Recently I came across a box of photographs that has come with me everywhere I’ve lived for the past 20 or so years. Back when people took photographs on film and had them printed, I would get the completed film out of the camera and then, usually, send it off to be turned into prints. When they came back, you had your collection of prints ready to browse.
When in focus and not obscured by a lamppost or finger, the pictures I took reflected the place I was seeking to capture. We can look at them and see what these places were like 10, 15 or 20 years ago. We can return to that period and see exactly what shops were on the high-street, or what colour someone’s front door was painted, or how much hair some of us had back then (or what colour it was!). It gives us a point of reference for what it was like at the time the image was taken and can be something we go back to as what it was like then.
Sometimes, these are the only image we have of a place that we visited – perhaps of a holiday or of friends who we haven’t seen for some time, and for us we have no point of reference of what they are like today. Instead, in our minds, they are as they were when we took the photograph; either nothing has changed or we know that something will have changed but have no idea what or how. If we are then faced with the person or place some time later, we might not recognise what we see, or we might deny that anything could have changed from the image taken all that time ago. It might take us some time to recognise it, but eventually we do and we can navigate the new footpath or look in the new shop windows and enjoy what we find.
In my experience of Church life, we can be a bit like that too. We have an image in our mind from years ago about life in the Church and in the world around. Perhaps we have an image in our mind about how we lived as a family and how we mixed work and home life, aware of the calls upon our lives. We can easily realise that our own situation has changed, whether that’s because we’re now retired or got a different job or become less mobile. But it’s sometimes harder to realise that the world and the Church have changed too. There isn’t the same desire on Sunday mornings to go to Church – shops are open, children’s parties take place, work patterns have changed. The society around has become largely apathetic to the message of faith because ‘Religion’ doesn’t appear to speak the language of the world and people have been hurt and repelled by how the Church responds to social issues. Ministers are more scarce and are required to fill gaps left by decline. The image we see around of the world outside the Church isn’t the same as the one we remember from our youths or working lives. We may not even recognise the world outside anymore or we may wish that it wasn’t like that.
But in the middle of it all, the Church remains the place where the story of Jesus is shared. When we stop to look, we can see how our families and friends – our children, grandchildren, and neighbours – have a different way of operating just as we do. It might take us some time to recognise it, but eventually we can see that the world has changed and that the Church must respond too, so the story can be told in ways that relate to people who are yet to hear of Christ’s hope and speak to people who relate to one another and the world in different ways.
There’s a popular series of books that show photographs of ‘Then and Now,’ with the same place photographed at different times. It shows us how it was, and it shows us how life is different now. The images of the past are important to help us understand the pictures of the present, but however much we like we can’t go back to how it was. The picture we have now is the exciting world we find ourselves in – with all its many flaws and failures and frights. But when we realise what the world looks like now, we can make the most of its opportunities and find ways to navigate through its challenges and not deny they exist. Perhaps now is the time to put a new film in the camera and see how the pictures turn out.