This article first appeared in the Epworth Review, October 2006, having been commissioned for a series entitled, "About Praying". It relates the theme of "abundance" and various related ideas to a specific question: How do we pray for - and with - the Church in Britain in an age of diminishment and doubt? And it argues for a "whole Church" pastoral solution which brings everyone along rather than dividing the community into strong and weak.
Despite this, it remains the best short summary of the material contained in the Imagining Abundance website. Almost every phrase in the article needs to be further unpacked and explored and the material on this website is a "first draft" towards this.
Praying for the Church
“We must try to understand the meaning of the age in which we are called to bear witness. We must accept the fact that this is an age in which the cloth is being unwoven. It is therefore no good trying to patch. We must, rather, set up the loom on which coming generations may weave new cloth according to the pattern God provides.”[i]
Over the last decade, it has become ever more obvious that the “cloth” of the Church’s life is indeed unravelling, to the point that now we can no longer “patch things up” with strategies designed to “tide us over” in the expectation of an improvement in a year or two. The challenge before us is far more daunting - or exciting - depending on how we look at it: namely, the need to strip down the loom in its entirety, clear the workshop floor and begin redesigning and rebuilding from scratch. Clearly, this is not a task that can be achieved overnight - not if it is to be done well, and not if we are to do it together, taking all our people with us.
Because it is not only whether we respond to the crisis that will enable us to flourish in the years ahead; but how we respond: that is, how we ensure that our response is creative, compassionate and generous, not only towards our pioneers and those who follow them; but also - and perhaps especially - towards those who are struggling to make the journey at all. As we decide our priorities and target our resources, there is already a danger that some will feel abandoned to die alone in the wilderness - quite apart from the fact that sometimes we ourselves feel unequal to the road.
While there is no doubt that we have to make some tough choices, we also need to persist with an inclusive, “whole Church” approach to our praying, deliberating and deciding, because it is only such an approach which will enable us to live as the Church, that is, as the Body of Christ. The Body is a single organism that needs all its members. Those who are reluctant to embrace change - or even resistant to it - are not necessarily liabilities. They are vulnerable people who are not yet convinced that change will bring them more gain than pain. They are enthusiasts who have not yet been shown why they should be enthusiastic about the loss of the bread that feeds them.
A “whole Church” approach therefore requires a vision that will capture hearts as well as minds: a vision that can articulate unspoken needs; and heal wounds we may not know we possess. A “whole Church” approach does not blame those who resist change: it accepts that change can only be expected where the vision on offer goes deep enough to “touch the pulse” of life as it is being lived. Only by a prolonged listening to the “pulse” of that life can we offer a vision that will stimulate it, strengthen it and focus it on the challenge of the age and the task of the moment.
Other organisations can adapt to change by focusing their efforts on those parts of their operation which are evidently the strongest, liveliest, the most creative and the most energetic, targeting and investing resources accordingly. But the Church cannot operate like that, not if it is to remain the Church. We do things differently. We do not define the potential of a life according to a person’s age, wealth, health or vigour. While there is life, we hope, and act as if our hope is true. And even when life is extinct, we believe in resurrection.
The truth is, we are alive and kicking - for the same reason that Paul kicked against the goads[ii] - because we are scared: because we need to know that the essence of those things we love will be safeguarded; that wherever possible, change will happen with consultation, and with our consent. We resist the vision that is imposed upon us, which does not reflect our dreams, or which is not fitted to our circumstances and capabilities.
What we need - always, but especially when we are already vulnerable - is a vision that will feed us in advance, nurturing us to the point where we see that we do indeed have “a future with hope,”[iii] and that we are equal to discovering it. Further, to be truly effective, the vision needs to be capable of endless representation - because as we examine, explore and elaborate it, the vision continues to feed us. It becomes our daily bread,[iv] bread for the journey, given today and promised for tomorrow, so that we feel capable of moving out and moving on.
Above all, we need to know that we will not be abandoned, that we are in this together, and that we will all get our share of any available resources. Because we are the Church. This is what we do. This is what we are like. We love one another. We need each other. We need everyone. We are not in the business of leaving anyone behind.
However, in the short term, applying such a “whole-Church” approach raises the stakes immeasurably. Applying this approach to our engagement with profound, large-scale, far-reaching, fast-moving change is far, far more demanding at every level of the Church’s life - and for every level of the Church’s leadership - than any process of prioritising. Where can we find such a vision? How can we turn it into a viable strategy? How can any strategy be adequate for the scale of our need? Where do we even begin?
