Tuesday, October 16, 2018

On my birthday....

Many weeks I spend my Thursday evening at my local pub, which has a quiz on Thursdays. Round 6 of the quiz is “on this day”...so I thought I’d borrow that for a little birthday series!

A few years ago I did a series leading up to my birthday, featuring some of the cool people I share October 21st with. This time, it’s exciting events to share the day with!

So, in no particular order, for the week leading up to my birthday...

October 21st, 1964: the film version of My Fair Lady premiered! That’s right, I was born on the 16th anniversary of the first time Audrey Hepburn sang “Wouldn’t it be loverly” on the big screen. Or rather, sang it but then had her voice removed and dubbed over. It was a controversy to cast her rather than Julie Andrews (who played Eliza in the Broadway and West End productions), but what would my birthday be without a little controversy? The ending of the musical provides more controversy too, as sometimes the stage productions differ from the movie, both of which differ from the original story...who knows how Eliza would really have ended it???

My Fair Lady is a delightful musical, and it’s fun to think I was born on the day the movie version was first seen!


Sunday, October 07, 2018

Direction—a sermon on the Ten commandments

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Direction
Exodus 19:3-8; 20:1-17 (NIV)
7 October 2018, NL1-5, Forward in Faith 5

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, ‘This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.’
So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, ‘We will do everything the Lord has said.’ So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.

