why this man struggles to go to church sometimes

That article in Reach Out magazine about men not coming to church anymore got me wondering why men aren’t coming to church anymore.Then I thought:-
‘I haven’t a clue, I’m not even sure that men aren’t coming to church anymore….but as a man who sometimes struggles to come along on Sunday mornings so why is it hard for you?’

1 I am a bit of a day dreamer, my mind tends to wander and wonder. It did during school, university lectures, any talks that go beyond 5mins. I find it hard going to the cinema to watch a film the whole way through (unless I have an intense interest in it for whatever the reason).
So the reality of sitting down on a seat or pew voluntarily for at least an hour every Sunday morning is a challenge because I just have to sit still and just listen (apart from the singing).
My favourite recurring vision in any large church building is a football being crossed in from somewhere near the pulpit and me catching it with a perfectly timed right footed scissor kick volley which bounces of the wall. It often happens half way through a sermon. That is typically what is going on in my head during a sermon, any sermon.Back in my teens I imagined the building upside down and what it would be like to walk on the roof.

Interestingly I’m reading a book at the moment (Thinking Slow, Thinking Fast by Daniel Kahneman) that was making me wonder if there is something about a typical Presbyterian church service that demands we use parts of our brain that we don’t use that often during the week? Or in other words what ever happens on a Sunday morning worship doesn’t seem to engage all parts of your humanity but rather seems rational and about using your mind.

2 Hymns and praise songs are hard sometimes. I never  really sing during the week. Does anyone sing during the week?
Perhaps I’ll hum along to a song under my breath. But I’ll rarely if ever ‘mean it’ and it won’t be coming from deep in my lungs. Then you walk into this strange building on a Sunday morning where you are expected to sing out and with enthusiasm to God you can’t see. Singing is a foreign activity to me (and this is coming from an erstwhile singer-song writer who tried to write songs at one stage and sing them…).
That is before we even begin to think about things like words or tunes, how the actual music sounds. So I struggle with the amount of singing we do at church.

3 I’ll cut to the chase and say that I often just wonder if it is actually all true. At the end of the day we’re worshipping a man (who was fully God) who we’re saying rose from the dead and is God and created the Universe and who is King of the Universe. We make such mind blowing claims on a typical Sunday morning yet the whole church thing just trundles along as if it was the most natural thing in the world. The doubts about whether it is true are especially bad on weeks when I’m looking around at the state of the world and wondering how a loving God could allow this or that to happen. Perhaps this has intensified with the online revolution or live TV in which bad news can be on  a 24hr cycle. Perhaps I’m more depressed by hopelessness or something and then you go into some weird building to close your eyes and pray to God you can’t see. Which is apparently the best solution to the untold suffering from war or natural disasters.

4 This is probably related to No1 but when you go to church you are putting yourself in a position in which you aren’t in control, and you are doing this voluntarily. For example I might spend a lot of mental energy trying to block out the noise of a baby screaming, on trying to be graceful to the mother who is letting the baby scream because you know that she is tired and struggling in life. You voluntarily go to something on a Sunday morning in which there are people who might rub you up the wrong way or who are a bit boring (in your opinion). If you feel like you’re not in control of your life with regards to work or family and then you have a Sunday off are you going to be willing to go to something voluntarily to sit and not be in control in some strange looking building? Maybe you might prefer to go fishing or read the Sunday paper and have croissant. There are so many things in life where people don’t feel in control are they going to voluntarily submit to another thing that might make demands on them? Like you might be tired from your normal 9-5 job and then you find that your church are saying that you have to do more and get more involved in visiting or volunteering and that sort of thing.

5 Sometimes our talk in Christian circles often seems to be abstract and not based in the real world. Or it ignore vast areas of life that you might consider really important.  How do you apply scripture passage from 2000yrs ago to computers and smart phones? Does Jesus have to say about economics? What about climate change?

6 You don’t feel like you can be yourself. You feel like other people aren’t being themselves either.
At the same time you might be scared if people are themselves because you’re not sure what that might mean in terms of what you should do as a Christian. What if they tell you they are struggling financially or with some addiction?Would you be willing to support them and that sort of thing? If you’re tired and all over the place, or feel you ready know lots of other people like that or have neglected friends you already have the prospect of more and more people coming into your life with more and more needs seems daunting.

