Thursday, 19 May 2011

Reflections from the Hill – Homecoming

There are 250 paces from my office in the Diocesan Registry to my home. It doesn’t matter which way I go – via the front or the back of the Cathedral – it’s just the same and it’s all uphill.

At the end of this journey I’m usually exhausted, not by the amount of work I’ve done in the day (although that’s part of it) but because of the steepness of the pathway I have to climb. Being old-ish doesn’t help much.

It’s quite refreshing, therefore, to be greeted by My Beloved with the offer of a  cup of coffee when I arrive. Largesse and a comfy couch make a good combination.

Belonging to a church can be a bit like that: after what might have been a time of struggle, of wandering, of alienation and even pain, many people speak of finding a home, a congregation that welcomes them and makes them feel like they’re in a place where they can be refreshed.

Show me a church that only makes us comfortable and I’ll show you a church that’s a holiday house: it only provides accommodation. It may or may not be a refuge. It certainly won’t be a place of challenge or growth.

For many people, though, finding a church home does mean finding that safe place. The church may be the only way that they experience God's protective love in what is otherwise a hostile and dangerous world.

All kinds of people find their way into our churches. Some are exhausted by the climb of life, some just want to put their feet on the coffee table, some are as hungry as all get out
for help to grow. What story do they hear when they arrive at your place?

If we’d just turned up in the congregation where Stephen gave his sermon, then was stoned to death (we read part of all that in today’s First Reading), we might walk away with the strong belief that being a faithful Christian can get you killed, so we’d better learn fast to be brave. Or we might be scared stiff.

For those of us who are not called to sudden martyrdom, there are other possibilities. We might look for another church, for starters. Perhaps, though, by choosing to stay, we might find a lot of value in adopting ‘little deaths’ as a lifestyle. (These are the deaths that deal with dying to selfishness and pride, dying to our thirst for control and revenge and things like that.)

From one point of view, Stephen's sermon wasn’t as raging success. It certainly didn’t go over as well as Peter's had at Pentecost. And, right there, is a vivid illustration that our witness is better received in some times and places but not in others.

The scary thing is that we have no way of knowing the results of what we do and say, and some days are better than others, but that doesn’t deter us.

Our church is called to be a safe haven, a refuge, a place of dignity and identity for those who seek a church home, with beliefs, stories, sufferings, and joys sunk deep into our church's shared experience and psyche.

Let me ask again: what story do newcomers hear when they come to our church? In what ways does the God-Who-Still-Speaks call our church to become more welcoming and more energetic in expressing that welcome?

We’ve got it back-to-front if we believe our welcoming is to increase our membership or our finances. ‘Bums on seats’ is not a motivation for ministry, for maintenance or for money in

‘Welcoming’, however, is who we are: it’s our identity as Christians. Someone said that we are ‘a unified community capable of a risking hospitality’, which ain’t a bad description but it
ain’t too common a sight, I fear.

It’s instructive to know it's not our church that we open to others Sunday by Sunday, anyway; there’s Another who owns it. The Lord is the Doorkeeper, so our belief that it is ‘our’ Church, that somehow we ‘own’ it, that it ‘belongs to’ us is quite misplaced.

What difference would it really make if we actually embraced the belief that God is the householder in this ‘church home’ and not us? That it’s to His ‘home’ that we are headed to every
day? As we move toward Back2Church Sunday, I reckon that’s a good question to ask, don’t you?

Be good. Do well. Keep fit. Laugh heaps. Love extravagantly.

In His Grip