One of my favorite writers on the church and faith in the 21st century is Tom Ehrich. In a recent post in his On the Road series, Ehrich wrote this:
"The longer I study Scripture, wrestle with ethical issues, write about God, and pray to God, the more I realize that God is a wild one. Not the least predictable or controllable. Not the steady rock I have wanted God to be, but a wild-flowing stream that carries me along to the life God wants me to live. Sometimes I cling to a passing tree, or make landfall and think I have arrived, or buy a big boat to master the current. But the river flows on, and all of my efforts to make it manageable and pleasant don't deter God from doing what God wants to do."
These prophetic words speak to me as an individual as a member of the body of Christ.
I discovered several years ago that God will not allow me to become comfortable. In my late forties and early fifties, I experienced what I refer to as “the decade from Hell.” During this period, my wife’s mother succumbed to Alzheimer's disease, my father died of heart failure, my mother began a long period of treatment for cancer, our preschool grandson passed away after a two year struggle with cancer, and I was involved in a ministry that was both challenging and frustrating. God did not take all of this away but God walked with us during this period. I learned many things during this time. One was that I should celebrate every day of life. I also learned that any illusion that I was in control was a myth.
Our God is the god of wilderness, journey, exile, loss, crucifixion, and rebirth. In our own lives and in the testimony of scripture, we come to understand that God does not always deliver us immediately from strife and depression, but God does bring renewal and new hope on the other side. God calls us to endure, listen, and learn for the next stage of the journey.
When we are faithful on this journey, God often surprises us. God provides new and productive paths of life and service. Despite all of my planning and preparation, I did not foresee where I would be almost seven years into “retirement.” I have the opportunity coach clergy and consult with congregations through Pinnacle Leadership Associates. I am teaching students at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and consulting with faculty and administration on creative ways to form ministers. Who would have thought that the odd assemblage of gifts, training, and experiences of my life would have fitted me for what I am doing now? Evidently, God did.
As a part of the body of Christ, the unpredictability of God reminds me again of the precarious nature of “strategic planning” for a congregation. A church needs to embrace its mission and have a vision for where God is leading it, but the plans and procedures must be held lightly for God continues to surprise with new challenges and possibilities. Rather than codify each step in the church’s anticipated future, a congregation would do well to discover and develop the resources—spiritual, personal, financial, and physical—that God has provided and respond tactically to the changes that are happening all around it.
In so doing, the church will be like the people of Issachar, “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (I Chronicles 12:32, NRSV). This requires a combination of perception, preparation, and faithfulness. First, we must be sensitive to our context. Second, we must be aware of and be good stewards of what God has put in our hands. Third, we must be willing to act at the appropriate time.
The one certainty is that God will open doors at the most unexpected time. Will we be willing to step through?