I love the New Year. I do. I love fresh starts, new beginnings, a resetting of priorities. Everything is possible. The snow (not in Santa Rosa, CA, of course) feels fresh and the skies look blue. I’ve organized new calendars for home and office, paid the bills, run a lot of miles, finished a couple books, got a jump on planning worship and church events. We just found out our first grandchild is due this summer. If I look only at my own little bubble, things are very good.
But of course, my own little bubble is a very small one, and as a follower of Jesus I am both called and compelled to look longer and wider, at the concentric circles of “Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” It gets harder quickly.
I don’t need to list all the things going on in the world for you. You have your own stones of groaning to stack into a depressing human-built tower of Babel. Yet another school shooting, in small town Iowa…the 4th already in 2024. There were 350 last year. Apart from schools, there were 656 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2023. Think about that. In Gaza and Israel, cold-blooded murder, rape, hostages, oppression, genocide and starvation. In Ukraine, indiscriminate Russian bombing of civilian residential areas. Things we can barely imagine are played out daily. How do human beings do such things to one another? It may be a new year, but darkness is everywhere and hopelessness close at hand. So I was encouraged to read the words of Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 2:22 this morning: “He (God) knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.”
If we learned anything during Advent and Christmas, it was this, right? God cannonballs into human history. No dark valley is beyond his knowledge nor without his presence, no matter how hard it may be to spot it here or there. He knows the worst dark, from cradle to grave and beyond. And…the light dwells with Him. That gives me hope.
I’ve always identified as an evangelical Christian. It’s getting harder, or at least requiring a lot of explanation, in this season of extreme polarization in both culture and Church. The co-opting of evangelicalism by a political party, and the racist, immoral mixing of nationalism and faith is disheartening. If you have read the Atlantic Monthly excerpt or the full book of Tim Alberta’s, The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, you’ve been treated to the disheartening picture of church folk who seem to put support for Donald Trump and fidelity to Jesus on the same level. When Alberta’s father died, many of the people from the church he had grown up in spent far more time digging at him about his politics than consoling him on losing his dad. His wife finally shouted “What is wrong with these people?!” Indeed. The darkness isn’t just out there, it’s in here. It gives me hope to remember that what I am responsible for is following Jesus with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. “He (God) knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.”
I’ve served 3 churches now as a senior pastor. In each one, we lost people because I was too conservative. And we lost people because I was too liberal. Okay. In recent years, it seems that Christians come and go from faith communities based not on a general theological framework or approach to scripture, but over individual issues. If you don’t agree with me on (fill in your answer: abortion, guns, sexuality, environment, war, race, a political candidate, immigration) then we can’t be in fellowship together. It makes me wonder how anyone commits to being part of any faith community. The more boxes which must be checked, the more likely they will never find a place that unanimously agrees with them, and they’ll move from place to place to place. It gives me hope to remember that my job is not to please everyone, but to walk toward the light.
“He (God) knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.”
Every first Sunday and Monday of the colder months, our little church partners with a local rescue mission to house a couple dozen folks off the street for two nights in our sanctuary. Other churches around town do the same, and between us we cover all the nights. On our two nights, about 10 volunteers from our church turn on the heat, set up tables and chairs, bring food and prepare a warm meal, stand at the door to welcome those who come, serve the dinner and sit at the tables making new friends. Those tables are full of people with hard stories, smelly clothes, mental illnesses and addiction struggles. And our church volunteers carry their own baggage and idiosyncrasies. It’s quite a gathering. When the guests have arrived and are seated, someone–an elder, a pastor, a volunteer–gets everyone’s attention, welcomes them and then prays for the evening. For just a moment, it’s quiet. The name of the Lord Jesus is recognized and honored. The goodness of the Lord is remembered. People without housing, food sources or friends have all that, at least for a night or two. It’s dark outside, but light in the room. It fills me with hope.
I know and you know that in 2024, there will be all sorts of violence, poor leadership and problems so severe it will seem the whole world is dark. But there’s hope. Not hope like wishful thinking, but hope like Tim Keller once described: “a life-shaping certainty that our ultimate future is the eternal love and glory of God.” That knowledge will change how we face disappointments and suffering and difficulties. It will train us to see beauty and goodness and God’s presence every day. We’re not alone. “He (God) knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.” Call me naïve…but it makes me hope-full.
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as Secretary on The Fellowship Community Board.