A reflection by Dan SpraggOutward & Agile

I’m going to begin where I left off last week. If you’ve been following along this past couple of weeks you’ll remember there have been a few questions! And these questions have come out of a sense in which I’ve been trying to expand our notion of what it means to be human as made in the image of God. The idea being that despite popular western thought, where the individual is king, not one of us by ourselves is the image of God. We are together a beautiful mosaic that God is leading towards completion as we find ourselves at home with Christ. Which is quite a nice image!

My list of questions came out of my wondering well if this is a picture of humanity, and humanity is on a trajectory together with and towards God, then what on earth is the church in the midst of this? What is our function? What is our purpose?
When we consider our solidarity with all humans in every time and place.
When we consider the activity of Christ to draw all into the fullness of God.
When we consider that church is something that God calls forth.
When we consider what the essence of that church might be – a body that is concerned with growing in its relationship with God, with each other, and with the world.
And, when we consider the context of our time and place in the world – which seems to be mostly chaotic and unpredictable with the presence of both goodness and evil.
What is the point of us being church?
We are not here to serve ourselves.
We are here to call attention to the love of God, so that all may come to know the fullness of God in their hearts.

So, I wonder:
How might we follow the Spirit’s lead and be agile in our response?
Can we be agile enough to follow where the Spirit is leading, not for our own sake, but for the sake of those who are still to know the fullness of the love of God in their hearts?
Some of you may know the Rev Murray Talbot, who was the minister with Hornby Presbyterian for about 25 years. It was no secret that he had an incredible heart for the church to be a shining light in its community. He said once at the ordination of a new minister that, ‘The church is the one organisation that doesn’t exist for itself.’
It’s quite a bold claim and I’m sure we can list off a number of charities for example who we would say fit this description too, but do you get his point?
The church does not exist for itself.
The Spirit of Pentecost blows and we are filled from the inside to move beyond ourselves. Outwards, beyond our walls, beyond our meetings, beyond our circle of friends, beyond our traditions, beyond ourselves…
It’s not about us.

Depending on our current resilience levels that can either make total sense, or it can cut to the bone a bit!
As we head along a little bit further in the book of Acts this week we come across an interesting moment. The apostles are doing some amazing work. There are healings in the street, the poor are being loved and welcomed. The Spirit of God is at work and more and more are coming to know the love of God. The Christian community pray with passion, they share their homes with anyone and everyone, their resources are shared so that no one goes without, and they are growing… fast!
The council in Jerusalem, which represents the Jewish establishment – think long-standing traditions and rules for all areas of life – they don’t like what’s going on. The establishment sees this new thing as a threat and so they have some of the apostles put in prison and very nearly has them executed! The threat must be eliminated to protect the establishment. It’s a classic example of a system turning hostile when something new that it doesn’t understand turns up. It was in a way an inevitable clash.

The movement of the spirit is always outwards and it is always the church’s job to follow and respond. The only way we can be is agile. But we ourselves, sitting here deep within the Presbyterian Institution know what it is like to sit within traditions and structures, behaviours both accepted and not accepted that mostly go without saying.
When the Pandemic was ramping up and we went into lockdown, some people seemed somewhat surprised that the Book of Order didn’t have any protocols for what to do when a global pandemic shuts down the country. It didn’t have any processes that were made for a time such as ours. It didn’t know for example what to do with Parish Council meetings that had to be held via video conference. Can you make decisions when you’re not meeting in person? Like most traditions and structures the Book of Order was written after the fact. It simply does not compute when new instances arise.
So too is the reaction when new initiatives are springing up. The old frameworks of how we make decisions and how we order our life just don’t fit sometimes.