Those are 6 struggles I  have with coming to church. Do you have any?

men

Has anyone been reading these articles in Reach Out magazine about men and church?I’m starting to question if I’m actually a man because I don’t recognise the traits of manhood that are being described.
‘Men and young adults are drawn to risk, challenge and adventure’ – I’m not

‘Most congregations offer a safe, nurturing community, in an oasis of stability and predictability.Studies show that women and older people gravitate toward these things.’

 

I am a 36 yrs old man and am attracted to the idea of a safe, nurturing community. An oasis in a world that is the opposite seems like something valuable, I gravitate towards it – does this make me a woman or old?

 

the Word

If I am being honest then I am wrestling with what I think about  the Bible and phrases like ‘The Word of God’.

I just don’t know if I have the same conviction that the Bible is the fully authoritative Word of God that many  believers in the reformed, evangelical, Presbyterian church I am most familiar with seem to have.

Or to put it another way, I am just not  sure why Jesus is called ‘the Word’ in John’s Gospel while we also call the Bible ‘The Word of God’. Is Jesus the ultimate Word of God or is the Bible?  Or when a minister is preaching the Word what does that mean? What do courses like ‘Handling the Word’ mean? Is it more important to know how to ‘handle’ Jesus or the Bible? Are they the same thing?

The first time I remember wondering about this sort of thing was at a youth work conference about 10yrs ago called ‘The Bible Centred Youth Worker’.
There was and still is something about that title that rankled with me because it seemed to be focusing on the wrong thing. In my mind it seemed to make much more sense for it to be called ‘The Christ Centred Youth Worker’ or something like that because it was all about Jesus.
Was the ultimate purpose of  a church youth worker to be ‘centred’ on Christ or on the Bible? Was my goal to get young people excited about the Bible or Jesus?

I got thinking about it a few weeks ago when picking up a book called ‘Discovering Biblical Equality’ in a 2nd hand book shop in Cork. I was excited to read it but something about the first line in the preface put me off:-

‘Discovering Biblical Equality is the result of a collaborative effort of evangelical scholars united here by two convictions: that the Bible is the fully inspired and authoritative Word of God..’

I am just not sure that I am on the same page when it comes to what I believe about the Bible.
Is Jesus the fully inspired and authoritative Word of God or is it the Bible? A hymn I’ve sung many times says:-

‘You’re the Word of God the Father, since before the world began’.

Is the Bible the same as Jesus? Could we sing that hymn about the Bible? It’s the interchangeability of the phrase that confuses me.

I was wondering again last night while flicking through a  PCI ‘What is a church member?’ leaflet. According to it:-

‘ Believers trust Jesus Christ with their lives. This involves believing truths about him and having a personal relationship with him. The Bible, which Christians believe is God’s Word…’

Well that is just it, I am not sure that I believe that The Bible is God’s Word – so does that mean that I’m not a Christian? I believe that Jesus is the Word but I’m not sure that I have to believe that the Bible is God’s Word to be a Christian.  Do I have to confess the Bible is Lord to be a Christian?
There seems to be a reverence and respect for the physical book of the Bible that goes above Christ. It seems to be more important to understand scripture than Jesus. There is that bit where Jesus tells the Jewish leaders:-

’39 You study[c] the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

 

Another thing that I often wonder about is that verse that always got wheeled out in discussions about the Bible from Paul’s letter to Timothy:-
‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

The way that I see that verse is that Paul can only have been talking about the Old Testament as ‘all scripture’ as the 66 book of the bible didn’t exist.  So why was it always quoted at me as if Paul was referring the 66 books of the Bible? Should we not have heard a lot more sermons and talks on the Prophets for example if all scripture was God – breathed and Paul can only have been talking about the Old Testament?

 

 
I

distances have been shortened at an astonishing rate…

‘Fast and cheap transportation has been one of the main products of the Industrial Revolution. Distances have been shortened at an astonishing pace. Day by day the world seems smaller and smaller and societies that for millennia practically ignored each other are suddenly put in contact – or in conflict. In our dealings, in politics as in economics, in health organization as in military strategy, a new point of view is forced upon us. Somewhere in the past people had to move from an urban or regional point of view to a national one. Today we have to adjust ourselves and our way of thinking to a global point of view.’

