From Curate Marisa Crofts:
We’ve all been asking it, and we’re all some degree of nervous about the answer: What will the church look like now that we’re coming to the end of the pandemic? Will we pick up as though nothing has happened? Will we scrap everything we did in 2019 and start completely from scratch? Or will we settle on some middle-of-the-way option that no one has envisioned yet?
That, I will admit, feels like a pretty dramatic series of questions. But if you’ll forgive me for the drama, I hope you’ll also be able to feel that the process of reopening is a fraught one.
COVID-19 has affected us all, whether we caught it or not. As of this summer, we are emerging into a society that has changed and will continue to change in ways we can see and in ways we can’t. Trying to respond to that kind of context is a task-and-a-half — one that has the potential to bring out the best and the worst in us. So, in a sense, it’s worth the drama. More than that, however, trying to get a read on our current situation is worth serious thought because it is in our current situation that the Spirit works. God is not OOO, nor is he just avoiding the mess in this already-too-messy year. He is creating and sustaining the world as he always does. The question for us, then, is how will we walk through this time as faithful witnesses to him?
Just a few weeks ago, I was able to attend a continuing-ed event with the Rev. Dr. Ed Stetzer, who is known for his work at Wheaton College and his numerous books about evangelism, in which he asked that very question. How do we “present ourselves as living sacrifices” to God in this time of cultural upheaval? First, he said, we need to reckon with the very real challenges (and opportunities) facing the church at this time. Stetzer called these challenges and opportunities the “headwinds and tailwinds” of 2020, the things pushing back on us and the things pushing us forward as we seek God’s will in what’s ahead of us.
Bad news first!
America is getting less religious. Between 2009 and 2020, the number of people who identified as “non-religious” doubled, from 14% to 28% — and Stetzer argued that most of those folks would once have been nominally religious. This is a major shift for the church for many reasons, but the most important might be that up until now, our style of evangelism focused on getting people who were tangentially connected with the church to commit more deeply to their faith. Evangelizing people who are “non-religious” is an entirely different barrel of monkeys.
Speaking of, people are becoming more and more suspicious of proselytizing. In years past, telling unchurched people about the gospel was often seen as embarrassing (for you and for them); but now, people are concerned that evangelism is coercive, that it encroaches on a part of people’s lives that is private and entirely subjective. I’m sure you’ve heard something like this before: “You can believe whatever you want. But don’t tell me what I should believe.”
And one of the reasons for that isn’t just because “tolerance” is a buzzword. Over the past 50 years, the church has lost much of the respect she enjoyed (and took for granted). Once upon a time, the church was seen as a voice of authority and as an agent of justice and equity in our society. Now, however, the failings of so many churches in America — the sex-abuse scandals perhaps being the most damning example — has corroded the faith people once had in the institution that so famously asked, “What would Jesus do?”
Which brings me to Stetzer’s last point: People have become “inoculated” against their need for God. When we were first locked down in the spring of 2020, the fact that we could no longer walk into our church buildings, no longer receive the Body and Blood of Christ as we used was painfully real to us, especially given that many people were unable to celebrate Easter in person. Fast-forward to summer 2021, however, and you’ll find that a full third of people who were once regular church attenders have not returned to the pew. Why is that? The reasons for such a change are, of course, complicated; but Stetzer suggested that one of those reasons may be because people have grown bored with Jesus. Stuck at home, unable to do anything but surf the web, people have found other, more exciting or gratifying outlets for religious expression. Politics, matters of social justice, and conspiracy theories move in a way the church does not. Engaging in these things gives participants a feeling of having done something important, something immediately helpful. Why look for a God you’re not even sure exists when you can actually see tangible results and feel the excitement of the crowd at a protest or a rally?
Even one of these challenges would be enough to make ministry difficult. But four? The reality of our situation is anything but inspiring — though that does not mean it’s hopeless.
Back in 1968, the U.S. was also facing a time of cultural convulsion. Protesters flooded cities and towns, decrying the war in Vietnam and the violence against African Americans; both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Jr. were assassinated; and the “Hong Kong Flu” (no, I’m not kidding) was catching. No one who looked at that picture would say, “Oh yes, this is definitely fertile ground for renewal in the church.” But it turns out it was. Since the early 1960s, churches across America had been experiencing charismatic revivals that would eventually give birth to Christian groups like the Jesus Movement, which claimed the world’s attention in 1972 as over 200,000 people gathered in Dallas to worship and pray and ask what it was that the Lord was calling them to do.
If renewal can come out of the tumult of the 1960s, then renewal can come out of the past year-and-a-half.
And so we come to the good news:
The current cultural moment is just as much of an opportunity as it is a challenge. And that’s because the combination of isolation and existential dread we’ve all been dealing with hasn’t just pushed people to ditch religion entirely. It’s also forced everyone to ask hard questions. It’s made us look at life and death in ways that very, very few people in the West have done for nearly 100 years. And the church is uniquely positioned not just to meet those people where they are but to offer them comfort and a home in the promise of Christ.
While the general perception of the church has suffered, people have nevertheless noticed how local congregations stepped up their ministries to care for those who were heavily impacted by the pandemic. Just think of one small example from Emmanuel: even when we were shut down, we never missed a day of passing out sack lunches to those who came to our door. People outside of our church community see that witness and ask, “Why would they do that?” Why do we do that? We serve the poor, the widow, and the orphan because Jesus told us to follow him. Christianity has a set of priorities that are fundamentally different from anyone else’s in the whole world. And that reality is becoming clearer. Just as folks are getting real about what their values are and where their values lie, the church is also poised to explore and embrace a greater clarity about what Christianity actually is. And as we return to some sense of normalcy, there are ample opportunities to coalesce that clarity and momentum about our identity with the excitement and momentum of people looking to find a community that can help them process the past 16 months.
