A reflection by the departing Mart the Rev – Inside and outside the fences

I love the inside/outside line from Baxter’s poem: Lord, Holy Spirit/You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks/Inside and outside the fences/You blow where you wish to blow.

On this particular Pentecost Day there seems to be a range of inside and outside themes running through everything.

The Reach of Pentecost

Pentecost was an existing and important festival within the devotional rhythms of the Jewish people, as Joy Kingsbury-Aitken’s litany so ably illustrates.  It was on the day of this festival that the Holy Spirit swept in, and pushed against the existing boundaries; opening the eyes of those gathered to just who was among them – faithful people from within the faith-tradition from everywhere they have settled in the known world.  It was wind and fire and voice and power like they had never seen.  But this was just the beginning.  This wind was to blow inside ­and outside the fences.  The rest of the Acts of the Apostles is a testament to the reach of the Spirit – reaching even, to Saul the persecutor of the early church, and across two massive divides in the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10: Gentile and Roman Centurion.  All the old boundaries left in tatters!

Later, Paul will write in Galatians 3:28 ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’  It was a revolution! 

Even on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit came upon the gathered people, they would never have imagined this reach.  The phenomenon of the Spirit that day was still within the boundaries of the tradition.  But the Spirit had other plans.

Context

When New Zealand went into the Covid-19 lockdown, I began imagining when, and how, we might climb out of it.  It seemed to me that this would take months and months and, possibly, for our seniors and the vulnerable among us, more than half a year before it would be safe to mingle in the community. How wrong I was!  From Friday, any gatherings of up to 100 New Zealanders are permitted as long as appropriate social distancing and contact tracing measures are followed.  It is an amazing achievement, in just two months and four days, to have only one active Covid case in the whole country.  As I understand it, there are only a handful of countries in the world that are in such control of the virus that they can step out, as we are, with any confidence.  Many others are doing the stepping out, but not from that place of confidence.  It is astounding!  Obviously, there are many economic challenges because of the lockdown – this is the case in every country in the world – but we are in a better position to attend to them because of the decisive leadership and the strength of the community commitment to respect the lockdown measures.  Thus, on the Day of Pentecost, 2020, nearly all the strong fences we needed to erect around ourselves have been pulled down.  We are coming out!  Look out!

Transitions

I first encountered Baxter’s Song to the Holy Spirit poem in 1982.  I was staying with a friend in Wellington, and making plans to join him in a flat in order to start at university the following year.  I remember, later that night, writing the poem in my journal.  1982 was a big year for me.  I candidated for the ministry and was accepted and I was making plans to leave my home city and embarking on what would be six years at university. 

I remember also that there was doubt in my mind (and in the minds of others!), of my capacity to achieve and sustain the study, and, I was also moving away from some of the confined ways I had understood the faith.  ‘Inside and outside the fences’ resonated with me – I was doing my own crossover, and growing to understand God’s ways being wider than my ideas of them!

Can you identify a similar dramatic transition time in your life? 

Over the years I have had a few of these – some have been relatively smooth; and others have been a bit turbulent!  I think I am undergoing a smooth transition this time – with the edges kind of softened by the fact that I have had a few months of social isolation and distancing.  It has felt like a long ease out, and somewhat surreal. That my leaving doesn’t also involve a geographical shift, means that it is not so dramatic – there is only one form of uprooting going on, I think!

Fences & Clinging

I noted, in the mid-week reflections the other day, that I have been wondering if I have misspent critical aspects of the thirty-one and a half years of my pastoral ministry.  Aside from the list of regrets (and there are always a few, mostly around I wish I had spent more time with this person and that person), there’s a bit of wondering about the prioritisation of the church’s energy, and my part in that, over those years.

The season of my ministry career has coincided with a period of ongoing decline in the Presbyterian church.  The steady decline in the numbers of people choosing to be part of it, and the ongoing loss of influence.  These are changing times, and I don’t think the church is respected in the way previous generations once respected it.  Some of the change is very welcome – for the church tended to assume it had a place at the head of the table, and it could act in haughty ways.  I am glad to be in this season where no such assumptions can be made, and the church has to earn its right to have a conversation.  This is safer ground for us, even though it is challenging to be confident or that we will even survive! 