Carlo Cipolla, The Economic History of World Population.

church

That paragraph is lifted from a book first published in 1962, over 50 years ago.

It struck me as  I feel like I’m constantly having a new point of view ‘forced’ upon me through the ‘fast and cheap transportation’ of people in our church. Not that travel is cheap. But it used to be that once people left Ireland the likelihood was that they wouldn’t return. Now people routinely fly back and forth from places like Australia or the USA. We hop on Ryanair flights with little thought.

It allows tourists from places like China to appear here on Sunday mornings (as they did this morning).
It brings students from South America or Europe to the university or to study English. It brings doctors or nurses from Asia to work in the hospital, it brings people who just want a new start in life and choose  the west of Ireland.
It allows some to flee their countries as they are in grave danger and they end up living in direct provision accommodation. Their travel isn’t cheap or choice taken lightly but in less than a day they can leave somewhere in Africa and be thrust into life here in Ireland. That movement of thousands of miles in a day is a relatively new phenomena in terms of world history.

Sometimes I like having a new point of view forced upon me because it adds angles on life and brings a better understanding of the planet we live on  but other times it leaves me exhausted. How am I supposed to understand culture when there are so many cultures to understand? In our church there are so many differentcountries and tourists passing through that I find it hard not feel like I’m being overwhelmed.

As I’ve probably mentioned before world events that used to seem so far away now seem close and sometimes that makes me wonder how to say sane.
A ferry sinks in Korea, suddenly you are aware of the Korean in the church.
A Malaysian plane goes missing, suddenly you are aware of the Malaysian in church.
Boko Haram attrocities make you wonder about the Nigerians in church.
And so on.

Someone in church recently asked for prayer about the Ebola outbreak in Guinea as they are worried about friends and family. Years ago I would have watched something like that on the news and thought that it wasn’t my problem. Now things like that seem like they might be my problem because they are a problem for a brother or sister in our small church and we are to carry each others burdens.

Growing up a Presbyterian in Northern Ireland you were usually aware of  the hurt caused to certain people in your congregation  because of terrorists and ‘The Troubles’. Usually you are informed with  knowledge and understanding that allows you interact with the person as you know the culture and have lived through the bad times as well. You can read read body language or between the lines. It can help you deal sensitively with the person.

Yet I feel that I don’t have any of that basic cultural understanding of the vast majority of people in my church. If I was talking to someone from Lisburn over tea and coffee I think that I might be able to read between the lines if they say something. With someone from Nigeria I struggle.  Language can be hard sometimes. I mumble a lot and speak quickly. If you are an English student from Korea you will struggle to understand me.

That is without considering the cheap and instant transportation of virtual people and their tweets and causes, their issues and campaigns. And they’re not virtual people of course, they are real people with real concerns and passions. So as a Christian should I love my global neighbour and try to take it on board and try to become world Christ like in my response to how LGBT are treated in Uganda?  We should pray for the Turkish miners, the Crimea, Syria, South Sudan etc.

It has made me a bit world weary with some stuff.

The distances might have shortened at an astonishing rate but my brain and soul isn’t a computer. It needs time and space to reflect. In a small church like ours that seems to literally throw and churn up new people all the time from every corner of the world I don’t know how sometimes. I can’t save the world, yet in a small local church how do I love my family when they are so diverse and foreign to my understanding?

scorn

Unfortunately I’m becoming such a cynical, sneering scornful person especially perhaps with people in church or my particular denomination.
It is a horrible way to go with people (and myself) as Jacques Ellul reminded me last night.

Help me change.

