When your hands are empty and your mind isblank, and a sense of purpose eludes you, there’s always a scrap of paper like thisone to fill with scratchings and stain with words. I wonder if this is how those ancient cave drawings started,the graffiti of boredom? Somethingto fill the nights and to gaze at with pride on long shifts tendng the winterfire. I’m tryng to tend my innerflame, which isn’t guttering but is struggling to find good tinder. So I write, I scratch, I stir theembers in hope that a blaze will spring up again, as it has many times before. I’m not snuffed out yet. I can still feel a glow down below.
This is old news, but I came across these notes I made just after my corneal graft surgery, almost 2 years ago.
21August. Nearly 2 weeks since the op & this is the first time I’ve felt like trying to write as my vision’s all over the place just now. One minute I can see the screen really well, the next I blink and it turns to mush. Well the op was a success, though I’m having to be patient & let the healing process take its time. I was nervous going into surgery, but not as much as I expected I would be, & I had a lovely nurse who looked after me, kept calling me ‘darling’ (great bedside manner), wrapping me in heated blankets, making me feel safe. When I woke up I had a patch on my eye & I could discern light through it so I knew I hadn’t lost my sight altogether (a ‘catastrophic event’, as they euphamistically call it). I was a bit groggy but not too bad considering I’d been out for 2 hours. As the evening wore on I began to notice a lot of detail about the patch, the weave of the material etc, and little specks of light that leaked in at the edges seemed bright. When the patch was taken off, about 8pm, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Colours so strong, everything super sharp (by my standards at least), everyone & everything had a halo, aura of light around them. The nurse standing in front of me looked like a benign alien, beautiful, glowing. I wandered around the ward staring at everything, reading signs I couldn’t have read a few hours earlier. Raving, probably, to the staff about how great it was. That night has imprinted on my mind forever – now I know what miracles must feel like. This glow lasted for days.
“Except you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I was sitting amongst the trees on the grassy hillside behind the monastery this afternoon watching some children playing in a field below, and thinking about something I’d read – “For children, play is real. It’s their work” – and I thought therefore that if you play at something then it may become real for you. Is that what following God is – playing at being spiritual till it starts to be true? Then we could say that all our denominations must just be the different games people choose to play. So, you’re free to choose the play you like! As long as it sticks by the general rules, I guess it’s fine. Perhaps God enjoys watching us at play, trying to work out his world?
There are many ‘revelations’ I’ve taken in the past to have been from God, but I wonder if I actually understood right?
It can be dangerous to keep your revelations to yourself; “In the multitude of counselors there is safety…”. We need each other to keep each other straight.
For instance, many years ago I read in Ezekiel 33, “But you are like a singer of love songs, who has a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well. People hear you and say ‘How wonderful!’, but they will never do what you say”. And I presumed this to be some oracle on the ineffectiveness of music, & that I might as well just give up. But recently the verse came to mind so I looked it up, and the next verse says, “But when your words come to pass – as they surely will – then they will know that there has been a prophet amongst them”.
The prophet’s job is to say what she/he’s been given; the consequences are not her/his responsibility. This puts rather a different light on the subject. My prior understanding of this verse probably dis-empowered me, at least to some extent. How many other misunderstandings have I/we laboured under? How many have I/we passed on to others?
Way back, I received a prophecy from a visiting preacher which said “Don’t struggle to put yourself forward, for a man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before those who are great”. Nice sentiment, but “don’t put yourself forward…’ isn’t part of the text (Proverbs) and the proverb is actually about the use of gifts (bribes) to get into the king’s presence. My understanding tended to make me passive rather than proactive.
Misunderstandings like these can cost us countless opportunities and years of our lives. What we can say is “Lord, I didn’t know. But I do now. Please give me the chance to make up for lost time.”
Our lives may last many years – or few. The impact we have may be sudden – or gradual. The influence we exert may be momentary – or eternal.
Moses didn’t receive his calling till he was 40. He didn’t start his ministry till he was 80. It took one encounter with a burning bush – maybe 10 or 15 minutes duration – to change the world and create a legend.
Jesus lived maybe 33 years – but only 2 or 3 years doing his thing – but they were enough.
Every burst of glory needs some prep time. The wick needs to be teased out; the candle fitted securely in its holder. The flame held near.
It occurred to me recently that just because a person has a miracle doesn’t mean their life is going to go smoothly from then on. I had one the day I woke up with my new cornea (I had a transplant) – it was amazing & I can still feel the wonder when I think of it. But then things went wrong again.
