Isaiah 17 contains a prophecy against the strong, proud, and self-reliant who have “forgotten God your Savior…the Rock, your fortress.” (v. 10). It’s the path of self-dismantling into “a heap of ruins” (v. 1) and desolation: “the harvest will be as nothing in the day of disease and incurable pain” (v. 11). Personally, I received it as a timely reminder. Lately my mind has been occupied with so many thoughts that I keep waking up in the middle of the night. Our youngest pastor suggests I should practice emptying the mind. It was wise advice that resonated with that of Richard Rohr’s in “Breathing Under Water”: “to finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us…our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body” (p. 8). I took that wisdom into my heart as I see how much of my sleep disorder comes from a concerned, restless mind. Day and night, I wrestled to figure out the way for a breakthrough amid the pandemic, but Isaiah calls to remember “the Rock, your fortress” and to put trust in God your Savior.
We are passing through a liminal season marked by ambiguity and disorientation that occurs during the transition. It’s a season of waiting and not knowing. In times like this, psychologist Rollo May advises we need the “courage to create.” Susan Beaumont offers a somewhat different approach in her book “How to lead when you don’t know where you’re going.” While she encourages ongoing experimentation and even failure as a learning opportunity, Beaumont’s words placed greater emphasis on attentiveness to God’s leading by patiently embracing what is real here and now. Rather than anxiously striving to eliminate the ambiguity, the advice for churches is to take time to surrender, to deepen discernment, and to clarify the purpose of our being and doing. Particularly relevant to our times was the advice to end an unhealthy relationship with our past ‘glory days,’ and instead, embrace ‘the reality of what is’ through deeper seeing and listening, and yield “to the mystery of the future and the mystery of God in that future” (p. 43).
I hear what awaits us post-pandemic is a reduction in the number of churches. In New York Annual Conference, about 15% of the churches are expected to close down in the aftermath of the pandemic; another 15% in the process of denominational seperation, resulting in a total reduction of about 30%. But while crossing through life’s storms, our focus and attention mustn’t be on the falling structure itself. With high anxiety, we won’t see much beyond the ‘heap of ruins.’ While crossing the stormy sea, Jesus’ disciples were powerless and distraught but immediate peace and calm prevailed when Jesus entered the boat. With Jesus, the disciples could safely reach the other side. Christ is the Rock, the fortress in whom is our salvation and hope that anchors us. Waking up every day worrying and wanting to be in control won’t get us anywhere. Repeating the mantra of fear will only lead us into the negative self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. But those who say ‘Yes’ to God by faith will be supplied with the needed strength to keep up and build up the church.
Professor Kim Kyung-jae recently published an article in Korean Christian media “Veritas” in which he lays out five problems that Korean churches must overcome: 1) Biblical literalism and fundamentalism, 2) gnostic dualism, especially in regards to the problem of evil, 3) anti-intellectualism rooted in shamanistic beliefs and practices, 4) religious and cultural exclusivism, and finally, 5) prosperity gospel in pursuit of power and wealth. If these are the mountains that the church must resist and overcome, then we ought to move towards what ends? Apostle Paul writes, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:4-6). In the interpretation of the Bible, our lens must be the life-giving law of the Spirit, not the law of condemnation and death (Romans 8:1-2). Moving away from a dualistic worldview that has a narrow and skewed understanding of what is spiritual, we must grow closer to Jesus – the Word that became flesh and lived among us – who ate, drank, and mingled with the people of the Land. Moving away from misconceptions about faith and false teachings of the prosperity gospel, we must move toward embracing life according to the Beatitudes of Jesus, and open wide toward true happiness found in self-giving love and acts of sharing. We witness for Christ and the Good News of salvation because we have received the infinitely far better way of being and living in this world than exclusivism, division, and oppression. The way of life that we received through Jesus bears fruit that gives and nurtures life; it invites the reign of God to our hearts and to our land; it is ultimately the task of the kingdom of God we are called to partake. Moving away from false and vain pursuits of our egos, we must re-align and re-turn toward Jesus, who never stopped his move toward the least, the lost, and the last.
May we be humbly moved by the grace of God, our Rock and fortress, to build up all that is real, loving, and life-giving.