Monday, 23 September 2013

Learning the language

Trying to understand what people say is harder than you think. Listening to their words is not enough. You then have to interpret what those words actually mean. This is particularly so with those I speak to who are not Christians. For example when I go to make arrangements about the funeral of a member of the family I am more and more asked not to do anything religious. On the face of it this appears to be either a rejection of God or a request for me to deny my ordination vows. However I am learning to interpret this request as a plea to please talk about their relative and not push religion down their throat. Usually they are more than happy for prayers for them - "that's nice" they say - or a reading plus the committal etc and even a simple message.  All that is okay provided the religious content does not squeeze out the all important tribute to their mother/father etc.. This plea probably has as its basis a bad experience where they have been to a funeral where the deceased person's name was never mentionsed, or the service in no way seemed to reflect the life of the person they have lost and are grieving over.

So the idea seems to be is expressed as "we don't believe in God" but in actual fact it really means "don't make religion the only thing the service is about.

Another possible misinterpretation comes when folk criticize the Church as being full of hypocrites. Usually this actually means "in my experience of one or two people who call themselves Christians I have not encountered one genuine example. My conclusion therefore is that the Church only seems to produce such people in my experience."

The accusation of hypocrisy sometimes hides disappointment because they wanted or needed to find authenticity and genuine hope. Sometimes it is a lazy justification to stop thinking too deeply about faith. I visited a man who spoke a lot about the hypocrisy of Church people. He had no time for it and was not happy to have it in the funeral. However later on in the conversation he apologetically had to admit that he prayed when his father was dying! Others have ridiculed belief in God and the supernatural only to read tributes that talk about their loved one becoming an angel or a constant presence that watches over each one of them, protecting them all from harm and guiding them every day! This wise omnipresence is oddly reminiscent of the God they have rejected.

So "I don't believe in God" may really mean "I don't subscribe to any definite idea of God because that may commit me to coming to Church or changing my lifestyle". It may also mean "I don't believe in the bad stuff I have heard or which frightens rather than comforts me".

One of my favourites is "I don't believe in organised religion". This is shorthand for "traditional" or "restrictive" or even "something that demands a regular commitment from me."  It can also mean they don't believe in something that demands they stop sleeping around, smoking or drinking or something less harmful like going to the cinema or wearing lipstick!  I am tempted to reply "so if we were more disorganised then you would come and join us", but I never do. I just smile sadly and move the conversation on. Of course I have many times tried to take the argument further but have now come to see that in the vast majority of cases this really means "I don't want to talk about God, or faith or belief as it makes me uncomfortable. Let's move on."

Coming back to the word "traditional". This again does not always mean what we think it does. When the use the word people don't mean "according to the tradition of the Church" meaning the truth handed down through the generations. It can just mean old or old-fashioned. It can also mean "irrelevant, out-dated, out of touch" or even just plain old "boring". It's not always negative though and can sometimes be associated with good values or something warm and fuzzy like a coal fire or a comfortable chair. I remember asking a group of young people what they thought about us removing the pews at our church thinking they would all congratulate me on finally bringing the Church into the 21st century. Instead, almost to a person, they all thought it was a terrible idea as the pews looked so lovely!  I asked the same question of a few students who had come to make a film and they said the same thing. Why get rid of the pews? Of course none of them wanted to commit themselves to sitting on them week after week. Perhaps they would answer the question differently.

Of course you have to allow for possible self-interest here - another need to interpret. It could mean "I would like to get married here some day and those pews would be lovely for the wedding photographs". Or "I like this idea of church because it makes me feel safe and secure" or "it wouldn't really be a church without pews". There are so many 'meanings' behind the words.

Well enough for now. The whole point is that you cannot always take what people say at face value and you really need to be patient and listen more deeply to what they are not saying - at least not in words. The eyes, body language, tone of voice or access to the person's won memories of church etc can tell us so much more about what they really mean when they say "I don't believe in God" etc.. We need to take the time to listen and get to know them. There are no short cuts for Christians in a rush. the trouble is we almost always are.

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