‘To scorn is to condemn the other person to complete and final sterility, to expect nothing more from him and to put him in such circumstances that he will never again have anything to give. It is to negate him in his possibilities, in his gifts, in the development of his experience. To scorn him is to rip his fingernails out by the roots so that they will never grow back again. The person who is physically maimed, or overwhelmed by mourning or hunger can regain his strength, can live again as a person so long as he retains his honor and dignity, but to destroy the honor and dignity of a person is to cancel his future, to condemn him to sterility forever. In other words, to scorn is to put an end to the other person’s hope and to one’s hope for the other person, to hope for nothing more from him and also to stop having any hope for himself’

dry wells

I am  tired despite returning  from a holiday at the beginning of the week.
We have family that live near Almeria and I had never been out to see them and where they live. So this year (and thanks to a kind Christmas present) we flew over to the south of Spain on the new, improved, nice and caring Ryanair for a week. Which is how we ended up spending a few nights in a nice Spanish village

This time last week I was walking around the beautiful Spanish village of Mojacar on a holiday.
If that sounds lovely you should also know that a fight with your wife is still a fight with your wife no matter if it’s a lovely village and knowing that you’re spending money in something that you don’t do very often but having a fight instead of making the most of it can make you pretty miserable.

So although it was nice to be away I’m knackered and didn’t find the holiday relaxing. Heat tires me and my inner Presbyterian couldn’t get the hang of the resting in the afternoon business.  I never got the hang of when you are supposed to eat lunch and dinner. The language as well.

scandanavia0005
That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Spain and seeing where my nephew and niece live because I like seeing new places. Some might think that the endless acres of plastic greenhouses that supply Europe with tomatoes and watermelons are an eyesore but I find them interesting:-
Where are the getting the water to grow watermelons in the driest part of Europe? Are they going to desalinate seawater and use it? How is climate change going to effect this area and how is that going to effect my sister and brother-in-law. my nephew and niece?

Then  it starts boiling over into the problems with the world:-
How do people work inside those greenhouses in what must be phenomenal heat? Are the migrant workers treated fairly? Do you realise that flying on your Ryanair flight on holidays is contributing to climate change here in Almeria? 

The one thing I really wanted to do over in Spain was to see new colours and draw new things, to feel a surge of inspiration surging and to be creative again. I feel like any wells of creativity that I had have dried up, a bit like the countryside and river beds around Almeria. But I felt uninspired and too awkward to create. No paints, no markers, no skill.

On the way home from the airport I was complaining to H about the way people act on Ryanair flights. ‘There are schoolgirls having to walk miles each day to get clean drinking water and then there are 50 yr old men who throw their dummies out of the pram when an air hostess moves their hand luggage a few metres away to section 29A’
 I said ‘People are so fortunate to be able to go on holidays, they should recognise this and stop acting like they….etc etc.’

Of course I was doing the exact same the whole holiday, moaning about the heat and my lack of ability to order a tapas without embarrassment. There a kids sleeping in refugee camps tonight and I’m having a meltdown because I have to sit under a sun shade and it’s making me sweat. Saying that out loud seems to make perfect sense. I need to get a grip.

Yet I’m tired as well. And I also think that saying things like ‘We should get a grip because we have it pretty good compared to so many in the world’ is a bit arrogant (?) in a way or perhaps untrue. It sounds as if we’re not really that sick or needy and screwed up and under the thumb of oppressive systems which as a Christian I don’t believe. ‘The World’ or Kingdom of Death or however you want to phrase the way Satan works against us is an ever present reality. Just because I don’t live in a country that persecutes or oppresses Christians by throwing them in jail doesn’t meant that we’re not oppressed. Like the sense of hopelessness that I get from absorbing the ways of the world does a pretty good job of robbing me of vitality for life or for serving.

I was thinking about this sense of hopelessness  or why we complain in the face of so much privilege while reading Jacques Ellul.

‘One can prove to the members of our modern societies that our ancestors never enjoyed this much means, freedom, happiness, well-being, available opportunities, long life, culture, pleasure, leisure, communication, and dialogue, but one will never convince the person in our modern society that he is living in a little paradise’

Also:-

‘In the most pacified and guaranteed society which has ever existed, man is living in uncertainty and growing fear. In the most scientific of societies, man is living in the irrational. In the most liberal of societies, man is living ‘repression,’ and even hyper-repression. In a society in which the means of communication are the most highly developed, man is living a sort of phantasmagoria. In a society in which everything is done to establish relationships, man is living in solitude…’

 

 

sometimes I miss the blue hymnbook

I probably write the same things over and over again, like a bluebottle banging his head against the kitchen window and I’m not going to let that stop me doing it again.

