Confident faith in a post-Christian world

Reflections for a diocesan clergy retreat
Cathedral of Christ the King, Grafton
(17 May 2017)

In the context of this clergy retreat we have been reflecting together on the text from 2 Timothy 1:7 passage: For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

In this session, I want to explore some of the attributes of a spiritually confident Anglican faith community in a post-Christian Australia.

This is not a prescription for a healthy or successful parish.

Rather, I am seeking to name and celebrate some of the attributes of a local faith community that has some degree of healthy spiritual confidence.

As the earlier reflections by Stuart, Mike and Lyndon have already indicated, we have good reasons to be spiritually confident, as individuals, as clergy, and as a church.

Such confidence is not about being arrogant, or cocky. It encourages neither bigotry, nor that quiet smugness that may be our besetting sin as Anglicans. It is more a matter of deep confidence that our spiritual traditions, first as Christians but also as Anglicans, provides us with good reasons to be people of courage and hope.

What I am trying to do in this session is imagine what a local church might be like if it embraced the idea that we can put aside any sense of cowardice, and live into our destiny as communities of power (the Greek word here is dynameis), love (agape) and practical wisdom (sōphronismos). That last word is rare, and only occurs this one time in the Bible. It has the sense of making wise choices, acting prudently, exercising self-control.

A challenging context

Our recent history as a church—and the increasingly secular context in which we find ourselves—provide good reasons to be anxious about the future. While I do not want to focus on these negative elements, I think we need to name them as serious factors that impact us as people of faith and as faith communities.

As a church we face some tough realities:

  • loss of influence in society
  • shrinking numbers
  • ageing congregations
  • limited resources
  • shameful failures of care for children and vulnerable adults
  • seeming success of ‘mega-churches’

In addition to all those factors we are operating in a context that is now more complex than in the past:

  • rising levels of affluence
  • ‘time poor’ couples working to cover the mortgage and maintain their lifestyle
  • accelerating technology-driven change impacting every aspect of life
  • religious pluralism
  • rising secularism
  • advances in the natural and social sciences
  • a new concept of what it means to be alive and to be human

None of those contextual factors are likely to be reversed, and we ignore them at our peril.

The major challenge that I discern is the need for us to be nimble and innovative in our response to these emerging challenges. These changes are here to stay, and they will only accelerate in both the pace of change and the scope of their impact. Everything is changing and we had best be prepared for that.

A community that has not been given a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of dynamic power, selfless love and practical wisdom has the resources to flourish even in these circumstances, and especially in these circumstances. Whether or not we do flourish depends mostly on whether we respond out of fear or hope.

Let’s now explore some of the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities in a post-Christian Australia that needs us to be all that God calls us to be, but expects very little wisdom for the future to be found among us.

 

People of the Book

We could start at a number of different places, but let’s begin with the Bible.

A spiritually confident church will be one that genuinely values the Scriptures, without making extreme claims that reflect poorly on both the Bible and the churches. To use a phrase that is commonly heard these days, such faith communities take the Bible seriously, but not literally.

Every church talks up its respect for the Bible.

Yet not every church encourages its members to become skilled in using those same Scriptures as responsible spiritual adults.

A spiritually confident church will invest in the development of its members so that high levels of biblical literacy are found among its people.

A spiritually confident church will encourage people to read the Bible and also enable them to read it well.

Such a church will not make those familiar false steps that can be mistaken for promoting Bible knowledge among its people. Much of what passes as Bible study is more about developing Bible trivia skills, and sometimes just reinforces ignorance. Knowing fascinating micro facts about the Bible, even when they are correct, is not the same as developing the skills needed to read the Bible for spiritual wisdom.

Healthy and confident churches appreciate the Bible as an informal sacrament of the living Word of God, ever active among us. In such a Church, listening to Scripture together is a community exercise as we seek to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church.

That means not just the priest or the Parish Council, but the entire congregation needs to be skilled at using the Bible and actively engaged in small groups where they can help each other “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture.

Listening to God is the quintessential hallmark of a person of faith.

Reading the Bible in the company of other people is simply the best way to do that.

The Bible is not a magic pudding of spiritual knowledge, from which we can cut slice after slice of divine answers to theological and spiritual questions. We do the Bible no credit when we encourage people to engage uncritically with this amazing spiritual resource.

Its most precious attribute, and the major reason for taking the time to develop good biblical literacy skills, is as a catalyst for spiritual wisdom. When a small group gathers to study the Bible, God blesses us with wisdom. This is true even when our questions are not ones found in the Bible itself.

