new. The soil shifted and rivulets formed grooves. The flock wanted to protect their lovely church from all this unknown washing and unwashing and the roof was triple checked and ensured to be sturdy. The rain still fell but the waters of time and change could not get in—a good roof is water tight! The umbrellas went up. The walls went up. The raindrops rolled away and dripped at the edges and the puddles grew. The water stood in puddles around the church, but could not get in.
Abandoned Umbrella by Liam Kearney Flickr 2013 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The rains of season after season changed the landscape over time. To the flock within the church it seemed that those who lived across the puddles were all too quick to change with the new things washing around. There were more and more birds outside they didn’t know and didn’t want to know. The puddles spilled together and formed a moat. The moat spread out and the church became an island, separated from the landscape all around it.
Then, one by one, their fledglings grew up and flew away. The young ones donned rubber boots and flew to flock somewhere else. They played bass guitar and electric keyboards and sang contemporary songs.
Lead Us Not Into Temptation by Tim Norris Flickr 2008 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Islanders let them and their music go, for nobody on the island wanted noise like that. But even so the island flock mourned their loss—why did their children not follow them? They worked hard and remained faithful, but they mourned. They folded their wings inward and held their feathers in close to the chest. They turned to the familiar. They were glad of each other’s company and were comforted.
And the usual favorite songs became old favorites. And the usual ways became the old ways. And there only a very few nestlings left.
No matter, thought the church, we are a strong and sturdy institution. We are a flock who love God. We know there will be birds like us who will find their proper way to us. And there were indeed a few who stepped across the water as best they could. Yet these newcomers never quite belonged. They had not been born on the island but had instead come creeping across the moat.
Welcome To Seattle by Tony Fischer Flickr 2010 CC BY 2.0
The favorite things of the church, the favorite songs and favorite ways, stayed strong. But even so the church declined. The flock dwindled. There were so few hatchlings. Money was tight. Strength waned. The Spirit gasped for breath. The church lamented, what had become of it! They blamed the faithless, ungrateful outsiders and cursed the changes and those who brought them.
There was a remedy for this church and for many like it. There was a remedy and that remedy was to drain the moat. For this was a church that belonged at the center of the landscape—the place of its birth. It was not called to be a hermitage or to the solitary life or to be a city on a hill. It was called to be the hands and heart and love of God, it was called to the work of building God’s kingdom in the world.
But before they could drain the moat, they had to see it. A challenge for the Islanders was that they had gazed inward at each other for so long that there were many who were not aware the moat even existed.
It didn’t happen overnight, but in fits and starts the work began. A first few noticed the moat and sounded the alarm. This start raised the Spirit and it blew across the moat and bubbled up from underneath. Those within the walls felt the Spirit blowing in and it ruffled their hair and their skirts and their feathers and was generally untidy and uncouth! Be silent, they demanded! Do not rock the boat! Some of the Islanders crossed their arms and glared at the disruption, declaring the breezes unwelcome and that they taxed the system too much. Others laughed as Sarah had done so long ago, to think that life could come anew to this once lovely place.
Should I Trust You by Karen Flickr 2007 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A few of the Island leaders began to push for change and renewal. They thought and thought what they could do, they formed teams and planned projects. They instituted new programs. They thought, ‘if only those outside could know how good the Island was!’ The moat drained slowly in drips. The sturdy few remaining broke out hammers and planks and built a bridge, then two. They prayed that the outsiders would come across. They worked hard. They raised banners that said, ‘Come! We are good! Be like us!’
This was a good effort! It was hard and important work. But it did not have the outcome the Island leaders had hoped. It was not enough. A few outsiders did cross the bridge, but they did not stay. The outsiders did not speak the language of the Island. The outsiders and the Islanders did not recognize each other and they struggled to communicate.
The Islanders discovered that the bridges and the programs would not be enough to get those outside to come to church. The Islanders realized, too, that they could no longer wait on the Island for the outsiders to get a clue and come to church. They discovered that it was they, the Islanders, who had to clue in and plug in to the landscape around them.
A few of the Islanders were furious and experienced feelings of deep betrayal. In their grief and anger they cried out, ‘how dare discomfort and trial come after so many years they had served the Island well. How dare the favorite songs and the right ways of doing things be changed!’ They refused to support the new work. They stood at the edge of the moat and wailed and snatched the tools from the hands of the bridge builders and cast the tools into the muddy water.
Screaming IMG_4282 by Mark Dumont Flickr 2013 CC BY-NC 2.0
The moat was deep and set into the soil and the tools sank to the bottom. But, the moat could not withstand the work of the Spirit. God saw the suffering of the people on the island and moved to encourage and comfort them. God spoke to them in the words of Ecclesiastes, in the story of Sarah and Abraham, in the courage of the first disciples, in the words of the apostles.
God was faithful to his Island flock, God did not reject them or judge them in their hurt or their anger. Instead, God called them back from their isolation, inviting them to learn anew the language of the landscape and serve the nestlings and pairs and wise ones there.
Deep down the Islanders had the same wish, to again be a vital part of the work of God and the Spirit in the world. Their longtime faithfulness had given them many gifts. They had forged a strong community and a strong sense of belonging. They had studied scripture and formed bonds spanning well over a hundred years. They had planted a good and lovely place of worship right at the center of a wide and hungry landscape, a landscape of pairs and nestlings and wise ones.
They slowly turned. They tucked their sorrow up and donned new rubber boots. They looked across the moat at the twinkling lights and all the nests beyond. They stretched their wings to test their balance. They were saints in the making but they could not yet fly. And they realized then for the first time that the moat could not be crossed. It had to go.
Red-BreastedNuthatch by Richard A Flickr 2010 CC BY-ND 2.0
With their characteristic diligence, they began to drain the moat. Dry land appeared. Foot paths formed through the mud. They walked hand in hand across, lending support to each other, calling out courage for the frightened ones. They entered the landscape with the good news of God in their hearts. They met the new flocks where they lived and they said, ‘We are a strong and lovely community of God. How can we help you?’
Dream 2 by Sario Reale Flickr 2009 CC BY-NC-ND 2.00