By Rev. William O. "Bud" Reeves
Senior Pastor, First UMC Fort Smith
We live in a world of uncertainty. We never know what the next day—or even the next hour—will bring. Not a week goes by that I don’t have to deal with someone whose world, in a moment, has radically and forever changed. A healthy, strong retiree suffers a debilitating stroke. A father of three loses his job in a corporate downsizing. An innocent driver is injured in a tragic accident. A house fire takes the life of a child. We never know what the day will bring.
We live with uncertainty on a grand scale. The political situation in our country descends closer to chaos every day. Our fellow human beings—from children in public schools to soldiers on the fields of battle—suffer the scourge of violence. “Huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are gathered outside our borders in unconscionable conditions.
And of course, our beloved United Methodist Church seems locked on a trajectory of division. After nearly half a century of often rancorous debate, it is clear there is still an intractable disagreement over matters of human sexuality, and there are enough people who are not willing to live with that disagreement that some sort of division is inevitable. (See our Bishop’s remarks from November 8.) The Wesleyan Covenant Association has distributed drafts of their new Book of Discipline and is organizing the committee structure for a so-called “new expression of Methodism.” Several plans of separation have been proposed for consideration by General Conference in 2020.
In these uncertain days, where can we turn? What can we do? Where is the hope?
As we begin the season of Advent, we find that this spiritual season (not so much the cultural Christmas) is all about the uncertain human condition. Before Jesus was born, the people were living in the midst of violence, oppression, and poverty. They never knew what the day would bring, either. Yet they longed for the promised Messiah. They never stopped hoping. Then God came as a baby to save the world. God sent the Son to live and grow and teach and die for our salvation. The Baby is Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Our response to the Advent reality may be to follow the advice of Jesus, to “stay awake” and to “watch” for the signs of the Kingdom at hand. Through Isaiah, God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” We should keep our eyes open for the work of God in the world. It’s there for those who can see. Maybe we can join in.
Another critical response to the uncertainty of the times is, to use the metaphor of Jesus, to keep our hands to the plow and our eyes straight ahead. He said, “Whoever puts their hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.” If we spend our time and energy bemoaning the past, second-guessing individuals or groups, and letting ourselves be controlled by fear, we will never see the way God is preparing in front of us.
The most important task in these uncertain times is to do everything we can to make our local church as strong and vital as we can. Give, serve, pray, and work so that the church family you love can withstand the tides of uncertainty and change. The worst thing would be to abandon ship. Our mission has not changed. We are still here to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We are still called to teach the children, engage the youth, encourage the families, support the elderly, marry the couples, visit the sick, bury the dead, proclaim the Word, love the neighbor, and lead the lost soul to Jesus. Whatever happens in our world or country or denomination, we have to keep steady, plow the field, and look to the future.
We have not lost hope. God who came in Emmanuel is still with us. Jesus is still Lord. We live in an Advent kind of world, but this kind of world is where we can truly live. Advent acknowledges our human condition, but it also envisions our highest aspiration. We live in the midst of uncertainty, but with the undeniability of God’s ultimate victory. We face fear every day, but we do not give up our faith. In a world full of heartbreak, we dare to have hope.
This is not news. But this is Good News. In fact, it’s the best news of all. John Wesley said it memorably, as he lay dying: “Best of all, God is with us.” True. Thanks be to God.