Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Change from within?

Someone posted a comment on one of my earlier entries responding to what I had written about attending a Gaelic mass a number of weeks ago. I was invited to consider going back to the Roman Catholic Church seeing as I had gone through all the rites of passage. My husband is of the firm belief that once a Catholic always a Catholic.

I am not sure about this, and I apologise if I have got it wrong, but there seemed to be an impression that because I was a member of a non-denominational church I was somehow less sincere about my faith. I suppose there are people that think is terms of real churches as having buildings and traditions that can be traced back, or a specific kind of hierarchy. Anything less formal in terms of structure is just playing at faith, or faith on your own terms as opposed to on God’s terms, according to what it says in the Bible or in church tradition.

If you know me, and some know me well, you will know that I am entirely serious about my faith. Some indeed would say that I am too serious and need to lighten up!

I can think of two times, two clear times, when I have been challenged about the church I belonged to.

The first time was when I lived in Cyprus. I was teaching in a small private school with very strong links to the local Brethren Church. The main denomination in the Greek side of Cyprus is the Greek Orthodox Church. I went to one or two church services – an Easter Service and a baptism, but for the most part I attended Sunday mornings and evenings at the Brethren Gospel Hall. It was incredibly strict with women wearing hats and keeping silent in church. It was what I needed at the time. It taught me some valuable lessons about discipline which perhaps in another setting would not have been so effective!

I can remember meeting a fairly lively lady who was a Christian. She came under some criticism because she attended the local Greek Orthodox Church. It was commonly held idea by the Brethren Church at the time, and expressed quite strongly, that there weren’t any “real Christians” in the Greek Orthodox Church. Those that went merely did so out of tradition and they did not have any saving knowledge of Jesus. “Real Christians” went to the Gospel Hall!

The woman was not persuaded by the argument. She agreed that perhaps not everyone who went through the door of the Greek Orthodox Church had a saving faith, but then the same could be true for any church. She believed that if she lived her Christian life inside what everyone was labelling a “dead church” perhaps she could change it, rather than abandoning it and finding a “lively” church. (There is an oxymoron if ever there was one when applied to that particular Brethren Church at the time!) My companions at the time were quite convinced that she would eventually die for lack of life within the church. She felt it was her calling to stay within the Greek Orthodox Church and change it from within through a faithful testimony. If everyone was like us, withdrawing from the established churches top set up “our own” new thing, it is inevitable that the established churches end up dying! It is our obligation to change things from within.

The other incident takes place a few years later. I spent a year on a gospel outreach team in Inverness. We were really keen to get into schools – do assemblies or RE lessons and meet with the young people. Being an ex-RE teacher at the time, I advised the leaders to consult with the area RE advisor, a nice elderly gentleman. Seeing as I obviously knew the system, I was elected to meet with him and discuss our “vision”.

The man had a Church of Scotland background. He seemed more interested in why I had abandoned the denominational churches to be a part of something less traditional, or settled, or old. The house movement, or charismatic churches were new to Inverness at the time and people had impressions that they were off the wall – the lunatic fringe as it were. He asked me why I did not remain within the established church and try to change it from within!

I suppose it is uncomfortable when people poke holes in traditions that have been going for many years, decades, centuries or millennia. I don’t poke holes in something just because it has been going for such a long time. I don’t jump on bandwagons, or grab hold of the latest craze. Ask my friend Mark!

I just think about the quality of my Christian life in the church I belong to and I know I am in the right place. I don’t think it panders to my way of thinking or feeling or worshipping – I just see God there week in week out. Maybe I would see God just as clearly in any other church, but I believe that God has called me to be where I am. It is not an easy church at times, and I don’t always agree with everything that is said at the front. There are times when it is hard work – my faith is hard work – my spiritual muscles get stretched. I am not saying that it wouldn’t happen in any other church – but right now I am where I God wants me to be.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Greasy Joe's

Along time ago, in our courting days – see how no one today uses the term courting? – Joe and I used to cook each other meals. I used to do very elaborate three course meals, with table cloths and cutlery and flowers. I even constructed a menu card labelled “Chez Mel” – the front room of the house where I lived turned into a posh restaurant for the night! I always thought that if in the remote distant future I ever won the lottery – millions as opposed to mere thousands of pounds – I would buy a restaurant, get my sister to do the cooking and it would be called “Chez Mel”. Quite how I was going to persuade my sister to move house to Inverness I hadn’t quite worked out. I thought the lure of running her own kitchen might be enough. She is now into horses and I think I have lost my window of opportunity!

