Faithfulness without Guarantees

Over lunch today, Tim Spengler and I continued a conversation that began during the “Talk Back to the Preacher” session last Sunday. Among other subjects, we discussedour congregation’s collective vision for the future. Do we continue along our current path, or do we seek a new paradigm for ministry? How can we ensure the long-term financial wellbeing of the church? What can we do to attract new people to our congregation? How do we respond to the many issues and challenges of living in the United States, and particularly Columbus, in this historical moment? And how do we answer all these questions in ways that are faithful to our mission and that ensure our survival as a congregation?

As we finished lunch and got ready to leave the restaurant, Tim said, “I’m disappointed. I thought we would have this all worked out by now”—meaning over the course of this one mealtime conversation.

If only it were that simple, right? If only we could locate the magic formula, the philosopher’s stone, to transmute the lead of our uncertain present into the gold of a shining future. But of course we both knew—we all know—that it doesn’t work that way.

Nor should it. We live in a quick-fix culture, but we follow a savior who tells us, “The one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). We live in a world enamored with spectacle—with the big, the loud, the flamboyant—but we worship a God who cannot be found in the violent wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). Some long for the days when our sanctuary was full every Sunday morning, the offering plates overflowed, and the very light that came through the skylight was tinted rose, but then we hear Jesus say, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt 18:20).

As usual, Jesus refuses to tell us what we want to hear. Could it be that he’s telling us what we need to hear?

At some point during lunch, we got on the subject of the shootings of Henry Green and Ty’re King, and I said more forcefully than I meant to, “That is what is going on in our city right now! That is where I think we need to be expending our energy, in the pursuit of justice for every member of our community.” I feel the need for our church to become deeply engaged, alongside our sisters and brothers in the African-American community, in seeking justice, openness, and accountability from our public servants, and in working on initiatives to end the cycle of poverty, drug abuse, crime, and violence that is taking such a terrible toll on their neighborhoods and their children. In my bolder moments I might even say that I sense God is calling us to do that.

But what about the risks, Tim wanted to know. What if taking these actions alienated people or had some deleterious effect on our congregation’s “solvency”? [My word, not his.] What if taking a controversial stand for justice like that hurt our efforts to grow the church’s membership, and—worst-case scenario—led to our dissolution?

What I did not say but do earnestly believe is that engagement in these issues must be a congregational decision. It is not my intention to drag anybody kicking and screaming along on my personal crusade. At the same time, I believe you called me to be your pastor in order to provide leadership, and this is where I truly sense the movement of the Spirit in this time and place.

As for the question about risk, what I did say to Tim was that the task of our church (just as for every individual disciple of Jesus) is faithfulness without guarantees. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego occurred to me. You probably remember the story of the three Hebrews serving in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar who get thrown into the fiery furnace because they insist on remaining faithful to God despite temptations and threats to worship a golden statue the king has set up. When Nebuchadnezzar calls them in to answer for their treasonous refusal to bow down to his statue, they say, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and [God] will rescue us from your hand, O king. But if even if [God] does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan 3:16–18, NIV, emphasis added).

We know, of course, that they survive—God does indeed deliver them. But before the fact, they have no reasonable expectation of coming out alive. They are willing to go to their deaths because of their commitment to God. They choose to remain faithful without guarantees. As Mother Teresa once said, “God has not called me to be successful. [God] called me to be faithful.”

I personally believe that when we put ourselves on the line for causes of justice, people will see that public witness and want to be a part of our fellowship. But that may not happen. God is calling us to be faithful without guarantees—of success, of acclaim, or even of survival. It’s a hard call to accept, and we can choose to let the call go to voicemail and never respond. Or we can answer, perhaps with fear and trembling, and say, “Here we are, Lord, send us.”

Faithlab