Once again, I’ve been fretting! I fret a lot; it’s the good old Presbyterian principle that if you worry enough, everything will be fine; it’s when you neglect the worrying that things go pear-shaped!
I’ll tell you why I was fretting. I’m always aware that what I am sharing each Wednesday, is to a large extent “the view from here”, and that each of you is in a different place. Inevitably, that’s how things are, and I think that in some ways, that may have been intensified over the last few weeks, despite the increased closeness many of us feel this pandemic experience has brought us.
Anyway, from where I am, it seems as though we are further into this strange stage of the journey, in which we are experiencing more freedom, and yet still aware of very significant restriction. I wonder if perhaps this registers in a particular way with us, Christ’s Church, because we are called to live in a freedom that isn’t yet realized in the life of the world. Yet we have been feeling the same confinement as everyone else.
We seem to agree that our experience has been a very particular mix – of liberation into new forms of Church life combined with intense longing for the resumption of face-to-face community. And we all experience this mix differently! In that sense, there really is only “the view from here”. It really is different for all of us, and for each member of each congregation in the Presbytery. We need to remember this, as our congregations and their Sessions process this changing situation.
This all makes demands on us, in terms of experiences, and ways of looking at them, that may be very different from our own. We have to work harder, to enter, empathically and imaginatively, into the experience of the other. All around, I seem to pick up signs that we’re doing that.
But all this also reminds us that our life in the world as Christians, and as the Church, is very much betwixt and between, “this, but also that”. We are simultaneously “sinners and justified” as Martin Luther says; the Kingdom is “already, and not yet”; and now, we are both captives of this situation, and liberated within it – prisoners, you might say, yet simultaneously free.
That threw me back into thinking of one of my favourite passages from Sunday School on; Paul and Silas, in prison, when an earthquake rocks the jail, the doors of the cells are open – and they don’t move! Captives in a cell, they don’t need to stage a jail-break to gain their freedom. They were as free before the doors creaked open as they are now.
It’s been at the back of my mind since lockdown began. It isn’t a slick or easy story to interpret, though. So I thought I’d tackle it with you this week. This really is, then, “the view from here”. I hope, though, that you may find it useful, and that it works as a suggested focus for our shared prayer this week.
Yours in the Adventure of Christ,
Out of my distress I called on the LORD;
the LORD answered me and set me free.
(Literally: “Out of a narrow place, I called on the Lord
The Lord responded to me, and put me in a wide place.”) Psalm 118 verse 5
But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and every one’s fetters were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” Acts 16:25-28
Doors swing open,
And we realize that we were never constrained;
fetters fall away,
and we grasp that we are not captive,
breadth and spaciousness invite us out,
In you, we are free.
This is our faith.
Yet, Lord, we confess,
that with us, things are never that simple.
Over these days and months,
our experience has been bafflingly many-sided,
sometimes full of surprising reassurance,
sometimes profoundly challenging.
We have known your liberating presence,
yet we have not always felt free.
We are uneasy, and we reproach ourselves.
Should we not expect this, Lord?
In our lives in the world, hour by hour, day by day,
Do we not always know your freedom
Along with constraint?
Do we not always know your liberation
as both present, and promised,
promised, yet present?
We reflect on Paul and Silas,
And the pattern of faith in their story;
how, no longer locked down, but set free,
in the narrow confines of their cell,
they lived the unlimited breadth of faith.
When the ground shook, and the doors opened,
they accepted the captivity of the prison,
and stayed, and sat with the prisoners,
We ask: is this our task, Lord,
our calling as Church and Presbytery,
and in each congregation,
Are we to rejoice, and sing our freedom,
So that our neighbours can hear, and have hope?
We live among people who need to hear
our songs, and our singing.
We live among people
who will still live – as we will – in the aftermath of this,
has become suppression,
has become elimination,
and yet, the world will have changed.
They will live with increased unemployment,
insecurity in their businesses,
stretched income, stretched resources,
and the shock that this could happen
in a world they thought they knew.
How shall we sing with them,
How shall we sing freedom, God’s liberation, to them,
If we do not admit that we share their constraint?
If we do not sit with them in their imprisonment?
We pray for them.
We keep a time of silent prayer
We pray for our Presbytery:
for each other simply as sisters and brothers in Christ;
for our office-bearers, and conveners, and the ongoing work of committees;
for those areas of the life of our Court – your Court –
which are frustrated and frustrating in this strangeness.
We pray for our congregations.
We shall not sing together for a while.
For now we must sing in the safety of our homes.
How symbolic this is, Lord.
We pray, each of us, for our own congregations,
the faces we know, the presences we miss
As a Presbytery, we pray
For our congregations, all of them, together.
We pray for them in the frustrations they feel,
and the anxieties they have,
the longing to return, and the trepidation at the thought.
We pray for Ministers, Interim Moderators, Sessions,
ministering, mediating, listening and leading.
We pray that your people may know
the breadth of life that is ours, in you,
amid the still narrow living of pandemic caution.
We pray for our church, for all the churches, and the whole Church on earth.
We pray with the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven.
Together, we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us: Our Father…
We emerge. We are brought out.
And this is our experience of you,
God of the Exodus, God of the Exiles,
God of the Resurrection,
God of our liberation, in Christ.
This is what you do. This is how we know you.
You set us free.
Is this not what Paul and Silas sang
to the prisoners in their captivity,
And made it no captivity at all?