"If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot." Jeremiah 20:9
Perhaps you think I’ve got it wrong—backwards even. Isn’t hindsight supposedly 20/20? Don’t we see things in sharper clarity when looking to past events, knowing what has already occurred? You may disagree with my assessment, but I don’t think so. To my way of thinking, hindsight often suffers from Presbyopia, the “gradual, age-related loss of the eyes’ ability to focus actively on nearby objects.” Those of us who have circled the sun 50+ times get this: we’ve reached an age that requires glasses, contacts, or longer arms! We only see things clearly from a distance. It seems that ocular lenses, like attitudes, become more rigid with age.
Like most analogies, metaphors, and parables, my assertion that “Hindsight is Presbyopic” (Presbyopish?) has its limitations; I believe this distance clarity is more a matter of perception than visual acuity. Take the January 6 attack on the US Capitol: first, let me say that I have participated in rallies at the Capitol as well as one march on the Capitol (while serving as a chaplain at Gallaudet University when students took over the campus in response to the appointment of a non-signing, hearing university president), not to mention being arrested while peacefully protesting at the Embassy of South Africa. While I am a staunch advocate for the freedoms of assembly and speech, the presence of weapons, swastikas, Confederate flags, bear spray, feces smeared on walls, threats against members of Congress, brutalization of police officers, not to mention the erection of gallows to hang the sitting Vice President are unjustifiable under the Bill of Rights and antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. And yet, in retrospect, some now refer to these heinous acts as “legitimate political discourse.”
But let’s talk about the Church, not just our congregation, but the “Big C” Church Universal that raises nostalgia for the Good Old Days to nearly sacramental status. There is not a pastor alive who hasn’t heard “We’ve never done it that way before” (i.e. “We don’t intend to change! Give it up, Rev.”) The Church can so quickly lose its ability to focus actively on the nearby—the Present—because we spend our time and energy pining and whining for a distant Past, one that in retrospect seems rosier than it ever was in actuality. “You should have been here when Reverend So and So was pastor; we had to add a third service and expand the parking lot,” or “We had the biggest VBS of all time when Mrs. Best Ever was in charge.”(If you ask, “What happened?” the answer is often something along the lines of, “This place was great until Pastor This or That killed it!”)
How do I know the Glory Days weren’t all that glorious? If the Church (Big C, again here) had truly been a place of grace and invitation to the life-transforming power of Jesus Christ, our children and our children’s children wouldn’t have fled our congregations. Whether the Good Old Days were really all that good, or only seem to be when viewed through the rose-colored glasses of sentimentality, there is one irrefutable truth about the past: we can’t go back to the Way Things Used to Be. While acknowledging what has come before (the good, the bad, and the ugly) is vital, trying to recreate the past is futile at best, while, at worst, a denial of the presence and power of the One who was, and is, and is to come. Think of your car: the rear-view mirror is important, but it’s so much smaller than the windshield (and “reverse” has only one pokey speed).
Speaking of cars, how many of you drive to Sunday worship in your horse and buggy, your Edsel Corsair or AMC Gremlin? Or hand pump the water you use to wash your hands after visiting your outhouse? No one (I hope), and yet people FUSS about worship music written after the turn of the century (the 20th century!). When I have suggested adding worship services to expand the musical repertoire and style of offering praise to God, I’ve heard everything from “No one here likes that noise” to “If you’re going to force us to look at a screen, are you at least planning to serve popcorn?” What our inability to focus on the nearby—the present—actually says to people different than the majority is “You are welcome here as long as you’re willing to do things our way.” If anyone stays in the church long enough, we may eventually grant them a voice, a vote, or a position on the board. Maybe. As long as they toe the line.
Believe it or not, I am not overly discouraged by what others see as church “decline;” I feel an urgency for the Gospel like never before. My theology begins with the present, and future, Reign of Christ—no “maybe” there. What we have in this post-pandemic (or peri-pandemic) age is both challenge and opportunity. The challenge? To move beyond the comfortable and familiar to embrace the unknown (while trusting in God). The way we “do” church may never look like what we remember. So what, then, is the opportunity? To share and serve Christ, which starts with loving like Jesus. It’s not about programs or numbers; it’s about relationship. We can value each other even when we disagree politically or doctrinally. We can fully welcome others and connect them with their own opportunities to love like Jesus. With all my heart I believe we can. I know we can. We just need to focus on what God is calling and equipping us to do here and now.