And God spoke all these words:
‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
‘You shall have no other gods before me.
‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
‘Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
‘You shall not murder.
‘You shall not commit adultery.
‘You shall not steal.
‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’

~~~~~~~

This past week was the 62nd anniversary of the premiere of the film The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses. There was a period when that was all some people knew about the story—they couldn’t name the commandments, exactly, but they had an image of Moses and of God that came from the movie. Today, I suspect the average person has even less to go on, as the movie hasn’t held up very well, not to mention that it takes some fairly significant liberties with the story of God and God’s people, leaving both in a fairly unflattering light.

We have been prone to thinking of the Commandments as a list of rules that have to be followed in order to be good enough for God. Since so many of them are phrased in the negative—thou shalt not—we end up with an image of an angry God who spoils all our fun and has nothing but “no” to say to us. The movie doesn’t help, as it makes God sound like a bitter old man just waiting to be disappointed by people who can never live up to his expectations.

But the story itself, if we read it carefully, has none of that at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

God heard the cries of the Israelites when they were enslaved...God saw the injustice there, and rescued them from it. And not just took them out of the situation, but made it impossible for their oppressors to do it to anyone else, either. God has been leading them, day and night, as a pillar of fire and cloud. God feeds them every day with manna and quail, God gave them water to drink even in the middle of the desert, and God spoke face to face with Moses and taught him how to be their leader. For all their faults and confusion and whining, the Israelites have one of the most up-close-and-personal experiences of God that anyone could ever ask for. 

And now, as they stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, God reminds them of their true destination. Notice that it doesn’t say “I brought you out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.” We always think that was the destination—that they were being moved, albeit very slowly—from one place to another. But in fact the destination of the exodus was never about the geographic location. God reminds the people that the destination of their journey out of slavery is “to me.” “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself,” says God.

This is really the whole of the story we read in the Bible, from “in the beginning” to “amen” and even continuing on to today. God is constantly bringing us toward God. That is always the goal, the end point—not a place, but a relationship. Not a physical space, however much we might love our buildings and our locations. God is interested in literally being with us, wherever we find ourselves on the earth, and so God is continually moving us closer and closer. Out of darkness, into light. Out of isolation, into community. Out of despair, into hope. Out of fear, into faith. From the moment when God created us in the divine image, through the prophets, and most perfectly in Christ—as Paul writes, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself.” Bringing us close, again and again.

This movement God makes doesn’t depend on us, either. Notice that the people were brought out of Egypt, to God, long before God asks anything of them. And before God speaks any commands, the people join in the conversation and commit to a partnership with God, working together to create the new reality that God has shown them. The vision is so compelling—a vision of ongoing relationship, of being treasured by the One who created all things and is over all the earth—that even before the people have seen the map, they sign up for the journey. Because though they do not know what place they are going toward, they know who they are going with, and that is enough for them to go forward in faith.

This doesn’t sound like a story of an angry God shouting his disappointment at people. I’m not really sure why that is always the image we seem to create, when the story really shows us a God who loves us so much that we are constantly being brought closer and closer, even—or maybe especially—when we have behaved in ways that cause God pain. God was even willing to become one of us, to suffer with us, to bring us into a closer relationship that changes how we live.

That is, I think, what the commandments are for. They show us the direction we are meant to go, as we continue to be a community in relationship with God. Because we are a people already called out, our way of life is different. The commandments created a people who were visibly different from those around them, a community that organised its life together in a particular way, a way that was often at odds with the usual economic, political, and cultural systems of the world. Not so they could earn God’s favour, but because they had already experienced it and so they lived differently. 

Remember God’s promise to Abraham? That we would be blessed in order to be a blessing. That’s the direction the commandments point as well. When we follow that map, we also demonstrate to the world a visibly different way of life that offers direction to others who long for this relationship, this covenant community where we work together with God to create a new world. 
A world where we don’t have to be fractured and compartmentalised, with different loyalties for each day of the week and each aspect of our lives—we can organise every sphere of our lives around one loyalty, to our One God. 
A world where we don’t have to exploit, or misuse, or distort reality for our personal gain, or allow our acquisitive desires to direct our behaviour—instead we are free to work for the flourishing of all, to stand up in opposition to those who would try to exploit, distort, and oppress, and to care for those the world sets aside, ensuring labourers and immigrants and the poor and the elderly and the young are treated justly. 
A world where people see and remember to whom we all truly belong.

I think one of the most fascinating things about this story, and something we would usually not notice because of how the regular lectionary divides up scripture, is that the Israelites agree to join this covenant before they know what the terms are really going to be. They have enough of a relationship with God that they are ready to follow God’s will, to walk and live God’s way, before they actually know what that is going to entail. All they know is that the direction of God’s liberation is always “to myself,” and that so far their experience of God has been unending faithfulness. That is enough for them to give their assent, even when the specifics of what God wants them to do next are still unspoken.

That is truly going forward in faith—trusting the relationship we already have with God so we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep going that direction, even when we don’t yet know exactly what God is going to ask of us. I think most of the time we pray for God’s guidance, and we ask for God to reveal the way, and we say we are willing to follow God’s will....but only if we already know what it is. Until we see the map, we’re not going anywhere. But this story suggests that a large part of getting to know God’s will is already being willing to do it even before we have seen it. Because it is only after the people have said “we will do it” that they hear the description of what their community is going to look like going forward.

I wonder if there is still a lesson there for us, as a church, and as the Church of Scotland. I suspect that when we as a Church decide to go forward in faith rather than fear, the way will become clear. I don’t know what way that will be, but I do know it will be designed for God’s glory, it will lead us into ever deeper relationship, and it will demonstrate the kingdom of God, a kingdom of abundance and grace, to a world that desperately needs good news. Not good news linked to a particular location or building, but to a particular God, who is always bringing us to themself.

May it be so. Amen.


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Thirst—a sermon on Exodus 17

Rev. Teri Peterson 
St. John’s 
Thirst
Exodus 17.1-7 (CEB)
30 September 2018, Forward in Faith 4

The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”
But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

~~~~~

The Israelites aren’t having a very easy time of it, are they? Things weren’t going very well in Egypt, despite their short memories on that front. They saw God do amazing wonders, and rescue them from slavery, and bring them through the sea and out to freedom. But once they were out of Egypt and into the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula, some problems arose. It must have felt like they were just muddling along as best they could, traveling, making camp, trying to keep track of children and herds and friends, while also not getting too exhausted for the journey or too overwhelmed to cope with it all. It’s no wonder they seemed prone to complaining, and to wondering at every turn if God was still there. They were led by the pillar of cloud and fire, showing them the way, protecting them from danger. They had been fed manna and quail. But every day was a new challenge to overcome, a new drama to face. 

And so they turn to Moses, looking for help, voicing their concerns. But Moses, too, is tired, and overwhelmed. He might be a little bit hangry, too, from the looks of things—his first response to this mass of thirsty people crying out for water is “why are you arguing with me????” What do they want him to do? After all, he’s just a person like they are. Yes, he’s the leader, and yes, God speaks to him, but surely he doesn’t have to be the only one who does everything, right?

