musings on grass*

Vibrantly persistent meadow grass dances rhythmically to the beat of a breeze

that breathes politely across taken-for-granted landscapes

carpeted in verdant swathes of emerald deep pile.

 

Flexible it bends before the strongest gale.

Ever-thirsty it greedily consumes the heaviest rainfall

yet dries buttery-beige under the summer sun

to yield, apparently barren, to scythes and balers

and become fodder and bedding

for cloven-hoofed creatures.

 

And yet, somehow, this humble dried bed-food

was worthy of cushioning the God-child

as confused cattle looked down at a new-born gate-crasher

wriggling, gurgling, crying, hungry and helpless

in their feeding trough.

 

Vibrant, verdant, flexible and fruitful times do not last.

But even that which has been cut down and seems dead and dry

can become a surprising bed of welcome and encounter with God-with-us, Immanuel.

 

*I am aware that this title carries a certain amount of playful ambiguity but assure you that this poem was not created under the influence of any substances.

monochrome faith

old tvImagine for a moment that you have never seen a television. Imagine that the first one you see is a black and white TV (yes, young people, they used to exist). How amazing would that be: moving pictures and sound from a small box! Now imagine that, having only experienced a black and white TV,  you see a colour TV for the first time. Wow! How amazing would that be? Moving colour pictures and sound from a small box! Now imagine that, having experienced a colour TV you now see an HD TV for the first time. WOW! And so on. The more detail, the more colour, the more vivid and impactful the experience.

[Bear with me for a while, we’ll come back to this]

A number of years ago, while I was still a ‘wet behind the ears’ minister…

[brief tangential comment] – I think being ‘wet behind the ears’ is probably a good thing for a Baptist Minister as it suggests that we have been immersed in water. However, where does that phrase come from? Why is a failure to dry behind your ears an indicator of being a novice? The WWW suggests that it’s to do with newborn babies who are so new they have not even had a chance to be dried off yet. Hmmm, not sure about that one. Anyway, enough of a tangential comment, let’s go back to the original train of bloggerel.

[original train of bloggerel resumes here]… I was with a group of people from different churches in the town where I was a Minister. It was intended as a social gathering of the Christian participants in a successful event. I was chatting with some of the people there when I became aware of something deep and serious going on in a corner of the room. There were several people praying over a woman who was crying and sobbing and as she wept she kept saying: “I don’t feel anything!”

The people were praying that the woman would be filled with God’s Spirit and would feel his presence. But she was not feeling any difference so they were praying all the more fervently. I wish I had intervened. I wish I had had the courage to tell them to leave her alone and stop bullying her. I hope that she might, somehow, read this bloggage and know that I am sorry that I didn’t. But I was wet behind the ears (see previous tangential comment) and did not have the courage (or wisdom) to challenge what was happening.

For some reason this event came back to mind yesterday as I was driving along from a meeting. I felt profoundly uncomfortable at what had happened and prayed that the event might not have bruised that woman’s faith too badly. If you have had a similar experience I pray that you won’t have been too badly bruised either.

I think (from what I observed and subsequent conversations) that a group of people had been talking about how they experienced God and the woman had said that she did not experience him in the same way that they did. So they offered to pray for her. I commend the people who were praying for their desire to see the woman’s experience of God deepen. I commend her (I believe she was a willing participant) for wanting that too.

But now I see this as a form of (inadvertent?) bullying. The unspoken (or perhaps spoken) message was that everyone has to experience God in the same way that the pray-ers experienced him, and if you didn’t then you were in some way deficient in your faith. You had to have it prayed into you. You had to feel something. You had to experience him physically. And we’ll keep praying until you do (or until you pretend that you have in order to make us stop).

Please don’t get me wrong. I do believe that some people physically experience God’s presence. I do believe that he can be felt in our emotions. I have had experiences like that myself.

But, dear bloggists, let’s think about it for a moment:

We are all different. We all have different personalities – even personality type indicators can only give broad brush strokes to our personality. We have all had different experiences in life. We are all wired differently. We are unique individuals – even twins who share the same DNA are not the same people. Some of us are touchy-feely-huggy-emotional people. Some of us are reserved-handshaky-thoughtful people. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s just that we’re different.

So if we are all so different why would we think that God only reveals himself to us in one particular way? If nobody else is exactly like us why would we assume that just because I experience him in a way that suits who I am (personality, experience, preferences, etc) that this is the only way in which to experience him?

