What Comes Next? This is the question I keep asking myself as we near the end of this pandemic. I’m not the only one. There are political, social, and financial implications that have many sectors scrambling to anticipate the future. Much ink has been spilled already in potential answers.
Followers of Jesus have extra motivation for prayerful discernment about what comes next. We are always interested in where God is moving and how we can join Him. I have no doubt that God has incredible plans for our community, our nation, and our world, and that 2020 was not wasted time for Him.
While I cannot predict the future, a few guiding principles shape my thinking.
There is nothing new under the sun.
This is the constant refrain in the book of Ecclesiastes. While things may appear new, they are only new to us. If you pay careful attention, a prominent design pattern of the Bible is the repetition of themes and motifs, especially human sin and depravity. From the family dysfunction that follows Abraham and Sarah through their children and grandchildren, to the cycles of idolatry, rebellion, oppression, and deliverance in the book of Judges, the Bible is always echoing itself. From God’s point of view, there is really nothing new about human behavior or the brokenness of the world. What will that mean for our future? I’m not sure. Some, like Andy Crouch, are predicting a repeat of the roaring 20s with social conditions that created the depressed 30s. It makes sense, but only God knows at this point. Whatever comes next, it may feel new, but it really is not. One of our previous pastoral residents, Kristen Brown, who now teaches at Northeastern Seminary, put it well in a recent talk: “…we live in precedented times…” From a biblical point of view, I think she is spot on. There is nothing new under the sun.
There will be loss.
Even though there is nothing new under the sun, we still feel the changes from what was to what is, and that is always accompanied by loss. That is part of the nature of change. When the Jews, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, return to Israel from exile in Babylon, rebuild the Temple and begin to worship, the older generation weeps as they remember the glory of Solomon’s version (Ezra 3:12-13). That glory would never come again, at least not like that.
We know that a better Temple was coming (Jesus!), but there was still an experience of real loss, and we should anticipate that loss. Personally, I find myself praying often about the church. What will happen to attendance and participation after a year of quarantining and more online options than we could ever dream of? How will the church heal from a year of division in our country and even among fellow believers? I don’t have these answers, but I anticipate that we will feel a sense of loss and grief, even as we begin to return to “normalcy.” That’s okay, and it is often a part of how God works.
There will be gospel opportunities.
In the book of Acts, when the church experienced persecution in Jerusalem for the first time, believers began to scatter across the region. Without realizing it, the cataclysm of oppression launched the Gentile mission that is still happening today. If we sense some doors are closing, we can be sure God is opening others. At Christ Community, I can tell you that our online presence is bigger, faster, and stronger than ever. The internet, while containing threats to the gospel, also presents a new “Roman road” by which to share Jesus. God is working there.
Christianity looks weirder and weirder to our surrounding western culture, and the data tells us that many who were only nominally participating in church before the pandemic will likely never return. That’s hard. But remember, God famously whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300 before rescuing Israel from Midian, reminding us that He often does His best work when we feel at the end of our rope. Our faith is only going to stand out more and more, even if our numbers and influence may appear to diminish. My sense is that God sees that as a strength, not a weakness. What opportunities is He opening in our lives for greater witness and service to neighbors?
What do you think? These are just my thoughts. What about you? I really want to know! Leave your comments here around how things might change, and what doors God may be opening. We can’t predict the future, but we can be faithful and prayerful in anticipation of what comes next. God is ready. Let’s be ready to move with Him!
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
I’m standing outside the church. It’s Sunday morning. Early. Kinda cold. My hands are in my pockets, shoulders tight, feet moving. I should have brought a jacket. Our congregation is beginning to arrive for church, and I like to be outside whenever I can to greet them. The first dozen or so I’ve seen many times during the pandemic, so they know the routine and head on in.
And then I see them. Two men, a father and son, whom I haven’t seen since March. For health reasons they were unable to return. But now, with a vaccine, they could. If you know me at all, you know I’m not one for sentimentality. But I kid you not, seeing them brought a warmth, an energy, a joy I had not felt in a long time. I ran up to them too fast. They were alarmed. But when we recognized each other, we beamed. I didn’t know it, but it was like a part of me, a part of my family, had returned, and I felt closer to “whole” again. I know. It’s melodramatic. But it’s true.
It felt like Psalm 126, a psalm of “ascent” used by faithful pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem to worship. The whole point of the psalm is to remember. You can see it in the first line: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” The poet is looking back on something God did. Remember when God did that? How that felt?
That little private moment in the parking lot, I felt like I wasn’t just remembering what God had done. I was experiencing it. I felt like someone in a dream. It was surreal, like God was putting His Temple, His people, back together, one brick at a time, after a long exile in Babylon. During this long pandemic, it felt like a miracle.
