Formation / Witness

Ten Hopes and Prayers for the Next Ten Years

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I’m not much given to prognostication these days. When I look back over the last ten years of my own life, very little has gone “according to plan”—which is, I suppose, as it should be. After all, Jesus did say that the as the wind blew wherever it pleased, so also would the lives of those who were born of the Spirit (John 3).

We never quite know where the Spirit, or our lives, or the church, born of and carried along by the Spirit, is going to end up—other than in the arms of Jesus. And that is so much of the fun of it.

But I do have hopes and prayers for the next ten years for the church in North America. My prayer for the church is that we…

1: Become more spiritual

I realize that word is capable of abuse, especially when it implies some kind of contempt for the conditions of our creatureliness. But when I use the word “spiritual,” I mean the recognition that our creatureliness sits within the transcendent reality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that to awaken to that reality is to have our deepest thirsts quenched.

One of the things that always impresses me is that no matter how supposedly “secular” our culture becomes is that people are still drawn to transcendent experiences. They ache for spirituality; it is an ineradicable part of what it means to be human. It’s why people still come to sit in quiet chapels; why they still will come to listen to a sermon; why they still sit for hours pondering a piece of art or good bit of poetry—they thirst for something beyond.

Augustine’s dictum still applies: the human soul is restless until it rests in God. And the sooner the church realizes that spirituality in this sense—contact with this side of reality, with the Inexhaustible Mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is its stock-in-trade, the better. This next one will help…

2: Recapture wonder

Can I just be honest here for a minute? There are times that I look out on the current landscape of the church, and I’m frankly bored stiff—the same conversations, the same tired arguments, the same empty antagonisms, recycled ad nauseam. It all seems at times so mechanistic, so rote, so predictable. The sense of wildness and surprise that should be characteristic of those who are born of the Spirit and borne along by the Wind often feels absent to me.

The late Robert W. Jensen once said that “the basic difference between a living God and a dead god is that a living God can still surprise you.” In the Gospels, one of the characteristic responses of people to Jesus was surprise, amazement, astonishment. His activity both in the Gospels and in the ongoing life of the church provokes wonder. “Silver or gold I do not have,” said Peter to the lame man at the Temple, “but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). And he did. And “when all the people saw him walking and praising God,” writes Luke, “they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” (Acts 3:9-10)

I want more of that in our churches. I think God does, too. More of the surprising activity of Jesus of Nazareth who by the power of his Holy Spirit is still working wonders in our midst, still astonishing us with his goodness and mercy and love.

In order to experience this, I have a feeling that we are going to have to…

3: Slow down

I want the church of North America in the next ten years to swear off the haste that has become so characteristic of its life. God, let us remember, is not, has never been, and never will be in a hurry. Creation testifies to this. The mountains and forests and oceans and trees, rocks and hills and skies and seas—his hands the wonders wrought, and he took his time doing so. Salvation history also testifies to this. “When the fullness of time had come,” Paul wrote, “God sent his Son” (Gal. 4:4). The unimaginable flow of time that is cosmic history was one long gestation to the Incarnation, Paul believed. God took his time. He wanted to get it just right.

I want the church of North America in the next ten years to swear off the haste that has become so characteristic of its life. God, let us remember, is not, has never been, and never will be in a hurry. Click To Tweet

There is an essential slowness to the work of God, a leisurely sacred beauty; if you are moving too quickly, you will miss it.

The pace of modern life conditions us into a “now-ness” that is inimical, in my opinion, to holiness; and that “now-ness” can easily seep into the water supply of the church. Before long, our life together is driven by a false sense of urgency—everything has to happen this year, this month, this week—that makes wisdom, prayer, discernment, and life-giving relationship impossible.

Brothers and sisters, God has all the time in the world. And he takes time for us. Believing this, and living into it, will help us…

4: Listen better

One of the first Bible verses I learned as a kid was James 1:19-20: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” The correlation between listening, speaking, and anger fascinates me. Anger, James says, rises in relationship to our haste to be heard. By the same token, it diminishes in direct (and inverse) relationship to our desire to listen and understand. Indeed, the very act of listening tends to create the kind of non-defensive and empathetic posture that cuts anger at the root.

The volume is high these days, friends. Cable television, infotainment, social media, and the slow erosion of our national character work together to make genuine listening a rarity. And it pains me to watch the church fall prey to this pervasive temptation to speak before listening. “To answer before listening—” the writer of Proverbs says, “that is folly and shame” (Pr. 18:13).