Think of lazarus; he went through all the trauma of dying, got raised back to life, but still he would have died eventually, so in fact he had to go through the trauma of dying twice. Bummer! & all those people who Jesus healed; I wonder how many of them were sick again a few months or years later? Not perhaps of the same thing, but some bug or accident, or the throes of mortality, will have got them sooner or later.
Miracles aren’t the end goal – even touches from God can be temporary things. We still long to experience them nevertheless.
It’s a paradox that none of us matters scarcely a dot in the grand picture of creation, and yet each of us matters immensely in the grand picture of love. Perhaps paradox is the central truth of the universe. The universe is forever expanding, yet each of its creatures is breaking down, a subject of entropy, running out of time and energy. Are paradoxes explainable phenomena? One great paradox is that we search our lives for answers yet are never sure that we’ve found them. Faith asks us to believe in the invisible, the improbable, the un-provable. To call nothing something.
“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” wrote Thomas Merton, one of the most often quoted commentators on contemporary spirituality of the 20th century. Merton wrote over 40 books on the importance of reflection and prayer in our lives. I recently read Robert Waldron’s book, Thomas Merton – Master Of Attention, in which he explains that Merton’s own ‘way of prayer’ came increasingly to be about ‘seeing’.
Meister Eckhart said; “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which he sees me.” For Merton – Cistercian monk, mystic, poet, artist, photographer – learning to pay attention, to really ‘see’, became life’s central focus. Merton came to faith while looking at mosaics of Jesus in Rome, and paintings by the masters. I can relate to this as I loved gazing at the pictures of Jesus in our Catholic picture missals at mass as a boy (to distract me from the boredome of the Latin ritual). As well as art, Merton was inspired by writers such as William Blake and Gerard Manly Hopkins, who gave focus to his spiritual formation.
Merton once wrote; “Access to God is by attention. This should be our main work. A literal monastic cell is unnecessary, for we all have within us a heart’s cell.” Waldron, In his book, quotes extensively from Merton, and from many of the writers who shaped him, giving Merton’s ‘journey into God’ a real sense of pilgrimage. I found reading it a kind of meditation, as well as a good page-turner – I really wanted to know what happens next.
My only dissatisfaction with Thomas Merton – Master Of Attention, is that it ends rather abruptly (as did Thomas Merton’s life), leaving me with a sense that I’d glimpsed many insights, but that there should be more. Perhaps that’s the point?
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
(Adapted from a review I wrote for NZ Catholic)
“When I am weak, then I am strong” wrote St Paul to the Corinthians. He was struggling to come to terms with a sense of broken-ness – his “thorn in the flesh”. Each of us has a “thorn” (at least one); it may be physical, but it’s just as likely to be emotional, intellectual, or spiritual. It may manifest as a difficulty in keeping up in the physical world, a degree of awkwardness or dysfunction in community or relationships, feelings of inadequacy, depression etc.
Israel had a limp, Moses stuttered, Saul had anger issues, David had a problem with women. Christians call this “the human condition”, “the wages of sin”, or “wounded creation”. But what if our wounding was a gift from God?
It seems that Paul had poor eyesight (c.f. Gal4;13-5). I’m also partially blind, and when I was a teenager I went into denial about it – largely for social reasons. I pretended that I had no disability and actually got quite good at fooling people! I never knew that I was in denial, I just thought that I was learning to cope and being ‘cool’. I didn’t want to wear glasses in public (particularly in front of girls) because I felt they made me look like a nerd! But it went a lot deeper than that – I was trying not to be that person who had a wounding. I was denying part of the reality of who I am.
My poor eyesight has meant I cannot do some things that others take for granted, like driving a car. It also means that I’m not capable of doing many other things as well or as quickly as most of you can, like drawing a picture, cutting straight with scissors, playing team games, reading the overhead projector in church. This physical limitation affects my life choices at every turn – the kinds of work and leisure activities I do, the places I choose to visit and the location where I live, the ways I spend my time and order my priorities.
Disability also creates stigma, other-ness, difference. When we’re young, particularly, it’s really important to fit in. Children can sometimes be cruel, and tease one another for being different. And adults are sometimes condescending. The media foists on us images of what we ‘should’ be, creating an artificial ‘peer pressure’ and instilling feelings of inferiority in many people. Do you ever remember thinking that you were an outsider and that no-one understood you?
