My late husband was brought up in a very strict Presbyterian family and he always struggled with the idea of church. But I, brought up in an RC environment, I just celebrated the idea of it! George loved God, and was a prayerful and kind man but a structured church was an anathema to him. We went to Bible school and I loved loved loved it, but he hated it, and we left after one term. I was left hungry and wildly frustrated – I’d only been able to take one class a week because he was ‘the student’ and I was just the wife, but I longed for so much more. I’d have signed on for years! But don’t misunderstand me, he loved God with a calm quiet certainty and serenity that I didn’t have. The day he died began with him praying in the early morning sunshine. Afterwards, in deference to his wishes and initially wanting to bring our daughter up as he would have wanted, I didn’t go to church for the next 22 years! When I finally started to attend regularly, I was just thrilled, excited, desperate to find out more, to learn and follow and belong.
I sort of managed it. But in doing so I think I confused the church with God.
We are used to hearing the phrase ‘separation of state and religion’ but I think we need to talk about or even admit that there’s a chasm separating God and Church.
God doesn’t just talk about love, or promise love, He doesn’t ape care. He doesn’t dissemble or worry about saying the right-on thing. God is straight and true and direct. His first priority is His own glory, He makes no bones about that;
“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”
” For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath;
for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you,
so as not to destroy you completely.
See, I have refined you, though not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.
How can I let myself be defamed?
I will not yield my glory to another.”
But He makes it abundantly clear that He has given His all for us, the children of His love:
Greater love has no one than this, to lay down his life for his friends.
And I could never argue against the meeting together of Christians:
For where two or three gather in my name, there I am, with them.
Nor will I ever argue against prayer:
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
But I am less keen on the idea of church:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Christians should do more than say the right things. We should do more than tell each other that we are praying for their needs. Of course, we should pray always for each other but also always show our care in practical worldly ways. The people around us should be our priority. There are lonely people and despairing people, dying people and people in real need, unable to drag themselves out of the mire. They need help and there’s precious little on offer – a card and some soft words maybe, a bunch of flowers, a doleful statement of care on a Sunday morning? Is that it? Really? Is it enough that our caring is well meaning and ineffective, fitted in around our own comfort and well-being?
No. That’s not good enough. Not according to Jesus. He wants sacrifice. He wants us to love each other as a priority. To step out of our smug little, snug little lives and go to those in need, spend time, listen, talk, care.
Care. Not ‘pretend to care’.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, love your neighbour as yourself.”
You know the parable of the Good Samaritan? He wasn’t lazing in a deckchair when he saw the battered and bleeding man on the roadside. He was on his way somewhere. Doing something. Busy. He put himself out for that wounded stranger. His love wasn’t emotional. It was practical. It cost.
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
Whenever a Christian says something critical of the church, he or she will hear many many well worn arguments, encouraging them to stay mum- the chief of which goes something like “If we could find a perfect church, as soon as we joined it would cease to be perfect.”
That’s so lame. The next person who says that to me will see my eyes roll, and a pulse throb alarmingly in my temple…..
Of course one answer to these inconsistencies in church life is to do what I would dearly love to do: leave our church in a huff when it doesn’t go quite as we would like.
That’s one answer. You heard about the man stranded on a deserted Pacific island for years? Well, one day he was spotted by a passing boat and a sailor rowed ashore and greeted the stranded man. After a while the sailor asked, “What are those three huts you have here?”
“Well, that’s my house there.”
“What’s that next hut?” asks the sailor.
“I built that hut to be my church.”
“What about the other hut?”
“Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.”
I don’t want to leave my church. I don’t. I’ve only just found a way to survive in a church. But I do want to change and become more Christ like and I want that for my church too. Just as I want to be transformed, I want my church to be transformed. Not slowly and resentfully, grudgingly, but by the power of God. Amazingly. Bravely. Boldly. Joyfully.
And efficiently. I look at some the things we do and some of the things we don’t do and I am impatient and arrogant and frustrated. Not ever so Christ-like, then. But in honesty and abandoning the temptation to soften this with fake humility, I have to admit there’s a level of passion and commitment, and organisation, in worldly enterprises that’s missing in the church. That’s not just frustrating, it’s discouraging, and limiting, and a lousy witness to outsiders.
Jesus was the first person in the Bible to mention the word we now know and translate as ‘church’. It was from the root of ‘ecclesia’ or ‘meeting’ but it’s become, in English, the word ‘church’. So, do I want to leave what Jesus has given us? No.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
He said our good deeds should be seen. He didn’t say our prayers and hymns should be heard and admired…. he didn’t say our pious verses in greetings cards should be seen by others… He said ‘deeds’. And I know full well that deeds aren’t always busy bustling things. Sometimes the best and kindest deed is to sit with someone and listen to them. Sometimes the best and kindest deed is to scrub a floor, but sometimes it’s just to hold a hand.
And it all starts with me. When I see need I want to meet it. Run to meet it, head on, regardless of the cost. And I don’t do that. I don’t. So far I haven’t.
I don’t ever ever EVER want to promise people that I will pray for them, or send my ‘love’ to them, if I then can’t be bothered enough to spend time with them. But there are only 24 hours in any day so how will I do this? Only by the grace and enabling of God, cos flip me, my bloggies, I’m a selfish cove. I am. But God will change me, as He will change His church. Because I am His church.
That’s a depressing thought. Everything that’s wrong with my church is wrong with me.
What a bummer!
But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Sitting with a sick friend today we were talking about our lives, looking back over the years, and I realised that the phrase ‘new every morning’ is not only about the day, or about God’s goodness, but it’s about us. We have a fresh start every day, every hour, every minute. If we submit to God, we see our waywardness, we ask for His forgiveness and help, at that moment the past is done and dusted and we are NEW! New.
Thank God for NEW. The church is made new.
“Brothers and sisters… one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.”
So, here I am, forgetting what is behind, pressing on to what lies ahead. The day when the church (which quite annoyingly turns out to be me), will be as one with God.
Hey – while I’m on about stuff discovered … have you read Psalm 40 recently? It’s only a shortie and it will touch even the hardest old heart. Here’s a bit of it;
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
He has set my feet on a rock, and given me a firm place to stand.
Wowser. What a God! After a life like mine, full of change and danger and derring-do and silliness…. my feet are on a rock.
‘Look to the rock from which you were cut,
to the quarry from which you were hewn.”
Sunday tomorrow. And CHURCH! Yayyy.
Erm. I think.