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The melting pot of honesty
 

The church’s form may well have changed greatly by the time we emerge from this global pandemic. As we patiently seek Christ, Craig Gardiner highlights a refining virtue


PRAYER (1)


It’s the fourth week since Covid-19 restrictions brought my children home from school, not knowing when they might return. Since then, I and many other parents have regularly affirmed our deep appreciation for the teachers who magnificently continue to support their pupils working from home. Such home-study has inevitably involved some parental learning too. I’m not alone in discovering that things have changed since I was last at school. I may (on a good day) still be able to solve my children’s mathematics homework, but while the answers remain the same, I’m discovering that we’ve learned to do our sums in very different ways.
 
Churches are learning some parallel lessons. To put it bluntly, the answer still is Jesus, but how we show our working out, sharing Christ’s body as the gathered people of God, communicating his healing grace to an anxious world, is being done in a myriad of experimental forms.
 
It’s too early to comment with authority on the provisional responses from churches, Associations, Colleges and Baptist Unions. There will be an appropriate time for critical reflection, but for now we need to encourage further exploration and learn from the best of one another’s creativity. There may, after all, be many ways to do our ecclesiastical sums and still arrive at Jesus.
 
But as Sally Nelson noted earlier this week, the people of God now occupy a liminal space[1], we have involuntarily embarked upon a pilgrimage between what we once were and what we might yet be. As Walter Brueggemann would have it[2], the church is no longer in a place of orientation, where we can speak and sing with confidence that things are exactly as they should be. Nor have we emerged into the post-crisis new orientation, where what we learned in times of trouble is incorporated into fresh understandings of worship, discipleship, pastoral care and mission. Instead we are disorientated.

And if we’re not, then I think we ought to be. The theological ground has shifted under our feet and we inhabit a time when like Job’s comforters, we may be wisest to say little, and instead seek simply to be present in the midst of others’ pain.[3] We live in days when our ancestral psalmists would have voiced that pain with visceral expressions of lament and if we dare speak into this crisis, then it might be best to follow their example. Jesus will no doubt still be the answer, but in times like this, we may need to discover the discipline of holding our tongues until new vocabularies can be found by which we re-affirm his presence in the world with personal authenticity and communal legitimacy.
 
This reminds me of words written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer 75 years ago. In 1945, the churches in Germany had largely capitulated to the Nazi regime and Bonhoeffer was under threat of execution, incarcerated in a Gestapo prison cell. He wrote to his godson on the day of his baptism, imagining the shape of a revitalised post-war church:
 

‘By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting-pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification. It is not for us to prophesy the day (although the day will come) when people will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with the world and the coming of his kingdom.’[4]

 
By the time we emerge from this global pandemic, the church’s form may well have changed greatly. In some regards it ought to. Even before the virus struck, churches in many of our communities were disconnected from the majority of the surrounding population. Leaders already acknowledged the need to find ‘new ways to touch the lives of all,'[5] and discover contextual vocabularies for speaking of Jesus and being Christ concretely in the world. In this liminal space churches ought not to long for a return to the former ‘normal’, because as Bonhoeffer suggests, this will merely delay our much-needed ‘conversion and purification.’ Instead Christians must remain in the crucible of this melting-pot and seek a new ‘liberating and redeeming language’ by which we can speak to the world. For that to happen we must guard against a desperate rush to find instant solutions to our problems or to hail each new (and valuable) experiment as the longed for answer.[6] What may be needed are, as Bonhoeffer says, some new and shocking ways of ‘proclaiming God’s peace with the world and the coming of his kingdom’ and that surely means more than reinventing worship for Zoom.
 
If churches are to emerge from the melting pot ‘converted and purified’, then one of the refining virtues will surely be our honesty. In his time, Bonhoeffer wrote that what was needed was ‘not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward human beings.’[7] And he wondered if ‘our inward power of resistance {would} be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”[8]

No doubt, a more simple and straightforward church would be a welcome start for many longing for an authentic encounter with Jesus today. And it is the remorseless personal honesty of the writers of the psalms that appeal to us and strengthen us in times of disorientation. We connect with the reality of someone who laments, ‘how long O Lord, will life be a mess of fear and suffering?’ No doubt, church as a place where we could honestly be our wounded selves would be another step in the right direction. And finally, honesty is why this Low Sunday, many of us will personally resonate with the gospel story of Thomas. It is the human authenticity that has remorselessly wrestled with his doubts and fear that endears this disciple to us. When he confesses Jesus as, ’My Lord and my God’[9] his honesty is living proof of what Anne Lamont reminds us 'The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.’ [10]

A church where all sorts of people could honestly bring their doubts and mess might shock many of the people who are already members, or it might liberate them too. But such a church might also overcome us by its power, it might teach us all the language of a new righteousness and truth that will proclaim God’s peace with the world and the coming of God’s Kingdom.
 
The church’s journey into the melting pot of our days may have begun involuntarily, but if we will embrace it and patiently seek Christ in it, then there is perhaps much this crucible may teach us about being honest with ourselves, honest with others and honest before our God. Maybe, with our children, this is yet another thing we will begin to learn at home.
 
 

Craig Gardiner is tutor in Christian doctrine at South Wales Baptist College

 
 

[1] Sally Nelson, ‘Covid19: Lazarus or Jesus’, in Baptist Times, 13th April 2020.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2020)
[3] See Job 2:11-13
[4] ‘Thoughts of the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge, May 1944’ in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 7, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p389.
[5] The line is taken from the daily liturgy of the Iona Community.
[6] Paul Ballard, ‘Worship in a secular World: Bonhoeffer’s Secret Discipline’, in The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 68 (1975), p 35.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 7, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p52.
[8] Ibid.
[9] John 20:28
[10] Anne Lamont, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, (New York: Riverhead Books 2006), p256-7.


 

Image | Joel Joseph | Creationswap

 
This is the latest in a series of theological and biblical reflections from Baptists for Holy Week and Easter
 


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