I was thinking about blessings today. I was thinking about it in terms of the weather. For while it’s been grey and somewhat dreary this January, every day that I don’t have to drive on snow I count as a gift this time of year, and I celebrate it as one more day closer to summer!
Now I don’t know what blessings you might be experiencing these days. I don’t know where the places are in your life where you are finding joy and hope and new life, but I hope those things are present for you.
And as I was reflecting again today on the many gifts present in my life, I was also recalling how sometimes I have heard folks approach gifts and blessings with some level of hesitation. Instead of giving thanks and enjoying the positive elements of life and receiving them as a gift, there is this apprehension that, as some put it, “they are waiting for the other shoe to drop.” There is this understanding that if things in our lives get going too well, “look out,” there’s trouble around the corner!
I’m not suggesting that life doesn’t have its troubles of course it does. There are tragic things that come into our lives, there are heartbreaks and griefs that are real and cause us significant pain at times. But friends there is something wrong with a theology that expects trouble whenever things are going well. There is something wrong with a theology that struggles to receive and bask in blessing because of the dread of what bad thing is coming down the pike. There is something wrong with a theology that lives in fear.
Again, I am not suggesting that life is a bed of roses, that there won’t be days when we have to drive in the snow, but for goodness sake, God is good! God’s blessings are new every morning and even when those troubling days arrive, the blessing of God’s presence is always there. So, give thanks this week with joy, with celebration, with an overflowing heart for all that God has done and is doing, and don’t fear what’s behind the next door.
I just sent a picture of myself at 21 months of age in response to a request from Mark Doyal. He is doing something with it for the Full Cabinet Christmas gathering next week. It should be fun.
As I looked at the picture, I thought about the 59 years or so that have passed since my father snapped that photo. All the experiences and events, the feelings, joys and sorrows along the way. For the most part I have been blessed. I have always had food to eat and a roof over my head. I have always had people who have loved me and cared about me. I have been blessed in so many ways. And I’m grateful to be at this point in the journey.
Some people I talk to wish for earlier days. They long for times past. They wish for days when things were different, before specific decisions were made or their physical body changed. And while I wouldn’t mind being 30 pounds lighter as I was some years ago, or perhaps being able to get up from a sitting position on the floor with a bound instead of a groan, I really wouldn’t want to go back to any age in the past. As I have said many times, “I accomplished that age!” And life in this moment, while different, has much ─ so much ─ good in it.
Contemplating this from a personal perspective got me thinking about our churches. So often I hear people in congregations talk about former days. They talk about the way things were with a kind of wistful longing. And I get the fact that many of our churches are not what they once were. I get that for many of us the struggles before us now are significant, and making the shifts we need to make to be effective in today’s culture is tough.
But friends my advice to us all is engage the now! The past is never coming back and there are people in every one of our communities who need to know the good news of Jesus Christ and God’s rich love for the world and for them. There is no better time of year for us to share the message of hope than this season of Advent and Christmas. I hope that all of us are strategically looking at ways we might reach out and share Christ’s love with our communities. I hope all of us are praying for opportunities to invite our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members to a Christmas Eve service or some gathering where they might encounter the message of hope God offers at Christmas.
We, as the body of Christ, can spend our time looking back at what was and wishing we were younger, stronger, or whatever, OR we can appreciate that we continue to possess a message of hope that the world desperately needs and then find new ways to offer that hope and love to all those within our sphere of influence. That’s still our calling, and we can do it!
As I think about all the uncertainty before us, in our culture, and in our Church, there is significant angst among many. As I was thinking about this, especially in the church context, I was reminded of the story of Jeremiah in the 32nd chapter of the book with his name. It was not a high moment in Israel’s history. They were about to go into a new reality. They were about to be taken from their homes into Babylon. Everyone was fearful. Everyone was looking toward loss. I’m certain there was great concern and blame flying in lots of directions. In the face of this situation, Jeremiah starts purchasing land. He makes sure that all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. He purchases land that will soon be taken over by others. It makes no sense…except as a statement of faith. It is a profound statement of faith. God, Jeremiah believes, will bring them through the difficult days in Babylon. God, Jeremiah believes, will faithfully lead them through to the other side.
The other day in a meeting I attended, Dirk Elliott (New Church Director for the Michigan Area) shared with us the goals set by the General Conference regarding growth in the United States UMC in the next quadrennium.
These goals are:
- 1,000,000 New Disciples
- 50,000 New Places (Small Groups)
- 5,000 New Faith Communities (Additional New Worship Services)
- 500 New Churches (New Chartered Congregations)
In a day when we are struggling to stay together, the General Conference is inviting us to focus our energies and our faith is the direction of hope. The General Conference is calling us to examine our efforts as an Annual Conference, District, Local Church, and individual around reaching the next and the next with the love of Christ. They are calling us to do so in new ways, to engage with new energy this core component of who we are as Christ followers and as children of John Wesley.
These are uncertain days. In our culture and in our church, but I wonder what would happen if we focused on this call put out to us from the General Conference. I wonder what would happen if we put our stakes down, in the midst of the ambiguity around us, and said with Jeremiah, we are people of faith! We serve a God who does amazing things. I wonder what would happen if we decided these goals are very reachable and that we were going to be a part of seeing them accomplished? I wonder what would happen if we changed our focus from fear and division, to hope and faith? I wonder what would happen.