Sometimes I just don’t know what is going on with my life, or more specifically with my church life, which can sometimes seem like my life.

Here I am living in a manse, in a pretty middle class area, married to a minister (a female minister), in a church that is mostly Methodist, where most if not all of the children are African-Irish, with lots of single parent families, and asylum seekers, and people from different parts of the world on the edge of an Irish speaking region, in a city that pulses continually with tourism and students and so on.
There is often a conversation going on in my head on whether all of this is great or terrible.
There is just too much coming at my senses sometimes, too much to get me thinking or reflecting or angry and frustrated.
Sometimes the frustration comes from just wanting everything to be in its place and organised and familiar, for people to be like a good old Presbyterian church of my past where you roll up and roll out no alarms and no surprises. It has happened recently that I’ve craved the grey suit and tie of my past, the efficiency of the soup lunch that has been served and cleaned up in under an hour, the same person sitting in the same pew for 40 yrs and no new faces, everyone living a few minutes away, the same old badly sung but familiar hymns from the blue hymnbook.

On the other hand it’s great because lots of my preconceptions about Christianity or the church are being challenged by the collision of cultures and by meeting people from around the world.
For instance my view of other churches and particularly the Roman Catholic church is being  gently prodded. I don’t remember meeting my first Catholic until I was about 10 yrs old. He was the neighbour beside where we briefly had a mushroom farm. He came over the fence with a football wearing a Celtic top and we briefly played football in a rushy field.
My next memory of meeting a Catholic was in the minibus going a cross community hike up a mountain organized by the RUC in 4th yr at school. All I remember is that despite being a Catholic she was cute. There was another cross community trip in lower 6th and a nun, Sister Rose was present. I was wary and kept my distance. So we’re up to 3 Roman Catholic experiences by 18. It was time to take things to the next level…

I briefly lived for a year with a bunch of Catholic in student halls at QUB, lads from Strabane and Derry. Yes, that is right. I actually lived with Catholics for about 9 months.
They took the piss out of me buying ‘The Daily Express’ (and rightly so) and asked searching questions like ‘Are you coming out with us tonight or are you going to hang out with your real friends?‘. By ‘real friends’ they meant the people I knew in halls from Christian Union, people like me and possible Christian snogs or links to snogs. Female snogs of course.

I escaped into a house with my real Christian friends in 2nd and 3rd year. Once a Roman Catholic girl in my chemistry class called Maria invited me into the Roman Catholic chaplaincy for a carol service or something. I am not sure if I even set foot inside the building such was my fear of the papists doing something to me. It was a no go area that large building on Elmwood Avenue. What happened beyond those doors was anyone’s guess but after reading Chick tract literature in my teens I was aware that it could only be badness.
Catholics where dodgy when it came to religion. About the same time an elderly man my mum did home help passed away and there was a discussion about how to go to the funeral in the chapel. I think my parents went but stood at the back of the chapel.
A ‘mixed marriage’ was something that was foreign to my experience.
Basically a Roman Catholic wasn’t really a Christian because they went to a false church and was a member of a false religion and a believer shouldn’t be yoked to a non-believer.
So I grew up with a deep rooted suspicion of Roman Catholicism that is almost part of my DNA and still flares up.

Yet that is being gently challenged. Nothing major has been said, no great event just watching for example the love of  some couples in ‘mixed’ marriages. Growing up in my evangelical Protestant circles with all the politics the impression was that these really where recipes for disaster, something bad or far from ideal. There are other things to challenge my thinking as well, but it’s not really the place to talk about them.It’s just good to be challenged.

One of the local ministers told us how he gets pissed off (not sure that those are his exact words mind..) about the missionaries,outreach types, church planters etc he encounters from time to time who say things like ‘We just want to bring Jesus to the west… ‘.
He gets annoyed because he is in charge of church which has been used since the 1300’s right in the centre of city. I probably thought the same last year. There where not many churches here, we could be missionaries to this city that needs a vibrant Christian witness.
Is this not an arrogant thing to think? That meant  for example I was discounting the large and active Roman Catholic church I can see from my bedroom window as being a church.  I walk past it multiple times in a week and rarely think of it as a church.
If I’m being honest I’m still not completely comfortable with saying it is. There are suspicions and issues and things that I think wrong.
But what makes a church or what doesn’t make a church? Why am I Presbyterian? What does it mean to be a Presbyterian here? Does it matter? Are you saying that your branch of Christianity is without its fault and heresies? And so on.

a superhuman decision?

