Sunday 20 April 2014

On children's participation in the liturgy: some Easter observations

There are many schemes for helping children to participate in worship. I don't want to sound ungrateful. So let me start by acknowledging that I have, at one time or another, been a beneficiary of all these schemes. I bless the Sunday school; I salute the children's pastor; I love all those who know how to tell a good story and sing a good song for my children; I wish them well. I am even willing to forgive the many ecclesiastical colouring-ins and craft-activity thingies that are periodically scraped off the backseat floor of our family car and shovelled into the bin. I will not speak against any of that. But I must confess to feeling uneasy about two broad approaches for dealing with children in church.

The best-loved and most successful approach is what is known as liturgical babysitting. There are many different kinds of liturgical babysitting, but they all follow the same award-winning formula: (1) remove the children from the service at the earliest possible convenience; (2) in a separate room as far from the main worship space as is humanly possible, provide supervised games, crafts, and other activities; (3) don't forget to establish some random points of connection between said activities and something to do with the Bible; (4) finally, shuttle the little treasures back to their parents after the latter have enjoyed an entire hour of that exquisite spiritual bliss that nothing but the temporary deprivation of one's own children can induce. I suppose it would be churlish to criticise a system that is so perfectly calculated to meet the spiritual needs of adult worshippers. Suffice it to say that this approach would be an ideal solution to the problem of children's participation in worship, except for the fact that it involves no participation and no worship.

In reaction to liturgical babysitting, some churches have taken the approach of adapting the entire liturgy to a child's point of view. Bible stories in sandpits, creative responses to the story in paint and play dough, eucharistic juice and cookies – this sort of thing is aimed at getting children to participate for themselves in the great rhythms of the liturgy. There is a lot to be said for this, but there is also a risk of turning the Christian mysteries into a cult of childhood, so that adult participants are infantilised and deprived of the freedom to worship as adults. Anyone who has scoured the underbelly of liberal protestantism will be able to recall one of those grim gatherings at which full-grown adults are exhorted to draw crayon pictures on butcher paper or to exchange infantile remarks about their tenderest feelings. When Our Lord told us to become like little children, he was not referring to crayons and sandpit therapy. And a faith that is not large enough to accommodate growth into a full adult experience does not deserve the respect of children either.

But I have, as I say, been a beneficiary of these schemes. And I trust nobody will cast the first stone without having spent forty or fifty consecutive sleep-deprived Sunday mornings trying to pay attention to the sermon while a brood of offspring are yapping at your heels.

But still. Let me tell you what I observed today.

It was Easter day, and it was not yet dawn. My children and I had spent the previous day at the circus, and we had got home very late. So they were not in optimum operating condition when I shook them awake at five a.m. with the whispered news that Christ is risen. "He is risen indeed," my son growled back at me, with what I thought was a rather petulant emphasis on the word indeed. I dragged the little blighters out to the kitchen. I fortified them with cups of tea and biscuits. Chocolate biscuits, you understand, on account of Easter. Somehow we all got out of our pyjamas into clothes and shoes, and a few minutes later we staggered bleary-eyed off to church for the five-thirty Easter vigil.

Now I will not be giving away any secrets when I inform you that my six-year-old son is not famous for his churchmanship. Not once has he ever been mistaken on the street for a cardinal or for St Francis of Assisi. I say this not to impugn his character but only to explain that the little chap will not sit quietly through a lengthy Easter liturgy at the crack of dawn merely on the principle of the thing. The boy won't just sit there and take it like a man. He has – children are so taxing in this regard – he has to like it at the same time.

And this morning, reader, he liked it. It was not one of these puny compromise liturgies either. It was very Easter, very Anglo-Catholic, the whole shebang. Gathering in the dark around a fire to light the paschal candle. A procession with candles into the dark cold church. The choir and the hymns and the incense. The many many scripture readings. The not-particularly-short homily. The filling of the font and the renewal of baptismal vows. The prayers and the gifts and the sung communion liturgy. The organist doing things on the organ.

