Questions for the Contemporary Church No. 5
What are we passionate about?
In amongst the sizzling temperatures, space flights and supermarket panic of this past week, you may or may not have noted the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo on Friday. Writing this on Thursday, as the courier system needs me to do, I don’t yet know what the opening ceremony was like, who’s at the top of the medal table, or how well Team GB are performing, though one thing I do know for sure is that it will be a very different Olympics. There are, of course, good arguments as to why it shouldn’t go ahead at all, alongside others for why it should, some of which my friend Darran and I rehashed as we reminisced about our trip to the last Games, five years ago now, over in Brazil. And alongside recollections about the actual sports that we were lucky enough to see, we spoke of our wider time in that beautiful but troubled country – the thunderous splendour of the Iguazu Falls; the daring defiance of Rio’s favelas; the wild wonders of the Amazon Rainforest. It was in our few days in the latter that we got to know two cousins from New Zealand, one of whom loved sloths. Back home, she told us, she had pictures and posters of sloths in her house; she wore sloth clothing, watched sloth documentaries, adopted a sloth in her local zoo…she was passionate about them. So when, as we returned to the camp on our final day in the rainforest, our guide spotted one and was safely able to bring him over for an educational talk about the species, our new Kiwi friend was overcome with emotion, burst into tears, and practically elbowed the rest of us out the way so that she could hold one.
After dinner that night, as we talked about this amazing experience, I mentioned how her joy was beautiful it was to see and that I couldn’t think of anything or anyone to whom I would respond in a similar ecstatic way. I suggested it was because I was a cold Englishman. My friend Darran claimed it was because I had no soul!
“But there must be something that you’re passionate about,” I can remember the sloth-enthusiast saying to me. “A sport’s team or a hobby; a person or cause…?”
Now, we could, of course, have a big discussion about whether or not her response to the sloth was passion or obsession and we should equally acknowledge that we show and share passions in a multitude of ways…but that doesn’t stop the basic question at hand. So let me ask you…what are you passionate about? How would you answer that? What are you passionate about…and what does it mean to be passionate?
Hymn: As the deer pants for the water…
So, how did we get on with the question ‘what does it mean to be passionate about something’?
Perhaps a look at the word’s derivation might help here…for the English word ‘passionate’ can be traced through Middle English and Old French to the Latin ‘passio’, which means ‘suffering’. ‘Passionate’, then, comes from the past participle of the verb passionare, and essentially means ‘to be affected with suffering’. To be affected with suffering…it’s probably not the first thing we think of when we use the word ‘passionate’ but it does make sense when you come to think of it. From the plunge into despair that a life-long sports fans goes through when their team loses a key match and the heartbreak a lover might feel when a romance comes to an end, to the very fact that we refer to the horrific final events of Jesus’ life as his ‘passion’, it’s evident that passion and suffering often go hand-in-hand. We see this in Psalm 42 – the basis for the last hymn – in which the writer’s opening line about his hunger for God are followed by words of desolation:
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
Wow. Words there that come from a very real experience of loss. Perhaps you can empathize. I think, Cleopas and has companion could have. We join them now as they walk, downcast, on a road to a village called Emmaus…
Reading – Luke 24:13-35
So, from heart-broken to heart-burning…in a good, non-Gaviscon way!
Many of you will know that this is one of my favourite passages from scripture. From the whole pilgrimage imagery to the idea that welcoming a stranger can lead to an encounter with Christ, for me, it’s teeming with allusions, questions and lessons which I would happily discuss for hours…but knowing that others might have plans this afternoon, let’s just focus on the opening details. Cleopas and companion – possibly, probably, his wife – are travelling away from Jerusalem, discussing the intense events of the last week. They are mid-flow when Jesus comes near, walks with them, listens to their conversation and asks ‘what are you discussing as you walk along?’
