I didn’t preach today. I presided at Holy Communion, while Mike, a Local Preacher led the first part of the service and preached. I was glad it worked out that way this weekend. It meant that on Friday, I had been able to head down to see my parents. I stayed there until last night. Mum has been in more pain again, since her fall just before Christmas.
So now you know why I didn’t post a sermon this weekend on the blog. But it was good to sit under Mike’s ministry this morning. He preached from Isaiah 35 about ‘streams in the desert’. Feeling that ministry here often is a desert made it all the better to hear him.
Actually, it wasn’t just Mike and me leading this morning. Mike has a musician friend called Ian, who also took part. As well as leading one or two songs from the guitar, he also performed a couple for us to meditate upon.
Now I am perfectly used to this approach to worship. I am used enough to an Anglican approach where one person leads the service and another preaches. However, it was interesting to note how nervous some of the congregation were about whether three leaders would ‘work’. Just that simple change put some people outside their familiar context, and temporarily raised anxieties. (I believe the anxiety quickly passed, however.) The frames of reference established by the patterns familiar to us can be powerful things. There have been convulsions at one church I know. The new minister recognised quickly that in a large congregation, the traditional Methodist way of distributing the bread and wine at Holy Communion was unwieldy. He quickly adopted an Anglican ‘continuous flow’ method. I don’t know how he managed the change, but I gather there was pain at the AGM. Familiarity seems to equal normality for many of us. Fear of the unknown is a big factor in many churches.
Yet the Christian faith has something powerful to say to those who are afraid of the unknown. It is the doctrine of hope. I don’t say this glibly, after the fear I faced early last year when a routine urine test showed evidence of blood, and I had to be seen urgently at hospital. However, within routine church life it seems we bind ourselves up with some very mundane familiarities in which we find a degree of security. Discipleship is surely an adventure. In the understandable and important pastoral task of making church a ‘safe place’ for the hurting, we have both found the safety in the wrong things and also forgotten that faith is meant to be dangerous.
It is as if we have become the ‘health and safety’ church. By that I mean that health and safety regulations in our culture have operated in such a way as to remove as many risks as possible from all public activity. Before long, we shall need a risk assessment before getting out of bed in the morning. We have taken this attitude to church. We are the church of the buried single talent.
During Lent this year, I ran a weekly course based on the DVD version of John Ortberg‘s book, ‘If You Want To Walk On Water, You’ve Got To Get Out Of The Boat.’ I had read the book a few years ago, and enjoyed it. What struck me this time was how everything I had ever heard before about the story of Peter walking on the water to Jesus was about his sinking, because he failed to keep his eyes on Jesus. Peter was the failure. But Ortberg makes a great play on the idea that Peter was a success, compared with the other disciples who stayed in the boat. At least he got out of the boat and took a risk of faith, even if he wobbled. Some people, however, gained a big affinity for the other disciples. Traditionally, a boat has been a symbol for the church (think of the World Council of Churches’ logo). We may like to stay in the boat of the church rather than meet Jesus outside the church, on the rough waves.
I sense that one of the calls of Christian leadership today is to expose people to danger. Church needs to be a risky place once more. We need to embrace that before wider society makes it that for us, or before many of us die out. What can we do to make Christianity something that raises the pulse?
Doing that may involve exposing people not merely to risk and danger but to chaos. I am currently reading Alan Roxburgh‘s book ‘The Sky Is Falling‘ from 2005. He says that in a period of great discontinuous social change, people often want to do one of two things. One is to revert to how things were in an earlier time, when all seemed peaceful and ordered. The other is to rush through to the new shape of the future. But, he says, the transitional phase, or ‘liminality’, may last a long time. The only way to come through faithfully is to stay with the chaos until the new order emerges. I have done a lot to try to help congregations realise that we aren’t in Kansas any more, Toto. Through reading Roxburgh I am beginning to understand even more the importance of entering into biblical narratives of liminality, the biblical literature that describes or emanates from times in history when the familiar had been ripped from them, but the new had not yet come. The best example I know of that is the Jewish exile in Babylon. I have preached several times in recent years on Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles (Jeremiah 29). I am beginning to think I may need to engage with that most painful of Psalms, Psalm 137.
Where, then, is hope? Where do we find our security? The moment we pose such questions we should as Christians know the answer. It is in God. It is in God’s character as faithful, even when faithful doesn’t mean he does what we want him to do. Our faith and hope remains in God even though the fig tree may not blossom, as Habakkuk said. Yes, we can look to the long term future for what we believe God may do. But God is true, even before the Second Coming, and whether or not ‘revival’ comes, or whether it comes later rather than sooner. God is God; our church securities are not.