Observations on community
Jesus tells the people he grew up amongst that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. An odd thing to say because, until then, things seemed to have been going quite well. In the hearing of those who know his history he has proclaimed the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of the inbreaking of God’s reign of justice. But then, things rapidly deteriorate and Jesus’ very life becomes endangered by the sudden eruption of rage among those who had known him all his life. It’s not clear from Luke’s text, but it seems that Jesus has disappointed them.
I am reminded that communities are – at times – ambivalent places . On the one hand community, is what we all long for. As I was reminded this week by a parishioner of whom I asked a personal favor- she chided me ‘you talk a lot about human beings as relational, but you don’t ask much for yourself. None of us can manage it all by ourselves’. Well, touché! Community is where we get to share the burdens we can’t manage alone. Community is where we find those points of intimate intersection with one another that gives life richer meaning. I am continually impressed by the variety of forms and contexts in which a moment of intimacy makes itself known.
So what about ambivalence? I mention communities as ambivalent places because as Jesus experienced during his visit home community can be a dangerous place when you disappoint people. They say familiarity breed’s contempt. Intimacy when disappointed, provokes anger. It’s those closest to us that seem to feel a dangerous freedom to abuse us. I am reminded of the aphorism people usually hurt by the Church facetiously chide- see how these Christians love one another. It’s a salutary reminder that in communities where love is the stated goal while we lift our heads in pursuit of lofty love, contempt and hatred seep up unseen from between the floorboards, so to speak.
On the Sunday of the annual parochial meeting, a once a year event, it’s customary for the rector to remind everyone about the achievements and challenges of the past year. The intention is to affirm. Yet, because not everyone agrees on what constitutes an achievement and what presents as a challenge, it can also be a risky business for the preacher. So, given that my stated aim is to affirm, let me make a disclaimer. Although as rector my oversight privileges me with a particular overview of community life, nevertheless my view is like everyone else’s, a subjective one.
- The restoration of the St Martin window is an achievement beyond the structural and artistic restoration elements, which are in themselves, noteworthy. The achievement lies in the community once again finding the confidence to take on such a major and costly piece of preservation. In a moment in time, we decided we could do this. This decision needs to be seen against the backdrop of watching the window’s gradual deterioration over years, with the community somehow feeling the task too much to undertake. Finding the confidence to decide to act, followed up by the confidence expressed in the mini pledge drive to fund the restoration is a real sign of a return of courage and vitality to this community.
- Lent 2015 surprised us all with the excitement that the Wednesday evening Lent program generated. The achievement here is to discover the deep desire of our community to grow more deeply into a way of spiritual living and to hear the ancient Benedictine wisdom speaking at the heart of the stress of our modern lives.
- For me, a particular if quieter success was the summer program. Moving to one service on Sunday morning, though not new for July and August, this year seemed to remind us of the wonderful experience of all worshipping in one place and one time. This summer we did something new with the introduction of the 5.30pm evening instructional Eucharist. The instructional commentary became a blueprint for our new Sunday service booklets. The early evening also attracted seven new visitors of whom, five have transitioned to regular membership.
- Another big achievement has been completing the RenewalWorks spiritual inventory program during our Annual Renewal Campaign this last autumn. Our 102% questionnaire submission rate was astonishing and speaks volumes about the kind of community we want to become; a community in which spiritual growth and nurturance is our number one priority. We learned important information about ourselves. The data having been digested by the program’s leadership team will now form the basis for mapping our way forward, guiding our community development for some considerable time to come.
- A particular achievement has been the way people have reconnected with their passion leading to the reenergizing of our community life. My challenge has been for us to become a more magnetic community. Going into my second full year as rector, I am really noticing the surge in energy and excitement. I no longer feel alone in pumping energy into the parish system. I now feel I have many, many partners in this task.
Shifting furniture about, and meddling with the established pattern of Sunday morning, have been two manifestations of our attempt to respond to the key challenge facing us. Before the Annual Meeting in 2015, I presented five challenges:
- Embedding a strong and cohesive staff team.
- Developing a new website as a vehicle for projecting ourselves into the wider world.
- Revitalizing our ministries with emphasis on newcomer welcome.
- Addressing the decline in operating income.
- Establishing a model of spiritual direction for the whole community through Biblically-based preaching, teaching, and spiritual-pastoral care.
I can report that building a strong and cohesive Staff Team, presenting an updated image of St Martin’s to the wider community through the development of a new website, and establishing a model of spiritual direction for the community through clear Biblically- based preaching, teaching and pastoral care have become firmly embedded. Addressing the steady decline in operating income continue to be a work in progress. Enthusing others in the revitalizing of the Church’s ministries with a focus on newcomer welcome and incorporation is well underway. A number of reports appear in this year’s pack evidencing the health of some of our key ministry groups. In addition to the explosion of energy across all our community ministries, I note two new developments of the Women’s and Men’s Spirituality groups. As our community magnetism increases, we are already seeing the definite signs of new growth.
Five challenges become one. We need to deepen our spiritual lives, which in itself will lead to a reevaluation of our priorities.
The overview from 30,000 ft
The key challenge facing us continues to be the working through of the larger shifts in Church affiliation and patterns of attendance. In short, the Church no longer sits at the heart of social life. We no longer live in the 1950’s. I welcome this because it means that those of us who continue with Church, along with those of us who are newly discovering Church for the first time, or rediscovering Church again, are increasingly aware of our spiritual hunger. We are impatient to be molded into a spiritual community fit for the purpose of witnessing to the Kingdom values. These are the values Jesus proclaimed when in the synagogue in Nazareth, he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
But one challenge
We at St Martin’s have but one challenge, and that is to be fit for God’s purpose. Disruption to our comfortable pattern of worship is emblematic of an attempt to make ourselves a more magnetic community; a community whose magnetism draws others. We continue to explore how to reshape ourselves because being fit for purpose means ensuring that we are ready for those who have yet to arrive. Such a community contrasts sharply with one that continues to be a comfortable place for those already here.
Spiritual deepening is the key to this reshaping because the deeper we go spiritually, the more we become reliant, not on our own efforts and imaginative gimmicks, but on the Holy Spirit’s power to transform us to be fit for God’s purpose.
Jesus came to his own hometown, he stood up in the synagogue, opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah who five centuries earlier had proclaimed a message of transformation that brings: good news to the poor, release of those in captivity, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor, which means the cancellation of all debt.
As it was in Jesus’ day, so it remains today- a seemingly impossible vision. Yet the division of time into past, present, and future plays tricks on us. Because, that which is already fulfilled in a cosmic sense is still in our temporal experience, in the process of unfolding. Consequently, Jesus proclaims that today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
The worshipers in the synagogue in Nazareth heard the God News and yet, they pulled back. In the words of Gandhi, they refused to become the change they longed to see. Let us not be guilty of the same lack of courage.In a very real sense to proclaim the Good News is to come closer to its fulfillment. Jesus reminds us that today this vision is fulfilled in our hearing.