Yesterday we witnessed the inauguration of a new American President and Vice-President. Many of the circumstances attending their assumption of office carry forward into 2021 the Word of the Year for 2020 (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) – “unprecedented.”
Never before has a new president been inaugurated amid a raging pandemic.
Never before has America elected a person in their upper 70s to the Oval Office.
Never before have we chosen as President or Vice President a woman, or a person of South Asian descent.
Never before has the outgoing President steadfastly refused to concede his successor’s election.
Never before has a President been inaugurated in the wake of an armed assault on the Capitol by U.S. citizens, amid threats of still more such attacks.
The natural response to unprecedented challenges is anxiety, driven by uncertainty. Our nation is riddled with it. And alas, that has become true also for large swaths of the church.
Never in our lifetime have houses of worship been involuntarily shuttered or limited in attendance for a year (and still counting). Never did we imagine that Presbyterians would join en masse the Christian telecasting bandwagon. Never have we conducted ordinations, shared sacraments, or extended the peace of Christ without physical touch. How unprecedented. How disorienting.
Yet we know that God is the Master of adaptive change. Scriptures tell of God’s persistence to work redemptively with the Chosen People no matter how far they strayed from God’s script. When they were scattered among the nations and their Temple was destroyed, God’s exiled people began gathering in enclaves that came to be known as “synagogues.” These houses of worship were never intended to replace the Temple. But they forged a new way of sustaining the faith, hope, and love of God’s people, whether they were near to or far from their Jerusalem home.
When early Christians were forced to leave Jerusalem, they found homes in these synagogues, already well-established throughout the Roman world. If the synagogues rejected them, they formed new synagogues of Christ-followers, which eventually came to be called Christian “churches.”
Here’s the point – no matter how unprecedented their circumstances, the Spirit led God’s people to establish new orders that proved capable of nourishing their faith and mission in their new situation, regardless of how disorienting it may have been for them. If God could do it for them, can God do the same for us in our own unprecedented circumstances?
However great our anxiety, the God of hope is still with us. 1 Peter rightly urges us to cast our anxiety (in German, the word is Sorge!) upon the Lord, because the Lord’s care of us is utterly unshakable and inexhaustible.
Hope is a choice.
Hope is not a political act, but an act of faith. God’s people choose hope not because it is politically correct or socially warranted, but because God is always faithful. To promises. To us.
A presidential inauguration always carries great hope for many. Yesterday’s inaugural address sounded themes of hope and unity at every turn. For those whose lives have been threatened or even ravaged, a new order is desperately needed. Meanwhile, those who gained from the previous administration grieve their losses, even as others exult in hope.
Much of what is hoped for may not materialize; that’s politics. Promises made are not always kept, or even capable of being kept, no matter how good their makers’ intentions. That is certainly true in spades for those elected to highest political offices. Hopes invested in earthly leaders must always be tentative.
I was privileged to be part of a team that wrote a statement in 2001 called “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” amid a season of great anxiety about the Presbyterian Church’s theology and practice of ministry. We deliberately chose a title, drawn from the Bible, that refocused the church’s energy away from its apprehensions about its current circumstances, and toward its sure hope in the Lord. I commend it for our sessions and congregations to study amid our current anxieties.
As with Jesus’ first disciples, godly hope gives us courage to drop all our well-developed resources and familiar ways to enter into unprecedented territory in company with Jesus.
Unprecedented territory. It’s where we find ourselves today, like it or not.
Will we respond with anxiety, or with hope? The choice is ours.
Yours in choosing hope,