Thought for the Month (July 2015)

Dear Friends,

Ten years ago and preparing to move into this area, I was asked to write a few words for the letter which accompanied the Methodist preaching plan. Some of you may remember what I wrote.

I spoke of ruts and baby steps! The ruts were borrowed from the Latin American theologian Juan Luis Segundo. In that part of the world roads are not the reliable tarmac covered creations to which we are accustomed. Rather, they are mostly dirt tracks at the mercy of the weather in which ruts carved out by previous users of the road can prove invaluable in helping you to steer your passage through. It doesn't take much energy to continue within the marks left by previous generations. The drawback comes, though, when you want to steer a different course. Now it takes considerable energy to prise yourself from the well-worn and often deep ruts in the road.

Segundo likened this exercise to church life. The framework left for us by previous generations is useful in providing us with tried and tested structures in which to navigate our way forward. If we call these the ruts on our spiritual journey then they are not bad per se because they help us maintain the church's course. What we need to be wary of is getting stuck so deep that it becomes very difficult to change course when we need to.

What about the baby steps? No doubt inspired by Euan who was barely one year old at the time, I wrote that babies need to make mistakes in order to learn to walk. Except, of course, we don't see them as mistakes. When they fall and get up again in order to fall and get up again a few more times, we smile and put it down to a learning process that will eventually see them on two legs. Again, the parallels can, and should, be made to church life. Too often we over plan or hold back for fear of making mistakes. Instead let's just concentrate on moving forward at the prompting of God's Spirit. We can't guarantee to get it right every time but we do know that we will never move forward if we always hold back for fear of making mistakes.

As I look back over the ten years that have passed since then, I can see that I have not always followed my own advice. Ruts are easy to get into and hard to get out of. Sometimes opportunities, like baby steps, have been seized; other times have given way to caution and inactivity.

That advice seems just as pertinent now as it was a decade ago - more pertinent even given that, with a rising average age, we now have ten fewer years to become the church that God desires us to be. These recent months have changed the dynamic for both of our churches. We have been lifted, momentarily, out of our ruts and it is down to us to seek wisdom as to which of them will still serve us well and which now require a different course. With a new estate taking shape across the road we have new opportunities for mission. Some of the things we try will bear fruit; some things will seemingly not. But try things we must. Doing nothing or simply repeating the things we have always done (and nothing more) is not an option. The greater failure will not be in slipping up from time to time but in not standing on our God-given feet and learning to walk hand in hand with Him.

So let's work out what it means to be good neighbours to the school and local community; let's develop our messy church; let's invite all who will come to join us in coffee mornings that raise money for needy causes; let's continue (and expand) our present prayer ministry to local streets; let's try pub quizzes and whatever else gets us out meeting people. Let's try all of these and more as the Spirit leads. Some of these things will "work" as we intended but we won't know which in advance so let's have fun finding out. This is God's work and he works alongside us. Let our lives (backed up by our words when necessary) bear witness to His love in all that we do.

I also wrote, in my first piece for the Vale Royal magazine, of being "more and more convinced that God is rubbing out the lines of division between denominations". Ten years on I am now even more confirmed in that belief.

With love

Rev. Steve Mann (Minister, Vale Royal Methodist Church)

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Tunbridge Wells United Reformed Church