The Church of the Brethren General Offices holds a special place in my heart. I first came here in the summer of 1986 as a wide-eyed BVSer with relatively little knowledge of the denomination. But after Brethren Volunteer Service orientation in Chicago, here I was in Elgin in my very own office with my very own electric typewriter, on which I eagerly set to work writing articles. The offices were bustling back then, or at least it seemed so to me.
When I come to meetings now, I am reminded of those wonderful days when I was young and idealistic and the church seemed strong and exciting. But sometimes I also feel a twinge of sadness. I see empty offices. We have gone through too many rounds of budget-cutting to count since then. Our staff is smaller, our budgets are smaller, Messenger circulation is smaller, our church is smaller. And the staff we do have are stretched thinner and thinner and asked to carry impossible workloads.
When I start thinking like this I realize I’m like the old people in Ezra 3, who longed so much for the good old days that they couldn’t see what God was doing in the present.
A short history lesson: The original glorious temple that Solomon had built was destroyed in 588 BCE, and most of the residents of the southern kingdom of Judah were marched off into exile. After spending some 50 years in Babylon, the Jews received the green light from King Cyrus of Persia to return to their homeland. So a group came back, led by Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the high priest, and began to rebuild the temple.
When the foundation for the new temple had been laid, they paused for a dedication service. It says in Ezra 3:11, “All the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.”
There was great celebration. But then verse 12 adds this: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid. . . .”
Those who had known no temple rejoiced in the promise of the new. Those who had known the glory of the former temple could only lament the loss of the old.
I’m old enough now that I understand the oldtimers’ sadness. But their tears were clouding their vision. So God spoke through the prophet Haggai (2:3-9 NIV) to help them see more clearly.
The Lord speaking through Haggai asked, “‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? Be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty . . . . And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’”
Haggai went on to promise that God would fill the new temple with glory, and in fact its glory would exceed that of the former temple.
What wonderful words of reassurance. And you know, it took decades, but that new temple eventually was completed. And God continued the plan of working through his chosen nation to one day bless all nations. The temple wasn’t as big as the previous one. The number of priests was smaller, the wealth of the kingdom was smaller, and the nation itself was smaller. But God was still working.
After 500 more years it became clear what God’s plan was. This was the temple where Jesus would clear out the money changers and worship and teach. This was where Jesus would boast he would rebuild the temple in three days, pointing to his own victorious resurrection. This was the temple where the curtain to the Holy of Holies would be torn from top to bottom as Jesus gave up his life for the sake of humanity. Haggai had promised that the glory of this temple would be greater than the former. That came true when Jesus—both high priest and sacrificial lamb— came to fulfill God’s plan of salvation.
This is a tough time for the Church of the Brethren—and for our staff, what with a shortfall in income and major transitions in leadership. But a recent Newsline put some of this in perspective for me. Newsline published an address that EYN president Samuel Dali delivered to the Minister’s Council of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). The title was “We Can Recreate a New and Better Tomorrow.” Toward the end of his address, he said this:
In view of all this, I can safely ask, what else do we need from God that He has not done for us during this period of crisis? Yes, we have not forgotten the fact that we have lost some of our friends, parents, husbands, wives, children, uncles, relatives, and countless properties. We have acknowledged these as part of our fatal injuries and we cannot recover any of them. They have gone forever and we cannot reverse the history, but we can recreate a new and better tomorrow.
. . . Those of us who are still alive must make use of the time and the opportunity which God has graciously given to us. We need to recognize the grace of God and thank Him for taking us so far. The Lord is about to do something new in EYN and he has started. Hence, let us look forward to the new thing that the Lord is doing. . . .
What a remarkable perspective from a man who has witnessed so much tragedy.
Our church in the US isn’t what it used to be. We face serious challenges, but let us look forward to the new thing that the Lord is doing among us. Better yet, let’s do what we can to help God usher in the new.
But for that to happen, people like me need to dry the tears of lament over what once was and look clear-eyed into the future that God has in store. We don’t know what that future looks like. In fact, part of our job as a board and staff is to figure it out.
But we still know Jesus. We still love Jesus. We still want to follow Jesus. We still can share Jesus and his salvation and justice and peace with a hurting world. God can work with that.
Don Fitzkee is chair of the Mission and Ministry Board. This is excerpted from his opening meditation at the March board meeting in Elgin, Ill.