The coming year is going to be interesting to say the least. Interesting and perhaps disheartening. Yet despite the challenges we face, there is hope. And what is hope but remembering that the Lord has promised to act — and then trusting that he will do so? God is on the move, and he is ready to sweep us up into his work. I pray that when that happens, we will all be ready to go.
Some of you know that my father has been in declining health on several fronts. A couple weeks ago I had to make an emergency trip down to Nashville, and I spent four days sitting in his hospital room, waiting for him to be well enough to get discharged to a nursing home short-term. As I sat there, the prayers that initially arose were those instinctive, self-focused pleas that you could sum up in the single word “Help.” Please let Dad be OK. Let them get his blood pressure back up. Please make the social worker answer the phone. Please help me sleep tonight.
We’ve all prayed things like that, which is perfectly appropriate and normal. All human beings have times when we dislike the way things are, and those of us who pray inevitably find ourselves asking God, over and over, to give us what we want instead of what we have. I’m grateful to know that the God who became incarnate in Jesus is a God who listens in love, even when what we say to him is expressing mostly our own desire for control.
But I’m also grateful, over years and years of praying the Psalms in the Daily Office, to have been gently schooled in another way of addressing God in times of pain and powerlessness. And this more Biblical kind of prayer is what I eventually found anchoring me, orienting me, by the hospital bed, rather than those instinctual prayers focused on trying to get my way.
You know, the Psalms give us a model prayer vocabulary; with repeated use, they soak us in the truth that God is there with us when we address him, that all of life can be lived in an open dialogue with God, and that there is a larger horizon and a deeper steadfastness out there in which to trust, even when life has sent us suffering. Today’s Psalm, 130, is a perfect example of that kind of prayer. I’d like you to take a look at it in your bulletin.
It starts: Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication. The Psalmist begins from this point of view, just like anybody: I’m in the depths, hear me, consider my point of view! Listen to me, God. That’s an authentic and normal way to pray. But the text doesn’t stay there.
Let’s read verses 2 and 3. If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand? For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared. Now that’s interesting. As soon as he mentions his own weakness and his own dilemma, the Psalmist is reminded of everyone’s weakness and everyone’s dilemma. The Psalmist remembers that it’s not just him – so much is amiss, and yet God is undaunted by that. With God is forgiveness, with God is the answer for everything that has gone amiss. The Psalmist’s problem, my problem, your problem, is at its root one instance of a bigger problem, the problem of a world in which alienation from God has infected everything and broken people and systems and creation in all kinds of ways.
Any problem we have, any injustice we see, any pain we face, is an example of the world being fallen. If you understand the world the way Scripture does, this is deeply comforting. You’re not alone. The universe is not ganging up on you personally. This is all part of the big picture caused by humanity’s refusal of God, and answered by God’s determination to forgive us and heal us.
So even as the Psalmist bewails the dilemma he and all people are in, we already see this movement of his eyes rising up to a wider horizon. And let’s watch it happen even more. Verses 4-5. I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning. This is the moment the Psalm turns from complaint to hope. From help me/ help us to: My soul waits for the Lord. The gaze moves from me and my problem, to us and our problem, all the way up to God himself, and that changes the game completely.
Psalm 130 is what is called a Lament Psalm, and nearly all lament psalms have that kind of turn in them. There is nearly always a moment where even in the midst of suffering, the reality of God reorients and regrounds the Psalmist. Jerome Creach, an OT scholar at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writes, “Lament… allows the worshipper to complain about injustice and to call on God to hear the cries of those who suffer…. Because lament is offered to [the God with whom we’re] in covenant relationship, however, lament also is praise, and a very important expression of praise at that. It gives evidence of faith worked out in the midst of hardship, hurt, and loss.”
The God with whom we’re in covenant relationship. As the Psalmist looks at God, he remembers a reality bigger than whatever he’s facing, and he reaffirms his attachment to God and his trust in God. So his world is no longer defined by the circumstances he’s lamenting; it’s defined by the God who is so much bigger than our circumstances.
And that’s how it works. If we belong to God, we know who God is. We know what he wants for us and for the world. We know he knows better than us what is needed. So in the hospital, if I can get my eyes off me and onto the God of the universe, I’m no longer waiting to get my way about the social worker or the blood pressure monitor. I’m waiting on the Lord. My hope is no longer in being able to get my control back. My hope is in the Lord.
And beautifully, the last section of the psalm finds the writer so grounded and strengthened by the steady presence and love of the God in whom he hopes, that he has the energy to turn outward and exhort others to receive the assurance and grounding he has received. O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
Mercy is not getting your way. Redemption is not regaining control. Mercy and redemption are located outside us, in the God to whom we belong and with whom we are in a covenant that will never end. God is not a butler, not a wellness coach, not an EMT to be contacted in our time of need, and then ignored the rest of the time. God is God.
And this is such good news. With the God to whom we have access through Jesus, we no longer have to hope in our own control. Even in the bad times, we can let God lead us into a larger, more spacious, more secure reality, assured that whatever happens, it will be OK. It will be OK, because this infinite, merciful, hope-worthy God is our God. Will you take out your bulletin and read the whole Psalm with me again, please?