People of Hope in the Desert
BECOMING A PEOPLE OF HOPE
The key issue is resources: money, yes, but even more so people, time, energy and ideas. Our social diminishment has created a culture of impoverishment in the Church, so that we are driven by the anxieties and insecurities of scarcity. And the purpose of your initiative, while asking for an agenda and direction, is to set priorities so that we can make best use of limited resources.
To “re-frame” this in visual terms, we are on a desert journey. The climate is harsh, the environment hostile. No longer able to “live off the land,” we must husband our resources and deploy them to best effect. One way of doing this is to target them, as you suggest. But a complementary approach is to examine our attitude to what we possess; to ask whether we are maximising the creative potential of our people, celebrating their gifts, releasing their energies and fostering their growth.
In the desert, the essential question is where we will find living water, the bread that satisfies. My experience, having taught spirituality for several years now, is that, far from being bored, our people are hungry. Our chief anxiety is how we find the resources to fulfil our calling. Time, energy, ideas, inspiration – all have been in short supply for far too long. Already feeling over-worked and under-fed, we are alarmed by calls to action implying that yet more is to be asked of us. Our want – and our fear of even greater scarcity - underlies and determines our reaction to all other issues.
Again and again, in pastoral conversations, I sense that people are “hanging on” but feeling We cannot go on like this! If we have to gather our courage for a new phase of retrenchment, then it becomes even more vital that, as shepherds, we find ways to feed the flock. We might not be able to change the nature of the country, but we can provide the bread that will enable us, together, to travel well the road before us. The life of the Spirit is not measured in values or ideals but in fruit that can be eaten, gifts that can be used and enjoyed. It is the task of the people to engage in mission, the task of the leadership to ensure that all are affirmed, energised and resourced so that we can make a creative response to our age.
What is the “bread that satisfies”? Bread that feeds the whole person: body, heart, reason, memory, imagination, allegiance, spirit. Feeding that demonstrates a care for the whole person. Creative thinking that embraces intuition as well as intellect. An approach to the issue of resources that is holistic, pastoral, and intuitive would begin with an acknowledgement of our fear, but go on to model the faith that enables us to engage with the challenges. It would affirm the effort we are already making and the courage we have already shown. It would reward and share good practice. It would also recognise what our sacrifice has cost us. The core of this approach would be the teaching that God provides the resources necessary for us to continue loving, and that we can learn from the example of Christ, who in this, as in so many things, has walked the road before us.
We are called by a God of creativity and abundance, who fed the children of Israel with manna and teaching in the wilderness. We are redeemed by Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, who gave himself to meet our deepest need, and who shows us how to feed the multitude. We are renewed by the Holy Spirit – creative, inspirational, energising, resourceful – life from the life of God.
Jesus himself gave us feasting as the symbol of God’s willingness to gift us with abundance. The Gospels are filled with images and stories that illustrate the Spirit’s capacity to deliver an exponential growth in resources, a result far greater than our initial investment. The four actions of Holy Communion – taking bread, giving thanks, breaking and sharing – symbolise the way Jesus made a creative response to each person and each situation he encountered during his ministry, not least the Passion Road itself. When he urged us to “do this in remembrance of me,” he was commanding us to find in this dynamic the resources we would need to live as he lived.
This “Eucharistic dynamic” is the process we need in order to address our fear and build up faith in God, each other and ourselves. When integrated with simple tools for building self-esteem and fostering creative thinking, it acts as a conduit between our tradition, the “Our Calling” themes and the realities of our context. It allows us to use the resources of God, and of our tradition, in a way that fulfils “Our Calling” despite the difficulties caused by shortage. It feeds, encourages and motivates us as we go along, enabling us to find new approaches to our problems and giving us the confidence to try them. In this way, it provides resources for mission, and for reinvestment too.
“Our Calling” gives us all the direction we need, if we feel confident that we have – or will be given – the resources to fulfil it. However, our daily experience of “being Church” emphasises what we lack, rather than what we possess, so that our deepest fear is that the future well-being of Methodism requires of us an investment of resources far beyond our ability to give. Further, that God will not help us, because if he were willing to do so, why hasn’t he done so already?
