Trust in the Wilderness

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on a previous post – Scripture and Change – in part because the delay of General Conference means even more uncertainty and anxiety regarding potentially radical changes in the UMC. But the broader theme of ‘comfort with’ vs ‘rejection of’ anxiety and change seems to animate so much of what’s happening both in the broader Christian church and the world beyond. I get especially frustrated with the prevalence of Christian voices advocating for a return to [insert whatever golden age or specific practice was most meaningful and comforting to that person or persons], when faithfulness to God has always required an openness to the uncomfortable new things the Spirit of God will do next.

In times of anxiety, we can seek out control or rely on trust. Control implies ‘we’ have the answers and if ‘they’ would just go back to x, y, or z then everything would be fine. Trust requires that we stand first on the foundation of God’s love for us, which then makes it possible to love each other more fully no matter what love requires – no matter how new, uncomfortable, different, or challenging it may be to do so. The Christian calling is and has always been to learn how to proclaim the unchanging gospel in a way that a rapidly changing world can continue to hear it. I grieve the extent to which so much of public Christianity seems more intent on getting back to a more comfortable and familiar place than on moving toward a more radical and transformative way to love as God first loved us.

Between war, technological shifts, the tragedies and general malaise of covid, the brokenness of politics in the US, the uncertainty of where the UMC goes from here, and any number of other challenges and trends, I don’t know how anyone could look at the world and not feel some level of anxiety about where all this goes in the next 5 to 50 years. I am the kind of person who is somewhat hard wired to prefer routine, habit, and tradition over uncertainty or change. A big part of me loves the idea of getting back to a simpler time and a less anxious world. But I don’t really know what that means or who gets to decide what point in the past represents the “ideal world” since different people in different times and places have always had very different experiences of that “ideal.” And just as importantly, I don’t know how to read the Bible or take the Christian faith seriously without seeing that the most basic and consistent expectation of God’s people in times of anxiety and change is to get ready for the new thing God will do next. The love and mission of God never change – what it looks like to be faithful to the love and mission of God changes all the time.

I don’t know how to take the Bible seriously – to see Abram and Sarai leave everything they knew, Rahab betray her people, Joseph forgive his brothers, Moses go to Egypt, the law on Sinai redefine God’s people, kingship established, the temple built and rebuilt, Jonah swallowed by a fish, exile predicted and then experienced, Paul struck blind, James and John leave everything, the women flee the tomb, pentecost give birth to the church, galatians redefine tradition, Peter encounter Cornelius, Jesus lift up Naaman, eat with Zacchaeus, heal and glean on the Sabbath, reject violence, repeat the phrase “but I say unto you,” lift up a samaritan, and finally go to the cross to conquer death itself (and on and on and on) – and to then expect that the solution to the problems of the church and world is to go back to the simple and straightforward way things used to be. In other words, I don’t know how taking the Bible seriously could ever entail embracing a handful of arguments, truisms, or rules while rejecting almost every theme, assumption, event, and trajectory that the Bible itself contains.

My prayer for today, for the Lenten season ahead, and for whatever uncertain future awaits is that no matter what changes take place in the church or the world beyond, I will never let my comfort be more important than the call to faithfully follow a God who is always making new ways in the wilderness. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t like that there is so little certainty. But I know that my calling is not to control the future – my call is to trust in the one who will be faithful to the very end.

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