I’m involved in a very exciting new project by the Presbytery in Hanmer Springs. Presbytery has employed a couple to live in Hanmer Springs and they are to make friends, build relationships, get to know the town and slowly but surely start to build a new expression of Christian community. We have no idea what the shape of it will be. It is a massive exercise in faith! Early on when we were setting up the project we very quickly ran into new questions that the old system couldn’t deal with. Like, Presbytery doesn’t hold property, so what does it do now it is the holders of the old St Andrew’s church site? And, there’s no congregation and no Parish Council, and if Ministers are normally inducted into a congregation then where do this couple actually stand with regards to the work they are doing? And, Presbytery doesn’t operate like a Parish Council or Session, but in this case they kind of are that for this couple, but should they be? Should there be a parish council set up? But, if there is no parish then is this even possible? The gift has been that our Presbytery generally has a great culture and wants this project to succeed and so has been willing to adapt and grow as this project has been birthed.

The rub up against systems and structures that either respond with agility or remain rigid – and therefore suck the life out of the new thing – can happen anywhere. It can happen nationally, regionally, locally… it can happen wherever there are certain ways of doing things that have been around for a while. Of course we talk about systems and structures and traditions as if they are entities on their own… but we know they are simply there because we are there.
What is our response to the outward leading of the Spirit? It’s not particularly in our nature to be agile. It takes more energy. It is often complicated and chaotic. It is full of surprises. But what is our response, what should our response be? Can we be willing to let go and move beyond the parts of our institution which prove inflexible and get in the way of the spirit’s moving us outwards?
I’m not going to spend any more time on traditions. I don’t think I need to explain what some of our traditions and structures are and how we might be agile and adaptive as we seek to follow the Spirit’s leading outwards. I’m also assuming that we want to follow the Spirit’s lead outwards beyond ourselves. If we don’t we’ve got a serious problem! I’d like to finish with why we are outward facing, and why we need to be agile.

The Singer/songwriter Halsey has had a meteoric rise to fame. In 2012 at the age of 18 after dropping out of Community College for financial issues and while living homeless on the streets of New York she started releasing her own music on social media. In 2014 she signed her first record deal and over the past 6 years has had two number one albums, with over 1 million copies sold and 6 billion online downloads. She is in a way a typical pop-star with scandals and controversial stories, a history of smoking cannabis, attempted suicide, and of making controversial statements. She is of course loved by her fans and hated by her critics. She has been open about the fact that she has bipolar disorder and suffers from endometriosis. Having survived her suicide attempt she has now turned that energy around and actively works for suicide prevention among young people.
On the release of her latest album at the beginning of this year, she has been openly candid about her struggles with her mental health and her ongoing self-esteem issues. There is quite a marked honesty about the album which allows a glimpse into the chaos of a life which has been marked by the deep contrast between struggle, pain and massive success… and all by the age of 25.

Here’s the chorus of her song ‘3am’ that caught my attention during lockdown:
Cause it’s 3am and I’m calling everybody that I know
And here we go again while I’m running through the numbers in my phone
And yeah I’ll take fake moans and dial tones
Let ‘em spill right down the microphone
I need it digital, cause baby when it’s physical,
I end up alone,
End up alone

What caught my attention was, that here we were in lockdown being so grateful for the digital technologies that allowed us to connect with one another and with family, while for this artist – and therefore I assume for other people as well – the digital world is the desired space to exist in because there the connections made with others are somewhat easier to deal with. I suspect digital connections feel safer because there is a distance between one another.
Isn’t it interesting that as we were forced into digital and couldn’t wait to reconnect face to face, there were I imagine significant amounts of people across the world who relish the digital space because face to face interactions are too hard, and too often have left them feeling inadequate and alone.
The reason we know about pop-stars is because they are famous. But their stories are everywhere.

Our world is good and beautiful and humanity is diverse and rich and wonderful.
But our world is also hurting, and there are lonely people who struggle simply even with the simple thing of connecting face to face.
And that is why we must move outwards bearing witness to the overwhelming love and grace of God.
And that is why we must be agile in our approaches because we don’t necessarily know who they are, or where they are, or how we might reach out to them.

We do not exist as church for ourselves.
The Spirit of Christ is calling all humanity to come home into the arms of goodness, truth, beauty, grace, love…
And we are called to follow and simply try and respond to where the spirit is leading. …