Every summer I find myself reaching for 'The Summer Book' by Tove Jansson. Six-year-old Sophia has recently lost her mother and it's an account the long summer she spends with her grandmother on their remote island in the Gulf of Finland. The novel recounts their daily life, detailing the minutiae of living together in a tiny place, the natural world a constant source of wonder. It's an acutely observed account of the love of an old woman and her granddaughter who, together, are grappling with grief and life. Jansson lost her own mother shortly before she wrote this book and her own thoughts about death punctuate the narrative. Sometimes it's an uncomfortable read because I don't always agree with her observations but there is also much blunt wisdom and common sense alongside the whimsy and imagination.
It's what I always think of as a 'quiet book'. By this I mean nothing major appears to happen in it - the reader is merely invited into the simple life Sophia and Grandmother create yet it's compelling and it draws you in as you get to know the characters and care for them.
Recently I've become aware of how much some people struggle with church because they dislike the way mission is being presented to them as a compulsory activity in which they witness to people in a particular way. One young woman felt very uncomfortable to being told that if she was a Christian she must 'witness' verbally to her friends or it meant she didn't really have faith. An older woman told me of how her ministry to the elderly was being undermined by leaders in her church because they wanted more overt evangelising to take place. Both women were discouraged, disheartened, and feeling pretty fed up with church generally and who can blame them?
Upon questioning it appeared the young woman has already taken more of her friends to church than I have ever done whilst the older woman had created a community of elderly women that was sometimes larger than the church itself. In the case of this community, their interest in spirituality was increasingly becoming evident in their conversations and requests for support in moments of crisis. How had these two very different disciples done this? It seemed they had simply done what they naturally gravitated towards. In the case of the younger woman, over time she has developed deep friendships with people who like what she likes (clubbing, beaches, having fun) in which she has honestly shared her own doubts, questions, fears and hopes relating to faith. The older woman has always loved the company of older people and she had gathered around her the lonely, the isolated and those who are looking for a community to belong to and to enjoy.
Both these women were disciples who have chosen to live their lives predominantly amongst people who don't go to church. Not because they see them as a mission field ripe for the picking but rather as fellow humans whose company they like and who they choose as friends despite their differences in outlook or age. When I think of how hard it is to stand against a church culture that demands so much attention of its members and can be overly prescriptive about how disciples should behave and think, what both these women are doing is really rather brave and if only more disciples felt able to share themselves wholeheartedly with others like this - the Church would be transformed...
Returning to little Sophia and her grandmother, it is the sharing of their daily ordinary lives that is extraordinarily attractive. We should never underestimate how intriguing or important our ordinary can be; it is in this context that who we are is most obvious. Mission doesn't have to be complicated; it can be as simple as letting ourselves be known. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this - after all, it is how Jesus did it.
Director - Wales and South West England