Back to the future
- history, remembrance and renewal
This article was commissioned by the Lee Abbey and appeared in their Rapport magazine, as part of a series on a Christian understanding of renewal.
While visiting an Orthodox monastery in Essex
I met a young man who was a regular visitor
there. He had been a spiritual searcher for a long
time. His journey had led him into powerful but
ultimately damaging experiences in various New Age spiritualities. He had come to faith in Christ, but his journey continued to prove difficult. He spent time successively in a Pentecostal church, a house fellowship and then in a lively Anglican church. They were full of life but they did not touch this vulnerable pilgrim's deepest wound. He had a breakdown before finally finding this monastery and the Orthodox faith. Here at last he found the spiritual home he most needed. And what was so healing about it? 'The sense of history', he said. With that came a deep sense of knowing where he belonged and of being securely rooted somewhere. In that ancient Christian tradition he found both the strength to live the present and a faith that renewed him in hope for the future.
There is an important insight in this testimony. The dominant message in today's church is the need for radical change. To this end there is no shortage of strategies, resources and training programs to inspire endless varieties of 'emerging', 'fresh', 'liquid', 'clustered' and 'mission-shaped' churches. All of which is important and high priority. At its heart is the vision to which Lee Abbey has been committed for 6o years.
Whether you find this exciting or frightening depends partly on your personality. Most of us feel a bit of both. No one yet sees what kind of church will emerge out of this. Many of the familiar landmarks by which have we navigated our faith through the world are no longer there or seem to be losing their meaning. Language, culture and whole patterns of belonging are changing. There are no maps. We will be exploring and experimenting for the foreseeable future. We must learn to sing in a strange land (Ps 137.4).
But in the urgency of all this 'the past' is easily treated as a liability or embarrassment. Our old buildings, ways of worshipping and doing things are seen as the problem. Forget all that. We must leave them behind and move on.
Under pressure to be immediately accessible we quickly assume we must throw out anything in our church life that feels out of date, that isn't immediately understandable or that feels irrelevant. The danger is that in doing so we are simply mirroring rather the challenging the unthinking assumptions of the culture around us. We are losing a quality this age most needs: the sense of history. Without it we end up offering a restless, rootless church to a restless, rootless world.
By contrast the Bible places great emphasis on the importance of history. One of the most insistent challenges in the Bible is to 'remember'. And this is never more stressed than in times of uncertainty and change. 'Remember me', says God, 'remember Torah', 'remember your story', 'teach your children to remember'. (for example: Is 46.9; Deut 24.9; Neh 1.8; Ps 42.4,6)
Remembrance is the secret of renewal.
Remembering involves more than having a good memory for dates and names. It is not about clinging to past securities. The Bible understanding of 'remembrance' is to be in a living relationship with what has gone before. The opposite of remembering is dis-membering. It is to be fundamentally unrelated, cut-off from our world, from ourselves and from God. That is why the rabbis taught that forgetfulness (not money) was the root of all evil.
None of this will surprise those faithful pastors who have been tirelessly available to visitors to the Lee Abbey communities down the years. The need for understanding and healing of memories; to be reconciled to people, events and hurts there, remains one of the most commonly expressed needs. It is also vividly illustrated through the experience of asylum seekers and victims of abuse or torture in our time. Before they can embrace any kind of new life they must find a way of recovering their past from the horrors they have endured. What is not remembered cannot be healed.
Do we ever really leave our past behind? Human beings live in and from history. The best pastoral counsellors have learned to be careful historians.
Change and transition
All change requires transition. Transition is not the same as change. Change refers to the external factors – new home, new job, re-structuring of organisations etc. Transition is about the inner emotional, psychological and spiritual adjustments people and communities must make if they to live well and even flourish in what has changed around them. If change is about what is beginning. Transition is about the journey we must to achieve that - from the past, through the present and into the future.
Organisations and their leaders are usually better at making changes than handling transition. It means that our communities are offered little time and space to remember. But it is transition that enables change to be effective. Our relationship with our past enables us to embrace the future. This needs time and cannot be hurried. Change without transition is coercion. It is imposed. Unless time is given for transition, change, however worthy and Godly, will always be resented at some level. To make the journey into the new, we must honour our past.
A room with a memory
I was once involved in running a series of retreat days for groups of clergy. These were days for support and renewal in times of demanding and uncertain change. We offered the three downstairs rooms of his house to reflect on one of three themes.
One room was about endings, - loss, grief, lament and letting go.. The second room was a place to reflect on the present journey through change - the place between leaving and arriving (often called the wilderness). The third room was the place to contemplate arriving, new life, new beginnings or resurrection (its caused much amusement that the 'resurrection' room was actually the Bishop's study). In each room were pictures, symbols, candles and some printed prayers.
For part of the day people were left to spend time in whatever room they chose.
The room most occupied on those days was the first room. Some felt guilty about this. Surely they ought to be in the resurrection room – full of new life and vision! But they also spoke of the comfort and healing of being able to draw near and honour the places of loss and of bereavement that were part of ministry and personal pilgrimage, but that they often found nowhere to name and listen to. 'Blessed are those who mourn', said Jesus (Matt 5.4). Grief is a central part of transition. There is special blessing, in the kingdom, for negative emotion!
Only when they had spent the time that was needed in that first room could they ready to embrace the journey into new beginnings. This is the significance and transforming power of remembrance.
Of course memory alone cannot save us. It may just as easily overwhelm and break us. 'Fifty years and I've never left this place,' wept a survivor on her return to Auschwitz.
On those clergy days we reflected on the behaviour of the risen Jesus appearing to that traumatised first Christian community. You might expect him to have packed that time with training events, conferences on church planting, Alpha meal cookery classes, leadership seminars etc. Instead he came alongside them, gently and repeatedly, individuals and groups, helping them to understand what has happened. With the scriptures and with his own teaching he first took them back not forwards (Lk 24.27). He drew them gently and firmly into remembrance. The risen Jesus understood the pain and demands of their transition. He gave them time for this and would not be hurried.
This is still the ministry of the risen Jesus. He re-members us. He still gives us time. He gives us back our past. When we come to Christ our past is not abandoned. 'Salvation does not bypass history and memory, rather it builds upon and from it' (Rowan Williams)
What we forget, abandon in embarrassment, deny or simply cannot face by ourselves, he holds in living remembrance until we can come to a place where we can receive it back.
Lee Abbey is preparing to celebrate a particular milestone in its own history over the coming year. Let us remember it well and celebrate it. It was part of a vision for the rebuilding of life and faith amidst the ruins of a Europe shattered by war. But we need a vision for our time. It must be a vision for the building of new communities of faith in the midst of a restless, ever fragmenting society that lost all sense of where it belongs and where it has come from in God's grace.
They must be communities of remembrance.
We will do this in remembrance of Him – and because He alone can re-member us.
God of terror and joy
You arise to shake the earth
Open our graves
And give us back our past;
So that all that has been buried
May be freed and forgiven
And our lives may return to you,
Through the risen Christ.