Tag: church

Faithfully cynical

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I don’t think of myself as an optimist. Hardly a situation will pass without a dire warning from me on the likelihood of its going to hell, a habit not helped by the fact that my proclamations are often correct: yes, our recently widowed neighbour was trying to get rid of her tenant’s daughter so she’d have the tenant all to herself; yes, our other neighbour’s new wife used him to have a baby and now wants a divorce and for him to sign the child off*; yes, the gardener everyone was raving about turned out to be a liar and a thief. And so on. I don’t think it’s an ability so much as it is cynicism: you’re rarely disappointed when you bet on the worst of people.

One area I’ve tried my best to battle this ominous cynicism is the church. Yes, the church – which gathers the very worst of us together and sticks labels that read “free”, “saved”, “grace” and “righteousness” on otherwise bottomline bad people – has received a (relatively) free pass from me and my jaundiced eye. Ironic, because if you’re looking for the worst of human pettiness, treachery, hatred and coffee, even in the best of congregations, the closest set of church doors will usually do.

Take for instance the debacle that rocked the tea duty roster at the church where I’m volunteering. Everyone wants to have tea and gossip after the church service; you’ve gotten up at seven am on a Sunday, you might as well, or so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, very few of the people who want to have tea and coffee after the church service want to take turns serving tea and coffee to the other members of the congregation, and so the same five people ended up doing it Sunday in and Sunday out. If I hadn’t been one of those five people, and if I hadn’t been expected to spontaneously take over the tea duty roster on account of a stray vagina I happened to have in my possession, I probably would have cared less; but I am, and I had to. The situation went south rather swiftly.

Okay, we can be pointed about this, the church council decided: tea after church was cancelled. Now, a few weeks later it’s still cancelled, because despite complaints about its absence and the minister’s plummeting popularity re: all matters tea related, there weren’t enough volunteers to prompt its revival. The excuses are varied: we’re busy, I’m sure you understand; we’re men and our hands fall right off if we so much as look at a teapot; we did it before, once, two decades ago; we did it before, once, two decades ago, and swore a blood oath against its then-organiser; we don’t want to; it’s not part of the job description; what is “tea”?

The tea duty roster furore demonstrates on a small scale why so many churches empty every year: we’re bloody awful at church.

So why the free pass on my part, one wonders? There are a few reasons: I really like Jesus and the Holy Spirit and sometimes even God the Father; I like learning more about Jesus and Christianity in general; I have an otherwise fairly useless degree in theology; I want to share my relationship with Christ with other people; I can’t otherwise sing in public. And perhaps, in my heart of hearts, in a deep place that still believes in good things, fundamentally good people and happy endings outside Young Adult fiction, I cherish a hope that church could help transform me into the kind of person who I’d want to go to church with.

But there comes a point when one’s deepest hope begins to flicker like a candle left to its own devices in a breeze. It’s not an instantaneous process. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of pointless politics and small-mindedness, a lot of struggling to adapt and failing to fit in, a lot of strife and gossip and frustration to admit that church as I’ve experienced it is hardly beyond my old friend, cynicism. In many respects I’ve been the church’s unlikely champion, had to be, as a would-be minister. I always defended it on the principle that church could be good – or failing that, better – if only it were done right. But, as we stand on the precipice of a tea duty roster impasse, who knows what is right, anyway?

I still hope that Jesus will disappoint this cynicism of mine, I have to admit, and not just because I want a job at some point. I’d like to be proven wrong about life and people and religion, I think. I’d like a glimmer of the church’s beginnings as a radical, sweeping and transformative first century movement to shake my dusty foundations of tradition and obnoxiousness and privilege. I’d like to be reminded just how deep and wide and tall and encompassing Jesus’ love for bottom-of-the-barrel people such as myself can be.

So even while giving the church a critical once over, I realise that few places are more in need of grace than the church. Some would doubtless stake a similar claim for prisons, but honestly? At least prisons serve tea.


*I was literally revising this when my mother phoned with fresh gossip: the wife left yesterday morning and will be moving out over the weekend.

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Book review: Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel

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Chances are that if you’re of the Protestant persuasion you’ve come across Alpha. Alpha is a course refined by attorney turned pastor Nicky Gumbel as an introduction to the basics of Christian faith. It’s presented through weekly workshops structured around small groups, Bible study and video lectures.

I’ve never attended Alpha myself so when I got a chance to read Gumbel’s primer on it I thought why not? It’s a dense, inexpensive book, aimed at those already considering or involved in Christianity rather than trying to win over unbelievers. As far as introductions go it does a good job: it covers all the basics, though inevitably some people will take issue with its slightly charismatic slant. Gumbel’s train of thought is easy to follow and he refers back to Scripture often. The book is peppered with his own experiences as he went from atheist to believer, which lends it some credence.

