Begin With the End in Mind – Dec 3, 2017
“Begin with the end in mind…” This is the phrase that came to mind this week as I began preparing for this first Sunday of Advent. The power of repetition is such that I’m no longer so taken aback by the close connection between the apocalyptic themes of the Reign of Christ, the end of the year we celebrated last week, and the… apocalyptic themes with which we begin the new year. Last Sunday we heard the end of Jesus’ last major speech in Matthew, immediately before the passion narrative, and today we hear the end of Jesus’ teaching, immediately before the passion narrative, in the Gospel of Mark. The passages are closely connected, mostly reflecting our shift in this new year to Year “B” in our 3-year lectionary cycle and its focus on the Gospel according to Mark. But we don’t begin this new year with the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It isn’t until next week that we will hear specifically about preparing for God’s arrival once more into our lives and our world with the first chapter of Mark. Instead, today we hear about the end… a view from the end. It is a reminder, every year on the first Sunday of Advent, that we begin with the end in mind.
“Begin with the end in mind…” When the phrase came to mind earlier this week, I had to google to discover where it came from. It turns out that it actually comes from Stephen Covey’s now classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This best-selling book was first published in 1989 and has become a staple in the world of leadership, organizational and personal effectiveness and interpersonal relationships. “Begin with the end in mind” is the 2nd of the 7 Habits Covey wrote about. On his website, a short summary of this habit reads: “Habit 2 is based on imagination–the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes.” Beginning with the end in mind is an act of imagination. It’s about envisioning a desired future by being fearlessly honest with oneself about one’s desires, because as Covey’s website describes: “If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster.”
Four years ago this fall, this community of St. Andrew’s considered its life together as part of the search process for a new rector. The desired direction was expressed in a parish profile written that fall, with the version distributed dated November 20, 2013. Reading it these 4 years later is a fascinating experience. The profile began with 3 clearly stated priorities: “We are looking for an incumbent who is prepared to lead the parish in: inviting people to join us in a life of faith; recognizing and supporting our existing strengths and ministries; reconnecting to the University of Calgary.” It goes on to describe both “what is” and “opportunities for growth” in a variety of areas. A desire for growth and for greater inclusion of young people is expressed throughout. For instance, in the section on worship, “good liturgy” is described as “providing a traditional BCP-focused liturgy at the 8:00am service while providing a family-based liturgy at the 10:30am service.” Opportunities for growth included “furthering the participation of young people at the liturgy…” with a similar opportunity identified as “helping to grow youth involvement” in terms of “engagement in spiritual growth.”
We have come a long way since then… 4 short years ago… in ways that I suspect none of us expected. Many of the identified existing ministries continue to flourish including several outreach, social and educational activities. Young people are participating in our liturgies in ways we hadn’t imagined as our 10:30am service adapts to be more family-based with people of all ages encouraged to participate throughout. Of course the unexpected is always to be expected when working towards a vision, particularly when God is involved. Our sacred ancestors didn’t anticipate that God would incarnate on earth as a baby and so we shouldn’t be surprised when God’s ways continue to surprise and confound us.
For my part, through stewardship discussions last year, I re-framed the desire for greater involvement of young people and for “inviting people to join us in a life of faith” through a lens of relationship. The phrase that came about was: “developing a truly multi-generational community of Christian disciples.” More than increasing the participation of young people in worship or other existing activities, developing a truly multi-generational community is about re-orienting our parish around diverse and multivalent relationships. We are more familiar with organizing around roles, structure or habit, but different times call for different approaches. More than a bigger Sunday school or youth group or any program that keeps distinct social groups separate, a vision of truly multi-generational community is one where all people are encouraged to grow through a greater diversity of relationships.
When we ‘bump up’ against one another – literally or figuratively – particularly with those who are different from us, we have the opportunity to see the face and character of Christ anew. It is through real-world relationships that we grow in our relationship with God and in our Christian discipleship. Long-term members of this community have something to teach newer members and newer members have something to teach long-term ones. Whether experienced or new, we all have more to learn about God through one another. Becoming a truly multi-generational community of Christian disciples is about people of various ages knowing and caring about one another and thereby growing in discipleship. This type of community can be the locus for transformation and an end in and of itself. It can also provide the quality of community that becomes an incubator for broadly-based, communal work in the world. When we know ourselves and one another and who we are as a whole, greater than the sum of our parts – then we can work together in more profound ways, to the benefit of the world beyond the bounds of this community. This in turn offers the opportunity for us to grow in greater ways, through even more diverse relationships.
All this is based on the desire initially expressed years ago and reiterated repeatedly over the years. On this day of beginning with the end in mind, I wonder about your imagined “end” now for St. Andrew’s? I wonder what your dreams are now? I wonder what you desire, above all else, for your personal walk with God, as part of this particular Christian community? It seems obvious and yet still worth saying… Wondering about our desired ‘end’ means paying attention to our desire. It doesn’t mean saying what we think we should. It’s not about trying hard to believe what we think we’re supposed to. It’s about being honest about our hearts and minds, souls and bodies. If we aren’t paying attention to the cries of our bodies and hearts in particular, then our minds don’t stand a chance. Our desire is more powerful than our intellect and it is our desire that wins out. So what do you desire? What do you truly love above all else? For your life… for your end of days? What do you desire for St. Andrew’s? About a month ago, we had an initial parish conversation about where we have been and where we are going. It was a beginning that the parish council will be building upon in the coming months. My hope today, on this first day of the new year, is that you will participate in those conversations, bringing the whole of yourself – your heart, mind, soul and body… your intellect and your desire.
Today Jesus’ teaching stresses the importance of paying attention, particularly in times of uncertainty: “But about that day or hour no one knows,” Jesus says, “neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” “Keep awake…” Jesus commands. It is a command that assumes we are already up and paying attention… ready… or at least getting ready, for God’s new incarnation into our lives and into the world. Jesus is clear that we do not and cannot know the mind of God. What we can know is ourselves…. the desires that drive us… and choose courage to share them with one another, so that we can come together as unique, beloved children of God into one body, the church.
We do not and cannot know the day or hour but we do know that God’s track-record involves coming to us in ways, and through people, and at times that we least expect. If we fall asleep, or we’re looking down (even in prayer), we just might miss it. And so Jesus commands us to “keep awake,” reminding us that, as one commentator writes: “Being a faithful Christian does not just ‘happen’ like crabgrass or dandelions popping up in the lawn. It requires the care, attention, and cultivation of an expert gardener.” (NIB, 695)
Today we begin a new year, anticipating God’s arrival in new and miraculous ways. It is a day for hope and for imagining a glorious future. It is a day of beginning with the end in mind, trusting that God goes with us, behind and before. May this hope sustain us while we wait, with eager anticipation, keeping awake so that we don’t miss it when God comes.