These Ordinary Moments are Not Ordinary

One of the functions of my previous role was to address the annual meeting of a group called the Uniting Church Adult Fellowship. Because of its history, the group now largely consists of long-time Uniting Church members, by and large women, of age sixty and above. These are women of great compassion and energy, but given their age, their numbers are diminishing and their organisation is becoming fragile. In such circumstances it is human nature to experience grief and to express lament. And so in light of this, I offered the following address:


There are not really any ordinary moments. God's life-giving spirit moves in every time and place and it loves diversity. So there is always the potential of multiple, diverse, seemingly unrelated possibilities merging to create something new.


And so this is not an ordinary moment. It is extraordinary. I was reminded of that last night as I thought about two extraordinary happenings, one very local to me and the other more universal.


The first is that last night I signed a contract to arrange for about half of our household energy supply to be generated at our house by means of the sun. The fact that


•I can arrange to produce my own energy very easily and


•at a cost that's affordable (for a fairly ordinary household in a fairly ordinary neighbourhood)


..... is extraordinary.


The second is that in about a week - if polls are to be believed and barring any unforeseen catastrophes - the president-elect of the world's major economic power will be a man of other than fully European descent. That outcome is extraordinary.


God's spirit moves in extraordinary ways like this.


I don't mean God "makes" me do a good deed for my planet.


I don't mean God sides with a Democrat or a Republican.


What I do mean is:


•that alternative energy sources enable me to better share non-renewable resources with the rest of the planet. That this sharing becomes both possible for me and important to me seems to point to a life-affirming movement present in the cosmos. I choose to call that movement the spirit of God.


•that a highly capable part-African man is now able to be chosen for president. This creates a clearer representation to the world, of the gift inherent in diversity. That such a thing becomes possible seems to point to a life-affirming movement present in the cosmos. I choose to call that movement the spirit of God.


How do we discern what are life-affirming movements?


That question reminds me of a story I heard recently. In it a holy man is having a dream. He dreams he is present with the mystery of God. Because he is confused about the nature of heaven and hell, he calls into the mystery and asks to be shown the true nature of heaven and hell. At that point, two doors form before him and one of the doors opens. Inside that first door he sees a group of people gathered around a table. In the centre of the table is a pot of stew and it is the most delicious stew the holy man has ever smelled. His mouth waters both in the dream and in reality, but each of the people around the table is gaunt, frustrated and deeply troubled. He then notices that the people each have a very long spoon and are unable to manoeuvre the spoon so as to get the stew from a plate in front of them into their mouth. The holy man is deeply troubled by what he sees. The mystery of God whispers "This is hell."


The holy man is ushered from this space and the second door opens. The physical setting is almost entirely the same - people around a table; a pot of amazing stew; long spoons. Here though the picture in the people's disposition is one of complete joy; people nourished physically and spiritually; people appreciating others and being appreciated. The mystery of God whispers "This is heaven."


The holy man is confused. He asks the mystery of God to help him understand. "The difference" whispers the mystery of God, "is simple and it is but one very small difference."


"Tell me the difference" says the holy man.


"The difference is that in heaven the people have learnt to feed each other!"


In a small way we are learning to feed each other when we make alternative energy sources more readily available and create the possibility for a greater sharing of the world's non-renewable resources. This is a life giving movement.


In a small way we are leading to feed each other when we see the possibility and potential of a person without reference to their ethnic background. This is a life giving movement.


And there are so many other life giving movements to discern and to participate in.


Notice that these life giving movements are not necessarily occurring because of the presence or absence of the church. My point is that the church has no proprietary rights over the spirit of God. Instead what we do have is a wealth of wisdom and practice to help people participate in the movement of that spirit. The question is how we can make that wisdom and practice more accessible to the world.


In answering this question there is a need to differentiate between vehicles and values[1]. Before you dismiss these terms as corporate "mumbo-jumbo" let me explain that the values I am talking about here are the eternal life forces that are sustained by the Spirit of God. They are the feelings of love, peace, encouragement of diversity, nourishment and community that exist when the spirit of God is allowed to present itself to us.


The vehicles, on the other hand, are the earthly vessels by which we try to transmit those values. For the church the vehicles include groups like yours, the work team of which I am part and of course the Uniting Church as a whole. They also include a whole range of institutions and structures around such groups and entities.


Grief is a natural part of being human. But sustained grief will exist only where the values and the vehicle cannot be differentiated. In other words what someone values about a past experience (the value) only comes about, in their mind, when delivered through that past experience (the vehicle). The secret (and it's a secret that is whispered a lot, heard less frequently and understood even less frequently) is that vehicles are always temporary in nature. They are earthly vessels which cannot retain their form forever. The trick, as our faith teaches, is to be able to let go of the vehicle before the vehicle lets go of us; to die before we die; to elevate the value beyond the vehicle.


So I'm going to be blunt about this now, but if we are in a continual pattern of grief about the "passing of what was" in our church we are not being faithful. Our faith rests in the understanding that God's life-giving spirit continues to move in the world. Our hope comes from the understanding -that as long as humanity is one of the vessels of life present in the world - we will be able to uphold the values of the spirit in the world, even if we have to change vehicles to do it. Our role is to discern the spirit's movement and respond to it, using an appropriate vehicle. And that vehicle, whilst it will be informed by the ways of the past, will probably not replicate those past ways completely!


So what have you noticed that's full of extraordinary God-laden values lately? And how can your Christian practice change, so that you can more fully participate - and encourage the participation of others - in what you have noticed?

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[1] For this terminology I am grateful to Robert J. Voyle and Kim M. Voyle: http://www.clergyleadership.org/

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