What are the stories that give you hope? Not just stories that make you feel good for the moment, but stories that raise your expectations that the future is a good and holy place?
I find myself wandering around in the book of Joshua these days, camped out on the banks of the Jordan River, waiting for the world to move forward – out of this pandemic, into our sanctuary, through the mire of our politics and prejudices. Some days I’m not so sure that I want to go for fear of giants in the land, the unknowns of what life and church will look like on the other side of COVID, what kind of leadership it will require.
But the call of God is always forward, even when rushing waters of uncertainty and change flow between us and the future toward which God is leading.
“Be strong and courageous,” God commanded Joshua. “Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
When the Israelites entered the Jordan River, it turned to dry land and they were able to cross. And God directed that they should take 12 stones from the center of the river and carry them across and set them in the place where they would stay that night to serve as a sign among them. And when your children ask, “What do these stones mean?” tell them what the Lord has done among you.
Several years ago, our congregation faced a significant time of transition. We stood on the banks of our own Jordan River trying to imagine what life on the other side would be like, wondering how we would call our people to move through the turbulent waters of change when we as leaders were afraid to stick our feet in the rising tide. It’s hard to keep the fear of giants in the land at bay in the midst of uncertainty, or to walk as those who believed that God would make a way for us when we couldn’t yet see any dry places to cross.
But memory and hope go hand in hand. So, we took this story in Joshua to heart and, over five weeks, we brought our own 12 stones forward in worship and told the stories of the things God has done among us.
An older gentleman brought a stone for our jail ministry and the young inmate he had taken under his wing who was now leading a Bible study of his own. A young man brought a stone for the Tuesday dinner ministry for the homeless started as a random act of kindness by his tenth-grade boys’ small group twelve years earlier and hadn’t missed a Tuesday night since. There was a stone for the county jail whose purchase transformed a place of incarceration into a place of redemption and hope for at-risk kids and families in need. There was a stone for the soup kitchen that no one thought our downtown, big steeple church would house, and one for the contemporary worship service whose guitars and screens remarkably found a home in a Civil War era sanctuary.
Stones remembering the times God pushed back the rushing waters of challenge and change and made a way for us to cross on dry land.
And on the fifth Sunday, our children lined the aisle of our sanctuary, and the 12th stone was passed from one small hand to the next until it reached the communion table where it was placed on top of the others. Our Ebenezer, our stone of hope – a reminder that the God who was with us in the past was leading us into his future. The God who gave us our Story was writing it still.
I don’t know what river yours is to cross right now, but I know how scary it can be to take that first step into the water. And how intimidating it is to lead when you don’t know exactly how and when God will make a way. But as we reflected on the stories represented by our own twelve stones, we found some lessons of hopeful imagination that have served us well over the last decade whenever we have faced challenges or sought to discern where God was leading. Here are just a few:
- God is at work even when we can’t see it. It is dark in the tomb, but new life is coming.
- Identify passionately positive people to walk with you. Don’t be consumed by the negative voices or try to make this journey alone.
- Notice the opportunities right in front of you. Too often when we are looking at what everyone else is doing, we miss the opportunities God has uniquely positioned right in front of us.
- Be trustworthy. Trust is in short supply these days. You can’t control how others act or how they receive you, but when you persevere in integrity you give God room to move.
- To be hopeful is to be expectant. Stay open to people and to God’s Spirit.
Your God stories are different from our God stories. If you haven’t named them in a while, I urge you to do that. They will change you. Find twelve stones in your yard and remember what God has done in your midst. They may be big things or small, but in remembering we stand on holy ground. Keep the stones where you can see them because memory and hope go hand in hand.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9
[For more stories of hopeful imagination and lessons learned, check out Hopeful Imagination: Traditional Churches Finding God’s Way in a Changing World by Mike Queen & Jayne Davis.]