“Here at the end of all things”
This is a phrase that has echoed in my mind lately.
It is a quote from Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien) the quest is over, Frodo has admitted his failure to have the courage to proactively dispose of the ring, Mt Doom is erupting and the quest is finished. Frodo says to Sam “ I am glad that you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.”
This phrase is resonating because as we look around it can feel like we have reached the end of all things. The global pandemic has accelerated both the need for change and the speed at which it seems to be occurring. We have become aware of many problems and struggles that are prevalent in the way that we are conducting our lives and relationships. For those of us involved in the Christian church (or Christian organisations) we notice the empty seats in our auditoriums, the cancelled programs, the dwindling finances, the high profile exposure of moral and ethical failings of church leaders and the endemic burnout in church workers. It feels like we have reached the end of all things. For those of us who have been on this journey for some time, it is easy to feel a little hopeless, we wonder what the future can possibly be for our small church as we dwindle in numbers and energy.
It is clear that the zenith of a certain type and style of Christian expression is over. Of course some of us have been commentating on this change for a while, predicting it and warning that it is coming. Even for those of us who are deeply committed to change in our faith institutions it has been difficult to envision what that change may look like. We have experimented and trialed various expressions – Home churches, cell churches, alt-worship focussed churches, missional churches, churches in pubs, mega churches, messy churches online churches and everything in between. Those are just the ones that I have personally tried! From large scale change to small tweaks it seems that someone somewhere has attempted it. Not all these experiments have been considered successful, most of them have required a lot of activism and effort on the part of those that believe in them, in part because of the need to constantly be defending our actions and beliefs against those who do not wish to change. At times that battle has left us little energy for actually visioning what our churches could look like.
This hasn’t been an easy quest we have embarked on, we are weary and it is easy to be weighed down with by tradition and the lack of change where we most see the need. As we stand here at the end of all things I am trying to grow my compassion to those who have weighed our institutions down, who have caused us to fight for the change we need, for a new vision to cast. Mostly these people are unable to tolerate the distress of uncertainty that this journey entails, lacking the courage for a journey into the unknown. Rather they keep a secure and tight grip on what they know, because they need its predictability, in a world that they are seeing as unsettling and challenging.
Those of us that embarked on this journey into the unknown who thought we were able to tolerate the uncertainty that we walked into are struggling. We can see what hasn’t and isn’t working, we know we need something different but we seem to struggle to see the future of the church, of how it could be a Holy Spirit inspired community of faith that looks different to all that know. What does successful church in 2022-23 post pandemic look like? What are the changes that we need? How can we bring them about? What forms of faith expression will be most successful? What is success anyway? The questions are big and weighty as we stand here at the end of all things.
Perhaps we can find sources of hope that we can cling to, that will help us continue the journey. Although Frodo thinks that they have reached the end of all things with the eruption of Mt Doom it isn’t actually the end.
This is actually the Apex of their journey.
It marks the end of the outbound leg of the journey. Now they must embark (with some help from the Eagles) on in the inbound leg of their journey. This is not the end rather it is the beginning of their journey back to the Shire.
Throughout Sam and Frodo’s adventures what has kept Sam going even to these last moments, is his memories of the peace and abundance of the Shire. Simple pleasures like a bit of seasoning and potatoes, a pint of beer, the nurturing soil of his garden and Rosie Cotton dancing. Now that Sam and Frodo are on their inbound journey these memories shift they are now the vision of the future – the memories have become the destination. If this moment of unprecedented change for the Church marks the apex of our journey, framing our vision as a homeward journey may help us find our way through the difficulties that we face imagining the new future.
To change direction, to face home requires us to switch our focus and outlook. Rather than facing outwards hoping the answer is ‘out there’ somewhere in the future, we turn inwards realising that is in the small moments of connection that we will find our way. To journey home requires a switch in our attitude and understanding of home, the wider world, leadership, relationships and our sense of purpose.
On an outward journey our community is a source of identity, it helps describe who we are, and is a resource base for us to stock up for our journey, our focus is on those out there rather than on those at home. On an inbound journey our community or home becomes our vision, our destination clear rather than uncertain. The purpose of home shifts as we head home it becomes a source of restoration and healing. We also see a marked change in the attitude to the world around us. In an outward journey there was a sense of ‘us in here’ and ‘those out there’. Separation ad isolation were prominent, but now as we shift to look towards home we travel with a new awareness of the connection and unity of all peoples. We have all experienced tumultuous times and we have forged strong relationships with those who we once thought were our enemies. On a homeward journey we require a different style of leadership. We no longer need those leaders who were good at invoking the inspiration and courage that we needed for our adventure. Rather we need leaders who can create safety, healing and connection, those who can make everyone feel at home. The focus on the outward journey is on finding our tribe (or fellowship) people with a common purpose and passion. The shift in a homeward journey is about prioritising reconnection, creating a sense of community that holds space for change, diversity and growth. The sense of purpose that drives the outward journey is exploration – discovering untrod paths, going out there. As we journey home the larger sense of purpose is anchoring. We are kept steady by our attachment to each other, our community, God and the land.
This is not the end, rather it is the apex of our journey. It requires a shift in thinking we need to realise that the answer will not be found ‘out there’, it will not be new, exciting and complex. Rather the answer will be found by connecting to the small, the simple and those basic things that we already know but have forgotten to value. We need to recreate faith communities that are centred on the sense of home, that are places of restoration, that celebrate diversity, that create and promote safety, strengthen relationships, and anchor us into God’s story.