In an online article about Ignatius this past week, I was struck by how he was often required to see things in a new way because of his circumstances, and I began to reflect on what his story might say to the church today.
For those unfamiliar with his story, Ignatius was born in 1491 as one of 13 children of a family of minor nobility in northern Spain. As a young man, Ignatius was fuelled by the ideals of love, knighthood, and military success. However, in 1521 he was gravely wounded by a cannonball in a battle with the French and, while recuperating, experienced a conversion. As a result, he changed his ambitions for a courtly life into pursuing a life of faithful service to God. This was not simply a new goal but a way of reimagining his life quite differently. Later, when he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and wanted to stay in Jerusalem, he was sent to return to Spain, realising that life close to Jesus was not necessarily dependent on geography. Repeatedly, Ignatius had to re-envision what it meant to follow Jesus more closely, which invariably meant reimaging for him what tomorrow would look like.
Two other events happened last week, which further impacted my thinking. I had the privilege of speaking to a select group of churches wrestling with change. The pressures of declining attendance post lockdown, other priorities crowding out calendars of volunteers, and diminishing finances were the cause of concern amongst those leading these congregations. The second event was attending a church I know well, whose pre-COVID morning congregation regularly exceeded 75, and was now teetering at a couple of dozen people, all of a certain age. This congregation felt quite vulnerable, and I found myself speculating what tomorrow might look like for them and the churches I had met the previous day.
The apostle Paul wrote, "We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed." (2 Corinthians 4:8–9).
The Message paraphrase helpfully translates this as being 'battered by troubles' but not demoralised; of being unsure of what to do but knowing that God knows exactly what to do and that 'God hasn't left our side.'
My growing sense is that the church is experiencing a time of trial and testing. I don't necessarily read into this a time of punishment because God is angry with the church as some have suggested; simply, I believe God is doing something more significant with the church than we can see, and this time of trial will not be wasted.
I know from personal experience that God is often revealed most clearly during my trials. I find it harder to relate to the Almighty when everything is going well; invariably, these are the times when my prayer life is not as strong as it could be. However, give me a crisis, and I'm bashing down the doors of heaven night and day, 24-7!
Our instinct is to try to fix the problems, control them and understand them, and I see much of this going on in the church. I am even detecting an increase in scapegoating, where we seek to export our unresolved pain and frustration by blaming others, namely, those who drive past our churches, whose commitment is not as strong as ours and who appear to have made attendance choices based on consumerism rather than call.
Richard Rohr's warning that “if we do not transform our pain, we will most likely transmit it – usually to those closest to us: our family, our friends, our neighbours and invariably the most vulnerable, our children” seems pertinent. Surely the Jesus story is about radically transforming pain, so we don't simply pass it on to the next generation?
God's promise is never to abandon us or leave us in our pain but to be with us. I wonder how we might reinterpret the current trials many of us are experiencing in the church, not as obstacles to overcome but as a gift to enable us to draw closer to God? Perhaps it is in drawing closer to God that we, like Ignatius, might begin to reimagine our tomorrow.
Joel Mason's reflection in Celtic Daily Prayer this past week talked about God taking all our suffering, grinding it up, and using it as soil to grow new seedlings. Stretching this analogy further as we reinterpret this current time, could it be that God will take our present trials and challenges and use them as compost to enhance the soil for something new planted by the Spirit?
As we pray the line in the Lord's Prayer: 'your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,' let us each reimagine our tomorrow, holding the trials, confusion, and suffering until it becomes resurrection, surely the core mystery of Christianity. Let us not transfer our frustrations onto others but instead be transformed by them, seeing things in a new way, thereby leading to a reimagined future.
CEO, Rural Ministries