Joe’s meals were possibly just as complicated – the Marks’ and Spencer packaging hidden well away. He also had a menu scribbled on a sheet of lined paper and labelled “Greasy Joe’s”.

This morning we resurrected “Greasy Joe’s”. On the last Sunday of the month our church suspends the usual morning meeting to have breakfast together. Sometimes we invade, on masse, a local restaurant, or at other times, members of the church volunteer to host the breakfast. It was our turn! Do we actually take it in turns? I don’t think so. Whatever, we volunteered to have every one around our house and cook breakfast.

I was determined that we would not fail in the task of making sure that every need was catered for. If it could be eaten for breakfast, it was on the menu – even kippers!

Joe and I launched into a flurry of cooking – every pan bubbling away on the stove and the grill sizzling with sausages. The George Foreman grill was out if the box and also sizzling away with bacon in it. It was like a well oiled machine – not just the George Foreman grill, but the whole breakfast cooking process. Everything turned out perfect – although I did see the lady who ate the kippers later on in the afternoon and she wasn’t feeling so well!

Afterwards we sat on chairs on the patio, drinking tea, mopping up the last of the pancakes, soaking up the sun that has been absent for most of the summer, and having fellowship.

It is at these times that we really connect. We behave like a real family and talk about everyday life. We laugh together and don’t hide behind a songs and sermons.

A good time was had by all!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Who turns the world?

Every year I hand out a homework task to the new first year groups. I ask them to find a news paper article that has something to do with religion. I give them a week to do it! It forms part of a lesson where we consider why we study religion in school, and one of the reasons why is because it forms a part of every day life for some people. “It is often in the news” is this throwaway comment in one of the workbooks!

I have always been confident that it is do-able. I am convinced that there are newspaper articles out there – but I have to admit that these days I am not so sure of myself! We have a blue recycling box at home which hasn’t been emptied for a while, so there is a good supply of papers. I spent a few minutes flicking through a couple.

The first paper contained nothing at all. I learnt more than I wanted to know about some of the celebrities and their cellulite problems, I learnt a bit about the best fashion accessories for the season, about which “animals” were locked up for committing which crimes – but nothing religious occurred! Then, in the second papaper, I found it! It couldn’t have been much more than two sentences, lodged in a side panel next to a much more sensational piece!

Apparently a priest in Holland was being taken to court for ringing the bells in his church too loudly! That was the single noteworthy comment about the religious and spiritual state of the nation! Not even our own nation!

I am trying to tell a new generation that religion is important, that it has an impact on the world around us – and all I can show for that statement is a guy in Holland being told off for ringing bells too loud!

In the New Testament, the comment made about the early church and the apostles was that they “turned the world upside down”. Where are the world-turners today? Maybe the church turns the world but because it is good news, as opposed to bad news, no one wants to know! Maybe the church turns the world turns but no one thinks it is that special so it doesn’t get reported. Or maybe it’s the politicians and not the church that turns the world now.

See my previous blog. Maybe it is not just me as an individual Christian who is struggling with the abdication of my responsibilities!

(The Scotsman and the Herald saved the day! I popped into a newsagent this morning to pick up a couple of papers. They both came up with the goods – the Muslim community doing a Live-Aid-like concert to raise money for charities and a prominent church leader withdrawing support from Amnesty International because of their change of view about abortion.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Don't abdicate!

To abdicate means “to renounce or relinquish a throne, right, power, claim, responsibility, or the like, esp. in a formal manner.”

Let’s get rid of some of the sub phrases. We will keep “relinquish” and “responsibility”.

I am involved in a number of activities in our local church – leading worship, preaching, teaching the children among other things. There are mid week meeting for people involved in some of these activities. Monday’s meeting was an opportunity for the preachers/teachers to meet. Part of the meeting was given over to thinking about our Thursday meeting which we called “Connect” with the idea of connecting more with each other and with what God wanted to accomplish through us.

Before the meeting, between coming home from Weight Watchers (Yeah – I’m still going!), and going to the meeting I took time out to pray and prepare my heart. I am not sure of the content of the prayer – but I am sure of God’s word for me. He simply said “Don’t abdicate. Don’t relinquish the responsibility I have given you!”