Human beings tend to gather together with like-minded people. You can see this in churches. Some are swing-from-the-chandeliers, hands-in-the-air, dance-in-the-aisles churches; others are stillness-and-reflection, sit-quietly, gentle-thoughtfulness churches. And there are many other types as well. People tend to go to a church in which they feel they can fit in, where they feel comfortable. But if we assume that the church we attend is the normal church, the best church, the only church then we can also (incorrectly) assume that the way we encounter and experience God in our church is the normal, best, usual way to do it and if someone else doesn’t have that then they are deficient and we need to fix them (through fervent prayer).

You may sense that I am getting a bit hot under the collar about this. (That heat may dry out any residual dampness behind my ears). I believe that many of us need to grow up as believers. We need mature in our understanding of the God whom we worship. We need to recognise that the same God who created such diversity among us is not only capable of making himself known to us in diverse ways so that we can encounter him in the way that we find easiest, he actually does it that way.

You can encounter God in stillness and silence. You can find him in choral music. You can experience him through modern songs. You can find him in studying the Bible. You can find him in conversations with others. You can sense his closeness as you serve other people. You can hear him as you pray. You can experience him in the vastness of the Universe, the beauty of creation or the intricate design of the building blocks of life. You can find him in church services (of any flavour). You can find him in the kindness of strangers. You can find him in the friendship and love of people around you. You can find him in the familiar. You can find him in the unusual.

And none of them is the only way to experience him. None of them is better than any of the others. None of them is exclusively right: they are just different preferences for encountering God.

I sense some of you have your fingers poised over the special ‘smite the heretic’ key on your keyboards, so before you hit it (and me) let me clarify: I am not saying that you can dispense with the need for faith in Jesus Christ. I am not saying that the central moment in human history and the focus of the Christian faith is anything but the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But I am also not saying that any of these is wrong. I am saying that none of them is adequate on their own. I am saying that we can experience God in any of those ways I have described, and many others that I have not mentioned. I am saying that we need to be open to experiencing him in other ways. And I am saying that because we are all different we will all find it easier to encounter him in different ways. We will all have ‘default’ positions.

But please, please, please let’s not assume that our default is the same as another person, or that it’s the only one, and please, please, please let’s not try to impose our preferences on another person. And please, please, please let’s not make what is secondary to the Christian faith become primary (putting it alongside or in place of Jesus).

I do hope and pray that that lovely woman found the ways in which she can best experience Jesus. I do hope and pray that you have found yours too. And I do hope and pray that churches will be able to offer more than a monochrome experience of God (as amazing as that would be). Perhaps with a wider range of possible ways of encountering him promoted and offered by churches we could get closer to HD (which is still only a poor imitation of the real thing!).

Be blessed, be a blessing.

why do people go to church services?

Worship Background

I’m not entirely sure why, but I have been wondering why people go to church services. That’s not intended to be a negative question – it’s not ‘why on earth do people go to church?’ – it’s a genuine enquiry. I have not done any empirical research into this. What follows is the usual random bloggerel that comes from my mind as I put fingers to keyboard. And while I am offering excuses / caveats, let me also so that this is neither a definitive list, nor an exclusive list: you may have other reasons not listed below, and may find that more than one apply to you.

Some people go to church services because they enjoy the spiritual experience. I would like to think that this applies to most people who go. They enjoy worshipping God through songs, prayers, and so on. They feel blessed, encouraged, inspired, lifted, brought closer to God, [insert your positive experiences here]. They go because it is one of the ways in which they have an encounter with God. They go because there is a mystical way in which Jesus is made present with believers when they gather together. They go because he speaks through sermons, readings, songs and so on, and perhaps when we are gathered with others who have a similar outlook we are more attuned to his Spirit.

Some people go to church services because of the people they meet. They look forward to being with friends who share their faith. They go to church to share in the same worshipping experience with those friends (perhaps similar to going to the cinema with friends). They look forward to conversations before or after the service (or during it in surreptitious comments). They find encouragement simply from being with other Christians.

Some people go to church services hopefully or even desperately. Perhaps they long to recapture a sense of intimacy that they had with God in the past. It might be that they long to have a relationship with God like one of their friends or a family member but it doesn’t seem to happen for them. God seems to be out of reach and distant. Prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling and come back unheard, never mind unanswered. Church services and even their Christian faith seems like it has become a routine, a ritual, rather than built on a relationship with Jesus.

