It’s OK not to be OK

Coronavirus has been a dominant theme in life and ministry over the past couple of weeks, and is set to become even more so.  Time will be spent dealing with the practical implications for family, the pastoral care of those in the church, and looking out for those in need in wider society.

Alongside this has been the nagging feeling that as a Minister I should have something more profound to input into this situation, but a lack of anything to say that hasn’t been said many times before.  Over the past couple of days, however, it has become clear what I must speak into this situation: It’s OK not to be OK.

The phrase is the subtitle of a book I read recently,  Honesty over silence, by Patrick Regan, which deals with how churches fail to cope with people expressing that things are not ok, and the way this isolates those with mental health difficulties, fractured lives, physical trauma and a whole manner of other situations.  He urges us to become communities that truly listen, allowing people to express themselves honestly without resorting to trite responses or making them think that their faith is somehow lacking for feeling as they do.

In the current situation with Coronavirus it needs to be said loud and clear: It’s OK not to be OK.  To feel anxious, uncertain, traumatised by everything that is happening is not a sign of week faith.  There is no need to be guilty for feeling you are not sure how you will navigate the difficulties this throws into you life, even if you feel they may be less than those faced by other people – they are your difficulties, and your feelings, and you must be able to express them.

Many people have expressed fear about the effects of the virus on “the most vulnerable.”  By which they usually mean the physically old or those with particular medical conditions who are most likely to fall seriously ill or die if they catch it.  This is of course important, but physical frailty is not the only vulnerability.  Just within my own congregation I can name those who are vulnerable to the virus in the following ways:

  • Those for whom long-term shutdown will mean temporary or permanent loss of income, leaving them unable to pay for their housing or feed their families.
  • Those whose mental health is being negatively affected by the uncertainty.  If you have never lived with mental illness or are naturally someone who thrives on spontaneity and risk, please never underestimate the percentage of people who only manage to get through life because they have spent years carving out routines which give them just enough control of their situation to be able to appear okay – routines which may suddenly have to be cast aside.
  • Those with young children for whom the prospect of long weeks of school closure will causes issues with work/life balance, problems with acquiring affordable childcare, strain on their marriage, extreme exhaustion, or affect their emotional and physical health.
  • Those who are separated from close family members for an indefinite period of time as a result of travel restrictions, or have had to cancel trips to visit loved ones and family.
  • Those who have family members who have contracted the virus, or who are in a very vulnerable group for doing so, who can be extremely concerned about the health of those family members.

Taking that list, and I’m sure it can be added to, most (maybe even all) of us could be seen to be vulnerable to this virus in one way or another.  Sending a message to anyone that they can’t express their concern and vulnerability because it’s “not as bad” as someone else’s is unhelpful, and goes against the example of Jesus who approached each and every individual as one who was in need in one way or another.

As the effects of this virus become even more acute, let’s remember that looking out for others is about more than not panic buying, or doing the shopping for the elderly lady next door – absolutely right as both of those responses are! – but about allowing each one the freedom to express their concerns, to be listened to, to be engaged with, and so hopefully to feel the love of others and the peace of Christ at this time.

A “sinful” woman

I don’t often preach “narrative” sermons, but yesterday preaching on the “sinful” woman anointing Jesus (Luke 7:36-50) I felt led to this retelling of the story from her perspective.  Several members of the congregation commented on how it drew them into the scene and allowed God to speak to them, so I offer it here with the prayer that it will do similarly to others.

She was used to being on the margins, excluded, looked down upon.  All her adult life it had been the same, ever since she had chosen her career.  Not that it had been choice, at least at first, more necessity.  The need to eat, the need for clothes, for a roof over her head, had driven her to sell the only thing she had which anyone would buy, her own body.

She saw the looks of course, saw the distain, heard the comments, sensed the disapproval.  Those religious types were the worst, doing nothing to hide their contempt for one such as her – dirty, unclean, excluded, a stain on society.

But he was different, the one they called Yeshua.  She had watched from a distance, seen how he interacted with the crowd, how he looked at people, how he spoke to people. She’d seen the compassion on his face, the tenderness as he reached out to heal, the gentleness as he spoke to people.

He’d caught her eye once – her instinct as always had been to look away, but somehow she couldn’t. He’d known exactly who she was of course – she couldn’t hide it these days, the way she dressed, and her profession wasn’t exactly kind on her body.  He’d known, as countless others before had known.  But there was something different in his response, in the look on his face, those eyes piercing deep into her, but with no hatred, only kindness.  And that look on his face, a new one to her, radiating pure love.  She didn’t see that – lust, yes, she saw that countless times each day – but not love.

