My father had two older relatives that he would sometimes visit as a child. The husband and wife lived on an old farm in the hills of Kentucky – in a place called Possum Holler. The buildings were old; the farm was small and muddy. The couple did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. They did not have a car, and they did their cooking on a wood stove. Most people assumed that the couple was poor. My dad certainly did. He once asked his father after a visit, “How can people live so poor?” His dad replied, “You must not be very smart. These people are rich.” Now Dad thought that Grandpa meant they were metaphorically rich. But this was a mistake. It turned out that Grandpa meant that they were actually rich – sitting on top of a half million dollars at least in the bank. They had spent their whole lives working – farming and mining – and storing away money while they lived cheaply and provided for themselves. The outward appearance of their farm and the assumptions that it caused others to make were not accurate reflections of the true wealth of these old Kentucky farmers. In a similar manner, it is sometimes easy to make assumptions about the true state and condition of the church. The doomsday prophets of religious decline have been bellowing out verdicts about the church for decades. And, of course, some of the things stated are accurate analyses in the case of established mainline congregations. Biblical and theological knowledge have severely declined. Deaths have outpaced conversions. Congregations have dissolved. It can be at times a rather bleak portrait. But the doomsday prophets – even when they are right – do not tell the whole story. Sometimes the truth about the church is hard to see from the outside. But when one has ears to hear and eyes to see, it is possible to see surprising shimmers of life and vitality even among the wreckage.
At what moments and in what ministries have you felt the life and vitality that flows from Jesus to his people, even as life flows from the vine to the branches? When have you experienced the true wealth of the church?
In one of my favorite scenes from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, Sam awakes from slumber, having escaped from Mordor, only to find Gandalf alive and well at his side. The old wizard asks the hobbit how he feels and Sam marvels that he himself is alive. He then asks the question, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Skipping over to Sally Lloyd-Jones’s incredible The Jesus Story-book Bible, I find another deeply moving scene. Mary Magdalene has just encountered Jesus, risen from the dead. She is running to tell the disciples what he has said, and she thinks to herself, “Was God really making everything sad come untrue?”
The resurrection of Christ is God’s answer to the pain and suffering of this life. Jesus has gone to the deepest depths of suffering and grief. He has gone to the place of ultimate loss. And he has triumphed. And in his triumph, God’s ultimate plan for his creation has been set in motion and guaranteed. Resurrection is now available for us through Jesus, and God is busy applying resurrection to all things – even when the days seemed riddled with darkness and uncertainty. Yes, everything sad is coming untrue. And one day we will be with Jesus forever in a new heavens and a new earth. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
– Lamentations 3:22-24 ESV
For 175 years, the First Presbyterian Church of Hillsdale, MI has been worshipping and serving our great and glorious God. When a church has a long history, it is dangerously easy to focus on great personalities and great events to the exclusion of the most important reality of all – God’s unfailing mercy. The history of this church is not merely the history of women and men gathering together but the history of God’s unfailing love in Jesus Christ experienced afresh, day-in and day-out for 175 years. In Christ and in his mercy, we live and move and have our being. Here’s to another 175 years of God’s mercy!