Bishop Paul’s message to the Clergy of the Diocese at the Virtual Clergy Study Session.
‘Keeping our eyes lifted up’
Sustaining and developing vision through difficult times
It is really difficult to know how to communicate to you just how deeply proud I am of you all for the way you have sustained local church life and ministry over these past 8 months. None of us were ever prepared for such a shock to all of our systems, and to so fundamental a change into how we have to minister and work. So please hear me somehow deep inside your guts, ‘I am deeply proud of you. Thank you for the many varied ways you have risen to the multiple challenges that you have faced in your parishes, your congregations, your own family and household responsibilities, and your own wellbeing.’ I know this is echoed by Bishop Sarah, the Archdeacons and the other members of the Bishop’s Leadership Team. However, on this occasion, I say it simply as ‘I’ because they are equally in view with my thanks and pride. They have been wonderful.
This medium is of course rubbish when trying to convey this – I can only see 24 faces at once all in small. Oh how much we have all missed the face to face meeting and all that comes with being in each other’s presence. I know I am not alone in having found this latest lockdown harder to handle mentally and emotionally than the first one.
We were scheduled to be all together for the whole day today to consider the Clergy Covenant on Wellbeing. We will aim to do this next year sometime after Easter, by when we hope such a gathering will be possible to do safely once again. In the meantime, this couple of hours has to do for recognising that we are all in this together. I am grateful to Alan for all the arranging. We hope that it offers some support and help at the outset of Advent.
So let’s reflect on Keeping our eyes lifted up.
EXODUS, WILDERNESS, EXILE & ISOLATION
When we went into the first national lockdown and found ourselves legally barred from using our church buildings in any way there was quite a lot of reflection made about the themes of Exodus, Wilderness and Exile. Different biblical themes spoke to each of us in differing ways, although I think exile emerged as that most commonly felt. What has emerged over the months since, with no visiting of the sick and dying in hospital, or relatives in care homes, and of limited capacity to travel, visit or meet up, even when restrictions were lifted somewhat, is the high degree of isolation that people are feeling. Even those of us who live with others, or have formed a small bubble, find ourselves regularly feeling isolated. This hits us emotionally, mentally, physically with the loss of touch and contact, and spiritually. So over these past few weeks when we have been reading our way through Revelation during Morning Prayer I have found myself reflecting on the isolation experienced by John in exile on the island of Patmos. No phones, WhatsApp, Zoom, Gotomeeting or Teams for him. He was truly cut off from contact with the people and churches he loved. Isolation was stark. Yet in his time of isolation God spoke to him and revealed the message that he was to share with those 7 churches. He would have had no notion that we would be reading it nearly 2,000 years later. His God given purpose was to encourage the churches that he knew as they faced times of darkness and trial.
So in praying over what to share with you today about Keeping our eyes lifted up; sustaining and developing our vision through difficult times I have found myself drawn to reflect with you on some of the key themes that come through this extended letter.
GOD ON THE THRONE
From the outset John wants his readers to lift up their eyes to see that God is on the throne (1.4; 3.21; 4.1-11; 5.1-14; 6.16; 79-17; 8.3; 12.5; 14.3; 16.17; 19.4f; 20.11; 21.5; 22.1-3). Whatever the situation they face, however dire it seems, and however hard to imagine an outcome where the earthly powers appear so strong God is real, alive and ultimately in control. Whatever might appear to be the case God is the ruler of the kings of the earth (1.5)
This God is:-
The God who was and is and is to come – 1.4f.
This description of God comes on a number of occasions (1.8; 4.8; 11.16; 16.5) and is to be heard alongside God also being the first and the last, the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end (1.8,17; 2.8; 21.6; 22.13). He is the one who lives and reigns forever and ever (4.8; 11.15)
God is the God of all creation, and of new creation (4.11; 21.5).
God is the God who dwells with his people (2.1; 21.3,23; 22.3,5)
Then this God is the one who has revealed himself in Jesus, and in particular as Jesus who shed his blood and who was raised from the dead (1.5; 2.8). He is primarily depicted as The Lamb who was slain, yet who is also the triumphant Lion of Judah and King. In and through Jesus God brings about freedom from our sins, redemption and being sealed into God’s people. (5.3f, 8,12f; 6.1,16; 7.9-17; 8.1; 12.11; 13.10; 14.1,4,10; 15.3; 17.14; 19.7,9; 21.9,14,22f, 27; 22.1,3)
John wants the churches to whom he writes to recognise that God is still God and that what God has done in Jesus Christ is sure, steadfast and eternal.
Sisters and brothers, nothing at all has changed. If we are to sustain and develop vision we lift our eyes to God and recognise who God is and all God has done for the whole creation in and through Jesus Christ, and his death and resurrection.
Hence why worship is then an utterly central feature throughout the whole of the book. It is most clearly put forth in chapters 4 & 5 but it then keeps appearing as the activity of God’s people, and songs keep breaking out to celebrate God’s greatness and saving acts. (7.10-12; 11.1,16; 14,3,7; 15.3; 19.1-5, 10; 22.3,9)
So if we are to sustain and develop our vision we need to attend to our worship; our own and that for which we are responsible along with all of God’s people. Please let us remember that true worship flows from our hearts and minds in response to who God is and all God has done, is doing and will do. So yes we want it to be the very best that it can be, but this is not to be equated always with either the professionalism of our online production or the attentiveness to our liturgical movements. The most professional production can be lifeless; the most marvellously performed liturgy can be boring and flat; the best crafted sermon can be an exercise in nothing more than good speaking and the most thought out quiet space can be as dry as dust. Worship that catches fire is imbued with the life of the Spirit responding to the God of love. It can take every form we have ever developed and be ham-fistedly or expertly done but what it has is life. It catches up all the people of God of all ages into the presence of God.