Yes, this one was different.  Just that momentary look, but she knew in that moment that he loved her, that he would accept her – knew too that he could heal her, that the compassion he had shown to others would be available to her too.  And knew in that moment that she too loved him.

Wanting to show that love, but what could she offer to such a man – she had only one thing to offer to men, and somehow she knew this one wouldn’t be interested in that.  But she had to do something, to return the love that had been in that look.  All she had was that little jar of perfume, maybe she could give that to him, as a gift, all that she had.

Following him to the house where he is going for dinner, bribing a servant to let her in with the promise that she will make it worth his while later.  And suddenly she was there, at his feet, standing by the one who loved her.  The emotion takes over, and she’s crying, unable to hold it back any more, deep sobs wracking her body – releasing all that pent up guilt and shame at who she is, who she has become – longing to be able to change, to put all that behind her.

Her tears flowing from her, running down over her cheeks, dripping down onto his feet.  Desperately looking round for something to wipe them away, but she cannot see a cloth, so she grabs the only thing she has to hand, her long hair, fingers fumbling to undo the braids to let hang loose, to blot away the tears.  But still they keep flowing, running down in great rivers onto his feet, and she keeps wiping.  And then the jar of perfume in her hand, yes, that is what she must do, she pours it onto those feet, kissing them, anointing him, a symbol of her love, her devotion, her service of this man who has still not even said a word to her – but who deep down she knows is someone special, someone she must honour, love, serve, devote herself to.

She starts slightly as he speaks.  But not to her, he’s talking to another man.  She recognises him: Simon, the man whose house this is – one of those hyper-critical religious types.  She knows what he thinks of her, he’s made that abundantly clear on so many occasions.  Yeshua is telling him a story – a story about debt, about forgiveness – oh how she longs to feel that forgiveness.

But now he’s talking about her, talking to Simon about her.  Her actions, what she is doing for him – he’s noticed, he’s appreciated her little act of love, so small and insignificant, but Yeshua has noticed.  Then those words, words which strike straight to her heart – words she had longed to hear, but barely even dared to hope she ever would,  from anyone, least of all from one such as this: “Her sins are forgiven.”  Is that her, does he mean her?  Has she missed something as she tunes in and out of the conversation? Is he really saying she can be forgiven? It’s almost as if he senses her doubt, because he’s turning now to face her, fixing her with that look again, the one that goes straight through her – but the kindness in his voice as he says it again, directly to her this time, “Your sins are forgiven.”

She can sense the tension in the room, hear the mutterings, the murmurings, the disquiet.  It’s there, but it’s not there, fading away, insignificant.  Let them mutter, let them disapprove, she no longer cares what they think.  All that matters is Yeshua, what he thinks, those kind eyes, the smile on his face, those immortal words “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Peace, yes, in that moment, a peace she has never known before, never imagined could be known.  Deep peace, flowing as it were from him, into her, through her.  Peace with herself, peace of heart and mind, a deep, healing peace.  Peace in knowing that he forgives her, and that once Yeshua has forgiven then life will never be the same again.

Are we willing to be challenged?

I am a member of a Facebook group for church organists, and yesterday one of the members posted the lyrics of this hymn by John Bell and the Iona Community, which had apparently caused some consternation amongst the members of her choir that morning:

Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,
Informed of God’s own bias, we ask him once again:
“How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self-interest turn prayer and pity blind?”

From those forever victims of heartless human greed,
Their cruel plight composes a litany of need:
“Where are the fruits of justice? Where are the signs of peace?
When is the day when prisoners and dreams find their release?”

From those forever shackled to what their wealth can buy,
The fear of lost advantage provoke the bitter cry:
“Don’t query our position! Don’t criticise our wealth!
Don’t mention those exploited by politics and stealth!”

To God, who through the prophets proclaimed a different age,
We offer earth’s indifference, its agony and rage:
“When will the wronged by righted? When will the kingdom come?
When will the world be generous to all instead of some?”

God asks, “Who will go for me? Who will extend my reach?
And who, when few will listen, will prophesy and preach?
And who, when few bid welcome, will offer all they know?
And who, when few dare follow, will walk the road I show?”

Amused in someone’s kitchen, asleep in someone’s boat,
Attuned to what the ancients exposed, proclaimed and wrote,
A saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools
Has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools.

These words were felt to be “hostile” and “offensive”.  Interestingly, most of the organists in the group disagreed, and felt that this was a hymn which spoke into the modern world in a way which was direct and necessary.  Many commented that church should be a place where we expect to be challenged and disturbed, and that too often it has become somewhere where we just have our previous prejudices reconfirmed.

