Inkling Five: Living hopefully
by Sarah Cawdell
As I return to these pages after some months allow me to remind you of the story so far:
I have been exploring some markers of the church in mission, which I propose are present in a community of faith which is functioning confidently within the coming and not yet kingdom of God.
So far I have suggested that such a community would be holy, meaning consciously appreciating a relationship with the Triune God in a way that sets them apart from the community around them, the cure of souls if you like. I am after all writing from an Anglican view point. Such an expression of church serves the surrounding parish as a living witness to the incarnation so that as believing individuals function within the wider community their service in the Village Hall, or running the bowls club is an expression of their worship of God just as much as their regular attendance at Sunday services in the church building. The faith community is at the heart of the parish community, and the life and work of the parish is brought into the prayers of the church.
Secondly I proposed that a community of faith is hospitable. Of course this is obvious: any church goer would claim that their own place of worship offers a warm welcome to all comers, but I would suggest that this bears some re-examination. Hard pews and a cold church can be made welcoming by an exceptional sidesperson, even early communion can offer a variety of experiences. True hospitality means that visitors know the ground rules, and are guided through the social practices peculiar to the worship which we take for granted, and most especially through the social mires of coffee after church. Does it have to be instant coffee, and stale biscuits? There is a hospitality which mirrors the hospitality of God who calls each by name, teaches us the rules of life in the kingdom, and gives to each believer purpose, value, and a place in the scheme of things suitable to their being.
Thirdly I explored the meaning of that old fashioned word: honour, remembering the words of the apostle in Romans 12: 10 to honour one another. I suggest that this means to accept one another as we are. This is a movement from hospitality, which welcomes all, but expects respect for the building, the way that believers worship, and the behaviour usual in the gathering for worship. Honour gives a value for each person who, made in the image of God, reflects something of the glory of Christ in their living.
My final exploration continues Paul’s guidance, and is to do with living in joyful hope. That is to live as those who look to the future, to our becoming in Christ. All to often we live our lives from our past. Present understanding of human development places great strain on modern parents, as we endeavour to so care for our children that we won’t have to fork out too much on the counselling fees in their adult years. There is no escaping the reality that our lives shape our living, and our patterns of thinking and interpreting all that life offers to us. On another level we do well to learn from the patterns and experiences of history, otherwise it has a nasty habit of repeating itself, like a good teacher. I am not for a moment proposing that we overlook the great witnesses of faith that have gone before us, only that, like them, we set our hearts and souls for the transformation of resurrection that is offered in Jesus. Our dwelling on the past leads, it seems to me, to countless ways of exclusion, or of enclosure. By this I mean to suggest that if we confine our understanding to that which has gone before we begin to confine God in an enclosure of our own making, suggesting that He behaves in such a way, or expects these standards of achievement. My own experience, and that of other saints in the past, has been that God seems to take the little, the least, the lame, the lost and make them willing instruments of the coming kingdom. St Francis was a thief, dishonouring his father in the market place, but was used by God for the rebuilding of the church. In our own day one of the greatest examples of Christian living – Mother Theresa, struggled with the darkness of unbelief, women were primary witnesses of the resurrection though their testimony could not stand in a court of law. You, probably more effectively than I, can continue to wonder at the mystery of God, who continually redeems our enclosures with more self- revelation of divine love.
So we as the church, are called to live in hope, in the face of recession, in the face of the decline and fall of western civilisation, living as we do at the end of a time. At this moment in our living when many offered the hope of science are living disillusioned, and unhopeful, when many who trusted in the welfare state are finding their pensions are not so secure, and the future is not early retirement and long holidays abroad, when society is threatened by global forces way beyond our control, or even imagining, the church can offer hope.
Of course we can’t offer hope when we are so concerned and anxious about our own future as to concentrate entirely on our own internal ordering, the survival of the plant, the hierarchy, and how pure you have to be to lead the people of God. Then we offer nothing but those playing pipes in the market place moaning that those listening do not want to join in (Matt 11: 16.17). We offer hope when despite our inability to agree on the proper way to offer our worship we agree to continue in our differences, honouring and rejoicing in the diversity by which God’s glory is revealed, celebrating our common calling to make known the love and mercy of God in the world.
Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to live as those loved and called by God, forgiven at the cross, and glorying in the resurrection. The Spirit, gentle and humble, energises and equips the church which is concerned for the coming of the Kingdom of God, bringing forth fruit by challenge, and encounter with the strange, the extraordinary people whom God treasures in our peculiarity.
So to live in joyful hope is not about looking forward to heaven and harps, and a soul diet of music and mansions. (I, speaking as a rector’s wife don’t fancy cleaning any more mansions – this rectory is way too much already, and much as I love the music of the harp, I like drums too.) In fact I am not sure that everlasting life appeals very much. Some days feel far too long already. Maybe heaven is living with the knowledge that others loved by God are not starving today, or not dying for want of clean water, if heaven is not living with the guilt that comes with a good education and the knowledge that others are deprived of that opportunity by the necessity to survive. A church which lives hopefully might be aware of their own riches, and able to share without anxiety as to what tomorrow might bring.
Which brings me to the conclusion of these thoughts about the mission of the church, and leaves open a new chapter when I hope to introduce you to the wonders of my garden, newly opened as a place for reflection and wondering in the presence of God.
Sarah Cawdell lives in Shropshire with her husband and three teenage children.