Some words first from Isaiah, as God addresses His people, His ‘sorely afflicted one’. In Isaiah chapters 42 and 43 we have a context of a people who have ears but do not hear, who have eyes but do not see. They are much in need, but they fail to draw on their Redeemer God. Their vision is boarded up with troubles of their present situation. And into this context come the words of 43: 19 “Behold, I am doing a new thing (says the Lord); now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
Our wilderness, our desert, is like the country’s economy at the moment. It has holes in it. It is bleeding badly, and we appear to be losing the hard fought ground of all those years of austerity in a season of drought. So with the church, we had been steadily building up our Stay and Play and Messy Church outreach to a wider network of households. As we look down the list of our Activities on p.2 of the official Report alongside our Accounts, we discover that most of them have been on hold for the last 7 months.
I could just spend all my talk mourning with you about our losses, personal, communal, material. But that is not the word of the Lord. His word says ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing – now it is coming to light – do you see it with me?’
So, let’s look at what this new thing could be. One thing, I suggest is that we open our eyes and recognise our sister. Yes, we have a sister church. And a month ago we were not able to worship here in this building, and our sister church opened its doors for us to join them. Well done to the 3 people who took up their offer. Where we have not been able to meet physically, there have been opportunities for those who have online facilities to nevertheless meet by that strange and unnerving element called Zoom. Benefice wide prayer meetings have happened weekly, and at them and the Sunday Live 6pm meetings there has been a new depth of spiritual discussion, with openness and vulnerability. We have really listened to each other. Did you have the means to take part? About 7 of us have made an effort to do so, since we moved to this form of benefice gathering. There is a richness in our fellowship – but the new thing is, it is even richer than what we have experienced so far in this precious building. Our brothers and sisters in Frenchay Church are God’s river in the desert for us today. We are not a solo parish, we are a benefice.
I cannot just ride over 2019 and what we saw God doing among us in that time. How we rejoice in the sacrificial work of so many on our Standing Committee and in the CRAG group, in particular, who have toiled on behalf of the Roof Fund. Even since May 21 of this year, when the Report and Accounts were signed off, there has been an amazing swell in energy to get past the finishing line with this Roof Appeal and here we are, seeing the work under way for the final Phase. How marvellous, how exciting, is that? Well done all who have given generously, helped to raise funds, and seen to the extensive paperwork.
2019 also saw fresh leadership come to light for Messy Church (a sharing of leadership across the benefice, I might add), and it has yielded many new ideas and much growth. As for our ordinand, Ruth has had a good year, growing in confidence and ability, and experiencing a depth and breadth of spirituality that will continue to enable her to reflect more meaningfully on so many situations back in her home patch. My and my wife’s sabbatical was likewise, a great exercise in cross cultural reflection while making new friends in far away lands.
So what does the Lord mean by interrupting all of this progress in our lives, and making life so hard for all of us? Be assured, His is not the hand of condemnation and death, yet He has allowed this trouble to come upon us. Through our benefice wide meetings, men and women like Ian and Mary Serjeant have stood up and taken ahold of the situation, to help create and nurture contact groups in this parish. What a great investment of energy that has been, and we are so grateful to them.
Now, as the season turns to winter soon, what do we do, just carry on as we have been, living off the past? Or can we perceive the opportunities God is placing before us? ‘I will make a way in the wilderness’, He says…’I will make a way through the desert.’ There are not many signposts or settlements to head for in the desert are there? But the Lord says He will provide us with enough. Will we notice them? When tomorrow evening arrives, will those who know they are called to pray together for our churches in the benefice forget that it is not the last Tuesday of the month, forget that it is not in our cosy Hall lounge, and will we be there because we can be, on Zoom, not because we prefer it as it used to be? Friends, when we are back without physical restrictions one day, it will not be like picking up again from where we left off. We will have been shorn of a whole lot of mixed-motives preferences, and we will be even more fully, each others’ servants, God willing.
So here’s another challenge. In the next 2 months before Christmas we, the pastoral leadership in this benefice, are seeking to offer the opportunity to everyone to join a small group, physically or online. This may be a prayer triplet or a prayer partnership, if not a group of 6 to 12 people. But the important thing is, it will be more than just for our own mutual company, however valued that may still be and always will be. This will be to help nurture our spiritual lives. It is an opportunity that will go way beyond this period of COVID-19, because potentially we could see people talking about how the daily bread of a bible passage raises questions and impacts their lives. – Then how other members of the group provide insights into the way through for us to know God’s will for our lives more keenly and personally. This shaping together under God’s word is called ‘Discipleship’, and it is what our diocese have been trying to encourage us to engage in all this century, at least. How will we respond? ‘Behold, now it comes to light – do you perceive it? Will you rise to the opportunity to serve others when you can’t be helping to host events in the Hall, you can’t easily invite people to church, and there is no coffee time? We need a new mechanism. 65 days until Christmas – will we rise to the challenge of having our small group leaders volunteer and be trained by then, so that groups can have had their first meeting before Christmas day, and have their next meeting already planned in the diary for January?
My brothers and sisters, when we met for the Half Night of Prayer in January of this year, little did we know what was round the corner. We are now in a new era. The roof will soon be completed, and we have a fresh vision beckoning us to move forward into exciting new possibilities. The desert meanwhile looks interminable – but even now water springs up here and there – there are rivers in the desert – do we not perceive it? What is really most important in God’s eyes? Is this or that priority really just our own? Let us swallow our pride and our convenience and old preferences, and let us accept but a little droplet, in order to inherit a great reservoir.