One day last summer I spent the day with my sister Sharon and her boyfriend Malc. They own a small steading with half a dozen or so horses. There are lots of places like that round about Leicestershire - a few fields of grass, a few horses, a stable and a small horse riding business.
Maybe it is because of the horses, but they are also into country and western festivals. I suppose the right word is Hoe-down! They would normally saddle up a couple of the horses and ride out to wherever the festival is, provided it is not a million miles away.
The week that I was visiting the folks, there was a country and western event a few miles away and Sharon and Malc invited me along. There was a line up of singers and bands, perhaps not household names in my world - but known in theirs! No riding was suggested, so we piled everything we could think of in the back of a truck, and off we drove.
I imagine that it must be something like Star Trek conventions. Not only do people dress up as cowboys, and cowgirls - and even the occasional Indian - but they also have other names. Suddenly everyone is Ike or Mary-Lou, and out come the Stetsons and the spurs. Even the dogs walk with a slouch!
Not only is there a big tent and a stage with half the floor roped off for line dancing, but around the big tent there is a mass of satellite tents housing everything Country and Western that you could possibly need! Apart from getting yourself a gun - just about everything else was possible. Malc had a gun in a holster hung about his hips. In previous festivals they had shoot-outs, re-enacting great scenes from American history.
There were hundreds of Ikes and Mary-Lous dressed in an assortment of fringed waistcoats, jackets and skirts. Some of them looked like they had just stepped out of The High Chaparral! The bands were OK - Country and Western does not hoist any of my flags. The one man that I enjoyed was pretty much the first up, and he did his own stuff - but most of the bands did what were obviously popular C and W songs that everyone could sing along to. I attempted to line dance with people around me hissing -"left, shuffle, right, shuffle, turn..." with me a few "shuffles" behind and turning in the wrong direction.
It was like I had stepped into another world and after a few hours, doing the rounds of the tents a dozen times, and mumbling the words to a song that I thought I knew - I kind of got used to it. It was a world apart from my normal life, and yet in some ways it seemed more real to some of the Ikes and Mary-Lous than the real world was. It was safe and accepting.
Our church meets in local primary school assembly hall. For a number of weeks the heating has been temperamental. At sometime in the meeting, usually within the first half hour, the fan heaters begin chugging out cold air. This would be ideal on a hot summer's day, but in the middle of winter it is not appreciated! Sometimes it is warmer outside the hall than inside! The school janitor lives nearby. Sometimes we prefer not to call on his help, and just don on the coats and loose touch with our extremities - but not today. Rather than tinkering with the boiler and leaving us to it, Jim the Jannie carefully placed his keys on a chair and joined in. Looking back, I think he was just sticking around for a while to check that the boiler wasn't going to switch itself off.
He must have felt pretty much like I did at the Country and Western festival. It was not his natural habitat. He at least got the words to the songs on an OHP which I didn't have.
The whole church environment must be alien to so many people. As a church body we are so at home and comfortable that I think we sometimes forget what it is like for people like Jim. There is so much we just take for granted and accept so readily that for people who are not church-literate, it is just another world. For many people it is just as much escapism as the cowboy world of Ike and Mary-Lou. Being a Christian isn't a hobby and going to church isn't escapism. It is important for us to live our lives in such a way that we demonstrate the reality of our faith in our day to day lives.