This morning we worshipped with a river running through our church. As we thought about the Kingdom of God we thought about the way we are facing – what are we expecting to happen next.
The service was partly inspired by these words from John V Taylor’s amazing book – The Go Between God which I am reading over Lent.
“Judgement and promise go hand in hand to the end of the story. And which of the two predominates depends entirely on the way we look at time. To take the familiar image of the living stream of history and ourselves somewhere in mid-river, do we picture ourselves facing downstream so that our ‘now’ is flowing from behind us with all the drift and debris of the past, or do we picture ourselves facing upstream so that our ‘now’ is always coming to meet us. Is our source behind us or ahead? If the present is always coming towards us out of the future then we must travail over the contradiction between what is and what might be. But if the present is given by the past we are condemned to the contradiction between what is and what might have been. The first is the pain of birth and the second the agony of death.”
A couple of hours before this service began my daily reading from Richard Rohr popped into my inbox. It included this quote from Romans 8 taken from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible called The Message:
“I don’t think there is any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. This created world itself can hardly wait for what is coming next…
“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. We are also feeling the birth pangs. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”
I can certainly confirm that the longer you wait in pregnancy (especially if you are having twins) the larger you become and there is certainly nothing diminishing about the preparation for birth. With the arrival of children I certainly felt a new confidence is the creator God and a renewed understanding of God’s concern for all that God has made.It was a time of possibilities and hope, an enlargement of the heart and a time to look forward.
But as we get older and into the second half of life it seems that it is harder to believe that there are new things to come. It seems less likely that world is going to get better and it is possible for God to do something new.
In discussions at church it emerged that many people felt that the world is getting worse. It is harder for people to buy their first homes, the brutality of Daesh is frightening and technology is intruding into family life.
Optimism (which I learnt about 10 years ago is the only possible position for a Christian) is associated with youthfulness and, in the second half of life, birth often seems a remote possibility while we become more and more acquainted with the inevitability of death and ill-health.
Challenged in my belief that the world is getting better – and aware that a lot of people are suffering all over the world I began to think about what has happened in what we might call ‘recent’ history.
While we cannot ignore genocides and holocaust, poverty and trafficking, I am glad that families like mine are not getting rich on the back of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I am glad that women who have babies outside of marriage are not incarcerated, that mental health care in this country is much improved, that far more women around the world can vote and own property and that the LGBTI community faces less prejudice that it did perhaps even 30 years ago.
I am thrilled that apartheid has ended in my lifetime, that improved technology and transport has enabled a sense of a global village, that I share my street with people from different faiths and ethnicities and cruel factory farming techniques are being challenged and changed.
Of course there are birth pangs and huge suffering that cannot be discounted but our ability to respond to crisis and trauma is improving all the time.
And on this beautiful sunny day, I could not help being reminded that winter is always followed by spring and perhaps we are beginning to see that springtime in the church as Christians, challenged by a narrative of decline, see the need to look forwards rather than backwards. In our church we have been thinking about these words – spoken by Brother Roger in 1971 – perhaps before the Church even realised it was in winter:
“The Risen Christ comes to quicken a festival in our innermost heart.
He is preparing for us a springtime of the Church: a Church devoid of all means of power, ready to share with all, a place of visible communion with all humanity.
He is going to give us enough imagination and courage to open up a way of reconciliation.
He is going to prepare us to give our lives so that people may no longer be victims of others.”
If you don’t believe the spring is coming – just pop outside. The signs are everywhere if we look for them.