The poem “Crossing the Bar” was read and sung at a funeral here in May and it got me thinking of many things, and particularly brought my mind back to when we lived in Branscombe, Devon. There, we used to enjoy sitting out in the garden on a warm summer night when the wind was from the South East because we could hear the sound of the sea on the shingle beach some half a mile away. It was a soothing sound – a kind of audio-massage – de-stressing at times when life was busy.
That sound was mentioned, too, in another poem, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” where it says, “Listen! you hear the grating roar /Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,/At their return, up the high strand, /Begin, and cease, and then again begin, /With tremulous cadence slow, and bring /The eternal note of sadness in.”But I had forgotten that it goes on to say, “The Sea of Faith /Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore /Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. /But now I only hear /Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, /Retreating, to the breath /Of the night-wind,/ down the vast edges drear /And naked shingles of the world.
Today we live as Christians in a world from which the tide of faith has withdrawn. So what can we do? Arnold’s lament at the passing of the full tide of religious faith was reflected by my grandson. He enjoys surfing, and for him the outgoing tide meant no more fun. He sat on the beach chuntering away. I told him to be patient and wait for the tide to turn. But for his sister, low tide opened up a fascinating new world in the rock pools – crabs, sea anemones, star fish, razor shells and many other wriggling delights. She was happy in this new world revealed to her and was absorbed for hours.
Thinking back, my grandchildren’s reactions to low tide were like a parable of how the church looks at today’s world.
Are we sitting in Faringdon waiting for the tide to turn, chuntering because the church and faith no longer have the status they once had? Are we hoping for a revival of the past, when it seemed from our full churches that everybody believed? Or, can we realise and recognise that the new world revealed by the retreating tide is just as full of God’s glory and presence as was the old world in which faith played a more overtly prominent part? People in today’s world aren’t the naturally religious animals they apparently once were. So should we stop trying to impose our faith upon people and agree that the Christian faith is a private world-view equally valid with all other world views?
Attractive as this idea may be, it is impossible to hold it and be true to the Gospel. God is present everywhere, already – if he was absent from anything it’d cease to exist. And it would be arrogance to think that it was the work of Christian mission that introduced God into a situation. But the witness of the New Testament is that we must grasp two things: the fact that God is king over all his creation and over his people, and; that we can enter into a loving relationship with him. So I see mission has a double task.
First we have to help people realise that they are loved and cared for by the God and Father of Jesus, and that the acknowledgement of the God who is present everywhere sets people free. The light which has dawned on the people who lived in darkness, is the new situation which has come about through the presence of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is close at hand, Jesus proclaims that God rules over all. This doesn’t, of course, mean that Jesus thought that God had not always been king, but that, with his coming a new age was dawning in which the true nature of God’s Lordship could be understood and acknowledged.
Secondly, our mission task is to encourage people to enter into a saving relationship with God. Jesus challenged his disciples, and through them, challenges us to be ‘fishers of men’. One of our primary tasks as Christians is to share in the missionary work of the church. And that means not only supporting the work of those who are full-time missionaries, but also recognising that each of us is commissioned by Christ to proclaim the God who is present wherever we live.
But we can’t go on using past methods in today’s world. It is inescapable fact that the sea of faith has ebbed to a new low water mark that is probably unique in history. Just as in the past our overseas missionaries’ first priority was to learn the languages of the people to whom they went, so we must give time and effort to the job of learning. We must learn what makes western secular society tick. We must engage with the underlying philosophies by which our lives are unconsciously shaped, and measure them against the Gospel of Jesus.
As Paul struggled to interpret the Christian message for the Greek speaking world, so we must struggle to interpret the message for our culture.