Adapting Amidst Constant Change

One of the events of the General Assembly last month that has stayed with me was hearing a series of messages from the Rev. Dr. Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary. He framed the week by reflecting on the two main stories of the Old Testament – the Exodus story and the Exile story. He said that we keep wanting to live in the Exodus story. In the Exodus story there is a clear bad guy (Egypt) and a clear good guy (Israel). There is a clear challenge (crossing the wilderness) and a clear goal to be achieved (entering the Promised Land). It is clear when they finally achieve their goal (they enter the Promised Land and the walls of Jericho come a tumbling down).

But, Mark was suggesting that the time we live in today is more like the Exile story. In the Exile story, the life and the place where the Israelites had lived for hundreds of years fell apart. Their political system, their economic system, and their religious system collapsed. It was not clear who the bad guy was. Yes, it was Babylon who invaded Israel and carried them away, but the Israelites also brought many of their problems on themselves. They could not just point at someone else and blame them. They had to look in the mirror and ask themselves – how have we contributed to this mess? What has been the long history of decisions and actions that led us to this place where we find ourselves today?

The Israelites had to learn to let go of parts of their lives that had been meaningful and valuable to them for a long time. They had to learn how to live in a foreign land. They had to learn how to respond to a different culture, with different customs, different values, and different beliefs. It was very challenging and very discouraging. One of the Israelites wrote Psalm 137 and said, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung up our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs. But, how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”

The Exile pushed them to their limits. So, God sent them the prophet Jeremiah who spoke these words to them in Jeremiah 29:5-14… “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is lie that they are prophesying to you in my name. I did not send them, says the Lord. For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s 70 years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope. Then when you call upon Me and come and pray to Me, I will hear you. When you search for Me, you will find Me, if you seek Me with all your heart, I will let you find Me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

Even though the Israelites were depressed by what they saw going on in their world around them, and even though they just wanted to hibernate and have nothing to do with it, God called them to engage the changing world in new ways. God challenged them to
• seek the welfare of their local communities, to
• seek to build relationships with the people around them, and to
• seek to discover God in a place they never thought they would find Him.
Because the Israelites chose not to give up and throw in the towel, God began to shape them into a new kind of people, and put them on a road to a new future. Hopelessness was replaced by hope, discouragement by encouragement, and fatigue with new energy. The process was not always clear or obvious or easy, but over time, this new future emerged, the people grew in faith, and they learned to minister to their world in different ways.

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article in Sports Illustrated magazine about Chuck Noll, the former Pittsburgh Steelers football coach, who recently passed away at the age of 82. Chuck Noll is only NFL coach to ever win 4 Super Bowl titles, and he did it by coming in to a team that had a tradition of being one of the worst teams in the league. They had lost more games than any other team in the history of the NFL. They had a losing culture. Chuck Noll was able to change the culture of the team, and their entire outlook, to where today they are one of the most winning teams in the NFL. He changed the culture by:
• bringing in new assistant coaches to teach differently, by
• drafting different kind of players who brought new attitudes and new skills, and by
• teaching the players new habits, which became ingrained and automatic.
When a writer once asked him how he wanted to be remembered he said, “I want to be remembered as a teacher. A person who could adapt to a world of constant change. A person who could adapt to the situation. But most of all a teacher. Put down that I was a teacher.”

That was what the Israelites had to learn in the Exile. They had to learn how to adapt to a world of constant change. They had to learn how to adapt to the situation. That is what we have to do as a presbytery. When we look at the culture around us, when we look at the denomination around us, we have to learn how to adapt to a world of constant change and adapt to the situation.

Back in 1976, 38 years ago, David Hubbard, who was then the president of Fuller Seminary, gave a talk where he said “Almost every Christian congregation in America is itself a significant mission field.” If that was true 38 years ago, I would venture to say that almost every Christian congregation in America today is a significant mission field. And if most of our congregations are mission fields, I would venture to say that our denominations are also significant mission fields. I think that is the proper view of our denomination in today’s world – it is a significant mission field.

In that same speech, David Hubbard also made the statement that the church “has always been called for risk. We, with many other Christians, are tempted at times to play it safe. But, the Great Commission does not say, ‘Go into all the world and be careful.’ It calls us to use every ability, tool, opportunity, and energy that we have to make disciples of the nations.” Our commission from God is to move into every corner of our world, to join what His Holy Spirit is already doing, and seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is not a venture that is safe. This involves risk. And we must always step out in faith in order to be faithful to our calling.

So, as we pray and talk and discern together what God is calling us to do in our congregations and in our presbytery, I think it is helpful to think of our time as one similar to the Exile. Institutions around us are collapsing. It is a confusing time. And it can be a discouraging time. But, our mission has always been about adapting to constant change, adapting to new situations, taking wise risks, and not playing it safe. We are always called to walk by faith and not by sight, where we don’t have all the answers we want. We must put our hope and faith in Christ, seek His will for our collective lives together, and do the best we can. And the scriptures keep reminding us that we serve a God Who surprises us – a God Who pulls us through challenging circumstances we never thought we would get through – and then were made stronger because of that. “For I know the plans that I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

 

 

 

 

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