A Church Under Construction

Posted: December 21, 2020 in Uncategorized

Luke 2:22-40


Rex Hunt of whom I quote often tells a poem called ‘Under reconstruction’ written by Thomas Troeger. That reminded me of much of the talk around St David’s old church building when we were trying to plan its long-term future. While the fabric of the church in the poem may not be the same the story does ring bells of similarity and even the reconstruction phase that has yet to begin suggested similar experiences were in store. Maybe even the God Shaped Hole might be the even older wooden church.

Some said
there had been too much rain
and the roof
long cracked after years of stress
gave way from water seeping in.

Others said
what fell from the heavens
had nothing to do with it,
that the church walls
had pushed out toward the street
so that the massive stained glass window of the Almighty Father
had fallen in and left a hole,
a silhouette of the icon
that used to command the whole church
from high above the nave.

Services now
were held under the God-shaped hole:
prayers said
hymns sung
infants baptised
sermons preached
offerings made
communion celebrated
couples wed
the dead remembered.

Meanwhile reconstruction began,
but it turned out harder than planned.
Some folks had taken home
bits of the original window
as a piece of devotional or historical curiosity,
and when it was discovered
there was not enough left to restore
the original ancient grandeur,
debates erupted if they should even try
to recreate what was lost.

Some said
they should begin and finish the project
as quickly as possible
because people were not coming as they used to
since the window had collapsed.
Others pointed out
new people were entering the church
curious about the place
in a way they never were before.
And these newcomers joined
with those who had always been scared
by the window’s fierce eyes
to suggest they replace the old image
with a new one.

The differences about what to do
broke into conflict
so that for now the construction
was nearly halted,
though some workers
tried to assemble the roof in bits and pieces.

But without an overall plan
nothing would stay put.
Even the stars from another section
that surrounded the hole
began to fall from the ceiling
so that another group of folk arose
suggesting they take down the entire
edifice and start all over anew –

except that the most devout
could not bear to lose 
this or that pulpit 
or rail where they had prayed so long
and the carpet worn so thin
by the knees of many generations.

So for the time being
all that was done
was to rope off the area beneath
the God-shaped hole
to make sure no one was hit by a piece of falling glass
that would fall from time to time
from a cracked angel or star,
and to pray
that people would keep coming
while the church continued to be,
as the sign alerting those who entered said:

Under Reconstruction.  (Edited. Tom Troeger)

In thinking about the future of the church buildings I reflected on the attempts over the years to renew the church, on the face of it most meant the organisation we call the church with a smattering of ecclesiastical images of the church universal and the ‘Body 0f Christ’. That which one was baptised into which is more that just what you see.

Some might remember some of those campaigns such as Church Life Renewal, Church Growth, and a myriad of conferences, gatherings retreats seeking to change things. Some might remember the top-down attempts at implementing change, The Mission Resource Board, The Co- Directors of Mission, of which I was one actually. Strategies to revive the church as more and more people identified in the census that they were non-religious. Saddly the days of centrally funded work was struggling as people found other priorities for their funds.

Even the naming of new ventures was tried such as moving for NCUC (National Council of Uniting Churches) To Churches together, to Forum of Ventures to UCANZ (Uniting Churches of Aotearoa NZ). All I suspect are attempts to not only reflect the changes in thinking about the networking but also searches for renewal that recognise fewer and fewer people now consider church as part of their lives. Those who remain loyal still seek to be the kind of people who do ministry and mission in the new millennium, and they know it has to be done differently no matter how much some may have wished it was otherwise.

We talk about our lives and change as part of our existence. “Change is just part of life.

Life refuses to be embalmed alive.” Alfred North Whitehead

“The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human.” Pablo Casals.

“We have a technical name for people who do not change: dead.” Thomas Troeger

Church gatherings have declared that “it cannot be just more of the same.”
And we admit that that can be painful and unsettling.

Thomas Hawkins reinforces this invitation in his book The Learning Congregation. He compared the experience of life in both church and community with that of rafting in a permanent white-water situation. ‘Unlike rivers we may have travelled in the past,’ says Hawkins, ‘where the occasional experience of white-water is followed by patches of relative calm water, we are now navigating through an almost perpetual stretch of turbulent white-water.’  (Hawkins 1997)

He goes on to enumerate the different skills needed for white-water rafting when compared with rafting in calmer conditions. These skills include the need to sometimes work ‘counter-intuitively’…
to lean in towards the rocks rather than away from them in the swirling river. In other words:
do not just duck the dangers and challenges and hard decisions, but name and face and address them. Change is when life refuses to be embalmed alive!

