I want to interrupt my silence by communicating some reflections on some theology or philosophies that have begun to support my current work in my placement. This has been sparked by an academic exercise of reflecting on my experience so far. I prefaced the assignment with the following disclaimer and I feel it necessary to do the same here,
I have struggled to discern the correct approach to reflect effectively on a process which has only just started and on a community which has still not established a coherent identity. To discuss the rationale behind growing a community of artistic students here in Durham would miss out on the amazing work that God has done since the day of our first meeting. To focus my reflections on small points of interest would deny also the unspeakable movement of the Spirit that is present in both the many small encounters but also through the whole ethos of the group.
The truth is I can’t speak of anything other than the amazing, unpredictable, unplannable movement of God in the visible transformation of the members of this group (me included). Their goodness and ‘imago dei’ (image of God innate in all human beings) is affirmed and brought to light. This happens in the small encounters and the whole swathe of our shared narrative of this community.
Peter Rollins, in his latest book ‘The Fidelity of Betrayal’, outlines a possible future for the church. He speaks of a way in which we can let go of our need as Christians to demand an adherence to our way of thinking and to grasp the ineffability of God. This argument is supported by reading the tale of Jonah. Jonah’s understanding of how God works and what God is about is put in question by God Himself. Jonah has lost sight of God’s mission for the whole world and he runs away from the painful realisation that it is his own mission not God’s mission that Jonah prioritises. The understanding that God is already connecting with people outside of God’s people (even those in Ninevah) is the basis of the ‘misio dei’ and Jonah’s blindness to this leads him to flee from God Himself.
I want to ask the questions: What if God is transforming society already and He is not waiting for His church to opt in? What if the Kingdom of God is already here amongst people and we are called to participate and to be watchmen for it? The task of a herald isn’t to make the news but rather proclaim it. What if people are already experiencing Christ without the presence of a human Christian? Rollins suggests,
…the truth attested to by Christian faith is not something that we can… reduce to the realm of physical objects, but rather is… a miracle…This miracle signals the transfiguration of our entire being. It refers to a world-shattering transformation that is hinted at in words such as love, forgiveness, hope and faith. The result is a truth that is both undeniable to the one who undergoes it and yet is open to doubt. For one can simultaneously question the source of this miracle while embracing it, being nourished by it and living in the light of it. Indeed, one can deny the miracle or be oblivious to it and still testify to it via one’s life.
I have been struck again and again that the members of my community show glimpses of Kingdom living. What is clearly present in the community is a sense of deep commitment to others that is natural and a real joy in the way discussion, debate and disagreement is handled. Love is at the centre of this group. If we look at 1 Corinthians 13 and Paul’s definitions of ‘love’ we can see some main characteristics; patient, kind, not envious, un-boastful, humble, honouring, not self-seeking, not easily angered, forgiving, protecting, trusting, hopeful and persevering. All of these are descriptions I would use to describe the way we speak and engage with each other in this community. There is a real wonder at how and why they find it so easy to act and relate in this way. I believe God is, through the process adopted to ‘birth’ this community, transforming the approach to life these individuals hold. Their actions are aligning with the commands of the Kingdom; ‘to love’ and I believe that it is the Spirit of God working in their lives.
Rollins again suggests a model of seeing how God works in communities,
This model is what we find in operation within a broadly Hebraic approach to faith, an approach that emphasizes belonging to the community and engaging in the shared rituals of that community. When it comes to our beliefs… there is an acknowledgement that we will often think and rethink these at various times in our lives… Instead of forming churches that emphasize belief before behaviour and behaviour before belonging, there is a vast space within the tradition to form communities that celebrate belonging to one another… a belonging that manifests itself in communally agreed rituals, creeds, and activities. In the midst of all this these communities can also encourage lively, heated, and respectful discussions concerning the nature and form of belief.
This community is growing, whether it’s understood or not, into a Christ-like community. God is transforming and revealing His nature to all of us. I had three aims at the start of this placement; one, to not prescribe how God will work, two, to practice being fully alert to God’s Spirit in the moment and three, to help people inhabit God’s story. God has worked in amazing and un-imaginable ways. I have not followed any program, set model or blue-print. This approach was inspired by Vincent Donovan’s mission to the Masai.
…the unpredictable process of evangelization, [is] a process leading to that new place where none of us has ever been before. When the gospel reaches a people where they are, their response to that gospel is the church in a new place, and the song they will sing is that new, unsung song, that unwritten melody that haunts all of us. What we have to be involved in is not the revival of the church or the reform of the church. It has to be nothing less than what Paul and the Fathers of the Council of Jerusalem were involved in for their time – the refounding of the Catholic church for our age.
We, as a community, have watched as ‘God’ has used seven people to create relationships where love, peace, kindness, patience, joy, gentleness, goodness and self control have all become manifest in each one of us. We all look back and marvel at the journey we’ve been on and look forward to developing closer commitment to each other.
Jonah learnt that God was not partisan to cultural or religious boundaries. The Church is not the aim, the Kingdom is. The Church is the journey to the destination not the destination itself. The church is the vehicle of evangelism not the reason for evangelism.
All of this, as usual, are big ‘what if’ questions up for lots of disagreement and debate.