Friday, November 07, 2014

At Sixes And Sevens With You

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

William Shakespeare, As You like It, Act II, Scene VII

Men and women move through stages of life. And this is as true of communities as it is of individuals. Think of a neighbourhood, or a city, or a local church. To borrow from Shakespeare’s insight, they start out with the dependency and mess of infants; must learn certain core lessons from those who are further along; consider themselves special, and perhaps misunderstood; go in search of adventure, and reputation; consider themselves one from whom others can learn; shift into decline, becoming a shadow of their former self; lose need of, and use for, reputation.

Some, who care about the church, worry that the church as we know it will have died, in the West, within a generation. Others dispute that idea. I would suggest that both are wrong. The local church progresses through a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It always has, and it always will. The church as we know it, at any moment in time, is playing a part; and if we will commit to one community over a long length of time, we will experience the changing seasons. On a regular basis, in big-picture terms, any local church dies, and a new local church rises from its tomb – and the people who make up that church at that time experience the pain of decline and death and the mess of new life – a new life that might be as unrecognisable as the resurrected Jesus, with only the marks of his suffering to identify him.

It seems to me that the temptation of the missional movement within the Church – a passion with which I identify, and a network within which I participate – is to believe that a healthy Church would always look like youthful energy and confidence, and to see churches that are moving through the sixth and seventh Acts of life – whose energy and capacity is failing – as failures.

And it seems to me that such a view would be more conformed to our wider society, with its obsession with youthful vitality and vigour, and attempts to reverse the aging process at all costs, than it has to do with being conformed to the mind of Christ.

The lesson we need to learn is that the God who is faithful in the mess and vulnerability of infancy; and in the stubbornness of childhood; and in the self-absorption of adolescence; and in the naïve confidence of young adulthood; and in the limited wisdom and far wider folly of maturity; is also faithful in the humbling shrinking of aging, and in the mess and vulnerability of dying.

We are invited to discover God’s faithfulness in every stage of communal life, by responding to the invitation and the challenge to be faithful to God and to one another through every stage of communal life.

Each changing season comes with its difficulties to be faced, requires re-ordering life. But there are things beyond all we could ask or imagine to every stage, things that we can only receive in their rightful Act.

We need to learn our parts in Acts 6 and 7, learn to bring these lines to life with sensitivity.

This, too, is something we might reflect on between All Saints and Advent.

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