"I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"
In these difficult times, the thought of something new springing forth tends to send us ducking for cover. Each time we think it can't get any worse, it does. It's easy to despair, a pit that I have to try to climb out of again and again. The days are difficult; but we are not the first to have such days, nor will we be the last. And the witness of those who have gone through such trials before is that, as the old hymn says, "And though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet."
As the pandemic has ravaged the world and inevitably moved here, I have watched with horror as we did all the wrong things and all the wrong numbers began to rise. In particular, I watched the church struggle to find its identity without being able to gather physically in song, in praise, in Communion, or even in sorrow and grief. As I watched, I could hear the laments of the ancient Israelites crying out in Psalm 137, "How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" The church has been lost and defiant and grief-stricken and in tumult, even as church leaders are exhausted from trying to quickly adapt to virtual programming when every single life in the congregation, including their own, has been disrupted in multiple ways.
But even as I heard the laments, I knew in my bones that those cries of anguish could not be the last word. I have lived my entire life with the lens of the Bible as my guide; I know the cycle of sin and exile always ends in restoration. The time of exile is always terrible, and the losses grievous. But the necessity of total surrender in such times always produces a time of transformation--an opportunity for a new thing to spring forth. Resurrection never comes except by way of the Cross. So while I mourned with the church, I also felt the stirrings of a new thing--stirrings that were perhaps too small to be felt as the earth quaked around us, but that stirred nonetheless. As we are sequestered for our necessary Sabbath, somewhere a stone has already been rolled away.
With progress on our work of developing resources stalled, I began to listen more closely to what God might be saying. What and where was the new thing? What could possibly be more important than creating the justice resource that I had committed the next years of my life to producing? What was my role in the new thing? I prayed and I cried; I read ravenously and slept fitfully.
And then one day in May, I found the words of Steven Charleston, Native American elder and retired Episcopal bishop of Alaska, posting about this time on his Facebook page with the following words:
"Now is the moment for which a lifetime of faith has prepared you. All of those years of prayer and study, all of the worship services, all of the time devoted to a community of faith: it all comes down to this, this sorrowful moment when life seems chaotic and the anarchy of fear haunts the thin borders of reason. Your faith has prepared you for this. It has given you the tools you need to respond: to proclaim justice while standing for peace. Long ago the Spirit called you to commit your life to faith. Now you know why. You are a source of strength for those who have lost hope. You are a voice of calm in the midst of chaos. You are a steady light in days of darkness. The time has come to be what you believe."
When I read those words, the new thing came into focus. "Now is the moment for which a lifetime of faith has prepared you...The time has come to be what you believe." Not to write what I believe, but to be what I believe. It was time to put on my robe and return to the calling of my childhood. It was time to go back into the local church.
At the end of May I announced to the MBS board that, although I didn't know exactly when or where or how, sometime during this next fiscal year I would be returning to parish ministry. I applied to churches outside my denomination. I told my bishop that if those efforts failed I wanted a church in the next round of United Methodist appointments next summer. It felt urgent.
Apparently it was. On June 18 my bishop called. A United Methodist church had come open unexpectedly and he thought I would be a perfect fit. Would I consider it? He gave me 24 hours to think about it. I told him I didn't need it. I accepted. I begin August 1st as the pastor of Crawford Memorial United Methodist Church in Winchester, MA.
I'm sure many of you have questions about what this means for the Society more broadly and for the particular future of Exploring the Bible and Exploring Justice. The board is working to address those questions now and will have more information in the months ahead. Certainly the books and resources already out there will continue to be available, and I am going to be recording the audiobook version of Priorities this coming week, so that all editions of the first Exploring Justice volume will be available. I expect I will finish that series at some point in the future, but obviously not on the current timetable and likely with a different publisher. Our Bible grants will continue.
Even as God has called me to a new thing; so God is calling MBS to a new thing. The board is listening now to try to perceive it as they prepare to search for a new director who will bring their own gifts and vision to carry out our historic mission.
I am immensely grateful for each of you and for your support and encouragement throughout my thirteen-year journey at the helm of MBS. As we all struggle to listen for God's new thing in the midst of the crises in our world, nation, and churches, I encourage you to find solace in Isaiah 43 and perhaps to listen to the words of the opening verses as they were put to song by David Haas and sung by the Catholic Fellowship Jakarta. God is about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?