Sunday, 14 March 2010

A View from the Pew – Life is stirring

View from the Pew is a column I write for Newslink, the diocesan magazine for Limerick & Killaloe - this peice appeared in the March 2010 edition.

Pussy willow bravely blooming

What a hard winter we’ve had of it!
First the floods in November, then the snow around Christmas, followed by the hardest frosts for many years.

The Shannon froze. It brought to mind my mother’s story of how as a teenager in the early 1930s, she and her friends walked across Lough Derg on the ice from the Tipperary to the Galway shore, dragging a small boat in case the ice cracked. Mistakenly I had thought I would never see such a thing myself because of global warming – but that confuses weather with climate. Weather is naturally variable, and even as the planet warms we can expect occasional cold snaps, though they may be rarer. Climate is about long timescales and wide areas. As we froze in Ireland, temperatures in the arctic were up to 7°C above normal this winter. Don’t be misled by the cold winter – climate change is continuing and real.

It was heartening to see how people rallied round to help their neighbours devastated by the floods and struggling in the cold. I was impressed how the IFA organised distribution of fodder donated by farmers with a surplus to those who had lost theirs. And we should all feel inspired by the generosity and enterprise of the children of St Michael’s National School, Limerick, who raised over €500 to give toys at Christmas to children who had lost theirs when they were flooded out of their homes, as reported in Newslink last month.

In the garden the frost has killed many tender plants, and I fear for a lot of others. The Chilean Puyas which survived several winters outside are all gone, as is a Cordyline. Two Olearias are looking very sick. And I have attended far too many funerals of old friends recently. Most were occasions to celebrate long lives well lived, but the death of a contemporary reminds me of my own mortality.

New life is stirring.
But now life is stirring again as the days lengthen and winter gives way to another spring. The flowering willow is covered with silver pussies, snowdrops are blooming their socks off, the first crocuses are struggling through over-long grass, and the hellebores are about to burst. The buds on Forsythia and winter cherry are swelling, and the catkins are lengthening on the cobnuts. The birds too are starting to think about making babies – I have just been watching from my window two hen blackbirds trying to chase each other away from a rather bemused looking cock. And a farming neighbour who looked ready to drop in the pew confided that he had barely slept for a week because he was up all night calving!

Is it just me who detects new life stirring in our diocese too? I hope not. These are just some of the things that I have noticed recently:
  • The buoyant mood of the hundreds of people who made the pilgrimage from all corners of the diocese to Limerick for Celebrate Together in November. Something new happens when we move out of our own small parishes to come together.

  • The mixture of fun and serious purpose in the largely lay group that Vicki Lynch brought together to attend the NOSTRA public lectures at Mary I. It was eye-opening to meet so many others who also yearn to talk about their faith and its implication for mission, to discover we are not alone.

  • The new training programmes designed to equip lay people for ministry, as parish and diocesan readers and in pastoral and youth work, and the moves toward a ‘fellowship of vocation’. They promise to release the gifts of those who take them up for Christian service.

There are stirrings too in other churches. For all the disillusionment over clerical abuse, increasing numbers of Roman Catholic lay men and women are seeking pastoral and theological training – and they are pressing for a greater lay involvement in their parishes. New churches and worship communities are springing up as well. In my parish, for instance, there is the Nenagh Baptist Group, a new church plant which particularly welcomes the unchurched and young families, and Living Water, an interdenominational charismatic group, holding joyous monthly meetings of worship and prayer in a local hotel, both well worth a visit.

Where are the stirrings leading?
We know where the stirrings in the garden will lead – to burgeoning life, beautiful flowers and a bountiful future harvest.

It is less clear where the stirrings in the church are leading, but I feel sure the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing. Perhaps this Lent we should all ponder where the Spirit is leading us, both as the church and individually, and listen prayerfully for the Spirit to guide our responses.

Here are my own tentative first thoughts:

  • We should not be afraid of new life stirring, but rather seek to nourish it. It springs from within our tradition, like a shoot sprouting from a rootstock, drawing strength from the faithful witness and unsung service of so many Church of Ireland people over the years. Let us see it as a harbinger of exciting renewal, not frightening change.

  • Similar stirrings are at work in other churches, as I found when I sought out and talked to Christians of other traditions. Most long to share Christian witness, prayer and service with others, just as we do. This suggests to me that the Spirit is leading our different denominations to walk together, recognising each other as fellow disciples of Jesus, who unites us in our diversity. Let us cultivate ecumenical activity - perhaps through a ‘Churches Together’ group in our own locality.

  • In all our churches, ordinary lay men and women both feel a call to play a more active role and are responding to it. The old model of full-time professional clergy dispensing ministry to laity who passively consume it can no longer be sustained. With fewer vocations, limited finances and ever larger parish unions, clergy are overworked and risk burnout. In an age of mass higher education and democracy lay people recognise that they also are gifted for ministry and seek to exercise their gifts. It is now generally recognised that all Christians are called to serve in a multitude of different ways – the clergy’s role is to equip them to do so. Let us make a reality of passionate all-member ministry.

  • We are most likely to discern where the Spirit is leading by sharing our own thoughts with others and testing them in discussion. Let us unleash the power of the Spirit by contributing to the debate.

What do you think? If you agree or disagree, or feel moved to contribute to the debate, why not share your thoughts in a letter to Madam Editor?

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