I’ve been thinking about canoes, mountains and Mission Communities. That might sound like an odd combination of things, but there is a link: an expedition commissioned by US President Thomas Jefferson that set off in 1804 to discover a northwest passage from the source of the Missouri River to the Pacific coast. This expedition was led by Captain Merriwether Lewis, with William Clark sharing the command. ‘Everyone knew’ that if you could get to the source of the Missouri up in the mountains, you would find a navigable water-course that dropped away to the northwest, all the way to the Pacific Coast. The Corps of Discovery set off, and months later, carrying their canoes in preparation for the descent on the other side, arrived at the source of the Missouri. Only there was no water-course. Instead of seeing the land begin to fall away towards the coast, hundreds of miles away, Lewis and Clark saw the mountains of the Rockies rising up before them.
What ‘everyone knew’, turned out not to be the case. What everyone might have thought, faced with that situation, is that the expedition would have turned back, jumping into their canoes as soon as possible to head back east. But that was not what Lewis and Clark decided to do. In consultation with their companions in the Corps of Discovery, they decided to go on. The landscape might not have been what was expected, and their equipment not appropriate for where they found themselves, but they didn’t turn back. Instead, the shared belief that there was a way through the mountains to another navigable water-course drew them on. In the process they had to abandon some of their equipment, abandon what they thought they knew, find new ways of travelling and learn from those they encountered on the way.
It’s a great story, although a little far removed from the business of forming mission communities in 21st century Cumbria perhaps? The story is told in Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger, the subtitle of which is Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. His point is that until recently, Christians in the churches of western Europe and the USA operated on the basis of the idea of Christendom – put rather crudely this meant thinking that ‘everyone’ went to church, most of us are Christians anyway, and if we are not, we are not anything in particular. That is no longer the case – and hasn’t been for some time. The territory we are in is new, not what we want to see perhaps. Church and the Christian faith are irrelevant to many people; we live in a country with a diversity of religious and ethnic groupings; fewer people in the places where we live have any knowledge of Christian faith.
There is no doubt that the view of mountains ahead presented a huge challenge to Merriwhether, Clark and their companions. But the challenge was not insurmountable. Like them, we need to look ahead and decide with our companions in the churches of Cumbria what belief draws us on into our ‘new landscape’. Where do we want to get to? What might we need to let go of in order to move forward? What do we need to equip us for this new journey of discovery? Yes it can be scary – letting go of the familiar is rarely easy. The most important thing however, is to remember that we never travel alone. Isaiah reminds us of God’s constant care for those he has called: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” (Isaiah 43.20)
Author: Revd Jane Maycock