The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Whenever I read the first line of this encouraging passage I must admit that my imagination hears the words and whistles the tune of Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 Grammy Award-winning song: “Don’t worry, be happy!” As four words of philosophy go, I suppose it’s a pretty good message, if a little simplistic, but the scripture text is a good deal more insightful than McFerrin could have ever intended. As I come to the end of a wonderfully rich, engaging and privileged year as Moderator of General Assembly, I can’t help thinking that so much of what I have seen and experienced in my travels throughout our church speaks volumes of the hope of our congregations and their people.
I will always rejoice, for example, at my memory of the sheer joy in worship and fellowship with a congregational family that was celebrating 225 years of ministry, and experiencing steady growth in their congregation and among their community ministries. At the “official” or political levels of our church, far too often the message seems to be McFerrin in reverse: “Don’t happy, be worry.” But in spite of places and ministries in decline in certain quarters, the joyful gospel of Jesus Christ continues to ring forth from our faith families in different settings across the country. As I see it, the common denominator in all of these places of joy and growth is the emphasis upon prayerful thanksgiving for all of God’s sustaining care, and a desire to live out a faith which honours truth, purity, and justice in human affairs.
Hopeful congregations all across our country are living out a culture of grace and encouragement, seeking new and fresh ways to be the genuine expression of Christ’s love in the world. They are not transfixed upon elements of traditional institutional behaviours of the past, but rather are taking courageous steps every day to be a witnessing community which is open to the realities of a rapidly changing nation. Most of all, they treat each other within their congregational families with tenderness and love, turning their backs on behaviours which were formerly hierarchical or promoted division and disunity. In other words, they have taken our Saviour at his word, seeking in every relationship to “love one another as I have loved you.”
In faith communities such as these, there is tremendous room for growth and acceptance among those who are sharing their life journeys together. In whatever struggling context they may find themselves, they have discovered that loving relationships of trust and compassion will see them through to a hopeful way forward. This commitment to true “gospel living” empowers a church to be effective far beyond the sum of its parts, drawing others into the circle of human caring that the world can never match.
I am glad to report that congregations like these within our Presbyterian family are changing the face of our church into vibrant communities of genuine welcome, hope and health. My prayer is that all of our people will long to be active partners with Jesus Christ in this kind of life-blessing mission to their world!
Grace and peace,