[This article contains slight spoilers for Forrest Gump]
Forrest Gump: I had run for three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours.
Young Man: Quiet. Quiet… He’s going to say something….
The crowd of followers stops and waits with baited breath
Forrest Gump: I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.
Forrest begins to walk back along the road, the crowd slowly parting – stunned – to let him through
Young Man: Now what are we supposed to do?
I recently watched Forrest Gump for the first time. I’m assuming that most people have seen it, and will already be aware that it’s an excellent film. There are many deep messages hidden within it, and many poignant theological reflections to be found within the words of the archetypal wise fool.
But the moment that struck me the most was the exchange above, which takes place around two thirds of the way into the film. Forrest takes off one day, jumping up from his chair at the family home and begins running back and forth across America. Gradually gaining media coverage, he picks up followers as he goes. Looking back at this period of his life, in his customary understated way, he comments: “Somebody later told me it gave people hope.”
Following three years of this enigmatic leadership, spreading a message of hope in a way no one quite understood, as he turns to face his followers for a final time there is something deeply Christlike about the man with long hair and a beard. And, in the small exchange above, we instantly find ourselves in the middle of Holy Week.
Expecting great words of wisdom, perhaps a call to action, an explanation of why he’s done all this journeying, a reveal of the great social issue they have been been tackling all along… He instead reveals that his time has come to an end, and he’s returning home. Perhaps understandably his disciples are confused – even devastated. Is this the end? Is this the great victory of the Messiah – to go home? Have they been following a fraud, not the Lord? This doesn’t fit in with the plan at all!
“Now what are we supposed to do?”
The natural human instinct is to seek an answer. But whatever end of the Church spectrum we find ourselves on – whether we find a solid answer in the words of the Bible, or a more complex history of revelations as outlined in the historical doctrines of the Church, do we leave space for God to surprise us?
One of my favourite things Pope Francis has said is the following:
“[The New Testament Doctors of Law] did not understand that God is the God of surprises, that God is always new; He never denies himself, never says that what He said was wrong, never, but He always surprises us. They did not understand this and they closed themselves within that system that was created with the best of intentions and asked Jesus: ‘But, give us a sign’. And they did not understand the many signs that Jesus did give them and which indicated that the time was ripe. Second, they had forgotten that they were a people on a journey. On a path! And when we set out on a journey, when we are on our path, we always encounter new things, things we did not know.”
Do we leave ourselves open to be surprised be God? Or do we find too much comfort and security in our ‘way of doing things’ that we miss the deeper message and the call to do something different? We get into the habit of using words like ‘love’ and ‘grace’.. But do we continue to contemplate their meaning, within a wider and altogether more complicated story of redemption?
Perhaps, 2,000 years on, we’re still ashamed of the fact that we don’t actually understand, completely, why He ended His ministry on earth in the way He did, at the time He did. It’s a poignant thought that the climactic ‘Superstar’ number from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ asks that question more clearly than almost any liturgy or well-known prayer. Does even the most enigmatic and mysterious liturgy give us space to ponder what His Passion means? Doctrine and theology hint at answers, and give us enough to find faith, but to claim we understand the Passion would be to claim an understanding of God Himself. We should be bolder and braver in admitting that Church doesn’t provide the answers to life’s big questions. What it does provide is a means of finding those answers, through prayer. A lifetime’s work, but the best use of a lifetime imaginable.
As the Church of England this week reveals yet more reports and plans for the future, part of a neverending process of rejuvenation and reform, whereabouts is God in all of this? Has the Church become so comfortable at what it’s doing that we’re not listening to the surprises God has in store for us now? While we bicker amongst ourselves on this issue or that issue have we closed our minds to the possibility that He will do something surprising and unexpected, something that doesn’t fit in with the plans we’ve prepared, as He did 2,000 years ago? We know where we’ve been – we have libraries full of Church history all over the world – and we make plans for where we’re going – with exciting talk of 2020, 2025, even 2050 and beyond. But we forget to live in the now, we forget to let God into our conversations, and we forget to listen out for Him to surprise us.
As He takes the Church in new and exciting directions, we haven’t even noticed. We’re still debating and deliberating while He’s already opening new avenues of ministry, healing, and ways to find Him. The Church should be the ultimate support for Him in this work, but too often it seems to be a hinderance – because it has stopped watching and praying as He continues to speak.
When we start to live life by prayer – not letting our prayers end as we leave the church building, but letting them feed into all we do and think and say – the most extraordinary and unlikely coincidences open themselves up. Life seems less random. Things make sense, the dots begin to join up, and we can begin to find our place in the constantly surprising ways God interacts with His creation. These opportunities and coincidences are all around us – prayer is about opening our eyes to see them, and having the guts to do something with them.
We may not see Christ in person literally running ahead of us, leading the way, any more. But as they hymn says: “Shall our hearts forget His promise, ‘I am with you evermore’?”. Perhaps we cannot sit around a campfire and ask the questions burning in our hearts, as we could any other friend, but through prayer we can still ask direct questions, and get just as clear an answer as He would have given us face to face – in just as real a sense. Until the Church rejuvenates her attitude to prayer, which in so many ways has become stale and unimaginative, it will never fully find God’s plan for rejuvenation.
If the liturgy of the Church which has lasted for 2,000 years – especially the Eucharist – is ‘boring’ and doesn’t connect us with God any more, if we don’t want it to be at the very heart of our lives, is this not a problem with us, and not with the liturgy itself? Whatever your opinion on the presence of Christ within the Eucharist, how can joining ourselves with the last meal the Word Made Flesh shared on earth with His friends, an action which allows us to become one body with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, possibly be boring?! If Church is dull then no amount of flashing lights or funky music will rectify that – God is not boring, so if Church is boring it’s obviously not truly reflecting God.
Being a member of a Church should be the most exciting thing imaginable – supporting and listening to each other as we seek to understand God, and to find our place within His plan. But we’ve let it become a club in which members are judged on whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We put ourselves in the ‘right’ camp (or spend our lives worrying that we’re not ‘right’) – and never allow God to correct our misunderstandings.
If we allow our minds and hearts to be opened in prayer, if we trust in God enough to let Him surprise us, maybe we’ll find more unity with our brothers and sisters, maybe we’ll see what God is already doing in the world, maybe we’ll find our place within that plan, and maybe there will be a future for the Church after all.
“Now what are we supposed to do?”
Why don’t we ask?