A few years ago when I was back home in Flint, a memory came back to me as I went down a certain road. The memory was seeing those auto carrier trucks lumber down the road. The trucking company had it’s main garage on the eastside of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points. That memory came back, because as I drove down this road, I realized that those carriers no longer lumbered down the road. It was a reminder that things had changed.
What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so. In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them. Today, there are around 8,000.
Such a massive change brought changes in Flint as well. Once well-kept houses were now trashed. Stores closed and people moved away. The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship. Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born. Today it is around 99,000. The city that I grew up in was prosperous. It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great. That Flint no longer exists. All that’s left are the memories.
Last week, I talked about how the Israelites came back from exile and had to face that the good old days were long gone. The book of Ezra focuses on homecoming. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Baylonians around 585BC. It was Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place. So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a far away land. During the exile, Babylon fell. In its place, a new empire took over: Persia. It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live. Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home. So, a number of folk decide to make the journey back.
They come back to a Jerusalem that was in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed. It was time to rebuild. It took a while, but after a while, the temple was completed. This is where something interesting happened. The younger folks who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple were excited. They had no memory of what life once was in Judah. They now were home and had a place to worship God.
Older Israelites were sad. They remembered what the old temple looked like and this wasn’t it. This temple was a bit smaller than the old one. It also wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple. For these folk, what they felt was a profound sense of loss. The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back. They had to live in this new reality, which paled in comparison to the what they remembered.
Change happens. But just because it happens, doesn’t mean it is always welcomed. Change can be bewildering and scary. For those Israelites that had memories of their grand past (which wasn’t all that grand) it was hard to face reality. Nostalgia can be a tricky thing. These days people cling to the past in the attempt to hold on to something in a changing world. And there has been a lot of change. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, no one thought same sex couples could ever marry legally, but now here we are. We have gone from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. Changes in immigration laws have brought people from around the world to become Americans. Many come from places people know little about and in some cases they worship religions we aren’t very familar with. Nostalgia tells us we can go back to what things once were. It gives us a sense of safety and comfort when the world has changed.
This time of year is always an odd one. There is a festive atmosphere that can put most anybody in a good mood. But while there is joy, there is also sadness. Some people are dealing the loss of a loved one or dealing with being newly divorced. In the midst of this joy there is also sadness.
Advent is a time of waiting for Jesus, our salvation. But it also reminds us why we wait. We wait for someone will join us in our sorrow and give us strength to move into a new future, a future that is better than we can ever imagine.
I’ve wondered what the people in this congregation were thinking when they sold their old building near downtown St. Paul to move here. I was never in that building, but in hearing from some of you, it was a sight to behold. But I also know it was getting harder and harder to pay for the upkeep of this large sanctuary. I wonder what it was like to worship there for the last time. I wonder what it was like to get used to moving here and if some people thought this place wasn’t as grand as their old home. Moving a church is never easy. And it probably wasn’t for you all.
Then your pastor of 20 years left. A number of people stopped coming and the ones that remained wondered if they could continue. It felt hard being so few, but you came together and worked to keep the doors open and to be open to new adventures.
So many churches hang on for dear life, clinging to buildings that have outlived their usefulness long ago. They remember how things were and wish it could be like that again. But they stay put, afraid to face an unknown future. That could have been your experience. But it wasn’t.
In each of those experiences, God was with you. God never left. When we mourn what we have lost, a lost past, a lost building, a lost loved one, we know that God understands. We can make those changes, we can face the future because we have a God that is always with us as we step out in faith to do mission in the world.
I miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway. I miss what it represents. But that is not the only story about Flint. There is another story that is growing up right alongside this sad story. If you walk down Saginaw Street, the main drag in town in downtown, you will see some change taking place. For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do. But as I walked, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available. The area seemed to be buzzing with activity. We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown. Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world. Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area. This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine. It’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground. There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like my hometown will have a future, just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to.
During this holiday season, there are people who are missing something or someone. But I also know that our God is with us in the changes in our lives. We know that hope is on the way.