May 18th 2021
Are we coming or going? I don’t know! A bit like sitting at the top of a roller coaster there is that moment of excitement and nervousness (if you like roller coasters – if you don’t then maybe it’s just terror).
By the time you read this letter, things will have changed from the time I am writing and, over the next months (the plan covers June – August) things will have changed again – here endeth my prophetic skills! None of us know what the landscape will look like in the coming months but in that we put our hand in the hand of God and hold tight. Unlike any quarterly plan I have ever created (and I had early training sitting with my dad using the large ‘plan’ paper and boards to help him check names and churches before I was even in my teens), this is by far the most challenging. This includes the time, when as a student minister in Weardale I was responsible for making the plan for 9 chapels with me as a student minister, a total of 4 local preachers and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. We are living in uncertain times having spent a lot of the past 12-18 months locked down and socially distant.
Research carried out on the impact of the pandemic on the whole Church in Scotland reflects something of our own experience revealing the importance of online church and worship. It was something we had begun to explore already (with services in the circuit led from Bulgaria) and it was one of those things ‘we should really think more about and act upon’ but got crowded out by all the other things we felt needed doing. There is now an opportunity. Both the research (which took place across a range of denominations) and our own Scottish Methodist District urges us to take time and not simply revert to old patterns. I know from my own experience in this past year that recovery takes longer than I might wish, and time and space have to be allowed for that.
Making the Plan prior to the pandemic was becoming an increasing challenge as witnessed by the creeping number of ‘Own Arrangements’. Rather than trying to work harder and faster to bail out the water of the sinking boat, perhaps this is the time to get out of the boat and try seeking Jesus on the water. As we do so, we might find ourselves feeling a bit like Peter (Matthew 14:29-31):
[Jesus] said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
I have a huge amount of respect for Peter (for getting out of the boat in the first place) and sympathy for when he became frightened, suddenly realising what he was doing. It reminds me a bit of one of those roadrunner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote runs off the edge of the cliff and then suddenly realises there is no solid ground underneath him and plunges down (he always survives!).
The Plan is a huge shift for all of us, but I believe Christ is calling to us. We have made new connections online in these past months that we would not have done in our church buildings. For the vast majority (though not all) we have been thankful for the technology that has allowed us to connect with one another and carry on being the church regardless of the building – a lesson that the congregations in Montrose and Blairgowrie & Rattray have already shared with us. One of the things that has been reinforced for me is that whilst I am something of a tourist in the digital world (I don’t spend most of my life there), many people do live there – ask almost any teenager about their smartphone! We need to ask ourselves what they might want on a Sunday morning, and ask what we, as Christians, have got to share? And of course, it is not just teenagers but many people of all ages can spend a lot of time there (my mum is very grateful for her tablet not only for keeping in touch with the family but watching the cricket, listening to music etc).
This is certainly not to suggest we should all spend our time online – I for one am very keen to sing some hymns alongside others when we are allowed and share in the Lord’s Supper gathered physically. Alongside that I recognise physical gathering may also cause nervousness or fear:
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
If you are feeling nervous or fearful, get in touch with someone else from church and chat with them. As physical places of worship open, they do so, under law and guidelines from government and church (and following government advice encouraging people to get tested, I am also starting to use the free self-test kits which can be ordered online or picked up in local pharmacies). Measures are in place and will remain so until we are advised differently. I am truly looking forward to seeing you all in person (in the online worship the preachers and leaders cannot see the congregation and the preachers are missing that connection as well).
In making the Plan I have tried to take account of the different currents that are flowing and allow some flexibility using the resources we have. Where D appears on the plan for ‘digital’, each church will need to decide if it wants to meet physically that week and use the online material or worship at home as we have been doing for so much of this past year. I have also put a note on the Plan – don’t forget to Pray! It can be so easy to be swept along that, like Peter, we get overwhelmed and forget to seek the presence of Christ. Time and time again, God says to the people in the Bible ‘Fear not’ (why not see if you can find a verse that says this or, ‘do not be afraid’). Whether we are coming or going Christ is present and prayer helps us to put our hand into the hand of God.
Please pray for the circuit, the churches and the preachers at this time. May the Spirit breathe through us to be a blessing of love and peace in our homes and our communities.