I received news last month that a great hero and inspiration of mine, the French Canadian, Jean Vanier had died at the age of 91.
Jean was the founder of the L’Arche and Faith and Light communities for adults with learning disabilities and their assistants. Although we only met about 6 or 7 times there was something very compelling about his words when he spoke and the way he came alive in the presence of his friends across the world with learning disabilities. He was a man who made certain choices in life – to live simply, to devote his life to following Jesus more closely, to work for peace and to seek to befriend and understand those who were different to himself and see the things of beauty within them.
The story of L’Arche began back in 1964 when Jean, who was then a university professor of Philosophy in Toronto, made the irreversible and life changing decision to invite 2 men from a local institution with learning disabilities to come and live with him in a small cottage in a village
north of Paris called Trosly Breuil. He sought to live a simple life in community with these men and from these humble beginnings grew a movement in which communities were founded in 35 countries and over 1,800 Faith and Light communities were founded in 80 countries as a support network for people with learning disabilities and their families. Although, a very charismatic speaker and the possessor of a brilliant intellect, Jean never sought the limelight. He just sought to position himself near those who faced misunderstanding and marginalisation because he discovered that in their company Jesus was revealed to him in a profound and life changing way.L’Arche and Faith and Light are essentially all about the small things, building friendships and relationships, doing things with people rather than for them and all the while respecting their differences. Jean never shied away from the difficulties and challenges of living in community. People can run one another up the wrong way and unless we are up front about these things resentments and mistrust can escalate very quickly.
Jean was a committed ecumenist at a time when such a stance was anything but fashionable and popular. Coming from the Roman Catholic tradition he was often viewed with suspicion by the hierarchy in his church because of his endeavours to build bridges between different Christian denominations and indeed his work with those from other faith Communities like the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist religions. In these conversations and relationships he never relinquished his Christian convictions but expressed them gracefully and respectfully, looking to embrace rather than exclude.
Churches can often feel in this day and age as if we are on the back foot. We seem to have lost credibility with the world around us. Many have voted with their feet and left the mainstream denominations. They are frustrated with a faith that seems to promise much but deliver little in terms of community and personal transformation. People are quick to spot the inconsistencies between the message we preach and the life we are living especially if we are in any way vocal about our faith. As the numbers decrease in our churches we often tend to retreat into our shells. It’s as if we have lost confidence in the God who can change or transform our lives and bring hope and light out of despair.
Jean’s life inspired me because he was a man who believed in the God of small things. Even though L’Arche’s numbers were never huge seeds were sown around the world of vision and possibility. People with disabilities were given a place in the centre of the community and were often the messengers of an alternative way.
People weren’t so interested in your achievements or how much you earned but simply would you be coming back? Would you spend time with them and be their friend?
Often in church life we want to make a difference. We want to run the best programmes, offer the best facilities and represent a significant and telling voice in our city or town or community. In the summer months, sometimes we start to plan and dream our latest schemes for changing the world. We try to imagine what it might be in the coming year that might draw people back to the church? We long to inspire and enthuse and mobilise the church to connect with those outside and while these are good and noble aspirations what if we did it differently this summer?
What if we came aside one night a week for 30-45 minutes to simply spend some time with Jesus? What if we were invited to listen to some of his words and allow them to speak to our hearts? What if we just said rather than ask you for things for our church or for myself I just want to be close to you for a little while each week? I want to allow you to influence me and for my thoughts to be shaped by your thoughts and your values. What if we said welcome in again to my life which has been so busy, I maybe squeezed you out?
That’s why I would like to invite anyone who wants to join me, to do so, on the Thursday nights in July and August. We will simply be meeting in the
church from 7.30pm -8.15. There will just be that opportunity to spend some time with the Lord, be guided by a few thoughts and delight in his presence. We hope it will be a blessed time and a blessed opportunity for all of us to reconnect or stay close to Him.
During the months of July/August you will notice our service times change to 9am, 11am and 7pm and our Wednesday morning services are suspended and will resume in September. If you have the opportunity to head away over these next couple of months, please take the opportunity if you can to worship with a local congregation. We are always delighted to welcome visitors to our services and your presence will bring encouragement and blessing to other congregations wherever you find yourself this summer. It can be very spiritually refreshing to experience something a little different to what you are used to so please seek out those opportunities if you can.
We wish you a blessed summer. With best wishes
Jonathan Pierce (Rector)
Telephone 02890 793822