Church; not the be all and end all

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Church; the Bible describes it as “the Bride of Christ”, which is high esteem indeed. It is an excellent way to spend time with other Christians, sing some songs, worship God and to hear someone read from the Bible. Some Christians go as far as to say that attending Church to worship is the most important thing a Christian can do, but some go further and say that if you are not attending Church, you are not a real Christian or even a Christian at all.

Now usually at this point I would say something like “Is this really the case?” and proceed to break the arguments down before coming to a conclusion. Whilst I will still do that, I am first going to jump to my conclusion, which is this; it is absolute nonsense and in fact, quite dangerous (bordering on manipulative) to even remotely equate church attendance with someone’s faith. It ignores, trivializes or caricatures the reasons why many do not and indeed cannot go to a regular church service.

You see, life does not stop just because it is a Sunday. Health issues do not suddenly go away to allow you to go to church. Job requirements do not suddenly stop because you want to be somewhere else. When I make it to church, what you don’t see is the battle that I have waged to even get out of bed; a battle I have to fight every day just to go to work. I have had to stop going to darts and dance due to my health. More often than not, I have my own church at home where I can put on some music, chat to God and mostly hide out in my study. I have friend named Helen, who has a chronic illness and has to take 29 tablets everyday  just to function. She does not get to church very often due to her health issues. Sarah’s friend Sophie is in a similar situation that causes her constant pain and unpredictable symptoms; this prevents her from sometimes working and going to church. Are you seriously going to say that the most important thing they do on a Sunday is go to church? Sometimes the most important thing we do each day is just to start the day.

My previous job required me to work weekends, and I actually needed the extra money to pay bills, put food on the table and keep a roof over my head. Some people’s jobs are at nursing homes, homeless shelters, hospitals, orphanages. Would you tell them that a church service is more important than helping people in need, or ensuring they don’t become homeless themselves? God can and does provide, this does not mean that we are then suddenly exempt from needing to work on a Sunday. Perhaps the job that requires those people to work on Sundays is the one that God has provided. Some will say that we have to prioritize God; now I agree with that to an extent, but there are 7 days in the week and Paul seemed to be quite clear on this in Romans 14.

Worship does occur at church, but worship is also about so much more than singing a few songs. Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” NIV (Matthew 22:37-40). Going to church means nothing if all you do is go to church on a Sunday to worship, then forget about it for the rest of the week or worse, act in a manner that is counter to what Jesus taught (a point I will return to very shortly). Worshiping God is about keeping those two commandments above all else. Singing songs of praise is great, but I can do that anywhere; in my house house, in a field, at a rave…you get the idea.

This brings me onto another reason why people do not go to church; they simply do not find Jesus there. Many have issues with how the Church approaches certain social issues (among many other things) and have left the church as a result. Comments like “you have to attend church to be a Christian” is to simply bury your head in the sand regarding the churches faults/issues and how much damage they are actually causing; not to mention ignoring what the term Christian actually means – the hint is in the name. Some have left because they have been badly burned by the church or have seen others badly burned, and if someone has hurt you, you are not going to keep seeing them, at least, not unless they apologise. The same applies to church. Some of the most vile abuse dished out have come from Christians and there’s only so much you can take before you have to walk away. This does not mean we have lost our faith, in fact, it often means the exact opposite. We have left because of our faith (and our sanity!) Now at this, people will point out that the church is not perfect and you cannot change something if you leave. This is true, but you also cannot change anything if you are so badly beat up that you have nothing left. And just wanting a morning to do nothing is perfectly acceptable. We have to look after ourselves too.

To sum all of this up though, I will end with this. Until churches start acknowledging that people have very legitimate reasons for not being in church, that they are contributing to some of those reasons, that Christians relationship with Jesus doesn’t necessarily need to involve them; then vicars & pastors are going to find more people having reasons not to be there.

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Finding the release valve

Since moving to Slough back in March of this year, I’ve been trying to get back into doing the things that I really enjoyed but had to give up when I was living in Abingdon. I’ve found a darts team and a martial arts class, and I’m just waiting to hear back  about a tap dancing class; but it’s all been a bit stop-start, and it’s pretty much been all my own doing. Injuries, other commitments and being too tired from playing the XBox until stupid o’clock has meant that I’ve not been doing these things as regularly as I would like, and this frustrates me. These activities are not bad in themselves though. One of my other commitments has been training with the Great Men Value Women project, learning about gender equality and how to lead workshops in schools. Unfortunately, some of these discussions triggered some past memories and emotions and I’m now faced with the question of how to handle them. My fiancé has suggested that I see a counsellor, but I have no confidence that it will work; I’m not even sure what ‘working’ actually looks like. My default action is to retreat into myself, to hide, which is where the XBox has been both a good and a bad thing. It really helps with unwinding and de-stressing and chatting to new people (plus the games are a lot of fun), but it can also be too much as I get obsessed with gaining achievements and scheduling time online over doing other things like housework. This is before we add my fears about finding a church here in Slough; not just one I attend occasionally, but one that I can go to every week and settle and feel part of the community there.