Only prayer that “goes deep” can yield answers to questions such as these, and in this context, the call from young Methodists for the Connexion to devote a year to 24/7 prayer is a sign of hope, not least because it demonstrates that young Methodists have sound spiritual instincts, as well as considerable strength of character. Nevertheless, as they themselves recognise, a year of 24/7 prayer can only be a beginning. As it draws to a close, the questions remain.
Where did Jesus himself begin? What was the source of his spirituality, his praying, his vision for the people of his day? He teaches that the life of God is discovered as we love God with our whole selves, and love our neighbours as ourselves,[v] that these three loves - for God, ourselves and our neighbour - when pursued, united and aligned as one love - generate abundant life. As he says in John’s Gospel: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.[vi]
This is the vision Jesus demonstrated, through preaching, teaching and pastoral care: a life that reflects the life of God because it is abundant; because its abundance transforms people and situations; and because it gives us an abundance to share with others. Abundance for me, for you, for everyone. A life in which everything is gift, everyone is celebrated, every circumstance is a blessing and every moment is dedicated to God.
What is “abundance”? How are we “abundant”? Begin with these questions, then ask how we model and exemplify an abundant life that is for all, and in particular how that life is received, developed and distributed so that it is truly available to all. Only as we pay attention to abundance do we discover how everyone is able to receive, be filled, fulfilled and overflowing with abundant life: “If then you are wise, you will show yourself rather as a reservoir than as a canal. A canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, and a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus without loss to itself communicates its superabundant water. In the Church at the present day we have many canals but few reservoirs.” [vii]
It is our “sense of abundance” that gives us confidence. If we feel we have the resources to do the task before us, we get on with it. If we know that there are resources in reserve we work through our problems and resolve them. If we know that we have the support of our allies and those in authority over us, we do what the time requires, even at considerable cost to ourselves. And if our need is great, we need to know that the abundance available will always be enough.
With a “sense of abundance” we can give what is necessary because there is always more to be received, shared, enjoyed, celebrated. We can make the tough choices, knowing that we can address the loss and grief they entail. We can spread ourselves more thinly across increasingly uncertain ground, knowing that we can be in the right place at the right time. We can encourage the hesitant to believe that they will find the security they need on the road, because we know we can help them feel secure in themselves. We cando these things, because we know how these things are done. And knowing this, we can convince others.
We gain confidence by enlarging our “sense of abundance”; by exploring the abundance we already possess, and by imagining the abundance that is latent within us and amongst us, the superabundant life of God that waits only for this active consent before filling us to overflowing.
The first step to pay attention to what we can see, whether with our eyes, or with our mind’s eye. The act of seeing - looking - paying attention - stimulates our whole mind, our entire personality, energising us and focusing that energy so that it is ready for any response we care to make. Images engage us as whole people, shaping our thoughts, feelings, choices, words and deeds. Our focus determines our reality. What we see becomes what we do.[viii]
However, the vision which renews us is actually quite specific: it is whatever you or I treasure as our “abundance”. It is whatever our group, congregation or community considers to be “an abundance” or “abundant life” for them. The precise form of this will vary from person to person, group to group, and from context to context. We may have to ask some searching questions in order to discover what it is, what “abundance” means to me, you, us, them where we/they are, right now. The answers may be surprising.
Why does this exploration matter? Because our “abundance” is our “treasure” and our “treasure” is close to our “heart” - the source and spring of our life. Knowing what our treasure is, paying attention to it, examining it and engaging with it, we are filled with energy. We overflow with life. And we can ensure that this life is directed creatively, into “heavenly” purposes, that are ultimately more durable than the material of which they are made.[ix]
Secondly, we pray for abundant life by paying attention to the abundance we already possess. That is, we pay attention to what we have, in our hands, as if it is an abundance. However inadequate it may appear to be as a context for what needs to be done, or as a resource for the task that faces us, we nevertheless pay attention to it, we honour it, receive it as a gift, invest in it, celebrate it, give thanks for it, praise God for it.
Why does this matter? Because only by paying attention to what we have can we realise its latent potential. Every resource, however small, has a potential beyond itself. While we are wishing for other resources, we cannot see this. But as we pay attention to what we have in our hands, we begin to see its potential, and how, with a small but appropriate investment, that potential can be enlarged.
Thirdly, we pay attention to where we are, that is, to the situation and task of the present moment. It is only in the here and now that God can meet with us, connecting us to the vast resources of eternity. Within the present moment, we have access to those resources. And they remain available to us while we are focused in the present moment. Each present moment.
Why does this matter? By connecting our “sense of abundance” to the specific need of this moment, we can see, think, feel, speak and act in a way that is right for this task, person, situation, time. We are equipped to do the job in front of us. We can do the necessary thing, whatever that may be. We can take the risk; take that one small step towards abundant life for all. Unless that step is taken, nothing can change. But with that step taken, the situation has already changed, and more change becomes conceivable, and because it is conceivable, possible. Even if it is only another very small step.