I would agree.  The Old Testament prophets were forever offending their audience, and the church sorely needs more of those prophetic voices into our 21st Century Western comfort – I believe John Bell is one such prophet for our day.  Paul even goes so far as to describe the cross of Jesus as offensive (Galatians 5:11).  The Christian faith is not a comfortable one, it strikes at the very heart of who we are and calls us to become something very different.  That is difficult; we don’t find change easy, we don’t like being told that we are wrong.  But if the church is not issuing that challenge then we are watering down the message of Jesus and failing to be a true witness to him.  To use the well-known phrase, we are to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

If I have any criticism of Bell’s hymn it is that is doesn’t go far enough with the first half of that phrase.  The idea hinted at in the final two lines, that in issuing this challenge Jesus also walks with us to help us fulfil it, could probably have done with an extra stanza to develop and reinforce.  But that is not to take away from the powerful effect of what he has written, which does offend, but in the right way of making us all think again about the society in which we live, and our part within it.

So let us come to church ready to be challenged, even offended, as we encounter the Jesus who works with us to “tip the balance” of our own lives, so that together we may turn the world upside down.

(I do recognise there is a valid question of whether hymns/songs are the best place within our worship to express this challenge, or whether using the same words as a poem or reflection may be more appropriate, but that is a tangential question to the main issue here).

 

Is church too complicated?

In common with many churches, we run something of a ‘skeleton operation’ over the school summer holidays.  Many of the congregation are on holiday, and so some of what we normally do becomes unnecessary or not possible.  That has been compounded this year by a move to a new venue for Sunday worship, and we have been gradually finding our feet.

Things have been different over the summer, but in some ways they haven’t.  We haven’t had a Sunday school, our music group has been smaller, for a couple of weeks we had no hot drinks after the service etc.  But we have still met together, we have still worshipped God, we have talked, we have prayed, we have loved one another.

All of which increases my growing sense that we make church too complicated.  How many of our congregation are there on a Sunday morning because they are on a rota?  How many do what they do because they feel they must, rather than because they want to?  How many of us spend more time during the week preparing for our Sunday worship than we spend actually worshipping?

It has become almost a truism that church can’t function without rotas, but I wonder if the opposite is the case.  What would a church look like where everyone was guided in our contributions by the Holy Spirit rather than a piece of paper?  Where if I feel inspired to bake biscuits for the post-service coffee I can do so, rather than instead forcing myself to do a flower arrangement because that’s what the rota says.

Yes, this might lead to church that is a little more spontaneous and a little less ‘polished’.  But surely that is a price worth paying for a church where people genuinely enjoy their contribution.  And it could be a good way to discover what people really value about the church community, and what is being done simply because we feel it should be.

Some examples of how this might work:

  • Get rid of the flower rota and encourage people to bring flowers as they feel inspired.  Some weeks there will be none (and some people may need encouraging that this is okay, and they don’t have to bring some just in case no-one else does). Other weeks the church may look like the Chelsea flower show, and even those who never normally notice the flowers will be inspired to glory in God’s creation.
  • No tea and coffee rota.  Not, I hasten to clarify, no tea and coffee!  In the church where I grew up the first person into the kitchen after the service put on the kettle, someone would throw some teabags into a pot, and if you wanted a drink you went through and made yourself one.  I recognise that was a congregation of only about 40, and yes we did keep a pot of powdered milk for the occasional week when no-one had realised that the people who usually brought fresh were on holiday, but by and large it worked – and there was always someone who had brought some biscuits.
  • And we don’t need to stop at practicalities such as flowers and coffee.  Even key parts of our service could be handled this way.  What if we encouraged everyone musical to turn up whenever possible with their instrument, or ready to sing in the worship group?  Depending on how your church structures worship you may need to still rota a leader for each week, and there is the risk that occasionally they may end up playing alone, but some churches may find musicians who they didn’t know they had.
  • And if we want to go all the way, why not dispense with a preaching rota, at least on occasions, and encourage everyone to reflect on the passage for the week and bring their Spirit inspired thoughts.  That of course is nothing new, it’s how the Brethren have often done things, and 1 Corinthians 14:26 would suggest it was familiar to the New Testament church.  But how many churches do it often these days?

Every congregation is different, and depending on the available gifts there may always need to be some rotas to ensure that essential areas are covered.  But I think there is a sound principle behind all this.  How do we do church in a way which means that people are coming joyfully to offer themselves in service in a ministry to which they feel called, and in a way which uses their gifts, rather than just to fill a gap on a rota for something which may not actually be necessary?