Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hope, Birth Pangs, and What Comes Next

I'm having a bit of trouble concentrating today. Too much is swirling around in my head. I've just returned from the Next Church conference in Chicago where we heard and talked about the church's decline, but much more, heard and talked with great hope also about new things that are emerging. These new things are still forming, still hard to describe precisely, but that is the way of things that are coming next.

In the midst of this Next Church conference, another new thing was announced. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has been voting on whether or not to ratify changes in our official language on marriage, changing words saying, "between a woman and a man " to ones reading "between two people." Voting by the 171 local presbyteries that make up our denomination will continue for a while, but Tuesday we reached the majority needed for ratification.  This is the first time we have voted to change our constitution so that it embraces, or at least makes room for, same sex marriage. This is indeed a new thing, and like many other such things, one that will no doubt unfold in ways that are impossible to predict precisely.

Like it or not, the church and the world are changing. Actually, Christians are supposed to be happy about that. That's not to say we must be happy with every change that occurs, but we follow a Messiah who proclaims a new day and calls us to pray for that new day and work for it. Considering there is general agreement that the kingdom, God's new community of peace and love, has not yet come on earth, then we must continue to hope and pray and work for the change that moves us toward that day. Followers of Jesus can never be about going back to some day of old. We are called to go forward toward a day that is glimpsed but is not yet. People of deep and sincere faith can disagree about whether the changes my denomination embraced this week are a part of moving toward God's new day, but we can't be caught up in nostalgia. Our destination is a hard to discern future, not any remembered past.

Such thoughts whirled about as I read both the daily lectionary and the daily devotion from Richard Rohr. In the former, the Apostle Paul writes, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." In deservedly famous lines, Paul insists that creation itself experiences birth pangs as it waits for something new, something seen only by faith.

In his devotion for today, Father Rohr paraphrases Teilhard de Chardin. "We are not human beings trying to become spiritual; we are already spiritual beings, and we are just trying and needing to become human for one another!" That sounds very different from Paul and yet similar. There is something coming, a next, a rebirth yet to be that we hope for, long for, work for.

One of the great failings of Christianity over the last 100 plus years was to personalize the message of Jesus and Paul that hoped for and prayed for and worked for a new day, turning it into an individual hope for heaven. But the creation isn't groaning for me to be admitted to heaven. It is groaning for the birth of something truly new.

I hope the new thing that received ratification on Tuesday is a part of that. I believe that it is. But regardless, I know that God's new thing is not dependent on my seeing it with absolute clarity or my denomination's getting everything right. God's future is safely in God's hands, and so in hope we move and stumble toward that future as best we can. "For in hope," Paul writes, "we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

I'll admit I not always patient, but I am hopeful, and excited, and longing to see what comes next.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

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