The centrepiece of the service was a vast and very beautiful sequence of readings, each followed by a short prayer. When we started at the beginning of Genesis, the world was still buried in darkness. By the time we got to the Gospel it was brightest day; the magpies were warbling their Easter antiphons; the church windows had bloomed with colour. Here is the list of readings in the order that we had them:
  • Gen 1:1-2:4a
  • Gen 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13
  • Gen 22:1-18
  • Ex 14:10-31; 15:20-21
  • Isa 54:9-14
  • Isa 55:1-11
  • Prov 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6
  • Ezek 36:24-28
  • Zeph 3:14-20
  • Rom 6:3-11
  • Antiphonal reading: Ps 114
  • Gospel reading: Matt 28:1-10
I haven't tallied up the exact number of verses, but let's just say it was about half the Bible, give or take a few minor prophets. Never would such an audacious feat of reading be attempted in any tailored-for-children program, whether of the liturgical babysitting kind or the paint-and-play-dough variety.

And yet my son – six years old! – a boy! – he liked it. No, that is putting things still too mildly. He had a blast.

But before you start psychoanalysing the little tyke and checking his temperature and whatnot, I will come right out and tell you why he liked it so much. For the reason is very simple. The boy had a candle in his hand. A burning candle. If ever you want to command the full respect of a six-year-old boy, give him Fire. That is the way to a boy's attention, if not to his heart. That is the way to show him that you mean business.

This morning while the readers went on with their heroic reading vigil, while the long Lenten night gave way to a great and dawning joy, my son clutched his candle. He stared longingly into the flame. He stuck his little thumbs into the wet wax and dribbled wax on to his hands. He practised breathing on the flame to make it nearly – but not quite – go out. He counted all the other candles in the room. He sized them up with a professional eye, comparing flame to flame, before finally determining that his own flame was the finest of the lot. And after each reading he punctuated his subtle reveries with the response to the reading: "Amen!"

Later he was also allowed to pour the water into the font when we remembered our baptisms. And I have never seen him pay more attention to the eucharistic mysteries than he did today, when a huge glass bowl full of Easter eggs was placed on one corner of the communion table. My son watched that table like a hawk. He watched it with a candle burning in his hand. From the look of contemplative scrutiny on his little face, you'd have thought he was Thomas Aquinas.

That is how it was this morning. 

It got me wondering about all that time and effort that goes into creating Sunday school programs and inventing the latest whiz-bang child-friendly liturgies – when all this six-year-old boy needed was for somebody to let him hold a candle. 

As far as I can tell, it's not that the liturgy is inherently inhospitable to smaller people. The great symbols of our worship are things that children instinctively love and understand. Indeed, they are such good honest things that even adults can understand them: water, bread, book, flame.

Is it too hard to imagine that children could be encouraged to participate not in some sanctified playgroup in a back room, but in these same symbols, as glorious for their simplicity as for their depth? When my son held his candle on Easter morning and bellowed out the church's great "Amen" after every reading, was he just experiencing a child-friendly version of the real thing? Was his rapt waxy-fingered attention anything less than genuine worship, since even with his limited understanding he was able to draw upon the symbols of faith and to make himself at home within their world of meaning?

And if there had been no hypnotic chocolate Easter eggs on the communion table, would my son still have called out the ancient Easter greeting as I was tucking him into bed tonight? "Christ is risen," he called to me. I had already put out the light. I had turned to leave the room. The paschal call came to me across the lonely gulf that forever separates the adult from the world of children. Across the chasm my son's call reached me. I turned to him and in the half light I saw his expectant face turned up towards me. His eyes waited for the reply. An adult, a man of broken dreams, a barely-believer, I whispered my faith thinly back across the divide, hoping (knowing) somehow my son would have ears to hear me: "He is risen indeed." That was the last and truest thing we said to one another. Then the boy sank into sleep and the man left him there alone, and neither of them knew the things whereof they spoke.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Easter brief

Easter sermon by Kim Fabricius

Text: Mark 16:7 (The Message): “Now – on your way ...”

Well – what are you waiting for?

Friday 18 April 2014

A Good Friday faith

Good Friday sermon by Kim Fabricius

The crucified Christ puts a question to his church – and the question is this: Is it possible to have a disinterested faith, a faith without strings, a faith held not because it’s to your advantage, because you get something out of it, or because it’s deeply satisfying – indeed, it may be to your disadvantage, a burden, even an affliction – but you hold it because it holds you, grips you, the hand of God around your throat. Can we have such a faith?

