2013 15 May

Permissive of Joy – Moderator’s Blog

Posted in Steinbach United

Permissive of Joy

by Gary Paterson

Stuck on my fridge door for many years was a quotation gleaned from someone else’s sermon (the Very Rev. Bob Smith, if I remember correctly), that I have probably “misremembered” and whose original source I have forgotten (Merton? Berrigan?):

Things are falling apart, and we stand on the brink of the unknown;

which is to say, things are normal and permissive of joy.

These words have come back to me in recent days, as General Council Executive in its May meeting had to struggle with approving a 2014 budget with major cutbacks. In the past decade, we have been financing much of our national church programming by drawing on our financial reserves; if we were to continue to do this, those reserves would be completely gone by 2015/16. And this is a big problem.

Now, the Comprehensive Review will be bringing recommendations in the next two years that will suggest a new way of being church. However, for next year, General Council must reduce expenditures by approximately $5 million. And that means reductions in two major areas: staff and grants. So, with much consultation, thoughtfulness, care, and advance warning, difficult proposals were brought to the Executive—and the budget was approved “with regret.”

Last week was hard here at Church House. Although half of the staff reduction was a result of retirements, not filling vacant positions, or the end of contracts, the other half (14) came from layoffs—and that is never easy.

And cutting grants to partners—global partners and Canadian partners, including Conference offices and theological schools—that too was a hard decision, for we know that the work of mission in 2014 will be affected. Yes, we will do our work differently, but we will also be forced to do less. (An important note: funding for Aboriginal ministry will be reduced by only by 5 percent, a decision made by those from across the church who planned the 2014 budget for mission support, recognizing the priority and financial vulnerability of this ministry.)

So, things fall apart and we stand on the brink of the unknown. If we’re honest, that’s how it always is. No matter how well we plan and construct our lives (and our churches) we are only one “event” away from everything changing. The world is always on the move, our context constantly shifts, and since the God of the Bible is dynamically engaged in history, our experience of the gospel is also changing—new wine and new wineskins:

 [Now thus says the Lord]… “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18–19)

So, if this is normal and God is involved in these changes, then maybe we truly can believe that these times are “permissive of joy.” Not a wild, exuberant phrase, perhaps, but honest and real, and very different from “happy.” We are on the brink of the unknown, and that’s okay. No matter what we do or refuse to do, God will continue to do a new thing. But we need not fear—there is room for hope. Recognizing that there is no magic answer, no one solution that fits all, there must be permission to experiment and to respond to new possibilities, so that “We’ve never done it that way!” is a door-opener, not the end of a conversation. And when the Comprehensive Review Task Group does bring forward its recommendations, we know it will be only another step on the way. A significant step, no question, but part of an ongoing process. But as the United Church is changed in ways we have only just begun to imagine, may we find joy in the journey.