The deepest wound of all is fear. At primary school I was the victim of the school bully. He threatened that if I ever told anyone what he was doing he would know because he could read my mind, so I better shut up! Now even at eight years old I was pretty sure that people couldn’t really read minds, but fear over-rode rationality. I was so desperate to please him that I started asking his permission before I did anything. Ever since that time I’ve had trouble trusting the validity of my own decisions.
Now, in fact, I make lots of good decisions (like agreeing to write this article…!?) My rational mind knows this and I can assemble evidence to back it up. But there’s a darker, subtle, negative influence that kicks in without warning. A voice that says “You’re going to get it wrong”, or “They won’t like you if you do/say that”, and this voice can make me freeze, make me timid, make me procrastinate and stew in confusion. Fear, too, you see, is a great disability. Fear probably lurks somewhere in all of us, and must be recognised, named, brought out into the light, and strategies found to deal with it.
Many of us are afraid of the unknown; of picking up the ringing phone, or – even worse – picking it up to make a call. I know somebody who sits in his car for 20 minutes psych-ing himself up before he can go and knock on a stranger’s door – and his job is in sales! Often in face-to-face situations the fear of rejection causes us to leave much important stuff unsaid.
God’s love is the only real antidote to fear (c.f. 1Jn 4;18).
Many of us are dis-empowered by the stories we believe. We have all created mythologies about ourselves; some parts of the story are true, some are not. We have built up these myths over a lifetime of listening to and looking at the lives of others, both real and fictional. All the books and movies we’ve taken in, the teaching we’ve received, the role-models who’ve lived with and around us, the stories that others have spoken to and about us (true and not true), have shaped our personal landscape. We’ve developed a narrative of the person we’d like to be, and the person we think we are. We’ve tried to be ‘like this one’, and ‘not like that one’. We’ve fantasized thousands of “what if?” scenarios; dreamed dreams in which we are always the star or the victim. Most of these fantasies are unrealistic, and so we carry a secret burden of failure, never having been able to live up to our ideals.
When I was a kid I used to go to the movies most Saturday afternoons with my friends from the neighbourhood – it didn’t really matter much what was on. Afterwards we’d all go to the empty section at the bottom of our street to play, and almost invariably we’d ‘act out’ the story we’d just seen, each taking roles, and sometimes arguing about who was going to be the hero and who the ‘baddie’. This habit stayed with me and I’ve spent much of my life trying to be somebody else.
As a young believer/musician I found myself trying to sing or share my testimony in the same style I heard ‘famous’ people like Larry Norman and Barry McGuire do it. How often have you heard a local preacher, who normally has a kiwi twang, suddenly slip into an American drawl in the pulpit, mimicking the speaking style and gestures of some influential pastor or evangelist? We’re all such sheep!
But there is, in reality, only one person we’re ideally suited to role-play – ourselves. No-body else can be you as well as you can. In fact, being you is the one thing you can truly excel at. You are unique and have a contribution to the human race (and to the building of God’s kingdom) that no-one else can offer. God made you that way. Unfortunately, most of us have not been well groomed for being ourselves.
“You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free” said Jesus. The truth is not always what we expected, and it’s sometimes even unpleasant, but it is liberating, and it can strengthen and even heal us. So, where is your wounding?
Do you remember when you were a child and you fell over and skinned your knees? You ran inside to mum, but you pulled away when she tried to bathe the cuts with antiseptic. You didn’t want anybody to touch the pain, and yet how you wanted it to go away! Wounding makes us hypersensitive, makes us hold back, even from the thing which can heal us.
When we are able to be comfortable with the person we are – unashamedly ourselves, and not embarrassed about having weakness, being human – then we possess one of the greatest of attributes, integrity. The Oxford Dictionary defines integrity as; “wholeness; soundness; uprightness; honesty”. Integrity is an attitude, a way of being in the world, a choice to live as our true selves, “warts and all”, without fear.
A couple of years ago, my spiritual director asked me whether I’d ever considered my poor eyesight as a gift. I hadn’t. In fact, although there’s no rational explanation for this, at first I found the idea a bit uncomfortable (such is the depth of our pre-conditioning). However, I ‘sat with’ the idea for a while, talked to God about it, and eventually the penny dropped. I am an expert on human weakness – it’s something I have a lifetime’s experience at! So, how do you turn a curse into a blessing? How can I make this wealth of knowledge work to my advantage? And, hopefully, the advantage of others, too.
This article may be one way of doing that.
