New perceptions in congregations
Speaking to people in exile, God’s prophet Isaiah proclaims the word of God: “Do not consider the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
It seems astonishing that any prophet should tell the people, “do not consider the former things or the things of old,” especially when those “former things” and “things of old” include the cherished memories of sacred history. For Israel, the former things and things of old include the Exodus, the Promised Land, Jerusalem and the Temple.
The consideration of those things bound the people to God and gave them their identity as God’s people. The consideration of those things was holy work and religious duty. How could the prophet tell the people not to consider those former things, those things of old?
The hard reality of exile had separated the people from those former things and things of old. The Temple lay in ruins, Jerusalem was far away, the Promised Land was theirs no longer, and the Exodus seemed to have been reversed. In exile, the people grieved for what they had lost.
“How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” asked the psalmist, who then vowed: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand whither!” (Psalm 137:4-5). The psalmist would rather be cursed than surrender the cherished memories of sacred history. How then can God’s prophet tell the people, “Do not consider the former things or the things of old”?
Isaiah perceives that amidst the grief of exile, cherished memories have become obstacles to faith and impediments to hope. Grieving for what they have lost, the people have become unable to discern what is yet to occur in their relationship with God and in their lives as God’s people. God speaks to the people through the prophet: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
The reason the prophet tells the people, “do not consider the former things or the things of old,” is because he wants them to set their sights — and their hearts and their minds — on the “new thing” that God is about to do. God calls the people to witness this “new thing” and to find within it their life, their hope and their purpose. They cannot do this, however, as long as their hearts and minds are imprisoned by cherished memories of former things: things of old.
Many ELCA congregations in the United States today are in a kind of exile, separated from the former things of cherished memories. They grieve for what they have lost: stable communities, full pews, dependable finances and vigorous programs. The ground has shifted beneath their feet, and they are no longer in familiar territory.
Instead they are in a foreign land of demographic change, financial insecurity and institutional decline. They wonder, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in this foreign land?” For such congregations in contemporary rural America, the prophetic words addressed to ancient Israel assume an urgent and timely relevance: Do not consider the former things; perceive instead the new thing, now springing forth.
What is that “new thing”? Almost certainly it will not be a recovery of the former things of cherished memories. The new thing will involve a different way of being a church, of discerning and engaging God’s mission for a new time and a new situation.
What remains sure is that God remains. God does not abandon any people or place or situation; the foreign land of exile is not foreign to God. God’s purposes embrace all of creation, and in every place, God calls forth witnesses to God’s life-giving work.
Isaiah tells the people that God will “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” The wilderness is still the wilderness and the desert is still the desert, but God makes a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert so that life may flourish even in hard realities.
The life of God’s church in rural places can also flourish, even if those places seem like a foreign land to people there who cherish memories of former things. The new flourishing will not look like the former flourishing. Cherished memories of former things must give way to new perceptions.
“Now,” says the prophet, the new thing “springs forth, do you not perceive it?” That promise and that question, first spoken long ago and far away, are God’s promise and God’s question for rural congregations today.