We can and must do better. If we do, we are likely to…

5: Set a new tone for public discourse

Maybe I’m just a wild idealist here, but I really do believe and pray that the church, anchored in the reality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the gracious God who has all the time in the world—will set a new tone for public discourse. We can show the world how to stop treating politics as though it were an ultimate battle of good versus evil, us versus them. In a recent article at The Atlantic, Katie Martin quotes George Washington’s farewell address:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism…

Indeed it is. Antagonism is the name of the game today. Politics is no longer treated as a limited, provisional, ongoing discourse about how best to manage our national life, but instead is treated as a cosmic struggle in which there are clear “good guys” and clear “bad guys,” or as a zero-sum game in which there must be clear winners and clear losers.

This is foolish in the extreme, and Christians—because we believe that the decisive conflict of good and evil was waged at Calvary, and because we believe that the coming Civitas Dei is God’s judgment on all temporal political and civic arrangements—are in the best possible position to bring patience, wisdom, and clear-mindedness to public discourse. To this end, I hope and pray that we…

6: Embrace the beauty of our common life

We learned from Stanley Hauerwas long ago that the church of Jesus Christ does not have a politics; the church is a politic. How I want to see us live into this in the next ten years. I want us to remember that our life together is a witness to the way that the world will one day be when God in Christ is all in all—a reality that Paul claims is true of the body of Christ even now (Col 3:11). Jesus of Nazareth is our life, our constitutive reality, our ethos, our future. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

I want us to remember that our life together is a witness to the way that the world will one day be when God in Christ is all in all--a reality that Paul claims is true of the body of Christ even now. Click To Tweet

In Christ we learn to embrace one another across political, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic divides, letting his life-giving peace reign in our collective heart (Col 3:15). Christ is the unity that transcends and incorporates all of our difference into a coherent whole, so that difference is no longer a source of division or threat. Lions and lambs lay down together in the church, neither triumphing over the other, but both submitted to the Lordship of Christ.

In a world that is as divided as ours, this way of living is a beautiful witness to the fact that when God reigns…

7: No one needs to “win”

In the church there are no winners and losers. We simply don’t look at life that way. Grounded in the abundance of God, life, we believe, is not a competitive struggle between the “haves” and the “have-nots” but rather a koinonia in which God’s bounty is shared in common. When the Spirit moves freely among a group of people, the hungry are fed and the naked are clothed and the voiceless are given a voice; resources move quickly to those in need, space is created to tend to the wounded and hurting, power is shared, and desire is continually rebirthed among us to use our influence to serve rather than to have power over others.

I am praying that over the next ten years we will learn to live and lead with the lightness of the Spirit and the humble love of the Crucified One, which means that we will…

8: Accept vulnerability and weakness as the way of Jesus

I have great hope that in the next ten years, we will continue to internalize and live out Henri Nouwen’s vision of the “wounded healer”—the healer who has allowed the Spirit to transform his own wounds into sources and signs of hope, and who sees vulnerability, weakness, and limitation not as an impediment to the gospel, but rather as an occasion for the great paradox of the gospel to shine forth, knowing that God wins the world not through strength but through the weakness and folly of the broken, crucified body of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 1:18).

And in Christ we also are a wounded, vulnerable, broken body. The church does not need to be led by super-women or super-men to be effective. Quite the opposite, in fact. If we are following Paul’s thought, such “super-” leadership is actually antithetical to the gospel; it is indeed an exaltation of the flesh that leaves little or no room for the Spirit.

In Christ we are a wounded, vulnerable, broken body. The church does not need to be led by super-women or super-men to be effective. Click To Tweet

Learning to embrace our vulnerability and weakness will throw the doors open to the Spirit, and also make it possible for us to…

9: Lead together

One of the most hopeful signs of renewal in the North American church over the last decade, in my view, is the movement towards greater plurality at all levels of church leadership. This does not mean that there are no clear leaders in our midst; only that when no one needs to win, when life is not a zero-sum game, when our differences and our weaknesses are not a liability, when there is nothing to fear and nothing to hide (or hide from), then we are liberated to really share the yoke with one another. Our different perspectives, identities, experiences, and strengths can be gathered up by the Risen Christ and made useful for his wise and effective Headship over the church.

And because we realize that—as my pastor says—all of us are “interim” pastors and leaders, there is nothing to protect, nothing to hold on to; we are, rather, temporary stewards of the places to which God has called us, calling on God for the requisite daily grace to steward those places well, so that, when the time comes, we will leave them to others in better shape than how we found them.

We will be able to do this just to the extent that we…

10: Learn once again the ancient wisdom that God is our All

For when God is our All, when we realize that in him we already have all that we could ever need or hope for, then…

We will love silence more than speaking—and so be liberated to listen
We will love poverty more than riches—and so be liberated to be generous
We will love obscurity more than notoriety—and so be liberated to live out of the limelight
We will love solitude as much as community—and so be liberated from the desire to use others
And we will love powerlessness more than power—and so be liberated to lose everything daily for Jesus

These ten qualities will make us, I think, an odd people. But we serve an odd God. And my prayer is that over the next ten years, our beautiful, God-given oddity will shine out anew.

May it be so.

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