A thicket of greenbriar and multiflora rose in our church woods
Proverbs chapter eight is a delightful ode to creation. It transports us back to the very beginning in the mists of time where Wisdom is personified as a woman telling us the story. She and God delight in each other as they toil together to create everything that exists. Wisdom says she “was rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
The world as we know it today is broken and painted with darker colors. The Apostle Paul characterizes it as the human race and all of creation groaning together in labor pains as we wait for our redemption and for a new world to be born. Old Testament professor Safwat Marzouk aptly describes this groaning:
Communities around the world are suffering climate change, civil war, terrorism, forced migration, and much more. Churches are weary of polarization and division, and many now lack the ability or desire to have fellowship with people who are different from them. Individuals struggles with cancer and migraines and aching bones, or walk with loved ones who do (The Christian Century, May 11, 2016: 22).
The American Dream insist that our standard of living should keep getting better for each generation. We believe this is our American birthright and try to remain oblivious to all the painful realities around us. Others of us have lost hope in a better future as we see our former standard of living slipping away. As a consequence, there has been an alarming increase in alcoholism, drug dependency, obesity, and suicide in working class communities.
The past several decades have been especially difficult for churches. Denominational institutions have had to continually cut staff and programs as their budgets slowly dried up. Church membership has been declining for decades but then more rapidly since the beginning of this century. We remain deeply divided over things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and racial and cultural differences.
Our denomination is experiencing a major schism as various conferences and congregations decide to leave because of such differences. A recent church news article breaks my heart. Several conferences recently voted to leave Mennonite Church USA. This has created a dilemma for many congregations because they now need to make a painful choice between their conference and their denominational affiliation. This ongoing struggle is a constant drip, drip, drip that erodes our faith and hope.
It gets so discouraging! I try to ignore such struggles and put my passion and energy into the life and mission of our church here in Northern Virginia. There’s wisdom in not getting wrapped up in larger church conflicts to the detriment of the local church. Still, like it or not, denominational matters affect us and we can’t just stick our heads in the sand and ignore them.
The challenge is to have our lives formed by a hope that’s grounded in the creative and redeeming work of God. When we do that we’re capable of confronting these kinds of difficulties with grace. Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us some handles on how to do that. He says that we have been made righteous through Christ’s faithfulness combined with our faith. This confidence and faith gives us peace with God. We have an audacious hope.
We boast of this hope. It’s not something to keep under wraps or to be modest about. Then Paul takes an unexpected turn when he exclaims, “We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5: 3-4). The path to a new humanity winds its way through a briar patch of troubles.
I find it hard to gracefully accept troubles. They make me despondent and ashamed of myself and my church. A voice inside me laments that we could do so much better. We certainly could! What I fail to recognize is how we get there. We don’t insist on black and white answers and we don’t just throw up our hands and walk away.
We, instead, persevere and develop character in the process. And as we develop character our faith and hope increase. I love the way Paul concludes, “This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5: 5).