Few of us now doubt that we are living in historic times.
Remember Uncle Albert’s signature line in the comedy Only Fools and Horses? He sits in the corner and says "...during the war..." a lot, and it gets met with a chorus of sarcasm from Rodney and Dell Boy. Well, I wonder if we will end up in our old age quipping “during the virus...” only to be met with a chorus of “Grandad! You tell us that story every week!”
"The virus" is the defining narrative of our age, the story we will retell for years to come and a period on which school examination questions will be set.
As the four walls of our church were replaced by the four edges of a screen, we adapted to new ways of living and new ways of socializing, and at breathtaking speed in 2020. This year will also be a year like no other. Once we are through this pandemic – and we will get through it - 2021 will be about picking up the pieces and recovering the activities and communities we had before, but not necessarily in the same ways. As we consider this new, online, distanced way of living, how can we prepare ourselves for another “unprecedented year”? Here are three ideas.
1. Be quick to listen and slow to take offence - especially online
So much of what we used to say in person is now done by hitting "send".
But when we are online we only ever see a limited view of the other person. When we get into an email thread or Twitter conversation, we leave part of our humanity behind, and it's easy to make hasty judgements about the motivations and agendas of others.
Whatever it is you are discussing online - remember this: God is as interested in how you stand as where you stand.
It might be a secular discussion on how to grow your company’s presence in a particular region, or a church matter on how to manage divisive building works, or what the Bible really says about some topic. Where you stand (what you think and how well you explain your opinion) obviously matters - it says something about your knowledge and experience. But how you stand (how well you listen to others, how willing you are to let go of an entrenched view) says much more – it says something about you.
1 Corinthians 13 says: “Love does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking” (v5)
Online anger is a bit like road rage – we are physically distanced and emotionally charged. And whatever else changes in 2021, we are in for more online discussion than we have ever had. But here’s a suggestion from author Bex Lewis: before jumping into a disagreement on Facebook or a difficult conversation over Zoom, ask yourself: “What does the fruit of the spirit look like online?”
2. Church for many is now 100% passive – that must change
With online church, you no longer need to pretend you’re paying attention!
As we recover from the effects of Covid, churches will return to physical congregations, with conversation, singing, coffee, and no masks (Hallelujah!) But one question worth asking is who’s coming back? That might seem a dumb question, surely everyone is keen to get back to church? I think that is true – people are keen to get back, but how keen? And for how long?
Online church has introduced us to consumer-oriented ways of church we didn’t have before. So, staying home to watch church at a time I choose, in my comfy chair is now normal. Not only that but being able to step out to make a coffee and (heaven forbid) fast-forwarding over the bits I don’t like, or (heaven twice forbid) flicking over to another church because “ours isn’t very good this week”, or just not watching church at all, are new temptations.
The positive side is for some, online church is an enabler, a huge blessing. If you are housebound or not able to return to church, it’s perfect. But for most of us the passive weekly experience of sitting watching a preacher and a band, just became even more passive.
What can you give to your church once you are back in the building? Might I suggest...Showing up, when you feel like staying at home? Encouraging others with a kind word, or a smile? As Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together as some are doing but let us encourage one another all the more as we see the day approaching”.
3. Be open to views outside your own – even on matters of faith
After a year of dramatic changes, I wonder if we are any better at allowing God to change us?
We easily fall into the trap of thinking our faith must never change. We feel we have our faith worked out and it’s not up for discussion. We only mix with people who think like us and we have little appetite for discussion with people from other traditions. The idea that any of our beliefs or traditions might need to change is unpalatable, even frightening, as it can start a house of cards effect where other, unrelated, beliefs in God become questionable. I understand, but ultimately this makes us unteachable. It means we miss out on the vastness of God. It makes God small, neatly contained within my worldview, made in my image.
Certainly, there are core beliefs which we should hold to - the early church creeds remind us of these including crucifixion, resurrection and forgiveness. But that leaves many other issues, for example heaven and hell, other faith traditions or, say, transgender, which, important though they are, we should hold lightly. And we must make safe spaces where it’s OK to raise contradictions, to discuss doubts, to disagree well.
Maybe it’s easier for me. I came to Christ as a “crossbreed”, through various back-doors. Brought up the son of a Hindu priest who was himself the son of a Hindu priest, attending a school where my friends were Muslim, and having a mixed up denominational start. But if you are a “thoroughbred”, brought up in one tradition which you will fight for, this is hard!
But for those who can embrace it, a dynamic faith that is open to learn new ways and (harder) unlearn old ways, leads to a richer, more engaging Christian life. It means God can teach us ideas which today are completely outside our conceptual framework. Let’s accept that our tradition might not have everything right. Jesus said: “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18), meaning: we must strive to become learners. Or as the Catholic writer Richard Rohr says “try to develop a beginner’s mindset, where you live in happy wonder!”
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