Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Jesus is not the problem - the Church is

Whenever the subject of faith arises the same objections continue to float to the surface of the conversation, namely the well known chestnuts that “all churchgoers are hypocrites anyway” (a convenient way of deflecting attention from the hypocrisy of the individual speaking) and, “I don’t believe in organised religion” (obviously preferring something a little more disorganised or chaotic). When I have stopped inwardly groaning and allow myself to try and analyse these remarks, I begin to get a glimpse of the message beyond the words. I ask myself “What are they really saying?”  Two things:

1.  First, whatever the claims made by Christianity, personally they seem to be making very little difference to some Christians’ lives. Or to put it another, more crude way:”if you ARE happy, try telling your face.”  I believe that people are desperately seeking a better life than the one they are living, and are looking for guidance from those who historically seemed to have the answer, i.e. the Church. But when the enquirers look in our direction they find people little different from themselves, only with a religious veneer stuck over it. So they perceptively identify hypocrisy and are naturally angry and disappointed. They want to know. They are desperate to find out, but what they see in us is not the answer.

Jesus was angry with the religious authorities of his day. They were, in his words, blind people trying to lead blind people. Instead of relieving burdens they were increasing them. Jesus came to set us free. As people set free from the worlds burdens, our faces and our lives should be evidencing it. 

2. Second, Church, instead of being the embodiment of a Jesus who is alive and changing lives, has become an institution that represents the opposite. A number of years ago a book was published which looked at this. It was aptly called “God’s Frozen People!” Instead of displaying the warmth of a personal relationship with the Risen Christ, the Church has become an institution which sings, reads and prays about Jesus, but with very little conviction that He is someone known other than by historical hearsay. Paul writing to the Church in Philippi told them that the aim of the Christian life was to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection”. (Phil 3:10) Jesus is risen and alive. He is therefore Someone we can meet and know. It is the same power that resurrected him that can flow in our loves, changing and transforming us from within.  How do we proceed then?

Make an honest exploration of the notion, contained in scripture, that we can “know Christ and the power of His resurrection”. This is not fantasy or something claimed by religiously weird individuals. It  is the consistent experience and witness of individuals throughout Church history and today.

Two years ago a series appeared on BBC 2 called “The Monastery”.  Five men from different walks of life volunteered to spend 40 days with the Benedictine monks of Worth Abbey. Why? To see if they could discover if there was more to life than this. The series came to a dramatic conclusion with what has been described as an on screen conversion of one of the individuals called Tony.  In his own words he described the kind of background he was coming from:

“God meant nothing to me. He was an old geezer with a beard in illustrated text books or comedy sketches. He was a figure of fun and parody. Like everything religious in the outside world. Religion is mocked and belittled for the purposes of entertainment, and having spent years working in the media and in advertising and TV, I'd done my fair share of cynical mockery of everything the church stands for and those who choose to use what it has to offer.

God doesn't exist. Church is for old people who smell of wee. Priests are running from life. Theologians are on a meal ticket attempting to answer the unanswerable question of the existence of God, and will flesh it out until they retire to Spain... etc. “

Hardly promising material, but as he took the time out for exploration, the silence and the scriptures began to seep slowly into his soul, Tony began to come face to face with the existence of God. It was a process that took place over 6 weeks.  It wasn’t a quick or instant fix. Again, in his own words:

“…I was able to familiarise myself with extracts and parables within (the New Testament) which gave me a better understanding of my life and how to live it in a better way. I was able to see myself in certain characters in the scriptures and work out in my mind where I was going wrong and how I could make it right.”

And on the last day before he was due to leave, all the strands came together, and the door of his life opened onto another reality, THE reality, God. Tony again:

“Then, mid-way through my last conversation with my mentor Brother Francis, I was hit by something I'll never forget. It was like I'd taken a new drug and felt paralysed and unable to speak. It lasted about a minute. Francis blessed me and we went outside and I chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes, deeply moved by what had just happened.

And that was it. That was my call. That was my answer it existed. There was something in it. It wasn't just grown-ups dressing up. Or something to do on a Sunday before the pubs opened. I wasn't looking for it. I wasn't willing it to happen nor was I expecting it to happen, but it did. It was real. And I felt that for the first time in my life. And without realising it, I had worked very hard at making myself receptive to it, if there was anything there in the first place to be receptive for. I'd made myself spiritually open to offers. … I was put in touch with a spirituality deep inside me which has given me the energy and inclination to strive for so much more in my life and appreciate what's important and be a better person and lead a better life. My general world view has changed.”

This is the gift that God has given to the Church; i.e. the means to bring people into contact with the living God who is present in its midst. Coming to Church for one or two Sundays won’t do it. There’s no quick fix. You have to search; you have to give yourself to the task. You have to dig deeper than the surface of a service or a religious tract. God is there but you must pursue Him even as He pursues you. And the role of the Christian is to help, guide and share God with those who seek him. Our role is to live so close to God that we make him more visible and attainable to others. It’s a high calling.  The highest. But there are thousands of Tony’s out there calling us hypocrites but deep down hoping that we are otherwise.

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