The Times They Are a-Changin’, But God Isn’t

The Times They Are a-Changin’, But God Isn’t

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Scripture: Lamentations 5:1-22

My good friend, David, is the Sr. Pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Rochester, Michigan. He called me at home Wednesday night just to see how things are going with me, my family, and with our congregation here in Adrian. It was a great to connect with him, and to hear about how their congregation is responding to the health current crisis.

One of the things we’re both experiencing—and I can say with certainty that 99% percent of all churches in our country are experiencing right now—is that we’re trying to figure out how to do church according to a brand new paradigm. Every pastor and every congregation is in the same place right now. From mega-churches all the way down to small country churches, we’re all in the same place. We’re scrambling to figure out how to be the church and do church under conditions we’ve never had to deal with before. David said he heard it described as trying to build the jet while we’re flying. From where I sit, that’s exactly how it feels! I’ve used nautical imagery to describe the feeling of trying to build something while it’s moving, that we’re trying to build the boat while it’s sailing.  But the vessel we’re all in right now is moving a lot faster than a ship; it’s a jet, and we’re all trying to build it while it’s flying through the air at 600 mph!

Of course, one of the biggest unknowns right now is how long our current state of things will go on. Clearly, it won’t go on forever. These types of events always run their course. But at this point in time, we don’t know if it’ll become a seasonal issue, like the seasonal flu. Or if it’ll be something that’s more situational, like the ebola virus, or measles, or chickenpox. We don’t know how long it’ll be until there’s a vaccine available for the general public. But as it concerns our current state of semi-lockdown, we know it’ll pass. Unfortunately, probably not until things get worse before they get better, but it won’t be this way forever – thanks be to God!

Now, as it concerns the church, it’s pretty much the same question. Will this new ministry paradigm we’re all living into become the new normal? Maybe, maybe not. It’s still too early to know. But it’s safe to say that certain aspects of what we’re beginning to do will become normal for us.

For example, from this point on we’ll need to be much more intentional about utilizing digital technology in our ministries and work. This’ll be the case in how our staff does our everyday work, in what we offer in regard to worship, in our outreach, and even in how we do faith formation.

Until now, we’ve pretty much been an analog church in a digital world. Like most churches, almost everything we do takes place here in our building, and requires people to leave their homes and gather here face-to-face. Worship, Bible studies, Sunday school, youth group, office work, committee meetings, and, to a degree, small groups — every one of these is an important element of our congregational church life. But the fact is, until now we’ve gone about doing them the same way we’ve done them for generations: on-site and in-person.

Even our approach to connecting with those outside of the church has been to offer something that takes place here in our building, and then invite them to come and join us here.

That’s analog church.

Now, to be very clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being an analog church. No doubt, when the pandemic is over we’ll worship in our sanctuary, hold face-to-face meetings at the church, and offer on-site Sunday school. But the fact is, the current healthcare crisis is forcing us to figure out ways to accomplish the same tasks we’ve always done, but in new and innovative ways. And the truth is, the digital technologies available to us will allow us to do that. We just need to be open to adapting to a new norm.  That is, to expand the paradigm. Not throw it out, but expand it beyond our current ways of doing things.

Here’s the really cool thing. Becoming a digital church in a digital world actually enables us to more effectively fulfill our mission of developing new followers of Jesus Christ, as well as helping our existing followers of Christ grow and mature in their faith. Being a church that’s both analog AND digital increases our ability to connect with people who fully live in a digital world.

For example, Adrian is full of people who would probably be more than willing to give us a try on a Sunday morning, but who would probably never do it in person. But if we offer high quality live streaming of both of our worship services, they might be very willing to check us out. And you know what else, it’s possible that if we’re doing outreach in the community in ways that have a positive impact on their own lives, they may be interested in financially supporting those ministries. In essence, supporting our church. They may even come to see us as their church home.

Here are some other possibilities:

  • What if we offered a parenting class, but it met online using a video conferencing technology such as Zoom, and it met at 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., after the kids were in bed? Parents of young children could avail themselves of a high quality, Christ-centered class, and do it from home at a time of day that works best for them, and they wouldn’t have to worry about paying a sitter or only one of them attending.
  • What if we made it possible for committee members to attend a meeting even if they’re out of town on business?
  • What if we offered a Bible Study that people could participate in at their own leisure by going to our website and watching a pre-recorded video presentation given by the teacher? And along with that, we gave them the option of being able to share their thoughts, insights, and ask questions via an online chat or comments area, to which others could respond at their own leisure?
  • What if we had a way for church members who are traveling to stay actively connected with us while their away?
  • What about the possibility of a musician sharing their gift with us live on a Sunday morning even if they’re 500 miles away?

It may be that for some of you, what I’m suggesting right now doesn’t excite you very much. But I can guarantee that there are people who would be very excited about getting on board with a church that meets people where their at in these new ways. Truly, we’re only limited by our lack of creativity, know-how, and willingness to adapt our means of doing ministry in a world that’s suddenly different than it’s always been.

As I read through the book of Lamentations, and try to put myself in the shoes of those who were left behind after Jerusalem’s destruction, I can’t help but think they experienced the same thing I’m talking about. Life was going along as it had been for generations, and then it all disappeared. All the “tools for living” they’d put to use their whole lives were suddenly useless. Just getting water – an everyday task which, before, required little thought or preparation was now a huge chore. Before, it was free and available to everyone. Now it costs money – money they didn’t have. In Lamentations 5:4 the Poet reports, “We have to pay for water to drink, and even firewood is expensive“.  Another Bible version puts it this way: “We pay money to drink our own water.”