Never has the question been more urgent than it is today, when the appeal of the evangelism that is making all the running is precisely that faith is a good personal investment. From the vulgar health-and-wealth gospel in the States to the slick Harrod’s gospel of the Alpha Course, from the personal growth gospel of the late M. Scott Peck to the gospel of self-knowledge of Myers Briggs, from the signs-and-wonders gospel of God TV (“Bam!”) to the gospel of churches with the Colgate Smile and the smell of Ivory Soap, where no one has cancer or depression, a mess of a marriage or a kid on crack – openly or subtly the appeal is that here is an offer too good to refuse, here is a faith that pays, if not in pounds and pence, then in happiness, wholeness, enlightenment, experience, consolation, or whatever it is you happen to be searching for. It’s a commodity gospel for a consumerist culture.

Meanwhile a grim grin spreads across the faces of the masters of suspicion, those sophisticated atheists who charge Christians with sloppy and indulgent thinking, with creating a god in their own image, a fantasy deity who meets my needs and fulfils my wishes. Not the New Atheists, of course – they’re the fleas on the lions of the classical atheists like Hume, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. And don’t they have a point, indeed a prophetic point?

What kind of faith, then, am I commending? An old story the rabbis tell should do the trick. The story of a Jew who escapes the Spanish Inquisition and makes his way, with his wife and child, in a small boat across a stormy sea to a rocky island. A bolt of lightning flashes and kills his wife. A whirlwind strikes and hurls his child into the sea. Naked, terrified, wretched, lashed by the tempest, the Jew makes his way onto a barren island. And then, raising his hands, he speaks to God.

“God of Israel, … I have fled to this place so that I may serve You in peace, to follow Your commandments and glorify Your name. You, however, are doing everything to make me cease believing in You. But if You think that You will succeed with these trials in deflecting me from the true path, then I cry to You, my God and the God of my parents, that none of it will help You. You may insult me, You may chastise me, You may take from me the dearest and the best that I have in the world, You may torture me to death – and I will always believe in You, I will love You always and forever – even despite You.”

That, I would suggest, is a Good Friday faith. A God-for-nothing faith in a good-for-nothing God. A God who does not promise me success or reward, a faith that does not underwrite my own religious agenda. In the crucified Jesus we see, as Rowan Williams puts it, that “God becomes recognised as God only at the place of extremity, where no answers seem to be given and God cannot be seen as the God we expect or understand.” In the crucified Jesus we see that faith is a balm only as it is a wound, a blessing only as it is a curse – we learn the lesson of Job, the lesson of Jeremiah, the lesson of the Psalms of lament, the lesson of Israel, the Suffering Servant. Such that all authentic evangelism should include an honest dose of dis-evangelism, and carry a health warning with its welcome.

Yet how is the cross conventionally understood? As a place of heroics, where Jesus goes to the gibbet like Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine. Or as a tragic if necessary but temporary intrusion on the way to the happy ending of Easter, as if it were a gym: “no pain, no gain”. Or as a “power encounter” in which God overcomes evil by superior force, now an energy source into which Christians can tap. Or as an episode in which Christ is humiliated, but don’t worry, he’ll be back – and this time it’s personal. And then there are the various models of the atonement which demonstrate, in neat and tidy categories, why the cross was necessary, QED, the worst exhibiting what James Alison calls “an Aztec imagination”, and even the best what he terms “physics envy”, what with their compulsive need for theory. “Oh, so that’s it, now I get it, now I understand.” The thing is, if you do, you don’t.

