Uncertain certainty

‘The virus has robbed us of many things. It continues to rob us of any certainty.’

In many ways, those words by BBC correspondent, Chris Mason sum up these last few months.

Our local churches have begun opening for public worship for the first time since March. Many might have hoped to go back to a place of certainty… but with its hand sanitisers, the wearing of face coverings, social distancing, and no hymns or coffee it too has changed. It’s different.

The Gospel reading for today (9 Aug) is very appropriate for the current time (Matthew 14:22-33). It’s an account of when the disciples were in their boat crossing Lake Galilee in the middle of the night. Not unusually, a storm blows up. The boat is blown around. And then out of the tumult, Jesus walks on the water towards them. Given their exhaustion and the darkness, it’s not surprising they think it’s a ghost.

But Peter knows it’s Jesus. Responding to Christ’s call, Peter steps out in faith on to the water… and then he noticed the wind.

Peter sinks down and is grasped by Jesus’ hand. Jesus then climbs back in the boat and calms the storm allowing the disciples to continue their journey.

Stepping out in faith is no guarantee that we will not hit troubled or stormy waters. You’ve probably had your own encounters of stepping out in faith and things being difficult. You will have stepped out… and then noticed the wind.

Jesus said to Peter: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

A cruel put-down or words of empathic reassurance?

Did Peter really have little faith? After all, nobody else got out of the boat.

So here we are. We of little faith. A little faith that enables us to step out in the storm. A faith which grasps the hand of Jesus as he reaches out to us.

Jesus places us safely in the boat. He climbs in with us. He calms the storm and takes us on our journey. A journey yes, in to uncharted waters. A journey of continuing change. But also a journey of certainty. A journey in which we will never be abandoned.

Whatever the change. Whatever the loss of certainty.

Do not be afraid.

 

 

(This post is a shortened version of a spoken reflection at St Michael’s, Teignmouth in Devon as it reopened for worship on 9 Aug and that included in the online service for that day.)

Back to normal?

“What’s the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?” asked the young enquirer. “About ten years,” replied the vicar with characteristically dry wit.

Despite often being at the forefront of social change and community action, the church is often seen as being behind the times and, sadly, it doesn’t take much interaction with some congregations to see the truth of the vicar’s wry observation.

Churches are also perceived as places where change is resisted: “The previous vicar did it that way.” “We’ve always had our service at 9.30.” “At the PCC meeting on 23 March 1973 we voted against that.” There are plenty of people with toys poised, ready to throw them out of the pram (yes, including me). The desire to be ‘doing church’ sometimes appears greater than to be ‘doing God’ – being witnesses to God’s love through the way we live our lives and in encouraging each other in faith. Of course, ‘doing church’ is easier and safer…

So, these recent months have seen a breath of fresh air wafting through the sometimes stale surroundings that conceal the full extent of that love. From phone networks to help people keep in touch, to loving our neighbour by shopping for them and, more radically, coming together as the church online.

In the Church of England alone, there are now over 5,500 online services taking place each week as live streams through Facebook, Zoom etc or pre-recorded and available online at YouTube, Vimeo or elsewhere.

‘The revolution in online worship has meant many people who have been excluded from the life of their local church – (due to) infirmity, disability, phobia, mental fragility – feel included,’ tweeted Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich. ‘I’m ashamed we did not realise this before.’ (my italics)

There’s a danger that those who are not on the internet remain excluded so it’s important to address that and online services are not the same as gathering with others for worship – but they have opened up a tremendous opportunity for creativity when it comes to bringing people closer to God.

Alongside other lockdown easings, this weekend sees the gradual reopening of places for worship. While cathedrals and some churches will be ready to do so, many will not – and that’s good: it’ll be better to be safe than sorry.

Now, I, for one, have been dreading hearing the phrase, “It’ll be good to be back to normal”.

Of course, there are good things in the familiar trappings of church as we know it. They provide the security of social contact with others and the rhythms of prayer and worship. A steady port in the storm providing stability in times of change which is so crucial to our faith as well as our wellbeing. But, as with a lot of things, church will not, and maybe will never be the same, and that will be difficult for many. There will be a new normal.

But that phrase also causes me to reflect on what else comprised the ‘old’ normal. It was Tertullian, a 1st/2nd Century Roman pagan who wrote, ‘See how these Christians love each other.’ As I look at the church generally, I find myself deeply saddened by how these Christians talk about each other. Clergy and laity alike criticising others seemingly for the sake of it. Grudges are grown and forgiveness is forgotten. Is that the normal we want to go back to?

‘After the pandemic, some parishes and Fresh Expressions will go to the wall, never to be seen again,’ writes Philip North, Bishop of Burnley. ‘Churches that have gone to sleep will stay asleep. Those who have risen to the task will be ready for service and proclamation.’

Unimaginably tragic as the circumstances are, the current time opens up possibly the greatest opportunity in generations for God’s message of life-giving, unconditional love to become known by all, churchgoer or not. If you are one who prays for revival, could this be the time?  Do we take that opportunity, or do we lose all that we have gained in these last few months by simply going back to normal?

 

 

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Finding Stability in Times of Change

At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.

Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.

Unity in Diversity

The church was full (for once). The visiting preacher had drawn a big congregation. Children played in the far corner. We sat, ready to hear the preacher’s message about the importance of inclusivity. “Children shouldn’t be allowed in church” said the voice of someone behind me. “What are those parents thinking. They should be keeping them quiet.” And on they went. An argument broke out in The Peace. “When my children came to church, they were quiet. Such a shame they’ve spoiled a good service.” I received communion and left. It wasn’t the children who spoiled it.*

On visiting another church (in another team) a while back, I was talking to the vicar at the end of the service. He asked what I did where I lived. “I’m married to the vicar,” I replied. “Ah, there we have a problem,” came his response as he moved on to the next person.

Another time, another place. A Roman Catholic monastery. It’s Mass. I’m Anglican. I’m not allowed to receive that most special gift of bread and wine.

With the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity beginning on 18 January, the ironic fact is that scenarios such as the three shown above will be played out in many churches across the land.

Many organisations experience issues of unity and disunity. Social clubs, workplaces, political parties, campaigning groups… It’s natural when a group of people come together. There are going to be agreements and disagreements. There may be a unity about the purpose – but it’s often the variations which cause difficulties: ‘Oh no, we do it this way…’. The Church is no different.

Disunity can be found within the most respectable of congregations. ‘Power holders’ and ‘blockers’ sit alongside the ‘co-operators’ and ‘team players’. Local/parish churches being brought together under the guise of a ‘team’ struggle to move on from valued historical individuality and identity. And that’s without thinking of the disputes between and within denominations at a national and international level…

A week praying for Christian unity in such a seemingly disunited Church?

The Church (with a capital C) is, thankfully, not perfect. It comprises a very diverse group of individuals. It is open to all: believer, non-believer, not sure believer; people who do ‘church’ but don’t do God. (And, as Nadia Bolz-Weber once put it, ‘Be careful when you say, “All are welcome”. The problem is they show up.’)

Francis Chan wrote, ‘I don’t believe God wants our church life to be centred on buildings and services. Instead, God wants our churches—whatever specific forms our gatherings take—to be focused on active discipleship, mission, and the pursuit of unity.’

Thankfully, the Church (the people) finds its unity in the knowledge that Christian believers, in all their diversity, represent the presence of Christ on earth.

It is in that diversity that unity exists.

 

 

*Taken from A Story to Tell