Resisting the ‘Let’s Go Back to Egypt Committee’ in a Pandemic
Stuart Williams is Senior Pastor of Skyview Community Church of the Nazarene in Calgary, AB
The past two+ years have been hard on our church. Like other congregations, the impact of the pandemic has led to an ebb and flow to our worship attendance, volunteer service, and income. Despite the significant impact and concerns this has caused, the pandemic also created needed space for reflection and opportunity within the church. In the good and bad of what we have experienced, the potential for new life emerges. Here is what we are learning during a pandemic.
Letting go of the past is hard but necessary. When the going gets tough it is easy to look back and mistakenly think that the path forward is a return to what was. The Israelites formed a “let’s go back to Egypt committee” when their present reality in the wilderness appeared harder than their past suffering in Egypt. Living in discomfort does that to the best of us. We can easily lament what once was rather than look forward to what can be.
For many the idea of implementing new ideas or starting new ministries in an already taxing season of life is about as attractive as sneezing into a mask. Over the past year I’ve often heard it said: “I have very little capacity for more.” Hard seasons are inevitable and can be draining, but these difficult times can also become fertile soil for new life and renewed vision. The question is: Are we willing to make room, not for more, but for the new? To make room requires honest reflection and the willingness to let some things go. Only then can we find space for new possibilities in the present.
In Numbers 11, Israel’s nostalgia leads to a planned return to Egypt. Neglecting the suffering of their past, the people remember only the good food they once knew. Poor memory does that! It’s selective, often seeing only the highlights of yesterday while dismissing the shortcomings of the past. Honest reflection guards against selective memory by recalling the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is a vital approach to helping us name our shortcomings, learn from our past, and guard against the pessimism that the best days are in our past. It is also helpful in discerning what to let go of so that we may be able to see new possibilities today.
Prior to the pandemic our church was growing fast. We were growing so fast that we had to hire more staff. Yet, as I recall, not everything was up and to the right. While we were known to be hospitable, we were not missional. We were attracting those who already shared our Christian faith and missing so many who would never darken the door of our church. We knew we needed to grow in the tangible expression of love and care for the marginalized, the vulnerable, the poor, and the hungry, as Jesus did. While much time and energy were expended on making our church a welcoming and hospitable space prior to the pandemic, we could no longer do so as restrictions impacting social gatherings were implemented.
As the pandemic rolled on two ideas emerged. We conceived of the potential to grow a community garden on our church lot. We discerned a partnership with the local food bank to help those in need with assistance on a weekly basis. To date we have served over 250 families with much needed groceries and locally grown produce. What is surprising is that these initiatives were birthed during a pandemic and that many of our parishioners became energized and excited by the opportunities to serve others in this way.
As you think about your context, what is good, bad, or even ugly? What do you need to let go of to make room for new life? Instead of looking back nostalgically, reflect honestly, let go, and discern the potential for new life in the present.
What We're Reading
On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times
I am prone to sanguine celebration, upbeat conversation, positive spins, half-full perspectives, and the view to think on only the uplifting. I do realize that life isn’t built that way. Imbalance and even indifference can result from this proneness. I sometimes wonder if we are missing something when our congregational gatherings lean away in a denying or avoiding way from some of the awkward and difficult realities of everyday living. When I was travelling through a year of spiritual directions (19th Annotation), I was guided through exercises to appreciate, identify, and even name the ups and downs of my own experiences through frames of the movements of consolation and desolation. This was reminiscent of the Sunday School activity of bending a pipe cleaner in the shape of the roller coaster events of the week. In those days, and still, I find myself with a very shallow emotional lexicon of inscape descriptors and have benefited from listening to others, my life partner Viv who is a palliative physician, and hearing of the life, pain, and trials of others. These experiences and from my reading, I’ve been learning more of the “alphabet of grace” and the languages of anguish. It is helpful to gain insights into how others have understood, experienced, and articulated lament. We know that “the rain pours on both the righteous and the unrighteous” but how then shall we live and come alongside those in our spheres of work, communities, and congregations as the inevitable hardships of life, pain, and death accompany us in our journeys.
Still in the memory of many Canadians will be the short-lived political stint of Michael Ignatieff. Prior to his political tenure he was a provocative and fluent Harvard professor who helped me and others on a number of human rights topics. On the same theme of learning about consolation, he begins his most recent book, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times (2021), by recounting two days listening to all 150 Psalms beautifully sung at an Utrecht musical festival where he was a speaker and had chosen to speak on walking through the shadow of death. The extended time with the sung Psalms moved him to write a 17 chapter book that picks up on the written wrestlings and laments of Job, St. Paul, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Boethius and Dante, El Greco, Montaigne, Hume, Condoret, Marx, Lincoln, Mahler, Weber, Akhmatova, Camus, Havel, and even Cicely Saunders of modern hospice fame. Ignatieff identifies himself as a “non-believer”. He speaks of how age and failure have tempered and matured his life and taught him about walking in the shadow of death with failure, disappointment, and tragic circumstances. I do think we serve our congregations when we legitimate conversations about hard things and equip our people to learn about the rhythms of grace in the context of dark times. Perhaps dark times don’t need to be relegated to the cellars of our experiences but brought into the light of community, communion, and conversation. Ignatieff’s book is worth reading.
Dr. Keith Walker, Professor of Leadership and Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan
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