Church Attendance for Other Reasons

Some people attend Church for reasons other than worship.  This might include the desire to deepen their sense of belonging alongside meeting what Long describes as the need for human community[1].  It is no great surprise to anyone that people go to church to be with each other as well as to be with God, but in the twenty-first century Church are these desires in conflict?  What of those who wish to meet with God in solitude, or those who wish to participate and communicate without religion?  Such expressions have been known in the past, but in which direction is the general flow?  The reasons that people have stopped attending local churches are therefore twofold.  On the one had spirituality has become a personal pursuit and is done in reading or meditating alone, or on spiritual retreats, rather than in the local parish church. Why join the church when I can meditate and listen to worship CDs at home?  (Yet congregations founded on intimacy and small group modes of connection are also booming.)  On the other hand, service clubs provide the needs of those who wish to be helpful and make friends in the local area without the need for religious activities.  Why join the church when Lions Club makes me feel valued?

So how are such people to be lead?

[1] Thomas G. Long. Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2001) 25.

Lighten Darkness

The text of a message I preached at Dudley (Penneshaw) and Kingscote Uniting Churches on Sunday 19th April 2015.

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

I must admit, not that it actually needs admitting but I’m just saying, that I have a lot on my mind this week. In theory I am on holidays, yet in practice I have been very busy and the busyness of this period has another month to run. It is mid-semester break at university, but I have not been able to stop. I spent a long weekend in Melbourne last weekend to attend a family reunion, and I got home on Monday night. Today I am preaching twice, Penneshaw in the morning and Kingscote in the evening and tomorrow I go to Adelaide for some medical tests prerequisite to my attending the presbytery selection panel weekend, and on Tuesday I am attending half a day of training with beyondblue. The moderator, Deidre Palmer, will be here on Wednesday evening to assess my preparation and leadership of a Bible Study group in Kingscote so I shall be need to be back from Adelaide for that. On Saturday I am speaking at the centenary of ANZAC service in Penneshaw, before heading back to Kingscote for the dedication of the soldiers’ memorial gates and then the football in the afternoon when Kingscote kick off their season at home to Wonks. Tomorrow week I am speaking to the Lions Club in Parndana on behalf of beyondblue, and I have an essay on the place of Young People in Ministry due next Thursday. Then it’s the selection weekend itself starting Friday afternoon, so I’m back to Adelaide for that before returning on Saturday afternoon after a full twenty-four hours of interviews and reflection to preach at Kingscote on Sunday morning, a fortnight from today. Finally, following my birthday on Tuesday and Mother’s Day on Sunday I’ll be going in to Adelaide again where on Monday night May 11th I will graduate from Adelaide College of Divinity with a Bachelor of Ministry degree, and on Wednesday morning I will present a tutorial to the class I am taking in the Gospel of John. Today is April 19th, I’ve been running since 22nd March when I spoke at the Black Dog ride, (on behalf of beyondblue), right through Easter to now. I get to stop on May 14th, before umpiring my second football games for the weekend at Parndana on May 16th. (I miss the matches at Dudley on May 2nd because I’ll be in Adelaide.)


With all of that on my mind I was very taken by the NRSV’s translation of Psalm 4:1 where the psalmist says to God you gave me room when I was in distress. I hasten to add that even though I am very busy right now I am not in distress, but a passage from scripture that promises “room” is a Godsend in every use of the term. God sends and makes room. Thanks be to the God of room.

The story of the resurrected Christ is the story of hope for all who wish to find hope. To the people around him in Psalm 4:3 the psalmist sings that God has set apart the faithful for Godself and that God hears those faithful when they call out from the experience of distress. From the tone of that verse it appears that the psalmist feels mocked, so he must defend himself by saying that far from being rejected by God those who experience pain are the ones drawn closest by God if they will cry out. The psalmist goes on to say in verses 4:4-5, perhaps to those who are themselves suffering, that they must not allow their distress to lead them to sin but instead trust in God by withdrawing from the things that make them tense and stressed and just rest and be silent. When you are disturbed, says the psalmist, don’t fly off the handle but pay attention to worship and doing life God’s way and put your trust in God to cover you.

