Back to the Future

Pastor Craig Carter

In the weeks leading up to our Comeback Sunday celebration on September 12 we’ve been exploring how we can complete our comeback as a congregation. 

The idea for this series of messages took shape this spring as I was looking ahead at our schedule. We had our Back to School Bash for Southport Elementary on the calendar and we were talking about inviting people back to church since many have been away due to the pandemic. That got me thinking in terms of “back to…” phrases and so we’ve explored getting back to the basics of prayer, Bible study, fellowship and the sacraments and we’ve looked at getting back to the good old days as they existed in the Early Church and Methodism.

Naturally, I also thought of the 1985 hit movie Back to the Future and considered how it would give me an opportunity to address what our church may look like and what we need to focus on as we move forward. 

I’m not sure I’m the best person to try and forecast the future. I distinctly remember getting my first laptop computer with a built-in phone modem. I was informed I could use it to send email and have access to something called the Internet. Email sounded promising but I was convinced the notion of a worldwide web of connected computers was a passing fad. I wish I could go back and act on that future prediction and invest some money in Internet startups, don’t you?

I do know one thing about the future … you need to plan for it. As the saying goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” 

So I use a planner and keep a detailed calendar of future events. I’m old-school and use a paper version rather than a phone or cloud-based system. And if you take a look at my monthly calendars, something stands out. There’s lots of white out on virtually every page.

It’s not because I make a lot of mistakes or misspellings. It’s because much of what I have planned doesn’t occur as expected. That’s been especially true in 2020 and 2021!

On the other hand, the events that have most impacted us don’t show up on my calendar (at least in advance of them happening). When I left on a cruise on October 6, 2018, I didn’t have Hurricane Michael scheduled for October 10th. 

I did have “Last Bay Haven Service” scribbled in on March 15, 2020 … but I didn’t know we wouldn’t meet again in-person until late June. 

In order to continue our comeback as a congregation, we need a plan that will enable us to get back to the future. I have some ideas about what it may look like, but given my track record, it probably won’t turn out as I envision it (nor will it be exactly as you imagine). 

And while there is something to learn from the so-called experts who try to forecast trends that will impact the church, they don’t always get things right. I didn’t read anything about ministering in a global pandemic until last summer, after it was already in full swing. 

We need a more reliable source and it is found in God’s Word. 

The Lord is eternal so He sees things from a different vantage point than we do. He, and He alone, can go “back to the future” since He is not limited by the bounds of time and space. 

Listen to what He said a long time ago to His people through the prophet Jeremiah:

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for good, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:11-14 CEB) 

Three ideas emerge about the plans we make to get back to the future. These planning principles apply to us all as individuals and collectively as a church.

Our comeback plan is…

1) God-given 

“I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord, they are plans for good, not disaster.” (Jeremiah 29:11a CEB)

There is no magical “crystal ball” that enables us see into the future, but God already occupies a position in the past, present, and future so the future isn’t really even the future to Him. Rather than the carnival fortune teller, the Lord is the One who sees, knows and tells all. 

“We may make our plans, but God has the last word.” (Proverbs 16:1 GNT)

“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” (Proverbs 16:9 NLT)

Since God has the last word and He determines our steps, it only makes sense that we look to Him for guidance in making plans. This has always been the case, but is true more now than ever. 

If you haven’t noticed, we are living in uncertain and unpredictable times. One Christian writer whom I respect and trust says, “Our society is in a moment of seismic shift.” 

If you’ve ever felt even a tremor, you know how scary it can be. And the folks in Haiti would witness to how destructive a seismic shift can be. Earthquakes need to be planned for, but how do we do that if we don’t know what’s coming and when? Worse yet, what if the ground is already shaking?

That’s why it’s critical to consult the One who controls even the winds and the waves. If the Lord is sovereign over the forces of nature, surely He can help us navigate through the troubled times that threaten our very existence. 

Rather than wringing our hands or trying to figure out what to do as the world shakes and society crumbles around us, we’d be much better served simply to ask God for the best course of action. After all, He already has plans in mind for us. 

As Christians, we talk a lot about seeking God’s will and asking for His guidance. But how much time and energy do we actually put into it? 

More often we do what we think is best and then ask Him to bless our decision. 

Would our lives look any different and our plans would turn out any better, if we asked God’s opinion about what we should do and where we should go?

Some of us would have been spared a lot of heartache if we’d have brought God into the conversation when we were trying to decide where to go to school, whom to marry, and how to invest our money. Sorry to bring those subjects up! ☺ 

The same is true of churches. Perhaps the 10,000 churches in America that have closed in the last three years would still be alive and well if they’d have sought God’s plans. 

One of the reasons we don’t always seek to know God’s plan is because we’re not sure He’s going to take us where we want to go. It’s worth noting that the word of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah came to God’s people when they were in exile in Babylon. They didn’t want to be there and God told them they’d be there another 70 years! But it was all part of God’s plan for the nation of Israel.

I call this the “missionary to the Congo” syndrome. We’re afraid if we give our lives completely over to the Lord, He’s going to call us to be a missionary in some faraway place. We’ve all heard the stories, haven’t we?! We need always to keep in mind the character of the One who is making the plans. Ours is a gracious and loving God who wants only what is best for us. His plans are always “for good, not disaster.” 

If God tells us to go to the Congo, it’s for our good and for the good of others. When God told the Israelites they’d stay in Babylon for 70 more years, it was because it was in their best interest. 

We can be confident that whatever the Lord tells us to do is good and right. In fact, choosing not to follow God’s guidance is a recipe for disaster. 

God knows the plans He has in mind for each of us and for all of us … but do we? Our success is contingent on asking for the Lord’s input so our comeback plan is God-given, not man-made. 

