On Saturday, we held our annual church family fun day. A bouncy castle, crafts, treasure hunt, a children’s entertainer and the like – all offered free of charge to the local community. Today, I heard about some of the great conversations that occurred on the day, and it inspired me to write about our witness for the church magazine. What follows picks up on that experience and is heavily influenced by Neil Cole‘s book Organic Church …
“Why do you do this?”
No, not a question of despair, but one asked several times by visitors to our recent Family Fun Day. (And let me add to my children’s public thank-you of Dianne for her tremendous organisation of the day.)
Why do you do this? Why do you put on an event free of charge, with no strings attached? They are good questions, just the ones we wanted people to ask. And they are easy to answer if we know the Gospel. We say, God is like this. God gives love unconditionally. He wants people to respond, but he gives in the first place. He gives, whether we give back or not.
Obviously, we hope that as a result people will engage with us more through events like Holiday Club and Messy Church as a result. We hope, too, that we might be known in the community as a group of people whose actions in love provoke regular “Why do you do this?” questions, not just for what we put on together as a church, but from the deeds of our individual lives.
Yes, it’s easy to answer these questions. You don’t need to have studied academic Theology like I have in order to give good answers. All you need is a personal experience of Christ in your life. Because we answer out of our own spiritual experience, and relying on the Holy Spirit. There is a place for intellectually defending our faith, but it’s not everyone’s calling.
Sometimes we’ve made it too hard to be an effective Christian witness. We’ve expected people to jump the hurdles of church committees and study courses before trusting them to say anything in the name of Christ.
What poppycock! Jesus healed people or led them to faith and then sent them out immediately to tell their friends and families what they had experienced. How crazy we are to think we know better than him!
Yes, it’s right to look for maturity, but if we think maturity comes from sitting in a classroom reading a textbook, we are deluded. Maturity comes from experience.
So I want to encourage you all in this simple message this month. What is your experience of Christ? Recount it. Write it down, if it helps.
And cultivate that quiet reflectiveness that listens for the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
If we went out into the local community like that, we wouldn’t need fancy programmes, we wouldn’t need massive budgets, we’d have the richest resource of all: the Spirit of Christ.
Remember: we may not all be evangelists, but we are all witnesses. And witnesses simply have to describe what they have seen and experienced. It’s surprisingly powerful, even when engaging the most intellectual of people.
Do you think we can rise to the occasion? I think so.
This morning, I went for a tooth extraction. It failed. Not that I blame the dentist at all: she called in the senior partner, who confirmed that the roots of the tooth were, er, too healthy to come out. They were long and awkward. I have been referred to a specialist dentist for them either to cut into the gum or even into the bone next to the gum to get the roots out. It will be either more local anaesthetic or sedation.
It must have been bad, even my wife was sorry for me. I was sorry for myself, anyway – natch! I’ve kept trying to make the site of the work cold to reduce the soreness. After a couple of hours, I gave into the dentist’s counsel and took some ibuprofen.
The experience reminded me of something the Jesuit John Powell wrote in one of his books. Someone said to him, ‘When you have a toothache, who are you thinking of?’
‘Myself,’ he replied.
‘Exactly,’ said the other person. Powell drew the lesson that when we are in pain it is so easy to be consumed with ourselves.
When I remembered that story in the middle of my inconsequential gum discomfort today, I thought all the more of the people I know whose witness under extreme, chronic and sometimes terminal pain is quite extraordinary. I think of a woman in one of my congregations here who suffers from degenerative lung and skin conditions. Yet she and her husband are a tonic to visit. She has a compassion for others that is equalled by few. Her own pain is complicated by the fact that in the past she has received ‘miraculous’ healing from God. Not with her current conditions, though, at least not to date.
I long that she does not continue to deteriorate in the way she is doing, slowly. I hope and pray for her winsome witness to play out in a pain-free life. I would rather see any Christian eventually die ‘old and full of years’ as Scripture puts it, rather than from some hideous, yes evil condition.
Yet we follow One who thought of others in the midst of unmentionable physical and spiritual pain, the One who said, ‘Today, you will be in Paradise with me’ to the penitent thief and who ensured his own mother would receive care.
Sometimes pastoral ministry means a relentless contact with people in terrible situations. I can find my mind consumed with morbid thoughts of mortality as a consequence. But there is also an immense privilege in encountering those who know suffering I hope I never personally experience, yet who think not of themselves but of Christ and others.
An interview by Matthew Syed with Shaun Murphy, the world snooker champion, appears in today’s Times. Here are the first two paragraphs:
Many attributed Shaun Murphy’s unswerving self-belief to his faith in God after he triumphed in the World Championship this year as a 150-1 outsider. It is a plausible theory. The 23-year-old is an unabashed biblical literalist who views the multicoloured world of snooker through the black and white prism of Christian fundamentalism.
“I am convinced that God has a plan for my life that encompasses success in snooker,” he said when I met him at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, the venue for today’s Pot Black Cup, where he faces Jimmy White in the first round. “Before matches, Clare (his wife) prays that God will anoint my hands so that I can play to my full potential.”
Two things struck me about these paragraphs. First is the attribution of Murphy’s belief that God had a plan for his life to ‘black and white … Christian fundamentalism’. Certainty makes you a fundamentalist. When I first read it my hackles rose against the reporter. But I have sat listening this morning to Scott McDermott preach about the need to avoid spiritual indecision in the face of a culture that would prefer us to be indecisive. So no wonder the journalist has to categorise Murphy like this. He’s captive to the culture.
Secondly, I love the prayer for the anointing of his hands so that he can play to his full potential. This takes ‘anointing’ out of the limited, churchy context it is too often constrained within right into the workplace and therefore the place of Christian witness. God bless you, Shaun.