In Acts 3:16 we read how by faith in the name of Jesus a man who had been lame since birth was made strong and given perfect health. This man had been barred from entry to the temple by his disability; not only because he wasn’t physically able to enter but because legally he wasn’t allowed to. After Peter prays and the Spirit of Jesus moves on the man the first thing he does on his new legs is go into the place of worship where people gather about him in awe and amazement. The testimony of the psalmist might also be the testimony of the man seated at the gate: you mock me in my suffering, you ignore me as you pass me by to go to worship and you bar me from the company of believers, but God came, and God found me at the gate, and God brought me inside on healed legs and feet where now you can see me. This man, like the psalmist who sits close to God in his distress, is the recipient of divine restoration of body, mind, and spirit. Indeed in view of this Peter speaks of Jesus who was also closest to God but rejected by the religious people. But Peter does not fight fire with fire, he does not speak on behalf of Jesus with a message of rejection, rather the call to repentance spoken by Jesus’ apostles is a call to recognition of ignorance.

In verse 4:6 of the psalm the singer says that many cry out for some sign of light, O that we might see some good they cry, let the light of your face shine on us O Lord. Those in the dark cry out for light and God listens and responds. In the story from Acts 3 the people in the dark don’t know they need light, they are ignorant of their sin, but God through Peter still comes and offers illumination and an opportunity to repent.  The affirmation of the psalmist in 4:7 is that God had made his heart glad, gladder than when there is abundance of grain and wine, so the witness of the one who was distressed and disturbed is of answered prayer, understood pain, and restored relationship based on the dependability of God and the trusting loyalty of the true believer. The psalmist concludes his song by saying that he will both lie down and sleep in peace because in God alone is found security and safety. As one who has experience of Anxiety and Depression as disorders of the mind and not just the consequence of circumstances I can tell you that to both lie down in peace and to sleep in peace are indeed two separate things. This is not a man who has collapsed in exhaustion from tears and pacing but a man who drifts into peaceful and restorative slumber from a place of quietness and confidence in the God who promises peace.

 Peace be with you says Jesus to his startled disciples in Luke 24:36. Why are you frightened? Why do doubts arise in your hearts? Can’t you see who it is? Can’t you see that it’s me? This event takes place on the evening of Easter day, according to Luke’s timing, and Jesus appears in the locked room in Jerusalem just as the men from Emmaus have finished telling the story of how the resurrected one appeared to them on the road. It’s the same story that Jesus told on the road; the voice of hope and love speaks quietly and with assurance, but not fanfare, of the continuing story of God’s active presence in the lives of the people of the community of faith. Beginning with Moses and the prophets Jesus speaks out the whole history of Israel from the perspective of the saving God to explain what has occurred over the preceding forty-eight hours. Luke says in 24:41 that within their joy at seeing Jesus again they were still disbelieving, so the story is told and they are commissioned by Jesus as witnesses. He tells them what they have seen, so that they will understand what had until then been only visual and aural. Then the disciples are sent out to live and minister within the context of their doubts. The message of the Church is the message of how we find hope in the story of Jesus on earth and God in creation as we live out our faith.

But how can we be confident that this will work? How can we be witnesses if we still have doubts? Again the story is grace and how God draws close to Godself those who are prepared to be honest and vulnerable in their wresting. Within ten weeks of this event the event narrated in Acts takes place and Peter and John are found teaching so boldly and provocatively in the temple.  Regardless of his means of death, that of execution by the government, the Jesus known to the apostles is no zombie or no ghost. Jesus is not a corpse with breath returned; neither is he a disembodied but eternal apparition: Jesus is alive in an altogether new way, a way which one of my commentaries describes as “resurrected life is embodied existence”[1].