I have my own theory as to why these conventional readings of the cross are so widespread, apart, that is, from our endemic vanity and our capitalist cultural captivity: it’s because post WWII Christianity has never come to terms with the Shoah, the Holocaust, that most God-forsaken of historical moments. Which would explain why it is no coincidence that the most penetrating and profound theologies of the cross – though they themselves would, quite rightly, dispute, even resent my tribute – they are the Survivors, and the relatives of Survivors. Indeed my source for that rabbinic tale comes from the most extraordinary, incandescent disruption of a text I’ve read since Elie Wiesel’s Night, 23 pages of spiritual semtex entitled Yosl Rakover Talks to God, set in the Warsaw Ghetto as the Nazi tanks close in for the final kill. One of the last remaining resistance fighters cries out to God just as did the forsaken boat-wrecked Jew in the story: “None of this will avail You! … I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You… ‘Sh’ma Yisroel! Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’” Yosl’s last words. And, of course, the last words of another, more famous Jew, in the face of his own dereliction and death…

So let the Good Friday lesson for us Gentiles, grafted by grace into the vine of Israel, be this: to see the light we must see it at night, experience the darkness of God that covers the land as Christ cries out in the agony of torture and abandonment. We must let go – we must be stripped – of all the personal securities, the traditional pieties, the cherished practices, all the usual landmarks by which we find our way around the religious landscape. We must be dispossessed. We must wait. We must yearn. We must hope. We must trust – trust (inverting Bonhoeffer) that the God who forsakes us is the God who is with us. Here is a faith with nothing in it for me – but Him. Him. Only Him. Truly Him. Always Him.

Thursday 17 April 2014

An unwelcome kindness

Maundy Thursday sermon by Kim Fabricius

John 13:8: Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.”

“Kindness,” wrote the French mathematician and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal, “Kindness is welcome only to the extent that it seems it can be paid back.” If you want a one-sentence explanation of why our first reaction to the Good News of Jesus Christ is one of recoil and refusal, this is it. The Gospel is unwelcome because it is a kindness that can never be paid back. And we don’t like that. We are embarrassed by an absolutely free gift, we only feel comfortable if what we receive is something we think we are owed, or something we think we can in some way return. This was the case in an honour and shame culture like first century Israel, and it is the case in a culture like ours too, where social bonds are regulated by contracts, and personal relationships by mutual consent, a transactional culture that privileges our autonomy and protects us from dependency. In such cultures, Peter’s protest against the kindness of Jesus, a kindness that can never be paid back, a radical kindness that demands nothing – at least nothing that we can calculate – I’ll come back to that – Peter’s protest becomes entirely understandable: “You shall never wash my feet.”

Of course Peter thinks that his demurral is an act of courtesy and respect, done out of deference; but at bottom it is his vanity and pride that are speaking. Peter does not want to be beholden to Jesus, to be in debt to him, to be utterly dependent on him. We are often told that such self-reliance is a virtue, but it is certainly not a Christian virtue. Because a Christian is one who accepts that he is always beholden to Jesus, always in debt to Jesus, always utterly dependent on the Lord. William Temple wrote: “Every disciple and every company of disciples begin by wanting to give service. But every disciple and every company of disciples need to learn that their first duty is to let Christ serve them. Our first thought must never be, ‘What can I do for God?’ The answer to that is, ‘Nothing.’ The first thought must always be, ‘What would God do for me?’”

But, yes, we resist: it’s a thought that is not part of our native human grammar. There is a good illustration of this resistance – and one that resonates with Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet – in an old Peanuts cartoon (and remember its author Schulz was a Methodist lay preacher who knew his Bible). The dog, the beagle Snoopy, comes up to Lucy and gives her a great sloppy “lick of love” on the ear. “Get away from me with your ol’ wet tongue!” Lucy cries in disgust. So Snoopy turns to Lucy’s brother Linus, the kid who’s always got the security blanket. “Hey!” he also cries, “Cut it out! Do you have to be licking people all the time?! If you’re not licking somebody’s hands you’re licking somebody’s feet! Stupid dog!” So Snoopy turns away, forlorn, musing (in the cartoon bubble above his head): “They all resent me because I’m so devoted!”

Just so Peter actually resents Jesus washing his feet – because Jesus is so devoted, selflessly, self-sacrificially devoted. Jesus strips himself and lays aside his garments to wash his friends’ feet, like a slave, even as he will be stripped of his garments and lay down his life for his friends, on a cross, again like a slave. For John, for sure, the foot-washing by Jesus prefigures the crucifixion of Jesus. And, true to form, Peter protests in just the same way at the foot-washing here in the upper room as he did at Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion at Caesarea Philippi: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” he said then (Matthew 16:22); “Lord, you shall never wash my feet!” he says now. The appearance is humility, the reality is the desire to be in control and secure the social – and political – order of things.

