Listening and adapting
The past year has been a year of great upheaval for people all over the world. We are passing through a dark period that has affected nearly everyone in some way, and we are conscious that for some it has been a complete nightmare. The writer, Daniel Kahneman coined the phrase “What you see is all there is” (WYSIATI) to highlight the human bias which imagines that what we readily see or know is an accurate summary of the bigger picture. For all of us, our experience of the past year has been very personal to us but it would be a mistake to imagine that our personal experience will in any way be representative of other people’s experiences. As we emerge from this time of lockdown we need to take time to listen to others, to learn from them, and to broaden our understanding of the many challenges we face as a society.
The Bishop of Tonbridge, Simon Burton-Jones, recently likened the past twelve months as being like an earthquake, and that many people are still reeling from the effects of the quake. Indeed, many people are still trapped under the rubble. Bishop Simon wants the Church (me and you) to take time listening out for the voices under the rubble, to ‘hit the ground listening’, so that our actions may be wise and informed. Again, we’re back to that sense of broadening our perspective and questioning the easy assumptions we make.
So, listening is key, and listening and talking is part of the process of recovering and helping one another to recover. We will all need some time to process and recover from the effects of the pandemic – all of us have been challenged (and possibly changed) by the past year in ways that we find hard to articulate. It will take time to process all that has happened. People seem to be tired at the moment, and so we need to help each other to take time to regain our strength and look towards the future with both realism and hope.
The tendency after great upheaval is to try to rush back to the way things were before the upheaval. It’s easy to imagine that all was well in 2019, and so we want to rush back to the ‘good old days’. But we all know that that picture is not accurate either. The wider society (and the Church) faced challenges in 2019 that haven’t gone away but have probably been speeded up or exacerbated by the pandemic. One of the questions that everyone has to face in different spheres of life is how we learn from the past year and how we adapt in the face of new realities.
One of the things that struck me through the pandemic is that although many people connected with the Church through online services, and although many Christians and others of goodwill were so generous in their care for others, we live now in a post-Christendom context. Although Western society as a whole is still massively influenced by its Christian heritage, it has become largely secular or post-Christian (certainly in the UK).
The challenge for the Church is that we still tend to run on the old Christendom model where the Church was a central part of society and played a significant role in the life of the nation. Of course, the Church still does that in many ways but it seems that the mission and ministry of the Church now has to adapt to a new context. How do we do this? Do we have the energy? Where is God in all of this? None of us has the answers, and it would be easy to be overwhelmed, but at the same time it is a challenge that we are called to respond to both imaginatively, creatively and joyfully. It would be easy to fall into anxiety about these questions, but our basic vocation is to live out and share with others the good news of Jesus’s glorious resurrection from the dead, his victory over sin and the new life that he brings to the world. In some ways, the Church has more in common now with the early Church, with those first witnesses and apostles who lived out their faith in the first centuries after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Our context may, in fact, help us to see that Jesus’s call to follow him has always has been counter-cultural move. It’s not so much about turning away from the world, rather a fresh turn towards God which will then speak a fresh word to the world.
The Church will need to adapt to a new landscape, and as we adapt it will be important to listen well: to listen to God in the scriptures and in prayer; to listen to others, especially those we do not usually listen to; and to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church in a changing context.
At the Last Supper, Jesus’s disciples are a bit downcast and disheartened that Jesus is going away from them, but in John’s gospel Jesus looks them squarely in the eye and says to them: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ As we look to Easter we too know that our Lord has called us to trust him, to trust in his provision and guidance, to know that a new day has dawned for the world through his death and resurrection, and that we are called to live our lives in the light of the resurrection. May our Lord’s peace, hope and joy be yours this coming Easter and in the year ahead as we seek to be faithful witnesses to the one who calls us to follow him.