What’s all the activity for? Why do we as members of the church spend so much time doing stuff? There are so many spheres of activity, so many worthwhile events and initiatives, so many vital meetings, countless services of worship, acts of kindness and social responsibility, missions, conferences and charitable fundraisers…
All these things are valuable in themselves, but the activity and the demand for outcomes and progress often drives us to miss the main thing: each person we have to do with in all this work is a person made in the image of God, created a little lower than the angels. When there is so much of everything and there are so many people involved, there simply isn’t time to relate to each person on a deep level… there isn’t time for encounter. I wonder if we’re in such a panic about what has to be done in a cash-poor environment under pressure of time, and trying to work for maximum gains, that we aim for outcomes across a wide area of engagement and risk making a shallow impact that won’t be transformative in the way we would hope. What if we just prioritised spending time one-to-one….?!
I watched a video today of two people sitting gazing at each other’s faces. It was an act of performance art that took place in an art gallery. What happens when two people simply sit in silence and encounter the other intensely through observation of their eyes, features, skin, body? It seemed as if the experience was profoundly moving.
In an art gallery we stand and examine original pieces by talented artists. We pay money for it – some works of art call in millions. We are made in the image of God… we are each created, unique, easily damaged, mysterious and full of meaning, like most paintings or artefacts you’d find in a gallery.
What would church be like if we took our creation in the image of God more seriously? How would it affect what we took time over? How would it impact people who came through our doors? Could we take time simply to sit and marvel at the face of the person sitting next to us, putting ourself into the imagination of God as he designed her (or him?). What if our worship was more like a piece of performance art, open to a radical encounter with another human being?
Obviously it could send people screaming from the building. Or it could encourage us to make church a place where we contemplate what it means to have been ‘made a little lower than the angels’ and re-orientate our focus on the other extraordinary (human) works God has made.
I’ve lived in many places – thirteen different locations over nearly fifty years. Before now when I’ve thought about my past, I’ve always conceived of it in linear terms – as though it were a timeline posted on a wall. Time I’ve lived through, like a car driving through mist.
Last week I had a walking tour of central Bristol with a man who’d grown up in the city and watched it metamorphose through many decades into its present-day state. We peered down through a glass-topped structure in a pedestrianised square to the medieval city walls beneath, and noted where the river Frome runs through the city under a length main road and out into the Avon bearing bloated plastic wrappings floundering in the brown water.
At lunch we talked about our own histories, and for the first time I saw my past in terms of geological strata – a thin grey deposit here, sandwiched between a broad band of rich life ore below and a crumbly red clay ready for moulding above. I thought of the person I’d been in each stratum, the people I’d known and the things I’d learnt, the everyday environment I’d been part of, the sights I’d seen. And I felt high up, topsoil or even turf on a hillside… And promised myself the opportunity to drill down into the layers more often.
Taking funerals, as I do frequently at the moment, I think a lot about the sum total of a person’s life, and how to help people reflect on it in a meaningful way. There’s an aspect of being a pioneer that demands you find a way of taking funerals that breaks out of Victorian moulds and connects with the 21st century search for meaning. I’m still trying to find my own voice in this sensitive and traditional territory. But somehow seeing life in vertical rather than linear terms seems a bit of a breakthrough. It makes me feel rich in life lived, since time isn’t some ephemeral thing passed through and left behind, it’s something laid down in you. Something solid that holds you in place now.
Later in the day it struck me what a generous helping of life I’ve had, and how full every day can be of tiny moments of great richness. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ promise to bring us ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10) and wondering if this is in some ways what he means: not necessarily that a person’s life will be favoured or particularly enriched (although it may be), but that his followers will have eyes to appreciate the amazing geology and archeology of their lives, to trace God’s hand at work in it even as it is being laid down grain by grain, and to feel wealthy beyond measure.