Every aspect of life as they’d known it got turned on its head after the Babylonian army came through Here’s how the Poet describes this reality:

  • Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners (v. 2).
  • Slaves have now become our masters (v. 8).
  • We hunt for food at the risk of our lives, for violence rules the countryside (v. 9). 
  • Our enemies rape the women of Jerusalem and the young girls in all the towns of Judah (v. 11).
  • Our princes are being hanged by their thumbs (v. 12).
  • The elders no longer sit in the city gates (v. 14).
  • Jerusalem itself is empty and desolate, a place haunted by jackals (v. 18).

They went from thriving to surviving.

Well, you and I may not necessarily be in a place of survival at this point in time, but the truth is, things are going to get worse before they get better. They will get better; please know that. But unfortunately, we haven’t peaked yet in terms of confirmed cases of coronavirus and associated deaths. And as we see an increase in positive cases and deaths, it’s possible that we might come under even stricter rules regarding our ability to freely move about. And if that happens, it could begin to feel like we’re in survival mode than we are right now.

Now, let me be very clear about something. I am NOT saying, or even suggesting, that we should anticipate a further restriction of moving about, because I have no way of knowing if that’s coming or not. And I’m not passing along hearsay. But as I’ve watched other countries and states try to slow down the rate of infections, I know that other places have taken to enforcing much stricter protocols than we are currently under, and I can only imagine that those kinds of protocols could result in the sense that everything you’re normally used to having at your fingertips has been taken away, and that you’re now surviving day-to-day.

Then again, maybe some of you listening to me are already there. Maybe your anxiety is already shooting through the roof because you’ve lost your source of income, but you still have lots of mouths to feed. And bills to pay. I can certainly see the possibility that there are people all around us who are already counting every penny, or stretching what’s left in the cupboards as far as possible, or already having to make difficult choices between things that all important. Feed my family or pay the electric bill? Buy groceries or go to the doctor? Maybe for some of you listening, you’re already in survival mode. And you’re just taking it one day at a time as best as you can with limited resources.

Maybe you’re a doctor or nurse on the front line in a hospital, and where you work is nearing or already a full capacity. Or it’s way beyond capacity, and you’re putting people in places you never had to before. Maybe you’re working under conditions where you don’t have the necessary equipment to keep you safe. And every day you wonder if you’ll soon be the patient.

As I said last week, these are our current realities. And whether you’re still thriving, or surviving, or somewhere in between, it’s imperative that we keep in the forefront of our thinking and conscious awareness a bold statement the Poet made at the close of this poem. To give it some context, I’ll back up a couple of verses to v. 15.

Joy has left our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning. The garlands have fallen from our heads. Weep for us because we have sinned. Our hearts are sick and weary, and our eyes grow dim with tears. For Jerusalem is empty and desolate, a place haunted by jackals. But Lord, you remain the same forever! Your throne continues from generation to generation.

Our world may change. How we do church may change. Our living conditions may drastically change. Our work environments may change. And life as we know it may change. But the one thing that will never change is God! Even the Lamentations Poet, who knew suffering far worse than any of us, was able to affirm this truth. You, Lord, remain the same forever!  Your throne continues from generation to generation.

I think it’s good news that when everything around us is changing, and certainly right now, for many of us, not for the better—when everything is around us is changing, at least the ground on which we truly stand is firm and unchanging. And will be that way forever. No pandemic, no war, no pestilence, and no threat to one’s heath or well-being can alter that reality. Starvation can’t. Sexual assault can’t. Unemployment can’t. Homelessness can’t. Illness can’t. Death can’t. Uncertainty can’t.

Why? Because God remains the same forever. He remains loving. He remains holy. He remains present and available to everyone of us. He remains kind, and patient, and loyal. He remains true to his promises. And most of all, he remains alive within you and me. And no life-situation can ever change that, including the current pandemic.

Even though the Poet acknowledges the unchanging nature of God, it’s only a fleeting recognition. The book actually ends on quite a sad note. The final two verses consist of a request and a question: Restore us, O LORD, and bring us back to you again! Give us back the joys we once had! Or have you utterly rejected us? Are you angry with us still? What a heartbreaking closing.

Even though he was clearly a man of faith, he didn’t have what we have today—the indwelling of the Messiah, the power of the Holy Spirit to experience joy and life even in the midst of great sorrow and suffering. Boy, what a difference personally knowing Jesus makes! Wouldn’t you agree? We can say with certainty that God has not rejected us, and that this health crisis isn’t his wrath on us. I stake my life on this promise: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” – Rom 8:1. Because Jesus Christ lives within us, we don’t have to wonder and question as the Poet did. Thanks be to God!

Friends, this Lenten journey through the book of Lamentations has been challenging — at least it has been for me. Like you, I’m used to the hope I find in the Gospels, in the Prophets, in the Psalms, and in Paul’s letters. Lamentations only has snippets of that hope…It’s there, like in the verse from chapter 5 I mentioned today, but clearly the dominant theme is suffering at its worst.

Unfortunately, because we live in a world broken by sin, human suffering is a reality, and there’s no escaping it. If we’re going to live, at some point and in some way we’re going to suffer. But what I hope you’re able to take away from this series is that suffering isn’t our only life experience. In fact, for the Christian it shouldn’t be our defining experience. In Christ, we truly have a hope which goes far deeper than suffering. We stand on the Rock called Jesus Christ, and that rock is immovable through all of life’s storms. That’s what I hope you’ve been able to take away from this series. We suffer, yes. But more importantly, we have hope for tomorrow.

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. Clearly, we won’t be gathering together in our sanctuary for worship. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come together in spirit and celebrate Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. We may not be waving palm branches together, but we can still join together as we welcome the Messiah into our midst with the greeting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21.9).

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