Warning signs are always a substitute for common sense. Having lived in Canada for several years, I got used to seeing warning signs that were far more blunt than English signs. They would add flames, enraged wildlife, stick men running in terror, etc. to illustrate the consequences of poor decisions. For example:
Jesus’s parables which use images of hellfire and damnation are like Canadian warning signs. They use blunt and graphic illustrations to tell us things which are common sense. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, for example, uses lakes of fire to tell us the common sense idea that the wealthy shouldn’t mistreat the poor. Similar illustrations likewise make common sense points. But, like Jesus’s audience, we need warning signs for those times when our common sense fails and we make poor decisions.
A main idea in the John’s Gospel is that Jesus’ judgement of the world is not to bring fire and brimstone, but to let the consequences of the world’s action just happen. I think this is still true today. The warning sign that our actions are wrong is thus not fire from the skies, but the simple consequences of our mistakes. Climate change is a warning that something is wrong with the way we are stewarding creation. The near collapse of our banking system in 2008 is a warning about the greed and unsustainability of our economy. Closer to home, some of the problems we find with our churches and wider Church such as declining attendance and perpetual financial worries is a warning that something is wrong with us too.
I suggest that many of our long term problems in our churches are the consequences of the way we have engaged in our communities (or failed to do so). God won’t rain down fire from the sky on us, but the warning sign is there nonetheless in what we see around us. I hope that we can either heed the warning sign, or use common sense and think about what this may mean for how we plan the future of our churches and their mission into our communities. And I hope we remember as we do this that warning signs aren’t scary. A lot of the Canadian ones, such as my favourite-the stick man tourist at Banff national park being butted into orbit by an annoyed goat- are quite funny. Thus when we think about the warning signs around us and what to do, we shouldn’t be frightened of them, or of making mistakes, and should be more confident about trying new things and looking at new ways to engage in our communities.
Revd. Tom Atfield