My prayer life is not exactly good at the moment. I chat to God occasionally but I’m not exactly running to Him for help. I suffer problems like anyone, and I kick myself for giving into temptation instead of going to Him for help; whether that’s prayer or just picking up the Bible and reading it (something else I don’t do enough of). Then I hate myself for having given in, and question whether I really know Christ and/or whether I’m “saved” (hint: Romans 8:1). This is just an addition to my normal questioning about theological subjects, virtually all impacting how I look at life and the decisions I make. This inevitably affects relationships and being engaged to my wonderful fiancé Sarah, the situation is compounded. Wrestling over sex before marriage and having been together for 3 years, engaged for 2 and another 15 months before we get married, it’s easy for things to get to breaking point. She’s studying for a degree which brings its own set of pressures, and we’re both mindful of adding to those of the other. Yet we still want to be open with each other and support each other through difficulties, whilst at the same time learn about each other. Trying to find that balance can also be quite stressful. Within all of it though, I’m still able to answer an atheists question of why I’m a Christian with confidence, and spend 5 hours on the phone, listening to a friend cry their heart out due to the levels of pressure they are under.

I do need to get into a routine where I can go to martial arts, darts and dancing during the week, along with any workshops I’m scheduled to run. At the same time pick up the Bible more, even if its just for 5-10 minutes a day. Weekends can be for whatever I choose them to be, they’re certainly ideal for change and mixing it up. Sometimes it’ll be an XBox day, or a visiting friends day, or catching up on my Bible reading, or planning the previously mentioned workshops, or doing something very random. Sunday mornings are my chance to hang out with other Christians whilst just being me and letting someone else speak. Some people will say this is me scheduling God, to which I say possibly, but God is everywhere, so whatever I do, He’s already part of it. Others will say that I’m very busy and there’s no time to rest. We all rest differently, and sometimes my idea of resting is doing something. Sarah likes walks in the park; I will happily go with her but they’re not really my thing. She knows this, but it’s not about the walk, its about being with her. She’s getting into playing the Xbox and learning the ways of the action movie with me. In a way, being busy is my release valve. I do need to stop feeling so guilty if things get dropped. Sometimes I feel I have to learn that by having established a base. I do get committed though, I don’t take anything on unless I can give 100% to it. This all or nothing approach does add to the pressure I already feel and does take a little while  for me to wind down from. Going full throttle helps me to escape everything else, and though being busy doesn’t get these thoughts out of my head, writing this certainly has.

I know I’m going to need to escape more than ever as I do more research into other views about gender equality. I’m going to read things I disagree with and is going to upset me. It may also put me in another firing line in a similar way that LGBT rights has done. I know that friends will let me vent, I know Sarah will too, even if it upsets her seeing me struggle with things. I may even go and see that counsellor one day. I’m still going to need to find that release valve every now and again though, I think we all do.

Life, movies and heroes

Advance warning, this is a very quote heavy post. Hopefully it will come across as more than just an excuse to share my favourite movie quotes though nothing will beat Liam Neesons epic monologue in Taken.

It is said that art imitates life, but life has also been inspired by art. One of my favourite genres and underlying themes within movies,  TV shows and video games, are heroes. Individuals or groups of people standing up for and defending those who can’t defend themselves.  It seems that many of the bad guys that the heroes have to face and defeat, are metaphors for everyday life. They seem to express the notion that this world is not as it should be, and it needs people to stand up and fight the evil, to show the world how it can be:

Blake: Hoping you live happily ever after?
Ruby: Well I’m hoping we all will. As a girl, I wanted to be just like those heroes in the books. Someone who fought for what was right, and who protected people who couldn’t protect themselves.
Blake: That’s very ambitious for a child. Unfortunately the real world isn’t the same as a fairy tale.
Ruby: Well that’s why we’re here, to make it better.

RWBY, Shining Beacon Pt2, Rooster Teeth Productions, Created by Monty Oum

Angel: Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh, and cruel. But that’s why there’s us – champions. Doesn’t matter where we come from, what we’ve done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be.

