Glynn Cardy 15th May 2022
Bob Fulghum tells a story of a hot summer’s day in the town of Chania, on the isle of Crete, where tourists were thick on the ground. In cafes tempers of tourists and waiters had risen with the heat.
On a table next to mine, says Fulghum, sat a young attractive couple, well dressed in summer fashions of crumpled linen and fine leather sandals. Waiting for service, they held hands, whispered affections, giggled and laughed.
Suddenly, they stood, picked up their metal table, and, carrying it with them, stepped together off the edge of the quay to place the table in the shallow water of the harbour. The man waded back for the two chairs. He gallantly seated his lady in the waist-high water and sat down himself. The onlookers laughed, applauded, and cheered.
A sour-faced waiter appeared. He paused for the briefest moment. Raised his eyebrows. Picked up a tablecloth and cutlery. Waded into the water to set the table and take their order. Minutes later he returned with a bottle and glasses, and without pausing waded back into the water to serve it. The couple toasted each other, the waiter, and the crowd – the latter replying by cheering.
Three other tables joined them to have lunch in the sea. The atmosphere in that café shifted from sweltering to celebrating, from frustrated to festival. *
I was asked last week to share my thoughts with a group in Christchurch on what could the church be in the 21st century. Of course, there are lots of answers, as many probably as there are members of churches, so my response is be personal. My dreams, my hopes.
And a starting point is a story, like this one, where the couple who dare to be different, and the waiter who supports their subversive difference, represent for me the church, and the café represents the community or society in which the couple reside. The audacious actions by this ‘church of the waders’ affect those around them around, causing some to copy them and others to cheer them. The whole atmosphere and then actions of the café change as a result.
And although Fulghum doesn’t mention them, I’m sure there were one or two detractors in that café, or among its staff, who kept their criticisms to themselves.
As you may have noticed when critics are to the fore in any society, stoking an atmosphere of negativity, more negativity is often the result. And the reverse seems to be true. When praise and thankfulness are to the fore, stoking an atmosphere of positivity, then usually more positivity, productivity, and wellbeing are the result. Turning that tide from negativity to positivity is part of the vocation of church.
This story also starts as a story told by a storyteller. Storytellers, poets, musicians, and other artists have a crucial role in freeing the mind from conventions, from ‘the way we have always done it’, and from the people who have always determined what ‘it’ is, in order that each of us is inspired to try something new. Something different. Something off the quay.
So church, I dream, will be a place where stories are told, by all sorts of people, to inspire and encourage and include each other in creating spaces and places of wellbeing, justice, and hope. The spirit of all this we could call god.
Fulghum’s story is situated in a café, where people have stopped, gathered, and sat together, and where food, drink, and hospitality are the common tongue. So, church is a place, a space, to gather – physically or digitally. Kind of like a mooring post (pou) in the swiftly flowing river of change. A place to stop, pause, and rest.
But unlike these metaphors of café and mooring post, church only works if each us both receive and give, are hosted and host, who share what we can with whoever we can. Church works when we realize that we need each other, and need to be needed by each other, in order to feel that we belong.
We also need to eat together. As we know from studies into the early Jesus movements, ‘in the beginning was the meal’. The meal proceeded any liturgies, any doctrines. It was the original action of being church.
I read the newspaper article this week about the Ranui Caravan Park, home to many who haven’t much. The caravan park has a bit of a checked past, well-known by the local constabulary. But in the last five years under the leadership of Brad Heaven the place become more about community than making money, and more a home where people belong than a lodging place of last resort.
When Covid came Brad and another resident, Pete, (Pete understood community from his army days), pitched in and began distributing donated food parcels to the residents. Then they started doing a daily breakfast. Then a free dinner. As Brad says, “By putting on food, there has been a real change in the culture of the place.”
So, church I dream is a place of food, hospitality, and waiting on each other, for these things are the foundations of community – foundations that our forebears knew and then ritualized into ‘holy communion’.
In a sense Covid has taught us all that there were things we did before 2019 that weren’t all that important to do, and things that we did before that are now even more important to do. Like encouraging the best in each other, caring as much as we can, when we can, how we can, and finding (when it’s safe) the time and means to eat together. Actions, not beliefs. Together, not alone.
This ‘church of the waders’ for which I dream is not really belief-based, but action-based. To join you have to get up and move. You don’t keep sitting and ponder a doctrine or two. You move to where there is life, relief, and hope. Faith is a doing word. As is god.
There was an opinion piece of mine published in the NZ Herald at Easter, about Easter, about us embodying and becoming the hope of Easter. And afterwards I received some less than complimentary correspondence. Mostly along the lines of ‘if you don’t believe what I think Christians should believe, then please leave’.
The Office of the Auckland Church Leaders (I didn’t even know there was such a thing) made contact too, and we had a pleasant discussion. But after about 15 minutes of chatting and finding some common ground, they asked me whether I believed in the Nicene Creed. It was the moment of ‘Is Glynn one of us or not?’
The story from Acts 11 today recounts a similar dilemma for many of the Jesus groups in the 1st and 2nd century when they saw and understood themselves as being part of the house of Israel. And individuals and families, like that of Cornelius’, would come knocking at the door. Outsiders asking to come in. What were the rules of entry?
The Jesus groups were making up, or rather discarding, the rules as they went, led by this spirit of inspiration, encouragement, and inclusion.
Did you have to be born a Jew to belong to the house of Israel? No. Did you have to believe the Torah and commandments like others did? No. Did you have to, as a male, be circumcised to belong? No. Did you have to keep to a kosher diet? No. So, their critics would have asked, what constituted belonging? Surely, they might have said, since you’ve given up on what Jews believe, so you should surely leave.
We could ask the same of questions of us as Presbyterians. Do you have to like the bagpipes or haggis or understand Robbie Burns? No. Do you have to believe in the Westminster Confession? No. Do you have to agree with the fundamental doctrines held to be so by the majority of Presbyterians? No. So, what constitutes belonging?
When you re-read these old stories from the early days of the Jesus movement you realize there were no rules of entry. Nobody did a police check, or a morality check, or a belief check on the likes of Cornelius. Afterwards, apologists would say the spirit of God was with them, like the spirit was with us. But that was afterwards, not before. And anyway, what did that mean?
Around the same time as Acts was being written the author of the Fourth Gospel, whom we call John, was also creating his version of Jesus. A version that reflects John’s experience as a member of Jesus groups in the early 2nd century. And in our reading today John reduces the Law and the Prophets, the commandments and regulations, all the expectations of belief and practice, down to three words: ‘Love one another’. As Michael Leunig quips, it’s as simple and as difficult as that.
To love one another we need to let each other in, be hospitable to another, without demanding a dress, behaviour, or belief code. To love one another we need to learn the language of the other, in order to hear their story, their joys and pains and hope. To love one another we need to allow the other to love us, to be a community of mutuality and reciprocity. To love one another we need to allow others the space to be different from us, believe different from us, knowing that none of us know all the truth or practice it.
So, the church I dream is kind of like this: A church on the way. A place of story to inspire, encourage, and include. A place that makes for wellbeing, justice, and hope. A place where these songs are sung. Where spontaneity and joy are the norm. And church is a gathering, with food, hospitality, mutuality, and reciprocity. A holy communion. Where all can belong. And church has only one commandment, one ethic, one doctrine, one plumbline vision, one clarion call: ‘love one another’. It is a church of friends.
* P. 202, Maybe (Maybe Not) R. Fulghum