“Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow…” Part 2 of Ruth Smith’s series
Many modern day Christians will not know that this phrase, which I also used in my last blog, was taken from the old hymn Great is thy Faithfulness.
Written in 1923 by one Thomas Chisholm it was based on the Old Testament Scripture:
Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.They are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, ‘Therefore I hope in Him!”
Chisholm’s is an interesting story of an ordinary man who struggled over many years with ill health. It affected his employment and livelihood, making him unable to pursue his vocation as a church minister and confining him to an office job with an insurance company. Amazingly despite his poor health he lived until he was 96! Towards the end of his life, he is recorded as saying:
My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now, although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.
This has left me wondering how many congregations in Durham’s urban villages are able to share Chisholm’s joyful gratitude? I’m sure there are many who on a personal level are aware of God’s great faithfulness and love for them, and turn to him for strength to help them through each day, especially in the difficult times. Difficulties are many for people living in these communities and often, I suspect, they have felt ‘consumed’ – life is a struggle when you don’t have much.
Church people in these villages face the ordinary trials of life, in addition they face the unrelenting struggle of trying to keep their churches open, trying hard to meet the constant demands of money and maintenance. They have witnessed over recent decades the gradual diminishment of church membership, by this I don’t just mean the drastic fall in church attendance. Many of these congregations are elderly and coping with the task of simply getting older: poorer health, less income, lower energy levels and capacity to do what they used to do (and might still want to do but can’t), the deaths of friends and family bringing nearer the reality of their own mortality.
Over the years they’ve seen great change: now the values that are important to them count less, and matters of church and faith have shifted to the margins. Even their children and grandchildren have opted out. To top it all they have had their vicar taken away. For some, I have no doubt that the final straw falls when their church becomes ‘unviable’ and is threatened with closure. Their church (or chapel) as well as their village has been abandoned.
I find myself wondering: how many of these congregations, in the face of such overwhelming (consuming) challenges, begin to question the faithfulness of God? There is little strength for today, and hope for tomorrow has faded, or been taken away.
The other side of life in these churches has been equally disturbing, I have often been astounded and dismayed when churchgoers seem to understand little about the Gospel and have no interest in sharing God’s love with each other, never mind their community. I have been at a loss more than a few times to understand what it is some congregations have been taught – or not – down the many years of their church going. I have worked with congregations who have had enough of change and not only resist more but absolutely refuse it, even when their survival depends on it. And sadly there have been those ‘washing your hands’ times when you realise you’re wasting your time and have to let go and move on.
This is not the universal truth as I have also journeyed with congregations who have been devastated by the loss of former things and slow to accept new thinking and new ways, but they have worked through it and survived. A few have even thrived and now acknowledge that after all it was worth the pain.
The point is new thinking and new ways are things that few of us, if we are entirely honest transition into easily. Letting go of the old to make way for the new is painful – we can feel threatened, undermined, overwhelmed – consumed – especially when it seems that everything foundational and familiar is being lost. What makes it worse, though, is when we feel powerless to do anything about it, when control is taken out of our hands and any influence we hoped we might have is denied.
This is part of life for many in the urban villages and other marginalised communities. They are so used to no one listening that they have stopped communicating. They are so tired of struggling that they have given up the fight. They are so used to being ‘done to’ that they take it for granted. So, to introduce ‘new thinking and new ways’ which encourage self determination, aspiration and hope – well, that is a challenge to be reckoned with.
However, those in the congregation who are used to being done to, are not the only ones in need of change. There is the even harder task, I think ironically, to introduce new thinking and new ways to those who are failing to listen but have the role of ‘doing to’ – in other words, the power holders. Sadly some of these are church leaders who decide the ‘viability’ issue and choose which churches close and which do not. There is ostensibly always a consultation period, but what appears to be happening more and more is the churches in the poorer communities – the urban villages, the housing estates, the inner cities – are closing, whilst those in other areas survive.
It’s a disturbing trend which urgently needs to be reversed. What we desperately need are new thinking and new ways – and a new willingness from everyone to do things differently.