Altogether it’s a solid book. What it lacks in depth it more than compensates for with practicality, and I suspect this has more to do with the book’s target audience than Gumbel’s writing ability or own depth of faith. It’s a great book to be able to give to seeking friends or family members, and one I’m more than a little sad I didn’t have access to myself when I first found Christ. This is not to say that it doesn’t offer something to people who’ve been Christians for a while. Gumbel was the first Christian who convinced me to give “speaking in tongues” a shot, so I really can say that taking a “refresher course” was beneficial for me and my faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Questions of Life
Author: Nicky Gumbel
Publisher: Kingsway Communication Ltd (1993).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.92/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s down to earth and practical.
The worst feature of the book: It’s a little dense at times.
Trigger warnings: None.
You’ll like this if… If you’re considering going to church, have questions about the Christian faith, if you’re a total newbie to the Christian faith or want to get in touch with your Christian roots.

Looking Lectionary: Proper 27A/Ordinary 32A/Pentecost +23

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A look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.


Reading: Matthew 25:1-13

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ Matthew 25:9 NIV

“There may not be enough.” We usually read this parable as an indictment of the unprepared virgins. They had more than enough time; they knew the Bridegroom was on his way; and as they hurried off to buy more oil, we see a lack of resources wasn’t to blame for their situation, merely unpreparedness. But Jesus loved telling stories inside of stories, and I think we find a deeper, more complex message here than “just” “you know the day and the hour”. This parable isn’t just about the five unprepared maidens, but about the five “prepared” ones too.

In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was “friended” to a popular prophetic account on Facebook. I’d say that 95% of the people on that page were pro-Trump, and one of the reasons they gave was that Trump would be God’s “trumpet” – that he’d herald the beginning of the end, bring on the glory of the Lord and the final judgment. Quite a few of these people seemed to understand that Trump would be a terrible president, but – to their way of thinking – that would only hark on the end of the world all the more quickly.

I’ve never understood this obsession Christians have with the end times. Some people are literally excited that Jesus is coming to judge and cast all unbelievers into fiery damnation. This has got to be the epitome of insider mentality. I mean, whose fault is it that so many people are unsaved? We love to lay all the blame at the door of unbelievers. “We brought enough oil,” we say. But would we still be so excited about the day and the hour if we admitted our culpability in the decline of the Christian religion? If we faced the fact that people leaving the faith or not wanting to join in the first place isn’t God’s fault, or their fault, but ours?

We’re such schmucks, Christians. You just have to cast an eye over the news to see the often viral evidence of our failings, not just as Christians, but as human beings. In the parable of the ten virgins, can we really say that the five “prepared” maidens acted in a Christ-like way? If our salvation is secured (and it is, when we believe); if we are new creations in Christ (which we are, whether it feels like it or not); if we are living in a state of grace, mercy and love (check, check and check) just what are we so afraid of losing if others, lost as we ourselves once were (and often still are) get to experience the saving grace that we do? Why so afraid, Christians?

I do believe that the day and hour will come. I don’t look forward to it, because – graced as I am – I know I’m guilty of others’ loss. But maybe if I’m more willing to share my most undeserved “oil” with others (by giving them the benefit of grace, for instance), on some day, at some moment, someone will share their undeserved “oil” with me in turn, and we can go into the Feast together.

Looking Lectionary: Reformation Day

 

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Reading: John 8:31-36

I won’t lie, despite being a Presbyterian, historical Reformation stuff doesn’t exactly set my very soul on fire, and I don’t feel I know enough to write a big old post about it. But I did have a thought – just the one, and just as well! It’s not particularly novel. It’s simply this: today’s Christian religion is as much in need of Reformation as the church in the sixteenth century. 

I know, I know, I write about this a lot; it’s the whole point of departure for my Looking Lectionary series. I believe the church is called to better the world, to be Christ’s hands, feet and heart, and that’s a hard feat to accomplish when we’re generally so compromised on the institutional level. We sell our indulgences as freely and happily as the Catholic church in Luther’s day did, trading our support, approval and censure for power, influence and wealth. Sure, the evangelicals who supported Trump are the easiest example to cite, and I often do! But all of us bear some responsibility in some way. If there’s a problem in the institutional and ecumenical church, it’s because we – the folks in the pews, or not in the pews – have accepted, cultured or allowed it. 