Remember the film Gandhi? There is a scene in it where Gandhi meets with his fellow workers for Indian independence. They meet to talk tactics, but Gandhi, who is both a political and a spiritual leader, goes deeper than tactics, goes to the heart of the matter. He speaks to them of what he calls the “secret of service”, the “religion of service”. And he doesn’t just speak, he acts. Like Jesus when he washes the feet of his friends, Gandhi acts out a parable of service – by stopping a domestic who is serving the tea and taking his tray from him. Gandhi insists on serving his friends himself. And, of course, this takes his colleagues aback – they are horrified at this reversal of roles, at their leader acting the servant – just as Peter was with Messiah Jesus acting the slave. Because it is a humble and humbling thing to do, and – further – because it is done as an example to follow: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). They too should act the humble servant, theirs too should be a leadership of service, to the point of … – But that’s just it – there is no knowing where it may lead, this foot-washing and tea-serving, this self-offering, this servanthood, this radical being there for others. Yes, nothing is being demanded of me that I can calculate – but that is precisely what is so staggering, so frightening, so life-threatening, because what is being demanded of me is – me!

Of course human nature rebels and resists – of course – because it means the ultimate overthrow of all human notions of authority and the dangerous backlash such subversion inevitably entails. Matthew 20:25-28 is the perfect commentary – the perfect sermon, if you like – on John 13: “You know that, among the Gentiles, the powerful lord it over them, and the big shots throw their weight around. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Well, our Lord couldn’t have spelled it our any better, though tomorrow he is going to pour it out even more – his life, I mean – totally, in fact – in the ultimate act of self-giving, self-offering, body and soul, where it all ends, where it all ended, really ended. So I’ll shut up. But there is one more thing Jesus will to do tonight, to see his friends through the weekend: as well as clean us, with his body and blood he will feed us.

Thursday 10 April 2014

How I got here and why: a brief family tree

Recently I've had to update a couple of author bios. I'm always depressed by the dullness and predictability of these little autobiographical paragraphs: "Dr so-and-so is an outstanding individual. He has earned degrees. He has authored books. His achievements are the envy of the world." Wouldn't it be more informative and more entertaining if we got to read a bit of family tree? Here's mine. 

There was once a pretty young Serbian girl who, at the age of fifteen, fell mysteriously pregnant. The unlucky girl was my great-great-grandmother, a household domestic whose swelling womb earned her a swift dismissal from her employer. Later she married a kind-hearted Serb whose gentle soul, she soon discovered, could be stimulated into violent cruelty simply by the application of six small cups of liquor. When the illegitimate daughter grew up, she fell in love with a Serbian baker who swore eternal devotion to her and then began, with a methodical passion, to gamble their lives away to ruin. He was a doting and devoted husband when his purse was empty, and an infamous villain when it was full. Eventually his wife threw him out, though never soon enough. 

Their child, my grandmother, fled Yugoslavia during the Second World War, back in the day when the Bolshevik Army was raping and pillaging its merry way across Eastern Europe. My grandmother ended up in the bombed city of Munich where she met another Serb, very handsome, who was doing menial labour in an insane asylum under the supervision of German doctors. My penniless refugee grandfather's face was covered in boils the day he proposed to my grandmother, and I suppose she never knew if he was crying from joy or from the searing pain. The day they were married, the bride's mother wept because it had long been her firm and tested conviction that no worse fate can befall a woman than to marry a Serbian man. 

My grandfather improved his German and studied medicine in Munich while my grandmother, who had a knack for languages, worked as an interpreter at the refugee employment office, translating for those hordes of broken-hearted Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Czechs, Russians, and Ukrainians. One day my grandparents left Germany and took a train to Naples, where they got passage on a ship bound for Australia. The ship was nearly lost on bad seas on the Indian Ocean. The engines died and for a full night and day the seasick boat-people were tossed by storms. But the engines were repaired and they somehow found their way to Sydney, my home, where they gradually acquired some English as well as four Australian babies, known to all the neighbours as little wogs. 

