Starting, then Persevering

by | Sep 23, 2021

See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
Isaiah 43:19

I’ve been thinking about what it feels like when we start down a path toward something new–be it an idea, a destination or dream. Sometimes we begin with a clear vision of where we’re headed; other times, all we know is that it’s time to take the first step toward what lies beyond our sight. In either case, deciding to start is an act of faithfulness, a willingness to trust that the Spirit of God is, indeed, doing something new. 

From the vantage point of arrival or accomplishment, it’s easy for others to imagine that we had complete certainty when we first set out, or that the outcome was the logical conclusion of that first step. We know better. We rarely, if ever, felt that level of confidence, nor was the path as linear when we walked it as it seems to have been in retrospect. 

If there is anything we’ve learned in the last two years, surely it is the art of improvisation. We’ve done so much experimenting and adapting. We’ve faced realities that we didn’t know were coming or had been there all along, but we didn’t see them until now. We’ve been tried, tested and stretched beyond what many of us thought was possible. More than once, we’ve been blown off course or forced to stop what we were doing in order to deal with yet another crisis. Many of us have grieved, and prayed, like never before. 

We’ve also learned the importance of perseverance, not giving up on those God-inspired visions that got us moving in the first place. Yes, there have been setbacks, detours, and entirely new contexts in which to live our lives, do our work, and walk in Jesus’ way of love. But God is still God. We are still here. And while it doesn’t feel like much, there is something to be gained in taking one faithful step at a time toward the dreams God has placed on our hearts. 

Last Saturday, clergy and lay leaders from 12 EDOW congregations gathered for the official start of a three-year journey toward greater vitality through the Tending Our Soil thriving congregations initiative. Looking ahead three years at a time when we don’t know how to plan for tomorrow is surely an expression of audacious hope, born of the conviction that our faith communities still have a place in God’s mission of reconciling love. Those of us who first dreamed of such an initiative three years ago are in awe that by grace and perseverance we have made it to this day. It was anything but inevitable when we began.

At a virtual gathering of Episcopal bishops this week, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry suggested that we were in what he called “a narthex moment.” The narthex, in Episcopal-speak, refers to that area in a church where people enter and exit. It is an apt metaphor, he said, for this time of uncertainty, “between the world we knew and whatever is being born.” Yet the picture he painted of what God might be doing now is, in fact, an ancient dream of a church “not formed in the ways of this world but formed in the ways of Jesus and his love.” Some aspects of the world being born resonate with our spiritual forebears’ vision of what it meant to follow Jesus; others are unique to our time. 

Given the magnitude of suffering and uncertainty we face each day, persevering in hope can be a challenging spiritual practice. More than once, I have succumbed to despair and cynicism. But then days like Saturday happen, when I feel the power of God’s steady inspiration and the fruits of small, faithful steps over time. I’ve experienced similar moments in our labors for justice, and the work to build resources to help our people grow in faith and our leaders to lead well. They give me hope that our diocesan strategic plan–prayerfully discerned in the three years before COVID-19–can still be our guide even as we must adapt, sometimes daily, to new challenges. 

Maybe we are always living in the tension between the world as we know it and the new world being born. I am persuaded that the seeds of new life have already been planted, for some have begun to sprout and grow. We’ve already begun the journey from where we are now to where God is calling us. Today, and every day, our task is to take the next faithful step.