Some people go to church services out of curiosity. They wonder whether there is anything in this Christianity lark and church services are a bit like the shop window into which you peer to get a sense of what’s inside, or like a trailer for a film or TV programme in which you can get a feel for whether or not you will like it. It’s been said that investigating Christianity is a bit like a stained glass window. If you look at a stained glass window from the outside you can get a sense of the shapes, colours, themes and content (especially if there is a light on inside the building). But you can only really experience the window in all its glory once you are actually on the inside. That makes it a bit difficult if you are an enquirer, a searcher, and investigator because you can’t fully experience what it is all about from the outside, and if you come to faith then you are ‘inside’. But coming to church services gives a sense of the shapes, colours, themes and content of the Christian faith – why rational people follow someone who lived 2000 years ago.

Some people go to church services out of habit. They go because they have got used to going. It’s what they do on a Sunday. They go because it is a bit like a child’s favourite toy or security blanket – they can’t bear the thought of not having it and perhaps worry that they might grow out of it. These people might feel that they are half-way between the first group who are encountering God and those who are investigating him. They feel a bit like a spectator at a football match where the team they have always supported is playing but where they wonder at the passionate singing and chanting of the core fans and ask why they don’t feel that any longer.

Some people are a bit like the habitual attenders, but they don’t realise it. They attend because they have got into the habit of attending, but leave dissatisfied if they have not song enough of their favourite hymns or songs (or have sung too many of those they dislike). They leave unhappy if the sermon is too long (or too shallow, or too deep). They disengage with what is happening in the service long before the final ‘amen’ in the service because they don’t feel that their needs are being met. Or they are disgruntled because things have changed and are no longer the way they used to be: the things that they held dear are disregarded by others.

Some people go to church because they have to. They are dragged along (reluctantly) by parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and go to keep them happy or stop being nagged by them. They are not there out of choice and feel resentful that they have to spend an hour or more being bored each week when they could be having a lie in, going shopping, playing sport…

And there will be plenty of other reasons. The poor people who lead services and preach each week can’t hope to please all of them, or perhaps any of them. And when we realise that, it’s good news. Because we don’t lead a service or preach with the aim of pleasing people. We do it as an act of worship to God. And because he is gracious, loving, engaging and wants us to get to know him, in the act of us worshipping him we find that we can be drawn closer to him, hear from him, encounter him, and engage with him*.

I believe that God always wants to do this. He can do it too – regardless of the style of service. He does it in the most formal liturgical service and the free-est swinging from the chandeliers worship-fest. What makes the difference is not the content of the service, but the attitude of the worshipper. If we go as consumers or critics we will most likely leave as consumers or critics. Consumerism works on the basis that we are never satisfied, so don’t be surprised if consumers of church are dissatisfied. Criticism works on the basis that we know better than what we are critiquing, so don’t be surprised if critics remain critical in the long term, even if they occasionally have a positive experience.

For those who go to church hoping that this time something will happen, that faith which has gone cold will be warmed and the spark of intimacy with God will be rekindled into a flame, I believe there is hope. The evidence of the Bible is that God responds to the tiniest mustard seed of faith. He is looking for the same as you. But perhaps you also might consider that there are other ways of developing your relationship with him. Emotional responses are not false, but they are not the only way of experiencing God. We are all wired differently psychologically, emotionally, physically and spiritually and God personalises his engagement with us to fit who we are and how we are. You might encounter God more easily in nature, in serving others, in reading the Bible, in quiet reflection, in rituals and symbolism, in activist protest against injustice and in other ways too. That is not a jettisoning of the Christian faith, it is still an encounter with Father, Son and Spirit; it is still based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But God is in far more than Sunday services, so why don’t you see if you can find him elsewhere too?

Church services are probably not the best place for investigators / enquirers to find out about Jesus. Even the most seeker-sensitive services are still services. They can leave with the sense that the Christian faith is about singing hymns / songs, praying, listening to someone preach for a while, and then do it all again the next week. They best place for investigators / enquirers is in your home, at the pub, at work, where they can ask their questions and seek to find answers that will help their understanding (which goes hand in hand with the growth of faith).

If you come to church resentfully you will probably leave in the same frame of mind. I recently observed someone who had been dragged to a service. It was obvious from their body language that they were not happy about being there. They looked like they would much rather be somewhere else (anywhere else!). Now don’t get me wrong. I know that God’s Spirit can break through in any way he chooses and at any moment. But he doesn’t force his way in and it seems to me unlikely that he’s going to be able to do too much when someone is there in body but in their mind and heart they are somewhere else.