Human beings have a remarkable capacity for adaptation. Part of the way that we learn to cope with weakness is to strengthen other faculties to compensate. For instance, a person crippled from the waist down is likely to develop unusually strong muscles in their arms and torso. In my case, because I’m a musician, but I’m unable to physically ‘read’ music, I’ve developed a particularly good ‘ear’ (the ability to play spontaneously what I hear), something which classically trained players can be weak on. Their ‘weakness’ is that they tend to depend on their eyes at the expense of their ears and intuition. One skill isn’t better than the other, they’re just different, and they both arise from a juxtaposition of weakness and strength.
Some people have told me that I seem to have an empathetic nature, am a good listener, that they feel comfortable talking to me about ‘sensitive, personal stuff’. Perhaps these are some of the positive fruits of being a damaged, fragile creature. Perhaps one wounded spirit can recognise another…
God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you … (my) power is made perfect through weakness”. Paul came to accept this mystery. God wants us to live a fulfilled and fruitful life. But the paradox is, it all begins when we acknowledge – and, in fact, embrace – our weakness. Jesus chose to become weak, so that he could heal us. His wounded hands, touched by Thomas, were proof of his power over death.
Human weakness is one gift we all have in common. Our infirmity is a reminder to ourselves, and a sign to the world, that God’s salvation is necessary for everyone. So learn to value your wounds highly, and use them well.
(Notes from a house church in Auckland – 1990s)
Whenever you go to visit somebody else’s church one of the first questions you almost invariably get asked is “And where do you fellowship?” When we tell people we’re in a house church the first reaction is often a little cautious, and even, occasionally, suspicious (“Uh-oh, these people are into some kind of deception!’). But after we’ve chatted for a while the reaction is almost always “Well, that sounds really great!” or “I wish we had something like that in our church”. The fact is that a rather large percentage of believers are more than a bit dissatisfied with the status quo. Our spirit and our reading of scripture tell us that there’s more to Christianity than most of us are experiencing, but we’re just not quite sure how to get to it.
For the last eight years a group of us’ve been involved in what could be considered an experiment in alternative churchlife. I have been a believer since the early ’70s but – although I am profoundly grateful to my former denomination for the love and instruction I received – the conventional `church service’ setting became less and less relevant to me – what happened there didn’t seem anything like what I read about in the Gospels. And, because I knew a significant number of others who felt the same (the silent migration of non-fellowshipping believers is no secret), some of us decided to stop ‘going to church’ and start having it at home instead.
It wasn’t our intention to thumb our noses at traditional church structures – to say `We are right and you are wrong’ – but instead to offer an alternative to them, one which I’ve come to believe is necessary in meeting the needs of at least some of the many who, for one reason or another, feel estranged from the Christian mainstream and end up falling through the cracks.
Acts 2;42-7 shows us that any healthy Christian community needs a balanced – and quite simple -diet. We need to study Jesus’ words and those of his apostles take communion together and pray for one another; share our possessions (a hard one for most of us first-worlders), and generally build one another up practically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually so that we all reach our potential as His children and are empowered to share His Good News with others. We use this as our blueprint.
Now I know that most congregations are trying to do this exact same thing, but the dynamics and priorities of large organisations tend to militate against true community, and – for all their good intentions – most struggle to achieve quality discipleship. It’s interesting that Jesus chose twelve disciples, he didn’t choose twelve hundred. Small size is a big issue. Somebody came to me a while ago and said “I went to my pastor to ask him how I could better serve God, but all he could suggest was that perhaps I’d like to join the team of ushers or operate the overhead projector”. Over time the church has become a lot of things other than the simple community of friends that Jesus started out with, and much of what we do ‘in church’ is unnecessary, inefficient and sometimes even counterproductive. I don’t think Jesus died for offertory hymns or to protect the copyright on overhead projector transparencies. It’s possible to get so caught up with organising programs and running meetings that there’s no energy left over to reach out (I do some counselling and one of the most common comments I get from Christian clients is “my pastor is too busy”).
Church buildings have dynamics of their own, too. The architecture of most ‘churches’ – closely emulating the design of concert halls, movie theatres or conference centres – preaches a powerful sermon. “Listen, don’t do.” “Leave the work to the pastor, the ministry team and musicians”. “You can only take part in this church if you’re not afraid of microphones.” Truth is, many ‘services’ appear remarkably like performances. It’s very hard to have meaningful fellowship when you’re all facing the front and all you can see of the person nearest you is the back of their head (it’s well nigh impossible, on the other hand, to be uninvolved, and far less likely that you’ll go away feeling like a stranger when everyone’s sitting around in a circle).
