Bible · Church · faith · Theology

Walking Backwards Into The Future

In case you haven’t been here before, I’m writing from a Christian perspective, and seeking to understand more fully what it means to live ethically and authentically as a follower of Jesus Christ. This post was triggered by listening to an interview with Rev Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin in the Fields (London, UK).

I love this image. If you ‘walk forward’ into the future, you will have little idea what resources you might discover that will help to face the challenges you will meet. If you ‘walk backwards’ into the future you see the resources that people have used in the past that can help you in the future.

He couples this image with the idea of history being like a five act play. Tom Wright first suggested this as a way of seeing history. Sam Wells takes the idea and tweaks it:
Tom Wright: 1. Creation. 2. Fall. 3. Israel. 4. Jesus. 5. The Church
Sam Wells: 1. Creation. 2. Covenant. 3. Jesus. 4. The Church. 5. Consummation: New Heaven and New Earth

In the Sam Wells scheme, the Bible forms key parts of the script – Acts 1 – 3. Our life of faith is like a performance, where we are the performers, acting out our part in Act 4.

But we are not acting from a set script. It’s as if we are in an improvisation, and playing our part, but in keeping with what we have seen already in Acts 1 – 3. Scripture is not a rule book to follow, but a story where we have our part to play.

The idea of improvisation is a fascinating one. It’s not about trying to be the clever, witty one who plays it just for laughs, because that can just kill the story. That’s a very individualistic approach. It’s more of a collective enterprise where we are responding to other in the improv, trying to create the best that we can together. That makes it a bit like a game of ‘keepie uppie,’ where you and your friends are kicking a ball around and trying to keep it in the air for as long as possible. That’s not about doing an amazing kick, but simply keeping the ball in play.

As we play our part in Act 4 of the story of God and humanity, we walk backwards into the future, receiving all the gifts that God has given us to play our part.

A key aspect of the life of faith is the extent to which we live – day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year – actively seeking to allow God to shape and reshape us. It is this disciplined practice that will allow us to act in ways that contribute our best as God’s people for God’s world.

There are many examples of the ways this works – I have one ‘true life’ example and one fictional. The first is the account of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, so brilliantly told in the film ‘Sully’. In the film Ches is piloting a plane and has just taken off from La Guardia airport. The plane is hit by a flock of birds and the engines disabled. Knowing both engines are not functioning, he makes a deicision not to try and get to an airport, but to land the plane on the Hudson river, which he does, with no loss of life. A subsequent investigation suggests that he made the wrong decision and that he could have landed safely at La Guardia or Teterboro airports. It’s only when they run a simulation that faithfully recreates the situation in real time that he is proved to be right. If he had tried to get to an airport, it would have been certain disaster. It is his years of flying that enables him – in just 35 seconds – to make the right decision, almost by instinct. he was called a hero, but his reponse was “I’m not a hero, I’ve been rehearsing for this.” It is similarly the disciplines of faithful godly living that will help the Christian to make the right ethical decisions in the heat of the moment.

The fictional story, that I have mentioned in another post is the book by John Irving – A Prayer For Owen Meany. Once more, it is years of self discipline that makes it possible for Owen to make the right decision in the moment of crisis that is the climax of the book.

Sadly, the church has not always received the resources that God has provided. The result being that we have chosen scarcity and not plenty. It is only in recent years that the church of which I am a member (Anglican / Church of England) has begun to accept the ministry of women. Other gifts that we have been slow to receive are the treasures that we have missed by neglecting, rejecting and even oppressing those with disabilities and the LGBT+ community and what they could bring to God’s church.

Last thing, before I go for now. There’s a wonderful phrase that is originally in french – La disponsibilite – coined by french acting instructor Jaque Lecoque. In English the best translation is probably ‘relaxed awareness.’ Sam Wells uses this phrase to describe what our attitude might be to playing our part in God’s story.

It’s not about us being the ones to save the world. That’s God’s domain. It’s about following Jesus as best we can, and waiting expectantly for those opportunities to put our faith into practice. We don’t have to get it all right. God can deal with our mistakes.

None of this is mine – it’s just me trying to process what I’m learning and pass it on – in this case my thanks to Sam Wells and Tom Wright. If you get a chance to listen to the Sam Wells interview (highlighted at the top), please do

Grace and Peace.

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