There’s nothing wrong with coming to church to meet with other people. That’s part of the purpose of church – we are together as followers of Jesus. But if that’s the only reason, has it become just a social club? Is God necessary? If not, perhaps you need to ask yourself why? You might find the answer in some of what I have written above. And don’t just talk to people about what was on TV last night or where they are going on holiday or Mrs Beamish’s bunions. Talk about what God said in the service. Talk about what he is doing in your life. Ask people to pray for you, and offer to pray for them.

If any of the above resonates with you, then I pray that God will help you to find him where you are. He’s there. He’s waiting. He’s longing. And sometimes he’s hiding because in the searching for him we find out more about ourselves.

And, if it is not contradicting all that I have just written, if you sense that your relationship with God is not what it was, what it could be, what it should be, what you want it to be, then don’t give up going to church services (or any of the other Christian disciplines). An athlete who has lost her competitive edge will not regain it by giving up training. Instead she will work all the harder in training and compete as hard as possible for as the actions are rehearsed and become natural and ‘automatic’ the edge is honed and passion is rekindled.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Of course this is not limited to acts of worship in a church service. If we offer our lives as an act or worship the same happens. But that’s another bloggage!

the inevitability of disappointing church services?

I’m currently searching for inspiration for our Mothering Sunday service this week.

I find that this is one of the most difficult services of the year to prepare. That’s not because the subject is difficult. Neither is it because I don’t have any ideas. It’s because it is one of the services where different people have very different hopes and aspirations for the service and it’s almost impossible to meet them all. To some extent that is true of most services in churches, especially those like ours that have an eclectic congregation (a good thing imho). But on Mothering Sunday it seems to be heightened.

For example: some want to maintain traditions that go back a long time, such as giving out flowers. And others don’t want flowers at all and would prefer we stopped that tradition. It’s not easy to give out flowers and not give them out simultaneously. Now I am not against the flower-giving, I am just using as an example of the sort of tensions that exist. I could also have mentioned the difficulties for those who are childless or have been bereaved in contrast with those who want to celebrate their children, or those who want to focus on the ‘motherhood’ of God and those who struggle with seeing God that way, and many more…

Each year I (usually along with other colleagues) seek to prepare a service that blesses all those who come. And each year I know that some people will go away upset or unhappy. And that’s the last thing that I want to happen. But is it inevitable?

As ‘worship’ is not for our benefit but for God’s, shouldn’t we all simply put aside our preferences and focus on him? Shouldn’t we come expecting to give him pleasure rather than hoping to be pleased by what happens? It is possible that this is part of the answer – if we come to give to God rather than looking to receive, we will not be so disappointed, unless the service does not enable us to give our worship to him.

Yes. I have often heard speakers say things about us not bringing our consumer culture into church services for that reason. I have probably said it myself.

Honey, I brought You GiftBut I want to add a rider to that. Because God is so gracious and generous that he does not want us to leave empty-handed when we have gathered together in Jesus’ name. Long before it became the thing to do to give out party bags at the end of children’s parties, God was giving out party bags at the end of services. Yes, they are metaphorical, but they contain blessings from him – a glimpse of the divine, an encounter with Jesus.

It may be that a worship song or hymn blesses us, lifts our spirits or inspires us. It may be that someone prays in a way that blesses us. God may speak to us through the reading of the Bible or (dare I suggest) even through the sermon. One of the mysteries of collective worship is that as we offer our worship to bless God he meets us by his Spirit and blesses us.

While we may not come to church because of what we get out of it, just as we don’t attend a birthday party for the party bags, we should expect to be blessed because we were there. So if or when people leave a service disappointed or upset it is right for the people who were leading the service to think about what happened and whether they gave God enough opportunities to bless people through the service even as we worshipped him.

That brings me back to the original conundrum about the inevitability of disappointing some people this coming Sunday. I am coming to the conclusion that while there are things I can do (or avoid) so that people are not unnecessarily upset, a service is first and foremost for an audience of One. If we can enable people to worship Jesus they may also see Jesus in the service. If we can help them to encounter him, then they will not leave the service empty handed, even if the contents of their party bags are not what they were expecting!

Be blessed, be a blessing

Mums who have teenagers understand why some animals eat their young.

A mother’s love never ages, but a child ages you quicker than anything else on the planet.

If at first you don’t succeed, do it the way your Mum told you to do it.