So let us attend to our worship of God.
This will naturally also mean attending to our Prayer. This has been strange over these past months. Apparently more time and space, and yet it has often been a struggle. The regular rhythms have helped but finding other space has often felt elusive. I have actually found that short and often has proved more valuable than trying extended praying. Learning to pray with others over Zoom has had its awkward moments; its funny ones and its downright failures. But God knows our hearts and our intent.
Twice John reminds us that the prayers of God’s people really matter. There is a reminder too that those that appear to be unanswered ultimately do find their answer in God’s own ways.
If we are to sustain and develop our vision prayer will be part of that sustenance.
There are then two running themes through the whole book about the calling and life of God’s people. These are the themes of patient endurance and of faithful witness. They are deeply tied together as it is the very act of bearing faithful witness that leads in some instances to opposition and suffering that requires patient endurance. In some cases this faithful witness leads to death.
John describes the life he has, along with his fellow followers of Jesus as ‘the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance’ (1.9).
At the start of lockdown adrenalin kicked in and very rapidly we learned how to do pastoral care differently via phone calls, WhatsApp, Zoom, dropping off printed materials to people’s homes and intensifying our engagement with foodbanks and other support mechanisms. We rapidly moved worship online through Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. We were quite frenetic. We settled into a pattern. Then easing of restrictions began. We sought to say take your time, come back step by step and indeed that is what we all did. The way worship is happening, and the use of our buildings for individual prayer varies greatly as each parish seeks under God to do what appears best given the setting each is in. We were perhaps beginning to settle into a new pattern, wondering if more might be possible for Christmas. Then lockdown two occurred. This has felt much harder to take and to handle; even though we could broadcast from our buildings. We now have an easing again but still with tough restrictions. Singing carols outside, socially distanced, is great but requires fresh planning. Then what will the rest of winter bring? What is the real longer term impact on our congregations, their attendance and engagement? How are we to restart and regrow our work with children and young people, our deeper engagement with schools and with the wider community of all ages?
The longer the pandemic has gone on the more we have all realised that this is reshaping us for the long term. There is no simple going back to what and where we were at the beginning of the year. Our plans, whether they be at parish, deanery or Diocesan level will all have to be reshaped. This then calls for a form of patient endurance. Patience to continue through this tough period, especially the months ahead. Patience in listening to God for the ways forward. Patience in working out just how we will be church in each local setting in the future. The seven churches of Revelation are addressed individually because they were each in a different geographical, cultural and spiritual setting. They each had their strengths; they each had their areas in need of repentance and change. Jesus addresses them individually but in the open hearing of the others. They recognise that they were in this patient endurance together as well as in their own setting. Surely we too must act openly with one another about our different settings. Each must take responsibility for their own place but we must do so recognising our accountability to one another. There can be no place for parishes operating as if they are islands unto themselves; nor indeed dioceses doing the same nationally. Here is a call for the patient endurance of the saints. (1.9; 2.2f, 10 19, 25; 3.10f; 13.10; 14.12)
The nature of the call has not changed. We are called to faithful witness to Jesus. We are called to be those who bear testimony to Jesus. This is the running call of the book. We follow Jesus Christ the faithful witness. As God’s people, we are to bear faithful witness. This is very clearly about the verbal witness of God’s people. It is also about the witness of the deeds of God’s people. Both matter. We are to live Jesus shaped lives that care for the poor and seek God’s justice. We are to live Jesus shaped lives and speak out the eternal good news of Jesus Christ the Lord. (1.2, 5, 9; 2.9f, 13, 25; 3.8, 11; 6.9-11; 7.14; 11.3,12; 12.11, 17; 14.6; 15.5; 17.6; 19.8, 10; 20.4)
What I think the pandemic has helped laid bare for us through all the difficulties it has posed us as to how we are church, and how we serve people as church is that the fundamentals are what really matter.
Worship, prayer, witness in word and deed. This involves basic pastoral care and helping people to live as disciples of Jesus day by day where they are. It has highlighted the critical place of the home – whether that be the isolated single person; the family wrestling with living on top of each other every day trying to work and do schooling; the couple living with their tensions or the care home cut off from the world. It thus highlights the question of how well we help faith in the home alongside living faith out in places of work, leisure and community.
To do this requires paying careful attention to ourselves; not in a self centred way but as a way of ensuring we are the best for God. So attending to our diet, rest and renewal, our own life of prayer and witness really matter. Hence why the second half of the morning is focussing on how we best Thrive so that we are best equipped to serve.
In the final analysis the only way to sustain and develop vision is to keep our eyes lifted to God who through it all is the one still on the throne; still at work sustaining all creation; still at work bringing salvation through Jesus Christ; still listening to our prayers; still bringing rulers down and raising them up; still offering healing to the nations; still walking amongst the churches; still sending the Spirit; still working to the time when all things will be renewed; still God.
‘And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!”