VUCA: Welcome to the (new ?) world

How can you go on when you don't know where to go and so much is changing so quickly?

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A few weeks ago I got to know a new acronym.

It made me think, what is the difference between an acronym and an abbreviation?

Do you know? I had to look it up. An acronym is a new word that is created from an abbreviation, whereas an abbreviation is a list of letters. For example, USA is an abbreviation, but NASA is an acronym because you pronounce it like a new word. Actually, NASA means "National Aeronautics and Space Administration", but don't pronounce it "N", "A", "S", "A", but NASA.

A useless fun fact at the beginning, but never mind.

The acronym we are going to talk about today is called "VUCA".

Does anyone know it?

I didn't know it until two weeks or so ago. I think I first heard it on a podcast about church planting, but I'm not sure.

"VUCA" stands for "Volatility", "Uncertainty", "Complexity" and "Ambiguity", in English of course, and describes the high dynamics and speed of change of today.

These statements describe today's world quite well, I think, and therein also lie the challenges for us as Christians and for our congregation and of course for the new leadership.

Into a new land...

Nevertheless, I think we can find an example of VUCA in the Bible as well, at least in part. I read from Genesis 12:1-5; NL
1 Then the LORD commanded Abram, "Leave your homeland, your relatives and your father's family, and go to the land I will show you. 2 A great nation will come from you. I will bless you and you will be known throughout the world. I will make you a blessing to others. 3 Whoever blesses you, I will bless him also. Whoever curses you, I will also curse. All the nations of the earth will be blessed through you." 4 Abram set out as the LORD had commanded him. And Lot went with him. Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. 5 On the way to Canaan he took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and everything they owned, along with their livestock and their male and female slaves they had acquired in Haran. So they finally reached Canaan.
That happened a little over 4000 years ago and slavery was unfortunately still common at that time. Abram was also a child of his time, but at least he treated his slaves well, even if this in no way justifies slavery.

But these times are largely over today, especially due to the commitment of Christians, and for the sermon today, the topic is irrelevant.

It starts with uncertainty for Abram. He will probably have been fitter than today's average 75-year-old, as the Bible says people got even older on average back then than they do today, but that's still a houseful to leave everything behind at that age.

"Leave your house, your relatives and your extended family and go first. I will show you the way then."

It doesn't get more uncertain than that.

After all, we often don't know where it all leads. What will the future bring? What will the rapid pace of technological development bring? What will climate change do? How will social changes affect us as a congregation?

About 20 years ago, I was on a basic theology course with Methodists, and the Methodists hold liturgy and tradition in much higher esteem than we do. One of them said that people from other places thought it was great that the procedures and symbols were the same in all Methodist congregations. You find your way around immediately.

That is also the case in other congregations: The main thing is that everything remains as it is, so beautifully familiar. The same songs as a hundred years ago, etc. In such congregations, a song like "Thank you for this good morning" is considered modern, which is now over 60 years old.

But does that also work in a VUCA world?

With God

Abram was on his way into the unknown (Genesis 12:6-9; NL):

6 They went through Canaan and came to the oak More near Shechem. At that time the area was inhabited by the Canaanites. 7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, "I will give this land to your descendant!" So Abram built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him. 8 Then Abram went to the mountains east of Bethel and pitched his tents between Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar and worshipped the Lord. 9 Then he went on south in several stages.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for "worship" can also mean "call out", so that another translation (NEÜ) writes here:

There too he built an altar to Yahweh and thus made Yahweh's name known.

He doesn't know where or why, but he sticks to God and even testifies to Him before the Canaanites.

The famine

What happens next? (Genesis 12:10; NL)

At that time a famine broke out in the land. And Abram went to live in Egypt, because the famine was great.

That's a picture of volatility. OK, we can't tell from the text how quickly this happened, but the situation worsened so much that he broke down the tents and moved to Egypt with his entire household. Whether that was the right decision is impossible to judge today. The extent of the famine was probably beyond his control, he apparently could no longer cope with the situation on the ground and so he moved away, to rich Egypt, where there is always food.

But that's how it is for us too. What is the extent of all this? Will there be enough money in the future? Everything is getting more and more expensive. And the war! Will it come to us one day? The scale of change can be frightening. Others are afraid of immigration. Still others would like to turn back the clock to the 90s. Everything was simpler then, at least in our memories.

And on top of that, these changes seem to be happening at breakneck speed.

Dealing with the danger

Abram sees danger and makes a decision:

11 As they approached the border of Egypt, Abram said to his wife Sarai, "You are a very beautiful woman. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife.' Then you will stay alive, but they will kill me. 13 Why don't you pretend to be my sister, so that the Egyptians will treat me well and let me live, because they care about you?"

Personally, that doesn't sound right to me. It's also a bit cowardly to be honest and I don't think he thought it through to the end.

But he's never been in a situation like this before and it's a very complicated situation.

He needs food, for his people and for himself. But he is afraid. The Egyptians were apparently in a position where they could do what they wanted. Whether his fear was well-founded or it was just prejudice against the Egyptians, we don't know. According to the Bible, Abram had never been to Egypt before and now he has to deal with a culture that is foreign to him and how should he behave?

When things get complex, prejudices help, of course, because they lead to simple solutions.

That's often enough the case with us. When things get too complicated, we look for simple explanations.

Where do we go from here?

14 When they arrived in Egypt, Sarai's beauty was the talk of the town. 15 Pharaoh's ministers also saw her and praised her beauty before him. 16 He gave Abram many gifts because of her - sheep, cows, donkeys, camels, slaves and female slaves. 17 But the Lord punished Pharaoh and his whole palace with a serious illness because of Sarai, Abram's wife.

