I really love this time of year. Let me be clear: it has nothing to do with the weather. After a couple of nights with temperatures in the 20s around here, I can’t wait for spring to arrive! No, I love it because this is such a hopeful time of year. People tend to reflect on the past twelve months while also looking ahead to a fresh start in a new calendar year. Resolutions — so easy to dismiss — are at least hopeful attempts at intentional living. And that seems like it could be mostly a good thing, in my opinion.
I’ve done my fair share of looking back over the last few weeks. 2021 was a hard year — maybe not *quite* as much of a dumpster fire as 2020, but there were plenty of challenges nonetheless. I’ve had to remind myself that we’re all playing hurt right now.
Whatever 2020 was, it is a permanent part of who we are now — our experiences, our psyche, our collective identity, etc. For most of you who read this blog, you know I’m a minister / pastor. (My tradition doesn’t typically use the word “pastor” but that’s what I do.) In my line of work, 2020 was the year that disrupted so many of the rhythms in our faith communities. We couldn’t gather regularly for a period of time. We learned how to do Zoom / YouTube church. When we did gather, we had to practice social distancing. We had to encourage people to wear masks. And then people’s anxieties began to show. One member might assert that our social distancing requirements were too lax because we didn’t do enough to keep people separated to his satisfaction. And yet another member might proudly show up unmasked, claiming that Covid was nothing more than a socialist conspiracy hellbent on destroying everything we hold dear.
I suppose I was naive enough to hope that 2021 would hasten a return to more of a sense of normalcy in our church life but in reality, it was more of the same. I’ll always remember 2021 as the year I learned that some people weren’t really who I thought they were. Andy Stanley has said that the most painful part about Covid was that some people in his church — members he had counseled and loved and prayed over and cried with and baptized — they changed their entire opinion about him because of the decisions the church made in response to Covid. He talked about officiating the wedding for one young couple in his church; presiding over the funeral of the patriarch of another family in the church. These “holy ground” moments are common to ministry. But Stanley says these same families have been so outraged over the church’s response to the pandemic that they won’t even speak to him any more. And most ministers I know would say the same thing.
Church life is certainly made up of “holy ground” moments such as these. Weddings, funerals, the birth of a child, baptism … the pastor enters into these moments representing the church to a certain degree. And I believe this kind of intimate proximity naturally leads us to talk about the church in familial terms. But 2021 taught us some hard truths about this. We weren’t quite as close as we thought we were, not if a mask policy or an email about social distancing at church can prompt someone to completely terminate their fellowship with a church. If my daughter tells me to wear a mask when I come around her, even if I think the whole thing is absurd, I’m not going to cut her off. That’s because she’s my only daughter; I can’t just go out and get another one. But in American consumeristic church culture, leaving your church has never been easier. In reality, Covid only exposed some of the fault lines that were already present in our lives. No matter. It still hurts when you think people are with you — really, really with you — only to discover how little it would actually take for them to bail on you.
Those are pretty strong words, I know. But it’s a true reflection of what I’ve been feeling over the last several months. And I believe it helps to record this here, to name something as a way of gaining control over it. There’s a truth here that goes all the way back to Eden, to our earliest mandate to exercise dominion in the image and likeness of God. So there’s that.
And there’s also a new year before us, full of new possibility and opportunity. For me, I’ve committed myself to live in a better frame of mind moving forward. I’m not really big on having a “word” for the year, although I know others have found this to be a helpful practice. But if I were going to choose a word for the next twelve months, “forward” might be the one I’d select. God has put us in the midst of a thriving, growing city. Industries are moving here left and right. The other day I read that 5,000 people had moved here since the summer. Huntsville is now the largest city in the state of Alabama. And while that’s great for our city, it also creates an opportunity. There are more people living here today than at any other time in our city’s history. And that means there are more people living here who do not know Jesus than at any time in our city’s history.
So this year, I want to move forward — forward with sharing the gospel, forward with the same focus that Paul writes about in Philippians:
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3:13-14
It’s really important for me to forget all that lies behind and to strain forward toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Yes, the past few years have been difficult and it is important that we acknowledge this. But it’s time to turn the page and to focus on what lies ahead. God has a mission for His people, a purpose for us to expand the borders of the Kingdom by making much of the name of King Jesus. Our God goes before us; therefore may we strain forward to follow His lead into the new year.
To 2022, the year of moving forward.