Often today I think that the church has no longer any faith in itself. It has put up the shutters of survival and shut the world out. Churches are closing and no one knows what to do about it. It spends its time wrestling with questions of territory, “How can we maintain presence in that area or at least keep some property for future use? How can we do mission there? What is our mission?

We acknowledge that the task is daunting in its scale and its need of resources. It is also fragile and can be soul destroying. Do we ask the question. ‘Why is this way?’ I am not sure we ask because the answer is one of community, mass and the collective conscious perhaps and therefor a big picture question in a church world that no longer thinks big picture.

We are reminded that the biblical tradition is rich with stories of God calling individuals and nations to change – to be in a new and different place, but we can’t quite grasp what that means in a declining church or as I discovered when trying to get a congregation to ask questions about its theological assumptions, in other words why it needs a saviour? And does an ‘Almighty God have any authenticity today? They immediately found themselves in defence mode without thinking what it was they were defending. And to be fair many of us will find this ourselves.

What is perhaps forgotten is that biblical people were called to embrace change, not only in location, but also in attitude and behaviour. Some suggested examples;

• God’s call to Abraham and Sarah. “Leave your native land, your relatives and your father’s home and go to the country that I am going to show you”…

• Moses and the Hebrew people called to leave Egypt and journey to the promised land of Canaan…
• Jacob’s wrestling with God who gave him a new name and self-understanding. Jacob the ’deceiver’ becomes ‘Israel’: ‘he who struggles with God’…

• Israel’s 50 year exile in Babylon before returning to Jerusalem…

• The call of the disciples Simon, Andrew, James and John who left their nets and followed Jesus…
• Saul’s Damascus road experience that gave him a new name and self-understanding.

• Peter’s vision at Joppa that changed his attitude to the Gentiles, and opened the way for their inclusion into early Christianities…

If we can see the above not as nostalgic reflections but rather as a reminder of where we’ve come from. As an encouragement to maintain an openness to possibilities that have never occurred in the culture of this place; and as a way of introduction to another time of change… of reconstruction. We might just be taking a step forward rather than treading water while the ocean dries up.

Its about here that I introduce the idea that what makes the church more than an organisation is in fact its myth, its theological basis for existence and the energy or force that we call divine. It is more than, different from, and organisational different in that it is cross cultural, and inclusively unique. I like some others want to say that God does not exist because that is the human task. To materialize the divine or in this case the church whereas God insists, It is the calling out of the status quo, the survivalist mode, he organizational structures that we need to listen for. The God whom we say ‘calls people’ – calls us – to change, to be in new and different places, and to live in perpetual, turbulent, white-water conditions… and it also calls us to be alert and responsive,
as we seek to share in the reconstruction or I like to say the re-orientation of the church as an environment friendly to, encouraging of, and authentically valuing the human imagination… as a way to bring the seen and the unseen into view.

Advent is a perfect time liturgically to broach this need for living change and it provokes the questions we might ask ourselves such as “Does the decline in church attendance mean we are doing something wrong rather than good enough?

It is perhaps still possible that “Under reconstruction” is a vision that energized people in previous times and places. And it is very likely that it will today but perhaps its less about re-constructing the organisation and more about reconstructing our story.

Under reconstruction might also be a new year imagination, revealing possibilities within us
far greater than our historical local, conventional experiences will allow. Under reconstruction…
might be a vision that can energize people – today that might be to be unafraid of telling the Jesus story differently, perhaps in a way that is less about giving responsibility for joy, happiness and goodness to a theistic deity out there above all watching over us and more about exploring an ‘Emmanuel’ God; a God with us in our humanness.

Maybe its time we asked five very special words that someone saw sewn into a tapestry on a wall in a nursing home: “Don’t be scared of life”. This is a world of grace and grace is where there is salvation but only for an instant as is the claim of a weak theology as opposed to a strong one. A theology of the weak God that calls the human to step forward in certain hope in the co-creative task of manifesting the transcendence that only exists this side of death. Amen.

Hawkins, T. The Learning Congregation. A New Vision of Leadership Georgia. Westminster John Knox Press. 1997
Troeger, T. H. Preaching While a Church is Under Reconstruction. Nashville. Abingdon, 1999.


John D Caputo The Insistence of God. A Theology of Perhaps Indiana University Press Bloomington Indiana 2013

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