Posted by: Postordinandy | July 18, 2012

Of human statues, mime-artists and football players

I have been a follower of Jesus for around half my life now, and I have to say it’s been quite a struggle for significant periods of that time.

I came to faith outside of a formal expression of church, but have spent much of the last 15 or so years working with and for organised structures – even getting quite close to becoming a vicar (see here if you don’t know that bit already).

The last year has been very tough for a number of reasons. Thankfully, I have a good network of people around me who love and care for me – even when neither of those are easy. A good number of them have a faith in the same God that I do, and I have had plenty of opportunity to pray with and for others, to chew the theological fat, to share encourages and challenges, and to be still with God in the presence of others.

I haven’t been attending a church service or similar, other than sporadically, for most of the past year. The trouble is, for reasons I cannot fully understand or explain, I have historically found myself leaving most ‘gathered worship’ sessions with a feeling of fundamental disappointment, more exhausted, less uplifted.

Now, I need to be very clear here. I do not, for one second, want that to be heard as a reflection or criticism of those who lead or attend such institutions and gatherings. I believe that the majority of those who participate in such events and communities do so in good faith, with a positive experience. I know and love many for whom I can see this is clearly true. I understand the theories of shared responsibility, but through the years have found myself mentally and spiritually drained by the very things that sustain others. I must confess, I am very jealous of and for them.

Well meaning souls have encouraged me through the years to ‘try harder’ to engage with the singing, the sermon, the liturgy, the post-service cuppa. “It’s not about what you get out of church, but what you put in”, they say – as if years of such giving, but not receiving, will do anything other than create an empty husk that once was me. I have given, much. I have tried, more than anyone would believe. Of course, I have received also, but very, very rarely through the media or method that others rely on or are sustained by.

I meet God with other people, over a half-decent meal and/or a pint, wandering the streets or countryside, watching a film, pondering some ‘secular’ music. I find myself growing through non-propositional questions, answers that are left hanging and tantalisingly out of reach – save for some ongoing effort on my part. I learn through the theological reflections of amateurs, pagans and children – alongside the apparently spontaneous thoughts of professionals.

There is an old story of a man who stopped going to church on Sunday after his wife passed away. In time, the pastor came to see him. Once the man had invited the pastor in, and they had shared a polite cup of tea together, the pastor went to the open fire and carefully removed a glowing coal from the centre. He placed the coal on the stone floor, and both men watched in silence as the coal cooled down. Saying nothing, the pastor returned the coal to the bosom of the fire, and both men watched, again in silence, as the coal began to heat up and emit light once more.

The story usually ends with the pastor leaving, his point illustrated if unspoken, and the man returning to church the following Sunday.

But what if Sunday services are not what sets your own coal burning?

I know many people who wish to follow Jesus for whom the church as it is most often articulated and understood simply doesn’t do what they need it to do. To us, it is rather like one of those electric fires that have been designed to look as if they are ‘real’ – the coals within are for decorative purposes only, not transmitting either light or heat. The heater does what it meant to do for the room – and therefore is useful and valid – but the coals need something else.

I know that to be a follower of Christ is to be part of a wider community. I understand the need for mutual encouragement, challenge, support and – when appropriate – gentle admonishment. But, I have come to conclude, this is not always done best in a group larger than 12 or so, or in a building where everyone faces the same way and are largely spoken at by an individual. By all means find ways of celebrating something beyond ourselves, unity in diversity, etc. But let there be a wider and embracing growth of possibility of fellowship, worship and teaching. God’s kingdom is bigger than we can see or understand, and there are too many of his people that we unknowingly exclude by restricting ourselves to the models of gathered community we have grown so accustomed to.

Too many people I know are trying to follow the person and teaching of Jesus sincerely, but are faced with significant internal and external pressure to conform to a pattern of being that simply isn’t who they have been created to be. We celebrate the gifts of the mime-artist, and say we appreciate them and wish them to grow in their gifting, but then deploy them as singers; we applaud the skills, passion and team-centeredness of the footballer, and then ‘release them into ministry’ as a solo human statue.

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