Now, it kind of blows my mind that, according to Luke, the first words that Jesus utters after the betrayal and pain and darkness of the cross; after the wonder and confusion and world-shaking, cosmos-changing rising from the grave, is a seemingly innocuous question. ‘What are you chatting about?” Not a ‘Behold!’ Not a ‘Let me show me something’. Not a ‘Ta-da’. But a question in which he is not even the subject of the sentence!
‘What are you discussing as you walk along?’
If these are some of the first words that the God-in-risen-flesh speaks, then I think the question has to be pretty significant, eh? As does the answer.
‘What are you discussing as you walk along?’
For Cleopas and his companion, that question was the gateway to a journey with Christ and I wonder whether the same might be true for us. You see, perhaps we can show our passion in tears. Perhaps, for some people, some of the time, it’s expressed in groans, shouts, and laughter; in jumps for joy and slumps of sadness…but I can’t help but wonder whether, for most of us, most of the time, our passions can be heard in the conversations we have. On what is on our mind, and our heart, and, consequently, on our lips.
I’m not saying that I think every conversation has to be an explicitly theological one for there is a time for everything – a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to talk about the divinity of Jesus, and a time to discuss the latest events in Tokyo or Torfaen, Albert Square or Ambridge.
But as churches, I do think we need to reflect on what our conversations might reveal about our passions. As a pandemic rages, the world burns, and a Prime Minister questions the value of lives over eighty, what are we discussing as we walk along? What issues, principles, subjects dominate our discussions, our meetings, our worship? And would our answers open the way for life-changing encounters with Christ?
Last week, Ben Walkling gave us hope that they would. In talking about his experience of the United Reformed Church’s General Assembly earlier this month, he said he was encouraged because ‘a lot of the decisions and issues we were discussing were quite outward looking’ – citing discussions on justice in the Middle East, issues of equality in our recruitment processes, how to demonstrate solidarity through our stance on modern day slavery. And even the more dreary debates about pensions and disciplinary processes and digital ministry were founded upon questions of fairness, human dignity and the sharing of good news.
My prayer is that, as we journey onward, navigating the tricky task of transitioning to forms of church which are exciting, engaging and appropriate for our context today, that our conversations will reveal a passion for Jesus and for justice; that we will be passionate – ‘affected with suffering’ – not just for ourselves but with all who suffer in our community and beyond; that we will keep conversing with the God who gargled as a baby in a manger; spoke words of hope and forgiveness from a cross; who blessed two pilgrims on a roadside; and who asks us again today;
‘What are you discussing as you walk along?’
Prayers for ourselves and others
Dear Lord, you have given us so much to be passionate about in this world, in our lives: may we endeavour to greet each day with an attitude of gratitude and enthusiasm.
Give energy and insight, tolerance and compassion to our world leaders, in government, business, in church and other faiths. May they be blessed with the same eagerness and zeal that we see in our own dear minister, Phil!
You have made us stewards of this wonderful planet. Encourage us to walk the walk as well as we talk the talk on issues affecting the climate and the safety and well-being of all living things. May we be careful in our life choices; our purchasing habits; our charitable giving; in all that we do.
Give us a fervent passion for justice, equality, peace. Help us to be proactive in promoting and achieving a fairer world-wide society. Challenge us to do more, practically; to not hide behind the argument that our individual actions are too small to be effective: please show us the means by which we can realise your message of love, in our community and throughout the world.
Guide us in our own personal ministries, so that we may be enthusiastic witnesses to that love in our daily lives. Let us seek to be kind whenever possible and to remember that it is always possible. If we see someone without a smile, let’s give them one of ours!
In this time of reflection, let us think of those throughout the world and those known to us personally, who suffer from illness, disease, grief, poverty, violence. May your loving arms be wrapped around them.
We share a few quiet moments to offer our own prayers to God……
We bring together all our prayers in the words that you gave us, which we speak in whichever language we feel most comfortable, saying: Ein Tad…
A Franciscan Blessing:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.