“We have no need to fear the future.” So said bishop-elect H. George Anderson at a news conference immediately following his election as bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “[The future] belongs to God, untouched by human hands.” At the beginning of a new ministry of leadership and pastoral oversight, such words from a bishop are obviously designed to project confidence and a profound sense of trust in the mission of the Church. They are words designed to inspire and empower the people of God for ministry.
Ages ago, another prophet of the people stood at his station and peered into the future. The prophet Habakkuk poised on the rampart, scanned the horizon for the approaching enemy he knew was coming. As he waited, Habakkuk prayed to God asking why God was unresponsive to all this violence and destruction. In Habakkuk chapter 2 the prophet records God’s answer to his questions about the future. God says to the fearful one, “For there is still a vision for the appointed time;… If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay…the righteous live by faith” (2:3-4).
As people of faith we continue to echo this promise in our lives. And yet as we stand at the threshold of a new millennium, societal forces are at work to wrest such optimism about the future out of our hearts. The May 1, 1995, issue of Newsweek described the phenomenon this way:
These are the Nervous Nineties. Life–by any rational standard–is good . . . The economy is good, but a majority worry about losing their jobs. The crime rate is down, but everyone knows someone who has been mugged. Medicine can perform miracles, but there is the threat of new viruses and some old bacteria are making a comeback. Finally, the Cold War is over; Russian missiles aren’t pointed at Kansas City, but a terrorist bomb can turn Oklahoma City into Beirut. The cover of last week’s New Republic . . . read, ‘Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.’
Here in the beginning of 1996, such issues cause us to face a new millennium with as much consternation as did Christians 1,000 years ago who genuinely believed that Christ was returning immediately to judge the world.
Any one of us could draw up a lengthy list of challenges to effective ministry facing the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. Statistics about the health of many of our congregations are daunting.
Tensions between city and suburbs strain at our common life. Ministry in the inner city becomes increasingly difficult. Trust levels are frighteningly low. Competition for funds and new members threaten collegiality. A common vision for how best to address issues of worship and evangelism seem to allude us. All are reasons to be afraid for the future of our life together as a Christian community.
But the words from Habakkuk, echoed in the speech of Bishop Anderson, remind us of a central Christian truth: God’s dominion is coming from the future to meet us, and until it arrives, today’s disciples are invited to point to its coming with assurance and joy. We have no need to be afraid of the challenges confronting us in ministry and life. No matter what the future holds, God has been there before us. The prophets envisioned justice and peace flowing over the land. The eternal truth of Incarnation is that God has forever identified the divine with the human. The cross is proclaimed as a constant reminder that God’s power is manifested in the midst of vulnerability and weakness. Resurrection is God’s assurance that renewal and new life are ongoing gifts to the baptized.
The future is in God’s hands. Let’s talk about it—and rejoice!