So we believe in spite of our doubts, knowing that in Jesus hope and peace and security is found and if we stay close to God we will learn more and more about what is actually going on. In his pastoral letter to a group of local Christians John tells us that the capacity to live without sin is the result of acknowledging the love of the LORD. This John who was in the room when Jesus returned to the eleven, this John who was standing with Peter when the man was raised to his feet and the fisherman son of Jonah proclaimed the grace-filled wisdom of God, this John writes of how ordinary men and women are made sons and daughters of God. I wonder what you make of 1 John 3:6 and the statement that no-one who abides in Christ sins. Would John really have it that believers never sin? This is more than a little optimistic, even for the best of us, if we think of sin as disobedience. But if we think of sin in the way that John in his gospel wrote of sin, that sin is unbelief, and then it is self-fulfilling because believers cannot be condemned for unbelief.   And take note, doubt is not unbelief, doubt is belief being fashioned. Belief for John was never about holding steadfast to doctrines or proofs, rather belief is hope, trust, and obedience placed in the One who sustains all. If John were to be asked for a simile for belief his answer would lean more towards words like devotion than words like orthodoxy.

John suggests that those whose hope is in God will live with a grace-filled underpinning to sustain and guide them. This is what the psalmist sang of when the one who found himself in distress due to circumstance and frailty gathered together his faith and hope and cried out to the One who is faithful. If we are believers then we can live without rebellion and the desire to go it alone because of the grace of God that holds us close to God. The Word of God says to us what he said to his frightened disciples “peace be with you”. Why are you frightened can’t you see that I am here with you? Don’t you know who I am?

This is why even though I am incredibly busy right now, and I have a medical predilection to fright, fight and flight, I am not in distress.


[1] Joel B. Green, “Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 2003), 1903

Glass Box Man.

Glass-box Man lives inside a big glass box.  No-one can see it, and no-one can touch it, but everyone knows it is there.

Inside his glass box, Glass-box Man is terribly lonely.  Wherever he goes people can see Glass-box Man inside his glass box, and they can hear him when he speaks, (which isn’t very often because he is also shy and embarrassed about living inside his glass box), but they cannot touch him – and he cannot touch them.

When Glass-box Man is at the shops and is walking up and down the aisles pushing his trolley, people can pick up the packets of food in his trolley, but they can’t reach Glass-box Man because of the box.

When Glass-box Man walks home past the school, or the park, he can see the children laughing and playing but he knows he cannot go and join in, because of his glass box.

Even at the doctor, no-one can touch Glass-box Man, although they can see that he is sick and they can hear him cough and sneeze, and sometimes sob, because of his glass box.

That was until last Tuesday.

Last Tuesday Glass-box Man was walking home from the shops, carrying his groceries, when something strange happened.  Just as Glass-box Man was nearing the school a cricket ball came flying out between the trees and hit Glass-box Man in the forehead.

“Ouch!” he yelled, and dropped his groceries.  The people in the street helped him pick up the groceries and put them back into the bags, and a small boy took Glass-box Man’s hand and helped him to his feet.

“Ooh, that must hurt,” said the boy, gently touching the red lump on Glass-box Man’s head where the ball had struck him, “you should get home fast and put some frozen peas on that.”  The boy gave Glass-box Man his groceries, and a big smile, and ran off towards the park carrying the cricket ball.

“Wait!” yelled Glass-box Man, but the boy had disappeared into the trees and was gone.

Now everyone can touch No-box Man, and he can touch them.  No-one can explain how the cricket ball broke No-box Man’s glass box, (since no-one had ever seen or touched the box in the first place, not even Glass-box Man), and stranger still no-one knows who the mysterious boy was.  But since No-box Man can now enjoy being with other people, no-one really cares how it happened, they are just thankful that it did.  Most of all No-box Man, whose name is actually Malcolm.