His deflection doesn’t work, though, and Moses is beginning to feel as desperate as the rest of the people are. Only then, when he feels his own life is in danger, does he finally turn to God again. 

I think God’s response is fascinating and lovely. Moses says “help! They’re going to stone me!” And God does nothing with that at all. Instead of answering Moses’ cry for personal safety, God addresses the thirst of the Israelites. God recognises this is a real problem, the people need to be provided for. People need the nourishment of a cup of cool water in the desert. Their complaint is valid, their cry is heard.

And so God reminds Moses who he is: “take your shepherd’s staff and go ahead of the people” God says. Like a shepherd, be a leader. Remember, sheep follow, they can’t be herded from behind. So the leader goes ahead, taking some elders with him, and the people will follow. With that sign of his pastoral identity and purpose, Moses strikes the rock, the elders see the salvation of the people flowing out, and everyone is able to drink and be satisfied—and so they have an answer to their question: is the Lord among us, or not? Yes, and God not only sees them for who they really are and what they really need, God provides for those needs even when the leader is more worried about saving his own skin.

Often, preachers and writers ask us to imagine ourselves as the Israelites—to identify with the people who are overwhelmed and wonder where God is, the ones who ask for help and God responds in really tangible ways. We are indeed sometimes forgetful, sometimes overwhelmed, sometimes thirsty, sometimes demanding, sometimes questioning. That’s true. I don’t think it’s the whole story, though.

What if instead we imagine the community outside the church, the people who are not a part of the congregation, as the Israelites? All those people out there in our neighbourhoods, on the train and in the cafe and in the bowling club and the pub and the shops and at school and everywhere. The world is full of pressures, people are anxious and overwhelmed, just getting along day by day, some feeling overly full and some empty and many seeking something but not sure what. Some sense it and don’t know what questions to ask or where to turn for help, and others try to fill the void in different ways (some healthier than others), but ultimately what it comes down to is that people are thirsty.

Now imagine how often people encounter the Church as if we are Moses. They hear the Church saying it can’t be questioned, and that doubting God is sinful. They come looking for nourishment, and the Church gives them our frustration and fear right back. They long for water, and the Church gives rules and blames them for their own predicament and then asks them to join and give so we can save ourselves.

If we’re lucky and people hold on until we get around to the next part of the story, we might get a chance to lead by example, to go out ahead with the shepherd’s staff, to witness a miracle and share the good news with those who come along with us. We might get the chance to be reminded by God that God’s care is for all the people, not just for us and our institutions and plans and rules. Hopefully we, like Moses, would take the opportunity to turn our faces away from our own self-preservation and toward the future and step out in faith, and then shout out the good news of what God has done.

I would like to make another suggestion.

People are indeed thirsty. Life in the modern world is complicated. Only a few minutes looking at the news headlines is enough to have even faithful people asking “is God among us or not?” For those who long for just a taste of living water, with only desert in sight, it can seem bleak.

What if the Church is meant to be like the rock? Split open, gushing forth streams of living water, enough to quench the thirst of all.

The rock doesn’t ask why people are thirsty. It doesn’t ask where they’ve been all this time. It doesn’t blame them for being in the wilderness, or for not knowing what to do. It feels the strike of the shepherd’s staff, and it breaks itself open and offers itself. And people find that even in this strange place, there is a taste of hope, a drop of love poured out just for them. The rock doesn’t get anything out of it, the people don’t become rocks or anything...it’s a selfless act of emptying itself for the sake of others, so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

The world is literally dying of thirst, longing to know the answer to the question: is the Lord among us or not? What would it look like for the Church, the Body of Christ, to understand itself as the rock that feels the tap of its shepherd, and then opens up and simply serves the need of those around it, without hope for its own gain? It might look like literally working for clean water and food for all. It might look like offering spiritual nourishment in new ways, even for people who will never join the church. It might look like reaching out to be a friend to those who are lonely, or passing on skills we have that others can use, or giving of our time or resources to work for justice in our community and nation and world. It will look like going forward in faith, reaching out, not simply waiting for people to come to us in the manner we’re used to. It will certainly involve prayer, and listening for the nudge of the Spirit, and courage to break ourselves open and let love pour through in whatever form people need to experience grace.

Jesus promised that we would become a well of living water, springing up with eternal life. Can we hear the thirst of our neighbours, and open ourselves up to meet it?