Fourthly, we pray for abundant life by paying attention to spiritual creativity as a process which occurs one step at a time. The life of the Spirit consists of many small steps taken one after another; each one focused on the resources available in a single moment, but each one based on assuming that a) abundance is always present, and b) an even greater, potential, abundance is present at the same time. And that both these forms of abundance can be brought into play and invested in the moment, if we act as if these assumptions are true.
Two factors undermine our ability to think, pray and act like this. The first is the difference between the resources we have “in our hands” and the size of the task before us - a gulf so huge that we become overwhelmed by the scale of what needs to be done. All creative processes involve extensive periods when the gulf between the vision of abundance and the reality “on the ground” appears too wide to be bridged. If we attempt to become the bridge ourselves, with our work, energy and zeal, we fall short, and plunge into the abyss.
It is the process that bridges the gulf, if we persist with it and allow it time to do so. Who says that the Five Thousand were fed in five minutes? What matters is that the Five Thousand were fed. That they were satisfied. And that there were twelve baskets of food left over. Creative processes produce abundance. Our task is to keep faith with the process and facilitate it. The process - the dynamic, the Spirit – seals the gap between the abundance of God and our need. And day by day, as we invest in the process, we receive our daily bread.
The second factor is that, as T. S. Eliot noted, “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.”[x] This is especially true of the reality we claim we live by. Those of us who have given our lives to the Church can be most reluctant to hear the Gospel of abundant life. The diminishment of the Church and the apparent impotence of the Gospel have bitten deep into our soul. That wound is not easily healed. We despise any suggestion of a superficial peace, and we are right to do so.
But the Gospel of God’s abundance is not the cheap grace that it appears to be at first hearing. The trouble is that, before we can witness its profound impact on others, let alone apply its transformative power to those people and situations who might otherwise be left behind, we must receive it into the depths of our own souls. In this way, too, the life we need, for ourselves and the Church in our day, is only found by “going deep.”
Like Nicodemus, we must be willing to go by night to the place where Jesus waits to speak to us of heavenly things. We hesitate because we are frightened of what we will discover; we resist yielding ourselves to forces that are beyond our control; we fear the pain of being reborn and the insecurity of awakening in a new and unfamiliar landscape. In short, we fear that we do not have what it takes to make the night journey.[xi]
We forget that Jesus has made the journey before us, and that in his life, death and resurrection, he has not only shown us that it is possible, but also shown us how it is done.
If the creative process outlined in this article sounds familiar, it is because we already use it without fully understanding the treasure we have in our hands, or its potential to generate the life we need here and now. When Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples to share, he was reminding them of the way in which he had faced every challenge in his ministry and telling them that he was taking the same approach to his death. This would be the inner struggle of his Passion, to remain faithful to this way till his final breath.
Because this “eucharistic dynamic” is the way in which life is generated, magnified and made abundant. And it is abundant life - abundant life made specific, personal and real - abundant life made freely available to all - that is gracious, generous, compassionate, healing, merciful, forgiving, renewing, resilient, restorative and redemptive.
It is to discover this abundance, for ourselves, for our world and our day, that we are bidden, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
- “The Simplicity of Prayer: Extracts from the teaching of Mother Mary Clare SLG.” SLG Press, 1988. Sisters of the Love of God, Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford, OX4 1TB.
- Acts 26.14.
- Jeremiah 29.11.
- Matthew 6.11; Exodus 16.-26.
- Matthew 22.34-40, 46; Mark 12.28-34; Luke 10.25-28. In practice many of us apply this text by loving our neighbour instead of ourselves. We act as if love is hierarchical: JOY = Jesus, Others, You, on a descending scale. An alternative is to see the three loves operating as a mutually supportive triangle or circle in which each feeds and strengthens the others. Appropriate self-care is essential, sustaining the “image of God” in us (by honouring what God has made) and empowering us to be generous in self-giving, and to inspire generosity in others, too.
- John 10.10. Abundance is not the same as wealth, prosperity or success, though it can include these things. It is an holistic term, the “riches” that are generated by God’s abundant life; riches that relate to every part of ourselves and every aspect of life. Abundance is the tangible evidence of peace: shalom.
- St Bernard of Clairvaux, writing in the Twelfth century C.E.
- Matthew 6.22-23.
- Matthew 6.19-21.
- T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” (Lines 1.42-3) in “The Four Quartets” Faber and Faber, 1959.
- John 3.1-14.