By Thomas Lambrecht
This is the final week of Advent, a season of preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and preparing for his coming again. Advent reminds us that we are in the time “between the times.” We are in the time between Jesus’ first and second Advents (comings). As Professor George Eldon Ladd reminded us, we are in the transition between the already and the not yet.
God’s Kingdom has already come to earth in the form of King Jesus and in the hearts and lives of Jesus’ followers, including us. But God’s Kingdom awaits its full realization when Jesus comes again “to judge the living and the dead.” The book of Revelation and other Scripture passages paint a glorious picture of what the fullness of God’s Kingdom will mean.
But it is uncomfortable to be in between, to be in transition. We have an idea what is coming, but we are not there yet.
Some of my grandchildren have a problem with transitions. It is hard for them to stop doing one thing in order to do a different thing. My daughter has to prepare them for the transition by warning them, “We are going to stop playing and get in the car in five minutes.” That warning enables them to adjust their minds and expectations to what is coming next.
We are in a transition time in The United Methodist Church. At last count, over 2,000 congregations have disaffiliated from the denomination. That represents 6.6 percent of all United Methodist churches in the United States. It is estimated that about that many more are in the process of discernment toward disaffiliating next year before the opportunity to disaffiliate ends on December 31, 2023.
Those remaining in The United Methodist Church are in the process of revisioning what the church will look like and how it will operate with 10-15 percent fewer members and churches.
Those joining the Global Methodist Church are in the process of constructing new annual conferences in various parts of the U.S., as well as in countries overseas. Critical decisions have yet to be made, such as how to elect and assign bishops.
Those churches becoming independent are figuring out how to operate without the support of a denominational structure.
In all cases, we are leaving behind what is familiar and heading into uncharted territory. We have some idea what the future might look like, but there are also many unknowns.
It is tempting to want to stay with what is familiar, even though that world of the past is no longer available to us. The Israelites in the Wilderness longed to go back to slavery in Egypt, at times. Yet the slavery they would have gone back to would have been different from the slavery they left. There is no such thing as going back to what we once knew.
That is why Paul reminds us, “We live by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7). Often, we cannot see the pathway to the future God has for us. However, we can trust the One who leads and guides us each step of the way. We can stay stuck in the past, or we can follow the living Lord into the incredible future he has for us. Each day, we can take the next step God has for us, knowing it will eventually lead us to our true home with him.
Mary and Joseph did not know what the future held when they agreed to become the human parents of the Savior of the world. No father or mother knows what the future will hold on the day their child is born. Yet, we have children in hope for the future and in faith that God will lead and guide us into and through that future.
The decisions we are making now in our churches, whether to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church or remain, are decisions guided by faith and hope in a future held by God. They are decisions that should not be guided by fear or a desire to cling to the past, but are decisions based on a confidence that God will not let us down.
Transitions remind us we are not in control. The wisest saying I have ever heard is, “God is God, and I am not!” That saying has become a mantra for me, acknowledging my life is not my own, but God’s. He is in control. My role is to respond to his leading and be faithful to what he is calling me to be.
Yes, transitions are uncomfortable. Journeying into an unknown future can be intimidating. We can walk through this transition with confidence by adjusting our expectations. Things will not be like they once were. In this season, there is no way to keep what once was. Our only course is to walk into a future we choose, guided and empowered by God, just as Mary and Joseph did. All the rest is up to the Lord.
I pray you experience a blessed and rich Christmas celebration, filled with the joy and peace of Christ.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.