May it be so.
Amen.








Monday, September 24, 2018

Ollie

Today is the 19th day without Ollie.




After 15-1/2 years of snuggles, playfulness, jumping on kitchen counters, drinking the milk out of cereal bowls, trying to escape every time I opened the door, comforting me when I’m sad or sick, and letting me hug her like a teddy bear under the covers at night, we said goodbye 19 days ago. She was wrapped in the fleece blanket we use every day in the study. She was clearly done, her little body couldn’t take anymore after months of trying to fight off an upper respiratory infection that made diabetes impossible to control, and even if I hadn’t taken her to the vet, she would likely have died that day anyway.

Ollie had two ways of drinking water. Her clear preference was to drink from the tap, and she would jump on the bathroom or kitchen counter and stand in the sink until I turned it on. If no running water was available, she would dip her paw into her water bowl and lick her paw...which meant changing the water frequently because there were always pieces of who knows what floating in it from her paws. No longer do I have to do that, I can just refill the bowl, because Andrew prefers to stick his entire face in (lol). Similarly, Ollie often moved food from the dish to a nearby spot of floor, where she may or may not eat it later...it has been 19 days since I found random pieces of cat food around the house.

Even after 19 days it’s hard to remember she won’t be at the door when I go in and out. I catch myself putting all flimsy plastic out of reach as soon as it comes in the house because she always chewed it and the sound drove me crazy. For the first time in my live-alone-as-an-adult life, my food is safe on the counter or the table, because she’s not there trying to steal it while it’s still cooking or while I go get a glass of water.

I miss her.



Andrew misses her too. He will sit in the hallway and cry—he has a new distressed meow that I’ve never heard until she was gone—and look at the door, and sniff around the spots she liked to sleep....but she isn’t coming back, and every time I tell him that then I’m crying too. (Aside: Andrew is terrible when I cry. He really doesn’t like it at all and gets very agitated. He’s not the comfort-type! Lol.) He has never known a house without Ollie. His entire life has been spent being her younger brother, the beta to her alpha, sharing space and attention, keeping each other company. This is his first time living alone. Just the two of us....it’s harder than it sounds, for both of us.

It’s amazing how these little furry creatures worm their way into our lives. And how much it hurts when they’re gone. Basically every moment I have been at home for the past 15 years has been spent with Ollie. And now there’s a gaping hole much larger than her tiny size would suggest. I don’t think “bereft” is too strong a word for how both of us are feeling just now. I could never even make my mind go to this place when they were both alive, and frankly I don’t want to be in it now, but alas...that’s what love means, right?
Andrew, right this minute...he basically hasn’t left my lap for weeks. Just the two of us now, buddy....

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Forward in Faith—a sermon on crossing the Red Sea

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Forward In Faith
Exodus 14.5-7, 10-16, 19-29
23 September 2018, NL1-4 (skipped 3), Forward in Faith 3

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, ‘What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!’ So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them.

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians”? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!’
Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.

Then the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other; so neither went near the other all night long. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, ‘Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.’ Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing towards it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen – the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

~~~~~~~~~

Can you imagine what it must have been like, to stand there at the shore of the sea? Before us, the water, whipped by the wind...the sea had long been a symbol of chaos and destruction, ever since that story of the flood. And behind us, the dust cloud churned up by the thousands of chariot wheels carrying Pharaoh’s army toward us. Nowhere to go, seemingly no hope, anxiety and certain death at every turn.

Listen to the Israelites, when they see the problem they are in: “were there no graves in Egypt? Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt? It was better in Egypt!” 

Their rose-coloured glasses have erased the memories of being enslaved, of being persecuted, of having their children thrown into the Nile, of being abused by their Egyptian taskmasters. 

Some might say they are finally honestly facing up to the reality of their situation. Others might say that fear has clouded their judgment. Others might point out that they mentioned Egypt five times in about fifteen seconds...they have so thoroughly turned their eyes back to where they came from. The mixture of fear and nostalgia has filled their minds and hearts, and all their thought is of Egypt.

Moses turns their eyes back where they belong: “you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today, you will never see again. Pay attention to God.” 

Moses stands there, looking at the entire population of his people, at the shore of the sea, with the dust cloud of chariots coming nearer, and reminds them what is really true: they belong to God, and despite the picture they have painted of despair, of their best days being behind them, of their fear...despite all of that, God is still an active player in this story. So he tells them: “stand firm and you will see.” 

I think one of the greatest laugh lines of Scripture is the next moment, when God then turns around and says “move on!” Every time it cracks me up that Moses says “Stand firm!” And God says “Go forward!” But once I get over how funny I think that is, I can picture it. The people were shaking in their sandals. Some may have been inching backward. Others trying to slink off unnoticed, and maybe make a life for themselves in the desert. Most were likely that fearful combination of paralysed and quivering, easily manipulated into any shape a leader might want to take advantage of. Moses turns their eyes from Egypt to God, and then God gives them the instruction: Forward.

But forward means into the sea.

There is a wonderful midrash, a story the rabbis told about this moment, recorded in the Talmud, the Jewish teachings about scripture. In this story, the Israelites heard the order from God: Go forward...and they looked at the roiling sea and hesitated. The pillar of fire and cloud moved behind them, separating them from the Egyptians, so they could no longer look back. They looked at the sea. Moses stretched out his hand, and the Israelites looked at the sea...until a man called Nachshon, brother-in-law of Aaron, who was the brother of Moses and Miriam, took the first step. He walked into the sea, up to his ankles...up to his knees...he kept walking, and the people watched...up to his waist, up to his chest...still he walked forward in faith. Up to his shoulders, up to his chin...and then suddenly the waters parted, and he stood on dry ground, going on, just as God had called. He went forward and the way appeared, and the whole body of the Israelites walked across, with a wall of water on one side and the other. 

Remember back in the first creation story, the one that’s very orderly and poetic? It says that God separated light and dark...and then separated the waters, on the earth and over the earth...and then drove back the seas to create land, separating the water further. Here it is again: though the sea is a symbol of chaos and destruction, God uses them to create something new. But this time the people will have to wade in to be re-created in God’s image, to be reminded of who is really sovereign—God, and not Pharaoh, not their fear, not their memories of the past, not the way they have always done things. They will have to go forward in faith.

The same is still true. How often do we stand at the shore of the sea, looking forward at chaos and uncertainty, and turning back to look instead at our mixture of fear and nostalgia? It feels almost like an epidemic in the Church. We remember days gone by, we lament that we can’t seem to go back there, and we resign ourselves to drowning under the crashing waves of secularisation and a shortage of ministers and two missing generations in our pews. Too often, I think, we are like the Israelites whose thoughts are filled with Egypt, and we forget that God is still an active player in this story. Even once we turn our eyes away from the dust cloud that threatens us with obscurity, all we see is the sea of decline, blocking our way.

What would happen if we waded in?

It might be uncomfortable at first. We might get knocked down by waves, or find it hard to see with the spray in our eyes. We might feel like we’re alone out there.

We might also feel the waves carrying us. We might feel buoyant. 

We might feel like our footing is unsure, or like one more step is impossible.

And that might be the moment a way opens before us and God re-creates the world and the Church again.

There are big challenges facing the Church of Scotland. We have taken for granted our position in the culture, and the people who make up the church, and the passing on of faith. The world has changed more than the church has—and of course some things are unchangeable, and will always be unpopular with the rest of the world, but some things we hold on to out of nostalgia or fear, not because they are eternal or essential. There are many congregations struggling, and many parishes without a minister, and the projections are fairly dire. In ten years half of the parishes in the Church of Scotland will not have a minister. Everyone is scrambling trying to figure out what to do. We feel caught between the Egyptians and the Sea, and fear feels like the order of the day.

