Already, but Not Yet
Already, but Not Yet
(After this month I will no longer be writing a letter as part of Pittsburgh Presbytery’s weekly PNews. If you would be interested in continuing to receive blog posts from me, please indicate so by replying to this letter.)
Advent is that beautiful yet enigmatic season when we celebrate the One who has come, but is yet to come. Christians have confessed universally their belief that the One who came two thousand years ago to save the world is coming again to complete that work, even though we know not how or when.
The New Testament speaks of our salvation in past tense, present tense, and future tense. In Christ we have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. Advent both elicits gratitude for the coming of our Savior Jesus two thousand years ago and deepens our yearning for his coming again to bring fulfillment to all the promises of God’s reign.
Things are not yet as they ought to be. The prophets’ visions of a Messianic peaceable kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb and swords are beaten into plowshares grow ever dimmer as violence flares up not only in Ukraine and South Sudan and Iran, but in our own back yard. Every week brings new reports of Pittsburghers dying in hails of gunfire. How long, O Lord, how long?
We don’t need to look around us to notice the tension between what is already and what is not yet. That tension abides within us individually, as we seek to become what we already are. We are already saints, yet we are being sanctified. We are already perfectly formed in God’s image, yet sin distorts our thoughts and actions. We are already saved, yet we need to be saved.
If all we have to go on is our current state of affairs, hope for the new world order promised by the Messiah seems like a pipe dream. If tomorrow is but an extension of who we are and what is happening today, Advent hope seems like little more than delusional fantasy.
Paul knows this dilemma well. He bemoans his current condition of falling short in doing what he knows he should do, as well as failing to curb his tendency to do things he shouldn’t. And yet he proclaims that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation – the old has passed, all things have been made new!
I have been reflecting much on where I stand today in relation to a past from which I am retiring and a future yet unknown. This week I was interviewed by someone who asked hard questions related to this pivot point in my life: What would I like most to be remembered for in my work in Pittsburgh? What piece of advice would I want most to give to my successor? What is my deepest hope for what lies ahead for me?
The church likewise lives in a tenuous place between what it is called to be and what it actually is. It is always in the state of becoming, of going through birth pangs. For the entirety of my ministry life, the church has been going through the process of both dying and birth. We have been dying to the old order of Christendom, in which the American church held a place of unprecedented prosperity and public influence in the decades immediately following World War Two.
While the decline of the institutional church is manifest in every church family, the decline in numbers and influence has been most evident in the churches that had the most privilege in the “golden era” of the 1950s. As recently as 1990, Pittsburgh Presbytery numbered 120,000 members; today that number is around 21,000.
As an institution, the church rises and falls, just as the flowers of the field blossom and fade. But the word of the Lord stands forever. The reign of God, to which Advent points, remains as sure a hope and a source of the world’s renewal and transformation as ever. As religious institutions fade, the brightness of God’s abiding light shines more brightly.
Our hope is built on no foundation but Jesus Christ. We do not yet see his reign fully manifest in our world, or even in our church. Far from it. Yet we continue to carry the sure hope that the One who has begun a good work in us and around us will surely complete it. In God’s time, not ours. In God’s way, not ours. But never without us. Never.
May the light that no darkness can quench shine brightly in and through us this Advent season, as we watch and wait between the already and the not yet.
With abiding hope,