The Lord has done great things for us…
I say all this to remind myself, and maybe you, that God is working. He is restoring our fortunes; He is re-building Christ Community. Even if you are not able to return on Sundays yet (which I completely understand), my hope is that you can still experience the church family coming together as I have.These small miracles can happen at the park, in the driveway, and over the phone.
Those who sow in tears…
I say all this to remind myself, and maybe you, that God never wastes a tear. God makes many promises about our suffering in the Scriptures. But this one, in Psalm 126, is the one I forget the most. God is with us in suffering, God protects us in suffering, of course. But He never wastes our suffering either. In fact, if I’m reading this right, there’s something in particular about our tears that soak the soil for the joy God brings next, more potently than we can imagine. This has always been true of God’s economy, and it still is.
We have sown many tears this year. Tears of fear, grief, loss, loneliness, and anxiety. Personally, I feel like I have done more funerals this year than I ever have as a pastor. Every one of them hurt, and COVID made each one of them worse. They caused tears. God has planted every one. He has planted yours, too.
I honestly don’t know what God is going to do next, what this harvest will bring, other than this: it will be joy. Because with God, joy is always the last chapter. Keep sowing, dear church. And I can’t wait to see you again.
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1 is one of my favorites, and I find myself returning to it often. What I am drawn to most is its placement and imagery. Perhaps you’ve never heard this before, but the Psalms, the ancient prayers and songs of God’s people, are arranged in a particular order. In a sense, they are meant to be read from start to finish. Psalm 1 is, well, first. Along with Psalm 2, it is meant to shape how we read the rest.
Verse three states that God’s people are like a tree planted by streams of water, yielding its fruit in season, whose leaves do not wither, and prospers in all things. It is a description of the ideal reader of the Psalms, and really the reader of the whole Bible. This is the kind of life we are promised when we meditate on God’s Word as the psalmist instructs.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel that right now. We are in the middle of a physical and spiritual winter unlike I have ever known in my lifetime. As I speak to those with more years and experience, they agree. This is different.
I keep going back to Psalm 1 and asking: what does this say about winter? What is the flourishing life in a really difficult and prolonged season like this? And is there hope? I’m still processing, but I want to share a few thoughts about Psalm 1 in winter.
1. Seasons happen to the tree. The tree does not control the seasons. It weathers them. In our climate, we think of harsh winters. The original reader would have thought of dry summers. Either way, the point is the same: drought, scorching heat, bitter cold, high winds, floodwaters. The tree will experience all of it. Seasons are real, they are God-ordained, and they are completely out of our control. In other words, while this psalm promises a “blessed” life, it does not promise an easy one. It acknowledges that hardships will come, and the good life is not to avoid those things, but to endure them.
2. Sometimes growing feels like…not growing. Psalm 1 says that a good and faithful tree yields its fruit “in season”. I think this means there are times when fruit – external, abundant, successful-looking fruit – may be hard to come by. This winter feels like one of those times for me. As I look at the “metrics” of my life, almost everything feels harder. School? Check. Work? Check. Parenting? Check. Grocery shopping? Check. Putting pants on? Check. I mean, seriously, the fruit is hard to see. But I think that’s the point. The fruit (as I have defined it) comes and goes, but the leaves do not wither, which is a reference to the deepening work the tree goes through even in otherwise “fruitless” seasons. It may not feel like it is growing, or even look like it is growing, but it is. As I reflect on my own life, I sense this “winterizing” work of the Spirit. More simplicity. More quiet. This has led to more painful internal work, work I often avoid through busyness and noise. I sense the Holy Spirit’s pruning in things I continually ask for His help to increase until I receive that help, and then I don’t want it anymore. Things like patience, endurance, and long-suffering. There is growth occurring now, but it really doesn’t feel like growing.
3. Streams of living water. This gives me the most hope this winter. Scholars note that the word “planted” here in Hebrew actually implies “transplanted,” as in, this tree was intentionally moved near a source of water. The water, too, is not just a “stream,” but a cultivating stream, more like a canal. In other words, even though the seasons are difficult, if you look carefully, this tree has someone watching over it, caring for it, providing for it, in mysterious and often overlooked ways. No matter the circumstance or externality, it has access to life-giving water. The branches may appear bare at times, but the roots are deep and lack for nothing. And, of course, we know something even the psalmist didn’t know, at least not fully. We know the Living Water, Jesus Himself, who no doubt had this psalm in mind when He made that startling proclamation to the woman at the well in John 4. Our roots, come hell or high water, always go back to Him.
