Recently a circuit superintendent minister invited me for coffee. Nothing unusual in that. The conversation went something like this: “We’ve got a former church building, in one of the most deprived areas of the circuit, we’ve been trying to sell it for 13 years, the sale has fallen through again, maybe God is trying to tell us something. Do you think we could try something new? Will you help?”
Now that kind of conversation is unusual! Perhaps it’s something many ministers only dream about? Or it’s too terrifying, when everything familiar is stripped away and you’re left with an (almost) blank piece of paper? We got excited. And the Circuit Meeting bravely agreed to do “something” – without knowing what “something” was.
Not long afterwards the President of the Conference visited the district. We invited him, and members of the circuit, to visit and pray together at the building. The superintendent told the story of the journey so far. I was asked to say something about what was going to happen next. The problem was: I didn’t know what the “something” was that we’d agreed to do.
So I admitted that I didn’t know what we were going to do, all I did know was that we needed to pray. And it began to dawn on me that whatever we were going to do needed to be about incarnation. Enabling something new to come to birth in our midst.
I warned against confusing incarnation with imitation. It’s easy when we start something new and we don’t know what to do, to look at what others are doing and copy them. Maybe if we do the same as that more successful church in another town, or if we go back to what our forebears did, or if we run this programme or that course that’s got a good reputation, we’ll be fine. Is it really better to do anything than nothing? Incarnation is not about copying—or imitating—what another church is doing, or what’s been done in the past. Incarnation is about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in this community. In us, where we are. Now. Uniquely.
Incarnation is countercultural: The culture in which we live likes to know what something is going to look like or how something is going to turn out before something begins. (Especially if we’re going to ask for funding.) It expects 3-5 year strategic plans, with goals to achieve along the way to prove that you’re going in the right direction. It wants clear objectives and outcomes and forecasts of how much growth you expect to see at the end of each year. Incarnation is countercultural to all of this. Incarnation gives the church permission to say, “We don’t know what it will look like” and to trust God with whom all things are possible. As God grows something new among us. We need more of this vulnerable incarnation. In the here and now.
It also dawned on me that the church only really thinks about incarnation around Christmas. I know I’m guilty of this as a preacher. But incarnation is not just for Christmas! It’s about bringing new things to birth where we are in Jesus’ name. As the Spirit is poured out upon us, we share in the work of God, of bringing the Word to birth in our communities through what we do and say and in the relationships that we form. Incarnation happening daily. That’s what we want to be about as we try “something” new.
It reminds me of putting my iPod on shuffle and letting it randomly pick the order my music comes out. Suddenly “Hark the Herald Angel Sing” (or some other Christmas carol) comes on in the height of summer or at some other unlikely time of the year, in the middle of everything else. Incarnation surprises. It takes risks. It creates something new and unique. Something unpredictable. Something that will be perfect for that particular context and situation—but not necessarily anywhere else. And often what I would least expect.
As I have reflected on this experience, it has challenged me greatly and I have found myself preaching on and talking about incarnation much more throughout the summer months—even including a Christmas carol or two in worship!
Having said all this, perhaps incarnation is about imitation? – for the one we are called to imitate is Jesus. We are to “have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had…” (see Philippians 2) and with that follows so much more. As Jesus models incarnation for us. Perfectly. For every time and place. Anyone for incarnation?