Meeting in the Big Tent
With reference to Acts 2:1-21 & Psalm 104
“Bless the Radiant One, O my soul… You stretch over the heavens like a tent, your radiance covering the waters…”
After church two Sundays ago, Jim and I headed for the coast as BC Conference was taking place in Vancouver at the UBC campus. First though, we got in a wee visit with Jim’s daughter Rhonda and Cas, the incredible growing boy –now more than 1 & ½ years old. Then we headed to Cowichan Bay where Jim’s daughter Adele and family have a 15 acre farm, and a never-ending list of repairs etc. It was good to be with family. On Thursday morning I returned to Vancouver and eventually found out where I was staying and where Conference was happening on the campus.
I was prepared to do whatever I needed to do to take care of myself spiritually and emotionally at Conference. Sometimes, when this court of the church is tasked with business such as restructuring and Remits (aka – rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic), I get so disheartened – it is hard to be present and work through the details of what seems to be simply managing our collective demise.
But something strange happened at this Conference. It turns out that what I needed to do to take care of myself spiritually and emotionally at Conference, was to be present. Really be present. The theme of the conference was “How Big is Our Tent?” based on a passage in Isaiah about expanding the capacity of tent we dwell in, because God is blessing us with abundance. `Ok’… I thought, with some hesitation. `How many congregations are closing and amalgamating and we’re talking abundance?’ But it was an abundant Conference. We began by hearing the Pentecost story as we read it this morning from the book of Acts. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind… “
Janet Gear, who bears the long title of `Assistant Professor of Public and Pastoral Leadership, United Church Director of Denominational Formation at the Vancouver School of Theology’ was the main presenter, and worked with an amazing team of ministry personnel. Janet used the Pentecost reading to remind us of the amazing variety of gifts poured out on the disciples at the birth of the church. She said sometimes the United Church of Canada is accused of being burdened by a lack of theology. On the contrary she told us, it has an abundance and sometimes that’s where the conflict arises.
During the weekend we looked at five different ways that people of faith in the United Church of Canada experience and express that faith. We experienced worship based on the different expressions of faith and we had stories – amazing stories of struggle and faith. I want to share them all with you- but I promise not to try to do it all today. People shared their testimonies, they witnessed, they offered vulnerable deep-spirited stories. See – even there I used three different ways of saying the same thing, because the language we use can attract or scare people away – depending on their experience.
It goes back to that first Pentecost, when the people from other parts of the world said they could understand the disciples speaking their own language. Note it doesn’t say each disciple could speak 10 new languages, but they each had a language that was understood by someone. Yes, by the power of the Holy Spirit, perhaps they spoke in Greek, in Latin, in Arabic, in whatever other languages were present that day. But more importantly they told the story in a language that spoke to someone. Have you ever heard or used the expression, “Now you’re speaking my language?” Chances are pretty good that someone didn’t switch from English to German, or Arabic to Mandarin, but you heard something framed in a way that spoke to your own life experience.
Now I did say that Janet introduced five different ways that people of faith in the United Church of Canada experience and express that faith. She had great graphics, using different colours for each category (I had five different coloured scarves which a draped over the pulpit as I named each category) but… if you really want to know what we were about, you can go to the BC Conference Facebook page and watch and listen for yourself!
So just a very brief introduction to the five ways – and by the way, there is a lot of overlap, most of us have a least a bit of experience in each category. I’ll try to connect each category with a line from the United Church Creed.
The first is Evangelical – those whose main focus, or passion is about proclaiming God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. These folk would very comfortable saying `Jesus saved me’. From `A New Creed’ they would say the church’s job is “to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.”
The second is Ecclesial – which is a fancy word for church-centred. For these folks, the main focus is on what happens in the building – worship, building disciples through Bible Study, Sunday school, Confirmation classes. They say to the world – “Come and see, and experience God.” From the Creed, the line “We are called to be the church” will do nicely.
The third category is Missional – `We are the hands and feet of Christ – we go to where the need is.’ These folks are the ones who see the acts of compassion that Jesus did and say – what’s the need in our community? How can we respond? You’ll find the folks here at the Thrift Shop or Soup Kitchen. They’d pick that line in the Creed that says, we are to “love and serve others.” Are you recognizing yourself in any categories so far?
The fourth category is Ecumenical – but I think `peace and justice’ sums it up pretty good. These folks work for social change. They team up with other denominations, religions and other organisations to work for fairer wages, adherence to International Law, they protest wars and raise issues of child poverty, because they know Jesus was not just sweetness and light, but challenged the injustice of his day. “To seek justice and resist evil” is a key part of the Creed for these folks.
The fifth group could be summed us as Spiritual, which doesn’t mean the rest are not. Spiritual practice is foundational for them – centering prayer, labyrinth walks, silent retreats, spiritual direction work – opening to Divine Wisdom to guide the way they live their lives. “To live with respect in Creation” was a great addition to the Creed for these folks.
We heard an amazing array of life experience over the weekend, and here’s the main thing… hearing people risk telling their deeply personal stories of how God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit touched their lives did something amazing – it made me fall in love with my church again. It helped me to remember that behind all the business and restructuring and remits and personality conflicts, there is something beautiful and eternal going on. Rev. Peter Short, former UC moderator told us at an education event several years ago, “Never look down on the struggle for life. Behind every face, is a soul at work.” We got to see those souls at work, and for that I am truly grateful.