Friends, this weekend our own Bay of Quinte Conference is meeting in Brockville for its 93rd Annual Meeting. Delegates are worshipping, learning, voting, laughing (and no doubt arguing) amongst one another! But there will be a powerful question present at the meeting as well, and that question is: “What will the next few years hold for our communities, our presbyteries, our conferences, our national church?” To say that our conference faces an uncertain future is a massive understatement. We honestly have no idea if it will continue to exist after 2018, and regardless of the outcomes of the various remits currently before our United Church, we will still face significant changes and challenges regarding budgets and staffing. This puts us in a difficult position – standing at a crossroads wondering which path we will follow. As with any moment of potential change, we know that there will be some hoping for new ways of being church, and there will be some hoping that we hold on to tradition, and there will be those somewhere in the middle. There will be those who are passionately committed to particular ways of thinking and others who seemingly couldn’t care less. There will be those who celebrate the remit results and others who grieve them, regardless of the outcome! So as we wait and see what the future will bring, I wonder what we can do with our waiting time.
When I stood before Bay of Quinte Conference in Wellington two years ago as a nominee for President, I was considering theme possibilities and “Think on These Things,” referencing Paul’s letter to the Philippians chapter 4, verse 8, was already in my mind. Paul likely wrote to Philippi while he was in prison. I’ve never been incarcerated (yet!) but it occurs to me that jail must have confronted Paul with plenty of waiting time, wondering what to do with the time available to him. And what Paul did with his time was to reflect and to write. Remarkably, what he produced has been called his “joyous letter,” full of warmth, affection and hope. It is a powerful reminder to us that even in the midst of uncertainty over the future, and we know from Philippians Chapter 1 that Paul was considering his own future seriously, we can find signs of promise which will carry us through no matter which roads we travel on.
I sometimes wonder if the church is feeling “locked up” today. We seem to be struggling to find our place in a changing world, and the remits which have been at the forefront of much discussion over the past few years have been presented by their proponents as one way of seeking release and new freedom. I have heard in the remits echoes of the language of the Kaan / Klusmeier Hymn “Winds of Change:”
Come, O Holy Spirit, set the Church on fire;
strike it as the lightning strikes a posing spire.
Burn away the structures and consume the sham
of our holy systems. Come in Jesus’ name!
But I wonder if changing structures, or even burned away structures, will be enough to set us free. Perhaps we have been locked up not so much by structures as by fear. Fear of shrinking resources, fear of fewer people in the pews and on our numerous voluntary committees, and perhaps most tellingly, fear of a loss of relevance in the communities we live in. Somehow Paul, writing from prison, finds hope and promise even in the direst of circumstances, and he is freed from his fears. Remember he writes while in prison, not upon his release. It is no secret where this hope is found – the joy and crown in Paul’s heart, his love and longing, is in the Risen Christ and in the people of his church.
The entire letter to the Philippians is knit together with the language of relationship – describing how Paul has drawn strength from them and that they have done well in imitating him. Words of care, thanksgiving, mutual support abound – they have helped one another. Chapter 1, verse 7 reads “It is right to feel (thankful and confident) about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.” In Chapter 4, verse 8 Paul brings into focus for them what he believes is the heart of the matter – fill your minds with the things that are good and deserve praise: the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable. My ear has been tuned to these words from my teenaged years at least. I was always caught by the unusual language: I had seldom heard the word “lovely,” sometimes also translated “beautiful,” in scripture, but here it is. Frankly, this passage is rooted more in Greek philosophy than Gospel, but Paul was well-read and versed in many schools of thought, and he is comfortable adopting it into his letter. And why not? The world around us is certainly “post-Christendom,” but it is not “post-how do we live appropriately as human beings in the world!” Everywhere humanity is still addressing this question – it will never be irrelevant. As I look around, I am amazed at what we as Christians can learn from other faiths, from non-believers, from science and technology – we have such a wealth of human resource to draw from and contribute to.
It needs to be said at this point that obviously we need to do more than just “Think.” Before I was even out the door of the church in Pembroke after being installed as president someone came up to me and said, “Thinking is important, but you have to do as well!” Amen. The CAM 2017 worship group told me that we have to have verse 9 in there as well – “Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my deeds. And the God who gives us peace will be with you.” And in the practice we will have the God of peace dwelling among us. Thinking alone will not ease our fears, only thought and practice combined can do that.
Paul is certainly not afraid to practice his faith. It’s what puts him in prison in the first place. But he is not discouraged. In his memory he holds the love of God lived out by others. He went out into the world and met people, shared with them, inspired them and was in turn inspired. We still need to get out into the world. Through the office I have occupied this past year, I know some of the challenges we as a church are facing, and they are significant, but I can tell you that, in travelling around the conference and meeting so many beauty-full people, I feel more confident in our future than I did before I took on the job. No matter what shape our church might take, there will be folk who treasure God’s justice and God’s peace thinking and working within it.
Now lest we feel that all this is a little bit “Pollyannaish,” if you remember the reference to the fictional little girl who insisted in finding something to be glad about in every situation, I can assure you that my glasses are not (always) rose-coloured. We are facing tough times. We do amazing work but there are fewer of us and many are getting older and many are getting tired. We clergy types worry about job security, pensions and pressure to work miracles of church growth. Lay people worry about their leadership burning out and maintaining meaningful presence in the places where they live. But this is part of the life of faith. We have seen benefit and prosperity in our church, should we be surprised by pain and loss? We may need to re-learn the lessons hidden in smaller things, of salt and light, yeast and seed. We may need more time in the wilderness, we may only have started into the desert – who knows what lies ahead? We may be holding one of the last Bay of Quinte Conference meetings this weekend. What comes next may be an outrageous success, a muddled nightmare, or something in the middle. But we can think on the things which we have named as good and praiseworthy in this conference, what we need to hold to in our vision and mission as a body of the church now or in some new form for the future, and what we may need to let go of, or let others take on. What is it that we can still practice that will be salt and light for the world? Whatever we face, we cannot be afraid. Fear impairs thought and exhausts action.
I am blown away by the passion and commitment I have encountered within our church community – this year I marched in a Pride Parade in Perth, celebrating the United Church’s ongoing commitment to become affirming of the GBLTQ community. In Peterborough, I witnessed the reading of our 1986 and 1998 apologies to First Nations at the presentation of an art project aimed at opening doors of conversation between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal peoples. Given recent comments by some in positions of real power that they “don’t need any more education” on the Residential Schools question, we know how critical it is to keep the conversation going. I have heard many, many stories of churches across our conference welcoming refugees from Syria and other troubled areas of the globe. I have shared with folk in Renfrew reflections on the ongoing importance of small churches, and the vital role they still have to play in their communities. In a recent meeting in Sudbury, folk from London Conference shared how they had used Bay of Quinte’s Affirming process as a model for their own exploration. We also heard the willingness of Toronto Conference to share their monetary resources with the wider church. The examples of faithful thought and action are too numerous to mention. You have seen them too. Name them to one another, consider how your faith has been strengthened by those you have encountered in your life. Recall how someone came to you with a thankful heart for what you had done for them in Christian love. Think on these things, says Paul from prison, and put them into practice. And the God who gives us peace will dwell among us.