Two pieces of reading and variety of reflective conversations with a wide and extremely diverse collection of people have caught my attention recently. As he commonly does, Gil Rendle offers insightful reflections on the challenge a nostalgic longing presents to the church. Almost simultaneously, I have been reading Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism. Dr. Levin forcefully notes that much of our current political malaise (and dearth of leadership) stems from being “blinded by nostalgia” through looking back on mythic ideal age in America (the late 1950s –early 1960s for liberals and the early 1980s “Regan era” for conservative) and trying to somehow recreate that age (which can’t be done!).
What has captured my immediate attention is how both point to the danger of being so enamored by the past that we have trouble addressing the present. In one of my early workshops under the great Methodist leadership guru Lyle Schaller, I remember him saying, “The most important vote an Administrative Board [or Council] takes every year is to decide what year is next year.” Schaller went on to explain that if you think next year is 1957 you will vote, act and commit your resources differently than if you think next year is 2017.
In a Texas Methodist Foundation, August 15th blog entitled “Nostalgia and Three Changed Questions“, Dr. Rendle shares how he has added the critically important word “now” to his “Holy Conversations’” questions. [“Who are we now? What does God call us to do now? Who is our neighbor now?”] He goes on to comment:
“I have come to believe that one of our key challenges in the church is nostalgia. An antidote to nostalgia is to keep reminding ourselves when we are (i.e., now). I am an early baby-boomer and grew up in the church when it was strong, growing consistently and at the center of the culture.
“When nostalgia kicks in, I am tempted to conjure that image of the church and assume that with a bit more hard work, we could be like that again. (By the way, I’m also tempted to think of myself as having more hair and energy as well as less weight and complaints.) The problem with nostalgia is that it leads me to think that’s how the church is (or I am) supposed to be and that somehow the world is supposed to be like it was before, as well!”
I am captured by the idea that the first task of leadership is to draw an honest picture of the current reality, which in this case is a picture of the church no longer in the center of a changed culture. Nostalgia doesn’t help, and in most cases reminds us of what we cannot have anymore. Instead, we need to ask what we are going to do with what we do have.
We in the church and in the larger American society need to beware of nostalgia. The temptation to try to “turn back the clock” to an imagined better time is powerful for all of us! Various scripture examples abound. There is Mordechai’s proclaim to Esther, “But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family” (Esther 4:14). The prophet Isaiah shares a word of the Lord. “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness” (Isaiah 43:19-20). Perhaps greatest of all, there is the Lord himself proclaiming, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15).
God doesn’t need to get with our program. We must enlist or re-enlist with the mighty workings of God. In a serious of recent presentations, I have intentionally made a point of emphasizing what the Lord is doing now(!) in, through and around us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing! We are called to ministry for such a time as this! The Kingdom of God is at hand!
In the South Central Jurisdictional Conference Episcopal Address, I reached for this great truth. I said, “Please, I bid you, step with me carefully into the new future God is even now leading us to. This is not the stuff of Pollyanna dreams nor still an ostrich-like head-in-the-sands denial of reality. It is the stuff of our faith. Here we find our footing in these turbulent times on the solid rock of Christ as Lord and Savior (Matthew 7:24-25). ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord’ (Jeremiah 29:11-14a).”
Beware of nostalgia! It can call us away and lead us astray however well intended. The Lord God is birthing a new church out of the old and in some places in the old!