I listen to the news every day, mostly on the radio as I drive. It occurs to me how much can happen in just a few weeks. The world can turn upside down.
Students connected by social media on their cell phones and computers took to the streets, and several countries in the Middle East turned it upside down in the span of a couple of months last spring.
Last Easter, the churches of Joplin, Missouri, celebrated Christ’s resurrection along with communities throughout the world. Forty days later those same churches were mission stations and disaster relief centers helping people rebuild their spirits, their lives, and their homes after the devastation wrought by a tornado. Another forty days after that, plans were being laid for a new school, a new hospital, and a new future. A lot can change in forty days.
In the Old Testament, forty days of rainfall ended an era and redefined the covenant between God and the people of Israel. In only forty days, the newly liberated Hebrew people grew restless and rebellious at the foot of Mount Sinai, and in those same forty days Moses received the commandments that made us a covenant people. Elijah fasted for forty days, and in his hunger he heard a still, small voice that otherwise might have gone undetected.
Forty days can also change the course of a person’s life, the direction of a human soul. Falling in love, celebrating marriage, having a baby, unexpected grief, receiving a diagnosis, going through divorce, moving away, losing a job, changing a career—periods as short as forty days can totally change the trajectory and direction of our journeys.
Forty days is the period Jesus spent wrestling temptation in the desert. I wonder how he was changed by the experience. I wonder how different his ministry might have been had he avoided the face-to-face tangle with the tempter. What was tempered out of him or hammered into him by the experience? What did he learn? What did he hear? How was he different? Did his disciples and friends notice?
Forty days is the length of time between Jesus’ death and his ascension, the period during which his defeated and despairing disciples discovered his resurrection and presence among them. What convulsions of spirit did the followers of Jesus experience during that time? The redemption of Peter after his denial? The sorrow and joy of Mary and Martha and Jesus’ mother? The awareness of life out of death, of resurrection out of despair? Forty days changed everything for them.
In less than forty days the direction of Paul’s life was entirely reversed. While breathing threats of murder against the disciples, he was struck by grace into utter blindness. Then the scales fell from his eyes and he dedicated himself to lifelong service to Christ. A whole lot can change in a short period of time.
Easter again marks the ending of Lent. For forty days United Methodists have focused on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ve offered prayers of repentance, listened for God’s call, pondered afresh the offering of Christ for the world, allowed ourselves to be rewoven into the body of Christ, and offered ourselves anew to follow Christ. We open ourselves to the joy of new life in Christ through the songs and celebrations of Easter.
For The United Methodist Church, the forty days to come will determine much about our future. During that time, delegates and leaders from across the globe will gather for prayer, worship, and deliberation about our common ministry in Christ. Forty days from now General Conference will be behind us.
What will happen within our church during these forty days? What is the change we yearn for? What is the change God desires for us? Are we willing to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the transformation and redirection of our life as a church? Will we change course by a few degrees or redirect our energies more dramatically? The earliest disciples received the great commission during the forty days after Easter. Will we?
While there are several specific issues I hope our church addresses in particular ways, I have a deeper hope beyond all legislative proposals. I hope we emerge forty days from now a stronger church, more clear about our mission and more confident about our future. I hope we become a church that is more outward-focused, future-oriented, and committed to reaching the next generation. I pray we prove ourselves willing to be changed by the Holy Spirit and redirected by the calling of Christ. I hope we break through the tangles, knots, and restraints of our inner polity and free ourselves for creative response to the needs of a broken world. I hope we are somehow different forty days from now in ways that please God and deepen our mission in Christ.
In September of 1771, a young Francis Asbury sets sail for America under the direction of Mr. Wesley. Sifting through his motivations, he records in his journal the reason for his mission. “To gain honour? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No. I am going to live to God, and bring others so to do.”*
I pray that during the next forty days, we open ourselves again to the restoration and pardon of God, to repentance and prayer, to the reshaping of our souls by God’s grace, to the great commission, and to the spirit of holy adventure as we seek more boldly to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. A lot can change in forty days.
* American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists by John Wiggers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 45.
When was a time that your life changed direction because of the events in a single 40-day period?
When was a time when your congregation’s ministry and focus shifted dramatically during a short period of time?
Look again at Asbury’s succinct personal mission statement. What is yours?
For stories of the days after Easter, read Matthew 28:16-20 or John 21:1-19.