How God Uses the Wilderness to Shape a Beloved Community
In the early part of this year, Los Ranchos was accepted as a “second-wave” presbytery in the Vital Congregations Initiative. Church sessions had been studying the “7 Marks of Vitality” during 2019 and they were eager to increase their capacity for making disciples in their unique contexts. Over 20 members from five congregations were registered for the National Gathering in April, and then COVID struck.
Even so, the movement continued. The national staff began hosting weekly conversations with church leaders on the “7 Marks of Vitality” and began imagining what a National Gathering would look like via Zoom. That vision became a reality in mid-August with over 35 presbyteries participating including members of Los Ranchos congregations.
The Gathering was a powerful time of worship, Bible study, and presentations on adaptive change. In my next few posts, I plan to share with you some of my key takeaways.
In the Wilderness
When the leader of the Bible Study, Bill Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary, asked his colleagues what they thought were the best biblical metaphors to talk about these turbulent times, some of them suggested the apocalypse (that has come to mind for me!). Others proposed Israel in exile. But Professor Brown decided that the metaphor of “wilderness journey” worked best in his mind.
Like the Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years after being delivered from slavery in Egypt, we find ourselves in desperate need of God’s power and wisdom to guide us through these uncertain times.
The wilderness for the ancient Israelites was a place of disruption and danger, as well as a place of God’s grace, provision, and instruction. In that sense, it was a place of opposites—a “wilderness of polarities.”
Wilderness of Polarities
We have all felt them: chaos and creativity, exhaustion and enthusiasm, conflict and leadership, disbelief and revelation, aimlessness and clarity, just to name a few. I know you have experienced your own extremes and opposites these past several months.
But one thing about the wilderness, in spite of all the stops and goes, the fits and starts, there is an overall movement. We move from old to new, from bondage to freedom, and from chaos to community.
It is not a gradual ascent by any means. There is, however, a rhythm to it, to how God meets us in fresh ways, and how God, instructing us through Torah and gospel, transforms us into a beloved community.
Along the way we feel growing pains, even labor pains, you might say. But it is in the wilderness that this formation of a new community, this new project on the part of God, takes place. It is here that God chooses a people, lives with a people, instructs a people, and accompanies them on their journey through the wilderness to the promised land.
In one way, the wilderness serves to detoxify Israel from their idols which, yes, they occasionally become nostalgic about. They clamber for the fleshpots they sat by in Egypt and the bread that filled their stomachs, even though those comforts came at the cost of their own freedom. But ultimately, God provides for them through a multitude of ways and they begin seeing their idols for what they are: oppressive, toxic, and life killing.
God’s Best Work
So, when we as members of this presbytery feel like we are in the wilderness, remember that God does some of God’s best work there. The wilderness is an invitation to consider what enslaves us and what empowers us, what holds us back and what promises to move us forward. In short, the wilderness is a place that God uses to reshape us into a new version of ourselves so we may become an even better witness to the love and justice of Jesus Christ in the world.
How This Plays Out
It is fair to say that the past six months have provoked disciples to think of new ways of being God’s Church. The triple pandemic of COVID-19, systemic racism, and inequalities in our economy have caused us to reflect on our witness, not only as congregations but as a presbytery.
We have been asking the question, “What can we do to remain faithful to each other and faithful to our calling as God’s ambassadors of love and justice to the world?”
Here are some of the ways the Presbytery of Los Ranchos has answered that call:
- We have used our communal savings to provide emergency relief grants and loans to over 30 faith communities.
- We have coordinated multiple book studies and learning conversations to understand the dynamics of systemic racism, and how we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
- We have hosted weekly gatherings of pastors to support each other and to share how their congregations are adapting to the new realities posed by COVID-19.
- We have appointed an Administrative Commission to consider the organizational, strategic, and financial adaptations we need to make as a presbytery to carry out our mission beyond this pandemic season. A sub team of this AC has met with every presbytery staff member to discuss their individual role and contribution to the presbytery’s mission.
- We have begun to prune strategies and activities that were bearing fruit, or at least great promise, during “normal times” but which no longer hold the same promise during this time. One sign of this pruning is Council’s action to suspend our relationship with Cyclical, Inc. so that we can reinvest our church-starting resources in new ways.
It is an understatement to say that these are unusual times. We find ourselves in a wilderness of dangers and opportunities where many of us feel quite vulnerable. Yet, we worship a God of infinite possibilities who cares for us, even as we care for each other as a presbytery.
May God give us faith during this time to engage the unknown, the tenuous, and the setbacks with courage so that through it all we may become better witnesses to Christ our Lord who is sure to save.
With you on this journey,