But I also think that the church hasn’t paid enough attention to what God is up to outside the fences, and in this sense the church has no one else to blame.  In survival mode, the church scrambles to ensure that things keep on going in the way it has become accustomed to.  In business, the decline in bottom lines leads to one of two things, repurposing or closure.  I think that the church has generally opted for a third option that is not healthy. 

The church I have been ordained into has tended to cling:  clinging to past methodologies and styles; clinging to what once worked in a cultural setting long past; clinging to the assumption that if we are open at 10am then people will come; clinging to the notion that if we look after our own then things will be fine; and clinging to doctrines, or ways of framing the nature of God at work among us, as if we had the last word on how God could be. 

For example, on that latter point, the Presbyterian Church has, for the entire time I have been ordained, persisted with putting an extraordinary amount of its time and energy into deciding whether to allow homosexual people to participate fully in the Christian life, or not.  What a fence!  It is like Trump wanting a wall on the entire Mexican border.  Shut them out! Make everything great again! To use the over-worn metaphor, the Presbyterian Church has spent the last thirty years re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, while the ship sinks.  ‘If we just sort out the ‘gays’ then God will bless the church…’ What a load of stinking codswallop!!  This is the worst kind of ‘inside the fences’ behaviour, and not, I would say, the leading of the Spirit of God!  It is a distraction!  In the same period of time poverty has become a sorry feature of New Zealand life, our rivers have become un-swimmable, the global temperature has risen at a rate far from natural, our quality of community life has diminished, loneliness and anxiety-related problems have become commonplace, the family violence numbers continue to escalate, and the divide between the haves and have-nots has widened exponentially.  But the fixation of the church has been to elevate one or two verses from scriptures and take all the steps it can to rid the church of a handful of homosexual ministers and elders.  What a shameful wasteful form of institutional blindness!  (There, I have finally got that off my chest! – sorry to unload!!!) 

If I was to offer a bit of self-critique, I would say that over the course of my years as a minister, I have played my part in channelling too much of my energy into the ‘inside’ rather than enabling the community to seek and pursue what it means to engage with the ‘outside’.  I’m about to walk into a role that could look like all my energy will be directed towards propping up the institution – but I will resist that.  I do not wish to be a prop, or an encourager of a clinging mentality.  The church needs to listen to the Spirit!  Blowing inside and outside the fences!  It was something we all should have known, but just couldn’t see for looking.  I was attracted to the notion of it in 1982, and I am reacquainting myself with it again.  Now, I am a little inclined to ask – what fences?  Whose idea was that there should be fences?  I’m far more interested in the idea of a church without walls, and the posture of the church in the world being that of exposing, and breaking down any walls, that separate people from people, and people from God. 

In the days after that Pentecost Day, in the book of Acts, Peter stands in the home of a Gentile Roman soldier (having pushed past a fence as high as a fence could be back then!), and declares, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

Peter only got there, because the Spirit was blowing outside the fences, into the life of Cornelius (despite the church’s understanding of its ministry and without the church’s permission!), and into Peter’s dreams, demanding that he must step beyond the boundary of the Law of Moses and eat what is unclean.  If you go on to Acts 11, you see the initial reaction of the church, and it was not happy!  How dare you cross the lines!  Fortunately, the bureaucracy did not win.  Back then, the church was still open to the Spirit’s wilful desire to be unregulated!   Amen to that desire, and again I say, Amen!

Now and Next

I have been very fortunate to serve these last 13.5 years in our church communities here at The Village, where we have at least had a go at looking and exploring outside the fences.  I have loved and thrived in the ‘have a go’ attitude that the leadership have given to its ministers.  Long may it continue!  The aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic now invites more of the same attitude.  It really does!  Things are, undoubtedly, going to get harder, but that is not an invitation to retrench, or batten down the hatches.  This is only a time to do what the church has always been meant to do, to go to where the wind of the Spirit is blowing – inside and outside what we already know, and get the best of your energy out to the edges and the frontiers, which are, you may be surprised to hear, right in our neighbourhoods, and over our neighbourhood fences. 

I hope and pray that this willingness will continue to be a feature of The Village, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I have had to play a part in this unfolding story.  Thank you for your support and encouragement over the years, it has been a privilege to serve with and alongside you.