Thinking a lot lately about how we hold the tension of ‘proclaiming the Gospel’ and seeking to share what we know to be the good news of God’s love, with the missio dei , the understanding that God is already at work everywhere, already drawing hearts and minds to Godself. If we believe the latter, then we are to understand that others may also teach us what they know of this, they will have thoughts and ideas about it and what it means for them. So, we must be aware of the ways in which we hold our faith, speak of it and understand it, allowing space for the same from others.
So how do these tensions work themselves out in the practices of a community? What are the mechanics of this being lived out together? How is space made for a feedback loop, spaces where sharing can take place, where different understandings and experiences of God can be talked about and valued?
Each pioneering work will likely answer these things differently, but I believe we must keep these questions front and centre. We at the UR community are operating in a non book culture, and mercifully we have permission to write our own liturgy and shape our own practices. One of the most important things I believe we are trying to do is share a life together,a life that explains our faith and also shares it- rather than just share beliefs. Discipleship – journeying and exploring the life of faith together as we live it out – is not just about teaching a list of right doctrines. It is not only about coming together to study that list of right beliefs more and more on Sunday mornings.
For us, it is about exploring beliefs, and exploring what practices we can live out together to embody those beliefs. So orthodoxy and orthopraxy are held together and cannot be separated. Between them they must convey the same message. So for example, if we believe the doctrine of Creation, that we are all made in God’s image, and all are unique and precious in God’s sight, we must live as a community where all are accorded the highest respect and dignity. There must be no hierarchy, no ridiculing or valuing some gifts less. All must have space to grow into being themselves, hopes and dreams blessed and given room. We believe people need to grow and develop and use their gifts for the common good. And so we set up an Intern Scheme, after hearing many people express their desire for employment as an expression of their gifts and talents, to be able to work to bless and help others, to be able to stretch and develop their potential. We express our belief in the doctrine by our actions, by our commitment to living it out fully and expressively.
Leadership in this community is about listening, hearing the cries of the hearts of people, walking alongside one another as we each learn to see ourselves as God sees us. We listen in formal and informal ways, and then reflect back to people what they have said, sifting with them what is significant. Then we pray and ponder together, waiting to see what seeds of a response we can discern of the Holy Spirit. It is slow and at times complex, but it is always responsive and not directive. The urge to know best, to suggest what should happen, the impulse to inform and educate have to be sat on, as we bow to the slow processes of hearing, sharing, discerning and waiting.
Here are some things that people who are part of the Upper Room community said recently in response to the question ‘what is good about our life together?’ :
“I love our get-togethers. We are like one massive happy family.”
“A relaxing place to go and have good conversation. You can talk without being judged.”
“I enjoyed the trip to the Wildlife Park. I love playing a part in the summer Playscheme. I love how we all come together as a team and we all look after each other.”
“I love the things we do together, especially going to the Cooking Group. I’m so grateful for the help I have received. too.”
“You can talk about any worries you have. You can just be who you are.”
“I had a tough year & the people at the Upper Room made me feel like I’m someone again. I love you all loads. You have no idea what you’ve done for me.”
I have pondered on these words. Are these good words? Are they a good evaluation of our work and life together? Why do they not talk about meeting Jesus and understanding the Bible more? Is God pleased with this, or would he shut us down at once if he came to our AGM? Do these words mark us as a part of the Church?
I think so! I am very happy with these words, because they communicate orthopraxy. They show that we are living out our Christian faith, beliefs and values, as a community that works together for the Kingdom. That we are a place where people who are having a tough time can come and be among us and be safe and find restoration. A place where people begin to understand that they are “someone again.” A place where we work together to serve people who are struggling in our community and respond to its needs, for example by setting up and running a playscheme in response to requests from parents on an estate who had nowhere to go with their children in the summer holidays. A place where we can be honest before one another about our struggles and expect to find care. We are all these things because God is. God is love, God brings restoration and healing, God blesses people growing into the fullness of themselves. People learn to understand and accept that, and begin to live it out, as we journey together. But they may never use the same language to describe it as those who have grown up around the church. They may never express it in ways that tick monitoring boxes about church growth.
We do also very explicitly explore faith and doctrine, scripture and orthodoxy, in our monthly services of holy communion. We follow the lectionary and take turns sharing a reflection on the scripture passage. The process for this is that whoever’s turn it is sits with someone else and they read the passage through together two or three times. Then the main themes are discussed, pondering what is the essence of this passage? Then what might the passage have to say to us here today? This is summed up and written down, and then shared with the group in the service. A sort of small process of lectio divina. A process of dialogue, within which the holy spirit moves and speaks.
By moving slowly we are listening attentively to the small life of people whom God loves and values, creating together a community that also tries to hear the still small voice and follow its call. We see the ethereal Kingdom, its walls being repaired and rebuilt, damage restored and hope beginning to breathe its magic. It may not look like church to some, but I’m certain it is. You just have to have eyes to see it.