Underneath the question, “Where are we heading?” are the questions, “What is God doing with us?” and, “Why doesn’t God help us?” These are faith questions, to which we must offer a faith answer: that we still live within the grace that brought Christianity to these islands, and that raised up Methodism as a movement of spiritual and social renewal, but God can only address the issues that we are willing to acknowledge and to view from the divine perspective. And the “divine perspective” is that, whether we are wandering in the wilderness or settled in the promised land, God’s grace is always sufficient for us. Indeed, that it is God’s nature to provide an abundance, if we could but see it.
So it is not our policies that we need to re-examine, but our perceptions. Jesus was ready to accept and honour what was given to him, regardless of whether or not it was adequate or enough. He focused on what was present, and celebrated it, offering it to God in thanksgiving. Whatever he had in his hands was a blessing, even when it was clearly insufficient to meet the need. With this attitude towards all his resources – people, situations, time, energy, teaching, food and wine – he was able to live generously. Moreover, he was able to go on giving far beyond the point that many around him considered reasonable. He was able to “bear the breaking” of what he had, in order to care for others, and he was able to endure in love to the end of the road.
Such confidence does not originate in our reasoning minds, but rather in the subconscious, where it is linked to our self-esteem, our sense of self-worth, and our ability to think creatively, accept change, take risks, walk through our fears. It is at this level that we must reduce anxiety and build up a Christ-like faith in God, each other, and ourselves. We must look to the spiritual depth of the teaching and pastoral care we offer, to the extent that each is a sharing of “bread that satisfies” with all our people, especially the frantic and the frail, and asking whether it points to the love that can remain resilient through the “breaking” to become a love that never ends.
If we could talk our way out of the desert, we would have crossed the Jordan years ago. Reason alone is insufficient, because our fear is multi-dimensional, sapping the heart, poisoning the memory, clouding the imagination, undermining the will, imprisoning the spirit. However, the many facets of our fear can be countered by the multi-dimensional nature of faith. If we “re-frame” the issue in terms that are holistic, pastoral and intuitive, as I have done in this paper, then several changes begin to occur at once.
- Using the language of symbol, image and story, we can explore our concerns using the creative resources of the subconscious mind. It is the intuitive mind that generates ideas, which the rational mind can then edit into practical forms.
- Using this “intuitive language” we can draw on – and be fed by – faith/memory, faith/imagination and faith/allegiance. So the very discussion of our situation warms the heart, feeds the soul and energises the mind. Faith that is exercised in this way is also reinforced, so this is a faith-building dynamic.
- This process allows us to engage with the issues as whole people, thus requiring us to address, and enabling us to resolve, conflicts between impulses or desires that originate in different layers of the personality. In this way, the process contributes to our wholeness, health and holiness.
- There is also a release of energy, because faith-building reduces levels of anxiety, and converts the energy that is being deployed destructively, as blaming, guilt, helplessness, passivity, depression etc. into energy that can be used for thinking creatively and living generously.
The life of the Church is the Spirit diffused throughout the Body and energised for growth. “Re-framing” the issue of resources in holistic, pastoral and intuitive terms would allow for a process of Biblical reflection, prayer and exploration as a way of addressing, firstly our fears about the situation, and then the situation itself. Along the way, it would generate a “culture of abundance” - the new culture of diversity, initiative and enterprise that you are seeking to foster.
The beauty of this approach is that it begins where we are, here and now, within our existing constraints. Therefore it includes everyone, however harassed the minister or small and elderly the congregation. It does not demand change, but builds confidence so that people can grow to the point where they can consider change, as and when it becomes necessary.
Over the last ten years, I have seen how a combination of buoyancy and specific strategies can change churches and circuits, generating sustained practical, pastoral and spiritual benefits, not least the discovery and release of new resources – financial and personal. In a society riddled with anxiety and a world riven by terror, our ability to walk through our fears, and to feed a multitude from limited means, could be the root of the spiritual authority we will need if our mission is to be exiting, innovative and transformative. Our hope is not for ourselves alone.
Julie M. Hulme - 9th June 2003.