Reading the Bible puts us into a sphere of grace where we are more attuned to discern what the Spirit may be saying to the churches.

We gather at the Table of the Lord to feed on his life, and we gather around the Bible to find the wisdom we need for our daily lives.

We come to Table with an attitude of faith and thanksgiving as we reach out hands to receive the Body of the Lord. We listen to the Bible with the same attitude of faith and thanksgiving as we open our hearts to hear Word of the Lord.

As always, the focus stays on the present. We are not seeking to find out what the Bible can tell us about the past, but exploring how the Bible can shed new light on today and tomorrow.

In all of this our goal is to form disciples, not train scholars. We are reading for wisdom, not offering a master class in ancient history.

A spiritually confident faith community is one that:

  • Develops the biblical literacy skills of its members
  • Draws deeply and often from the well of Scripture
  • Encourages regular Bible study by individuals and small groups
  • Has a strong preaching ministry in Sunday services, and
  • Engages with the lectionary texts.


 

Liturgy

It seems that humans have a deep need for ritual.

This may be one reason for the continued observance of ANZAC Day, even though it has also been manipulated by politicians who see benefits to them from such events. The deeper reason is surely our shared sense that as a nation we need such occasions to celebrate our identity and commit ourselves to a shared future.

This love of ritual is also seen in the big budget rituals of major sporting events, as well as in the weekly assemblies at the local primary school. In those assembles we celebrate success, we build community, and we reinforce our core values.

A spiritually confident church does liturgy well.

By that, I do not mean that it perfectly observes all the directions of Ritual Notes 9th edition, nor that it has the finest music, the most eloquent preacher, or the best sound system.

I mean, of course, that it offers a liturgy that speaks to the human condition, even if not executed to perfection.

Liturgy that connects the rhythms of our life with the mysteries of the faith.

Liturgy that becomes, in its better moments, an encounter with God.

This kind of ‘good’ liturgy is grounded in the experience and the language of the local community. It grows out of, reflects upon, and enriches our shared life with those around us.

Such liturgy draws on the long tradition of the church, but it also integrates spiritual practices from other traditions.

It need not be heavy, but it can carry deep meaning.

It is often less verbal than what often passes for Sunday worship.

And it engages the whole person and all of our senses.

The aesthetic qualities of good liturgy are powerful connectors with the participants, and time spent preparing the non-verbal elements of the service is seldom wasted.

A spiritually confident church will offer people a variety of ritual moments, and teach people how to create rituals within their personal lives. We will go beyond page 119, and tap into the rich resources of the ancient church as well as more recent liturgical wisdom.

Celtic spirituality may have much to offer here, as it names and claims so much of the everyday, connecting the familiar rhythms of our life with God’s deep presence among us and within us. That kind of spiritually may be a bridge to our neighbours who have little time for church, but a deep longing for connection with God.

A spiritually confident church will also provide ‘God spaces’ and ‘God moments’ for the wider community. I love it when I drive through Bangalow and see the sign outside All Souls’ Church: ‘Church open for prayer’.

There are no conditions on how you pray, or even to whom you pray. Just an invitation to step aside and spend some time in the company of God.

The worship we offer is not just for ourselves.

Behind our English word, Liturgy, is an ancient Greek word: leitourgia.

leitourgia was something done as a gift to the community.

When people of faith gather for worship we are investing in the spiritual fabric of our community. We uphold our community, our nation and the world in our own hearts and in the heart of God. We are standing with the angels, and aligning ourselves with God’s dream of a world shaped by love. We are investing in shalom, deep peace.

Our Sunday worship is not about keeping the Anglican brand alive in our local area.

We are calling to mind the depth dimension of life, and we are offering ourselves to serve as instruments of God’s love and peace right here and right now.

We are connecting with God, connecting with each other, and connecting with our world.

Each Sunday we come to the ancient well of common prayer, and we draw water from the well of life. We do this for ourselves, of course. We need the spiritual refreshment that this living waters provide.

But we also do this for our friends and neighbours, who may never come to this well, but may still share in the life that God gives freely to anyone who is thirsty.

Oasis of Shalom

I like to think of a spiritually confident faith community as an oasis of Shalom, the perfect peace that God intends for all creation.

Such a church is open, inclusive, and welcoming.

People are made welcome, and provided with the space to be themselves. Even, to find themselves.

In the ancient tradition of the desert, a stranger is made welcome and asked no questions for three days. They are not interrogated about their identity or their history. They are simply made welcome and offered a place to stay for a while.

A spiritually confident church does not need to check the theological opinions of those who cross our threshold.

