At the end of February, myself and twelve other people from across the Canberra Region Presbytery spent three days at a conference called Gospel Yarning. It certainly posed a lot of questions to the participants, coming as we were from a time marked by bushfires, floods, lockdowns and pandemics.
Some of the questions included: Who are those who will lead the church to grow in evangelism? Who are those who imagine expressing church in ‘fresh words and deeds’ for the UCA to move forward? This is not a time of business as usual, so can we be servants in the Kingdom of God, in ways that are transformative in our own time and place? Or will we hanker to be somewhere else or dream of another era? Will we bear witness that the Gospel, offered in our life words and deeds, unlocks life in all its fullness? Is our focus to grow disciples who make disciples who are a church on the way? Is this our calling in this time?
These are very thought-provoking and serious questions, and the season of Lent should be the ideal time to explore them.
In the lectionary during Lent, we are following the patriarchal stories in Genesis and Exodus. The main feature that seems to be stressed over and over again in these stories of wilderness journeys is the trust that the main characters show in God. Whether it is Abraham embarking on a long journey into nowhere, or Moses seeking an unknown promised land, they obediently take up their tents and belongings and go forth into the unknown future.
I certainly can’t imagine living like that, and I doubt that you can either, even if you are the sort of person that revels in long road trips around our beautiful country or enjoys exploring wilderness on a camping trip.
While none of us are likely to up stumps and set off into the unknown, there are still some important things we can take from these stories and that relate to our journey through the last year of droughts, bushfires, border closures and pandemics, and that may help point to where we are heading.
Like the ancient patriarchs, we can only go forward. There is no turning back once we enter the wilderness, whether real or symbolic. What was cannot be the same again, and the days of Egypt can’t be returned to. And we won’t always know where we are heading. What will the promised land of the future church look like? What needs to change? What should we keep? What should we throw out in a cleansing of our temples?
Some things we will want to keep are the truths and stories of scripture and the holy presence of God that always goes with us. These stories of perseverance in the wilderness are a model for us.
But what will we discard? What new things will we find?
One thing we discovered was that we are surprisingly adaptive, and what was barely known previously become the norm. We mastered Zoom, and live streaming and digital technology. And we did it very quickly. We adapted our understanding of church and we found that we thrived.
We even found that sacraments could be celebrated online, bible studies could be shared around a vast geographical distance and that there were many ways to show pastoral care to others. We shared with the communities around us in new ways.
We learnt much that was new in this wilderness experience and there can be no going back. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen or that the church hasn’t evolved or changed.
So where to from here? God and hope and transition aren't geographically limited to one place and space. God goes where we go. God calls, and we can follow, even when there is a risk. The perseverance and belief that got the ancients through the wilderness is the same perseverance that will take us to the edge of the cosmos and to the new things that God is doing.
Rev. Elizabeth Raine
Minister, Tuggeranong Uniting Church