From my heart to yours
Believe it or not, this is my penultimate Informer article that I offer to you. Where have the last six and half years gone? No, I am not going to write about time, rather I went into my laptop files and brought out my first Informer Article for February 2010. I offer it to you; it may have something to say for us, who are still on the journey.
Today is the 21st January 2010, here I am sitting at my desk in the St Aidan’s minister’s office writing this article for the February edition of the Parish Newsletter. This date is significant to me because on this day in 1979 I was ordained as a minister within the Baptist family of Churches and inducted into my first pastoral charge. In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined that 31 years later I would be here at St Aidan’s Presbyterian Church, Northcote. I am here, pleased to be here and looking forward to our time together, travelling along unmarked pathways into an unknown future.
Indulge with me for a moment; cast your mind back to the 1970’s in New Zealand:
- What do you remember of the 1970’s?
- What was happening in your life at that time?
- Where were you living?
- Where you part of a church community? If so, what was it like?
I was living in Richmond in Nelson, Fleur and I had three children. The church community I was minister of, had a range of age groups with a flourishing Sunday School, Youth Group, Girl’s Brigade Company and two services on a Sunday. New music was coming into the Church, instruments other than piano and organ were used, and this changed our worship services. The church had no photocopier, just a Gestetner copying machine that spread ink everywhere including my shirts. Computers were the stuff of science fiction and mobile phones along with the Internet were not even part of our thinking.
In New Zealand society, the place of the church was still respected. There was no Sunday trading apart from the odd dairy and families enjoyed being together on Sundays. By and large traditional values were still valued and the main line denominations were honoured as the custodians of community spiritual life and vitality.
Unfortunately for various reasons, here and there groups left the mainline denominations creating new congregations of the Pentecostal or Charismatic flavour.
Come with me 31 years. Today our New Zealand Society is radically changed; it is like we are living in a different country, in fact we are. Space forbids a full critique of this societal transformation, however through this period the church finds itself removed from the centre to the edge, to the margins of our society. Some may say New Zealand society is now secular, or is it?
Of course you may have the idea that the church should still be the only voice speaking on moral and spiritual values. In a different era it was so; it will never again have that privileged place. What right do we have to be top dog, to tell others how to live their lives?
The church, by that I include all denominations, finds itself in a different place. There is the renaissance of Maori Spirituality, and other religions whose voice is being heard, Islam, Buddhist along with New Age Spirituality. The church is just one voice in this multi – cultural, ethnic and pluralistic society, which is New Zealand in the 21st Century.
One of the most noticeable aspects, which have a bearing on us as a community of faith, is spirituality. It seems each way we turn we are seeing and hearing of spirituality. Even this morning on the TV news there was a Maori Blessing held at dawn at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch.
This is a reminder that the church no longer has a monopoly on the sacred, and yes, there is a revival of spirituality in our society, which in one sense has bypassed the church. In particular the mainline churches are not seeing increased attendances; rather it is the opposite. No longer is spirituality the prerogative of the church, the by-product of religious life and devotion. We now have to face the fact that spirituality is itself larger, greater and has never been able to be contained by any particular church or religion.
This new spirituality is not centrally co-ordinated, with a head office in Wellington; rather it is indigenous to people, flowing naturally from within the soul of a person seeking new meaning for their spiritual needs first, with little regard for institutional requirements.
When I have taken funerals over the last few years, I have lost count of the number of people who have expressed to me in their words: ‘the church is not for me’, ‘they are too narrow,’ ‘they are too judgemental and too constricting,’ ‘I will go elsewhere to have my spiritual needs met.’
I am sure you have heard these kinds of comments before, and we may well say, here at St Aidan’s we are not like that… that may be true. But alas, unfortunately we are all tarred with the same brush, and perception is everything.
This then raises questions around how might a local congregation such as St Aidan’s function in this salad bowl of diversity and constant change? We CANNOT be all things to all people; we need to ask questions:
- Who are we?
- What kind of congregation are we becoming?
- We may describe ourselves as a family church; what kind of family are we becoming?
- Is that kind of family what we want to be?
- What kind of congregation will we leave as our legacy?
- What can we do well within the resources that we have?
I believe that we have a unique place as a faith community, being at the edge of society. This may well be a good place to be. For when I read the gospels, Jesus was constantly at the edge of his society; for there he offered healing to those whom society had also pushed to the margins.
I must admit that I kind of like the idea of the church being at the edges of society. There is something real and honest about that metaphor and imagery. This then raises more questions for me:
- What kind of church functions healthily at the edge or margins of society?
- What qualities do we need as a community of faith to live at the edge of society?
- What might we need to change to ensure we survive at the edge?
In this article I have sought to raise your awareness and ask some questions. I don’t have the answers, but I will walk and wait with you, as you and I live the questions, for in their own time answers will come, leading us along unmarked pathways into an unknown future.
I close with a quote from Archbishop Rowan Williams from his book Where God Happens – Discovering Christ in One Another
“He (Jesus) does not stop working in the church when we Christians are wicked and stupid and lazy. The church is not magic, much as we would love it to be – a realm where problems are solved instantly and special revelations answer all our questions and provide a shortcut through all our conflicts. It is pre-eminently and crucially a community of persons, and a place where holiness takes time and where the prose of daily faithfulness, and, yes, sometimes daily boredom have to be faced and blessed, not shunned or concealed. And in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we see in visible and tangible form what it means for Jesus to be pledged to this world, the Body that is always there as the community gives thanks with him and through him.”
Take heart, we don’t wait and walk alone, for the Spirit of Jesus is with us, in the eyes and touch of another human traveller. Let us not be our fear.
Meanwhile peace and courage in our living the questions.
Over six years later when I read the above, I find myself smiling to myself, for so much has occurred. We have not walked alone, rather, together, all kinds of wonder – filled moments have occurred. We are formed and forming community and still living the questions. While experiencing all manner of things, some good, while others not so. I thought I would leave you with two quotes:
I am not what happened to me,
I choose who I become.
– Carl Jung
This quote is a reminder that so much happens in community and in our own personal lives, yet, we are more than that, we can always choose our response, the more positive a response will open doors of new life, energy, determination and courage to flow.
The other quote is simple, yet profound:
Faith is above all openness – an act of trust in the unknown.
– Alan Watts
May you discover in the weeks and months ahead a new openness and trust in the mystery of the Unknown God. This God cannot be micro – managed, rather we come with open hands, arms and hearts waiting within the embrace of love for the next step on the journey to unfold.
Meanwhile peace and wonder in living the questions.