31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
September 20, 2020
For hundreds of years, the Church of Jesus Christ has paddled along. Sure, there have been waves and some wind however most of the time it has been smooth water.
And then in the last few decades, the Church has found ourselves a little beached, tempted to go backward, not knowing how to go forward.
In the last six months, we, as the Church, have found ourselves totally out of water.
Are you kidding me? What are we supposed to do here?!
This time that we are living in is unprecedented. Nothing in our past fully prepared us for our present situation. Certainly nothing in my seminary training prepared me to lead a church community through the changes that were already happening in the world and the church, let alone a pandemic.
As the Church and as individuals, we are in uncharted territory.
We are not the first people to journey into the unknown though. Countless people of faith have traveled unfamiliar paths, voyaged into the mysterious and new, taken the road less traveled or even the road completely untraveled. People, like our ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah and people like Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery.
They seem an odd combination of pilgrims to inspire us however Abraham & Sara and Lewis & Clark had a lot in common, a lot that can inspire us, guide us, teach us as we, too, journey into uncharted territory and the unknown.
First, both Abraham and the Corps of Discovery were asked, invited, called to journey. President Thomas Jefferson charged Lewis and Clark and their team to explore the new Louisiana Purchase and specifically to find a Northwest water passage to the Pacific Ocean.
As we heard in this morning’s scripture passage, God called Abraham to leave his country and go to a land that God would show him. Scripture often lacks details we wish we knew so I wonder if God was more specific or if that was all God said “to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) That’s not a very specific destination. That’s not a very clear road map for the journey ahead.
And still, Abraham goes, which is miraculous in itself – to so trust God that you would intentionally set out on a journey into the unknown. Add to that the fact that this was not the first time Abraham had set out on this journey. Abraham’s father, Terah, had previously intended to take his family from Ur to Canaan, however when they got halfway, when they arrived in Haran, they settled.
They settled. It is an all too familiar response to a journey into the unknown. That once we get any modicum of comfort, once we find a spot to rest, set up camp, and surround ourselves with the known, we settle.
I fully confess that temptation myself. After six months, I was becoming comfortable with our streaming worship routine. There are practical, logistical reasons why it could not become our forever, however the more important reason is that God is always calling us forward. Even when we want to go backward, even when we want to get comfortable in the present, God is calling us to journey forward, which is always a journey into the unknown.
Lewis and Clark signed up for this mission into the unknown. They had the right temperaments. They had the right skills. They had the right supplies – or rather they had the right skills and the right supplies to be river explorers because that is what they expected. That is what everyone expected – that Lewis and Clark and their band of intrepid explorers would make the arduous journey to source of the Missouri River, carry their canoes a half day’s journey over mountains, and then put them back into water and coast all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
In his 2015 book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, the Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger writes: “They could not have been more disappointed. What Lewis actually discovered was that three hundred years of experts had all been completely and utterly wrong. In front of [them] was not a gentle slope down to a navigable river running to the Pacific Ocean but the Rocky Mountains. Stretching out for miles and miles as far as the eyes could see was one set of peaks after another.” (Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger, pg 26)
In a way, the Rocky Mountains should not have been a surprise. The native peoples had told them they would need to cross the mountains; however “when they thought of mountains, they pictured the rounded tree-topped bluffs of the Appalachians.” They pictured what they knew, what was familiar and known. Based on the assumptions of three hundred years of experts, Lewis and Clark expected the western half of the United States to look exactly like the eastern half. They expected their future to look like their past.
We all too often expect our future to look like our past. We assume we can keep doing things exactly the same way we have always done things. And then we find ourselves in uncharted territory, and we wonder “what are we supposed to do here?!”
Dr. Bolsinger asks that same question in a different manner, “How do you canoe over mountains?” (Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger, pg 34)
You don’t. If you want to continue forward, you change. You adapt. Meriwether Lewis looked at miles and miles of snow-covered peaks and knew that to continue his journey he would have to change his entire approach. (Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger, pg 26)
The same is true for us – to journey into uncharted territory, to journey into the unknown, to journey where God calls us, we also need to change and adapt. Like Lewis and Clark, we need to “ditch the canoes, ask for help, find horses and cross the mountains. And when the time comes, we make new boats out of burnt trees.” (Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger, pg 26)
The journey into the unknown asks us to let go, to learn as we go, to keep going no matter what. (Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger, pg 26 paraphrased)
The journey into the unknown asks us to let go, to learn as we go, to keep going no matter what.
That is a big deal. That is a scary endeavor. It is completely understandable why we as the Church and as individuals would try to go back or at least try to hold fast to a comprehensible and comfortable present.
Journeying into the unknown challenges us, challenges us to let go, learn as we go, and to keep going no matter what. And that is hard. We weren’t prepared for this new future. We might not even want this new future. We might want to stay comfortably in Haran and just hope for the “new” to go away.
And yet, God calls us forward. God invites us on a journey into the unknown – for the purpose of blessing us, for the purpose of blessing others through us.
And even as God invites us into this unknown future, even as God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing” God is also promising to be there. God is promising to “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
What are we supposed to do here? What are we supposed to do with a world that increasingly thinks it has no use for faith and the Church? What are we supposed to do with this pandemic? What are we supposed to do in this uncharted territory?
I am not always certain. The path before me, the path before us, as the First Congregational Church, is not a clear map forward; however I have my eyes open; I have my heart and mind open, open to the new that God is doing, open to this way that God is creating.
On this journey into the unknown, I have faith that when we journey where God leads us, God is always there, blessing us and blessing others through us.