When their second daughter had left home and renounced her parents' migrant aspirations, she walked one day into a Townsville pub where she saw a man, my father. His calmly stubborn independence was the product of a childhood in a neat women's house surrounded by the attentions of three sisters, a mother, two cats, and a wooden female clown that dangled menacingly from a hook in the hall. Since the day of my father's birth, his mother had conspired to make him grow up to be a doctor, and all those years he waited patiently for the chance to disappoint her. So it was that the day before his final high school exam he left school, bought a pack of cigarettes and a motorcycle, and blazed off into the sunset, leaving his disbelieving mother smiling thinly in the empty house, a house that would years later, long after her death, at last bring forth the man-child (my cousin) who would become the doctor of her dreams. But nothing on earth could have persuaded my father to be that doctor. The day my mother met him in the Townsville pub, he was wearing a suit and he looked so miserable that my mother asked him if he had been to a funeral. "No," he said drily. "A wedding." And when he said that she loved him and gave him three sons – one, two, three – my brothers and me. 

One of my brothers retraced his grandfather's steps and dreams from Australia back to medical school in Germany. My other brother studied audiology; his work is about helping people to hear, while mine is about helping them to listen. When I was eight years old I met a girl whom I liked so well that I decided to marry her. She lived in the big brick house next door so I had ample opportunity to study her in her native habitat. When she married me she demanded six babies; I gave her three and then told her, "Woman, enough!"

Sunday 6 April 2014

Church attendance manual (1): arriving late

Upon arriving late for church, it is important to follow the appropriate Liturgical Rules for latecomers. These rules vary from church to church. There is no single "Christian rule" for late arrivals. In fact, the lack of uniformity on this matter has been a major obstacle to ecumenical relationships. To follow the Pentecostal Rule upon arrival at a Catholic mass, or the Anglican Rule upon arrival at a Presbyterian service, would generally be considered a serious liturgical indiscretion.

In 1948 the World Council of Churches proposed to establish a Commission on Late Arrivals. However, plans were abandoned when it became apparent that the representative churches were unable to agree on a definition of the word "late". A prominent Greek Orthodox delegate argued that "lateness" designates arrival more than twenty minutes after the specified starting time; while several Presbyterian theologians insisted that "lateness" technically refers to any arrival less than three minutes prior to starting time. These thorny and intractable questions of definition perhaps belong more to the philosophy of time than to liturgical studies, and as a result I make no attempt to resolve them here. The following ecumenical manual has been prepared simply as a general guide to the differing Liturgical Rules for late arrivals in various church traditions. It is hoped that this manual will lay the foundation for further study in this field, and that it will prove useful as a practical aid for those emergencies of punctuality that can strike even the most conscientious of churchgoers.

Roman Catholic
What to do: Make your way to a seat promptly but discreetly. Before joining in the liturgy you must do a quick spiritual catch-up. This involves several seconds of kneeling. Anywhere between five and eight seconds is acceptable (less than five seconds would be disrespectful; more than eight would be a mark of pride or fanaticism). Under no circumstances may you join in the liturgy until this catch-up has been performed.
What to think: "Honestly though, it really doesn't matter if I'm late as long as the priest is on time."

What to do: Same as the above, except that the spiritual catch-up is performed in an attitude of mild-mannered English contrition. You are not only catching up, but are also expressing regret for having behaved in a discreditable way.
What to think: "I am ashamed for being late, but not as ashamed as I look."

What to do: If you enter while someone is saying a prayer, you should stand just inside the doorway like a soldier at attention. You may not relax this posture until the prayer is ended, at which time you should march briskly all the way to the front row and sit down, head held high. You are not Catholic; you have nothing to be ashamed of.
What to think: "Even lateness can be a virtue when it is done decently and in order."

What to do: It is easy to make yourself inconspicuous as long as you arrive during those parts of the service (i.e., nearly all of it) in which everyone is milling about. Kiss the icon as quick as you can and try to blend in. Maintain a deadpan expression so as not to attract attention. If for any reason you have to enter while everybody is standing still and paying attention – during the Gospel reading, for example – it is probably better to stay outside and smoke another cigarette while you wait for the milling-about to resume.
What to think: "I wonder if Michael and Eleni will be coming for lunch today. I forgot to check if we have enough wine. I ought to stop by for a few bottles on the way home. Four bottles, just to be safe."

