“The church is like a swimming pool. Most of the noise comes from the shallow end.” (John Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell ) (This reference not verified)
Well I don’t think I share the progressive liberal views espoused by Bishop Spong but I do share his view of the metaphor of the church as a swimming pool with most of the noise coming from the shallow end. I first heard this quotation, not attributed to Bishop Spong, but to the late Archbishop Robert Runcie and was repeated at a conference I recently attended. It seems the idea is still circulating no matter who said it first and it is worth pondering.
Its true babies make a lot of noise if they need feeding or changing and the idea of spiritual milk and spiritual meat are not unknown to us. Neither is the idea of being mature in Christ. If only people could grow up spiritually. It’s rather incongruous to see adults behaving like children, still on Janet & John (sorry showing my age here) and not able to do joined up writing yet in Christian terms. Where is the engagement with prayer or Bible Study or a thirst for spiritual things? Where is the dynamic looking out for the needs of others?
Of course, it could be argued that people are not getting the sustenance they need to grow, that they are fed a diet that is nothing more than juvenile junk food but it could also be true that most people are highly resistant to the idea of change, growth and development.
This is nothing new. Just take a look at our reading from Acts 11 to discover just how difficult it was for the early church to get their heads around the fact that God’s love was for everyone: Jew and Gentile. It needed a paradigm shift in their understanding before the penny dropped and they realised God was saying something quite new, something that was outside their comfort zone, but something that they simply could not dispute because they saw the Holy Spirit at work in those they thought were beyond God’s love.
Perhaps if they had been a little more attuned to Jesus’ ministry they may have noticed some clues: his association with those who were despised, the poor, the ritually unclean…and women! (shock & horror!). He was accused of eating and drinking with them and having them as his friends. Not the sort of people you’d want to be members of your club and to top it all, in John’s Gospel, Jesus commands us to love God and our neighbour as we love ourselves. This is not just a suggestion – it is a command – it is obligatory.
In the broken world in which we live it is perhaps hard for us to come to terms with this vision because there is so much that is clearly not right with this world. It is John in his Apocalypse who helps us as he envisions a new heaven and a new earth where Jesus is Lord of all – the Alpha and the Omega; where death is no more and faith is not required because God will be in our midst and no faith is needed for what the eye can see. Things will not always be as they are now – whether that is in terms of how we see the decline of belief in Christ to the way society is moving generally.
My grandson Alex ( aged 4 and three quarters and that ‘three quarters’ is very important to him) is learning to swim. Each week he goes for lessons. He is still at the stage of building up his confidence with buoyancy aids, arm bands, and floats as he tiptoes along in the baby pool or the shallow end of the pool – at some point he will gain sufficient confidence to launch out and take those first unaided swimming strokes. He will trust that he won’t sink if he takes his feet off the bottom of the pool and launches out with his first few ungainly swimming strokes.
I think that often many of us are like Alex desperately trying to keep our tiptoes on the bottom of the pool, lacking the confidence to launch out into the deep with God. Real confidence in God is masked by a great deal of noise from the shallow end. There may be a great deal of splashing and activity but little real God-confidence and trust. Let’s not fool ourselves.
Perhaps you may care to think about what your buoyancy aids are and whether you want to move a little further into the deeper water of faith, trusting God that underneath are the everlasting arms and that if you take you feet off the bottom you won’t sink.