Another disadvantage of ‘church’ buildings is that – like RSA halls, Masonic lodges and basketball courts – they represent ‘interest group’ premises, somewhat removed from the rest of the community – places you don’t go unless you’re a member. We expect non-believers to screw up their courage and come to these mysterious places, but actually Jesus instructed us to go to them. Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to invite your unsaved friends around for supper than it is to coerce them into coming to your outreach service?
Of course the fact that we refer to a building (or a denomination) as ‘church’ at all is wrong, as we all know, and as someone is always quick to point out in any discussion about house church vs institutional church, but still we keep calling buildings with pointed roofs ‘church’, and so, I suppose, at least to some extent we must still believe it.
Now -just so you don’t think I’m totally biased (which I must be to be writing this article..?!) – house groups aren’t perfect either. Some of them are a bit precious about their ‘rightness’, and there can be an undercurrent of criticism of ‘the established church’. Some run the risk of becoming isolated and unbalanced, or being dominated by the charismatic personality of one individual (mind you, I don’t think small groups have any monopoly on this score). But we’re not all like that, and I’ve seen over the years a depth of spirituality and personal and community growth far greater than I ever saw in a comparable period in more conventional settings. It will be argued that many denominations have ‘home groups’ as a part of their program, but it’s my experience that these tend to operate like mini Sunday services (thirty minutes praise and worship, forty minute sermon…) and they’re usually an optional extra, not the main focus, so it’s hard to develop the same level of commitment.
House church is a step on the way to more real Christian community. It’s also a step back towards the way the church originally was, before Constantine, ecclesiastical power-politics and gold encrusted basilicas (or ginormous, half-empty auditoriums with huge mortgages). When Jesus and his friends could sit round in each others houses and talk about life, the universe and everything (and how the day’s fishing had been); where somebody bursting in with a truckload of problems wasn’t ‘disrupting the service’. If Jesus had chosen to manifest in 1999 instead of 30AD, you’d be far more likely to find him in a cafe or somebody’s lounge than in a ‘seeker service’.
I suspect that most of us know somewhere in the back of our hearts that living in community is an ideal to aspire to – one of the signs of the Church at her best (we’ve all read the book of Acts), and we can think of lots of reasons why this ‘just won’t work these days’. But the real reason we’re not doing it may be that we’re still too selfish, individualist and materialistic to listen to our heart. Until that day comes again, house churching is giving some of us a chance to get a little teeny foretaste of what Christian community just might be like. Big groups and small groups are all important; we can learn a lot from each other. Small groups need to learn how to grow quantity, big ones need to learn about quality. House group leaders need better networks of accountability, big group leaders need to relax the reins of control.
So what do we do here in Grafton? Well, we normally meet on Tuesday nights and at first we just sit and chat over tea and cookies. After a while we get into some scripture reading and discuss whatever the readings bring up for us. This leads naturally into prayer time. The whole thing is totally informal and highly interactive – everybody has unique gifts and insights and we try to make as much room as possible for each other to grow – and for the Holy Spirit to do His thing. Some nights we share communion. Occasionally we have guests (teachers, missionaries etc.) talk to us, and we’re seriously into pot-luck dinners. We have a loose association with a couple of other `house’ groups and a local community church. Because we meet on Tuesdays and not Sundays we’re free to – and some of us do – visit other churches, or else have a good Sunday morning lie-in (When I was in a ‘regular’ church we often used to joke about how Sunday was the most exhausting day of the week for Christians – but in these days of high stress and burn-out that joke’s not so funny any more). This low key spirituality is very sustaining, a natural and enjoyable way to ‘do church’.
If you’re looking to find a house church it may not be easy. They don’t advertise (although there are a few sites on the internet) and they don’t have recognisable buildings – mind you, neither did the first century church. But if you feel you ought to check it out, and you talk to God about it, you just might find yourself sitting one day in the kitchen of some ‘slightly left-of-centre’ Christian acquaintances, sipping a cup of tea, and suddenly realise you’re in the middle of one (“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them”).
When people ask, we say we’re a house church, though we’ve never actually given ourselves a name. Some probably see us as too loose, but then I guess Jesus had the same problem.
Several years ago I had a mind-picture (was it a vision?) in which I was standing on the grass outside a brick, 1960s style church building. As I watched, a man, who I took to be the pastor, came out of a side door, walked around to the front entrance, and proceeded to take down a large sign attached to the wall which stated the church’s denomination etc. The impression that I had was that he was doing this because he no longer felt comfortable with the concept of labels, and the impression of dividedness which they tend to portray to the world. From now on he wanted his congregation to be known simply as Christians, that’s all.