I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
– Isaiah 43:19
During the six years I served a large church as the associate pastor for pastoral care, there was one month when I began to wonder if God had it “in” for me and the good people of that parish. In less than thirty days there were sixteen deaths and funerals. Not surprisingly, that congregation’s grief was deep and palpable. As did the Psalmist, we kept on praying, “How long, O Lord?”
In the aftermath of all that death, I came to see that I had been fortunate to have served other churches that had suffered some significant loss and transition. Unexpectedly, I had been prepared over those earlier years for what now, amidst all that death, seemed like a tsunami of grief. Congregations weather their stormy seasons, but not without getting in touch from time to time with the fact that, both as individuals and in community, death must always be a part of life. At each celebration of the Holy Eucharist Christians first confess that “Christ has died” before we claim that “Christ is risen.”
In her bestselling book Praying Our Goodbyes, spiritual guide Joyce Rupp suggests that, before Christians can become Easter people, we must own up to the fact that we are also, like our Jewish sisters and brothers, people of the Exodus. There is no Good News without bad news first, and the bad news for those who will get to their Promised Land is that they will first have to go through a land in which promises seem nowhere to be found. This is no less true for 21st century people of faith or faith communities than it was for the people who lived and died before Jesus was even born.
In the time of that first Exodus, the Israelites became discouraged over and over again. Israel’s God defeated Egypt’s Pharaoh, but the Israelites wanted to give up and go back to Egypt, even after they were delivered from death at the Red Sea. God made a way, first through the sea, and then, again in Isaiah’s time, God made a way in the wilderness. God made another wilderness way when Jesus was tempted for forty days. And God keeps it up, making a way through water or wilderness, every single day. It’s just that, even though we might believe God is with us and makes a way for us, sometimes we just can’t find our way, because our grief is too great. And when several of our friends leave our lives or our church, whatever the circumstances, it can feel like death.
Do we believe that God will make a new way and do a new thing? And if we do believe it, how will we live our lives differently? More than a decade ago, someone made this simple statement about a death-like moment in her life. Facing the end of her marriage, she could have given into what felt, at several levels, like death. Instead she said, “I’ve decided to live my life differently.”
In the congregation I now serve, we suddenly find ourselves in a new season of unsettling transition. Clergy are departing. A capital campaign is coming to an official end. And the schedule of weekend worship has changed again for the summer. Taken together this feels like a sea change to some, while to others it is a chance for them and for their church to live life differently. Most folks are probably somewhere in the middle.
Here’s what the New Interpreter’s Bible, a standard commentary and sermon help for many clergy, has to say about Isaiah 43:19: “I am about to do a new thing signals the freshness of God’s ways and the continual possibility of a sudden, unexpected turn of fortune….The challenge for the church is to remain open to the radical freedom of God to ‘do a new thing,’ yet fully within the context of prior divine activity” (p. 382).
My prayer for my church and for all those who walk with God in faith is that, based on God’s prior activity, we trust God’s promise found in the words of Jesus: “I will not leave you desolate…comfortless…orphaned…”(John 14:18). In fact Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will come both to comfort and challenge us, to do that new thing God promises, to help us live our lives differently. I pray that, empowered by the Spirit of God, we make that decision today: to let God make a way in our lives, to let God’s new thing spring forth, in our churches and in us.