Monday, 25 June 2012

Church, Macaroni & Mustard

Here’s a salutary tale.

Some years ago, when Janet and I had two small children, we decided to have lunch in town one Saturday. With buggy, children and shopping we exploded out of the tiny lift into the cafe area of the shop. It was manic. Everybody it seemed, had also chosen this cafe at this time to have lunch. Eventually we carried our trays to the smallest table in the world and after much juggling of plates, trays, shopping and children, we were ready to eat. By this time there were lots of tears and a bit of frustrated screaming. And the kids weren’t happy either.

Into this mayhem walks a man from another table. He asks ‘can I borrow the mustard?’ and without really waiting for a reply, leans over and takes the jar. At which point, Janet, who hates mustard, shouts across the crowded room ‘NNNOOOO’. I assumed the situation had got to her – as far as I was concerned he could borrow the mustard, the children, my food, the shopping... But it turned out it wasn’t the mustard he had taken. It was one of the kids jars of cold macaroni cheese. Now, at that point, I wished that Janet had quietly nudged me and said ‘watch this’. In my head I could picture the man taking a bite of his gammon steak, anticipating the tang of mustard against the sweetness of the meat... only to have the cloying sensation of cold macaroni cheese instead....

As I savoured this picture, God spoke – ‘that’s just like you.’ It took me a minute to understand. Revelation 3 summed it up. ‘You are neither hot nor cold – you make me sick’.

I, we, are supposed to be the body of Christ, bringing flavour to a tasteless world. The world has the right to see in church the very image of God in Christ. We are called to be the mustard. But too often I, maybe we,  present cold macaroni cheese.

We’ve got this juggernaut of an institution; it eats our money, our time, our gifts, our expertise. We need people to preach, teach, be in the band(s) run the children’s work, the youth programme, look after the buildings, man the sound-desk. We need people to run the coffee bar, do the admin, maintain the web-site, write the magazine. We need money for the staff salaries, the mortgage, the infrastructure, the legal fees, insurance, the minibus.

We run Sunday School and youth programmes to educate and entertain our kids, we have men’s meetings, women’s meetings, senior’s meetings, parent’s meetings, singles holidays. We have marriage courses, parenting courses, alpha courses, beta courses and courses to train leaders to start new versions of the same.

In a typical 'large' church more than 75% of the finances go on the maintaining the organisation and fabric. Less than 25% on anything external to the church itself. Fewer than 10% of the people are actively engaged in any form of connection outside the church – they have no time or energy for it after their service to the church itself. Tragically fewer than 10% of the people who could reasonably be expected to be reached, are actually reached. That’s 90% of those who could be seeing the light, continuing to walk in darkness.

Church is supposed to be the visible expression of Jesus. Instead it has become invisible to most, hidden like a black hole, sucking all life into it and giving little out.

Macaroni cheese instead of mustard.

How have we let this happen? How have we allowed that life transforming moment we experienced at conversion and in those early days to be eroded into what now satisfies? Maybe the problem is that we have experienced too little of the mustard ourselves. We’ve been feasting on the cold macaroni cheese for so long that we’ve mistaken it for the mustard.

Isn’t this at the heart of the problem? We have experienced so little of the transforming love of God in our lives that it is impossible – or seems hypocritical – to talk to others about it – let alone to demonstrate it. We are full of head knowledge, we’ve read of it happening elsewhere or have heard about it at conferences. But we haven’t personally experienced it, or at least not recently... We know the Bible stories, we enjoy the songs, the sense of camaraderie and purpose. Church as it has become presses a number of our buttons, but as for root and branch transformation, as for that gut-wrenching “I once was dead but now I am alive” moment, the tank is empty. So week in, week out we keep going back for a top-up of the slightly less than ordinary, fuelling us for another week of serving the church...

How do we get back to that first love, to that authentic expression of church?  Jesus said that 'he who is forgiven much, loves much'. Maybe a starting place would be to fast from the macaroni cheese for a while, to spend less time at church or serving church and to use the time we save before God, reminding ourselves of the depth of our sinful nature, the extent of our forgiveness... Lets be honest, when was the last time we wept over our deceitfulness, our selfish motives, the depravity which is only a heartbeat away? When did we last understand from the depth of our being that Jesus died for us, that without that we are truly and deservedly dead? When did we last experience the overwhelming love that God has for us, his yearning for our presence, his longing for our briefest response? The broken-heartedness of  a father who has lost his son because he would not turn around into his embrace?

