Over and over again I am facing the same question, not only in the life of the church but in so many other walks of life, that question is a basic human question and it is about survival, the question “how are we going to keep going, how are we going to stay alive? Life is a precious thing, so I guess that it is understandable that we don’t want to give it up, and yet so much of creation teaches us that dying is a natural part of life, and that without a giving way, or a letting go of the old, there can be no room or even possibility of the new.
As we move through the Easter Season in the life of the church, I am struck again and again by the fact that the resurrection or new life that we seek, the renewal that we long for demands of us a willingness to die, to lay ourselves aside, to empty ourselves of what currently is in order to make room for what is to come. Kenosis is not a popular path, yet it is this path that Jesus walked, and the path that he calls us to follow, but to be emptied makes us vulnerable, it made him vulnerable, vulnerable even to death, but of course from that death came new life, and this is our good news!
New life is our good news, we hold to that message, we celebrate it, we tell the story again and again, and yet we are so often unwilling to embrace it, for the comfort, assurance and familiarity of the old is quite simply and easier place to be, and even when it is crumbling around us we would rather devise ways of propping it up than letting it go! We agonise over how we might keep our buildings going and open, we scratch our heads so often over the change in culture that means that Sunday is no longer what it once was, we expend so much energy on these questions, so much time and effort in keeping on keeping on and probably never daring to ask ourselves if there might be another way…
But what if we did; what if we dared to ask if the something good might be replaced with something better, what if we dared to admit that our old ways of doing things, our buildings, our practices and our deeply held traditions might not be what is needed today. It would of course require us to empty ourselves of so much that we hold dear, to allow ourselves to be stripped of those things we now call important, and to stand vulnerable, even nakedly vulnerable before God and to dare to ask “what now”?
It will mean experiencing loss, and with loss comes grief, a right and proper part of the process, and grief of course is messy and unpredictable, it is uncomfortable and painful, but it is also an honest and even necessary transition that makes room for the new, if we move through it in a healthy way. I suspect though, that is is our inbuilt self-preservation system that tells us this road is undesirable, unappealing and best avoided. We don’t like mess, and we don’t want pain. You only have to read the account of Jesus struggle in Gethsemane to see that he felt much the same!
So what does dying, giving ourselves away, or self-emptying (kenosis) look like? It might mean being willing to take a risk, to dare to move beyond the safe and the known, to venture out to new horizons, to explore new possibilities. This might seem exciting and exhilarating, but if it is to be truly possible then it will mean daring to leave behind what might have been useful baggage from the past, the “way we have always done things” cannot be carried into the future possibility. Letting go will need to be well thought through and intentional.
It might mean being willing to call a halt to a much loved and once fruitful activity, it might mean taking the brave decision to close an old building, and to look for different ways of meeting, or even for a community to call it a day and to go in different directions.
This list could go on and on, but whatever death looks like it can give way to new and fruitful life if it is handled well. The death of an elderly relative, the loss of a child, the unexpected end of a marriage, the devastating diagnosis of a terminal illness, all of these are deaths, but all in different ways hold within them a secret gift, an opportunity for life to begin again, differently for sure, but through lessons learned and sombre reflections, through grief and through deep lament a song of hope, of rebirth, of renewal and revitalisation can be heard by those who have ears to hear, for surely our message is that death has lost its sting, it does not have the final word!
Yet as I write I am struck by the thought that perhaps we are more lost than we know, for our buildings and our institutions have become our idols, yes we claim over and over that we are concerned with the gospel, with spreading the love of God, with sharing the good news with all who will come, and with all who will receive it, but we have become so convinced that the vehicles for this are our buildings, or our institutions, that we are afraid to let them go and have lost sight of love itself!
Love does not hold back, love gives of itself:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (1)
Are we ready then to give ourselves away, to seriously consider whether what is holding us back from the full expression of love let loose is the desire to remain as we are? Yes we want to do good and to show love, but when the motivation for that is not re-creative and life bringing then surely we have lost the point. As a Methodist I need to look to the power of love that propelled the once reluctant John Wesley to give up the safety of a pulpit within the church and to take to the streets and fields, preaching from haycarts and gravestones when refused admittance to the buildings that claimed to stand for the love of God. Dare I say that we need such a radical reawakening again? Well yes I do dare, and I find in myself a longing for it, but I must admit a trepidation for the Methodist Church keeps me well, I am housed and paid by it, but I admit that like much of the church in the Western World it is struggling, weighed down by its structures and I suggest it’s fight for survival. If I had a pound for every time I have heard someone say “God has not finished with the people called Methodist yet”, I would be rich!
God has certainly not finished with his people yet, we are a work of love, a holy masterpiece, a people in whose hearts s/he has shed abroad a love deeper and wider than we can possibly imagine, we are made by love, for love! It is this that should set us free, but we are stuck. In the book “The Human Face of Church” Savage and Byod-Macmillan quote Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, telling the story within the story of the return of Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor who has him arrested. “People are mere sheep” he says. “and you have asked too much or them. This freedom is an intolerable burden which we have worked for fifteen centuries to remove.” Centuries later are we guilty of the same crime of working to create happiness instead of radical freedom and deep joy, a mere contentment with bread and certainty, rather than an engagement with the mysteries of love let loose?
Surely love is what compels us, yet Savage and Boyd- Macmillan go on to argue, quoting sociologist Max Weber, who observed a cyclical process among religious movements that he called the “routinisation of the charisma” , stating that great visions need a human process to carry them through time- and yet they continue, life giving visions do not fit easily into neat boxes, so the very process that gives the vision continuing life also begins to kill it. When the maintenance of the institution (which protects the charism) becomes the institutions primary purpose, the death of the charism is on the horizon. (2)
Love, life and freedom ( our good news) then are stifled by our desire to preserve them, because instead of giving them and ourselves away we are concerned to contain them, to ensure that we survive as those who hold this vital life giving gospel… yes we will share it if you come and if you beliong and if you fit in, but it is no longer free and wild for we have tamed it to a shadow of itself.
But love refuses to die and will not be tamed and so it breaks out in unexpected ways and in unexpected places, through unlikely people… so, what am I saying, and what am I looking for, as this blog post seems to have become a bit of a splurge in thinking! I think what I am looking for is a desire in myself and in others who have heard and received the good news of Christ to let it do it’s work, to allow ourselves again to be transformed day by day, and not to worry about the continuation of our structures and institutions, dangerous talk for one who relies upon the church for daily bread, but then I have to ask if that is so, for I have been taught to look beyond the institution to the God who tells us clearly that s/he will not be contained by them, the God who desires such relationship with us that he had to come in the form of Jesus the man to show us what love looks like, breaking down walls of convention and protocol, touching the untouchable and reinterpreting the law. The God who promises to fill us to overflowing with the life empowering Spirit, setting us free to bring out the God-colours and God-flavours on this earth, to see and seek the good and to join in.
Life is set loose when we give ourselves away, we we dare to die with him that we might rise with him, it is not easy, it is not painless, it is not safe, but it is worth the cost!
(Painting- Pearl of great price- mine)
- Philippians 2: 1-8
- The Human Face of Church. Sara Savage and Eolene Boyd-Macmillan Canterbury Press 2007 Ch 1. Pg 4&5