Editor’s Note: We wanted to start off 2021 with a pastoral word from voices all around the country who could help put the past year in perspective as well as to offer some encouragement and exhortations for the new year ahead. This is the second in a three-part series featuring Sherin Swift, equipping pastor at New Life Fellowship in Queens, NY, and Jay Y. Kim, teaching pastor of Vintage Church in Santa Cruz, CA. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.
Embracing the Disorientation
by Sherin Swift
2020 provided no shortage of trauma for us on a national scale. Certainly, our mind goes to the COVID-19 pandemic, but 2020 also brought a wave of new footage and reports documenting the cruel, unjust deaths of Black men and women. Add to that an election season that set the bar for political discourse and integrity at an all-time low and the subsequent coup, and we find ourselves in a season of instability and grief that may reverberate throughout our lifetime.
You see, I know something about trauma—not as a clinician or an academic, but as a survivor. I know the suffocating weight of depression and PTSD. When I became a Christian, I wanted a fresh start in Jesus without looking back, but I soon learned that it isn’t that simple. Instead, I learned I had to face my past in order to truly be free in Christ.
Over the course of years, through prayer and therapy, I was able to evaluate the coping mechanisms and old beliefs that would not serve me in my new life with Christ, and die one by one to them. When I felt defensive, I learned from Jesus to humble and open myself to a new way of living that would bring forth new life. Layer by layer, I found my healing this way. I recognized that God didn’t lead me to these moments of repentance to hurt me, but instead to rebuild me.
In The Message of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann suggests three loose phases of formation in the life of the faithful: orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. Israel would face national challenges that broke down their capacity to understand God at work in the world. By engaging God through complaint and lament as they waited, they were able to eventually see God in surprising ways, which led to a fresh understanding of God—a new orientation.
Christians today are not exempt from this cycle. I can easily see the parallels to seasons in my life and in the lives of those I pastor. Time and time again, Jesus leads us to another area of brokenness, and he walks with us through death to resurrection and new life.
These kinds of moments, when we are humbled by life’s circumstances, are so critical for our formation. In our vulnerability, if we sit with the discomfort that comes with disorientation, God will eventually break through to birth something new in us. If we are not careful to wait on God in our disorientation, we will reach out for anything that gives us comfort—an opportunity the enemy is happy to leverage.
In a time of national trauma, there is a unique pastoral opportunity to break from the patterns of our nation’s past, to die to old beliefs that will not serve the church, and to allow God to birth something new in us. So much of our poor Christian witness in the United States is because we refuse to enter the discomfort of disorientation. We do not want to look back at the trauma included in our history and the legacy of pain that it continues to inflict, when doing so would allow God to rebuild us. Instead, we grab onto things that are familiar to give us an identity in these disorienting times without discernment.So much of our poor Christian witness in the United States is because we refuse to enter the discomfort of disorientation. Click To Tweet
Whether it starts in January 2021 or not, at some point the seasons will shift. Who do we want to be when this crisis has passed? Are we willing to display the courage to call others into a deeper discipleship, one that bids people to die not only at their moment of conversion but also throughout their continued journey of faith? To live a cruciform life marked by dying to the old self, abandoning unhealthy identities and their familiar comforts?
As I said before, I know trauma. It has a terrible, lingering quality, reaching for seemingly unrelated areas of our lives and meddling in our most important relationships. That’s the cruel irony of trauma—you survive the crisis only to find that the real work of healing is just beginning. However, I also know that our traumatic experiences can become a gift to the world instead of turning into a festering infection.
We can help our congregations heal from the trauma of 2020 and discover new life. Can we become a church known for serving the marginalized, fighting for justice, giving generously, loving sacrificially? Yes, I believe the American church can recover its witness, but it will require proclaiming the unpopular message that the only way to new life is through death.