Angel, Deep Down, Mutant Enemy Productions, Created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt

The problem with these types of movies though is that they can give across the message that the evil in this world is so huge, that you must have some special powers, or virtually limitless resources, in order to fight against it.  I’m currently writing this at a time when most of the UK seems to be under water, and the British Armed Forces have been drafted in to help with flood defences and rescuing people. They have the resources and the training, so people seem to just leave it up to them to sort everything out. I’m not suggesting that people go out and try something that is beyond their ability, particularly in times of extreme events, but why do people wait for extraordinary circumstances to fight against something? Are we looking for an example to follow?

Jor-El: The people of Earth are different from us, it’s true, but ultimately I believe that is a good thing. They won’t necessarily make the same mistakes we did, but if you guide them, Kal, if you give them hope, that’s what this symbol means. The symbol of the House of El means hope. Embodied within that hope is the fundamental belief the potential of every person to be a force for good. That’s what you can bring them.

Man Of Steel (2013), Distributed by Warner Bros Pictures, Directed by Zack Snyder.

Bruce Wayne: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.

Batman Begins (2005), Distributed by Warner Bros Pictures, Directed by Christopher Nolan

We have people we look up to, who inspire us; we may refer to them as heroes. With heroes in movies being such larger than life and having super powers, it’s often difficult to see that they are people, we often fail to see the humanity within them. I sometimes think we’ve done that with Jesus. We’ve become so focused on him being God that we’ve completely lost sight of the fact that he was also human. The sacrifices required to stand up for something, to fight against something, to support something, are often immense because they are too often done alone and is never a one-off battle. We seem to forget this about other people we regard as heroes too. Standing up for something, especially if someone else is likely to lose, is costly. It’s why many heroes in these movies hide their identity:

Joyce: Well it stops now!

Buffy: No, it doesn’t stop! It never stops! Do you… do you think I chose to be like this? You have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs, watching TV or gossiping about boys or… God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Becoming Pt 2, Mutant Enemy Productions, Created by Joss Whedon

Capt Tom Lasky: Chief, I won’t pretend to know how you feel. I’ve lost people I care about but, never anything like you’re going through.

Spartan 117:  Our duty, as soldiers is to protect humanity, whatever the cost

Capt. Tom Lasky: You say that like soldiers and humanity are 2 different things. I mean soldiers aren’t machines, we’re just people

Halo 4 (2012) Developed by 343 Industries, Distributed by Microsoft Studios

Many of these movies have an arc where the main character learns something then acts on it. Rambo is a great example. He goes from the above to realizing that not only that he has the power to act therefore he must as Thomas Jefferson said “If there’s something wrong, those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action”) but also he’s fighting for something other than himself:

John Rambo: Any of you boys want to shoot, now’s the time. There isn’t one of us that doesn’t want to be someplace else. But this is what we do, who we are. Live for nothing, or die for something. Your call.

Rambo (2008) Distributed by Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company, Directed by Sylvester Stallone

I sometimes think we’re in the middle of that arc, that we’re in the middle of the movie and we still need to learn the lesson that we don’t need to be super heroes; just need to be prepared to take the risk to help others because that’s the reward in itself:

Angel: If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.

Kate Lockley: And now you do?

Angel: Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

Angel, Epiphany, Mutant Enemy Productions, Created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt

Many Christian apologists use this sense that the world is not right as an argument for God. Some have drawn comparisons of the apparent escalation of the worlds problems with the decline in belief in God, that the latter is bringing about the former. My response, aside from the fact religious believers can be quite adept at inflicting pain and misery, is does it really matter at this point? It is down to humanity to try to sort its problems out (the second coming of Jesus is not an excuse to do nothing since it involves the earth) as its humanity that got itself into the mess in the first place. As Nelson Mandela put it, Poverty is not an accident, like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made  and can be removed by the actions of human beings.

John Rambo: You’re not changing anything.

Burnett: Well, it’s thinking like that, that keeps the world the way it is.

Rambo (2008) Distributed by Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company, Directed by Sylvester Stallone

Nick Fury:There was an idea, Stark knows this, called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of of remarkable people to see if they could become something more. To see if they could work together when we needed them to, to fight the battles that we never could.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Directed by Joss Whedon

Maybe the world is short on heroes, maybe it’s our attitudes that keeps the world as it is but like Ruby at the very top of this piece, maybe we can be inspired to make a difference. The world can decide if that’s being a hero.