December 3: First Sunday of Advent
Scriptures: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
1 to 10, how well is your life unfolding these days, that is, in regard to your plans for your life? If the quality of your life experience is at a nine or ten and pretty much everything happening as you planned and designed, then praise God! Absolutely! You’ve got a lot to be thankful for in this regard. So, be sure to express your gratitude for a life that’s progressing in such a wonderful way. But for rest of us, it’s probably lower, maybe a five or six. No doubt, for some it’s two or three. For most of us, life is anything but unfolding according to plan, kind of like it’s got a life of its own, so to speak, and we’re just along for the ride.
In the past couple of days, two persons from our church family shared with me how their home life has been upended by circumstances that were either outside of their control or unexpected. Both situations are fairly significant, and for both, the possible ramifications could be substantial.
Last Sunday, after my sermon about being thankful for even the smallest things in life, one person shared with me that it was exactly what they needed to hear at this very moment in time because, over the past year, they’ve been thrown one curve ball after another, to the point that it’s probably been easy to inadvertently overlook the small blessings.
I know there have been times in my own life when every day I was in conversation with God about wanting to know where my life was heading, because what I’d been working toward was falling apart.
Recently, I had an epiphany about what’s at the root of a deep fatigue that I’ve been increasingly aware of within me. When I recently shared my insight with an astute colleague of mine, he was genuinely struck by the veracity of my experience and my take on the matter.
Here’s what the Lord revealed to me: within United Methodism, almost overnight the rules changed in regards to the primary role and function of the pastor and somebody forget to tell me! Somebody failed to inform me that the role of pastor-as-leader had undergone a transformation, and it took a decade to fully realize what had happened.
As best as I can tell, this reform happened relatively quickly; it was truly only a matter of a few years. I’m convinced it happened while I was on my leave of absence between 2006-2014. I say this because in 2014, the year my leave ended and I was appointed to Adrian First UMC, I quickly discovered that what was being expected of me in my role as pastor-leader was altogether different than what it had been throughout the first half of my career, right up to 2006, when I began my leave of absence.
I grew up in a church where the pastor’s primary role was, we’ll call it “A.” Growing up, I watched my pastor do “A.” In 1989, I went to seminary and learned how to do “A” as best as I could. In 1993, I graduated from seminary and was appointed to my first church where, as the Associate Pastor, my work focused on doing “A,” and where the Sr. Pastor’s main task was doing “A” as well. Doing “A” was expected of me in my second and third appointments, after which I was on a leave of absence for eight years. But I’m telling you, something happened in those eight years. Because when I came back under appointment, doing “A” was clearly a thing of the past. At least, it was made clear to me that what was now being asked of me as the pastor was something different than “A.”
So, what exactly had changed? What changed was that sometime between 2006 and 2014, The United Methodist Church as a whole seemed to suddenly wake up to the fact that our beloved denomination in the United States was heading toward extinction, and, in truth, had been since 1968, when The UMC came in existence. The fact is, membership in The United Methodist Church in America has decreased every year since the 1968 merger of The Methodist Episcopal Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church. Every. year. And for whatever reason, somewhere between 2006-2104 the leadership of The UMC seemed to recognize that that pattern had only one end: the end of the United Methodist Church.
The realization was this: that what we were doing was clearly not working. It wasn’t that weren’t doing good things, or that Kingdom work wasn’t being accomplished. But the fact that for 40+ straight years we were losing more people than we were gaining was a clear indicator that something had to change. And it wasn’t a matter of rearranging the furniture on the deck. Something had to change in our denominational DNA.
That’s when, in my experience, there was a relatively sudden and concentrated effort on discipleship, on gaining a better understanding of what it means to make disciples of Jesus Christ, on what making disciples of Jesus Christ looks like and how congregations accomplish it. As one who’s been on the “inside” of the UMC for the past 30 years, it’s my observation that making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world may have been our denominational mission statement, but actually doing it, and, more importantly, seminaries equipping pastors to know how to do it, was a non-reality for the first half of my career. But when I was appointed to Adrian First UMC in 2014, it was made very clear to me that my primary purpose as pastor was to 1) help the congregation understand the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, and 2) help and equip the people to grow in their own discipleship.
