Risking New Ventures
Synopsis: Like a congregation of barnyard geese, we can regale ourselves with stories of how far our ancestors had flown. But such remembering becomes perverse if it reinforces our present complacency and keeps us from being alert to present realities, being responsive to new opportunities, and from the potential for growth into yet-unrealized possibilities.
A congregation of barnyard geese gathered one fine morning to regale themselves with stories of how their ancestors had flown high above the distant mountains to exciting ventures in faraway places. They all nodded their heads, flapped their wings, and honked in appreciation of their noble ancestry. When they had completed their confab, they waddled over to the granary and stuffed themselves with corn, thereby making it most unlikely that they themselves would ever fly away on such adventures.
Our scripture passage from Isaiah begins with God’s self-introduction as the one who led the Israelites in their exodus from bondage in Egypt and on their journey to freedom through the wilderness. God made a path where there was no way by parting the mighty waters of the Red Sea; then dealing with the pursuing army of horses, chariots, and warriors by extinguishing them—like blowing out the flame of a candle.
The Exodus is the defining moment in the creation of the people of Israel. To reach back to that moment is to get in touch with their core identity as God’s free people. This is who they are. As soon as this is said, however, Isaiah spins our heads around by adding, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” What’s going on and how can we understand this? Why and at what point should Israel not remember the things of the past? Like that congregation of barnyard geese, regaling ourselves with memories of the past becomes obscene when it only reinforces our present complacency.
This is a very real temptation for congregations. We hark back to our glorious past when our membership was much bigger than it is today, to the former charismatic pastor who some of us still fondly remember, to our former outreach in the community, or to our former vibrant children’s and youth ministry. Living in that past and attempting to revive it only gets in the way of having the imagination to respond creatively to our present reality. According to biblical scholar Paul Hanson, remembering the past becomes a serious spiritual problem “at the point where a nostalgic relation to tradition threatens to tie the people to their past and to stultify alertness to present realities, responsiveness to new opportunities, and the potential for growth into yet-unrealized possibilities.”
Isaiah was writing to the Jewish exiles in Babylon who now, after many years of captivity, have the possibility to return to their homeland. Through the years after they had first arrived as captives, they had been able to carve out a life for themselves in Babylon and gain a degree of security and prosperity. It wasn’t a simple matter of returning or not returning but of seizing the moment and making the most of their opportunity. An often overlooked fact is that most did not return and created a vibrant Jewish community in Babylon that became a center for Judaism in the ancient world that lasted for thousands of years.
Others made the arduous trek through the wilderness to their homeland in order to reestablish their ancestral homes and rebuild the city of Jerusalem. It was a difficult task and the first settlers to return were dismayed by the devastation they discovered in their homeland. They had to start all over again. I think of refugees today from places like Iraq and Syria and the challenges they face in rebuilding their war ravaged communities when they return.
As I consider the challenge of seizing the moment my thoughts go to my upcoming retirement at the end of this year. What does this mean for me personally and what does it mean for us as a congregation? Becoming our pastor almost seven years ago has been a good challenge and opportunity for me. We had moved to the DC area from Madison, Wisconsin because of Ruth’s job with World Vision. I had been serving as an interim pastor in Madison. Before that, we had served for three years as Mennonite Central Committee representatives for India, Nepal, and Afghanistan, based in Kolkata, India. We had anticipated being there for at least three more years but could not get our Indian work visas renewed.
Before that, we had lived and worked in Harrisonburg many years. Ruth was the co-director for the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University. I split my time between pastoring at Shalom Mennonite and teaching at Eastern Mennonite University. Along with that we were parenting our teenage children and I was doing my doctoral studies in Religion and Culture at Catholic University here in DC. Even before that, we had spent eight years on a mission assignment in the Philippines.
Now Ruth and I are planning to move back to Harrisonburg a little more than a year from now. We bought a building lot there several years ago and are working with an architect and a builder to build an aging-in-place house. The lot has a wonderful view of the mountains and a nice, flat space in the back where I can garden until my heart’s content. I’ve already planted 10 fruit trees there. Sometimes I’m excited about this transition and at other times I’m downright ambivalent. Retirement can feel like the end of a road rather than standing on the threshold of something new. It’s certainly not the same as taking an assignment in India or taking on the new challenge of being our pastor seven years ago. Can I think of it as another new venture rather than as being put out to pasture?
As I said, we moved to the area for Ruth’s job and I was committed to following her and figuring out what I’d do. I began by remodeling a fixer-upper house in Hyattsville, Maryland and enrolling in a Clinical Pastoral Program. I was considering becoming a chaplain or perhaps finding work with a faith-based agency when John Kliewer, our former church chairperson, approached me about becoming the pastor of our church. At the time, I wasn’t sure if our church would be able to survive. At one of our first council meetings we talked about selling our church property and renting someplace. There were no families with young children. Fei Hung was the only child in our church. I sensed that people were tired and discouraged—but also determined. We had vision for what we could be but didn’t quite know how to make it happen. That gave me hope. Small churches can be resilient.
Now, we’re at a very different threshold and our search committee does the work of finding my replacement. It’s a good place. Things are beginning to become exciting and part of me would love to stay on to be part of that. But I don’t think that would be good for our church—and probably not for me either. I always knew that I was serving as a transitional pastor and that my job was to help take us from where we were to the new place to which God is leading us.
None of us is irreplaceable and some other, younger pastor will help us move into the next phase of our church life and ministry better than I can. I’d love to keep a long-distant relationship while allowing our new pastor the necessary space to develop her or his ministry. And I’m looking forward to new ventures where I can combine aspects of ministry and perhaps some writing with more time for gardening, woodworking, and baking bread.
This doesn’t mean we as a church are out of the wilderness or have reached the promised land. Actually, our mission is in the wilderness and we serve a God who promises to make a way and give water in the desert. Even those emancipated jackals and other critters that barely survive in the vastness of the desert will be restored to beauty and wholeness. Can we name those things in our world?
We can begin with the constant stress of life and paying bills for many people here in NOVA. It includes the political turmoil that has ratcheted up dramatically in our present presidential administration. Gun violence is a constant plague. I think of desperate refugees, not only from Central America but around the world, who are trying to find a safe haven. Jeff Saferite recently preached about white nationalism and discrimination against all kinds of minorities, including LGBTQ people. As someone in the gardening community, I’m well aware of environmental degradation and climate change. And among the biggest detriments to wholeness and health is the massive war machine that saps so many resources from lifegiving things like elementary education and affordable healthcare.
Many churches are not up to the task and people write us off as not relevant or even detrimental to the things they care deeply about. This leaves a spiritual vacuum in our society. Yet, we will see this through and flourish by God’s grace. This is the thing! We’re being empowered to be a different kind of community and to make a difference in our world. Yes there will be pain and suffering but it will also be an invigorating and transformative ride. Fasten your seatbelts!
 Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 73.