The upper Appalachian mountain range in upstate NY is known as the Catskills. Their mysterious beauty forms the background for several short stories by the early American author Washington Irving. One of the most famous is the whimsical “Rip Van Winkle.” A review of the plot leads to a few parallel insights to where we find ourselves today.
Rip is a kind soul who assisted anyone or everything except his own failing farm, mainly to avoid his hellacious helpmeet. One day as he hunted in the hills he met an antiquated yet amicable gentleman needing aid; in sharing his load Rip came upon a gathering of men who invite him to eat and drink with them. He soon fell asleep and upon awakening imagined he had slept the night away; upon stumbling into the village he discovered it had been 20 years! (he had met up with the spirits of Henry Hudson’s crew which haunted those parts) The Am. Revolution had come and gone. He fell asleep a subject of the British crown to awake a free citizen of a new nation. A series of dialogues with the citizenry determined he was indeed Rip Van Winkle; he learned his nagging wife had passed, his daughter took him into her family’s home, and he settled into a routine to which he had been accustomed: swapping lies at the village inn and all-around indolence (which is acceptable in his newly advanced state of existence). The tone of the story is light and should be told with more than a glint in one’s eye and a hint of a smirk.
In 2020 our economy and churches were humming along when an unexpected and unwelcome pandemic obliterated many a well laid out plan. We are about to emerge from our national hibernation and will surely discover the parameters and rules for everything have changed. Most view the online worship experience as a temporary novelty; we long to return to some sense of “normalcy.”The new reality is, we will not be going back to “the way things were;” it is not an issue of ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and.’ Our churches will need to be leaner, more flexible, more open to future changes (you think this pandemic is the last curveball ever thrown our way?). We are not entering a “post” coronavirus culture but a “with” coronavirus culture. Many things considered necessities may soon become expendable luxuries, many freedoms continue to be curbed or paused in the name of safety, and the cost of following Christ will continue to rise.
Rip van Winkle, unfortunately, took the path of least resistance. He went with the flow as to external changes but little changed internally. He lapsed back into his old ways as allowed by his tolerant daughter’s family. How easy would it have been twenty, thirty years after the resurrection of Christ to slide back into comfortable old synagogue practices instead of launching the missionary movement with a gospel that included Gentiles as well as Jews? We are in an Acts 15 moment as churches; which path will we take? Understand some of those Judaizers and folks stoning Paul and Barnabas would be seen as restoring order and sanity in some of those towns, and Paul’s radical gospel of grace seen as unsettling.
Do we honestly want to become members of Rip Van Winkle BC?