A big part of my role as a general presbyter is accompanying congregations in transition. I fill newly vacant pulpits, consult with congregational leaders, orient search committees, give feedback on résumé drafts, and listen to hopes and dreams as leaders discern a new call. I accompany people on journeys they often don’t want to take.
Change is distressing as it upsets familiar patterns. Even while we may look forward to something new, the familiar, as dysfunctional as it may be, is often more comforting than the unknown.
In this work, Isaiah’s words resound with direction and hope. Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:18–19). Deutero-Isaiah, some unknown follower of the great prophet, spoke these words of hope to a people in exile, in extreme distress. The rug of their faith had been pulled from under their feet; the temple, site of their worship, lay in ruins; their Zionist faith in God’s protection challenged. Israel’s leaders were humiliated, exiled to a strange land, and disoriented. The psalmist expressed their anguish: By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps (Psalm 134:1–2). Yet the prophet called upon Israel to look again at what God was doing. Ironically, this exilic community became a theologically rich community mining their history for identity markers as God’s people, the codification of much of the Old Testament, and the foundation of the synagogues, the first formal institutions of religious education.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman was perhaps the first to point out how North American Christians are living in such a time. It has become more and more evident that the whole church is in transition, with the ground shifting beneath our feet. Good folks across the church are pondering the best and most faithful way of moving into the future God intends. There is a growing awareness that doing the same things better and harder no longer produces the same results. Joan Gray, speaking at an elder/deacon retreat at my presbytery recently observed, “If society were to return to the 1950s, we Presbyterians would be ready for it.” Phyllis Tickle in her book, The Great Emergence, describes what we are experiencing as a once-every-500-years church rummage sale. We sort through our stuff and get rid of what we no longer use and rediscover treasures long forgotten. This phenomenon is larger than just religion; it encompasses all of western culture.
Gradye Parsons, PC(USA) General Assembly Stated Clerk, invited Tickle to speak at last year’s General Assembly. Following her remarks, he read the following Bible story: One day Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?”(Luke 8:22–25).
This has become another foundational text for me as I help people navigate these waters. Jesus tells us to get in the boat and cross to the other side. Following Jesus is not about staying put, but moving forward, crossing over into the fuller reign of God on earth, and joining in the new thing God is doing. But don’t be surprised when a storm stirs up! It’s a comfort to me to know that some of the disciples were seasoned fishermen and they were terrified, too. And don’t be surprised by Jesus’ calm, sleeping through the mess. A non-anxious presence, they call it these days. He chastises their little faith. We are called to trust the Lord, who is greater than the storm around us.
In the early church the ship was a symbol for the church of Jesus Christ. The world was far bigger than the new church, like a ship at sea tossed to and fro. When church councils gather, a tempest storm often follows. When we engage the larger community of God’s church, beyond our personal experience and faith, and beyond the like-mindedness of our smaller groups, it often feels like we are tossed like a ship at sea. Yet we Presbyterian/Reformed Christians believe that we discern the mind of Christ best together, not in isolation.
As church leaders and educators we accompany people in their crossings from bondage and oppression to freedom and shalom. We see this in the Twelve Step groups that inhabit our church buildings. We recognize such crossings in the stages of human development identified by Piaget, Erikson and Fowler. The role of educators is to accompany companions on the journey and try to see that no one gets stuck, but moves along on the journey. The challenge is that we too are on that same journey—church educators, pastors, general presbyters, denominational leaders, all of us. We are crossing from some broken incompleteness to participate more fully and blessedly in the reign of God, to which Jesus and the Holy Spirit lead us, if we but follow.
So I will close with the mantra Gradye Parsons gave to the PC(USA) 219th General Assembly: “Get in the boat! Cross to the other side! There will be a storm! Trust in the Lord!”
John Best is general presbyter of Lake Michigan Presbytery, PC(USA), Portage, MI.