That’s what changes us. Nothing else. It’s what keeps the change from being eroded. It’s what impels us to speak of his love, to give it, to share it. That’s true freedom, abandon into the Father’s arms. Either he catches us or we die. That’s real liberty!

It’s communities of people changed in that way that is church – and against it, the very powers of  hell will not prevail.

Mustard, not cold macaroni cheese. Church, not institution. Life, not death.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

New Home, Same Great Blog!

For any Thinking Allowed readers who may have thought we had disappeared, we haven't! We just moved where the blog is hosted (on the web site of David & Janet Painting, You can go directly to our new home by clicking here.

Keep following!


Catherine and David

Friday, 15 June 2012

Nursery Rhymes

You know that you are getting older when you start to think or say things like "Ah, back in my day, it was different..."

Things were different back in the day.... we went out to play in the morning and came back for tea. Nobody knew where we were or what we were up to. And nobody worried about it. Today, with better street lights, cctv on every corner and universal mobile phone access, no-one seems to dare go out at all. Fear seems to be prevalent.

It made us think - is it the immediacy of communication that has caused the problem? Surely people were just as wicked 'back in the day' as they are now, but a crime then would be reported locally, but even national news would not infiltrate lives as fast as a viral You Tube video. Now everyone sees the distressed parents within minutes of the event and it gets played over and over. Comments fly around Facebook and within minutes the whole nation seems to be personally affected and feel a part of the pain.

In some ways it's great - a whole nation can be drawn together and share common and significant experiences. It helps to bond, to give a sense of belonging... Yet the downside is that fear spreads like a pernicious virus for which there seems to be no vaccine.

Which is where nursery rhymes come in. Back in the day (way back, even before my day) the world for many was a far more dangerous place than it is today. Corruption, criminality, injustice, political and religious bigotry, rampant disease and poverty combined to create a fearful cocktail of disaster for pretty much everyone. Without chat shows, celebrity interviews, counsellors or Facebook, how did people process the fear, how did children especially, cope with such a world? How did anything get done against a backdrop of imepnding doom that should have disempowered even the most adventurous?
Mary, Mary quite contrary

How does your garden grow?

With cockleshells and silver bells

And pretty maids, all in a row

It's not a medieval version of Gardener's World. It's a satirical condemnation of 'Bloody Mary'. Her religious views were contrary to the reformation that her Father had begun. The garden refers to the ever increasing graveyards needed to accomodate the martyrs, tortured by the 'cockleshells and silver bells' (thumbscrews and worse) and executed by the 'maiden beheader' (a primitive version of the guillotine).

But it's also a way of mocking the horror of it all. Children could laugh and make light of what was too traumatic to deal with fully.
Ring, a ring of roses

A pocket full of posies

Atishoo, atishoo

We all fall down

A dance and a rhyme to take away the horror and loss of the plague. A means of diminishing the pain, of rising above the terror.

"London's burning", "Old Mother Hubbard", "Pop goes the weasel" and scores of others - all with the same underlying message: "We ridicule death and hopelessness. Despite the circumstances, we will not submit to fear, we will be children, we will play.

Nowadays we attempt to sterilise the world of danger. We kill 99.9% of all known germs - dead. We spray, we vaccinate, we insulate, we isolate. And all that's left is the cloud of fear, drizzling down from anxious parents to their increasingly fearful and risk-averse children. And they now have no means of processing it, leading, one supposes, to a rise in OCD, IBS and other anxiety related illness.

Oh the irony! We live in a safer world, yet worry more. We live in a global village, yet imprison ourselves in smaller and smaller cells of fear. We live in  the immediacy of communication, where the message of hope could blaze through the fog of fear. But instead what we communicate is the fear itself.

Instead of the nursery rhyme we retreat to the x-box. We make death and destruction our plaything, but it doesn't reduce the fear of reality. We outgrew the nursery rhyme, the fairy-story, the moral tale. We gained our independence, our right to sue, our extended life-expectancy.

But somewhere we lost hope, somewhere we lost God.