On Sunday, November 6, 2016, the congregation of Mirror United Church will hold their last service after 112 years of serving the communities of Lamerton and Mirror. It’s not a new or unique story: like many rural churches, the congregation has become small and tired and not financially able to sustain its ministry. That’s happening a lot, and not just with small rural churches.
It’s a sad day and we grieve the loss of a unique church family, a place of worship and a building that was once at the heart of the community for many people. There will be memories to share and stories to tell. The life of the congregation comes to an end much like the life of an old, close friend. There is a long life to celebrate, but it seems like the best years are past and it’s time for this life to be done.
After the few remaining members made the decision to disband, we sat and talked about what will happen next and what might be in the closing service. One of them pushed a bible across the table to me, open to Isaiah, and pointed to these verses: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
These were prophetic words of hope for the Hebrew people. Conquered by the Assyrians and many exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon, this is the part of Isaiah that foretells that things are about to change for them: a messiah will come and Jerusalem will be renewed. For the Hebrews, that was Darius and the Persians who defeated the Assyrians and liberated the Hebrews (kind of) and restored Jerusalem (mostly). It’s also the part of Isaiah that Christians hear and love the most as foretelling the coming of Jesus. It’s the most quoted part of Hebrew scripture in the gospels, not just for its prophecy, but for its message of hope in making a new world.
But I don’t think that the writer means for God to say forget the past entirely. I think it means let go. Let go of the past, don’t cling to it. Let the past do what the past should do: inform your present and move you forward. Let the past inspire your vision, not cloud it. How else will you perceive the new thing that’s happening?
I think there’s different contexts for that letting go. It’s not just about the hardship, struggle or conflict. Every life has its share of that. It’s also about letting go of the things we celebrate, in a way. What we bring forward from all our experiences is what we’ve learned that can inform the new present, otherwise we’re simply repeating things, both destructively and because “we’ve always done it that way” (a classic church dilemma). Both bind us to the past. While we may find comfort and safety there, our ability to envision the future and see possibility and potential in it comes with holding the past where it belongs: in the past.
And Isaiah offers something else. Right before these verses, he reminds the people that their God that promises them “a new thing” is the God of Exodus, the God who freed the people from bondage once before (Isaiah 16-17). Let go of that past, says God, I’m doing a new thing. And then, in the verses following, the new world of that new thing: a way through the wilderness, rivers in the desert, wild animals will be grateful and refreshment for God’s people (Isaiah 43:19-21).
Words of promise and hope. Let go the past to be the past and step boldly into the future knowing that God goes with you to make a new thing.
We will celebrate with gratitude and appreciation the work of the Mirror congregation over many years. The members that now move on to another congregation take their wisdom, experience, hopes and dreams there, looking forward to the new thing that is happening in their lives, knowing that God is with them. The Mirror community, too, can look forward to a new thing happening with the legacy which is the church building. We all can look forward to the newness of our lives with God. Do you perceive it?