It is the night before th…

It is the night before the ‘Big Race’ and the driver, Derise, is naturally anxious about his performance. He asks the coach ‘How will I know when I’m enough?’ The coach replies ‘When you cross the finish line you’ll know’.

The thing is that this could be seen as just another piece of sugary pap which doesn’t really say anything. But then I can hear echoes of someone else who asked exactly the same thing about his vocation: Moses! He is talking to God at the burning bush. He asks ‘How will I know that it is You, God, who sent me?’ God replies ‘When you have done all that you have been asked to do, you will worship me on this mountain.’

So for both people who are about to take risks and who are looking for reassurance, there can be no guarantee of the ‘rightness’ of taking the risk till after the risk has been taken. This is a bit tricky, because in taking a risk, what is put in play is my life!

Sometimes the movie channel brings us a movie that is in the category of ‘an oldie but a goodie’. Recently I watched ‘Cool Runnings’ again. This movie is about the performance of the Jamaican Bob Sled Team at the winter Olympics.

The movie has some of the usual themes of movies of redemption: The coach who cheated and has come back to coach the bottom ranked team, the Jamaicans; the Jamaicans who are not expected to do well, and are forced into a European way of bob-sledding, which doesn’t work, until they are able to find a Caribbean way of bob-sledding.

But at this viewing, a piece of conversation caught my ears. It is the night before the ‘Big Race’ and the driver, Derise, is naturally anxious about his performance. He asks the coach ‘How will I know when I’m enough?’ The coach replies ‘When you cross the finish line you’ll know’.

The thing is that this could be seen as just another piece of sugary pap which doesn’t really say anything. But then I can hear echoes of someone else who asked exactly the same thing about his vocation: Moses! He is talking to God at the burning bush. He asks ‘How will I know that it is You, God, who sent me?’ God replies ‘When you have done all that you have been asked to do, you will worship me on this mountain.’

So for both people who are about to take risks and who are looking for reassurance, there can be no guarantee of the ‘rightness’ of taking the risk  till after the risk has been taken. This is a bit tricky, because in taking a risk, what is put in play is my life!

When I think about our ‘experiment’ here, I feel the same sense of insecurity. Wouldn’t it be lovely if I could say ‘Well, If you follow me in this experiment, you will have an increase of 10% on the congregation each year for the next ten years. Here is the tried and true pattern.”

But it doesn’t work like that. Here we are subject to our context: We don’t have a natural constituency like an embassy or a company like Nestlé that will direct people into our church. We also have some historical circumstances to deal with. So part of our job is not only to invite people to come, but also to discover who our new constituency might be. These processes are not easy, or sure.

We have to take risks, not knowing what the outcome will be. This is tough, but it is the way God works. When the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they were guided not by a map, that told them where the beginning and the end was, but by God’s leading of a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire.

I was reminded of this driving to Lausanne on Tuesday. I used the G.P.S. machine, without a map, and so I had to simply trust the instructions of the voice coming out of the little box. ‘After 200 metres, turn left!’ More and more these days I am reminded of the John Henry Newman hymn  ‘Lead kindly Light’ He asks God ‘Guide thou my steps, I do not ask to see the distant scene, One step enough for me.’ We need a plan, sure, but the outcome of the plan is in God’s hands, not mine or ours. Our job is to try to follow.

 But about the risk taking, one thing is sure. We cannot not do it. The only option that is not on the agenda is staying the same as we were. This is what the search committee here at St. John’s called me here to do. This is what your chaplaincy council has also realised.

Doing what we have always done will get us what we have always got! And people are getting older and more tired. Unless we do something to renew our corporate life and numbers, we will go the way of hundreds of other  places.

But the thing that makes me take heart is the other part of this story. Both Moses and Derise in ‘Cool Runnings’ took their risks after some discovery. Derise discovers that he has to be ‘Caribbean’ in his bob-sledding. He has to do this sport from the inside out. How he drives is an expression of his particular genius. The same is true of Moses. It is Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush that gives him he task of bringing the people out of slavery. So in renewing our life here, I hope that we will be able to radiate a spirit of ‘encounter’ with God, that the people who come into our Church will be able to capture.

This seems to be happening. Last week we had some visitors from Greece and France. Their English was all right, but it was not their first preference. Nevertheless they stayed for coffee. When I asked them how things went they described the whole experience of being in church in that particularly European word of ‘sympatisch’. It’s a great word meaning ‘welcoming, and radiating something that invites another person into the circle.’ That’s exactly what we are trying to do. Our Church building and our Sunday mornings are our front door or showcase. How we express the presence of God on Sunday morning will be what communicates to people. This is the essence of the ‘experiment’. First of all, the ‘experiment’ says that we are willing to let ourselves ‘play’. There are few things that are so fixed in stone or ‘right’ that they cannot be played with. An atmosphere of serious ‘playfulness’ will communicate something of itself. But then the ‘experiment’ is designed to help us to liven up our worship, and to increase the sense of participation among all the members of the congregation. This helps them to worship God better by increasing their participation. So that is the ‘genius’ that is at work in our experiment. It is my particular genius, admittedly, but then that is what you got me here for, what you knew you were getting, and what I add as leader.

The idea of discovering the rightness or otherwise of taking a risk, after the risk has been taken also prevents boasting and self justification. Can we boast about what we are doing? No. Because we are taking a risk. We don’t know the outcome. Should I justify the taking of the risk? No. Because it is what your chaplaincy Council has also agreed upon, what I said I would do when I came in March 2011. But more, we have not ‘done what we have been asked to do’ or ‘crossed the finish line’ yet. We can suspend judgement till afterward. Everyone is invited on this journey. Who will get on board?

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell isnow a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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