I had one of those moments on the bus earlier on reading these words from Aleksandr Solzhenistyn which are taken from one of his books ‘The Oak and the Calf’.
(I wasn’t reading them in that though. I was reading them in a study book by Os Guinness which I had grabbed quickly of a shelf in one of those moments when you feel that you you should buy something to show support for the small shop that you had wandered into)

‘From dawn to dusk the correction and copying of Gulag went forward; I could scarcely keep the pages moving fast enough. Then the typewriter started breaking down every day, and I had either to solder it myself or take it to be repaired. This was the most frightening moment of all: we had the only original manuscript and all the typed copies of Gulag there with us. If the KGB suddenly descended, the many throated groan, the dying whisper of millions, the unspoken testament of those who had perished, would all be in their hands, and I would never be able to reconstruct it all, my brain would never be capable of it again.
     I could have enjoyed myself so much, breathing the fresh air, resting, stretching my cramped limbs, but my duty to the dead permitted no such self indulgence,They are dead. You are alive. Do your duty. The world must know all about it.
    They could take my children hostage – posing as “gangsters,” of course. (They did not know that we had thought of this and made a superhuman decision: our children were no dearer to us than the memory of the millions done to death, and nothing could make us stop that book.)’

It was those last lines about making a ‘superhuman decision’. One of the questions Os Guinness asks is:-

‘ What was Solzhenitsyn’s decision about his children? How does this compare with the common modern maxim that “work” never comes above “family”? Which of the two is closer to the teachings of Jesus?’

 

some things to be aware of

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1 Be aware that we are materially rich compared to the vast majority of people who have lived before or even now.

2 Be aware that everything we buy has been made, grown, processed somewhere by someone. The things we take from granted do not materialize from thin air.

3 Be aware that turning on a tap to get clean drinking water in a warm, secure home is an incredible privilege.

4 Be aware that governments and big business are harvesting our online activity.

5 Be aware that our riches and high standard of living may depend on our global neighbours being treated like slaves.

6 Be aware that we can’t control some natural disasters. We can’t stop tsunamis.

7 Be aware that we may be contributing to and influencing other natural disasters.

8 Be aware of nature. Learn the names of creatures.

9 Be aware that the human lust for power and control is a deadly thing.

10 Be aware that just because something costs us little doesn’t mean that it was cheap for someone else to provide or make.

11 Be aware that our western lifestyle depends completely on access to cheap oil.

12 Be aware that the world is infinitely complex with endless variations.

13 Be aware that loneliness and alienation is deadly.

14 Be aware that we depend on the health of the soil.

15 Be aware of nationalism and tribalism in all its forms.

16 Be aware of how much we waste and needlessly throw away.

17 Be aware of principalities and powers.

18 Be aware of the loss of character and individuality in our towns and cities.

19 Be aware of our addiction to technology. Don’t believe that it will make life easier or better.

20 Be aware that matter matters just as much as the spirit.

21 Be aware of the history and stories of your locality.

22 Be aware that you mightn’t get paid for good work. It’s value doesn’t depend on it being noticed.

23 Be aware that you don’t need the latest iphone.Companies are only telling you you do to grow company profits and increase like on like sales.

24 Be aware that the most important thing isn’t the economy and economic growth.

25 Be aware that Google doesn’t have the answer.

26 Be aware that we live by gift and grace. You did nothing to be born and didn’t earn it.

27 Be aware that PA systems and speakers, microphones change the tone and character of your voice.

28 Be aware that you are not a robot or a machine. Your brain is not a computer.

29 Be aware of the poor and oppressed. Stand up for mercy and justice.

30 Be aware of miracles and mystical experience, things that can’t easily be explained by science.

31 Be aware of how constantly looking a computer screens changes our perception of reality.