It may be that when you read this I shall be in Marrakesh (of all places!) where I’m spending a few days at the end of February. Let me explain - the phone call came out of the blue from Nigel, one of five students who shared a flat with me when at Imperial College in 1976. Nigel now works in Rome but is married to a Moroccan lady and they invited us all to a reunion at their house near the Atlas mountains.
At university, two of the six were members with me of the Anglican-Methodist Chaplaincy, but I suspect they no longer have any church involvement. So – a big opportunity to listen to their diverse stories and to share how we came to be where are, aware of that instruction of Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3.15).
I’m sure my friends and I will discover that, just as we came together as different people, our paths after leaving university have been very diverse, often for no more reason than the different unexpected opportunities that came our way. But I hope that our history of togetherness will mean that the intervening years will melt away and we shall rediscover the friendship and trust we once knew – as if it had never been forgotten. I hope that our only regret will be that it took so long to get together again.
Sometimes our journey and faith can be like that – a time of neglect and forgetfulness, a ‘dark night of the soul’ when it seems to be only us, followed by a surprise rediscovery, a spiritual encounter – coming about when God says ‘Come and see - Remember?’ and we say ‘Yes!’.
Perhaps this time of Lent can be an unexpected opportunity of a re-union with our Lord? Is there a Lenten activity or discipline that will reawaken a sense of belonging and joy and hope we once knew in fellowship with Him? Might we only regret that we’d neglected Him for so long?
The recent study day with Barbara Glasson and Clive Marsh, Our President and Vice President, wasn’t to be an opportunity to sit back, relax and absorb morsels of their superior knowledge and wisdom from behind closed eyelids. Instead we were encouraged to form factions and to energetically disagree with one another, grappling with how scripture can appear to disagree with itself – Paul, for example, seeming to disagree with his own writing. It was a way of illustrating that biblical teaching is seldom simple and has to be understood within a particular context. So we need to be discerning about what it means to live biblically and what conclusions we draw from Scripture about relationships with one another and God’s Creation.
One exercise we were asked to engage with was to imagine that some of us were aliens from the planet Zog – blessed with a command of the English language but knowing nothing about church or church jargon – and arriving at a meeting of a Church Council. The questions of the Zoggians asked were “What are you doing and why?” and “Does this meeting help?” I’d have been interested to eavesdrop on the group that tried to explain to the aliens how and why we had nailed our “God” to a cross!
The point is, of course, that the world’s understanding of church matters and jargon is little more than that of the Zoggians, and our church meetings would seem just as bizarre to neighbours who came. I’ve certainly sat in Church Councils where I was extremely pleased that no-one from outside the church was present – we would all have been filled with shame!
We have a huge challenge in communicating our faith to the world in which we live, and that challenge begins with being sure of what we want to communicate.
As Lent approaches we might like to consider how we respond to someone who asks “Why do you go to church?” Could we, rather than resorting to formulaic words and expecting them to make sense, respond from our hearts, finding a story and language of love, kindness, listening, concern, generosity, forgiveness, joy, peace and hope through our belonging to Christ? Can our story be seen in our being and our doing, and recognised as supremely relevant to everyone’s situation.
Perhaps the aliens from Zog could go back to their spaceship saying that some of those earthlings have really discovered something, and wondering why everyone on earth isn’t a part of it.
Can we use this time of Lent to check out what is really at the heart of our faith story and how our lives communicate it?