What to do: Stroll in, look around amicably, give somebody a high-five, greet a few people and exchange remarks about sports while you are looking around for a seat. Sit down, put your feet up, and check your phone for messages before joining in the next song.
What to think: "I wonder if anyone will notice if I stick my gum under this chair."

African American church 
What to do: Park your car. Sit there for a few moments contemplating the looks you will receive when you come in late. Think about what you've done. What would your mother say if she could see you now? Then start the engine and drive straight home again.
What to think: "I will probably go to hell for this."

Messy Church
What to do: If the other kids have taken all the crayons, reach across and grab the ones you want. You can also push one of the smaller kids out of his chair if you want to sit there. But don't try pushing Jack's little brother or he might start trying to bite you again.
What to think: "If that girl doesn't give me the blue crayon, I'm going to kick her in the shins. My picture of Jesus is going to be the best."

What to do: The important thing is to demonstrate your spiritual vitality as you make your way to your seat. Sing with boisterous abandon as you walk, give your arms a little wave, shoot a few joy-of-the-Lord smiles at other worshippers as you pass them in the aisle. Upon taking your seat, it is also permissible to speak loudly in tongues for a few seconds, or to call out hallelujah, as a way of formally announcing your arrival.
What to think: "I'm only late because I was doing something even more spiritual before I got here."

What to do: Whatever you feel like. There is no difference between this church service and any other gathering of like-minded individuals. 
What to think: "I think that woman is looking askance at me. Is it because I'm arriving forty minutes late? Some of these people still haven't freed themselves from their old institutional hangups. I'm sick of being treated like this. I really need to find a more inclusive community."

Fresh expressions
What to do: Come on in, pour yourself a coffee, give someone a hug, find an armchair, make yourself comfortable, update your Facebook status on your phone. Then greet everyone and begin to lead the service.
What to think: "I am late in order to challenge stereotypes and to get people out of their comfort zones."

Thursday 3 April 2014

Do-wah-diddy doodlings

by Kim Fabricius

Preaching is throwing people off a cliff; pastoral care is catching them before they hit the ground, or, if you miss, patching them up and making them stronger.

Sir: In terms of “life satisfaction” – inane term number one – you report that the “perfect job” – inane term number two – is being a member of the “clergy”, with “chief executive” coming second. Inanity notwithstanding, how interesting: in the contemporary outcomes-driven managerial church, being a minister is becoming indistinguishable from being a CEO, which – trust me – for a lot of us is anything but satisfying; rather it is cause for hilarity, despair, or probably both.
     —Letter of mine published in the UK newspaper the i, 25 March

As Creation Ministries International advises its pastors, “Preach with the Bible in one hand and The Daily Nonsense in the other.”

Man, I love evolution: it’s bio-jazz. JC knows what I’m saying. So does Jesus Christ.

On a proposed book entitled Signs of Intelligence in American Bible-Believing Christianity: the upside is that the book would shrink to a blog-post; the downside is that it could take years to find the evidence.

So evangelical pastors are addressing the issue of whether their members may smoke pot. Given that evangelical Christians have the highest obesity rate of any community in America, the answer is: “Only if they first lock the refrigerator, empty the cookie tins, and hide the Doritos.” On the other hand, for worship song composers and bands, the herb should be compulsory.

Proponents of biblical inerruncy have failed to consider one insurmountable problem: typos. No one writes an autograph without typos. Even divine inspiration cannot prevent typos. God himself commits typos. Adam, for instance.

The people who wanted to ban Life of Brian would fill the cinemas for Life of O’Brien.

Still on 1984, in HBO’s Questioning Darwin, Pastor Peter LaRuffa declares, “If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said the 2 + 2 = 5, … I would accept it as true.” O’Brien redivivus. Or perhaps Winston Smith seeing the light.

What do you call it when a UK or US minister preaches a sermon on the persecution of Christians in their respective countries, and then presides at the Lord’s Table? Whining and Dining.

In February I left a comment on a post at Peter Enns’ blog of cheerful and hopeful endeavour. In response, on thread, I received 5 marriage proposals. That I am already married, my wife assures me, is not a problem (everybody has a price). That Kim is a 65-year-old male, however, might be.