Like many people I really feel that I don’t give God enough time. School work fights with the ironing pile, washing up fights with mowing the lawn, watching TV fights with settling down to a Bible study – and I never feel that I have quite the cutting edge that I ought to have. I am all too aware of my inadequacies and feel unqualified to do some of the things I am asked to do. I make assumptions that other people are spending more time with God and hearing him more clearly and better qualified to speak.

I have some very creative ideas, but sometimes I lack the confidence to share what I think. I sit there quietly in a meeting internally kicking myself because my tongue seems to be stuck to the roof of my mouth and I can’t shift the words out.

As much as this frustrates me, I reckon it must frustrate God too at times! During that time before the meeting God assured me that I had been given responsibility, and gifting, and equipping and it wasn’t about minutes and hours but heart attitude. I shared with the church on Sunday that I believed I had been given a picture of who God wanted me to become and it wasn’t something unachievable and remote. If I want to be that person God want s me to be it requires that I work with him. I need to take an active role and stop being so passive.

As ever, when I choose to obey, God does something wonderful! It wasn’t just that we had a very dynamic discussion, but that it was so easy! The ideas flowed without anyone having to winkle them out of me. We enjoyed each other’s company, laughed together, expressed our concerns about things, prayed together – all in a really comfortable environment. I went home feeling very encouraged.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Tell me about Jesus

I had an interesting dream last night. At the time it had a very cohesive storyline, but on waking I remember only a few particular scenes.

I don’t think it was set in this country. Joe and I were walking along a road. There was a huge metal fence on the right hand side. It ran the whole length of the road, and beyond the fence there were houses. We were trying to get to the houses, but there were no breaks in the fence. It wasn’t something you could climb over. A young boy was on the road just ahead of us. Suddenly he was the other side of the fence heading out towards the houses. There was a very narrow gate that if you had not been searching for, you would easily have missed it. Joe seemed to have no problem getting through the gate, but I had to really suck in the gut to get through!

We headed towards one of the houses. Joe knew exactly where he was going and he knocked on one of the doors. It was a shanty town and the houses were small one roomed affairs, cobbled together with cement and corrugated iron. Joe knew the woman who answered the door and she let him in. I don’t know why, but she was extremely angry with him. I told her that Joe helped people. He stood up for people who were being railroaded over in their workplaces. She shouldn’t be angry because he could help her.

There were two other people in the room apart from the woman. Her husband was lying on the bed and her mother was sat on a chair in the corner of the room. The woman told us that because her husband was ill, she was the sole bread winner in the family and she was paid very little money for the work she was doing. They were not able to make ends meet and struggling to keep from starving.

It appeared that her husband had been attacked by two vicious dogs. He was severely bitten, and the flesh on his back had been badly gored. They either didn’t have money to get medicine, or because they were so poor, the doctors had taken advantage, charging them money for medicine that was no use. The wounds had become infected and he was getting worse.

The man crawled off the bed and come over to where I was standing. He took off his shirt and showed me the wounds. Then he asked, “Will you pray for me?”

I have prayed for people in real life to be healed, and I suppose, like many other people, I am never sure that my prayers are very effective. The times when I have prayed for myself to recover from debilitating colds, I have not noticed much of a change. In the back of my mind was the haunting question, “What if I pray and nothing happens?”

As I prayed for the man, I thought about myself as a child going to her daddy. (I rarely think of God in terms of daddy!) I had this picture, I suppose, of a child with a broken toy, taking it to daddy to fix it, entirely convinced that he would fix it. Even entertaining the idea that he couldn’t or wouldn’t fix it was unimaginable. I remember closing my eyes – thinking perhaps that not actually looking at the man’s torn back might, in some bizarre way, prevent me from doubting that God would heal him.

The prayer itself was interesting. I can’t remember the words, but I began worshipping God. The opening phrases were confident declaration of His love and compassion. When I got to the bit about healing, I was almost whispering. There was no rebuking of demons or anything, but just an urgent whisper that God would act. I kept thinking I shouldn’t be whispering, but loudly proclaiming God healing to the man, but it was like I had no voice.

However, despite the lack of volume, the man was healed. There was no sign that he had ever been hurt. The wounds and the infection were gone and the skin on his back was smooth and clean. I disappeared to the toilet to praise God in my own way, and noticed that the house that had just the one room suddenly was much bigger. It had a kitchen and bedrooms that were not there before.

