Hope for 2022

I’m a Bears fan. I’ve been one since my early youth as I watched the Chicago defense led by Dick Butkus playing linebacker. Nothing is like seeing Walter Payton punish the tackler as the tackler is trying to make a play. I took the heat of being a Bears fan while in Wisconsin surrounded by Packers followers. I wear my Bears sweatshirt in St. Louis, even though they don’t have a football team and expect everyone to bleed Cardinal red. 
But I’m not a fan because the Bears win. Following the Bears is an experience in hope. Hope doesn’t depend upon victory but is committed to the struggle. Hope doesn’t count the score but looks for movement, direction, and a path opened by the Holy Spirit.
Although it might be a leap to jump from hope as a Bears fan to the hope I have in the life and future of the church, there are helpful similarities. We are living in difficult times. We are in the shadow of the pandemic, while still struggling to be an antiracist church. The political world appears to be turning against the climate, the poor, the immigrant, and people of color, just when small success was so close. Many pastors and leaders are exhausted from exceeding the limits of their emotional bandwidth. Meanwhile the decades-old denominational decline persists as the faithful members are being outnumbered by those who struggle to find meaning in the traditional and historic church.

Yet, I have hope in the future of the church. It is a hope not dependent upon immediate results. We are engaged in a long-term moral struggle for what is just and right. In her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit quotes Václav Havel saying, “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

It is okay to keep a scorecard, but it is more important to invest in long term results. Hope is what allows us to stay in the current struggle and take the blows of this fight because we know there is something greater coming. We are in the business of faithfully planting seeds of hope for a harvest we may not live to see.
Creativity is needed to mine this hope. We are challenged to imagine new ways of thinking and different ways of being the church. The presbytery is challenged to lead and model this type of hopeful and creative ministry.
A first step is the Leadership Summit we are convening on Friday, January 28th via Zoom for all moderators and co-moderators of entities in the presbytery. Rev. Mathame Sanders will be the keynote speaker and will spark our imaginations through improvisation, opening us to creative ways of thinking toward a hopeful future. I’m asking all moderators and co-moderators to join me, the presbyterian council, and staff in this Leadership Summit. You will receive an invitation this week, along with the book, A Beautiful Constraint.
May this year be one of faith, hope, and love. May we rejoice and be happy together; may we grieve and hold one another in sorrow. May we live this year in hope, believing beyond results as we live from our Christ-centered hearts. Amen.
Rev. Craig M. Howard

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Reading and Learning During Advent

Advent is a time for active waiting on the God who comes to us. It is a time to reflect in hope, joy, and love as we continue to examine our hearts and make ourselves ready for Christ’s presence at Christmas. Some years ago, I began what has become a personal tradition of reading one book a week during Advent and Lent. This comes to four books for Advent and six books for Lent.
Reading during Advent and Lent prepares me for the work and ministry as your presbytery executive. I believe the challenges we will face in a post-pandemic church are unique and without precedent. To become the future church, we must learn our way forward.
In their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky talk about distinguishing technical problems from problems that demand an adaptive solution. Simply put, when a problem can be defined and a solution calculated, it is a technical problem. But when we are faced with a challenge that we can hardly define and the solution involves deep change, we are dealing with an adaptive challenge.
They write, “Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires . . . shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.”
The pandemic has helped us to see that we can change. We can adapt to new circumstances and environments, learn new technologies, and be the church that serves the community, all while wearing a mask and keeping social distance.
Reading and learning continue to expand our minds and make us pliable for the continued changes that will be demanded of us. We can learn to do things differently. We can be a different church for a different age. We can be a church that stands for justice, experiences vitality, and makes a difference in the world. Walk with me as we journey into God’s future together.

The following are the four books I’m reading during Advent:

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. Laurence Gonzales

The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times. Jane Goodall, Douglas Abrams

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. Ijeoma Oluo

Look For Me and I’ll Be Gone: John Edgar Wideman
Rev. Craig M. Howard

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I am beginning my call as your presbytery executive in the season of advent. Advent is the season of waiting. During advent, we light the candles of hope, faith, joy, and peace on the advent wreath, and we end with the lighting of the Christ candle.

Advent is a time to stop and reflect on our calling in Christ. As Presbyterians, we believe everyone is called to a particular vocation. This calling challenges each of us to serve our society and the world. In her book, The Spirit of Advent: The Meaning is in the Waiting, Paula Gooder reflects on the calling of Abraham and Sarah and how their lives can guide us in our sense of call and vocation. She writes, “With God the command is both to go and to come. The ‘go’ element involves leaving behind many things; the command to ‘come’ involves knowing that God will accompany us on the journey.”

Many believe a great change of vocation is happening in the church because of the pandemic. Pastors are changing congregations, and many are leaving the ministry. I am learning that experiencing the change that comes with a call includes both grasping and letting go. What may God be calling you to let go of?

Advent is a time to believe that the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ is the God who calls us to wait. We are called to wait for the seeds of faith that have been planted in our spirit to sprout into new life. For me, as I pray about the future of the Presbytery of Chicago, I wait in anxious anticipation for fruitful congregations, chaplains, teachers, ministry partnerships, new worshiping communities, and other specialized ministries to bud, blossom, and bloom, all in God’s time. What do you find yourself waiting for during this Advent season?

Advent is a time for change. God’s change in God’s time. Change may mean letting go. It often means loss and grief. Gooder writes, “God’s call to us remains a call to change: to leaving and accompanying, to moving and changing, to growing and flourishing. It is part of human nature to yearn for stability, to put down roots, and to stay put; but it is also a rule of nature that things that do not move do not live.” What changes are you welcoming into your life this Advent? 

Advent is a call to life. As we embrace the core elements of our life in Christ – hope, faith, joy, and peace–we enjoy the happiness of God through the fruit of the Spirit. Blessings to all during this Advent season as we engage the Triune God and find new life together. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

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