Monday, 21 September 2009

the subtle religious art of disappointment

not in service bus at bakewell bus stop

This looked like a classic definition of disappointment to me. Take a bus, a bus stop and a queue of waiting passengers, and all should be well and as expected. Add the sign “Sorry. Not in Service” and what you have is solid gold-plated disappointment  decorated with bright gems of sparkling frustration. There have been a couple of times of late (a video meditation I put together for closing worship at our Synod and a Harvest sermon I gave yesterday morning using powerpoint) when I rather think I have arrived with something which disappointed and frustrated in equal measure, because for some it did not match up to expectations and, for whatever reason, I  missed the mark myself. Sometimes we just plain get it wrong. Mea culpa.

Preaching on the theme ‘God’s harvest of love, kindness and justice’, force of circumstances meant that I did a remix of the keynote address I had given the day before at our rural mission day – and perhaps therein lies one of my problems! A traditional take on Harvest, in this chapel bedecked with a full display of vegetables, preserves, fruit etc, was ‘not in the service’, neither was the hymn ‘we plough the fields and scatter’, which for theological reasons I find unsingable. As someone said to me afterwards: ‘that was controversial’. Taking Jesus at his word when he commands us to ‘follow’, I explored the implications of this as we seek to follow him into the suffering and injustice of the world. A disciple or church which fails to follow Jesus in this way is literally ‘not in service’ and resembles a bus with its doors firmly shut against the world outside. It is a disappointing and frustrating denial of purpose. 

One section of the material I used was a reworking of four slides from a presentation I put together earlier in the summer on ‘the stilling of the storm’. Jesus calls us out of the security of our comfort zone and tells us to journey over to new territory and discover what it means to be faithful to God there. You get the gist from the slides.




I believe that Jesus calls us to disappoint and frustrate expectations which are inward-looking , bound up with maintaining the status quo and not determinedly missional. Just as he did. ‘Sorry. Not in Service’ is not good enough. The gospels warn us that this approach will be stormy. It certainly requires courage and trust. And it will be authentically Christian in outlook. This journey of service demands an open-door approach of being where the needy are. It is right there that we discover Jesus.


  1. You may be cheered to know that those same Stilling the Storm slides (albeit indirectly) gave me confidence to suggest at a harvest festival in our inner-city area that we dig up the chapel garden and make it into a community allotment. It's not happened yet of course - but it was received more positively than I might ever have hoped.
    In preaching I often feel torn between roles as pastor to a people who are themselves frightened and clinging onto flotsam and jetsame to stay afloat - and mission-enabler calling those same people to leave behind their security. If our call is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" my dilemma lies in our people appearing to be both - depending upon which lens you're looking through.

  2. Hi Rachel, it's good to know that the material was useful to you. The idea of a city allotment is inspired and I really hope it comes off.And your preaching dilemma is one I empathise with very much. Encouraging and supporting people as they explore the personal and collective consequences of being a faithful disciple is vital, as is pointing up the uncomfortable nature of discipleship in the first place.The fact that you recognise all this is good news for the people you serve!