lenten journal: before & after

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I know I was not the only preacher who mentioned that we are close to the four year anniversary of the beginning of the Big Lockdown. That, along with the scripture passage, got me thinking about befores and afters.

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Before and after.

The two words are often used together to describe a change or a transformation:

before we met . . .
before my father died . . .
before our first child was born . . .
before I finished my degree . . .
before my knee replacement . . .
before the diagnosis . . .
before the promotion . . .
before we opened our business . . .
before we moved into our house . . .
before the war . . .
before 9/11 . . . .

How about this one? Before the pandemic began . . . .

Can you remember what life was like? This week marks four years since the lockdown began and the whole world had to deal with a reality none of us had experienced. There was life before March 2020 and life after. Even though COVID is no longer the threat it once was, life will never be the same for any of us, maybe for anyone.

Our lives are filled with before and after moments, some of them more profound than others, but we continue to evolve, to grow and change, in part because of what happens and how we choose to respond—both parts of the equation are crucial.

Though we talk about before and after, we live in the afters; we don’t know we are in the befores. Things happen and we go on living, trying to figure out what to do.

Life is full of chance encounters and uncertainties, things we can’t explain or control, AND we make choices about what we do, say, and feel in the middle of it all, and those choices shape our lives.

Cosmologist Brian Swimme writes about coming to a deeper understanding of that dynamic as he watched his son chase a frog by a creek one afternoon.

Yes, the existence of our son rested on uncountably many chance events. but that was not the whole story. In the moment I became aware of a fundamental branch point, I ran down the pathway that led to Denise. [his wife] Whatever would come forth after that had for its base that conscious decision that she was my life. Thomas Ian did not come from a purely random process. He came out of a decision that transformed all of the events of our past from chance to necessity. They became necessary in that they were just what they had to be in order for us to embrace it all and make it our destiny. (269)

The phrase that caught me most in that paragraph is “a decision that transformed all of the events of our past from chance to necessity.” That’s the language of before and after. It is also the language of faith, as we reflect on how we come into relationship with God.

Do you remember your life before you began a life of faith—however you would define that phrase? Perhaps it was, as they say, a “come to Jesus” moment; maybe it was a gradual series of events, a slow turning, that led you to a moment when you realized things had moved from chance to necessity. Faith is an ongoing relationship, a continuing act of creation, a contagion of befores and afters, but do you remember how it began? Can you point to other watershed moments along the way?

I wish we had time to tell all of those stories this morning. Let’s take the time to do so along the way in the days to come. For now, I’ll tell this one.

It was by chance that I was born to parents who decided to move to Africa. By that I mean I had no choice in the matter. The month of my first birthday, we sailed from New York Harbor, around the Cape of Good Hope, to the port of Beira, Mozambique—thirty-two days on a passenger freighter—because my parents wanted to be missionaries. We left Africa for good on my sixteenth birthday.

I came to faith as a child in Africa. I grew up in African churches filled with music and rhythm, with joyful people who lived hard lives and didn’t have much, but who shared most everything.

We came back to the States on leave three times before we came back for good. The third time I was in tenth grade and was a part of the youth group at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas—by chance. I had never been a part of a youth group centered around faith, nor had I been in an American high school. I experienced a different kind of diversity among the students at Paschal High School. All of it changed—expanded—the way I thought about God and about faith.

After Ginger and I married and moved to Boston, my faith went through another before and after as we found our way to become part of the UCC that began by chance: a colleague of Ginger’s called to say her church needed a youth minister.

Again, New England had a different vocabulary for faith and mine expanded to a wider definition of belonging that resonated with the way it felt when I was a kid in Africa, except it was even more expansive.

Those three highlights are far from the whole story, but I hope they communicate that faith is not something we possess; rather it is something we are part of, a creative process that is burgeoning and ongoing.

What is your version of that story? What is our version? How did the chance happenings of our lives bring us to choose for Mount Carmel to be a necessity in our lives? Remember we found each other because you asked Jake Joseph to preach—by chance—and he told you and me that we were a match.
Now we are necessary to each other.

How did we choose to let the fact that we met become a choice to love one another in Jesus’ name? Because that is what we are doing here; we are now necessary to each other’s lives, to each other’s stories. We are the story. The last sentence of our passage for this morning says, “God prepared for these good things to be the way that we live our lives,” or put another way, “God made us for this.”

We are built for befores and afters. We are created to grow and learn, to adapt and change, to imagine and belong, to love and be loved, just like everything else in the universe. We are made to make each other necessary. May our lives reflect our calling. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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