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Forgetting the Former [Church] Things

Isaiah 43: 18-21 (NRSV)

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
20The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

This passage from the prophet Isaiah is one I’ve spent quite a bit of time with recently. It’s formed the basis of a sermon I’ve preached in quite a few churches in the Iowa Conference. I talk about how God is always calling us to do new things, just like Isaiah was calling the exiled Israelites in this passage. The reality is that we do not always heed that call; we are held back by outdated thinking and, most importantly fear.

Since I am retiring this sermon, I thought I’d share a part of it now with those of you who may not have had a chance to hear it in person. Let me know what you think:

“I’m sure we don’t have to think very hard to see the connections [with the Israelites context] to our current realities. Mainline Christianity, not long ago was the bedrock of society in the United States. Nearly every one of our churches sits in or near downtown areas, within walking distance of county courthouses and city halls. Though our buildings may not have crumbled, our elite status certainly has. At one time not long ago, nothing else happened on Sunday morning because everyone went to church. Now Sunday morning worship competes with club sports, golf games, shopping and even television news shows. No longer do most people consider church their first and most important option on that day or any day.

Even worse, the perception of church for many outsiders is not a positive one – they think of church people as hypocrites – people who SAY they are about love and peace and justice and mercy and then turn around and get embroiled in arguments over what color the new carpet in the sanctuary is going to be. Or even worse yet, those “outsiders” perceive Christians as those who ignore the real problems in their communities or are content to simply throw a little bit of money at it. As hard as it is to admit, these “outsiders” have a point.

I think too often we insulate ourselves, like those Israelite exiles, by clinging to our glory days. Many people in the pews remember the glory days of the 1950s and 60s when churches were bursting at the seams with young families and summer church camps were the place to be. We remember the time when we could afford and had need for two full-time pastors in the church. Too often we cling to the glory days, without acknowledging the problems that probably also existed.

I admit that I am not old enough to remember these glory days. In my memory I only know the church (both Protestant and Catholic) as a dying institution. But, it seems to me that those glory days may have had a quantity of people and activities, but did not necessarily include quality. Based on where we are now, I’m guessing that most people were taught NOT to be passionate disciples of Jesus Christ; but, rather they were groomed to be good committee members who would maintain church buildings and fellowship programs and would write checks toward these endeavors without going very far outside the walls of their own church. Thinking about Isaiah’s words, I’m pretty sure that this is not the best way that we may “declare God’s praise.”

But, how do we forget all of this – the good and bad – as the scripture is commanding? My answer is that I don’t think we can – at least as we think of forgetting as the complete erasure of memory.

I told you earlier that it was a miracle that I am standing before you. I spent most of my young adulthood perfectly content to stay away from the church, harboring my bitterness and pain. But, life had become increasingly uncomfortable in those years, eventually prompting me to have the radical thought of going back to church. When that crazy notion passed through my mind, I immediately thought of my friend and co-worker, Brett, who was not much older than me but who played in his church’s handbell choir and took vacation time to go with junior high students to confirmation camp. It occurred to me that perhaps his church wouldn’t be so bad. He wasn’t that bad after all. Despite years of being mocked for his handbell playing, my friend Brett welcomed me to his church when I asked. I felt led powerfully back into the arms of the church and, though I never played handbells myself, I found myself singing in the choir and chaperoning youth events.

But, the most amazing part came when I was unable to find a new job. I was working as a professional journalist in the Chicago suburbs and was desperate to leave. Because of my newfound faith, I was looking for jobs in public relations for nonprofit organizations. But, I had gotten no offers in 18 months – an unthinkable reality in the late 1990s. Then, I finally asked God, out of anger and desperation and frustration, “God, what do you want me to do?” Immediately, I felt as though God had picked me up by the collar and shaken me to my senses. Give up all of this and follow me into ministry. And, because enough people in my life told me that I wasn’t crazy, I started seminary 10 months later.

As you might imagine, the real work began then. I had to make peace with my history with the church and reclaim the parts of that tradition that were important to my own beliefs and spirituality now – even if they were expressed in radically different ways. The unusual path I took to get to this new place, gives me a decided advantage in our churches today. Because I have spent my own time in the wilderness, pulling apart what is wrong with the church, I am not particularly attached to what the church is or to visions of what it could be. That makes me both your most passionate disciple and your worst critic.

So, it’s rather funny that people should ask me that second question I told you about when I started. What is my vision for youth and young adult ministry? The honest answer is that I am clearer about what the church is NOT than what it is going to be. The visioning is something we must do together in order to perceive God’s new thing. To do that we must detach, not simply forget, the former things and the things of old. We cannot be overly attached to the glory days or to the mounting problems we face or, especially, to the FEAR we have of moving forward.

For many years now, I have been an avid practitioner of yoga. I have learned, and am still learning, that fear and the attachment to that emotion will hold you back from things like headstands and handstands far more than your own strength or flexibility. It is only when you abandon that fear, and take on a more playful attitude that you are able to surpass your own expectations. But, knowing this in your mind is one things, actually letting yourself flip upside down on top of your head is quite another.

I think it is not an accident that this chapter of Isaiah says twice to the Israelites to “Fear Not!” God is not coddling us while we get over our fear, but instead commands us, to get over ourselves. There is no reason to cling to those former things or the things of old because I’ve got your back, God says.

When we abandon this fear, then we can stand on our head or our hands and perceive bits and pieces of God’s new thing. We perceive the world described by this breathtaking piece of prophetic poetry in which the wild animals, the jackals and the ostriches, already give God great praise; we will perceive that God has already made the rivers burst forth in the desert, even though we’ve been wandering barefoot on the burning sand, dying of thirst. Indeed, if we have been formed for the purpose of declaring God’s praise, we will no longer hold onto our fear and stay within the four walls of our church. We will instead welcome with open arms young people and all manner of outcasts into our midst. None of us may know the exact consequences of that decision, I can assure you that the church will not remain the same as it is now or it has been in the past.

If we do perceive that vision – we will not grieve the loss of our “status” in our culture. We would know that we were never meant to have it in the first place. We were meant to be a rag tag bunch of outsiders who need the church home because we are unwelcome in so many other places in this world. We would know that we are meant to sing a transformative song to a suffering world – one that does not address problems comfortably from our pocketbooks or through simple acts of charity, but one that includes the poor, the young, the outcast in creating a new world full of justice and mercy and hope. That may be uncomfortable for those of us who have been in the church for a long time, but ultimately that is the place that more and more people will want to be to live out their passionate faith in Jesus Christ.”

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