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?

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?

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.

boundaries,

I’m currently sitting upstairs in my house avoiding the ‘home group’ (aka. growth groupconnect groupcare group,life groupfellowship groupsmall group, cell group) that is currently meeting in our home.

Part of me wants to go down and sit in the living room because I like everyone but part of me still doesn’t know how to sort  boundaries and if my wife being called to work in a church means that I am also called to work in a church by default.
I feel called to being an artist and would love to work at that now up here in my room. I don’t feel like there is ever enough time to get things sorted and who knows what I could come up with in the next few hours? 
If someone was on the rota at a hospital to work now they couldn’t come to home group.
I have to put myself on a rota of sorts and I know that I work best at this time of the day. So it would naturally be a good time to work on stuff. But I can’t concentrate as the people downstairs know that I’m upstairs and I know that they’re downstairs.  There is a guilt that I’m being a poor witness and a terrible minister’s spouse. It’s the boundaries. 

There is also a feeling sometimes that H is bringing her work home with her. Maybe it’s a little like a doctor bringing home his patients  or school teacher her kids every few weeks for a cup of tea and bun? Again it is OK but I find the boundaries in my head hard to manage sometimes. I know  church is a place where we should love each other and be open, where I am called to be a member and to love people, to be a friend and to worship. But I’m also an introvert who likes his own space, who needs time to reflect on things rather than sitting in a room rushing through an ice-breaker and 5 questions before working out how this applies to us to today and then praying and having a cup of tea and a bun. Even the way my beloved asks the questions in home group confuses me. Most of the time questions in the living room are asked naturally and without a small booklet. They have  context about what to have for dinner or’ what are you doing this afternoon?’ There is a certain tone of husband and wife just doing the day to day business. Then when home group comes it’s not the same tone and questions aren’t asked ‘naturally’ and it doesn’t seem so much to being my beloved but a minister, which confuses me and adds to the general feeling confusion or chaos but this time its not in the church, but in our home. It’s the trying to work out the boundaries or if there should be the boundaries and that sort of thing.

not taking the kids out

This weekend I had the strange experience of pining for my old church as I remember it growing up, a place where people wore suits and remained deadly silent for the service. Sure it was dull but at least you knew exactly what to expect, you didn’t have mess or chaos.
I was thinking that while picking up bits of chicken bones that had been stood on or emptying Lucozade cans down sinks and running up to Dunnes Stores to buy tea towels and shouting at the teenagers who had just been ‘confirmed’ and who where running up and down the stairs in platform shoes. I think that when people always come late (an hour late) and pass up notes of paper before the sermon or don’t take the really noisy kid out to the smaller room.
This not taking the screaming, noisy child out to the smaller room thing seems to have really caught on. Dad says that it now regularly happens in my austere  home church. He doesn’t blame the kids, but the smiling parents who don’t seem to mind that nobody can concentrate on the minister. A local parish priest was saying that it is the same with them.I don’t get it. Why not take the kid out? I’m not a parent, is there something I don’t understand about this?

What I miss from my old churches is the efficiency of it all, the ability to swing in 5mins before the start and swing smoothly out an hour later without any stress being added to my life. I miss that sense of everything being under control, no alarms and no surprises. Perhaps I especially now miss that sense of efficiency because I’m married to the minister. If there is less messiness and chaos in the church it means that life might be easier for them which in turn means that  life might be easier for me.

On the other hand and despite my frustrations the mess and chaos seems to me to be more in keeping with the  Kingdom of God. For years I craved for more reality in church and the ability to come without dressing myself up (literally and metaphorically). So if single parents (of which there are many) are finding it hard to keep their kids quiet during church yet still make the effort to come each week I need to show more compassion.

flying snow

There is sleet sliding down the living room window, wind blowing down the chimney, silence in the house. My thoughts are grim.

There is so much broken around me,broken in me.

Someone called to the house last week, a single parent . Watching him drive off with the kids I thought how black and heart-breaking to loose someone you love but have to carry on, carry on, carry on picking up the pieces carrying on for the kids.

Thinking about it some more there are many single parents in ‘our place’. Then there are those who are currently separated from children not through choice, but because of having to flee persecution in their native land.
Imagine not seeing your children for many years ? Then imagine not being able to afford bring them over when free?
Then you keep picking up other bits of sadness  from an infinite sea and adding them together. Imagine that happening? What if that happened?
Spotting some report about the threat of bird flu on the corner of a website or wondering how we will cope whenever death comes makes me feel ill. Basically it’s scary out there. Basically I wonder how we’ll cope.

I appreciated reading this  Wendell Berry poem the other night in bed and for moment thought about the seeds I plan to plant in the garden come spring.
I’m not sure why the sight of garlic appearing through the water logged soil or imagining the smell of broad beans  calms me a little, but it does.

February 2, 1968

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

Wendell Berry

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