Monday, 18 August 2014

More? More of what? - Part 2

Third, how well equipped are churches to teach the importance of the deeper spiritual life? How many have all but sold out trying to encourage more people into their buildings each Sunday? Understandably they are concerned at the plight of the Church in the West and the growing influence of Islam and atheism. They long to see more children and young people coming to faith and despair at the higher average age of their congregations. They see how successful the world is at winning the battle for souls and have tried to learn lessons from it about how to grab people's attention and provide what is needed to make them sit up and listen to the message of the Gospel. But the danger is that "success" has become redefined in terms of quantity instead of quality and as time goes on churches are becoming more superficial and less counter-cultural. We are doing exactly what St. Paul told us NOT to do: "Do not let the world squeeze you into its mould." (Romans 12:2 J.B.Phillips).

We can see an example of this is the migrationary nature of a growing number of  Christians today who church-hop or church-shop, trying out the newest addition to the growing list of denominations in each of our cities each year only to quickly get fed up and leave to try out another. I love the advice St. Gregory of Sinai once gave about prayer which is appropriate here:

"For, just as plants do not take root if transplanted too frequently, neither do the movements of prayer in the heart if the words are changed frequently."

The old saying of the Evangelicals comes to mind here: "Blossom where you are planted." In other words find a church, stay, put down roots and grow God's work there. You can't serve God if you are always a customer. Part of becoming more spiritually mature is sticking at things. But if all the effort of the individual church is to provide entertainment, or play the world's game, then its no wonder that people move around because entertainment wears off in the pursuit of the next thrill.

Lastly, as I get older and, hopefully more reflective (the plus side of having less energy), I am re-discovering that the 'old' and 'traditional' have more to offer than I had previously thought. I wonder if this was what Jeremiah meant in Chapter 6:16:

"Thus says the Lord, "Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls."
And Jesus in Matthew 13:52:

"Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."
And perhaps more telling still, from Jeremiah (2:13):

"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water."
Have we neglected the old in order to run exclusively after the new? Have we left the ancient God-worn paths in a vain pursuit of new spiritualities? Have we tried to dig our own cisterns which cannot hold the living water?

Now I am not advocating the rejection of the new because its new, just as I would not want to reject the old because it is old. But I think that the greater danger lies in the latter and we have definitely got to start looking again for the baby that was thrown out with the bathwater in our vain attempts at digging every new cisterns (excuse the mixed metaphors).

I will return to some of these themes over the next few blogs. But for now a personal note. Every Wednesday our Church at St.James holds a midweek Holy Communion service using the 1984 Book of Common Prayer as produced by the Church in Wales. Don't be impressed by the date because actually the language is pseudo-Elizabethan where God is "Thou" and "Thee". It also breaks all "the rules" when it comes to being new and trendy and it is rather bare and straightforward. It is co-led by a retired priest (who does a great job leading it) and a lay-reader (ditto) and I usually give a short address with the occasional 'guest' speaker. For years - 26 - I have struggled and wrestled with the service seeing it as irrelevant and out of touch with modern life but in recent months I have given in to it and concentrated on using the words as a vehicle to encounter the God who is always present. The shock has been that I can now honestly say, hand on heart, that my experience of worship most Wednesdays has been the most vivid and rewarding of my entire priestly ministry!

What is it that makes it so? Is it the up to date language it uses? No its 500 years old! Is it short and snappy? No - in particular the consecration prayer is quite long. Is it the informal and laid-back nature of the worship? Certainly not - its almost the opposite. Is it the free cup of tea/coffee at the end or the carefully staged ambience of the room in which we meet? No it's in the Minor Hall in the Parish Centre. And who ever gets excited by a cup of tea? What is it? It is the presence of God who has been there all along. I have been so busy looking AT the service that I have not seen THROUGH it, using the words to speak to God what is in my heart. DO you think God cares whether the language is Elizabethan or Norwegian. It is not the language of the mouth he is listening to but the language of the heart. "Better your heart without words than your words without heart" wrote John Bunyan. What ever we say and do we must do it from the heart. That is the only thing God really listens for.

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