“I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” – Isaiah 43:19
And so now the future truly begins.
To describe our lives over the past couple of weeks as a rather surreal experience would be to put it mildly; actually, it would be more accurate to say that this was pretty much the culmination of a year chock full of surreal experiences(!), the stuff of high drama and occasionally low comedy. But there was something about this one that has flung wide the door of possibilities, and by the unending grace of God, now we all get to walk across the threshold and see what’s there. All this, of course, is rooted in my recent trip to northern Maine, the purpose of which was two-fold: first to join the rest of my family in celebrating our youngest son Zach’s graduation from high school, and then to gather up that family, along with our belongings that have been in storage all winter, and finally bring them back with me to New Hampshire!
The graduation ceremony itself was pretty much as you’d expect: full of laughter, nostalgia and huge amounts of deeply held emotion, the end result of eighteen years’ worth of blood, sweat and tears (and that was just from the parents in the audience!). Our niece, also a member of that particular graduating class, sang a knock-out version of “Roots Before Branches;” the official Class Speaker, a friend of my son’s, delivered an amusing, meaningful and delightfully anarchic address to his fellow graduates and the gathered community, much to the consternation of the high school principal who was listening and looking none too pleased; and for his part, Zach, who all winter was justifiably non-plussed about the whole graduation experience (given that he’d been forced to abruptly change schools – and states – his senior year), seemed genuinely pleased to have finally reached this milestone.
And as we sat in folding chairs there in the gymnasium, his mother and I couldn’t have been prouder of him – yes, for graduating high school and being accepted to college in the fall; for being the third of our three children to begin crossing that threshold from adolescence to adulthood – but moreover, for the strength, character, maturity, and, might I add, the sheer defiance with which he’s handled everything that’s been thrown at him this year as that threshold has drawn near. This is one reason I know that Zach will do well moving forward into the great unknown of the future – though knowing him, he’d probably delight in finding a way to debate me on that point (!) – because if I’ve learned nothing else over these past months is that it does indeed require a healthy amount of defiance to face the unknown with faith and courage; to be bold enough to leave the old ways behind in order to embrace the new possibilities that lay ahead.
This was a thought that has continued to come to mind in packing and unpacking all the many boxes we’ve moved from Maine to our new parsonage here in Concord. What’s interesting about moving is not only how much “stuff” you accumulate over time (even after you think you’ve reamed out a lot of it!), but also how much time and effort goes into deciding how all that “stuff” is going to fit in the new space. That’s part of the fun it of it, I suppose, and it’s certainly what transforms an empty and unfamiliar house into a warm and welcoming home. But in the process of that transformation, inevitably some choices are made that change the look and feel of the result – pieces of furniture that looked great in one home just doesn’t fit the décor of another; mementoes that had previously been in front and center view get put away, boxes relegated to storage until the next move. In some ways, it’s a little sad to leave these little pieces of the past behind, seemingly moving on from all that came before; and yet, when the redecorating is done, eventually you see that what you have is the perfect mix of the past and the present future – a celebration of where you’ve been but especially of where you’re going.
I’m now just about three months into this new pastoral ministry to which I’ve been called at East Church; in fact, in just a few days, there will be a formal service of installation to acknowledge the beginning of our shared ministry here in this congregation. What’s funny about this to me is that in many ways, the whole idea of installation seems a bit superfluous, as it feels so right and so comfortable in this position, it’s been as though I’ve been here forever. And yet, I also realize I’m still very much in the stage of facing a new unknown both in my own life and in the vocation of pastoral ministry. Not unlike the process of unpacking boxes to decide what’s to be done with all the things we’ve accumulated over the years, I’m also finding that now, after nearly 30 years of pastoral ministry, I’m taking a close look at all I’ve known and understood about this work, and wondering how, or if, it still applies to shepherding a congregation in these times. In other words, as a pastor what do I keep and what do I set aside?
I know that there are many aspects to the Christian ministry that shall always remain the same – the love of God in Christ as the bedrock of all we do, the care of God’s people and the proclamation of the gospel in word and action – but how does that best happen in such a changing culture? There’s no doubt that the nature of the church is changing; we’re seeing this all around us. But how much are we to change with it? When do we cling tightly to the old values, and when are the times that a new wineskin is called for? And how do we know when to make those choices?
I’m not sure of all the answers yet, but I do know that this new phase of ministry I’ve begun will require some amount of leaving the past behind and facing a new and unknown future. But the good news is that this is what makes for a fresh start, the “new thing” that God is doing in my life and in the life of the congregation I have been called to serve; and so I also know that the journey ahead will be an adventure! In the midst of this call, may God grant me the faith and strength, as well as the utter defiance to do it well!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry