2013 11 June

Happy Birthday – The Bird Still Sings – Moderator Gary Paterson

Posted in Steinbach United

Happy Birthday – The Bird Still Sings

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On June 2, I was preaching at the Celebration of Ministry service for Manitou Conference; I was up at 4:30 in the morning, and that’s okay.

I was staying at a bed and breakfast in Providence Bay, on Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, the largest freshwater island in the world, I’ve been told, some 100 miles long. The doors that lead to a small patio are open and the beach is only a few hundred metres away; the curtains are floating in the stir of lake breeze. It is the birdsong that has pulled me out of sleep, birds waking up, greeting the day, marking territory perhaps; possibly a pre- or post-mating twitter of joy; or maybe just a good morning song of anticipation, of delight. Music like this is rare in the city. I was glad to be awake, listening to the birds sing so early in the day.

Later, in the afternoon worship celebration, I shared a phrase that comes from the Bengali poet, Tagore; a definition – “Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” Exactly what I was hearing; perhaps a word that our church needs to hear too – a metaphor of hope, with an invitation to sing, to share good news even before it has arrived.

We are hungry for songs of hope, for the strength to sing the Lord’s song in what feels like a strange land – a hunger that was at the heart of the Annual General Meeting of Manitou Conference. “Midwives of the New Church” was their theme, and they talked about what the church is presently experiencing as “a birthing time” – messy, painful, full of surprise, demanding, hard labour – and yet, how exciting.

The theme speaker at Manitou Conference, EDGE staff person, Rob Dalgleish, borrowing a phrase from the writer Barbara Brown Taylor, kept asking “which narrative(s) will we choose to privilege?” There is always a choice in what information gets highlighted, and the interpretation we provide; how we read a situation shapes our response. Is this the “end of the United Church” or “a new way of being church?” No guarantees. The dawn is yet to come, let alone full sunrise and then the heat of day; early times, still. But if we have the story of crucifixion and resurrection at the heart of the faith, if this is the narrative that we privilege, then we will see that reality reflected in our present moments,  a church dying and rising, a church being transformed. The present times are rich with invitation, filled with possibility. And that’s worth singing about.

I’d like to share some words that come from Chris Corrigan, a church consultant who has done a lot of work with the United Church as well as other denominations. This comes from a reply he offered to a previous blog post of mine, “Permissive of Joy,” but I know not everyone reads the replies to a blog (let alone the blog itself :-) . What Chris has to say about “heretics of hope” rings true for me:

As I have been travelling around BC and North America working with churches and presbyteries and Conferences, I have been noticing that the general story that we are supposed to believe about The United Church of Canada being on its last legs seems defied every day by the thousands of people who show up and worship together, do work in the world together and explore and live in their spirituality. It is perplexing for a consultant like me who is supposed to be looking at ways to help churches “live with the change” to find so many people that are confronting the meta-level malaise with everyday faith. In short, at the core, there is nothing to fix.

I have taken to calling these people the “heretics of hope” because they don’t seem to embody the story of “church dying” very convincingly. It’s not that they aren’t dealing with fewer resources than before or buildings that need to be sold or big questions about the role of faith in life, but they just aren’t believing the story that somehow this is all bad news, or that their faith and practice should be shaken by it. They are no less Christian for being in this situation, and in fact, they could be discovering that these times are just what is required to get clear on their faith. These are the times that Christianity is made for.

If you want to discover whether you are a heretic of hope or not, you simply need to ask, if everything we know about our church were to disappear tonight, would you wake up tomorrow still needing to be a part of a Christian community? And if the answer is yes, then you can proceed from that core drive that compels us to be two or more together. The “how” of that answer is what Christians have always done. But the why is still held deeply and maybe even in a more concentrated form because many have left the church because of material malaise (or just too much other business in their lives). The ones that are left are creating very deep and powerful Christian communities of practice, fully doing what they can with what they have. Something really interesting is happening, and we need a long view to appreciate it.

It seems clearer and clearer to me that our job is supporting these heretics of hope….

And I would say AMEN. I am grateful for “heretics of hope” like Chris Corrigan.

P.S. Happy 88th Birthday to the United Church.


For more of Moderator Gary Paterson’s blogs go to http://www.garypaterson.ca