I’ve taken a ‘church holiday’ this autumn. I’m back now and I’ve been thinking about why I’ve been so reluctant to go there. I went a couple of weeks ago and regretted it from the moment I set foot in the building, for a number of reasons, one of which was guilt. I only went back because we’d had a well-meaning pastoral visit from a friend, who told us how much everyone misses us. So I went back and then refused to go back the next week. No. No more guilt for me, thanks. That will not be my reason for going to church. I have enough guilt in my life. Church should not be a place of guilt.
Another reason was gentleness, or the lack of it. Our shouty church elder was leading the service and set off a recurring headache I’ve had for weeks. The man doesn’t need a microphone even in a church full of 200 people so why the sound people don’t turn him down I have no idea. He doesn’t have a gentle bone in his body and he bounces around on the stage shouting at us about how wonderful and glorious and powerful and awesome our God is and makes us sing songs about that and I wonder where my gentle friend Jesus is.
Today I went back for my own reasons (I miss singing) and led worship with my friends in the band and enjoyed it (except when I started crying out of fright when I saw how many people were piling in). I sang and there was a song with the lyrics “no guilt in life” and that made me cry a bit too and then sing really fiercely as a thank you for the reminder. Then I sat down and listened to the sermon and became ragey, playing Bejewelled Blitz on my phone to stop myself knocking the preacher’s lights out.
What a sermon. It was all about reading the Bible and how important it is and it’s everything to a Christian and we should do our homework every day reading the Bible and we should read Christian books about the Bible and think about it and understand it and never have any fun and not be distracted by our phones or what’s for dinner. And a good and proper response to reading the Bible is to grieve because we’re really sinful and bad inside and there’s nothing good about us and we can’t do anything right on our own and isn’t Jesus great because he took our punishment so that we can feel joyful all the time.
I couldn’t see Jesus in this sermon at all, he was absolutely nowhere to be seen, which this guy would probably have been quite disappointed about if he’d thought about it for a second, because he kept saying how we have to not only understand the Bible but we have to really feel its truths. I think Jesus was probably playing Bejewelled Blitz with me.
So I glanced through the passage this dude was supposed to be teaching us about. It was Nehemiah 8. Some bloke gave a sermon for six hours, six whole hours. I was grateful we were only stuck listening to this boring and yet rage-inducing dickhead for half an hour. Although the passage says that the people paid attention so maybe it was a decent sermon and our bloke could learn some tips. And when he was done all the people worshipped God a lot, which makes me think it really was a good sermon because that’s the effect sermons should have on us.
Then the people cried. And this is the really interesting bit for me because our preacher told us that they were all crying because they were stricken by how sinful and bad they were and that they were under the judgement of God. Wait, hang on. Where does it say that? I actually stopped playing my game to have a look through the passage and I couldn’t see where it said that this was why they were crying. The preacher told them not to mourn or weep because this was the day of God so it does look like they were grieving but we don’t know why. Maybe they were crying because they were so hungry after listening to a sermon for six hours. Maybe they were grieving because their lives were shit. Maybe they were grieving because there are things in this world to grieve about. That’s why I cry in church sometimes. It’s called lamenting, not lamenting the fact that their seats weren’t very comfy, but really lamenting, mourning for themselves, their friends, their loved ones whose lives are fucking hard, people who are sick, people who are hungry. I don’t know why, but I do know there are a whole load more reasons to grieve and cry than thinking about how crap we all are at our core and how God hates us and wants to burn us up in fire.
Anyway, their preacher went on to tell them twice more not to grieve. He told them to be still, to be peaceful, and to go and eat, drink, have a party and give nice food to people who didn’t have any. That doesn’t seem like he had spent his sermon telling them about their sin and God’s judgement. What would be the point of having a party about that?
I remembered one of the talks Mike Pilavachi gave at Soul Survivor this summer. It was a very different talk, but really did have some of the same themes. He talked about a passage in John 2, the one where Jesus turned water into wine, a pretty fabulous episode in Jesus’s life I think. He made massive amounts of wine and was rude to his mum. Mike told us that this passage was Jesus’s first miracle and has the whole story of Christianity in it. It was not an accident, although it does look like it at first glance. Jesus’s mum nudges him and prods him until he gives in and gets everyone drunk. Christianity is an invitation to a party. At the end of time there is going to be the wedding party to end all wedding parties.
Jesus says that this is not his time, which I’ve always thought about as his mum was needling him to begin performing miracles before he was ready. But the time, or hour, is mentioned over and over again, and it refers to Jesus’s death. The wine for the party at the end of time has been paid for by Jesus’s blood – it is not my time to die. Then he turned water into wine. This is what will happen. He will bring total life. Our versions of Christianity can be so boring and depressing – exactly like the sermon I just lost half an hour of my life to. But look at Jesus’s life. He was always eating and drinking. He went to parties and was invited to parties. You don’t invite boring people to your parties. Jesus is the image of the invisible God (mentioned in another book of the Bible, Colossians). Hardly the person painted in our sermon today! God likes parties, for crying out loud. I really, really don’t think he wants us to waste our lives reading the bible and contemplating our badness.
God invites us onto a dance floor. Some of us he drags in. So much of how I live my life has no place on a dance floor, and nothing about what our boring, rage-inducing bloke told us today has any place on a dance floor. Our passage today was in Nehemiah, a fair amount of time before Jesus was born (not sure how many years), when their preacher told them not to grieve and instead to go and have a party with choice food and sweet drinks.
Mike said that he doesn’t think Jesus likes our religion very much. He describes it instead as a love affair. That’s the Christianity I believe in, that’s the God I worship, that’s joy. A gentle God who sits pressed up behind me with his hands on my shoulders, whispering in my ear and making me smile (an image I had in my head when shouty man was shouting a couple of weeks ago), who takes hold of my hands and pulls me up and dances with me.