This is not what I intended to write this week but it is what has been on my heart and mind. Last weekend I was invited to contribute something at our church Christmas Fair. As relations between myself and the church have been somewhat strained I took this as a positive step of affirmation of my ministry and went along. There was the usual range of stalls and games and the church were raising money for a range of activities they have planned for the New Year. I decided to give what I offered for free so as people were having refreshments I gave them a hand massage and listened as they talked.
I met some lovely people – a couple of stressed out mums trying to keep their small children entertained and three wonderful older ladies who were on a Christmas Fair ‘crawl’. This was their third! As I talked with each of them during their massage it became abundantly clear they had a real and living faith in Christ. One lady was worried about her grandson losing his direction in life and it was a real privilege for me to be able to pray with her. Another of the ladies really surprised me as it was obvious she had a deep and genuine love for God and yet she said she found church really difficult! I wrongly assumed that it was just the younger generation who struggled with Sunday morning worship but she told me how she had to sit near the back and often was unable to stay until the end of the service. The reason for this it transpired was because once in church she would start to cry and was then unable to stop! This immediately struck a chord with me as this is my experience and was the primary reason I gave up on our Sunday morning meetings. She put her reaction down to a mysterious work of the Holy Spirit and seemed to accept it as her strange gift.
The next conversation nearly broke my heart. I met a very troubled lady who found it difficult to leave her flat because of serious OCD and an overwhelming fear of being attacked. She had a baby die at Christmas and had never been able to come to terms with her loss. She started to break down and reveal the huge well of pain she carried. It was too much for her so I changed the subject and she was able to compose herself but I promised to pray for her all week, which I’ve done.
I have not been able to get these encounters out of my head. None of the church members faithfully serving by helping staff a stall would have any idea about the lives of the people they were selling bric-a-brac to or encouraging to have a go at hook a duck! I am not saying there is anything wrong with either of these activities but maybe even when you take the church out of the building you cannot take the building out of the church! The walls are still very firmly making relationships with those outside near impossible. This is one of the reasons church makes me cry. I see the desperate need of those who do not have the hope of healing and transformation in Christ. It is almost as if the louder and more enthusiastically we sing the more successfully we drown out the despair that is at our door. How did we get from church as a place of sanctuary for the broken to a bunker for the chosen few?
So I have begun to rediscover the lost practice of lament. There is a fantastic Grove Booklet on the subject by Paul Bradbury called ‘Sowing in Tears – How to lament in a church of praise’ (W193). He says, “Lament makes faith more difficult, more complex and less straightforward, but it makes it more close to the truth of who we are and who God is.” But what is it? “This is lament, the crying out of ‘How long, Lord?’ We may know the outcome, we may know all that God has done and is doing, but not to cry out, not to lament in the agony of the wait for fulfilment is the equivalent of expecting a mother in labour to stop screaming out in pain and rejoice in the knowledge that her baby will soon be born (p.5).” I never really understood the season of advent. I just thought it was the countdown to Christmas. But maybe I have stumbled upon what it is really all about. In order to fully enter into the joy of the dawn of our salvation at the birth of Christ, we must appreciate and experience the magnitude of what we long for Him to rescue us from and the urgency with which we want this promise of salvation to be fulfilled. We join with the cry of God’s people through the ages, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. Do not make us wait any longer!