From time to time someone asks what is the ‘greatest challenge facing the church today’ or the church of the future, or some other construction of the same kind of question. It’s a fun one to wade into, but the best answer I ever came across was the best, I think, because it was so counter intuitive. I believe it still to be true.
This particular writer began answering the question by saying there was an auxiliary answer, which he would put forward first, but the main answer he saved for the bulk of the article. I came across this in a Ripon College, Cuddsedon Newsletter (Anglican training college near Oxford) so it may have been Martyn Percy’s original thought, or he may have been quoting someone else; I cannot recall, but it was brilliant.
The first answer to the question ‘what is the greatest challenge facing the church’ was distraction. We are distracted from the main thing by secondary things. We spend a lot of time huffing and puffing about issues which divide us, mopping up, arguing, putting our own point of view forward, restructuring, getting worried about graphs and stats and revising liturgical practice. All these are important but they’re a distraction.
The main answer to the question, though, said this writer, was coping with the overwhelming abundance of God.
That’s a bit clever, I thought. But then I tried to ponder it. I was at a place in my life when I could just about grasp what was being suggested, but I wasn’t fully convinced. I wanted to see blessing in my priestly ministry but often it felt like a lot of hard work for not many results. Which in itself reveals a ‘results are what is wanted, and they’re my responsibility’ mindset which I have been since letting go of, rather joyfully.
During The Exercises* one is encouraged to do a daily Examen. St Ignatius’s advice is so helpful on a number of levels. You do it as part of your daily prayer. On one level it is no more than thinking back over the day and reflecting on the things that were happy and enjoyable, and enjoying them all over again.
On another level it is about seeing where God was in the day. Even this suggests that God was in some (special) things and not other (normal) things, and for a while this is how I perceived reality to be. Sometimes God shows up, in a rare, albeit wonderful, appearance, but mostly stuff just goes along pretty mundanely.
Then something changed a couple of weeks ago (I think it had been building for a good while). It was a Sunday. I had a reasonably good day all round – a good morning leading worship in church, followed by an afternoon of looking at old photos, followed by a swim in the river, as it was very hot. Not rocket science; we didn’t use the car, or leave the village, just normal things, some of it was even ‘work’.
But when I came to do the Examen, late afternoon, I realised instead of blessing being limited an intermittent few episodes in an otherwise ‘normal’ day, it really did feel like blessing had been the norm and I was being washed along by it quite continuously. And I’d only just noticed. The blessing of worshipping the living God, the blessing of knowing his hand on family life, even down generations, the blessing of being refreshed and carried along out of your depth.
It was something about swimming in the river, because I was out of my depth, and although I’m quite a good swimmer, I was wondering idly about the August news stories when people get into trouble in rivers in hot weather and drown. I was thinking maybe today is what it feels like to be washed along out of your depth, always, in the abundance of God.
And I felt quite small. I couldn’t stand, I could just smell the river close to my nose, and feel my arms and legs slicing through the water, see the blue sky, feel the warmth of the sun, the slight admiration of a group of young boys asking, as I returned from the bridge, ‘is it deep out there?’
And I realised that prayer is actually about entering into something very deep that’s already there. I knew this idea in theory, because missiologists always say the church doesn’t ‘do mission’ but that we look for where God is active in mission and ‘join in’. To be honest I’d always thought this was splitting hairs…
Now I realise that there’s a constant stream or flow of blessing, everywhere, and we don’t notice it, because it’s right under our eyes. Paula D’Arcy said ‘God comes to you disguised as your life’ and I’m still unpacking that. It’s not to say God is coterminous with your life, because that would make God just part of creation. But that right in the centre of everything you’re involved with, if your life is saying yes to God, there God’s abundance is.
God is in that church service, in the memories of family life that are imprinted on the photo collection from 2003, but which have blessing still working through the whole family and on into future generations; in the river on a hot day as you feel increasingly, pleasingly, out of your depth.
And if you keep saying your yes to God, sooner or later you are going to wonder what to do with all that blessing. It will feel overwhelming, and it will accrue exponentially (I wondered about this spiritual principal during the Rio Olympics, see here…) and it might even feel a bit…not exactly scary…but certainly unplanned and a touch out of control?
So I reckon the writer who said the main challenge for the church is dealing with the overwhelming abundance of God had it about right.
And I’m getting a new swimming costume straight away.
*Spiritual prayers and meditations in the Roman Catholic Ignatian tradition.