Genuine hospitality is a spiritual virtue that offers deep blessings to both the host and the guest. We can be clear about our own beliefs and values without needing to impose them on those whose paths cross with ours. There will be time enough for dialogue and conversation if the guests choose to stay longer among us.

For everyone in the community—long term members, short term guests, and those seeking a new community—a spiritually confident church offers a place of safety.

Children and vulnerable adults will not be exploited or abused in such a church. Beyond that, such a community is also a safe place to experiment, and even to make mistakes. A person’s worth is not derived from their theological views or their personal achievements. These communities nurture experiments in holy living, and the web of community life is the safety net into which we fall when we miss the mark—as we all do.

A further hallmark of such a healthy and spiritually confident faith community is the ease with which a former member may leave the community. Unlike a sect, a mature and confident church understands that some people will find it necessary to move on from that community as part of their own personal spiritual development.

Leaving the community, for whatever reason, is not an occasion for pressure or recrimination. The community exists to serve God’s mission of Shalom and human flourishing, and does not seek to extend people’s participation in the community once they have decided they wish to move on. Indeed, their capacity to move on after a period of time with the church may itself be a mark of their new health and maturity.

If I were to try and express this another way, I would suggest that such a church is a working demonstration of the reign of God among us. Such a community is a place where the Lord’s Prayer is lived, and not just prayed.

We could take each line of the Lord’s Prayer as a key performance indicator of a spiritually confident faith community:

Our Father in heaven …
we are all children of the universe, brothers and sisters of Jesus

Hallowed be your name …
May everything we do, and how we do it, reflect your character and purpose

Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as in heaven …
Our priority is serving the mission of God in the world

Give us today our daily bread …
May we find bread for the journey, and the grace to share it with others on the way

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us …
Make our generosity to others the measure of your treatment of us

Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil …
Break the power of evil and let us know your Shalom

The Whole of Life

As a final hallmark of the spiritually confident faith community, let me suggest that such a church is concerned with the whole of life, and not just with the religious bits.

The church is not a franchise for tickets to heaven, or even for some esoteric personal improvement program.

Our compassion extends from the newborn infant at the font to a frail aged person in the local nursing home. We do local theology, speaking about God in the towns and farms of the Northern Rivers. We are concerned about every person and the whole person.

Following Jesus we embrace the Shema as the mission statement of the covenant people: loving God with our heart, our soul, our strength, and our minds (an addition by Jesus). The whole person is involved in our response to God, and the good news we have to share is for all people and for the whole of life.

We do not agree to be relegated as a private recreational activity for those with an interest in spirituality or alternative health practices.

Without becoming arrogant or intolerant, we believe we have good news that touches on every aspect of the human experience. We know that we have to win the right to be heard, but we do not accept being sidelined as a quaint cultural group with an interesting historical past.

Our concern for the whole of life is grounded in our incarnational theology, its roots run deep into our beliefs about creation, incarnation, and resurrection.

A spiritually confident church will affirm our belief that God is the ultimate source of everything that exists. In the ancient creation poem that we inherited from the Jewish people, we read that God calls everything into being. Day after day through the week of creation our world takes shape in response to God’s invitation: Let there be …

At the end of each day, God looks at what has been created that day and declares it to be good. It is good. That is God’s assessment of our world, and we share that assessment. We do not divide this reality into clean and unclean, light and dark, godly and godless, physical and spiritual. All is of God and all is good.

This becomes even more powerful for us at the incarnation. God immerses herself in the physical world, taking star dust from an ancient super nova to fashion the human being we know as Jesus of Nazareth. The creator blends with the creature. Immanuel. God with us, among us, as one of us.

At Easter we see God go even deeper into the divine embrace of creation. Having first made humans to share God’s own immortality, God now allows death to become part of God’s own deep immersion in the human project. We were made in God’s image, but God chooses to embrace our mortality. How else to save us from ourselves?

God entering death is like a lamp being lit in a dark room. Light shatters the darkness. Always. The deepest darkness is splintered by the tiniest candle. Death is destroyed by the willingness of God to embrace our mortality. The power of death is shattered by the gentle, loving presence of ultimate Life.

For a robust and spiritually confident church there is no part of the human experience which is out of bounds.

We embrace everything we can learn about this world from the natural sciences and the social sciences. For a spiritually confident church, science is never the enemy. Fear is the enemy, and perfect love drives out fear.

Such a church celebrates life, welcomes the new insights generated by researchers, encourages its members to bring the whole of themselves into the quest for knowledge, for justice, and for the healing of our fragile Earth.

Indeed, we say, God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
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