We often talk about needing a revival, but I sometimes wonder just what it is we want to revive. The general trend of Westen Christianity the last few decades has been down, not up, and that’s rooted in its own subset of symptoms. Luther didn’t set out to reform; he set out to revive and considered himself in line with Catholic church polity. But you can’t revive something so troubled, and his beliefs and teachings eventually led to a schism: a reformation for both Protestants and Catholics.

I’m reminded of a scene in one of the first few episodes of Preacher. Jesse, imbued with unnatural power, commands a brain-dead girl to open her eyes. She does so, but there’s no life in them, and she’s as vegetative as ever. I think we’re a lot like Jesse in this sense. We try to “revive” our churches, which is really just a way to try to attract new people to old traditions we’re reluctant to part with. The idea of revival is closely tied to the idea of resurrection, but resurrection and revival are not the same things. Jesus wasn’t revived as human/Son of God, he was resurrected to the Son ascendent. Perhaps the reason revival has been so thin on the ground in most places is exactly because we don’t need revival, but reformation and resurrection.

I couldn’t say what this would look like on an ecumenical level, but maybe we can think about some ways to do it on the personal level. My first thought is that we’ve become much too church-centred. We still see “church” as the building we go to, and we separate it from fellowship and the rest of our lives. We know on some level that believers are Christ’s church. Trying to figure out how to live this should be a priority. I can’t help but think that recognising God’s grace as Luther did on an individual level will reform how we think of grace in a communal sense. If we find ourselves in God’s grace, we’ll be emboldened to live that grace out wherever we go. That is church.

It’s only once we centre the locus of control on God and his grace that we’ll be able to reform the institutional church. How could we possibly reform the institutional church when we use it to anchor our faith, rather than building a personal relationship with Jesus and living that relationship relationally with others? Church used in this way becomes a golden calf we’re willing to compromise for and to defend even when it breaks from the heart of grace.

My second thought is that, counterintuitive as all this may seem, it’s only once we’ve claimed back responsibility and agency and individual faith that we’ll be able to reform our churches. Reformation begins with Jesus: who he is and what he has done. Reformation then asks us what we believe about Jesus, how we relate to the Godhead and how that relationship changes us and the world. It begins with our own resurrected/reformed lives. Believers preceded the institutional church by decades, but especially lately there’s been an antagonism towards individualistic faith. The fear is probably that left to our devices and without doctrinal standards and bodies of authority to castigate us, we’ll run amok. But it’d be foolish not to recognise that much of this kind of attitude could also be construed as the institutional church trying desperately to remain relevant and powerful, rather than the more benign motives usually attributed.

I believe we have a very real responsibility to take back “church” from the institutional church. It’s what Luther did in his day, and his task remains: as long as there’s an institutional element to the Christian religion, it will be in need of reformation. We love to say that “church is a hospital for sick people”. By virtue of what it is, the church is most susceptible to “catch” the disease of sin. We need Luthers who through love for the Lord, dedication to a relationship with him and neighbour have faith lives strong enough to diagnose and withstand those diseases when they pop up in the power structures around our churches.

As I wrote earlier, reformation begins with Jesus, and it continues when we become active participants in responding to his call to resurrection and reformation. This is not an easy journey or a short one. It’s the day-to-day faithfulness of individual believers that leads to the 500th anniversary of an event that changed the world, the church and all believers forever, and for the better.

Have a good Reformation Day!

Sabbath 15/10/2017

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Listen: Old Church Choir – Zach Williams (Youtube lyric video)

Pray: Psalm 106:1-5

1 Praise the Lord.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
2 Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord
or fully declare his praise?
3 Blessed are those who act justly,
who always do what is right.
4 Remember me, Lord, when you show favor to your people,
come to my aid when you save them,
5 that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that I may share in the joy of your nation
and join your inheritance in giving praise.

Listen: Praise the Lord – The City Harmonic (Youtube lyric video)

First reading: Philippians 4:1-9

4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Second reading: Matthew 22:1-14

1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Listen: Glorious Engagement – CRC Music (Youtube lyric video)

Pray:

Dearest Lord,

We are grateful to come before you on this spring day to meet with You. We set this time aside to bring glory to You, to remember Your transcendent presence in our day-to-day lives, and to refresh our souls for the week to come.

None of us come to You with clean slates, Lord, but to be known by You is to be loved by You, healed by You, forgiven by You and cleansed by You. Thank You for the grace of Your mercy and lovingkindness. Thank You for the immense privilege of serving You.

Help us this week to rely on Your grace in everything we do and say, and to extend it to others as freely as You extend it to us. Help this Sabbath to awaken us anew to the presence, power and guidance of Your Holy Spirit alive within us. Speak to us, Lord: we are listening.

In Jesus’ precious name, amen.

Listen: Rescuer (Good News) – The Rend Collective (Youtube lyric video)