Thursday, 11 December 2014

A talk given to 'Reflect' the retreat movement of the Methodist Church. November 2013.

Just Keep Swimming

A film that we watched many times as a family was ‘Finding Nemo’, the tale of Marlin, a father clownfish, searching for Nemo his son. As Marlin risks going into the unknown, the open ocean, he meets Dory, a very forgetful fish, who of course proves to be essential in the finding and rescue of Nemo.

Dory has one mantra which she holds onto even when she has forgotten everything else, she chants “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

There is quite a lot of excitement at home, even though the children are now 20 and 15 years old, because there are rumours that a sequel, ‘Finding Dory’ is in production.

You might be asking by now what any of this has to do with the spiritual life of the follower of Christ!

To a fish, swimming is as essential as breathing is to a human being. It should be a nonsense for Dory to have to remind herself to ‘Just keep swimming’, it is the one thing she should be able to do without thinking, something that requires no special attention – instinctive and vital it needs no special gimmicks, planning or preparation. To a certain extent Dory is over-thinking – yet there is something comforting and courageous about remembering to keep going even in the face of danger and a long journey with no guaranteed outcome.

On reflection I think that there are elements of our spiritual life that we over-think and over-complicate. We are prone to see the attractiveness of gimmicks, projects and special programs and to put a lot of energy and resources into what might be called ‘the latest good idea’. The use of a particular form of meditation, a special icon, a program of spiritual exercises can become problematic. We can feel a sense of failure or frustration if we do not experience the growth or inner peace we are seeking for, abandoning the chosen technique, seeking for another way to ‘fix’ our inner life, or letting go of our thin grasp upon faith altogether. We are not only tempted to this consumer, quick-fix, approach as individual Christians but the same draw to a consumer, programmatic approach to faith is very apparent in church life. 

How do we ‘Just keep swimming’? I guess that depends on what you think ‘swimming’ might mean for you. For me the core of our Christian faith has some key elements without which our journey will cease or at least, like a fish in an aquarium, we will find ourselves going round in circles. To just keep swimming, or indeed breathing, is about a natural connectedness with God, who like the ocean with the fish, supports me, nourishes me, challenges me and offers me endless opportunities to explore, change direction and grow. Without some form of intentional prayer life my swimming will be laboured and the instinct to notice God’s grace becomes dulled. Intentional prayer leads over time to instinctive prayer and we have often neglected focusing on prayer in our nurturing of new Christians.

The two other elements I think are essential for the development of a spiritual journey both for the individual and the church community, are being in relationship with other believers and being in an outwardly oriented relationship of love with the world.

Without wanting to labour the link with ‘Finding Nemo’ too much… it is when Dory and Marlin seek the help of others, turtles, a whale, even sharks, that they are able to continue on their journey towards rescuing Nemo. Shared oversight for fellow disciples is part of the DNA of Methodism, through group accountability, Bible Study, prayer groups and the everyday kindness of sensitive care, societies formed, grew and have borne fruit. Here we find our buoyancy – what keeps us afloat – the network of caring, non-judgmental relationships of grace. 

Pope Frances is reigniting for many the idea that love is at the heart of the Christian faith. From choosing to drive a simple car and turn away from pomp and glitter, to kissing a man badly disfigured, or allowing a child to sit on his chair, he has brought a simplicity and generosity to the throne of St Peter. Churches throughout the UK are giving away food, providing beds for the homeless and sending volunteers out as Street Pastors. 

In the market place of faith, those who seek connection, solace, peace and long to make sense of life are returning to the cathedrals, the monasteries and retreat houses. Doing the old things, the instinctive things, the Godly things well is very attractive. Opening the doors of our churches so that people might pray may well be as effective as any program we might devise but of course it is more than opening doors, we need to be those people who swim well, so that others can feel confident in setting out into unknown waters.

These are signs of Christians doing those things that come naturally – praying, living in community and loving our neighbours. No amount of church-growth theory, statistics for mission, Fresh Expressions – worthy as these things are – should ever be understood as a replacement for those things which should be as natural as breathing, or as instinctive as a fish swimming.

I believe that a distinct contribution that Reflect can make is to help the church to ‘Just Keep Swimming’. Helping to support intentional pray that leads to instinctive prayer, connecting people to the source of all life, community and love. 

Michaela Youngson

Nov 2013