Wondering why life isn’t unfolding as we’d hoped or intended is the human experience.
For me—and this brings me back to where I started—this new emphasis on discipleship was the “rule change.” I felt like I’d been suddenly thrust into a whole new system of pastoral leadership, one that I hadn’t grown up witnessing, one that I hadn’t been equipped for in seminary, and one that wasn’t expected of me in my first three appointments. When I came back in 2014, I was, metaphorically speaking, thrown into the deep end and asked to provide a type of pastoral leadership that I simply didn’t know how to do. And the fact is, since then it’s always felt like I’m behind the 8-ball, or that I’m the teacher that’s only one step ahead of the class. Having this epiphany about what I’ve been doing as a pastor for the past 10 years explains why I’ve been feeling fatigued. I’ve been playing catch-up for decade while also leading people to play catch-up. And that’s tiring.
I share this part of myself with you as a way of letting you know that the unfolding of my life plans certainly isn’t a nine or ten. Not even close. And as I get closer to retirement age, I find that an increasing number of the vocational plans I’ve had for myself are being challenged by the reality of time. And, like many of you and many who’ve gone before me, I’m starting to wrestle with the question, What will I have to show for my life when it’s done? Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing the boat on doing what really matters. Should I be doing something more? Something different? And if so, will God make it clear to me what this will be?
Wondering why life isn’t unfolding as we’d hoped or intended is the human experience. Wondering why God allows certain things to happen—certain challenges and hardships and so forth—is as old as humanity itself. Asking, “Where are you, God?” is a question we all ask at different points in life, as well as, “Will you make it better?”
The people to whom the message of Isaiah 64 was directed were in a pretty bad place. The main message of the first 39 chapters of Isaiah is one of warning for the Israelites. Get right with God or else! The ‘or else’ would be punishment in the form of the people being taken as captives to Babylon where they would be exiled for a long time. The main message of the next 15 chapters was one of hope for Israel. The basic message was that the exiles would be freed and allowed to return to their homeland where life in Jerusalem would be great and the surrounding nations would bless them abundantly. The problem was, what was prophesized about in those middle chapters didn’t unfold in the manner in which they’d planned or expected. In reality, when they returned, they discovered that a whole new people had come in and filled the vacuum, and they were very resistant to the return of the Israelites. Rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple took a long time, and they were under constant threat for their lives. That’s when they looked back and remembered. Lord, we remember how you brought our people out of Egypt with signs and wonders and power and great glory. We remember how you went before us and gave us a land that had belonged to other people. We remember how you were there for us.
This is where the opening cry of chapter 64 comes in. In a very real sense, they also look forward and cry out to God, asking him to do it again. If you would just tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake and you’d make your name known once again to all of your enemies. In essence, God, you did it before, now do it again.
For us today, Advent is a bit like that. It’s when we both look back in remembrance and look forward in anticipation. It truly is a time of waiting. Witing for God to “tear open the heavens” one more time. During Advent, we look back in remembrance of the first time God tore open the heavens and came into our world—as a baby. This coming caused the heavens to quake with the majestic sounds of the heavenly choir of angels singing praises to God for the birth of Messiah.
We know his coming upended our world in a good way. 33 years later, his death and resurrection dealt a death blow to death and the power of sin. His resurrection revealed the reality of eternal life. And yet, we’re surrounded by pain and war and suffering. We hurt and get diseases and die early and experience conflict. And so, every year we look back and remember what God did in response to these human realities. And we also look forward to the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to return and deal the FINAL blow to death and sin and suffering. Forever.
And what is it we do until then? We wait. We stay awake and wait. And continue to trust in the Promise that a day will come when suffering will end. But our waiting is not a passive activity. No, in our waiting we grow in our own faith and we pass that faith along to others—something we call making disciples of Jesus Christ. Living in this space of faithful waiting is what give us hope for what lies ahead, even if we don’t know what it looks like. So, even if your life isn’t unfolding according to your plans and desires, you can still know that God knows your heart, has heard your cry for help, and will walk with you through it all.