Together we are stronger

As we think together in these blogs about what it is to be a ‘church without walls’, one of the commands of Jesus we frequently refer to is the importance of loving our neighbour.

Even for those who have no church background this is not an unfamiliar teaching. While Christians have historically been to the forefront of many caring initiatives in providing education, healthcare, and campaigning for social justice, like the abolition of slavery and trying to encourage wealthier nations to cancel the debts of the world’s poorest nations, it’s not a uniquely Christian trademark. Other world religions, like Islam and Buddhism, have similar teachings about caring for others, especially the most vulnerable. Jesus, in Matthew 25, however, couches it in different terms and says that when we do something for the least of our brothers we do it for Him. That’s a great principle to take into any aspect of our daily life and work.

Whatever we do, whether it’s a very public or prestigious role, or a hidden task as we pray quietly, or act as a carer for a loved one who needs help with many things, we do it also for God.

Last week, I attended a very inspiring seminar over Zoom for clergy. It was organised by a group, who are clergy themselves, but try to help others with looking after the stresses and mental health challenges that come with our work. The panel was made up of a very diverse group of men and women from many denominations. There was a leader from the Vineyard church, a Presbyterian minister, a Methodist minister, a leader from a new church plant in Dublin, a Roman Catholic priest and a Rector in a Church of Ireland parish. The discussion was chaired by a leader in the Moravian Church community and the panel responded to different questions around how their churches had tried to respond to Covid 19.

What I found very encouraging was that it was a safe place to share stories and experiences and, not surprisingly, the challenges faced by all these leaders, regardless of denomination, were remarkably similar. Everyone was struggling with keeping people connected when we can’t all physically meet for various reasons. Everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, was battling the challenges of establishing an online presence. Everyone, too, was struggling with fatigue and managing people’s expectations and, indeed, their expectations of themselves.

I think it was a great opportunity to press the pause button for 90 minutes and try to encourage one another and, indeed, pray for one another.

One of the things I have noticed about the church over the years is that it functions best when we do what we can together.

In the group of parishes that makes up our Area Deanery over the past 5 years over £60,000 was raised to support the work of Christians Against Poverty in East Belfast. Volunteers and paid staff helped to assist people working through financial problems especially in the area of accumulated debts. Together as churches we gathered foodstuffs and items for distribution that made a real and practical difference to families and individuals experiencing the worst of times. A CAP jobs club was established to help people applying for jobs to make CVS, fill in applications and work on interview techniques. Very practical money courses were run in a number of churches to teach budgeting and money management skills and, again, one saw the power of churches and people coming together to make a difference

In my last 2 parishes I remember an Advent outreach with my colleagues from the Roman Catholic Church and the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church over Advent. On consecutive Thursdays we visited the 3 pubs in the village inviting people to pose questions of faith – everything you ever wanted to ask about Christianity, but were afraid to! People anonymously posted questions in boxes in our churches, in local schools and, with the kind cooperation of the respective landlords, in the pubs concerned. People came together and were, perhaps, surprised at how similar the churches were and punters in the pubs were happy to listen in and share in the discussion. The questions we were all struggling with were universal. They focussed on issues like suffering or how to pray when things are difficult. There were questions about how to read and understand the Bible or about how God guides ordinary people in their everyday lives. People were curious about the relationship between faith and science.

During the pandemic our Bishop has been busy travelling around all the parishes of the Diocese. In his most recent initiative he has recorded 3 harvest services – a harvest of the land, a harvest of the sea and a harvest of the city. These services have all been recorded in different parts of the Diocese and feature different people sharing stories and prayers and music. I’ve only seen one of the services so far, but they are all available on the Down and Dromore Diocesan website , Facebook page and YouTube channel, as well as our own website. It’s another brilliant resource for those who maybe won’t be able to get in person to a harvest thanksgiving celebration, as the Bishop shares powerful messages in each of these environments alongside local people.

One of the huge problems we are all struggling with during the current restrictions is that of isolation. There are some people who have been shielding for health reasons and who haven’t really been out of their homes since last March. While internet access maybe allows us to participate in church services, it’s not a very adequate substitute for human contact. That’s why I want to encourage everyone to keep phoning your neighbours and the members of the church family. Whatever the medium, whether it’s a letter or card, a phone call or Zoom call, let others know they are not alone.

One of the most beautiful, yet hidden means of caring for and connecting with others, is to pray for them. Sometimes it’s good to ask that question in a conversation – what would it be helpful for me to pray for you at the present time? We almost forget, in the midst of the pandemic, that people are struggling with health issues, either themselves or in their families. They may be concerned about loved ones at school or at work or at university. These worries can intensify, especially if we are on our own, so let’s bring people before God. Let’s look like the organisers of the Care4Clergy seminar for ways of working together with those from other backgrounds to serve each other and to serve the community remembering that together we are stronger.

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,

Jono.