You got to hand it to Atheist Church planters: they grasp that there can be no spirituality without public corporate worship. Sure, the object of their worship is the subject of their worship (the central liturgical act ought to be the taking of selfies, concluding with the collective cry “Ame_!”). But then that’s just another idea they’ve spoiled from the Christians – the narcissism of so much of our own contemporary worship.

If the practice of solitude is a condition of freedom, then the practice of social media – “O brave new world!” – (cf. Neil Postman) we are amusing ourselves to bondage.

Samuel Beckett didn’t trust language, bending words and buckling sentences in his attempt to say the unsayable – and inevitably, self-confessedly missaying it. Beckett was a negative theologian of sorts. Except that he was very, very funny.

Clarence Darrow said that “The first half of our lives is ruined by our parents, the second half by our children.” Not quite. The math is wrong: it’s the first third and the second third. And Darrow forgot grandchildren: they enter the final third of our timeline, and they are the blessing of blessings.

FLASH! After pressure from evangelicals, World Vision has decided not only to reverse their decision on employing gay and lesbian people, it has also decided on a brand makeover: World Vision is now “Tunnel Vision”. And that light at the end of the tunnel – it’s the oncoming stopping train of providence, picking up everyone (even the righteous) – “Don’t need no ticket / You just thank the Lord.”

Ah, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – that light set on a Mohl(er)hill.

The Lancet has produced a list of tech ailments, which include Screen Apnoea, iPosture – and Scrotal Hyperthermia. Apparently using a laptop – er, on the lap – can lead to a decreased sperm count due to overheating. It is expected that the CDF will soon announce a ban on the portatile as an artificial method of contraception. Vatican sources suggest that male Catholics will have switch to iPads or risk excommunication.

Pick the odd one out: “misbegotten male”, “subhuman property”, “intrinsically disordered”, “white straight guy”.

On the Paltrow/Martin split: “Conscious uncoupling” (Katherine Woodward Thomas) – so as to “discard blame, release belief structures and find wholeness in separation.” What a load of … – no, check that: in keeping with the spirit of euphemism and pretentiousness, what a Brobdingnagian consignment of equine fecal matter. Still, the phrase itself is not inappropriate insofar as it denotes the outcome of the inauspicious inauguration of many a marriage, viz. “unconscious coupling”.

There are two major legal grounds for divorce in the UK: adultery and “unreasonable behaviour”. Interestingly, these are the same theological grounds on which evangelicals and liberals “divorce” each other – accusations of syncretism on the one hand and irrationality on the other.

Simone Weil famously wrote of an atheism which is a purifying of the notion of God. Hume (analytically), Marx (sociologically), and Nietzsche (axiologically, aesthetically – ballsy, relentless, terrifying) are three heavyweights of this purgative atheism: they identify fault-lines in our thinking and idols in our imagination. Then (in the UK) there are the likes of Dawkins, Grayling, and Hitchens, philosophically incompetent, historically ignorant, morally facile, and insufferably smug. Theirs is an atheism by and for Yahoos, at once crude and elitist – call it a putrefying of the notion of God.

Noah? Ah, no. I’d rather stare at my tax return than watch any biblical “blockbuster”. The reactions, however, are always a hoot. The mouthy outrage of a number of American Christians, as if (biblical illiteracy notwithstanding) they held canon copyright, suggests that God had them in mind when he dictated Genesis 6a – and me in mind (after I’d read about them) when he dictated Genesis 9:21. Mind, fundy filmic fury serves a useful critical sifting: the movie may have merit. Conversely, evangelical accolades are the cinematic kitsch of death.

On March 22nd, the third day of spring, the better angels of US globalisation hovered over the SCG, singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and cheering the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks at Opening (G’)Day in Oz. For a few hours the Peaceable Kingdom had come to Australia, the land of Sand and (the) Ashes. That American football is now annually waged at Wembley suggests what the Lord thinks of England.

Yes, sports fans, baseball at the SCG. What next – cricket at Yankee Stadium? No longer could New York be called the “city that never sleeps”. And thus would come to pass the apocalyptic prophecy of Matthew 24:15.


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