January 2022

Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, Ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. [Jeremiah 6:16]

There are many reasons, in everyday life, why we might hold up a light. One might be when we are pouring over a map, or come to a junction in our journey – we hold up the light so that we might see more clearly the right way ahead.

We live in a world that is forever driving us forward, placing new expectations and possibilities on our shoulders, and our life as church communities is inevitably influenced by our context. We may be feeling that same pressure - the pressure to get things re-started; the pressure to offer a clear sense of direction. Yet the circumstances around us remain laced with uncertainty and many have become wearied, often more than we realise, diminishing our capacity to simply march forward.

Jeremiah the prophet offers God’s people an invitation in the midst of calamity and impending difficulty. It is not so much an instruction to lurch ever onward but recognise the need to stop and take stock. “Stand” – “Look” - “Ask” – “Ask again” – and only then “walk”.

The chapter from which these words are taken begins with a command that could be summarised as “run for it!” and in the early days of lockdown and pandemic, our response was perhaps similar. We needed to respond quickly; we needed to close things down, change, adapt and re-group. But the situation has moved on, and while limitations and challenges remain, we are moving from simply reacting to emerging circumstances, to beginning to think about what we have learned and what directions we now need to take. Perhaps the immediate challenge is not so much to work out which way we should go next, but to acknowledge the place we are at, and the importance of recognising and considering what that means.

Even a crossroads offers someone else’s pre-determined and limited choices – is the prophet suggesting that there are other paths that need to be re-remembered, re-discovered and re-claimed? What might this be saying to us, as we hold the light of God’s guiding presence over our current circumstances?

These words of Jeremiah often remind me of a section of the Leeds Liverpool Canal that runs alongside the M65 on the way to Blackburn. It is a tranquil wooded valley, teaming with wildlife and yet just a few yards away runs the fast and busy motorway – you can hear the rumble of the traffic as you walk along the towpath. The canal and motorway follow the same course, and highlight that for all the changes that have occurred between them each being built, the basic need to connect the communities of East Lancashire remains. Choosing the ancient path is not so much a matter of travelling to a different place but embracing a different way of travelling. This too may be part of the challenge that we need to consider as a community of churches – pausing not to simply ask “where should we be going?” but “how should we be travelling?”

Jeremiah goes on to confront the people “but you did not walk in it” and “you did not listen”. (v16-17) Living as God’s people is more than simply claiming a historic identity but remaining faithful as followers of Jesus; it requires us to do more than simply draw comfort from ancient words, but to heed their instruction! Choosing the ancient paths would not immediately release God’s people from their impending circumstances, but help them find rest for their souls, even within the calamities that they were facing.

For all the pressure there may be to rush forward, for many, this may not so much be a time for making plans but continuing to listen. Listen to one another, listen to the events that are happening around us, and most of all listen to God.

As an NWBA team, it has been our privilege to reflect together on the current circumstances we all face, and to share the stories and insights we have gleaned as we have engaged with local churches and leaders across our NWBA community. We offer a summary of our thoughts in the hope that these may be of help to those who journey with us:

Our message is what makes us distinct: Two realities have emerged through the Covid-19 pandemic:

Even when many of the activities and gatherings that traditionally defined us ceased – we were still the Church.

Many of the things that the Church has traditionally done are now being done by others – but that does not make them the Church.

As we look to the future, these two realities combine to remind us that it is not our activities and structures that define us, but the people we are, the God we serve and the message we share. The call to “hold the light” includes renewing our confidence in the reality of the living God, our identity as the people of God and our calling to proclaim the message of Good News embodied in Jesus. Rather than simply asking which activities we should or should not recover, a deeper question to consider is how we express our calling and identity in the world that is emerging.

Focus on the atmosphere we create rather than the activities we organise: As we recognise what makes us distinct, we might also consider how easy it is to simply become a reflection of the world around us. There is a great deal of anxiety in society at the moment, often fuelled by media outlets and advertisers, who can better attract our attention by generating concern, uncertainty and a desire for things to be different. We can easily become caught up in similar narratives, concerned to “keep the show on the road” – “get things running again” rather than having confidence in who we are as the Body of Christ, irrespective of what activities we run.

When we look at the New Testament epistles, far more is said about the attitudes and behaviours of an authentic Church community, than the activities it organises. People within and beyond our church communities have been significantly affected by recent events and finding a place of refuge and security may be more important for many than what goes on there. To “hold the light” might also mean reclaiming the values and attitudes that have defined Christian community through centuries of change and cultural transition – it may require courage for leaders to make this a greater priority than the events we organise. People need space to come together, to share their pain, to feel listened to, to express their doubts and their fears – it may be more important to create the space that this requires rather than organising things for them to do.

Many seem more committed to discipleship but less committed to church – we have to acknowledge that many people have described the space created by lockdown as one that has enabled them to deepen their relationship with the living God, become more prayerful, spend more time with Scripture and in other ways develop as Christian disciples. Being away from church activities has also broken habits, which in turn has perhaps made people think about why they participate and become more intentional in their expectations of church life. In the light of this, some are reluctant to re-engage in church activities in the way that they once did, not because they are less committed, but they have become more committed to growing into the fulness of Christ. We cannot simply assume that the way forward is to re-organise everyone either into re-starting what used to happen, or even instigating new initiatives and ideas. The commission of Jesus is to “make disciples” – are we being called to re-centre our vision around this calling?

Finding the ancient paths may mean different things for different people, but these words invite all of us to not simply be carried along by present circumstances, but to recognise that God has been present and at work through generation after generation of his people. Times have changed, and people have been changed by all that has happened in recent times, not only through Covid, but the many other life experiences and circumstances that have come our way. We cannot ignore the realities that now face us, yet we do so in the certainty that God’s eternal purposes and unfailing presence remain at the heart of our faith story. This is the light that we hold, the light that has sustained generation after generation of God’s people, and the light that will sustain us through the year ahead and beyond.

Phil Jump – January 2022
North Western Baptist Association