memory is at the heart of identity

I recently had the privilege of providing the Foreword for “Times and Tides: BC Conference – An Overview 1970-2017”. Edited by Jim Taylor, the book tells the story of the United Church in British Columbia over the past five decades. It will be available at the Conference's upcoming General Meeting in Penticton and then from BC Conference. Here is the Foreword ...

It was 1970 when I became a Candidate for Ministry in BC Conference. I was a child of the 1950’s when for a time the United Church was building a new church somewhere in Canada every week. Those boom years made way to the rapid cultural changes of the 1960’s. In the five decades since then the mainline church has been in a season of decrease. Numbers have declined, buildings have closed, influence has waned. This has required and called out leadership – clergy and lay – that keeps the faith while the cultural tide is waning. In such a period the church learns again that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). It is one thing to tell the story of a young and growing church. It is another to recount an era when that church is confronted with diminished numbers and resources.

How appropriate, then, that this history of the British Columbia Conference of The United Church of Canada over the past half-century is the work of a collection of voices who lived through this season. Each brings a unique perspective and shares a part of the story. Together they tell of the ways in which differing communities and congregations engaged the challenging times faced by this small corner of the global church at the turn of the third millennium. Their role as memory-keepers is crucial. Without those who pass on the story the church can soon suffer a debilitating form of collective amnesia. Memory is at the heart of identity. Once Christians forget who we are and where have been, our identity as a salty, yeasty, distinctive community of Jesus is at risk. As the title of one popular United Church Bible Study put it, the church is always “Living Between Memory and Hope” (David Lochhead & Betty-Jean Klassen, The United Church of Canada, 1981).

The history collected here does not simply recount dates and decisions. These memory-keepers are not only passing along a chronology. More importantly, they offer a witness to the ways in which the church has sought to live faithfully, keeping its sacramental oath to be a loyal servant of Jesus Christ in its time and place. Such testimony is meant to encourage the church that now continues the pilgrimage. Their voices are among the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) whose perseverance in the face of obstacles grounds and informs the living witness of those who now take up the journey. How fortunate we are to have such a rich congregation of memory-keepers gathered together in the pages that follow.

The purpose of a gospel-shaped memory is to enable the church to look forward with an abiding hope. Such hope is not based on the evidence or the statistics. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25). Or as Peter says, we have been given “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). This is the deep, core, identity-forming memory of the church. At baptism we die to despair and hopelessness. At the font we are baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus so that we may now walk “in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Christianity is essentially a looking forward and a forward direction. This is what our memories and stories intend to teach us. Which is not to say that the church is always and everywhere filled with hope. Given that BC Conference as an entity will cease to exist at the end of 2018 one wonders what the next fifty years will bring for the United Church on Canada’s west coast. No amount of planning and visioning can generate a predictable future. Such is the challenge of life lived between memory and hope. Hope is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not self-generated. Faithfulness to the ways of Jesus does not come easily. It is the reason that we ask the witnesses who tell the story to give honest testimony. By telling the truth about the times of deep despair as well as the days of surprising courage they may inspire those who come after to keep the faith when tempted to abandon the journey.

An honest telling of the church’s failures has one other, crucial role in shaping its contemporary identity. As a community of faith we can begin to assume that the church’s faith in Jesus is the subject matter of our testimony. Then the focus of the story becomes the church. But the church is not a self-starting community. It is a people created and sustained by the faithfulness of God who calls it into being through Jesus Christ. The church is a people who witness to the faithfulness of God. Its faithfulness is a gift of the faithfulness of God. In other words: God is the subject, the church is the predicate. We tell the story of the church to testify to the goodness of God.

Truth be told, the church has been known to break its vows of faithfulness. At the very beginning Peter and the first disciples abandon Jesus in his hour of deep need. Those grounded in that formative memory will be saddened but not surprised when the church denies Jesus among neighbour and stranger in our time. Yet today, as then, Good Friday is not the end. Like the first disciples we find ourselves among those caught up in the incredible Easter news of a God who raises from the dead, who creates “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) and who calls into being a people who dare to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

As you read the pages that follow I invite you to keep your eyes and your heart open to glimpse the handiwork of God whose faithfulness sustained the church whose story is told here. This is the same One who promises to sustain the church today and throughout all the days to come. Thanks be to God.

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