An unexpected journey and living through change. Our reading this morning certainly did that for Naomi. I wonder how many of us have gone on an unexpected journey, and I do not just mean getting a phone call from someone needing you to go to them.
I want you to imagine a refugee camp. Temporary shelters cover the ground, each fighting for space. They are built of anything that can be scavenged from the neighourhood and recycled. Rough stones make low walls to stake a claim to a few square yards of ground.
Precious branches from now denuded trees hold together a thin screen of dried palm leaves. The leaves rustle in the breeze offering an illusion of privacy.
Stretched over it all a square of ragged cloth makes a canopy and offers the only shade. There’s dust everywhere. The shacks have no doors; someone always has to stay to guard a few precious possessions each family has managed to rescue from home.
Narrow paths twist through the jumble. It’s a noisy place; nerves are stretched and quarrels break out between reluctant neighbours over the ownership of a piece of wood. Dogs bark and scavenge for scraps. One yelps as it is driven away with a kick. Children cry, insecure, hungry, bored, not understanding why their lives have changed so dramatically. Some wander and get lost. Then there’s the occasional panic as parents search for them, calling their name.
Inside many of the shelters old folk lie inert, lethargic, weak and exhausted by the journey. There are frequent outburst of grief and many funerals.
Hanging over the camp are the smells of poverty, the stink of waste, the smoke of fires, and occasionally the smell of cooking. Neither fuel nor food is easy to find.
As more and more families arrive worn and weary, clothes ragged and dirty, even more shelters go up on the edge of the encampment, adding to the confusion. Water is precious, and heavy.
Women and children struggle with dripping water pots as they carry them from the stream down the track.
The days are hot but at night families huddle together for warmth under the few blankets they have been able to bring with them.
There is an overwhelming sense of listlessness throughout the camp.
People have lost everything: homes, possessions, precious land. There is nothing left but the struggle for survival in a strange land and culture.
It’s hard at times to identify God’s purpose.
Piety sometimes ignores reality and pretends to a certainty it does not really possess. Do we try to explain the purpose in a famine and attribute it to God, or do we accept it as a natural disaster in the hope that some good can be salvaged from it?
I like to think that we would choose the latter. To understand an Old Testament reading we need to experience of a New Testament God. As a Scottish preacher, Thomas Allan, once said: ‘You have to read the bible in big chunks otherwise you get it wrong’.
Naomi and her family lived in Bethlehem. The name means house of bread in Hebrew, house of meat in Arabic.
In whatever language, the name suggests it was a productive area. That was until the rains failed to come. That meant poor harvests. Food supplies dwindled, families ate the seeds that they were saving for the next spring sowing. People began to die, both the very old and the very young. There were family arguments about whether to go or whether to stay; whether it was better to die at home or risk everything by heading into the unknown. Naomi, her husband and her two sons faced the challenge of an unexpected journey. They joined a growing trail of refugees heading east into the Jordan valley, across the river and around the northern fringe of the Dead Sea.
Having been there in Jordan and seen the terrain it would not have been a very easy journey.
They carried what they could. Their sleeping mats, cooking pots, bundles of clothing and an occasional piece of treasured jewelry which was carefully hidden.
They travelled fearfully into Moab, unsure of their welcome; Israelites and Moabites were traditionally enemies, hostile and suspicious of each other.
The present was a time of uneasy peace; their reception might be civil, it would not be warm. The refugees were ordinary people, the sort of people whose lives are always disrupted by famine or war, the powerless and voiceless who suffer in any calamity. Even in those circumstances it took courage to leave everything they knew for a future that was, to say the least, going to be unsettled, possibly dangerous, and certainly unclear.
That’s how life often is and it’s not always easy to find reassurance in the hope that it’s all within God’s will. Good may come out of suffering. Sometimes, looking back, we can see the truth of that but always. There were years of uncertainty for Naomi, the grief and pain of losing home, husband and sons.
Only much later did she find comfort and consolation in the love and companionship Ruth offered, and she never knew that her life had played a significant part in God’s plan.
