“Mmm..The fish is not the most important thing…interesting…” That was a thought that came to mind earlier today. I was reading about a keen fisherman describing what he liked about fishing: he liked the countryside, the heathery smell of a fire, the preparing of his bag for setting out. In fact he liked the total experience so much that actually catching a fish was a bonus in the whole experience.
I feel the same about the coffees I drink in the places where I usually, but not today, write these blogs. I like the atmosphere in the places I write whichever cafe it happens to be. The quality of the coffee is not the prime thing. It is the whole ambience that I like. They tend to be relaxed places where people are getting on well with one another, happy to be with one another; the background music seems relaxing too. I like the fact that the vast majority of folk are younger than me usually, which fills the place with a buzz. I like people talking about things that matter to them at some tables which though publicly situated seem to be cocooned in empathy and compassionate looks and tones, while at other tables there is almost a sense of expansive fun that makes others at other tables smile. I like the different languages you hear in cafes in Edinburgh. I like the occasional very old person I see there feeling happy to be anywhere so long as it is with folk who love them but looking a bit bemused at all that is going on – so much fuss over a tea or a coffee? So for me the coffee is nice, but it is not all that I appreciate.
I was thinking today about what I miss about church when getting there is a step beyond what I can cope with quite often these days such as last week and today. It is more than the preaching of God’s Word, either in terms of me delivering a sermon which for so many years has been my calling, or listening to others exercising their calling to that task and joy. That of course is central along with worship, not a bonus like catching a fish while enjoying the experience of fishing as a whole, and I do miss hearing Ian and Ollie and others who have come to the fore due to my illness, preaching. But there are elements of the whole church experience beyond that which I miss too. I miss the reliable love of reliable church people who perhaps don’t always seem the most involved in every new venture, but they are faithful as they have been faithful over a lifetime often, and can be depended upon. I miss the mixture that should be part of a church gathering, young and old, families and single people. Such a mixture is a powerful witness to the fact that Christ and his cross draws people together . I have to say I dislike churches where there are too many splits and specific gatherings according to age or gender or a shared interest. To me that seems to deny the power of Christ and His cross to bring differing people together across the barriers there are in the world… but a blog about that can wait.. back to what I miss: I miss quiet smiles and nods in my direction into which so much love and kindness and genuine concern is woven. I miss the young folk, even the most mischievous whose antics will probably make at least some of the ministry team and others go grey haired sooner than otherwise would happen, but whose energy and humour and speed of talk and movement make me feel young again; and I miss the children whose insight into spiritual things occasionally astounds me and makes me laugh at the same time due to the words used to express that insight! I miss people being able to give thanks out loud for good things that have happened and the atmosphere of trust and faith in the face of life’s alarms. I miss the something extra of the presence of God that is promised when people gather together in the Name of Christ. I miss the very building. I know full well the church is not the building, but sometimes I think if people went silent and the stones of Holy Trinity Church could cry out like Jesus said the stones of Jerusalem would do… well, they could tell stories of salvation, healing, being set free, the recovery of equilibrium and steadiness, value being discovered and shadows lifting. The very stones of that place, or more accurately the poor quality bricks, are precious to me.
There is a lot more to church life than preaching of the Word, and I am saying that as a preacher and someone who values preaching and teaching immensely. Indeed I am remembering John Wimber speaking about a town he visited to do some church growth seminars. He asked the minister of a growing church why his church was growing: “Because I preach the Word!” was the convinced sounding answer. He asked the minister of a church that was declining why he thought it was declining: ”Because I preach the Word!” was the reply said with equal conviction. I suspect that one church was growing and the other declining because of what was offered in terms of totality of experience of what constitutes “church” beyond the preaching, important though that may be.
My Blog at the start of this Sunday was facing up honestly to the fact that there are many people suffering from sheep bite throughout the church world. But, as this Sunday draws near its end why not pause and give thanks for something good about what “church” means to you, even if like myself you didn’t make it there today.
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