We Can’t Go Back – Hidden Lives & Untold Stories

by the Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford, Canon Chancellor at Southwark Cathedral and author of “God, Gender, Sex and Marriage”

Mandy Ford

I’ve heard a few people in the past week talk about our current experience as an extended Holy Saturday, that liminal time between Jesus’ death and resurrection when no-one knew what was happening.  The time when shock and bereavement were paralysing.

While there is some truth in this, there is also paradox, which is reflected in our experience. The paradox is the busyness which immediately follows a death – all the tasks to be done, the decisions made, the plans managed. All those thing that get in the way of the work of mourning.

This paradox is reflected in many churches where Holy Saturday has a manic busyness about it, as the church is cleaned, flowers are arranged, silver is polished, and all is made ready for the great celebrations of Easter morning. But, Holy Saturday is just one day, quickly passed over in the sweep of the great three day festival.

Whereas, we are living through a much longer period of uncertainty, where the not knowing is beginning to drag and we are becoming more and more aware of what we are missing. Not just human touch, but the immediacy of face to face communication, the friends who don’t access social media, encounters with strangers with new stories to tell.

Instead, we are immersed in a very profound experience of uncertainty, in which we can’t really make sense of where we are or what will happen next.

Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that Jesus continued to appear to his disciples for forty days after the resurrection, but we have only a handful of stories about those appearances, and they’re mostly focused in the first few days.

What was going on in those hidden lives? What stories remain untold? How did the followers of Jesus behave as they waited? And what were they waiting for?

We have been warned in lock down to expect all sorts of feelings and behaviours to emerge, sometimes unexpectedly, as we face, what is for most of us, a mildly traumatic experience.  In the early days there was lots to do, problems to solve, challenges to meet, as we worked out how to feed our families, communicate with our friends, get to work virtually or literally.  Some of us felt quite heroic as we mastered new skills, created online worship, set up zoom meetings, managed food bank deliveries or started making scrubs from home.

And I imagine the disciples going through a similar phase of euphoria as they encountered Jesus, their friend and teacher, in new ways after the resurrection. We see the excitement of the resurrection in the gospels. What we don’t see is the explaining.

But it would be only human if the disciples spent hours together trying to make sense of what they were experiencing. I don’t suppose that the meaning-making with Jesus as the disciples walked along the road to Emmaus was the only story telling, sense making, remembering activity going on as they tried to understand the resurrection.

But then the excitement died down and there was nothing to do. Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem, but the urge to flee, to return to the familiarity of home, to the fishing boats and to the flocks, was almost unbearable.

The gospels are silent on this topic, but I wonder whether they also bickered with one another, criticised Thomas for his lack of faith, blamed Peter for denying Jesus, thought about how to carry on Jesus’ work but couldn’t quite work out how to do it in these new circumstances or what to say?

Stuck in the Upper Room they could not tell what was really going on beyond the walls – what seemed so real to them, was anyone else paying attention?

It seems to me that this is where we are stuck, in these in-between days, in the Upper Room with the disciples, surrounded by hidden lives and untold stories. And that we have much to learn from this.

One thing to learn is to remember that our experience is only partial, and that the full story of the lock down will not be known from within it, but only afterwards.

It very tempting to think that we can make sense of our experience now, but in truth we can’t. This has significant implications for what we can think about or plan for the future. The disciples could make sense of the past, could even try to understand the resurrection, but could they not anticipate the upheaval that God had planned for them in the future with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

It is always difficult to imagine, when we know what happens next, but let’s remember that the disciples did not have a timetable, the date of the coming of the Holy Spirit had not been advertised, all they had was a promise from Jesus – I will be with you always, even to the end of time. Perhaps it would be helpful for us to recognise that we don’t know what is coming, and so to be cautious in making plans and preparations for the future?

It is very tempting to imagine that things will change in predictable ways in the days and months ahead, but there is really no evidence to support that expectation.

While we might hope that people will continue to engage with online prayer and worship in greater mumbers, perhaps we might remember all the compelling activities that are not currently available to them. While we might hope that people will continue to engage with their neighbours and offer those little acts of kindness, perhaps we might remember how many other demands will return once families return to work or school. While we might hope that clergy will retain their focus on pastoral care and be in more regular contact with their congregations, we might also need to remember all the pressures they were under before lock down – the paperwork, the meetings, the diocesan strategies, the national agendas.

Rather than  looking ahead to an unknown future, perhaps we might use this time to make meaning and to reconnect with the Jesus story as we have experienced it up to now? Where have our lives been turned upside down in the past by an encounter with Jesus, or the disruption of the Holy Spirit?

We may need to be willing to admit our anxiety in the face of a future without a timetable or even a clear destination.  Admit that we can’t yet see God’s plan or preferred future for the church. Confess that we are trying to take control before we have discerned how and where the Spirit is at work in our local communities, outside the church, outside our social media bubble at this time.

Perhaps, dare I say it, we might prepare to move from broadcasting mode to listening mode, to ensure that we have captured the experience of hidden lives and untold stories so that we can discern where God has been at work and is at work before we plan our response.

This entry was posted in Mandy Ford, We Can't Go Back.... Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to We Can’t Go Back – Hidden Lives & Untold Stories

  1. Canon Dr Michael Blyth says:

    Thank you. This is one of the few sensible articles I have seen since been bombarded on a weekly basis by excitable bishops heralding a ‘changing church’.

Any thoughts?