A ship is safe in harbor. But then again that’s not what ships are for.
Admiral Grace Hopper
I noticed a sign outside a shop the other day that said: “The question everyone got wrong in 2015 - what will you be doing in five years time!” It is probably a fair point, for none of us would have guessed that we would be in the kind of situation we find ourselves. None would have guessed that we’d be advocating for physical distancing, that our churches would be closed for worship gatherings, that whole sectors of our society would be experiencing the hardships and disruptions that have occurred in the last few months.
As I reflect on our Church, especially within Sydney Presbytery, I continue to be amazed at how quickly, and generally how well, we have adapted to the changes demanded of us. We have extraordinary people who have stepped up to take on new challenges and opportunities, who have refused to lie down and plead “victim.” Leaders, both lay and ordained, who have said through their actions that the need for community is greater now than most of us have ever experienced, and we have shown great innovation in how we maintain and create community to address the needs around us.
For many of us, the changes required in this time have not been comfortable or welcome. And I hear a common, and very understandable refrain expressing the desire to get back to what was being done before we had to close worship centres and separate physically from one another. Of course, there is much to look forward to and long for in the return of being able to physically gather together again - for worship, pastoral care, study groups, and social get-togethers. And the time will come when this is possible to do safely. In the meantime, it is worth pondering a little on the quote above.
I wonder how many of us have felt “safe” in our churches? We are amongst people who are familiar to us, with whom we feel comfortable, and who, largely, are much like us. Perhaps we have felt “safe” with the routines and rituals that make up our worship gatherings and other church activities.
I remember a long time ago in worship, the congregation were singing the song: “Holy Spirit, come” (Geoff Bullock, 1992). We were part way through the first verse when the worship leader stopped the singing. He asked us to think about the words and what we were asking. He reminded us that inviting the Holy Spirit to work in our lives and in our church was not a safe thing - it would bring change, and were we ready for that? Did we really want that? He then told us not to sing the song unless we meant it.
It is safe in the harbour. I know that each time I walk around Blackwattle Bay or Pyrmont Bay nearby. Even on ‘severe weather warning’ days, the waters here are calm, sometimes almost glassy smooth. Boats that traverse these waters only rock when they are crossing the wake of another boat. Kayaks (and dragon boats) make good use of these bays because of the smooth conditions. It is safe in the harbour.
For the last week as I have walked around the edges of these bays, I have seen a cargo ship moored at the wharf near Anzac Bridge. It is safe there, yet I am mindful that it is also not being productive. This ship was not built to sit safely in the harbour, it was built to travel across the seas regardless of how rough those seas can be, in order to pick up and deliver cargo around the world. It is not fulfilling its purpose as it sits there in the harbour. I can also imagine the crew having itchy feet, longing to be at sea again - after all, that is what they have been trained to do.
In a similar way with church, we can be lulled into a sense that we are doing what we ought to be doing when we feel safe and comfortable. And when our world is shaken by something completely out of the ordinary, we are stirred out of our complacency to confront it and discern what we are now called to do. We can hang on for dear life to whatever remains of our moorings - the last vestiges of ‘church as we knew it,’ or we can venture out into the uncharted waters and rely on the Holy Spirit to blow us where we are needed and guide us to do what is required of us.
I hope that if we, as the Uniting Church, ever responded to the question in 2015 ‘what will you be doing in five years time?’ we would have answered, “We will be responding to the call of the Holy Spirit, going where we are needed and doing what God asks of us.” It isn’t safe, but it is what we are created and called to do.
“Holy Spirit, flow, Holy Spirit, flow;
lead us in your will, empowered to proclaim;
Holy Spirit, flow - Oh flow through us.” (Geoff Bullock)
Blessings and Peace,