As we contemplate another summer ahead with slight apprehension of what possible crisis may occur, what new imagination is stirring, what courage is being forged for hope-filled witness to the living God? And where is the dangerous wind blowing open musty churches and disrupting its fossilized traditions? From where I sit, there are many, many often very surprising reasons for hope. Unwrapped from the anxiety of ‘will the church survive?’ preoccupations, I hear and see signs of new thinking and new creativity that the Synod’s Future Directions framework is designed to catch and explore but, with or without the Synod or the church, the dangerous wind will blow through hearts and minds bringing change.
Increasingly it seems that ‘crisis’ characterizes our times, whether induced by climate (horrendous fire events, catastrophic floods and mudslides and weather events of unusual intensity), health (the global pandemic), politics (the mad war in Ukraine) or economics (the cost of living crisis, the ever-growing gap between rich and poor people and nations). The church is not immune – all the Councils of the UCA (from congregation to Assembly) are having to grapple with a range of challenges to which the ‘crisis’ label is frequently applied.
In its very long history, the church has lived through many and varied times of crisis and upheaval. Perhaps that experience can give some perspective and insight for how the church might navigate today’s turbulent times. Like it or not, crisis always brings change and change is not always welcome. Ben Okri writes that ‘the opportunity to change our destiny depends on the best lessons we take from suffering, not the worst lessons we take from tragedy’. These are not times for a narrowness of heart and hope. They invite us to live more fully into the promise of creation and the adventure of human being in God’s image.
In a recent meeting that I attended reference was made to a Chinese proverb to the effect that crisis is opportunity riding a dangerous wind. ‘Dangerous wind’ seems like a very good epithet for the person that the church knows as the Holy Spirit, third person of the Trinity, occasionally called the Comforter but usually associated with ‘tongues of fire’ and the disruptive birth of the church at Pentecost.
With no such thing as the Basis of Union and without a handy guidebook of Regulations, without even anything resembling a Bible, a disorganized, mostly mystified bunch of disciples used their remnants of memory and experience to share a miraculous story of encounter and relationship with the living God. Person to person to person that story took hold around the world. Along the way, the church was organised and eventually became a global institution, but the institution is not the story. Carried on the dangerous wind of the Spirit, the story always travels person to person, heart to heart, mind to mind, forming new relationships, fostering new imagination and bringing – always – change. Often enough, this story has called forth amazing courage and extraordinary witness in times of crisis (think of Andre and Magda Trocme and their actions to save Jewish people in World War II. Worth looking up if you don’t know their story).
It’s not always easy to grasp the danger and disruption when it comes wrapped up in the Hallmark sentimentality of the Christmas season but, make no mistake, Jesus did say I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.
Have a blessed Christmas!