Yes, over four thousand years ago, equality was not so far off. But in his perspective, which is of course somewhat disturbed by today's standards, the Pharaoh behaved fairly. He gives Abram many valuable gifts for his supposed sister.

This situation is now really complex, but despite this absurd decision in an overwhelming situation, God intervenes. And there God is the same then as now.

18 Pharaoh sent for Abram and strongly reproached him: "What have you done to me? Why didn't you tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say she was your sister, so that I took her as my wife? Here is your wife! Take her and get out!" 20 And he had Abram and his wife and all their possessions taken out of the country by some of his soldiers.

It is interesting that nowhere does it say that he had to return the gifts and in the next chapter it is described that Abram was very rich.

I am also not sure that Abram's original fear was well founded. Would Pharaoh really have had him murdered if he hadn't lied? To me, this Pharaoh doesn't seem that way, but of course one doesn't know.

God did not abandon Abram, though his decision was certainly questionable.

In John 16:33; NL Jesus Christ says:

I have told you all these things so that in me you may have peace. Here on earth you will experience many hard things. But take courage, for I have overcome the world.

In other translations it says "are you afraid", "will be oppressed", "will they put pressure on you", etc. But Jesus has overcome the world.

And as with Abram, this is true not only when you do everything right, but also when you make suboptimal or even wrong decisions under pressure. In Jesus Christ we can have peace.

The separation

In the next chapter, Abram has a luxury problem. He and his nephew have so many farm animals that they can no longer stay together. There simply wasn't enough room for both of their herds. The Elberfelder Bible translates this so beautifully (Genesis 13:6; ELB):

And the land could not bear that they should dwell together: for their substance was great, and they could not dwell together.

I would like to have a problem like that sometimes ;-)

But this leads to a separation from his nephew, which was certainly not so great. Abram is very calm about it, though, so he leaves the decision to Lot. I find that very decent.

Lot's decision-making process is interesting (Genesis 13:10-13; NL):

10 Lot looked at the fertile plain of the Jordan Valley, which stretched toward Zoar. For before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, the whole area was well watered, like the garden of the LORD or Egypt. 11 Therefore Lot chose the Jordan Valley. They separated from each other and Lot went east. 12 While Abram stayed in the land of Canaan, Lot settled in the area of the cities of the Jordan plain and moved with his tents as far as the vicinity of Sodom. 13 But the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked and sinned grievously before the LORD.

Here we have a bit of the ambiguity mentioned above about this land that Lot chooses. "Like the garden of the Lord", now that's an attribute. One can understand why Lot chooses this land.

He has the choice and he has to decide not only for himself but for his whole household. And "like the garden of the Lord" is certainly very tempting.

On the other hand, the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked and sinned grievously against God. Should he have kept his distance? On the other hand, he does not have to live in the city, he can continue to live in tents.

We know that Lot moved to Sodom and had a house there. This is mentioned a little in passing in Genesis 14, when a war between various kings in the area is described (Genesis 14:11,12; NL):

11 The victors then plundered the wealth and food supplies of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then set out for home. 12 They also captured Lot - Abram's nephew, who lived in Sodom - and took all his possessions.

I suspect that Lot turned his herds into money and thus afforded himself a good life with a nice house in the city, because that is the only way I can explain that the foreign soldiers captured all his possessions.

The foreign soldiers would hardly have taken all the livestock. I admit it's a bit of combination and speculation, but it seems very likely to me.

It does make one wonder to what extent the choice of the land, which was like the garden of the Lord, makes sense.

We know, of course, that afterwards in Genesis 19 Sodom was destroyed. Lot was saved with his wife and daughters, although Lot's wife did not survive the flight. And all his possessions were also gone, which, by the way, speaks for the fact that he no longer had huge herds on the land outside the city.

In retrospect, as a Bible reader, it is easy to judge Lot's decision for the Jordan Valley at Sodom and Gomorrah negatively. In retrospect, by the way, it is always easy to judge decisions.

He had a lot of cattle, a large household and the land was like the garden of the Lord. That was the important information for him. Whether the people in Sodom were evil apparently didn't interest him. Then later he probably found out that he would rather live in the city, which makes the first piece of information unimportant and the second piece of information, which at first he apparently didn't take seriously, made life very difficult for him.

I also find it difficult to impute any wrong motives to Lot here. Sometimes one tends to ascribe such wrong motives to someone whose life is failing in some way. "He had a completely wrong mindset from the beginning."

But when you are in the middle of it, you have to make decisions and they can turn out to be unfavourable in retrospect.

The path

In John 14:2-6; NL Jesus Christ uses the image of the Way:

2 There are many dwellings in my Father's house, and I go ahead to prepare a place for you. If it were not so, would I have told you so? 3 Then when everything is ready, I will come and take you, so that you will always be with me, where I am. 4 You know where I am going and how to get there." 5 "No, Lord, we don't know," said Thomas. "We have no idea where you are going; how can we know the way?" 6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

We need to know where we are fundamentally going, it is this view for eternity that we must never lose.

The term "path" has a similar double meaning in Greek as it does in German, namely, on the one hand, the pyhsic path to walk and travel on and, on the other hand, the path in the figurative sense, on which one travels with one's life, for example.

The Christian faith is often referred to as a "way" in the Acts of the Apostles (e.g. Acts 9:2). We are through and with Jesus Christ on the right, eternal path to his Father's house. And we are also on the way with him here on earth, in a world of uncertain, rapidly changing and complicated circumstances.

And for this we have the Bible to help and guide us (Psalm 119, 105; NL):

Your word is a lamp to my foot and a light to my path.


Summing up: