TRYING TO REACH THE FUTURE THROUGH THE PAST
There are at least two ways through this state of lockdown. A metaphor: our previous normal and corporate existence was travelling along the motorway of life when it came across an unexpected obstacle in the road. The obstacle was so great that the motorway was closed, and all the traffic was sent to a detour road. When the obstacle was successfully by–passed, the traffic could then be diverted back to the motorway to continue its journey. Admittedly the journey has been interrupted and some extra time was required but now the journey can get back to normal as quickly and smoothly as possible.
The second possibility is that the obstacle is huge and that it has so damaged the motorway and interrupted the journey that a detour is not possible. A new route has to be found not just to get past the obstacle but to find a new way to continue the journey. The new route is so far from where we were before that it is wiser to simply continue on the new route and travel from there. There is no going back, but rather a search for the best way forward from wherever we find ourselves, never mind how it used to be. Maybe that ship is sailing.
A Bible reflection on that…
SCATTERED is a word we have all been using to describe church in its present state; admittedly forced on us by a set of circumstances beyond our control. There is a Biblical precedent? The obvious reference is to “salt scattered”; so, we gather for worship and then scatter for mission/life etc.
But has the church ever been totally scattered like we are now? Acts 7–8. At the end of chapter 7 Stephen is martyred. Chapter 8 begins with the bad news that a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem and the church was scattered all over Judea and Samaria. Imagine them in small family groups fleeing and hiding with only the personal belongings they could carry. A thought jumps immediately to mind – wasn’t that what Jesus had told his followers to do back before he ascended – “Go into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth”? Strangely they had not done this…until the persecution. They had gathered around Jerusalem, enjoying the temple courts, the apostles’ teaching, the sharing, the buzz, the crowds (it is all at the end of Acts 2).
I could never suggest that God organised a persecution, but it certainly scattered the church and, dare I say it, introduced change that became hugely positive. The church went to uncomfortable places like Samaria (uncomfortable because it was full of Samaritans). Before they knew it, Peter had been to Cornelius’s house (a Roman centurion) and Gentiles were being filled with the Holy Spirit. This eventually led to total transformation to what was beginning to look like a Jewish Messianic Christian movement. It expanded beyond one religious, cultural and political identity. This was now becoming a global movement of God; and why not? Jesus cannot be contained in any culture or set of religious practices (not even the Church of Ireland).
But what about post–scattering?
I hear voices saying things like, “Won’t it be great to get back to normal?” Some, who are old enough to remember, would tell us that post–troubles NI is not simply a return to pre–troubles NI without the trouble. It has to be a new way. Let’s hold off from simply planning the return to normal and consider some other possibilities.
In Acts 8, we are told that the SCATTERED CHURCH proclaimed the word everywhere they now found themselves. They no longer had apostles every night of the week in the market place. They no longer had their religious establishment, they no longer had meeting places and scripture texts. They no longer had leadership structures. But they had the gift of the Holy Spirit, a survival instinct inspired by fear, fire in their bellies and a mission for life. Notice what they also didn’t do. When the persecution eased they did not return to how it was before. They did not return to Jerusalem and set it all back up as they had known it. The persecution wasn’t simply an experience to be survived and then get back to normal. It was a transformative experience that they allowed to shape their future. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (the whole book of Acts might be better called the Acts of the Holy Spirit) they shaped and re–shaped to fit into new contexts and cultures all along the Mediterranean coast. New ways of shaping to fit into and challenge cultures were being discovered.
So, the bigger question than ‘how do we go back’ is ‘how do we go on’. This crisis is not just a hiccup in our programme. It has already re–shaped and hurt many families. It will leave permanent scars. It has created pain and panic, fear and withdrawal, and heroism and sacrifice. A pandemic is wholly a bad experience, yet an experience that is re–shaping us individually and perhaps on the big things.
Shopping may be different after this. A&E and health centres may not have to be waiting places any more. Working patterns may be different. School may be a mixture of school and home. Imagine if A Levels were abandoned as unnecessary for university entrance.
And what about the scattered church? In general, the big picture of the gathered church was of overall decline in numbers and influence. Why rush back to that?????
The challenge is: how do we use the experience of “enforced scattered” to become a movement of Christ that will flavour society in the way that Jesus imagined when he talked about scattering the salt. Are we going to start scrabbling around after this to gather our members back again, and maybe pick up a few new ones who take the opportunity to not return to where they were before?
Post WW2, women continued to work – a huge cultural change. Even here in NI stuff changed – education for all was rolled out across divided Northern Ireland in ways that it had never been before. Can the church take hold of this experience as part of our journey together, embracing the deeper questions it has made us ask, and wait for our guiding “Holy Spirit to fall afresh on me, melt me, mould me, fill me, use me”.
Emerging from enforced scattered, do we rush back to where we were before, or could we be courageous enough to embrace our new experiences and move forward from there. What if a certain amount of scattered is God’s heart for his family as his way of reaching a scattered world?