I think we could say that it was comfort delayed, and it demands great courage and stubborn faith to continue believing when life is so hard. For Naomi this journey was unexpected and changed her life completely.
We here at Kilmory and Lamlash have embarked upon unexpected journeys of our own. Firstly we are embarking on a journey to find our new minister. I am sure that most of you thought that when we appointed Gillean that we were settled for 7 plus years, however that was not to be, and of course no one could blame her for wanting to move on, given the distance apart that she and James were.
Once Presbytery has met in September we should then be able to start our search in earnest.
Lamlash has started on a second unexpected journey with a severe attack of dry rot. This is even more unexpected when you think that we only finished the restoration of the church in 2007, and at that time having spent something like £999,000 on the buildings we all thought that would be it for several years. How wrong can one be.
Another unexpected journey for both Kilmory and Lamlash is that we are about to embark on a stewardship campaign. Last year with Gillean we covered talents, and was from Lamlash’s point of view quite successful. This year we have to cover the same old boring subject of money.
Now in the past when this subject is raised we all throw our hands up in horror, and say here we go again, and I know how difficult it is to raise ones giving when, like me, we are all on fixed incomes and our earning power is zero.
However there is a different way of looking at this in as much as it does not have to be our money or our giving that has to go up.
When I did the Presbytery health checks, statistics were produced for every congregation within Ardrossan Presbytery, and if you, for example, take Lamlash, it stated there were something like 1000 people residing there.
Now if you take there are only at most 120 members of Lamlash Church it means that there are some 880 people out there to offer mission to.
However you need to take away from that figure other denominations. The final total in Lamlash was around 750 people who stated their religion was that of the Church of Scotland.
The same scenario applies in Kilmory, so where are they? And what are we doing about it?
It’s not rocket science and does not take much thinking about that if you attract more people to the church put more bottoms on seats your income will automatically increase.
Now I have lived on the island for 16 years and during that time there has been no outreach or mission into the local community by any of the churches on the island.
We must surely ask ourselves why?
We should also be asking why people no longer come to church. Is it because we have become a very exclusive club, and are not very welcoming? Is it the church building being so dark and old?
Is it perhaps because we do not move with times and give people what they want or is it something else?
I don’t know what the answer is but we surely need to find out
I was talking not so long ago to a group of people about the church and I said to them: ‘What would you say and do if I told you that at the end of the month the doors of Lamlash church will close and never open again because of a lack of numbers and monies to keep it going?’
The response from them was that this must not happen because they might need it for a baptism, a wedding or a funeral.
That’s fine I said, but what about the other 364 days a year?
Their comments reminded me of a story of a former Bishop of Southwark who summed up many contemporary attitudes to church-going when he referred to what he regarded as the four-wheeler religion, practiced by a large number in his diocese.
The first four-wheeler he said was the pram in which a child is brought to baptism; the second is the taxi in which he or she comes to the church to be married; the third is the hearse in which he comes to be buried.
Couple this with a story of a man who explained why he did not come to church, and you will discover the other side of the coin:
The first time I went to church they threw water in my face. The second time they tied me to a woman I have had to keep ever since. ‘That’s right’, said the minister to whom he was speaking, ‘and the next time you go to church they will throw dirt at you’.
But all joking aside we really need to stop looking inwards and start looking outward to try and get more people through the door.
We perhaps need to make the church a more attractive option for people, find out what they want and not just expect them to come along and just conform to what we want.
In the not too distant future churches will be assessed not on how much money they have in the bank but by how many people actually come through the door each week.
If we stay as we are then it will not be the aforementioned that closes a church down but it will be God or the lack of God within the church communities.
Each year the Church of Scotland holds a back-to-church day. Perhaps we should join in with this scheme and have one Sunday to start with where we all invite someone to come to church with us.
More bottoms on seats means more income and more sustainability for the church. There I have had my moment of complaint and moaning, let off a bit of steam. And now I wait in hope of some enlightenment.
It’s hard to know what to do but we need to do something before it is too late.