2) Future-oriented and Hope-filled

“I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord, they are plans for good, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11 CEB)

Our plans are usually based on what has gone right or wrong in the past. We tend to build on our successes and hopefully learn from our failures. But that’s not altogether true because of something called “normalcy bias.”

Whenever we experience any sort of change (good or bad), our natural tendency is to return to the way things used to be – our “normal.” Think of the Israelites in the wilderness … What plans did they make? To return to Egypt (and slavery) because that was their “normal.”

So as we recover from a hurricane and reorient from a pandemic, I’d expect our plans to focus on a return to “normal” (namely, pre- October 10, 2018). But God’s plans are always future-oriented. That’s because the Lord is always looking to do something new in our lives. 

“Watch for the new thing I am going to do.” (Isaiah 43:19a GNT) 

So, with the Jews living as exiles in a foreign land, God wasn’t going to return them to their checkered past or leave them in their current misery. Instead, He had something better planned for them and their offspring. 

The same is true for us … despite what’s happened to us in the past and where we are right now, one thing is certain: God has an incredible future planned for us. That’s true for us both individually and collectively. 

That future is filled with hope. Why? Because the author of the plans is the God of hope. 

Hope is “the confident expectation of receiving what is desired.”

In contrast, many of our plans are based, not on hope, but on wishes. They often go awry because they are dreams that aren’t grounded in reality. 

Think about many of the plans you and I make. Do we have a confident expectation they will come to pass or are they merely wishful thinking? 

Most of us have “contingency plans” before we ever get started, don’t we?

The reason God’s plans for us are hope-filled is because only He has the knowledge, the foresight, and the power to make them realities. He doesn’t need a contingency plan. In the Bible, we have story after story of that happening. 

God’s plans are never thwarted no matter how grim things may appear. The ultimate example is God’s plan of salvation revealed in His Son Jesus. Even in the face of death itself, God’s plan came to fruition. That fact brings us hope in any and every situation.

So consider this question from Pastor Rick Warren: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? What would we do, as a church, if we knew we could not fail? 

We can confidently carry out the comeback plans the Lord gives us knowing they provide us with “a future filled with hope” because He holds the future and is the God of all hope.

3) Lived-into

Even perfect plans are useless until they are carried out. During World War II, Operation Overload plans were developed by seven 4-star generals and their military staffs of thousands over a period of nearly a year. It produced mountains of documents, including 125 million maps, but it took some 156,000 courageous Allied soldiers to put that plan into action on June 6, 1944 with the D-Day invasion. 

Of that event, British Prime Minister Winton Churchhill, said: “Everything proceeded according to plan. And what a plan it was!”

You and I will never reach the future God has in store for us until we choose to proceed with His grand plan … and what a plan it is!

It’s what the writer of Proverbs is talking about when he writes, “Commit your actions to the Lord, and your plans will succeed.” (Proverbs 16:3 NLT)

And what action is required? Taking the first step in the right direction. 

This is precisely the advice the Lord gave to His people living in exile. As I mentioned earlier, God told the Israelites they would be in Babylon for 70 years before His plan of restoration was realized. But rather than simply biding their time until then, God told them to start preparing right away. That is, to “live into” their future in the present. 

First, the Lord said to them, “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children … Multiply! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you … Pray to the Lord for it…” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NLT)

In other words, start doing things right and start living right – right now! It’s worth noting that much of their action focused on the future generation. 

Do you remember how Back to the Future ends?

Marty is with his girlfriend, Suzy, when Doc Brown appears in his DeLorean time machine. 

In a frenzy, Doc yells, “Marty, you’ve got to come with me, back to the future!”  

Marty: “Doc, I’m with Suzy,”

Doc:  “Bring her along, it concerns her too!”

Marty: “Does something happen to us?”

Doc: “No, it’s your kids!”

Whatever plans we make, let’s remember, “It’s about our kids!” My generation has had its time and by our age, surely we can take care of ourselves, our interests, and our own spiritual well-being. 

But can we all agree that our plans must prepare our kids for their future?! When decisions have to be made, let’s make the next generation and their spiritual well-being the priority. Can I get an “Amen?”

“When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. I will be present for you,” declares the Lord… (Jeremiah 29:12-14a CEB)

Do you see what God’s plan is for His people? It’s not so much what He wants them to do or where He wants them to go, as it is who He wants them to know (it didn’t matter if they were in Babylon or Jerusalem). God’s plan for His people was for them to be rightly related to Him. 

And 3,000 years later, His plan for you and me isn’t any different. The Lord is not nearly as concerned about what happens to us and where life’s journey takes us as He is about us being with Him (and Him with us). 

When my wife Lee and I married neither of us knew what the future held, but I can tell you assuredly, she didn’t plan on being the wife of a United Methodist pastor in Alabama and Florida. But over the past 39+ years, what I’ve done and where I’ve gone has not been nearly as important to her as simply being with me – no matter what. And I’m glad she’s decided to act that way and stay by my side. 

In a similar way, I don’t know for sure what God’s plan for us in the future holds. But I do know this: He wants us to “live into” our future by living in Him and allowing Him to live in us. That is true for each of us and for us as a congregation. 

If we do that, the future will take care of itself … or better put, the Lord will take care of the future! So the most important steps we need to take are to call on Him, come to Him, pray to Him, and search for Him … wholeheartedly. Along the way, God will reveal His precise plans of where we are to go and what we are to do. My suspicion is that it has something to do with loving God and others.

Today I want you to take that all-important first step – to call, to come, to pray, and to search for the Lord wholeheartedly. 

Individually: Wherever you are in life’s journey, stop and ask for directions. 

As a church: Let’s pray for God to reveal His plans to us. 

To God be the glory! Amen.