I hope we can turn our eyes to God, who is still the author of and main character in our story. I hope we can let go of the narrative that says the best days of God’s church are behind us. I hope we can wade in, each in our way, and play our part in God’s re-creation, finding ways to share the good news of what God has already done for us and the vision of what God is still doing. 

Some of us clergy are working on ideas and plans to try new things, to work together as a group of parishes here and in the west end of Greenock. There is a lot of uncertainty around the presbytery plan, and the strategic plan of the General Assembly and what it might mean, and the options for a new structure that would be fit for purpose...and so some of us are seizing that moment to forge something together. We hope you will join in the process of discerning where God is calling us, and how we can best be the Church serving the community here. No one is currently planning a union or anything, we are just wading in to the idea of partnership for the sake of the gospel, recognising that our parish boundaries are not God’s boundaries. We are taking God at his word and going on, with hope that we will see God’s new thing being created in our midst.

God is always calling us forward in faith. 
To be the Body of Christ, light for the world. 
To live filled with the creative spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self control....the Spirit which makes a way where there seemed no way.
May we wade in!
Amen.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Hope....even in the Church of Scotland

The Church of Scotland, like many denominations, is facing a crisis. It’s a crisis largely of its own making, as many church crises are. (A good many congregations are in crisis, for example, because they have never learned healthy communication skills, or because they have never faced up to realities in their history that are still affecting them though most people don’t even know what happened....and a good many more because they won’t stand up to a bully....etc.) 

The CofS enjoyed the same cultural dominance that many mainline Protestant denominations did in white western countries in the 20th century....and like many European state churches did from the 16th century onwards. And, like all those mainline Protestant churches, there is a long history of complacency about the church’s place in the society, and that easily leads to taking people for granted, and worse, taking the faith for granted. We have gotten ourselves into this situation by assuming that people would soak up our version of Christianity, and that plus the cultural supports would be enough to keep people engaged and therefore keep the institution going.

It turns out both of those assumptions are false.

And now we are scared. Scared of the falling numbers of ministers (and members), scared of secularisation that (supposedly) steals young people away for other activities, scared of losing our beloved buildings, scared of death.

I understand the anxiety. I do.

I don’t really understand leaders who feed the anxiety or what it does for them, but I do understand the anxiety.

I am concerned as well. But I think I might be concerned about slightly different things than I hear people talking about at the moment.

I am concerned that we don’t seem to have a sense of the Holy Spirit moving in and through us to do something to make the world look more like the kingdom of God. We don’t seem to see her, we just see crumbling buildings and greying heads...

I am concerned that we seem to have decided that the Church’s best days are behind us, despite God’s promise of “plans for your welfare, not for your harm; for a future with hope.” (What is compelling about a faith that has nothing to say to our lives today, or tomorrow, or next year?)

I am concerned that our vision is of consistent decline, rather than a vision for how to participate in what God is doing in Scotland now. (Who wants to join in a vision of increasingly rapid decline?)

I am concerned that our excuses are just that: excuses. Yes, there are lots of other things happening on Sunday mornings now. No, the culture no longer supports the Church by assuming it is the centre of all things. But ultimately are those simply excuses we make to cover for the fact that we have not passed on the fullness of the faith? Or for the fact that we are unwilling to consider that God might be worshipped at times other than Sunday morning between 9 and noon? Or for the fact that we have focused so much on “getting people in” that we have never given any thought to how we go out?

I am concerned that we are insisting on making structural changes when we aren’t clear about vision or mission. Structure needs to be created to serve the mission, not the other way around.

I am concerned that those of us asking for support in discerning God’s vision and then pursuing it are being labeled naively optimistic.

Newsflash: pessimism (which too often masquerades as “realism”) is far more dangerous than optimism, because pessimism has no hope. If we are indeed a Church without hope, then please, by all means, close the doors. Now. Today. Don’t wait. Because that is not a church.

Similarly, if our only hope is for a return to the 1950s Church, then again: close the doors.

If, however, our hope is for the Living God to do a new thing....if our hope is for the Body of Christ to live out its calling...if our hope is for the Holy Spirit to empower us to be faithful in a changed context....then let’s say so. Let’s pray for vision, and then do the work to pursue it. Prayer without action, like faith without works, is dead. 

Surely we believe in a God who is more than capable of building up the Body even now. Or do we believe that God was only living and active before iPhones and Sunday youth sports?

I don’t know about you, but I believe that God has a vision for the Church of Scotland. I believe God has a purpose for us to carry out in every parish. I believe God is capable of giving us everything we need to live that purpose in service of that vision. 

The only thing I believe that may be naively optimistic (though I hope not!) is that I also believe we are capable of seeing the vision, and following it. It will be hard work, it will require changing some things we have held on to for longer than they have served us, it will mean allowing God’s new thing to supersede our fears and even our personal desires, but I believe it is possible. 

Perfect love casts out fear. 
Can we live like it? Here’s to hope!