Sunday, 26 September 2010


I went to three church services today, each with something for me to take away.

The first was the usual at Nearest Church, where I am settling in as organist. It's interesting getting to know the choir members individually and as a group, it feels rather different than it did when I was singing with them. I can't quite tell if I'm doing things "properly" but there is much that feels right. Gentle Vicar was on good form and the sermon was, if a little meandering, compassionate and affirming and challenging.

In the afternoon I went to a sung meditative service at Long Walk Church. I hadn't been to one of these before and wanted to hear their choir (which is small) and find out how they do things. It was interesting. It was good to be in a service where I didn't bear responsibility for the liturgy. It was good to see what was going on there. I realised that one of the very important things for me as a choir director is going to be to make sure I keep singing in other situations and especially in choirs where I am not leading. This is harder than it sounds, but having realised how important it is I think I might be able to fit it in.

The third service was at Leafy Suburb Church, which has been so important on my spiritual journey and which has one of my favouritestest people in the entire wide world, previously referred to here as Ambassador for Compassion, as Curate. Her sermon was good but I did struggle with one possible interpretation of what she said. She was preaching the potter in Jeremiah and the images of wrath and destruction which follow; she said that God does continually re-form us and that sometimes this is uncomfortable or frightening, especially if we are willfully resistant. She spoke of change and fear of change, about how we respond as individuals and institutions, about actions having consequences, about judgement being part of growth. She spoke of clay pots before and after firing, about flexibility and brittleness and the uselessness of shattered vessels.

The problem I have with this model is that it is too easy to extend it into something ugly, evil even. It is too easy to fall into the sort of theology that is found in some of the psalms: the idea that those who are prosperous are so because they are righteous, and conversely that those who suffer have somehow managed to piss God off. That kind of tit-for-tat petty logic is rife in our society and it is so very easy, and so very unhelpful, for people who are successful to think they needn't engage with those less fortunate, and also for people who are in real distress to blame themselves and get stuck in the mire of guilt.

I don't deny that change can be uncomfortable. I am sure that sometimes God speaks to us with discomfort if other methods don't work. I know that cause and effect is a simple fact of life in this world. But I don't think that's the whole picture. I know we suffer hugely at the hands of one another, and to say that is God's doing is to deny free will.

I believe God's love is transformative. I can't square that with punitive aspects of judgement. There is this whisper of hope that says nothing is wasted, not even our most selfish sins; that broken clay pots can still be made into mosaics. There is some persistent whiff of something I can only call redemption. The God who created the heavens and earth may well be a jealous God, but this is Christianity we're talking about here, and the God that loves us so much that God gave God's Son for us is not going to withhold that love because we've messed up (and isn't the Greek "hamartia" or "sin" more about missing the mark, the way an arrow misses a target, than about willfully doing wrong? No idea what the Hebrew is like).

That, too, can be oversimplified into something ugly. Our sins will be forgiven, transformed into something good? Then why bother trying to be good? Why bother striving for right action? Isn't trying to please God just a sort of Pelagian heresy?

That oversimplification also falls apart when viewed from the foot of the cross. I can't speak for others, but when I love someone, I wince when they are in pain. How much more so for God who loves us infinitely and unconditionally, and has much better than my measly human awareness of others' suffering? When we turn away from good, when we harm one another, that infinite love results in infinite pain which God bears on our behalf. That is quite terrifying. We are commanded to love God; by extension that means caring enough to want to reduce any pain God might bear. That means that even though by God's grace we are forgiven we should still strive to do God's will -- not for fear of what God will do to us should we fail, but because we love God's delight and abhor God's pain.

The other thing Ambassador for Compassion spoke of was the need for a two-way relationship with God. We are not golems, fashioned of clay with no will of our own. We live and breathe and laugh and cry; we respond. When we respond to God with open hearts, we participate in our own fashioning, our own formation if you like to call it that, and God responds back.

I think that dialogue-rather-than-monologue relationship with God is a key to avoiding both of the oversimplifications I've outlined in this post.


it's margaret said...

Three services!? Dang --that's like what I do!!!!! And then go home and collapse!

Good for you --and I am glad you found some time to pray and not be a leader. That is so very important.

Many blessings.

Song in my Heart said...

I don't find three services all that difficult, but then I was only leading music in one of them, and I took my Day Off on Saturday.

The travel to Leafy Suburb Church is a bit of a bummer, though. An hour and a half each way if the trains are kind...