The man’s next request was “Tell me about Jesus.”

I am not sure what I said. I have a feeling that I got bogged down trying to explain the trinity! I was totally dissatisfied that I couldn’t come up with something clear and to the point! He wasn’t put off though and asked me to come back the next day to tell him more.

Joe and I went back to wherever we were staying. Somehow we managed to get a hold of three or four Bibles to take with us. I am not sure that I persuaded Alan Scotland, a leader in my mother’s church to come with us, or whether he insisted on coming anyway. When we returned to the house the next day the house was packed out with people.

Alan Scotland stood up to start preaching and the healed man gestured him to sit down.

“We have come to hear what you have to say,” he said to me.

And then I woke up! (Much to my relief)

There are people that take delight in dissecting prayers – feel free to do so – but for me the challenge was all about that question “Tell me about Jesus.” I have been with people over the last couple of weeks who, like the woman in my dream, are finding life difficult. Like the man, they are injured and incapacitated in some way. They didn’t say the words “Will you pray for me?” or “Tell me about Jesus” – but that is what their lives were crying out! I didn’t see it then. I have prayed since!

The question, “Tell me about Jesus” is provoking my spirit. I have walked with Jesus for many years and I should be able to tell people about Him and not struggle to say what people need to hear! I perhaps feel that other people, like Alan Scotland, would do the job better than me. Much as I would like to pass the buck to a more gifted person, there are people who want to hear the Good News from me. I just need to make sure I have a clear message.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Angry

A bible story that I come back to time and time again is the story of Jesus healing the leper in the opening chapter of Marks’ gospel. I once wrote a short story based on the incident. I imagined that the touch of Jesus went a little further than just a hand on the shoulder. While the man had leprosy, or whatever the skin condition was, he was barred from physical contact – so I wanted to communicate how Jesus goes beyond the basics. I opted for an embrace rather than just a touch.

There was nothing tentative or hesitant about his touch. He raises me to my feet and wraps me in his strong embrace. I inhale the clean smell of his robes and feel the roughness of the fabric against my cheek. The sun glistens off the pale hairs on his arms. I can feel his warmth seeping through his clothes and through my rags. Long forgotten sensations cascade over me as I stand enfolded. Just as the open sores of my leprosy break and bleed, my heart breaks and my hurts bleed out. He holds me close as I am drowned in a torrent of my pitiful and wretched tears. After a while I am still. I hear his heart beat in the peace after the storm. And we stand.

As I was checking out commentaries and what other people had blogged, or sermoned, about the story, I discovered that there is some debate about Jesus’emotions. All the various version of the Bible I possess read that Jesus full of compassion, or pity, reached out to touch the leper. It would appear that some of the early manuscripts replace the compassion or the pity with anger. Jesus, being angry, heals the leper.

The anger is not directed at the leper. Jesus wasn’t angry that a man who knew the rules concerning lepers broke them. He wasn’t angry that in coming so close, the leper was putting Jesus’ health at risk. Jesus’ anger was directed at the illness, the conditon that man found himself in and the whole social isolation thing. He was angry because sin had destroyed a person’s physical being, and all his social relationships and left him less than human. This was not the world that He brought into being. He did not plan for people to live under sickeness and death.

Some commentators dismis anger and stick with compassion. Some commentators suggest that anger was softened to compassion to fit in with people’s understanding of Jesus. I am challenged by anger. Like most people I get angry about things – usually the wrong things! I can remember a few weeks ago getting very angry with a minor celebrity who said that her misscarriage was a punishment from God!

I have just returned home from a family visit. My mother isn’t doing so well. She is slowly, but surely, physically falling apart – wear and tear in just about every bodily system. In one of her many hospital visits, the doctor was doing some kind of scan and suggested they look lat her gall bladder to see if she didn’t have gallstones. My mother, ever the humourist, reminded him that the doctor s had removed her gall bladder many years ago so quite where the gallstones were hiding out might prove a mystery!

My mum is fragile. It is not just the physical body that is being eroded, but courage and confidence is also being dismantled.

This is not the world that Jesus planned for her. It’s not punishemnt from God for sin. It is just the fallen world falling on her and crushing her at times.

It’s no wonder Jesus gets angry!