We’ve been on the move a lot this summer. My wife and I ended our pastoral relationship with a congregation on the North Shore of Vancouver and both began new callings. I’ve moved “across the water” to UBC during working hours to take up a new faculty position at St. Andrew’s Hall, the Presbyterian College in partnership with the Vancouver School of Theology. Laura has transitioned into full time parent and Commanding Officer of the domestic front for our three active children.
We’ve also moved house on the North Shore (twice) going from our old home to a rental and now to our new home in North Vancouver. We’ve been on the go guest preaching in the lower mainland, Penticton in the Interior of BC and Parksville on Vancouver Island.
Perhaps with all this movement I’ve been drawn towards stories from the Book of Exodus where Moses, Aaron and Miriam move with the people of Israel on an adventure into an unknown land promised by the Almighty. As I’ve been nibbling at different parts of the text including the famous “Manna from Heaven” text in Exodus 16, I’ve been reflecting a lot in prayer on the future movement of the church in North America. Since the 1990s I’ve been reading books and hearing lectures on the declining church (we all know, of course, that statistically the mainline denominations have been in decline in Canada since the mid 1960s) and watching people react in a variety of ways. Some are in denial, picking one off examples of growth to hold out hope. Others have surrendered and moved past lament to despair, offering non-biblical examples of our situation like the Titanic sinking into the sea. Many respected scholars like Walter Brueggemann have offered us solid biblical examples of our condition drawing on the crisis of the Exile, following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. In fact, when I think back to con ed conferences over the years Exile has been held up as a dominant lens through which to interpret the shifting position of the Christian church in North America in everything from Church/State relations to Sunday attendance to social justice work on a national scale.
I wonder, though, when I reflect on this acceptance of our “Exile” reality and worry that it has in some way stunted our evangelical and entrepreneurial approach to sharing the gospel. Are we patiently waiting for the Babylonian empire to crumble so that we can “return home?” And where is home? I worry that for many of the last generation raised to go to church who sit in our pews… home is the 1950s church. But surely a return to the 1950s church is both unreasonable and undesirable.
No, as I’ve preached through Exodus this summer I’ve been struck by how necessary the people’s reliance on the sovereignty of God is in these stories.
They are hungry.
They are thirsty.
They are lost.
They are discouraged.
Only God can provide what they need.
In some ways, Exodus marks the difference between belief and trust. A recent United Church Observer poll suggested that 2/3’s of Canadians still “Believe” in God. That’s great, but I care less about that kind of stat than I did a few years ago. I actually care less and less if people tell me they “believe in God.” After all, even the devil believes in God. I care more about whether they TRUST in God. Is the kind of belief offered simply an intellectual acknowledgment that some sort of God exists. Fine. But that can easily lead to functional atheism…believing in God without having that affect the way we live and move and have our being in this world.
No, the Exodus story is a story of people who have used up their last best trick…they’ve gone to their last best church growth conference…they’ve read their last best 10 ways to revive your church…and instead they come humble, hungry, and eager for the God of Moses, Aaron and Miriam to fill them.
This is an exciting time to be in the Church, and in the Reformed tradition in particular. Maybe it’s time to worry less about exile and trust more in the exodus that invites us to join God in the neighbourhood and lean on the grace of the Holy One revealed in Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I don’t know about you but I for one am ready for the Bread of Heaven…and there are almost days where I swear I can catch a faint scent of God’s future rising…causing me to sing
…feed us till we want no more, feed us till we want no more….
Ross Lockhart is an Associate Professor and Director of Ministry Leadership and Education at St. Andrew’s Hall at UBC.