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Fishing on the right side of the boat?9 months ago
ReSource Minister Rod Allon Smith gets us thinking about church life and mission post-covid and explores both the dangers and the opportunities ahead. He cautions us not just to go back to familiar ways, but to be ready to hear the voice of Jesus calling us to fish on the other side of the boat. He says "The wisdom for us will be in giving the space, prayer and attention to hear his guidance and inspiration afresh, then being ready to ‘throw your net on the right side of the boat’".
Many discussions just now are considering what a ‘New Normal’ may look like.
The Covid-19 pandemic is having a varying impact on all of us, with longer term implications only slowly emerging. Work patterns, travel norms, community and social activities, amongst other things, are all affected. What will any ’re-set’ for the future involve?
This Covid-19 crisis is complex, and proving a great disrupter in society – and to the church! I’m reminded of Donald Rumsfeld’s speech from 2002 about ‘known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns’! He may have been somewhat ridiculed at the time but, as has been observed since, the rather tortuous phrasing points to complexities referred to by psychologists and others when considering and assessing the tangled mosaic of many situations.
Now is a good moment to be reminded that, as I understand, in some Chinese script the representation for ‘crisis’ contains two distinct symbols – one of ‘danger’ and the other for ‘opportunity’.
Within the church we sense dangers just now. Meetings together – whether for worship, fellowship, discipleship, activities and administration - are severely curtailed. Some personal relationships and community integration, so vital to normal church life, have been suspended.
Of course, there have been opportunities, too. Regular pastoral phone calls are appreciated as expressions of care and compassion, especially among the housebound and lonely. On-line worship is challenging our regular communications with both long-standing committed Christians and those more on the fringe or beyond church life. Many of us, out of necessity, have learned and applied new skills to qualify as a ‘Master of Zoom’!
What of the road ahead? Are there dangers in assuming we can simply go back to where we were?
Surely future opportunities call us to be moving on to where we ought to be? In 2015 a General Synod Report (of all things!), entitled ‘In Each Generation’, began by affirming that “In obedience to the commission that Jesus gave to his disciples the Church’s vocation is to proclaim the good news afresh in each generation. As disciples of our Risen Lord we are called to be loyal to the inheritance of faith which we have received and open to God’s Spirit so that we can be constantly renewed and reformed for the task entrusted to us.” (GS 1976)
Covid is revealing to us as a different generation and shaping us to engage with it.
There is challenge in discerning and shaping what this generation requires of the New Normal. Some of the contours for the future may already be emerging: perhaps relishing simplicity, heightened enjoyment of the natural world through beauty and birdsong, engaging with our family differently, getting to know and appreciate better those in neighbourhood and community. There are also great needs and constraints exposed through the pandemic, with poverty, poor health, missing education, situations of domestic unhappiness or violence etc., resulting in hopelessness for many. A challenge is how to connect with these, while celebrating what is good and godly, and influencing expressions of justice and peace for individuals, local neighbourhoods and wider society.
Particular passages from the gospels offer timely insights. I’m taken back to John 21: 1-14, the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. These were disconcerting times for the disciples after the resurrection, coming to terms with the fact of Jesus now being alive (even though they struggled to recognise him!). We can note:
- The disciples respond quite humanly when going back to their fishing, a familiar and comfortable activity, a ‘default’ setting in their lives even after the years with Jesus on the road. They knew what to expect and what to do: “But that night they caught nothing”.
- Their assumptions and expectations are confounded; their nets are at capacity. In this abundance, John realises that ”It is the Lord”.
- A pivotal point is where Jesus suggests to “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some”. Despite their knowledge, expertise and experience of many years fishing the lake, they respond to the suggestions of this stranger on the shore.
We may get quite despondent within the church when reviewing recent ‘fishing expeditions’ that have ‘caught nothing’. Are we ready to hear a fresh word from Jesus? Post-Covid, what is to be ‘the right side’?
Some years ago, when visiting the Sea of Galilee, I watched 3 men fishing on the lake from a small boat, in regular contact by mobile phone with an observer on the shore. It took me a few moments to realise the observer was not just passing the time of day in small talk, or discussing the latest local football match, but had a vital role in the whole fishing expedition. In the boat, the glare from the water meant the 3 fishermen simply could not tell where the fish were: but from a slightly higher angle on the shore the observer could see through the surface reflection to where a large shoal of fish were running. Fresh perspectives were helping in this familiar activity.
I’m sure that life post-Covid will offer opportunities to move forward that are not just dependent on old techniques and methods for mission, or merely in spontaneous reaction to the Covid conditions. We will have fresh opportunities to look for the guidance and inspiration from Jesus himself who, through his Holy Spirit, points to what we will need to see from his perspective.
The wisdom for us will be in giving the space, prayer and attention to hear his guidance and inspiration afresh, then being ready to ‘throw your net on the right side of the boat’.