I still don’t always know what God is up to, especially right now. But I do know where to find the kind of life whose leaves do not wither, whose fruit comes in its due time, and a life that knows joy even in difficulty. I hope that you do, too.
I have never retired from my job before, and I probably won’t for some time (Lord willing), so it may seem a little strange that I am writing about it. But I am a pastor to many retirees, and have seen and heard a lot. As our upcoming Journey to 100 online conference approaches, I want to share a few of the lessons I have observed along the way and make a recommendation at the end.
First, I have learned how difficult retirement can be for many. Our culture promotes a lot of financial and personal retirement goals: Save $1,000,000 by 55! Plan your next getaway this winter! and other things like that. But rarely do folks tell you how significant a life change retirement truly is.
In fact, there are some who say retirement is one of the most jarring life stage changes, second only perhaps to the college to workplace transition. Retirement is not as easy as the commercials make it out to be.
Many, having worked for decades, find that one of their primary identity markers or “big whys” for getting out of bed in the morning is conspicuously absent after the retirement party. As a pastor, I have seen many men and women struggle in the first few years of retirement, not having accounted for this shift. Many find that having hit their “retirement goals,” they are more aimless than ever.
Second, I have learned that retirement, especially as it is defined by our modern society, has absolutely no biblical basis. The Scriptures are full of language about calling, assignment, service, and work, all as a means of worship to God and love for neighbor. Never will you find a verse that says, “And when you turn 65, all of that stops, and you can do whatever you want with your time and money.” While no one is generally surprised by this observation, I have noticed precious few believers account for it as they plan for their retirement. Instead, I see a strong focus on the “three big g’s”: golf, grandkids, and getaways. As amazing and good as those things are (seriously!), is that all God has in mind for our post-work years?
Is retirement just the inevitable final check box when the bank account and the birthdays hit the predetermined numbers? I, for one, hope not. So what should we focus on as believers who are approaching retirement? What would new kingdom oriented retirement goals look like in our lives?
I don’t have all the answers here, but a few recent conversations give me hope. One friend and congregant, after decades in the workplace, stepped away from paid work. As he and I processed that change, I mentioned the “r” word. He furrowed his brow and shook his head. He said, “I don’t talk about retiring. I talk about re-firing. What else does God have in store for me now?” Listen, I’m not one for cheesy turns of phrase, but I love this language, and especially the attitude behind it. Since then, this individual has consistently consulted with organizations, mentored young leaders (like me), and volunteered with local and global ministries for the common good, all in his “retirement years.” Re-firing indeed!
I am increasingly convinced that one of the real tragedies of our day is the latent talent, energy, expertise, and time of our retired brothers and sisters that has been sitting on the sidelines. I don’t say that in judgment. I just want to imagine the possibilities! God is not done with us when our paychecks start coming from Social Security. I know God feels that way as another recent conversation with a congregant had him recounting to me that God said to him, “It’s time to get off your behind and serve in your community.” This was someone who already gave of his time, talent, and treasure. But God was ready for more!
Are you ready for more?
When is the last time you asked God to reveal what He has in store for you next? Where do your passion, your training and expertise, and the needs of our community and world align?
Here’s my recommendation: be part of our Journey to 100 conversation on Saturday, November 7. I am serious when I say that if more people in the church caught a vision for what God can do with those “retirement years,” we would be blown away by the energy, vitality, ideas, and service it would unleash.
Keep up the good work, church. And I’ll see you at Journey to 100.
Did you know that Paul the Apostle lived a significant portion of his Christian life under quarantine? For years, Paul lived under house arrest in Rome. Now, the Empire was not trying to stop the spread of a physical virus, but they were trying to stop the spread of the gospel. They knew it was a threat that needed to be treated seriously. Paul’s missionary travels represented a particularly virulent strain, so they locked him up, too.
The irony is, some of Paul’s most beautiful letters, now a part of our New Testament canon, were written when Paul was not allowed to go to church, go to work, or interact physically with many people at all. In many ways, his influence only grew during this difficult time.
When I consider that the church, right now, is under very similar circumstances (for very different reasons), Paul’s words in Philippians have new meaning: …I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13).
I don’t know about you, but I want that abundant life Paul is talking about, even when I’m stuck at home. Maybe you want the same thing but don’t know where to begin. Let us help you!
We created a video series over the last several years called The Life We Long to Live. It represents our best thinking about the Christian life and how we thrive in any and all circumstances with Christ. We are making all of these videos and study guides, available on our website. Perhaps you want to freshen up on a specific topic. Or maybe you are new to the Christian life and want to continue growing. These are for you!
Check our website for details. If you would like a hard copy of the study guide and/or a DVD of these videos leave a message and we will contact you.
The abundant life we all want is always possible, even under house arrest.