Do Not Forget. Remember.
by Jay Y. Kim
I’d like to forget much of the past year. I’m certainly not alone in this sentiment. Most of us are ready to put 2020 behind us, far off in the rearview mirror, diminishing into the distance until it’s a long-gone aberration. But less than a week into 2021, as we watched chaos unfold in Washington D.C., we were reminded that a new year does not guarantee a new start. Already, we have things we’d like to forget about 2021. For those of us serving local churches, navigating this season feels much like struggling beneath an undertow. Twelve months ago we waded into the new year with optimism. But soon enough, we found ourselves flailing, trying to keep our heads above the turbulent waters of a global pandemic, racial injustice, civil unrest, economic crisis, and a uniquely divisive election. Like so many in the communities we serve, church leaders found themselves exhausted and at a loss.
So entering 2021, we’re tempted by the new year’s familiar offer to forget all that has been and start anew with a clean slate. But this false promise has already disappointed us. More importantly, though, there is an invitation from God that we cannot forget, which is itself the invitation—to not forget.
…do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember…
Deut 4:9-10 (italics mine)
Throughout the early pages of the biblical story, it is God who does most of the remembering; specifically, of his people and his covenant promise to them. But in Deuteronomy, the invitation turns toward the people. After more than 400 years as slaves in Egypt and 40 years wandering the wilderness, the Israelites are on the cusp of entering the promised land when Moses stands before them and implores them to not forget, to remember. Relieved and rejoicing as they leave the wilderness behind, God’s people are instructed to be a remembering people moving forward; to not only remember now but to remember always.
Though ancient tradition acknowledged Moses as the author of Deuteronomy, scholars today believe the text is a much later work. Some suggest it was compiled in its final form some 700-800 years after Moses’ death. If so, the call to remember takes on even more resonance. Centuries after the Exodus, the people of God are called to remember the lessons learned by their ancestors in the desert in order that they might keep from repeating the same mistakes. And what were those mistakes?
One story, in particular, epitomizes them. In Exodus 19, we read that Moses ascends Mount Sinai to meet with God, leaving the people down below. Fast forward to Exodus 32. Moses has been gone for a month, the people grow restless in their waiting, and force a resolution. They gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. (“These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”—Ex 32:1-4.)
Journeys through the wilderness are always journeys through liminality. Liminality is uncomfortable and our human tendency is to resolve the discomfort by fabricating paths that seem certain and sure. So the Israelites take their gold, fashion a calf, and call it god.
This past year has been our own wilderness of sorts, an uncomfortable liminal space we are all glad to leave behind. Though our inner chronological snobs (to borrow C.S. Lewis’s term) would like to believe otherwise, the truth is we still respond similarly when met with the discomfort of liminality. We are in the habit of forgetting God’s faithfulness, often tempted to fashion our own “gods” who might “go before us” and bring us “up out of Egypt.” Our idolatry is more sophisticated, of course, as the gold earrings have been replaced by more modern constructs, such as technology, politics, and ideologies.Our idolatry is more sophisticated, of course, as the gold earrings have been replaced by more modern constructs, such as technology, politics, and ideologies. Click To Tweet
But none of these things will go before us and adequately lead us through the various wildernesses of life—and it is precisely when we believe that they will that even good things can become idolatrous things. In fact, idols are most often crafted out of good things, not bad things. As Tim Keller notes, “The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the best things in life.”1 Remember, the calf was made of gold, not mud; it shines and sparkles before it eventually lets us down.
And thus, God’s continuing invitation to not forget, to remember. So as we enter this new year, may we do exactly that.
May we remember our failures with sobering clarity, not to be paralyzed by guilt but to be buoyed by grace.
May we remember that good and shiny things can be helpful, but they can never “go before us” and “lead us up out of Egypt.”
May we remember God’s faithfulness, guiding us with settled confidence into an unknown future.
May we remember that the new year promises us nothing but uncertainty.
May we remember that our hope rests secure in the promise of new life, not new years.
Do not forget.
1. Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), xix.