For much of my life, I have not fully understood this passage from the prophet Joel. I have always skimmed over the first part of the passage and focused on prophecy, dreams, and visions. These are important concepts in the passage. Yet, note that they are framed at the beginning and ending with these words from God: “I will pour out my spirit.”
Saturday, October 21, 2017
“What Does God Envision for the Church?”
Over the past weeks, we have been asking, “What Does God Envision for the Future of the Church?” We began by noting that over the past 50 years the American Church has been in statistical decline as measured in terms of membership, financial giving, and average weekly attendance. We also observed that this statistical decline has been matched by a decline in the social and moral influence of the Church in society. As its relevance to society has declined, the Church has been increasingly marginalized. This has created a crisis within the Church.
Then, last week we saw that with crisis comes opportunity. A crisis can jerk us out of the complacency of the routine. Although it hurts and is uncomfortable, a crisis opens us to envisioning a new and better future. But, what counts as a faithful vision for the future of the Church? I suggested that a faithful vision for the future must encompass four distinct dimension of the Church. That is, a faithful vision for the future must include four dimensions of churches as communities of faith:
1. A community of faith.
2. A commitment to spiritual growth.
3. A commitment to mercy, justice, and love.
4. A community which worships together.
As we continue our reflections this week, I would like for us to focus on the inevitable fear and anxiety which inevitably accompanies change and adaptation. With any major change in our lives there is always uncertainty. We don’t know how the adaptation will work out. Will it succeed? Or, fail? We don’t know how a major change will affect us. Will the change hurt us? Or embarrass us?
Since there is uncertainty, we seek to avoid adaptation and change. Even though the status quo may no longer be working; even though it may clearly harm us, there is something comfortable about the status quo because the status quo is a known. By contrast, change and adaptation is always uncertain and, therefore, risky. As a result, it is natural to resist change and adaptation. We seek to avoid the unknown and uncertain. Change and adaptation are inherently risky.
There is good reason to be prudent with change and adaptation. We should never change just for the sake of change. Instead, we should carefully assess and weigh the risks before embracing change. On the one hand, we should avoid the extreme of recklessness; throwing caution to the wind and plunging into change without first counting the costs and assessing the risks. On the other hand, we should also avoid an extreme caution which paralyses us and prevents the implementation of needed adaptation. We must chart a middle course between extreme recklessness and extreme caution.
Yet, what if it is God who is calling us to change and adapt?
My reflections this week are informed by a scriptural passage from Joel 2:28-29.
“Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
“I will pour out my spirit.” This promise is critical to understanding the entire passage. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier provides the critical interpretative key, when she writes: “God promises to pour out the Spirit, on ‘all flesh’ …The Spirit of God throughout the OT was a gift of power, given in order that the recipient might do a particular job for God…”.[i] In other words, when God calls upon us to change and adapt; when God calls upon us to undertake the risks and uncertainty of change and adaptation, God also provides the power and ability to change. When we are confronted by fear and anxiety in the face of needed change, we should also be re-assured by the faith that God will provide the power to change and adapt. God will provide a way. We just need to trust God.
However, trusting that God will provide can be a bigger challenge than the discomfort which comes from change and adaptation. You see, I prefer to rely upon myself, rather than to trust others—even God. I have spent my whole life relying upon myself and my abilities; trying to be independent and self-sufficient. From an early age in American culture, each of us is taught to stand on our own; to take care of ourselves and our own; to be independent. Unfortunately, a byproduct of that self-reliance is difficulty in trusting others, especially God.
As I have reflected on my own inability to trust fully, I have come to see that my lack of trust in God is fundamentally a form of agnosticism. That is, my reluctance to trust that God will guide and sustain me through important changes actually boils down to a small residue of doubt in God and God’s providence. Thus, to recognize the need for change and to trust that God will guide us through that change is actually an opportunity for spiritual growth. It is, fundamentally, an opportunity to grow in our Christian faith; to become deeper in our faith by developing a stronger capacity to trust that we are not alone. God is with us.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, October 22nd, as we continue this very important series of reflections on “A Vision for the Future of the Church.” Christ UMC is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come and join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
[i] Elizabeth Achtemeier commentary on Joel in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 7 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM version.