2017: Providence and Perseverance

Henri Nouwen talked about how difficult it was to wait, as most people think waiting is a waste of time. He related waiting to a desert between where we are and where we want to be. And no one wants to be in a desert.

It’s been a tumultuous year, to be sure. The election, political divide, and international drama has caused enough angst to make us lose our dignity and civility.

It’s a tough deal to be a pastor these days. I’m working with people who have a wide variety of social and political views, and want to celebrate and complain about the way things are to whomever might want to listen. The Facebook landscape is a perfect breeding ground for these ideals (and the lack thereof). I’ve learned to filter out views that are too incompatible with my own. It’s not because they are different, because I think contrasting opinions can be an opportunity for growth and personal development. It’s just that there is enough hatred in the world that I can’t control, so when I can limit my vitriol intake I want to take advantage of it.

So, here I am about to enter the new year and I’m wondering what’s ahead. I’ve become more cautious about attributing every action or result to the will of God. Much of what is next is directly related to our attitude and actions.

I’ve appreciated the article by theologian Frank Tupper, as he talks about the distinction between God’s sovereignty and God’s being in control. It is too simplistic to say that everything that happens is “God’s will.” Yes, there are examples from Scripture to affirm what I would call “the providence of God.”   We don’t always understand what is going on around us at the time, nor how certain events can be woven into the overall tapestry of life. I embrace the paradox of human freewill and God’s sovereignty, even though this tension is difficult to rationalize. It is biblical, but this approach is not logical. Still, we cannot explain away our own behavior with a fatalist approach to the future.

Whenever I struggle with current events, I return to the story of Joseph. Even after being sold into slavery and experiencing prison, God was still involved as evidenced in the phrase “the Lord was with Joseph.” When he confronted his brothers, who were afraid for their lives, Joseph responded with an understanding of a deeper purpose: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50.20 NIV).

It’s easy to hurriedly flip through the stories of the Bible and quickly see how they ended. Yet, the persons involved in these accounts were very much living day to day, without knowing how things would turn out for them. It was only with the benefit of time, experience, and perseverance that God’s people could look back and realize God’s involvement in them.

Looking back on 2016, I have come to believe that many of us Christians have forgotten what our task is supposed to be. We rely too much on the government to normalize and nationalize Christianity, rather than realize that work belongs to the church. Rather than lament political and social ills, perhaps we should take a cue from our spiritual predecessors and persevere. The apostle Paul (from prison), wrote to a fledgling group of Jesus followers:  “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3.14-15). 

There are many things about 2016 I’d like to forget. It was a rough year in so many ways, yet those experiences can make us more sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit. The challenges and disappointments we have gone through can make us stronger as the people of God. It doesn’t mean that everything that happens will be enjoyable. But, if we can adopt an eternal perspective, it will help us identify with the people of God through the centuries who have struggled and suffered. And our first world problems don’t compare in any way to people who are going hungry, being persecuted, and dying for the cause of Christ.

We’ve been blessed with many freedoms in this country, and while I am very much thankful for them, believe that they can lead to a sense of entitlement for the church. My hope for the church in 2017 is that we will move forward with a sense of confidence in Christ and persevere through what is yet ahead. This can be our finest hour. In order for this to occur, we must pray for “thy Kingdom come” while at the same time realizing “my Kingdom goes.”

For these next few days leading into 2017, I am going to hang out “in the desert.” I don’t want to launch out into another year without getting spiritually centered and remembering what it means to have “the mind of Christ.”

For sure, there are many lessons that I still need to learn about what it means to be a follower of Christ. I suspect there are others who will be with me in that desert for a while, waiting and listening for the Spirit to lead us forward.

We’ve finished an Advent season in which we celebrate Emmanuel “God is with us.” Let that be an affirmation for our faith moving forward. May we live each moment, trusting in God’s providence while we persevere as the people of God.

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